Monday, December 19, 2011

The Music of Mass Effect 3 - Preview

I've got Mass Effect 3 on the brain bad, guys. So bad. I had a dream about it a few weeks ago, that's how bad.  (It was a sad dream.  Shepard had to choose between two populated, thriving planets to save and she was really upset, talking to Garrus about how she was just one person and couldn't be everywhere at once, and didn't know what to do.)

I've been avoiding watching any leaked footage or reading anything with story spoilers, because I want to go into it fresh.  (These weeks are worse than when I was neck-deep in the Lord of the Rings fandom a decade ago. At least I already knew how that story would end!)

But when there was that ME3 leak on XBox Live, some kind soul created an edit of just the soundtrack music available in it, without any dialogue or visuals (spoilers!) to go with.  I listened to it once, thought, "Good, Mansell's definitely on the right track," and then the next morning woke up mildly obsessed with it.

There's also this:

Which was just followed by this link (non-Facebook version), to a snippet of ME3 soundtrack that Hulick wrote. 

I wsa going originally to do some intelligent total guesswork analysis on the snippets from the video, but right now I just need to get some completely irrational fangirling live.  Any game series that puts its hero's theme in 7/8, even for just the middle game, is a series that has me forever.

(Related: The Music of Mass Effect part 1 and part 2.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Holiday Shopping

It's the second week of December, so here in the USA at least nearly everyone's out buying something.  Hanukkah and Christmas have a tight overlap this year, and in my circle of friends and family there are a surprising number of birthdays between December 24th and December 31st.  Half the internet is all about gift guides, and Game of the Year voting and arguing rings more in the air than "Jingle Bells."  When the big Steam Holiday Sale lands, I, like many others, will find myself stockpiling games to last me through all of the next year.  In short: 'tis the season for consumerism.

There are studies out there showing that actually, money does buy happiness.  To anyone who's gone an extended period without any money (and for me, those were years 1-28 of my life), this is no surprise.  Being poor sucks and surely, the opposite is better.  But one piece of information keeps catching my eye: studies by various psychologists say that if you want your money to buy you happiness you should spend it on experiences, not on things. Do something amazing!  Go to that concert!  Take that vacation!  Throw that party!  Go bungee jumping!

Play that video game?

I was mulling over my Christmas and entertainment budgets blearily in the shower (where all good thinking happens) one recent morning and realized that generally, I put games in the "experiences" category.  Except that literally, video games are things: $5 or $20 or $50 worth of bits and bytes, sent virtually or pressed into a plastic and aluminum disc, a consumer good through and through. And they are a consumer good.  One look at the structure of game studios, at the sheer amount of money involved in creating a AAA game, at the opening-week-sales race, or at the marketing structures around gaming leaves no doubt about that.  But if my $20 buys me 30 or 50 or 100 hours' worth of an emotional journey, is it really just a thing, anymore?

Being pissed off at Anders is definitely an emotional journey.

This year's Thanksgiving sale on Steam allowed me to send several gifts.  To the two friends who received Audiosurf, I thought I was sending the stomach-dropping thrill of that moment when the music soars and the track bottoms out from under you while hanging a sharp right.  The gift to them was of flow and motion.  I wanted them both to be granted the singular experience of finding their favorite music take color and form before their eyes, to ride it and feel its shape in a way different than even the most trained musician's ears do.

To the friend who received Fallout: New Vegas and all its DLC, I was hoping to grant a hundred little experiences of exploration and understanding.  I was giving that moment of stumbling across Chance's map, the shock of discovering Christine, the puzzle of history left behind in a hundred audio logs and forgotten pre-war relics.  I was giving him the chance to choose a future for New Vegas, a chance to look at anarchy and government and war and decide what, if anything, changes.

To the friend who received Bastion, I was giving the gift of Zia's song and the soothing tones of Rucks's narration.  He was granted the history of Caelondia to explore and the tangled, tragic dreams of three people to uncover.  I gave ruined streets to walk and he received a chance to give survivors and a society hope in the face of pointless destruction and damnation.

The first experience: waking up...

To each friend, I hoped to be granting the feelings of discovery, victory, joy, defeat, mastery, color, flow, awe, decision-making, and so much more.  Four people received Steam codes through the ether, but none of them were given "things."

I have always felt that, at their core, games are experience.  The heart and soul of every game is about the players being able to tell themselves, and each other, a story.  Whether it's the immediate, quickly-forgotten, short-term thrill of getting the long block at just the right time, or the strategic thrill of building a city with good infrastructure, or the grim tactical deathmarch (deathsail?) of eliminating the Spanish navy in a 4:1 firefight before your ship is boarded... all are experiences and stories.  A deeply strategic toppling of your opponent, a frenetic scramble to a goal, or something in between; a fairy tale about two brave but not always bright young Wardens; a jarring exploration of an unstable cop's awkward investigations; a chance to be a badass space marine... all stories.   

So: pastime, or thing?

The truth is, it's an unfair question to level at games, or at least to level at games alone.  It's the core of the human experience with art.  If every time I watch the Lord of the Rings DVDs I feel the passion and the pull of that story all over again, if I feel the hope and desire and pain and faith I felt when they were in theaters during a vulnerable time in my life, when I needed them most -- have I bought an item, or an experience?

If Neverwhere and The Hunger Games and The Sun Also Rises and Macbeth and and The Book of Three and "The Sound of Thunder" each make me feel a certain way when read them, if I feel thrills and joy and despair and excitement as I revisit them, and if my readings change as I age and mature and experience my life -- am I holding paper, or am I holding experiences?

It's a trick question; the answer is "both."  Art, I think, was ever thus.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Golden Days

It's a balmy spring day in New England, almost certainly in 1988.  It's late April, probably; the air smells of mud and grass and growing things and we unruly kids have been sent to go play outside.  I'm at Tommy's house, on the next street over from mine, and some other kids -- one each of our two neighborhood Matts, Brians, and Corys, and Brendan (my later first crush) -- are there too.

We're on the swing set, playing Ghostbusters until we get bored and someone announces we should play pirates instead.  I pick up a well-balanced stick and give my mightiest "ARRRR," until one of the boys says: "No, you're the princess.  Girls can't be pirates!  We need to rescue you."

I hit him with my stick for a while and claim it's "fencing."  Eventually a truce is reached and a compromise made: I'm the Princess Pirate.  Childhood harmony temporarily restored, we take to our "ship" with gusto.

You know what "princess pirate" gets you by the time you grow up?

(Not even close to the most risqué costume image I could have chosen.)
Also sometime around 1988, these friends started to get NES systems as Christmas and birthday gifts.  (I got mine in very late 1993.)  One day, I asked for a turn at Mario after one of the boys botched a jump and had to restart his level.  It was a no -- but rather than "it's my turn still" I got, "Do girls even play Nintendo?"

Well, this girl would have.  And years later, when I could buy my friend's used NES for $25 with my saved-up babysitting money, I did.

This past month has seen a lot of social justice talk in the broader, mainstream game-sphere.  Kotaku, whether through a desire purely for pageviews or through a desire actually to engage with the world-that-is, has (re-)published must-read, knockout pieces by Denis Farr, Leigh Alexander, and Mattie Brice that collectively have stirred up nearly all of the bottom-feeding muck and slime to be found in the gamer community.  On top of all that, this week writer Tom Bissell is in the news, first for having been offhandedly sexist for no reason and second for having issued one of the better public apologies I've ever read.

Naturally, there's a lot of push-back.  Any discussion of gamers who are female, any kind of queer, any race other than white, or indeed any other non-dominant population tends to kick up a fuss.  Some of it just goes under the heading of trolls, or "haters gonna hate."  But what's most disappointing and frustrating to me is when gamers who could, in theory, be allies say: "Why don't we just talk about the games?  Whatever happened to having game sites just be about games already?"

A selection of Kotaku comments

It's not necessarily done as an intentional derailing tactic (though it is above), but the effect is just the same.  In short, it tells a whole set of players that our experiences don't matter.

For clarification from Dennis, see below.

Because for many of us out there who aren't the "right" sort of gamer?  It has never, ever been "just" about the games.  From age seven, in second grade, when the boys in my class asserted that girls don't play Nintendo.  To age seventeen, in high school, when despite using a girly alias and telling everyone I was a girl, the guys all called me "he" when I won science-fiction trivia games.  To twenty-seven, when I started to understand that just because my Lone Wanderer looked female, didn't mean the game's design treated her that way.

"Can we just play the video games?"  Sure.  As soon as conscious and unconscious sexism vanish from the stories, the art, and the reviews.

Culture exists, and we all must live in it.  Our culture means that if you're the girl at the party, you might have a really hard time getting the guys to let you in on GoldenEye.  It means that if you're the girl behind the counter at the GameStop, you have to deal with a constant level of leering and commentary that your male co-workers never get.  And if you're the girl, it means that any time you try to talk about the uphill battle, you're going to get smacked right back down.

The end result is exhaustion.  Swimming upstream against culture is tiring.  And journalist Tracey Lien is right: it's not just one incident, or just one joke.  It's every last one of them.  For many of us, life is a pile of these.  There are no "simpler days" to go back to.


The ability never to be alienated by the games we play or by the people who play them is the very core of privilege.  Bust out that p-word and gamers get riotous, but there's no way around it.  Despite all of the crap that's been handed to me over the last three decades, I have privilege by the metric ton.  I'm as white as white can be, identify perfectly well with the sex and gender I was born with, and have almost exclusively heterosexual attractions.  In those senses, I'm pretty thoroughly represented in game worlds, plots, narratives, and characters.  Further, I have two good hands, two good eyes, and two good ears -- so I'm pretty thoroughly catered to in terms of game mechanics, audio-visual design, and control schemes.  For a number of my friends and peers?  The layers of crap to deal with just never end.

The golden days of everyone being able to "just play a game," if any such days exist, are ahead of us still, not lying dormant in some sepia-tinted past.  They are the same as the golden days of all our other pop culture and pop art: lying in a society that's come to terms with understanding sex, gender, race, and a whole lot more.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Choosing a Role

[This is all straight-up personal blathering about me playing Dragon Age games, talking it through to myself in more than 140 characters.]

One of the things I'm really noticing this week, while adventuring (and occasionally struggling) through Dragon Age: Origins, is to just what a high degree subconscious and indirect cues affect my perception of a game.

The first time I tried DA:O, I played a female city elf.  That's a character who has it pretty bad, all things considered: the city elves are a thoroughly disenfranchised, oppressed, despised people who live in a literal ghetto.  The origin story basically involves attempting to rescue a cousin from rape and on the way out giving a whole bunch of oppressors a sword to the face because they're there, among other things.

On that first run of the game, I made it to the battle of Ostagar, then got turned around twice somehow trying to get to the tower and light the beacon -- so really, not very far at all.  The entirety of my opinion on the game was based on the origin chapter, and my take was that Ferelden was a perilously grim and serious world, and that the Warden was a cynical, jaded, sarcastic person.  The Warden, in that game, stood in the gutter under the totem pole of society's hierarchy and had nothing to lose, but everything to gain.

I didn't feel like exploring the city elf story again this time, because I already had, and woodland elves never really were my sort of thing.  Neither are magic users, and I didn't feel like being a dwarf, so I rolled a human.  The only origin for non-mage humans, though, is Human Noble.  I also had some indecision, some mouse jitter, and a rather large glass of wine while I was customizing my would-be Warden in the character creator, and as a result some of her physical attributes are not what I ordinarily would have chosen.  Basically,  her eyes are enormous.

The end result is a character I did not expect: I now have a Disney-eyed deposed heir to a minor throne, who grew up in a full life of privilege and plenty, comfort and love.  This Warden, while still "me" in a sense as all my characters are, is a me of decades long gone.  She's the me I would have thought at 14 that I'd want to be -- young and idealistic, but trying oh so very hard to do the right thing in the world.

As a result of the character's backstory and appearance, I've realized I'm actually playing a much shallower game than my first pass.  This Warden is straight out of a fairy tale, and she knows it -- and she believes the world actually works that way.  I the player actually found myself squirming in mild embarassment in my chair last night (thank goodness the spouse was too immersed in multiplayer assassinating to notice) when I realized how very juvenile I felt my approach to the whole game becoming.

So juvenile.  Because I had every intention of deliberately avoiding the Alistair romance.  I know in advance, thanks to years of spoilers floating around, what the Warden's options are going to be, to stamp out the Blight.  I had a feel for what would be the right thing to do, in this game, and when I played the sequel first I told it that's what had happened.  Maybe the Warden and Zevran could have one really good before-the-world-ends romp, just for fun.

But then this Warden happened.  And something possessed me and honest to god now I'm playing fanfiction or something, I don't even know, but all those dialogue options came up at the bottom of the screen and my hand picked "hey let's go make out and be in love like teenagers" and now my brain is getting drunk in the corner out of disgust while Alistair and the Warden make puppy eyes at each other.  And they're such dorks, and I'm such a softie, that now I know I don't have it in me to make the "right" choice anymore, and Wynne was right to give her lecture, and I was all, "No, mom, I know what I'm doing" and *headdesk*.

I barged into Ferelden and felt like The Doctor: just this once, everybody lives!

I think some of it's a reaction to external factors.  I've been thinking about Mass Effect 3 and discussing it with a lot of other gamers lately, and I expect that game to be nothing but a wall of impossible choices, destruction, really upsetting character deaths, and sacrifices for the good of the many.  (In fact, the game cannot be nearly as tragic and joyless as I imagine it will be, because no-one would play it.  Still: grim.)  Somehow I'm not only choosing to spend March immersed in that drama, I'm also looking forward to it.  So some part of my spirit is rebelling.  Like a little child, I'm throwing a massive tantrum and declaring that this time, the hero gets the prince and that everyone lives happily ever after.  (Except the bad people.  Naturally.)

The end result, though, is that I'm playing a totally different game than I thought I was -- and a totally different game than the one I thought I'd use to set up Dragon Age 2DA2, to me, is more like the way the me-of-today perceives the world.  Hawke is a person who has been through some traumatizing events, surrounded by some likewise damaged people.  She and her friends have all come to each other as a family of choice, after losing their blood families, and they make their way through life in this big strange city together, knowing the others are out there.  They have each other's backs, even the crabby ones. 

That's the game I played.

The Warden has a different cast around her.  They're loyal to her, more or less, or at least becoming that way, but their backgrounds are not like hers.  Every one of them, except maybe Leliana, is in some way an outcast from mainstream society: Sten the qunari, Alistair the bastard, Wynne the circle mage, Morrigan the apostate, Shale the golem, Zevran the elf fleeing his failure...

But this Warden is of a noble house.  True, her family died around her due to backstabbing, disloyalty, greed, and politics -- but the lives of the nobility were always thus.  Her personal tragedy is still the mainstream story of her society.  In short, she has buckets of privilege.  And although she may be camping in the woods with a gang of misfits for now, the arc of her story has her heading back to power and privilege later.

That's the game I seem to be playing.

The reason I think it's worth playing is because when my husband sat down and spent dozens of hours on Dragon Age: Origins, he saw the story of a young man: a circle mage who had to bear the gift and curse of magical talent and who met a pretty red-haired Orlesian bard he couldn't resist.  Another friend sat down with the game and found the story of a dwarf, who had to manage culture and politics and found the Wardens as an unexpected refuge.  And then of course there's the city elf whose story I didn't finish: she would have been constantly in an uphill fight, with her gender and her race aligned against her, until earning enough respect to lead the fight against the darkspawn in the end.

So very many different games...

There are still a lot of things I don't like about Dragon Age: Origins in the realm of its mechanics and design.  And I think as an experience, I actually still like Dragon Age 2 better.  Its characters feel more real, its city feels more navigable, and since I really didn't buy the game for its dungeon delving I couldn't care less that all mines have the same floor plan.  But finding out what kind of story I choose to tell, and how that story and I both change at whim, has been a really interesting experience.

(And now I know that some part of me, deep inside, never did let go of that Disney upbringing.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

The evolution of the RPG... and me.

A year or two ago, I (rather infamously) drew my line in the sand: I do not like party-based games, I declared, and never had.

Following this assertion (brought on at that moment by disliking Dragon Age: Origins), I've played both Mass Effect games, am currently in the midst of Chrono Cross, and just devoured the entirety of Dragon Age 2 in a few days.  And yet in many ways I stand by my original statement -- so what's changed?

I'll be honest, lady rogue Hawke pretty much always took Fenris, Varric, and Merrill, by the middle of Act II.

I'll admit that in part, I've changed.  Though I've been loving games and digital worlds since I was a kid, my consumption of various game types has really ramped up in the last three years and I've been exposed to, and learned patience for, some kinds of game design that I hadn't gained wide experience with before.  Game appreciation, like film appreciation, is tied to a sense of time and place, and an understanding of the history of the art.  My sense of history is still developing.

Crucially, though, the games themselves have also been evolving.  The difference in feel between Dragon Age: Origins, which hearkens back to an older era of games, and Dragon Age 2, which feels very modern, really crystallizes that evolution for me.  Thanks in large part (though not solely) to BioWare's recent design choices, I've been able to narrow down a bit what it is I actually hate about party based gaming.

In a word?  Micromanagement.

For some people, this is fun. I will never truly understand those people.

For me, the joy of playing has never been in the numbers, the tactics, or the methodical min/max situation.  I am fundamentally a lazy gamer: I don't want to control a hundred things at once.  I'm willing to be responsible for one character and for her tactics, skills, attributes, gear, inventory, and personality.  I tend to gravitate toward one character type and I tend to play that type the same way across games.* I like passive skills and quick kills, and I prefer not having to overthink every single character placement or tactical choice.

If I'm playing a game where character development is the focus -- in broad strokes, the RPG genre -- then what I want is to take control of my avatar and to understand and master her personality and talents.  I don't want to be responsible for controlling others.  It's a selfish impulse ("don't be dead weight I have to drag around") but also a self-protective one ("I just can't manage both of us correctly at once; you'll get short shrift").

My aversion to having to worry what others are up to has led to some downright comical contortions. During my EverQuest II years, I was three solid months into the game and level 28 (back when it was much less solo-friendly)  before I ever joined a group.  The folks I grouped with were all in the same guild and I joined up with them a few days later.  That's how I eventually discovered the pleasure of watching a plan laid and executed with a minimum of communication.  Everyone knew their roles: tanks took the hits, healers healed, chanters controlled crowds, and DPS damaged things.  Sure, for special bosses or raid zones (or one memorable five-Fury group) we discussed strategy at greater length, but each character always knew her role because each was controlled by an autonomous being somewhere, an individual man or woman at a keyboard just like me.

Some of those raid strategies worked better than others. Running a new x2 zone on Test, June '05.

When handed Divinity II and Dragon Age: Origins in the same week, I gravitated to the former because I could simply strike out into the world as I pleased, without worrying about what others wanted, needed, or thought of me.  I've been bored, in the past, with having to make the rounds among companions and crew to check in on each and every one of them and their personal needs.

I've been thinking about the "why" a great deal over the past week.  I think it's because for a long time, in many of the games I played, companion characters' personal needs either felt mechanical, pointless, or kind of unhinged.  That's a personal assertion, and not necessarily a quality-of-games one; it has to do with my own particular wiring.  As much as I hate to admit it, because I'm a book-lover through and through and an imaginative one at that, I think what's actually hooking me into this new RPG era is the voice-over work.

When I play a game like Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross, everyone sort of sounds the same.  Yes, I imagine characters speaking differently, with different cadences, accents, and mannerisms, but in the end every voice is still, on some level, mine.  I can't give other characters inflection that I can't imagine and active as my imagination is, in a text-only world my interpretations might run counter to the scene's intent.

In fact, I'm running into this fairly often in Dragon Age: Origins, which I'm now giving another try.**  With an unvoiced Grey Warden, it's up to me to guess whether a comment she can make is sarcastic or genuine, and whether that comment is made jokingly or earnestly.  As a result, other characters' responses are not necessarily what I expect or what I'm aiming for.  I've run into some disapproval situations that I didn't see coming, because I didn't realize the Warden was going to be perceived as confrontational rather than as politely direct.  (Also because Morrigan disapproves of roughly everything.)

And when Morrigan disapproves, she lights you on fire. It's just her way.
Having companions find their voices has upended the way I view these NPCs in my games.  It's an emotional connection to the narrative and its world that isn't a new concept, but that makes me personally care a great deal more.  Even in a silent protagonist, fundamentally single-player game like Fallout: New Vegas, companion voices make me feel differently and realign my priorities.  I want to earn Boone's respect, not his easily-granted disgust.  Hearing Arcade move from self-effacing sarcasm to honesty over time makes me feel trustworthy.  Disappointing Veronica makes me feel like I've kicked a puppy.  And actually getting to hear Christine talk and explain, after she had been rather violently robbed of her voice, is deeply satisfying.

The recent BioWare titles (the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises) have done a rather extraordinary job of surrounding me with characters I care about.  Between advancements in game tech and a strong investment in decent writing, I'm able to immerse myself in the illusion that my [Hawke / Shepard / Warden] is surrounded by other people, as real as my intervention has made the PC, with their own voices, stories, and personalities.  And they can control themselves.

Should I be so inclined I could order Garrus which baddies to shoot and when, but I never have to.  (I choose not to play on difficulty settings where that level of tactics would be required.)  I can take control of Isabela or Aveline, or issue direct commands to them, but I don't have to.  Without very much intervention (adding health potions to their tactics), Fenris knows how to watch my back and stupid Anders knows how to heal the party as needed.  Varric doesn't need me to issue a complex set of numbers and commands in order to seriously own that crossbow.

The ability and choice for the player character to have intimate and meaningful one-on-one conversations with non-player-characters has reframed the way I relate to a game.  If I need to make a complex or consequential decision in Chrono Cross, I look at a guide, or I talk it over with a friend (i.e. the spouse) who has played the game before and can give me non-spoiler guidance.  But when I need to make a complex or consequential decision in a game like Dragon Age 2, I have Hawke talk to her friends.  They become her guides and, by extension, mine.  Does Aveline disapprove of a choice?  She must have a reason and it's worth asking her before I act.

I'm used to NPC companions either feeling burdensome or feeling invisible -- for all that I liked, say, Lucca and Frog in Chrono Trigger, taking their turns in combat just meant me moving through one list of all options, and switching party members roughly meant switching combat tactic options and not much else.  That both game design and I have reached a stage where player companions feel almost like MMO buddies has been revelatory.  For the first time, when given the choice I care more about my companions' quests, evolution, and goodwill than I do about exploring every corner of the world (though I still do) or about the main story (which always comes around again in due time).

I haven't always particularly enjoyed characters' quests (bite me, Anders) or supported their loyalty missions (you too, Zaeed).  But as this year in gaming starts to wind down, I'm realizing that now, the companion quests are the ones I want to appear more often.  I enjoy making it a point to wander around the Normandy, or around Kirkwall, or around the campfire.  Fenris, Anders, Aveline, Varric, Isabela, Merrill -- their stories, their trust and forgiveness (or betrayal), are what was important to me in Dragon Age 2.  And as I look toward 2012 and Mass Effect 3, I know that Shepard can stare down the Reaper threat, but what I really want is to be sure that Garrus, Liara, Wrex, and Tali will trust her and stand by her side while she does.

Until then, back to Chrono Cross, where Kid is Australian and Poshul is desperately annoying -- but everyone is as silent as Serge. 

*For the record, that type is rogue / thief / assassin, heavy on the stealth and dual-wield or, in a futuristic setting like ME, on sniper tactics.  Sneak-and-stab or sneak-and-shoot: if they see me coming I'm doing it wrong.

**Because seriously, I want to see if I can find out why [DA:O character who appears at the end of DA2 with Cassandra] shows up then and there, 6-7 years after the events of DA:O.  Context: I needs it.


And for more discussion on party-based gaming, that happened to come up while I was in the middle of this personal meditation, see Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Horde on The Future of the Computer Role-Playing Game.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Punch Anders in the Face, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate the Bomb.

I'm playing Dragon Age II, as everyone who follows me on Twitter will have heard a thousand times in the last week.  At the point of this writing I'm in the middle of Act III, with a female rogue Hawke.  Spoilers for 2/3 of the game (and predictions about the remaining events) follow.

Because this is a BioWare game, Hawke picks up a number of companions along her way.  And because this is a BioWare game, those companions are strongly-written individuals, with their own stories, characteristics, personalities, and lives.  Despite my low-level general dislike of party-based gaming even now (which is a longer post that I've started writing but put on the back burner because this post was more urgent), Hawke's companions are the entire reason I'm playing DAII.  I love them, they are fantastic, and I want to spend more time with them.

Especially Fenris who, while always brooding, doesn't always look quite that murderous.

Bethany, Aveline, Varric, Merrill, Anders, Fenris, and Isabela -- these are the seven characters whose story this game is here to tell.  (I'm aware that if I had any DLC, there'd be more.)  And dropped into the middle of their lives, the thread connecting them all and drawing them and their stories together, is Hawke.

I like to think of myself as a generally decent person, with a healthy amount of self-respect.  I'm a constant work in progress (who isn't?), but I'm a reasonably well-adjusted adult and I make a point of surrounding myself with non-toxic people: with good friends.  Sure, some of us don't call as often as we'd like, and I've got some friends who have opinions I disagree with, or who have made choices I don't like.  But generally, we're respectful of each other, we trust each other, and we don't use or lie to each other.

This Hawke (blue-eyed red-haired Miriam), like my Shepard before her and my Courier and Lone Wanderer before them, is an extension of me.  She looks quite a bit like me, she shares my preferences and tastes, and she shares my moral compass.  That's how I like to play an RPG of this sort.  When Varric and Merrill are good friends to Hawke, I then feel that they are good friends.  This is by design; especially on a first playthrough, we're often meant to put ourselves, the players, in the hero's shoes.

So when Aveline, flustered, comes to Hawke for help with her love life, I feel like I'm helping a (hapless) friend.  When Varric good-naturedly gives Hawke shit just because he can, I feel like I'm joking around with a friend.  When Merrill bares her soul to Hawke, I feel like I have been trusted by a friend.  When Fenris walks around town wearing Hawke's crest on his belt, I feel a little more gushy than "just friend" ( <3 ).

Which means when after two acts -- seven story years -- of friendship, Anders lies to Hawke and uses her?  I get angry with the betrayals of a "friend."

Anders wants to justify himself.
Through the first two acts of DAII, I kept working toward friendship with Anders because, overall, I agreed with him.  Mages really do get the short end of the stick in the society of the Dragon Age games, and it's a big problem.  Knight-Commander Meredith in particular is a power-hungry ass and a liar and I'd like her deposed promptly, possibly even at the point of my dagger if that's what it takes.  There are enormous problems of inequal rights and prejudice all over Thedas and I'll even concede that, despite my strong personal preferences, solving them might require violent tactics rather than diplomacy.  And I'm always good for fighting injustice.

I had no strong reason to be rivals with Anders.  Our means were different but our goals, overall, the same.  I could set aside his overbearing righteousness with an internal eye-roll, pick witty dialogue, and have us continue along our mutual goal of "kill ALL the monsters!"  And of course, one of my biggest issues as a gamer is the deep-seated need for everyone to like meNearly always

So I was inclined to give Anders a chance, despite his flaws and quirks.  He's a prominent NPC and a party member: surely I'm meant to cut him some slack?

Demonic posession is kind of a big personality quirk, IMHO.

I managed benign disintrest with Anders until reaching his Act III quest, "Justice," at which point I instantly developed an overwhelming desire to punch him in the face.  Twice.  The quest is nothing short of infuriating.  By the point in the game at which Anders asks you to go gather some ingredients for him, the game has made sure that Hawke knows (1) there hasn't been a known way to separate a demon and host without killing them, and (2) dwarves and Qunari both make, steal, or have gunpowder / explosives.

And so, Anders sends Hawke forth to collect saltpeter and sulfur for him, assuming:
  • That she is too stupid to know what these ingredients are
  • That she is too stupid to know what these ingredients do
  • That she will trust whatever it is Anders tells her
  • That she doesn't actually need to know what she's up to, because Anders said so
  • That she'll be fine with this gaping and suspicious hole in knowledge
  • That she won't actually put together the ninety million clues surrounding this request
  • That his cause is so righteous that it's all right to hurt everyone and everything else for it...
  • ...including the people he supposedly wants most to help.
I can get behind a lot of suspicious behavior, in a game.  But a supposed friend lying to me in order to go make a (potentially suicide) bomb and blow the shit out of people whose fight this isn't?  I don't think so, friend.

I stewed over this for quite a while.  My first concern came from a game mechanics perspective: helping Anders, or indeed aiding magi in general, make it challenging to maximize friendship with Fenris.  Having chosen the Fenris romance, and choosing to believe that the character has a better nature that Hawke can appeal to, I find I need to be very careful in what order I choose to help people.  And so at first I'd framed the problem as, "How can I be sure to do everything I need to with Fenris first, so that then I can do what I need to for Anders?"

After sleeping on that for a night, though, I finally realized the solution: to hell with Anders.  If a real friend of mine in the flesh-and-blood world pulled the sort of shenanigans he's up to, I'd be unable to remain close to that person.  Our relationship would strain and although I might feel wistful for the loss of what once was, I wouldn't feel guilt about cutting ties.  So why I have been letting my pixellated avatar be guilted or bullied into giving support that I wouldn't give?  If Hawke is modeled after my gut and my ethics, why on earth would I let her put up with this?

For all that I've always needed to maximize the number of NPCs who like or respect my PC, I've never particularly needed the bad guys to like me.  Why would I?  They're terrible people and I'm perfectly comfortable being morally opposed to them.  The Legion, the Reapers -- their disapproval is a point of pride.  And for all that I try to avoid conflict and remain friendly in the real world, there are some people out there whose approval I've never sought.  If the racists and homophobes of the world ever start singing my praises, I'll have a serious and urgent need to re-examine the course of my life.

What Dragon Age II has done for me is that it has allowed me to bring that last, formerly missing piece of my personal moral core with me into my characters.  You know what?  I don't need Anders to like me!  I don't need to help him.  And if he's making a series of poor choices that harm Miriam Hawke's life and her other relationships?  He can go to hell.

For all that I raged and agonized about Kate Shepard's inability to keep both Jack and Miranda loyal in Mass Effect 2, I appreciate that it happened.  Sometimes, when you're surrounded by people with different priorities, you do find yourself in conflict, and there's not a soul on earth powerful enough to resolve every single conflict among his or her peers just through the force of good will alone.  Companions might choose a (metaphorical) hill to die on that ends a friendship, or co-workers might join cause for a common goal even if they hate you.  That's how the real world works.  And if I'm looking for mature nuance in my game writing (which I am), I have to be able to acknowledge that there are some hurts that my heroes just can't fix.

I've avoided spoilers regarding the rest of the game, but I'm pretty convinced at this point that Anders is going to blow the shit out of a major part of Kirkwall with or without Hawke's help.  As a result, innocent people are going to die -- a lot of them.

Knowing that, and knowing that Anders is so set on his path that he won't even tell Hawke the truth, to let her give him aid freely or not at all?  He can well and truly go to hell.  Blackmail is no mark of friendship, and I'm over it.  Anders has cured me of one small portion of the ego of the gamer, and brought me to a more mature approach toward my characters as a consequence.

I'll still create characters who are essentially me and play as if I were there, because that's half the fun.  But I the player have the self-respect not to take abuse or cavort with assholes, and now I've realized: Hawke does too.

I'm choosing against friendship and I'm choosing against helping, and those go against my grain. 30 years of RPGs have taught me to accept every quest and seek every approval, and 30 years of female socialization have taught me to be careful when and how I make waves.

But 30 years of moral judgement have also taught me right from wrong.  Anders is wrong, and feeling that I can and should tell him so is surprisingly satisfying.  I just wish there were a "punch in the face" animation to go with.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 3.1: Box it Up

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3 | 1.4 | 2.1 | 2.2
[This post is very image-heavy and so much of it is behind a jump.]

The discussion so far, over the last six months or so, has focused on what we see inside games: how the characters, both player and non-player, are designed; how the characters comport themselves; how the scenery of the narrative world is arranged for the male gaze; that the scenery of the world is, in fact, arranged; and how so many of the game worlds we visit use the same tropes to tell the same stories with the same kind of gender problems built into them.

The umbrella of "games, gaming, and gamer culture," though, goes well beyond the in-game, narrative, digital worlds.  Arguably, the biggest and most persistent problems we face aren't in the text, but rather, are wrapped around it.  And so we reach the third bucket of this series: marketing.

We've looked at the existence of the Chainmail Bikini trope before (1.2), but the problems of female characters in game marketing are bigger than, well, boobs.  Broken down, we're presented with two major areas of concern: the invisibility of non-sexualized female characters in marketing art, and the over-visibility of minor female characters just for the sex appeal.

A huge number of games do this.  After thinking of some on my own, I put the question to Twitter and received another few dozen suggestions in the first hour.  Sadly, there's no shortage of examples.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Guest Post Roundup

As promised, here's a roundup to the three guest posts I did at Alyssa's place last week:
  • Video Game Stories for Non-Gamers, in which I take a stab at a short list of games suitable for those who are interested in epic or clever stories, but who don't have a decade's worth of gamer hair-trigger reflexes built up.
  • On Games vs Gamers, in which I summarize in under 600 words roughly all of the work I regularly do over here, pointing out the existence of the male gaze and so on.
  • Friday Tunes, in which I had worked 12+ hours a day at Day Job all week and decided the hell with it, here's some video game music I really like.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Blog News

Two things:

1.) Posting here will be slow-to-nonexistent this week.  However, I'm excited to announce that it's because I will be doing some guest-posting at Alyssa Rosenberg's blog, Tuesday through Friday.  I've got one or two ideas brewing / drafts a-going already but if you've got something you'd love to see me take to her audience, speak up. :)  (Oh, also, hello new readers!  Welcome.)

2.) Your Critic has a voice!  And although I am of course sure it sounds nothing like me, in actuality I suspect it rather does.  You can hear me and several brilliant writers and editors of The Border House in the inaugural episode of their podcast!  This episode focuses on romantic arcs and diversity issues in BioWare's Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises.  To have a listen, clicky clicky.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"I'm trying to undo it, remember?"

[This entire post discusses the story and endings of Bastion at length and in depth.  Consider this a spoiler warning.]

The revelations all came from Zia; she was my key to understanding Bastion.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Blog Admin, September Edition

Just a few notes.

  • I had a blast being part of The Border House's inaugural podcast recording session last night, and I look forward to that going live whenever it does.
  • I helped out my friend Liz at Liz Tells Frank again... I'm sure everyone here knows what game I was describing.  ;) 
  • "Let's Talk About Sex" was reprinted at GameCritics and at The Border House
  • A version of "On Gaming Death" has been frontpage featured at Bitmob.
  •  The busiest time of the entire year for me at Day Job is the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October.  I've been working overtime and having weekend obligations (weddings far away, etc) and so there's been very little gaming or writing time.  Apologies.  I hope we can return to our regularly scheduled programming in mid-October.  I like blogging much more than I like doing my day job, but only the latter gives me a steady paycheck and health insurance.  ;)
  • That said, I'm working on a piece for myself about Bastion that's more fun than I thought (like the game and its soundtrack), and I'm working on two pieces for other outlets as well.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Win, Lose, or Fail

A bunch of gaming writers have recently cycled back around to one of the most foundational questions of our art.  No matter what perspective each of us prefers, no matter which lens each of us uses, down at the bottom there's a single question even more important than the perennial argument of "Are games art?"

Our core issue is this: what are video games?

Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer launched this most recent salvo with Games Aren't Clocks:

I say it's time to let go of our preoccupation with gameplay as the primary criterion upon which to evaluate a game's merits. It's time to stop fetishizing mechanics as the defining aspect of game design. Designers must be free to arrange their priorities as they wish - and, increasingly, they are. Critics, too, must be nimble and open-minded enough to consider gameplay as one among many other useful criteria on which to judge a game's quality and aspirations.

This caused a nearly instant rejoinder from journalist Dennis Scimeca at his personal blog, Punching Snakes, in which he asserted that actually, Games ARE Clocks:

Video games can afford to suffer some modicum of technical errors and still be playable – we routinely look past the regularly-scheduled bugs in Bethesda titles all the time without letting them ruin our fun – but if their mechanics are so broken so as to preclude play? Without play, there is no game, at which point nothing else matters.

I think the salient aspect of Abbott’s post starts midway through, when he expresses his frustration with the term “video game.” Rather than trying to redefine what the term means, in order to fit everything inside the same, comfortable box, however, I think we need new language entirely.

A few paragraphs later, he continues:

I might argue that The Sims has never been a video game, for the same lack of victory conditions. It is a simulation, a digital sandbox, and winning or losing has nothing to do with it. When competition ceases to be part of the equation, I think an object’s definition as a game should immediately be called into question. We don’t do this because even if we determined that “video game” no longer works as a descriptor, we have no fallback positions or options available.

It's an interesting debate, to me, because I think that in their own ways, both gentlemen are quite right.  Games are more than the sum of their mechanics, to many of us, and the word "game" is also loaded with connotations that may not apply to our modern interactive narratives.

Where I've gotten caught up, though, is in this idea of "winning" and "losing."  I don't think they've been the right terms to discuss game completion for a very long time.  BioShock isn't chess,  Plants vs Zombies isn't basketball, and Tetris isn't poker.  How do you decide if you're "winning" the character arc of Mass Effect, Fallout: New Vegas, or Fable III?

At its most basic, a game is something playable.  Whether it's got a story or not, no matter the genre, system, or type, a game is something that requires player input.  You, the consumer, are in some way integral to this experience.  Whether you push one button or speak a word into a microphone, whether you wave your arms at a motion sensor or deliberately hold still when you could act -- a game requires you to contribute.  That's the sum total of the agreement on our current definition of "gaming," and really that's quite a low bar.  Small wonder, then, that we keep looping through these arguments.
We don't just have a win / lose dichotomy anymore.  We do have completion and backlog; we have sandbox and short story.  But every title I can think of -- every title I've ever played and a thousand more I haven't -- has either a failure state or a success metric, and some have both.  Our metrics aren't necessarily competitive, and they might be imposed by the player rather than intrinsically by the game.  There are little successes and big ones, game-ending failures and completely surmountable ones, but every pixellated problem I've ever pounced on has at least one or the other.

(If at first you don't succeed, you fail.)

Writing about L. A. Noire and death in gaming back to back started me down the path of contemplating the failure state in general.  I hadn't really given it any thought before, but recently I've started to understand just how important it is.  Coupling the failure state with the success state (and no, they are not necessarily binary opposites) creates pretty much our entire dynamic of gaming.

Depending on the sort of player you are, this is either a total failure, or a smashing success.

While I was starting to muse aloud on this idea on Twitter, Mattie and Line challenged me with The Sims.  That challenge leads to a critical point: player-determined goals are still crucial goals.  Your Sims can fail at their own little lives: going hungry, getting fired, burning the house down, or getting dumped by SimSpouse.  But it is common to play the game aiming for maximum drama in SimLives -- so, the argument runs, those aren't failure states at all.  They're successes.  That's all well and good, but the players who want SimHouse to burn down still have failure conditions available: the scenario in which the house, in fact, does not burn down.  The standard failure and success metrics, as envisioned by the designers, might be reversed but there are still measurable goals present, waiting to be accomplished. 

To a certain extent, most success goals can be said to be player-determined.  What's true success in Peggle: beating the story mode, or going back for an Ace and a 100% on every level?  What's good enough in Tetris: getting to level 10?  Beating your own old high score?  Beating someone else's?  What's a successful play-through of Mass Effect: paragon, renegade, or somewhere in between?

Even in Minecraft, the most popular sandbox to come along in gaming since die were first rolled for stat sheets, there are successes and failures.  Both wear many faces, of course.  But success can look like this:

Image source:

And failure can look (comically) like this:

Creation and destruction are player goals, rather than creator goals, but the game itself is still a set of tools that enables the player to achieve those goals (building a nice house, which is the sum of many smaller goals) or fail in them (committing accidental arson while installing the fireplace).

A huge amount of our gaming, though, is deliberately narrative.  Most of the games that I play certainly are.  This year alone has seen me in Fable III, Portal 2, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Fallout: New Vegas, Bastion, L.A. Noire, both Mass Effect titles, and another dozen or two that I can't immediately call to mind.  These are all cinematic stories, designed with beginnings, middles, and ends; the mechanics of their telling are a vehicle to carry us from plot point to plot point, mainly via weaponry.

Stories don't have failure conditions, but they do have endings.  Story-based games often have clear fail states, though, and that's the game over screen.  Your character has died, or the setback you face is so adverse there can be no overcoming it.  Game over, mission failed, you suck at shooting bad guys so your planet is destroyed.  Go back to a save point and try again.

Of course, sometimes they're just kidding about "game over."

But a game like Mass Effect doesn't need to rely as heavily on the fail states (though the game over screen most certainly exists), because its relying on the player input to define the character.  We care about keeping Shepard alive in the face of certain doom, but we tend to care more about whether she aims for diplomatic solutions, or shoots a guy in the face.  A failure state in Mass Effect 2 doesn't look like the game over screen given to the player if a mission goes bad; it looks like being unable to keep one of your crew members loyal, or like being unable to keep one in line.  We're playing to achieve the successes, in whichever form we feel they take, rather than to avoid the failures.

Most narrative games don't take the "define this character for yourself" trajectory that BioWare titles are famous for, of course, but they still rely on that delicate combination of success and failure.  If you're playing Phoenix Wright, the game is completely on rails.  But it has fail states: you can press the wrong statement or present the wrong evidence.  You need to have a decent understanding of what's going on in order to make correct accusations and put the evidence together properly.  And you can get it wrong to the point of seeing a "game over" screen.  (Unless you're me, and save compulsively, and reload if you're doing badly.)  Success in meeting goals -- finding evidence, correctly questioning a witness, or surviving a cross-examination -- will advance the story to the next set of goals. 

Purple's the evil one.
My most beloved games of old literally do not have a fail state.  The classic LucasArts SCUMM-engine adventure games -- Monkey Island 1 and 2; Day of the Tentacle, Loom, and more -- were revolutionary in that the player literally could not get permanently stuck or die.  (As compared to the Sierra adventure games of the era, which were death-happy, or to older games like Zork, where you could waste hours playing on past the point where you'd already screwed yourself over.)  Rather than ending with failure, the games rely on continued success.  These stories have natural bottlenecks built in: the narrative will not continue until you figure out what Bernard should do with that hamster or how Guybrush can use the rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle.  There are items that need to be found, contraptions that need to be built, and discussions that need to be had in order for the player to progress.

In a sense, these games -- of which you could easily argue L.A. Noire is the most recent descendant -- are very proactive.  Reliance on cut-scenes is very low and mainly, non-playable sequences are just showing the consequences of whatever action the player just took.  The absence of a game over screen may remove a certain kind of tension from the story, but it also removes a major source of potential frustration for the player.

With all of this said, it's true that not every game has a visible set of goals, or any available success or failure metrics.  There are titles out there that deliberately subvert the very idea of success and failure states; this is where I would say the avant-garde of gaming truly lies.  From one point of view, The Stanley Parable has six failure states.  From another point of view, it has six success states.  What it actually has are six conclusions and ways to reach them, the ultimate meanings of which are left to the player.  None are particularly desirable (at least, of the ones I saw); nor is any one better or worse than the others.  An existential crisis in every box!

The Path is another art game that subverts the idea of success and failure states.  There are six player characters; each girl has a starting point and is told to go to an ending point via the given path.  The game, such as it is, happens in the experiences along the way; the journey is the destination and the destination is incidental.  Grandmother's house is more of a concept than a crucial place to be.

One of six sisters finding maturity, sexuality, and experiential horror between home and Grandmother's.

The avant-garde exists deliberately to undermine the tropes and tools of our media.  That's what it's for, and I have long thought gaming would truly come into its own as an art form when a thriving independent and avant-garde scene could generate new ideas that would, in time, filter into mainstream development.  Film history and the histories of other arts have evolved along this path, and evolving technology and the ubiquity of distribution venues (i.e. the internet) have now made the production and release of art games common.

Aside from deliberately subversive arguable non-game experiences like The Stanley Parable (see Line Hollis for links to and reviews of more obscure art games than you can imagine), I don't think I've ever played any interactive digital experience in the "game" category that didn't have either some kind of failure or some kind of success built in.  Even the visual poem Flower partakes: you can't really fail (I was dreadful at using the motion controls, but as I recall you just keep trying, except perhaps for the stormy level), but as with a classic adventure game, you do need actively to succeed to continue.

If a game had absolutely no success metrics or failure states in any form, whether intentional or untentional, direct or subverted, dictated or player-driven, would it still be a game?  Maybe, in the same way Andy Warhol's Empire is still a film.

So, after all of this, we come back around to Dennis and to Michael.  As much as I think Dennis is wrong to assert that these digital experiences we all enjoy aren't "games," he's also right.  That is: we have to use the existing vocabulary for the time being, even if only to transition away from it as our discussion evolves.  We've only got so many words right now, and we -- players, critics, and designers -- need to be on the same plane to communicate.

But is "video game" really the right term for the transcendent, new immersive-media experience Michael seems to covet?  As long as those experiences have discrete goals, and as long as player input determines the failure or success of those goals, I think we can use the words we have.  We have a while yet to revisit our lexicon; I hope we've decided what to call the experience before we get to the point where the Holodeck actually shoots back.