Posts Tagged ‘Social Justice vs Games’

Sarkeesian on the 2019 E3 Representation

June 21, 2019

I’ve talked about them before, but Anita Sarkeesian has done another analysis of the representation of women at E3 shortly after dissolving “Feminist Frequency” as a non-profit and for the most part stopping doing videos. I’m not going to talk much about the latter — at least not here — but I do want to talk about the E3 analysis because this year the analysis is quite telling.

The first thing she points out is that she’s been doing this since 2015 and not much has changed. If 2015, the number of games that had only a female protagonist was 9 percent, and this year the number of games that had only a female protagonist was 5 percent. However, from the numbers, the percentage of games that only had a male protagonist also dropped, from 32 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2019. The big gain — and this has been consistent over those 5 years — has been for player choice, as the “multiple options” category has leaped from 46 percent in 2015 to 66 percent in 2019. So, game companies seem to have decided to be more inclusive by letting players play what they want to play more often. Thus, if women want to play as women in a game they have the option to do so and so aren’t forced to play as a male character. This seems like a good move.

So, of course, Sarkeesian doesn’t like it:

It’s true that the number of games in which you either control characters of different genders or get to choose the gender of your hero character significantly outstrip those with established male or female protagonists. And of course, as a general trend, the freedom to choose or create your own character is a welcome one. However, it’s fundamentally different from being asked by a game to take on the role and experiences of a specific character. A male player who is more comfortable with experiences that center men can and will simply play as men in games that offer him the choice. On the other hand, every player who comes to a game such as Wolfenstein: Youngblood must step into the shoes of a female character in order to play.

Why this is interesting is that the typical rationale — even from Sarkeesian — for including female protagonists was always so that women could play as the character they identify with instead of always having to play as a male character, often accompanied by comments that since women had so often had to play games with a male protagonist men could do the same. Allowing the choice of protagonist seems to do just that while allowing men who have difficulty identifying with characters that are not like them the ability to still enjoy the game by simply selecting the male protagonist. But, here, Sarkeesian makes it abundantly clear that that isn’t her goal. She doesn’t want and here seems uninterested in allowing women to play as women in a game. No, here, it’s all about forcing me to play as women and thus be forced to identify with them or participate in narratives that center women. In short, Sarkeesian wants to force male players to play as female characters for some reason. Assuming that she’d accept that not all games will be female-protagonist-only, I fail to see how raising that percentage will achieve that goal. After all, men will still have the option to forgo experiencing things from the female perspective, only instead of simply creating the character they prefer and going on to play a good game, they will instead simply decide to forgo those games themselves. Any male player who is comfortable enough with playing from the female perspective to buy and play a game that only has a female protagonist is also likely to choose to play as a female character at least some of the time if given the choice. And men who aren’t comfortable with that are more likely to just not play the game than to buy it and play it regardless.

This puts this analysis in sharp perspective: Sarkeesian is not overly interested in ensuring that women — and potentially other minorities — can play as a character they identify with, but is instead more interested in ensuring that the supposed dominant group is forced to identify with the supposed oppressed group. She isn’t as clear on why that is … but we can probably guess (although I won’t here).

She also says something odd about RPGs earlier in the article:

(When you consider that we place role-playing games in which you control a party of heroes in our “multiple options” category, the numbers are even more dire, since a significant number of these games, including the Final Fantasy VII remake, Final Fantasy VIII, Dragon Quest XI, The Last Remnant Remastered, and others, clearly center male heroes.)

Note that three out of those four games are, in fact, remakes from much earlier times, and so wouldn’t make a good comparison regardless as they would have been made before things started changing, and again unless Sarkeesian wants to make all games female-centered remaking classic games that were male-centered would seem reasonable (she could complain that they weren’t remaking and remastering games that were female-centered if she ever acknowledged that such games existed in any meaningful form). Also, if she counted those party-based RPGs as multiple options, how come she’s always had so much trouble finding female characters to talk about, and has never mentioned the Persona games?

I’m not going to talk about the ratio of male to female presenters, so let me finish with the comments on violence again:

Finally, a note on combat and violence in games. During Ubisoft’s presentation, a trailer for their upcoming game, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, featured actor Jon Bernthal utter the line, “The only test of a man’s worth is battle,” unwittingly distilling what seems to be a widespread perception among both players and game designers. This year, of the 126 games we surveyed, 107 featured combat of some form as a gameplay mechanic, while only 19 games, or about 15 percent, did not. Of course, not all combat is the same: the endearing sword-swinging of Link in Nintendo’s adorable upcoming remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a far cry from the grisly demon-slaying of Doom: Eternal. However, we believe that there remains a vast range of unexplored potential for games as a medium, and continue to advocate for a greater percentage of games that explore the possibilities of nonviolent gameplay mechanics.

As usual, this suffers from vagueness as well as an inability to take those games and come up with suggestions for replacement mechanics. Here, she at least tries to distinguish the types of violence and combat but doesn’t give a criteria for that or why one is harmful and one isn’t or is less harmful. I’d like to see different game mechanics because, well, they’re different, but for example I can’t tell whether Catherine’s gameplay mechanic would count as violent or non-violent from what she’s said in the past and she rarely if ever gives examples of what would count so I have no idea what she wants. And if I don’t know, likely neither does anyone else, so if she wants her articles to have an impact on gaming she probably needs to flesh that out a bit.

Character Blow-Up

July 11, 2018

So, recently, two Guild Wars 2 writers were fired over a blow-up on Twitter. While I first came across it in the comments section of two different sites — one each of left-wing and right-wing — I’m going to link to the Eurogamer article on it because it gives the most information and the links to the threads themselves. The topic of the Twitter thread that started this whole thing was about whether or not you can have memorable characters in an MMORPG or straight RPG, and how you need to write dialogue for characters in those genres. I’m going to talk about that, specifically, a little bit later in the post. However, my impression of what happened is that a Youtube content creator who happened to be a partner with ArenaNet — the company that makes Guild Wars 2 — to comment on how things are working replied to the Twitter thread with a comment that essentially said that it’s not about creating generic conversations, but is instead about making the conversations react to the character the player chooses. The writer — who happens to be a woman — then responded with a snarky comment about him telling her things she already knew, then created a separate thread basically suggesting that he only did that because he was a man and she was a woman despite her being experienced and an expert in the field, thus implying that it was sexism driving his response — specifically, mansplaining — and then responded to other comments on that topic with an even more snarky response that, again, seemed to be aimed precisely at taking exception because it was men who made the comments, and also that they were talking about something she already understood. Another employee defended her — mostly keying off of the argument that this was a personal account and so people shouldn’t reply to it for some reason — and then they were both fired.

So let me talk about that first. First, Denoir — the Youtuber — definitely had knowledge about the inner workings of games that the Price — the female writer — didn’t bother to check to see that he had. Second, he actually was someone that she kinda worked with, or at least someone who worked with her company, which she also didn’t bother to check on but did deny. Third, his comment was standard and the sort of comment that all sorts of people who talk about video games would make, including people like Shamus Young and even myself. Fourth, since she made it on a public forum and linked it back to a thread that was a discussion, it’s perfectly reasonable for people to respond to it. Fifth, just because she works in the industry doesn’t mean that she has that much more expertise than someone “rando”. After all, I personally have at least 20 years experience as a player of RPGs, and thus have quite a bit of knowledge and expertise on the experience of players playing the games. Thus, she can’t really ignore my experience just because she has 10 years experience as a writer, as I technically have more years of experience that is more directly related to player experience. Her appeal there would be nothing more than an invalid “Appeal to Authority” logical fallacy; even with her experience, she could be wrong, and even with my experience, I could be wrong, as well. Anyway, the summary is that someone replied to her Twitter thread disagreeing with her, she thought that it was something that was obvious, and replied angrily by, essentially, calling Denoir a mansplainer and thus at least implied that he was sexist, without being aware that he was officially associated with the company as well and without bothering to address his overall comment, on a forum where she could have expected public comment and feedback. I don’t think that Denoir was in the wrong here.

So, should she have been fired? Just for that, my comment would be “No”. If I was her boss, I would have said that if she is going to make comments like that she had better check to see how much experience the person she is replying to actually has, but that instead it would be far better for her to simply ignore any comments that she doesn’t think relevant, germane, or that she thinks she’s already covered or taken into consideration. There is really no cause for her to fire back multiple, snarky replies to a comment that, at its worst, is stating the obvious, even if it may not have been obvious that it was taken into account in her account. However, there might be other factors that are driving this that demanded the firing, but I can’t see what they are.

Okay, so let’s look at the debate itself. The originating Twitter thread is here, and Denoir’s reply is here. My summary of the debate is this: Price is saying that it is really hard to make the protagonists of MMORPGs, at least, memorable because the player is the one driving the character, and doing so more directly, and so you can’t really give them a set personality. I agree with this, as the main reason I couldn’t give a list of the top ten male characters like I did for female characters was because the male characters were the protagonists more often and so were more personalized, and thus weren’t really “characters” in that sense. She then goes on to talk about making them very generic, using Bella Swan as an example, and so making them what she calls a “blank space” so that the player can insert themselves into it. She then says that their lines have to be devoid of personality for the most part, because that would clash with the imagination of the player. Denoir’s response is that you don’t need to craft the conversations that way, but instead can make them reactive if you drop the idea that the conversations all have to lead to the same place (I presume meaning “response” in this case).

So let’s look at this in more detail. The first thing to note is that this is, well, a common question about RPGs in general, and not just MMORPGs (which Denoir points out). And it is interesting to note that, in general, this is a particular issue for Western-style RPGs, which have always been about character customization, which then leads to players being more attached to a specific character and so feeling that they should be able to act as they think that character would act. JRPGs, on the other hand, tend not to have as much character customization, and so have protagonists that have set personalities. There are some exceptions to this, though, where the protagonist doesn’t have much of a personality and the player can give some small set of responses to shape their personality. Persona 3 — and probably Persona 4 — are good examples of this, as the MCs themselves don’t seem to have a set personality and you can generally give snarky or serious responses to most situations, but in general those responses don’t have much impact on how things work out except for maybe the next response from the NPC, and so can be unsatisfying. This is one of the reasons why I prefer the female protagonist in P3P when I get the chance to play it, because she does seem to actually have a personality.

Now, of course, MMORPGs can’t really work the JRPG way, because it would be ridiculous to have an entire party of players who are all the exact same character. So everyone has to be different characters, and that leads to character customization. Given that starting point, the game is definitely going to move away from a defined character and more into a player-defined character. So, then, how is the game going to do that? Is it going to make every response simply generic in tone, or is it going to be more player-responsive?

The thing is that both Western RPGs and MMORPGs have actually gone for the “player-responsive” option. Bioware is the best example of that approach in both genres. The player gets to choose the options that their character says, and the dialogue is then shifted in tone to match what they were trying to say. The Witcher games, from what I’ve seen, do something similar, and yet actually manage to define a character despite the player having great input into what they do (and, as open-world games, are similar enough to MMORPGs so that the comparison works). And if you are going player-responsive, you don’t actually need to make the actual dialogue generic because you know what sort of personality the player is going for by what response they selected, and so can write the dialogue to reflect that. In fact, if you made it more generic it would hurt the dialogue, because it would feel like the dialogue isn’t actually taking your response into account.

Okay, but there are always going to be some cases where the player can’t choose what they say, such as with greetings and goodbyes and the like. Those have to be generic, right? Well, I’m not sure about that. If we just look at the Mass Effect games or The Old Republic, we can see that the use of a morality meter can, in fact, solve that problem, too. If the character over time is trending Dark Side or Renegade, you can make their initial lines more aggressive or gruff, while if they are going more Light Side or Paragon you can make them more kind and friendly. And you can even shift NPC reactions according to that reputation: if the character is more Dark Side or Renegade, the NPC can be more intimidated, frightened or disapproving depending on their own personal viewpoint, whereas if the character is more Light Side or Paragon you can have them do the opposite. If the character is Dark Side or Renegade, the NPCs can try to appeal to their self-interest, while if the character is Light Side or Paragon they can appeal to their desire to help others. Sure, all of this means recording more voice lines, but not overwhelmingly so, since the states are limited and some situations won’t need any different dialogue.

So it looks like a more player-responsive approach rather than a bland and generic one is doable, even for MMORPGs. Does Price realize this? Does she realize this and have a reason why it can’t be done as easily as I think it can? I have no idea, because she didn’t bother to actually respond to what Denoir said or find out what he was talking about, which is just another example of how Social Justice concerns can hurt game design and the discussion thereof.

Super Seducer …

March 14, 2018

So, there’s a big kerfuffle going on in the gaming world over a game by Richard La Ruina called “Super Seducer”, that appears on Steam but has been rejected from PSN network. Normally, I’d have probably ignored something like this, but this issue hits on pretty much everything that I’ve been talking about on this blog for, well, its entire existence, except for Stoicism. It involves dating sims, video games, PUAs, feminism, social justice, social justice and video games, social justice vs video games, and shyness. While controversial, it’s not like I’ve actually shied away from commenting on controversial issues, and it represents a microcosm of things that bother me about things work today.

So, the basic issue is that La Ruina has created a CYOA dating sim type game to promote and teach his PUA techniques. The game is, as I said, on Steam. A number of the usual Social Justice suspects heard about this and, despite not being in either of the intended audiences — either people who are interested in PUA techniques or who are interested in dating sims — raised a huge fuss over it, essentially because it’s a PUA game and therefore bad. This is despite the fact that many of them have no idea what PUA techniques actually are. For example, a constant criticism of them is over negging, which is always presented as being insulting a woman to lower her self-esteem and make her vulnerable when the technique really is about using that against a woman who is confident in herself to demonstrate value, that unlike all of the other men who won’t dare even playfully tease her for fear that she’ll be offended and so they will lose any chance they have with her you are perfectly fine taking the chance that she’ll be offended because, presumably, if she does get offended and shoots you down you believe that you’ll have other options anyway, which demonstrates that you’re a man who is desirable.

Anyway, let me dump a bunch of resources on you. I’m probably going to talk most about Jim Sterling’s discussion of Sony rejecting it, mostly because it talks about a number of issues that I want to touch on. Since that’s a video, I won’t quote much from it directly, and so will paraphrase, but I’m likely to quote at least a little bit from a number of articles, like this one by Harris O’Malley (also Dr. Nerdlove) at Kotaku, this one calling for a petition to get it removed from Steam by Carys Afoko, this one from John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun (hey we meet again!), and maybe this one from Allegra Frank at Polygon, but you can read that even if I don’t talk about it much.

So there’s lots to say, in other words.

Okay, before I get more into this, let me outline my own experience with PUAs. I’m one of those shy virgin types that La Ruina says his stuff is designed for, as related by Jim Sterling. In the olden days, when newsgroups were big things, the PUAs used to go directly to their audience by frequenting the newsgroup. The famous — or infamous, depending on who you are — Mystery definitely posted their directly, and they spent time “debating” techniques with someone else who was promoting his own system that they felt wasn’t going to work. So I got to interact directly with them, which also allowed me to post my own objections to their methods and see their responses. And my general objection was that it would probably work to get sex, but wasn’t going to be all that great at getting a relationship, despite their insistence that you could. The reason was that the method was essentially aimed at figuring out what sorts of things she liked and then molding your approach to feed that back to her, which might work in the short term but would be hard to maintain. The general idea was that what you always wanted to do was make her feel good, and then associate those good feelings with you, so that you could demonstrate value, in that you would be seen as someone who would make her feel good. Thus, even if she didn’t actually find you all that attractive to start with, by instilling positive feelings in her she might feel more pleasantly disposed towards you and develop enough attraction so that you can, well, score. This is why negging isn’t aimed at making her feel bad about herself and thus vulnerable, because the key there is that it makes her feel bad, which most PUAs find counter-productive. Now, as most of them aren’t scientists or psychologists or anything formal, it’s actually possible that the success of negging is because it makes her feel vulnerable and she tries hard to prove to herself that at least someone finds her attractive, but that’s not the intent.

Also, the common complaint in all of the articles and the video is that it encourages men to treat women like objects as opposed to actual people. Aside from these being related as strategies that you can use to get women — which men and women have been coming up with and relating for thousands of years now and so shouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eyelash — the biggest element that does this is the encouragement for shy men to stop fixating on one woman and developing massive crushes on her, sometimes even before meeting her, and instead believing that, at worst, she’s one woman much like any other and so a) you should just go up and approach her as soon as you can without waiting for some kind of “perfect” moment and b) if she declines, don’t moon about it or persist, and instead just move on to the next one (this is the strategy of “one-and-done”: try once, and if it doesn’t work, forget about her and move on). Of course, while this attitude might seem like it treats women as interchangeable objects, it’s generally better than obsessive crushing over someone who either doesn’t know you exist or isn’t interested, and avoids all sorts of complications like someone suddenly coming on too strong because they’ve been fantasizing about a relationship for ages or someone hanging on as a friend in the hopes of turning it into something more. It also avoids one of the big problems shy men have, which is being afraid to approach and putting too much pressure on themselves which makes them either not approach or flub it when they do by taking the pressure off the approach and encouraging them to just do it and not care as much about the outcome. I’ve long commented that if all I cared about was sex approaching would be less of an issue, because if the approach fails I wouldn’t care, whereas if I’m feeling out a potential relationship I obviously think more of that person and their at least somewhat unique traits than I would otherwise and so don’t want to screw it up. For me, though, simply getting sex isn’t enough motivation for me; the pressure is off, but the motivation is reduced so much that I can’t be bothered, and approaching is never a trivial investment for me. And, in fact, one of my worries about the “respect women” approaches is that they increase the potential negative consequences of approaching. Rejection is bad enough, but if a bad approach might get you fired or kicked out of a conference or bashed all over the internet for many shy men they might as well not even bother. Sure, their fumbling might not have those consequences, but shy men will tend to worry more about the worst possible outcomes than other men do.

In fact, I’d suggest that the advice that people like Dr. Nerdlove give to men have created more misogynists than PUAs ever have, as most shy men did not take lack of relationships as sanguinely as I did, and the advice like “Get to know them first” and “Start as friends and then move to sexual things later” only ends up with friendzoning, and men end up not succeeding and being made to feel like misogynists for following the given advice, and note that people who ignore it succeed and are, in general, not considered misogynists. Most of the misogynists on were indeed men who tried the standard advice, found it didn’t work, and found that society blamed them for that instead of the advice. This, of course, would leave them vulnerable to PUAs who ignore that advice and appeal to their own personal experiences that what you are told works doesn’t, but that their approach does.

Okay, so let’s leave PUAs for a while, and talk about the game. Sterling comments on the reasons that people are crying that this is censorship is entirely because Sony said they’d put it on and now say they won’t, and so it seems like something was taken away. He links it to Hatred, which never even made it to consoles and was pulled from Steam, and people only complained about it being taken off of Steam. Here, he makes an argument that is both obvious and misleading. The issue is that Sony had accepted it but then there was a huge outcry from people who are not the intended audience — again, see the article about there being a petition to pull it from Steam — and then Sony decided to pull it. It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption to assume that the outcry played a big role in this decision. Sterling does not help this impression when he talks about Sony having a task force designed to promote women playing games who wouldn’t care for this game, because again this game is not aimed at them and so we’d have to assume that their argument would have to be that having this in the store would discourage women from buying other Sony games, or perhaps that every game on the store has to be aimed at women as well as men or else it can’t be there. And my response to either argument is that the arguments are utter crap. Women are perfectly free to not buy games that aren’t aimed at them, and even to not buy games that they find personally offensive, demeaning, or whatever. Promoting women in gaming does not have to mean that there can never be any games that don’t aim at them, and this game is definitely and specifically a game that is not aimed at them. Even if it was a bit misogynist, it’s aimed at people who either are that or don’t care about that … and they’d still have to establish that.

And the Hatred example turns out to be a bad example, because the ESRB gave it an AO rating and consoles don’t accept games with AO ratings. Since the game was clearly aiming for that sort of rating, then this really was just the consequence of what they tried to do … unlike the Steam case. Again, people are assuming that it was the controversy and complaints that got it removed, and that’s a reasonable assumption. Sure, Sony might just have thought that La Ruina wasn’t handling the controversy well and didn’t want to have to put up with that crap over such a small game, but they really should say that if they don’t want people thinking that it was the controversy that did it.

So let’s talk more about the complaints. Are they valid? Are they reasonable complaints that someone who isn’t the intended audience can reasonably make? Let me start from the post with the petition that’s calling for it to be removed from Steam by Afoko:

Pickup artists like La Ruina make a living selling men sleazy “seduction tricks” to teach them how “to pull”. Behind the so-called psychology of his methods are some pretty dangerous ideas. That persistence and the right lines are more important than what a woman tells you she wants. Too many of us have been on the receiving end of those ideas. Too many of us have had to deal with men who won’t take no for an answer, convinced it’s a matter of time until we succumb to their “charms”. La Ruia may not know better than to encourage men to harass women, but a company the size of Steam should. They never should have approved this game for sale.

Of course, most PUAs actually advocate taking a “No” for an answer, at least once it has become clear that it is a “No”. Does the game encourage this sort of pressure after a clear rejection? She doesn’t say, and doesn’t give any examples. The title of the article is about how the game encourages groping, but she gives no examples of it doing so and most of the other sources talk about how the more egregious approaches are portrayed as ones that won’t work. One of them (Walker) even tries to use that against him:

All the way through, the game attempts to disguise the repellent stupidity of the whole process with the outlandishness of the “wrong” choices. So those two girls in a bar – should you click on, “Ask them if they know what you like in a girl. The answer being your dick”? Ha ha! No! That won’t work! They’ll say, “Ew!” and ask you to leave! Much better to instead just creepily invade their lives for your vile creep motives.

These choices serve two purposes. They give you the option to watch Richard say the deeply demeaning thing to some actresses, and laugh at that; and they allow the so-called “right” option to seem, in comparison, much less lecherous. In reality, of course, you’re just picking the least creepy option of a bunch of creepy options, the result still being incredibly, repellently creepy.

Implying that the choices are there mostly so that the players and La Ruina can say those demeaning things that they really want to say to them while masking the fact that the right responses are, presumably, cleaned up versions of those things. While I’m not as good at mindreading as Walker clearly is, I’m more inclined to think that they are there for those men who take people like Walker seriously and think that all PUAs are just misogynistic and so think that that sort of strong approach is right, while PUAs know that being that openly misogynistic doesn’t actually work.

And that’s another issue here. The articles waffle between insisting both that the right answers are completely obvious and that the advice and methods don’t work. Frank implies that it does work here:

There’s definitely some fun to be had at first with making a live-action avatar talk about his dick with abandon. But there’s always an awareness of the discomfort the woman sitting across from Richard must feel — or will eventually feel — as he eggs her on or chips away at her defenses. We have those defenses up for a reason: The dating game is a challenge, and it’s one that us women stand to lose more often than not.

Now, another personal anecdote here. When I was in university, I was in the debating society and helped out with a tournament. A female friend of the president at the time — also female — was there, and I thought she was pretty and seemed nice. And then she said that whenever she was drinking and was around a rather … successful member of the society, she always ended up having sex with him even though she didn’t want to. And I lost a ton of respect for her right there. While the guy could be charismatic and a player, certainly, if she knew what was happening and really didn’t want it to happen she could easily take precautions like, say, not drinking (and note that I grew up in an area where drinking was the number one passtime and still becoming a complete non-drinker, so it’s not impossible to do that). The same thing applies here: if you know that these techniques are being used and are chipping away at defenses, then you can do lots of things to avoid that happening, like being more suspicious, or even leaving. If these techniques are common, I’d almost say that every woman worried about that should want to buy the game and study them to learn what they are and to develop strategies to deal with them, which should be available. In fact, one of my main comments on it was that smart women will see through them and will only go along with them when they want to. So how is it that I give women more credit than these feminist defenders of women do?

Anyway, though, the more common refrain is that they don’t work. From Walker:

Of course, alongside its inherent grossness, PUA is complete woo from top to bottom. It’s entirely reliant on men who are so completely clueless, and so completely in denial of a woman’s agency, that they aren’t able to recognise that their ridiculous pack of “techniques” are a sordid fantasy. The concept is completely entwined in this idiotic notion that women are a near-inanimate castle to be conquered, just a series of routinely deployed defences to break through, before reaching the treasure hidden inside the walls. Rather than, oh I don’t know, being other humans.

But how does he know that? Has he tried them? Because the PUAs always cite the empirical evidence that they have some success — and they brutally eviscerate (verbally!) any competition who can’t claim to have that success, even challenging them to contests to prove that they have success — using their techniques, which is what they use to convince people to pay for the materials. Sure, there might be other explanations, but so many critics jump to the idea that these things can never work and never test them, while constantly misunderstanding and misrepresenting what it actually says. Again, I agree that it relies too much on deception and manipulation to work for long, but most PUAs don’t want a relationship anyway … and it’s not like a lot of the existing techniques, even those aimed at women, don’t do that either (like going someplace you don’t want to go because it’s a good place to meet members of the opposite sex, like joining a club you don’t enjoy but is dominated by people of the opposite sex. My objection to that has always been that my not enjoying myself is not a good mindset to be in when trying to impress a woman). If they don’t work, these men will ditch them soon enough. And if they do work, then he’s selling precisely what he says he’s selling … and if they are problematic, it might be a good question to ask women why these problematic approaches actually work.

So, finally, what is the game itself actually like? From looking at various reviews, I was interested in it as a fan of dating sims, and it looked like one that might be somewhat interesting, with a range of responses allowing for roleplay and reasonably attractive models to interact with, although it might be a bit shallow. Since the last pure dating sim I’ve played was Huniepop, and since I don’t really have any others to play beyond the elements in Persona 5, it seemed like it might be a more pure dating sim and a slightly deeper one than Huniepop, and so somewhat interesting. Of course, there might be tons of other games out there that I don’t see because I refuse to use Steam and don’t really have any other way to get them — I got Huniepop from GOG, which doesn’t seem to have anything else like that on offer — but it looked like it might be unique. However, I’m going to agree with O’Malley’s criticism here:

With each choice, Coach-Richard will appear to let you know whether you made the right choice, the wrong choice, or the enh-I-guess choice, and why it should or shouldn’t work. Get the right choice, and you’ll see Player-Richard lounging around on a bed with models who resolutely ignore him and stare into the middle-distance. Make a “meh” choice and the models are busy doing their nails instead of draping themselves over the bed like throw pillows. Get the wrong choice and it’s just Richard on the bed, staring at you with stern disapproval.

The effect is actually jarring.

Super Seducer could have actually have become marginally more entertaining by stealing a page from Telltale games and let each scene play through. Live with your consequences, while Coach-Richard analyzes choices at the end of it all, explaining, why doing X got Y results. Instead, each scene ends with your rating—will you be a chump? A Casanova? The titular Super Seducer?—and a replay of Coach-Richard’s advice before moving on to the next scenario.

I think this would have been better for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it would turn it into an actual game rather than simply a tutorial. Even better, it would allow for roleplaying, where you take on the role of someone and act as they would act and see how that works out for you. Of course, while there are different endings (according to O’Malley) the difference isn’t likely to be big enough to make that work out all that well for most people. Still, I don’t have interest in it as a tutorial in La Ruina’s PUA techniques, but was only interested in it as a game, and don’t think it would be that great. That being said, in reply to O’Malley:

Super Seducer isn’t worth it. Its value as education is as marginal as its value as entertainment. Frankly, you’d be better off learning how to seduce women by playing Stardew Valley. At least then you’d have a future as a farmer when the whole pick-up artist thing doesn’t work out.

It’s about $15 on Steam, regular price. I’ve dropped about that on games that sounded mildly interesting and never played before, so it doesn’t have to be all that interesting to be worth that price. As it is at least currently only on Steam, I won’t be buying it, but I think that, at the end of the day, all of the complaints against it are greatly overblown, and at the end of the day only serve to give a mediocre game attention that it wouldn’t get otherwise. The best outcome for the Social Justice side here is that it gets “censored” and most non-Social Justice people get left wondering what the big deal is and start thinking that they overreact, and the worst case is that it stays and does better than expected as most people buy it for the controversy and find that, again, the criticisms are overblown, promoting better made games inspired by it. I really think that in this case the Social Justice side should really have just let it go.

You asked for it …

November 10, 2017

So, over at Feminist Frequency, Carolyn Petit has posted a commentary on Super Mario Odyssey. However, her really big complaint ends up being about something that the game pretty much did to subvert gender expectations and the damsel in distress trope in the way that Sarkeesian’s entire “Tropes vs Women” series seemed to call for. It’s no surprise that it wasn’t a good move, and only a slight surprise — presumably to people who haven’t been paying attention to how the Social Justice side generally engage in games — that Petit doesn’t like it.

Before I get into that, though, I want to talk about the Tiara and the Cap (and the thief of the night):

This time around, it’s not just Peach who needs rescuing. There’s also Tiara, the sentient crown Bowser has snatched to rest upon Peach’s head during the nuptials he’s rapidly arranging. Now, Tiara is not just a living hat. No, Tiara is a female hat, and with her in danger, her brother Cappy rides along on Mario’s mop, giving him the remarkable powers he needs to complete his quest.

I mean, look. In a series that has been relying on gendered tropes for decades, if we’re gonna go so far as to gender the hats, couldn’t we at least switch things up and have the female hat (Hattie, perhaps?) ride along with Mario on a quest to rescue her brother? But no, Odyssey does damseling twice over, delivering a one-two punch of reinforcing those good ol’-fashioned video game gender norms.

So, here’s the issue. They came up with the idea of using parts of the characters’ apparel as sentient beings that can help out the characters, or at least be confidants for them (I don’t know how much of a role the tiara plays in Princess Peach’s story, at least throughout the game). They chose their typical head wear … or, at least, what would be typical head wear for their occupations (cap for a plumber, tiara for a princess). Now, these clothes are in some sense gender-typed; while women can indeed wear caps, men don’t generally wear tiaras, and a cap would not go with a princess outfit, and a tiara would not go with a plumber’s outfit. With the tiara, at least, being strongly feminine, if they had tried to make the tiara male and the cap female, it would have turned into a joke, because of the incongruity of a tiara being masculine. This means that if they did that, it would have been seen as a joke and it would have lent itself to more and more jokes about the incongruity, which would have annoyed Petit to no end, I imagine. The only way around that would be to make the cap and the tiara both non-presenting trans, which would have introduced many complications and more serious content than a Mario game — primarily aimed at kids — would want to do. So they took the easy way out and made them match the impressions, in a way that really isn’t any more problematic than what they were doing with Princess Peach in the first place and in all of their other games … which Petit then gripes about as being a doubling of damseling.

Sorry, but that criticism seems both petty and ignorant of the potential consequences of the switch, including the idea that Peach might be controlled by a male character in some sense (depending on the role of the tiara in the game, which I haven’t played).

But now onto the scene that she really hates:

The final battle takes place as Mario literally crashes Bowser’s wedding ceremony. Once the battle with Bowser is at an end, Mario, Peach and the Koopa King are together on the surface of the moon. Bowser, not entirely out of steam, charges up to Peach with an offering of a piranha plant, still trying to win her over. And here’s where things really got weird for me. Mario also crowds Peach, holding a flower, engaging in a moment of “pick-me!” rivalry with the Koopa King. For a few seconds, the two dudes elbow and jostle each other, pushing their respective flowers in Peach’s face.

Now, this is a really messed-up thing for Mario to do, a vile position to put Peach in. Furthermore, until this point in the series, it’s remained plausible that Mario’s motives for rescuing the princess were mostly selfless. One could say that he simply objected to her freedom being infringed upon, and didn’t want a brute like Bowser getting away with his dastardly schemes.

However, this moment suggests that it’s not that at all, that the real reason he’s rescued Peach so many times is because he wants her for himself. I’ve made countless jokes with friends over the years about how the surprise plot twist of the Mario games will someday be that Mario was the villain all along, but this game was the first that kinda made me believe it. It was impossible for me not to think about the twist ending of the Mario-influenced game Braid, in which the protagonist Tim is revealed to be a stalker, not a hero. Peach has long served as a reward for players in these games, but this scene made me think that Mario, too, sees Peach more as a prize than a person.

To her credit, Peach doesn’t deign to give Mario so much as a kiss on the cheek, but instead gives both of these jerks the cold shoulder and walks off, at which point Mario and Bowser take some solace in their shared rejection. I guess at the end of the day, Bowser is really just another one of the Bros., and, well, you know what they say about Bros.

Yeah, and do you know why all of that is there? To set up that scene where Princess Peach rejects them both and storms off in a display of female empowerment, to later cruise around the world herself having adventures. This is clearly an attempt to subvert the damsel in distress trope — and, particularly, the “Women as Reward” trope — in precisely the way that Sarkeesian had talked about in the past. Yes, to do that you have to derail Mario into someone who presumably was at least seen as being in this for the reward of the love of the princess instead of just trying to do the right thing, but what’s derailing an entire male character when compared to making that obviously visible pro-feminist statement? Which Petit, of course, likes; it’s making Mario a, in her words, “creep” and that Princess Peach didn’t get to do more than she objects to. Um, despite the fact that Mario falling in love with her isn’t actually unreasonable, and that the only thing that, to me, makes his timing suspect is that Bowser isn’t actually real competition. If Bowser was seen as real competition that Peach might have chosen but only if she didn’t believe Mario felt that way about her, then the timing would be necessary, somewhat romantic, and fit into the normal trope that people really should express their feelings about each other if they have them.

Anyway, why did this scene flop for everyone? Because it put, it seems to me, the feminist message ahead of telling a good story. Petit can argue that it’s there just for a cheap joke, but with the final sequence where Peach goes off to be an independent woman having her own adventures that’s hardly likely. No, it seems obvious to me that they wanted to do the sort of subversion that people like Sarkeesian and Petit ask for and didn’t care if they derailed the existing characters to do it, and instead ended up getting complaints because they derailed Mario into someone who is non-feminist (ie a “creep”) with nary a mention that he was derailed in a terrible way specifically to promote a feminist message. Feminists didn’t like it because it wasn’t feminist enough, in that Peach got limited freedom and Mario fit their idea of a “creep” or “Bro”, and non-feminists — or, at least, those who pay attention to the underlying theme — won’t like it because it derails Mario for a ridiculous feminist subversion that even the feminists don’t care for. This is precisely what happens when you try to satisfy the vague and poorly thought out demands of much of the Social Justice line instead of looking at your games and your story and deciding what you want to do. In short, don’t listen to what they say they want, but look deeper to see if there’s a valid complaint and do the work to fix that complaint.

Of course, if you do that, shallow analysis might still have them up in arms. But shallow fixing of complaints brought about by shallow analysis won’t make anyone happy. Least of all you.

The burning question of Persona 5 …

June 9, 2017

So, now that I’ve finished it and read around online a bit about it and talked a lot about Social Justice angles wrt Persona 5, seemingly the key question is this: should Persona 5 or Persona 6 have a female protagonist?

Note that there are two main ways to do a female protagonist in this series, and the Persona series has done both. First, you can give the player the choice of whether or not they want to play as a male or female protagonist, which is what they did with P3P. The other way is to create a game that only has a female protagonist, which they did with Maya in Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. So, since they’ve done both before, surely they could do at least one of them again, either in an extended Persona 5 — which given P3 FES and P4 Golden is almost certain to happen — or in Persona 6. So let’s look at how and if that might work.

In Persona 5, there are a lot of anime cinematics. If you wanted to give the player a choice of protagonist, you’d have to do scenes for both the male and female protagonist. Also, you’d have to make sure that any line that refers to “he” is also re-voiced to use “he” or “she” for the appropriate protagonist, or else try very hard to never actually do that like they do for the protagonist’s name, which is going to be a lot more work. And then you might have to rework a number of the S-links, including the dating ones, allowing pretty much any character to be romanceable — and thus have Christmas and Valentine’s Day scenes reflecting that — if you don’t go the better route of rewriting them to make sense for male and female protagonists. For example, Iwai is far less likely to involve a teenage girl in his conflicts with the Yakuza and Ohya is not all that likely to pretend that she is dating a female protagonist to hide the fact that she’s investigating her partner’s disappearance (even if she leaned that way). In short, making a dual protagonist is a lot of work, and some story elements won’t work as well if you do that. So, in general, I think that for the most part they should pick one and have that as the main for the entire series. While I enjoyed the option in P3P — and found that the female protagonist was a more interesting character than the male one — I can see that adding the option again would be too much work for what you’d get out of it.

Okay, so then should Persona 6 go with a female protagonist? At first blush, my first thought was that it wouldn’t be a problem at all, given how much I liked the female protagonist in P3P. But on reflection, I noted that it would cost me something that I really liked about the Persona series: the ability to react to it roughly like how _I_ would have reacted to it, including who I hang around with and, importantly, who I dated. Obviously, with a female protagonist I wouldn’t be able to do that, and so would have to base it entirely on what character I was playing at the time. Which isn’t generally a problem for me, but it would take something away from the Persona series that’s pretty unique for me.

Now, people can say — rightly — that at that point I’d know how female players feel wrt the series, since they don’t get that. And that’s a fair point. But the issue here is that, for me, the Persona series has been that way for me for so long that I wouldn’t quite get the feel from Persona 6 if they did this that I got from the other games, which can’t help but feel like a let down. While I’d almost certainly be okay with it, other fans might not. Thus, that might hurt sales or the impression people have of the game and the series, which will hurt the franchise. Are there going to be enough female gamers deciding to jump onto it now for their unique experience to make it worth the risk? I doubt it, personally.

And so I think the best advice here is to let Team Persona decide what they want to do with the series. If they want to tell a story that works best with a male protagonist, let them. If they want to tell a story that works best with a female protagonist, let them. And if people really want to see a Persona-like series with a female protagonist then starting a new series with that is the way to go. After all, we’ve seen a number of these “dating/life sim JRPGs” starting up since Persona 3 at least partly rode that to success, and so a game that takes the Persona elements but starts with a female protagonist from the start should be do-able, if there’s a sufficient market for it. And since if it is done well there’s a good chance that I’d buy it and play it, this would be the ultimate chance to prove that, yes, there’s a market for these kind of games.

I suspect that the typical “Social Justice” objector will bristle at this suggestion, but hopefully some company will think that maybe they can get some mileage out of this — if the market is really there.

Tropes vs Women: The Lady Sidekick

May 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe not.

Social Justice vs Games: Another Persona 5 Review

May 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doldrums” indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Justice vs Games: Ann Takamaki

April 28, 2017

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


Social Justice vs Games: Persona as Wish-Fulfillment

April 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then talks about the relationships being shallow:

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

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

And later, in the second comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one final point from these comments:

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

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

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

Social Justice vs Games: “Solid Snake” on Persona 5

April 24, 2017

So, I was looking around for some information on the details of Shiho’s interaction with Kamoshida in Persona 5, and came across this thread on the Nuklear Power forums by “Solid Snake” talking about the flaws in Persona 5 and, eventually, the Persona series in general. I couldn’t register to the forums to reply, and it looks like the thread is winding down anyway, but I wanted to talk a bit about it because to me it really comes across as a combination of Social Justice vs Games with a helping of personal interpretation mixed in.

There will be spoilers past this point.