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

First Thoughts on Friday the 13th, The Series

October 21, 2016

So, I was actually looking at commentary on one of the early Friday the 13th video games, and ended up being reminded of an old TV show Friday the 13th, the series. I then managed to pick it up on Amazon, and have started watching it when baseball isn’t on (essentially, 1 – 2 episodes an evening). So far, I’m through the first two disks of the first season, and am actually enjoying it.

The pilot episode was, well, a bit rough. The plot didn’t have the oomph and detail of later episodes, and the acting was stilted in places. About the only thing it had going for it was that it featured an early role for Sarah Polley, who might well have turned in the best performance out of the entire cast. But, overall, the pilot wasn’t a particularly good episode.

However, the episodes I’ve seen after that have gotten a lot better. The acting has improved, but the best part is how all of the primary characters — Jack, Ryan and Micki — have fit in together and formed some good chemistry. In the first episode, the various roles weren’t really clear, but now we pretty much know where everyone fits: Jack is the, well, Jack-of-All-Trades and usually the person who explains the history and significance of the objects, Ryan does the heavy physical lifting and is the joker, and Micki is, at least in the early episodes, the person who doesn’t really want to be doing this, and who is probably the most freaked out by all of it — Jack has the experience and Ryan seems to find it cool — but who overcomes that to live up to her responsibility. She also shows herself to be quite clever at times, even if she falls into the damsel in distress role a few times.

And all of them relate to each other pretty much the way they ought to. They clearly care about each other, tease each other, and annoy each other at pretty much the right times. Their performances seem to almost always reflect that, even when they’re dealing with other things.

There are times when the dialogue and performances are still stilted and awkward, but it’s a great improvement over the pilot. Sometimes the plots move far too quickly and you end up at the end of the episode missing the development of, well, everything. But overall, it’s an entertaining show, and I’m enjoying watching it.

Thoughts on “Civil War”

October 14, 2016

So, I recently managed to watch “Captain America: Civil War”. My thoughts on it will contain spoilers, so I’ll put it below the fold:


And the winner is …

October 10, 2016

… Valkyria Chronicles Remastered, along with Record of Agarest War and Record of Agarest War 2.

I still wanted to play on the PS3 or PS4, because, well, it and the Vita are the easiest to play while watching TV, and the next couple of months will have lots of sports to watch, and I didn’t want to have to sacrifice one for the other. I also knew that I’d always be able to have something on TV no matter what, so it just generally worked the best. But I kept wanting to play Dragon Age: Origins again, but kept balking when faced with the fact that I’d want to play the entire series and that would mean that I’d have to play Inquisition again. I also considered Mass Effect, but while I could tolerate ME2 and ME3 better than DAI, I also didn’t want to play those games as badly. I considered the Persona games — starting from Persona — but wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy the first two games. I also considered a mix of games, but finally remembered that I had Valkyira Chronicles and that it might be fun, and also that while Record of Agarest War was grindy, grinding while watching sports wasn’t all that bad. Thus, the decision.

I started playing Valkyria Chronicles on Saturday. The game is … interesting. The gameplay is unique, as the combat is a hybrid of turn-based strategy and shooter. You select a squad member to “activate” in turn — as long as you have Command Points — and then you get dropped into essentially a shooter, where all enemies that can shoot at that character do shoot at that character, unless you drop into an action mode — like shooting an enemy — at which point the game pauses. And when the enemy is moving, your soldiers get to shoot at them. Thus, I learned in the second combat mission that sometimes it’s best to not activate some of your soldiers because then they will only get shot at during actual enemy combat actions, but will indeed still get to shoot at the enemy as they move. Sure, you might be able to do more damage if you get to shoot during both phases … but you take damage then, too.

That being said, that I had to replay the second mission so many times suggests that the combat might end up being too hard for me to finish the game.

I’m not that fond of the graphics in the cutscenes, with semi-realistic anime figures over almost crayon-drawing backgrounds. But the characters seem interesting, at least. And you get to fill out a squad with characters that not only have their own classes, and not only have their own properties that give bonuses in certain cases, but also like some of their squadmates, which presumably also gives some bonuses. That’s an impressive amount of personalization of those squadmates. The only thing that would make it better, at least for me, would be the ability to create your own squadmates.

Anyway, we’ll see how the game goes, and if I manage to get into/through the Agarest War games after that.

(If anyone is wondering about the context for this post, it’s here.)

Sorting …

October 5, 2016

So, when I first started this blog, I had a category called Philosophical Writer’s Guide, which was inspired by the Opinionated Guide at SF Debris. I did a few posts in that category, including the analysis of the Prime Directive and a full-form summary/review/analysis of the revamped Battlestar Galactica mini-series. I also have a category called Not-So-Casual Commentary, which started as a bunch of video game columns for a now defunct gaming site. Lately, I’ve started including movies and books and other things in the latter category, which left me wonder what there was for the previous category to do. Do I need both categories? Should I just put everything into “Not-So-Casual Commentary”?

Now I’m doing my in-depth Hugo analysis, and as I look back I note that the Philosophical Writer’s Guide includes a number of posts where I analyze the writing of works more in-depth. While I sometimes do stuff like that for video games, Not-So-Casual Commentary tends to be more, well, commentary, either quick discussions or discussions that focus on more than just the writing. Given that, I’ve made a decision on how to divide the content among the two categories:

1) Philosophical Writer’s Guide will contain posts where I get into the details of the writing or story or plot/characterization concepts used in a work. This will include the Hugo Award analysis posts. However, it will exclude commentary on video games.

2) Not-So-Casual Commentary will contain posts about video games, and then posts that either address all aspects of a work, or more shallow discussions of a work and what it contains.

There may still be some overlap, but that’s why you can put a post into more than one category, I guess [grin]. Hopefully, with this everyone will know which category they want to look at for what sort of content.

Look for the analysis of “The Aeronaut’s Windlass” soon.

Last Shomi Movies

October 3, 2016

So, I had started watching some movies on shomi right before learning that it was ending, and so I figured I’d talk a bit about them before moving on to other ways of occasionally watching movies.

Anyway, the last set were: “Weird Science”, “Airplane!”, “Delirious” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”. I’m not going to talk about that last one since I really like it and watch it regularly, so there’s no new impression for me to talk about. But the other three I either hadn’t watched in a while or had never watched, and so my recent impressions of them might be interesting.

Now, I’m not the target audience for “Weird Science”, but that hasn’t stopped me before … and I did remember the TV show at least a bit fondly, so I thought it would be worth a try. I didn’t even finish watching it, which is rare for me while watching movies. The big problem was that none of the characters were actually sympathetic. Lisa and Wyatt were the most appealing of the bunch, but even they had their “jerk” moments. I quit when Lisa replied to the other guy’s parents question of “Do you go to school with him?” with a snarky “Do I look like I’m in high school?”. For the most part, the put-upon “nerds” acted about as badly as the people they were going up against, and even the potential love interests were too shallow and self-interested to be interesting. Maybe it all got subverted later, but being barely able to tolerate Lisa and Wyatt did not make for interesting viewing.

“Airplane!”, on the other hand, was much more interesting. It definitely went for the “take this serious thing very seriously while being absolutely ridiculous most of the time”, and it worked given the actors they had, most of whom could pull off being overly and melodramatic really well. The very serious reactions to utterly insane premises and situations resulted in a more subtle parody of the genre. The only downside is that the end was a bit boring because it’s hard to make jokes that work in that tense a situation. Also, the camp gay character was out of place and not particularly funny, at least in my opinion.

I had watched “Delirious” before and had enjoyed it, but watching it this time was a disappointment. The concept of a writer ending up in his own story and being able to change it while being opposed by another writer was interesting, but not properly explored. Mariel Hemingway’s character was one that I liked, but the ending where John Candy’s character gets her the job and then gets a date with her didn’t work for me because the only thing she knew about him was that he ran into her and got her the job, and he didn’t know much about her either as he mostly fell in love with her on the basis of her character in the story, not on the basis of her real personality. This problem also carried over to his rejection of Emma Samms’ character, as in the real world it was equally consistent with her character for her to be someone who uses other people or an overprivileged and immature person who is just used to people doing things for her, but who genuinely liked him in some way (even if not as a romantic interest). The latter didn’t justify what John Candy’s character did to her, and the former was established in the soap, not in real-life. Add in that it was a bit boring at times and this was not a good a movie as I remembered.

Anyway, those are my last shomi movies. We’ll see if I find something to replace it any time soon.

To All the MMOs I’ve Loved Before …

September 21, 2016

To all the MMOs I’ve loved before.
That I played for months or more.
I’m glad they came along.
I dedicate this song.
To all the MMOs I’ve loved before.

So, after having finished all of the class stories in The Old Republic, I ended up musing about the MMOs I’ve played that I’ve really, really liked. And it turns out that there have been three of them, that I’ve loved for (mostly) completely different reasons.

Dark Age of Camelot: This was the first MMO that I ever played. I was drawn to it not because it was an MMO, but because it created three legendary/mythological realms that also happened to be among my favourites. I’ve always been a huge fan of Arthurian legend, and obviously given the game this MMO was going to have that as a major component. But the other two realms — Norse and Celtic — were also among my favourites. The whole “online” thing was a detriment, and not a benefit … but no one else was doing anything like this and no one else was even likely to do anything like this. If I wanted it, I was gonna hafta play this and put up with those icky “other players” that I had heard about.

The game itself lived up to expectations, at least in terms of setting and the link to the legends. The realms were noticeably different, and the classes mapped nice to the legends and, even better, were interestingly different between realms. Classes of the same basic role still managed to look and play differently in a way that linked them to the legends. Given this, I kept creating new character after new character to play around with different concepts.

The gameplay, however, didn’t suit me. It was a bit too hard to solo in the game — which is understandable, since you were never meant to solo — and, more importantly, there was no real overarching story to the game to push you to the next area. Yes, you were encouraged to go to new areas and do new things, but there was no story to follow, and you mostly did that to get enough levels to participate in Realm vs Realm … which I had no interest in. I also constantly got lost because the game — like most MMOs at the time — didn’t give you quest markers, the death penalty was annoying, and I was constantly cash-strapped.

This was my first MMO, and it set the stage for my altitis, because it was always so much more fun to start a different character in a different class in a different realm than it was to actually play a character to the higher levels and even into RvR, at least for me. A game with less diversity would have bored me when it got too hard (I’m looking at you, World of Warcraft), but Dark Age of Camelot kept me coming back to try out new classes and new characters:

City of Heroes: If Dark Age of Camelot started my altitis, this is the one that cemented it. The wide variety of costume and appearance options made creating new characters as actual characters far too easy. The varied powersets worked to create actual characters, and also played differently between classes and often between primary and secondary powerset combinations in the same class. New powersets allowed for new characters, making it all the more tempting to start over with a new character.

While soloing still wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t as hard as it was in Dark Age of Camelot. Blasters had the hardest time, at least in my experience. There were overarching stories for each area and starting area that were fun, and I loved the few task forces that I managed to play.

However, at higher levels, again, soloing became too hard. Also, again, there was no overarching story to draw you from area to area, so you moved on when you had a high enough level. And finally, my highest level character got stuck in one of the cases where if you were high enough level to move on but your level was a little low for the quests and enemies you had to face.

Given the diversity and the fact that the introductory quest lines were fun, starting new characters became my standard approach to the game. This was my favourite MMO.

Star Wars: The Old Republic: With respect to everything that I loved about the previous two MMOs, The Old Republic is worse. There is less diversity in classes and settings and appearance. But it has two big advantages over the others. The first is that it is much more solo friendly. And the second is that it has a clear and interesting set of class stories that push you on to the next planet and, ultimately, to the end game. Of the three, it’s the game I love the least, but also the game that I’ve actually hit max level in.

The heyday of MMOs seems to be fading a bit; I don’t hear as much about new ones as I used to. Maybe I’m just not tuned in enough, though. At any rate, I wonder if I’ll ever find MMOs that I’ll love as much as these … all of which I either can’t play anymore or, at least, likely won’t play again, or for much longer (TOR).

The Expression of “Necrotech”

September 19, 2016

After I wrote last week about fiction being used to do nothing more than express an idea or emotion or whatever we have a “Big Idea” from John Scalzi’s site that pretty much admits to that. It’s K.C. Alexander talking about her book “Necrotech”, and all she says about it is, well, that it represents her. She describes the protagonist thusly:

I don’t like boxes. And neither does Necrotech’s protagonist—a type of woman whole sub-sections of societally-minded folk remind us don’t and shouldn’t exist.

Riko is a splatter specialist (that’s Tarantino level of gory mess, in case the title wasn’t clear) with all the agency of a man—and in being this, she tests the boundaries of what a woman in a book is supposed to be in this enlightened age of women’s rights. She is not soft. She is not tender. She would prefer to put a boot in your teeth instead of “work it out”, she lacks all maternal instinct, and her flaws are loaded for bear. With all the swag of a street thug, a policy of pleasing herself first, and a piss-poor temperament for emotions, she’s nobody’s idea of a good girlfriend.

She tends to somewhat proudly think of herself as a bad boyfriend.

And she came from a space of deeply engrained social erasure.

This … is a rather odd idea of what it means to have “the agency of a man”, it seems to me. Moreover, this doesn’t exactly sound like an interesting protagonist to the story. What we have here, it seems to me, is the typical “asshole” protagonist. Except … we aren’t really supposed to like the “asshole” protagonist, nor are they to be written that way. In general, we want to see assholes brought down in our fiction, and put in their place. The only exceptions are those asshole protagonists who are assholes to their enemies but who can be nice to their friends. About the closest I can picture of an actual asshole protagonist who is the unvarnished hero might be James Bond, but even he isn’t really an asshole, as he plays games and does deadpan snarking, but we can see that, at least in part, that’s to keep people at a distance because if he starts to care and he loses them it devastates him, as we see with his dead wife.

Read K.C. Alexander’s description of Riko and tell me that there’s anything like that with her.

So, in general, with asshole protagonists we either see that they really do have a heart of gold that they use the assholishness to hide, or else they get humbled and learn to overcome that, and thus win in the end through that realization. A good example of the latter is the “Justice League Unlimited” episode “The Greatest Story Never Told”. Booster Gold starts as someone who is, well, a prime example of the asshole protagonist. He is incredibly annoying, and only gets topped briefly by the Elongated Man. But as things go along, he gets humiliated and humiliated and has to accept that he is, in fact, a loser, and only came back to this time so that he could be something other than a loser … but his experiences prove that he is, still, nothing more than a loser. But in that the hot scientist that he was simply hitting on points out that he’s the only one who can even try to save the day, so he had better go out and do it. In that, he succeeds … and we finally cheer for him because he’s shown the self-awareness and humility to make him worthy of saving the day and, in the end, being the hero … even if it is only to him and the scientist.

Again, read the description of Riko and tell me if there’s anything like that there.

Unvarnished “asshole” protagonists are unlikeable, but Alexander thinks that some people, well, might like Riko, as she herself seems to. But on what grounds should we like her? It’s not that she has a heart of gold, and it’s not that she learns humility, so what is it that she thinks we’ll find appealing, like she finds it appealing?

I am Necrotech’s Big Idea. Me, and the people like me who are so often told that we can’t, don’t, shouldn’t. That what we are, what we present, is problematic for the greater society. The cause. The fight.

I know why I started writing this woman who does not care what you think of her. Whatever else the overarching themes, I know why Riko is the heart of it, the voice of it, the eyes seeing it all unfold.

I am Riko—with my snarl in place to warn away any asshole who wants to tell me how I should behave, my finger upraised to everyone who ever told me I was doing it wrong, my heart wrapped in diamondsteel where nobody can reach it to re-program what is mine. Like Riko, I’m not exactly bulletproof, but I can take it with a bloody smile and still come back to kick ass.

My name used to be Karina Cooper. I wrote what was, in so many ways, expected of me. And when I started Necrotech, I defied every expectation. And because I did, it suffered every rejection—until I realized that the ‘me’ that had been cultivated was not the me I was. That I had spent my life thinking I was strong and individual and independent, only to learn that I was so very wrong. And most of all, that the book I’d written wasn’t Karina’s story to tell.

Now my name is K. C. Alexander. Riko may be me incarnate—cranked to 11—but I like to be called Kace.

She so effusively loves that character because that character embodies what she thinks she is … or what she wants to be. She sees herself hemmed in by rules — or that she at least was hemmed in by rules — and sees this character as an expression of being free from that. The character is good because of what it expresses, not because of what it is as a fictional character … because what it is as a fictional character is, in fact, unappealing. So those who can relate to those feelings will like the character, and those who can’t won’t. But it seems to me that good fiction — and the fiction that the anti-Puppy side seems to want — allows us to like or cheer for a character even if we don’t feel the same way as they do. Even if we find James Bond to be an old-fashioned, misogynistic jerk … we still want him to win because the character and the context means that he — and only someone like him — can win, and we can in some sense, maybe, enjoy the way he achieves the goal that is both a good goal and one that we should want. Yuri from Shadow Hearts is similar, as he starts as a misogynistic jerk and evolves into a genuinely good character, so we can enjoy the snark as being aimed at his enemies knowing that, at least with his friends, he doesn’t really mean it.

I don’t see anything like that in this description. And Alexander could not be clearer about wanting to expressing ideas, and a number of them:

If you read Necrotech and think it has nothing to do with this woman-who-acts-like-a-man, that’s okay. There are enough Ideas in the book, in the series as it will be play out, to talk about, think about, embrace or reject.

But is she going to argue for them, explore them? Or is she just going to toss the ideas out there and hope that we’ll find them interesting enough to enjoy the book?

My bet’s on the latter.


September 14, 2016

So, John Scalzi runs a number of “Big Ideas” at his site, which strikes me very much as being proof of my idea of fiction as nothing more than the expression of an idea. The “Big Idea” that focuses on Robin Talley’s work “As I Descended” strikes me as another one of those ideas that are just really, really bad. The original premise of the work isn’t a bad one: a modernization of Macbeth. Doing it as a “Young Adult” novel doesn’t seem to be all that great an idea. Setting it inside a high school seems to be potentially interesting but a potentially disastrous idea. And it only gets worse from there.

Macbeth is, obviously, an extremely bloody play. Before I started As I Descended, I’d never even considered killing any of my characters. I’d written dark stuff in other books, sure, but death is so final. Shakespeare was writing about a brave, accomplished medieval warrior who broke character by offing a few specific guys (after a career spent slaughtering presumably less important people).

Um, since she was setting it inside a high school, she might not have needed to deal with so much blood. After all, if I recall correctly — I have no yet managed to read that “Complete Works of Shakespeare” that I have, but I covered it in high school — the key to Macbeth is not that he kills people. Macbeth does not kill Duncan or Banquo, for example, because he wants to kill people. He kills them because he feels that killing them is the only way to achieve his ambitions, ambitions that he is spurred upon in by his wife. So he’s trying to get them out of the way. In a high school setting, there are many ways to get people out of the way that don’t involve killing them, especially in the world of high school popularity. Character assassination can easily substitute for actual assassination there. And if she had done that, she might have been able to avoid …

I had to take a contemporary 17-year-old girl whose previous experiences with violence had been limited to a few kicks on the soccer field and make her into a would-be violent criminal. I went through months of false starts before I could figure out how to get Maria (and, to be honest, me) into the necessary emotional place.

The Psycho Lesbian trope (note that this is a link to TV Tropes). No possible problems with invoking that trope, right?

Shakespeare’s casts tend to be larger than your typical YA novel’s. So after much consternation I wound up combining characters here and there, and scaling others back where I could. In my favorite instance, I fused Banquo and Lady Macduff into one character named Brandon.

But … Banquo and Lady Macduff have very different roles in the play. You can interpret Banquo as the too loyal and too trusting friend to Macbeth — as I argued in a high school essay — or as someone ambitious himself who was angling for advantage but Macbeth got to hm first, but that role is, in fact, utterly and critically important. Lady Macduff isn’t that important and is mostly a spur to Macduff, but if you combine the characters then all you would do is reduce her role to that. You could just as easily have simply eliminated Lady Macduff and let Macduff oppose Macbeth for reasons other than simple vengeance for the loss of a loved one (which, to be fair, he actually had other motives as well).

Brandon and Mateo wound up forming a nice counterpoint to my Macbeth/Lady Macbeth (Maria/Lily) combo, in that their relationship is much less dysfunctional.

Okay, this might be open to interpretation, but was the Macbeth/Lady Macbeth relationship dysfunctional? You can argue that they were well-suited for each other and it was only the means they had to use to gain their mutual ambitions and the fallout from that caused the breakdown of the relationship.

Despite her claims that she researched critical essays — although she only mentions it for one speech — she doesn’t really seem to understand the play, and herself admits spending lots of time trying to figure out the blood metaphors and the like by pouring over the play itself. She says that she wanted to do as literal a retelling as possible … but her setting doesn’t lend itself to that, having neither the actual goal nor the attitude that would allow for all of the killing that she somehow thinks have to be there. She also, in the quotes, doesn’t seem willing to either take a stand on her own interpretations or allow that for others. She seems to be inserting her own takes into it, but is unable to see what is really important to keep and what can be changed.

Now, you can argue — with some justification — that criticizing it like this is a bit out of bounds if I haven’t — and am not going to — read it. The issue is that here I’m taking what the author is proud of in the work and saying that, given what I know about the play, that she shouldn’t be. What she focuses on is not only not what is great about the play, but in fact seems, to me, to detract from it. We can discuss this, of course, but just as I wouldn’t have to watch “The Phantom Menace” to see that introducing midichlorians as the explanation for the Force is a bad idea, I don’t need to read this book to know that turning Macbeth into what seems to be a common psychopath is also a bad idea.

I sense much bad ideas in this work.

Fictional Expression

September 12, 2016

So, I was reading this excerpt from a novelette on Analog, and wondering why it was so very, very badly written. I actually zoned out in the middle of it because I just didn’t care about it anymore. Sure, the idea of aliens trying to buy the moon was an interesting idea, and sure the idea of tags and emotion tags was interesting, but the story just didn’t seem to go anywhere, Instead, there were a number of asides about the ex-boyfriend of Rose and things like that, that didn’t seem to add anything to either the plot or the characters. Heck, even the idea of a princess in Britain trying to emulate Diana would have been interesting if it had been explored. And in thinking about that and about “Cat Pictures, Please” — which struck me the same way — it got me thinking about what primary purpose those stories might have had … and about primary purposes in general.

It seems to me that there are a number of primary purposes that a work of fiction can have. Note that they can include some or all of these elements, but there is always generally a primary purpose to the work, something that the work is really attempting to convey. It seems to me that there are these primary purposes:

1) Narrative: The primary purpose here is to relate an event or events. Essentially, this fictional work is just trying to tell a story. A good example of this would be the original Mass Effect game, where the story of Saren and the Reapers was the primary focus, and the world and the characters there to facilitate that.

2) Character: The primary purpose here is to introduce and explore interesting characters. The plot and all other elements are there to support us finding out about and following the interesting characters. Mass Effect 2 is a good example of this, as the plot is literally nothing more than an excuse to go out, recruit and interact with those interesting characters.

3) Emotional: The primary purpose here is to elicit a specific emotion in the person experiencing the work, be it fear, joy, sadness or something else. Horror works are the prime examples of this, as, for example, in Lovecraft’s work all of the plot and characters are there only to allow for the horror to come to the fore during and at the end.

4) Exploring an idea: I think that Chuck Sonneberg’s view of “high concept” stories fits this really well: you have an idea that sounds interesting, and you want to play it out to see how it would work in the setting that you’re in. This can range from simply taking an idea like “What would happen if Captain Picard was turned into a child?” and seeing how it would work to exploring both sides of a complex moral issue. But, in general, you are exploring the idea, not merely expressing it nor arguing for it.

5) Arguing for an idea: The work is trying to argue that a certain idea is correct by analogy to the fictional world they’ve created. “Atlas Shrugged” is a good example here, as it is blatantly obvious that that is her goal, but other, more highly regarded works do this as well, like “1984” or “Brave New World”. Science fiction and fantasy are actually really good genres for this because they are so open that it is easier to create worlds that you can use as an analogy to support your argument than it is in other genres.

6) Expressing an idea: The work just wants to express an idea or number of ideas, without either exploring them or arguing for them.

I submit that “Cat Pictures, Please” and “No Strangers Any More” are aiming at the last category, as the authors are just expressing ideas that they like or are important to them without really exploring them in detail or taking the time to argue for them. The problem with doing that is that in a work of fiction simply expressing an idea is boring, and triggers the precise reactions I had to those works: 1) These are interesting ideas but aren’t explored, 2) The ideas don’t seem relevant to the overall story and 3) This would be done better as an essay than as a story. After all, if you want to simply express an idea, you’d generally write an essay or a post talking about them, and someone who was interesting in either your opinion or in the ideas would be willing to sit down and read you simply talking about them. But sticking them into a work of fiction seems to be taking the long way around if that’s all you’re doing, as both exploring an idea and arguing for it all benefit from the analogy that fiction provides, but if you’re simply expressing the idea introducing it through analogy seems a convoluted way to do that, and risks obscuring the idea that you’re trying to express.

Given this, if I’m right, then there are two likely possibilities for why their stories end up in category 6). The first is that they are, in fact, trying to argue for their ideas, but never get past merely expressing them; in short, they heavy-handedly express them, but don’t properly use the analogy to make their point, leaving the ideas disconnected from the rest of the story. The second is that the main purpose of their writing is to express ideas and emotions and things that are important to them, and they are far less concerned about anything else in their works. You can decide for yourselves which interpretation is the more charitable, as both are ideas that have been expressed by modern fiction writers.

What this means, though, is that any works that end up in category 6) are only going to be interesting to those who already agree with the ideas, as they won’t need arguments for those ideas, and will often feel that this is an author who “gets” them, expressing the ideas that they themselves have always wanted to express or see expressed in works. But, again, as a work of fiction itself doing that will be boring and convoluted, and so anyone who doesn’t already agree or who even disagrees with the ideas will find the work wanting. Thus, potentially we’d see the sharp divide in opinion over such works.

Tropes vs Women: Are Women Too Hard To Animate?

September 9, 2016

So, the not-quite-latest video in the Tropes vs Women series is Are Women Too Hard To Animate? Female Combatants. It starts off by looking at the controversy over “Assassin’s Creed Unity” where Ubisoft claimed that they couldn’t add playable female characters to the multiplayer portion of the game because doing the animations and models would be too expensive. Sarkeesian notes this about it:

A number of experienced game developers joined the chorus of voices calling out the absurdity of Ubisoft’s claims. Animator Jonathan Cooper, who had previously worked on Assassin’s Creed III for Ubisoft, tweeted, “I would estimate this to be a day or two’s work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations.” And Manveer Heir of Bioware summed up what Ubisoft was actually saying: “We don’t really care to put the effort in to make a woman assassin.”

This … is pretty much the extent of her research into what it would take to do. She references another case, that of Far Cry 4:

Ubisoft’s disregard for female character options didn’t stop with Unity. Also at E3 2014, the director of Far Cry 4 admitted to a similar issue with that game’s online co-op mode, saying, “We were inches away from having you be able to select a girl or a guy as your co-op buddy.” Again, the excuse for why this option wasn’t available was that it would just be too much work. And yet again, what they were really saying was that they just couldn’t be bothered to do the work it would have taken to provide that option.

The thing is … Anita Sarkeesian, whether you think she deserves it or not, has a name presence in games at the moment, which comes from having made Time’s 100 most influential people list. If she actually wanted to answer the question that she titles the video with, she could easily have contacted Ubisoft and asked them to explain just what it was that would make it be so much work or be so expensive. Given her name recognition, they’d be far more likely to accommodate her than they would be most other people. And yet it seems that Sarkeesian is uninterested in doing the research to find out what was really the case, instead pretty much implying that it wouldn’t have been that hard and that they couldn’t be bothered to do the work. Which is indeed technically true, but obviously it would be more reasonable for them to take that position if it would require re-doing 8000 animations than it would be if it was only a day or two of work.

Now, I’m not an expert by any means, but I have read a fair bit around the issue and I work in software design, so I’m going to take a stab at thinking out what might have happened here, without insisting that anyone is lying. In software, there are usually multiple ways to do something. Some of them are faster but don’t work as well — or don’t cover as many cases — and some take longer but really work. I’d imagine that Cooper’s solution is simply to re-do the skins and re-use all of the existing animations. And this can indeed work. But the risk you take is that if you take detailed motion captures of men and then put female skins on them you’ll end up with female characters that, well, move like men. This can run into a number of issues, from it resulting in characters that no female would want to play to interaction issues as the skin is based on, say, a bigger or differently shaped frame and so it might mess up hit boxes and the like.

Now, if something really will only take one or two days to do but you aren’t sure if it will work, in software the usual practice is to prototype it: implement a quick and dirty version of it and hand it over the testers to see how it works. So it’s quite possible that they actually tried Cooper’s idea and noted that, yes indeed, it looked stupid and didn’t work. Then, left with only the longer option that would take too much work and time for the effort, they decided to not include the option of female characters in multiplayer.

Now, I can’t say for certain that this is what happened. But that they felt the need to mention it at all suggests that they were considering it — and knew that they’d get some push back on not including it. Given that, it’s not all that likely that it would have only taken them a couple of days to do that and yet they still decided not to.

However, this is mostly an aside — despite it being pretty much the title of the video — because the real question here is spawned by Sarkeesian’s conclusion. She says that they couldn’t be bothered to do it, and the question is: Should they be?

Now, up until now what Sarkeesian has been advocating for are things that don’t inherently or necessarily increase the actual costs of a game, and thus don’t inherently impact the profits of the game. Sure, there might be extra work to create female protagonists or to avoid the damsel in distress plot, but for it’s not necessarily the case. Most RPGs, for example, only need to do different skins for the characters to add female protagonists, which is why RPGs have constantly and consistently done that for ages now. So the only risk to the profits of the company are that some players may not buy a game that has a female protagonist or uses a different story. But here we have a case where, indeed, the claim is that it will cost significantly more to add female characters to the game. So while in the previous cases getting more sales by appealing to female gamers would be a nice boost and a reason to maybe give it a shot, here, those extra sales would be required to avoid taking a loss on that specific feature.

This actually hurts the companies that are more likely to want to appeal to new audiences — including the female audience — in order to expand their profile: indie games. Shamus Young recently created a new game called “Good Robot” with Pyrodactyl, and as it turns out it didn’t make as much money as expected. From the comments in that linked post, it seems that this has put the company on a far more shaky financial position than Arvind — the guy who runs it — is comfortable with. So, a company like Pyrodactyl might, indeed, want to try to increase their audience by appealing to female gamers. But, as outlined in the post, every feature that takes time both delays time to market — which can be critical — and the cost of the product, which directly impacts profits. So they assess every feature to see if the effort to implement it will increase sales enough to increase their profits. Thus, the question to ask is: does it actually do that?

I talked about FIFA 16 in another post, as a game that deliberately added female players. What has happened to its sales since the introduction of female players? Well, FIFA 2015, up until this point, has sales of almost 19 million units. FIFA 16 has sales of about 16 million units. While FIFA 15 has had another year to make sales, that doesn’t look like a huge boost in sales. Also, in at least the UK — a very big and important market for soccer — sales were down in the first week. So it doesn’t look like adding female players to the game added to its sales.

So, pretty much every company is going to — quite reasonably — be wary of taking the time to add female characters if they aren’t likely to see increased sales because of it. If Sarkeesian et al can’t appeal to the idea that it will increase profits to add female characters, then all they have to fall back on is the Social Justice argument: game companies need to be fair and need to promote the Social Justice issues that they think are important. But doing so might reduce their profits, and might actually drive indie studios and even studios in big companies out of business. Are they to be required to drive themselves out of business to satisfy an agenda that is not theirs?

This only gets worse if attempting to address those issues can be a no-win situation. The rest of Sarkeesian’s video discusses whether or not they should include female combatants. The reason she has to address it is that it is a feminist question of whether including them is perpetrating and promoting violence against women or not. Sarkeesian argues that it isn’t as long as they are not sexualized and are capable of fighting back, but the issue here is that a company that tries to address feminist issues risks getting it wrong no matter what they do, as some feminists deride them for not having women combatants in the game, and some deride them for having women combatants in the game, which might mean that they don’t even pick up the limited gains they hoped to see by attempting to address those issues.

Assuming that anyone even pays attention to their attempts. Sarkeesian has been better at highlighting games that do things reasonably lately, but it is still the case that games get far more attention for doing it wrong than for doing it right.

So, should gaming companies put in the extra effort to allow female characters if their framework doesn’t really support it? From a strict profit and loss standpoint, they probably shouldn’t. As a long-time RPG player, I really do want to see the choice … but I’d understand if they don’t want to, and instead want to play it safe. The video games industry is too tight right now to afford to guess at what might benefit, and female characters don’t seem to be a benefit.