Archive for October, 2015

Anita Sarkeesian on Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

October 30, 2015

Anita Sarkeesian has written a “review” of Assassan’s Creed Syndicate. I put the word “review” in quotes because it isn’t really a review; it’s more in line with the commentaries I tend to do of games. That being said, this is exactly the sort of thing that I’ve been calling for Sarkeesian and other people pushing for more inclusive and, perhaps, Social Justice-aware games to do: take games that try to do it well, broadcast that in ways that emphasizes what they do well so as to promote those games that actually try to do that. As such, after first reading it, I so wanted to be mostly positive about it and only highlight one of the big issues for discussion, but after re-reading it I have to be a little more negative. So, first I’ll outline what’s good about it, then point out a couple of nitpicks that unfortunately highlight the inexperience Sarkeesian seems to have with games and the inconsistencies she has between how she looks at games, and then finally raise the big issue for discussion that arises from Sarkeesian’s post and what seems to be her overall mindset.

First, the positive. Sarkeesian highlights what she likes about the game and its inclusiveness relatively clearly. She also doesn’t fall into the trap of praising it for its inclusiveness only to undercut that by spending much more time highlighting the negatives, or taking a game that tries to be inclusive and nitpicking it to death so that it ends up looking like it’s just as bad as the alternatives. She praises the personality and outfit of the main female protagonist and the inclusion and aggressiveness of female antagonists and opponents, even as she notes that the female protagonist is underused despite being more interesting than her male twin. She praises the inclusion of the trans character even while noting that they could have done something similar with black characters. Overall, she shows how the game gives her a lot of what she wants in a game, which is not only useful for people who think like her to decide that this might be the game for them, but also for others who really do want to see what she wants to see in a game. She could go into things in a bit more depth — which is why I won’t call it a review — but, overall, this is something that we needed to see from her and from others who want to change gaming culture.

Now, onto the nitpicks:

Syndicate is a clear response to gamers’ increased desire for more capable and powerful female options. Promotional materials for the game emphasized Jacob as the primary protagonist, leaving some wondering just how big a role Evie would play.

The problem is that in the “Ms. Male Character” series, the biggest complaint against the Mass Effect series was that the marketing still made it to be about the male Shepard, making the female Shepard seem like an afterthought. This game does that, and as Sarkeesian admits ends up with the male character’s narrative dominating, and yet somehow this can be overlooked. You almost have to ask what Sarkeesian has against Bioware, a gaming company that has been one of the more inclusive gaming companies for quite some time now. The other explanation is that Sarkeesian likes this game, and so is more willing to forgive it its flaws. Either way, this seems puzzling, unless it is accompanied by an overall change in attitude, where she is less harsh to games who make an effort in general. We’ll have to see.

The other nitpick is this:

And like some other Assassin’s Creed games, Syndicate is plagued with plenty of wonkiness. Enemy AI often behaves in erratic ways, NPCs sometimes become unable to fulfill mission-specific functions, and occasionally things just break entirely.

Um, that’s not wonkiness. Those are bugs. Potentially game breaking ones. I assume that by “things just break entirely”, she means that the game crashes … but it speaks to her knowledge of gaming that she wouldn’t know the term “crash”, or expect people reading her to know what that means, and instead would substitute an actually less clear term for it. You certainly can’t call it a “review” if it crashing and potentially forcing you to reload is mentioned only in a small paragraph at the end of the post, and it strikes to her lack of knowledge of gaming in general for her to talk about it the way she does.

But those are relatively minor nitpicks. This last point isn’t necessarily something bad, but is something that raises comment from, I think, both sides of the divide, as Sarkeesian goes on to talk about what the game does well and reveals what she wants games to do:

… Evie and Jacob’s allies also include Henry Green, a British Indian Assassin, and Ned Wynert, a successful thief who just happens to be a trans man and no one in the world thinks anything of it. These characters play supporting or minor roles but their inclusion is notable. While it might seem “unrealistic” to imagine women, people of colour and trans folks who are treated and respected as full human beings in 1868, realism is not really the goal in a game where Assassins and Templars have been waging a centuries’ old war over artifacts created by an ancient civilization, and where you can leap from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral into a pile of leaves and walk away unharmed. The inclusion of these characters works not because of realism but because of believability and internal consistency. That believability is a result of the developers’ conscious decision to make the presence of these characters normalized and respected by everyone else in the game.

Women may be present as soldiers and leaders throughout the criminal ranks of Syndicate’s London, but the same cannot be said for people of colour. Despite the presence of Henry Green, this is an overwhelmingly white game. It’s a huge missed opportunity for Syndicate, which could have taken the same approach to people of colour that it took to women, making their presence in gangs and throughout the factories and palaces of London just a normalized, internally consistent aspect of the game’s world.

To really put this in context, let’s start by examining the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Badda Bing Badda Bang”. In this episode, a hidden virus in Vic Fontaine’s holo program activates, putting him at risk. What’s notable about this episode — at least for our purposes here — is that we find out why Sisko won’t go to Vic’s, as Vic’s is based on a 1962 Vegas casino, a time when racism was fairly rampant. Sisko’s significant other, Cassidy Yates, points out that both herself and his son Jake have never experienced racism there, and Sisko replies that that’s rather the point, pointing out, as he says himself, that “That’s the lie!”: Vic’s essentially sanitizes history by creating a world that’s inside the 1962 time frame but sweeps the racial strife of the period under the rug. He even insists that he’s not going to pretend that that was an easy time for black people.

This, then, is an objection to what Sarkeesian likes about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and wants to see more from a Social Justice perspective: what she wants game designers to do is sanitize history so that she can get her dream game that is entirely inclusive, and where everyone of all races, genders, sexual orientations, etc, etc are treated with the same potential and without distinction based on those categories (which makes one wonder why she doesn’t like more RPGs, but I digress). But the issue is that if in a period piece trans people or women wouldn’t have been treated that way, and the game doesn’t acknowledge that they wouldn’t be treated that way, then the game is essentially ignoring and hiding the struggles that people of that grouping had in history. And the argument that you can use against Sisko — that they’re there for Vic and that ignoring that can have no impact on anything at the societal level — is not one that Sarkeesian can use because she herself is all about talking about how the little choices that are made in games can impact society overall. And her comments about the other things that aren’t quite accurate doesn’t help because there’s not likely to be any meaningful social impact from those inaccuracies, but minimizing the struggles of groups that were discriminated against in the past is not likely to be anywhere near as benign.

From the other side, there is the issue of verisimilitude. If you set a game — or any work, really — in a specific time period, if people know anything about that period any deviations you make from how the period was either have to be explained or things that can be ignored (generally because most people either don’t really know it or that it’s utterly unimportant to the time). So if we know that trans people would not have been treated that well in 1860s London — and given the discussions that they are not treated that well now, most would be aware of that — then for that person to be simply accepted seems odd. Sure, we can build the personalities of the main characters that they simply don’t care — which was almost certainly true even then — but if the entire society is okay with that, then we’re going to wonder why. This, then, would lead to charges of appealing more to Social Justice norms than to a good and accurate representation of the times, and thus preferring to make a statement about equality rather than providing a narrative that makes sense in the time. While Sarkeesian claims that the writing makes the characters “believable”, note that Sarkeesian herself is indeed aware that the trans person is being treated much more equitably than normal, and it’s hard to see how most people wouldn’t notice that as well. So they risk breaking immersion to make a Social Justice point while passing up an opportunity to actually drive home the point by making a sympathetic character whose race or gender or transness does impact them, perhaps through a personal side quest or a side cut scene showing it. Thus, we may not want, at least right now, what Sarkeesian really seems to want in her games.

The obvious way to go is to treat historical settings roughly historically, but ask that fantastical and invented settings be more inclusive unless they are using that lack of inclusiveness to make a point. It has always seemed to me that the big complaint about this has been the worry that game designers would choose the settings in order to avoid being inclusive, which seems to be unwarranted and contradicts the idea that sexism and racism are often subconscious and not conscious. There’s really no other argument that holds water, though, especially given the large number of games that are set in invented settings. In this way, we avoid sanitizing history while at the same time providing games that are inclusive in the way Sarkeesian wants. It seems that everyone wins if this is what we strive for.

At any rate, this is definitely what Sarkeesian and others need to start doing more, and hopefully if they do so we can get into productive discussions of how games can, should, and ought to be.

Governing Gotham

October 28, 2015

The next essay in “Batman and Philosophy” is “Governing Gotham” by Tony Spanakos. This essay examines the relationship between Batman and the law, as (mostly) exemplified through the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon. Spanakos references Hobbes and Max Weber on the side of “The state must have a monopoly on the use of violence” and Nietzsche on the side that the state is not necessarily a force for good on the other. Spanakos also compares Batman to figures like “The Reaper” and Anarky to establish Batman as a figure poised between a couple of extremes, which provides insight into why Batman cannot kill.

The overall idea is this: the role of the state is to provide basic protections for its citizens. Gotham, however, in all its forms is a city that cannot provide that most basic of protections, the protection of their physical well-being. Batman is born from a Gotham that allows Thomas and Martha Wayne to be killed by some punk with a gun. This forces Bruce Wayne to acknowledge that the state can no longer protect its citizens in that very basic sense, and so he becomes Batman in order to do so. In short, society is broken, and no one can rely on the law and the state to provide its most basic guarantee, as Gordon also must acknowledge when he joins the force.

The Reaper and Anarky, however, also see that Gotham is broken and that someone other than the state has to provide what it can and will not. But there is a contrast between them and Batman. Batman does not set himself up to supplant the state and the state’s role, but instead simply to supplement it; Batman works to restore the state to a condition where it can function properly. Batman does not set himself up as judge, jury and executioner, and in fact refuses to do anything to give that impression. The others take the role of protector completely onto themselves, deciding who the villains are and how they are to be punished. They take on the role of determining how society ought to be and what it ought to become, and literally become judge, jury and executioner. They supplant the law, while Batman merely works outside of the law … or, rather, outside of its mechanisms.

This is why Batman has to, at the end of the day, turn all of those villains he stops over to the authorities if he can do so. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be working in any way with the existing authorities, but instead would be a law unto himself. While he breaks the laws that he needs to in order to provide that basic guarantee of safety, all of this is seen as upholding the basic social contract that the state provides to its citizens. You can argue that in cases like the Joker where the state isn’t even capable of judging or holding them Batman can argue that he’s just continuing on in the role of doing for the state what the state cannot do for itself (but has promised to do), but this would be a little specious and, more importantly, would be cutting the state out of the business entirely, risking Batman becoming the state himself. After all, what laws will people follow: the laws on the books, or the ones that are actually enforced?

This is why Gordon can work with Batman: Batman is not outside the law, but is rather an adjunct to it. Like other heroic vigilantes — the A-Team might be the best example — he is there for people to turn to when, for some reason, the state cannot help you … but they aren’t there to do what the state can do, and should only get involved, again, when no one else can help. The Reaper and Anarky both went out and stopped whatever offended them; Batman stops only what needs to be stopped, and only to the extent of stopping them and apprehending them. What happens after is not Batman’s responsibility … and is not something that Batman can enforce without risking becoming “Emperor Batman”.

Valhalla Knights 3: First Impressions

October 26, 2015

Like Conception II. this was a game that I picked up without knowing anything about it. I was looking to build up my Vita library and found a used copy cheap, and decided to pick it up. And I didn’t play it for a while. Looking for something to play after finishing Lost Dimension and Persona 4: Dancing All Night, I gave it a shot.

The game is set in a big castle that’s been turned into a prison, and you are a spy for a great Empire that wants to find a great treasure that’s supposedly hidden there. So far, that’s about as much of the story as I’ve gotten, except that your past is hidden from you and gets revealed as you go along. For all I know, all of it has been revealed already. At any rate, the story isn’t exactly thrilling me; there’s enough there for me to sit through the cutscenes, but not enough there to make me, you know, actually want to play through the game just to see how it turns out. So it’s middling, at best.

The gameplay is rather simple, a real time battle system with a full — and pretty large — party that’s called a “clan”. You can get clan members in two ways. First, you can create them through the same character creation mechanism that you created your character with, or alternatively you can recruit fully created characters from the Talent Agency, who are also mostly leveled up. Taking this party out into the world, you get to kill a number of creatures and enemies in order to gain XP and take their stuff. The interesting part is that if you sneak up behind them, you can hit them without triggering the combat and so can take sometimes take them out without them ever hitting back. This works best for creatures and worst for actual human enemies (generally, other clans). The best part is that you get double the XP for killing them this way, but for human enemies that means that you don’t get the XP for killing the rest of the party.

The combat can be difficult at times. The game loves to toss you into battles — and ones that have repeated enemies — without any warning, which means that you’ll probably party-wipe if you’re underleveled, under-equipped or unprepared … which is pretty much me most of the time. One fight went from “party-wipe” to “You mean that’s it?!?” simply by my actually equipping my party with the best available weapons and armour. Who knew? The party AI is also incredibly bad. I took on another quest to kill some slimes, which turned into a multi-battle swarm of slimes. All of my party was wiped out except my mage, and once I took control of her I … wiped out the last two swarms myself, single-handed, by spamming “Wind”. If she’d done that just a little more often in the first fight we might not have all died.

If you die, they let you start over from this point with only the items you consumed in the battle lost … oh, and the party dead, meaning that you need to pay to revive them. As someone who is always cash strapped in games like this, that doesn’t work that well for me, meaning that I have to be careful how I take on battles, and so I run old quests over and over again to build cash, and generally take my time leveling. Fortunately, grinding in the game doesn’t feel as grindy as it does in other games, although I can’t think of any reason why it shouldn’t, other than that you generally do it to complete quests and so always have a goal, and so break up the monotony with returning to town to turn the quest in, take it again, and then head back out.

One thing to note about this game is that it’s the most fanservicey game I’ve played in recent memory. While fanservice was a big part of Conception II and overblown in Dungeon Travelers 2, here it’s really a deliberate and large part of the game. Pretty much every shopkeeper you meet is an attractive and scantily clad woman that you can give gifts to, which increase their affection. If you do enough business with them, you get “Sexy Time”, where you have to rub the screen in the right places to turn them on, and if you manage to get through all of the stages in time you get a ranking and, if your affection with them is high enough, an item. Once. While you could ignore it in the other games, this game really puts the fanservice, er, front and centre. I don’t mind it myself, but find that the “Sexy Time” mechanic is too difficult for what you generally get out of it — an increase in affection — for it to be a good mechanism. Supposedly, after you manage to “date” one of them — which is a small quest that you go on alone with her — there’s some kind of inn scene, but I haven’t seen one of those yet. Personally, I’m hoping to complete that with Martina because I want to recruit her into my clan, which you can supposedly do if you max out their affection.

If you don’t like fanservice, this is not the game for you. You’d be better off with Dungeon Travelers 2.

That being said, in line with my comments on Sarkeesian’s videos, this is a game that lets you play as and create female characters, and in general there’s no difference. Even the “Sexy Time” stuff is the same, as the game and the shopkeepers presume that you’re interested in women as well. That being said, this does give you the ability to create an entirely female clan, which is, in fact, what I’m planning on doing. But I don’t really think this game counts as a feminist game [grin].

Ultimately, so far the game is entertaining enough to play while, say, watching baseball, and so has been worth the money. I think I’ll try to finish it, but Dragon Age 2 might have something to say about that. That being said, there are definitely better games in this space.

Tropes vs Women: Damsel in Distress Part 3

October 23, 2015

So, now, let’s look at the third and final part of Sarkeesian’s initial video series on the Damsel in Distress trope. In this one, she start out looking for “Dude in Distress”, where a female protagonist must save their male love interest, and notes that it’s pretty rare:

But what about the reverse? Are there games starring heroic women who must go on a quest to save a dude in distress? Well yes, they do exist. However since female protagonists starring in their own games are already few and far between, adventures in which women work to save men in peril are extremely rare.

So, given this, my argument that if we had more female protagonists this would get better — which she denies — looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

Now, before getting into the content of her video, let me outline one reason that I think Sarkeesian and in fact most feminists kinda miss for why you see and will see fewer Dudes in Distress than Damsels in Distress, and why this isn’t something that game designers can fix. We can essentially break down the motivations for people making a game into two major ones:

1) They want to make an entertainment product as a product, and want to make money on it.

2) They want to make an entertainment product as a work of art, and thus to provide a specific experience for the player.

Now, of course, you can get all sorts of mixing and matching and often on any given game project you’ll have some people who are 2) and some people who are 1), but in general this is what you’re after: you’re either there to make money, to produce a certain type of experience, or both. And what’s key in this is how it relates to the intended audience: they are the key. If you produce a game that they won’t like, don’t get, and don’t want to play, they won’t buy it and you won’t make money. If you produce a game that the audience won’t get, then you won’t produce the experience you want in them. So the assumptions and ideas and thought processes of the audience are very important, even if you want to subvert them.

How this relates to the Dude in Distress trope is simple: a female character that is made vulnerable is easier to make a sympathetic character than a male character is.

As I’ve noted earlier, the heart of the Damsel in Distress trope is that you are supposed to care about the person who is kidnapped and want to save them. This is vitally important in video games because the designers need to find something to make you slog through the gameplay in games that are more than just “Go out there and get the highest score, young man!”. Again, in movies and the like you can enjoy watching the hero who cares even if you don’t, but in a game, as Shamus Young comments in a text play of Silent Hill: Origins, the player has to be interested as well:

Now, I have no doubt that he’s right – I’m sure “someone” really is sending him all these places. But the game just isn’t selling it to me. Sure, Travis is curious, but he never says anything to make me curious, and since I’m doing the driving I really need to be on board with where we’re going.

So if I have no interest in saving the kidnapped person, then the game is going to fall flat for me. When the Damsel becomes the load, it can be really frustrating. Shamus talked about that with respect to a character in the Tomb Raider reboot:

Once again: Note how Sam is sitting out of the way, doing nothing. Like a child. Everyone is straining, helping, and taking risks. When Jonah and Lara try to lift the engine, Sam doesn’t even bother to help. As before, this is realistic – I wouldn’t expect a young college kid like Sam to have much skill that would make her useful in this context – but from a story perspective it completely undercuts her as someone we can care about.

She’s constantly doing the wrong thing. She gets captured repeatedly. She’s not even vital to the mission. She doesn’t say anything smart. She doesn’t make funny jokes. She doesn’t have useful skills. She’s not brave, resourceful, hard working, or observant. Even the typical Indiana Jones sidekick occasionally gets a moment of triumph where they save the day or help Dr. Jones. But Sam is content to relax around the boat while everyone else is getting dirty, working hard, and risking their lives for the good of the group.

After the cutscene there’s a bit where Sam bumbles around and sets off the mounted gun, endangering Jonah and Rayes. (We missed it because we were in the building reading Jonah’s log.) She’s not even a screwup in an admirable way. She’s not the kind of character we can admire because they try hard but always mess up, because she doesn’t try hard and she’s not eager to please. And this scene isn’t even her worst moment. It’s unbelievable to me that this is the character the writers expect us to save. Three times. Sam is a butt.

(Yeah, that’s pretty much the whole post, but not the video).

So, what does this have to do with Dudes in Distress? Well, if we look at how the world was under patriarchy, it was generally expected that women wouldn’t be doing the violence stuff and so wouldn’t be the strong, rescuing character, and their traits were such that they’d be the vulnerable character. So the Damsel in Distress trope played on that, putting the woman in her socially acceptable vulnerable role and the man in the socially acceptable rescuer role. At that time, if you had put the male character into the “vulnerable” role, it would have caused some dissonance in the audience, and would have done it in a specific way: the audience would have felt that, like Sam, the Dude should have been doing more to save themselves, while the Damsel wouldn’t be expected to do anything to save herself. Sam, despite being a female character, fails this because she’s just way too incompetent and trouble-prone.

Now, things have changed. Female characters can fit into the rescuer category, but in general they can also be made vulnerable without becoming unsympathetic, as long as they are not pathetically and inexplicably vulnerable. A female character can chip in only at the end or even not at all and generally not have the players wonder why she isn’t actually doing anything to save herself. This isn’t true for men. Male characters have to share the “rescuer” or “strong” limelight, but haven’t really had the “have to be competent and self-sufficient” line weakened for them. Thus, if you make a male character the Dude in Distress, unless you work really hard at it you risk the audience finding the character unsympathetic and, for any romantic plot — undesirable as a romantic interest for both male and female players. If this personal plot is the one that drives the game, you risk people not liking it, not buying it, and not experiencing/enjoying the plot that you were using this for.

So, by focusing on changing the perception of female characters and not really looking at the perception of male characters, feminism shot itself in the foot as it attempted to move towards equality.

Now, the Dude in Distress can be done well. I think Fatal Frame does it remarkably well, as it sidesteps all of the issues with the Dude in Distress. But it is harder to do. For games that are relying on the trope as a lazy way to get player buy in — and lazy doesn’t have to mean bad — that’s far more work than they want to do … and that’s quite reasonable. Even for deeper games, if they don’t want the game to focus on this whole “Damsel” thing, then again taking the chance or putting the work into something that they don’t want to focus on but that if they use the “Damsel” trope it will help them present the story or experience they want is not a good option. Thus, from the perspective of people making games, there’s no real reason for them to deliberately try to subvert it unless they want this game, specifically, to subvert it. And while subversions can be a good thing, I don’t think every game needs to or wants to subvert it; they’d rather do something else that the trope facilitates.

But, at any rate, Sarkeesian doesn’t actually want that to happen anyway:

On the surface the Dude in Distress and the Damsel in Distress may appear similar — however they’re not actually equivalent. To understand why they are different we need to examine the broader historical and cultural implications of the two plot devices.

First there’s been no shortage of men in leading or heroic roles in video games or in any other creative medium for that matter. In fact one recent study found that only about 4% of modern titles are exclusively designed around a woman in the leading role. Since men are still largely the default for protagonists, the rare dude in distress plotline does not add to any longstanding gendered tradition in storytelling.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, damsel’ed female characters tend to reinforce pre-existing regressive notions about women as a group being weak or in need of protection because of their gender, while stories with the occasional helpless male character do NOT perpetuate anything negative about men as a group since there is no long-standing stereotype of men being weak or incapable because of their gender.

For the first point, as we get more women in heroic roles, then that problem will go away … and, in fact, the male character having to be in a heroic role contributes just as much to a longstanding gendered tradition. For the second, as I just pointed out female characters now can be seen as stronger and not in need of protection, and in many modern and deeper games even if they pull out the “Damsel in Distress” trope they often include strong female characters, and so that overall impression just doesn’t hold any more … or, at least, not to the degree that one can really complain about it. What stops us from having more Dudes in Distress is, in fact, the idea that men can’t be vulnerable, not that women are inherently weak or in need of protection just ’cause they’re women.

Sarkeesian also reveals the depth of her misunderstanding of the Damsel in Distress trope when she talks about Spelunky:

To help illustrate this point let’s quickly take a look at the indie game Spelunky. Originally released in 2009 the game included a stereotypical damsel in distress as a gameplay mechanic whose rescue rewarded the player with bonus health. The 2012 HD remake of the game for Xbox Live again features the stock character damsel (complete with newly upgraded boob jiggle). However, this time an option was added to the menu that allows players to select a replacement for the default woman in peril by switching to either a Chippendales-style hunk or a dog instead.

Setting aside the fact that – if a female character is easily interchangeable with a dog then its probably a pretty good indication that something is wrong – Merely providing an optional gender-swap is not a quick and easy fix, especially where stock character style damsels are concerned.

The introduction of the dog highlights the light, simple, and yes, shallow scope of the game and its use of the trope, but is still a good example of how the trope works. Sarkeesian essentially says that replacing a character with a dog suggests something, I suppose, dehumanizing about the portrayal; in some sense, they have no more importance to the plot than a dog would. Which is true. But the issue is that a dog — presumably, a beloved pet or pet-to-be — does fit the trope: as a character that you care about and want to rescue. Sure, it’s a goofy presentation … but so are the sexpot and the hunk. But to get away with putting a dog there doesn’t denigrate the female character, but instead recognizes just how important pets can be to people. After all, if people didn’t want to rescue the dog, then it wouldn’t provide a motivation to play the game, and so would, at most, be doing nothing … which is the exact opposite of why the Damsel trope is used.

That said I don’t necessarily think equal opportunity damseling is the answer. Simply reversing the gender roles of a problematic convention so that more men are damsel’ed in more games is not the best long-term solution, even if the practice might be subversive in the short term to help demonstrate a very real gender disparity in the medium. Ultimately we need to think beyond the cliché altogether.

In order to do this, we need to capture what the Damsel trope captures: the motivation to finish and play the game, the ability to provide the sadistic choice, the ability to provide a revenge motivation that can be balanced against the sane and reasonable approach, and so on. I’m going to skip for now the subversions she talks about that aren’t subversions, and go to her suggested alternative:

“Like many fairy tales, this story begins once upon a time with the kidnapping of a princes. She dutifully waits for a handsome hero to arrive and rescue her. Eventually, however, she grows tired of the damseling and decides it’s high time to save herself. Of course if she’s going to be the protagonist of this particular adventure she’s going to need to acquire a slightly more practical outfit. After her daring escape, she navigates the forbidden forest, leveling up her skills along the way. Upon reaching her kingdom, she discovers the inevitable yet unexpected plot twist; the royal counsel has usurped power and were responsible for her kidnapping. Branded a traitor and an outlaw in her own land, she unlocks new disguises and stealth abilities to infiltrate the city walls. She makes her way through the final castle to confront the villainous council, and abolish the monarchy forever.”

A story idea like this one would work to actively subvert traditional narrative expectations. The princess is placed in a perilous situation but instead of being made into the goal for a male protagonist, she uses her intelligence, creativity, wit and strength to engineer her own escape and then become the star of her own adventure.

So, just like the female city elf starting storyline in Dragon Age: Origins … that she completely and totally ignored while talking about how terrible its use of the “Damsel in Distress” trope was in the male city elf storyline. Riiiiiiight.

Now, some people might say that this isn’t that important. Who cares if she didn’t mention this? But by her not mentioning it, it indicates that either she didn’t know it existed or didn’t think she should mention it. If it’s the first — and I think it’s the first — it indicates that her research is, in fact, rather lax; after all, it’s the other half of the same story that she managed to find in DA:O to get her example of the Damsel. But if you don’t like that, then we can ask why she knew about it but didn’t think it important enough to mention it. One reason could be that she thought that she didn’t really need an example of this, but then she describes it thusly:

A true subversion of the trope would need to star the damsel as the main playable character. It would have to be her story. Sadly, there are very few games that really explore this idea. So as a way to illustrate how a deconstruction could work let’s try a thought experiment to see if we can create a hypothetical game concept of our own.

If she knew it existed, she could have used it as an example, instead of arguing that she was entertaining a “hypothetical game concept”. In fact, taking this example could lead her through an entire, given storyline that people could check out for themselves, and provide a good example for other game designers to follow. In fact, DA:O, as I already said, has its cake and eats it, too. Want a traditional Damsel in Distress plot? Play the male City Elf. Want the subversion? Play the female City Elf. So going with the hypothetical instead of the actual example really hurts the effectiveness of her message.

Alternatively, she could have known that it existed, but didn’t want to mention it because it clashed with the narrative she wanted to express, which would likely be that current mainstream gaming isn’t doing things like this and so we need to push them to provide these sorts of feminist/Social Justice sorts of narratives in their games. Highlighting cases where mainstream game designers are providing that kinda weakens that argument, and also makes it look like her commentary and educational material might be mostly unnecessary; the existing mechanisms are working, only slowly. So presenting these companies only in negative rather than positive lights maintains the idea that gaming needs to change, and allows her to stump for the Social Justice heavy indie games that she seems to favour.

I think the charitable interpretation is that she just isn’t aware of it because she doesn’t understand gaming very well, and so instead cherry picks examples without understanding the full context of the games or of games themselves, especially since it’s pretty consistent with a lot of her commentary (I’ll give another example in a minute). You are free, of course, to take another option if you so choose and can justify it.

At any rate, this example doesn’t, in fact, replace the “Loved One in Distress” trope. There’s no personal reason for the character to start out on their quest; it’s all a standard “Regain your kingdom” plot. The only possible personal reason the main character can have for doing this is revenge for being locked up, or for having their throne usurped. There’s nothing here to allow for the Sadistic Choice. Ultimately, it’s a game concept that can work — and has been done — but it is a shallow one compared to what the “Loved One in Distress” offers. If she wants to get beyond the “cliche”, she needs to actually replace it with something that does the job as well if not better.

So, let’s return to the ironic subversions that she doesn’t like. She lists a number of them, but one of the keys in a number of them is this: the hero rescues the damsel, and either doesn’t get the reward of her love, or else ends up not wanting that reward. Sarkeesian doesn’t consider this true subversions:

These titles may be attempting to make fun of gaming conventions like the “heroic rescue” or the “smooch of victory” but they don’t fundamentally change, challenge or subvert the Damsel in Distress trope itself. The damsel’ed women remain as disempowered as ever.

True, but it does subvert an important part of the trope, a part that the feminist focus on only the female side of the equation misses completely: the idea that the damsel is, in fact, inherently desirable. Recall the first video, where the hero sees the damsel, and falls immediately in love with her because she’s just that beautiful. That’s all she needed to convince the hero to go out and risk his entire life and go through hell to rescue her. Nothing else was necessary. Well, these games push the line that that isn’t enough — in the case where the damsel ends up bring really annoying afterwards — and subverts the idea that if you fight hard enough and prove yourself that you’ll get the reward. Thus, they can suggest that a woman needs to be more than just pretty to be worthy of saving — meaning that she actually has to have some other desirable qualities as well — and can break the idea that if the hero simply is nice to her and rescues her that he’ll get a reward … something that feminists complaining about “Nice Guys [tm]” certainly want to see.

Let me round it all out with her discussion of co-operative games:

In fact cooperation and mutual aid are concepts that hold an enormous amount of gaming potential. True co-op games, MMOs and some RPGs offer gameplay possibilities that, if done right, can facilitate a mutual aid style adventure involving people of all genders cooperating. Where is My Heart and Thomas was Alone both employ innovative examples of mutual aid by having a single player control multiple characters working together towards a common goal.

So, uh … having a single player control multiple characters working together towards a common goal, like she talks about in those examples of games that she clearly really, really likes, is innovative? If you allow games where the player creates the entire party, it goes back at least as far as the Gold Box AD&D games; if you want to limit it to characters created by the game with personalities, then Baldur’s Gate did that. DA:O and Mass Effect — two more games that she only mentions negatively — do it in detail. Mass Effect especially ties your relationships with your companions into the plot in the last game, making for incredibly emotional experiences. Just having a single player control multiple characters is not, in any way, innovative. Only someone who doesn’t understand games at all would say this.

That being said, let me look at some actually innovative uses of the co-operation approach. The first is one that I’m sure she won’t like, which is Lost Dimension. This game takes the bog-standard JRPG approach of having full team of characters that all have different personalities and abilities — and see why just doing that isn’t innovative? — and adds in a traitor mechanism: once or twice per floor, one of them will be working for the enemy. At the end of each floor, the entire team votes for who they think is the traitor, and whomever they decide on is “erased”. The player has some kind of mental powers that allow them to sniff out the traitor, and thus convince the others — through the means of telling them who they think the traitor is in after battle conversations and due to not including them in battles — to kill the right person. If not, a traitor survives and at the end of the game they try to kill you before you meet up with the final villain.

This is not the sort of game Sarkeesian seems to favour, as it would seem to be too violent and dark for her. However, this allows the game to create a number of strong emotional reactions. As each team member has their own personality, you might find that you have to kill the character you really like and save the one you hate. On my first playthrough, I had to kill the character that I liked the most so far — Yoko — instead of the character I hated (although I got to kill him later in that playthrough). But in order to get the true ending, you have to max your camaraderie with all of your team members. Which means you have to get to know them and form a bond with them. So, at that point, you’re killing characters that you understand and know the most about, which can be wrenching. But most importantly, they feel a bond with you. Some of them talk about possibly getting into a relationship with you. Some of them talk to you as if they were your best friend, and about how much they respect you. They do this even as you have them erased. In another playthrough, I had to erase both Yoko and Toya after maxing out their stories, and their comments were utterly wrenching, as they went relatively happily to their erasure because of their bond with me. This is not an experience that you can get without pushing the co-operative and bonding line and marrying it to the traitor mechanism, and thus including that tension.

For a game that is innovative but might be more to Sarkeesian’s liking, let’s look at Persona 3 and Persona 4. Again, these start from the bog-standard JRPG “Team of diverse characters trying to save the world”, and adds on the relatively typical “And you need to bond with them to gain bonuses”, but they add in two wrinkles. The first is that you have to bond with your team mates by socializing with them, and generally in helping them solve some kind of personal problem they’re having. The second is that you also gain power by socializing with normal people who have no relation to the threat that you’re trying to stop; they aren’t even aware of its existence. So, essentially, in these games you gain power by making friends, and if you do it right each S-link you complete grants you some power at the end of the game that allows you to defeat the main menace, in addition to the bonuses you get in terms of the Personas you can use in the game.

These are innovative uses of the co-operative model. The games she cites might have some innovative mechanisms as well, but it sure isn’t going to be that they have one player controlling multiple characters with a common goal.

My summary of the first set of videos is this:

1) Sarkeesian doesn’t seem to understand the trope that she’s examining. She doesn’t understand what it’s used for, what it provides to a game designer, and why that’s important to them. This only becomes more clear when she tries to make suggestions for what might replace it.

2) Sarkeesian doesn’t understand games very well. She doesn’t understand the context of the games she’s talking about, doesn’t understand what they’re trying to do, doesn’t understand what games need, and seems woefully unaware of the state of gaming as a whole.

Now, if she was just doing a simple series of youtube videos, this wouldn’t be a problem, and I almost certainly be ignoring her. But she is someone who has influence, and that people are looking to in order to make games … better, I guess. And as someone who likes to play games, and as someone who Not-So-Casually reads about them and listens to what is going on in those circles, I’ll keep coming across this again and again. So, I might as well comment on it; if nothing else, it’ll get this crap out of my head so I can focus on other things, and maybe someone somewhere will find what I have to say interesting or meaningful.

Thoughts on Persona 4: Dancing All Night

October 21, 2015

Okay, I buy pretty much anything Persona related. The only game that I didn’t buy was Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, and that’s only because I didn’t really want to get a DS when I had a Vita and a PSP that I wasn’t really using. But I did get both of the Persona 4 Arena games, which allowed the team to tell their normal wonderful stories with gameplay that you wouldn’t associate with the Persona games. And, for me, it worked relatively well.

So Dancing All Night is similar, wrapping their story around a dance/rhythm game. I’ve never played rhythm games before, but the Disco Fever edition came with two soundtrack CDs, and as you all know I couldn’t resist it given that. I’ve now finished the story mode, and for the most part I enjoyed the game. The mechanics were relatively easy for me to handle on Easy, although I found that I focused way too much on the specific notes that I had to hit next and so didn’t even see some of the other notes or the “Fever” circles that you need to enter “Fever” mode. I also focused on them so much that I never, in fact, really saw the dances, although sometimes I went back and watched them after on the replay … but even then I tended to look at the “notes” rather than the action, but I think that’s just the way I am. As an introduction to the rhythm genre, it worked pretty well.

The story isn’t up to the standards of the first Arena game, but it’s pretty good. I figured out who the main villain was right from the beginning, and figured out the twist right before they revealed it. There’s what seems to be a throwaway scene near the beginning that takes on more meaning later and was what clinched the reveal for me, which was interesting. I definitely don’t regret working through the story. And while the dancing part is a bit contrived, it fits well with the actual story, so you don’t really notice.

Overall, the game was worth getting. The soundtracks are interesting, the story is interesting, and the gameplay is fund. If you like Persona or like dancing/rhythm games, it’s worth picking up.

Lost Dimension: Final Thoughts

October 19, 2015

So, it took me three playthroughs, but I managed to finish Lost Dimension with a full bond with all of the characters and so was able to see the actual ending. Also, playing it on Easy, I managed to get S ranks on all of the missions. After my second playthrough, I only had Nagi to bond with … and, wouldn’t you know it, she was listed as a traitor on three of the four chapters, including the first two. However, she was never a traitor, and was key to my winning the final battle with “The End”.

The difficulty of the final battle increases massively when you are aiming at the true ending and have all of the bonds. The final battle the first two times was pretty trivial on Easy, and I didn’t lose that one once. The final battle … was much harder. I failed it the first time, and managed to beat it the second time with two characters KO’d and because I managed to daze “The End” which gave me an open shot at him with most of my characters, and let me do that with a Back Attack which does more damage.

I think the game has potential, but if I had to characterize its flaws I’d have to say “I want more”. The characters are interesting and have interesting stories, but I wanted the game to go into more detail, and make the interactions deeper. The story is interesting, but again I wanted it to be deeper and more integrated into the game as opposed to being revealed in cutscenes at the True Ending. The combat is fun, but — and I never thought I’d be saying this — I wanted a bit more of it, as there aren’t enough missions to stop you from getting bored on subsequent plays. The only thing that really works is the deduction and traitor mechanism, and it’d still be nice if they could add more ways to deduce who is the traitor — by looking at behaviour — and maybe even a way to influence who it is. Ultimately, the game is, in almost all ways, a Persona-lite with a traitor mechanism. It would be greatly improved if it could move from being a Persona-lite to a fuller game.

The problem is that one of its more unique mechanisms — relying strongly on replaying it — will be hurt if depth is added. Replaying it was relatively painless because it was so short; I managed to finish a playthrough over a couple of days of watching sports and playing the game, so about 10+ hours. And once you knew how to go about the missions, they weren’t all that bad, either. Triggering the companion missions was short and mostly mechanical; you didn’t really have to sit through a lot of boring stuff that you’d already seen for that because there wasn’t that much of it. The small number of missions meant that you didn’t have to, again, fight through a lot of missions to finish the game, which is one reason why the game was so short. All of this won’t work if you add more depth and story scenes and character scenes and combat missions. But doing that is precisely what this game needs to move it from being a good game to a great game.

The ending sets up the possibility of a sequel, although one that might have to run on a different mechanism, at least for fans of the game. At any rate, I recommend playing this game if you like the Persona games or think the deduction mechanism is something that interests you, as long as you understand that it isn’t as deep as it could or should be.

Tropes vs Women: Damsel in Distress Part 2

October 16, 2015

So, now, let’s talk about the second part of Sarkeesian’s analysis of the Damsel in Distress Trope. She starts off with this description of the use of the trope:

And since the majority of these titles focus of delivering crude, unsophisticated male power fantasies, developers are largely unwilling to give up the Damsel in Distress model as an easy default motivation for their brooding male heroes or anti-heroes. Remember that as a trope the Damsel in Distress is a plot device used by writers, and not necessarily always just a one-dimensional character type entirely defined by victimhood.

These token gestures of pseudo-empowerment don’t really offer any meaningful change to the core of the trope and it feels like developers just throw these moments in at the last minute to try to excuse their continued reliance on the damsel in distress.

This indicates clearly that Sarkeesian does not understand the usefulness of the trope as outlined in my preamble post. The “Loved One At Risk” trope allows for a number of plots and situations, from the minor “Let’s give them a simple reason to complete the game” to the “Sadistic Choice!” to myriad other interactions. The trope is ideally suited for doing that, which is why it became a trope in the first place. That it appears in what Sarkeesian calls “crude, unsophisticated male power fantasies” does not mean that that’s its primary use, or that it itself is a crude and unsophisticated trope, and that it is relied on perhaps too much does not mean that we actually have other tropes that can fill the spot it occupies. Sarkeesian, I think, criticizes the trope itself too much as opposed to criticizing either its overuse or how it’s used, as evidenced by what she says here:

As we discussed in our first episode, when female characters are damsel’ed, their ostensible agency is removed and they are reduced to a state of victimhood.

But, are they “reduced to a state of victimhood” merely by being captured? If a game features the MC being captured, does that reduced them to a state of victimhood, if they don’t escape themselves? In “Shadow Hearts: Covenant”, the whole entire team — including the very macho MC hero Yuri — are captured and have to be rescued by the dog wolf. Does that reduce Yuri to a victim? Heck, the plot of that game is centered around having to have Yuri from the curse he’s adopted, that will eventually kill him, with restoring his love Alice as a sidequest that fails. Is Yuri nothing more than a victim?

Being captured and put in distress, and needing to be rescued, is not, in and of itself, any kind of reduction to victim. In fact, it’s been a staple of Saturday Morning Cartoons to have the toughest and most individualistic character — usually, but not exclusively, a big, tough, macho male — get captured and have to rely on the rest of the team to save them, proving that even the toughest characters sometimes need help from the teammates and can’t do everything themselves. So we don’t want to eliminate the idea that characters — even female characters — sometimes need help. From a feminist perspective, Sarkeesian can argue that because women have traditionally been portrayed as only victims, using this for female characters puts them back into that state of victimhood just when they’ve broken free of it. But the solution is not to ensure that women are not put into that role, or eliminate the trope, but instead of expand instead of contract. Expand the roles for female characters so that there are female characters in the game who are competent and contribute and who don’t get put in distress, and expand the distress role to include male characters in it more often. Now, there may be issues with the latter, but I’ll talk about them in the next part when we talk about “Dudes in Distress”.

The issue is that Sarkeesian talks about the trope, but because she doesn’t seem to understand what it actually provides she doesn’t really have a way to replace it, and jumps too quickly to condemning the trope itself, as is evidenced by her approach where she simply puts out examples of the trope and says “This is what I’m talking about”. While there is some threads in her discussions about its overuse, at the end of the day simply doing it seems to be enough to earn her condemnation. She doesn’t talk about good uses of the trope, or ones that don’t have the problems, and I think she can’t because her whole objection, at its most charitable, is about the frequency of it … but comments like the above aren’t ones that speak to frequency.

So narratives that frame intimacy, love or romance as something that blossoms from or hinges upon the disempowerment and victimization of women are extremely troubling because they tend to reinforce the widespread regressive notion that women in vulnerable, passive or subordinate positions are somehow desirable because of their state of powerlessness. Unfortunately these types of stories also help to perpetuate the paternalistic belief that power imbalances within romantic relationships appealing, expected, or normal.

Except … if we look back at the first part, there’s nothing there that suggests that the desirability of the female character is because of their helplessness. Recall her comments on Krystal, and the romantic sax music? What did the character say when he saw her? “She’s beautiful!” The whole thrust is that she was incredibly attractive, and that, in and of itself, was enough for the hero to fall in love with her. That’s all she had to do to gain his love. Now, flip that around. What does the hero have to do to earn her love? Risk his life and limb on a long adventure where he proves that he’s strong and powerful and competent. The attraction of a damsel is not that she’s helpless or subordinate, but that she needs him, which gives him a chance to prove to her how strong and competent she is. In short, a beautiful damsel is one that he has a chance to prove himself to, and proving himself to a woman is how he will “win” her. In contrast, the damsel only has to be attractive; none of her other traits matter or, often, are even explored.

This is one of the cases where the patriarchy really does cut both ways. On the one hand, the damseled character can be presented as nothing more than, well, eye candy or a pretty face. The hero, however, is presented as being strong and capable. On the other hand, the hero is presented as having to prove himself to win her love by demonstrating that strength and competence, while the damsel needs to prove nothing to him. He has to convince her that he’s worthy of her love, through demonstrations of strength, daring and risking his life to save her. She need demonstrate nothing of the sort to him, and doesn’t need to “win” him in any way.

The ideal is to base relationships on developed and compatible personality traits, and this is what is happening in modern video games that, well, actually delve into such things. The Personas and the Bioware games are built around forming relationships around finding the personality traits that their character would find most compatible with them, and this works well. In simpler games with simpler stories, it’s still the case that more of the love interests are semi-equals, and not just a pretty face. So even putting aside the onesidedness of her feminist analysis, her analysis is also a bit out of date.

So let’s move on to “Women in Refrigerators”:

In each case the protagonists’ wife and daughter are brutally murdered and their deaths are then used by the developers as a pretext for their inevitable bloody revenge quest. It’s interesting to note that the reversed scenario, games hinging on a woman vowing revenge for her murdered boyfriend or husband are practically nonexistent. The gender role reversal is so unusual that it borders on the absurd, which is one of the reason’s why this scene from Disney’s Wreck it Ralph is so humorous.

Well, the issue here is that this “Kill someone close and have them set out on a mission of revenge” trope was most commonly done with … mentors and fathers. For example, Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”: “You killed my father, prepare to die”. It’s so much of a trope that Elan and Julio Scoundrel — two characters steeped in tropes and the awareness of them — comment directly on it. While avenging the death of your loved one is indeed a fairly common trope, as far as I can tell the “Rescue loved one” trope is more common and the “Avenge mentor” trope is more common because of the idea that if the story is going to have a happy ending the hero has to be reunited with their true love. If you present the damsel in distress as not being their true love, it reduces the motivation for the rescue, and if you kill off the true love, you won’t have a happy ending, even if you set them up with someone else. It’s only in darker and grittier works where you are going for at best a bittersweet if not an out and out tragic ending that you can start with killing the true love and sending them out on a mission for revenge or to rescue their child.

So men being killed to serve the plot interests of male characters has been massively common throughout most media. Women being killed for the plot of male characters isn’t as common, although it is still common. And part of the reason for doing it is precisely that women being killed is supposed to bother and concern us no matter who they are, while men dying isn’t really a cause for that sort of concern unless they mean something to us. This carries over to killing female character in games, even if they’re enemy combatants; for a long time, male characters simply couldn’t kill or fight female characters no matter how evil they were.

(Note to anyone who notes that none of my examples are from video games: I just don’t play games that use this specific trope, as far as I can recall. The closest I can think of is Fatal Frame, except that Mafuyu goes there to rescue his mentor, Miku goes there to rescue him, and the only one with a revenge storyline is Kirae, the villain. Thus, since I do play a fair number of games but play inside a specific genre, perhaps, again, she is focusing far too much on one genre of games).

Believe it or not there is another more insidious version of this particular trope-hybrid, which I call the Damsel in the Refrigerator. Now you may be asking yourself how can a fridged woman still be in distress? Since by definition being fridged usually sort of requires… being dead. Well here’s how it works — The Damsel in the Refrigerator occurs when the hero’s sweetheart is brutally murdered and her soul is then trapped or abducted by the villain. This ‘oh so dark and edgy twist’ provides players with a double dose of female disempowerment and allows developers to again exploit both the revenge motivation and the saving the damsel motivation but this time with the same woman at the same time.

If you want an example of how Sarkeesian’s arguments tend to focus on the trope itself being bad, this is a prime example. The idea of trapping someone’s soul is a wonderful horror device, as almost everyone thinks that that would be absolute torment. Doing it to one’s loved one, then, ought to instill a strong emotional motivation to rescue them from that state. So we end up with a strong motivation to rescue them, and that motivation drives us forward through all the combat sequences, and allows for happy and bittersweet endings when we get there. So, as a plot device, it’s a wonderful one that allows for a ton of possibilities.

So, then, why is it “insidious”? Because it happens to be happening to women? If the majority of protagonists are male, and we tie it to a character that they should have a strong emotional connection to — like their loved one — then much of the time it will happen to female characters. This isn’t, in and of itself, bad, and as we get more female protagonists things will balance more. With more balance in female roles, this wouldn’t be bad in any way, let alone insidious. The “Soul Trap” trope isn’t a bad trope … even when it’s used on female characters.

Since what we are really talking about here are depictions of violence against women it might be useful to quickly define what I mean by that term. When I say Violence Against Women I’m primarily referring to images of women being victimized or when violence is specifically linked to a character’s gender or sexuality. Female characters who happen to be involved in violent or combat situations on relatively equal footing with their opponents are typically be exempt them from this category because they are usually not framed as victims.

So … if a woman is in any way made a victim, then that’s … bad? So, no examples of women being victimized. Fine. But then you have to either have no characters being victimized ever — which reduces the motivation to oppose the evil characters because, well, in general part of being evil is victimizing people — or else only men can be victimized. Huh. Somehow, I think she hasn’t thought this through. And while she might have a point about violence linked to the gender or sexuality — although, of course, if done by the evil characters that in theory ought to be okay — nothing in this trope does that; it can apply equally to all genders, but just happens to apply more to female characters for the reasons I’ve already given.

But the most extreme and gruesome variant of this trend is when developers combine the damsel in distress with the mercy killing. This usually happens when the player character must murder the woman in peril “for her own good”. I like to call this happy little gem the “Euthanized Damsel”. Typically the damsel has been mutilated or deformed in some way by the villain and the “only option left” to the hero is to put her “out of her misery” himself.

These damsel’ed women are written so as to subordinate themselves to men. They submissively accept their grisly fate and will often beg the player to perform violence on them – giving men direct and total control over whether they live or die. Even saying “thank you” with their dying breath. In other words these women are “asking for it” quite literally.

This is the first example where, as Roy Greenhilt from the Order of the Stick once put it, Sarkeesian’s argument goes astray because she can’t grasp the grammar. The trope she’s talking about here, in general, relates most to female characters who have been possessed by some entity so that the MC must attack and possibly kill the female character to contain the entity, or they are powering some kind of device to end the world, or something like that. In short, it’s the Sadistic Choice: kill your love or let the world die. This is a wonderful emotional trope and something that can really impact the players, especially since they have to do it themselves. But what makes this trope strong is not that they are “asking for it” in a way that implies that they deserve it — which is what the “asking for it” line with domestic violence is trying to claim — but instead, the exact opposite. This trope runs and has its emotional impact because the victim absolutely and completely does not deserve to be fought or killed, but you have to do it anyway. Their “asking for it” is, in fact, a statement of character, a statement that they are willing to give up their lives and suffer to save the world. A character that had gotten into this mess themselves, by their own choice, would be less sympathetic, often so much so that killing them gives no emotional qualms at all. It’s only when none of this is their fault that the trope works, which again is the exact opposite of the domestic violence related “asking for it”. Tragic and bittersweet stories will have them die; happy stories will allow them to be saved in some way.

Also note that the example of this that I most remember in video games is from Shadow Hearts, where you have to do it to … Yuri, the male protagonist, as he has been taken over by his fusion form. Would Sarkeesian find that, then, a problematic use of the trope? Sure, he doesn’t die, but she uses just fighting them as examples as well, and somehow I don’t think she’d see this case as being the same despite, well, it being the same thing except for, perhaps, the cultural context.

Of course, if you look at any of these games in isolation, you will be able to find incidental narrative circumstances that can be used to explain away the inclusion of violence against women as a plot device. But just because a particular event might “makes sense” within the internal logic of a fictional narrative – that doesn’t, in and of itself justify its use. Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.

It’s especially troubling in-light of the serious real life epidemic of violence against women facing the female population on this planet. Every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States and on average more than three women are murdered by their boyfriends husbands, or ex-partners every single day. Research consistently shows that people of all genders tend to buy into the myth that women are the ones to blame for the violence men perpetrate against them. In the same vein, abusive men consistently state that their female targets “deserved it”, “wanted it” or were “asking for it”,

Given the reality of that larger cultural context, it should go without saying that it’s dangerously irresponsible to be creating games in which players are encouraged and even required to perform violence against women in order to “save them”.

Sure, because most game players are complete and utter morons who won’t get the actual differences in the contexts in the story that justify it in the game case and make it unjustifiable in real life.

The weakness in Sarkeesian’s cultural analysis is exactly that she doesn’t understand the tropes and the emotional responses that they are engendering, and so only links it shallowly to issues that she, as a feminist, is deeply concerned about, without showing any kind of link between these two very different things. As such, she either ends up attacking the trope itself or trying to exclude women from them based on the cultural context without grasping the meat of the trope, insisting that it exploits women when it really doesn’t do that at all. So far, her lack of understanding of tropes has been clear, and I do not think it will get better as things go along.

Action Man or Dreamy Detective

October 14, 2015

The next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” is “Action Man or Dreamy Detective” by Sami Paavola and Lauri Jarvilehto, and has to win for the most abstract title of a chapter ever because the essay itself is about Holmes’ ability to reason and what that conforms to, which doesn’t really have all that much to do with the title. The essay looks at two of Charles Peirce’s ideas on reasoning, but I’m only going to look at the first of them, which is abduction. They claim that Holmes uses abduction as opposed to either deduction or induction, and define them all thusly:

Deduction, the pattern of reasoning by clarifying logical necessities.

Induction, reasoning on the basis of what “actually is”.

Abduction, the main kind of reasoning we use for coming up with new ideas.

The first thing we can see from these definitions is that, well, they’re all pretty much useless, except for maybe the one for deduction. The other two seem more like a definition someone would espouse if they wanted to denigrate deduction … which fits in with this essay. After all, deduction clarifies “logical necessities”, but according to the other definitions it wouldn’t focus on what “actually is” — as that’s induction — and wouldn’t be what we’d use for coming up with new ideas, as that’s abduction. Both of those definitions talk much about what they can do or are used for — implicitly saying why they’re superior to deduction — but neither of them give any clarity on what that sort of reasoning actually is. So let’s redefine them:

Deduction: the form of reasoning that proceeds from premises to a conclusion following standard logical operations.

Induction: the form of reasoning that proceeds from instances and generalizes to propositions outside of the direct scope of the available data.

This leaves abduction, so let me try to summarize it as best I can from what they seem to say about it:

Abduction: the form of reasoning that proceeds from hypotheses about the given data through testing the hypotheses to see if they hold.

So, given this, does Holmes use deduction, induction, or abduction?

Holmes doesn’t really generalize outside of the data he has. Even in their example of Holmes’ assessment of Watson when they first meet, he takes things that he knows and applies them to Watson, and so instead of moving from specific instances to the general he moves from the general to the specific instance. Thus, he’s not using induction.

So, given that, I think the key to determining which he does is to ask: does Holmes form hypotheses that he then tests to see if they are accurate, or does he just operate on the data he has and sees what follows from it? Note that gathering more data — ie going back to look at the scene again, or even going to the scene — wouldn’t count in favour of abduction, because in all forms of reasoning discovering that you need more data and even what specific data you need is a key part of it; none of them must draw conclusions from insufficient data. So let’s look at the reasoning they summarized from “Silver Blaze”:

Did the dog bark? No. Why does a watchdog not back in the middle of the night, if something odd is happening? Because whatever was happening in the night-time, the perpetrator must have been someone the dog knew well enough not to be disturbed by him.

So, for this to count as abductive, Holmes would have had to come up with that hypothesis and then go out to test it, to make sure that the reasoning held. Holmes usually doesn’t do that. Also, it would have to be expressed, as the authors put it, in maybes and mights, but in the quote provided — and in general — Holmes never thinks of things that way. In fact, his main catchphrase aims more at certainty than at maybes: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. This even strike at the Bayesian interpretation of abduction because Holmes makes it clear that he doesn’t care about probabilities if it’s the only explanation left. So it really looks like Holmes uses deduction, not abduction.

They even themselves hint at this by talking about the analytic/synthetic distinction, and claiming that Holmes’ approach is analytic. Analytic reasoning is deductive, synthetic reasoning would fit in with their definition of inductive. Neither, as it turns out, fit either their or my definitions of abductive. Well, abductive reasoning would be a form of synthetic reasoning, which doesn’t help their case at all.

I think the confusion here is the idea that deduction can only work on things that are true by definition. But deduction isn’t that way, really. Deduction simply is proceeding from the premises to a conclusion that follows logically and directly from the premises. So what Holmes does is gather lots and lots of data through his powers of observation and his experiments, and given all of those facts, he simply sees what conclusion necessarily follows given those premises. If he has all of the relevant facts and the conclusion logically follows from the premises — ie if the premises are true the conclusion cannot be false — then he has his answer. No testing required, and no room for maybes.

The problem is that too many people over-emphasize what deduction needs to work, which is that it has to know that the premises are true. Sure, you can establish that if the premises are true the conclusion must be as well, but you have to know that the premises are true before you can say that the conclusion is true. And so you can come up with logically valid arguments that are, in fact, ridiculous. This is what gets people yearning for something like induction or abduction to save the day, demanding that we actually go and look at the world, which they claim deduction can’t do. But is going out to verify the premises testing (and so abduction) or simply gathering more data (and so deduction)? I’d say that, from the perspective of deduction, it’s gathering more data: I need to know this fact, so let me go see if this fact is true. For Holmes, who starts with more facts and usually the facts that he needs, he rarely has to actually go and look to see if his premises are true, and so when he does go out and check things it’s not him forming a hypothesis and then testing it, but him merely going to find out the facts that he’s missing to fill in the blanks in his deduction.

You can decide for yourself in Holmes is a dreamy detective or action man.

Lost Dimension: Thoughts on Replaying

October 12, 2015

So, I’ve finished Lost Dimension twice … and still haven’t gotten to the True Ending (Nagi, one of the three characters that I didn’t max out the first time, was again erased before I could max her out. I managed to get everyone else).

The good thing about the game is that replaying it is relatively easy. Once you know the strategies, clearing the missions isn’t that hard as long as you are an appropriate level. You start with a massive amount of skill points, and so have a number of abilities from the start. Using some of them is difficult early in the game because you don’t have the gift points to actually use them, but a lot of the passives still work and are still useful (Sho’s “Premonition” and “Combat Reflexes”, for example, still save him a significant amount of the time). Also, since the traitors are randomized, you still have reason to run missions to figure out who are the traitors, so the deduction part still works. The only thing that gets old are the comments in-between missions, but those can be easily skipped and ignored if you’ve seen it already.

So, for a game that pretty much forces you to replay it to understand it, the game at least makes it relatively painless to do so. The game itself is relatively short, you only get better on replays, there were at least a few new missions on the second replay, and the core innovative element in the game works just as well on replays as it does on plays. Overall, the game still shows promise. I’d love to see the game series continue, with some iterations to make the gameplay overall better, with deeper companion relations and more missions and gameplay.

The Irony of Levels

October 9, 2015

So, I went out and picked up a whole bunch of other games, focusing on JRPG-type games that I haven’t played. I started playing one called “The Awakened Fate: Ultimatum” and while it’s okay, I found it a little unforgiving in the first dungeon; it was relatively easy to win the fights, but if you ever did anything wrong you were toast, and since when you die you lose your items that was, well, really bad. But in theory with higher levels, I’d have more HP, and so be better able to withstand screwing up and getting, say, swarmed. And that reminded me of something that’s bothered me for a long time about RPG-style leveling.

When you use the leveling mechanic, you start the hero off relatively weak and they grow in power as they gain more experience and thus more levels. If done well, this is a nice mechanism, as it gives you a reason to get more XP and can really make you feel like you start out as a novice hero and through your trials grow in strength to becoming a legend. Of course, the way to do this is to balance the encounters, and thus to make encounters early in the game, when you’re low level, weak enough that they’re a challenge but don’t kill you while ramping up the power of the encounters later in the game so that, again, even though you have massive abilities and lots of hit points it isn’t just a cakewalk.

When you don’t do it well, it’s a disaster.

I think that the Icewind Dale/Baldur’s Gate type of games have been the worst for this that I’ve ever seen. You start, especially if you’re a fragile mage-type character, with so few hit points that you die if you get hit once or twice. They do a semi-real-time combat system, so often you can’t react fast enough to save someone who manages to get hit twice by, say, archers. You have very limited healing abilities, even if you can react in time to save them. And worst of all, the ability to raise dead characters is only really feasible at higher levels, when you either have the ability yourself or have the gold on hand to buy it from NPCs. This is a recipe for frustration and reloading.

The irony of this comes in when we consider the context of the player instead of the character. Because one hit can kill you, the game is more tolerant of mistakes later in the game than early in the game; you can survive one mistake and even if you fail you are likely to have abilities or items that will restore you to life. But the beginning of the game is when you are learning to game, its abilities, your abilities, how the combat system works, and so on, and as you’re just learning you’re more likely to make mistakes than later in the game when you pretty much understand it. So the game is more forgiving of mistakes when you’re less likely to make them and less forgiving when you’re more likely to make them. Something’s not right here …

Many games do this at least reasonably well, but there are a number of games that really fail to do this well, and so walk themselves into that strange irony of tolerating mistakes when you likely won’t make them and not tolerating mistakes when you’re likely to.