Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Appeal of the Casual

So I have a confession to make: not only have I been playing brainless games on my Kindle, but I finally got a smartphone last weekend.  And after setting up my Gmail and Twitter accounts properly, the very first thing I put on my Droid was... Angry Birds.

And so, there I sat for hours, in the living room, perhaps four feet away from the fancy high-end gaming PC and from the Playstation 3... using my telephone to fling enraged avians at piggies.

This is after a few weeks of whiling away my evenings playing Plants vs Zombies on my laptop, thanks to the outrageous discounts on the Steam Holiday sale a few weeks back.

We have this completely false gamer spectrum, and we call it "casual" and "hardcore."  This is where we get the "real gamers" problem: if you play Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto on your PS3 or XBox, you're a "real gamer," right?  If you play violent games, particularly with an online multiplayer component, and are a male between the ages of 14 and 31, you're a "real gamer."

Only, not so much.

All it takes is a glance over Twitter to find that the same people not only playing the "hardcore" games, but also writing and developing them, are playing Angry Birds on their phones and Plants Vs Zombies or Bejeweled 3 in their down time.  All games for all people: sometimes you want a filet mignon from an expensive, high-class restaurant, and sometimes you want a cheeseburger and a milkshake from the cheapest, nastiest 3-a.m. greasy spoon in town.  And sometimes you want neither, and want soup, or a salad, or a cookie.  (Can you tell it's almost lunchtime for me?)

So why do we keep expecting gaming and gamers to be different?  It's not a matter of playing Wii Fit or Assassin's Creed.  It's a matter of making time in the day for both.

(P.S. Man, Angry Birds develops some really pain-in-the-ass levels as you get in!  I can't imagine playing this on the Metro; one jitter and I'd have flung them off the wrong side of the screen entirely.) 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ego of the Gamer cont'd: In which I appear to be sexist

Heroism is a thrill for a gamer.  But sometimes games show us the uglier -- or at least, unexpected -- truths about ourselves, too.

Your critic is not only a gamer; I'm an avid reader and was lucky to receive a Kindle for Christmas.  And after plowing through a half-dozen backlogged novels, I discovered a sale on something I hadn't heard of before: the gamebook.

Somewhere between the Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks we remember from the 1980s and before, and the text adventure computer games we remember from, er, also the 1980s, there lies the gamebook.  You have stats (a rudimentary character sheet) and make a series of decisions leading to a number of possible outcomes.  Choice of Broadsides was being promoted for $0.99 and I thought, "For less than a dollar, let's see what this is about."

The premise is simple: Albion and Gaul (i.e. England and France) are fighting something just like the Napoleonic wars in an environment just like the early 19th century.  The player character begins as a 19-year-old sailor who can either advance through the ranks and retire young as a filthy rich, highly renowned Admiral and Peer, or who can be just a complete failure at life and die in a cannon explosion or a mutiny or just flat-out penniless and unloved.  And of course, there are loads of endings in-between.

But the very first option the game (book?) gives you is this: are you a young gentleman, or a young lady?

I chose lady, naturally.  I always do.  In every single game that lets you choose the player character's sex, I play as female.

And that's when it got interesting.  When you choose to play as female, all genders in the game are reversed.  The entirety of the Royal Navy and ruling class become female; young men have a "season" and stay home hosting parties, hoping to make advantageous marriages.  Young men are flighty; young ladies are successful and worldly.  And that which struck me most of all: ships become "he," as in, "Isn't he a handsome frigate?" or, "He's listing to starboard."

On my first playthrough (each lasting roughly half an hour), the Heroic Gamer Ego took hold.  Mme Midshipwoman Arabel Strange tried her hardest to make all of the right decisions, all of the honorable decisions, and to maximize both happiness and discipline on her ships and with her crews.  I gave almost every other character the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, and played with the same frame of mind it seems I always have: I wanted as many people as possible to like me.

Mme Admiral Arabel Strange retired happily to a moderately large country estate, after a successful career, and lived a long and honorable life.

Of course, having met the premise, I wanted to see what would happen if I made different decisions.  Mme Midshipwoman Mary Smythe took to sea but I kept finding myself making similar decisions.  I felt badly for subordinates who I felt were misunderstood, and for enemies who had noble intentions.  Although Mme Admiral Mary Smythe ended up married to a high-ranking Admiral's handsome blond son, her life was very nearly the same as Admiral Strange's.

This would not do.

Mr Midshipman Henry Villiers came along then.  And as a small-minded brown-nosing member of the King's Navy, he had no problem flogging subordinates, keeping his head down, remaining unaware of mutinies, and alienating young ladies.  He died from a cannonball wound sustained in a poorly-chosen and poorly-plotted maneuver, and most likely no-one would miss him, least of all his wife.

The shock came when I realized, in a sudden rush, that I had no problem making my player character an ass when it was a man surrounded by men.  I behaved completely differently as a woman surrounded by women, whether or not I meant to, than as a man surrounded by men in an environment we generally consider male (early 19th century naval combat).

Something deep in me socialized such that even in a completely fictional situation with no actual consequences, when surrounded by other women I strove to act diplomatically and to maintain as much harmony as possible in the unit, while assuming this would serve my self-interest in the long run.  As a man surrounded by men, I was able to flip the switch to, "I'm getting mine, fuck y'all."

I am enough of a historian to know that I played Captain Villiers closest to real life, albeit deliberately as a man with little to no natural capacity for leadership or heroics.  And yet I was and remain shocked to find how very stark, how completely opposite the difference in my attitude was based on not just the player character's sex, but that of those around me.

It's enough to make me want to go through something like a Fallout and make the Legion all-female rather than all-male, just to see what I do...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

April Ryan: we meet at last!

The Longest Journey came out in 2000, and since roughly 2001 I've had a veritable cacophony of friends telling me I need to play it.  I'd started once before in 2006, but the copy (not even mine *cringe*) got stolen before I could progress.

There are two main venues of discussion available with The Longest Journey.  The first is of it as a game: its artistic, technical, and narrative merits.  The second is of it as different from other games: how Ragnar Tornquist and company appear to be at least 20 years ahead of everyone else [it's a 10-year-old game and others still aren't there yet] on diversity in gaming.

I'm learning to be better about jumps for post length: 

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Ego of the Gamer

I've spent a large part of the last few days discussing history elsewhere.  I majored in history in college, have read quite a lot of it over the years, and generally find the subject interesting.  Yay history!

But of course, history isn't just names and dates.  I'm fond of referring to it as an incomprehensibly large jigsaw puzzle, made up of all the stories that ever have been, all the stories that are, and all the stories that are yet to come.

It's hard, when reading of some particularly egregious era, not to insert yourself.  I read about the 1850s, and I think, "I hope I would have been an abolitionist."  I read about the 1930s and 40s and think, "I hope I would have helped protect Jews."  I read about the 1950s and 60s and think, "I hope I would have worked on civil rights."  At least I have the good grace to hope I would have been a certain way, rather than to assert that I know I would have lived up to my own 21st-century ideals.

There's been a lot of choice-based gaming going on in my circle lately.  As chronicled here, I recently completed Fallout: New VegasOne of my close friends is finally playing Fallout 3, and she and my husband have been giddily discussing Mass Effect (1 and 2) for months.  I've mentioned how I grappled with the choices I had to make in New Vegas.

I've realized, putting these threads together, that in many ways, a game with a rich, detailed world is what gives me the chance to "prove" that I'm the person I like to hope I would be.  When I'm in a world like the Mojave Wasteland, I feel compelled to create the maximum possible good for the maximum number of people.  I want to make their world a better place; I want to give them the chances to be good people.  Granted, I also go and vanquish evil, but somehow that always feels secondary to me to the side quests.

When we say, "games let us play the hero," that's true.  And often it's in a very black-and-white, save-the-kingdom-from-the-dragon kind of way.  But the component of choice in modern games makes that feel a hundred times more powerful.  If I'm playing Super Mario Brothers, then rescuing the princess is non-optional.  If I'm playing Fallout: New Vegas, I can remake the world according to my own morality.

What power.  And what a rush.  And how robust a chance to feel Good, and Right, and Vindicated.

I think that's what it really means when a game lets you "be a hero."  Not that you get to stomp out evil (although that's always entertaining, not gonna lie), but that you get a visceral way of being the person that, deep down, you always like to hope you would be, given that kind of a world.

Food for thought.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Can violence in gaming be educational?

This weekend's tragic event in Tucson has triggered a number of national conversations for the past few days: one around mental illness, one around violent rhetoric in the modern political scene... and one, that's always going on somewhere in the background, about American gun culture, including the presence of gun violence in our media.

Over here, a number of us discussed all these factors at length.  In that discussion and in another thread, the commenter sara_l_r raised the following:

My boyfriend's theory in more depth, and I think there's a lot to this, is that lots of people learn about guns from movies and TV rather than from gun instructors or people who actually know what they're doing.  ... TV and movies have absolutely horrendous gun safety and don't accurately depict what happens to your body when you get shot. ... He thinks that if films and television did a better job of showing how guns work and what happens when you actually get shot, people would be aware of what they can actually do and would therefore be much more careful, both of their own bodies and of others.
 I was intrigued by this line of thought, particularly as a counterpoint to the more common (and, I believe, false), "violent movies and video games cause kids to become violent people" trope.
And on thinking about the "reality" of guns in media, I immediately went to Heavy Rain.

Heavy Rain features four player characters.  Among their stories, the player sort of tag-teams the narrative, coming at the fundamental story -- a serial killer has kidnapped a young boy and there are only a few days left to rescue him -- from a number of angles.  Occasionally their stories intersect (players A and B or B and C will appear in the same chapter).

One of the four player characters is FBI profiler Norman Jayden:

Jayden's role is a fairly archetypal one.  He investigates the crime scenes and works with a database of evidence to put together a profile and likely locations of the killer.  His partner is Asshole Cop Variation A, Lieutenant Carter Blake.

Jayden and Blake seek out and eliminate multiple possible suspects on the road to solving the case.  One of the first they visit is Nathaniel Williams.  As you can see (click to embiggen -- the split shot is original to the game), Nathaniel is... not quite right.

The situation develops into a tense and intense triangular standoff with Blake, Nathaniel, and Jayden.  Jayden pulls out his gun; Nathaniel may or may not himself have one.  Neither Jayden nor the player knows for sure.

All of the commands here are optional -- R1 is the gun's trigger, and X, O, triangle, and square provide options by which Jayden can attempt to defuse the situation:

But here's where the game, I feel, is unusual, and where the educational component comes in: to shoot is completely optional.  The game does not require or demand it at any time, just as the game frequently gives you the choice to act or not to act (and makes this explicit in the tutorial Prologue).  R1 is an option, not a command.  Most players tend to have a finger hovering over or near R1 when holding a Playstation controller, and in particular during this scene.

The really important part?  Without fail, every player I have seen with his or her finger near R1 flinches and shoots Nathaniel when he makes a sudden movement.  And almost every single time, the player immediately shoots, "Wait!  Damn it!  I didn't mean to do that!"

For all that we spend a load of time in gaming with the virtual gun in our hands, for all that we learn to speak caliber and reload speed, for all that we collectively play first person shooters and third-person bloodbaths: one game puts us in the position that real law enforcement officers face all the damn time, creates a situation where we can shoot almost against our will, without meaning to, and then immediately makes us sorry for it.  

Heavy Rain manages to create an emotional moment where the lives of the player character and his partner both depend on a split-second, hair-trigger, almost gut-level decision being made -- and it's a moment that reflects a reality that gets people killed with alarming regularity.

I don't know if this kind of game could ever reach the audience that would most need to think about what it shows.  But if a scene like that lingers, and makes any of us think about the reality behind the story... can that ever be a bad thing?


Bearing in mind that the writers of video walkthroughs can make a number of different choices along the way, if you'd like to watch the scene here's one where you shoot Nathaniel and one where you don't.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

War: War Never Changes. (But New Vegas Does.)

So, I finished Fallout: New Vegas around Christmas.  Or at least, that is to say, I chose an ending arc to the game, and since it was the first one I played (achievements make me compulsive and I expect to spend another 20 hours in the game in 2011 unless there's DLC, in which case it'll be a lot more) it's the one I'll always feel is "real."

The rest is behind a jump, because there are significant spoilers for the plot and most characters.