Criticizing Criticizing Fiction …

November 27, 2014

So, after setting the table yesterday, let’s talk today about the specific arguments. Dadabhoy spreads this out among three posts, but even though that would stretch out the posts here and thus help my goal to make a post a day until I get sick of it or can’t anymore, I’m not going to do that. There are two reasons for this. The first is that all of the posts are relatively short so splitting it up would just be making a short commentary, and the second and more important one is that the points seem to be interrelated and often seem to call for the same sort of analysis and response, and so there’d be a lot of repetition. I’ll still try to deal with each point separately and yet still try to interweave them when reasonable, which might end up being confusing. We’ll see how it goes.

1. It’s just fiction and exists merely to entertain. There is no need to take it so seriously.

Firstly, and most importantly, this is a clearly disingenuous argument. If the person making the argument actually thought that the fiction in question weren’t to be taken seriously, then they wouldn’t be bothering to defend it. Instead, they would have quietly ignored arguments regarding the problematic elements of the fiction and resumed their mindless enjoyment of it. That they speak up at all says that they take at least their fandom of it somewhat seriously.

I think that this runs into an issue of conflation over seriousness here, which gets us right to the issue between evaluating its implications and evaluating it as a work. Clearly, someone can think quite highly of a work and yet still give this response, if they feel that someone is denigrating the work as a work by reading things into it. I think that this is what caused a lot of the outcry over Arthur Gies’ review of “Bayonetta 2″, that after spending most off the review gushing over the mechanics, he docks it for its over-sexualization:

When Platinum Games is on, it’s really, really on, and Bayonetta 2 is in almost any respect that counts a better game than the first, whose mechanics were already exemplary. But every time I’d feel on a roll, enjoying my time with Bayonetta 2 immensely, I’d be broken out of it by another cheap shot of T&A. I would be wrecking a flock of angelic or demonic enemies, sliding in and out of witch time almost at will, and then the special weapon I had picked up became a literal stripper pole for Bayonetta to dance on, because … well, because, I guess.

I won’t guess why the blatant over-sexualization is still there, often more intensely than before. But it causes an otherwise great game to require a much bigger mental compromise to enjoy.

So, a great game, but because it has an element that the reviewer doesn’t like, the score gets docked. So anyone that doesn’t mind the sexualization — because over-sexualization is actually a judgement — and loves the game is going to feel upset that the score for the game is being docked for something that, arguably, isn’t really about the game at all. At least here, the elements are so tightly interweaved into the game that, yes, it does actually impact it, but in a lot of cases the criticisms are indeed reading in. One common example of this are plot holes in some games. Are they there? Sure. But if the story is just there to move you along to the next action sequence, criticizing it for not having an epic story isn’t treating the game fairly, and is taking the game and its purpose too seriously.

Furthemore, fans who defend their favorite works with this argument are demeaning the object of their love far more than those who bother with criticisms of it. Are they saying that their treasured fiction has no effect or impact on the world whatsoever?

No. The answer is that in the work that’s being examined, it was never meant to change the world. It was meant to entertain, which they argue that it does. So criticizing it for not changing the world, or arguing that it’s bad because you argue it changes the world in bad ways, to them really is missing the point of the work, and taking it too seriously. While, for example, many episodes of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” addressed strong social issues, a lot of them and a lot of their jokes were, in fact, just goofy fun, and trying to see how they might address social issues and then criticizing them for not doing that effectively when they weren’t trying is indeed problematic … and taking them far too seriously for what they were intended to do.

If the idea that fiction could influence reality seems to absurd, then consider the flip side, where fiction reflects reality. Are fans really saying that the fiction they adore is so poor at world-building and character-development that it cannot serve as a mirror of or statement about real life? A well-built fictional universe with fully-realized characters can very much serve up insights about the societal context of both the creators and the consumers of that universe. Even poorly-conceived worlds and characters often betray the biases and preferences of their creators. The reactions and interpretation of fans, in turn, betrays their biases and preferences.

Certainly, but that in general says nothing about the work itself. You’d be doing either 2) or 3) here, not 1), but a lot of the time it looks like 1), at which point you will be challenged that your academic analysis is a reflection of you taking it too seriously and judging the work based on that. Sometimes, those criticisms will be invalid, as you will be doing 3) and they’ll take it as doing 1). Sometimes, though, it will be a valid criticism and not just disingenuous or flimsy. It will all come down to context.

As an American, I find tracing the vampires vs. zombies line against the Democrats vs. Republicans one to be a highly pleasurable pursuit. That I do so hardly demands that everyone feel that way, yet I find myself chastised by people for doing what I like. I find that more than a little hypocritical given that those people’s transparent excuse for being opposed to me doing what I enjoy is that they enjoy the thing about which I choose to think critically.

Examining those topics in light of that sort of analogy isn’t really a problem, and if you enjoy doing that then please do indulge. After all, I certainly do that with Philosophy and Popular Culture. But the problem comes in when you try to address a particular work. First, you risk trying to read that into the work. For example, if I write a zombie or vampire fiction, it’s unlikely that that is what I have in mind — not being American and all — and yet if the claim is made that that’s what my work does show, even objectively, people and I would have right to complain that you are taking that work too seriously, in the sense that you are reading massive philosophical, social and political points out of it that aren’t there. This is magnified if the claim is made that the work is somehow inferior because it doesn’t manage to tease out those particular issues well when it had no intention of doing so. So sometimes the argument works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t have any examples of when she specifically gets this argument, and so can’t say whether the argument works against her or not. But the argument is not just obviously wrong, as she at least implies here.

2. The adaptation of this fiction cannot be blamed for elements that are true to its source material.

The best recent example with which I have some familiarity comes from the new Constantine TV show. … I will turn my focus to episode three, which addresses so-called “voodoo.” In the case of “voodoo”, as with “gypsies”, so far, I’ve found that Constantine punches down in a way that cannot be explained away via loyalty to the source material.

What most people know as “voodoo” is a religion that arose out of oppression. People of African descent who were brought to the Americas against their wills used their religious practices and beliefs as a way of resisting oppression. Unless you are a Christian hell-bent on characterizing all non-Christian faiths as demonic and Satanic, you have no reason other than the racism you have been fed to consider the religious practices that came from enslaved African peoples to be more inherently evil than those of any other religion.

And how so many of us have been fed. From theme parks to Disney films to music videos, negative and Othering fictional depictions are all most people know about so-called “voodoo”. Constantine feeds into this narrative by putting forth the claim that “voodoo priests” epitomize the worst traits of humanity.

The “it’s canon!” defenses of the racism are either than Constantine is an asshole that hates everyone or that the creators of the show are bound to the negative depictions found in the comics. In either case, the excuse is that the show is merely adhering to the comics and therefore cannot be criticized for its depictions.

This criticism, I’d say, definitely slides into Activism Criticism. There’s no real criticism of the work as a work in and of itself, nor how doing that impedes the work. There’s no criticism that the adaptation is a worse adaptation because it does this, and in fact she seems to conclude that it is indeed a “better” – meaning closer — adaptation doing this. So her real objection is that the adaptation could and should have avoided this because of the social consequences, and she’s presuming that it can be done.

I’m not a Constantine fan, so I don’t really know the full context of this. But it may not be that easy to adjust the adaptation in the way she describes. Let’s assume that practitioners of voodoo are one of if not the main villains of the piece. They drive all the evil stuff that the hero fights against in the comics. If that’s true, them they do need to be presented as villains in the adaptation, and it’s reasonable to argue that the initial characterization of voodoo in the work was done to drive that villainy and make it obvious. Now, let’s put aside the not unreasonable argument that it was the other way around, and that voodoo was chosen because the common depiction made it easy for people to see them as villains, and look at what an adaptation would need to do here. In order to set up them as main villains, they have to be set up as really, really evil, especially if Constantine is not pure (and from what I know he ain’t). So him claiming that they do epitomize the worst traits of humanity establishes this: we see them as evil right from the start. If you don’t want them to reflect voodoo there, then either you have to replace them with a new villain group — which is a massive and difficult departure from the original work — or try to present them as nuanced and grey from the start … when your entire purpose here is to start them, at least, as being totally on the “immoral” side. So since those options are either difficult or risk ruining the adaptation, you start them out completely on the evil side. None of this means that you can’t add nuance later, and considering how television is going it’s certainly arguable that adding nuance to them later — with good practitioners or with more grey villains — would greatly improve the work.

Now, Dadabhoy can legitimately ask if that means that she shouldn’t raise the criticisms. After all, even if I’m right — and I concede that I might not be — I myself just pointed that the work would likely be better if they eventually added nuance to voodoo, in line with her perceptions of what real voodoo is about. Do I think that this will just be done if we don’t highlight the issue and ask or demand that they do it? Or will they simply stick with the overwhelming cultural impression if we stay silent?

I do think that these are things that can be talked about. The question is whether you talk about them as examples of 1) or as examples of 3). If as 1), you don’t actually criticize them for it, at least when talking about the adaptation. If they decided to stick to the book as written — even as they don’t for other things, like the main character’s bisexuality — then that isn’t something you can criticize the adaptation for as an adaptation, unless it really doesn’t work in this time and on the medium. Which it seems to, which seems to be what the 3) complaint is about. What you can do is point out that because they are doing an adaptation they have a wonderful opportunity here, to take villains that weren’t nuanced and add nuance to them, and you can even claim that doing this would challenge these assumptions which would be good as well. But the key is not to claim that the adaptation is necessarily bad or flawed for sticking to these tropes, as an individual work, but that the medium and the time allows it to not stick to those tropes and possibly create something even better.

Or, you can do it as 3), where you hold it up as an example of this prevailing attitude and note whether the attitude is still prevalent today — ie whether or not modern audiences really need it to be that way or would see it necessarily that way — and what the impacts of that are. But this wouldn’t be a comment on the individual work itself at all, but just use it as an example of that overarching theme. Sliding this into 4), which is where she really does seem to want to go, a criticism can be made that, say, more adaptations need to be braver with things like this, or that we need more shows of this type to represent voodoo fairly, as opposed to what’s being done here. But, in general, these arguments don’t want to imply that it’s a bad adaptation or even a bad show — in terms of its entertainment value — because of this representation. That would start mixing two very different arguments, and if I criticize anything about Activism Criticism, it is that it too easily falls into mixing those sorts of arguments.

3. It’s fiction and is not meant to be a political statement / politically correct.

This argument strikes me as being pretty much the same argument as 1), which is really summarized as “You’re reading too much into this!”, except that this one is aimed precisely at political/social statements.

Regardless, the argument is invalid for one simple reason: A lack of overt political messaging does not mean that a work of fiction has no messages and is therefore “neutral.”In the case of the messaging transmitted by fiction, a lack of intention is less than unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Well, to get this counter off the ground, you have to establish two things: a) That the messaging is really there and not just something that you find in it and b) That the work is not being evaluated as something that it isn’t, as in a political statement when it’s just supposed to be an entertaining work about robots that turn into cars. And for those, the intent of the work of fiction is far more than unimportant, and is in fact crucial. Criticizing or lauding a work for its messaging that isn’t actually there is going to get a reaction … particularly if you’re criticizing it. If the work is not attempting to give a political message, then it is indeed a neutral work. There may be implied messages, but again that’s a 2) or 3) argument. A work will reflect its social conditions, but that again isn’t something you can level against the work. Here, again, is where Activism Criticism mixes up areas, because it will often look at a specific work and judge it specifically for reflecting what are considered to be problematic political or social views instead of simply pointing out how this reflects these common views that we are trying to change and need to change. And this gets people up in arms, as in the Bayonetta 2 review; how can you say that this work is particularly bad when it just does what everyone else does? The work itself is high quality and entertaining, so that it reflects the views that people actually hold — rightly or wrongly — makes it bad?

3) type analyses will note that it reflects it, and talk about the attitudes themselves as being problematic or not. 4) type analyses will criticize the work for reflecting those attitudes. This is indeed the problem with Activism Criticism, that they attack the work for what it does.

It is the assumption that a certain type of person is the “default” that leads to the argument that fiction featuring that type is not making a “political” statement. White cis hetero male concerns are “concerns” so assumed to be so universal that they don’t even need to be framed as such, while racial/feminist/queer/economic concerns are framed as “political.”

I’ve always found that this sort of analysis shaky, and the Activism Criticism framework allows for an easy way to see why. First, let’s talk about two of those “concerns”: cis and hetero. Since most people are indeed cis and hetero, those concerns really are more universal than the concerns of those who are not, in the strict sense that they represent more people than the converse. So a show striving to be representative would still focus far more on them than on others, and so those groups will indeed be seen as the default. This isn’t a problem. A problem would be if those concerns are never represented at all, not if they aren’t seen as the “default”. But the issue is that those additional concerns are often seen as political because they are often portrayed and represented in ways that are, indeed, political. Critics often start from the political realm talking about the discrimination that the groups face, and then move from that framework to the representations in the media and in specific works. So they start from the political realm, use that as a buttress to talk about the work, and then complain when people say that they are making the work political. They are. If you look at every analysis that Dadabhoy did in the series that references political and social issues, the analysis is critically dependent on the political and social issues in the world and outside of the works themselves. It is rare that for the “default” groups that that sort of analysis is done … precisely because they are seen as the default and so no one ever considers the political and social issues surrounding that. But that still means that in general simply using the default does not have the political ramifications that adding in the non-default does. The political ramifications of such a choice exist in the politics of the world, not the politics of the work, while in general Activism Criticism purports that for non-default characters the politics is in the work itself, for good or for ill, and that a work that, say, includes a bisexual character is to be commended for making an explicit statement, whether or not the work intended to do that or just decided that it would be cool to try something different for a change.

With this real world politics wrapped around minority issues, it’s no wonder that any attempt to include minority concerns is seen as a political statement. It does not help the matter at all to insist that things that aren’t wrapped in this real world politics are somehow equally political. They aren’t. What works is to acknowledge that you don’t have to be making or be seen to be making a political statement if you unwrap the minority concerns from the real world politics and just present them as characters in your work, and treat them precisely as that. Failure to do so is to indeed claim that a work that is not political is indeed political, and open yourself up to a valid criticism of this type.

It should come as no surprise that I think that Activism Criticism is the main reason why Dadabhoy gets these criticisms, and that in that framework they might be valid. This is not to claim that she shouldn’t be an activist over these things, just that if she is going to do so she has to be very clear about what precisely she’s criticizing. And she may be. But when people aren’t, they will indeed get these responses … and they won’t be flimsy. They’ll be valid.

Criticizing Fiction …

November 26, 2014

Heina Dadabhoy has put up a three post series talking about criticizing fiction and three common arguments that she, at least, gets when she talks about doing it, three arguments that she doesn’t find particularly strong. I’d like to go through those arguments, but before doing that I want to talk a bit about criticism of fiction in general to put this into a context, because I think that in some cases those arguments aren’t flimsy at all, while in some cases they are.

There are, in my view, different focuses that one can have when criticizing fiction:

1) You can criticize a work of fiction as a work of fiction, in and of itself. This means that what you are examining the work to see how well it works as a work of fiction, what it does right, what it does wrong, what could be improved. You look at presentation, plot holes, characterization, world building, and all sorts of things like that, but you don’t go too far into the philosophical, political or social implications of all of that except in service to seeing how those implications and elements impact the work as a whole. So while you might, say, liken the world of Star Trek to a communistic society, you would only bring that up to, say, point out a contradiction in the actions of the main characters, or to show how that focus limits opportunities to advance characters or plots. I’d say that Chuck over at SF Debris does mainly that sort of analysis, as does Shamus when he talks about video games, and that’s what I do in my Philosophical Writer’s Guide. Here, the purpose is to find the elements that the work itself clearly contains and to judge the work based on that.

2) You can do a philosophical analysis of the work, and look at what the philosophical implications of it are. The Philosophy and Popular Culture works do this sort of analysis. Here, you pull out the philosophical issues, but those issues don’t have to actually be in the work themselves, and you don’t have to claim that the author meant for them to be there. Sometimes, they are explicitly there, like the discussion in Angel over whether he should have stopped Jasmine or not, or the question of whether Batman should kill the Joker or not. But sometimes they are just implied, like the question of whether it’s right to make a Robin or not. Works of fiction can raise interesting philosophical issues and provide excellent thought experiments to get people to at least understand what the issues are in a manner that is easier to grasp than a long philosophical argument. But the real key here is that if you do this analysis, you aren’t necessarily saying anything about the work at all. Even if you criticize the answer they came up with, it doesn’t say anything about how effective the work itself is. Often, it’s precisely the opposite: the work is effective because it takes the “wrong” answer, either for dramatic effect or because that’s what most people will relate best to. So, in a philosophical analysis, the work is used to highlight or clarify a philosophical issue, but the work itself isn’t really being examined in and of itself, so a philosophical analysis doesn’t say much about the work in and of itself … but that philosophical analysis itself can be used to highlight good and bad things about the work itself if the philosophical implications matter to the enjoyment of the work.

3) You can also do a political/social analysis of a work. This is similar to a philosophical analysis, except that you look more at the impact it could have or the commentary it could make on political and social issues, or the impact that political and social issues and themes had on it. Again, this sort of analysis can find things that aren’t in the work, and ultimately isn’t a comment on the work itself, overall. Dadabhoy’s example of analyzing zombies and vampires as reflections of the fears of the left and the right in her first post is an example of this sort of analysis.

To look at how these all differ, I think using the Marvel Civil War is a good example. You can criticize the Civil War for not being clear on what registration was all about and for making it so that it was hard to cheer for the side that was ultimately supposed to win because of the bad things they were doing. You can analyze it as a clash representing the three main competing philosophical positions in ethics. Or you can ask about the political and social implications superhumans would have on a society, and if a solution like the Registration Act would be the best or even a credible solution. All of these, I think, are legitimate ways to criticize fiction, but they all have radically different goals and implications … and only the first really says anything about the work itself.

There’s another way to criticize fiction, and while I’m not sure that it isn’t just a subset of the third one, I want to highlight it here: Activism criticism. This is when you take a work and analyze it in terms of what it means to a culture in terms of its social or political aspects, and judge whether the work furthers or harms certain specific political and social views. This is what I think people like Anita Sarkeesian and Dadabhoy herself often seem to focus on. The issue with this sort of analysis is that it kinda combines the aspects of all of the other kinds of criticism, in that it does talk about the work itself and in some sense passes judgement on it, but it often does so by appealing to things that aren’t necessarily in the work itself and are just implications, like the philosophical and political/social analyses do. Thus, it can end up finding that a work is “good” or “bad” from this perspective by appealing to things that were certainly not intended by the work and that are potentially more in the perspective of the critic than in the work itself.

In my mind, one of the major issues with the analysis of fiction has been judging a work not based on what is objectively and intentionally there, but on what the analyst brings to it themselves. This is not a problem for types 2 and 3, but if it bleeds over into judging the work itself people who disagree with the judgement will be frustrated that the judgement seems to be based on factors that aren’t actually in the work. How can you argue against a judgement that a work is bad or reflects harmful attitudes against someone who is reading those themes into the work? And these are often not simply expressed as opinions, but as objective criticisms of the work, especially in the case of Activism Criticism. If these things aren’t objectively demonstrable or even easily objectively demonstrable, there will be push back … and I think that some of the criticisms that Dadabhoy highlights as flimsy are, in context, just that sort of argument: you are reading things into the work that aren’t really there because they were never meant to be there, and you’re just taking the work as something that it isn’t to either judge it as bad or consider it worthy based on this invalid reading in. But we’ll see more on that next when I look at the arguments.

Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games (honourable mentions)

November 25, 2014

So, in this last post, I’ll talk about the games that didn’t quite make the cut. I could have just added them and gone to 60 or something, but for a lot of these games I don’t really feel that they are good enough to make the list of my favourite games, but they deserve to be mentioned as good games in their own light. So here they are, in no particular order:

Final Fantasy X: I like Yuna and can even tolerate Tidus. I like Lulu better though. The game was fun, although I hated the puzzle sequences when you were trying to get to the interior of the temple. But it’s not that memorable. It’s that game that I should finish sometime, not that game that I remember really fondly.

Afterlife: I talked about this game here, but I remember it more for wishing that I could play it and play it well than actually playing it. It was a unique game, but again I don’t really recall playing it that much.

Dragon Age Origins: The best thing about this game is the fact that you have so many choices for how you start the game, based on who you are and who you want to be, including what race and gender you are. But I find the gore that stays on you to be a bit much and jarring in cutscenes, the world is a bit too dark for my tastes, the combat is a bit too frenetic for me to handle and I dislike games where you can miss companions (I had to start over once because I missed Leiliana). I am planning on finishing this game, but I’m not sure it will ever make the list.

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love: The interesting thing about this one is that I forgot about it when I was making up the list, and then wanted to add it onto the main list while writing in the descriptions … and then decided that even though at first blush it should be on the list, it wasn’t better than the 50th game for me. I liked the game, but I had more fun overall with the other games. Go figure.

Space 1889: What was great about this game? Tying it to the Victorian era and giving you related vices and virtues. So, the setting and the implementation of parts of that. I never got far in the game though.

Archon: If any of my friends from high school are reading this, they’ll probably wonder why this isn’t in the main list. I guess it’s because while I love the concept of chess where you actually fight over every square, and it implemented it well, it never really had anything like a story to it or anything, nor any way for me to build one. So, again, when I compared it to the 50th game on the list, it came up a bit short. But, still, “Kill it with your snake thing!”.

Now I’m sure that there are games that people think should be on the list, or should be there in a different order. All I can say here is that this is my list based on my own opinion, and I’m not trying to say that these games are necessarily better or worse than any others objectively. But let me finish by mentioning at least one set of games that people probably will be wondering why I didn’t mention them at all: the Fallouts, and Planescape: Torment. And the reason for that is pretty much the same for all of them: I was never able to get into them for some reason. I own them, they’re on my list to play, and they are the sort of games I liked, and yet they leave me cold. I can’t explain why, and I have tried to play them, to no avail. So perhaps this must remain one of the great mysteries of the universe.

Anyway, that’s it for the list. After this, I hope to get back to some philosophy and the like for a while, for those who care more about that than about games.

Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games (1 – 10)

November 24, 2014

10: Fatal Frame: This game contains my favourite female character ever and maybe my favourite character ever, and the game was very creepy and had the perfect atmosphere for the sort of game it was trying to be. So after talking about it recently, what more do I have to say? Well, how about why it’s only 10th on the list. The reason? It’s fairly short, and sometimes it’s too hard to solve its puzzles without a FAQ. But considering the strength of the games that are left on the list, that’s enough for it to only come in at number 10.

9: City of Heroes: My favourite MMO. Classes played differently enough to allow for my altitis, especially combined with the mass of character customization options. The early levels weren’t boring, and the game did play reasonably well solo at least at low levels. Task forces were amazing additions and some of the most fun I had in the game … and that was even with me playing with other people. The Hallowe’en events were really cool. I was really, really sad to see this one go.

8: Star Wars: Rebellion: I’ve talked about this game here, and again there isn’t much more to say about it.

7: Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom: An interactive movie attached to a flight simulator, true, but it’s a good one. It examines a number of deep issues, I like a lot of the characters, and the choices are actually big ones and ones that you can indeed role play a bit. But the very best thing about this game is how it ends and how you win the game: not in the cockpit, but on the Senate floor. You have to win a debate against the man behind the latest war and who wants to remake humanity stronger, faster and better, with or without their consent. This is a game that embraces its interactive movie component as much as it does its flight sim component … and the PS1 version has an invincible mode so that I could, indeed, actually finish it.

6: Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII: This is a strategy game where you aren’t a nameless and faceless leader, but are a person who gets hired to lead armies. You can get married. You make friends. You get promoted. You play politics. You do more things day to day using your skills than leading armies. One of my most memorable moments was when I played a character that was the son of another general. I was working for one city, and my father was working for a city that they wanted to invade. They asked me to go and do something dishonourable using that relationship. I told them no and quit, and moved away from the battle altogether. Remember, this was in a strategy game, not an RPG, and it followed from the actual events in the game. That moment solidified this as one of my favourite games ever.

5: Hardball 5: Now, you might be wondering how a sports game got up this high on the list, when no other sports games even made the list. The reason is that this was the perfect sports game for me. When I created my own personal roster of players and made them great — but still great for certain roles — and played this on the default difficulty, I pretty much won every game, but they were pretty much all close games. I didn’t blow them out 15 – 0 very often, like I do in MLB 07 The Show. And that’s what I want out of a sports game: to win but to have it be close. I’d rather take a blowout win than a close loss if that’s what happens in most of the games I play. And this game did it without trying, and no game in no sport that I’ve tried has even come close.

4: Knights of the Old Republic: This game captures the Star Wars feel and has interesting characters to boot. You get to play as a Jedi. The story is interesting. The combat system works and is cool. Really, what can I say about this game? It may seem a little clunky now, but it’s still an interesting game.

3: Suikoden III: The tri-view system is an amazing way to tell the story. The characters are great. The story is great. You can actually get the stars without an insane amount of trouble, although the reward for that is a bit slim. The battles are done well and even involve some strategy. It’s not quite as addictive as the Personas, but it’s definitely an excellent RPG.

2: Persona 4: And my top two games are games in the same series that are, in fact, both about equally good. This is the one where the dungeons mean something, but where the S-links mean less. This is the game that got me to buy a Vita, for the Golden version. And yet at the end of the day, it sits just a wee bit behind Persona 3 for one main reason …

1: Persona 3: This one gets the nod for my best game ever over Persona 4 because … it started my love for this series. I bought it, put it aside for a few months, and then decided to try it on a long Christmas vacation. I loved it so much that when it ended I immediately started over, which I never do for games that don’t have a different story or let you take a different path with a different character. This was a very linear game, but the story was strong and the S-links were amazing. This is the game that also started me down the path of looking for games with dating sim options, and for me this is a true RPG in the sense that I get to decide who my friends are and how I live my life and, through that, what kind of person I am, while still remaining in a world where I have a power and have to save it. This is my favourite game ever.

Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games (11 – 20)

November 23, 2014

20: Shadow Hearts: Covenant: This game isn’t far off of Shadow Hearts, and it is more detailed and more advanced, but it seems to involve a lot more running around than Shadow Hearts did, and the story is also pretty good. But the characters are definitely a bit goofier, and so it doesn’t quite have the charm of Shadow Hearts. But the additions are good … if, again, tending towards goofy rather than serious.

19: Wizardry 8: This is the game that can distract me with itself. The mix of classes is good and the personalities really make for a different experience when you play it, and it definitely lends itself to, say, creating the Order of the Stick or groups like that and seeing how they do. Its combat, however, can be a bit annoying and long, especially at higher levels and when you just want to get somewhere. I still return to this game every so often.

18: Disciples 2: I recently talked about this game here, so, well, go see why it ends up here on the list over there.

17: Defender of the Crown: A very nice mix of turn-based strategy and action combat. I became unbeatable once I learned how to joust well enough to win territories that way, but I also mastered sieges and swordplay. The only downside I had was that in the game I had I couldn’t rescue the fair maiden and get married … because the game would crash at the … interesting part. Another game that had a nice mix of styles that ensured that you never got stuck doing the same thing over and over.

16: Dark Age of Camelot: My first MMO, and my first attack of altitis. Lots of classes, so lots of room to make characters, and three realms representing three of my favourite mythologies gave me lots of room to create and play characters. Its biggest problem was that it was a bit hard to solo most of the classes most of the time, and even then I wasn’t that fond of grouping, and it did involve a lot of grinding. And I got lost a lot. But otherwise a fine MMO. And that was without me experiencing Realm vs Realm, one of its big selling points.

15: Sentinel Worlds: Future Magic I: An excellent space RPG. You selected a crew for various roles — which ended up being my friends — and then had to help solve a mystery, starting with a massive battle in space. You switched between space and ground fights, and the story unfolded around you. I never managed to finish it, but that was because I think I had a bug … or missed something in the days before online walkthroughs. I don’t think I’ve played a space RPG this good since.

14: X-Men Legends: Rise of Apocalypse: This is by far the strongest of the Legends/Alliance series of games. It introduces gimmick fights but doesn’t overdo them. The story is strong and well implemented. It has Deadpool in it as a playable character. And since he’s a boss, he gets to talk to himself as well in replays. There’s just nothing wrong with this game at all.

13: Persona 4 Arena: You know how I like story in my fighting games? This one has the best of any game I’ve ever played. You can see the twist coming and it’s still wrenching. And on Easy mode the auto-combo let me get through the fights and experience the story. I’m not sure that this is a game that fight game fans will appreciate, but the story aspects are definitely my type of fighting game.

12: Knights of the Old Republic 2: This comes in a fair bit behind the first game, but I’m not one of those who really hates the ending and the less than finished bits. I liked the attempts to deconstruct some gaming tropes, since it was done in an unobtrusive manner; you’ll get it if you know the games and if you don’t it won’t puzzle you or cause you any grief. So, why does this score so relatively low? Kreia. A lot of people like her character, but she didn’t work for me, as none of my characters would want her around. My light side characters — even the pragmatic ones — wouldn’t care for her grumbling about helping others, and my dark side characters wouldn’t like her constantly telling them not to pursue their evil whims. While she might give an interesting perspective, she’s just so annoying about it that in story and playing as an RPG she really doesn’t fit. I kept her on the ship and never let her leave unless I needed to take her along.

11: Shadow Hearts: The game that introduced us to Yuri Hyuga, an irreverent anti-hero with some charm and a lot of attitude. The story was dark and yet had enough humour to lighten up the mood when necessary. The Ring system was an interesting twist on traditional combat. Fusions were interesting as well. This game rarely put a foot wrong.

Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games (21 – 30)

November 22, 2014

30: The Sims: I never played this as a game where I tried to guide my “pet” to a good life. I always tried to build a story out of it, although the game was often a bit cumbersome to do that really well. A lot of the expansions added really cool options and not just new items and clothes. And this is a game where I commented that my Sim had a better life than me, and posited that that was because he didn’t own a TV … but did own a hot tub. There was enough storyizing there to keep me interested, and the sequels haven’t managed to do as well.

29: Master of Orion 2: I love hotseat games. I really do. What I loved to do in this game was create a Babylon 5 set of races and pit them against each other, all of them played by me. My only regret is never being able to get the council option to kick off in the version I had, which might have let the game end.

28: Infiltrator: Your job was to infiltrate various bases, given various tools and various missions. You started out flying there in a helicopter, then walked around using sleep gas and the like on guards, finished your objective, and got out. A lot of fun to play.

27: Turrican: A simple C64 platformer, with varying weapons and power-ups and the ability to stand still and generate lightning that you can guide to your enemies. One of my most memorable moments with this game and in high school was trying to beat it late into the night with a friend and managing to, well, not succeed [grin]. Hurt by the lack of ability to save … which is why we played it so late.

26: Curse of the Azure Bonds: Probably the first AD&D game that I played that had a strong enough story to carry my interest. The story was turned into a very good novel, and then a trilogy. It had all of the standard tropes that AD&D games had at the time, including creating your own party. I never managed to finish it, but it was probably one of the first RPGs that I got addicted to.

25: Star Trek (arcade): From Spock’s opening “Welcome aboard, Captain” — which I always answered, which probably led other players to think I was insane, and maybe it’s untrue — I loved this game. It didn’t have the Star Trek feel, as it was nothing more than blow up Klingons and dock at Starbases to get repairs to blow up more Klingons until you clear the level. But it was a lot of fun to play.

24: Mass Effect: A friend of mine kept pushing for me to try the series, but by the time I was interested you couldn’t get this game. So I tried Mass Effect 2, and might have gotten past the first stage before ditching it. Then the pack for the PS3 came out that had all three of them, and I finally sat down to play the game. Started out by creating an Ivanova-type character but after trying to build the avatar said “Hey, that’s Michelle Forbes from when she was in Star Trek!” and decided to make her a Helena Cain ex-pat. Playing as her without the full on insanity was very interesting. I loved the heat sink mechanism and hated that ME2 ditched it, because it let me blast away at things without just giving me infinite ammo, and let me choose the weapon I wanted without having to worry if I could find or purchase enough ammo for it. Even though I didn’t care much for the MAKO, I liked its way of exploring systems better than ME2’s. For me, this game is far superior to ME2, which is why I can’t really get into playing ME2.

23: Pirates!: A mix of RPG, sailing combat, and trading game. One of the first games that really let you be free in who you were and what you did, and a game where sometimes if you were good enough with a sword you could take ships that you had no business taking. This is regarded as a classic and for very good reason.

22: Majesty: Instead of being the hero, you’re the guy who pays them. Again, a light-hearted simulator game with some good humour and a very interesting take on the fantasy-type of story.

21: X-Men: Legends: The first of the X-Men: Legends/Marvel Ultimate Alliance style games, the success of which started that franchise off that has now, lamentably, seemingly passed into history. It had an interesting way of handling combat, and let me essentially take on Wolverine and attack things while letting my reasonably competent companions fight. It required you to take along certain characters a little too much to solve problems for my liking, and the final battle was massively difficult, but other than that it was definitely a fun game to play.

Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games (31 – 40)

November 21, 2014

40: Fatal Frame 2: This is one of the games that justifies my deciding to not simply add entries by series. Anyone who’s read my blog for any length of time knows what I think about Fatal Frame. Obviously, I don’t think of this game anywhere near as highly. It’s not a bad game, and they added a number of things that should have made it better, but changing from a mansion to a town reduces some of the cramped creepiness, even if adding a pet makes it creepier in some ways. But the biggest knock against it is the section where you lose the camera, which I never got past. But it’s still memorable.

39: Marvel Ultimate Alliance: I think that this game manages to generally do Quick Time Events right, as you don’t get DIAS but instead just have to stay alive for one extra round if you miss it, and there’s usually a good scene after the QTE so you don’t have to miss anything cool. Unfortunately, this game is also the one that ramped gimmick fights up to 11, after they were done well in Age of Apocalypse. But this game also ramps up or introduces the idea of consequences for your actions, albeit in a very minor way, which is a nice touch.

38: Elder Scrolls: Oblivion: After Morrowind drove me to a homicidal range after about an hour of gameplay, playing this game didn’t seem like a very good idea. And I think I played it on the PC first for a very short time. And then I got it for the PS3 and didn’t finish it despite my character’s lack of pants. But when I took the game on as Angel without the vampirism, I actually started to enjoy it a bit, and did manage to finish it. So far, no such luck for Skyrim.

37: Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday: This was not my first AD&D style RPG, nor was it my first space-based RPG. But it was the first time I played that combination, and I did remember Buck Rogers from my youth. The new classes were interesting, and it let me create a full party … and I never finished it.

36: Wizardry: Tales of the Forsaken Land: A JRPG version of Wizardry, trading in the Western RPG tropes for the JRPG tropes. Including meeting friends in the dungeon and having to bond with them to be able to pull of your more impressive moves and tactics. I never did manage to finish it, but part of that was because the disk was a little less perfect than the others and so when my first PS2 started to go it stopped playing it first … while I was playing it. It’s simplified compared to Wizardry 8, but was still fun.

35: Age of Wonders: And soon after justifying my not simply adding entries by series … I hit a series where other than 3 — which I never played — the two games are pretty much the same in quality. This game let you play hotseat and create your own maps, and wrapped that all around an interesting magic and combat system with a personalized leader. You can’t really go wrong.

34: Age of Wonders 2: This game just added more to the original game, which gives it the slight nod. But the two are pretty much interchangeable.

33: Lord of the Rings: The Third Age: I have a weakness for works that insert themselves into an existing canon and talk about other events and the like without contradicting too much the original works. I love “I, Jedi”, which arguably fixes the “Jedi Academy Trilogy”. And I love the parts of “Legions of Fire” that does the same for some things in Babylon 5, as well as the “The Passing of the Technomages” which does that for the technomages in B5. This is probably because as a writer I’m actually better at writing those sorts of inserts than I am at writing original stuff, which might make me a natural fanfic author (which means I should write some, I think). This game actually, in my view, manages to pull it off fairly well. The characters are interesting, the story doesn’t seem to contradict at least the movies too very much, and I managed to finish it. More than once. It implements the interesting system of “Use your skills to level them up” but hurts it with “But they depend on MP that you can’t always restore easily”. This is a game I would consider playing again.

32: The Old Republic: When I play MMOs, I have a strong tendency towards altitis. This is the one MMO that’s an exception to that rule, which is both to its credit and its detriment. It’s bad because there just aren’t as many combinations of unique characters as there are in other games, given the class and story restrictions. It’s good because the story drives you forward more than you see in other games and so you want to stick to one character more than you would otherwise. That means that this is the only game that I’ve hit the initial, at least, level cap with, having a few characters that have hit level 50 and having completed a few stories (Sith Warrior, Sith Sorcerer, and Smuggler I think). I still play this game fairly frequently, and am looking forward to another Christmas vacation burst with it. The biggest problem with the game is all the other people; I tend to try to play when no one else is on, which sometimes is hard to do. So I guess my biggest complaint about this game is that I would have rather seen it as a single player successor to the Knights of the Old Republic games, and think of the MMO portions as necessary evils. In fact, think about that for a second: take all of the stories — which do interconnect — even in their slight shallowness, and build a single player game where you walk through all of them, on both sides, and only then do you get the entire picture. How cool a game would that be?

31: Icewind Dale: I tried to play Baldur’s Gate repeatedly, and hated it. So I didn’t try Baldur’s Gate 2 until very recently, and then simply forgot about it. But I loved Icewind Dale when I started playing it. Part of the reason was that it let you create your own party, which Baldur’s Gate didn’t. I don’t mind companions, but at the time I really did want to create my own characters and play with them, and build the stories and relationships that way. This was, of course, before I became fascinated with JRPGs, which broke that a little. But this game let me create my all-female evil party and play it for a bit. Shame the old-style combat was just a bit too annoying to me to finish. The only thing that IWD 2 had over this were the extra classes allowing for greater diversity of characters, but overall it wasn’t as good a game as this one, that managed to let you feel like a party of inexperienced adventurers suddenly thrust into the role of the only hope for the Dale.

Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games (41 – 50)

November 20, 2014

50: X-Men: Next Dimension: I don’t play fighting games to fight. I play fighting games to experience or create my own story. This game’s story was too difficult for me — I got stuck at the fight where Forge has to win only to lose in a cutscene — but taking on the Arcade mode ran through multiple locations and multiple opponents in each, which could let you build a story out of the encounters with some kludging, if you knew the X-Men canon well. Which I do. And you tended to face a main adversary at the end — Wolverine always fought Sabertooth last, for example — which allowed for more story-based fun.

49: M1 Tank Platoon: I think I had already started my practice of putting my friends into games before this, but I definitely did that in this game. Which made it interesting to see them get promoted … or get their tank brewed up and have to replace them. Other than that, the campaign was interesting and the combat easy enough that it didn’t frustrate me but deep enough to give me some choices and require some strategy. A good game to play when we were still in the Cold War.

48: Gunship: For a C64 game, this was a surprisingly strong flight simulator. It popped to mind when I was trying to remember what C64 games I loved, and definitely deserves to make the list.

47: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe: This was one of the first fighting games I played where the story was both easy enough and fun enough to satisfy me when I played it. “Khaaaaaaaan!”

46: Injustice: Gods Among Us: This one, though, had a stronger story than MK vs DC Universe.

45: Star Trek: Birth of the Federation: This is actually a pretty good implementation of a Star Trek turn-based strategy game. You get the main races. You get the minor races. You get the planets. You get the ships. What you don’t get, which makes it inferior to Star Wars: Rebellion, are the characters. This was a game crying out for academies to train characters and special units, and it didn’t do it. But, otherwise, it did manage to get you feeling at least a bit like you were in that universe, and probably more so than any other Star Trek game I’ve played.

44: Dungeons of Daggorath: One of the first games I played on an actual computer, a Co-Co 2. A very entertaining dungeon crawl with an interesting hit point system — you died when your heart rate got too high — and some decent strategy options as well (when you use magic, and the ability to leave items around for the monsters to try to pick up so that you can wail on them, but since that increased your heart rate …). I never managed to finish it, but I definitely played a lot of it and would like to see some of those elements back again.

43: Risk II: You might be thinking “How can a game that just implements a board game make it onto the list?”. And “Axis and Allies” didn’t make the list, so it isn’t that it’s based on a board game and let me automate all of the annoying things that board games can have (I’m looking at you, “Babylon 5 Wars”). But this added something that the board game couldn’t do: Same Time resolution of movement and battles. So every player gave their all their moves, and then the game resolved them all simultaneously, which include border wars (you attacked me and I attacked you) and mass invasions over multiple borders. Sure, I played it against myself hotseat – which is not abnormal for me — but that was still a very interesting innovation, and made it more fun to play. I always played this game with Missions and Same Time, and it definitely kept me entertained.

42: Tropico: This was a very cute little game. The later games added more options that really do seem interesting, but that I’ve never managed to play them for long enough to really get attached to them. This game I did manage to play a bit. It was a unique little “God Game”, that also mixed in a lot of humour and didn’t take itself too seriously.

41: X-Wing Alliance: I could have selected X-Wing or Tie Fighter here, but this is the game that I most remember out of all of them. The story is strong, but the best part of it for me was the simulator, where you could create your own set-ups of fighters and fleets and fly them against each other. This even let me set up little mini-campaigns and storylines, which is something that I dearly love.

My Top 50 Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games

November 19, 2014

So, Shamus Young did a list of the top 64 games. At the end of it, he said this about the project:

But the other thing I learned from all this is that these lists really don’t mean anything. My list isn’t really meaningful except as “List of Top 64 PC Games Played By Shamus Young that He Felt Like Talking About.” There’s a bit of value in that from the standpoint of trivia and curiosity, but it tells you more about me than it tells you about videogames.

Now, I had already decided to do a list of my own before he posted that — again, I’m scheduling things ahead and I’ve had content lately — but that sums up one of the main reasons that I decided to go ahead and do this. As I write more and more about video games, it’d be nice to have an article or set of articles that can sum up what sorts of games I like and what kind of player I am. And while a summary article would be shorter, it really can’t sum it up as well as a list of my favourite and memorable games and the reasons why they’re on the list and in the positions they are.

So despite the fact that I’m all about objectivity (well, not really), this is going to be a completely and totally subjective list. I’m not going to make any claims about whether these games are objectively better or worse than any other games. Any games that don’t make the list are either games that I haven’t played, or didn’t like or remember enough to make the list. In fact, how I generated the list was to first scour my memory to pick out the games that I remembered fondly, and then went through the games that I had handy to find ones that I when I saw them I thought “Oh, that game! I loved that game!” and then added it to the list.

Note that unlike Shamus I’m not limiting series to one entry. This is because I guess I play less games than he does ([grin]) but mostly because in a number of cases I liked one game in the series a lot more than others, or didn’t even like or play some entries in the series. It’s not reasonable for me, then, to try to judge the quality of various series, and I do have the room to judge each game individually.

I ended up with 50 games in the list, with some honourable mentions left over, and so will run these starting with 41 – 50 every day until I get through them all (the honourable mentions will come last). So if you’re here mainly for the philosophy … well, I have a lot of those sorts of posts in the archive and that will unfortunately have to hold you for the next week or so. For those who like video game posts, then this might interest you.

The Argument From “I’ll Hold My Breath Until I Turn Blue”

November 18, 2014

I’ve been talking a lot about free will over the past little while, but for reasons that you’ll see in the next post, I wanted to get this little rumination in today. The key reason that people are so determined to preserve free will is the idea that our conscious deliberations matter, and that what we decide consciously really does impact our behaviour. The challenge from hard determinists has always been that that is itself determined by environment and brain state, which always implies that it doesn’t really have an impact, except possibly as a feedback loop where the experience causes a reaction just as any stimulus would. This is why Libet’s experiments are always cited as evidence that free will doesn’t really exist; they purport to demonstrate that our conscious deliberation can’t impact the decision because the decision is made unconsciously before we consciously make it. On the other hand, our instincts and hard-wired desires are also often cited as reasons to think that we don’t have any meaningful kind of free will, because they are actions — often very complex and direct actions — that we take automatically in response to a stimulus, and they can indeed be conditioned to be automatic and unconscious reactions. So, again, conscious deliberation doesn’t seem to be necessary.

But you get an interesting result when you combine some of our strongest instinctive and automatic responses and conscious deliberation. Take, for example, breathing. We all do this automatically, pretty much from birth. We don’t generally have to think about it. We can, however, consciously override this instinctive behaviour, and hold our breath. But we can’t do it until we die. However, we can hold it until we lose consciousness. Thus, as long as we are conscious, we are capable of overriding this very basic instinctive behaviour, and doing so completely. All our body can do is make it very uncomfortable to do so, but it can’t actually force us to breath … as long as we are conscious. As soon as we lose consciousness, then this behaviour kicks in again and we breath. But as long as we are conscious, we can override this basic and vitally important bodily function.

This suggests that our conscious deliberations and actions can influence our behaviour, as we can consciously override this instinctive behaviour as long as and only as long as we are conscious. In addition, this suggests that our conscious deliberation can override pretty much any instinctive behaviour that isn’t just completely automatic — like the heart beating — because this one is just so fundamental and yet we can override it as long as we can maintain conscious control. Both of these things suggest that conscious deliberation matters and isn’t just an instinctive and automatic response with good special effects. And this seems to strike hard at the hard determinist position … or, at least, a hard determinist position that attempts to strike at conscious deliberation and deny that it is the determining factor in much of our behaviour.


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