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

How I Would Have Done “The Force Awakens”

May 2, 2016

So, as promised, I’m going to post a rough, semi-thought-out idea of how I’d have done “The Force Awakens’ that is, in my opinion, much better than what we got. I’m not putting a lot of thought and polish into this, so some things won’t work, and you won’t really get full, final-movie-quality dialogue. So there will be things that won’t work and things that will work. Also, I’m going to borrow from the EU as I see fit to make things work, and indeed am going to write this to insert the elements that I want to see. You may not share my opinions on that.

So, let us begin:

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Thoughts on “The Force Awakens”

April 25, 2016

So, I was out at Walmart looking for various things, and stopped by the Electronics department to look for USB drives, and saw the Blu-Ray/DVD Collectors Edition of “The Force Awakens” at what for me was a reasonable price. Now, I had heard lots about it, but hadn’t seen it, and so felt some trepidation about buying it … but I figured I’d buy it anyway, so decided, hey, why not?

Now, I’m not the ideal person to review it because I already knew pretty much all of the story before going in, so I won’t be surprised at any of the shocking plot points. On the other hand, in a way that makes me a more ideal person to review it because I can focus more on how that was presented rather than just on what’s happening. So, call it a wash, mostly.

So, what’s my overall impression of the movie? I thought it was hollow.

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Elsinore and Power Gaming and Tragedy

April 22, 2016

From Feminist Frequency’s new games reviewer Carolyn Petit comes a discussion of an upcoming game called “Elsinore”. The main premise of the game is that you play as Ophelia from Hamlet, who has to work through a number of time loops of the events of the play, where you can change things by dropping hints and information and getting the other characters to change how they act or respond to them. You don’t get direct control over any other character than Ophelia, and so all you can do is influence people — and, presumably, events — to try to get different — and, also, presumably better — outcomes.

Upon reading the piece, I am convinced that the game is going to be an utter disaster.

Let’s start from the original premise, according to the originating designer, Katie Chironis:

“I was a writing major in undergrad,” she says. “I read Hamlet multiple times in high school and again in college, just breaking it down, and at the same time that I was reading all these tragedies and dissecting them, I was also starting to make games. And so it was kind of like, ‘What if we combined this concept of the power fantasy where all you do is win win win, with a tragedy where all you do is lose lose lose?’”

Well, sure, because we all know that games are all about winning and winning and winning, with no setbacks and no tragedies and no unintended negative consequences … wait, what?!?

Despite the gaming credits Chironis lists, saying this reveals a complete and utter lack of understanding of games in general and how they work. Almost all games have the players lose … a lot. Often, to the chagrin and annoyance of most players, in cutscenes. Things almost never run smoothly for the player in pretty much any game, and so they have to overcome those setbacks in order to complete the game. The main source of tension and conflict in games is always that something has gone wrong and it needs to be fixed. And many, many games drive that tension by having the player fail at their task. While that often isn’t explicitly their fault — the enemy makes a move to block something having the desired effect or the thing doesn’t work the way the player thinks it does — games even make the negative outcomes be the result of what the player was doing. For example, in Persona 3 the actions that you take in the first part of the game don’t, in fact, stop the disaster that you were trying to avert, but instead lead to it. At any rate, setbacks occur in most games to most players most of the time.

Now, Chironis could argue that most games, at the end of the day, let the player overcome these setbacks and eventually get a happy ending, which is not what happens in a straight tragedy like Hamlet. There are two main issues here. The first is that straight tragedies aren’t, in fact, uncommon in games. Many games have “Bad Endings” where things … don’t turn out well for the player. But, okay, maybe you can argue that these aren’t, in fact, the canon endings … except that a number of games, in fact, do make the bad or tragic endings canon. In Persona 3, the canonical ending is that the MC dies — or at least goes into a permanent coma — to seal away the evil that would destroy the world. In Shadow Hearts, the canonical ending — at least to that iteration — is that Alice dies. In Fatal Frame and Fatal Frame 2, the canonical endings are that Mafuyu stays in the mansion, and that Mio kills Mayu. And from what I understand, the latest X-Comm starts assuming that you didn’t stop the alien invasion in the first game. So tragic stories and tragic endings aren’t at all foreign to games in general.

The second — and far more serious — issue with this potential counter is that, well, Elsinore is going to give you the ability to change the ending, and by implication to make it much happier than it was (and maybe to create an actual happy ending). So even if this is what she was going for, she isn’t actually going to do that.

So, despite the implication that this is something new and exciting and a new take on the genre, it really isn’t anything new. Games have been doing this for a long time before Chironis came along. This strikes me as someone who takes the Sarkeesian/feminist interpretation of games as power fantasy far too seriously, so seriously that they’re assuming what games are like instead of looking at them themselves to see what they’re like. The number of games that are just “win, win, win” is, well, rather small. Even a simple shooter like “Good Robot” doesn’t let the player just win, and that barely has a story (or so I am told).

Then, we hear why Ophelia was chosen to be the protagonist here:

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia doesn’t get to do much. This is partially why Chironis felt that she was the right choice for the protagonist of Elsinore. Hamlet, she notes, is “booked every hour of the day,” while Ophelia spends most of her time offstage, freeing her up to do other things while the play goes on.

How is it that Ophelia can get away with skulking around? “Ophelia is kind of the ideal stealth character,” Chironis explains, “because nobody pays attention to her and nobody expects her to do anything. She’s so unimportant to the major events of the play, and so in some way, she’s the perfect person to be whispering in people’s ears.”

Thus, by that logic, Ophelia is better for the person who whispers in people’s ears … than the characters, who, canonically, spent all their time doing that. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, which is why they were used in Stoppard’s take on the play. Or Polonius, who has that, literally, as his job. Or the king, who took over not through force, but through subtle manipulation. Or Queen Gertrude. Or Hamlet himself, despite his being so “overbooked”, since his means were also subtle manipulation rather than force.

The fact is that most of the characters would fit as well if not better than Ophelia. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always come to mind for this, being very minor characters that nevertheless have direct access to both the inner circle of the king and to Hamlet, although they have been done before. Polonius could be interesting and, again, he has access to all relevant parties. Queen Gertrude would actually be interesting having to start from a point where she is already married to the usurper king and has to figure out how to reveal that and settle things without bringing down the kingdom and creating a disaster. The usurper king himself would be a very interesting take, since you could give the player the choice of his trying to preserve his own life or, taking a queue from the prayer scene, where he tries to repent and set right the things that his sin set wrong. Laertes is in at least as good a position as Ophelia, but has an issue where he has a pivotal action that, obviously, in the next loop he won’t do … or, at least, the player wouldn’t, knowing what the player knows about how it works out. Which, as it turns out, is a problem for Ophelia herself, as her madness and her death scene, presumably, won’t happen if the player has any control over it, and taking control away from the player at that point in the game probably isn’t going to go over well.

My impression is that Chironis should just be honest with herself and with the audience here, and admit that she likes Ophelia as a character and wanted to see her have a larger role in the play apart from the role she had. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d rather see people just admit things like that than try to rationalize them as being some kind of objectively right or better choice. If I was going something like this, I’d probably go with the usurper king or with Hamlet himself because of what you can do with those set-ups, but I’m not going to say that if a work didn’t go that route they’re worse, for example, which is what’s kinda implied here.

And then we get to the most frightening part of the article, and what has most convinced that a) these people don’t understand games and players of games and b) this game is going to be an absolute trainwreck:

This, the designers hope, will work to subvert any attempts to play Elsinore as a kind of power fantasy. Chironis says, “We’ve seen a lot of frustration from players where, I think their mental model when they start playing is, ‘If I gather all this information, I can have this perfect mastery. I can play puppet master.’ But you can’t because the characters are still really ****ed up people with their own aims and ambitions that will get in the way of your best intentions.” So you might present a character with a piece of information that you expect will have a very positive result, only to see them twist it into something horrible because of their mental state, with the results being something you had no intention of bringing about.

Players may not exactly enjoy this, but the team is okay with that. Engineer Kristin Siu says, “It’s very disempowering for the player but for us, it’s pretty satisfying. It also fits in very nicely with this idea of tragedy. Tragedy is all about watching characters that you empathize with do things you don’t want them to do. You can try to present all this information to characters but they may not necessarily behave in the way that you want them to behave. And so part of experiencing the tragedy is seeing them take the information that you gave them and twist it into something terrible.”

So, let me try to summarize the attitude here: “Players are saying that the game really frustrates them. But we’re okay with that, because we think it’s just because they’re used to the power fantasy and so not having complete control frustrates them.”

Okay, let’s start from the fact that games where you don’t have complete control over the actions of those you are trying to guide are actually really common. We can start from games like Lemmings and shift into more formal god games like Populous. Even in “The Sims” you can give the Sim free will and so they won’t always do what you want them to do, which didn’t in any way hurt the popularity of that game. A lot of game players really, really like seeing emergent behaviour and how sometimes things don’t work out the way you’d expect and that little actions can have a lot bigger impact than you’d expect. So, if players are playing this game and getting frustrated by it, it’s probably not just that they are in some kind of none existent power gaming mindset. Either a) they just don’t like those sorts of games, at which point they aren’t your audience and so you need to get different play testers who do, or b) it’s something about your game that frustrates them, and so you might want to fix that before you release.

Usually when people get frustrated about what’s happening in one of these sorts of games, it almost always not because they feel disempowered or don’t feel like they are the puppet master that they expect to be or, even, that the events are unexpected. These are the things they like about those sorts of games, and why they play them in the first place. No, most often it’s one of two reasons that frustrates them:

1) You are at a point in the game where both the player and the character have some information that they could share with someone or take an action based on that would change things … and the game doesn’t let them. For example, one of the most frustrating parts of the Mass Effect 3 ending — even for me, who didn’t absolutely hate it — was that when the AI says that the cycles exists to prevent the inevitable wars between synthetics and organics, you can’t point out — if you’ve managed to do those parts of the game — that you have a) a trusted AI crew member who might even be in a romantic relationship with an organic and b) made peace between synthetics and organics, ending a war of extinction, so that now they live in harmony. The player knows it, the character knows it … but you can’t even mention it to the AI to be dismissed with a “That’s all temporary” dismissal. Given the structure of this game, you and the character are likely to know lots of things that you could see might change opinion, and if the writing doesn’t recognize all of these — and it’s actually impossible for it to — then that is going to frustrate people. If the writing doesn’t catch the more subtle cases, the player will actually feel railroaded down direct and possibly stupid paths, and so will be massively frustrated.

2) The reactions of the characters aren’t, in fact, consistent with that character. In short, they do things that are inconsistent with what the game — and, in this case, the play, since this is built around a familiar play — implies the characters would do in reaction to what you do or say. Sure, the characters have their own mental states and those mental states can be messed up, but there still has to be some consistency, especially in a game where you are aiming at consequences through manipulation. If the game doesn’t make their character traits clear enough or the consequences from your actions don’t align with those traits, the player will be frustrated that the end up with bad consequences from actions that they couldn’t have foreseen would have those consequences.

These only get exacerbated when combined with a time loop and the frustrations inherent in that mechanism. There are two main ways to end a time loop story. You can take the Tragedy Looper board game route and give a set number of loops to get the best ending possible(in that game, you need to get the “right” ending or else you lose, but I don’t expect to see that in Elsinore) or you can take the “Groundhog Day” route and give as many loops as necessary until you get to the “right” ending. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character gets massively frustrated because he doesn’t know what the “right” ending is, and so has no idea if what’s he’s doing is getting him closer to finishing the loop. If the ending state is vague and the player can’t tell if they’re getting closer to the right ending, then they will be frustrated in the same way. On the other hand, if one wrong action can mess up a loop and the loops are limited, then an unintended consequence can kill one of those limited loops, and with limited loops there are going to have to be things you learn in a previous loop so that you can use it in a later one, which will hamper their ability to get a good or proper ending, which will also be frustrating.

These things have to be carefully balanced. If your play testers are frustrated, that’s a good sign that you aren’t getting that balance. Ignoring that feedback will make the game a disaster.

And, of course, there’s another goal here, too:

hironis says, “I grew up going to Shakespeare productions with my parents and it was always an all-white cast, and back in Shakespeare’s day it would have been an all-white, all-male cast. Now I think it’s interesting to reinterpret Hamlet for a modern audience that, I hope, doesn’t want to see an all-male, all-white cast.”

So Ophelia and her brother Laertes are biracial. Additionally, Chironis explains, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are women of color. And I don’t want to go into too much detail but a lot of the characters have fluid sexuality and gender identification. People think of history as being predominantly white and male but it actually isn’t, these people have been here all along. We’re gonna talk about their stories and their experiences through the lens of Hamlet.”

What about people who don’t care if the cast is all-male and all-white, as long as the game is good?

Okay, so let’s look at this. First, the game is working with a “small actions, big changes” model, which is a very complex narrative model. Then, it adds a time loop model, which adds even more complexity, which makes it even harder to do and stay interesting. And then they want to add in telling these extra stories there as well, which also needs to be done well if you’re going to pull that off. This is certainly … ambitious, to say the least.

And that last part might actually be adding to the frustration. See, in any time loop story you are going to have to take some actions over and over again each loop in order to get things to follow the right path. If those “stories and experiences” are front and centre and not just hidden, and especially if they have an impact on the ending, then players might have to experience those stories over and over and over again as they play through the game. Even someone who is interested in these differing stories might get annoyed if they have to hear the story of a character’s unique transgender name over and over and over again.

Given all of this, this game is really looking like a trainwreck. The ambitious goals of this game would be hard to achieve even if the designers didn’t seem completely ignorant of how games actually work and unwilling to listen to their own play testers about the experience of the game. If this summary was coming from someone critical of the idea, I’d take the comments with a grain of salt … but Petit seems to be supporting this game. Thus it’s likely that the things said here are what the designers actually believe. And those words, to me, sound like a disaster waiting to happen.

Some minor notes:

– Guildenstern, in the screenshot I saw, looks like an Asian woman to me. I didn’t realize that “of colour” applied to Asians; I thought it was just a purportedly politer euphemism for “black”, not for “non-white”. If all that was meant was “non-white”, she could have just said so.

– I read a developer comment while looking for the actual looping mechanism that said that there will be same-sex relationships in the game. I’d bet that in one ending you can have Laertes and Hamlet run off together while Gertrude and Ophelia stay and run the kingdom.

– I also don’t understand why so many of the people who want to tell the stories of minorities always want to take an existing work and alter the characters instead of creating something new. Tragedy Looper, as a board game, is successful enough — and Groundhog Day was successful enough — that they ought to have figured out that they didn’t need to piggyback on Hamlet if they made a good time loop game, and there was even a recent indie and Social Justice-oriented one whose name escapes me that did well, so why bring Hamlet into it? It has to be to play off of the familiarity … but then changing the characters to tell other stories works against that. I just don’t get it.

Thoughts on “Joe Steele”

April 20, 2016

So, what I was looking for when I was reminded of “The Man in the High Castle” was general alternate history books, and I had spotted one that at least billed itself as being a continuation of “The Man in the High Castle”. “Joe Steele” by Harry Turtledove … is not that book. However, I have read and liked a lot of Turtledove’s alternate histories, and when I saw it there in the pocketbook paperback form — which is really hard to get for a lot of newer works — I decided that I’ve give it a try.

The premise of the book is that Joseph Stalin’s family left Russia before he was born and emigrated to the United States. Just before World War II, Stalin — after having changed his name to Joe Steele — runs for President against Roosevelt … and ends up the President of the United States.

So, what did I think of the book?

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Thoughts on “The Man in the High Castle”

April 18, 2016

So, after finishing reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for the second time, I found myself looking for WWII books, and especially alternate histories. I was reminded about “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick while browsing, and decided to pick it up and give it a try. Upon finishing it, my reaction to it is … meh.

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Tropes vs Women: Body Language & the Male Gaze

April 15, 2016

So, when I first read Anita Sarkeesian’s latest video (and yes, I read them, and don’t generally watch them), my first thought, no fooling, was that it made her previous video look really, really bad. After all, it covers pretty much the same issues, but instead of being just a cheap, joking shot at a phenomena that, as it turns out, doesn’t actually exist, it actually goes over them in some depth and says some interesting things. But on later examination, I became much less impressed. As usual, when Sarkeesian is right, she isn’t saying anything new, and when she’s saying new things, she’s generally wrong.

She starts by praising Destiny for its gender-neutrality, which as it turns out is, I think, a major issue with her underlying thesis. At any rate, she moves on from that to talking about differences in how male and female characters sit in the game:

However, there is one way in which the male and female characters are differentiated by gender, and it has to do with their movement. Watch how a male guardian sits down, taking a load off after a long, hard day fighting the forces of pure evil. It’s simple. It suggests confidence. When a female character sits down, however, it’s a completely different story. She sits like a delicate flower. This is supposed to be a hardened space warrior and yet she is sitting around like she’s Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Now, I had to actually go and watch the video far enough to see the difference, and noted something right away. Let me start by talking about another game that had the motion capture be mostly gender neutral, which is Mass Effect 2. If you play through the DLC that gets you Kasumi, you get evening wear, which for a female character is an evening dress. As with most of the outfits in the game, you can use this as your default clothing when you aren’t in your armour or environment suit. Note that they don’t change the game animations, so if you put your Shepard in the evening dress — as I did — and run around in it, you get a fairly masculine looking run in an evening dress. This isn’t actually an issue in any way, understand, but just something to note (and remember for later).

Now, if you are replaying the game, you can start with all unlocked outfits, which includes the evening dress. In Chuck Sonnenberg’s review of the game, his female Shepard starts in that outfit, which leads to him making a joke about what the scientists were doing with the character while she was out (his joke is about it being a tea party). But, as we get to the cutscene, we notice something: the camera angle and the way Shepard gets off the table aren’t changed if you are wearing the dress, which is unfortunate, because you pretty much get a full upskirt shot in the video.

Now, this is almost certainly unintentional, as the dress came out only in a DLC later, and you could only see this if you left Shepard in the dress and then replayed. And even if it was noticed, it was likely going to be too much work and too expensive to fix. So what we have is, inadvertently, something that we know Sarkeesian hates: an upskirt shot.

Now, look at how the male character in Destiny sits. Note that you can view that from the front. So … how in the world would the Destiny designers arrange it so that you can’t get an upskirt shot from that, if the female character was wearing a skirt? Sure right now, as Sarkeesian says, the outfits are the same. But what if they wanted to offer a more feminine option?

And that’s where we start running into issues. I don’t find the way the male avatar sits in Destiny to suggest confidence, as Sarkeesian asserts. And I find the female avatar’s sitting posture — and getting into it — to be far more awkward than anything approaching sexy. So I disagree that it’s the case that the male avatar gets to sit confidently and the female avatar gets to sit in any way that would demonstrate “sexiness”, which is Sarkeesian’s big push on this, as usual. What I will say is that the pose is, in line with Sarkeesian’s description, feminine. But then we have to ask: should female characters and their body language be feminine?

One of the issues with women entering into male dominated fields and adopting traditionally masculine behaviour is that it faces resistance from women who, while they want to be confident and capable and all of that good stuff, still want to remain feminine while doing it. So, contra Sarkeesian, they don’t want to act and look just like men, because they don’t want to sacrifice their femininity to get that. Thus, things from feminism to commercials have tried to push the idea that women can, in fact, be as strong and capable and confident as men are while still retaining their femininity. And body language is, in fact, an important part of that, as even Sarkeesian admits that it can have a big impact on how a character is perceived.

Now, the ideal way to handle this is to, well, give choices. Instead of just sitting or having a default walk, let the players decide if they want their female character to sit femininely or masculinely, and the same for male characters. The problem with this is that motion capture for simple, repetitive motions is expensive, and so you only want to do this if you really need to. And you can’t just do the motion capture with a man and then reuse it for female avatars, because that will often look really, really artificial and stupid. And, other than people like Sarkeesian, most people won’t complain too much if their female avatar’s body language is merely feminine. So there’s really no reason to not just make male avatars have masculine body language, and female avatars have feminine body language. It’s likely what most of the players who create those avatars want anyway.

But what about sexualized body language?

By contrast, the way that women move in games isn’t just used to suggest their confidence or their skill or some other facet of their personality. It’s very often used, in conjunction with other aspects of their design, to make them exude sexuality for the entertainment of the presumed straight male player.

Catwoman from the Arkham series has a deeply exaggerated hip sway when she walks. In combination with her clothing and the game’s camera angles, all of this is meant to drive the player’s focus to her highly sexualized butt. In Resident Evil: Revelations, Jill Valentine somehow manages to wiggle her whole body while she runs. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Evie Frye is a character who avoids falling into many of the sexualizing traps that some playable female characters do. But she still walks with an exaggerated hip sway.

Catwoman is a bad example here, because it is a main point of the character that she plays on her sexuality, being a trope of the femme fatale/cat burglar. I’m not familiar enough with the others to say, although simply talking about a bit of hip sway might fall more into “feminine” than into “sexualized”, especially since as women wear high heels and high heels cause hip sway — as Sarkeesian says later — this might be just trying to make women walk, well, the way they often walk.

An example of actual sexualized male gaze and the impact on body language can be seen in Mass Effect 2, with Miranda Lawson, as has been pointed out by many people. I seem to recall reading somewhere that they did that to try to play on the same sort of “femme fatale” trope mentioned above, but it fails badly. And it fails badly because unlike other examples of male gaze, it isn’t the character or, in fact, any character that’s doing it, but instead the game doing it. We don’t shift into a first-person type of view — as seen in some of Sarkeesian’s other examples — or have a comment that reflects that this is the or a character doing this, and so is the game trying to present this to the player, as opposed to trying to present this to the character. And while it’s obviously the case that Miranda would try to use her looks to gain an advantage if she could, in many of the scenes, again, it’s not the character that gets to see it, but the player. So if they wanted to go for that trope, they missed by a mile through terrible execution.

But this raises the question of what counts as male gaze? Sarkeesian, as usual, is so broad as to be utterly unhelpful:

The male gaze manifests when the camera takes on the perspective of a stereotypical heterosexual man. An indisputable example of this is when the camera lingers, caresses, or pans across a woman’s body– although it’s not always that obvious. In games, it can be as simple as the in-game camera resting so that a character’s butt or breasts or both are centerline, it can be cutscenes that rest on a woman’s butt, it can be clothing that they are wearing or the way they talk, or it can be as basic as the way a female character moves around the game world.

So, essentially, anything Sarkeesian doesn’t like, in other words.

As a theoretical and overarching concept, male gaze can’t apply when the character is a stereotypical heterosexual male who, well, would be looking there. Male gaze, to be problematic, has to apply in cases where in terms of story and character where that wouldn’t be the case. Thus, it has to be the case, as pointed out the Mass Effect 2 example, where the game is doing this, not the player (ie it’s not under their control) and not the character. Also, in order to be problematic, it has to be the case that, as Sarkeesian puts it:

The male gaze reinforces the notion that the man looks, and the woman is looked at. Or as art critic John Berger explains it in the 1972 book Ways of Seeing, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.”

So, instances where a particular man does this won’t count, especially if there are women who are not simply looked at in that way. Mass Effect 2 might well fit this for a number of reasons; the camera angles are often odd and show off the attributes of the female characters. But you’d need far more than the examples given in the first part of the video to get to anything like male gaze in those games, at least. So I need more arguments and evidence here, which is a common trend with Sarkeesian’s videos.

And, again, Sarkeesian’s blinkered perspective impacts her comments on sexualizing men:

When male characters are depicted as shirtless or wearing little clothing–like the character sometimes dubbed “Hot Ryu” from Street Fighter V– their lack of clothing demonstrates their power and strength, rather than depicting them as erotic playthings or reducing them to sexualized body parts.

Except … those are masculine traits that women find sexually attractive, and they are physically attracted to appropriate and reasonably musculature. So it’s not really any different, then, than presenting a woman as feminine with feminine traits and then highlighting her sexually appealing physical attributes. Sure, it’s different if the woman is, in fact, reduced to only those parts, but that is pretty rare outside of — and even inside of — pornographic games. Miranda and Catwoman are given personalities along with their attributes and walk, as are pretty much all of the other examples Sarkeesian lists. So, at the end of the say, she hasn’t made a case that they’re that much different. Ultimately, for the most part the main characters in games are designed so that people who would be attracted to them are attracted to them, and that those who aren’t want to be them, or both. That applies to both men and women.

Controversy in a new Baldur’s Gate Expansion …

April 6, 2016

So, it turns out that a group that has enhanced the old Baldur’s Gate games has also made a DLC expansion for it called Siege of Dragonspear and there’s a little … controversy over it. Supposedly it’s very buggy and has broken multiplayer, but the big issue is over the insertion of “Social Justice” memes into it. Those attacking it claim that it shoehorns them in, while defenders claim that those who are upset are simply upset that anything beyond the standard white male cis tropes were included. I’m going to focus on two main discussion threads: the post where the head of Beamdog asks people to go and give positive reviews of the game — if they enjoyed it — to balance out these purportedly invalid and politically motivated reviews and a summary of it at craveonline.

So, what are the main issues? Despite what the craveonline post claims, it isn’t just that there’s a transsexual character. Minsc also takes a potshot at Gamergate, which isn’t likely to appeal to anyone who isn’t on the strict Gamergate side (it’s kinda like Republican or Democrat jokes; you’re going to offend somebody if you do that, and if you appear to be too harsh or too biased even the moderates will get annoyed). But it is true that the transsexual character is the most talked about issue when people talk about a political agenda being forced on the player. So, there’s a video of the interaction in the craveonline article, which also highlights that people can, in fact, after hearing her story, decide to kill her … but it works as a good summary of the scene. So, what happens?

When you meet this shopkeeper/healer NPC, you can ask about her name, as it seems to be unusual. She comments that she invented it herself and that her birth name proved unsuitable. You can then ask what was wrong with it, and she comments that when she was born, her parents thought she was a boy, but it turned out she wasn’t, and so she chose the name herself with each syllable having personal meaning. You can never judge this in any way, mock her for it, challenge her on it or anything like that; all the player can do is say thank her for sharing her story in seeming approval.

Now, before analyzing this, let me point out that we don’t need to speculate from this scene about whether there’s an agenda here in the writing, as in this interview from Kotaku the writer, Amber Scott, is in fact absolutely clear that there is:

“If there was something for the original Baldur’s Gate that just doesn’t mesh for modern day gamers like the sexism, [we tried to address that],” said writer Amber Scott. “In the original there’s a lot of jokes at women’s expense. Or if not a lot, there’s a couple, like Safana was just a sex object in BG 1, and Jaheira was the nagging wife and that was played for comedy. We were able to say, ‘No, that’s not really the kind of story we want to make.’ In Siege of Dragonspear, Safana gets her own little storyline, she got a way better personality upgrade. If people don’t like that, then too bad.”

“I got to write a little tender, romance-y side quest for Khalid and Jaheira where you could learn a little bit about how their marriage works and how they really feel about each other.”

In fact, it turns out that perhaps the biggest impediment to resolving this are the things that Scott herself says about it. Note that in the above quote, she comments that there are a lot of jokes at women’s expense, and then that maybe there were a couple, and then finally that the character development of two characters was lacking. If Scott had simply said that Safana was underdeveloped as a character and the relationship between Khalid and Jaheira was expanded, most people would have at least given it a shot, and probably simply agreed. But casting it as being a reaction to sexism and about jokes at women’s expense is far more debatable; even if Jaheira was the nagging wife, that doesn’t mean that it’s a joke at her expense, rather than using a personality trope to build out the character. Also, her comment that if people don’t like it then that’s too bad is a very aggressive comment that’s bad for two reasons. First, a company really doesn’t want to challenge their customers with an implied “if you don’t like it, don’t buy the game” unless you don’t need customers, because they might just take you up on that. And they might take you up on that without even playing the game for the second reason, which is that Scott here sets us up to think that we won’t like it. I mean, as everyone knows I don’t like Baldur’s Gate in the first place, but Scott insisting that she needs to “fix” characters in it in a way that many people might not like is not in fact going to encourage me to give their version a shot.

And Scott’s reaction to this controversy doesn’t help either. From the craveonline article:

Amber Scott, a writer on the game, responded to these criticisms by saying: “As I’ve said before (and I won’t say much more on this subject other than to get my perspective out there): I’m the writer and creator. I get to make decisions about who I write about and why. I don’t like writing about straight/white/cis people all the time. It’s not reflective of the real world, it sets up s/w/c as the “normal” baseline from which “other” characters must be added, and it’s boring.

“I consciously add as much diversity as I can to my writing and I don’t care if people think that’s “forced” or fake. I find choosing to write from a straight default just as artificial. I’m happy to be an SJW and I hope to write many Social Justice Games in the future that reach as many different types of people as possible. Everyone should get a chance to see themselves reflected in pop culture.”

So, yes, she writes with a specific Social Justice agenda. And she doesn’t care if people think that her writing there is forced or fake. Sure, that could be because she knows that it isn’t, but it could also be that she’s stuffing it all in and if it is forced and fake, well, who cares?

So, let’s look at the scene. Is it forced or fake?

Some — see the threads at Beamdog for examples — argue that because you have to select the right options that it isn’t forced; you can avoid hearing about it if you want to. I find that a specious argument, since in RPGs if you have an option to ask someone about something you do so, because it might lead to a quest or even just important exposition, so everyone, at least the first time through, is pretty much going to select it. The big problem I see with it is that we don’t have any idea how things work wrt transsexuality in Faerun, and this doesn’t in any way help with that. For example, is transsexuality like it is in this world: rare and disapproved of? Then she wouldn’t be that open with characters she just met, especially since you can be, in fact, anything from a religious fanatic to an absolutely evil character. Is it common and/or accepted? Then she wouldn’t bother to mention it; she’d stop at saying that she invented the name herself. After all, people don’t generally declare that they’re heterosexual; we tend to only mention it if people would find it strange or we want people to act differently based on that, which she absolutely doesn’t want. This is made worse by the fact that no matter what class you are or what your personality is, you can’t express any disapproval of it. You can’t be an evil character and mock her for it, or disapprove of it. You can’t be Lawful or religious or anything like that and find it unnatural. All you can do is thank her for sharing the story and move on.

What this suggests to me is an attempt to shoehorn in transsexuality but to not actually do anything with it. It’s not an important part of the interactions with the character. It doesn’t reveal anything interesting about the world. Heck, it doesn’t even reveal anything interesting about the character. There’s no follow-up and nothing changes. It’s really an attempt to say “Hey, transsexual here!” without examining any of the issues with it, without showing their struggles — or allowing for any kind of struggle at all — or making it at all relevant to your relationship to that character. That’s fake, forced … and pointless.

So, some in the Beamdog thread commented that if the problem was the writing and not the mere existence of transsexuals, then the critics ought to have some suggestions for how it could be done better, which they don’t do. That’s a pretty specious argument — along the lines of “If you don’t like it, write your own game!” — but, hey, I’m willing to oblige.

This NPC is, as far as I can tell, a shopkeeper, meaning that you’ll visit them a number of times. After you’ve had a certain number of interactions or spend a certain amount of money, you get a short cutscene when you return to her where a customer is leaving and uses a name that’s different than the one she gave you, which seems to annoy her, but the customer doesn’t care. You can then ask why the customer called her that other name. She can then comment — and it would be better if you have to ask about it a few times, and not that she merely infodumps it on you — that that was her birth name, but that she changed it because it was a boy’s name and she discovered that she was a girl. Then, you can have, in my opinion, at least the following reactions:

1) Thanks for being comfortable enough with me to tell me that.
2) That customer is such a jerk!
3) You’re an abomination (means that you can’t shop with her anymore).
4) Call her by her birth name (ie be a jerk yourself).
5) (For some humour) You realize that your original name was gender-neutral? (Which annoys her but doesn’t cause her to not want to sell to you anymore).

This is better because it comes after some time is spent with the character, and has a trigger so that it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It lets you react to it the way your character would, and doesn’t force you to accept it (a character could say 2) even if they don’t really accept the idea of transsexuality, on the basis that calling someone a name that they’ve abandoned just to mock them isn’t a nice thing to do). Much less fake, much less forced … and something that SJWs don’t dare do because they can’t stand the idea that someone might, you know, ever act contrary to Social Justice principles in a game, which would be terrible, so they remove those options because leaving them in would be wrong, you know.

At any rate, given her interviews and what I’ve seen of her work, I don’t have much confidence in Amber Scott’s writing ability or her ability to reasonably depict the Social Justice issues that she wants to depict in a way that both does them justice and preserves the freedom of choice that is so important to RPGs. Even if I liked Baldur’s Gate, this wouldn’t make me feel confident about these remakes, or about what will happen if Beamdog gets the changes to make Baldur’s Gate 3, which is what this DLC is an audition for. And the impact on BG3 is one of the main reasons so many gamers are so upset over this. And Beamdog’s reaction, from top to bottom, has not been good.

It does not bode well.

Note: There’s a longer description of the writing here.

UPDATE: Trent Oster, CEO of Beamdog, has made a formal reply here. The Minsc line is being removed, he says they should have developed Mizhena more, and he wants the harassment to stop.

What I Like (and Dislike) About “What I Like About You”

March 30, 2016

So, I’ve been watching an old show called “What I Like About You”, starring Amanda Bynes and Jennie Garth as two sisters (Holly and Val) who end up sharing an apartment in New York — Val’s — after their father gets another promotion that requires him to move to Japan, and Holly doesn’t want to go. The most consistent sidekick is Gary, a friend of Holly’s who starts with a crush on Val but that, thankfully, gets dropped by about mid-way through the first season. The first season starts with a boyfriend for Val, Jeff, who gets dropped at the end of the first season.

The underlying premise, at least at the start, is the fact that Holly and Val are very different people who now have to live together again. Holly is spontaneous and free-spirited and fun-loving, while Val is organized and serious. The clashes in their personalities, especially since Val has to be the parent figure here, drives most of the plots in the first few seasons, but this fades in the later seasons, although Val is still portrayed as being uptight and serious despite being far less so in the later seasons.

I’ve also found that the pace of the show is very fast, so much so that if I try to read while watching it — as I’m prone to doing — means that I end up missing stuff (which is hampering my re-reading of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”). I also find that, other than in the pilot, it tends to stay away from simple stable comedy plots where Holly does something that she shouldn’t and the whole episode is spent following her trying to avoid having Val find out about it. In fact, in one episode she sneaks off to a concert without telling her system, and the humour is entirely driven by all the problems Holly has along the way: they get a flat tire, the tire rolls away, Val and Jeff catch up to her, the car rolls away, and so on. They revert to the staple jokes more in the later seasons, but still much of the humour is driven by the incidentals and not as much by trying to hide what’s going on.

As we get past the first season, the cast of characters increases, to include a new friend for Holly, and a number of potential boyfriends, while Val loses her steady boyfriend but picks up a friend. And this gets into something that is both good and bad, because while I really like Holly’s friend Tina and think she works quite well in that role, I find Val’s friend Lauren very, very annoying. There’s really no reason for Val to be friends with Lauren, who is selfish, self-centered, and at least amoral. Tina’s worst qualities, on the other hand, are generally her snarkiness and how she doesn’t think things through, and she shares with Lauren a propensity for falling for the wrong guy and being far more promiscuous than Holly. Unfortunately, Tina gets underused; she doesn’t even typically get the “competing with Holly for the same guys” plot that Lauren gets. Which is sad, because one of the things about Tina that makes her work so well is that that sort of thing could work, as given the actresses involved it’d be perfectly reasonable to think that someone might find Tina more attractive than Holly, while Lauren just isn’t as attractive as Val is. So what happens is that Tina, a much more interesting character, gets swamped in the big crowd of Holly’s friends and boyfriends, while Lauren gets a big role in Val’s life but is mostly annoying there, overly competitive and incompetent in business and not really a supportive friend. While Tina ended up using her looks to get ahead at work in one episode, the only way Lauren could have been any kind of competition for Val — which is how they met — is by using her looks. The Tina character, I think, would have worked better as Val’s friend than as Holly’s.

Also, the show seems to be arguing for the idea that, when it comes to relationships, all women like bad boys. For Holly, both Henry and Ben are considered to be exceptionally nice guys, which is even commented on in the show … but Holly will end up with the more attractive but more of a jerk Vince. For Val, Jeff isn’t bad — if a bit of a doofus — but after that they try to set her up with Peter who she’s somehow attracted despite him being a massive jerkass, and then they turn Rick into a bit of a jerk as he sees his ex-fiance without telling her (and marries the ex later), and even when Vic returns — who was at least reasonably nice — he comes on so strong after their spontaneous wedding that he really does come across as a jerk … and Val ends up with him to end the series.

Also, by the end of the series, while the humour is still entertaining, I’m getting heartily sick of Holly’s boyfriend issues. It … just … never … ends.

That being said, overall I like the show. Season 4 is probably the worst season I’ve seen so far (and I’m only about 4 episodes in!) but it keeps me relatively entertained and I even laugh on occasion. It was definitely worth revisiting.

Thoughts on “Corpse Party: Blood Drive”

March 25, 2016

So, as I commented on the “Best Soundtracks” post, I really should like interactive novels. And yet, as with “XBlaze: Code Embryo”, “Corpse Party: Blood Drive” left me a bit cold … so cold, in fact, that I don’t think I’ll even finish the game.

The game is a chapter in a long-running “Corpse Party” series of horror visual novels, so I’m coming into the game in the middle. The game, however, is pretty good at getting you up to speed on what’s happened so far, which involves a magical inheritance through the family line, a book of magic spells, terrible injuries, and the disappearance from existence of a number of people, and even an old school. You, at least at the start, work through the girl who cast the latest spell and caused the latest disaster. While I’ve only experienced it once so far, the general gameplay is that you end up in a haunted place, and have to move around solving puzzles and dodging evil spirits that will attack you and kill you if they hit you enough. There are places that you can hide from them, but I don’t know of any way to actually attack them yet, and it looks to me like there isn’t any. There are also areas on the floor that you can step in and hurt yourself. You do have a flashlight that you can turn off and on to see things better, but if you use it too much and don’t have extra batteries it will die and, well, won’t work.

Graphically, outside of the cutscenes and internal dialogue, everything is done in the “Chibi” style, which doesn’t work all that well for a horror game.

Ultimately, there are two big issues that I’m having with this game:

1) The main character is far more scared by things that I am. This is understandable given her history — she’s survived a previous horrific experience that really ought to make her a bit jumpy — but since the game stops to let her panic it, well, stops me from playing the game until she calms down, when I’m not really upset at all. Ideally, the player should be more freaked out than the character they’re guiding is so that you don’t have their reactions getting in the way of the player’s reactions to the game. If the main character is much more scared than the player is, the player rolls their eyes at them and it takes the player out of the game.

2) Like “Cross Edge”, the gameplay and story have been done better elsewhere. All this game makes me want to do is play “Clocktower 3”, while “Cross Edge” made me want to play “Record of Agarest War”, because the “run away and hide” gameplay was done in “Clocktower 3” as well, and was done better, and the story in “Clocktower 3” was better, too. In fact, “Haunting Ground” is similar and again, more detailed in both story and gameplay.

Ultimately, I think it’s the latter that gets me when it comes to visual novels. Ideally, the story in a visual novel would be better than the story in other games … but many of the visual novel games go that way so that they can skimp on things and be smaller, and modern games often focus quite a bit on story, giving an overall better product. And since visual novels tend to simplify gameplay, what you end up with is a game that feels … small compared to other games. If the visual novel format is used to do something that a regular game would have a hard time doing, this can work … but “Corpse Party” does not seem to be that sort of game. Thus, I give props to “XBlaze: Code Embryo” for doing something that works well in a visual novel but whose gameplay is too small for regular games … it’s just that the whole “We decide the endings based on what you read” works really, really badly for me, who always wants to read everything.

Maybe there are visual novels out there that will more appeal to me, or maybe I’m just not the right audience for them.

Video Games and Challenge vs Experience

March 23, 2016

So, last week I talked about games of all kinds and the distinction between a game as experience and a game as challenge. As I said there, video games have special issues with the challenge vs experience dichotomy, and it all comes down to the fact that, in a video game, we have the ability to save and replay sections of the game if we fail at a challenge, which you typically can’t do in other sorts of games.

Let’s look, then, at what happens in other types of games when you hit a challenge that you simply aren’t prepared for. In sports, you hit a team that’s too strong for you, or they spring a strategy on you that you weren’t prepared for and run up a big lead. In a board game, you get a string of bad luck or you don’t understand how to play the game and so end up behind, and perhaps even in an unwinnable situation. In all of these cases, you have two choices. Either you keep playing the game, or you simply quit completely and start over. Thus, either you stay in the experience — even if it isn’t one that you particularly enjoy — or else you end the experience entirely, and often go to do something else. Either way, the situation doesn’t drag you out of the experience only to reinsert you into it a few minutes later. hoping that you can pick up the experience as you go along.

Video games are different. If you hit a challenge, or something that leaves you in a tough situation, you can and are generally encouraged to restart from an existing save file and pick up from where you left off, preferably in a way that will let you get past whatever obstacle you encountered. Thus, a video game can present ending the game entirely as a speed bump on your way to the end of the game, as if the game ends you can just reload pretty much where you left off. Thus, a video game can present harsh challenges — and harsh consequences to failing the challenges — without forcing the player to pack up the game and move on to something else, or restarting the game entirely.

The problem is that from an experience standpoint, every time you actually die it drags you out of the experience, as you go through the cutscene that kills off your character(s), and then through the loading screen, and then back into the game where you left off, without having all of the preamble that got you caught up in the experience to start with. And even if you have to replay large portions of the game, some of the tricks that it used to drag you into the experience will be lost. There’s a reason why Shamus Young recommends that survival horror games might want to threaten death but never actually kill the player, in that being threatened with death is great and immersive and generates fear, but actually dying drags you out of the experience and ruins the fear the game is trying to generate.

So, with saves, video games can ramp up the challenge, even using — and over-using — DIAS-style gameplay. But if they do that, they break up the continuity of the experience, and thus make for a disjoint experience, where potentially just as you’re getting into the experience, you die and get yanked back into reality and get reminded that, yes, this is really just a game. Video games have a remarkable ability to get players to suspend disbelief, but overusing the challenge notion of games can ruin that, all unintentionally. Other games either keep going or end when the challenge becomes overwhelming. Video games are the only case where you can keep retrying and retrying, and thus have a disjoint experience based on how challenging the gameplay happens to be for you in those cases.

I think Bioware’s “Narrative” difficulty might be first step towards resolving this, where at that difficulty level the challenges are minimized in favour of maintaining the experience, while at the other end the focus is on challenge rather than on maintaining a continuous experience. If this catches on and games start doing more things to focus on one or the other, games might move from having this dichotomy as a unique problem to having this dichotomy be a unique benefit, as the same game can provide both without impeding the other.


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