Monday, May 30, 2011

Games vs. Gamers cont'd: Meta-Blog

You can learn a lot about your audience by looking at the search terms that bring people to your blog from Google.

Other than variations on the name of this blog ("your critic," "critic another castle," etc), the most common search terms that lead to me are "shepard badass" (or also, "badass shepard") and "combustible lemon(s)."  The Badass Shepard variation and the Combustible Lemon variation have held the one and two slots for a while now. I am quite pleased about that first one there; it gives me a definite giggle.  I also like that people out there are actually searching for "beyond the girl gamer."  It's a series I'm proud to be writing, even when individual installments make me bang my head against the metaphorical wall for a while.  In fact, it's already about 1/3 the length my master's thesis was, and I have 3.5 chapters left to go -- so I'm really, really glad people are reading it.

But the folks who are clearly searching for something that isn't me, when they land here?  That's pretty enlightening too, and not always in a good way.

"why does my friend keep talking about combustible lemons"
"i dont understand portal and im a girl"
"evil!wheatley chell rape portal fanfictin"
"chell and glados hintai"
"bangin girl gamers"

The first two are just kind of sad (the first one is funny-sad).  The last three are really kind of sad.  And some others have been lost to me forever, because Blogger only records the top ten in a given time period and I don't care to remember them all.  The bottom four there are all from within the last 36 hours; they are definitely not the first to appear on this theme, nor will they be the last.

For starters, people who want Portal porn, learn to spell.  It will help you find what you're looking for in the future.

Secondly... *sigh*  It's the same games vs. gamers problem all over again, just a window into a different angle.  I get that some people just want pornographic art and X-rated fiction.  I'm guessing there's not a single person on the internet between 18 and 55 who hasn't at some point looked at one or the other, and I'm not out to judge people's private kinks.

In Portal we have one of the truly non-sexual female protagonists and one of the truly non-sexual female antagonists in all of gaming.  These hapless misspellers aren't searching for a topless Lucy Stillman or a modified Miranda Lawson.  They aren't looking for Elena Fisher / Chloe Frazer fanfiction.  They're not making game mods to enlarge the breasts of characters that already have some.  They're out to add sexual content to the one game most reliably free of any that I've ever seen. 

Google gave me a window into the soul of the internet and I wish it hadn't.  At least I can live in hope that the people who landed here, instead of on the porn they were looking for, might think differently about their female characters in the light of the day.  But I'm not counting on it.  Some alleys are going to stay seedy for a long, long time.

Friday, May 27, 2011

That One Game Idea...

Memorial Day Weekend is about to launch, here in the US.  It's 90 degrees (F) with air so humid you can chew it, and my office closes at 1:00 p.m. today.  I can't even pretend that I'm focused enough to work on one of the 6 or 7 long-form, serious-matter, detailed-research drafts waiting for me in the post editor.  They'll have to keep for working on over the weekend, while my spouse is away (which means I can't play Mass Effect 2 no matter how much I want to, because it's an "us" game and I promised).

So instead, let's get chatty, silly, and idealistic.

Every gamer has one: that idea you've been harboring forever, that you wish you could get someone to make.

Here's mine: a Neverwhere-based MMORPG.  It doesn't even have to take place in London Below; it could take place in any of a hundred cities Below.  But any way, it would be fantastic.  The markets could be special monthly server events.  The appearance customization options are fantastic and enormous.  And the very patchwork nature of London Below would allow for unique class / skill set-ups, different from any other MMORPG out there.

I mean, sure, that much variation and customization means you'd never be able to balance it and it would probably end up being a PvP world prone to griefing and absent the magic of the book, but still... it's nice to dream, right?  ;)

So, that's mine.  What's yours?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How Portal 2 became a domestic World War 3

I follow #AltDevBlogADay on Twitter.  It's true, I don't understand most of the heavily technical posts or discussions (a coder, I am not), but I do find it fascinating to see what industry and development trends designers are talking about.

And every now and then, there's a true gem that I do understand.

Mike Jungbluth, today, shared a post called, "What does your game believe in?"  It's a fairly lengthy piece (albeit shorter than most of the ones I write here, heh) but has a couple of crucial excerpts:
From the characters that we control, the world they live in, and how the player interacts with each, if the core beliefs are consistent and persistent, that will be felt on an incredibly deep level. In fact, you could even call it the heart and soul of a game. That sort of special x-factor that helps to make a game feel more alive than even a bigger budget game sitting next to it on the shelf.

But like having beliefs in real life, it is a double edge sword. As soon as those beliefs are called into question, your entire reality can become questionable. The deeper or more core to the person or world the belief, the further everything can come crashing down the moment they are betrayed.
Beyond just model sheets and reference for movements, really think about what drives the character forward. What has lead them to the point they are at when the game starts, and where do they draw the line in their world, as to what they believe in. Do their beliefs change or grow as the game progresses?

Do they mind getting their hands dirty or are they reluctant to do so? Both can allow for the same overall gameplay and creation of assets, but being aware of what they believe can make what happens before, during and after all the more meaningful when the animations or dialog matches those beliefs. This goes for not only the character, but the player. In fact, going a step further, this is how we can even begin to color the player’s beliefs, and make them question their own values versus those of the characters in the game.

One thing I love about this article is that, without using the exact words, it basically translates into: "HEY PEOPLE.  WRITE REAL, FULLY FLESHED-OUT, PLAUSIBLE CHARACTERS IN YOUR GAMES."  That's a piece of advice I can most certainly get behind.

It's worth observing, here, that both times I have attended a panel on female characters in gaming (in 2009 and again in 2010, both at PAX East), the conversation around character writing quickly lapses into a festival of complaints.  Our female characters are badly written and one-dimensional, the cry goes -- but someone quickly adds, "And so are the men."  And it's often true.

As the article cited above itself points out: Nathan Drake has all of the depth and consistency of a washcloth.  I love the Uncharted franchise but that's kind of in spite of itself.  Drake is a fun character but Jungbluth is completely correct to observe that cut-scene Drake and player-driven Drake basically have two completely different sets of beliefs and priorities, and I find that sort of writing jarring.

On the other hand, Bioware is renowned for putting breadth and depth into their character writing, and for making plausibly character-driven games.  The Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises have now become bywords among gamers looking for thoughtful character and narrative design.  And their titles are selling, and selling well, so there's definitely hope for more of this kind of design in the future.

"But wait," you ask.  "What does any of this have to do with Portal 2?"

One of the longest, deepest arguments Your Critic and her spouse have ever had (and we've known each other since 1997) took place during the first week of Portal 2's release.  It happened in slow motion over three days and was, frankly, exhausting.  And what caused this argument?

In its purest form, the fight was over Chell's moral compass and character consistency.  Yes, really.

With some story spoilers for Portal 2: A series of events (chapter 1 - 5) in the game create a situation where your arch-nemesis, the computer GLaDOS, is being stored in and powered by a potato battery.  The beginning of chapter 6 separates Chell and GLaDOS, but at the end of chapter 6 you and your 1.1 volts of spudly evil are reunited, and in order to progress from chapter 6 to chapter 7, the player is required to pick up and then carry the potato.

And what about this angered Your Critic's spouse so?  In his own words

The overarching plot of Portal 1 is really Chell vs. GlaDOS. In Portal 2, GlaDOS is pretty bitter about it, and continues to try to kill Chell in myriad ways.

But then GlaDOS is rendered helpless and stashed in a potato. When you find the potato in 70s Aperture Science, she asks you to take her with you to replace Wheatley before he destroys Aperture Science.

My problem with it: Why in God's name would anyone want to do that?

It makes no sense. Here's the malevolent AI who wants you dead, and she's asking you to help her. The only evidence that you have at that point that Wheatley might destroy Aperture are some distant rumbling sounds. GlaDOS has been a proven schemer and liar so there's not a whole lot of reason given to trust her. She's exceedingly likely to betray you given first opportunity. So why save her? Why bring her back to power? Why would Chell choose to trust her mortal enemy on her word alone?

And even if she's right, what's the worst that happens? Aperture is destroyed, preventing anyone else from falling prey to its malevolent experiments. That doesn't sound so bad to me.

All I wanted to do when I found the potato was destroy it. Hurl it into the abyss. Mash it into a side item and put gravy on it. But the game wouldn't let me. The game forced me as a player to act completely contrary to what I felt anyone would normally act. And I hated it for that.

I did not take this plot development so badly amiss, and many players did not.  But the other gamer in my household exactly encountered the phenomenon about which Jungbluth was writing: a belief dissonance so stark that his preference was to walk away from the PC rather than to complete one of the most acclaimed games of 2011 (and the second installment in the most acclaimed franchise maybe ever).

All of this serves to remind us that good writing in games, needs to be front and center, not secondary.  As this industry, entertainment medium, and art form matures, the real crux of it all is what stories we're telling, and how carefully we're telling them.  Narrative gaming* is just the means, not the end.

*NB: Narrative gaming and non-narrative gaming are still fairly different; the latter is more in line with Tetris or chess or whatnot, and that's a different beast.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 2.1: The System of the Worlds

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3 | 1.4

So far, we've talked a lot about characters: our protagonists, antagonists, and supporting casts.  Character design drives our gaming, to a huge extent, but it's just one part of the overall element of game writing, which is what we're going to examine in chapter 2 of this series.  And we're going to delve into some actual critical theory in order to do that.

Our transition, though, begins still with character to some degree, and the concept of the "coin flip" character in gaming.  The concept is this: you need to determine something binary (a male or female character), so you flip the coin to see if it comes up heads or tails and run with it.

I think of Chell, in Portal and Portal 2, as a coin flip character.  The game is completely, 100% unaffected by the PC gender.  In this case, the coin came up female.  In Half-Life (2) there doesn't need to be a particular reason that Gordon Freeman is male.  Valve probably didn't flip the coin, but when you do -- sometimes it still comes up heads.  There doesn't need to be a particular reason that Shepard of Mass Effect (2) is male; in the future, space marines come in all types.  And so BioWare has given us this most basic choice: to flip that coin ourselves.

This doesn't usually happen.  Not only does the coin not land on non-male, it also doesn't land on non-white or non-straight.  The straight white male is still an absolute default, and in the context of most games (and movies, and books, and...) any deviation has a distinct narrative presence.  There's a reason that THIS character has to be black, or female, but there's never a reason that a player character has to be a straight white dude.  He just is.  It's the unquestioned default.  (This is why the default Shepard is so boring to me.  He's generic, and there are thousands like him.)

Contrary to what some alarmists believe of all feminist thinkers, I agree that there's no good reason to make a specific man's story about a woman.  Sometimes you're telling the story of a man's life and that is totally cool.  If you are writing a historically accurate game about a knight in 12th century France well then by god, I expect him to dude up the joint in the manliest possible way, and I expect most of the powerful figures in his story also to be men, especially among the warrior and clergy classes. 

But when are our games ever historically accurate*?

Games take place in worlds of our own creation.  Law and Order can purport to represent New York City as it is.  We cannot claim to be representing Ferelden as it is, because there never was such a place outside of a writer's imagination.

But in fact, even when claiming to represent a place, like modern Manhattan, as it actually exists, all fictional media fail to some degree or other.  The story being told is always one that was written by a human, and one that is being filmed and edited by a human.   In any TV show, movie, or game the world, as we see it, is entirely constructed.  Someone came up with it, and made it, and everything in it is intentional.  Even the "reality" that bumps in (as in traffic on the street in Law and Order) is a deliberate choice -- someone chose not to use a soundstage, not to close that street, and not to use a different, traffic-free, take.

This basic idea -- that we are not ever watching reality, but are looking at a construct -- is at the core of all film studies and so it is in one of my old introductory film textbooks that I looked for the best description:
 "What film reviews almost always evade is one of the few realities of film itself, that it is an artificial construct, something made in a particular way for specific purposes, and that plot or story of a film is a function of this construction, not its first principle." 
Robert Kolker, Film, Form, and Culture, 2nd ed (2002). (p. xvii)
Rephrased, the most important concept to understand in early Film Studies is this: the characters are never the creators of the story's events.  Han and Leia don't flirt with each other due to mutual attraction; they flirt with each other because a script-writer called for it and a director put it on camera.  The story that you see unfolding is an element of the film you are watching.  The same is true of gaming.

Further, the sum total of everything put into the image you're looking at, in film, is called mise en scène (because the French had the first crack at written film theory).  It's basically the idea that lighting, set design, and every other visual in a scene help tell your story.  The textbook example (literally, it's in every introductory film theory and film history book out there) is the 1920 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  One look at a famous shot and it becomes obvious why:

91 years and thousands of films later, it's still creepy.

For us, and for our purposes going forward, the really important, unbelievably crucial point is this: Game worlds are 100% digital and therefore, 100% constructed.  Nothing is simply "found" and nothing is incidental or accidental.  Every pixel is deliberate and intentional -- even though those pixels can also be utterly thoughtless.  "Created" is not the same as "carefully created."

Let's take ourselves back to mise-en-scène for a moment.  Can anyone argue that this environment, shown below, is not absolutely as carefully crafted, and as essential to the story, as in any film?  It has, in fact, been argued that the real main character of Bioshock is the underwater city of Rapture, and there's something to be said for that.

It's like a murderous and awkward Renaissance painting in here.
But the fun part is, it's not just the modern, cinematic games that use this concept so crucially.  I think the first game where I became really aware of the environment beyond my character as essential was Super Mario Brothers 3.

Yes, this game.

In SMB3, the sun itself pulls right out of the background art and becomes an enemy.  All of the brick types work differently (two are shown here).  Enemies, fatal to the player character, come popping out of the environment regularly (the plant in the image above being just one example).  And in levels comprised of large, scenic blocks (World 1, Level 1 for starters), the player can actually drop behind the white ones.  Literally, the player can take herself behind the scenes of the video game's environment -- but only at certain times.

So when we're looking at a game, and analyzing it in any way, the crucial thing is for us to remember that everything is created.  We need to remember to step outside of the narrative and to repeatedly ask how and why the designers of the game chose to frame it or to make it progress in the way they did.  If we're asking, "Why does Naomi Hunter wear her shirt unbuttoned so far down in the lab?" it's the wrong question.  We should be asking, "Why is this world designed in such a way that our scientist is an attractive female who keeps her shirt unbuttoned so low while working?"  If Nathan Drake bumps his head going into a tunnel, the question is not, "Why is he so clumsy?" but instead, "Why did the game's creators decide this tunnel was two inches shorter than their protagonist?" or, "What are we meant to learn about this character through seeing this collision?"

Sometimes, when we're asking these questions from outside of the narrative, the answers will be mundane.  "Budget restrictions" or "tight deadline" are probably the most common answers, across all games and studios.  If we're asking why the Courier in Fallout: New Vegas is silent, that's probably the answer we'll get (not enough time and money in the world to make recording every possible line a worthwhile design choice).

But sometimes, we'll find, on asking, that no-one thought carefully about a design choice one way or the other, and instead just made an assumption based on his or her own cultural defaults.  Those are the most interesting answers.  From these moments, we learn more about the culture producing the game -- we learn more about ourselves, and about what will need to change in the future if we want different games.  From the same text I cited earlier:
"The idea of culture as text means, first, that culture is not nature; it is made by people in history for conscious or even unconscious reasons, the product of all they think and do.  Even the unconscious or semiconscious acts of our daily lives can, when observed and analyzed, be understood as sets of coherent acts and be seen to interact with each other.  These acts, beliefs, and practices, along with the artifacts they produce ... have meaning.  They can be read and understood.
Robert Kolker, Film, Form, and Culture, 2nd ed (2002). (p. 116)

Here in the real world where we live, everyone is allowed to be incidental.  People come and go, because they're people.  The main character of my life is a straight white woman (and I am she).  When I am at work, if I am taking the elevator from the ground floor to the 10th, and the doors open on 6, the odds are about 50/50 whether a man or a woman will board.  Similarly, in my workplace in particular, the odds are about 50/50 that the person boarding would be white or a racial minority, and about 1 in 6 that the person boarding would identify as non-straight.  I would expect and understand any of these, because I move in a world full of people.  If I am taking the Metro home, and the doors open at Union Station, I would expect an even bigger range of diversity in boarding passengers.

If Solid Snake were in an elevator going up ten stories, and the doors opened on 6, there would have to be a story-driven reason for a woman to board.  (In fact, there would need to be a narrative reason for the doors to open at all.)  Snake moves in a world of ideas, concepts, and tropes, not in a world full of people.  We say "truth is stranger than fiction," because we expect fiction to make sense.  But what kind of sense?  Does fiction deserve as much random diversity as reality has?

And so, in the next chapter: what spaces do our characters live in and why do our characters live in these spaces, when they could be anywhere?

*Your Critic will not have a chance to play L.A. Noire until later this summer, so if this one is the exception that proves the rhetorical question, well, try not to leave spoilers.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Link Roundup

I've just gone through the last six months worth of notes and drafts and come up with a roundup of interesting reviews and articles I never posted, as well as some new ones:

Also, I started writing the text below last summer, when the article cited was published at the New York Times, and then it fell off my radar for a while and got buried in a rather large pile of interesting drafts "for later."

So, later is finally now.

Games may or may not be art*, but there's no denying that this is:
What if Pac-Man is really a gluttonous German burgher out to gorge himself while dodging the ghosts of those he has so callously wronged, à la Dickens?
What if the pilots in Asteroids are merely profane technicians existentially trapped within a corporation that knows nothing more than to send them into the void to shoot rocks, until they become smaller rocks and smaller rocks, until they become nothing?
In other words, what if the characters and stories of classic video games were reimagined and reinterpreted as live theater in front of you?
The concept of "Theater of the Arcade" is fascinating.  There is nothing new about gamers getting creative with their favorite titles.  But most of what game consumers produce is considered... well, to those not directly involved in fan culture, it's generally thought of as nothing but a waste of time.  People see fanfic as either poorly written or as pointless smut (also usually as a "girl thing," which is a textbook-long discussion for another day).  And game mods, except for the very most popular, are something fanboys do for fun when they could be using their time and energy for "real jobs" or getting laid.

But the first wave of home gamers is grown up: a kid who was 10 when the NES came out in the USA is now 35, and some of those former kids are artists, playwrights, or even game designers...  And many are parents.  I look forward to seeing what their kids do with our early gaming icons in another 20 years.

*They so totally are.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Chatty RPG

We live in the future now, really.

We have iPods and iPhones and Droids and Blackberries and laptops and netbooks and iPads and eight thousand other ways of keeping in touch with everything.

But we don't walk up to others and talk to strangers on the street.  At least, in big cities you sure don't.  You might exchange a polite word ("How about that rain?"  "Sad about the Caps, huh?") in the elevator, or say, "Excuse me," or "I like those shoes," to someone on the Metro, but that's about it.  There are so many of us in such a small space that when you're on the T, the MTA, or the Metro -- you just politely keep to yourself.  You don't ask a stranger for his entire life story, then walk into his house uninvited and start talking to his wife.

(We also keep our hands off other people's stuff.  My neighbors don't have stacks of barrels sitting outside their front doors, but if they did, I wouldn't go rooting through them to look for books, vials, food, or coin.  That would be rude, and criminal to boot.)

But then there is the world of gaming.  Or rather, there are the worlds of gaming.  When you reach a new location in an RPG, what's the very first thing you do?  (After saving, of course.)  You talk to every. single. person. in town.  At great length.  You ask them their life stories.  You perform their tasks and errands, up to and including murder.  You ask anyone and everyone you meet if they need help, and if they do, you immediately proffer it.  Your sword (or gun -- Fallout and Mass Effect are not innocent of this) is at anyone and everyone's disposal, with small exceptions for not helping members of a problematic alignment, or persons perceived as evil or shady.

In the same way that so many RPGs hearken back to a medieval world that never existed, I think they also hearken back to a small town / village perspective that never existed.  They are all small-town Britain (or occasionally France), where everyone is happy to see you, will share his woes, and will ask a favor of you.  You, the Mary Sue Gamer, are going to save the world one lost kitten at a time, and locals expect and allow this sort of behavior from you.  In some games (again the newer installments of the Fallout series leap to mind) the locals at least distrust you until you do some small tasks to prove your good intent.  And there is more and more of that.

But part of me can't help but feel that the longing for a never-extant perfectly pastoral world keeps expressing itself in our game worlds.  This isn't just one game and it's not just one designer; the theme repeats itself over and over in European, Japanese, and American RPGs. 

They pretty much all look like this. (This one's Oblivion.)

If some weird dude with pointy armor and a bad-ass companion showed up in most actual small medieval hamlets?  The majority of townsfolk would hunker down and avoid coming to his attention until he went the hell away.  The coming of warriors meant the coming of war, and untold number of fields were ruined and everyday folk killed in the battles, wars, and skirmishes that popped up all over medieval Europe.  Armed conflict was an unpleasant and commonplace way to go.

I mean, really: you're a pig farmer, a peasant who lives in a thatch hut with a hole in its roof for smoke to get out.  Your immediate village has about 50 people in it, and for market days, when you go, you head (on foot) 10 miles down the road to the big town.  Life's all right, if dirty and smelly.  You think you have almost enough food stored for winter and you've figured out who to marry in the spring, and then these people show up:

A collection of PCs and NPCs from some modern RPGs.

I don't know about most of you but I personally would go hide behind the hut, with the pigs, and hope the creepy men and women with the ridiculous and expensive armor and visible, obvious, heavily-used weaponry would just mosey on by and leave me alone.

Although I've only lived in large, East-coast cities for the last 30 years, the rest of the modern world is not so different.  I've just been out in the countryside for the past three days, hanging out at a bed & breakfast with a vineyard, a wild garden, and some friendly critters.  (The cats decided my husband was their particular friend; the ducks mainly just quacked in a panicky sort of way.  And the peacock decided that the humans needed to be awake at dawn.)  We were 150 miles out of the city and about 50 years back in time, out in the woods with the wines.  And when we went into the small, local town, we shared some polite words and conversations with the various folks we met, but I didn't ask our waiter if he needed help avenging his brother, or check with the bartender to see who owed her an outstanding tab.  Nor would I have done so in 1911, 1611, or 1311.

We all know that games are emphatically not reality.  If they were, we wouldn't play them, gamification aside.  And there's a definite line where we do and don't want "realism" in our gaming.  It's one thing if our heroes need food, water, and sleep.  Sometimes we'll even put up with lingering injury from wounds, or NPCs going to bed at night.  But anything more realistic than that and we start to get grumpy.  And I'm not asking for greater medieval realism in my games, either.  I don't have the energy to play that, for starters.  Nor do I want my gaming to be as depressing as that reality was.

Gamers are stereotypically and infamously asocial introverts.  (As always, the truth is something less than the image.)  And yet, where our game worlds could give us missions in a hundred different ways, the most common means is through dialogue and lots of it.  Is that what, collectively, we really crave?  A conversation?

No real research here, or anything, and I'm not sure I expect answers.  I'm just wondering why the patterns in our games are the patterns in our games.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Games vs. Gamers

[rant on]

So I've been doing a lot of writing here recently about female characters in games, particularly in the Beyond the Girl Gamer series.

It's been a frustrating and challenging process -- but the games themselves are not to blame.  I've been trying to find photos to illustrate my posts with, and I don't usually get to take my own screenshots (because I realize what image I need when I'm far away from the PC with the game installed on it). So I go to Google Image Search to find screenshots, from the games I am playing, of the characters I am talking about.

This is a mistake.

Although Ashley, Miranda, Liara, Jack, and Tali are all clothed (with certain definitions of "clothed" for Jack) while you're playing Mass Effect (2), you sure as hell wouldn't know it from the photos that make it even to the first page of the image search.  And do yourself a favor and don't look for GLaDOS images unless you're keen on some evil robot hentai bondage.  Seriously.

This is where I develop immense frustration with the misogyny inherent in so much of gamer culture.  The designers of the games and franchises I've been writing about -- Uncharted, Mass Effect, Portal, Assassin's Creed, Fallout, and more -- have been working hard to give us strong and non-sexualized female characters.  I'm spending 3000 words a week in this joint giving credit where credit is due.  But no credit whatsoever is due to the fan base who, on first getting their hands on mod tools, immediately mod their female characters into nudity.

I mean, what the hell?  Why is this always what comes first?  Why is the pain of this image search for female characters just as inevitable among gamers as the construction of phalluses is?  (My first venture into Mario Kart DS multiplayer, almost every single racer on my course had drawn a penis as his avatar.  Clever, guys.  *rolls eyes*)

I get that there is actually a sizeable contingent of 13-year-old boys in the gamer world.  We all know it.  It is the nature of such children to be jackasses for a while, until they grow out of it.  And I can accept that.

But we collectively, as a subculture and as a consumer group, keep insisting that we are more than that.  And I want to believe it.  Until I look and see what the fans have done with any of these characters.   (Hint: even the drawings, screenshots, and mods that are fully clothed are generally in pin-up style or otherwise provocative poses.)

I can't pretend that this is a gamer-only problem, but it is front-and center in gamer culture in a way I don't find it to be in other fandoms.  There's a whole metric ton of non-worksafe fanart out there of Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and a host of others.  (Not to mention the stories.)  But at least it's not so frequently sought-after and so frequently designed that it goes straight to the top of the charts, as it were.  You can actually find illustrations (from books) and screen shots (from movies and games) in spades before you get to the kinky stuff.

I hang out mainly in a pretty safe corner of the internet, and my part of the gamer world is filled with people like me.  Like seeks out like, sometimes.  I've mentioned before how for me, PAX East 2011 was almost entirely a girls' weekend.  The regulars who come here to comment (hi, regulars) are smart folks who generally think like I do about this stuff.  The designers of the games I play are getting ever better about it all, so even while there's a ton of work to be done, I can see the progress.

But sometimes I have those days where I can tell this club doesn't want me for a member, and that's great because I don't want to be part of it anyway.  This is the same system that forces booth babes at PAX, that still doesn't give my RPG character any pants when she equips greaves, and that ensures it will be years before I run out of things to write about.

[/rant off]

Friday, May 13, 2011

The rest is just details.

In which I muse about my opinions on game writing with some sizeable spoilers about what I've been up to in Mass Effect 2 and some choices I made in the climactic scene of Mass Effect.  More so even than my other posts on the topic.  If you want to go into either of these games open-minded, now would be a good time to go somewhere else for a while.

(And yes, I know that BioWare ate my brain and that it's been nearly all Mass Effect, all the time over here, but this too shall pass in short order.  I'm mostly not sorry.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 1.4: Best Supporting Actress

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3

In this series, so far the character discussion has focused on protagonists and player characters -- our heroes, as it were. But the worlds in which we game are teeming with sidekicks, companions, antagonists, villains, and other NPCs.

And when I say teeming, I mean it.  First I sat down to list off "just a few," but even limiting myself only to games I personally have played in the last two years, I immediately came up with: GLaDOS, The Boss, Naomi Hunter, Liara T'Soni, Jack, Miranda Lawson, Dr. Chakwas, Rose of Sharon Cassidy, Veronica Santangelo, Christine Royce, Chloe Frazer, Elena Fisher, Lucy Stillman, and Madison Paige.  That batch was just my immediate first thought -- clearly, there are hundreds or thousands more we could discuss.

Cass, Dr. Chakwas, Chloe, Elena, GLaDOS, Jack, Liara, Lucy, Madison, Miranda, Naomi, and Veronica.

There's more than a bit of variety in types there, to be sure.  Some of those characters are presented in a deliberately sexualized way; many, interestingly, are not.  Some of these characters defy stereotypes; some reinforce them.  (And despite the variety in their names, there's not much racial diversity in this collage, nor in the characters I named but didn't grab images of.)  But what they have in common is that most of them do actually get to be characters.  We don't know as much about them as we hope to know about our player characters, but many of them are at least given histories as plausible and deep as those of the main characters.

What I want to see in a female member of the supporting cast is a woman who helps to serve the story by what she does, rather than by what is done to her.  And let's face it: fiction (not just gaming, but also literature, television, and film) is chock-full of women whose purpose as a plot device is to be victimized.  This is where we get the Women in Refrigerators trope.

As with many of the issues of representation in media, the issue is more an aggregate one than an individual one.  One story of a man avenging his raped and murdered wife would be one thing, but hundreds of stories about a man avenging a raped and murdered woman add up to another thing entirely.  The same applies across all problematic, over-used tropes: the incompetent father, the black criminal, the Spanish-speaking housemaid...  By itself, any of these stories could stand as a story of one incompetent man, or one victimized woman -- but together, they add up to an ugly and problematic cultural picture.

One of the best things about Portal (the first) is that GLaDOS serves the plot entirely, 100% by what she does.  Nothing has been done to her and she is not in any way a victim: she is the guide and antagonist, full stop.  On the other hand, by Portal 2 this has changed.  Her motivation is now based on something that was done to her in the first game: she's pretty damn pissed off about you having dismantled her in the boss fight.  But her "murder" at the end of Portal isn't exactly what I would call "victimization" and even through being transformed into a potato she maintains her vindictive core.  Whichever way you look at it, circumstances force her into a passive role, rather than an active one, and that is indeed where so many female characters find themselves.

For the most frustrating example of passivity (in the "what is done to her" sense) in modern gaming, I nominate Madison Paige of Heavy Rain.

Oh, Madison.

You first meet her while she is asleep in her apartment, in her underwear.  She putters around with insomnia for a while (where the player can look at her digs and even have her take a shower).  Then she's suddenly attacked by a team of shadowy men assaulting her, a (surprise, dream!) sequence that always ends in her capture and death.

This is your first impression of Madison Paige.  Not with her family (like Ethan Mars) or at work (like Norman Jayden or Scott Shelby), but inexplicably the victim of a violent physical attack.

Further scenes with Madison have her escaping a horrific serial killer with some pretty damn creepy rapist overtones, removing half her clothes to get access to a slumlord, removing the other half of her clothes at the slumlord's violent insistence, playing nursemaid to the male lead at least twice, spontaneous sex with the male lead, and being trapped in a burning apartment (although there "woman in refrigerator" is actually the non-death answer).

And that's if you do the "good" Madison who survives the whole game as a character in play with all the "right" choices: boobs, nursing, boobs, nursing, ass, sex, boobs, and repeated victim or near-victim of graphic, horrible, sexualized violence and attempted rape.  Even my extremely mild-mannered, no-strong-words, no-drinking, no-swearing, even-tempered father-in-law remarked aloud that the best (and only memorable) thing about her was her rear end, and that the only understanding he got from her scenes was that she was fun to watch.  And I think that's about all Quantic Dream intended.

I recently wrote about the role and presentation of some female companion characters in Mass Effect 2.  I had wanted to write that first so I wouldn't repeat myself here -- so if you're curious what I think about Miranda's rear or Jack's outfit, look there.  In terms of writing, though, I do give BioWare full credit: all members of your party seem to be roughly equally developed.  They each have a loyalty mission (most of which seem to involve some serious daddy issues) and they each have roughly the same amount to say when you're just kicking around the Normandy.  Although some of their physical assets may be overdeveloped (and isn't that always the way), their stories at least aren't underdeveloped, at least as compared to the male characters.

Not all female sidekicks get that level of development.  Elena Fisher of the Uncharted games is a journalist who's fairly kick-ass (and certainly competent) in her own right.  But she and other similar characters (Lucy in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood leaps to mind) blend together by being underdeveloped.  I really would have loved a few more lines in Uncharted or especially Uncharted 2 just letting us know why Elena was around, and what she ever would have seen in Drake.  Her character was so close to being awesome that I really wish they'd taken a few extra steps and brought her farther to the front. (On the other hand, Uncharted 3 seems to be setting itself up with a prominent female villain, so I do look forward to writing more about this franchise at the end of the year.)

There's always so much going on in the supporting cast of a video game that sometimes it's hard to unpack all the steps that are involved.  Are there even any women?  If so, must their gender serve a specific narrative purpose or is it the "coin toss?"  If there are women, are they granted the same character status as men?  And how do they dress, walk, speak, and present themselves?  I've only mentioned the tiniest handful of games here, because I'm just one gamer and this is just one post.  There are thousands more we could discuss, some of which I would agree "do it right," and others... not so much.  (And I'm sure they'll come up in the comments.)

Next chapter: we transition to section 2, writing, by tackling the "coin toss," the default avatar, authorial presence, action, and intent, and examining the worlds in which our characters move.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sashaying Through the Normandy

Mass Effect did a lot of things right, and famously so.  I have written several times about my experience with the first game.

I don't think I know a soul who doesn't consider Mass Effect 2 to be a great improvement on the first.  It placed as nearly everyone's 2010 Game of the Year.  Tomes have been written in its praise.  Even I, who look askance at BioWare and still condemn the constant deluge of party-based RPGs, have been hooked to the tune of 14 hours and counting.

But oh, ME2.  One place where your predecessor went so right, you went so very, very wrong.

Shep scopes out Miranda Lawson.

Everyone who plays the game more than 25% of the way in sees this shot, because this is how Shepard is framed when being offered this loyalty mission.  And, seriously?  I get that Miranda (at whose ass we are staring) deliberately uses her physicality and her sexuality as tools in her armory, but... really?

Right from the start of ME2, the presentation and sexualization of female characters started driving me up a wall.  Miranda and Kasumi walk with their hips.  They practically are the male gaze.  I can never shake the feeling that they were explicitly designed to be seen by a male player playing a male Shepard.

And then there's the scenery.  Omega's a good place to start really playing, since there are several game-critical missions to be found there.  And once on Omega, Shepard must seek out Aria in her den of debauchery.  (I can't help but feel that we are meant to compare Aria and her nightclub to Sha'ira and her abode on the Citadel.)  Shepard has a seat... and every time the camera switches back to her in that conversation, there are Asari strippers framing Shep's head.  Really?

Oddly enough, the one female presentation that doesn't bother me in ME2 is Jack.  Jack who wanders around 80% naked, clad mainly in tattoos with extremely low-riding pants and some fetish-gear straps to keep the game M-rated.

Most images of Jack on the web are NOT M-rated.

But despite her clearly half-nude presentation, I don't feel that she is a sexualized character. I feel like Jack has chosen her presentation, and that she chose it not to titillate, but to provoke.  She isn't doing anything for your gaze.  Come to that, she doesn't do anything for you at all, really.  I consider myself lucky that she chooses not to explode the Normandy while we're traveling through a mass relay.

Miranda and Jack have both been bandied about by forces outside of their control.  Each has a sordid and unpleasant back story.  Each has been specifically engineered for a purpose, both from a perspective inside the game world and also by the BioWare design team.  But although Miranda also has remarkable technical and combat skills, her defining trait seems always to be that she is meant to be pleasing to the male eyes (and other bits).  Jack's defining trait is something else altogether.

Putting K. Shepard into this world -- of Cerberus Miranda sashaying around Cerberus Normandy -- has been a challenge for me.  Shepard felt organic and natural to me in the first Mass Effect.  She was a character who belonged where she was, doing what she was doing.  Not only was she in the right place at the right time, but she had earned her Commander rank and Spectre status.  In short, she was a cosmic badass.

Ashley, skilled and competent but lower-ranking, was actually a nice counterpoint to that, and having Tali and Liara around reinforced it.  In different ways, each of those companion characters had a bit of a naive ingenue thing going on and while I was irritated at first about Tali and Liara as characters, I did quite like the foil they provided for K Shepard.  Plus, of all your half-dozen available companions, only one was a dudely human dude.  (Garrus and Wrex have a built-in otherness.)

But I started out Mass Effect 2 feeling distinctly uncomfortable.  I felt the pressure of living up to male expectations.  My Shepard, with the exact same face and voice from ME1 (I declined to change her appearance) felt wrong, and out of place.  She isn't sexy like the women, and neither is she bulky like the men.  And I started out with a strong resentment over how many female characters I met that immediately started flirting with me.  [Edit: On request, I am clarifying this statement.  I resent that all of the female characters I met at that point went straight into flirt mode (and the men didn't), not that Shep is flirted with by female characters.]

For the first 6-10 hours, it all added up to a sense of playing the wrong game.  The good news is, between the time I first started writing this post and now (something like 40% of the way through), I feel that the game has improved.  Changes to characters from ME1 and the addition of new characters (like Jack) have helped broaden the game world and my perspective on it.  (Even if I do still hate Kelly, my secretary-spy.  The Cerberus-assigned crew can mainly all bite me.)

I do still have the feeling more often than not that ME2 stars a male Shep with my Shepard pasted on, in a way that was not the case in ME1.  Her behavior and body language are often very masculine.  But Ashley Williams's pink armor notwithstanding, I'm not looking for girliness in my badass space marines and so I can let that one go.

As a last note, I honestly don't know if I could stand to play Mass Effect as the default white male Shepard.  That character is so overwhelmingly generic, so common, and so overdone that I think it would make every other character and every quest in the game feel 50% more hackneyed and cliched by extension.  And interestingly, I'm not the only one.

Watching a crowd of girls and women talk about their perception of a game like Mass Effect is totally different than watching a crowd of guys discuss it.  And today I happened to luck onto a post & comments section all about how female players defined their Shepards.  It's worth glancing at -- if only to learn just how much variation there really is in paragon femShep according to her players.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 1.3: Perspective and Identification

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2

There's a kind of game character that's pre-defined for you, and you just play through his or her story.  He is Nathan Drake, Ezio, or Solid Snake; she is Lara Croft, April Ryan, or Samus Aran.  We've talked about some of those female leads before, in this series.

But then there's the other kind of character.  One where you pick your character's gender and looks, where you decide if he's a short white guy or if she's a tall Asian lady.  And we haven't talked about them, yet.  Being given choice in the kind of character we play can change how we identify with that character, and how we feel about that character.

There are also two different ways we see our characters in video games.  We are either looking at them (third person) or looking through them (first person).  And the way we do or don't see that character on screen can also change how we identify with that character, or how we feel about that character.

Choosing and seeing a character are two big elements in character identification; the third is hearing your character.  None of us heard Guybrush Threepwood in his first two outings, because as awesome as Dominic Armato is, the tech just wasn't there yet.  But we all heard April Ryan, and we all hear Nathan Drake.  In 2011, the choice of whether or not your player character speaks audibly is no longer a technical one, in an AAA game, but an artistic one.

And where so far many of the leading ladies featured in this series have come from older gaming titles, this post will finally bring us firmly into the 21st century.  The altered dynamics of player-chosen gender as well as of visual perspective have been a big thing in three (well, six) big games of the last few years:
  • Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas
  • Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2
  • Portal and Portal 2
I have put rather a shocking number of hours into those two Fallout games since 2009.  Well over 100 hours into Fallout 3 and all its associated DLC, and about 90 so far into New Vegas (including Dead Money).

The Lone Wanderer and the Courier, the way I play, are always female.  The Courier looks a lot like me.  She shares my outlook and moral core, and she moves through conversations the way I personally would like to move through conversations.

In short, I move through the Mojave Wasteland, making decisions about the future fate of New Vegas and all its denizens.  Why?  Because Fallout: New Vegas is best played as a first-person game (although you can switch into third-person at any time), and the Courier is completely unvoiced.  As I read her dialogue, before I select the best option, I hear it -- I hear myself thinking through it and making a choice.  Thus, the Courier is as female as a character can get, because I'm female and strongly self-identify as such.

To other players, I imagine the Courier is thoroughly male or thoroughly genderqueer, because those players strongly self-identify as such, and are given a chance to fill in this character's shell with their own values and morals.

And then, in mute protagonists, there's Chell.  I've just recently written extensively about Portal 2, including spoilers, but with Chell the gist of it all begins from that "Holy crap, I'm a girl!!!" moment in the beginning of Portal.  That moment felt great -- and then it stopped being relevant, because the fact of the matter is, it's an entirely first-person game, unvoiced, and so I assume most players just put themselves in the protagonist's spring-loaded shoes and felt that they were dismantling GLaDOS. 

Portal 2 does a better job of reminding you consistently that you're represented in this space by a female body, with Wheatley and GLaDOS giving fairly constant references to "she" and "her" when describing you, and a high number of puzzle solutions requiring you to place portals in such a way that you can see yourself.  But the player not only remains unvoiced -- she also remains entirely mute.  There is no player dialogue; there are no dialogue options.  Indeed, there are no actual choices to be made, and so although it's great we're a girl and all... I know I felt "female" playing that game but I don't think one could say the same of all players.

Interestingly, the unvoiced first-person works both ways: despite the very explicit, defined player character in Bioshock being male, between plot exposition points I stopped thinking of him that way and simply perceived of myself as moving through Rapture.  Then again, female consumers -- of all media, books, games, movies, and TV -- are used to having to put themselves into the space of a male protagonist.  It's second nature at this point, after spending my childhood planning to grow up to be Robin Hood and Indiana Jones.

But there is one very notable game (franchise) out there right now where you have the choice of your player character's voice and appearance.  Commander Shepard (cosmic badass) is a fully voiced, third-person, completely fleshed-out character -- male or female depending on the player's choice.  Commander Shepard will have the same lines, the same attitude, the same behavior regardless of gender.

FemShep is notoriously awesome.  Female players love her.  Male players love her.  In the first Mass Effect game she was considered to be the superior character for voice acting reasons.   Go Make Me A Sandwich has rhapsodized on Shepard as female protagonist done right:

She never winds up playing second fiddle to her team members because in the end it’s all about helping her get the job done. And, ohmigod I can’t possibly articulate how much I love BioWare for this. Honestly, sitting right here I can’t name a single female video game character besides FemShep that is 1) not sexualized 2) in charge and 3) the main character.

And all of this is improved by the massive amounts of choice the player gets in deciding the fate of the universe. FemShep is a character whose decisions affect the entire galaxy, again not a role that you often see female characters in. And she gets to do all manner of epically awesome things. FemShep isn’t just a person – she’s a force of nature. So when people ask me what exactly it is that I do want in games? This. I want this. More of it. A lot more.

Interestingly, though, although I am protective of "my" Shepard and her perspective on galactic doom -- because obviously, that's totally how it happened, duh -- I don't relate to her the way I relate to an unvoiced player character (third-person or first-person).  She speaks with a clear voice that isn't mine, and her dialogue options are often constrained to things I would prefer not to say.  But that's a complaint for another day.

Character design and game design are informed by a lot of different technical needs and artistic wants from game to game -- there isn't a one-size-fits all solution, and nor should there be.  But FemShep stands out among modern game characters for being the very, very rare example of a third-person visualized, fully-voiced, true female lead character.  More often women are part of an ensemble cast (Final Fantasy XIII), or are left to the voice of the player (Fallout 3), or are completely invisible and completely mute (Portal).  Mass Effect does indeed stand out in the current crop of big-budget games.

Next chapter: We move from examining player characters into the supporting cast.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Your MOTHER'S a gamer!

Oh wait, I mean my mother.  Silly me!

My mom and I get along quite well, really.  I don't call enough, of course.  (Who ever does?)

But she and I live on different technological planets.  I'm constantly on AIM, on GChat, on Twitter and sometimes (rarely) even on Facebook.  I blog and I game and I carry an Android, a Kindle, and a DS in my purse.  I've been using computers fluently since I was four and we had a Commodore 64-compatible Atari computer in the house, and I've spent the 21st century upgrading and building my own gaming PCs.

Mom technically has an e-mail account.  (I know because I helped her create it.)  I'm not sure she knows how to use it.  She could, of course, but mainly, she just strongly prefers not to.  Tech is not her thing -- and that's cool.

But she had some brain & neurological problems in 2009 and 2010.  During her recovery, doctors told her and my dad that she needed to keep her brain active.  I remembered a nun study from when I took neuroanatomy (half of AP Psych) back in high school many years ago, and the studies about how crosswords, other puzzle games, and indeed even video games had helped senior citizens (which mom is not yet, for the record) age in a more neurologically healthy way.

So of course, I did what any gamer would: I thought, "Mom needs Brain Age."

After running the idea past my dad, I got mom a DSi XL for Christmas last year, and my husband went in with me on getting her Brain Age and a cartridge full of crossword and word-search sorts of games.  I wanted to ease her into it; the DSi menu is actually a lot more confusing than the DS Lite menu that the two of us were used to.  But the bigger screen and easier-to-hold stylus were necessities.

I gave it to her feeling mildly nervous, and half expecting that, come late 2011, I might find myself the owner of a gently and seldom used burgundy DSi XL.  But we showed her how to use it, and gave her the games, and stood back.

"Your mother spent half the night playing Brain Age," my dad informed me a couple of mornings later.  I grinned.  "Glad she's getting some use out of it."

M and I had a pile of DS games with us, as we'd had plenty of time to kill in our 16 hours of round-trip Amtrak time.  (Well, the trip home ended up being more like 13 hellish hours all by itself, but that's a different story.)  I had Professor Layton and the Unwound Future in my bag, and I handed it to mom when she expressed curiosity in other games.

90 minutes later, she brought it back, expressing exasperation -- not frustration with an inability to play the game, but clear annoyance with writing and game design functions.  Annoyances that I share.  (There's a reason I pick up my Professor Layton games for $10 or less these days.)  After she left the room, I turned to M and wondered, " my mom... becoming... a gamer?"

Christmas was five months ago, and Mother's Day is this weekend.  Dad's told me mom could really use more DS games and so I just sent her Brain Age 2 and Plants vs Zombies.  (I hope the PvZ DS port is good -- I've apparently put 55 hours into it on Steam but I don't know first-hand how it handles for portables and just grabbed it on spec.)  She's still asking after Professor Layton so when M and I head up for a long weekend in June, I plan to bring her our copies, as well as the first one or two Phoenix Wright games to try.

I really shouldn't be surprised.  My mom can school anyone at cribbage and until I was almost 17 she could almost always beat me at Boggle.  Games are for everyone.  Mom'll probably want to kill me when dad prints this post out for her and she finds out I've turned her into a gamer.  But they're good games and it's for a good reason.

I promise, mom: I'll never try to drag you into Portal or EQII.  We all have our limits.  But yours are way beyond where I foolishly thought they were.  Happy Mother's Day.  :)

[Edit, 05/08/2011: I called my mother yesterday and she says she's completely hooked on Plants vs Zombies and her brain's only been eaten twice.  Success!]

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Combustible Lemon - This is That Post

This is my Portal 2 post. ;)  I'm going to put most of it behind a cut for the sake of avoiding spoilers, particularly of the single-player campaign.  I'm nice like that.  Orange wouldn't do that for you, and Blue and I both know it.