Thursday, July 28, 2011

Are games fun?

A couple of months back, Your Critic and another blogger started an e-mail exchange on the subject of "fun" as a measure of success in gaming.  He began: 
"Some people are uncomfortable with "fun" being reason for a hobby and maybe it doesn't need to be a primary driver (I don't think knitters or woodworkers talk about "fun" as much as they talk about fulfillment, creating stuff with their hands, camaraderie, etc but i could be wrong). Ignoring "fun" though, in my opinion that's how we end up with shit like Heavy Rain or The Passage or whatever - games that place "meaning" above "giving people an actual reason to play this" (aka fun). It seems like the people who defend "fun" either end up as trolls or as pure designers talking about practical problems or both, like danc's essay on criticism."
He then moved on to Child of Eden, which a number of folks had been ardently discussing on Twitter.  [I won't be able to play it until the PS3 version is available, so although I appreciate the suggestion, folks, it won't be up on deck here any time soon.]
[I]t's also a legitimately great narrative. Not through the text which is sparse and heavy handed ... but through the actual game mechanics. And I think at some point we get so trapped up in fun / not fun and story / not story that we forget that text is not the only way of telling a story -- level design, enemy design, the basic mechanics are all ways of telling a story and as a bonus they are "game-y" aka not incompatible with "fun". They can set a mood that is both weirdly serious ... without being overly tedious ... unlike other "arthouse" games where the tedium and repetition are "the point" (i am guilty of this!!!) . You can't just go on youtube and watch the cutscenes to get the narrative part of it (like I should have done with Enslaved), you actually have to participate in it to understand it. 
Zach's argument resonated with me for a few reasons.  For one thing, at the time, I was in the middle of Enslaved and he's right about its total failure to use game mechanics in any meaningful way.

He raised a really valid point: those of us who spend a lot of time discussing the various artistic and narrative merits and failures of games often try to avoid "fun" as a measure of success.  For one thing, it's so subjective as to be meaningless: plenty of people seem to think that Mortal Kombat or Gran Turismo or flight sims are fun, and I personally would rather watch paint dry.  And then there's that other, more dangerous angle: the new and growing mainstream understanding of gaming as something not just for boys under 17 is really hard won, and none of us want to encourage a backslide.

So I thought about his e-mail for a little bit, and came to this conclusion:
"I think you're right that "fun" is the wrong metric for discussion -- although it's probably a really good metric for, "Is this worth sixty of my dollars?"  I'd actually remove "fun" and replace it with "pleasurability."  Pleasure comes in many different forms, and sometimes mixed with pain, as it were.  Thus, pleasure to be found in sad or tragic stories, or even in terror (horror films, roller coasters, whatever).  Pleasure comes in conquering a system (something knitters do just as much as gamers) or in solving a problem (gardening, knitting, gaming, woodworking, pretty much everything).  ...  Where do we derive the pleasure from gaming?  Is it from seeing a pre-defined narrative unfold?  Is it from participating in the unfolding of that narrative?  Is it from conflict?  I think the answer to all is "yes" and also "no" and also that there are a hundred more reasons."

Our discussion continued, and meanwhile the wheels in my head kept turning.  I am only one gamer, only one set of preferences.  There are loads of genres and games out there that don't appeal to me in the slightest and yet developers who produce those titles make millions upon millions of dollars annually.  So why do people play them?

So I decided I'd ask people who play games.  All told, across the blog comments, tweets, comments elsewhere, and e-mails, I got about 45 responses.  For the record, I love every single response and I had a phenomenal time reading them, so thank you a hundred times over to everyone who gave me an answer.

First -- there is a sad note running through the comments I saw: an enormous amount of self-doubt and insecurity.  A half-dozen responses explicitly fell along the lines of, "Well, I don't think I count because...," or, "I'm not good enough so..."  To each and every one of you, I lovingly say: bullshit.  Don't let the hardcore loudmouths drive you away from a thing you enjoy.

"Why do you game?" is a more complicated question than it appears at first, and many respondents ran into that wall of complications where they weren't expecting to find it.  Even so, though, the answers very clearly fell into a few distinct categories. The answers broke down into two philosophical areas of thought: "Here's what I like," and, "Here's why I think I do it."  I went all quasi-scientific on this information (my day job has "analyst" in the title, I'm that kind of person), sorting the answers into some rough buckets and tallying the responses.  Nearly everyone had more than one major reason for playing games, but only a small handful of folks gave more than three or four.

A full 50% of answers fell into the category I rounded up and called "Goals / Accomplishment / Success."  I decided that the urges to solve problems, accomplish goals, complete quests or missions, or to understand systems were all similar enough to group together.  My own professed desire to feel "clever" while gaming would fall into this bucket, as well as answers like:

  • "The nice thing about puzzle games is that there is an answer, and if you work hard enough, you will find it.  Wish the same could be said of the real world..."  (roleplayinggirl)
  • "This is possibly why I mostly focus on rpgs & mmo type games.  Generally, unless the game is terrible, I get up from a session feeling like I "accomplished" something, even if that something is as mundane as gaining a level or just moving through a story arc."  (Andy)
  • "For some games, it's the feeling that I pulled off something complex, like combos or special moves in fighting games. When I was a wee lad, the shoryuken was a really tricky maneuver, and I still feel a bit smug when I can hit a jumping opponent with it."  (Matt Smyczynski)
A common thread across these answers was the desire to complete actions or solve problems that aren't available in the real world.  Day jobs and kids are far messier than any quest journal, and real problems tend not to be easily solved or to come with a guaranteed reward at the end.  One of the best summaries of the real-world impossibility problem came from this commenter:
I game because life is too short.

I want to be a surgeon, I want to be a plucky lawyer, I want to be a goddamn Space Marine. I want to fly a spaceship and manage an empire and escape from the ruins of an insane corporation and fight the forces of evil. I contain multitudes, as the saying goes, and not all of them are always satisfied with being a sysadmin (which is just a game anyway).

I can't do all those things because, besides the fact that some of them are impossible, there isn't enough time. To be good at something, to really accomplish things in the real world, you have to commit yourself, focus, and iterate. That's its own joy but it takes exclusivity. You can't commit to everything, so I do a few things for real and I want to do more for pretend. 

Following from real-world impossibilities and the desire for problems with actual solutions, a full third (34%) of the answers also specifically called out gaming for escapism, for relaxation, or as a coping technique.  A set of tangible goals, placed in a world (narrative or otherwise) with specific parameters and unbreakable rules does indeed have appeal as a method of dealing with the chaos of life.  Another solid third (32%) mentioned that gaming help them stay in touch with friends and family, and form the basis of a true social connection:
  • "It allows me to cope. I have depression and some unfortunate living situations and gaming has helped me stay afloat. Though it's also a bit of an outlet, since I get really, really into the games and let off some steam."  (ashpanic)
  • "I also like the social aspect of games (even though I'm an introvert!).   I like doing stuff in a team, and enhancing the team."  (Doctor Jay)
  • "I enjoy the social interaction of playing a game you love with other people who also love it, whether it's online or right there in your living room. I do prefer the teamwork aspect (us versus the game) than direct competition (us versus each other), but both are enjoyable. My stepdaughter has lately been chopping me into tiny pieces when we duel with our lightsabers in The Force Unleashed. Rather than being upset by the shame of being pwned by a 13 year-old girl, I couldn't be more proud."  (Doug)
  • "Escapeism during a workday which I play lots of mobile games, plus most of them are fun. Another reason; games are using your brain to think a lot which I like the challenge i.e. Portal, Uncharted. And games are great socializing with people off or online i.e. build friendships. without games my lifestyle would have been different not for the better."  (Joe)

Narrative gaming, though, is clearly where it's at.  Over 40% of the answers cited stories and storytelling, and of those a high number specifically referenced what makes games different from other media.
I've always liked storytelling, and interacting with characters. My dream since I was little is that I can change the world and I matter, and games can fulfill that feeling for me. Because of the immersive nature of games, I think that they can easily rouse feelings, though I especially like it through the narrative. You care about the story and characters more because you are a part of it,  instead of merely observing; the game can't go on without you.  (Galatea)

I like stories, especially grand epics, and I think video games are the perfect medium for telling them because they're interactive rather than passive and fluid rather than static like movies or novels. In some games (Fallout, any BioWare game) I have a role in crafting the characters so I care more about them. In others (Left 4 Dead 2, Arkham Asylum) I have a role in keeping them alive. To my taste, games largely replace the need for adventure/fantasy/action/sci-fi movies and novels.  (RedJenny)

I promised I'd give my own set of answers after I got to hear from everyone else, so here it is:

I like to feel clever.  I truly enjoy solving problems, unraveling mysteries, and feeling like I accomplished something.  So finding a way out of a sticky situation gives me a rush, as does wrapping my head around a complex problem, as in Portal.

I like feeling like a badass.  It's not that I think for a second that I could do what Commander Shepard does; I'm a writer and a gamer and Shepard's physical ability puts most marathoners to shame.  But I love being in her skin for a while.  It's role-playing for a reason; I enjoy peeking into other stories and souls for a while to see what makes those characters tick.  Drama's where it's at, and although I try to keep it out of my own life, I like living vicariously through fictional people.

And last but not least, I'm a sucker for exploration.  Give me a map and I will uncover every nook and cranny it has to offer.  I will climb the mountains around the Capital Wasteland to see where the invisible walls kick in; I will go right to the perimeter of every castle and prowl the walls looking for loose stones; I will explore every wall in every corridor of every mine and dungeon just to be sure I didn't miss something interesting in that last square inch.  (Back when I started playing EQII, the first thing I did with my level 11 Predator was sneak around the entire perimeter of the Commonlands, and take the griffons over the middle.  I died many times, exploring that way, but when the rez points were in a location I hadn't explored yet I considered it a fortuitous shortcut.)

So where does all this leave us with "fun?"  It turns out (to me, unsurprisingly) that players are smart enough to break that one down for themselves.  A scant three (3) people used that word, and the ones who did qualified it.  Enstarstarstar sums it up just the way I would:
because i can, and because it's fun.

or, put slightly longer: i game sometimes to relax, sometimes to be thrilled, sometimes to laugh, sometimes to escape, sometimes to challenge myself, sometimes to compete, sometimes to socialize, sometimes to immerse myself in a story, sometimes to fit myself into a world, sometimes to kill time, sometimes to kill, sometimes to think, sometimes to fly, and sometimes to be a jedi.

it all depends on when, where, why, and with whom.
So say we all.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Blog Admin, July Edition

FYI: Your Critic is on vacation with roughly thirteen thousand of her in-laws.

I am enjoying some writing time, I do plan to blog this week, and I am hoping to get some tricky pieces done while enjoying the beach view.  But I won't be on my normal M/W/F or my amended summer M/W schedule, as many have noticed by now. ;)

In the meantime, I was a participant in the most recent Bitmob Community Roundtable discussion, where five of us talked about narrative, dialogue, and dissonance in games.  My sympathy to Layton Shumway, who edited that piece, because not a one of the five of us who participated particularly practices brevity.

I also guest starred at Liz Tells Frank, where I helped old camp buddy Liz tell Frank what happened in Mass Effect.  (That involves Saren's evil eyebrows, sexytimes with Liara, and Kaidan's excessive sweat.  Also mass effect fields.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Input Needed!

I'm going to have some extra writing time next week, I hope (horde of cousins-in-law at the beach houses permitting), and I hope to be tackling an idea I've wanted to delve into for rather a while.

But before I can write it, I need as much input as possible from as many readers as possible.  So please: retweet this one.  Share the link with your buddies.  Ask around and see if you can get anyone else to answer.  Twenty responses are great; a hundred are even better.  And there are no wrong answers.

I want to hear from everyone, from the 40-hour-per-week WoW raider to the sudoku-on-my-commute iPhone owner to the once-a-week tabletop gamer.  There are no wrong respondents.

So here's what I want to know from you, fantastic readers:

Why do you game?

Each of us has a different reason for being into games, and each of us has different game types.  Do you like competition?  Solving puzzles?  Escapism, but more interactive than TV?

When you're playing, what really gets you going?  Is it the thrill of the chase?  The satisfaction of thinking something through?  Overcoming a challenge?  Sharpshooting?  Putting yourself into another role?  Getting to experience a story?

I don't want to influence any of the answers, and I need to leave myself an intro for my post, so I'm not going to give my full answer right now. ;)  But by way of example, I will give one of my reasons: I like feeling clever.  I like it when a game lets me solve a puzzle of any kind, be it Peggle or Portal or Phoenix Wright.  I like a chance to flex my brain and to come to my own conclusions.  So that's one of the reasons why I game.  (There are more.)

What are yours?  Let's hear them!  I want to get a really broad array of opinions.  And if you'd like to answer the question but for some reason feel uncomfortable leaving a comment, feel free to drop me a line at any of the contact options over on the right. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

L. A. Non-Noire

There he is, our square-jawed all-American rookie cop!  Ladies and gentlemen, Cole Phelps:

"Hello! I specialize in flying off the handle unexpectedly."

We installed L.A. Noire on Tuesday, but it then took us three hours to download all of the DLC so we didn't actually get to play until Wednesday.  Since then, we've been taking it a case or two at a time, when we have the hours, and so we're advancing slowly through the game.  Last night we just got promoted from Traffic to Homicide, and haven't started any cases yet on the homicide desk.

This is another game that's caused some marital controversy, though not on the order of, say, Portal 2.  My spouse wants to play in black & white, and I want to play in color.  Right now color's winning, because I put up a bigger fuss.  But on the occasional replay (it took us a while to get the hang of questioning witnesses, and then there was that time that I hit what I thought was X and turned out totally not to be) he switches it to black and white, so I get to see both.

The interesting thing is, it took that shift in visual tone for me to understand something about L.A. Noire.  The game actually suffers from losing the color, and not for any technical reason.  Rather, it's that when you're looking at it in shades of grey, it's easier to realize: L.A. Noire is not actually a noir.

The overarching story may yet get there, I grant.  Flashbacks of Phelps's time in the war, combined with the story unfolding from found newspapers and some other cut-scenes (visiting the singer Else between the end of the last Traffic case and the start of the first Homicide one), are building up into a large secondary tale.  We've hours of gameplay ahead of us yet, and we're still early on in our young cop's skyrocketing career.

But that's where I get stuck: a film noir isn't about a promising young man's skyrocketing career.  It's not about a man's successes at all.  Noir is, rather, about a man's critical failures, and the society that made him fall.

Double Indemnity, 1944 - film noir, as classic as it gets. Go rent it.

Team Bondi / Rockstar have shown extraordinary dedication in re-creating post-war Los Angeles.  The degree of geographical fidelity and attention to detail that they put into this game has been lauded everywhere.  They also deeply understand, and start showing early on in Phelps's flashbacks, that film noir is an expression of post-war cultural crisis.  The Film Theory 101 definition is this:

Like Double Indemnity, these films thrived upon the unvarnished depiction of greed, lust, and cruelty because their basic theme was the depth of human depravity and utterly unheroic nature of human beings -- lessons that were hardly taught but certainly re-emphasized by the unique horrors of World War II.  Most of the dark films of the late forties take the form of crime melodramas because ... the mechanisms of crime and criminal detection provide a perfect metaphor for corruption that cuts across conventional moral categories.  These films are often set in southern California -- the topographical paradigm for a society in which the gap between expectation and reality is resolved through mass delusion.  The protagonists are frequently unsympathetic antiheroes who pursue their base designs or simply drift aimlessly through sinister night worlds of the urban American jungle, but they are just as often decent people caught in traps laid for them by a corrupt social order.  In this latter sense, film noir was very much a 'cinema of moral anxiety'' of the sort practiced at various times in postwar Eastern Europe ... i.e., cinema about the conditions of life forced upon honest people in a mendacious, self-deluding society.

Here's the other thing, though: what we the modern audience recognize of a noir is its artifice.  We recognize the shadows, the blinds, the hats, and the women.  We recognize the black and white film and the framing.  There's a very specific visual language used to tell these stories, and that visual language conveys crucial elements.  The decay of society, the moral ambiguity (or amorality) of the characters, and the literal and metaphorical darkness of the world they inhabit -- we take those lessons from the camera.

The Killers, 1946

By now, these artistic tactics are cliché.  The audience of 2011 hasn't seen The Naked City, but they've seen thousands of episodes of its modern heir, Law & Order.  Our cynicism no longer lurks in shadows, but rather is worn on our sleeves from a very young age.  Our society is so inundated with media that most of us start learning to speak the visual language of the camera before we learn to speak our mother tongue.

But in a video game, we lose that framing.  Cole Phelps is a detective, not a shadowy killer, and so much of his work takes place in broad daylight.  Shadows are minimal and carefully placed, because otherwise they will interfere with the player's ability to read witness faces and find crucial clues.  A game, and especially an investigative process game, must by necessity cede a significant amount of framing and camera control to the player, who maneuvers Cole Phelps at will.

I deeply appreciate the use of actual history in the game, but part of what happens when you set a game in such a carefully re-created reality is that you lose the artifice attached to the genre.  Film noir isn't about faithfully investigating the crime scene in the California sun; it's about the shadows cast across the face of a disillusioned man, the shadows that allow him to hide his true intentions from a man like Detective Phelps.

Cole Phelps is indeed a character type that exists in film noir -- but that character is never the protagonist.  The protagonist in a noir is the antihero, the man that has become corrupt from the degeneration of society (and in particular has often been brought low by a degenerate grasping woman).

What we are seeing, in L. A. Noire, is a long series of film noir stories in which we are playing the bit part.  A case about a scheming B-movie actress, a starry-eyed young girl, and a licentious and immoral film producer?  As a two-hour cautionary tale in which people end up dead at the end, that would be a classic noir.  But instead we're the cop.  We come in after everything's gone all to hell and then reverse engineer the story.  Our player character is not in these stories, but rather is an observer of them.  As a player avatar, that's a little eerily on target.

All of this said -- please don't mistake this criticism for dislike!  So far L. A. Noire is playing out like Ace Attorney: Grand Theft Auto Edition, and I love that.  I'm into investigations, I love finding clues and solving mysteries, and now that we're getting the hang of Cole Phelps it's starting to be quite fun.  (I was taken aback the first time we selected "doubt," thinking that the witness might not have been entirely truthful, and Phelps immediately burst into a loud and angry tirade and accused the witness of being the killer.  What?!)

I look forward to seeing the shape that the game takes by the time we finish it.  We may yet find that the story wrapped around all of these cynical little nuggets is, itself, a film noir frame.  But even if we don't, I'm enjoying the ride.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Honest Gamer's Lament

So in the last month I've finally been polishing off Divinity II.  I hit my stride and, thanks to playing the patched, newer version, no longer got mired down in game-breaking bugs.  In short, I was able to reach the stretch of game that was fun, and I enjoyed mindlessly tearing through Rivellon, discovering nooks and crannies and one-shotting monsters.

The first time I tried to play Ego Draconis I encountered a huge bug on my way into the Hall of Echoes (the final boss area).  It's a dragon-form only, no-land, flight-only zone but I got stuck in my human form  and was therefore physically unable to advance.  This time, though, I was able to complete that section of the game with only mild swearing, and to advance to the "Flames of Vengeance" expansion content.  I enjoyed Aleroth (and how it's changed since the early days of the Divine who, no matter what the canon says, is a lady), and enjoyed maxing out my armor, skills, and stats.  In short, I was a completely overpowered badass covered in pointy bits, but sometimes that's fun.

Seriously, look at how pointy armor gets in this game. You'll put your eye out, Rhode!

I advanced to the final mission, bearing fully charmed and enchanted armor, a deliciously deadly sword, and with all my skills and regenerative potions (as if I needed mere potions anymore) neatly arranged on my hotbar.  And lo, the final mission is: a zeppelin escort in dragon form.

It's a dirty job, and no-one should have to do it.

Dragon form, despite being the selling point of Divinity II that's meant to set it apart from other, similar RPGs, really sucks.  It's hard to master, and all of the time that you've put into upgrading armor and skills no longer matters.  For this mission the game hands you a full set of maxed-out, top-level dragon skills and it still... doesn't really matter.

In short, I spent 35 hours of game time creating a really top-notch, unbeatable character who then doesn't feature at all in the finale.

I expressed rather vocal frustration with this turn of events, employing a number of unprintable words.  My husband shrugged and suggested from across the room: "So... install a trainer."

I paused.  "Um,"  I responded tentatively,  "do they even have those for this game?"

He gave me a withering look, perhaps pitying my naivete.  "Of course they have them."  He typed something into his laptop and within 20 seconds was reciting me a list of options.

What I realized the next morning (in the shower, of course, because that's where epiphanies happen) is that I've been playing so honest for so long that I literally can no longer remember how to cheat.  Oh, I know where to get mods for Fallout games and I know how to create and edit maps for a bunch of classic titles, and I'll admit that in fifth grade I used to stack the Uno deck before dealing to my (not very bright) classmates.  I lay no claims to having been eternally honest.  I just realized that it's been a long, long time.  In no small part I suspect this is because these days I often game on the PS3 and on my Droid, but also it's because games now have things like "difficulty settings" and "actual learning curves."

So, Divinity II awaited.  Obviously, the answer was Google and in five minutes I'd sorted the problem by myself in a way that seemed at least 60% likely not to include malware.  I installed the trainer and it all worked, without putting anything else on my PC (nasty or otherwise), and so I cheerfully booted up the game and got ready to move past this horrible section of doom.

Except trainers only work in human form -- which I had already neatly overpowered (and how) just through thorough gameplay.  Dragon form is still exceptionally vulnerable.  And this mission is the only time in the entire Flames of Vengeance content expansion that you use it!

So the hell with it: the last section of Divinity II: Flames of Vengeance is going to remain unfinished.  You know what happens at the end?  Good triumphs over evil, because it's a Generic RPG.  And because the main game ends with evil triumphing over good, which is a trick they seem unlikely to repeat in the "satisfying conclusion."

I'm out.  "Fun" certainly isn't everything, as I've recently been discussing with another writer.  (Aside: I think he and I will both be blogging on the topic in the not-too-distant future.)  But consistency, satisfaction, and playability are pretty damn important to a game and Divinity II just fell right down on its ass there.  I don't need this brick wall to bang my head against when the world is full of others.
Larian, I am disappoint.  You're capable of really good, if quirk-filled and derivative, game design.  I'm still recommending Divine Divinity to anyone who just wants to sit down at the PC and suddenly look up, 6 hours later, amazed how long they spent hacking at orcs.  But if I'm going to spend hours trying and retrying the last section of a game, I need to have a reason.  I need it to have tactics I can learn, skills I can improve, methods I can change, and a motivation for me to keep going.  Divinity II is giving me none of the above, so back onto the virtual shelf it goes, 70 hours of my total time (I had to play the main game twice, after switching from disc to Steam) ending without conclusion.


The current playlist here at home includes Fallout: New Vegas - Honest Hearts, L.A. Noire, and Chrono Cross.  I've / We've only just begun the latter two so despite me having two "finished" games in one week to complain about, it'll be a while before there are any new ones. ;)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Into the West?

A few months ago I was casting about for suggestions on what game I should try next, and several folks suggested Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.  It showed up for just over $15 on Amazon not long afterward so I grabbed it.  We decided it was an "us" game (one that my husband and I play together -- we regularly have an us game running, as well as each having our own) and last weekend we finished playing it.

The rest is behind the jump, for plot spoilers and strong, lengthy opinions from Your Critic.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The JRPG and Me

I've described before how I grew up listening to movie scores.  When I was in high school, I went on a tear of renting the movies whose themes I had loved, figuring that I should start getting some context.  And so it came to pass that I learned although The Abyss did not live up to its musical promise in my eyes, The Terminator certainly did.  (I was and remain undecided on Willow.)

The last decade has brought me more into the gaming sphere.  Although I've been an avid computer gamer since 1986, the only console I ever had was a used NES I bought in 1993.  Sony and I were like two ships in the night for a very, very long time.

But in 2008, my now-husband got a PS3 (the Metal Gear Solid 4 bundle) for his birthday.  And although my entire games collection was stolen in 2006, he -- also an avid collector -- managed to avoid a similar misfortune.  And so, for the last three years, I've been catching up on a number of classic games and series I missed in the 1990s.  Thanks to a PSX emulator, M's PS1 discs, and a classic theme that's always drawn me in, I... am playing Chrono Cross.

I'm this guy now.
It's amazing how slow and clumsy I feel, attempting this feat.  Everyone else played games like this when they were twelve, and part of me wishes I had, too.  Like learning a second or third language, I seem to have reached the age where these skills are harder won than they should be -- even with my guide at hand.

The first JRPGs I ever successfully played to completion and enjoyed were The World Ends With You and Chrono Trigger, both on the Nintendo DS.  The former is DS native; the latter, obviously, a remastered re-release.  The fact of the matter is, I rarely enjoy Japanese or Japanese-style RPGs.  I don't tend to like controlling a party and the slow-paced, half-mystical, often incoherent lyricism of the writing often grates on my fast-paced American sensibilities. 

But then there's this.

And in fact, the first place I ever really heard the music was at Video Games Live, in 2009.

Frankly, that theme is too good to keep passing up, especially as my husband's original PS1 discs are running very smoothly in my gaming rig.

So that's where I am: wandering around outside of a village, using a skill / spell system that everyone on Earth understands intuitively but I have to struggle with, accompanied by a pink dog with a lisp.

I might hate that dog a little.  But right now its my only friend in a hostile world, and that's how bonds are formed...

I wasn't expecting to like Chrono Trigger either, when I first started it.  I had to be wheedled into giving it a try.  And I didn't like the world or the characters or the navigation, and then suddenly I did, and I was traveling through TIME YOU GUYS OMG TIME TRAVEL LOOK AN APOCALYPSE and the next thing I knew the number of hours I'd put into playing it had passed my ability to track.

So I'm giving Chrono Cross its due.  There are huge swaths of gaming history I missed along the way to where I am now, and I need to make good on my quest to understand how the history of our art led to its present day, and leads to its future.

"Attack" I can handle.

Sometimes I remember that watching silent film didn't come naturally to a child of the 1980s, either, but that I adored The General when I finally saw it.  So this, too, is a language I can learn... one turn at a time.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The true meaning of Social Gaming

Today's a big holiday here in the USA.  Everyone's throwing large barbecues and big drunken parties, because that (along with small, colorful explosions) is how we celebrate in this country.

Okay, large colorful explosions.

I threw my own large party last weekend, though; it's why I was on the road for a few days.  I've done it every summer since I was 14, and every year it's a little more awesome because we've aged into appreciating a rare chance to see all our friends in one spot.

It's a casual summer barbecue and I do it at my parents' house, because they have a grill and a backyard and also don't live 400 miles away from most of the guests.  (I have neither grill, nor backyard, and Google Maps says it's actually more like 450-500 miles.)

There are some guests who I have known since 3rd grade, and some who I just met at PAX East 2011.  Some from college, some from high school, and some who I know I have known for a decade but neither of us can remember any longer how we first met.  Some are my parents' friends, and some are my friends' parents (who admittedly, are also my parents' friends).  We eat and drink and make merry and unexpectedly run out of chairs, and a good time is had by all.

But I, overthinker that I am, was particularly observing the way that games drove the day and brought people together.

My mom's DS was in the living room and people kept picking it up and playing around with Brain Age 2.  Later, I found my mom and three of my old friends playing Cribbage in the kitchen.  (She always wanted me to learn but I never really did.)

Meanwhile, my friend brought newest version of the tabletop card game that he'd been developing, hoping to find some players, and I pointed him to a group of tabletop gamers I met at PAX.  From the laughter and shouting, I assume that table was having fun.

And then I busted out Action Castle.  (And the sequel, as well.)  A GM I am not, but I'd seen it done before and had a chance to read over the cards so I managed pretty well.  Granted, I gave a little more useful input than a traditional text parser would, but a traditional text parser doesn't have to apologize for having forgotten the player has a lamp in inventory so there's that.  (Oops.)  Also in the interest of keeping the party lighthearted, exits might have been, north, east, SOUTH GUYS, and west.

When the sun goes down and the mosquitoes come out, we generally move inside and my husband, who was apparently born to be a game show host, gets his time to shine.  He hooked his laptop up to the TV and I heard a round of The Price is Right go down, and then it was time for $100,000 Pyramid.  That one always goes down tournament-style, because in two or three years running, Sam and I have proved to be a pretty much unbeatable team.  And with 20 people in the living room, every game show does indeed have its live studio audience.

We were there in May 2010, actually, but they didn't allow photos so this isn't ours. Being there really does feel like being in the TV.

For all that I love writing the deep, critical theory and studying narrative games as cultural artifacts and cultural mirrors -- this is where the real heart of our hobby is.  This is where it all began: you have a group of people together, in a room, and they find a way to play.

Developers like Zynga may claim that Facebook and mobile platforms are "social gaming" now and forever, but for my money, it gets social when you can break bread together.  Mainstream (non-gaming) society derides the D&D player as "antisocial," and yet he -- in all his stereotypical adolescent, pimpled, awkward glory -- sits around with friends, says, "pass the chips and soda," and has a good time in good company.  And of course, we all know how little bearing a stereotype has on reality.

I don't like to engage in competitions usually (or at least, not competitions I don't actually stand a chance of winning) so aside from some trivia games I tend to avoid the multiplayer sphere.  But sitting around with a glass of sangria in one hand (that my friend makes better than I do), and hearing my buddies laugh... now that's the kind of multiplayer I wish I could do more often.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Gamer's Gaze, part 3

In part 1 and part 2, we discussed the historical origin of the term "male gaze" and went over the actual literal ways in which the camera "looks" in gaming.  There are some great commenter insights in the comments of those posts, too.

The inspiration for this whole mini-series originally sprang from a comment Enstarstarstar left on the Tomb Raider post, where he asked:
"my question is this: isn't this true about games in general? that is, the format of a game--you, the player, have control over much of the perspective and action--makes it in many respects about you. horror games in particular do this prolifically: they take you (and the character you control) through situations that make you feel helpless, or threatened, or out of control. at the very least, narrative games put your character into situations that are designed to play your emotions (think, for instance, bioshock, which even explicitly takes control away from you at the climactic moment).
i guess i'm wondering--aside from the looming threat of sexual violence, the echoey shrieks of the main character, and the different tone of the story and setting--how that intro is different from the intro to uncharted 2. drake wakes up, shot, on a train hanging off from a cliff, and the whole place is falling to pieces around him. there is no question about it: the threat to drake is meant to be something that you feel, something that tosses you into the middle of the action in order to pull you in to the story.
lara's situation strikes me as meant to do exactly the same thing. where they differ, i would argue, is in the way they go about doing it."

My initial response to his insight?  "Exactly."

Modern narrative games are designed to put you into a character's metaphorical shoes.  First-person and third-person games go about it in two different ways, but either way, at least some element of the narrative is in your hands.  That's what makes it a game.  Which elements you can control, and how deeply you the player can affect any of them, vary widely.

Enstar is right to observe that in one sense, Naughty Dog and Crystal Dynamics are indeed aiming to accomplish the exact same goals.  But he also highlights a crucial problem: in this instance, the difference between a male character and a female character is in the looming threat of sexual violence, the echoey shrieks, and the tone of the story.  And he's exactly right: the difference is not even so much in the story that is told, but in the way the story is told.

All of it, across three posts, adds up to this: the stories we play contain visual (and sometimes auditory) cues that tell us, in unquestionable terms, that the player meant to be viewing these stories and sharing these perspectives is an archetypal sort of heterosexual male.

Most of the time it's so ingrained and built-in that we don't really notice it until we're presented with an exception.  None of us were surprised to be in the role of a mystery man in Bioshock, but discovering Chell in Portal made many of us utter a surprise squeal of delight.   Madison's treatment in Heavy Rain isn't shocking, just disappointing.  And because lady Commander Shepard is so great, Miranda's ...assets... particularly stand out.  

When the player character is male, we don't have as many opportunities to notice this design bias.  We're seeing what we expect to see, what we've been trained to see.  It's easy, however, to come by moments of cognitive dissonance when the male perspective is being filtered through a female player character -- and it's especially easy to catch when the player gets to pick the sex of the protagonist, as in Fallout 3.  In "When 'You' Is A Girl," Jenn Frank observes:
I admitted I wasn’t very far into Fallout 3, so my impression was, and remains, cursory. But it would have been one thing, I reasoned aloud, if I genuinely felt bonded to my Fallout 3 character, or if I had felt like the Character’s story were my story, too. But I didn’t feel that way at all.

Like, in the story, when another little girl comforted me during my botched birthday party, I suspiciously felt as if she were coyly putting the moves on my (ten-year old?) “self.” And I think I was supposed to like her, at least in the context of the game, and instead I just felt sort of weird, a dissonance, an artificial and completely fabricated gender dysphoria. And it would have worked if she had talked to me, well, I guess maybe like a lesbian, but instead the dialogue was vaguely heteronormative, like when eight-year old girls play House together and one girl says, “Now you be Dad” (we did! We did do this!), and then she talks to you in this put-upon, artificial way like she thinks Mom talks to Dad, instead of using the vocabulary and lexicon eight-year old girls use to talk to one another, which on an especially well socialized child sounds like “Can you please braid my hair.”

And then, I complained on the patio about how, maybe twenty minutes further into Fallout 3, some teenaged bully is following me around, shouting, threatening—and trying, I think, to punch me in the teeth—and I just cannot shake the feeling that he thinks he is shouting at a guy. It’s as if his every pronoun has been shifted from “he” to “she,” carefully rerecorded for my personal edification, and yet it is glaringly obvious that the game’s “You!” was never intended for me.

She later writes a fantastic line about how Fallout 3 lets you change the player character sex, but not actually the character gender -- all of the behaviors of NPCs and narrative still default the Lone Wanderer to male.  As with so many other games, it reads as a reskinning of the default male player character with long hair and breasts and a find / replace on some pronouns.

There's this argument one hears all the time from male gamers (I have lost track of how many hundred times I've seen it): that they create female avatars in third-person-perspective games so that they have someone attractive to look at.  Which is funny, because when I create female avatars in third-person games, it's so that I have someone attractive to be.

That difference in approach is, right there, the player's personification of the male gaze.  There's certainly no crime in appreciating your protagonist's physique.  (For example, I'll grant that I, a straight woman, definitely appreciate Nathan Drake's character design.)  But a game isn't designed for a male player to appreciate a male lead character's ass.  It's designed for a male player to project some aspect of himself into that male character, and to take back some of that male character's general badassery unto himself.  When a female player character arrives, she is pretty much always still the personification of that male ideal, just now also dressed up in a slim and curvy body for the male player to appreciate.

When we play Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, there is absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that the player sees the game through Monkey.  Trip is, well, a problem character.  As designed, she's a force for compelling Monkey to reveal his heart of gold, and a prize to be endangered, thus requiring rescue.**  As the game is presented to us, Monkey is absolutely justifiable in his early rage toward her and, other than an ability to become completely useless over time, Trip has very few defining characteristics overall.  In fact, Trip's character could have been written a hundred different ways (and has been, as in the original myth her role was filled by a Buddhist monk).  And of those hundred different ways, which is chosen for gaming?  The attractive, somewhat under-dressed, doe-eyed girl, who needs the player character.


This is what made Commander Shepard's female incarnation such a landmark character: Shepard's behavior, motivations, animation, and so on really do apply equally well to either the Mark Meer or Jennifer Hale iterations of the Commander.  As Line pointed out, Shepard can veer neither into overly "masculine" or "feminine" behaviors, as both versions are given full respect by the development team.  So while the world Shep inhabits still has some definite issues with male gaze, the player character generally does not.

In terms of success in a first-person game, I actually felt that Fallout: New Vegas had the neutrality that was absent from Fallout 3.  Generally the newer Fallout games are played in first-person and the Courier is unvoiced, so the third-person nuance from the Mass Effect titles isn't present.  But in general, every NPC to whom the PC talks is presented front and center, in a neutral straight shot.  The S&M styled hookers in New Vegas come in both male and female varieties and none are presented as particularly alluring.  Villains, companions, and denizens of the Wasteland are indeed a relatively organic mix of male and female, and the removal of limitations on sex-based perks removes a significant chunk of the privilege from the default.  

This is not unique to gaming by any stretch; film and television are just as guilty as they have ever been.  The difference is that while film and TV have also created genres (still problematic) that do inhabit "female gaze" territory, gaming has been slow to catch up on that front.  As we see over and over in every other aspect of gaming -- writing, art, and especially marketing -- the common target is still the mythical basement-dwelling adolescent (but with adult income) socially inept male.  Many games are designed, up front, to appeal to that small handful of modders who, first thing, are going to apply nude textures to every woman in the game, as if the internet didn't have enough boobs on it already.

If we were to look for a female gaze in gaming, my hunch is that we would find it in a handful of jRPGs.  My memories of Final Fantasy XIII are hazy because all I ever did was make fun of it, but as I recall parts of it at least had what I would consider a "girly" take.  (Though it may just be that I'm remembering the use of soft focus, which would be read as feminizing to the characters on screen but not necessarily a female point of view.)

Regardless, my preference is for attempts at gender neutrality in the construction of games.  Some male characters are going to be chauvinists and some female characters are going to be seductresses; those are (still) the stories we tell.  But when the use of camera and framing in a game make those characters more "okay" than others, we run into a system that keeps making games about men and for men, even when the player character and the player are both women.  And that's just not going to do.

**I'll mention here that we're still in chapter 8 or 9 of this game, and have not yet finished it.  It is possible that in the last act Trip and the design studio will redeem themselves, but I am decidedly not optimistic.