Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

How the Mass Effect Series Screws Up Exploring the Galaxy …

July 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inheritance of the Old Republic

July 13, 2015

I just added a new page, a fanfic I wrote a long time ago that took some elements from the Sith Lords game and wove it into the end of the prequel trilogy. Not long after that, I was reading some of the EU books (it was either the ones right before or right after “The Dark Nest Trilogy”, which I maintain is the absolute worst of the EU, so bad that I’ve only ever read them once) and noted that they went from having a potential interesting conflict to resolve with Kyp Durron and Corran Horn holding diametrically opposed philosophies and Luke wondering how to keep the Jedi together without simply taking control to having him pretty much simply be the one running the whole show without any problem, which irritated me to no end. I had around that time thought of a bit of a story arc that played on that conflict — although wouldn’t necessarily resolve it — that revisited the Knights of the Old Republic games, and I think I briefly started writing it … and then, as is usual for me, just ditched it. The reason to add the story here is two-fold. First, it is a story that is complete and so does work in the vein of the other stories I’ve posted to, well, post some writing here, and second, I want to actually try to write that story now, as pure fan fiction.

So, why do I want to do this? Well, the overarching reason is that I’m looking to focus more on the outside, hobby-type work things that I’ve always wanted to do but never found the time to do, like writing and programming AI and programming games and all of that good stuff, mostly for interest but also to see if maybe it could turn into something that could generate some income in the future. Or not. The reason I’m trying to do this fanfic is because as a fanfic I don’t have to care about getting it all that good or putting a ton of effort into it, and if I fail at it it won’t matter at all, and as fan fiction it can give me something to post on the blog, and so something that has some benefit to me regardless, and in doing it I’m hoping to get myself into the habit of doing that sort of work on a regular basis so that it’ll be easier to slide it into more serious pursuits.

Anyway, that’s what I hope to do, anyway. Hopefully, I’ll be able to and some people will enjoy it. I can’t make any schedule for when you’ll see anything for it, but you won’t get anything this week for certain.

Blinded by the Light

July 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The List – Year 4 (and updated)

July 1, 2015

So, this year I’ve decided to change up my list of games to finish, by removing all of the games that I’ve decided that I just am not going to finish. Or, rather, I went through the list and removed any game that I didn’t think that I wanted to put a push on finishing. It’s still the case that if I finish a game I’ll add it to the list — like I did with Sam & Max — but this list will track the ones that I’m thinking about playing and that when I’m deciding what to play if I want to put a game on the list out of the games I want to finish, then that’s a game that I’d want to put there.

Of course, this messes with the percentages. After adding Sam & Max, my totals were 14 games finished out of 56, for a 25% percentage, which is a big boost from last year. Now, dropping games off the list would greatly improve the percentage, but that felt like cheating. So I kept the total games there which included any I dropped so that I and you can compare it year over year, but I’ve also updated the number of finish to only count the ones that, well, I’m trying to finish. After that update and adding a couple of new ones to the list, the percentage of games finished to the total only counting games finished and that I’m actively trying to finish is 33%, not as big as I’d thought, but still a substantial boost.

Going forward, I’ll keep counting both, and we’ll see if games added to the list overtake the games I actually finish, which hasn’t been the case for the past year or two.

Thoughts on Sam & Max

June 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

The Damsel In Distress Role in Video Games

June 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I only chose female protagonists when given the choice …

June 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This means two things:

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

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

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

I miss creating my party …

June 8, 2015

So, I’m sitting around looking at comments on piracy about the Witcher 3 and seeing a reference to the Kickstarter Bard’s Tale game, and something struck me about pretty much all of the RPGs that I’ve played or seen for the past long while:

You create the main character, but not your party members.

For me, though, the ability to create a full party to adventure with has always been something that I’ve greatly enjoyed. It’s pretty much why I like the Icewind Dale series of games and didn’t care much for Baldur’s Gate (yes, you can create a full party if you hack through the multiplayer system, but in the original that leaves the party greatly underpowered). For the most part, the old-style games that I played — Gold Box AD&D, Wizardry, etc — got you to create your own parties instead of picking up characters along the way. It wasn’t really until Knights of the Old Republic that I even really liked RPGs that only let you create the main character, which didn’t really take off for me until I started playing JRPGs … which to my mind is different because you don’t really create your character either, so you end up playing a role, which made it easier than imagining a role myself. Heck, for me I even played TBSes with 8 players, all created by me, all interacting the way I wanted them to interact.

To me, the difference between an RPG where you create the entire party and an RPG where you create one party member and then have others join you is the difference between getting all of your friends together to go out adventuring and going out solo adventuring and meeting up with people. I far prefer going out with a group that I know than with a group of strangers, or going out to look for and meet people, and that carries over to games for me. Now, given the depth of character interactions you can get in the more modern Western RPGs — like most of Bioware’s stuff — and in JRPGs, it’s easy to see the benefits of having the developers create characters that you can meet and interact with. That sort of thing is hard to do if you also have to give the player the ability to create any character that they want.

Still, that’s really what I want, to be able to go out with a group of characters of my own creation, of my own devising and who have the relationships I want them to have from the start, and where their development is completely under my control from start to finish. I don’t think I’ll ever get anything even close to that again.

The daily grind …

May 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

The Avatar and the Ego

May 11, 2015

So, finally, for the first time, I’m going to cover one of the essays in “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”, mostly because it is based on video games and how gamers associate with their digital avatars. The essay is by Luke Cuddy and is called “The Avatar and the Ego”. It focuses on Freudian psychology, and in general treats games as a way for the ego to reconcile the demands of the id and the superego, by allowing us to do things that we couldn’t do in real life. This, Cuddy thinks, explains a great deal of the anger that we feel when we fail, and when we gripe that the game is somehow unfair or unreasonable in not allowing us to play out the role that we’re trying to play out. Cuddy does comment that, of course, sometimes it is because the game isn’t fair, but the basic idea is that if we are piloting our Vipers and we are suddenly shot down, we retract from the avatar. So he argues that this is an ability that we have in games, and which is what facilitates our using them to reconcile our id and our superego.

While Cuddy admits that different people play games for different reasons, ultimately they all come down to this sort of attempt to reconcile the id and the superego. The problem is that in a lot of ways what’s really happening is the same thing that happens when you watch a TV show: you lose the suspension of disbelief. When you’re piloting a Viper, you are trying to be one of the heroes of the show, not one of the “nuggets”. When you get shot down and you see the “Game Over” screen, you aren’t a hero anymore, not a main character, not the star of the show anymore. You’re a bit player at best. And so that anger and frustration you feel is the same sort of frustration that a character who thought they were a hero but died ignominiously feels (for an example of this, see the story of the Jedi with the great destiny told by Jolee Bindo in Knights of the Old Republic). Also, there may be cases where the game elements become clear. For example, recently I started playing “Record of Agarest War Zero” again and hadn’t been keeping track of my “Fragments of Life”. Due to a nasty combo, one of my characters went down … and I didn’t have one left to revive him, which meant that I would have had to finish the battle — which I might have been able to do — and then likely have to get him revived at the infirmary, and he wouldn’t have gotten the XP for the battle and … well, the long and short of it is that after being reminded of all of the gameplay hassles that I’d have to go through, I stopped for the day. This was not due to any clash of my id and superego, but more that I generally enjoy the game and mostly enjoy following the story, and the game issues just made that that much more difficult. So when the gameplay breaks the experience and reminds you that you’re playing a game, you can’t associate yourself with the avatar anymore.

In general, people play games to, well, have fun. I have no doubt that what often appeals to people playing games is the ability, in the game, to get something that they don’t get from other hobbies or in their every day life. So, for example, people who don’t have very challenging lives might be drawn to games in order to get a challenge. People might enjoy being able to participate in a dramatic environment. Or they might enjoy being able to participate in something fantastical or imaginative. But although games do feature more participation from the player than other media, often what they give us is pretty much the same thing that they do. And, in theory, those other media then also allow for us to reconcile the id and the superego, although with other media it’s far more vicarious than it is with games. That being said, much of the time even games will be played “just for fun”, just as a way to distract us from the world and give ourselves and our minds something to do, without any deep psychological purpose at all. And it seems to me that the most anger is reserved for the times when the game ruins my fun, not when it ruins my id/superego combat.


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