Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

How the Mass Effect Series Screws Up Exploring the Galaxy …

July 17, 2015

So, I recently started playing Mass Effect 3, which means that I’ve played at least part of the entire series. And one thing that has really struck me is both how much there is to at least potentially explore in the game … and how each game in the series, in its own unique way, managed to screw that up.

The game that I had the most fun exploring was, in fact, the first game. This is despite my not particularly liking the MAKO. Well, okay, it wasn’t really the MAKO itself that was the problem, even though it was often hard to drive (although at least you couldn’t crash it and kill yourself) but more that with the terrain on the planets it was often hard to find your way through the various obstacles to the objective that you were trying to reach, which to my mind is, in fact, a major problem of the series and, also, with Bioware games (The Old Republic has the same problem). It was just worse with the MAKO because you had further to go, more obstacle, and it wasn’t really clear what obstacles you could drive over and which were really obstacles. So once you got down on a planet, it was annoying, but you were encouraged to go to every planet and scan them to see what you might find, because that was very easy, and you didn’t have to worry about running out of fuel if you ran around exploring all the sectors. Also, for the most part you gained XP and some credits and some trophies, so skipping it wasn’t a big deal either.

The second game, however, made me not want to do that much exploration. It introduced both the requirement for fuel and the requirement for probes to explore planets. You never stepped onto the planet and so only explored it by scanning it manually, and then launching probes at it to pick up the materials that you needed to make new things (including the things you needed to save all of the crew in the final mission). But since you had a limited number of probes, you could do a couple of planets before having to fly back to the depot to buy new ones. Which cost you credits for fuel. And while materials were valuable and something you needed, so were credits. And you never really knew whether it was or would be worth it or not. And it was also time consuming, but not in a fun way, as while the MAKO could be annoying at least you got to drive around on the planet. With the probes, all you were doing was the repetitive “Move to high point-launch probe-move to next point” sort of gameplay, and with the MAKO if you weren’t efficient at it you’d just take a little longer, while if you were inefficient with the probes you’d have to fly back and spend credits to be able to try again or get all of the planets. And again since credits were important, you had to ask yourself if it was worth it, while in ME1 all you had to do was ask yourself if the time spent was worth it. In ME2, you had to ask if the time and the money was worth it.

Mass Effect 3 improves on this, as it removes the need to scan each planet and area manually, and removes the need to collect specific minerals for ship upgrades. Instead, you can do an area scan and it triggers anything interesting in the area of the scan. This is good. However, you can only do a small — and variable — number of these before you trigger enemy interest, at which point you get attacked. If you don’t manage to escape, it’s “Game Over”. This activity level stays until you complete a mission — and I’m not really sure what counts as a mission — at which point it resets to 0. All across the galaxy. Huh. So that means that the main strategy would be to enter an area of the galaxy, scan it until you’re getting too close to being attacked, leave, go to another part of the galaxy, scan it, rinse, repeat, run a mission, and then return to the areas that you didn’t manage to completely scan the last time … assuming that you can remember what you scanned and what you didn’t, because you still get activity if you scan an area that you already scanned, so if you scan the same planets/area twice you’re simply wasting your opportunity. And you also might have had to spend fuel to get there, although probes are free.

All of these methods, I think, waste the opportunity that they had with the Mass Effect series to promote exploration. Exploration isn’t really a staple of the Dragon Age series — I think, anyway — because as a fantasy world there’s not that much that you can easily explore without them having to add a lot of assets and artwork and the like. In Mass Effect, you can add planets that look only superficially different from each other, and if you don’t let the player land on the planets that don’t have explicit missions on them you don’t need major planetary artwork. But you can still write up descriptions and history for them, which can make them feel unique and give an overall sense that this is indeed a galaxy. However, the methods that the series uses to let you explore, to me, miss what a game should do to encourage exploration without annoying players who don’t care about it. There are two keys, in my opinion:

1) The major limiting factor to exploration should be nothing more than time. If you’re willing to take the time to visit every planet/area, then nothing else should stop you from doing that. That includes the game deciding that you’re taking too long to advance the plot.

2) You shouldn’t need to explore to win the game, so the rewards should be minor and not game-changing or game-breaking. Some exploration might be required, but it shouldn’t be the case that someone who explores everything finds the game to be a cakewalk while someone who doesn’t can’t finish the game.

ME1 is the best at this, although I can’t say how hard it is to finish if you don’t explore almost everything. ME2 is the worst because you have to invest more than time into it, and the things you find and build can be game-changing. ME3 isn’t bad, but it still forces you to spend credits to explore and puts an artificial limit on the exploration, limiting it to the number of missions you can run. If you are inefficient in your exploration, the number of missions might mean that you run out of ways to reset activity before you finish exploring everything. Also, how much you find can indeed change the ending of your game (if you don’t max out War Assets, you might not get the best endings).

The key is to encourage and allow exploration without mandating it. The Mass Effect series, to me, is a prime example of a series that started off closer to the ideal and then moved away from that, only to try to return at the end. Which, it seems to me, is a pretty good description of the series in general: ME1 was better than ME2, and ME3 is trying to recapture some of the magic of ME1 while preserving the good things in ME2. How well will it succeed? Find out when I talk about ME3, should I ever manage to finish it!

Blinded by the Light

July 3, 2015

So, there’s a new hashtag out that’s making some of the rounds of some of the usual places, and that is another battle, perhaps, in the ongoing gaming culture wars. Really, I have no idea how to refer to any of this stuff anymore without ticking someone off, and to be honest I’ve lost interest in trying to avoid ticking people off. I’m far more interested in trying to express things accurately, but since that seems impossible …

Ahem. Anyway, the hashtag is #IStandWithTauriq, aimed at defending someone who wrote an article about race in gaming, faced at times harsh criticism from people on Twitter with some comments that were unacceptable but were, well, pretty much what you commonly see from the Internet (unfortunately) and decided to leave Twitter, with this hashtag being used for people to decry this and fight against this and other sorts of unacceptable harassment that you see there.

I’m not going to talk about that part. For one, I think that excessive harassment is wrong and have said it on many occasions, so I don’t need to say it now. For another, after digging into it a bit how much of the response was harassing, how much was simple criticism — even if harsh — and how much was even directed at him is debatable, and so I can’t even tell what the story is accurately enough to write a good article about it. So I’m not going to. What I am going to do is talk about the original article. Tauriq Moosa wants reasonable criticism, discussion and debate … and I’m going to give it to him in spades.

The article starts by commenting on the recent Rust issue, which is essentially this: When the post-apocalyptic (I think) survival game was launched, the only avatars you could have were white bald men. Recently, they added the ability to have more customizable avatars, including being able to have different races … well, if you wanted your race to be white or black. That “have different races” is important, because you don’t get to choose your race; instead, it is randomly generated for you and cannot be changed. The player doesn’t get to see the avatar in-game, but other players do. And as it’s based on your Steam Id — which is what you always use to play the game — there is no way to change what race you are no matter how many times you delete and restart the game. This garnered many complaints from people who wanted to play the game, from people who didn’t want to play as a black character when they were white to people who griped about being unable to choose what race the avatar was (as I’ll explain later, these groups are not identical). At the same time, people who were interested in pushing for diversity hailed this as a wonderful social experiment, which the designers, at least publicly, embraced as the reason to do this, causing more backlash. And there was much fighting.

Moosa here summarizes this the way most of those on the “diversity” side summarized it: when people had to play as a white avatar, then that was fine, but when they’re forced to play as a black avatar, then that’s terrible. So this simply reflects how whiteness (and also maleness) is seen as the default, and how that isn’t political but that pushes for blackness or, more generally, for minority representation is seen as political when the status quo of majority representation isn’t. Thus, it’s just another reflection of racism in video games.

The problem is that Rust is a really, really bad example to hang your hat on for this. For most of the games where Moosa says that he has to play as a white male character, there is, in fact, an actual defined character. If a game is going to force me to play as Miku Hinasaki — Japanese teenaged female — I’m going to accept that, because they will define a character and then make the definition of that character matter to the story. I accept Miku just as much as I accept Yuri Hyuga as a default and don’t care about the details (note that Yuri, one of my favourite male characters and favourite characters ever, is in fact half-German half-Japanese). This is because I’m not really trying to be them, but am instead trying to guide them through their story. This is not, of course, the way I approach a game like The Old Republic, where I get to create my character. Even though the game guides them through a linear story, to a large extent I want them to be like the character I want them to be, and not just some defined character that I follow.

In Rust, you don’t get a defined character with a defined story and a defined personality. Instead, you get a blank slate. From the start, people almost certainly complained about not being able to customize the appearance of the avatar — even though they couldn’t see it themselves — and so when the designers allowed for there to be more variety in appearances players almost certainly expected to be able to choose their appearance as far as the engine would allow them to. After all, what other reason could they have for introducing it? So discovering that not only was that not the case, but that the reason for not allowing that ended up being some kind of social experiment aiming at supporting strong social justice arguments was definitely going to ruffle feathers. After all, the argument isn’t that it makes the game more fun, but that it either promotes a specific social agenda or that it’s something that lets the designers have more fun at the expense of their players. I was also shocked that this could be seen as supporting social justice when one of their big concerns is about letting players of colour play as the race they actually are … and this game introduced the ability to play as that race but then, at random, would say “No soup for you!”. Only the intense schadenfreude of forcing white players to play as black avatars could get them thinking that this was in any way a good idea.

In order to get to the point Moosa et al want to get to, you have to ask: what would the reaction be if the characters in Rust or in any game started with a black or female character and didn’t give the choice? And my answer is this: if the game doesn’t tout it as a way to introduce diversity, there likely won’t be much at all. I don’t recall much controversy over Miku in Fatal Frame, or Heather in Silent Hill 3, because what they did was put out a game that had a female protagonist, but didn’t try to express that as some great leap forward in diversity or for feminism or whatever. Thus, we believe that they did it because they thought it made the game better (with Silent Hill 3, it let them return to the story of the first game and explore the consequences from a unique and important angle). Gamers will, rightly, be at least concerned if not annoyed and maybe even outraged if they perceive that game elements are not being chosen not for what they add to the fun of the game, but for what boxes they check off on some social justice checkbox.

Or think about it this way: if the designers had started with all of the characters being green — which could be a wonderful send-up of a post-apocalyptic, radiation-drenched future — and then decided to make it so that you could have avatars of white, black or green but that you couldn’t choose which, do you really think that there wouldn’t be similar criticisms? “Why can’t I play as Hulkling anymore?” would come the cries. In fact, when I first heard about this story, one of my thoughts was “Hmmm. Post-apocalyptic world where only the strong can survive. I want to play as The Sisko. Except, I can’t, unless the random number generator code happens to come up on that race for me. When I couldn’t choose my race, I could do it because the outward appearance said nothing about the character. When the outward appearance can be changed, then it does seem to suggest, hint at, and limit what characters I can play as. And that’s a serious problem.

(As an aside, I’m now very tempted to put “The Sisko” into the Trooper slot in TOR. I originally had Jag Fel there, but thought the bounty hunter path suited him better, but that meant bumping Logan out of there, who I had there originally because of the role and the link with Mako, but I think that The Sisko works better for the Trooper anyway.)

The next thing Moosa talks about is “The Witcher 3″, where the game doesn’t contain a single human person of colour. He gives a reason for why this isn’t highlighted strongly enough to his satisfaction:

Let’s look at a few uncomfortable facts. Almost every Witcher 3 review I came across was written by a white man — excellent writers and all of whom I respect. But games media itself is, like the tech world, a very white-male dominated area. This is why we got a hundred articles confronting the Witcher 3 devs about less pretty grass physics, but not a single article asking them about no people of color.

Of course, he is actually corrected by the editor of Polygon pointing out that their article actually did that. Did he not read the review done by the site that he was writing the article for. But another reason is probably that given the setting — Slavic/European middle-age — the fact that you only see white characters is more believable. But Moosa has a reply to this:

But this misses a crucial point: Things are not equal. We are not in a medium that features predominantly Indian men, Chinese women, or focuses on stories from Africa. We’re part of an industry that frequently tells the stories of white people and stars white people.

Thus, wanting more people of color in stories that focus on mythology for a predominantly white culture doesn’t work the other way. Wanting white people in spaces dedicated to people of color ignores that stories of white people already dominate this and other creative industries.

The problem here is that, essentially, the creators of this game are from Poland and wanted to write a game that expressed things from their perspective. If you read through the comments, you’d see the quotes that say that Poland is well over 90% white, and that at the time the ratio was at least as bad. So essentially here he’d be criticizing a minority culture for wanting to express things as seen from their culture. And it’s not like the Polish were ever discriminated against for being Polish, right? Oh, wait, they were. So much for intersectionality, then. We can allow you to express things from your own minority perspective and respect diversity right up until the point that it clashes with some artificial quota of representation, at which point you can’t do that anymore.

Look, the obvious solution here is not to push representation into places where it doesn’t fit, but instead to make more diverse games. Creating new fantasy worlds based on Indian, Chinese or African history and mythology will help to break out of the same-old, same-old rut that these fantasy worlds often have, allowing for some new and fresh takes and help to extend the diversity of games. For example, the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” series is based on Chinese history/folklore, and was certainly successful, and was a series of games that I, personally, loved. We need to do more like that, and build new worlds where a diverse cast isn’t a problem, not try to shove it into a world and game just to have it.

He moves on to try to talk about how having fantasy races and dealing with racism issues through that is problematic:

It should be mentioned that The Witcher 3 deals with “racism,” but other “races” literally refers to different species: Elves, dwarves and other non-humans face bigotry.

Indeed, it shows again that humans are white humans and everyone else is non-human and oppressed. I’m not against racism being depicted; the game actually portrays racism and bigotry as bad. But even elves have the opportunity to exist. People of color don’t.

Again: This is literal dehumanizing of people of color. We are relegated to non-human species, whose treatment is supposed to mimic real-world racist policies. This sci-fi/fantasy trope of dealing with racism by showing inter-species treatment could work — if all the humans weren’t white.

Which also ties in with his previous comment on how with fantasy races and monsters the idea of being “historically accurate” goes out the window. Except it doesn’t, because as is pointed out in the comments the story is based on that time and that place, with some minor folklore elements inserted into it. Given that it is supposed to reflect in at least some way a historical time and place, what should we do if we insert PoC into that setting? Do we reflect the racism that they would experience in that setting in the game, which means that in general even our main character either should be or at least should be given the opportunity to act racist? Or do we leave human-human racism out completely, thus sanitizing the setting and thus leaving out all race issues as somehow being miraculously solved? From what I can see, either will be criticized by the same people who want to see diversity. If you do the former, then the game will be criticized for including incidents of racism. If you do the latter, then it will be criticized for sanitizing an era and showing it as being equal when it wasn’t (see The Sisko’s argument against Vic’s in DS9 for how that argument would go). The designers, then, simply cannot win.

Besides, the best way to approach racial issues through games is to cast the discussion into a metaphor that bypasses our ingrained and conditioned responses. If we can see why it is wrong to discriminate against the elves, then we ought to be able to see how it is wrong to discriminate against people who are, in fact, less different from us than the elves are from the humans in that setting. It’s not eliminating PoC to take their issues and cast them in a light that allegorizes it in order to avoid knee jerk and conditioned reactions, so this criticism seems to be way out of place … so much so that it becomes insulting to people who really aren’t trying to do — and aren’t actually doing — anything like what he assert they’re doing.

We also need to note the anger and hostility to minority concerns from those who are always catered to. We should recognize that such hostility is precisely what we do not want in a culture.

Tolerance, not toxicity, is what we should aim for. That such hostility exists at all is the problem,and it perpetuates the silencing of our concerns — leading to marginalized people leaving white-male-dominated industries altogether.

But it’s not like your approach can be called “non-hostile” itself. In Rust, you badly denigrate people who want to play as the race they are just as PoC want to play as the race they are … or so they say. You denigrate people for simply producing a game based on their own minority viewpoint, and accuse them of dehumanizing you because they wanted to avoid the hassle of trying to deal with the issues that people on your side will raise if they try to include races into that setting. You insist that the objections come from a perspective of being catered to as opposed to legitimate complaints about how this isn’t actually done in service of a fun game. While the reactions may well be more hostile than deserved, you do have to take some responsibility for taking an aggressive line with people and silencing their concerns while complaining that others are silencing yours. If you want a discussion, discuss, don’t dictate. And if you say that your opponents are dictating and not discussing, find the ones who are discussing. They exist, and you might benefit from listening to them specifically.

Thoughts on Sam & Max

June 29, 2015

So, I recently updated my list of games to finish with the three seasons of the Telltale Sam & Max games, which I’ve just finished. I decided to add them there despite them not being on the list originally because I made a concerted effort to try to finish them, and decided to add them by season because each game is too short to really be counted as a game, but just putting all three seasons as one entry seemed wrong. Anyway, here are some thoughts on them.

I didn’t care for Season 3 as much as Season 1 and Season 2. The main reason for this is that it seemed, to me, that Season 3 was more like episodes of a TV show than it was like a game. Given my love of walkthroughs, the games tended to seem like “Do these actions, get a cutscene, do some more, get another cutscene” and so on and so on. Which is why the noir detective parts of “They Stole Max’s Brain” worked best for me, since that literally was what you were doing so it was more entertaining, but when it dived back into having to do multi-part puzzles where the pay off was another cutscene rather than known progress, and where most of the humour and plot was in the longer cutscenes and not just in the short reactions to what you did, then it really seemed like I was just clicking on things to get to the next cutscene. And the humour in the third season isn’t a good as it was in the previous two seasons, so much of the time I got a cutscene that wasn’t particularly interesting.

Admittedly, the fun in Sam & Max games is not in actually solving the puzzles, but is more in seeing the odd and funny asides that the game has to offer. This means that you should take actions that won’t further the plot and ask about everything you can just to see what they say. I did this for most of the first season, but didn’t in the second and third seasons. In the first season, I typically tried to solve the puzzles myself first and tried to find the hints for them, and only went to the walkthrough when I couldn’t think of anything to do. This meant that I got more actions and talked to the characters more, which was more entertaining. The fact that you could generally do things out of order and still have solve the puzzles helped to make this a safe option. But in season 2 I found that I was clueless a lot faster — almost immediately — and so ended up developing the habit of just going to the walkthrough right away instead of thinking about it. Considering how counter-intuitive and spread out some of the puzzles were in season 3, this was probably a good move. But it did mean that I didn’t explore as much as you really should in a Sam & Max game.

That being said, I enjoyed the games and am glad I finished them. If you like Sam & Max, they’re worth getting, and if you follow the walkthrough or are good with puzzles you can finish an episode in a couple of hours, making it a good game when you don’t have a lot of time to play.

The Damsel In Distress Role in Video Games

June 22, 2015

So, after promising to talk about the “Tropes vs Women” videos over two months ago, I’m finally going to sit down and start talking about them. Well, kinda. See, the main reason for the delay was that I thought I had a lot to say about the first video, but on re-reading it turned out that I actually didn’t have a lot to say about that video, as some of the points that I thought I wanted to talk about there were actually expressed or better expressed in later videos. But I still had a rather long introductory discussion to do about how the damsel in distress fits into games, which I think is a bit different than how it fits into other media. Thus, I decided to make a post just about that before going on to the video itself. And then as is my wont I put it off for a bit while posting about atheism.

I’d worry that this would leave me further behind in talking about her videos, except that she’s done only two videos since my introductory post, one of which I’ve talked about, so it’s not like her pace is that rapid either [grin].

Anyway, to understand the role of the damsel in distress in games beyond the simple general trope that’s ubiquitous in all media, you first have to understand what is different about the gaming experience from, say, reading a book or watching a movie. The key difference is that in a game, the “observer” is not really just an observer, but is instead an active participant in the story. This means, as Shamus Young once opined (in frustration at Travis in “Silent Hill: Homecoming”) that a game not only needs to provide reasons for the character to do something, but also — and, I think, primarily — has to provide reasons for the player to do something. In a movie, if the character is doing stupid things for stupid reasons that might not break immersion as long as that is portrayed consistently. Even in a game, in a cutscene you might be able to get away with having the PC do something stupid if that’s part of the portrayal of the character. But in the actual game itself, for the actions that the player does, if you try to force the player to take a knowingly stupid action you end up with Stupidity Is the Only Option combined with But Thou Must … which frustrates players to no end.

And even having the character do it in a cutscene doesn’t always work, because in a game — particularly customizable RPGs — the player can associate themselves with the character, and then be jarred when the character does something that they, personally, would never, ever do. From this, we can see that the difference is in how immersion works. In a movie, you are immersed in it if you are accepting what you are seeing as if it was real and a reflection of real life. In a game, you are immersed in it if you feel that you are actually doing those things and that those things are happening to you, or a reasonable facsimile of you. In a movie, you get jarred out of immersion when you realize that this isn’t or can’t actually be what’s happening, and are reminded that you are just watching a movie. In a game, you get jarred out of immersion when it stops being about you and starts being about the characters in the game. Good games can transition that to the sort of immersion that you get while watching a movie, but it’s still a shift from the sort of immersion that is unique to games.

So, at the heart of video games is the challenge to find reasons for the player to start playing the game and — more importantly — to find reasons for them to continue playing the game. The simplest ways to do this were, in fact, the first: either to achieve a new high score/complete more levels (eg Pac-Man, Asteroids) or to win the game against someone else (eg Pong, Combat). These are fine as they go, but they don’t easily foster any kind of emotional commitment to playing the game except for those who either really care about beating their last high score or who have friends that they really want to beat. There are a large number of people who are interested in playing games who don’t care that much about that. Also, this led to a notion of “beating the game”, as limits were built in to early games, and that was then added as a potential motivation.

But we can see in games like Defender and Missile Command that giving the player a reason to start the game and for their character to be doing things adds more to the game, and gives them an emotional and maybe even personal motive for trying to do better. In Defender, you can try to save more humans, or keep them alive longer, which essentially makes what would essentially be simply strategic assets have a personal meaning to you; these are actually people. In Missile Command, you’re saving cities. While at this point the personal aspects aren’t fully integrated into the games, we can see how there’s a push to get the player more personally involved in the game, beyond just trying to keep themselves alive.

This leads to another way to keep the player playing: build in a narrative, and a real ending to the game. If you add a story to the game, the player will keep playing to see how the story turns out. For arcade games, this is a wonderful add-on to the existing “beat the game” motivation, as now you aren’t just trying to beat the game, but are instead trying to resolve the story and see how it turns out. Adapting the original “Save the world” sort of story works well for this, but there are others as well.

From there, it’s only a short hop from taking “Save a loved one” as a motivation, as we see in games like Donkey Kong, where that’s the motivation. But just as we see in movies and novels, we get massive impact from combining the two, if for no other reason that what the Green Goblin espoused in one of the Spider-man movies: it lets you force the player into a sadistic choice, to either save the world … or save their loved one. This lets you build far deeper plots and conflicts into your game, which is critical for making RPGs and games with RPG elements.

Now, it’s true that adding the damsel in distress trope almost certainly followed on from how that trope was represented in other media that games adopted, as well as from the fact that at the time, at least, games were seen as a “guy thing”. But there are other reasons to think that the best relationship to exploit for these sorts of plots is indeed the “true love” relationship, given the unique nature of games. Remember, in a game you need to convince the player that they should care about the person they need to rescue, not just establish that the character cares about that person. So let’s look at the most obvious “loved one” relationships. We can have the loved one be the parent/mentor of the PC, the child, the sibling or the true love. But there are potentially issues with most of these that might reduce the emotional impact:

1) A parent/mentor might be seen as having lived a full life, and so when the PC is faced with the sadistic choice it may be very easy to choose to save the world instead. I suspect that a lot of the puzzlement over “One More Day” in Spider-man is because while the creators thought that it would be obvious that Peter would do anything to save Aunt May’s life, most of the fans thought that she didn’t have much longer to live anyway, so it made no sense to, essentially, give up the future for the past.

2) A child works well for parents, but not as well for people who are not parents and for children. Also, if the villain has to hurt or threaten the loved one in a strong way, violence against children is generally seen as being far more evil than it would be to an adult, so you might risk your villain turning into a far more evil villain than you wanted, which is especially important for more nuanced stories in games.

3) While in general siblings count as loved ones, there are enough rivalries between them both in real life and in stories that more of the audience might find it harder to make that emotional connection.

But the true love (mostly) avoids these problems. While children might not have been in love yet, the trope is so common that they’ll all pretty much get it if they’ve ever been exposed to fairy tales. The true love has as full a life ahead of them as the PC, and are seen as a key component to that happy life. Therefore, there’s lots you can do here, and it’s pretty easy to do. Now, of course, all of these have been done and done effectively in games, and will continue to be done and done effectively in games, but using the true love is just so much easier to do that it’s a natural choice when you want to set this up.

Now, if you’re going for true love, as most protagonists are male you’re definitely going to end up with predominantly female “distress objects”, let’s call them. The overall narrative in almost all other works of male hero and female damsel also feeds into this. But the good news is that as games move towards more female protagonists, the same pressures should lead to less female damsels (unless there are other issues, which we’ll look at when we look at “Dude in Distress”), despite Sarkeesian’s skepticism.

Essentially, the loved one in distress trope is a powerful tool in motivating players — and especially players that are immersed in the game — to continue on and try to win the game. The true love motivation is the most powerful of those. So it in and of itself doesn’t need to change and to try to eliminate or minimize it would greatly hurt games, in my opinion. So if there is an issue here, it’s going to have to be with how it is handled, not its mere presence.

If I only chose female protagonists when given the choice …

June 19, 2015

… what percentage of the games I play would have female protagonists?

That’s what Jason Thibeault opines, in an aside in a post that I’m not going to talk about. At all. So don’t ask me.

In this playthrough, I’m playing a female Courier (I’ve long said that if I always choose playing a woman in the games I get that give me the choice, I might come close to 40% female representation!).

This got me wondering if the same would be said about me. I don’t generally play FPSs, and so tend towards Western and JRPGs. Given that, could I come close to or even beat that 40%? Let’s find out.

(At the time of writing this, I don’t know what the percentage is. So we really will find out together).

Anyway, the first thing to do is to try to get a representative list of the games I play or have played. Given that I’ve been playing games for decades, trying to find all of them is likely to be a long process. So, for the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to rely on two things. First, my not-yet-updated List of Games to Finish, including the finished ones. And to supplement that, my Most Memorable Games. Between the two of them, we should get a long enough list of games to make analysis meaningful while being representative enough of the games I’m playing to have that work out. I’ll add a couple that I note missing as well.

So, then, what counts as a game with a female protagonist? For these purposes, it’s a game where you can play a significant amount of the time as a female protagonist. For example, Suikoden III would count because you play as Chris for a significant portion of the game, and can make her the main protagonist. A party-based game like X-Men: Madness in Murderworld would also count because Storm and Dazzler are main characters. But if you only have a small sequence as a female protagonist, then it wouldn’t count. I’ll give more details on odd cases as we go along.

Note that I’m also going to leave off generic strategy games, as those don’t really have a protagonist at all, so it wouldn’t be fair to assign them arbitrarily to male or female protagonist. For simplicity, let’s limit it to games that have a protagonist. Also note that I eliminated completely any games where it would be really, really hard to say whether it counted or not.

So, with that out of the way, onto the list:

Shadow Hearts: Covenant M
Fatal Frame II F
Fatal Frame III F
Final Fantasy X M
.hack (4 games) M
Suikoden M
Disgaea 2 M
Silent Hill 2 M
Silent Hill 3 F
Mana Khemia M
Mana Khemia 2 F
Growlanser: Generations M
Grim Grimoire F
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne M
Oblivion F
Dragon Age: Origins F
Catherine M
Record of Agarest War Zero M
Record of Agarest War 2 M
Skyrim F
Saints Row the Third F
Enchanted Arms M
Folklore F
Disgaea 3 M
Cross Edge M
Overlord M
Overlord 2 M
L.A. Noire M
Persona 4: Arena F (All fighting games where you can go through the whole fight as a female character will count for this)
Mass Effect F
Mass Effect 2 F
Mass Effect 3 F
X-Men: Destiny F
Baldur’s Gate 2 F
Icewind Dale F
Icewind Dale 2 F
Fallout F
Fallout 2 F
The Witcher 2 M
The Old Republic F
Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday F
Gold Box AD&D (9 games) F (You can create a full party of female characters in almost all of these).
Persona M
Persona 2: Innocent Sin M
Persona 3 F (The P3P version allows the choice of a female protagonist)
Persona 4 Golden M
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time M
Conception II M
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love M
Space 1889 F (Party-based again)
Fatal Frame F
City of Heroes F
Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom M
Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII F (Yes, you can create a female character to play as when you create your own)
Knights of the Old Republic F
Knights of the Old Republic 2: Sith Lords F
Suikoden III F
Wizardry 8 F
Defender of the Crown M
Dark Age of Camelot F
X-Men Legends: Rise of Apocalypse F (You could choose to use mainly or maybe even only the female characters)
Shadow Hearts M
The Sims F
Infiltrator M
Turrican M
Pirates! M
X-Men: Legends F
Marvel Ultimate Alliance F
Wizardry: Tales of the Forsaken Land M
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age M
X-Men: Next Dimension F (Fighting game again)
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe F (Ditto)
Injustice: Gods Among Us F (Ditto)
Tropico M
Tropico 3 (I think) F (Now allows you to use a female avatar)

So that’s 86 games total, if I did the math right. I’ve marked with “F” for female protagonist (choice or sole) 49 games. That’s about 57% of the games. Even if you doubt some of my calculations, none of the games that I’ve marked as “F” would end up being games that should be considered as “M” games, where you can only play as a male protagonist. They’d be gray area games that I’d have to drop from the list.

This means two things:

1) It means that my personal assessment of the amount of female protagonists — even just as a choice — in the games I play is pretty accurate; in the games I play, I can or must play as a female protagonist for at least a significant portion of the game over half the time.

2) That if Thibeault is right in his rough, semi-joking self-assessment, then this highlights the differences in genres. Even on my list, most of the games that were marked as “M” were either JRPGs or older games, while most of the ones marked as “F” were either newer games or Western RPGs. There were vanishingly view FPSs. Most of the people who complain about the typical “dudebro” protagonist play FPSs. So maybe it has less to do with games and more to do with the genres of games that they play.

Anyway, it was an interesting exercise, even if I don’t think it really proved anything beyond “There are a lot more games out there where you can play as female characters than people think”.

The daily grind …

May 22, 2015

So, I recently revamped my gaming schedule. The most important change is that I dropped Conception II off for a while, because it was a bit too grindy for me. It worked when I was going to have something to watch while doing the grinding, but that’s kinda fading, and so I figured I’d just wait until I had more time or more interest again. And so I replaced it with … Record of Agarest War Zero, which is also a very grindy game. Huh?

Anyway, this and some discussions over at Shamus Young’s site got me thinking about what grinding really was. To me, grinding is when you do some repetitive task over and over again for the sole purpose of gaining some kind of specific reward. Generally, this is to get more experience so that you can gain levels, but you could also be doing it to gain a specific item or skill or advantage or whatever. The point is that you’re deliberately trying to do that behaviour while at the same time it’s not done because you want to do that behaviour, but instead to get you something else.

So, let me highlight this with some examples. In Conception II, the game is grindy because to get the right set of levels for your Star Children and your companions, you often need to run through the combats and dungeons again and again. Record of Agarest War Zero also has that to get all of your party members at an appropriate level for the combats. Persona 3 also had a grind where you explored Tartarus for no other reason than to get the levels you needed to face the full moon boss. In all of these, what you’re doing is engaging in combat for no other reason than to gain levels. If you gained enough levels through the normal mechanisms, you wouldn’t be forcing yourself into combat at all. You can contrast this with games like Suikoden III, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, and even TOR. You probably have as many combats in those games as you do in the grindy games, but because of their systems you generally aren’t fighting just to gain levels. In all of those games, you end up fighting a lot just to get from place to place, so your goal is to get to that location and the combat is just what you have to do to get there. It can still be incredibly annoying, but it isn’t grinding and so is a different experience from when you are fighting repetitive enemies over and over and over again just to get the XP boost.

In comments I read, people complained that grinding was used to extend the game and make it seem longer. Explicit grinding is an absolutely terrible way to do that, because players figure out very quickly that they are just doing this to get levels, and without another goal it’s very easy to get bored. The model of games like TOR works better, by extending the game by forcing more combat on you, but doing it in a way that it’s an impediment to what you want to do, which means that you always have some other goal in mind, and these are just the slightly boring things that are thrust upon you while you are trying to do that. In short, in TOR I end up — especially playing in the off-hours like I do — killing lots and lots and lots of enemies, and getting lots of experience and even overlevelling quite a bit. The only things that I do deliberately to do that are to use experience boosting items and to make sure that I do any bonus quests that I can do. I don’t try to farm areas to gain levels, or spend time fighting just for the sake of gaining levels. Instead, I fight and I fight and I fight and I fight just to get from place to place. While I’m not sure that TOR’s balance on that is right, it’s a heck of a lot better than games where I have to “street sweep” just to get to the next level so I can take on the next mission.

Ultimately, successful games make you forget that you’re playing a game. But grinding, as I define it, is done consciously with an eye on the gameplay elements; you do it because you know you need to hit some kind of explicit, gameplay number in order to advance properly. Hiding grinding behind in-game goals as the annoyance you have to get through to get that is still not particularly fun, but it’s a lot better than the alternative. Once you get me thinking that this is a game, you start getting me thinking that the game isn’t a fun game, and then I stop playing it … and don’t play the sequel.

Talk to the (Invisible) Hand

May 4, 2015

So, in response to Vox Day’s comment on Gamergate, over at Butterflies and Wheels Ophelia turned a comment by Marcus Ranum into a guest post, a post that, along with a pair of comments strikes me as far, far less of a good, solid argument for how gaming is working and will work in the future and far more as an example of someone who really, really doesn’t know anything about the media that he’s talking about. Thus, to me it provides an excellent example of why even gamers who aren’t particularly “Gamergatery” will often roll their eyes at the “Gamers are dead” articles.

Ranum’s main thrust in the post is that Gamergaters are fighting against the invisible hand of the market, which is changing on them, and that they, being libertarians, ought to support that. Well, okay, maybe he’s only talking about people like Vox Day. I’ll forgive him for that since it started as a comment and comments aren’t always clear. But his first big misstep is to compare the situation to that of pornography:

Sure, there is a smaller market for ‘hard core’ (i.e.: guy) gamers but it risks being marginalized out of the mainstream, which will mean that those games won’t be very well-funded or good. Sort of like how cis porn split off from the Hollywood mainstream and maintained its ‘independence’ in return for acquiring an unenviable cachet.

Okay, first, in terms of market … pornography is massively successful. I mean, the reason you can’t search for anything on the Internet without finding it is because of how massively commercially successful it is. Sure, it’s not “mainstream” like regular movies are, but considering that it can only appeal to a smaller market — adults who are willing to consume it — it’s massively successful. If “guy” games end up as relatively successful as porn, I think they’ll take that. Second, he has the causation completely backwards. It is not the case that pornography was pushed out of the mainstream and so gained an unenviable cachet, but instead it is the case that because pornography was considered to, in fact, be sleazy and shady that it was pushed out of the mainstream, pretty much solely because it had to do with unvarnished sexual content, which offended the prudish sensibilities of the time. Thus, it wasn’t the invisible hand of the market that pushed it out of the mainstream, but instead social pressures that said that talking about and showing sex was a bad thing, something that is lessened today but still exists. And it’s hard to say how well-funded or good pornography is, because it doesn’t have to be well-funded or good to sell, and what it would mean for pornography to be good is debatable anyway. You certainly won’t get A-list actors and writers working on them, but then how many people really want that in their pornography? That’s not how that is judged. For these “guy” games, more is probably going to be required, as it certainly is now. Oh, and note that the complaints against “guy” games are not, in fact, over the gameplay, but over the representations of the characters in them, and so is based more on specific plots, costumes, and so on and so forth. So the games, at least in terms of gameplay, are probably good now and will continue to be good later. So there is no evidence that if the anti-Gamergaters or Social Justice Gamers or whatever they should be called get their way that games, as games, will improve in quality. Heck, even if we just take Hollywood as an example, you might well be able to argue that in terms of quality Hollywood movies are declining while pornography is increasing, and in general that’s probably actually because of the invisible hand of the market, as since there’s more competition in pornography there is room for new approaches and you have to step up your game to bring in the bucks, which is not true for Hollywood.

Candy Crush has 93 million people playing it every day – a bit more than half of which are women. 8 million people play Farmville. Those are big numbers. They’re right up there with big ‘hard core gamer’ franchises like Call of Duty (100 million) and then there are the mega-game franchises like World of Warcraft that held 12-20 million gamers for 12 years paying $15/month. The point is that it doesn’t matter at all what the gamergaters think: the market is going to change in spite of them; they are nothing but the sound of defeat.

This is a standard talking point, but it’s relevance to the discussion isn’t that clear. As an example, when in a comment someone says that they don’t want to play Candy Crush, Ranum replies:

Don’t, then. I don’t, either.

Presuming that both parties are gamers, and that I’m a gamer and don’t want to play that either, how can they know that the numbers from those games will carry over from the mobile market to regular consoles? It actually isn’t very likely that if you simply ported Farmville or Candy Crush to a console or to the PC that it will have the success that it’s having on mobile platforms. It seems to me that those sorts of games work best on a mobile platform, which has differing requirements and, I’d say, audiences. Mobile games, it seems to me, are similar to Sudoku and crossword puzzles and surfing the web on your mobile phone: they’re something that you do to keep yourself occupied while you’re sitting around doing nothing, like taking the bus to work in the morning or waiting for your car to get out of the shop. These games are, however, highly addictive, and will indeed creep into every spare moment you have … but it doesn’t seem like something that people will deliberately plan into their schedule. So, these games won’t, at least in the minds of the players, be a hobby to them. But gaming is, in fact, a hobby, and that applies to casual and hardcore gamers alike. The main difference is the amount of time the two sorts of gamers allocate to that hobby, not their attitude that games are an important and specific passtime or hobby for them. If this is correct, then mobile “gamers” aren’t gamers, and what they do there isn’t going to have that much impact on gaming as a hobby, because no matter how the companies try to drag them away from their mobiles and into the world of dedicated gaming, it won’t work. They aren’t interested in games as a hobby, but instead as games as something to do while they’re waiting or bored.

As an example, you know those games that you typically find in every Windows installation, like Solitaire and Minesweeper? They’re massively popular and played at least at times by, well, pretty much everyone with a Windows system, right? Now, how much impact have they had on dedicated gaming? Not a whole heck of a lot, right? In my opinion, these mobile games are far more like those games than they are like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft.

Moving into the first comment:

In gaming that customer-base exists but it’s moving away from violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups. There’s not likely to be an effort to prevent people from making crappy games – any more than there will be an effort to stop Vox Day and John Wright from churning out turgid prose – it’s just going to appeal to a proportionately smaller part of the market.

Okay, and on what grounds are you claiming that those “violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups” are bad games. Sarkeesian called out as problematic games like Dragon Age: Origins (which is certainly violent) and the Hitman series. Others have criticized Bayonetta for its over-sexualized content while even conceding that the gameplay is, in fact, good. For the most part, the criticisms are not leveled against games that, well, just plain suck. They are, in fact, leveled against good games, with good gameplay and good graphics and the whole nine yards. Which actually should be obvious, as there’s no reason to complain about elements that turn you off of certain games if you didn’t want to play them in the first place. The games that are “crappy” from the perspective of production values and gameplay, and what are definitely the niche market right now, are ironically the games that the Social Justice Gamers push: Gone Home, Depression Quest, Papers, Please, and so on. And the reason for that is that they are done by independent studios who don’t have the budget for really high production values, and right now the “violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups” are done by the big studios who have that budget. And they make those sorts of games because that’s what the market, at least right now, seems to want.

At which point we can again see that the Social Justice Gamers’ method is not to let the invisible hand of the market deal with this. What they want to do is exactly what happened with pornography: push it out of the mainstream not through market forces, but through social forces. Make those sorts of games be seen as sleazy, shady, icky, or bad from a social perspective so that people will feel ashamed for wanting to make or play them, even if they still want to. So, instead of letting the market drive the evolution of games, use social shaming to push the market to what you want it to be, regardless of what everyone else wants. If this succeeds, then, yes, the “guy” games will be the indie games that thus have lower production values and so aren’t as good … but if the market is there for those games, then they’ll still exist, and might be more successful at the indie level than the Social Justice Gamer games are.

That being said, it’s hard to see how this can, in fact, work, because the Social Justice Gamer complaints aren’t generally about specific genres of games, but about specific tropes or elements of those games. FPSs, RPGs, RTSs and the traditional genres of games are not, in fact, likely to go away, especially since their gameplay is, as stated above, a lot of fun. Social Justice Gamers are not going to get rid of games like Star Wars: Battlefront or Call of Duty or whatever, and they don’t want to. Nor will they get rid of games like Grand Theft Auto or Hitman or Saint’s Row, where you play as, essentially, the “bad guy”, and again nor will they want to. So, those games will not be replaced by Social Justice Games like Depression Quest or Gone Home. The best they can hope for on that score is that more of those sorts of games will be made … but that definitely seems like a niche market if I’ve ever seen one. So, the best that they can hope for is that some of the most annoying — to them — tropes are toned down or stop being the dominant paradigms. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But that’s hardly going to be some kind of major revolution that will push “gamers” out of the picture.

In the last comment, he starts to take credit for market forces that existed long before Social Justice Gamers made a real impact and were made for reasons totally unrelated to their concerns:

At Blizzcon last year I had a chance to ask one of the panelists from Blizzard’s design team about representation of body self-image in Blizzard games and he replied that it’s a thing they are extremely aware of and generally try hard to represent a wide range of body types and skin colors, etc (hey, you can be green if you want!) and genders in their games. Blizzard Gets This. It probably isn’t sheer coindence that World of Warcraft caters to wide ranges of looks and roles, as well as having roles that are not purely violent (as well as roles that are) — there is a lot of space for players to find identity and – ta-da! A lot of players do, in fact, find identity. Blizzard’s revenues speak for themselves. Meanwhile, Duke Nukem games are .. “unspecified date” Even heavy shoot-em-ups like Bungie’s Destiny are gender-neutral and steer completely away from gendered violence. Blizzard, Bungie, … et tu, Rockstar. Wait for GTA 6 and I bet you’ll find an interesting female protagonist and a lot fewer women in throwaway roles as strippers and punching bags. The gamergaters have actually done a service to gaming by pitching their little shit-fit and putting Sarkeesian (in particular) in the role of the adult voice at the table.

So, where to start? First, the only “unspecified date” for a Duke Nukem game is “Duke Begins”, which was announced as a reboot that they would start after “Aliens: Colonial Marines” completed … which was in 2013. And it had a negative reception. And, oddly enough, what was it praised for?

The few positive reviews praised the single-player game setting, the game’s soundtrack, the level designs, the weaponry and character customization options as well as the multiplayer versus mode of the game

So, it wasn’t criticized for any of the things that Social Justice Gamers complain about, and was praised for doing the things that Ranum says are responsible for Blizzard’s success. So, somehow, the reason that the same company might not have a reboot of a franchise with a due date out for two years after their last game that presumably would have been a model for the basic gameplay, when that model was poorly received and problematic, must be something related to Social Justice Gamer principles instead of those, well, obvious problems. Hey, how long did it take Atlus to say when Persona 5 was going to be out, which was a follow-up to two massively popular and well-received games that they therefore knew that they were going to make a sequel to?

Also, it’s not reasonable to compare Blizzard and Gearbox because they work in completely different genres, and Blizzard hit the jackpot with World of Warcraft. And the body type and gender customization in Blizzard games, in fact, follow from that … or, at least, it follows from the RPG games like World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is an MMORPG. MMORPGs got their start from RPGs. Western RPGs have always adopted a more sandbox style of game, where the real fun of the game is in customizing your character and making that character the character you want rather than focusing on you playing as a specific character with a set history and story, which is a sharp contrast to JRPGs. This is because they started from the D&D PnP model, which focused on that sort of thing and so had the choice of gender from, oh, pretty much the beginning. Which is not how FPSs went, for contrast. So, when MMOs came out, they always had the choice of gender, and a fair amount of customization of appearance, because that’s what RPGs did, and that’s the model they followed. WoW is actually, from my understanding, a bit constrained with respect to that when compared to games like “City of Heroes” or “Champions Online”. It’s not even clear that they’re that much better than Dark Age of Camelot was, which had multiple races inside each realm and even had a female-avatar-only class (at least Bainshee) which was appropriate. This was not done to appeal to female gamers or to allow people to better play as themselves, but rather to make it easier for them to play as other people. So when Ranum crows that game publishers “get it” … what does he think they’re getting? Social Justice Gamer ideals? At that point, he’s taking credit for the work that gamers — you know, those people that are claimed to be “dead”, outdated and are going to be marginalized and go away — actually did and pushed for long before these guys stuck their noses in. Whether they do it for the same reasons, many gamers want the same things as the Social Justice Gamers want and work for that. Gamers want more customization because it makes for a better game for them. Gamers want better female characters because better characters in general are more fun for them. Gamers want more diversity among protagonists because playing as the exact same sort of character all the time gets boring after a while. Gamers can even understand the idea that at least some elements in games might have to change to get more women involved in them. So why has the assault been against gamers or hardcore gamers … many of whom aren’t opposed to the changes?

Also, note that Destiny is “gender-neutral” in precisely the same way as MMOs are: you can decide your gender but it doesn’t matter mechanically. Which means that it isn’t “gender-neutral” at all when compared to FPSs, since most of them don’t let you create a gender, and so force you to one. Destiny actually allows you to define and work with your gender, and it does this because of the influence of MMORPGs, which as I’ve already pointed out have done that for decades. So, again, what are they “getting” by doing that? They’re using standard gaming tropes where you’d expect them to use them. Oh, the revolution.

Which carries on into the last part of the comment:

No, not all games will look like Candy Crush. They’ll probably look more like Destiny and Mass Effect. You can play a female avatar or a male avatar. And you can wear a ton of armor that covers your body, or a pink lame bikini, regardless of your gender.

Um … that’s how games are now, and have been for years and years, outside of the cross-dressing part (which has existed in a number of games already, most notably Fable. I don’t expect this to be common until/unless it’s easier to just apply all armours and outfits to all avatars than it is to restrict it to certain types). Knights of the Old Republic II: Sith Lords in fact literally had the option of the slave girl costume or various sets of robes for a female protagonist … and the protagonist is canonically female in Sith Lords. Mass Effect is done by the same people, and they essentially just stuck with the model that worked for them starting way back in Baldur’s Gate, and that model started from long before that. As I’ve said before the future is now!. Games are already doing as standards the very things you want them to do. Get your head out of your narrow, FPS-inspired box and immerse yourself in the world of what games really are.

It’s no wonder that gamers roll their eyes so much at the Social Justice Gamers when they reveal the depth of their ignorance of what games are like and yet see fit to pronounce on what games ought to be and what they’re doing wrong. Sarkeesian is not the adult voice at the table, but is the person loudly complaining about how bad the rules are while not knowing what the rules actually are, which means that she hits on some good points, but they are points that others already have complained about, while she presents her ideas as ideas that no one else has thought of before. Well, okay, to be fair to Sarkeesian she herself doesn’t present herself as being original as much as her supporters do, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in general, Social Justice Gamers tend to advocate for things that gamers in general have long advocated for and tend to take credit for their “influence” in getting the things that gamers already managed to get without them. If Social Justice Gamers would work with and listen to gamers more instead of trying to shame them for things they don’t do, things would probably go a lot better for them.

Criticism and Criticism

May 1, 2015

So, Vox Day did an interview where, among other things, he talked about Gamergate. Dave Futrelle at “We Hunted the Mammoth” talked about a key part in it, at least to Futrelle. Day said:

… what Gamergate is fundamentally about is the right of people to design, develop and play games that they want to design, develop and play without being criticized for it.

Futrelle replied to that:

Which is an. er, interesting perspective, as there is in fact no “right” to be immune from criticism.

If you write a book, if you make a movie, if you post a comment on the internet — you should be ready for it to be criticized. Because that’s how free speech works. That’s how art works. And that’s how ideas work.

Criticism — whether it is positive or negative — helps to sharpen ideas and make art less self-indulgent; it pushes creators to hone their craft and expand their vision of the world. And it helps the consumers of art not only to look at art with a more critical eye but also to appreciate it more fully, by helping to draw out the more subtle meanings of this art and to put it in a broader cultural (social, political) perspective.

Of course, neither the artists nor the consumers of art are required to listen to this criticism, but they have no right to demand that such criticism be eliminated.

I think there’s a bit of equivocation on the term “criticism” going on here, because there’s a difference between being criticized for your project and being criticized for how you execute your project, and while the criticism that Futrelle defends here is the latter, I suspect that Day is complaining about the former … and that a lot of the people criticizing games, particularly from a social justice perspective, are doing the former, and not the latter.

So, then … what is the difference between the two? The kind of constructive criticism is the one that takes what your goal was into account and what you were trying to do, and analyzes and criticizes how that was implemented. So, if you were setting out to make a hard-boiled, noir-style detective piece, it would take that as a given, take the tropes as given, and look at how well you managed to achieve that. Knowing that you were aiming at that sort of work, it wouldn’t criticize the work for including the very elements that would make that sort of work, well, what you were trying to make it. It wouldn’t say that these sorts of works are terrible and so you should have done something else instead. It would look at how well you managed to do what you were trying to do, and how well that worked. Criticizing the project, on the other hand, would be arguing that the goal you yourself had and the work you were trying to create was not worthy of being created; you should not have set out to produce a work of that type. That’s generally not helpful in any way; it almost always comes across as someone complaining about a genre or sub-genre that they don’t like and saying that the creator should have, instead, made the sort of work that the critic likes instead … no matter how many people like that sort of work and regardless of the sort of work that the creator, you know, actually wanted to do.

Now, there are, of course, some gray areas here. It is a perfectly valid and useful criticism to say that the work should have been done in a different genre because it wasn’t effective at one of its primary goals. So, for example, I might be able to say that “Atlas Shrugged” should not have been written as a fictional/sci-fi work, because the philosophical elements make it not very entertaining fiction and the need to shoe-horn the philosophy into a fictional world makes it hard to really see how the philosophy works (note that I’ve never read the book and my only experience with it is through Adam Lee’s series on it, with is not exactly unbiased), but even there the main criticism is that the stated and known main goal of the creator isn’t being effectively met by the chosen medium and that they could have achieved that better with a different approach. What is isn’t saying is that a book advocating Objectivism is not something that any author ought to create because that project, in and of itself, isn’t one worth doing.

Which, then, gets into the Social Justice driven criticisms of many things, including gaming: they really often do come across as criticizing the project itself and not its implementation. From Futrelle:

Indeed, that’s what most #Gamergaters mean when they talk about fighting “corruption in game journalism” — shutting down those writers and publications that have dared to critique the prejudices of a backward portion of the gaming universe that is hostile to any challenges to the status quo ante — particularly from women with opinions different from theirs. That’s what drove the outrage over the “death of gamer” articles last Fall. And that’s what has driven “critics” of Anita Sarkeesian from the start.

The key here is that line about “a backward portion of the gaming universe”, and then to remember what the criticisms actually are. Sarkeesian’s biggest complaints so far have been about the “Damsel in Distress” trope, and a couple of other ones. These are criticisms of the trope in general, not about specific instances. The “death of gamer” articles were all about how these backward sorts of games were going to all go away, without ever really saying what they were going to be replaced with, or what was actually going to go away. For the most part, the criticisms seemed to be about specific elements and genres and sub-genres that they wanted to go away, not about the implementation of those elements. And what I think Day is saying is that if someone, say, wants to create a standard and traditional damsel-in-distress, male-empowerment-fantasy sort of game, they should a) be able to be honest about that and b) if they are honest about that, shouldn’t be criticized for making that sort of game and not making some kind of Social Justice Approved ™ sort of game. If they say that they want to appeal to male gamers and not female gamers, that should, in fact, be okay, and they should not be criticized for making that audience their focus, beyond business reasons like “You’re ignoring a big market” or “You claim to be doing it because that’s what the audience is but, well, it isn’t”.

Now, of course, there is a gray area in here as well, because this touches on how people are represented in the work, and that can be a comment on presentation. For example, you could criticize differences in how a female Shepard is treated when compared to a male Shepard in Mass Effect — if there are any interesting differences — or in how men and women are, in general treated as a way to show how a different implementation could be more effective. And for any game that’s claiming to be general, talking about how the representations might look to women and how that might turn them away from the game is a perfectly valid criticism. But I think the key is how you respond to the game Scarlet Blade, which I think is obviously aimed at providing massive fanservice wrapped around a game. If you say that such a game is bad and should never, ever be made, and that the people who would make it are bad people, then I definitely think that Day will have a problem with you … and so will I. There is nothing inherently wrong with that sort of game, and it isn’t the case that such games should never be made. Scarlet Blade may or may not be a good game and it may not really achieve its goals, but someone saying “I want to make an explicitly fanservice game” is not grounds, in and of itself, for criticism. Or take Conception II. It’s a valid criticism to say that it is too risque for fans of Persona-style games and too tame for fans of adult dating sims and so won’t have a market, but it isn’t a valid criticism to say that the latter sort of games aren’t worth making.

So, criticizing someone because they want to do something you don’t like or don’t want them to do isn’t valid criticism of the sort that Futrelle defends. It might be what I called “Activism Criticism” … but I’m skeptical of the worth of that sort of criticism, and it certainly isn’t general, helpful criticism of the sort that Futrelle talks about. So, then, the question is still open: should one be immune from “Activism Criticism”?

Gaming the Movie …

April 29, 2015

So, due to having read some rather poor Aliens novels, I recently watched Alien and Aliens again. And the big thing that I noticed while watching them was that I remembered playing some very good games that I played based on them when I was younger. And then I thought that movie and book and other tie-ins have a very bad reputation in gaming circles, in that in general if the games aren’t complete and utter crap you’re incredibly lucky. And yet, there are three games I remember based only on the Aliens series that I’d say are, in fact, good, as the Alien 3 game is arguably better than the movie itself was.

So, what is it about these games that made them good? I thought about that for a bit, and it turns out that they don’t have a lot in common, at least in their approach to making the game. Alien was essentially an adventure-style game where you had certain items and weapons and had to get off the Nostromo, with a fairly open-ended way of doing things. It essentially took the essence of the movie, the characters, and some plot points and turned that into a game, but it didn’t really try to follow the movie precisely, and in fact actually tried to not do that. Aliens, on the other hand (at least in the version I played) took the key moments in the game and built individual mini-games out of them, often with radically different mechanics in each section (a bit like the “A View to a Kill” game which I enjoyed for a bit but never finished). Alien 3 dispensed with most of this entirely and turned the movie into a platforming shoot-’em-up which was as far as I can recall only a small part of the movie and so didn’t have a strong relation to it. Three different approaches, three different at least good games.

I think the key here when developing a game based on an existing work is to look at the work and ask yourself one question: how can I make a good game out of this? The easiest way to do that is to figure out what would make people want to, in fact, play in this world, and then give them those experiences. I think that’s what Alien did. Aliens took a second approach, which was to look at each section and see what sort of game would work for that section of movie, and then realize that in gameplay. Alien 3 essentially took the lazy way out and took existing fun gameplay and wrapped the theme around it, which means that for a movie that’s good it generally won’t capture what made the movie good and so will be panned, but with an inferior movie made for a better game by ignoring what didn’t work in the movie. The third approach has the problem, then, that it won’t be making a good game out of the source material, because it’s only shallowly interacting with it. The second approach runs into the issue of having to integrate too many game styles and so making the development more difficult and potentially having one specific section of the game bore some players so they stop playing it. The first approach can be hard to do. Alien naturally lent itself to that sort of game style, but Aliens would have been reduced to a simple FPS in most cases which wouldn’t nearly have been as much fun.

Ultimately, though, at the end of the day the key here is to focus your design on making a good game first, and staying true or reflecting the source material second. That does not mean that you ignore the source material until the end and paste it on later. That means that you understand that the source material is not going to make your game fun or entertaining or liked, and so you have to keep in mind that the game design has to do that for you, while keeping in mind that a lot of people are going to buy your game because of the source material but will stay because they had a blast in it. Too much of the time I think that these games are built on the premise that the source material will drive the sales and so that has to be the focus, leaving an inferior game as the result. And some games can’t even manage that.

Sarkeesian on Positive Female Characters

April 10, 2015

So, one of the things that I’ve been constantly pushing for from those criticizing the state of video games and particularly the portrayal of women in them are examples of good portrayals and games, for them to both talk up the games that do it right in their view and to outline what it is they want to see. Anita Sarkeesian has just done that, and hints that this is just the first video in an ongoing series on the topic. This is good. This is very good, in fact. I strongly support her doing this.

However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to criticize her choice, and here there seems to be a lot to, in fact, criticize.

Her first choice is the Scythian from the game “Sword & Sworcery”. As far as I can tell — and, as usual, I encourage you to read the transcript or watch the video yourself to see if you agree — the main reasons she thinks that this is a positive female character are:

1) The character is barely recognizable as a woman.

2) The character is barely recognizable as a character.

3) The character sacrifices herself at the end of the game (it’s part and parcel of the game mechanics).

Now, this summary is a little thin and not quite fair, because she does give reasons for each of those, which I’ll get into in a moment. But I want to take a step back and examine this outside of Sarkeesian’s general analysis, because her reasons do seem to follow from her own analysis and the requirements it entails. And stepping outside of things that she doesn’t like, my first blush reaction is to say that if a character is going to be a positive female character, it should be obvious from the start that the character is female. You shouldn’t be able to consider the character a male character for most of the game for it to make the list. The game could make the list if it subverts this properly — ie puts a female character in a male character role and deliberately doesn’t make it obvious that the character is female only to pull the rug out from under you at the end — but it’s hard to say that the character is a good representation of female characters if for most of the game the player thinks that they’re a male character, in my opinion. But I also think that to get the stamp of approval as a positive female character that they indeed have to be a character, and not just something that you impose your own traits on. When I originally did my list of top ten best female characters, my original comment on it was that I couldn’t do a similar list for male characters because they weren’t really characters, but were instead shells that you impose a personality on. I wouldn’t consider my create Baldur’s Gate characters great characters, or at least not in a way that I assign to the game itself, because all of that characterization comes from me, and not from the game itself. The Scythian has a bit more of a personality than that, but Sarkeesian is explicit that she is the blank slate that players project on, which means that she’s promoting the idea of a positive female character that is mainly what you want her to be.

So, what are Sarkeesian’s reasons? While she does make at least some of them explicit, I think we need to look at her overall assessment to really understand what she’s looking for:

When archetypal fantasy heroes in games are overwhelmingly portrayed as men, it reinforces the idea that men’s experiences are universal and that women’s experiences are gendered, that women should be able to empathize with male characters but that men needn’t be able to identify with women’s stories. Sword & Sworcery gives us a female protagonist and encourages us to see her as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman.

What I think she’s trying to do is get a female character into a traditionally male role without making the game about the main character being a woman. Essentially, the idea is to have the game work out in precisely the same way that it would with a male protagonist, except that it just happens to be a woman who is the lead instead of a man. When you tie this in with her own stated views, I think things become clear. The first point is to avoid “Ms. Male Character”, making the main character act just like a male character but adding some feminine fashion just to make it clear that the character is a woman. This is important, because the thrust here seems to minimize the impact the main character being a woman has on the game. The second point is to both facilitate it being no different than if the character was a man — and defining a character might well introduce differences — and to force players to “get inside the head”, as it were, of a female protagonist. The third point is to highlight that this is a woman with agency, and that her death is done due to her own choices and not just to service the plot of a male character.

The problem is that it seems to me that the way this was done impedes what she wants to see in a game. And to see that, we can look at my choice for a positive female protagonist, Miku Hinasaki from Fatal Frame. I explicitly reject what I think is Sarkeesian’s main push there: what makes Miku such a positive female protagonist is precisely because she isn’t just a female character stuffed into a male character’s shell/story, but that the game is different in ways that work better for a female character (for example, not relying on strength-based weaponry). Ultimately, we know from the start that Miku is a female character, and yet the game still doesn’t really play out any differently than it would with a male protagonist, highlighted by the fact that you start with Mafuyu and switch to Miku and the mechanics don’t change. If Sarkeesian wants players to empathize with women’s stories, then it has to be clear from the start that this story is a woman’s story, and ideally there would be things in it that are particular to it being a woman’s story, things that you wouldn’t get in a story from the perspective of a man. For example, while Sarkeesian might rightly see sexual assault threats in a game as being there for fanservice, the threat of sexual assault is something that women face and fear that men don’t (for the feminist argument for this, see “Shroedinger’s Rapist”). If a game can convey that threat from the perspective of the female main character such that even those who don’t face that normally can empathize and therefore feel and understand that fear, that seems to me to be the sort of thing that Sarkeesian wants: player empathizing with the woman’s perspective as women are expected to empathize with the man’s perspective normally. If all you do is stuff a woman into the precise same role as a man and nothing changes, all you’ve done is essentially put a female character into a man’s story, which does not seem to be what she’d want.

You can counter that the idea that the traditional heroic story is a man’s story is precisely the problem; women are just as heroic as men are. Which I concede, and is implied by my discussion of Fatal Frame and noting that the game doesn’t really change just because the main character is female. But to argue this, I think, undercuts a lot of the general criticisms of games that Sarkeesian makes, because it assumes that, in general, the stories in games are not tailored to a male audience and the male perspective, and that the only difference that matters is the gender of the character itself. In short, you have to argue that the games and characters themselves are mostly gender-neutral, and it’s only the gender of the main character that’s the issue. This would make most of her examinations pointless and explicitly refute about half of “Ms. Male Character”, so that’s probably not what you’d want to argue there.

So, if Sarkeesian wants female characters put into the same roles as male characters, it seems that she’d want them to be characters and to be readily identifiable as female characters from the start, so that players are forced to treat a female character in at least roughly the same way from the start. Also, if the game can indeed subtly shift the perspective somewhat so that players actually get to experience the perspective of a female character that’s definitely a bonus. Unless Sarkeesian wants to argue that the focus on the natural beauty of the world and not on combat and killing reflects that — which would be as much and as bad a sexist stereotype as the ones she criticizes — “Sword & Sworcery” doesn’t do that, which means that the Scythian does not seem to be a very good example of a positive female character.

Of course, Sarkeesian just be just overjoyed to have a female lead in this sort of epic, heroic tale at all. At which point, my only reply is that she seems to be easily impressed.


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