Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Gamer's Gaze, part 2

We're going to take a brief step back from diving deeper into the idea of the male gaze and spend a moment talking about straight up looking: how do we see what we see in games?  We began by working through what the gaze means when we're discussing the cinematic camera.

But in gaming, the camera goes beyond cinematic.  Games contain a level of spectator participation and interactivity above and beyond that of film.  In addition to the director's choice of camera placement, the player has choice in camera placement.  Whether through direct control or through controlling our avatars, in most modern gaming we participate in the camera's positioning.  However, even when we define the literal point of view taken on the scene, the actual angle, we don't necessarily control the gaze.  It's a delicate balance, but the player does contribute to the gaze in games through active choice, in a way not present in most other media.  The game's authors, by creating the content and the camera, and the game's players, by choosing character perspective both literal and figurative, work in tandem to create the final gaze that the spectator takes.

Our ability to take on a changing and well-defined (or ambiguous) gaze has changed over time, as the technology of game design has improved.  The literal points of view available to us have shifted through the years.  Most players, for example, can admire the landscape and imagery present in an isometric game, but few of us will actively control the camera in such a layout for any reason other than better to understand tactics or strategy.  The gaze is akin to the way a player would look at a chessboard, rather than the way an audience member would look at a play or film.

Diablo II was the grand-daddy of a generation of clone RPGs.

In film, the camera represents and guides our view.  It leads; we follow.  Indeed, we have no other choice.  The director has pre-determined our viewpoint and the boundaries of frame and of on-screen space for us.  Film works because of limitations on the spectator gaze.  In order to create illusory spaces with real people and objects, a director needs to play with the camera and with space in all kinds of ways.

Forced perspective can make hobbits of us all.

Older generations of games were subject to nearly identical limitations.  For example, Myst -- now so very dated, but at the time so groundbreaking -- billed itself as "photorealistic" and meant just that: you moved through a world that was, essentially, a long series of complex and interactive photos.  The landscape was lovely but in terms of how we saw it, Myst was as much a flat pixel-hunt as Maniac Mansion or any shareware adventure game before it.

But in the 1990s, we gained a rather dramatic change with the arrival of explorable 3D game space.  Although it would take some time before our game worlds could be "true" 3D (and even in 2011, we're still fairly limited on that front), the difference was stark.  Given the chance to wander through a three dimensional space, the player suddenly gained some measure of autonomous control -- and notoriously, that measure was aim.  

The Doom games were beyond influential on the perennially bestselling FPS genre.

The most basic mechanic of the first-person shooter hasn't changed all that much in twenty years.  The game's camera and the player's point of view are meant to be one, intertwined.  Through fine mouse control (or later, and now more popularly, the analog stick), the player is expected fully to immerse himself (notably, not herself) in the role of the avatar.  The player explores the world, takes aim, and fires while fully inhabiting the persona of the character.  As a result, the player character may or may not be a well-defined individual.  Indeed, the player character can be nothing but an empty vessel, reduced to nothing but the gun -- but the world through which the avatar, and therefore the camera, moves is of utmost importance.

And those worlds have gotten pretty impressive, as Modern Warfare 2 shows us.

What's most interesting about the spectator's gaze in the FPS, though, is that game designers didn't invent it.  Alfred Hitchcock did, over 60 years ago.

Spellbound, 1945.

It's with Hitchcock (and the eternally fantastic Ingrid Bergman) that we vividly see that the first-person perspective is no accident and is not merely utilitarian.  The transgressive or voyeuristic potential of the gaze suddenly becomes apparent when we, the passive spectator of a film, are unavoidably thrust into the position of aiming a revolver at the film's star.  (The full clip is here, but it's from the end of the film so I'd recommend watching the whole movie instead.)  Whether or not we want to, we are following the aggressor's gaze -- and so we, in a sense, become the aggressor.

In a game that uses the first person perspective, we the player are put into a certain point of view on the narrative world; we are asked to inhabit the space in which the game takes place.  We take on the character's perspective in looking, in all the things that means.  The camera is in someone's head, and we literally see through those "eyes."  But unlike in Spellbound, or any other film, we choose where to look.  There's a level of player control available.

In a game like Bioshock, that control is the absolute key to the telling of the story.  The core narrative is framed around choice, while the story visibly runs on rails.  Progression through Rapture is intentionally linear, and yet the dialogue in the game speaks to freedom.  And of course at the key moment in the narrative, player control is completely removed, up to and including the ability to look around during cut scenes.  In fact, Bioshock is using Hitchcock's trick: the player is no more able to stop targeting Andrew Ryan than the viewer is able to stop targeting Ingrid Bergman.

The third person perspective, on the other hand, is both simpler and more complex.  We the player do not literally inhabit a character's point of view.  Rather than the role of protagonist, we are cast in the role of director, and we move our actors through their stage. We can see the player character, and how she or he is framed in the world.  In a sense, it's the difference between puppet and puppeteer, although that analogy makes the distinction sound sinister, which it's not.  Rather, it's a matter of artistic choice and mechanical necessity.

In a third-person game, the player does have the anchor of being tied to a player character, but also has the freedom to move the camera independent of the PC's perspective.  The trade-off for a broader perspective, though, is more limited range.  The game's designers control what positions are available to the player, and while in some settings the player can put the camera anywhere that doesn't require pathing through a collision plane, in other cases the view is as tightly scripted as Hollywood.  EverQuest II is a good example of the former, in that the player can put the camera anywhere around the character except underground, can zoom in or out as much as she likes, or can choose a first person perspective.

The latter option, however, seems to be the current trend in most console game design.  If the player is guiding Kratos, Ezio, or Drake through a story, then the camera will be a fixed tool that provides directional guidance and a set perspective.  Camera motion shows the lay of the land, potential climbing or escape routes, and likely avenues for weapon retrieval or enemy breakthrough.

In terms of gaze, this fixed third-person camera operates effectively as a cinematic camera.  Because the player does not contribute to its placement, the player is effectively freed from the implications of its gaze.  We may be watching all manner of unfortunate scenes, but our role is considered passive, at least in the sense that it is unintentional.  The damsel may be in distress or in disarray, but if we happen to watch her a certain way, it's because the game put it there for us.

Although I'll actually give credit; the Assassin's Creed games don't present this view all that often.

So when we take a deep examination into the presence of the male gaze in gaming, this is what we mean: when does the player have a choice over where to look?  How does the player look?  What is the physical presentation of women (and of men) when the player has control of the camera?  What is the physical presentation of women (and of men) when the player doesn't have control of the camera?  How is character agency reframed when the player controls the perspective?

The very literal gaze of the camera is what we've just digressed to here: what angle does it view from?  How far afield can we see, or how close up?  But our real concern is this: what viewpoint and bias do those cameras reveal through their placement and methods?  How is player perspective from inside, say, Duke Nukem's (ick) head different from perspective six feet behind Lara Croft, and what do those literal perspectives tell us about the value and archetypes assigned to the worlds they inhabit?

In short: how does literal on-screen framing tell us more about the figurative framework of the society that made the game?

We'll loop back around to that question, and unite parts 1 and 2 of this little series, in the third and final (I promise) installment.

[Edit: Part 3 is here.]

Monday, June 27, 2011

Other Critics' Castles

Hello internets, I'm working my way back to civilization.

But while I was gone, some friends have been churning out some stellar video game essays.

Over at Two Whole Cakes, Lesley's written a pair of articles:

And my old college buddy at Retconning My Brain published her piece on the Asari: Bluer than your Matriarch's Orion Slave Girls!

So while I'm unpacking and trying to figure out what the cat wants, go read those.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Blog Admin, June Edition

This is just a quick note to say that Your Critic's brain has melted.

Or at least, that it's about to.

We will be out of town or otherwise unavailable for roughly a week, in transit on Friday and on Monday, and this trip coincides nicely with my need for a few days away from writing.  Thus, we'll be on hold for roughly a week over here; you can expect the next post on Wednesday, June 29.  I can moderate comments fairly easily on the road so feel free to carry on relevant discussions while I'm away.

If I can, I'll get part 2 of the Gamer's Gaze up this afternoon or evening, but in the midst of packing and preparing for a buttcrack-of-dawn flight some things don't happen.  If I don't, it'll be first up when we're back.

Meanwhile, enjoy your summer.  (Or, for the surprising number of my Australian readers, your winter.)  I shall be eating too much, drinking too much, and making just the right amount of merry this weekend.  When I get back, I'll be discussing my opinions on Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, finally starting L.A. Noire, and wondering just how the Fallout: New Vegas DLC could be so story-great and gameplay-poor.

Also when I get back, I'll be starting to post occasionally at, which should be fun for us all I hope! 

In conclusion, Guybrush the cat likes Fallout 3 as much as I do, and bobbleheads rather a lot more.

I freaking hate bobbleheads. But the lunchbox is cool.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Gamer's Gaze, part 1

The gaze is a term you hear thrown around quite a bit in critical media studies.  It is, at once, both simple and complex.

"Gaze."  It's as easy as looking, right?  And at its most basic level, that's exactly what the phenomenon describes: who is looking, what is being looked at, and why? All visual arts have, in one way or another, a built-in gaze that can be examined and analyzed.

In the 1970s, film theorist Laura Mulvey brought the term "male gaze" permanently into the lexicon of film criticism.  Her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" [PDF] relies heavily on Freudian theories (even while in a film studies graduate program, Your Critic found this essay a particularly thorny read) but also basically defined feminist film theory.  It's a difficult piece from which to pull a key quote or single definition, but I'll run with this one:
"In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active / male and passive / female.  The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.  In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness."

In its most basic, shortest form, the idea is this: on screen, the primary purpose of a woman is as a sexualized (deliberately or not) object, and the viewer for which film is designed is a straight male.

The essay that defines this idea is now closing in on 40 years old, and came out of a different era.  I don't think that, here in 2011, I'd ever be inclined to apply straight-up Freudian theory to media analysis.  (If I ever do display the urge to do so, please take away my computer.)  But the idea of the gaze does indeed hold up, as does the idea of the default viewer.

Here's the thing: it works at a mostly subconscious level.  With very few exceptions, a film director or a game designer doesn't set out actively thinking, "I am going to make this to appeal directly to straight white men and everyone else can get bent."  Rather, the likelihood is high that the creator himself is a straight white male, and so comes to production with unconscious biases in place, that then are reflected through things like the framing of shots or the motion of the camera.  And even if the creator in question is not all three (straight, white, male), the media landscape has been dominated by those elements for such a long time that this perspective is the default, and its point of view may not be challenged.

So as we talk about the gaze and the male gaze in gaming, what do we really mean?  What are we talking about?

Wikipedia has a nice little run-down of the areas of gaze -- the "who" in "who's looking."  The three that are most important to us are:
  • Characters' gaze at other characters
  • The camera's gaze
  • The spectator's gaze
The spectator, in our case, is the person playing the game.  Whoever is holding the controller, or gesticulating at the Kinect, or sitting at the keyboard: that person is the spectator.  The spectator's gaze is unbelievably crucial to both first-person and third-person narrative games.  So important, in fact, that it will be standing alone as a Part 2 to this discussion.

The camera's gaze is the easiest to talk about, and the way characters gaze at other characters is tied into it.  We the viewers see how characters see each other by how the camera behaves.  This is every bit as true in gaming as it is in cinema, although in modern 3D narrative gaming, character placement and framing also play a large role.  (Non-interactive cut-scenes essentially are film, and can be analyzed in the same ways.)

As a general, broad rule of thumb, the way the camera moves around or is positioned on a character tells us something about how we are meant to view that character, both literally and figuratively.  Media saturation is now so high in our culture that we're very nearly all born speaking this language of visual cues and ideas.

We know what heroes pose like, and how they're framed.  You can actually tell a lot about each character from how he's standing.  Ezio's design conveys his positioning in the grey areas of life (he's a good guy by being an Assassin), Supes is, well, Supes, and Snake over there looks straight at you.  But note how they all stand: strong, confident.

You work those shoulders, gentlemen!
We know what villains pose like, and how they're framed.  They are men of action, in motion, presenting their challenge.  And their weapons.  And their black costumes and / or hidden eyes.

No comment on Sephiroth's sword vs. how happy he is to see you.  Such as.  *ahem*

For us, the issues arise with women, and how they're framed.  And so it comes to pass that a super-spy, a world-renowned adventurer, and the galaxy's best thief mainly display their... assets.  When they have weapons, they're held pointed toward the floor.  They don't stand straight; rather, they pose their hips.

And then of course there's wardrobe design. Lookin' at you, Eva.

Of course, gaze is constantly in motion (think of the classic head-to-toe scoping out of the hottie across the room), not static.  These are all just promotional images, right?  So let's go to the video.

There's always Miranda offering her loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2 (00:01 - 01:08):

Or of course there's our introduction to Madison in Heavy Rain (probably NSFW):

With Madison, the issues of what we see and how we see it are both in play.  The camera is... not shy.  (The censored bits between 03:00 and 05:00 are to make it YouTube-safe; nothing's covered up in the game.)  For extra credit, watch Ethan Mars's morning shower from the same game.  The camera is much less fond of his curvature than it is of hers.

In gaming, the camera's gaze and the characters' get tangled together, because we aren't just viewers, but players.  We take on the role of someone in the story, and the camera serves as our eyes.  Male characters tend to be the point-of-view characters, even in a third-person game.  We watch what interests them.  Miranda's deliberately putting herself on display for Shepard.  This makes the moment of male gaze particularly jump out if you're playing a female Shepard, as then the on-screen dynamics feel misplaced, rather than feeling like a default.

So when characters gaze at other characters, the camera follows their lead. Hundreds of games do it.  The running comment I had while playing through the Metal Gear Solid series (spouse held the controller 90% of the time; I provided the running MST3K-style commentary 100% of the time) was that clearly, working buttons and zippers for women were too expensive for these high-tech organizations.

Seriously, Naomi? You're going to leave your boobs hanging out with a kid like that flinging hot food around?

The other issue of gaze in gaming, however, is made more complex by the interactivity and choice factors in the medium.  Heavy Rain is a deliberately cinematic game and so the camera, framing, and direction behave in a deliberately cinematic way.  Madison may not have an awareness of the viewer but she will behave for his eyes all the same.  But what about another genre of game?  How does the gaze behave in an action platformer, an adventure game, a first-person shooter, or an RPG?  How does the male gaze function when the lead character is a woman, or when the player has full control of the camera?

In the interest of not presenting a 10-page paper for your Monday morning, the player's gaze is Part 2, coming in the next post.

[Edit: Part 2 is here.]

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tomb Raider

In my recent discussions of gender-related marketing missteps various companies made at E3, I highlighted the Tomb Raider demonstration that was part of the Microsoft press event.

Over the course of the week since E3 and since I wrote my first complaint on the matter, I've received rather a lot of push-back about that choice.  Some see and hear the same problems I did; others only see a 2012 game they're interested in playing, and question where offense might possibly be given.

Let me state clearly and up front: I do not know if I have a problem with this game.  I have not played it; no-one has.  It won't be available until 2012.  As it happens I quite like the genre (not to mention my interest in having more female protagonists) and so on a personal level I actually strongly hope that the game is better than its debut.  The important thing to understand is this: "I have problems with this marketing and with the way in which the designers and publishers chose to present this game and this character" is not the same statement as "this game sucks."

And in fact, I have problems with this marketing, and with the way in which the designers and publishers chose to present this game and this character.

Here's the demo in question:

My major objections mainly stem from the first 1:00 of the video.  Try this exercise: put on your headphones or speakers, hit "play," and then either close your eyes or bring up another window over the video so that you can't see it.

Would you be comfortable with someone hearing you listening to that, but unable to see your screen?  What do you think they'd think you're watching?  Do you hear a strong, in-charge, admirable protagonist?

I hear the victimization of a young woman.  I hear a vulnerable girl breathing heavily, in pain and in fear.  I hear unpleasant overtones and associations.  And what I hear makes me squirm in my seat uncomfortably, cringing, while I watch it to write this post -- because the way I hear it, I can't tell if the player is meant to be put in Lara's position, or to fetishize it.

And so that's where we begin: with Lara tied up, squirming, in shadows, and then moaning and screaming for the player's benefit.  This is our introduction to this character: bound, scared, and squealing.  It's the first we see of her, the opening line of the story this demo wants to tell us, the first impression.  It doesn't just happen along the way; this is where we come in.

I get that they want to replace the damsel in distress trope with the strong girl rescues herself one.  And I do approve of that message, in one way.  In another way, both add up to victimization of a female character, and that's a pattern our current stories don't exactly lack.

The issue is that while they've made Lara Croft a physically and visually strong and determined character (and I do appreciate her plausible physical build and sensible pants), they choose at every moment to undermine that with her screams, her fear, and her injuries.  I don't know of a similar male hero whose injuries, sustained while playing, are ever so graphically painful and detrimental.**

And as it happens, this year's E3 gave us as good an immediate compare-and-contrast as we're going to get.  The Uncharted franchise was inspired by Tomb Raider, and now the Tomb Raider reboot, in turn, owes some inspiration to Uncharted.  The Continuing Adventures of Nathan Drake, The Attractive Everyman Version of Lara, had a debut demo during Sony's press conference.

Listen to what they chose to present of Nathan Drake at the Sony press event: Drake grunts.  He groans.  He shouts.  He comments snarkily.  He exhibits strong displeasure with being shot at.  He suffers.  But he's not victimized.  Drake is an active agent in his own demo, choosing to be on the ship where the story we're shown begins.  It's not, "Oh no!  They must have heard me [screaming]!"  He doesn't want to be found, so he doesn't run around screaming.

In these five-minute videos, we see two different explorations of character.  With Drake, we see strength through action.  With Lara, we see "strength" created by showcasing vulnerability.  His demo opens with active behavior; hers opens with reactive behavior.  Can you imagine the two characters' roles reversed?  Because that's the real problem.  I can, in fact, and I would play those games -- but instead, we have yet another fragile woman.  This Lara Croft, in this demo, deliberately has a physical and emotional vulnerability that earlier incarnations of her character did not have, and that is not generally present in male characters.  It's not progressive just because they're doing it to Lara Croft; it's regressive because we've tread this ground before.

This desire to take our strong female player character and literally torture her isn't actually all in my head.  Or if it is, I'm certainly not the only one.  The Wikipedia entry on the game, at the time I write this, reads:

Fresh from academy and in search of lost relics, a 21-year-old Lara Croft journeys to an island off the coast of Japan aboard the Endurance, a salvage vessel helmed by Captain Conrad Roth. Before anchoring at bay, the ship is cleaved in two by an unforeseen storm leaving Lara separated from any other survivors and washed ashore. She must endure physical and emotional torture in order to survive the island.

Because it will someday change: screenshot - 4:00 p.m. EDT, 16 June 2011.

I don't know, and can't know right now, how truly representative either demo I've linked is of the games they are promoting.  It is entirely possible that Nathan Drake spends two hours tied up and tortured and that Lara Croft never again screams in 40 hours of narrative.  It'll be many months yet before anyone can have anything to say about the rebooted Lara Croft, adventurer and protagonist.  If the Wikipedia article is correct, however, her new game is another iteration on "let's torture the attractive young white girl" survival horror.

Set aside the future.  In the present, the now, I'm tired of this same-old, same-old in marketing and demonstration.  The line between "victim" and "survivor" is a tricky distinction to navigate, and frankly I don't trust most game designers to be up to the task.  Torturing a female character is not new, it is not edgy, and in a media world that's still deeply oversaturated with images of victims and underpopulated with images of functional women, it's not a good idea.


For further reading: A friend linked to this post this morning, on "manpain."  It's a good, long look at a general phenomenon in media and how male and female suffering on screen are used, displayed, and written.  And I realized something about the Tomb Raider demo while reading it: the manpain -- "oh, God, I suffer watching this woman's agony, pay attention to how horrible I think this is -- is meant to be the player's.  Lara is in the refrigerator to drive the player forward, which puts us right back in male gaze territory.

**The one truly vulnerable and prone to injury male protagonist I can think of is Old Snake, from Metal Gear Solid 4.  His vulnerabilities come from engineered illness and premature old age, rather than from his gender, but I will grant the exception.  That microwave tunnel is brutal.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Marketing: Change Before our Eyes

I recently and popularly lamented a major way in which game marketing went very, very wrong.  And indeed, there are so many instances of badly gendered or outright sexist messages in game marketing that I could have fresh fodder every week just based on those messages.

But sometimes, someone gets it right.  And sometimes, sustained customer input can make a difference.

I'm talking about BioWare.  Yes, for the millionth time this month.  Mass Effect is Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 is Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3 will be on store shelves in March, 2012.

On May 23rd, a few weeks before E3, Twitter suddenly became deeply invested in the one and only #FemShep.  The way Twitter trends do, it took on a life of its own and for a few intense hours, she was the center of attention.

David Silverman (@dsilvermanea) is director of marketing at BioWare, and he's a good example of Doing It Right as far as player outreach.  In responding to another user's direct question, he asked:

And the internet answered, in the torrential way that only the internet can.  Links came pouring in: fan artFan vidsScreenshots.  Players' ME3 visions.  Hundreds and thousands of encouraging and hopeful statements.  Praise for Jennifer Hale's voice acting, for the ME universe, and for the games.  Male and female players both, talking about their Commanders Shepard, and who she was.  The day wore out, but player input and the #FemShep tag did not.

So far, BioWare is making good on these promises.  There will be an official trailer coming out this summer featuring a female Shepard, they have promised, and recent comments from Silverman and other members of the BioWare team have indicated that the project of creating the trailer is well under way.  And then there is this (I've highlighted the relevant part in red):

I'd already promised my spouse that when a collector's edition was announced we could upgrade my pre-order to it, if he wanted.  (I pre-ordered the game last Christmas as a gift to him.)  But what made me go to Amazon and switch before he expressed an interest was this: I can have my Shepard on the box.

The point of this entry is not that I am a hopeless Mass Effect fangirl, although I admit that I seem to have become one despite my best efforts.  The point is this: speaking up has an effect, and customer input really can make a difference.

When we settle for misogyny in marketing, when we settle for terrible female characters, when we settle for an entirely white and straight fictional world, and when we settle for the same old -- we get the same old.  Silence is tacit acceptance, and cash-in-hand is active encouragement.  BioWare can listen to the players because collectively, they've sold at least 5.75 million copies of the first two games.

I know that there are so many more strides to be made.  I know that gamers of color are still severely under-represented in marketing and that characters of color are severely under-represented (and often still very problematically represented, when they show up at all) in games.  I know that there's a ridiculous amount of work to be done with any variation of an LGBT character in games.  And I know that game developers far and wide are discounting my existence, even while they happily count my money.

But the pursuit of perfection is no reason to ignore positive progress.  We who are dedicated to seeing game diversity reflect human diversity (and gamer diversity) can cheer the small steps while acknowledging that there are many more to go.  We can call out what we see as problems, and we can cheer on what we see as solutions.

So thanks for listening, BioWare, and thanks for giving a damn about who your customers are and what they want.  Sure, the FemShep devotees might be a minority -- but they're a loyal, passionate minority and it doesn't cost very much to appease them and earn lifelong fans and public accolades.

And everyone else?  Take notes.  It pays not to alienate customers.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Ego of the Gamer: Reputation

No matter how I try not to, I care what people think of me.  Deeply.

But I don't mean my writing, or even my actual self.  (That would be the Ego of the Blogger... and that's a separate problem!)  When confronted with moral, ethical, or straight-up narrative choice in gaming, I tend to want the maximum number of people to like me.  I want to do the right thing for the many, and occasionally to intimidate or even scare the crap out of the unpleasant few.

This is how my Courier and Lone Wanderer end up maxing out their positive Karma fairly early on.  This is how Shepard ends up 4-5 times as Paragon as she is Renegade.  This is how I end up saving every Little Sister in Rapture.

What I've been realizing over the past weekend, though, is the extent to which I've been trained by reputation systems to expect some kind of external reward for behavior that benefits someone other than the player character.  Reward in coin (or caps) and experience always follows for objectives completed, of course, but I've grown deeply accustomed to some kind of system that traces my actions and allows my reputation to precede me through the game world after a certain point.

Larian's Divine Divinity had such a reputation system, aptly called "reputation."  Good deeds earned you points and evil deeds cost you points.  With high enough points, more quest and dialogue options opened up to you.

Over the last few days, I've been having another go at their late-2009 follow-up, Divinity II: Ego Draconis.  Actually, I'm now playing the expanded version, The Dragon Knight Saga.  With the expansion and the major patch that accompanied it, Larian removed many of the game-breaking obstacles and brought some of the fun back to the title.

It's not my screenshot, but that player character on the right does look just like my Ellin does.  Eerie.

In the Flames of Vengeance content, the game has suddenly developed a deep and pressing need to force the player into moral choices.  Nearly every quest I am offered has an alternative quest along with it: do I collect this necklace for the possibly-shady man who first asked me to retrieve it, or do I collect it for the possibly-shady mage who needs it for a spell?  Who gets to keep the house, in a fight: the man who legally owns it but has swindled hundreds of others, or the group who claimed it from him but who otherwise have left everyone else alone?

These are the kind of decisions I have made in games for two decades now.  We've been presented with choice, or at least the illusion of choice, since we first read that exits are north, south, and up.  And yet here I sit, in 2011, seemingly paralyzed when a game asks me to make a decision about a quest.  I hover over my dialogue options, unsure.  I stand adrift.
In short, finding myself in a game that doesn't tell me which is the paragon or renegade option, a game that doesn't tell me I will gain or lose karma for acting in a certain way, has left me at a loss, momentarily unable to make a simple decision for myself.

Perhaps we shouldn't have visible meters of Shepard's Paragon or Renegade status, or know how we stand with the White Glove Society, the Powder Gangers, and the NCR.  Maybe Little Sisters shouldn't come forth and reward us quite so often.  Or maybe I'm the only one who has apparently been rendered temporarily too lazy and stupid to tell right from wrong.

For what it's worth, in the revamped Dragon Knight Saga version, I can recommend the game to anyone who just wants some brainless RPG fluff.  It's not deep, and it's not innovative.  The same half-dozen voice actors populate the entire fictional nation.  The quests are skin-deep, the dragon mechanics are pastede-on-yey, and the story and art are as generic as a High Fantasy world gets.

But what the game does understand is a sense of fun and exploration.  Just as its predecessor did back in 2003, Divinity II compels me to look in every nook and cranny, to open every box, and to explore right up to the edge of every map, looking for hidden quests and treasures.  I like that in a game, and I also like its absence of class structure.  You can pick and choose the skills that suit you best and play a dragon knight of your own choosing.

What I really recommend, though, is spending the $6 on GOG and picking up Divine Divinity.  It's old and probably still has some comical translation errors, but I had fun 12 hours at a time exploring its map and part of me enjoys it still.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Games vs. Gamers: E3 Edition

Hello, world. My name is Kate Cox, and I'm a gamer.  My 2011 obsessions are the Fallout and Mass Effect franchises, I was dedicated to MMORPG gaming for 6 years, I named my cat Guybrush, I can quote Cave Johnson speeches with the best of them, I play casual games on my PC and Android, and I'm planning to start catching up on the Deus Ex games next week so that I'm ready when Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes out this summer.

I'm also a woman.  I don't hide that one here on my own blog, but I'm stating it for the record.  I'm married to a gamer guy, but I had the games 20 years before I had him.  Gaming brought us together; he didn't "convince his girlfriend" to try it.

Why the recap of my life story?  Because apparently Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, and others still don't believe that I actually exist, and I'm not sure how else to convince them that I do.

I hadn't been planning to write about E3 at all; the shiny new things marketing circuit isn't really my beat.  But for some reason I ended up watching the streams of all of Monday's big press conferences, and then was home sick on Tuesday and so left the TV on G4 to catch that round as well.

(Okay, I'll admit it, we all know this was the "some reason.")

Where in the last 6 months in particular I have felt very comfortable writing about games and interacting (via Twitter and this blog, among other places) with other writers and with game designers, sometimes I get one of those heavy-handed reminders that I am still neither the target demographic of these products, nor a demographic these marketers particularly care about one way or the other.  I might, they concede, occasionally use the game machine that my husband, boyfriend, father, or brother insists on keeping in the living room, but the "core" games are best kept far away from me.

And how do the big companies tell me this?  Passively and actively.  Let's look at both.

Every person on stage for the Microsoft presentation was male... up until they got to the "soft" presentations of Kinect-ready non-core and non-gaming fluff.  For Mass Effect 3 Shepard and his player are both men, but for talking to the console and asking for it to find Lego, Star Wars, and Harry Potter titles for you, you have a woman.

In addition to the actual on-stage presence, there were issues of body language.  The men were nearly all standing, and assertively (although some were focused on playing their demos).  The first woman to appear on stage was seated, and spoke on cue.  The other girls and women to appear in the Microsoft event were mainly all in the "embarrassingly awkward and pointless" half of the line-up, with the exception of the female half of the two-player Dance Central team.  (Although dance games aren't my thing, I didn't find that team's presentation awkward or unbearable, and the dancers both worked equally hard.)  The one woman to be featured alone and not speaking on others' cues was there to show how her personal style can be scanned into an XBox Live avatar.

And then of course there was the Tomb Raider preview... featuring a screaming, moaning, bound and struggling woman.  This is the best they can do for Lara Croft?  This is the woman who, for 15 years, has been the go-to example for the "chest diameter does not equal protagonist incompetence" crowd.  She was the female answer to Indiana Jones, and the inspiration for the Uncharted franchise.  And now she's reduced to half-orgasmic torture porn screaming?

Granted, I don't know that a trailer or even a gameplay demo ever speaks accurately of the entire content of a game, but my opinion of the game is certainly less than stellar so far.  With a chance to reboot the franchise and take it beyond the "boobies hurr hurr hurr" demographic and into "intelligent action-adventure gaming," they've kept at least the marketing firmly planted in "male gaze" territory.

EA was no better, as far as gender representation.  Their games look excellent (not gonna lie, pretty much drooled on myself watching the Mass Effect 3 material, even in the complete absence of FemShep) but they certainly didn't seem inclined to acknowledge that women exist.  I also don't recall much in the way of any female presence at Sony's event, though it is possible I have forgotten.  The fourth major media circus of the day can be hard to remember.

All of that said, the lack of acknowledgement that I exist isn't the worst a company can do.  It's thoughtless, and shows the male privilege that a lot of the marketers, designers, and other relevant players have, but it's not malicious.  In fact, I'm going to say it's probably still better than what Ubisoft did.

Oh, Ubisoft.  I mean, really?  I've linked a nearly-full 76-minute video there, but everything wrong with it can be summed up in two words: Mr. Caffeine.

He (real name Aaron Priceman) is apparently a personality designed to market products to us.  Not a game designer, as so many of the awkward executive speakers at E3 are, but very obviously a salesman.  This is the person Ubisoft chose to emcee and to be the voice of their 2011 and 2012 blockbuster announcements.  And what did this corporate mouthpiece say?
You see, the world of technology has changed a lot since 1986, and so has gaming.  Today, 97% of young people play video games!  40% of them?  Are women!  And 89% of them?  Are smokin' hot.  I know this, I've investigated.
Now this has made a whole new group of pick-up lines available, I'm sure you guys know, like: "Hey! Wanna come over and play my Wii?"  "We should Kinect!"  "Hey, thanks for the Sony Move!  Here, hold my joy wand."  Yes, I'm not afraid of a few dick jokes, thank you.

In the video linked above, this segment runs from roughly 12:30 - 12:40.  However, notice the edit at 12:35, where it cuts to a wide shot?  All of the references to women (and their hotness) have been edited out.

To see the original, cue up to 12:33 in this version:

I really don't know what to make of the choice to edit the remark out of the first video.  On the one hand, someone clever realized just how boneheaded and offensive it was.  On the other hand, that script made it through rehearsal, onto the teleprompter, and out of Priceman's mouth before anyone clever managed to realize just how boneheaded and offensive it was.  I am just glad that I was able to find a copy of the original.

Mr. Caffeine there was right about one thing, though, and that was just how many of us laydeez are out there.  In fact, the 2011 ESA Survey does indicate that I'm in good company, and less alone than ever.  82% of gamers are over 18.  42% are girls or women.  And 37% of us are both.

Let's recap that: nearly 40% of all video game consumers are adult women.  Boys 17 and younger represent 13% of gamers.

This leaves us with the perennial conundrum, the question at the very heart of this entire blog: Why does gaming marketing remain so heavily focused on the juvenile few, and so exclusionary toward the adult many?  Faced with a true statistic -- that we form over 40% of a potential consumer base, just as we form roughly 50% of the actual population -- Ubisoft goes the stupid route.  They could embrace us, or at least tolerate us, or try in some way to convince us to buy their games.  Instead, they brainlessly alienate us, and keep setting us aside as the other.  (And the "pickup lines" weren't even funny; his entire presentation was a crime against comedy.)

Here's a protip, Ubisoft: it's not all Peggle out our way in female territory.  Some of us like games where you shoot stuff.  Some of us really like games where you're sneaky and stab stuff.  Oh, wait!  You make one of those!

So in the future, can we maybe skip the casual sexism and go right to the gaming?  (Because that really is a fantastic trailer, I like it more every time I watch it.)  You do that, and I won't object to giving you my money.  And hey, who knows: maybe giving you more of my hard-earned US dollars will convince you I exist.  In 25 years of your illustrious history it hasn't yet, but for a gamer hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Music of Mass Effect: Part 2

If you're not familiar with the music I went over in Part 1, you should probably go have a quick look and listen.

The rest of this post is behind a cut for potential Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 spoilers.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Music of Mass Effect: Part 1

A good film or game score (and there are plenty of bad ones out there) works in tandem with the visual elements of the story. It reinforces what you know from watching and from playing, it guides your emotional response, it sets the pace and rhythm, and sometimes it's a great big black Sharpie drawing connecting lines all over the story for you, if you've the ears to hear it.

The Mass Effect titles bring us into a pretty damn epic space opera.  But although Commander Shepard's story is continuous across all three acts, each game has a different tone, a different scope, and a different enemy.  And in fact, although (if you import your saves) it's the same Shepard, due to circumstances beyond her control she is in many ways a different person from game to game.

Obviously in June 2011 I can't speak for Mass Effect 3, which will not only be a new arc for Commander Shepard's story but which will also be composed by someone who was not involved in the first two.  (Long-time game composer Jack Wall worked on the first two; film composer Clint Mansell has been brought on board for the final chapter.)  But over the course of the first two acts, Wall & company did some remarkable storytelling with sound, both for player-controlled sequences and for cut-scenes.

Reader warning: This discussion is going to span across a few posts (there's a lot to talk about here) and will contain plot spoilers for both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.  This is also a set of posts aimed at non-musicians, and will intentionally use very high-level, descriptive terms rather than delving into the minutiae of theory and composition.

We're going to begin by talking about selected tracks from the first game and the ground rules they lay out for us.  Once we understand how the first one works, we can then look at how the second game manipulates these themes and tells us how so much has changed in this story.

Friday, June 3, 2011

No, but if you hum a few bars...

Your Critic was four years old when she had the privilege to meet John Williams (at the time, conductor of her hometown Boston Pops), and informed him -- to his face -- that she thought the Star Wars music superior to that of Superman.  Her simultaneously mortified and proud parents report that he agreed.

By the time Your Critic was seven, she was ardently insisting that, when given the chance to pick a band instrument in fourth grade, she was going to go with the French horn.  And at age nine, she made good on that threat.

There are two main reasons, as a young child, that I was so desperately in love with the horn.


In high school I made a mix tape (well, a tape, not so much a mix) pulling out all of the leitmotif themes I was able to find on the newly-released expanded Star Wars trilogy soundtracks.  (I came up with 53, if I remember correctly, although some might have been variations.)  In college I devoted much time to writing an (at the time, very popular) accessible analysis of Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings scores (for non-musicians), that I posted first on LiveJournal and then on my now-defunct first website.  Until this blog, it was easily far and away the most-read thing I've ever put on the internet.

So.  I may have become a passionate gamer fairly young, but before the games there was music.  (The music came before everything, in fact, as my mom was a performing choral and opera singer while pregnant with me.)  And so here I am, with close to three decades of intense movie score fangirlism behind me, and over twenty years of experience as a musician (choral singing in addition to the horn).  Film scores are what put me on the path that eventually led to film school.  And now I am a writer on the subject of video games.

Oh, what fun!  Mwhahahahaha.

Game music is shamelessly manipulative (as is film music), but that works and I love letting it.  Music is what takes a ridiculous trailer or cut scene and makes it genuinely gripping.  It's that extra layer that punches through the player's armor of cynicism and grips his heart.  At least, ideally.  Too minimal, and the player doesn't buy it.  Too over-the-top, and the player walks away in disgust.

So here's what I've been listening to over and over at work:

I can't help it.  I don't even like Halo or own a 360, but this track has everything I love to groove to right now.  It's in an almost nautical 6/8 time, with crazy bass, men's chorals, heavy percussion, and many layers moving at once.  (Bass and percussion will get me every time.  See also: Battlestar Galactica and Bear McCreary.)  And in fact, the first time I heard it was at Video Games Live -- and their version had a cello duel.  A CELLO.  DUEL.  That is a thing that always makes me happy.

I won't be making a formal series of this or anything (like "Beyond the Girl Gamer" is), but music in gaming is going to become a definite regular feature around this place.  There are so very many things to talk about in the kind of scoring that goes with a film or game, and in gaming it's made much more complicated by the player's ability to manipulate time and point of view.  Howard Shore knew, to the second, how long the battle of Helm's Deep was on screen and what was being showcased in it, frame by frame.  Jack Wall had no way of knowing exactly how long a player would take to retrieve the Reaper IFF, or what that player would stop to look at while doing so.

There has been no time in gaming where the soundtrack was totally unimportant (the same is true of film: in the silent film era, the music was played live in the theater).  But narrative gaming in the modern era borrows so much of its artistic philosophy from film that the score becomes ever more prominent.

I'm not sure what game I'm going to write about first, although in this household we've been talking a lot about the evolution of the score in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 as we played through them so I may end up starting there.  In the meantime, here are some things to read:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mass Effect 2, Values-Driven Gaming, and Me

Aside from the "Lair of the Shadow Broker" and "Arrival" DLC missions, I finished Mass Effect 2 on Saturday night.  And I have to admit, despite how much I dragged my feet starting the series to begin with, how much I didn't enjoy the first few hours, and how I initially only played it as a promise to my spouse -- I loved it.

I'm a tiny bit in love with Kate Shepard's life and story, the same way I was a little bit in love with Lord of the Rings in 2001-2004 and with Star Wars in the mid-1990s.  I keep wanting more.  I genuinely felt the adrenaline pumping as I chose my final team and I noticed after we finished that I'd actually been biting my nails at one point.  Now, the Christmas gift isn't that I paid for this household's copy of Mass Effect 3 (I pre-ordered it last December as a gift for him), it's that he gets to play it first, with his Shepard, no questions asked.

But I actually had a moment, along the way, where I walked away from the PC in frustration and anger, ranting, and considered walking away from the game entirely.  (This discussion will have some big spoilers, as you might expect.)