Tropes vs Women: Strategic Butt Coverings

February 5, 2016

Anita Sarkeesian has put up her latest Tropes vs Women video, “Strategic Butt Coverings”. To my surprise, this video is actually shorter than her bonus mini-episode on DLC. As it turns out, this is how things are going to be from now on as she tries to finish the series off. From her Kickstarter post on the subject:

We plan on completing Tropes vs Women in Video Games within the year but it’s going to look a little bit different. Instead of incredibly long videos that focus on one trope and deconstruct hundreds of examples, we are going to break it down into smaller bite-size pieces. We’re going to publish shorter, more focused episodes, by taking the theories and concepts from the remaining tropes and presenting them in 5-10 minute long videos around a very focused topic.

Huh. The main issue I had with most of the videos so far was that there was too much focus on trying to find and sometimes force examples as if posting a huge amount of examples would say something interesting, instead of taking a small number of examples, making reasonable claims based on that, and focusing more on the analysis and making it deeper and better argued. It turns out that generating all of those examples was taking up too much of Sarkeesian’s life, and so now she wants to focus on smaller videos that hopefully she’ll be able to get out faster so that she finally finishes the series. There are two important things about that related to my post here:

1) I’m going to end up saying far more about this specific topic than Sarkeesian does, and this may well carry forward into the future.

2) Given this, it would seem that videos will have to be focused and not have the time to drift into irrelevant topics that would be mostly aside jokes.

So, let’s look at this video, “Strategic Butt Coverings”, which has as one of its main points … the idea that game designers are going to great lengths to cover up the butts of male protagonists, a point so important to Sarkeesian that it’s pretty much what inspires the title of the video.

Sigh.

Anyway, onto the content:

Third-person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full-body view. A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games, which are presented from a third-person perspective wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen, a camera orientation which, along with the sexualized clothing the designers chose to outfit her in, places a tremendous amount of emphasis on that part of her body.

In dozens of third-person games with playable female characters, the character’s butt is brought to the forefront and that’s where the player’s focus is directed.

Let’s contrast the way that women’s butts are emphasized with the sometimes absurd lengths taken to cover up or hide men’s butts. If some of this footage looks jerky, that’s because in some games, trying to get a glimpse of male characters’ butts can feel a bit like wrestling with the camera.

Common ways men’s butts are hidden are by preventing the player from seeing below the character’s waistline, or employing a more over-the-shoulder camera angle, which has the added benefit of keeping the character’s butt safely out of the frame. The most amusing solution is to simply include a cape, tunic, long coat or very conveniently positioned piece of tattered fabric which actively prevents the player from getting a clear or sustained look at the protagonist’s butt.

The problem is that this idea that the male protagonist’s butt is habitually covered up in first-person games is, well, generally false. In all sorts of games, especially the games I play — RPGs and MMOs — and especially in the games where you can create your own character and choose their gender — which is the majority of the games I actually play, unless I’m playing JRPGs — in the third person view you get to see the entire character (see TOR, KotOR, Sith Lord, Suikoden III, Shadow Hearts (which is generally only a male character), Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc). This has led to a very common joke — so common that even I’ve heard it — which I’ll illustrate with Shamus Young’s take on it from his series on LOTRO:

So… character creation time. I’m going to play as a female, because, hey – if I’m going to be staring at an ass for hundreds of hours, it might as well be…

…shaped like a dumpling? Hey baby you got any fries to go with that bowl of yogurt?

Typically, if you play a third-person game, you are going to be staring at a butt for the entire game. Male gamers have joked that this is one main reason to make the main character female, because at least then you’ll be staring at a woman’s butt instead of a man’s butt. And in the Mass Effect case … it didn’t seem to work based on Sarkeesian’s own comments on the game.

And, as it turns out, one of her main examples — Batman in the Arkham games — is plain wrong:

For the purposes of this video I tried to get a glimpse of Batman’s rear end, but it’s as if his cape is a high-tech piece of Wayne Industries equipment designed to cover up his butt at all costs. I like to jokingly refer to this aspect of a male character’s costume as the strategic butt covering.

Except that you can get capeless costumes for old Bats, and it turns out that Nightwing is in the game and can be played for a period of time, and he doesn’t have a cape. In both cases, you’d get to see their butts. So if they were going to extreme lengths to hide them, they didn’t do a very good job of it.

Of course, not all games with male protagonists keep the character’s butt obscured or out of frame like these games do.

And, in fact, most of the third person games don’t do it at all. So why did you name your video after this supposed phenomenon that doesn’t really exist?

The real issue is one of emphasis and definition; a significant portion of third-person games with female protagonists call attention to those characters’ butts in a way that’s meant to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.

Yeah, we know that sometimes or even often games draw attention to the sexual characteristics of women in odd ways. Shamus Young highlights the issue with Miranda in Mass Effect 2, and this was a well-known trope among gamers longer before his latest series, again, so well know that I’d heard about it. I believe that Chuck Sonnenberg over at SF Debris brought it up in his series on The Old Republic, commenting on the exaggerated sway of the hips of the female characters, which made me wonder why I hadn’t noticed it (reason: that’s the one MMO where I only have one female character, which I haven’t played since I joined the first time). Mostly, however, that’s in cutscenes, or in general costuming. And the latter, at least, is something that Sarkeesian has already talked about. So beyond the almost non-existent trope of strategically covering up the butts of men — so limited that it’s not even worth calling a trope, really — there’s nothing new here. Surely if Sarkeesian is going to have more focused videos here, she’s going to have to focus on things that are really there and are really important, no?

Rather, the solution is to deemphasize the rear ends of female characters, so that players are encouraged not to ogle and objectify these women, but to identify and empathize with them as people. This is not an impossible task given that game designers do this all the time with their male characters. It’s time they started consistently doing it with their female characters, too.

Why can’t we do both?

In the same post that I found out about the extra costumes for Batman in the Arkham series, a commenter mentioned JRPGs and their issues with sexualizing characters. Which is true; the character in JRPGs are often dressed up in very sexual and often fetishy costumes, with an emphasis on their … attributes (usually not the butt, oddly enough). Yet, JRPGs that do that also often push us to identify and empathize with them as well, particularly the “dating sim” type of games, where thinking of them as people is rather the point of having to choose which one, if any, you end up with at the end of the game. Let’s take Conception II as an example. It is a very juvenile game, where your female companions dress in very sexy outfits for your dungeon-crawling, tend to be very well-endowed — except for Serina in her normal form, which is a character point for her — and they combine this with rampant Gainaxing (I noticed this with Miss Chloe in the dungeon after one of her special moves). Given that the Classmating mechanism is a thinly veiled allusion to sex — so thinly veiled that, well, there might as well not be a veil at all — this is a game that should embody the sort of objectification that Sarkeesian talks about.

Except … all of the female companions are interesting characters with distinct personalities, so much so that you can’t help but like some and dislike others. My favourites were Chloe Genus, Narika Shina, and Fuuko Amicis. Chloe is smart, strong, capable, caring, and responsible, and was my favourite. Narika is caring, shy and a little unsure of her own abilities, but is just so incredibly nice that it all works. Fuuko is nice as well, but lacks confidence in a way that annoyed me more, but she’s also more outgoing than Narika. As for the others, Torii is utterly flaky but in a way that others might find cute, Ellie is cute and fun and funny but still a bit too flaky for my tastes, Feene tries to mix, it seems to me, eccentricity and cool elegance and it doesn’t work for me, while Serina has a massive chip on her shoulder that just irritates me. But all of them could be interesting and could be interesting to get to know depending on what you personally like. While they all may be somewhat stereotypical, they are also people that you are supposed to get to know and care about, and literally bond with (bond points are the mechanism by which you do good things like produce Star Children and pull off special abilities). You do that by hanging out with them, finding out what is going on in their life, and what they like and don’t like. In short, you treat them like people.

In Persona 3, given the right outfit, you might get a good look at Mitsuru’s butt when she gets a critical. And yet her personality, in game and in her S-link, is developed enough to almost make her my favourite female character ever. Sexy to men and a person aren’t mutually exclusive … and often have to be combined.

Given that, Sarkeesian is focusing too much on shallow appearance in determining if a female character is objectified. What we have to do is look at appearance and, more importantly, how the character is portrayed, and in particular how they are portrayed — ie in what depth and detail — when compared to all the other characters in the game. A game that characterizes no one doesn’t objectify a female character if they fail to characterize her, and a game that characterizes everyone except the main love interest objectifies her even if they put her in baggy pants and don’t show her butt. We need to look deeper, not shallower, if we are going to make games better, keeping what people like about them and adding things that ought to be there.

Thoughts on “Merlin”, Book 2 of the Pendragon Cycle

February 3, 2016

When I wrote my thoughts on “Taliesin”, I had just finished reading it and hadn’t started reading “Merlin” yet. Here, I’m already starting “Bedwyr”, which is the second book in the third novel “Arthur”, and who knows how far I’ll get in the series before this actually comes up in my blog post queue (I’m running about two weeks ahead at the moment). Anyway, on to “Merlin”.

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Final Thoughts on “XBlaze: Code Embryo”

February 1, 2016

“XBlaze: Code Embryo” is the first real Japanese-style interactive novel I’ve ever played, and it’s well, okay. The main thrust of the gameplay is that you go through the scenes, but eventually things show up in your TOi (say that out loud as one word) and you can read them or not read them. What you read and don’t read has an impact on the scenes, and presumably on the path you end up taking through the visual novel, and thus on what ending you get.

Unfortunately for this game, I’m a voracious reader, and so will always read everything, which takes you down at least part of Hinata’s path, to an ending that’s a bit strange and that I’m not sure that I understand. But since Hinata was probably my favourite character anyway, that wasn’t really a problem for me.

The main issue is that while the “read articles to shape the story” approach is interesting, it doesn’t work for me. First, I’ll always want to read everything anyway. Second, because it encourages you to check the TOi as often as you can to make sure that you read what you need to read before the events come up, which takes you out of the story mode, as if you’re someone obsessed with checking your texts even while everyone is planning out what steps to take to stop the main issue. Third, it isn’t always clear before you read it what articles impact what people and events, and so focusing on a path is going to be hard unless you memorize the paths or use a guide. Fourth, the story itself isn’t fun enough to make it worth doing, at least for me, and the TOi mechanism itself isn’t fun. Thus, I find that I have absolutely nothing to do, and so all I’m really doing is reading a novel. If I wanted to just read a novel, I’d just read a novel.

Ultimately, the game is okay and was worth playing, and I might even try out some of the other paths later, but I found myself pushing through it just to finish it and see at least one of the endings, and don’t feel much incentive to try it again.

Review of “Sense & Goodness Without God”

January 29, 2016

So, I finished reading “Sense & Goodness Without God” by Richard Carrier, and it’s the worst atheist/New Atheist book I’ve ever read … and I’ve read “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Carrier manages to be even more arrogant than Rosenburg, but doesn’t make up for it by having better arguments. In fact, often he doesn’t really have arguments at all, but instead has small sections where he arrogantly tells us just how right he is, while leaving a long, italicized section at the end to tell us all of the things we ought to read to know how right he is, which is often longer than what he actually says in the section. This doesn’t work for either a popular work or for a detailed philosophical work. For the former, as most people won’t, in fact, read those works either he must be appealing to authority — look at all the people who agree with me, I must be right! — or ask them to take it on faith that the arguments are really there and are really devastating if we read them ourselves. For the latter, philosophers might well be willing to or have already read the works, but then what you’re supposed to do is summarize the important points and show how they directly reinforce your point, and then simply cite the works later. Carrier doesn’t do that, and so his actual words aren’t convincing and few will be willing to dive into the massive additional reading that he recommends. It very much seems like Carrier wants us to do his work for him.

If we could consider Carrier a fair commentator on the work of others, this wouldn’t matter quite so much, but Carrier spends a lot of time refuting points that he never really summarizes, and barely quotes. Despite Carrier often railing against quote-mining, all of his attempts to address others are nothing more than his pulling in short quotes out of context and then trying to refute that as if that was entirely the point. If that was entirely the point, then Carrier’s counter-arguments might work, but we ought to be suspicious that that really is the entire point … and, again, Carrier really gives up no reason to do the extra work to think that he’s right. In general, we’d be far better served by reading someone else than by doing the massive amount of work required to get Carrier’s points.

Many of Carrier’s points proving naturalism/materialism seem to boil down to wordy claims of “If I can find a way that it could be natural, then we ought to consider it such”, which has been said better elsewhere and with more credible natural solutions. Some of his arguments are interesting, but not enough to convince me that his view is worth considering to the level that his arrogant prose suggests we should. Also, the book needs updating, because he is very much convinced of things then that he seems to be not convinced of now, such as how he relies on his love for his now ex-wife to say that he knows what love is and entails, which doesn’t seem to be how he sees it now. Sure, the personal life of the author isn’t relevant to an argument unless he uses his personal beliefs as proof of how he just knows something was true that he doesn’t think is true now. Which carries over into his view of science, as he seems to try to claim that we know that science is reliable because it gets things wrong but corrects for it, which might establish that science overall is reliable, but not in the way he wants so that we should prefer any scientific answer because, it seems, science will eventually get it right, and this might just be the right answer. Yeah, if I find a scientific answer sufficiently counter-intuitive and science cannot answer for why my intuitions are wrong, saying “Well, it might be wrong, but it’ll get it right eventually!” is not going to help.

This is book crying out for fisking, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to it. Suffice it to say that there are better books out there to try to argue for materialism, and that even the prose of this book is annoying and hard to get through. It’s a slog to read and you probably aren’t going to learn anything that you couldn’t find out from far more entertaining works. I cannot recommend this work to anyone, even the people it is aimed at.

Thoughts on “Dallas” at the half-way point …

January 27, 2016

So, I’ve been watching “Dallas”, and at this point — remember, this is being written a bit ahead of when it gets posted — I’m just starting season 8, so a bit over half-way through. I actually am quite enjoying it. At the start of a season, things may move a bit slowly, but the machinations and plots are still interesting, and it does work like soap operas in that it builds at the end of the season so that you really want to see what’s going to happen next, leading up to the season-ending cliff-hanger. As a soap-opera, it’s also the case that I can watch it while doing other things, or even while I’m winding down before sleeping, because if I fall asleep or don’t pay attention to something the show will, in fact, let me know what I missed at some point if it’s at all important. That being said, there does seem to be some foreshadowing and plot threads dropped that can be picked up again (or not) later, which is a sign of good soap-opera plotting; a lot of the later plot threads don’t really come out of nowhere, but out of things that could be utterly unimportant if they don’t fit, but can be critical hints if they do.

Anyway, some other thoughts on the series:

1) When I recalled this series, I remember being mostly sympathetic to Pam, and she is seen as one of the “better” characters in the show. Watching it this time, however, I’m utterly unsympathetic to her … although she’s getting a little better in late season 7 and season 8. The reason is that she’s turned into a “I’m always right” character, which is what I hate about Leanne on Coronation Street: Pam can do things that be considered right and also get upset about other people who do similar things (but not as bad) and also be considered right. It actually ends up worse for Pam because one of her big foils is Bobby, who is probably the most genuinely good character on the entire show. From the start, Pam had to insist on having her own job, even when the demands of that job meant that she and Bobby didn’t get to spend time together. And Bobby was just so completely reasonable about that, reasonably upset and maybe commenting on her not really needing a job, but being understanding the in first place. Then he had to put up with her not wanting a child, then heading for a nervous breakdown without one, leading him to desperate measures — and an accident — to get one to make her happy. Then Jock dies and put J.R. and Bobby into competition for Ewing Oil, which means that it takes up more of Bobby’s time. And then she’s upset with Bobby for spending that much time there, and also notes that he’s changed to become more like J.R. when, really, he hasn’t (and, in fact, one of the reasons he bowed out of running Ewing Oil the first time was that he understood that it required him to do things that he didn’t want to do). Bobby’s biggest sin is putting the screws to the Cartel in that they either have to pump oil or buy him out, which offends them — and Pam — greatly … except that all of them would have done the same things if not worse to him for far less motivation. Bobby points out at one point that while Pam thinks he’s changing, he’s always been this competitive and ambitious, and it’s true. Even when he bowed out of Ewing Oil at the start of the series, he immediately went into development, and worked to win. Despite his changes, he’s still genuinely good most of the time, as his deal with the Canadians revealed (that’s why they wanted to work with him, and he treated them fairly when he went in with them). So Pam’s objections are far too strong there.

It gets worse when they separate. Pam almost immediately ends up with Mark Grayson, and even while they are supposed to be trying to save the marriage is going places and “dating” someone who is obviously and openly trying to break up the marriage so that he can have her, while Bobby is remaining focused on rebuilding the marriage. That doesn’t make us want to be on Pam’s side. But when Pam is in Paris and her and Mark are supposedly about to sleep together, Pam gets a phone call from Afton saying that Bobby and Katherine, Pam’s sister, might be up to something, so she storms home and angrily confronts both of them for doing … at worst, what she was doing with Mark. And there was nothing going on, not even to the extent of her and Mark, which she never really apologizes for, and when Bobby confronts her about Mark, she doesn’t seem to realize that he ought to be feeling what she was feeling, but instead expresses it as if this is such a hard thing for her to have to deal with, as opposed to him. While, sure, it’d be hard for her to decide between them she shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. The show should be showing her as being not really pure and Bobby as being hard put upon, but it seems to frame it as the other way around, which makes me dislike Pam.

She gets a bit better when she decides to marry Mark because he doesn’t have long to live, but for the most part she’s irrational and self-absorbed, and yet we’re supposed to think that she’s a great and good character. The fact that she most commonly plays against Bobby who is not that irrational and self-absorbed only makes it worse.

2) At this point, there really is nothing for Lucy to do in the show. When the show was focused on Pam, their relationship and how it evolved over time would be interesting, but when J.R. got more focus, there was little for her to do. She wasn’t in any way smart or powerful enough to be any threat to J.R., and knew nothing about and had no interest in Ewing Oil, and the focus had to switch to that because that was just so important to J.R.. Even when she was managing her father’s voting rights in the company, all she ever did was vote against J.R., which, honestly, is what her father would do anyway. Even the plot where she was raped and then had to learn to allow someone else to be romantic with her would have been done better with Pam or Donna, where how that impacted their husbands could have been explored. There’s really nothing for her to do in the show anymore.

3) Katherine Wentworth’s actress can’t really handle the role she was in, or she’s gotten bad direction. She’s supposed to be manipulative, but how she presents her plans makes you really think that she is up to something, because a lot of the time what she says seems artificial. You have to wonder what she’s up to because she doesn’t seem genuine in her words, unlike how Larry Hagman plays J.R.. I also don’t think that the obsession she ends up with for Bobby is all that believable; he’s certainly a good catch, but that she’d fall that strongly in love with him that quickly, and think that she can win him over? It comes up too quickly, mostly I think because she’s a minor character early in the show and the obsession is already full-blown when she returns. I think the actress is attractive and that the character has potential, but as J.R. said she really is just not as smart as him … or any of the great manipulators on the show, which would include Sue Ellen and probably Pam.

4) Afton Cooper started out as a very manipulative person, but by this point is another one of the genuinely good people in the show, which is a nice progression. It also ends up hurting our view of Cliff, because he really does treat her badly most of the time. I ended up really disliking him — which makes me want J.R. to crush him — and wanted to see her find someone better than him, not being able to understand what she saw in him at that point. What’s good about this is that the show can be seen, instead of as a big clash between J.R. and Cliff, as a clash between J.R. and Bobby, which is a much more interesting relationship to explore, especially considering that they both do seem to actually love each other when they aren’t fighting over something. Cliff, then, is the puppy yapping at J.R.’s heels … which doesn’t make me happy that at the end of season 7 he actually succeeds.

So far I’m enjoying the show, and I only have a few more months to get through all 14 seasons.

Final Thoughts: Conception II

January 25, 2016

I finished Conception II, and it was the most disappointing ending I could possibly imagine. I had maxed out the affection with all of the companions, and had spent most of my time focusing on Miss Cloe, because she was my favourite out of all of them (I also liked Fuuko and Narika, but the only character I really disliked was Serina, but that archetype seems to be quite popular in Japanese RPGs/Interactive Novels). I went through all of the stage interactions with them, repeatedly, and expected at some point by the end of the game I’d have to choose which one to settle on. And, much to my surprise, the game proceeded on and I ended up with the “no one likes you” ending, where you tag along with Clotz and Luce on their “date”. What, wait happened?

Well, it turns out that in order to actually get to choose who to go to the final festival with, you have to do the Classmating to advance their personal stories. While playing, I was wondering why those stories seemed to have stalled, but thought it might just be that they were pretty much at the end and so there wasn’t anything new. So why wasn’t I Classmating? Well, it uses bond points, and I had all the Star Children I wanted, the level of the city was reasonable, and I was using bond points to Mechunite to help me clear the dungeons so that I didn’t have to grind so much. This meant that I was grinding the individual story scenes — seeing the same ones over and over and over again — to build up bond points anyway; the last thing I wanted was to spend them on something that I didn’t need to do.

And so, because of that, I didn’t get the ending I wanted. In all fairness, I think this was something that I had known about when I was playing it the first time, and it was only the long lay off that made me forget this, and so end up with the ending I didn’t want. It was still disappointing, though.

However, this, to me, highlights the major and serious flaw in Conception II: its grinding. How did I get into this mess? I was trying to avoid grinding levels in dungeons, and so a) wanted to stick with the Star Children I had and b) wanted to use the Mechunite to allow me to survive encounters that I wouldn’t survive in a simple straight fight, including the boss fights. In order to do that, I had to consume bond points, but grinding bond points was easier for me than grinding dungeons, especially since I was always cash-strapped. But Classmating would have used those points and required me to grind that more, and the grinding of that simply wasn’t fun. Since I didn’t need the Star Children, it would have been grinding for no real reason, and so boring. Ultimately, then, too much of the game is spent trying to reduce how much you grind, or grinding, which is not fun.

Which is a shame, because the characters are interesting, and their stories and reactions are worth exploring. Compared to Akiba’s Trip, the character stories and personalities are deeper and more interesting, and the plot is more involved and entertaining. Conception II should just be a better game than Akiba’s Trip, but I don’t like it as much, because the grinding is just too much for me. Which is a shame.

Ultimately, my conclusion is if they can tighten up the main story and remove a lot of the grinding, then they’d have a worthy competitor to the Personas. They can even keep the lighter tone and the more goofy interactions, as long as they stop breaking the mood by starting a very, very serious scene and then trashing that with an utterly ridiculous statement. The game is juvenile, but if they weave that better through the game it could be very entertaining. But with the grinding as it is, the game is okay, but not really worth playing over and over again.

I don’t know if I’ll ever play out the remaining stories. On a restart and load you can start late in the game, so that you don’t have too much left to do, and so hopefully be able to experience each story with a minimum of grinding … but the final battles weren’t fun for me, and the grinding you have to do is also not fun, so I think I’ll pass. Ultimately, Conception II is a bunch of decent ideas killed by gameplay that’s far too grindy to be truly entertaining.

Today in Sports …

January 24, 2016

So, today, right about now, for me, there is:

1) The Scotties playdowns for Ontario, with Rachel Homan taking on Jenn Hanna for a spot in the Scott Tournament of Hearts, which is at this moment tied at 3, with Hanna having taken 3 in the second and Homan having taken 1 in the first and 2 in the third, so a close, tight match.

2) The Peyton Manning – Tom Brady showdown in the NFL playoffs. I’m not a big NFL fan, but I love a good story and this, well, is a really good one.

And I don’t have picture-in-picture, as it turns out, so I have a choice to make. I’ll remember this when there’s absolutely nothing on some Saturday/Sunday afternoon …

EDIT: I kinda flipped between the two — I tried to catch the third and skip stones of the curling — but Jenn Hanna upset Rachel Homan … although Homan mostly did that to herself, missing shots that she normally makes easily. Now I can watch the rest of the football.

That Dragon, Cancer … and Issues With Reviews

January 22, 2016

So, I still do peruse the Feminist Frequency site, and recently came across this review of “That Dragon, Cancer” by Carolyn Petit which manages to, I think, represent the precise type of review that I don’t find helpful, and advocates for the work in ways that I think many people are becoming upset with across the board, in video games, TV and movies, and science fiction/fantasy novels. So, first, let me invite you to go and read the review, in its entirety. Don’t worry, it’s not long. When you’re done, I’ll have two questions for you.

Done? Okay, now answer me this:

1) What is the actual gameplay of the game?

2) What does the gameplay of the game do to enhance the overall message that the game conveys?

If you can’t remember the answers to those questions, feel free to go back and read it again. I’ll wait.

Okay, now maybe I’m just missing something and maybe there are answers to those questions in the review, but as far as I can tell the reason that you can’t answer those questions upon reading the review is that those things are never talked about in the review. So, she’s reviewing a game, and yet doesn’t seem to mention anything about what the game is like, well, as a game. It’s all about the message. In fact, after reading it the first time I actually thought that this was some kind of web series or something, and not a game at all, and then looked back and found at least three places where she calls this a game. So, I guess this is a game. But from her review, I can’t even tell if it’s a game, and I certainly know nothing about it as a game. How in the world do you get a game review that doesn’t even mention the parts of it that would, in fact, make it a game?

Even worse, nothing that Petit mentions are things that wouldn’t work equally as well in a short animated film, film or novel … and, in fact, they might work better. For example, she praises it for this:

The game reveals how living with Joel’s cancer for years was simultaneously a source of tremendous difficulty and exhaustion and pain for the Greens, and how, when you live with something like that for so long, it becomes woven into your normal, everyday lives. We hear a voicemail from Amy as she’s on her way back from the hospital in which she tells Ryan to preheat the oven for the lasagna they’re making for dinner. Life doesn’t stop. You have to keep on living, doing all the things you’d normally do. But when your life is full of hospital visits and impossible conversations with doctors, you also learn to hate some of the “normal” little specific things that become part of the texture of your life. At one point, Ryan mentions how he has come to hate the way the vinyl of hospital chairs sticks to his skin. Precise details like this put you in the day-to-day lives of the Greens.

But all of this can be conveyed very effectively in films and in novels. While I’ll say that games can indeed be art, what games are going to bring to art and to conveying messages is the fact that you are the one doing it and the one who is in this situation, and so aren’t merely voyeuristically observing the lives of other people. For a game to really have an impact here as a game it’s going to force you to make those decisions, to deal with those situations, and form those opinions with you in the role of the people involved somehow. Petit comments on none of that, and in fact implies that that isn’t the case; you observe them as they live their lives, with no real ability to alter or change it or else you couldn’t really be experiencing what their lives were like. Yes, games can pull off that sort of thing, but there’s nothing in her review to suggest that any of that is what happened, as you don’t seem to play as yourself, and all of her examples are of you listening to their words and their reactions, not what your reactions are in response to that situation.

In the artistic games that work, you either are doing the things yourself and so get to experience it from the first-person perspective, or else you are forced to make choices that impact the lives of the people in the game and how things play out. An example of the first is “Papers, Please”, which I recall (but cannot find quickly) Shamus Young raving about, and saying just that: the game, as a game, is utterly frustrating and not fun, but it’s great because it forces you to actually live that life, and face the same choices — and outcomes — that they do. Another game whose title I don’t even remember that was also talked about on his site somewhere is one where there is a family with someone who is trying to be an author, and you have to make decisions for the family and how they react, which impacts what kind of life the family ends up with at the end. What these games do is leverage the one thing that games bring to the artistic table that pretty much nothing else does, which is the interactive nature of it.

Without that interactive nature, it’s hard to say that they’re games at all, let alone good ones. Another example from Shamus Young (and I can find the link this time) is “The Path”, but it’s debatable whether that’s really a game or not. You get to explore the world to experience the stories of the girls, but if that exploration is nothing more than the equivalent of “walk across to room to get your non-interactive cutscene” then maybe it’s not really a game at all. If That Dragon, Cancer is just you clicking around to see cutscenes that simply show you what’s going on with the characters, then it might not even rise to the level of interactive novel/movie, let alone a good and quality game.

Look, to be a game, in my view, you have to do at least one of two things that play on the interactivity. You either have to have my actions matter to the game, or you have to give me a lot of things to do in the game that are preconditions to my getting to the non-interactive cutscenes that advance the story. So a game where I have conversation options that, at the end of the day, ultimately change — even in small ways — how the story plays out and how it ends would count (the traditional interactive movie/novel model) counts, or alternatively a game where the story is fixed but I have to engage in puzzles or combat in order to advance (RPGs, adventure games, FPSs, strategy games, and the like) definitely count as well. And sure, games without stories count as games as well, because they are all about the things you have to do in the game, and so all about you interacting with them. From the description in the review, I’m not convinced that this is even present in the game. Now, I haven’t played or even looked up this game, but it seems to me that if you claim to do a review of a game and I can’t tell anything about the gameplay and can’t tell if it’s even really a game from your review, then you didn’t really do anything that should count as a review of the game.

Which leads back to my starting point: Petit seems to be engaging in a “message” review, where she is extolling the virtues of the message the game delivers — and, to some extent, how effective it is, in her mind, at delivering it — while completely ignoring the details of the game itself. If you add in the fact that most people won’t want to praise a work for delivering a message that they dislike — at least cancer is a relatively politically neutral topic, but some others, especially some advocated for on that very site, are not — and you hit the sort of politicized reviews that I loathe and that people are complaining about: people with vested political interests positively reviewing a work because it aligns with their worldview, not because it’s a good work. Petit clearly thinks that the message is profound and meaningful, but provides no details on the work itself or how it works as a game. Thus, her review is, in my opinion, worse than useless.

If this is the future of gaming reviews, then I want no part of it.

Thoughts on “Taliesin”, Book 1 of the Pendragon Cycle

January 20, 2016

By the time this gets posted, I’ll certainly at least be into if not through the second book of this series, but as I type right now, at this very instant, I’ve only finished this, the first book. I know that this is only the first book in a series, and so it’s a little odd to write a “review” of it, but that’s what I’m going to try to do. What I won’t do is claim that this is an objective review of the book, even though I’ll give reasons for my opinion, because most of my reasons and discussion are about style and how things seemed to me, which is much less objective than what I normally do. Anyway, let me start with my overall impression of the book:

Meh.

There will be spoilers, so I’ll continue below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

More Bad Arguments in SF/F

January 18, 2016

When I commented on the current state of SF/F, I said that the discussion had spread to even people like P.Z. Myers. Well, recently, he added another post on the matter, talking specifically about John C. Wright. Most importantly for my purposes, he linked to a post by Scott Lynch essentially calling Wright a crazy pants liar, which Myers describes this way:

Now that you have a hint of the level of lunacy John C. Wright regularly dispenses, you might be in the mood to read Scott Lynch’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Lying Crazypants Liars Who Lie”. It’s a thing of beauty.

Of course Myers considers it a thing of beauty, because it is devoid of anything that even resembles real argument. I read it out of interest, and couldn’t help responding.

One of the things that philosophy teaches you, it seems to me, is how to quickly assess arguments and come up with reasons why the argument doesn’t have to be true, or how it doesn’t really respond to the statement it is criticizing, or how it doesn’t really make its point. So armed, when you then go and look deeper, you often find that the argument is even worse than you thought it was. Lynch’s post provides an excellent example of both of those tendencies.

Let me start with Lynch’s purported goal:

I have decided to weigh in with a reminder that the narrative Wright wants to push is an absolute full-blown fabrication.

Not an exaggeration. Not something that is truth mixed with lies. An absolute full-blown fabrication. Even if we only limit that to the specific incident between Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Wright’s wife, that’s a rather strong claim to make. You’re going to need very strong arguments and evidence to pull that off. And Lynch … is not going to be able to do that.

First, Lynch tries to catch Wright out in a contradiction (As in the original post, bold is Wright, non-bold is Lynch):

I was asked beforehand more than once if I thought there would be any unpleasantness or insults from the few but vocal pests in jest I call Morlocks who have been steadily infiltrating and corrupting the science fiction community in general, and the Hugo Award process in particular, over the last twenty years. I answered in the negative. The Morlocks are a cowardly lot, and would not dare say to my face the foolish lies they say behind my back on the internet. Besides, like me, they came to have a good time and to celebrate our mutual love of science fiction, and applaud in the fashion of good sports what we each severally take to be the best the genre offers. I thought there would be no incident.

Note the striking way in which the tone of Wright’s rhetoric veers wildly from one paragraph to the next. One moment, his “Morlocks” are a dire threat from outside the field, “infiltrating” and “corrupting.” Three sentences later they share a mutual love of science fiction with Wright, and the circumstances of his disagreements with them have acquired a trivial hale-fellow-well-met sort of cast. Oh, what gentle shenanigans! This tonal shift is a constant tic of his; the opponents that are part of a “silly kerfluffle” will, just a few lines of text later, be described as willing Satanic defilers who must be fought with prayer, fire, and sword unto the ending of the world. You’d think there wouldn’t be much ideologically consistent wiggle room between these two extremes, but what the hell. Magical thinking pants always come with an elastic waistband.

The problem here is two-fold:

1) Even if this is a contradiction, it’s not an important one, and since that’s all he says about that paragraph here, one wonders why he felt the need to include it.

2) In general, it is possible that someone is indeed pushing for terrible ideas that need to be fought while genuinely thinking that they’re doing good, or acting reasonably. So this “contradiction” would be more rhetorical flourish than anything else, and good philosophers will ignore those flourishes and focus on the arguments, or point out that there are no arguments underneath the flourish. Lynch does neither.

At any rate, this is a minor point, as all the paragraph from Wright does is establish an idea that he thought that, in general, the two sides would be generally respectful to each other at the actual event. Lynch probably doesn’t want to argue that that was something he would be stupid to expect.

Why was Wright at the Hugo Awards ceremony? He secured five nominations on the final Hugo ballot for 2015, and in this respect he was the most egregious beneficiary of a premeditated and publicly coordinated slate-voting campaign run by the people fandom has come to know as the “Sad Puppies” and the associated/overlapping “Rabid Puppies.” That’s not allegation, or conjecture, or opinion. It’s what happened. This campaign wasn’t even technically against the rules, though it was fueled by a baseless sense of paranoid entitlement and was certainly shepherded by a number of vocally antagonistic jackasses.

Now, any writer with the self-awareness of an eggplant casserole would have known to tread lightly in fandom following this clusterfuck, which, let me repeat, was a result of vote engineering by a dedicated minority rather than of general acclaim from the field. Instead, according to Wright’s very own account, he strolled good-naturedly into the Hugo Awards in the blithe expectation that everyone else would conveniently ignore the chicanery that had brought him there.

Oh, wait, no, he does. He wants to argue that while what the “Puppies” did was well within the rules, and while they did was, they argued, only openly what was done behind closed doors, that the “fandom” would treat him badly for what he did, and so he should have expected a complete lack of respect and so should have known to “tread lightly”. This becomes even more egregious later in the post since, other than going over to talk to Hayden, Lynch gives no examples of how Wright’s wife failed to “tread lightly”, as Wright suggests that she just wanted to talk about burying the hatchet and coming to some kind of polite accommodation. What did she do that would foster a hostile response?

Also, Lynch’s argument is actually that there was no such hostile response:

This is a load of crap. Having heard Patrick’s (hereafter also referred to as “PNH”) version of these events directly, and the version reported by several others, I say without hesitation or qualification that John C. Wright is a liar.

So what was Wright “lying” about?

At the reception just before the Awards Ceremony itself, my lovely and talented wife, who writes for Tor books under her maiden name of L Jagi Lamplighter, and who had been consistently a voice of reason and moderation during the whole silly kerfluffle, approached Mr. Patrick Nielsen Hayden at the party to extent to him the olive branch of peace and reconciliation.

Before she could finish her sentence, however, Mr. Hayden erupted into a swearing and cursing, and he shouted and bellowed at the tiny and cheerful woman I married.

So, let’s pause for a moment. What part of that do you think that Lynch ought to be focusing on if he wanted to claim that Wright was a liar? That he didn’t cut off her attempt to extent the olive branch? That he didn’t swear and curse? That he was open and not at all hostile to the attempt?

Well, if you’re Lynch, you focus on arguing that, well, he didn’t really shout and bellow:

NH did not “erupt” into anything, and there was no shouting or bellowing. PNH and Lamplighter were at a reception attended by roughly ten dozen people, including a number of notable SF/F creators, editors, and fans. Isn’t it curious that none of them noticed an alleged shouting fit by one of the most instantly recognizable editors in the field? That none of them reported or commented on such an immediately newsworthy incident? That Wright himself, who was physically present at the reception, did nothing there or afterward, but was perfectly happy to take his story to the web a day later? What was that about other people not having the courage to “say to your face the foolish lies they say behind [your] back on the internet,” John?

The encounter between PNH and Lamplighter took place within arm’s reach of a small group of witnesses, including Laura Mixon, from whom I received a recollection of events before writing this. According to Mixon, she turned away from PNH and Lamplighter after Lamplighter’s initial approach, and took a seat that placed them directly behind her. The first notion Mixon had that the conversation had ended was when PNH sat down beside her a few moments later. That’s how much “shouting” and “bellowing” were involved.

Well, okay, let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that the shouting and bellowing was an exaggeration (remember, it’s not enough for Lynch to show exaggeration considering his starting point). How, according to Lynch, did the encounter go down?

As PNH told Mixon: When PNH realized who Lamplighter was, he said (closely paraphrased): “I’m a practicing Catholic, and I found your husband’s comments about me hurtful. His comments about Moshe Feder were the next thing to Blood Libel. I don’t want to talk to you, and please tell John C. Wright to shove his opinions up his ass.”
After PNH sat down, Lamplighter attempted to re-engage him in conversation twice despite his repeated declarations that he didn’t want anything to do with her. Mixon finally said, “Can’t you understand that he doesn’t want to talk to you?” and Lamplighter took the hint at last.

First, Mixon’s account doesn’t count as an independent third party account here, because she didn’t hear it and is only reporting what Hayden said he said. Second, I’m not sure if Mixon is paraphrasing here or Hayden is, but that doesn’t matter much. If we take the account as reasonably accurate though, the account pretty much confirms all of the above questions. Hayden cut her off before she could finish what she was saying, as he replied as soon as he figured out who she was. The quote, even paraphrased, is very hostile, and contains swearing … and it’s reasonable to think that that hostile a statement would contain more swearing than the paraphrase admits. So, other than the actual volume of the diatribe, it seems to have gone down precisely the way Wright describes, and I’ll be willing to forgive someone for describing this as “shouting and bellowing” when it was this hostile, as we know what can happen with memory and all that.

Given this, what important information is Wright lying about? The best Lynch has done here is show that he and/or his wife is exaggerating about how loudly Hayden was talking. That’s not full-on fabrication by any stretch of the imagination.

I’ll put aside the point over whether Hayden destroys the careers of people who don’t share his politics, as that would require more research than I care to do at the moment, other than to comment that just because he’s edited some books from some people who don’t share his politics that doesn’t mean that there aren’t political views that he will act that way towards, and a quote from someone else on what TOR does doesn’t in any way mean that Hayden doesn’t act inappropriately.

So let’s move on to the subject of TOR dominance of the Hugos:

Before I continue, I should explain to the reader that Mr. Hayden, and no one else, was the driving force behind the corruption of the Hugo Awards in these last fifteen to twenty years.

I must at this point apologize to the reader for understating my case. John C. Wright is a lying hysteric. Full stop.

So, what are Lynch’s arguments against this?

• How would this campaign of corruption be funded? Do you imagine SF/F editors as a career class are rolling in cash? If so, incidentally, how long until you start kindergarten?

Um, the claim — made in Lynch’s very post — is that the Puppies invalidly influenced the nominations and maybe even the voting on the Hugos. How much money do they have access to directly? Given no actual opposition, how much money would they need? Why does he think that money is required, anyway? The quote from Wright doesn’t in any way claim that they bought the awards, so why does he think that this is such a relevant point that he needs to bring it up first, as if it’s a strong point at all in his attempt to prove that Wright is a liar? What claim of Wright’s does this actually refute?

• How would it be coordinated? Other people would, sooner or later, need to be suborned or at least consulted. How would messages be sent? How could fifteen to twenty years of necessary notes and e-mails remain completely hidden? How is it that in all that time, not one person approached by this alleged conspiracy would have felt uncomfortable with it, refused to participate, and then made its existence public?

So, here, Lynch jumps to official and complete conspiracy theory, rather than a movement of word of mouth and recommendations and the like, and assumes that the people involved directly would think it immoral. Without Lynch pointing out Wright’s specific claim, there’s no reason to think that this is what Wright is asserting. In short, Lynch has to argue here that everyone is “on the take”, as opposed to a small number of people being selfishly motivated and using recommendations and selective attacks to mislead others into doing what they want … which is what the Puppies are accused of doing, BTW.

• How would all the non-Tor publishers and authors be induced to cooperate with Patrick’s plans?

If Hayden and those he can influence have enough influence, it’d just be a matter of those influential voices recommending in a block rather than explicit direct discussion … again, like the Puppies were accused of doing, only they were pretty open about what they were doing.

• Even if Patrick were to dispense with controlling the voters and go straight to fudging the results, how would he have been able to suborn the Hugo vote-counting process that is overseen by a different group of people in a different geographic location every single year?

Where does Wright argue for direct vote fixing? Again, Lynch here invents arguments and then tries to defeat them. But this only works if he can establish a) what Wright’s argument actually is and b) that all of the other options are impossible. Since the other options are what the Puppies are accused of actually doing, that’s … not a good argument.

It’s only much later that he quotes a statement of Wright’s actual argument:

Thereafter, the Hugo voters awarded awards to the Tor authors Mr. Hayden selected based on their political correctness, and expelled those whose politics the clique found not to their taste.

So, Wright is accusing a clique of putting forward recommendations and arguing based on their politics and not the quality of their work. Larry Correia claims that this is exactly what happened to him, which is what got him to start a movement like this. How much Hayden is directly involved in that is debatable, of course … but Lynch hasn’t in any way argued otherwise.

And then … Lynch tries to disprove the idea that over the past 15 to 20 years TOR books are winning more often, by looking at the Hugo for Best Novel:

If you look at the actual evidence from the Hugo results dating back to 2000, you’ll see that Patrick’s inexorable PC blitzkrieg has been so devastatingly effective that it has delivered best novel Hugos to Tor books a whopping five times out of fifteen. If you examine Wright’s larger figure and count back twenty years, you’ll see that Patrick’s all-consuming Social Justice Shoggoth has crapped out even worse, delivering a mere six out of twenty.

So, in the time period from 1995 to 2000, TOR books won an average of one award every 5 years. From 2000 to 2015, they won an average of one every three years. Lynch tries to present it as it having to be a well-oiled machine that produces wins in this category every year, but that increase looks … suspicious, to say the least. But the time period is a bit short for conclusions, so let’s look at just this category and include nominations, which it has been shown can be easily gamed, starting from 1990 (from Wikipedia):

1990 – 2 TOR nominations, no TOR win.
1991 – No TOR nominations, no TOR win.
1992 – 1 TOR nominations, no TOR win.
1993 – 2 TOR nominations, TOR win.
1994 – 1 TOR nomination, no TOR win.
1995 – 2 TOR nominations, no TOR win.
1996 – No TOR nominations, no TOR win.
1997 – No TOR nominations, no TOR win.
1998 – 1 TOR nomination, no TOR win.
1999 – 2 TOR nominations, no TOR win.
2000 – 1 TOR nomination, TOR win.
2001 – 2 TOR nominations, no TOR win.
2002 – 1 TOR nomination, no TOR win.
2003 – 1 TOR nomination, no TOR win.
2004 – 2 TOR nominations, no TOR win.
2005 – No TOR nominations, no TOR win.
2006 – 2 TOR nominations, TOR win.
2007 – 3 TOR nominations, TOR win.
2008 – 2 TOR nominations, TOR win.
2009 – 2 TOR nominations, no TOR win.
2010 – 2 TOR nominations, no TOR win.
2011 – No TOR nominations, no TOR win.
2012 – 1 TOR nomination, TOR win.
2013 – 1 TOR nomination, TOR win.
2014 – 1 TOR nomination, no TOR win.
2015 – 3 TOR nominations, TOR win.

So, from 1990 – 1999, TOR won once, and didn’t get a single nomination in this category 3 times. From 2000 – 2009, TOR won four times, only didn’t get a single nomination once, and achieved 3 nominations once. From 2010 to 2015, TOR won three times, only didn’t get a nomination once, and again achieved 3 nominations once … 2015, the year the Puppies gamed the system. And note that their win there was not the Puppy slate choice, at least not from the Rabid Puppies, as Vox Day said that he would have had it on his slate if he’d read it before he made it, because it was deserving of the win. So this is the TOR book that wasn’t on the Puppy slate, and it won anyway.

But from the numbers, we can see a massive increase in TOR getting nominations in this category over this time period. If the 2010 – 2015 numbers hold, TOR will likely hit 5 or 6 wins, and only miss getting a single nomination at most twice. There may be reasons for this massive increase from the 1990 – 1999 time period — a loss of SF/F publishers, improved quality, changing times that TOR has grabbed onto more than their competitors — but the numbers look suspicious, to say the least. It almost starts to look like a trend … which is exactly what you’ll see with a campaign based on quiet influence rather than direct cheating. So, no, if we look at the numbers, Lynch has some ‘splaining to do, methinks.

So, in summary, this post shows no examples of out-and-out lying, and at best some examples of exaggeration, most of which are unimportant. Lynch’s own numbers are suspicious when he tries to use one category “Best Novel” against Wright, and when we look at it in detail we can certainly see that the numbers are suspicious, to say the least. So this post completely fails to make its case, and so is a complete failure when it comes to actual argumentation.

No wonder Myers likes it so much …


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