Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

Thoughts on the Mass Effect Trilogy …

August 19, 2015

Spoilers will abound:


Thoughts on Mass Effect 3 …

August 17, 2015

So, I’ve just finished the last game in the Mass Effect trilogy, Mass Effect 3. Let me start by saying that I think I liked it better than Mass Effect 2, but that Mass Effect is still my favourite game in the series.

There will be spoilers here, so let me continue below the fold:


Social Justice vs Games: Sarkeesian on E3 …

August 14, 2015

Well, when I introduced my “Social Justice vs Games” category, it was pretty much certain that eventually one of those posts would talk about Anita Sarkeesian, and her post discussing the games showcased at a recent E3 is a pretty good example how Social Justice concerns and gaming concerns can clash.

Let me start with probably the mildest example:

These numbers also reflect the fact that a purely binary understanding of gender was on display in the games featured at E3, with no options featured that might allow players to pick from a wider spectrum of gender identities or presentations.

Presumably, this is asking for consideration of trans* issues. The problem is that the estimates of trans* people is something like 1 – 2%, from what I’ve seen around. So, at best, you’re looking at an audience of 1 – 2% at base for these sorts of options. Now, there may be other players who might want to take those options — after all, my DA:O and Mass Effect characters are, in fact, homosexual females, despite my not being one — but it’s still likely to be a pretty low percentage of the audience that would want that, and so it’s not likely to be a big selling point (at least female protagonists can claim to appeal to a large base audience). And in the fact that, again, people who are trans* are going to be exceptionally rare in the video game design world — and not because of discrimination — and it’s going to be hard to pull this off in a convincing and reasonable way that doesn’t feel like mockery. So what the game designers are being asked to add is an option that only appeals to a small percentage of their potential audience, is hard to implement properly, and one that if they get it wrong they will receive far worse criticism than leaving it out. What reason could they have for even doing it? So it seems to me that, given this, it’s perfectly reasonable for game developers to continue to ignore these options and instead focus their time and effort on things that will improve the game for more potential players … and given the way games are these days, there are plenty.

Sarkeesian also, in a post that’s entitled “Gender Breakdown of Games Showcased at E3 2015”, talks about violence:

Rather, these numbers are presented here only to demonstrate how prevalent violence as a mechanic is in all sorts of games, because it is worth considering how, in relying so heavily on violence as a core component of game design, developers and publishers are not exploring opportunities to tell other kinds of stories and create other kinds of games. When game narratives consistently take place in inescapably hostile antagonistic environments, it severely limits the kinds of stories that can be told.

The medium has near-limitless potential, and in indie games like Tacoma, Firewatch and Beyond Eyes, we get a glimpse of what’s possible when games approach human experience through a lens of empathy rather than one of violence. Games have only begun to scratch the surface of what can be done, the stories that can be told and the experiences that can be illuminated when combat isn’t employed as a lynchpin of game design. Fully realizing this potential requires that game creators continue exploring the possibilities, investing in innovative mechanics and storytelling techniques to push the medium forward.

Really? What specifically are the “stories” that can’t be told with a combat mechanism inside of their gameplay? Why can’t you have empathy and combat? Now, I’m all for variations in gameplay — one of the things I liked about Catherine was it’s unique twist on the traditional RPG dungeon gameplay (I wonder if Sarkeesian would consider it “violent”) — and I accept that there might be stories that work better with a non-violent overall mechanic, I don’t see this as being as critical as Sarkeesian says. Taking even the examples she gives, “Beyond Eyes” is probably the only game whose story is hard to tell with a combat mechanic, but mostly, in my opinion, because it would be far too hard to do, or else in lowering the difficulty you’d lose the ability to understand how hard being blind in the world can be. But “Tacoma” seems to be built around a similar exploration mechanism to “System Shock 2”, which had combat out the wazoo. And “Firewatch” could easily have combat as well, like, say, Silent Hill 2 does, to fill in the spaces around the exploration. What she thinks is key in those two games, it seems — the interaction between the lead and Odin, and the interaction between Henry and Delilah — could be done in a game with combat mechanisms. Now, I’m not saying that it would be better; suspense based games, for example, can be done better with less combat. Fatal Frame is an example where the meat is the exploration and the combat is mostly there to establish that Miku’s life is in danger. But there is no reason for her to count the number of games that use combat mechanisms, say that it’s only 15 or 24% (depending on whether you count sports games or not), and say that that’s a bad thing because having a combat mechanism means that it simply can’t tell a specific story that she, well, gives no examples of.

Again, from a gaming perspective unique and creative forms of gameplay are, in fact, good things. But Sarkeesian here comes across as being more anti-violence than pro-creative gameplay.

And, finally, we turn to the heart of the issue here: representation of women:

There were 7 games with exclusively playable female protagonists or 9% of a total 76 titles

There were 24 games with exclusively playable male protagonists or 32% of a total 76 titles

There were also 35 games in which players appear to be able to choose either a man or a woman. It’s always great to see more games with gender choice and this year we saw a few blockbuster franchises like FIFA and Call of Duty finally add playable women. Still, of those 35, titles only Dishonored 2 used its marketing and promotional space at E3 to predominantly focus on the female character option.

To start, let me highlight how very, very important that last sentence is. Note that it doesn’t distinguish between which games featured the male character option predominantly and games where they were given roughly equal presentation. No, for Sarkeesian it is important that the female character dominate. So, no, not equality, but dominance. She couldn’t do a better job arguing that feminism is really about female dominance if she tried.

Am I reading too much into this? Well, let’s look at the numbers above not in terms of “male dominant vs female dominant”, but instead in terms of “Can play as a male vs can play as a female”. For “Can play as a male”, we have 78%. For “Can play as a female”, we have 55%. I’d personally like that number to be higher, because from a gameplay perspective having more control over your character is generally a good thing. But over half of the games showcased allowing you to play as a female protagonist is pretty good, I’d think. And yet Sarkeesian, while saying that it’s great, mostly gripes about the marketing and then goes on to say this about it:

Some may ask why it is important that there be games led exclusively by women, and why we make a distinction between those games in which the sole protagonist is a woman (such as Mirror’s Edge) and those games in which you have the option to play as either a male or female character (such as Fallout 4).

One reason why we need more games that are fronted exclusively by female characters is that it works to counter the long-established, long-reinforced cultural notion that heroes are male by default. By and large girls and women are expected to project themselves onto male characters, but boys and men are not encouraged to project themselves onto or identify with female characters.

When players are given the opportunity to see a game universe exclusively through the eyes of a female character with her own unique story, it helps challenge the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t identify with women, their lives, and their struggles.

As long as games continue to give us significantly more stories centered on men than on women, they will continue to reinforce the idea that female experiences are secondary to male ones. Stories have the power to influence our understanding of the world around us and when we can virtually embody the lives and experiences of people different from ourselves it opens up greater possibilities for empathy and understanding.

Translation: Society is screwed, so we want games to fix that for us by forcing the choice of gender onto gamers playing the games instead of doing what is generally better for games and giving the choice and allowing the player to customize their character to their liking. It’s “Rust” all over again.

This is also a move that is likely to backfire on game designers because in order to achieve what Sarkeesian wants, they have to do more than simply stick a female avatar onto a game whose story was designed with a male protagonist in mind. So, they’d have to write stories from the female perspective. “And what’s wrong with that?” Sarkeesian will cry. You mean, aside from the fact that there isn’t really a female perspective? Well, the fact that any such attempt with either make a big deal about the character being female, rely on stereotypes, or end up reducing her to a generic character where they could just as easily have given the choice because there’s no character to project onto. The problems with the last one have already been given and the problems with the second option should be obvious, at least from the Social Justice perspective. The problem with the first one is that unless it’s done right it can be seen as insulting and patronizing, where the game goes out of its way to say “Look at me! I’m doing a female-centric story!”. To those who weren’t really interested in that sort of story, that will get annoying very quickly, and to those who were it can in fact ruin the story by how hard it’s trying to be that sort of story.

Thus, the right approach from a gaming perspective is this: if the story works best with a defined male protagonist, make one. If it works best with a defined female protagonist — I personally think survival horror games work best with a female protagonist — then make one. If you need a defined protagonist but neither gender is better for the role, flip a coin. Otherwise, give the choice. This achieves everything that Sarkeesian could want … except for changing society by forcing identification. But it’s not the job of video games to change society, even if they can have an impact on it.

Sarkeesian is less interested, it seems, in making good games than in making games that will help her achieve her Social Justice goals. But when the needs of the games and the needs of Social Justice clash, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that gamers ought to consider the needs of games first. Games are not the only way to promote Social Justice and don’t need to turn themselves completely over to that movement to be legitimate, or art, or fun, or valuable, or even not harmful. Let games be games, not necessarily treatises.

Geekdom and men

August 7, 2015

So, Tauriq Moosa has made another post. In this one, he takes on an anonymous comment and proceeds to at least attempt to tear it apart. Unfortunately, most of the post is pretty much a rant, as evidenced by this exchange:

Where can they flee? They’re backed into a corner. Attacking invading women is not harrassment – it is defense.

**** you.

Look, I’d have more sympathy for the idea that you only want discussion if, well, you wouldn’t reply to comments like this of at most mild rhetoric with an utterly dismissive statement. Either his point works that he needs to attack — and note that what “attack” means is not specified, so it could mean anything from disagreeing, to replies of the form that Moosa makes right here, to egregious harassment — in order to defend his own space, or it doesn’t. And at this point in the post, Moosa has either demonstrated that his point doesn’t work, or he hasn’t. This response here is nothing more than a strong statement of how angry and upset and offended Moosa is, which is irrelevant for the purposes of the discussion. The anonymous commenter’s statement here deserves that sort of response about as much as “Gamers are dead” does. I doubt, however, that Moosa would see those responding that way to “Gamers are dead” as being a righteously angry as he almost certainly sees himself here.

He then immediately falls into the trap of trying to defend women entering into the geek sphere by arguing that they have always been there:

First, it’s blatant nonsense that women – or rather not cis dudes – were never part of “geekdom”, it’s bullshit to say women “invade” geek spaces. The first games I bought were by Roberta Williams and Jane Jensen; I was reading Ursula le Guin before I knew I was apparently supposed to hate all girls (i.e. teens); and the most popular character among me and my friends for Halloween was Frankenstein’s monster, created by – *gasp* – a woman.

But, I don’t need to list women who revolutionised the various mediums they were part of or elaborate on the quality and beauty they brought to their various genres. The works speak for themselves.

But if women have revolutionized the geek mediums, then they are, in fact, responsible for a lot of what it is … and, therefore, a lot of what is criticized by the Social Justice advocates. They can’t take responsibility for what is considered good but dodge responsibility for anything that’s purportedly bad about geek culture. If women have been in and strongly influential in geek culture as Moosa asserts, then they have to accept responsibility for the shape of geek culture, and for many of the elements of it that are criticized they have either fostered it or at least learned to live with it and ignore it in order to participate in the culture. And if women have been in the culture from the beginning, then how can the critics of geek culture argue that it is the way it is to appeal to men and that it reflects male power fantasies, and that that is what needs to change in order to appeal to women? If women already find it appealing, then why does it have to change?

The fact is that both the critics and defenders of geek culture consider it to be a male domain that women are trying or hoping to get into. In order for this fight to get off the ground and for the criticisms to be based on sexism or misogyny or patriarchy, you have to assume that women are not already there and not already participating. Sure, even with that there may still be issues — as there are in anything — but you would not be able to claim that geek culture is a male culture that needs to change to include women; some women are already there and (reasonably) happy with it, and so maybe, just maybe, the reason that some women don’t feel “included” in geek culture is because, wait for it, they’re not geeks. Maybe it isn’t that women aren’t geeks, but that those women aren’t geeks, and yet are still coming and and demanding that the culture change to suit them.

And let’s return to how “geek culture” got that whole “male realm” label slapped on it in the first place. While there may indeed have been a number of women in it, geek culture was seen as a male thing because it was the case that pretty much only men would admit to it. And that number of those men were socially inept and awkward, and that admitting their geek tendencies didn’t make things any better. While the commenter talks a lot about being rejected, the key is that being seen as a geek didn’t help one’s social standing. In general, women tried to avoid being labelled a geek, because to be labelled a geek was ever worse for women than for men. But while they would be forced to hide those tendencies, that also meant that they didn’t get picked on for them either. In short, many women who might have liked to be geeks chose not to be, while many men did accept it and suffered the slings and arrows of that choice from almost everyone except their own group.

Before about, oh, 2012 (as Moosa comments), being a geek was not something that people respected or thought good. Adults who enjoyed many of the key elements of geek culture — comics, video games, cartoons, etc — were seen as immature and socially inept just for enjoying those things. It’s only since then that geek culture has been seen in the mainstream as having the depth and strength that it has always had, and this is creating new audiences. And with new audiences comes new demands.

So, again, the big thrust of the criticisms is that geek culture isn’t welcoming enough to women, and must change to be more welcoming to them. This is indeed, as the commenter says, them wanting the culture to conform “to their wants and rules”. And it is reasonable to ask why in the world it should do that. Why should it do that especially for the women who have never been part of the culture but now want to jump on its bandwagon? And it’s not simply “anti-sexism” in the sense of ditching harassment; they want to change major aspects of presentation and what is produced to suit their desires. Why are their desires more important than those who created and maintained the culture just because they can appeal to some kind of minority status and wrap their claims in the wrapper of “sexism”?

Look, these are indeed issues that we can indeed have some serious discussions about. This post is not an example of how to discuss this, and isn’t a discussion at all. And I imagine that a lot of “geeks” are tired of “discussions” that are essentially people ranting while expecting any dissenters to simply nod meekly or else be ranted at much more. As Commander Sinclair said, if you want to talk to me, talk to me. There is not much “talking to” going on here except in the “I gave him a talking to” sense … and that’s not a discussion, that’s a lecture. And this is not the time for lectures.

Social Justice Vs Games: Rust

August 3, 2015

So, I’ve decided to create a new tag for a new series, called “Social Justice vs Games”. The purpose of this tag is not to argue that Social Justice concepts and ideas are inherently opposed to games in some way, either by opposing the concept of what a game is or by opposing some kind of gamer culture or to argue that adding any of the things that those who argue in the name of “Social Justice” want added to games will make games worse, as that’s patently untrue. No, the purpose of this is to oppose the assumption made both by Social Justice advocates and by some of the media that support them that there is, in fact, no possible conflict between the demands of Social Justice and the demands of games themselves, and that therefore all good gamers ought to accept and support the demands of Social Justice. In short, it is to oppose the idea that there is never any kind of forced choice between a “Socially Just” game and a good game. Sometimes, trying to bring Social Justice ideals to a game clashes with the elements that make it a good game, and so sometimes a maximally Socially Just game will just be an inferior game than if it instead focused on just being a really, really good game.

And so, to start with, let me use as my first example a game that I’ve talked about tangentially before, “Rust”. Essentially, this game is being lauded in the media as a grand social experiment, in what I’d say is the grand Social Justice tradition. They started out with only having white male avatars, and then added black male avatars … but the players couldn’t choose which race they were assigned, and since it was based on their Steam accounts every single character they created would have that race. And people protested, and the responses were met with essentially glee from those on the “Social Justice” end, talking about how it was nice to see “bigots” made uncomfortable and that this was a great experiment that would prove … something, I guess. Anyway, they later added gender, and again had that be assigned randomly and tied to your Steam identity. And there were protests. And people responded. P.Z. Myers said in the title to this post that “It’s good to have your identity shaken up sometimes”, and comments in that thread again relate it to being a great experiment and chortle at how good it is for them to tick off the misogynists. To be fair, some of the ones who are crying about it probably are, but they make no distinction between those people and the people who are reasonably annoyed at it because, well, it forces the race and gender of your character on you. (Which is, in fact, the main reason why right now I have absolutely no interest in that game).

They’ll reply to that with “But it doesn’t matter when they force you to play as a white male, does it? That’s okay, isn’t it? And that’s the whole problem: the default is white male. This changes that!”. And to reply to that, let me get into what character customization means to games and why it’s been a consistent demand from gamers for quite some time to allow for it. The general idea is this: a game is much more fun and entertaining the more you can make the character the way you want that character to be. If you want the character to be like yourself, you can. If you want it to be completely different from you, you can. If you want to model it on your favourite TV character, you can. Even in a linear story where your choices have little impact, just this switch in perspective can make the game seem fresh and new, or make it seem like you yourself are really in the game. Given this, the argument is that a game ought to let players customize their characters as much as they can unless they have a really good reason. For a lot of games, that really good reason was technical (which is likely and I hope the reason that “Rust” started with only white male avatars). For other games, the reason is the detailed story built around that specific character (JRPGs tend to follow this model) which means that you can’t really let the player customize who they are too much, although JRPGs like the Persona games with a silent protagonist are trying to do that a bit.

So, does “Rust” have such a good reason? Well, since they now allow for different races and genders, it can’t be a technical limitation anymore. And “Rust” does not have a strong and detailed, character-driven story that justifies removing character customization. So all it has is an appeal to realism — ie that you wouldn’t get to choose your race and gender in the real world — or an appeal to the experiment, that it’d be an interesting way to experience what people of other races and genders experience.

Now, if I oppose the former on the basis that games aren’t supposed to be about the real world, people will protest that that is an argument used to justify sexism and racism in games, and so my argument would be invalid. Fortunately, my appeal on that score will always be to what makes a better game, not to what works for a Social Justice viewpoint, and so I won’t be trying to justice keeping those things in on the basis of “That’s the way the world is” because games have as at least one of if not their primary purposes the ability to escape from the real world. Nobody plays games to experience exactly what they do in real life; even the closest games to this like “The Sims” are typically used for more than that. So since I want to escape from my life, giving me the ability to do that makes the game better. But this also has to be under the control of the player, so that they can decide how different they want it to be and how similar they want it to be to their real life. They can do that by choosing their genre, style of game and, yes, their character. So the argument for “realism” is clearly one that simply hides what is really happening: the removal of control from the player. But the more control you give a player to shape their own experience with a game, the more fun it is and the better game. So taking away control that they could give because it is more “realistic” makes it a worse game.

So the only argument left is the social experiment angle, which might produce results that Social Justice advocates will find useful and interesting. Unfortunately I — and, I think, most people — don’t play games to participate in social experiments. We play games to have fun. And being able to create and control my own character is more fun than not being able to, unless you provide something that provides sufficient “fun” to compensate. The ability for me to experience what it might be like to be treated as someone who is black or is a woman isn’t, in fact, sufficient compensation because if the game offered the choice of race and gender I’d be able to do that if I wanted to. If I found it less fun or wasn’t in the mood for that, I could just hop onto another character that didn’t have that quality and come back to it later. So, for these purposes, offering the choice works better for me at an individual level. It’s only if there’s some benefit from forcing the choice on people can you justify not allowing the choice, but then it’s hard to see how that make the game more fun for individual players.

From that angle, this isn’t even a very good social experiment, as people who are black, say, might be pushed into playing white characters which the Social Justice side says happens far too often as it is and those that the Social Justice side says need to be pushed into playing as characters that are not them — typically, white males — might still roll up a white male. No, about the only use for this experiment is not in it being in the game itself, but instead in saying that it’s being done and seeing what the reactions are, and who sides with them and who opposes it, and using what arguments. Which is what it’s doing, I suppose, but that doesn’t really say anything about the game. And the lack of customization makes it an inferior game.

“Rust” and its system may be valuable to Social Justice advocates, but it’s hard to see what it adds to games as either an entertainment medium or even as a work of art. If its system was adopted broadly, it would produce inferior games … which is precisely the reason why it won’t be.

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.


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