Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

The daily grind …

May 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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.

So Why Are You Acting Like You Haven’t?

May 8, 2015

Stephanie Zvan recently wrote a post titled “We Have Always Been Here”. While she meanders a bit through what would be called “purple prose” if informative essays could have such things, the gist of the first part of it is essentially that women have been part of things like video games, Science Fiction and Fantasy, computer programming and the atheist movement for a long, long time. She then asks this key question:

So what the hell happened? How did we end up in a world where men get paid to write whiny, ahistorical media pieces about how women are presumptuously beating at the doors to their clubhouses?

Which essentially translates to “Why are we being treated as if we haven’t been a part of these things and are instead newcomers and interlopers?”. To which my answer is the title of this post: because you are, in fact, acting like you are trying to push your way into these things instead of acknowledging that, yes, you’ve been a part of it for a long time now … and just as much a part of it as those whiny men that you complain about.

So when Leigh Alexander talks about how “gamers” are dead, you should react with the same mix of anger and confusion that I reacted with, because you should see yourself as just as much of a “gamer” as the people she complains about are. When people talk about a toxic gamer culture, you should see yourself as, in fact, part of that culture as well, and just as representative of gamers as the average gamer is. And more importantly, you should see yourself as just as responsible for that culture as the gamers that they complain about. Either you’re a gamer or you aren’t. If you aren’t, then it is reasonable to treat you like someone outside the “gamer” culture who is wandering in and trying to change it to suit your own personal preferences. If you are, then you have to accept just as much responsibility for it as the gamers that you treat as somehow not at all related to you.

The same thing applies to Sarkeesian’s gripes about tropes. These are tropes that have been in video games from the beginning. If you’re a part of this, then these are tropes that you at least didn’t mind when you voraciously consumed that media, and might have even liked. You voted with your dollars to support games that, in fact, did these things, because these things have been around for ages. And there isn’t much evidence that you supported games that didn’t do these things any more than you supported the ones that did. You, then, are just as responsible for the state of games today and for the popularity of these tropes as anyone else is.

Most importantly, you can’t complain that people protesting these changes are getting upset at “being asked to share”. Because by this reasoning they’ve been sharing it with you for a long, long time, and you’ve been relatively content with the sharing. So now, all of a sudden, the same things that didn’t push you away from the area are now the things that have to be changed or else we are somehow excluded … the very groups of people who have been there from the beginning. You don’t get to start from a position where you insist that the areas are pushing away certain groups and then claim that it’s the other side making it be about those groups when they ask why they have to pander to those groups. And in this case if you insist that those groups have always been a part of that area then you simply kill your own argument, as you end up supporting the idea that the new people who are bothered by what has always been there are just too sensitive, because those groups have always been there, too, and were able to move beyond those elements to enjoy the media or enjoy the work they’re doing. Given that, then, is it really too much to ask, especially for things like video games, that if they don’t like those elements and if they dislike them so much that they won’t play the games that, well, maybe then video games are not for them?

If you consider yourself a part of the area, a “gamer” for example, then yes, you do get to advocate for things that you’d like to see changed, and there are some things that maybe could be improved. But if you want to start as an insider, you don’t want to base your argument on what outsiders would think or want, or from an outsider’s perspective, or from an argument that makes you seem like an outsider. Instead of attacking gamers, represent yourselves as just as much gamers as everyone else. Don’t advocate for the changes on the basis that outsiders don’t like the way things are now, but instead on the basis that games will be better for the insiders if these things change, even if that argument is only “More people means more money for better things”. If you want to claim to be an insider, appeal to insiders as insiders and don’t segment yourself off in an attempt to define yourself as the morally superior group. But if you as if you are not insiders or are putting outsiders ahead of insiders, don’t be surprised if people treat you like outsiders.

So, if you’ve always been here, act like it. And then you’ll be treated far more often as if you have, indeed, always been here.

Talk to the (Invisible) Hand

May 4, 2015

So, in response to Vox Day’s comment on Gamergate, over at Butterflies and Wheels Ophelia turned a comment by Marcus Ranum into a guest post, a post that, along with a pair of comments strikes me as far, far less of a good, solid argument for how gaming is working and will work in the future and far more as an example of someone who really, really doesn’t know anything about the media that he’s talking about. Thus, to me it provides an excellent example of why even gamers who aren’t particularly “Gamergatery” will often roll their eyes at the “Gamers are dead” articles.

Ranum’s main thrust in the post is that Gamergaters are fighting against the invisible hand of the market, which is changing on them, and that they, being libertarians, ought to support that. Well, okay, maybe he’s only talking about people like Vox Day. I’ll forgive him for that since it started as a comment and comments aren’t always clear. But his first big misstep is to compare the situation to that of pornography:

Sure, there is a smaller market for ‘hard core’ (i.e.: guy) gamers but it risks being marginalized out of the mainstream, which will mean that those games won’t be very well-funded or good. Sort of like how cis porn split off from the Hollywood mainstream and maintained its ‘independence’ in return for acquiring an unenviable cachet.

Okay, first, in terms of market … pornography is massively successful. I mean, the reason you can’t search for anything on the Internet without finding it is because of how massively commercially successful it is. Sure, it’s not “mainstream” like regular movies are, but considering that it can only appeal to a smaller market — adults who are willing to consume it — it’s massively successful. If “guy” games end up as relatively successful as porn, I think they’ll take that. Second, he has the causation completely backwards. It is not the case that pornography was pushed out of the mainstream and so gained an unenviable cachet, but instead it is the case that because pornography was considered to, in fact, be sleazy and shady that it was pushed out of the mainstream, pretty much solely because it had to do with unvarnished sexual content, which offended the prudish sensibilities of the time. Thus, it wasn’t the invisible hand of the market that pushed it out of the mainstream, but instead social pressures that said that talking about and showing sex was a bad thing, something that is lessened today but still exists. And it’s hard to say how well-funded or good pornography is, because it doesn’t have to be well-funded or good to sell, and what it would mean for pornography to be good is debatable anyway. You certainly won’t get A-list actors and writers working on them, but then how many people really want that in their pornography? That’s not how that is judged. For these “guy” games, more is probably going to be required, as it certainly is now. Oh, and note that the complaints against “guy” games are not, in fact, over the gameplay, but over the representations of the characters in them, and so is based more on specific plots, costumes, and so on and so forth. So the games, at least in terms of gameplay, are probably good now and will continue to be good later. So there is no evidence that if the anti-Gamergaters or Social Justice Gamers or whatever they should be called get their way that games, as games, will improve in quality. Heck, even if we just take Hollywood as an example, you might well be able to argue that in terms of quality Hollywood movies are declining while pornography is increasing, and in general that’s probably actually because of the invisible hand of the market, as since there’s more competition in pornography there is room for new approaches and you have to step up your game to bring in the bucks, which is not true for Hollywood.

Candy Crush has 93 million people playing it every day – a bit more than half of which are women. 8 million people play Farmville. Those are big numbers. They’re right up there with big ‘hard core gamer’ franchises like Call of Duty (100 million) and then there are the mega-game franchises like World of Warcraft that held 12-20 million gamers for 12 years paying $15/month. The point is that it doesn’t matter at all what the gamergaters think: the market is going to change in spite of them; they are nothing but the sound of defeat.

This is a standard talking point, but it’s relevance to the discussion isn’t that clear. As an example, when in a comment someone says that they don’t want to play Candy Crush, Ranum replies:

Don’t, then. I don’t, either.

Presuming that both parties are gamers, and that I’m a gamer and don’t want to play that either, how can they know that the numbers from those games will carry over from the mobile market to regular consoles? It actually isn’t very likely that if you simply ported Farmville or Candy Crush to a console or to the PC that it will have the success that it’s having on mobile platforms. It seems to me that those sorts of games work best on a mobile platform, which has differing requirements and, I’d say, audiences. Mobile games, it seems to me, are similar to Sudoku and crossword puzzles and surfing the web on your mobile phone: they’re something that you do to keep yourself occupied while you’re sitting around doing nothing, like taking the bus to work in the morning or waiting for your car to get out of the shop. These games are, however, highly addictive, and will indeed creep into every spare moment you have … but it doesn’t seem like something that people will deliberately plan into their schedule. So, these games won’t, at least in the minds of the players, be a hobby to them. But gaming is, in fact, a hobby, and that applies to casual and hardcore gamers alike. The main difference is the amount of time the two sorts of gamers allocate to that hobby, not their attitude that games are an important and specific passtime or hobby for them. If this is correct, then mobile “gamers” aren’t gamers, and what they do there isn’t going to have that much impact on gaming as a hobby, because no matter how the companies try to drag them away from their mobiles and into the world of dedicated gaming, it won’t work. They aren’t interested in games as a hobby, but instead as games as something to do while they’re waiting or bored.

As an example, you know those games that you typically find in every Windows installation, like Solitaire and Minesweeper? They’re massively popular and played at least at times by, well, pretty much everyone with a Windows system, right? Now, how much impact have they had on dedicated gaming? Not a whole heck of a lot, right? In my opinion, these mobile games are far more like those games than they are like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft.

Moving into the first comment:

In gaming that customer-base exists but it’s moving away from violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups. There’s not likely to be an effort to prevent people from making crappy games – any more than there will be an effort to stop Vox Day and John Wright from churning out turgid prose – it’s just going to appeal to a proportionately smaller part of the market.

Okay, and on what grounds are you claiming that those “violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups” are bad games. Sarkeesian called out as problematic games like Dragon Age: Origins (which is certainly violent) and the Hitman series. Others have criticized Bayonetta for its over-sexualized content while even conceding that the gameplay is, in fact, good. For the most part, the criticisms are not leveled against games that, well, just plain suck. They are, in fact, leveled against good games, with good gameplay and good graphics and the whole nine yards. Which actually should be obvious, as there’s no reason to complain about elements that turn you off of certain games if you didn’t want to play them in the first place. The games that are “crappy” from the perspective of production values and gameplay, and what are definitely the niche market right now, are ironically the games that the Social Justice Gamers push: Gone Home, Depression Quest, Papers, Please, and so on. And the reason for that is that they are done by independent studios who don’t have the budget for really high production values, and right now the “violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups” are done by the big studios who have that budget. And they make those sorts of games because that’s what the market, at least right now, seems to want.

At which point we can again see that the Social Justice Gamers’ method is not to let the invisible hand of the market deal with this. What they want to do is exactly what happened with pornography: push it out of the mainstream not through market forces, but through social forces. Make those sorts of games be seen as sleazy, shady, icky, or bad from a social perspective so that people will feel ashamed for wanting to make or play them, even if they still want to. So, instead of letting the market drive the evolution of games, use social shaming to push the market to what you want it to be, regardless of what everyone else wants. If this succeeds, then, yes, the “guy” games will be the indie games that thus have lower production values and so aren’t as good … but if the market is there for those games, then they’ll still exist, and might be more successful at the indie level than the Social Justice Gamer games are.

That being said, it’s hard to see how this can, in fact, work, because the Social Justice Gamer complaints aren’t generally about specific genres of games, but about specific tropes or elements of those games. FPSs, RPGs, RTSs and the traditional genres of games are not, in fact, likely to go away, especially since their gameplay is, as stated above, a lot of fun. Social Justice Gamers are not going to get rid of games like Star Wars: Battlefront or Call of Duty or whatever, and they don’t want to. Nor will they get rid of games like Grand Theft Auto or Hitman or Saint’s Row, where you play as, essentially, the “bad guy”, and again nor will they want to. So, those games will not be replaced by Social Justice Games like Depression Quest or Gone Home. The best they can hope for on that score is that more of those sorts of games will be made … but that definitely seems like a niche market if I’ve ever seen one. So, the best that they can hope for is that some of the most annoying — to them — tropes are toned down or stop being the dominant paradigms. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But that’s hardly going to be some kind of major revolution that will push “gamers” out of the picture.

In the last comment, he starts to take credit for market forces that existed long before Social Justice Gamers made a real impact and were made for reasons totally unrelated to their concerns:

At Blizzcon last year I had a chance to ask one of the panelists from Blizzard’s design team about representation of body self-image in Blizzard games and he replied that it’s a thing they are extremely aware of and generally try hard to represent a wide range of body types and skin colors, etc (hey, you can be green if you want!) and genders in their games. Blizzard Gets This. It probably isn’t sheer coindence that World of Warcraft caters to wide ranges of looks and roles, as well as having roles that are not purely violent (as well as roles that are) — there is a lot of space for players to find identity and – ta-da! A lot of players do, in fact, find identity. Blizzard’s revenues speak for themselves. Meanwhile, Duke Nukem games are .. “unspecified date” Even heavy shoot-em-ups like Bungie’s Destiny are gender-neutral and steer completely away from gendered violence. Blizzard, Bungie, … et tu, Rockstar. Wait for GTA 6 and I bet you’ll find an interesting female protagonist and a lot fewer women in throwaway roles as strippers and punching bags. The gamergaters have actually done a service to gaming by pitching their little shit-fit and putting Sarkeesian (in particular) in the role of the adult voice at the table.

So, where to start? First, the only “unspecified date” for a Duke Nukem game is “Duke Begins”, which was announced as a reboot that they would start after “Aliens: Colonial Marines” completed … which was in 2013. And it had a negative reception. And, oddly enough, what was it praised for?

The few positive reviews praised the single-player game setting, the game’s soundtrack, the level designs, the weaponry and character customization options as well as the multiplayer versus mode of the game

So, it wasn’t criticized for any of the things that Social Justice Gamers complain about, and was praised for doing the things that Ranum says are responsible for Blizzard’s success. So, somehow, the reason that the same company might not have a reboot of a franchise with a due date out for two years after their last game that presumably would have been a model for the basic gameplay, when that model was poorly received and problematic, must be something related to Social Justice Gamer principles instead of those, well, obvious problems. Hey, how long did it take Atlus to say when Persona 5 was going to be out, which was a follow-up to two massively popular and well-received games that they therefore knew that they were going to make a sequel to?

Also, it’s not reasonable to compare Blizzard and Gearbox because they work in completely different genres, and Blizzard hit the jackpot with World of Warcraft. And the body type and gender customization in Blizzard games, in fact, follow from that … or, at least, it follows from the RPG games like World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is an MMORPG. MMORPGs got their start from RPGs. Western RPGs have always adopted a more sandbox style of game, where the real fun of the game is in customizing your character and making that character the character you want rather than focusing on you playing as a specific character with a set history and story, which is a sharp contrast to JRPGs. This is because they started from the D&D PnP model, which focused on that sort of thing and so had the choice of gender from, oh, pretty much the beginning. Which is not how FPSs went, for contrast. So, when MMOs came out, they always had the choice of gender, and a fair amount of customization of appearance, because that’s what RPGs did, and that’s the model they followed. WoW is actually, from my understanding, a bit constrained with respect to that when compared to games like “City of Heroes” or “Champions Online”. It’s not even clear that they’re that much better than Dark Age of Camelot was, which had multiple races inside each realm and even had a female-avatar-only class (at least Bainshee) which was appropriate. This was not done to appeal to female gamers or to allow people to better play as themselves, but rather to make it easier for them to play as other people. So when Ranum crows that game publishers “get it” … what does he think they’re getting? Social Justice Gamer ideals? At that point, he’s taking credit for the work that gamers — you know, those people that are claimed to be “dead”, outdated and are going to be marginalized and go away — actually did and pushed for long before these guys stuck their noses in. Whether they do it for the same reasons, many gamers want the same things as the Social Justice Gamers want and work for that. Gamers want more customization because it makes for a better game for them. Gamers want better female characters because better characters in general are more fun for them. Gamers want more diversity among protagonists because playing as the exact same sort of character all the time gets boring after a while. Gamers can even understand the idea that at least some elements in games might have to change to get more women involved in them. So why has the assault been against gamers or hardcore gamers … many of whom aren’t opposed to the changes?

Also, note that Destiny is “gender-neutral” in precisely the same way as MMOs are: you can decide your gender but it doesn’t matter mechanically. Which means that it isn’t “gender-neutral” at all when compared to FPSs, since most of them don’t let you create a gender, and so force you to one. Destiny actually allows you to define and work with your gender, and it does this because of the influence of MMORPGs, which as I’ve already pointed out have done that for decades. So, again, what are they “getting” by doing that? They’re using standard gaming tropes where you’d expect them to use them. Oh, the revolution.

Which carries on into the last part of the comment:

No, not all games will look like Candy Crush. They’ll probably look more like Destiny and Mass Effect. You can play a female avatar or a male avatar. And you can wear a ton of armor that covers your body, or a pink lame bikini, regardless of your gender.

Um … that’s how games are now, and have been for years and years, outside of the cross-dressing part (which has existed in a number of games already, most notably Fable. I don’t expect this to be common until/unless it’s easier to just apply all armours and outfits to all avatars than it is to restrict it to certain types). Knights of the Old Republic II: Sith Lords in fact literally had the option of the slave girl costume or various sets of robes for a female protagonist … and the protagonist is canonically female in Sith Lords. Mass Effect is done by the same people, and they essentially just stuck with the model that worked for them starting way back in Baldur’s Gate, and that model started from long before that. As I’ve said before the future is now!. Games are already doing as standards the very things you want them to do. Get your head out of your narrow, FPS-inspired box and immerse yourself in the world of what games really are.

It’s no wonder that gamers roll their eyes so much at the Social Justice Gamers when they reveal the depth of their ignorance of what games are like and yet see fit to pronounce on what games ought to be and what they’re doing wrong. Sarkeesian is not the adult voice at the table, but is the person loudly complaining about how bad the rules are while not knowing what the rules actually are, which means that she hits on some good points, but they are points that others already have complained about, while she presents her ideas as ideas that no one else has thought of before. Well, okay, to be fair to Sarkeesian she herself doesn’t present herself as being original as much as her supporters do, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in general, Social Justice Gamers tend to advocate for things that gamers in general have long advocated for and tend to take credit for their “influence” in getting the things that gamers already managed to get without them. If Social Justice Gamers would work with and listen to gamers more instead of trying to shame them for things they don’t do, things would probably go a lot better for them.

Criticism and Criticism

May 1, 2015

So, Vox Day did an interview where, among other things, he talked about Gamergate. Dave Futrelle at “We Hunted the Mammoth” talked about a key part in it, at least to Futrelle. Day said:

… what Gamergate is fundamentally about is the right of people to design, develop and play games that they want to design, develop and play without being criticized for it.

Futrelle replied to that:

Which is an. er, interesting perspective, as there is in fact no “right” to be immune from criticism.

If you write a book, if you make a movie, if you post a comment on the internet — you should be ready for it to be criticized. Because that’s how free speech works. That’s how art works. And that’s how ideas work.

Criticism — whether it is positive or negative — helps to sharpen ideas and make art less self-indulgent; it pushes creators to hone their craft and expand their vision of the world. And it helps the consumers of art not only to look at art with a more critical eye but also to appreciate it more fully, by helping to draw out the more subtle meanings of this art and to put it in a broader cultural (social, political) perspective.

Of course, neither the artists nor the consumers of art are required to listen to this criticism, but they have no right to demand that such criticism be eliminated.

I think there’s a bit of equivocation on the term “criticism” going on here, because there’s a difference between being criticized for your project and being criticized for how you execute your project, and while the criticism that Futrelle defends here is the latter, I suspect that Day is complaining about the former … and that a lot of the people criticizing games, particularly from a social justice perspective, are doing the former, and not the latter.

So, then … what is the difference between the two? The kind of constructive criticism is the one that takes what your goal was into account and what you were trying to do, and analyzes and criticizes how that was implemented. So, if you were setting out to make a hard-boiled, noir-style detective piece, it would take that as a given, take the tropes as given, and look at how well you managed to achieve that. Knowing that you were aiming at that sort of work, it wouldn’t criticize the work for including the very elements that would make that sort of work, well, what you were trying to make it. It wouldn’t say that these sorts of works are terrible and so you should have done something else instead. It would look at how well you managed to do what you were trying to do, and how well that worked. Criticizing the project, on the other hand, would be arguing that the goal you yourself had and the work you were trying to create was not worthy of being created; you should not have set out to produce a work of that type. That’s generally not helpful in any way; it almost always comes across as someone complaining about a genre or sub-genre that they don’t like and saying that the creator should have, instead, made the sort of work that the critic likes instead … no matter how many people like that sort of work and regardless of the sort of work that the creator, you know, actually wanted to do.

Now, there are, of course, some gray areas here. It is a perfectly valid and useful criticism to say that the work should have been done in a different genre because it wasn’t effective at one of its primary goals. So, for example, I might be able to say that “Atlas Shrugged” should not have been written as a fictional/sci-fi work, because the philosophical elements make it not very entertaining fiction and the need to shoe-horn the philosophy into a fictional world makes it hard to really see how the philosophy works (note that I’ve never read the book and my only experience with it is through Adam Lee’s series on it, with is not exactly unbiased), but even there the main criticism is that the stated and known main goal of the creator isn’t being effectively met by the chosen medium and that they could have achieved that better with a different approach. What is isn’t saying is that a book advocating Objectivism is not something that any author ought to create because that project, in and of itself, isn’t one worth doing.

Which, then, gets into the Social Justice driven criticisms of many things, including gaming: they really often do come across as criticizing the project itself and not its implementation. From Futrelle:

Indeed, that’s what most #Gamergaters mean when they talk about fighting “corruption in game journalism” — shutting down those writers and publications that have dared to critique the prejudices of a backward portion of the gaming universe that is hostile to any challenges to the status quo ante — particularly from women with opinions different from theirs. That’s what drove the outrage over the “death of gamer” articles last Fall. And that’s what has driven “critics” of Anita Sarkeesian from the start.

The key here is that line about “a backward portion of the gaming universe”, and then to remember what the criticisms actually are. Sarkeesian’s biggest complaints so far have been about the “Damsel in Distress” trope, and a couple of other ones. These are criticisms of the trope in general, not about specific instances. The “death of gamer” articles were all about how these backward sorts of games were going to all go away, without ever really saying what they were going to be replaced with, or what was actually going to go away. For the most part, the criticisms seemed to be about specific elements and genres and sub-genres that they wanted to go away, not about the implementation of those elements. And what I think Day is saying is that if someone, say, wants to create a standard and traditional damsel-in-distress, male-empowerment-fantasy sort of game, they should a) be able to be honest about that and b) if they are honest about that, shouldn’t be criticized for making that sort of game and not making some kind of Social Justice Approved ™ sort of game. If they say that they want to appeal to male gamers and not female gamers, that should, in fact, be okay, and they should not be criticized for making that audience their focus, beyond business reasons like “You’re ignoring a big market” or “You claim to be doing it because that’s what the audience is but, well, it isn’t”.

Now, of course, there is a gray area in here as well, because this touches on how people are represented in the work, and that can be a comment on presentation. For example, you could criticize differences in how a female Shepard is treated when compared to a male Shepard in Mass Effect — if there are any interesting differences — or in how men and women are, in general treated as a way to show how a different implementation could be more effective. And for any game that’s claiming to be general, talking about how the representations might look to women and how that might turn them away from the game is a perfectly valid criticism. But I think the key is how you respond to the game Scarlet Blade, which I think is obviously aimed at providing massive fanservice wrapped around a game. If you say that such a game is bad and should never, ever be made, and that the people who would make it are bad people, then I definitely think that Day will have a problem with you … and so will I. There is nothing inherently wrong with that sort of game, and it isn’t the case that such games should never be made. Scarlet Blade may or may not be a good game and it may not really achieve its goals, but someone saying “I want to make an explicitly fanservice game” is not grounds, in and of itself, for criticism. Or take Conception II. It’s a valid criticism to say that it is too risque for fans of Persona-style games and too tame for fans of adult dating sims and so won’t have a market, but it isn’t a valid criticism to say that the latter sort of games aren’t worth making.

So, criticizing someone because they want to do something you don’t like or don’t want them to do isn’t valid criticism of the sort that Futrelle defends. It might be what I called “Activism Criticism” … but I’m skeptical of the worth of that sort of criticism, and it certainly isn’t general, helpful criticism of the sort that Futrelle talks about. So, then, the question is still open: should one be immune from “Activism Criticism”?

Gaming the Movie …

April 29, 2015

So, due to having read some rather poor Aliens novels, I recently watched Alien and Aliens again. And the big thing that I noticed while watching them was that I remembered playing some very good games that I played based on them when I was younger. And then I thought that movie and book and other tie-ins have a very bad reputation in gaming circles, in that in general if the games aren’t complete and utter crap you’re incredibly lucky. And yet, there are three games I remember based only on the Aliens series that I’d say are, in fact, good, as the Alien 3 game is arguably better than the movie itself was.

So, what is it about these games that made them good? I thought about that for a bit, and it turns out that they don’t have a lot in common, at least in their approach to making the game. Alien was essentially an adventure-style game where you had certain items and weapons and had to get off the Nostromo, with a fairly open-ended way of doing things. It essentially took the essence of the movie, the characters, and some plot points and turned that into a game, but it didn’t really try to follow the movie precisely, and in fact actually tried to not do that. Aliens, on the other hand (at least in the version I played) took the key moments in the game and built individual mini-games out of them, often with radically different mechanics in each section (a bit like the “A View to a Kill” game which I enjoyed for a bit but never finished). Alien 3 dispensed with most of this entirely and turned the movie into a platforming shoot-’em-up which was as far as I can recall only a small part of the movie and so didn’t have a strong relation to it. Three different approaches, three different at least good games.

I think the key here when developing a game based on an existing work is to look at the work and ask yourself one question: how can I make a good game out of this? The easiest way to do that is to figure out what would make people want to, in fact, play in this world, and then give them those experiences. I think that’s what Alien did. Aliens took a second approach, which was to look at each section and see what sort of game would work for that section of movie, and then realize that in gameplay. Alien 3 essentially took the lazy way out and took existing fun gameplay and wrapped the theme around it, which means that for a movie that’s good it generally won’t capture what made the movie good and so will be panned, but with an inferior movie made for a better game by ignoring what didn’t work in the movie. The third approach has the problem, then, that it won’t be making a good game out of the source material, because it’s only shallowly interacting with it. The second approach runs into the issue of having to integrate too many game styles and so making the development more difficult and potentially having one specific section of the game bore some players so they stop playing it. The first approach can be hard to do. Alien naturally lent itself to that sort of game style, but Aliens would have been reduced to a simple FPS in most cases which wouldn’t nearly have been as much fun.

Ultimately, though, at the end of the day the key here is to focus your design on making a good game first, and staying true or reflecting the source material second. That does not mean that you ignore the source material until the end and paste it on later. That means that you understand that the source material is not going to make your game fun or entertaining or liked, and so you have to keep in mind that the game design has to do that for you, while keeping in mind that a lot of people are going to buy your game because of the source material but will stay because they had a blast in it. Too much of the time I think that these games are built on the premise that the source material will drive the sales and so that has to be the focus, leaving an inferior game as the result. And some games can’t even manage that.

End of the Dragon Age

April 17, 2015

So, over this past weekend, I finished another game. I managed to get through Dragon Age: Origins, finally finishing it after two tries with my second character, a rogue/dualist city elf who was a bit bitter and selfish but who became a better person due to her love for Leiliana. Seriously, she had to act a lot better than she would have with Leiliana telling her to be nice a lot of the time, and since I wanted the relationship to come off I had to avoid doing things she didn’t like, and so generally acted nicer a lot of the time … although she could still be snarky at times.

For the ending, I decided not to go with Morrigan’s ritual, and so she left. I had arranged for Alastair to marry Anora, but then let him kill her father, so that killed that (no pun intended). So I let him sacrifice himself at the end instead of myself (she’s still a little selfish). I then left to travel with Leiliana for a while.

Coming back to this game after ME2 made me hate the combat more than I did before … and I was not fond of the combat. In DAO, the combat was often far too chaotic for my tastes and there was just too much of it. I waded in and hit things and often had no idea what I was hitting or if my abilities were kicking off at all, or even who I was hitting. Thus, I died a lot, and picked up injuries, and never had enough kits, until the end. Of course, I found out later that going back to camp fixed injuries, which might have helped at the end there.

The world was interesting, but it was often hard to figure out where all the quests were and how to get there, and it was too easy to miss things. I also hated how they tried to be edgy in parts, especially the blood splatters that you picked up in combat that stayed with you during interactions. It was just annoying. But, overall, I’m glad to have finished it.

Since I don’t own any of the sequels, that leaves a spot in my rotation, which I will fill with: Arcanum, which I just bought from Good Old Games.

Sarkeesian on Positive Female Characters

April 10, 2015

So, one of the things that I’ve been constantly pushing for from those criticizing the state of video games and particularly the portrayal of women in them are examples of good portrayals and games, for them to both talk up the games that do it right in their view and to outline what it is they want to see. Anita Sarkeesian has just done that, and hints that this is just the first video in an ongoing series on the topic. This is good. This is very good, in fact. I strongly support her doing this.

However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to criticize her choice, and here there seems to be a lot to, in fact, criticize.

Her first choice is the Scythian from the game “Sword & Sworcery”. As far as I can tell — and, as usual, I encourage you to read the transcript or watch the video yourself to see if you agree — the main reasons she thinks that this is a positive female character are:

1) The character is barely recognizable as a woman.

2) The character is barely recognizable as a character.

3) The character sacrifices herself at the end of the game (it’s part and parcel of the game mechanics).

Now, this summary is a little thin and not quite fair, because she does give reasons for each of those, which I’ll get into in a moment. But I want to take a step back and examine this outside of Sarkeesian’s general analysis, because her reasons do seem to follow from her own analysis and the requirements it entails. And stepping outside of things that she doesn’t like, my first blush reaction is to say that if a character is going to be a positive female character, it should be obvious from the start that the character is female. You shouldn’t be able to consider the character a male character for most of the game for it to make the list. The game could make the list if it subverts this properly — ie puts a female character in a male character role and deliberately doesn’t make it obvious that the character is female only to pull the rug out from under you at the end — but it’s hard to say that the character is a good representation of female characters if for most of the game the player thinks that they’re a male character, in my opinion. But I also think that to get the stamp of approval as a positive female character that they indeed have to be a character, and not just something that you impose your own traits on. When I originally did my list of top ten best female characters, my original comment on it was that I couldn’t do a similar list for male characters because they weren’t really characters, but were instead shells that you impose a personality on. I wouldn’t consider my create Baldur’s Gate characters great characters, or at least not in a way that I assign to the game itself, because all of that characterization comes from me, and not from the game itself. The Scythian has a bit more of a personality than that, but Sarkeesian is explicit that she is the blank slate that players project on, which means that she’s promoting the idea of a positive female character that is mainly what you want her to be.

So, what are Sarkeesian’s reasons? While she does make at least some of them explicit, I think we need to look at her overall assessment to really understand what she’s looking for:

When archetypal fantasy heroes in games are overwhelmingly portrayed as men, it reinforces the idea that men’s experiences are universal and that women’s experiences are gendered, that women should be able to empathize with male characters but that men needn’t be able to identify with women’s stories. Sword & Sworcery gives us a female protagonist and encourages us to see her as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman.

What I think she’s trying to do is get a female character into a traditionally male role without making the game about the main character being a woman. Essentially, the idea is to have the game work out in precisely the same way that it would with a male protagonist, except that it just happens to be a woman who is the lead instead of a man. When you tie this in with her own stated views, I think things become clear. The first point is to avoid “Ms. Male Character”, making the main character act just like a male character but adding some feminine fashion just to make it clear that the character is a woman. This is important, because the thrust here seems to minimize the impact the main character being a woman has on the game. The second point is to both facilitate it being no different than if the character was a man — and defining a character might well introduce differences — and to force players to “get inside the head”, as it were, of a female protagonist. The third point is to highlight that this is a woman with agency, and that her death is done due to her own choices and not just to service the plot of a male character.

The problem is that it seems to me that the way this was done impedes what she wants to see in a game. And to see that, we can look at my choice for a positive female protagonist, Miku Hinasaki from Fatal Frame. I explicitly reject what I think is Sarkeesian’s main push there: what makes Miku such a positive female protagonist is precisely because she isn’t just a female character stuffed into a male character’s shell/story, but that the game is different in ways that work better for a female character (for example, not relying on strength-based weaponry). Ultimately, we know from the start that Miku is a female character, and yet the game still doesn’t really play out any differently than it would with a male protagonist, highlighted by the fact that you start with Mafuyu and switch to Miku and the mechanics don’t change. If Sarkeesian wants players to empathize with women’s stories, then it has to be clear from the start that this story is a woman’s story, and ideally there would be things in it that are particular to it being a woman’s story, things that you wouldn’t get in a story from the perspective of a man. For example, while Sarkeesian might rightly see sexual assault threats in a game as being there for fanservice, the threat of sexual assault is something that women face and fear that men don’t (for the feminist argument for this, see “Shroedinger’s Rapist”). If a game can convey that threat from the perspective of the female main character such that even those who don’t face that normally can empathize and therefore feel and understand that fear, that seems to me to be the sort of thing that Sarkeesian wants: player empathizing with the woman’s perspective as women are expected to empathize with the man’s perspective normally. If all you do is stuff a woman into the precise same role as a man and nothing changes, all you’ve done is essentially put a female character into a man’s story, which does not seem to be what she’d want.

You can counter that the idea that the traditional heroic story is a man’s story is precisely the problem; women are just as heroic as men are. Which I concede, and is implied by my discussion of Fatal Frame and noting that the game doesn’t really change just because the main character is female. But to argue this, I think, undercuts a lot of the general criticisms of games that Sarkeesian makes, because it assumes that, in general, the stories in games are not tailored to a male audience and the male perspective, and that the only difference that matters is the gender of the character itself. In short, you have to argue that the games and characters themselves are mostly gender-neutral, and it’s only the gender of the main character that’s the issue. This would make most of her examinations pointless and explicitly refute about half of “Ms. Male Character”, so that’s probably not what you’d want to argue there.

So, if Sarkeesian wants female characters put into the same roles as male characters, it seems that she’d want them to be characters and to be readily identifiable as female characters from the start, so that players are forced to treat a female character in at least roughly the same way from the start. Also, if the game can indeed subtly shift the perspective somewhat so that players actually get to experience the perspective of a female character that’s definitely a bonus. Unless Sarkeesian wants to argue that the focus on the natural beauty of the world and not on combat and killing reflects that — which would be as much and as bad a sexist stereotype as the ones she criticizes — “Sword & Sworcery” doesn’t do that, which means that the Scythian does not seem to be a very good example of a positive female character.

Of course, Sarkeesian just be just overjoyed to have a female lead in this sort of epic, heroic tale at all. At which point, my only reply is that she seems to be easily impressed.

Mass Completion …

April 8, 2015

So, I did, in fact, manage to finish Mass Effect 2, this past Friday. I didn’t manage to get the romance with Chambers, probably because I had the romance with Liara from Mass Effect and never ended that one. But that wasn’t that important to me anyway, so I didn’t mind it.

The final battle, on Casual, wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I had a harder time with the last loyalty missions and the IFF mission, mostly because my teammates weren’t all that great at covering me and I had issues with some of the enemies. In fact, I had a harder time with the lead-up missions than with the final battle, even though the final battle took me a long time because I was never sure how to target the final boss and so ended up taking some damage from it before hiding to recharge and then having it run away/fall down for a while. Finally I managed to hit it enough with the Collector gun to take it out.

I continued after the end, but couldn’t even really muster the effort to talk to my crew members. I certainly had no desire to keep exploring the galaxy, considering how boring that process generally was. I might have aimed to get the level 30 trophy, but again I was just too bored with the exploration part of the game to bother. This is in sharp contrast to the first game where I found the planet exploration to be more interesting than most of the missions. It’s a crime how badly they screwed that up in ME2.

Some of Thane’s personal stories were interesting, but for the most part I still liked Mordin and Miranda the best. I wish that Miranda would have talked more, since there were more aspects of her personality that I wanted to find out about. Overall, the other characters were somewhat interesting but not enough to keep pushing them after beating the game.

I don’t regret playing and beating this game, but I did like Mass Effect a lot better.

Mass Effect 3 will take its place in the rotation, which was an obvious choice. I’m also almost at the end of Dragon Age: Origins, and so it might be a bit more of a challenge to find a replacement for it once I finish it.

Thoughts on Mass Effect 2 …

April 3, 2015

So, I’ve recently been playing Mass Effect 2 as part of my regular rotation. I played and finished Mass Effect a while ago, and then started playing Mass Effect 2 for what was the second time (I started the PC version of it briefly on the recommendation of a friend and got through the first mission before dropping it). The second time was right after my play of ME1 with my ex-pat of Helena Cain, and comparing it to ME1 I found ME2 to be very, very lacking. I found the planet explorations missions with the vehicle probably as annoying as anyone, but they had a lot more charm to them compared to ME2’s “probe” missions, especially since probes and fuel cost you money that you may not have had early in the game, and so it actually discouraged planet exploration, whereas in the first game I explored every single planet. I also disliked the change from the heat mechanism back to a more standard ammo mechanism for your guns, because I am not particularly good at FPS-style gameplay and the heat mechanism made misses much less of an issue. So I played it for a bit, and got Mordin, Garrus and Kasumi, at least … and then stopped playing it.

This time, the most relevant comparable game was Dragon Age: Origins. ME2’s combat is slightly easier than Dragon Age’s because of the cover mechanism and the ability to fight more from a distance without needing to have an explicit tank, although I definitely died more in Mass Effect 2. But that’s mostly because ME2 is definitely more chaotically combat-oriented than Dragon Age is; all the missions are essentially a bunch of waves of combat, with lots of enemies and often less time in-between them. I think, anyway. So, given that, I found ME2 a bit more fun than Dragon Age was, although that might be because I had more recruitment missions to do, and recruitment missions are a little shorter than the areas in Dragon Age usually are, so you get a reward for your annoying combat faster, and so get a sense of accomplishment. Note that I always play the game on “Casual”, so you can laugh over my lack of ability if you want.

Planet exploration still isn’t a lot of fun. If you don’t find a mission on a planet, launching probes is boring, mechanical work that pays off and is something that you have to do. When you don’t have a lot of money and don’t have probe and fuel capacity, you have to be careful about how you mine to maximize your gains without driving yourself into bankruptcy (although, as it turns out, running out of fuel only takes away some of your resources, according to the handy tip that was displayed once) and when you have a lot of money it’s still boring as heck. There is little reason to explore the galaxy, and so I certainly won’t be exploring all the planets again like I did in the first game.

I like that some of the choices that you made in the first game carry over to the second and are mentioned. It does help make it seem like a continuing story. For my character, this includes the romance with Liara, even though in the second game she’s going after Chambers.

I wish that there were more general missions that aren’t loyalty missions, like the missions that you get in your personal messages. Those encouraged both exploration of other parts of the galaxy and picking up resources while you’re there. But I mostly ran out of them in the second act, and so was just ensuring all of the loyalty of my crew, which served the same purpose … but I wanted more.

One big issue with the game is indeed the missions. Most of the missions are disturbingly similar: go out and kill a lot of things and get a reward at the end. Since the combat isn’t particularly interesting, this gets very boring after a while. But when they tried to mix up the missions — Thane’s, for example, being a following mission — you ended up having to learn new mechanics that you’d never seen before too quickly, which got frustrating. So when they did the standard, you likely knew how to handle it but it was more of the same, but when they tried to do new things, you didn’t know how to handle it and so ended up restarting and reloading a lot if you wanted to finish it properly. It’s pretty much the story and the characters that made me keep playing this, and again fortunately the missions tended to be short.

I like the characters, although because of the link to the loyalty system I think I interact with them less. Most of them didn’t want to interact with me too much until I passed their loyalty mission, at which point at times they started talking to me, at which point I cared less about it with it being so close to the end of the game. I would have liked comments all through the game, but with the loyalty angle I can kinda see why they did that. Still, TOR did it better, but had more points along the way that could trigger things to make that work out.

My favourite characters are Mordin and, perhaps surprisingly, Miranda. I initially took her along on every mission as kinda a “You’re pushing this, so you have to see how it works” and then when I got Jack always brought the two of them along to annoy both — as I think Cain would do — which worked out nicely. And talking to Miranda does let you know more about her, and makes her out to be less of a shrew and someone who cares about someone, and you can even find out that that’s why she’s with Cerberus. But I think that her experience in Jack’s mission did shake that a bit, making the purported end of the game make more sense. Mordin is just a lot of fun to talk to pretty much all of the time, and I’m not even going to get the “Thane” comment that you saw in the SF Debris playthrough of the game.

Right now, all I have left to do is Jacob’s loyalty mission, the IFF, Legion’s loyalty mission, and the final battle. Since it is on a rotation, I’ll likely finish it in the next month or two, unless I swap Conception II out for a while and play it in its place. Hopefully, the final mission will not simply slaughter me and I can add this to the list of games that I’ve finished.


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