Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Let's talk about sex!

I had an unexpected amount of video game time to fill, this past weekend.  After an hour of Bastion and an hour of Chrono Cross I cast about for something new, feeling at odds.  What I really wanted to play was Mass Effect 3, and that's physically impossible for another six months.  I tried other games as a distraction but none of them actually satisfied my craving, no more than a bag full of carrot sticks actually satisfies a craving for a bag of chips.

Everyone on Twitter gave helpful, thoughtful suggestions for what I should try, and in the end I ignored every last one of them and got sucked into a marathon six-hour session of Fable III.

This is my pretty pretty princess, kicking your ass. She had a piratey hat but NPCs made fun.

Fable III isn't exactly challenging, as far as game play, story, or game design go.  And yet, it has challenged me in a most unexpected way.  I knew, offhandedly, before I started playing that this was considered a "mature RPG."  And yet I was surprised (pleasantly so, but still taken aback for a moment) to find that among the character attributes for nearly every adult NPC in the game, there is a sexual preference qualifier.

The game was telling me, bluntly, in no euphemistic or uncertain terms, which of the characters I was interacting with were straight or gay -- and, by extension, letting me know up front which men and women were considered to be in the dating pool for my character.

Knowing all of this, and knowing how the Fable franchise prides itself on a choices-and-consequences approach, I was still surprised further to discover that the bed in a player's house can be interacted with -- and on interacting, the options are "sleep" and "sex."  Sleep has essentially an alarm clock option, and sex can be chosen in the protected or unprotected varieties.

I am in my thirties and have been playing video games since the middle of the 1980s, and this is the first time I've ever seen the existence of sex, as an event unto itself, so explicitly and practically addressed in my pixels.

To be sure, I have played my fair number of games that contain romantic interludes, or the plain ol' bumpin' of uglies.  Divine Divinity contains an unmarked quest for finding the main city's brothel, and rewards a large amount of XP for employing services therein.  (The brothel in question has both male and female staff, and the player character can pick either, without comment and with equal experience awarded.)  Then of course there are the just-barely-offscreen quicktime event shenanigans in God of War (I, II, and III), in which Kratos turns his ragey gusto toward anyone with boobs for a time.

Fallout: New Vegas does not tread the BioWare-style path of party member romances, but sex workers (both voluntary and involuntary) feature fairly prominently in quests and on the Strip, and there are indeed some questionable fade-to-black moments the player character can select if so inclined.  And then of course, there are the BioWare games, with their array of party member romance options, based on conversation and consummated in a carefully choreographed fade to black.

I ship this so hard, but I'm actually grateful for the fade to black.

Indeed, the fade to black is what I'm used to seeing in games (with "suggestive offscreen noise" its crass and less-often seen cousin).  We all know how this goes: provided you've said the right things throughout Mass Effect 2, someone comes up to Shepard's quarters during the last quiet moment on the Normandy, they exchange a few more words, there's some suggestive motion, press "F" to continue, and it's the next morning.  (Relatively speaking, since they're in space...)  The romance option with Liara in the first game was much more explicit, but even so, probably less tawdry than many R-rated movies I've seen.

It's actually just as well that ME2 fades to black; if, later, you choose to call your special someone back up to Shepard's quarters, the "couch" and "bed" animations might actually be the most awkward, least natural, most static, least romantic, and least sexy interactions on Earth.  Even as PG rated cuddle sessions, they fail.

It's not just a body-shape thing; male Shep with Tali is equally wretched but you can image search that one yourself.
(Warning: don't image search that one.)

Still, the real surprise for me with sex in Fable III is not that it exists; sex is implied in plenty of games.  The surprise is that its existence is announced independently.  By adding "sex" to the bed options, and indicating NPC sexual orientation (and flirtatiousness levels) in info boxes, the game is putting out there the idea that sex is a thing your PC might do for any combination of fun, profit, and love, depending on any number of whims, emotions, and circumstances.

Almost like the real world, there.  How novel!

Now, I know I'm late to the discussion, and I haven't played Fable or Fable II.  (I was interested in Fable II but there's no PC port and likely never to be.)  I knew going in that a wide array of player choices existed in the game, but "vague understanding they exist" and "actually having a choice in front of you to make" are two different things.

For what it's worth, my Princess hasn't shacked up with anyone yet, mainly because she hasn't met a soul worth her time.  Most of the NPCs she's encountered and interacted with are neither attractive nor interesting, so "friend" is more than enough work there.  (Also I can't actually find the way back to my house, which was free DLC content and doesn't appear on the world map that I can find.  I may need to buy an apartment in town.)  I certainly have no moral objection to my character having (safe, consenting) sex.

Once again, though, I've been surprised by the baggage that I the player bring into this world with me.  Although its wardrobe cues are drawn from the 16th - 19th centuries, Fable III takes place in a version of the 1820s that never existed, where most fantasy RPGs take place in a version of the 13th or 14th centuries that never existed.  Its "Albion" is yet another false Britain, and so I find myself instinctively guarding against the roles reserved for women in the Georgian and Victorian eras.  In that environment, I feel that marriage is not actually an option for my female character.  In order to remain a successful, independent, respected agent, my gut says she needs to stay single.

These are totally assumptions I the player bring to the world, and really I only notice and question them because I take the time to write here.  I mean, as mentioned, I have no problem pairing off my Shepard.  Yes, I felt that not only did she have the burden of representing humanity to the galaxy, but also of representing women.  But when forced to examine it, I find that in a sci-fi, future-based environment, I feel that a woman can be partnered and yet also successful and respected.  Plus, the Commander was a renowned, accomplished hero in her own right before a partnership option entered her life.  She has a strong identity and can keep being herself, and the world in which she lives will support that.

Intellectually, I'm keenly aware that this Albion is not actually England in the dawn of the Industrial Age.  I know that it's a game in which I can make any choice the mechanics allow, and still reach one metric of success as a player.  I'll be able to complete the story regardless of the side-choices my Princess makes.  But in my gut, I still feel the pressure of a few centuries' worth of feminist issues.

Realistically, I don't actually think the mechanics of the game will enforce any kind of social penalties for marriage.  Based on what I've seen so far, the biggest impact on the overall story arc I can imagine is NPC gossip and chatter around me in towns.  But this unnamed Princess is right now forging her place in the world.  She's trying, very hard, to become a leader and to earn the loyalty of an entire kingdom through hard work and hard fighting.  She's aiming to place herself at the very head of a nation-wide rebellion to oust her lousy brother, who's a terrible king.  That's no small task!

And yet while I feel that a permanent partner (even with divorce easily available in-game) would hold this nameless lady back, I'm not at all averse to her having some sexual interludes for fun, if the right NPCs show up.  Somehow I don't feel that the Princess openly having gentlemen or lady visitors will set off any actual consequences with her people (though they may gossip); we'll consider this the "never existed" half of the culture.

Sex in games (and everywhere else) has a way of falling into a certain trap, though.  Alex Raymond wrote a really interesting piece a while back on how video games perpetuate the commodity model of sex:

To give an example: a guy I know once received a call from a couple of his friends, who asked if he wanted to go to a strip club. He said something like, “Why would I want to go to a shady bar and pay a random stranger to show me her boobs when I can have sex with my girlfriend?” And his oh-so-clever friends informed him that Hey! When you think about it, you are still just paying to see boobs! Except the payment is in dinners and dates and compliments, rather than dollar bills.

Ha. Ha. Get it? Because
all women are prostitutes.  ...

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, some video games allow the player character to have sex with NPCs; even more allow the player to have romantic relationships with NPCs. What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence–you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.

This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex–the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are “rewarded” with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result–the reward–of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership. For example, one gamer commented that the romance in
Mass Effect seemed like the romantic interest was really saying, “‘Keep talking to me and eventually we’ll have sex’”. The relationship is not the goal; the goal is the tasteful PG-13 sex scene. The NPC’s thoughts and desires aren’t relevant; what matters is the tactics you use to get what you want. This is a boring mechanic in games and dangerously dehumanizing behavior in real life.

Fable III is most certainly and emphatically guilty of what Alex describes; the mechanic of all relationships in the game is purely an item-exchange, level-up sort of thing.  And yet it actually feels more like a free choice than in most other games I've seen.  Although mysteriously my assumptions about marriage in-game are framed by a historical understanding of the 19th century, my assumptions about sex remain grounded firmly in the 21st: any number of adults can do whatever they all willingly and openly consent to, and should do so as safely as possible.

In pretty much every other game I've ever played, sex for a player character exists in one of two contexts: (1) within a romance arc (not necessarily leading to marriage), or (2) as a literal commodity, traded for money or information.  The avatars I've controlled have encountered a number of sex workers in their times and likewise my player characters have on occasion used seduction as a tool to advance.  But sex as a choice, with a willing partner, just because we're both there and it seems like fun?  Not so much.

This, then, is the paradox I find.  While sex in Fable III is to every pixel a tradeable, level-able commodity, it's also a free and open choice, presented without judgement.  If there is a "doing it right" to be found, I'm certain this game isn't it -- but it's also, in a strange way, closer.

With the recent release of Catherine, "how does game design approach actual sex and actual relationships?" is a question flying around criticism circles at the speed of the Internet.  In almost all cases, I think that answer is still, "badly," with a chaser of "inadequately."  Ultimately, all of our games still rely on sets of numerical mechanics and rules.  They're a series of unbreakable "if, then" statements and our heroes (and villains) can't decide to take a left turn to the established rules of reality the way a flesh-and-blood human can.

In this one small way, though, in this one tiny instance, my Princess can break the rules.  Maybe the next time I see "sex" as an in-game choice, it will be in a game where the NPCs are actually designed to be characters, rather than a half-dozen fixed sound bites and gestures.  Society's head might explode.

*If you hear Salt-N-Pepa singing in your head, congratulations: you, too, are an old.  Now dance!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Inferior Quality: Not for Structural Use!

[The following post begins with and contains a number of huge spoilers about L.A. Noire and in particular its last act, and so is behind the jump for those who wish to avoid such things.]

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Gaming Death

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about a lot of new media and pop culture phenomena, but not very much about games.  In talking about Portal, she begins to address why:
I’ve been traveling a lot lately, so I’m playing through Portal much more slowly than I’d hoped, but as the levels have gotten harder and I’ve started negotiating around poison moats, I’ve figured out one of the things that kept me from playing games regularly for a long time: I find dying in-game incredibly stressful.
So far, nothing too terrible happens to Chell. If I screw up, I hit some brownish water, and I get a loading screen, and we start over again. But I’m invested enough in Chell, despite the fact that I am her and only rarely see her around corners and through portals, that I don’t have much sense of how she ended up at Aperture or why she — or me — has been left alive and alone. Thomas Bissell in his profile of video games voice actress Jennifer Hale ... talks about how effective she makes Commander Shepard’s death seem in Mass Effect, and the incentive that is to keep playing—you don’t want to leave her there, or leave on that note. My anxiety is about getting there in the first place: I get frozen up by the possibility of harm coming to my character.

I don't remember which one is Clyde, but I always blame him.
I got thinking about character death in gaming, after reading this.  Really, it's an odd concept, because it's a mixed bag of concepts.  We lump a whole bunch of different occurrences and design choices into this one idea.  Thirty years ago, avatar "death" or destruction made perfect sense as a design concept.  You need a mechanism in your game to tell the player that she has lost, or failed at her task.

Beyond just communicating failure to the player, avatar "death" used to be a mechanism that meant the kid behind you at the arcade would get a chance, eventually, to put his quarter in the machine and take his turn after you, or at least a mechanism by which you, yourself, would keep pumping in your change for one more chance at the challenge.  Simple, easy: a time and talent constraint built in.  The more you suck, the more quarters the machine will consume!

In the 1980s, though, the arcade famously went to our living rooms.  Throughout the NES era and into the SNES age, though, we had the convention of game "lives" built in.  By then it was just how we played, and 1-UP was part of the lexicon.  Trying and failing to cross a chasm or fight an enemy meant you "died," and you needed another guy.  (An aside: even if the player is controlling a female character or a completely non-human, non-gendered avatar of some kind, it's still "another guy."  Curious.)

I was always really glad for the collected 1-UPs by World 3.

As we all know, though, games have come a long way since the 1980s.  There was a time when they were all sets of arcade skills that sometimes had stories attached; now, we have a whole collection of stories that also have skill sections built in.

Unlike Alyssa, I don't get stressed when my first person player character "dies" in Portal.  Her death is impermanent; the player's respawn is nearly instantaneous and the game replaces puts the avatar pretty much right back at the site of the player's failure.  I no more stress out about launching myself into a turret (oops) than I do about laying a jigsaw puzzle piece in the wrong corner, or about missing a move in Tetris. Portal is ultimately about solving puzzles and although there's a great narrative framework going on, I don't feel personally affected by Chell's ceasing to be; I only feel frustration at my lack of talent or timing.

To infinity, and beyond!  Wait, what?

That said, there is indeed the frustration of bruised pride to contend with.  I don't feel any more attached to the persona of Chell or to her story in Portal 2, but I take more offense at dying because the game is easier.  It relies more on thinking puzzles through (which I can do, and well) rather than on reflex timing (which I can't do well at all).  When I fail at something that I could physically have done right, if only I had thought it through more clearly, I take personal offense at the failure.  That's part and parcel of the ego of the gamer, right there.  This puzzle -- this story -- must have a right answer, and so I must find it.  Otherwise, I, personally, have failed.

We very rarely have a limited number of second chances anymore.  Our games do still exist along the pass-fail, do-die dichotomies, but our stories, as a general rule, no longer continually penalize failure.  Rather than face a character death, we are instead taking a Mulligan on the last five minutes.  We get a rewind (sometimes literally, as in World of Goo) back to before that jump or that shot or that ambush in the corridor.

Sometimes, though... sometimes, it is still personal.  I got really ticked off on the very few occasions when my Commander Shepard died and I had to reload.  In her case, I did feel deeply invested in that character.  She was important, her story is important, and death didn't feel like taking a do-over on a game mission: it felt like a deeper kind of failure, the kind with some sort of betrayal or judgement attached.  The feeling only got worse in Mass Effect 2, where I had the ability to get other characters permanently killed off.  During the climactic mission of the game, I routinely let my fear of harming others send me into a kind of paralysis, during which I had to pause the game and pace around the room instead.

My indecision had nothing to do with this. By which I mean, had everything to do with this.

Of course, that's entirely by design.  When BioWare can make me pace around the room and ask my cat for opinions on who should lead a team (his response was to nibble on my arm), they've won.  Anyone designing a huge-budget, open-world, cinematic-style AAA game is invested in the player's investment.  That so many of us seem to have fangirled over this franchise is not an accident.

Not all games, though, are so large scale.  This summer's XBox indie darling Bastion has finally made the leap to PC, via Steam.  After watching all of the game criticism circles consistently lighting up about this title for a couple of months my curiosity had the better of me, and this week I did something I rarely do and jumped on a day-one purchase.  I had some time that evening to give it a whirl.

I kind of suck at Bastion.

It's not a game at which one can suck, exactly, and yet I manage to do so.  Still, I can tell that many of my woes are simply clumsiness: the mouse-and-keyboard combination isn't necessarily ideal for titles designed with an XBox 360 controller in mind, and I might need to remap a couple of keys for easier use.  Over time, I will adapt to this system and after a few days, having mapped my muscle memory to this particular set of mechanics and demands, I will cease sucking.

However, being terrible at Bastion for the time being has proven useful with insights on character death.  The gimmick of the game is narration: you hear what you're doing, what you've done, and what you're about to do, and you hear it with inflection and judgement.  Thus: the first time Kid plummets off the side of the path, to his doom, the narrator is patient and understanding.  The third or fourth time, the narrator's patience begins to wear thin.

On the plus side, there are plenty of jars and such to smash with my hammer while I fail to smash enemies.

The voice of the narrator is meant to be kindly and guiding, at least in these early segments of the game.  (I don't know if it will change or not; I've intentionally been avoiding spoilers and reviews.)  When he intones, "And so, Kid fell to his death," you get that brief moment of, "...awwwww."  But immediately -- before you can even feel sad that your inept steering threw this little artistically-drawn smashy guy into the abyss -- you hear, "Just kidding!" and respawn right where you were, right in the middle of what you're doing.

It's an interesting approach to character death.  No reloading of old saves (it's on a console-style autosave system) and not really even any thinking of how you could do it next time.  In a strange way, it's like a single-player zerging tactic: die, respawn in place, continue.

I don't know what to make of this kind of death mechanic in my game.  It's not an MMO, so I don't need to rely on anyone else's help to get up, nor do I owe anyone else an apology for my failure.  It's not the deeply branching story of a cinematic character to whom I become attached, so I don't lament his passing.  It's not a failed solution to a puzzle, and so I don't have to think about how to get it right the next time.

As far as I can tell, the narrator is the crux of it.  After all: he's going to keep telling the story no matter what.  That's what a storyteller does.  By framing Bastion in that way, it might genuinely be the most third-person game I've ever played.  The player doesn't really get a chance to put herself inside the head and body of the avatar she's controlling, the way we are habituated to doing.  There's an odd level of detachment that somehow makes character death entirely meaningless -- while also giving it sort of the aspect of a milliseconds-long mid-season cliffhanger.

I'm not sure what I think.  I'm barely even an hour into the game and that counts the section I had to play twice due to an unscheduled PC shutdown.  (In related news, my next case will have a cat-blocking door or panel over the power switch.)  My first hour, though, has made me feel that I care about Bastion's world very much and its player character not at all, which is an interesting and unusual combination.  But I want to know what happened, and I'm going to need that narrator to tell me, so play on I shall.

Monday, August 15, 2011


To anyone who's reader feed still shows an incoherent half-paragraph of babble, sorry!  I was throwing some ideas into the editor for storage and later retrieval / posting this week, and fat-fingered a keystroke combination that makes it go straight to publish.  (I did not know such a combination existed.  Now I do.)

Please disregard, unless you're that deeply invested in one blogger's thought and writing process, in which case... please disregard extra hard.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 2.2: We all live in a...

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3 | 1.4 | 2.1  -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

There are a lot of dead women in L. A. Noire.  The entire Homicide Desk sequence of the game is devoted to finding murdered broads, in fact.  It seems Los Angeles is just teeming with men who seem likely to strangle their girlfriends and wives, and that drunken dames are just leaping from bars left and right, waiting to be gruesome victims.

I am more okay with this than you would expect.

The casual racism and misogyny in L.A. Noire are never* gratuitous and might, in fact, be mitigated, as compared to some of the realities of the time.  This game strives, at its core, to be representational art.  Team Bondi / Rockstar went to an extraordinary amount of effort to recreate Los Angeles circa 1947 with as much detail and fidelity as possible.  The buildings, the streets, and the fashions are all as close to authentic as the developers could manage -- and so, too, are the attitudes.  Even the cases themselves, in classic Law and Order style, are drawn from actual historical events. 

There's actually a reason for photographing a woman's body close-up like an object, this time.

L. A. Noire is meant to represent faithfully a specific historical era, and it is meant to re-create faithfully (in spirit, at least) a specific art form -- the film noir -- that sprang from the same historical era.  Whether or not it succeeds at anything is a matter for debate, but no-one can argue that our current notions of race and gender equality applied 64 years ago, because they didn't.  We may still have miles to go, in search of a truly equal society, but the strides taken over the course of the 20th century cannot be overlooked.

And in fact, the game is based on the notion that its audience have, indeed, come through the 20th century understanding that violence against women is bad.  The designers count on the player having a certain reaction to the cases Cole Phelps is called upon to solve and to the story of Cole Phelps himself.  The intentional anachronism in the game is that 1947 Los Angeles is being measured against 2011 mores.

The playability of L. A. Noire relies on the difference between "contains" and "condones."  The space in time, and the space in cultural evolution over those decades, are a required baseline for understanding the game's subtext.  We are meant to understand that a character's attitude toward non-white citizens, or his attitude toward women, is part of the story of this character.  And we are meant to understand that rudeness and cruelty are signals: a cop's brushing off "dames" and insisting he have his way are signs to us within the context of the narrative that this man is A Problem.

Roy Earle is, how shall we say?  A world-class asshole.

That is the defense I can mount of visible racism and sexism in a game world: sometimes, it really does tell a story.  But having provided this "it's okay" discussion of L. A. Noire standing how it does, and having its own merits, we now need to ask the uncomfortable questions.  Highest among them is this: why is this the story we always tell?

Gaming has the potential to be anything.  A completely digital, completely constructed world can be anyplace we choose in time and in space, with avatars that look like anything and anyone.  We can inhabit settings as far-flung as the human imagination can conjure.  So given that a true historical drama is going to need to confront the unpleasantries of history -- why are we always plumbing the same histories?

Moreover, when we do plumb these same histories, we're willing to rely on an audience having a 21st-century understanding of civilization -- but we're unwilling ever to directly comment on those changes.  The periphery and the subtext are as close as we ever get.  Thus, even when serious problems are justifiable in the context of the narrative, we're still left with our same challenge from chapter 2.1: this game and this world are an artificial construct, entirely built for modern consumption, and we must filter it through the lenses of our current understanding.

For all that we can tell any story in a game, usually our western-developed stories -- of all play-type genres -- tend to be set in one of a few archetypal worlds:
  • High fantasy
  • Low fantasy
  • Space opera style science fiction
  • Near-term science fiction
  • Modern urban (Grand Theft Auto, Heavy Rain)
  • Fictionalized History (Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire)
  • Modern Military or Military-esque (Tom Clancy games, Modern Warfare, Battlefield 2)
  • Historical Military or Military-esque (every WWII game ever)
There are more, and obviously, these genre-classification walls aren't absolute, but I think they are the biggest buckets and manage to catch a hefty percentage of narrative games.  (Some games arguably combine world-types, as well.)

As in the case of L. A. Noire above, some of our game-world types do operate, by necessity, within the constraints of real-world historical rules.  If I were to play a World War II-era military game, I certainly wouldn't except to have women infantry among my units!  Nor would I expect to find women among my ranks if I were arranging pixelated knights Templar around a digital Jerusalem.

But historically-themed games are not, generally, among the worst offenders.  (Indeed, the Assassin's Creed franchise handles women in a plausibly-recreated renaissance Florence and Rome better than I would have expected.)  The bigger problem, instead, shows up in our most fictional universes. Gender roles, expectations, and stereotypes common to our history and to our present-day worlds have this amazing way of persisting through worlds that are fully constructed, have never existed, and are not ours at all.

While I was working on this piece, a deeply relevant essay appeared at the Border House.  In The Skyhook Society, Quinnae describes this phenomenon:

It is hardly groundbreaking at this point to say that the social worlds painted in many video games and other fantasy environments tend to be based on politically charged ideas about gender, race, and so forth. Despite being wildly fantastic or surreal they are, just as often, presenting the player or the reader with a social world that is depressingly familiar. A world where the humans are white, where the power holders are men, where heterosexuality remains compulsory, where any sort of trans-ness is not even on the horizon; in other words a world with very familiar relations of ruling.

She goes on to describe how the deep-seated and often unexamined need to replicate real-world power structures in fantasy worlds can render them structurally incoherent.  The core of her argument is a call for more thought put into the construction of gaming worlds, and less "default" behavior in general.

Even a game that has some excellent tendencies within, in terms of race and gender, can fall down in its universe construction.  While taking on the universe from the deck of the Normandy, has Commander Shepard ever met a female salarian?  (No.)  What about a female turian?  (No.)  And of course no female krogan.

"There are reasons," one argues.  "The salarian matriarchy system!  The genophage!  Well, Garrus used to have a turian girlfriend!"

Those aren't reasons. Those are in-character explanations for a design choice that a team at BioWare consciously or unconsciously made.  Humans, in the future, do indeed come in an array of racial options, and in both male and female versions, but with only one exception (the quarians), this ability to extend the imagination on-screen apparently only covers the human race.  Well, except for when you can come up with an entire race of fictional female hotties.

Justicar Samara, older than the city of Boston, will kill you with her cleavage.

In general, though, I feel the most structurally incoherent societies we see in geekdom are in our fantasy worlds.  This is our sword-and-sorcery plane, our modern nerdery made incarnate.  Our RPGs pretty much all take place here (indeed, the fantasy setting tends to be one of the unspoken markers of the genre).  The high fantasy universe is easy to mock because it's so ubiquitous.  Post-Tolkien and post-Gygax, we're all familiar with the tropes of orcs, elves, and a version of the British middle ages that never was.

A game can include female characters galore, and yet still find itself an example of incoherent world-building that doesn't take gender or sex into account in any way.  Divine Divinity and Divinity II are guilty of this: you can create a female Divine in the first game and name her anything you like, yet by its sequel, the hero of the first game is canonized as Lucian, a goody-two-shoes of a man if ever there was one.  The first game mainly portrays female NPCs as servants, nobles, locals, or witches -- and though not ideal, this is at least theoretically consistent.  By the second, nearly all groups, factions, and character types are a fairly hefty gender mix.  Men and women both guard town walls, or oppose you with malice (i.e. swords), or are dungeon bosses.  And yet women who get lines or quest segments are still mostly there to be plot devices, rather than to be characters with agency.  Your player character can be female, and yet nearly the entire game is designed around the responses of a male player character.  Simply put, the player can't afford to think about any of it too long, because none of it makes sense on examination.

But the Divinity games really aren't about deep storytelling; they're about getting an awesome weapon and some awesome skills and slaughtering orcs and trolls 'cause they're there.  Fair enough.  On the other hand, Dragon Age is indeed about a deep narrative, and a carefully built world. In the interest of full and honest disclosure: I still haven't been able to make myself play Dragon Age: Origins.  I started to and got bogged down in gameplay mechanics that I strongly dislike.  But Kris Ligman has played it, thoroughly.

In all fairness, most characters, even the ladies, wear way more than she does.

In a really solid piece about this kind of incoherent society, Ligman gripes about half-thought-through world-building, as it applies to class.  Her character of choice was a dwarf, a member of a despised underclass.  The player character, of course, rises to fame and power and general badassery, because that's the game we play.  It's what RPGs are for.  But although she intentionally created a very specific kind of character, the game failed to follow through on any promise of coherent recognition:

No one cares where I’m from, only that I look damned heroic right now.   ... [T]hough several game narratives exhibit an awareness of class, race, and the intersections of those two, the games themselves as systems display an exasperatingly predictable upper middle class image of social mobility, reliant upon fantasies of self-made wealth achieved at the expense of others and the local ecosystem.
Although she's writing about the incoherence of class markers, the truth persists with all out-of-"norm" characterizations in most games.  The NPCs are perhaps the result of a coin toss, but they all behave and are written in a way that results in world structures that don't hold up, or that show a lack of imagination.

The culture of medieval Britain was indeed rigid in a certain way.  So was Rome, or the Tang Dynasty.  So is 21st century Manhattan, or19th century Paris.  But any world in a game is none of these places.  Any world in a game is an intentional, theoretically thoughtful construction by a 21st century team of writers, artists, and coders.  So why do these fictional worlds keep clinging to real-world biases?

The long and the short of it all is, I can only second Quinnae's challenge to game designers (and in fact to all creators of fiction):

Ask yourself critical questions about the division of labour, ethnicity, and gender. Ask yourself if heterosexuality needs to operate in your world exactly the same way it operates in ours. Ask yourself if your culture needs to be an appropriating parody of a human culture, or if every human in your world must be white. Demand of yourself explanations for these things. What you will be weaving in the process is a proper social structure that can hold up your world, one that will almost automatically make it notably different from our own. It will put your world’s various power dynamics at a tantalising remove from our own, making it feel all the more creatively alien and unique. The most interesting fantasy worlds I’ve seen are ones that do make some kind of accounting for their social systems, that possess identifiable structure, rather than unsupported mirroring of the real world.


Related reading:  Tanner Higgin, The Trap of Representation

*Caveat: we are, at present, only halfway through the Vice desk and still have probably a third of the game to go, if not slightly more.  If some crap does get gratuitous as the game concludes, you can rest assured that I will have a great deal to say about it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Weekly Roundup

Your Critic has been branching out.

My first piece at has gone live, and it's a familiar one that I couldn't have written without you all: Are games fun?  I will be writing more reviews there in the future, as soon as I decide what games to write about. ;)

Meanwhile, yesterday's "O Commander..." resonated, and has been reprinted at The Border House.

Onward and upward.  Next week I plan to revisit the "Beyond the Girl Gamer" series, now that I can write about L. A. Noire.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

O Commander, my Commander...

After a brief lull, BioWare's Mass Effect 3 marketing efforts are back in the buzz this past week.  I've been quiet on the topic so far, because I knew my knee-jerk reactions wouldn't help the dialogue along in any way, and I needed to think long and hard to sort out my feelings on it all.

So in the meantime, I've been doing some reading.  Stories about the Facebook vote and its outcome are all over the web, and a few have resonated with me.  I feel that each article I read raises at least one valid point, but that each also manages to miss another point.  In total, I think the sum of stories I've seen around the web finally gives me a launch pad from which to write.

Default DudeShep, via BioWare's website

Until now -- and still, for the time being -- this guy here has been the face of Commander Shepard.  Despite the wide variety of faces a player can see, despite the fact that a player can immerse him- or herself in the Mass Effect universe for 50 or 100 hours without ever once hearing Mark Meer, this character has been the face of Shepard as far as all marketing is concerned.  He graces the covers of both game and soundtrack.  He is in trailers and commercials.  He, in all his white, male, muscular glory, has been Mass Effect to everyone who hasn't played it, as well as to a number of folks who have.

However, we've known for a month or two now that in response to overwhelming fan demand, BioWare / EA have consented to add a little something to the marketing for Mass Effect 3.  The other half of Commander Shepard is getting her own trailer, and her face will be on one side of the collector's edition of the game.  Fantastic!  Equal representation, right?  But this created a question over at BioWare: whose face?  What does a default female Shepard look like?

Despite the fact that BioWare had no trouble coming up with a default white male space marine on their own, they felt the need to toss this question to the masses.  Their marketing / social media team placed six potential Commanders Shepard into a photo gallery on Facebook, so that Facebook fans who "like" the game could vote on their preference.  In an interview, David Silverman said that this tactic was their response to the "fan devotion" that had created the FemShep movement in the first place.  The fans created the pressure for BioWare to alter their marketing, and so the fans, it seems, must bear the burden of what inevitably follows.

The "beauty pageant" aspect of the Facebook vote has been praised, condemned, blinked innocently at, and sorted through. In a piece of news that virtually everyone and their grandmother saw coming, the conventionally attractive white, blue-eyed blonde seems to be the winner of the contest.

Get used to this lady; seems she's about to be Commander Shepard.

None of the available options felt entirely right to me.  At first I thought it was because none of them were "my" Shepard, but over time I realized that actually, it has much more to do with their facial features and hairstyles overall.  All of the Commanders on display looked unfamiliar to anyone whose primary experience is with the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 character creation system, just as released photos of Ashley Williams from the third game look unfamiliar to anyone who encountered her in the first or second.

So I was willing to overlook a certain level of detachment with this Commander Shepard.  I certainly don't have anything personal against this particular image; she's fine.  She's a video-game character, taking on the role of action hero.  Even of the six available and unfamiliar options, though, she's not the one I would have picked.  Despite my Shepard looking like an aspirational, gamer-ego self-insertion version of me (ultra-pale, with red hair), of the available voting options and for marketing purposes, I preferred Shepard number four (who in fact holds second place in the voting):

And no, not because of the red streak in her hair!

Regardless of which face Shepard wears, I appreciate that she stands in the exact same pose, with identical weapons and (anatomy permitting) armor to her male counterpart.  One of the most remarkable things about this franchise to date has been the complete equality of both versions of Commander Shepard.  The game, required to accommodate both characters, has been unable to go off the rails into hugely gendered territory in either direction.  When it comes to writing and to character animation, the existence of each Commander Shepard keeps the other in line.  The Commander can't have any specific issues related to gender or race, because of the choice in the player's hands.  Lesley Kinzel summed it up incredibly well, while writing about her Shepard:
These games were not written specifically with a woman, much less a woman of color, as the protagonist. At best they were written to be gender- and race-neutral, or at minimum they were written as the cultural default (i.e., white and male). Either way, the story lacks the encoded racism directed at characters of color in even the best of media representations.

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing.

I have a completely unprovable feeling, deep down, that someone at BioWare knew before posting a single picture which of the six Shepards would win the contest, or at least knew that the redhead and the blonde were the two most likely candidates.  What I can't help but think, when I read Silverman's interview, is that "throw it to the fans" was BioWare's chance to avoid the responsibility for that choice.

As pleased as I still am that there's going to be any female representation in the marketing of Mass Effect 3, this feels like BioWare's way to have their cake and eat it, too.  The character being chosen is exactly one that the team who came up with the default male Shepard could have picked entirely on their own, but this way they get to absolve themselves of doing so.  It's what "the fans" wanted, after all, and if many of those fans represent the absolute worst of the misogyny inherent in gamer culture, well, it doesn't actually matter.

Astonishingly, Jerry "Tycho" Holkins, of Penny Arcade, was right, when discussing this.  (The gents at PA have a less-than-stellar track record of dealing with gender issues.) 
The comic makes a perfectly good point - it's just the wrong point entirely for the discussion.
Tycho wrote: "It’s one of these online shitstorms in certain quarters now, people don’t like how it shook out, or who might have shaken it out. That’s the trouble with democracy, huh? The wrong people are always voting."  And it's true: none of us can really look at fans of a game voting and honestly claim that some should have a say, and others shouldn't.  If you're going to let the player base have a say, then all players should have an equal chance to raise their voices.

The question is: should the player base really be having a say at all?  Writer Dennis Scimeca has wisely observed:
Gamers who play as FemShep are intensely attached to the character. She has inspired numerous fan videos on YouTube both inventive and hilarious. Websites have been created to celebrate her. She has even taken a symbolic role in the social justice community.

This devotion is what made an open vote on her official depiction so puzzling to me. That devotion comes from only 18% of Mass Effect players. Allowing votes from the other 82% who have no vested interest in a depiction of a female Commander Shepard feels like disrespecting the dedicated fans who made this marketing campaign happen, by drowning their voices in the noise of the mob.

I've realized: that's the crux of my discomfort.  At first I thought it was personal -- I felt like something special to me was being invaded by an unruly horde, and I felt that it was on me to grow up and get over it, because I have no personal claim on any of it.

To a certain degree that is, admittedly, true, although I never needed or wanted to see specifically my Shepard on the box.  But the thing is: it doesn't really matter which Commander Shepard is chosen.  The actual problem runs far deeper than this leading lady.  The problem is that once again, as seems to happen so often in our society, a female body and a female appearance have become a matter of public debate and public determination.  Shepard may be a digital construction, rather than a real woman, but she has still just become the subject of a popularity contest -- and, yes, a beauty pageant -- for a majority male audience.

The issue is not that Commander Shepard is a blonde; the issue is that she is and remains FemShep.  That's what the Penny Arcade strip missed.  She is still the other.  When Shepard is a woman, she is not a default anything and BioWare won't position her as such.  Can you imagine if she had always been on the box, and if DudeShep were the one a fan campaign had finally brought to prominence?  Where is the world in which we the fans vote which one of six beefy men to put on the reverse cover?

The frustration I personally feel is not one of betrayal or of disgust; BioWare is, ultimately, a software company.  Their job is to turn a profit and to sell as many units of their games as possible, and I certainly don't begrudge their actions.  My frustration, rather, is of lost potential.  Lesley was right: Mass Effect was a chance for something different.  For so many players, FemShep has been something different.  And this marketing change was a rare opportunity for something new, for something special.

Instead, we have this supermodel.  She doesn't invalidate the Commander.  She does, though, return many of her players, who had hoped just this once for something other than the stereotypical Hollywood wet dream, to the margins.

Alas, we players of the badass lady are in the minority, and minority voices are easily overridden.  Perhaps there should never have been a vote to start with, but as there was, I can't cry about its outcome.  Of course ultimately, it's all so much chaff in the wind.  Neither the trailer nor the collector's edition box art affect the game one tiny bit.  They never would, never could, and never did.

But BioWare was so, so close.  The FemShep campaign took us all three steps forward, and the FemShep Facebook vote took us two steps back.  We're still a step ahead of where we were, to be sure, but it could have been better still.  I hope to see a "next time" where it can be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Halp! Brain abducted by pegs.

When I was busy self-righteously telling Ubisoft to stop alienating woman gamers, I tossed off the line, "It's not all Peggle out our way."  Indeed, at the time I wrote it, it was never all Peggle out my way -- I'd never actually played the game, but landed on it as a quick one-word, recognizable casual title that would allow the sentence to flow.

But shortly after that post, the Amazon AppStore had Peggle free for Android for 24 hours.  Nataurally, I simply had to download it to my phone.  A couple of weeks after that, Peggle Nights was something like $4 on Steam.  I'm a big fan of putting my money where my mouth is when it comes to supporting any creative industry, and I thought I owed PopCap a few bucks for how much I'd been playing their mobile ports.  And, well -- better not to ask how many hours I might have spent flinging virtual balls at orange pegs, over the last two months.  It's not a number I'm willing to admit in public.

I really, really hate this level. Flames... on the side of my face...

Why do I do it?  Why does the rat in Psych 101 keep pushing the lever in his cage?

At first, it was straight-up fun.  PopCap knows what they're doing, and playing gave me juuuuuuuuust enough reward and satisfaction in return for an incremental increase in difficulty.  The gentle learning curve and consistently encouraging tone made the game experience pleasurable in a very basic sort of way: I was solving simple problems and, as a reward, getting points, congratulations, and slightly more difficult problems.

Eventually, though, the pleasure started to wear thin.  Instead wearing a thoughtful expression punctuated by the occasional grin of triumph, I became a picture of grim determination.  The adventure mode in both games had to be completable, after all; Peggle is not designed for the hardcore crowd (however loosely we define that term) and if players significantly older, significantly younger, and generally less dextrous than I were the target audience (as they are), surely I, too, could find a way through the hell levels.

Eventually I did.  And yet I still became unable to stop playing entirely.  Because there are challenges to complete, trophies to earn, and records to break.  The Ace scores can't all be impossible, right?  And having earned 100% completion on two or three levels, surely I can manage it on at least half of the remainder...

I've come quite close to 100% on this level more than once, but I use Renfield.

The truth about myself that PopCap have laid bare before me is both a lovely and an ugly one: if you give me a challenge, I will assume it can be beaten and I will keep going until that challenge lies defeated at my feet.

On the one hand, this is an invaluable attribute in my career, or in the learning of new skills.  I assume that I can update my web-design knowledge to include HTML5, and so it will be done.  I assumed I could find some measure of success as a blogger and as a writer, and lo, each month I meet some new milestone I didn't know awaited me -- and I continue to enjoy doing so!  But on the other hand... sometimes you really do need to know when to fold 'em.  There were classes in college I failed rather than withdrew from; relationships I watched wither (or explode) rather than pull out of.

A game doesn't need hundreds of hours of my life, even the casual hours waiting for a train or waiting for my turn in the bathroom, just because it presents a challenge.  Challenges will always outnumber me.  But making US government work, ending world hunger, and getting international relations sorted are challenges that will always lie well beyond my scope.  So I keep filling my attention with challenges I can actually resolve.

1 million point challenge -- I am coming for you.  After that, though, I think I'll take on the challenge of exploring other pastures. 

(And of writing a more difficult piece I'm avoiding by meditating on Peggle.)