Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Heavy Rage

It's all over the net now, but a day or two ago Joystiq brought us this:

David Cage, director of the soggy serial killer interactive drama Heavy Rain, has already said there won't be a sequel to that game, telling the PlayStation Blog, "We're going to be exploring a different direction, which will still be very dark and still for adults, but completely different to Heavy Rain" for Quantic Dreams' next project. That game's specifics may be a secret, but it may have a title: "Fiv5" ... yes, in the style of David Fincher's film Se7en.

I would indeed like to see them branch out of the Serial Killer genre, but I have a feeling that's not going to happen.  Here's what I think will happen:
  • It will be billed as the next iteration of cinematic gaming / interactive film
  • And it will look great
  • And it will look exciting
  • And everyone will get it, and play it
  • And it will feature: more dumb choices by characters
    • More plot holes
    • More exploitation and victimization of reason for no reason whatsoever
    • More horrible violence
    • More serial killing
  • And I will want to punch David Cage in the face.
 I mean, I'm sure we'll end up playing and owning it anyway.  But that's what I think will happen.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 1.1: Strength of Character

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction

During the "Females on Female Characters" panel at PAX East this year, something that's bugged me for a very long time came to the forefront.  Over and over, through the years, I've noticed that when we talk about "strong female characters," we don't define the term.  To some people, "strong" means only "butch."  To others, "strong" equates to "violent."  You can guess what I think of these equivalencies.

So when we're asking for a "strong female character," what do we really mean?

I asked some friends and strangers (both near me at PAX and on Twitter): "Who would you pick as an example of a real-life strong woman?" without context.  Who came up?

Hillary Clinton
Julia Child
Condoleezza Rice

Michelle Obama
Lady Gaga

Let's take a moment to notice a few things about these women.  Most of them are well over 30 and many are over 40 or 50 -- or at least were, when they came to public awareness.  (Not all are still with us.)  They are not all white -- although admittedly, not as diverse as would be ideal.  Some are known to be feminine.  Some are not.  But for the moment, the most important facet is this: although most of them are famous for kicking ass in the metaphorical sense, none of them are known for their physical fighting or shooting abilities.

Almost exclusively, these women have been at the center of their own lives, not only playing the hands they are dealt in a passive or reactive sense, but instead determining the courses of their own fates with active, determined steps.  All have contributed to the creation of their own destinies, in the face of obstacles both external and internal.  When made to work within disadvantageous systems, these women have have found ways to force the systems to change around them.  And if that's not strength itself, what is?

We have a tendency to equate propensity toward violence with strength in all video game characters, not just female ones, but it's especially glaring when looking at the women because it seems only women whose defining quality is the ability to shoot from the hip get included in the broader canon.  If you go around asking mainstream gaming (and Google), "Who are the strongest female characters in gaming?" you see:

Samus Aran (Metroid)
Bayonetta (Bayonetta)
Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)
The Boss (Metal Gear Solid 3)

(By the way, and not incidentally, while it took me 30 seconds or less to find the photos I used of the real-life women above, it took me a solid 20 minutes of Google work to come across a usable, forward-facing, non-porno, non-suggestive image of Lara Croft -- and Samus was only marginally easier.)

While gaming in general does not rely exclusively upon violence, a huge category of narrative, fully fleshed-out gaming does.  The competitive multiplayer sphere obviously relies on kills and captures, but despite our general agreement that gaming doesn't cause violence, pretty much every AAA title to come out in recent times either portrays or simulates violence.

All hope, however, is not lost.  Although the heyday of the adventure game has come and gone (and may be coming again, in hybrid titles and new forms), some of our most memorable heroines, to this day, have been known for their stories and problem-solving, not their aim:

Kate Walker (Syberia)

April Ryan (The Longest Journey)

Zoe Castillo (Dreamfall)

This other collection of characters is made of girls and women who can face their fears, and not just the fears of things that go bump in the night: they are strong.  (And I've written about April and Zoe before.)  Female characters who can think through solutions, who can face down systems stacked against them, who can, indeed, clobber a monster if there's no other option: that's how I'm inclined to define strength.

I am aware that there are two glaring absences here.  One is the entire sphere of Japanese-developed gaming.  "What about Lightning and Fang?  What about Yuna, and Terra?"  The answer, I'm afraid, is painfully blunt and dead-end: I almost never enjoy playing JRPGs, and as a result, am most assuredly not an expert in their construction.  I'm a member of and a consumer of primarily Western-generated culture, and I know when to stop talking.  Japanese games are not my forte, and I don't have time to play them all to get caught up for this series.  I think they have a different set of positive portrayal / negative culture problems than Western games do. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.  Not all characters there are violent, even when there's fighting involved, and some are strong.

The other omission I am sure to hear about?  She is called Commander Shepard.  Or she is called a Grey Warden, or Hawke, or the Lone Wanderer, or the Courier.  That's because these women or men are another topic.  The personalities of those characters are driven by the choices and moral preferences of the players; the characters who I have chosen to discuss above are fixed in space and time, as it were.  Their stories are already told and it is merely our job to follow them; their games are as on-rails as it gets.  Looking at the character of player-definable leads is a trickier, and more nuanced task, as no two players are likely to portray the exact same character.

Also I can't talk Mass Effect's supporting cast yet because I haven't finished it, but I have a friend all over that beat.

Next in the series: we look at (ha) the sexualization of female characters.

Monday, March 21, 2011

No medal for you!

The debate around "what are games?" comes up a lot, and today, elsewhere on the web, Roger Ebert came up again.  We all know how that goes.
But that conversation brought me back to something I've been thinking about for a long time.  (Blogger's draft archive says that I, in fact, started this post originally over two months ago.)  The thought applies to film and to modern TV as well as to gaming, but we're talking specifically gaming here now.

I would love to see reviews (which are different from analytical criticisms) split up like Olympic ice skating scores are split up. "Technical" and "Artistic" are both important elements of visual storytelling, and they each deserve their own mention.  The graphics and mechanics of a game are its technical merits; the writing, mood, and storytelling of a game would be its artistic ones.

When it's working, you get a product where the two play off each other.  The framing of shots tells you part of the story: who's in the foreground?  Why is there a crazy angle?  What's with all the shadows?  Those elements are narratively relevant.  Similarly, in gaming, player control or the lack thereof can have an enormous impact on the story.  The way Heavy Rain tries to have the player mimic the motions of the characters is one example; the infamous moment in Bioshock is another.

Meanwhile, modern narrative games are stories of both breathtakingly intimate detail, and shockingly epic scope.  Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, Half-Life, Uncharted, Bioshock, and Fallout are all telling wildly different stories, but they're all doing it spectacularly well.  Whether it's trying to save one child's life or whether it's trying to save the entire galaxy / world / kingdom, modern games sweep us up into a narrative, and that story is conveyed through writing first and visual means second.  Even in a game that doesn't rely on dialogue (Shadow of the Colossus), the story is still a tale being told by some means, and that tale can be judged on its own merits as well.

When well thought-out, the technical aspects add something to the overall feel of a game.  When poorly thought-out, they subtract.  But even when a game isn't really working in that fluid, seamless sense, it can still achieve in one way or the other.  A graphically stunning, bug-free, easy-to-move-in game can be one that doesn't tell a story worth the hearing... and the world's most compelling tale can also be wrapped in bad performance, memory leaks, terrible graphics, and F-grade mechanics.

So I'd love to see reviews broken up into Technical and Artistic, with an overall weighted determination based on both.  (But of course, I'd treat them like I always treat reviews and read them after I'd seen the movie / played the game and formed my own opinions, haha.  I like not to be biased going in to something new.)

Fallout: New Vegas pissed me off because although I wanted to give it excellent marks for artistic merit, I had to flunk it on technical.  To extend the skating metaphor, it fell on its ass every time it tried a jump.  It fell on its ass skating laps around the practice rink.  It just plain fell on its ass.  This was not a new outing for the engine, nor for the dev team, nor for any part of it.  This, in a technical way, was Fallout 3 in a different location and with a better script.  So why didn't they just hold it for a month or six until it was ready?

This rant has been brought to you by my new playthrough of Divinity II.  This patched version, which I got through Steam at the Holiday sale, is technically about a million times better than the disc version.  And given that I had bugs in the initial release so bad that I had to send my save games back to Larian for repair multiple times... why didn't they just do this in the first place?!

The technical and the artistic -- the form and function -- are inseparable in a gaming in a way they are not in other media.  The existence of patching makes studios lazy here.  You don't get to sneak a chapter 14 rewrite into a book someone has purchased, and you can't go tweaking Act II of episode 4 a prime time TV drama after the whole season is already in the can and delivered to the network broadcast center.  But games have constant patching, all the time.  Constant DLC.  Constant implications that the creators of our art throw it at us before they consider it to be their finished, or even functional, product.

You can take a high technical score and a high artistic score and still be played, or observed, or talked about -- but no Game of the Year, no game that will place in the Canon will ever exist that doesn't master both.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

PAX East: Post-Mortem

Holy crap, what a jam-packed weekend.  Welcome, new readers and viewers from Twitter.  This is going to be a very long post, with loads of photos, so I'm availing myself of the seldom-used jump function.  Also, for those who are interested in a more coherent perspective, I recommend Maddy Myers's Boston Phoenix series, particularly her Sunday overview.

Also, as it turns out... this happened, haha.  In truth I am pretty certain that Lesley and Dennis (and others) out-tweeted us, but apparently we're just the best and most consistent users of the #paxeast hashtag. ;)  If you want to get a real feel for what I was thinking as the convention happened, Twitter's the place.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Your Critic Needs a Nap

Hello, internets.  Hello anyone I gave my card to at PAX.  Hello loyal readers.

Your Critic valiantly tried to live-blog from PAX East but the Blogger Droid app decided that "publish" was not going to work as such, ever, from anywhere, so instead I have a really quite busy indeed Twitter stream, and a bunch of photos and even some short video on my phone.

In extremely brief summation, to be expanded upon probably Tuesday (I'll be offline for family matters on Monday): The "Females on Female Characters" panel was not so great.  The "The Other Us" panel was fantastic.  The ladies' brunch and today's diversity-themed panel were great.  I met loads of people and did lots of great things, and had a fantastic time.  The BCEC is leagues better than the Hynes as a space for 65,000 gamers and I believe next year they can make it better still.  (More Sumo chair areas!)

I am deeply satisfied with my experience and also now aware how very challenging the "Beyond the Girl Gamer" series is going to be.  Be good to each other; I'm going to attend this memorial tomorrow and then try to sleep for 3 or 4 days straight.  Because god knows that "sleeping" and "eating" and "water" came in pretty low on this weekend's agenda.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

PAX East, here I come!

Your Critic is boarding a flight to Boston at 6:00 this evening, and leaving for the airport at 3:00.

(Actually, Your Critic hopes to be boarding a flight to Boston at 6:00 this evening.  The FAA and NOAA currently indicate this may be unrealistic, and that a midnight arrival time in Boston is not out of the question.)

Here's a fair warning: you can expect a constant stream of nonsense from me via Twitter, possibly even live-tweeting some panels, and you can also expect occasional short-form blog posts, sometimes with accompanying photo or video.  My still-new phone is cool like that.

What you can't expect: for me to reply to comments in any depth.  I can moderate on-the-go thanks to the Disqus app (so feel free to talk amongst yourselves) but I won't be able to have any two-page discussions until I get back, which will effectively be on Tuesday (March 15).

Have fun.  Play good games.  I know I will!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Embiggen the Tent!

Blogger and journalist Shani O. Hilton has started tabletop gaming:

DnD is pretty easy to pick up, and it seems, depending on the person running the game, sympathetic to the newbies. It’s certainly no more complicated to understand than baseball or football. And really, it’s as fun a way to spend a few relaxed hours with friends, pizza, and diet orange soda as I can think of.

I have to admit my own bias here: I've never done the tabletop thing.  I have seen a huge resurgence of interest in it in the last yew years, though.  Friends of mine back in Boston have D&D groups.  Penny Arcade has become as much about miniatures as it has about consoles.  PAX has tabletop rooms, in addition to console, PC, and handheld spaces.

I'll never, ever be a card-collecting game person.  (I had a boyfriend in college who, after teaching me to kick his ass in Heroes III, tried to get me onto Magic.  Not.  Happening.)  I'm scared by math and by miniatures and by having to store items in physical space.

But at parties, I've had a blast with the random board and card games friends have brought by.  (Yes, I throw that kind of party.)  I've been scared off by 20 years' of unwelcoming nerdboy players of D&D... but I feel like the time of communal tabletop gaming is ascendant.

So after playing random pick-up games in the hall with strangers at last year's PAX East, this year I'm feeling emboldened by how much more welcoming the community seems to be getting.  I've decided that one of my goals for PAX is to try a tabletop something, and I've had someone offer to guide me.

Video gaming has gotten more inclusive, and continues to do so.  In this very socially networked world, in-person gaming seems to be doing the same.  I hope I get to play something fun.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction

I've mentioned several times that three of us submitted a panel application to PAX East 2011.  They didn't take the panel, and I don't know that I was expecting them to.  But I liked what we came up with, and so it's going to be a year-long series.

When we sat down to think about what mattered, and where we felt the issues regarding gender in gaming were, we came up with an outline and a focus.  Distilled down to its absolute shortest one-liner format, our three-page outline looks like this:

Focus: The role of women and girls as players, characters, and participants in games and gamer culture

Areas of Discussion:
  • Characters (male and female, and how they relate) in games
  • Writing (gender roles, why they persist, language used) in games
  • Marketing (writing about, images used, language chosen) of games
  • Gamer culture (web presence, online multiplayer, stereotypes)
  • And of course, knowing all this -- where do we go from here?
There are many underlying, foundational issues to the problem of gender in gaming, and they're basically summed up as why we still have feminism.  And a great deal of that is beyond the scope of me or of this blog.  There are other places to take that.

But for us, we can agree: there are significant problems with the way female video game characters are written.  There are huge problems with the graphical way in which female video game characters are portrayed.  Writing of games has issues with women, and writing about games is, arguably, even worse.  Games are marketed to a mythical monolithic 15-24 year old white male who may not even exist, and gamer culture has rallied around what that stereotypical marketing figure is supposed to prefer.

The "girl gamer" isn't often a girl (in the case of Your Critic, she's 30 and a married, employed adult), but she is a gamer.  And we're going to start, next in the series, by examining available female characters, past and present.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Mary Sue Gamer

Spouse and friend were gleefully sharing this today:

And it started me thinking about something that's been bothering me for ages.  You see it most often in fantasy-world RPGs, but it happens all the damn time: the player character of a game is a total Mary Sue [wiki / TVTropes].

In an RPG, you do just that: play a role.  But there's a school of thought that you project that role onto yourself, and yourself into that role.  Some games are designed this way: in a Fallout title, you are in first person as the Lone Wanderer or the Courier, and your character really is an empty shell filled with your own values and ideas.  And in a Mass Effect, you get to customize Shepard, both in appearance and in back story, and so to an extent occupy that persona as well.

Then there's the other sort of game, one with a pre-defined character with a narrative arc not really of your choosing.  You see it a lot in an FPS or an adventure game: Half-Life, Deus Ex, Uncharted, Heavy Rain, The Longest Journey -- all of these and many more are someone's stories, pre-told, that you help them through with occasional decisions.

That's just background.  We mainly all know this stuff.

But where it's starting to bother me is where your player character, whether of your creation or not, is Destined to fill the Super Awesome Role of Mega Good.  Someone needs saving?  Your job!  A planet needs rescuing?  Your job!  Timmy fell down the well?  Your job!  Rescue the princess?  Your job!

The more epic the scope of the story, the worse this gets.  And that makes sense, to a degree: if you're going to save the kingdom, the world, or the universe itself... you're going to need to be pretty badass.  So the skills, the weapons, the powers... yours, all yours.  And you look ripped (or ripped AND busty) and everyone gives you money and you're just such a nice person that you even stop to rescue that cat from that tree.

Unless of course the game has an Evil option, in which case you're just such a horrible person that you even stop to slice down that tree with a poor innocent cat in it.

It's as if a huge category of games operate on the Superman model: you're just that awesome because you were born that way.  A smaller number operate on the Batman model: you're just that awesome because you had money and willpower and worked hard for a million years.

But I'm becoming a bigger fan of the third way: you're not all that awesome, actually, but with luck and timing and cleverness and help, you can still make a difference to the NPCs who need your help.

Really, I think these days I'm not all about saving the world.  The Longest Journey lampshaded the Heroic Awesome Savior issue with April Ryan, but I'm not sure that's satisfying anymore.  For all the flaws Heavy Rain has in concept and in execution, I find Ethan Mars a lot more workable than any epic hero of gaming I've yet met.