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

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.

Tropes vs Women: Introduction

March 30, 2015

So, this post is an introduction to my finally, hopefully, going through all of the Tropes vs Women videos and commenting on them. There are a few reasons why I’m now deciding to try to push on doing this, but they mostly follow from the fact that Sarkeesian is not going to go away, which could be good or bad depending on what you think of her views. She’s being tapped for more and more things and might be more influential, and so we’re likely to be hearing from her for a long, long time to come. Which pushes me to comment on her videos because:

1) This is going to be an on-going debate, and we do have to have a debate on this. My putting this out is my contribution to that, even if few ever read it and even fewer care.

2) The main purpose of this blog is to get me to write down the things that I think about a lot so I can stop thinking about them. With Sarkeesian constantly coming up in video game discussions, I’m going to hear a lot about it, which will remind me of the things I didn’t care for in the analysis. At least this way I can say that I’ve already written about it and, hopefully, can then stop thinking about it or feeling bad because I haven’t talked about it yet.

So, in this post, let me outline my overall and general issues with the series:

1) The things that she says that are true are not new. They’ve been talked about for ages and ages in various places. Now sometimes you do have to repeat true things, and also sometimes someone can be lauded for putting those old ideas in new, interesting, and clearer ways. The issue is that Sarkeesian generally doesn’t; her approach is not particularly interesting and often seems muddled, particularly because …

2) … the things that she says that are new are almost certainly not true. She tosses in a lot of what are at best very controversial ideas in the same context as the old and true ideas, and tries to link them all together, which weakens the overall argument that her videos are trying to make. She also judges a lot of things on a rather shallow assessment, which means that as soon as I note the issues she has in interpreting Dragon Age: Origins I start to wonder about the other games as well, which again weakens the overall point of the videos.

3) It really seems to me that underneath all of the feminist theory and psychology and the like, that at the end of the day her argument boils down to “We need more female protagonists” … which is not a particularly interesting comment and goes against a lot of her recommendations and her criticisms of gaming companies and gaming in general.

But I hope to make this more clear when I post on her specific videos.

One thing that I need to address are claims that this will only increase the harassment of her as people use my charges that she’s, well, wrong about things to harass her for being wrong. That might happen (I personally doubt it, considering how small this blog is). But I still have to be able to criticize her views if I think them wrong, no matter how others might use that. We simply cannot say that a lot of people are jerks to her so no one can criticize her. That’s an artificial stifling of debate, and that’s not acceptable. We might just as well insist that she not talk about things that people will disagree with as say that people ought not disagree with her because of the potential for harassment. I will strive in my responses to be fair, charitable, and argue for my position with as strong arguments, reason and evidence as I can. That’s all anyone can expect from me, and that should be acceptable.

Interactive NPC World …

February 20, 2015

So, I’ve started playing a number of games in a round robin, which include Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, and one thing that I thought of while playing Mass Effect 2 is the issue of NPCs in the world that you can interact with. Some of them will give you quests or items or other things, while some of them will just give you a little phrase or comment and then you can move on. The issue, of course, is that you usually don’t know which is which until you actually interact with them. Which means that if you want to get all of the quests and the like you have to interact with all of the NPCs, many if not most of which just say something and let you move on.

This can get very annoying if you have a lot of NPCs and the ratio of useful to colour NPCs is low. I’ve played games where I stopped interacting with NPCs because it was so annoying separating the NPC wheat from the chaff. But the flip side isn’t much better, as if you only create NPCs when they are useful the world can seem empty and unreal, only populated by quest-vending machines and the like. And filling it with people that you can’t interact with at all — like, say, most MMOs — reduces NPCs to background.

Which might, actually, be the best way to handle it. We don’t want players to have to obsessively interact with everyone, and we want populated places to seem populated, so making them non-interactive solves that, at the expense of, well, making them not seem like actual people. It’s nice to have NPCs that are people in at least some sense, but not good if we confuse them with NPCs that matter to the overall game plot and quests and so try to get them to interact with us outside of that. If you do go that route, you have to limit the number of NPCs or annoy the player by making them interact with all of them or else risk missing out on something interesting. And if there’s one thing that players hate, it’s missing out on something interesting.

Ultimately, though, this probably is a problem of balance, striking the right balance of NPCs that you can interact with in passive ways with the ones that open up interesting opportunities in the game world. It does enhance a game to be able to talk to NPCs and have them say things like jokes and give interesting tidbits about the world. It’s just that if you are getting that when you want to make sure that you’ve hit all the quests it will get annoying after a while if there are too many of those. We want to interact with people … but not all the time. Kinda like life, I think.

The Fridge (and Inadvertent) Brilliance of Save Points …

January 26, 2015

So, not long ago, I talked about how a crash when I hadn’t save caused me to stop playing a game. I’ve been thinking about this some more, and I’ve realized that most options for saving work against what a good game should be doing: engaging you in the game. Whether it be the story or the action or whatever, good games — like all forms of entertainment — should immerse you in the game so much that you forget that you’re playing a game. If you are that immersed, it’s unlikely that you’ll be thinking “I wonder how long it’s been since I last saved”. Doing that is usually a sign that you aren’t immersed in the game, or have been reminded that this is a game, often by seeing a long and tough fight coming up. You’re no longer swept along by the action or the story, but are instead thinking in game terms. Auto-saving avoids this, but has the problem that it yanks you out of the game and reminds you that this is just a game. The exceptions are games that did saving during loading screens, which already break immersion.

However, what is different about save points is that they are objects in the game world itself. Manipulating them is, in fact, manipulating an object in the world. Yes, it is an object that exists mainly to do game things, but it is part of the game world itself. Thus, it becomes an object just like any other object that is in the game, and so the impact it has on the game is generally no more than any other artificial game component that has to be there in order to play the game (using items, viewing an inventory, equipping, etc, etc). Because it’s part of the game world you can make saving simply a regular part of the game, something that you do as automatically as quaffing a potion when you’re low on health or reloading. So every time you come across a save point you just automatically save and go on, and it doesn’t take you out of the game at all, because it is an integral and constant part of it from your perspective.

This turns out to be the case for me in most of the console games I love. In “Lord of the Rings: The Third Age”, because save points also healed your HP and MP, I used to hit them every time I found one … and sometimes even backtracked to get the recharge. I was saving not to save, but essentially to rest. In Suikoden III, I so conditioned myself to save every time I came across a save point that when passing through the castle of the Zexen Knights I would save on both sides of the castle, even though all I did was pass through. I had to consciously stop myself from doing this. Because save points were spread out and often indicated that you were going to face something tough, it was generally easy to condition yourself to use them whenever you saw them, and thus make using them part of your regular practice of playing the game.

The problem with save points is, of course, that they aren’t always there when you need them, and so you can be using save points and still have to replay a lot of the game should you die or screw up. But by making saving part of the world and even trying to find in-game reasons for you to be accessing them, they remove the artificial nature of saving and so make the games more immersive. Not bad for something that consoles adopted due to technical considerations.

I Was Having Fun … Until It Crashed.

January 20, 2015

So, I started playing “X-Men: Madness in Murderworld” last night through an emulator, and was getting into it, and working my way through it, and then I went to change to Nightcrawler to teleport up to the previous floor … and the game crashed. Despite the fact that I was getting into the game — one of the reasons that I hadn’t saved, well, ever — I then pretty much immediately turned it all off, because I didn’t feel like redoing those parts and so didn’t feel like playing the game anymore.

The reason, it seems to me, is that the crash broke immersion. While I was playing the game, I was carried along from one room and one floor to the next, with the occasional fight, but was mostly exploring and having fun doing that. When the game crashed, I was yanked out of that immersion. And at that point, I could only remember the mechanics and that they weren’t that interesting, and might be hard to manage. And because I hadn’t saved, well, ever, I had a bit of a slog to get back to where I was, I just didn’t have the motivation to keep playing the game … even though I would have kept playing if it hadn’t happened.

This, I think, drives Shamus Young’s analysis of dying in survival horror games, or probably in most games. An atmospheric or action-oriented game will drag you along just by having you have to do something or having something else happen. You get immersed in the game and allow it to lead you to the next section … and the next, and the next, and so on and so forth. When you die, that breaks, and so you aren’t following the path anymore, and without some sort of compelling mystery or goal that you want to see resolved you may not have any reason to go back, at least not immediately. This is only made worse in games where you have strong penalties to overcome after death, like replaying a significant portion of the game or some kind of handicap or even just an onerous method for restoring a save: the more work it is, the more likely you are to simply stop when your immersion is no longer pushing you along.

I think this also works for Story Collapse. In those games, it is the story that moves you along and immerses you in the world, as opposed to the atmosphere or the action. When you hit the point where the story itself breaks your immersion, you are again pulled out of the immersion and returned to, well, playing a game. If the story collapse is minor, the rest of the underlying story elements give you the incentive to carry on; even with that minor problem, you still want to see what happens next. But if it’s strong enough, you find the story either confusing, uninteresting or just plain screwed, and so you lose interest in finding out what happens next. If there is nothing else driving your fun, you’ll quit.

Ultimately for any form of entertainment, people will only watch it if it is entertaining, which means that it immerses them enough for them to focus their attention on it and not on anything else. If you break immersion, then you stop being entertaining, and you have to leave enough reasons for people to think that they will still be entertained if they continue on. Sometimes, that doesn’t work, and the things I’ve talked about in this post are examples of that happening.

A Dizzying Array of Options …

January 3, 2015

… makes me dizzy.

Okay, so I’m playingRecord of Agarest War Zero again, after picking it up and then getting stuck and giving up on it for a while because grinding was getting too difficult. And this time, I’ve actually paid attention to what options you have in the game, and what you can and need to do to build out really powerful characters and parties that can survive the grinding tactical combat of the game — so that I can get to the good part of figuring out who I’m going to marry and have a kid with (already picked out the name!) — and, well, there’s a lot of it:

*At the beginning, you have to choose your class from Warrior, Battle Mage, and Mage. That’s one of the simpler choices in the game, although I’m not really sure what the difference is.
*Then, you have to pick something like 5 cards that combine to give you a ton of attributes. There’s nothing in the game as far as I can tell that tells you what these things do, although I might have missed it.
*Then you pick something like three more.
*In the game itself, you have to choose six people out of your entire party set to actually participate in the battles. Characters that aren’t in your party don’t get XP, so you might have to switch them around a bit.
*For certain battles, enemies have different resistances. For example, crabs are vulnerable to magic and resist physical attacks, so you’ll want lots of mages pounding on them. Fairies, on the other hand, are weak to physical and strong against magic, so you want physical characters pounding them.
*You can earn adventurer titles as you do things in the world, which will give you goodies when you claim them.
*You can buy weapons from stores, although the selection can seem pretty slim because …
*… you can make new weapons by using the smithing books you can buy from the stores. Once you do that, then the store somehow knows how to make them so that you can buy them from them. Even old weapons can be useful because you can break them down to make components for new weapons. Some of the other pieces you get by killing things in the world.
*Through battles, you get "Enhancement Points", which you can use to enhance weapons and armour. You can only convert items into components if they have been fully enhanced.
*As you fight, eventually you will level up, and so get points to spend on your attributes.
*You also get “Power Points”, which you can use to further enhance your abilities.
*You also get “Training Points”, which I haven’t been able to use yet for some reason.
*You also pick up skills that you can sell(!) or add to your characters.
*You can also add skills into the skill slots of your weapons to give you another skill to use in combat. I actually liked this because it let me give one character his own Double Needle combo and a Double Needle combo with his sister Routier (again, I remember the female characters’ names but not the male characters’).
*And eventually, you get married which determines an awful lot about the character for the second part of the game. As does your relationship with the other candidates.

Now, I didn’t really enhance my armour much, but did for my weapons, and leveled up fairly far, and managed to get past where I had gotten before. I hadn’t done any of this the first time I played and, to be honest, had no idea what this stuff was for. So, this does seem to matter to the game. How much does it matter? Do I have to balance this perfectly or else I’ll be behind the 8-ball for the entire game? Can I focus on one or the other? How much of this do I have to do?

The options are staggering, and this is a trend that I’m seeing in a lot of games … but this one is, in my opinion, exceptional. There were a lot of things to balance in Suikoden III as well — level, skills, skill levels, weapon sharpening, armour, party, etc — but they seemed more, well, detached, in that you didn’t generally have to think about them all at once. In this game, perhaps because all towns seem to give all options, it seems more like you have to think about these things constantly and all at once. They’re more tightly intertwined than I’ve seen in other games, perhaps. That leaves me thinking that I have to spend a lot of time worrying about this, as every time I return to town I have to think about enhancement, titles, weapon changes, and the like, and at every battle I’m thinking about PP use and party composition and formation and what I’ve got to use.

I miss the simpler days, when all you had to worry about was your weapon, your armour, and your level. And your skills, and spells, and …

Okay, maybe those weren’t actually simpler days …


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