Character Blow-Up

So, recently, two Guild Wars 2 writers were fired over a blow-up on Twitter. While I first came across it in the comments section of two different sites — one each of left-wing and right-wing — I’m going to link to the Eurogamer article on it because it gives the most information and the links to the threads themselves. The topic of the Twitter thread that started this whole thing was about whether or not you can have memorable characters in an MMORPG or straight RPG, and how you need to write dialogue for characters in those genres. I’m going to talk about that, specifically, a little bit later in the post. However, my impression of what happened is that a Youtube content creator who happened to be a partner with ArenaNet — the company that makes Guild Wars 2 — to comment on how things are working replied to the Twitter thread with a comment that essentially said that it’s not about creating generic conversations, but is instead about making the conversations react to the character the player chooses. The writer — who happens to be a woman — then responded with a snarky comment about him telling her things she already knew, then created a separate thread basically suggesting that he only did that because he was a man and she was a woman despite her being experienced and an expert in the field, thus implying that it was sexism driving his response — specifically, mansplaining — and then responded to other comments on that topic with an even more snarky response that, again, seemed to be aimed precisely at taking exception because it was men who made the comments, and also that they were talking about something she already understood. Another employee defended her — mostly keying off of the argument that this was a personal account and so people shouldn’t reply to it for some reason — and then they were both fired.

So let me talk about that first. First, Denoir — the Youtuber — definitely had knowledge about the inner workings of games that the Price — the female writer — didn’t bother to check to see that he had. Second, he actually was someone that she kinda worked with, or at least someone who worked with her company, which she also didn’t bother to check on but did deny. Third, his comment was standard and the sort of comment that all sorts of people who talk about video games would make, including people like Shamus Young and even myself. Fourth, since she made it on a public forum and linked it back to a thread that was a discussion, it’s perfectly reasonable for people to respond to it. Fifth, just because she works in the industry doesn’t mean that she has that much more expertise than someone “rando”. After all, I personally have at least 20 years experience as a player of RPGs, and thus have quite a bit of knowledge and expertise on the experience of players playing the games. Thus, she can’t really ignore my experience just because she has 10 years experience as a writer, as I technically have more years of experience that is more directly related to player experience. Her appeal there would be nothing more than an invalid “Appeal to Authority” logical fallacy; even with her experience, she could be wrong, and even with my experience, I could be wrong, as well. Anyway, the summary is that someone replied to her Twitter thread disagreeing with her, she thought that it was something that was obvious, and replied angrily by, essentially, calling Denoir a mansplainer and thus at least implied that he was sexist, without being aware that he was officially associated with the company as well and without bothering to address his overall comment, on a forum where she could have expected public comment and feedback. I don’t think that Denoir was in the wrong here.

So, should she have been fired? Just for that, my comment would be “No”. If I was her boss, I would have said that if she is going to make comments like that she had better check to see how much experience the person she is replying to actually has, but that instead it would be far better for her to simply ignore any comments that she doesn’t think relevant, germane, or that she thinks she’s already covered or taken into consideration. There is really no cause for her to fire back multiple, snarky replies to a comment that, at its worst, is stating the obvious, even if it may not have been obvious that it was taken into account in her account. However, there might be other factors that are driving this that demanded the firing, but I can’t see what they are.

Okay, so let’s look at the debate itself. The originating Twitter thread is here, and Denoir’s reply is here. My summary of the debate is this: Price is saying that it is really hard to make the protagonists of MMORPGs, at least, memorable because the player is the one driving the character, and doing so more directly, and so you can’t really give them a set personality. I agree with this, as the main reason I couldn’t give a list of the top ten male characters like I did for female characters was because the male characters were the protagonists more often and so were more personalized, and thus weren’t really “characters” in that sense. She then goes on to talk about making them very generic, using Bella Swan as an example, and so making them what she calls a “blank space” so that the player can insert themselves into it. She then says that their lines have to be devoid of personality for the most part, because that would clash with the imagination of the player. Denoir’s response is that you don’t need to craft the conversations that way, but instead can make them reactive if you drop the idea that the conversations all have to lead to the same place (I presume meaning “response” in this case).

So let’s look at this in more detail. The first thing to note is that this is, well, a common question about RPGs in general, and not just MMORPGs (which Denoir points out). And it is interesting to note that, in general, this is a particular issue for Western-style RPGs, which have always been about character customization, which then leads to players being more attached to a specific character and so feeling that they should be able to act as they think that character would act. JRPGs, on the other hand, tend not to have as much character customization, and so have protagonists that have set personalities. There are some exceptions to this, though, where the protagonist doesn’t have much of a personality and the player can give some small set of responses to shape their personality. Persona 3 — and probably Persona 4 — are good examples of this, as the MCs themselves don’t seem to have a set personality and you can generally give snarky or serious responses to most situations, but in general those responses don’t have much impact on how things work out except for maybe the next response from the NPC, and so can be unsatisfying. This is one of the reasons why I prefer the female protagonist in P3P when I get the chance to play it, because she does seem to actually have a personality.

Now, of course, MMORPGs can’t really work the JRPG way, because it would be ridiculous to have an entire party of players who are all the exact same character. So everyone has to be different characters, and that leads to character customization. Given that starting point, the game is definitely going to move away from a defined character and more into a player-defined character. So, then, how is the game going to do that? Is it going to make every response simply generic in tone, or is it going to be more player-responsive?

The thing is that both Western RPGs and MMORPGs have actually gone for the “player-responsive” option. Bioware is the best example of that approach in both genres. The player gets to choose the options that their character says, and the dialogue is then shifted in tone to match what they were trying to say. The Witcher games, from what I’ve seen, do something similar, and yet actually manage to define a character despite the player having great input into what they do (and, as open-world games, are similar enough to MMORPGs so that the comparison works). And if you are going player-responsive, you don’t actually need to make the actual dialogue generic because you know what sort of personality the player is going for by what response they selected, and so can write the dialogue to reflect that. In fact, if you made it more generic it would hurt the dialogue, because it would feel like the dialogue isn’t actually taking your response into account.

Okay, but there are always going to be some cases where the player can’t choose what they say, such as with greetings and goodbyes and the like. Those have to be generic, right? Well, I’m not sure about that. If we just look at the Mass Effect games or The Old Republic, we can see that the use of a morality meter can, in fact, solve that problem, too. If the character over time is trending Dark Side or Renegade, you can make their initial lines more aggressive or gruff, while if they are going more Light Side or Paragon you can make them more kind and friendly. And you can even shift NPC reactions according to that reputation: if the character is more Dark Side or Renegade, the NPC can be more intimidated, frightened or disapproving depending on their own personal viewpoint, whereas if the character is more Light Side or Paragon you can have them do the opposite. If the character is Dark Side or Renegade, the NPCs can try to appeal to their self-interest, while if the character is Light Side or Paragon they can appeal to their desire to help others. Sure, all of this means recording more voice lines, but not overwhelmingly so, since the states are limited and some situations won’t need any different dialogue.

So it looks like a more player-responsive approach rather than a bland and generic one is doable, even for MMORPGs. Does Price realize this? Does she realize this and have a reason why it can’t be done as easily as I think it can? I have no idea, because she didn’t bother to actually respond to what Denoir said or find out what he was talking about, which is just another example of how Social Justice concerns can hurt game design and the discussion thereof.

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2 Responses to “Character Blow-Up”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Stereotypically, when a man offers an article for public discussion he’s doing one or more of:
    * educating – “here’s what I think it would be helpful for you to know …”
    * asking for input – “here are some issues I find hard / don’t have answers for, please comment”
    * bragging

    In all three cases, responses are anticipated, and those responses may expand upon, clarify or even contradict the original article.

    What a man rarely does is publicly request sympathy. He may lead in a public expression of grief, but if he needs sympathy because “life sucks” he’ll do it over a beer with a couple of very close mates.

    I wonder if “mansplaining” is actually a modes of communication failure. Women are far more likely to publicly recruit for sympathy, and especially in a written medium (see “Facebook”).

    So woman writes article expressing that something is hard, man offers suggestions, woman cries “mansplaining”. What I expect she actually means (whether consciously or not) is “you gave me solutions rather than sympathy”. Guy is very confused, because that’s exactly what he thinks you should expect when you engage in public discussion.

    From a distance, that’s what this situation looks like. Price responds to the critique with “I bared my soul, you started telling me what to do, all men are jerks.”. It then escalates when Fries sees that his friend is angry and perceives she is being attacked and so charges into the fray. Things go downhill from there, at least for Fries and Price.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I don’t think that’s the case here, mostly because Price doesn’t really talk much about “baring her soul” and instead talks a lot about her being an expert, knowing what the guy said, and that the guy was some random man with no expertise in the subject area (which was incorrect). That’s generally the classic “‘splaining” case.

      We all know and have encountered people who will proclaim expertise in an area and do so even when talking to people who know more about the area than they themselves do. I am willing to grant that women might get that more often than men for a few reasons:

      1) Men are more likely to try to demonstrate their own expertise in that woman’s area of expertise to show interest and competence and so hopefully to attract her interest. Thus, in those cases it’s less used as “I know this better than you!” but more “I’m interested in and know stuff about what you’re interested in, too!”. Since the traditional dating norms pushed men to lead and women to follow, men were more likely to try to show that they know things and so can be useful in that way while women were more likely to try to elicit the man’s expertise and express interest that way. This isn’t really “‘splaining”, but I’m sure many women, at least now, consider it such.

      2) There is always the possibility of overt or subconscious sexism, of the sort that “She can’t really know about this because she’s a woman!”. The general impression of Affirmative Action does NOTHING to disspell that: there might be more women in a field, but a lot of men will feel that she isn’t there because she actually knows what she’s doing and so will talk over or ignore them.

      3) There’s the implicit idea that women in general don’t know as much about some fields. There were a number of purported “‘splaining” cases where at first blush it SOUNDED really bad — like a man explaining what a specific book meant TO IT’S FEMALE AUTHOR — but on examination it wasn’t clear that the man KNEW that the woman was really an expert in the field, which would make it not really “‘splaining” at all.

      So I think what happened here is the typical overfiring of pattern matching. A man said something to her that she thought was obvious, and since she had no clue that he was indeed also an expert in the field she concluded that it was an example of “mansplaining”: man with less expertise feels fit to explain to a woman with expertise things that she knows better than he does. Unfortunately for her, the man WAS an expert in the field and even if she was well-aware of dialogue branching a) that wasn’t the totally of his point and b) her comment did seem to ignore or even contradict that. And once this was declared as a sexist intervention, then it immediately moved on to the typical idea that men reply to women differently than they do to men, by saying that she didn’t solicit responses and implying that if it had been a man saying that the response wouldn’t have been the same, and in fact might not have happened at all. Which is generally false, since all sorts of male commentators make the same sorts of comments about things male writers and designers say, and posting it publicly on Twitter does indeed invite commentary and response (and she responded positively to positive responses). Once it was in the “Sexism!” narrative, Fries jumped in to defend her from “harassment”, despite the fact that it wasn’t at all harassment and was normal dialogue, and not even impolite dialogue.

      The problem was that Price jumped the gun to conclude that this was typical mansplaining, without checking the facts, and so ultimately made a fool out of herself. If she had merely made even a snarky comment about knowing that already without tying it to sexism, things would have gone better, but she REALLY should have just said something like “Well, of COURSE we use branching dialogue. Why do you think I’m saying otherwise?” or even explained why that sort of thing fits into or can’t work for the sorts of dialogues she’s talking about things would have gone better and there might have been an interesting discussion there. Obviously, that’s not what happened.

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