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

Thoughts on “Mindswap”

May 22, 2017

So the last of Sheckley’s books that I have and will talk about is “Mindswap”. Unfortunately, here we’re going from one of Sheckley’s best to what may well be Sheckley’s worst.

The problem here is that there’s just too much packed into it to make Sheckley’s normal quick pacing work. The book starts from the idea of people using “mind swaps” to travel, by getting their minds transferred into the bodies of other beings. And those are definitely other beings, because the galaxy, at least, has been explored and we’ve run into a number of alien species, including Martians. These two ideas, in and of themselves, offer a wealth of avenues to explore. But Sheckley doesn’t stop there. He adds in a plot where a young person — of around 30 years — wants to explore, and ends up getting swindled and losing his body, and so needed to find some other body within 6 days, which he does by offering to work for it, which is another idea that’s worthy of exploration. So the main character has to try to find a way back to Earth and recover his body, while exploring a number of different planets, cultures, and alien bodies, with the help of an eccentric detective who pops in every so often to remind us that he’s there. Oh, and there’s a bit of a twist ending that needs to be set-up, on top of that. Along with a semi-romance.

There’s just way too much here for this to work. Because there’s so much, the little details can’t all pay off like they did in “Immortality, Inc”, and so most of them are merely interesting asides. But there’s so much plot and drama and strange cultural explorations happening that we can’t just follow the main character’s life like we could in “The Status Civilization”. You can argue that this was meant to be more a humourous exploration of those different cultures, but that could have been achieved easily just by using the main character’s wanderlust instead of adding on the “Recover my own body!” plot.

In the end, reading the book made me feel that things were unfocused. The exploration parts seemed extraneous while he was supposed to be looking for a way home, the main plot gets resolved in a very shallow manner, the twist ending comes out of nowhere (even though it was foreshadowed), and the romance goes nowhere. There’s really nothing in the book that’s worth paying attention to or watching. It both drags and moves too quickly. There are some interesting scenes, but beyond that every other book of Sheckley’s that I’ve talked about is far, far better than this one.

Persona 5 vs Dragon Age: Inquisition

May 17, 2017

So, my first run of Persona 5 took me about 80 hours, and when it was done I immediately started playing it again (and am now just over half-way through). I also put about that much time into my first run of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and yet said that if I never play it again, it will be too soon. So what explains the difference here? Why is it that I can get through two 80 hour runs of Persona 5 without feeling incredibly bored and frustrated, but couldn’t make it through one of DA:I without feeling that way?

One of the big issues is what I was doing that dragged out that time. In Persona 5, in general I’m following the story and building S-links. In DA:I, I was generally doing the area quests to ensure that I had enough experience and enough levels to be able to continue the story, while stopping occasionally to talk to people and run War Council missions. Thus, DA:I felt like grinding to me: doing things that I didn’t find fun just to be able to do the main story content, which greatly spread out the story content, which meant that the story content always felt like a bit of an aside; it was important and definitely prominent, but I spent so much more of my game not doing it than doing it. About the only things that I had to grind were the personal stats, which I didn’t need to do at all in the replay because they carried over. For the dungeons, on “Easy” going through the story missions killing everything in sight and then going into Mementos and wandering through it only to finish the requests gave me enough XP to beat the game relatively comfortably. So I never felt the need to actually grind.

The other thing is that there’s just so much to do in Persona 5. Even grinding out your stats can be done in varied and more or less interesting ways, from direct working out or reading to S-links to fun activities. Sure, you want to focus on the most bang for your buck, but there’s still a lot of choice and a lot of ways to get things done. In DA:I, while there are a number of things to do the big ones are simple non-story-related quests, where you go out and kill and find things until you have enough and then do it over again until there are no missions left. So there’s not all that much choice over what you want to do, and you can’t really decide to skip the things you really dislike and focus on things you like more unless you’re sure that you don’t need them for XP, influence, or items.

Ultimately, when I play Persona 5 it is very easy to just keep playing because I always want to do something else, either advance an S-link, advance an ability, clear a story dungeon, complete Mementos requests, or whatever. In DA:I, most of the time I had one goal: clear the quests out of that area. That goal, in general, took long enough to feel like grinding and didn’t really seem to give any kind of closure or satisfaction when it was completed. Instead, I just moved on to the next one or on to the story mission as appropriate. In Persona 5, the goals tended to be shorter, and gave me a sense of completion when I finished it. That’s why DA:I felt like grinding and Persona 5 doesn’t.

Thoughts on “The Status Civilization”

May 15, 2017

This is the book that I remembered and which got me to read the other Sheckley works that I’ve looked at. Will it hold up on re-reading? There may be spoilers, so I’ll continue below the fold:

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Tropes vs Women: The Lady Sidekick

May 10, 2017

So, here we are, finally, at the last “Tropes vs Women” episode, on “The Lady Sidekick”. Originally, Sarkeesian claimed she’d have it all done in a year; it took her five. Even the last season — which was far more shallow than the first one — was supposed to be done in a year and ended up taking her about a year and a half. So at least you can say that Sarkeesian did not know what she was getting into when she started the project. But, here we are, at the last one, which means that this is my last post on that series as well. So how does it work?

Well, not well. The main trust here is about how female sidekicks and companions are portrayed in games, with a segue or acknowledgement on how that’s how sidekicks and companions are portrayed in general, which she proceeds to criticize. The problem is that her extremely narrow focus means that she misses all of the games where what she seems to want to see has already been done, and at times contradicts herself in what she wants or things acceptable, and at the end of the day promotes an idea of making companions human that, in fact, would in general be more annoying than helpful, especially since there are other, less annoying ways to do that that are already being done.

So let’s start with her first example, that of Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. The problem here seems to be that while Elizabeth is indeed a critical character to the plot and gets development, in gameplay her abilities are pretty much passive:

Elizabeth possesses the incredible ability to open portals to other timelines, an ability that plays a significant role in the plot as Booker and Elizabeth hop forward and backward and from side to side in time, leaping from one version of Columbia to another and sometimes thrusting Booker into the past or the future. So as a plot device which drives elements of the game’s narrative, she’s very significant. In gameplay terms, however, Elizabeth serves a different kind of role: that of a glorified door opener.

As with most shooters, Bioshock Infinite often puts you into situations where you can’t progress until you’ve cleared an area of enemies. The way it frequently does this is by blocking doors to the next area that can’t be opened by Booker. Only Elizabeth can do this, which she does only when all the enemies have been killed. For all of her tremendous powers, Elizabeth is reduced by the game’s mechanics to doing the most basic and menial of tasks, and waiting around for her to open a door becomes a significant aspect of how players experience her character.

Of course, she performs other actions as well, sometimes tossing Booker ammo, first aid or other useful items, or opening tears through which he can have her summon things like weapons or killer robots to help him in combat. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of characters who play a supporting role in combat situations. But Elizabeth is an example of a female sidekick who is reduced to a tool. There aren’t gameplay mechanics that allow you to have meaningful interactions with her. She just opens doors and dispenses useful things, and her tear-opening powers are not her own, but yours to call on and control with the press of a button.

So, on the one hand Sarkeesian claims that there’s nothing wrong with supporting characters, but then complains that these supporting characters — again, who are not combat characters — have a generally passive role in the gameplay. So, in the gameplay, you “order” them to do things and they, well, do them. What’s the alternative here? I mean, surely you’d want to be able to at least ask them to do things and have them do it, right? If you have them refuse to do those things, then if you need them to do it desperately in order to survive they could cause you to, well, die and have to load from a previous save. And at least any refusal is going to cost you time. If you make it follow from their personality — and not be random — then it could be seen as a story point … but Sarkeesian is talking pretty much about gameplay here. And the only other option is to simply have them open things automatically when the objective — in this case, clearing the area — is pretty much done. At best, that adds little to their character and at worst has them take actions that the player is not prepared for.

Thus, we can translate Sarkeesian’s complaint here as “Why doesn’t the gameplay do more to annoy the player?”. To which the answer is “Because it annoys the player!”. Giving the player control over their sidekicks and companions allows them to better plan their strategies and tailor the gameplay experience to their own abilities and how they like to play. Handing “agency” off to the companions can frustrate players unless those companions always do things the way the player wants them to, at which point you might as well just give the player direct control. As an example, in Persona 3 you couldn’t tell your companions what actions to take in combat, and so they acted on their own. You could tell them how to act in general — heal, conserve SP, etc — but you couldn’t give them direct commands. But when in Persona 3 FES, I believe, they gave you the ability to give direct commands, the change was universally welcomed. This was not because players wanted to or even did see the companions as primarily tools. The Persona series itself is built on the strengths of the personalities of your companions and how you feel about them, as well as those of your other S-links. No, the reason this was welcomed was because the AIs would quite often do incredibly stupid and even out-of-character actions in combat that could cause you to lose that battle. For example, the intelligent and capable tactician Mitsuru might cast Marin Karin — a charm spell — instead of attacking or healing … and, from what I understand, might do it on bosses that in general are immune to the ability. Wanting to be able to give her direct commands, then, isn’t a desire to order her around, but is instead a desire to be able to manage the combat the way you want to manage the combat.

And that’s the big issue with Sarkeesian’s thesis here: when players give these direct orders in gameplay, they are, in fact, thinking of these as gameplay mechanisms, and not story or character mechanisms. That the player leads the team in Persona 3 is an odd example of “Gameplay and Story Segregation” that is handwaved: Mitsuru should probably be the one giving orders, but as the PC has the ability to change Personas and is competent it can be argued that letting him decide what the others do makes sense, since his versatility means that what the others do will always depend on what he can do and what he can cover, which even extends to team selection (if the PC doesn’t have a Persona who can use fire spells, he’ll likely want to bring one along to trigger the weakness in those enemies. He’ll also want to pick which weaknesses get hit in a mix of enemies to ensure that they all get knocked down). But none of this means that the P3 PC is really the leader of SEES. That is indeed Mitsuru, and everyone acknowledges that. So even if in gameplay what Elizabeth is doing is what the PC tells her to, that doesn’t in any way invalidate what impression the players have of her throughout the game. Players can indeed note that things work differently in gameplay and in story, as that TV Tropes link above suggests.

Sarkeesian also goes on to talk about the “Damsel Escort Mission”:

Damsel escort missions occur when a female character joins the male player character, but is largely helpless, and rather than being a clear benefit to the player, she feels more like a burden. In ICO, players free Yorda from a cage early on. She then joins Ico on his journey, and much of the game consists of solving puzzles so that Yorda, who can’t make leaps or climb walls on her own, can traverse the environment. Meanwhile, players also need to protect her from the shadow monsters who sometimes try to whisk her away. Spoiler alert: yes, in the ending cutscene, Yorda carries Ico out of the crumbling castle, but what the narrative tells us or shows us in the end doesn’t undo the impact of how we experience a character through gameplay. Another classic damsel escort mission occurs in Resident Evil 4, where Ashley Graham, the president’s daughter, has caused players tremendous frustration over the years by burdening them with the need to protect and manage her.

Or, as most gamers call them, “Escort Missions”. The only distinction here is that Sarkeesian limits this to female characters being escorted, but all of the attributes are the same, as are the frustrations. Thus, what Sarkeesian is complaining about here is, at the end of day, that women are used in escort missions. She’d potentially have a complaint if she showed that women were used in that role more often — which is probably true — and in general she pushes the line that having that role fosters stereotypes in a way that it doesn’t for men, but this doesn’t really work. For one thing, as I have noted a few times, it’s easier to have a female character that needs to be protected, even at times, remain a sympathetic character than it is for a male character. And second, the way to overturn those stereotypes is to present other female characters that don’t fit that stereotype. Sure, you might have to escort a “damsel escort” in a couple of missions, but if your party includes your competent female companion that’s not likely to make you think that all women are like that, now is it?

And the issue is that you simply cannot do it right by Sarkeesian. She criticizes ICO for having Yorda be mostly an escort throughout the entire game and comments that even her saving Ico at the end can’t make up for that, but then she later criticizes Ellie in “The Last of Us” for having presumably a small number of scenes where she needs help across the water despite being in general an active character the rest of the time. So a character that was built up as being active and competent and thus breaking the stereotype but that sometimes needs help? Bad, if it’s female. But a character that was mostly passive but that has some character development at the end and so can be seen as being more active and subverting the stereotype? Also, bad, if it’s female. So one active scene can’t undo the experience, but one passive scene absolutely can. And to top it all off, Sarkeesian has no idea if most people really did experience the character that way. My bet is that most people didn’t.

Where this gets all the more ridiculous is when Sarkeesian tries to talk about companion mechanisms in general:

Companion dynamics in games almost never model what equal footing, cooperation and collaboration in a relationship might look like, but instead serve to make the player feel like the center of the world, the one in control, which is not at all a model for healthy relationships.

Of course they don’t. Sarkeesian can only find a couple of good examples:

When women function as competent companions whose skills are more-or-less equal to those of the player character, it can challenge these ideas. The Last of Us goes against the grain by giving us the character of Tess, a somewhat rare and refreshing example of a woman who fights alongside the male protagonist, and the later Gears of War games do a decent job of including female squad members who are on equal footing with their male counterparts. And thankfully, we are seeing more games that complicate and subvert the old patterns, providing players with relationships with supporting characters who don’t function as mere extensions of the player but who feel like separate, individual people.

And while Trico in 2016’s The Last Guardian may not be a human character, he does possess some of the characteristics we’d like to see more of in human companions in games. Asking Trico to do things isn’t a simple matter of pushing a button and watching him immediately obey. He’s not a simple tool, not just an extension of the player. Sometimes he’s hesitant, reluctant, even frustrating. But this makes it feel more like he’s a living, breathing creature, with thoughts and feelings of his own, and by taking time to pet him, you can sometimes express your connection to him in ways that fall outside the requirements of the gameplay and the story. And crucially, Trico is often the one protecting the player, rather than the other way around. He does not exist to fuel a power fantasy, but to allow for gameplay mechanics that focus on cooperation, care, and helping each other.

So, let’s start with Trico. I’ve already commented that companions refusing orders is annoying unless it’s story or character based, and Sarkeesian does not limit Trico’s “frustrating” part to those cases. But we’ve had a long history of companions that protect the player already. In Persona 3, Persona 4 and Persona 5, if you get their S-links up to a high enough level, your companions — male or female — will take a blow for you in battle that would kill you otherwise. Persona 4 uses this as a major — and heartbreaking and horrifying — plot point in the final battle. In Suikoden V, Lyon is the protector of the PC explicitly, and fights alongside him throughout the entire game. The combat system of the Suikoden games involve combinations, which thus involve two or more characters cooperating and working together. Even the passive “Mission Controls” in the Persona series — Fuuka, Rise and Futaba — have special powers and abilities that sometimes can be triggered and sometimes trigger randomly to help the player, often accompanied by text that really reflects the character. In fact, even when you order around the characters, they tend to attack in ways that reflect their character, with catchphrases and even attack styles that make them distinct and show them to be a character that is doing something, and not just a tool to be used.

And companions, male and female, that fight alongside the main character and are equal participants are not exactly now. Baldur’s Gate had companions that did so, like Jaheira. Wizardry 8 had Vi. Knights of the Old Republic had Bastilla and Juhani. Sith Lord has Mira, Visas Marr, Handmaiden (Brianna) and the character that we know Sarkeesian knows about: Kreia. This trend continues into games like Neverwinter Nights, and into the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, with Tali, Liara, Morrigan, Leliana, Wynne and then a host of others in the later games. TOR had female and male companions for every character class. The Persona series has always had female party members that fought alongside the main character, all the way back to the first one. So has the Suikoden series. Shadow Hearts has Alice — who ends up sacrificing herself for Yuri, the MC — and Margarete, while Shadow Hearts Covenant has Karin, Lucia and Anastasia. This is not new. And Sarkeesian criticizes the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games enough that she really ought to know that those characters exist. And yet … there is no mention of them. There isn’t even mention of one of her favourite characters, at least as evidenced by the other videos in the series. Maybe someone finally told her that Kreia is actually the villain of the game.

So these examples aren’t as uncommon as Sarkeesian thinks they are.

The last thing to comment on is about having companions who just do whatever you say and go along with whatever you do regardless of their own views on the matter. And, of course, games are already working on that as well. In Sith Lords, for example, Visas Marr will not wear the slave girl outfit no matter what you say, and Mira flat-out refuses to date you. In the series as a whole, companions will comment on your actions before and after you do them (Carth, at one point, comments that you are being incredibly petty if you take a specific Dark Side action). This carries forward into The Old Republic, where you will lose or gain affection based on how you respond to characters and situations in the game, and the reaction depends on your personality. This was also present in Dragon Age. In Mass Effect, the commentaries are also there, and in ME2 how you interact with your companions and which ones you choose to do certain missions have a critical impact on how the mission turns out, and who lives and who dies. In Persona 5, at boss fights there is an opportunity to send companions to do something, and who you send is at least claimed to matter. So what we can see is that games, for the longest time, have been trying to insert the specific details and traits of characters into the gameplay for a long time, from having them have different skills and abilities that follow from their character traits to having the personality show up in various ways. That Sarkeesian thinks this is new just reveals how little she actually knows about games.

Ultimately, again, this is a shallow analysis, and seems to come down to Sarkeesian griping about things she doesn’t like, especially since here there’s no real clear trend or set of traits that we can look at. Gaming is already pretty much doing all of the things that she seems to want it to do, except for the ones that are really annoying. It’s easy to stand on a soapbox talking about “cooperation” and “healthy relationships”, but her narrow focus leaves us very thin on examples and again we have no idea if Sarkeesian isn’t referencing the other games because she thinks they’re bad or because she doesn’t know they exist. At the end of the day, maybe Sarkeesian can leave games behind and move to areas where she actually knows something about the media she is examining.

Or maybe not.

Thoughts on “Crompton Divided”

May 8, 2017

So, the second book of Sheckley’s that I had bought and never read was “Crompton Divided”. Spoilers: This book does not work anywhere near as well as “Immortality, Inc” did.

The main plot here is about a man named Alistair Crompton who, as a child, developed a viral form of schizophrenia. As he was station out in the boonies of Antarctica, this wasn’t picked up in time, and so it developed to dangerous and lethal levels before he could be properly treated for it. The treatment for this is to split up the personalities by placing the other minds into temporary bodies and letting them live out their lives to a certain age, when all of the personalities are reintegrated into a complete and whole person again. Because the treatment was so late, it’s not recommended that Crompton attempt the procedure, but he decides that he dislikes his incomplete life and sets out to reintegrate himself.

Again, Sheckley’s development seems rushed here, and this really hurts the work. Unlike in “Immortality, Inc” where the details of the world carry the novel, here all we have to focus on for the most part is Crompton’s quest. While that takes us to different worlds and is set in the future, for the most part all of those details are background to Crompton’s quest. Thus, if he skims over details or resolves things too quickly that impacts our impression of the main thrust of the work and main point of interest. In short, the world building isn’t interesting enough to carry us through when the main plot stutters.

Other than that, though, it was a relatively interesting read. I might not read it again, but it was good enough to get through and, fortunately, short enough that what when it started to bug me I didn’t have much left to go.

Thoughts on Persona 5 After Playing it Once

May 5, 2017

So, I recently finished Persona 5. It took me just under 80 hours, and I almost immediately started over again once I finished it, for reasons that I’ll get into in a bit. But there may be spoilers for the game below this point:

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Social Justice vs Games: Another Persona 5 Review

May 3, 2017

So, via the same thread that I talked about last week comes a review at Zam of Persona 5 by Kris Ligman that explicitly hits similar themes and aims at Social Justice ideas. Don’t believe me? Here’s the explicit quote from the review:

But suppose you are the kind of person who calls strangers on the internet “SJW cuck” and you don’t care whether a girl’s rape is referred to as such in a major game from a major publisher.

So, definitely, many of the negatives the reviewer has are informed by a push for Social Justice. Her main criticism of the localization is what she says above, which I’ll get into later, but she also hits a few more of these themes both in terms of what she finds positive about the game and what she finds negative about the game:

The criticisms printed above are nothing compared to the whole laundry list of issues I have with Persona 5. I didn’t even mention the trans woman who, though better than 99% of Atlus’s transgender representation, still gets called a drag queen. Or the sheer number of adult women in this game who seem ready to hop into bed with a 16-year-old. Or that you still can’t date your best friend, even though Ryuji is clearly just as in love with you as Yosuke was in Persona 4.

But I’ll spare you, because at the end of the day, it serves no one any good to only emphasize a game’s negatives. Inasmuch as Persona 5 can be cloyingly childish and it earned its biggest laugh from me during an inadvertent “clap for Tinkerbell” moment, there was a lot I really connected with in this game. Futaba and Makoto are two of the most relatable characters I’ve ever encountered. The “Confidant” social link with Yoshida, a downtrodden former politician whose speeches will remind you more than a little of the Democratic primaries, was another highlight. Persona 5 tackles social inequality much more directly than past entries in the series, and there are a few optional quests where you (say) get to take down somebody’s abusive boss or a controlling ex-boyfriend. It’s undeniably cathartic. And oh man, when you get to the dungeon critiquing the Japanese legal system, the game just shines.

A lot of her positives and negatives, here, are things that will appeal to you or bother you if you have a certain mindset. I have no issue with you not being able to have a gay relationship here, and don’t see it as a huge negative, especially since doing that can potentially open up a can of worms and make things more complicated. It wouldn’t offend me if it was available, but I’d rather be able to choose a female protagonist over that. Yoshida didn’t strike me as interesting in my first play through, and linking him to Bernie Sanders isn’t likely to do that as well. And the others are obviously even more attached to your own personal viewpoints. While I appreciate a reviewer giving their own opinions on things, there is a strong undercurrent of “These are problems with the game and story!” rather than “This is what didn’t really work for me!”.

But, as with Solid Snake, we again hit an issue of someone who is criticizing the game primarily for its Social Justice problems and claiming to have played and enjoyed previous games seems utterly unaware of what the previous games in the series actually did. She complains about the how short the dungeons seem:

As a result, Persona 5’s dungeon exploration differs in two fundamental ways from past Persona games: 1) each dungeon has its own distinct feel and internal logic; 2) almost all of the dungeons feel way too short. Party members exacerbate the problem, always urging the player to complete a dungeon as quickly as possible, despite the fact that the plot won’t advance till a deadline has passed on the in-game calendar — leaving the player with often huge “doldrums” periods in which there is little to do but go to school, work, and develop friendships with such colorful residents as Hot Dad Who Runs An Airsoft Gun Shop and Anime Bernie Sanders. While past games also had downtimes like these, the sense of urgency isn’t quite the same as it is here, nor does the story’s tension feel needlessly overextended the way Persona 5’s does

The “distinct feel” idea originated in Persona 4, where the dungeons, while still procedurally generated, where themed to the person who generated them. So the big difference is that Persona 5’s dungeons have a static format — which allows for more set puzzles — while Persona 4’s wasn’t. As much, actually, because Persona 4 itself had a number of puzzle floors with a static layout. So what Persona 5 really did was split those sorts of things off from the randomly generated floors, relying on set and puzzle-heavy dungeons for the story and putting the random generation in Mementos, which despite her claims isn’t really optional if you want to do anything in the game (including getting the true ending).

But it’s that comment about the “sense of urgency” that really misses the mark, because while that’s true for Persona 3, the sense of urgency was worse in Persona 4. There, the party members were pretty much just as pushy to get you to go into the TV, and also about as pushy as your teammates were in Persona 3 (it’s done primarily through pop-up events or messages at the times when you can go into the dungeons). Arguably, Persona 5’s system is less intrusive because it comes in the form of text messages on your cell phone that you can completely ignore if, say, you want to instead do an S-link. And while in Persona 5 you knew exactly how long you have to finish the dungeon, in Persona 4 all you had was “When it rains for a couple of days and we get fog, you’ll be out of time”. In Persona 5, your biggest worry is going to be how far in you are and if you are going to be able to push through the rest of the dungeon in time, which was also there in Persona 4 … and Persona 5 actually lets you talk to Morgana and find out about how far along you are in the dungeons, which was mostly missing in Persona 4. And on top of all of that, in Persona 4 the stakes were always at least arguably higher. You are constantly reminded that someone specific is going to die if you don’t complete the dungeon in time, and in a lot of cases the person in there is someone you know and care about. I dare anyone to not feel like they really need to rescue Nanako instead of working on S-links in her dungeon, for example. So the pressure to complete things quickly, contrary to Ligman’s assertions, is less in Persona 5 than in Persona 4. And objectively so (although your mileage may vary wrt to the last one).

But why she finds this problematic also reveals an inability to understand why many people actually love the Persona games. She describes the downtime between the dungeons as the “doldrums” where there is “little to do but go to school, work, and develop friendships with such colorful residents as Hot Dad Who Runs An Airsoft Gun Shop and Anime Bernie Sanders.” Or, you know, do the S-links. And the S-links are the gameplay mechanism that is arguably the modern Persona series’ most unique feature and what catapulted it into the position that is has in the JPRG world. There are, therefore, going to be a number of people who will feel that the dungeons are too long, and take up too much time that could be spent pursuing those S-links, building abilities, and exploring the outside world. I would, in fact, happen to be one of them. And Persona 5, in addition to the normal S-links aligning to the Arcana, has even more things to do than any of the other Persona games. Even in the S-links, you can go to other places and have unique scenes, often involving characters from other S-links. You can watch movies, rent DVDs, play video games, make coffee, make curry, wash things you get from the dungeons, hang out in the batting cage, work at a number of places, take a bath, and read books. One of my main issues is that there are far too many things that you can do, so that in one playthrough you aren’t even going to get close to doing everything you want to do. I didn’t even manage to max out the S-link of even one of my teammates, and only managed to get relationships with three of the four older women … and those were the only S-links I maxed out. I actually really want to replay the game again to at least get Makoto’s relationship, if not Futaba’s, and to max out Shojiro’s. There are entire S-links that I didn’t even start because I didn’t have the time that I really would like to see.

“Doldrums” indeed.

The odd thing is that she does acknowledge this later in the review:

For some, that’s fine. Like the day-to-day school and social life stuff that has become the hallmark of the series, sometimes the monotony is the point. If all you’re after is another Persona game, but more, this will scratch that exact itch.

While most people who really like those things won’t call it “monotony”, I’m not sure that it should be a surprise in any way that a large number of people really, really interested in a Persona game would be interested in the S-links. You know, the thing that the series is probably most known for (alongside interestingly tactical RPG fights)?

Look, I get it. She doesn’t care for those elements. Fine. But to list the prominence of those elements in a continuation of a series known for those elements as a negative isn’t what you want to push in a full review. Most of the existing audience will think it a plus, in general, and even those who are new to the series would want more of a description of how it actually works than a mere comment that the reviewer, personally, finds it boring.

But it seems to me that her big complaint is almost certainly the Social Justice angle — or lack thereof — than anything else:

But sometimes, “the same but more” just doesn’t satisfy. Atlus promised Persona 5 would be a return to the “dark” roots of the series, and while it’s definitely darker than Persona 4, what I played was a mish-mash of dissonant ideas plagued by awkward and inconsistent localization, hedging itself where it should go all in. A rape isn’t called a rape. Anonymous message board commenters can say “****,” but principal character Ryuji has to console himself with “eff.” Gay relationships with party members are still verboten, but a gay male NPC sexually harassing a teenager, that’s perfectly palatable, I guess. The game calls out the social inequalities screwing over an entire generation, and then says the solution is, what, positive thinking? Better civic engagement? I would call it a compromised vision, but compromised with whom, exactly?

She seemed to want it to align more with what she wanted than with what the series is about and is known for. That’s okay as just an opinion, but despite her somewhat denying that in the comments, her “No” here isn’t just about things like the length and the issues with Persona negotiation — both of which I agree with — and how that might impact older and more casual gamers (like me) but is instead a comment that she thinks the game is bad, or at least has some really bad elements, especially the story. That’s not a mere “I don’t like it” or “I wish they had done it differently”, but outright and full-on criticism.

So, let’s look at her biggest Social Justice issue: that they refer to Shiho’s situation as “sexual harassment” rather than as “rape”:

Remember what I said about the game’s first chapter, where a girl is raped and subsequently so traumatized she tries to kill herself? Persona 5 refers to this as “sexual harassment.” Not as “rape.” Not as the more nebulous “sexual abuse,” additionally confusing seeing as this chapter doesn’t shy away from calling out physical abuse. Just “sexual harassment,” as if the script were suggesting she was catcalled to death. This may be a literal translation of the Japanese portmanteau used, “seku-hara,” but using “harassment” in the localization when it is made abundantly clear the character was raped (“You took everything from her!” party member Ann screams) downplays the seriousness of the entire scene.

Worse, it doubles down on the cowardice of the original script, rather than seizing upon the opportunity to clarify and deliver maximum impact for the English-speaking player. Localization isn’t just about 1:1 translation; it’s about ensuring stories make sense for the intended audience. If it was “just” sexual harassment, and the guy who did this was Unequivocally Evil for doing so, then why are all the gross moments that come after it — the lewd comments Ryuji lobs at Ann, Yusuke’s stalking, the two camp gay men entreating the protagonist to strip, to name a few — just harmless fun? Where is the consistency there?

So, let’s look at what happened, shall we? (Yes, there are spoilers coming up).

The teacher, Kamoshida, was pursuing sex with Ann, saying that he would keep Shiho as a starter on the volleyball team if Ann did things for him, with the ultimate goal being that she would have sex with him. He was pushing her to come to his home after school for what Ann is certain is an attempt to have sex with her, and one that she was fairly certain that she would give in to his demands until she met with the protagonist, which gave her the strength to say no. After that, out of revenge, Kamoshida calls Shiho to his office and it’s strongly implied that they had sex. After that, Shiho attempts to commit suicide.

So, let’s look at what likely happened there. Since Shiho was so emotionally vulnerable that she felt like the only thing she had that she was good at was the volleyball team, and since we know that Kamoshida knew that because he was using that as a basis to get Ann to do things, it isn’t likely that Kamoshida grabbed Shiho and forced himself upon her. What he likely did was make the threat to her directly that he had been making to Ann: have sex with him or she was going to be off the team. And thus it is likely that she then “agreed” to have sex with him on that basis, and that one of the main drivers for her attempted suicide was the conflict and self-loathing Shiho had over giving in to his demands, but feeling that she had nothing else but the volleyball team, leaving her in a position where she had to do something that degraded her in order to keep the one thing that gave her any self-esteem at all. And Shiho’s weak self-esteem could not survive or support either option.

But if we look at that, what we actually have is classic “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. There are only two ways to call it “rape” instead. The first is to call it “statutory rape”, which both gets us into issues of what the actual age of consent is and would minimize it since some of those cases are cases where the person legitimately agrees but is being taken advantage of. That’s not what’s happening here. The second way is to use the strict “She didn’t consent” line and note that, well, she didn’t because of the blackmail, which is an interpretation that could actually minimize it, with an idea that she didn’t “technically” consent so it’s rape. Ligman almost certainly prefers the last interpretation, but it isn’t clear that doing it that way is better than calling it sexual harassment.

Especially since her claim about how calling it that diminishes the impact is flat-out false. In a news report — which is where I think that most comes up — doing that might diminish the impact because how it is phrased is all we get, and so, yes, you could see it as something similar to the juvenile antics of some of the team towards Ann. But that’s not all we get. We get all of the details. We know exactly what happened and exactly why what he did to them — and to the other female students — wasn’t the same sort of thing, and was so much worse. By the time it gets called out as “sexual harassment”, we already know the details and have already formed our opinion of it … and Kamoshida. The translation here, therefore, is utterly irrelevant to the impact the events have on us. The impact has already happened; it is too late for the nitpickers over language to vote.

So the issue with calling that out as a major failing is that it invalidly puts too much pressure on calling something the right thing, where “the right thing” is in line with precisely how she wants it to be called. It ignores the context of the scene, the potential gray area in what happened, and the fact that the impact of the events is felt completely separately from the context in which the phrase appears to argue that they aren’t taking it seriously enough. So an excellent presentation that highlights how bad that was that receives callbacks throughout the entire game isn’t enough to get us to take it seriously if they don’t call it rape. Sure.

At the end of the day, this review is the reviewer being bugged by some things in the game that others might really like, not care about, or that is just her opinion and saying that the game is, at least in part, bad because of it. Well, I don’t care for a lot of the aspects of the dungeons, but I have to admit that if you like that sort of thing Persona 5 does them really well, and won’t claim it’s a bad game just because of that. Perhaps she can work on reviewing a game using more than just her own personal perspective, especially when she is supposedly writing for an audience that includes me and yet I couldn’t disagree with her more about her description of the game. No, this review is not aimed at an older audience, someone with a job and a family and not much free time (although the comments on length do resonate with me a bit with that). It’s aimed at someone like that who has strong Social Justice leanings and finds the S-links and “slice of life” aspects that the Persona series is known for boring. So if you are one of those people, you might find something of interest in the review. Otherwise, it’s not going to tell you what you want or need to know about Persona 5.

Thoughts on Immortality, Inc

May 1, 2017

So, I was browsing through the books on my bookshelf looking for something to read, and came across my old copy — I had it when I was a kid, so over thirty years ago — of Robert Sheckley’s “The Status Civilization”, which I had loved. But I seemed to recall that it seemed fragile the last time I had read it, and so instead of reading it I instead decided to look for a new copy of it, which I managed to find … and even some collections that contained the short stories that he had done in it that I had loved (and I don’t normally like short stories). But then I was browsing again after re-reading some Starcraft novels and found a couple of novels of his that I had bought at some point and had never read. The first one I decided to read was “Immortality, Inc”. And after doing the Hugo Award Assessment I thought it would be a good idea to talk about it and see how it compares to modern science-fiction.

The overall plot is about a man called Thomas Blaine, who gets into a car accident in 1958 … and wakes up in another body in 2110. It turns out that the future has solved the problems of both time travel and of mind/body separation, and so this big corporation has decided to bring him from the past into the future as a marketing gimmick. And then they get cold feet. The novel focuses on Blaine’s attempts to adjust to his new body and his new future, with the complications of a zombie, a ghost, and the fact that he’s seen as an embarrassment to a major corporation and, potentially, a legal liability.

The novel focuses on describing and outlining the world of 2110 and the consequences this sort of technology would or could have, and does that reasonably well. There’s a lot of exposition, but it’s all directed at Blaine and done through conversations, and so stays interesting, unlike “Seveneves”. However, this does mean that the development of the plot and characters tends to be pretty shallow, as events and characters crop up and friendships and relationships are started without all that much preamble; things just, well, kinda happen for most of the work. As such, the pacing is quite good, but the relationships and events often seem to come up … well, not out of nowhere — because the hints are always dropped long before the things happen — but at least in the sense of them just, again, kinda happening because they should happen now and not due to overt development through the novel.

However, I’m going to forgive him for this because, at the end of it all, all of this pays off. Every one of those moves really adds to the work, either by adding a great scene or an interesting insight or something. We always look back on those scenes that looked like they might add something later but didn’t really have to and note that, yes, they really did add to the work … including to the ending.

At the end of the day, the plot seems rushed to me … or, at least, like it is rushing. But that keeps things moving, and what development is done turns out to pay off really well down the line. So my only complaint about the work is that I wish he’d spent more time developing the world and plot more and letting us see more of how this stuff all works and worked out. But at the end of the day, it was still a good read.

Social Justice vs Games: Ann Takamaki

April 28, 2017

So, let me finish with “Solid Snake’s” thesis: that Ann Takamaki’s presentation in the game represents the height of misogyny. Spoilers ahead!

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Social Justice vs Games: Persona as Wish-Fulfillment

April 26, 2017

So, continuing on from last time, “Solid Snake” talks in these two posts talks about the “agenda” of the Persona games:

Oh, the game is absolutely pushing an ‘agenda’ and that agenda is wish fulfillment fantasy for its presumed audience with a side helping of completely eroding the agency and independence of NPCs to ensure the wish fulfillment fantasy ‘succeeds.’ My objection is twofold: Atlus ignores the wishes of everyone outside the confines of its presumed target audience, and even then, Atlus misconstrues what its target audience actually wants. Either that or it’s pandering to a subset of immature boys it really shouldn’t bother pandering to; take your pick on the latter.

Now, you can argue that Atlus’ agenda here is harmless (I’d disagree), but it’s certainly the clear intent of three Persona titles and counting now to put the gamer in the shoes of a protagonist who, through some kind of combination of sheer willpower, the mechanics of the game world and the exigencies of the heroic narrative, lives some hyper-idealized life where all his desires (perfect grades, perfect relationships, perfect friends, even the existence of antagonists is necessary to provide heroic purpose) are within reach and require minimal effort or investment to achieve.

Huh? It might surprise him that I, personally, have never completed all of the S-links in any Persona game. I don’t even get all of the relationships with the women. This is because getting everything is flipping hard unless you follow a guide. To be the most efficient you can be in the game, you have enter the dungeons on the right days, meet with people on the right days, fuse Personas at the right time, grind the right way, bring the right Personas to the right meetings, say the right things at those meetings and increase your abilities in the right way and at the right time. Otherwise, you won’t be able to max out all of the S-links. This all takes an exceptional amount of effort that I can never be bothered to do. And this is despite the fact that, for example, I very much like Naoto as a character but she starts so late that you have to be perfect to actually finish her S-link, which I often fail to do. And I’ve never managed to finish Aegis’ S-link in Persona 3 FES.

So what the Persona series lets me do — and why, in fact, I like it — is not do everything, but instead to do only the things I want to do. There are entire S-links that I ignore because I don’t care for the characters and none of my characters would like to interact with (Hidetoshi from Persona 3, and the Gourmet King from Persona 4). And this all comes from the fact that the investment and effort to pursue S-links is not minimal, but is in fact significant. This carries over to Persona 5, as one S-link requires a significant outlay of money and I’m always cash-strapped. So you do what you want to do, and often have to choose between two S-links and hope that you can still finish the other one.

And even on NG+, where you have to grind less, have more money, and have likely maxed out your abilities, you still often have to choose which S-links to focus on unless you want to play by the guide. Which isn’t much fun.

He then talks about the relationships being shallow:

Furthermore, the very mechanics of the game that you laud are utilized to reinforce all these really nasty story themes. They’re not minor blips, as Arcanum alleges — they’re ingrained into the fabric of the game itself. Take for example your Social Stats — Knowledge, Charm, Proficiency, Guts and Kindness. The game encourages you to invest time into activities that presumably raise these stats, and raising the stats on their own unlocks additional relational content with the ladies. Hell, even Bioware for all its faults attempts to write their supporting cast in such a way that they’re not merely gatekeepers demanding you gain X points in Y attributes — and then immediately falling head over heels for you once you’ve pasted the litmus test. The game’s mechanics support and attempt to rationalize the idiotic Nice Guy fallacy that women are objects whose affections can be ‘earned’ through correct behaviors or responses.

Real relationships are about chemistry and attraction and they’re complex and truly character-driven; driven by our faults, our flaws, our needs and wants, our hopes and dreams. We converse to know each other better, not just to soothingly whisper empty platitudes at each other. Go back and watch any of the Social Link scenes with the Protagonist and notice what the ‘correct’ answers sound like. Every romantic scene with a love interest boils down to women attempting a real conversation with the Protagonist and the ‘correct response’ boiling down to the Protagonist simply saying some iteration of “Believe in Yourself” and that, combined with his Stats, apparently justifies a degree of affection that’s downright irrational and harmful to the women the Protagonist is presumably helping.

And later, in the second comment:

I don’t have a problem with the game tying stat progression to actions, I have a problem with the game tying stat progression with an assumption of deepening intimacy with people. It’s a problem with guys too, insofar as it’s just as clunky and nonsensical when applied to the boys, but because there’s no SJ issues there insofar as I’m unconcerned with how Atlus chooses to portray platonic relationships among men. The issues I have with Atlus and sexism is how the Persona series portray romantic relationships, so it’s patently obvious that I’m criticizing the system from that comparatively narrow perspective.

The thing is that all of the things that he’s complaining about are gameplay abstractions of you deepening intimacy. The conversation choices you make can increase their feelings towards you, but you have to choose the options that make sense for them. It has often been the case in the Persona games that giving the empty platitude isn’t the option that they approve of. Sometimes, you need to kick them in the butt. Sometimes, you need to leave them do things themselves. Sometimes you need to help. And all of this is wrapped around a mechanism where if you are willing to be inefficient you can answer how you would answer and they, well, don’t like it much. What this means is that you actually have to spend more time with them to win them over, which involves arguably getting to know them better and what they want.

Even the fact that you get bonuses to affection for bringing the right Persona fit into this, as a Persona is a part of you and a part of your personality, and so if you have that Persona inside you you are better able to relate to them, because that’s who they are.

As for the stats, it seems odd to gripe about agency and about the women being more than mere objects and yet ignore that they would have certain things they like. Makoto, for example, is originally “gatekept” by intelligence: you have to be smart — or at least knowledgeable — enough. But she constantly, as the Student Council President, harangues the team to study and keep their grades up, and is very disappointed when Ryuji absolutely can’t. How likely is it that someone like that would want to spend time with someone when her first instinct would be to tell them to study more? And “Solid Snake” scoffs at what might well be a personality trait:

Technicality: You need either Rank 2 or 3 Knowledge (I forget which) very early on with Makoto’s link. I forget which one, but it’s a threshold before the Charm one that applies because she’s smart and likes smart people, I guess.

Yes, because it’s definitely unheard of to think that someone smart might, you know, prefer someone smarter, too, or see that they don’t have much in common with someone who isn’t as smart as she is, or at least doesn’t seem to be at all interested in academics, which she, at least, has been taught is important for all her life. Makoto is the Mitsuru ex-pat here — but not as interesting a character — and being good academically is important to her, and thus in a person that she’d fall in love with.

For the most part, the attribute restrictions are always used to either say something about the person or about the protagonist. Either you have to be intelligent or charming or skilled or whatever enough for them to find you interesting, or you need to have that level to be able to make the approach in the first place. And this applies to the relationships as well as to the friendships. While some of them might be able to be done better — Yukari, for example, can come across as shallow with her restriction — they do say things about the characters, and thus you need those abilities because of who they are. The biggest objection is that this is not an RPG like Torment where, arguably, focusing on one trait over another shapes the game and so you want to choose what you favour to suit your character, but instead you always benefit from and so always want to max out all attributes. But none of this is bad from a Social Justice viewpoint.

And one final point from these comments:

I know ‘gameplay first’ gamers who wouldn’t touch the Persona series with a ten-foot pole precisely because it’s Story first with a capital ‘S.’ That much is readily evident when you consider the length of playthroughs and the sheer amount of time Persona invests in telling its longwinded narrative. Hell, Persona 4 famously has like eight hours of pure exposition before you even enter a ‘real’ battle. Persona 5 follows that lead. And before Persona 5, gameplay was so secondary that dungeons themselves were completely generic and randomized.

Now, the Persona series executes its gameplay quite well, I’d agree with that. But, if anything, the mechanics of gameplay during the segments of the game where you grind your stats and your social links furthers the story and requires you to be invested in the characters and the town you live in.

Um, the random generation was the gameplay, as it made it so that you couldn’t memorize the layouts and so just know where the exit was. Persona 4 introduced the idea of personal dungeons and so tying the dungeons to the story in a significant way, while Persona 5 has designed dungeons for the personal dungeons. I wouldn’t claim this game is “Gameplay first”, but the gameplay is, in fact, a big draw for these games, particularly around battles, weakness, and Persona Fusion.