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Sophie Prell

How I learned to stop worrying and love the tabletop RPG

Sep 25 // Sophie Prell
I had played Baldur's Gate on PC when it first came out, in an age of CRT display iMacs with handles embedded in their neon-colored plastic cases. I loved it, but I never realized how much the game was a translation of D&D 2nd edition rules, or that it took place in an official D&D setting. When my friends finally had an opening in their role-playing group, it was decided the next campaign would take place in Forgotten Realms, along the coast, just north of, yes, Baldur's Gate. “Wait a minute,” I said. “They took the game from however long ago and made it into this?” The group looked at me as though I had just asked what inning the Super Bowl was in, and how many free throws the Green Bay Packers needed to beat the Calgary Flames. It was kindly explained to me that the legacy of D&D traces back far, far earlier than any digital video game, and that Baldur's Gate the game was in fact based on Forgotten Realms, not the other way around. I sunk my teeth into Dungeons & Dragons like I never had any of my other hobbies. I read every book on my friend's shelf. I learned all I could about the rules and creatures and magic and items. My first character was a Fey'Ri rogue/sorcerer combo, and to this day I often use her name for avatars or screen names on forums. No luck on the Xbox LIVE gamertag though. Boo. Soon, D&D wasn't enough. I learned there were all manner of role-playing systems, including the often-mocked live-action role-playing game, such as World of Darkness. A professional at Iowa State University and personal friend turned out to be not just an avid player of Vampire: The Masquerade, but the local prince of vampires. He gave me a taste of his Camarilla persona, and I was legitimately terrified. Make fun of LARP-ing all you want, but that shit was scary. I bought my own map, my own books, my own dice. I sketched out characters. I was neck-deep and loving it. The funny thing is, the more absorbed I became in tabletop, the more I recognized the legacy of D&D in modern systems and games. Skyrim may have a collision detection method of combat, but hit points and mana points are still there. Knights of the Old Republic was governed by D&D 3rd edition rules, and it's considered one of the best roleplaying games of all time. Guild Wars 2 is a huge step forward for MMOs, but you're still basically targeting a creature's AC and utilizing abilities, much as you would in a tabletop system. Not only that, but my deeper connection and understanding of tabletop led me to a deeper understanding of gamer and nerd culture. Believe it or not, some nerds just aren't as into video games as you or I. They might prefer pen and paper role-playing, LARP-ing, comic books, or television. If you only have one thing to connect on and the other person doesn't share that interest, you've lost an opportunity to learn and grow. Now that I could talk D&D, I could meet new people and share new interests, learn new things. Getting into tabletop gaming fostered my creativity. Jesse Plumb, the same friend who introduced me to Forgotten Realms revealed that he had been working on his own setting, called StarBlazer. StarBlazer was every sci-fi trope and nerd fantasy come true, slammed together and put together to form a coherent whole. The Empire? They're around. Xenomophs? They've got stats. Grammaton Clerics? They're a base class. Samus' Varia Suit? It's wearable. StarBlazer symbolized the cycle of creativity: It took two things my friend loved, role-playing and nerd culture, and created something fresh, with its own classes, rules, and systems. Dungeons & Dragons likewise took from Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Poul Anderson, even the Bible and television show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Now I've tried my hand at creation, with my own base class based on Naked Snake, designed to fit within Pathfinder rules. (Warning: It's incredibly unbalanced, I know. Like I said: first attempt.) But why tell you all this? For one, I hope you can learn as I did to appreciate things you may not have tried before, and seek out those new experiences. We're not just gamers, we're part of a culture, and that culture intersects at so many crossroads and waypoints along the way it behooves you to learn as much as you can. Second, there is a film being made about Gary Gygax and the legacy he created with D&D, and I'd like your eyes turned to them for a moment. The D&D documentary Kickstarter just closed last weekend, and they just barely met their goal. I want to see these men and projects like these supported. I want more people to see Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop role-playing as I have come to see it: as a wonderful influence on even our most modern gaming experiences, one we too often take for granted. I want people to see things the way I've seen them and then be inspired. Are you excited for Bioshock Infinite? Do you love Borderlands 2? Name the game, and it can be translated to the tabletop medium. All you have to do is try. At the very worst, you fail and wasted some of your time. But you did it trying to create something, and it will have given you a new perspective on this little hobby of ours we call gaming. Whether our controllers are handheld constructions or a combination of dice and paper, we're all gamers.
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I love role-playing. I like being a half-elf, half-demon on a bloody rampage; I like being a sci-fi ex-black ops badass on a quest to rescue his daughter; I love being a naughty schoolgir -- wait, sorry -- wrong kind of role-...

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GaymerCon is videogames gone totally gay -- awesome!


Aug 02
// Sophie Prell
Last night, Kickstarter got a little more gay. Matt Conn and the organizers of GaymerCon, the first gaming convention with a focus on the LGBTQ community, started their crowdfunding drive with a goal of $25,000. One day ...
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Assassin's Creed 3 AnvilNext engine struts its stuff


Aug 02
// Sophie Prell
Featuring the most dramatic narration for a tech demo ever, the newest Assassin's Creed 3 trailer shows off Ubisoft's proprietary graphics engine, dubbed AnvilNext. The engine is capable of dynamic weather in all four season...

How Mass Effect 3 kicked my emotional ass

Jun 18 // Sophie Prell
Nathan and Elena have obviously had troubles and tension, as can be seen when they reunite in Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3. But we never see what life was like between titles, only the happy moments or snippy barbs of humor. They're the videogame equivalent of a romance novel relationship. The Ross and Rachel of videogames. Heavy Rain shows what Ethan's life is like post-divorce, as well as his pursuit of and involvement in a new relationship. But we never get a glimpse of what the divorce proceedings were like. We don't see the fallout of a family breaking apart. It's not like the game could've been made any more depressing, so why weren't we taken on the journey with Ethan as his wife blames him for the death of a child and forces him out? On a happier note, I've always remembered the scene from The Darkness where Jenny rests on your chest as you watch To Kill A Mockingbird together, because relationships aren't always turned up to 11. Sometimes you are as much one another's friend as you are lover. Why don't we just “hang out” with our romance options sometimes? And then of course there's Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. Which summarizes the complexity of human interaction as “Buy me things and I'll wear sexy swimsuits for you!” Which, by the way, happens to be one of my favorite aspects of a relationship. Seriously though, the only games that have come even close to showing the true complexity of a relationship for me -- though I'd love to hear if you have your own examples -- are the Mass Effect games. If you romance any of the original crew from the first game, they don't welcome you with open arms in Mass Effect 2. They have conflicting emotions and motives with you and your new alliance with Cerberus, and if you want to get back together, you need to deal with that issue. That's more realistic and a step in the right direction, but it's still too easy to persuade your crew that you are the impeccable pinnacle of perfection. Plus, as seen above, there are so many aspects to a real relationship that we just can't seem to get in one place. But let me tell you why it's important that videogames get to that point. Let me tell you a story. Two, actually. I've been plugging away at a second playthrough of Mass Effect 3 lately. After all, I gotta get 'dem 'cheevs! Only this time, a conversation on the Citadel gave me pause where I had previously skipped along on my merry Reaper-slaughtering way. This isn't an important conversation, mind you. It doesn't even lead to a side quest. It didn't mean anything to me before. But now, I can't stop thinking about it. See, people do funny things when they're scared. Sometimes they become bitter, selfish assholes who wouldn't just shove women and children out of the way, but gladly offer them up as a sacrifice if it would mean sparing themselves a less pleasant fate. Sometimes they conquer fear and assert themselves as the righteous redeemed, a shining beacon of all that the spirit and soul can be. And sometimes, it's not always clear who's being which. The conversation I'm referring to takes place between a human female and an asari, early in the game. You can find them chatting the first time you're able to visit the Citadel, on the Presidium Commons level. The first thing you'll hear is the human, denoted as “Wife” in the subtitles, say, “I think I'm ready to end it with him.” The “him” being referred to is a male soldier, deployed and off fighting in the war. Want to add a little story and emotion to the multiplayer component of Mass Effect 3? Maybe he's your multiplayer avatar. The Wife laments how she feels there has been a growing distance between them, and how she no longer feels happy. The asari, “Mistress” as she is described in the subtitles, assures the Wife that she must be honest. That she must tell her husband. Thus ends part one of the conversation. While others rang in 2012 on New Year's Eve with toasts of wine and champage, party hats and streamers, kisses and cheers, I was nervously pacing before an audience of my friends and girlfriend. Did I have it? Was it in the bedroom, where I'd left it? Had anyone seen? Was this right to do? I thought forward, backward, up and down. My mind did not run in circles, but instead flew and buzzed about like a balloon oozing out a steady stream of dry, oppressive air. My toes wrinkled the socks on my feet with a cold sweat. They flexed and gripped at the carpet. I looked to my girlfriend, my eyebrows piqued in concern and anxiety. I say her name. Quietly. My voice struggled to elevate itself above the cheering from the television behind me as crowds of euphoric humans reveled. “I need you to stand up.” The next time the conversation picks up, it seems fairly innocuous. Wife is debating in her mind how to tell her husband her feelings. Text? Recording? Face-to-face video chat? The first is too impersonal. The second? No, she gets too flustered. Video chat is only available on open comm channels, and as Mistress points out, who knows when he can get to one of those? After all, he knew it would be difficult when he left her behind. ... Wait, what? Left? Left her? It may seem like such a little thing, such a harmless way of phrasing things. After all, it's technically true: The man has left his wife behind. But the phrasing now makes it seem as though it's his fault. And perhaps this growing distance between he and his wife might not be so great if there wasn't someone in the middle, summarizing their relationship to Wife as a conflict of interests where he left her. It steams me to say the least, but the conversation, for now, ends here. My knees quaked. My knees quaked. I let one fall. “I was with you in 2011. I want to be with you through all of 2012. And 2013. And every year after. I want to spend every year of my life with you.” I pulled out a box containing the ring I had been hiding in our bedroom. My fingers struggled to grip the edges and pry it open. It felt like wrenching Arthur's sword from the stone. Finally I felt it give, and the diamond revealed itself. The sparkles lit up as reflections in her eyes. “Will you marry me?” The force with which she hugged and tackled me almost knocked the wind from my lungs. It had happened. I was engaged. It was the happiest moment of my life, lying on the floor with a beautiful woman I trusted and loved more than myself. She was warm, and I was whole. The first time I played through Mass Effect 3, I'm sure I left this conversation alone by now. Hell, I probably didn't even stick around long enough to hear beyond “I think I'm ready to end it with him.” There are bigger things to worry about, better ways to be spending my time. The Reapers are coming, the Reapers are coming! But now... I'm finding myself transfixed. This conversation makes me all at once mournful, infuriated, and pitying. I eavesdrop once again. Now Wife contemplates aloud how, “I guess it doesn't matter how I do it. I just need to tell him about us.” Mistress responds, “Wait. Us?” I imagine a look, a mix of surprise and dread, washing over the asari. I imagine the blue draining from her face, and a sudden tightening in her stomach. I hope she's uncomfortable. She struggles to redirect Wife into staying tactful, to just tell her husband that they've grown apart. To mention another woman would be “rubbing it in.” I hope the asari has a partner. I hope they find out. I want to rub it in. I had a fiancee now. I had to plan for the future. I had to provide for her. We talked and decided to move into a new apartment, closer to our places of work. With adventure and joy in our hearts, we set out to search for our new home. When we found it, we both immediately knew. It was a beautiful apartment, and affordable. The carpet was soft and warm. The living room breathed with open air and large windows. There is a patio off of the bedroom, with trees and a small creek just behind the building. With bittersweet goodbyes, we said farewell to our friends in town, pack our boxes, and ship off. The day we moved in however, I received a call. My fiancee had just lost her job. I could hear her voice cracking as she told me. I panicked. What were we going to do? There was already a new subleaser at the old apartment, and we wouldn't be able to afford this place now. I found myself getting angry. Furious. I told her once, I told her a thousand times, you need to be at work on time, or they'll replace you, I thought. I didn't come home from work that night. Not right away. I was too angry. There was a poison of resent pounding against the back of my brain. When I did enter the new apartment, she said she was sorry. I told her to talk to me about it, to open up. Because I was the one who should be sorry. But she wouldn't. She wouldn't talk to me. Now the Mistress and Wife are arguing. Mistress insists she isn't the reason for the breakup. It's the war. It's the distance. That's what made everything clear. Wife agrees... to an extent. “Meeting you is what made me realize how bad it had gotten,” she pointedly insists. Mistress deflects. “I'm not the one who broke up your relationship.” No, of course not. It was the husband's fault before, now it's the Wife's. It could never be your fault. You didn't do anything wrong. I want to strangle this asari. Shepard stands awkwardly close to the two of them. It's really not her business to mind, and yet she doesn't leave. I won't move the controller to let her. Wife shoots back, “Was it someone else who pinned me to the wall with her mouth?” I find myself wondering, a bit too much, what the dynamic is between these two. Is it a sex thing? Is it purely physical? Is there something more that they don't dare pursue? Or are they flirting with disaster, the rush and thrill of danger giving them a constant mental high? Has either one said “I love you?” Has either one secretly messaged the other while in the arms of their partner, “You know, if we were together...” I feel like I know the answer. I look down to my hands gripping the controller and notice the small indent on my finger: a groove where something once rested, snug and tight. My boss and I were good friends. We teased each other about videogames often. We talked about which ones we thought were good, and which were crap. A fierce Halo v. CoD debate was practically mandatory. I rolled my eyes and laughed every time she transformed into a giggling schoolgirl obsessed with her boyfriend, but appreciated her enthusiasm for life. I also realized that, with no job and no one to hang out with other than me, my fiancee could've used a friend in the area. I introduced the two, and was happy they found so much fun in one another's company. My fiancee soon landed another job. Hard labor, early shifts. She would come home exhausted, mentally and physically drained. I asked how her day went, and she would often reply, “Tired.” Nothing more. Just tired. I would press and ask if she wanted to talk about it. I could see there was much more than just fatigue behind her eyes. “Just tired,” she would tell me. It would occur to me that these times were a test of our mettle. That maybe this work was going to show who we were. Maybe it would be something that would make our feelings clear. Dropping the subject, I would pick up my controller and play as she sat next to me on the couch. My gameplay days were punctuated by gunfire, the roaring of dragons, the humming of Electoons, and the clicking her thumbs made as they pressed down rapidly on the keys of her cell phone. I contemplate not listening in this time. I don't have to eavesdrop on the Wife and the Mistress anymore. I don't have to. I could just run right past them. The game won't penalize me. “Where is this going?” Wife asks. “Because if this isn't serious, we need to talk.” “Sophie, we need to talk.” The Mistress responds, a tone of resentment and submission mixing in her voice. “These are two different things. You're important to me...” “You're important to me, but I don't feel the same for you as I used to.” The Wife is confused. Dejected. Her voice sinks. She laments how she'll lose her partner benefits, including an apartment. Mistress suggests that, for her own safety, Wife should figure out an exit strategy. “I thought I had,” Wife says, her voice pinned under the pressure of loss. I felt I knew. I suspected. I grabbed my fiancee's phone and looked through the messages. So many from her. My boss. My eyes flipped through page after page, each message lighting a tiny fire in my heart, each one a punch to the stomach. Explicit sexts, doe-eyed longing for one another; each one ran me through like a blade, though none of these messages was so shattering as reading: “I love you.” I couldn't tell if it was the revelation, the lies, or my own weakness that threw me to the floor. I collapsed, my lungs struggling to pull in air as the carpet began to swell and choke with tears. How long? When? Why? The questions came all at once, thrashing against me like bullets and hammers. Mistress assures the Wife, “I cherish the time we've had together. But...” Days passed, and as I packed my things, I asked the woman I thought I had known, “How are you and...?” “I don't know. She says she loves me but all she does is talk about her boyfriend. I don't think we'll ever really be together, as much as I would want it.” “Yeah,” the Wife closes. “Yeah,” I said as the door closed behind me. People do funny things when they're scared. Sometimes they cower, sometimes they stand. Sometimes they work themselves single-mindedly into tunnel vision, focused only on the future and not what the present needs. Sometimes they run and flee the cause of anxiety, into the safety (however temporary) of another person. Who can say which is worse? I love videogames, and I take them very seriously. Maybe a bit too seriously, I'm sure some of you would say. But this small, insignificant part of Mass Effect 3 produced a reaction in me unlike anything else in games ever has before. It made me think. It made me reflect on the human condition. That's what I want more videogames to do, because that's what art does. I want them to be seen as art. I want more videogames to show us and make us think about what it means to be human. I want to cry because I'm so upset by what I've seen. I want to smile and laugh, too. I want realistic, not-always-pretty, not-always-overwrought portrayals of life, love, and everything in between. It may seem like a pipe dream, but it's not. I know videogames are capable of capturing the human spirit. They can make us ask ourselves questions we may not have the answers to, but needed to ask ourselves nonetheless. They can impact us. There was friends and family ready to support me in almost any way I could hope for after my breakup, but it wasn't until I heard a seemingly insignificant conversation in a videogame that I could truly allow myself to feel everything I needed to feel. By observing a similar situation from a distance in which I had no stakes, I was able to deal with my own thoughts and emotions in a more comprehensive way. It was a mature vision of a relationship, and one infinitely more true than anything I'd come across before. And that truth was exactly why I needed to see it, hear it, and experience it. That truth is something videogames would do well to incorporate more in the future. We don't need every game to do this, of course. I'm looking forward to mindlessly carving my way through zombies in Lollipop Chainsaw, and while many of my favorite games tell great stories, they're hardly going to make me stop and think about how I'm living my life. But sometimes... sometimes we need our medium to show that it can do that when it wants to; that it can reach those levels of maturity, and that it can make us believe in the power of art. If nothing else, a real-life failed relationship and an asari Mistress have shown me that much.
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When was the last time a videogame made you think about relationships? Truly reflect on them, I mean? BioWare has a knack for making them just about mandatory in each of their games, but they're hardly the only ones that have...


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Nintendo's Wii U will feature connectivity with a more traditional style controller, Nintendo Global President Satoru Iwata revealed on Nintendo Direct today. The controller, called the Wii U Pro Controller, can be seen in that beautiful screencap above, and it looks hella comfortable. Kaboom!

Why BioWare should change the Mass Effect 3 ending

Apr 12 // Sophie Prell
Now, I will try my hardest not to let my personal feelings on the ending's events affect my analysis of this monumental struggle concerning The People v. BioWare, but it's admittedly difficult. Hell, writing this entire column has been difficult, if for no other reason than the fact that information coming out of this debacle is changing on a daily basis. First, let's get some history and retrospective to help us understand the present situation. The year is 2005. Canadian developer BioWare, not yet quite the legend we know it as today, releases several videos detailing its next big project, Mass Effect. Looking back, the earliest footage seems hardly recognizable. Commander Shepard doesn't have the impossibly perfect cheekbones of Dutch model Mark Vanderloo. We know nothing of the Reapers, Geth, or anything, really. We only know that it will be set in the distant future. Follow-up videos proclaim, "Annihilation is one decision away," and project director Casey Hudson touts the impact choice will have in the game. Mass Effect is released in November 2007 to great critical acclaim and commercial success. This spawns development of a port for Microsoft Windows machines and plans for a sequel. That sequel improves on the original in almost every way, and Mass Effect 2 releases in January 2010 for the Xbox 360 and PC, with a PS3 version releasing one year later. The Mass Effect franchise is far more than a game by this point. It has devoted fans, import technology years ahead of its time, comics, novels, and spin-off games. The Mass Effect 2 launch trailer still holds a special place in many gamers' hearts, as it took second place in GameTrailers' user list of all-time greatest trailers. This is where things start to get ugly. During the development of Mass Effect 3, spoilers of the game's entire plot are leaked on the Internet. Don't bother searching now -- BioWare sent a cease and desist order to NeoGAF, and takedown orders were issued almost immediately. These spoilers weren't truly detailed scripts, but nonetheless, it was a dark moment that sent BioWare scrambling. In fact, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk told Eurogamer that, due to these leaks, the company was looking over forum posts to see if those who'd read the leaked script had any good ideas. Here, read this quote from Muzyka, because it's kind of important: We listen to them on the forums, their feedback from stories. We're reading it all. If we can get ideas out of it that will make the game better, sure. We're not adverse to taking feedback. That's part of our core values, is humility. Any time we get a good idea from fans... they're our audience. They keep us in business. Now, here we are in April 2012, and talk of the Mass Effect franchise simply will not slow down. Most notably -- what we're here to talk about today -- is the conversation surrounding the petition to change Mass Effect 3's ending. Maybe that argument exists because gamers are "entitled" or "whiny," as I've read so often. Maybe it's because there are, among the crowd, loyalists who have been involved in this series since that first trailer back in October 2005. Maybe it's because BioWare is a company devoted to its fans, that constantly espouses community involvement and listening to feedback. Maybe it's all of these and more. Maybe the impact will be something far grander than the fate of Commander Shepard and his crew. When Jason West and Vince Zampella left/were fired from/departed/whatever from Activision, much of the focus in the early days of coverage was focused on what this meant for the future of the Call of Duty franchise, and that's fine. Plenty of people were worried -- it is one of the biggest franchises of the last five years, after all. But the real concern should have been what precedent it set (or may set, since the case still hasn't gone to court) for developer-publisher relations. Now, in the case of BioWare and Mass Effect 3, the discussion should not be whether the ending is indeed terrible or not, as that's all subjective. We could argue for days about the logistics of the ending and why it does or doesn't fit our view of the Mass Effect universe, but in the end, it's just that: our view of the universe. You can't argue someone into changing how they feel; that has to come about organically, naturally. Leaving that discussion firmly in the past, let's observe what has been one of the biggest and most recent developments in the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle: the "Extended Cut" DLC announcement. BioWare believes that, by providing the additional scenes of closure the DLC is designed for, it can maintain its original vision of the series' end while keeping customers satisfied. However, it is not what protestors have been demanding. On the FAQ page for the Extended Cut, BioWare answers the ultimate question of "Does this mean BioWare is creating a different ending?" with a clear-cut and definitive... NO. What's so spectacular about this is that, through persistence, clusterfuckery, and a bit of dumb luck, Mass Effect 3 has prompted a discussion of "artistic integrity" vs. catering to the demands of a whiny, self-entitled subculture we call "gamers." You might call them "Bob." Or "Susan." Or whatever. Point is, they're consumers, and they're arguing for something I find to be, quite frankly, pretty reasonable. Meanwhile, the loudest argument against changing the ending that I've heard is that doing so would compromise BioWare and gaming as a whole by setting bad precedent. In other words, if someone doesn't like the ending to a game, why not change it to meet demand? After all, BioWare did it. But videogames are art, or so we like to proclaim at our most high and mighty. You can't change art. Can you? Actually, you can, and the funny part is that this happens all the goddamn time. Now, the following examples aren't perfect; there are some variables that are quite different from BioWare's current predicament. My point isn't to say, "This is exactly like when... ," but merely to point out that artistic visions have definitely been altered to suit the social climate of their time. In 2007, several radio stations, both domestic and international, banned music artist Sean Kingston's hit song "Beautiful Girls." Concerns over the "copycat" nature of suicides led to a surprisingly high percentage of listeners requesting the song be either altered or removed entirely. The song, while perhaps not the most artistic intellectual property, nonetheless had part of the lyrics changed from "You'll have me suicidal, suicidal when you say it's over" to "You'll have me in denial, in denial when you say it's over" in acquiescence. Why did no one argue "artistic integrity" over Sean Kingston's lyrics? Because it was being sensitive to a popular culture issue? Because it was "just another song" about how pretty girls are? Either way, why do we not use these same reasons for Mass Effect 3? Would it not be prudent for BioWare to be sensitive to a popular, consumer issue? Do we intend to hold Mass Effect 3 up as art when it stars, as many deriders of the series would describe, "just another bald space marine"? Films are also frequently edited and changed. Advanced screenings for test and press audiences will often gauge a potential film's success. After receiving feedback, filmmakers may cut, re-arrange, or insert or remove scenes entirely. Even post-release, films can be changed. Don't think so? Well, let me ask, who shot first, Han or Greedo? Regardless, the point remains that cinema, often considered one of the greatest forms of modern art, can be, and often is, changed. Remember Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman? I know, it's kind of painful for me too, but stick with me. We're going somewhere with this. Recall how the character Van Helsing is bitten by a werewolf, causing him to transform into one of those great, lumbering moonbeasts himself? At the climax of the film, Van Helsing is stabbed with a curing serum. Originally, in his transformation back to human form, Hugh Jackman wasn't wearing any clothes. BAM! Wolverine ass! Sweet, delicious... I'm sorry, what was I saying? Actually, reactions like mine to un-clothed Jackman are why the digital effects team added pants in the final version of the film. Director Stephen Sommers figured the audience would be too distracted by the taut buttocks on-screen that they couldn't pay attention to what was actually happening. And since this all occurs at what is supposed to be a heart-touching moment, it was kind of awkward to be staring at bare man cheeks. Artistic vision changed? Hardly. Maybe we should look towards the gaming industry, if that's what we're really talking about. Has anything like the compromise of "artistic integrity" happened before in the same medium? Well... yes, actually. The ending of Fallout 3 originally had the player's avatar sacrifice him- or herself, thus putting a definitive period at the end of the story. However, western RPGs are known for their open-world design, including the ability for players to complete quests and explore at their leisure. Gamers were hardly satisfied with Bethesda's return to a classic franchise if it didn't let them explore the world they knew and loved. Therefore, Bethesda changed the ending with the addition of the "Broken Steel" DLC. It never made sense, anyway. By that point in the story, you had a companion immune to radiation poisoning, and you yourself likely could've swam in radiation like a fish. Yet virtually no one is even using that against BioWare now. With regards to Mass Effect 3, you'll see message boards rife with dissatisfaction, with talk of plot holes and the feeling that nothing mattered and anger at the lack of closure, but you don't see 300 posts saying, "Well, Bethesda did it! You should too!" The truth is that BioWare is being put on a pedestal, as are the Mass Effect games. I agree that BioWare is a great studio with fine writers and imaginative vision, but it is also a business. When it creates an artistic vision, it does so as part of that business, just like music, just like movies. I admit, it's also hard for me to think of "artistic integrity" as being truly at stake when we see quotes from Casey Hudson that show him being excited over the "polarizing reaction" because he "didn't want the game to be forgettable." It's hard for me to worry about the creator vs. the consumer when Mac Walters writes "speculation for everyone" in regards to the game's script. That's not integrity or vision. That's selling your product. Before we go too far down that dark road of finger pointing and name-calling, selling a product is not a bad thing. No one discriminates against the artist for charging money for a painting; it's the nature of the business. You walk a fine line between creating art and creating a product people will want to buy. Some worry that shoving the Mass Effect 3 ending back in BioWare's face will compromise the structural integrity of the studio and the industry at large, as well as doom us to cookie-cutter designs due to creative minds' being too afraid of backlash. I call bullshit, and I have two words to evidence against that claim: CCP Games. Interestingly enough, as I was writing this column, I was sent on assignment to check out DUST 514 at CCP Fanfest in Iceland. CCP, for those who don't know, also makes EVE Online. That game received some huge backlash last summer for the Incarna expansion, which introduced some very, very, very expensive aesthetic options for avatars. These options, however, forced prices to skyrocket for everyone else, and the community was distraught to say the least. A game about spaceships and forming corporations was now most well-known for... a monocle. EVE Online has a democratically elected group of players who regularly confer with CCP developers, and in the midst of the Incarna fiasco, these players were flown out to Iceland for an emergency meeting. That was in 2011, but since letting bygones be bygones wasn't enough, at every keynote at Fanfest 2012, CCP acknowledged its failure in providing something that, while artistic and cool, didn't serve the consumer in the way that the consumer wanted. You know what? EVE Online has still seen growth in its subscribers for nine years in a row, and those apologies, saddled right alongside promises to refocus the game into what the players wanted, weren't met by boos from the crowd or accusations of endangering "artistic integrity." They were met by cheers and even standing ovations. The EVE fanbase is probably the most feverish one I've ever seen, but if CCP Games can face that wrath and still come away the following year with the largest number of Fanfest attendees ever, then BioWare can survive customers' being unhappy with their product. So can the industry. We are not so weak as to let criticism defeat us. Frankly, if the human creative drive were so fragile as those who warn of BioWare's setting a dangerous precedent claim, we'd have a lot more to worry about than a videogame about giant killer space robots. This is an opportunity for BioWare, both as a business and as  a collection of artists. The business has learned a powerful lesson, one that should be particularly poignant in this age of apathy and restlessness over the lack of originality in games: gamers demand quality. This is BioWare's chance, perhaps more than ever, to do something different. There are those who think that if BioWare "gives in" to demands of a new ending, game design will take a dive into the mud, the programmers and writers now too afraid of rebellious fans to poke their necks out creatively. I argue just the opposite. Gamers have shown that they expect quality from BioWare and that they want quality in the future. If publisher Electronic Arts really wants to compete with arch-rival Activision by having the better product instead of aping its designs, a la Battlefield 3 vs. Modern Warfare 3, this is a chance to show that a collection of industry professionals is willing to work with the gaming public rather than exploit them. On the artistic side -- I almost hate to say this -- I'm glad people are calling BioWare out on what they feel is sub-par writing. Whether it is or is not is irrelevant; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. What's important is that all artists must realize they will and should face criticism. Criticism helps art grow, take new shape, and define its place in history. No artists ever grew to be a legends by being told "Yeah, that looks great" their whole life. BioWare has been the legend of videogame writing over the past decade, but lately, we've seen some pretty fantastic stories being told from companies that were never on the radar before. Many who adore the Uncharted series do so for its plot and quick, snappy dialogue. These are games made by Naughty Dog, the people who made Crash Bandicoot. Would you have guessed 15 years ago that same company would be where it is today? Ubisoft, the studio behind that weird, limbless Rayman, now has one of the most legendary and community-adored stories in contemporary gaming thanks to the Assassin's Creed series. BioWare has competitors now. It cannot rest on the heels of its legacy as the studio behind Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate. Gamers expect more than that. Gamers have a right to desire quality, and as consumers, they have every right to point out where they feel BioWare has failed. BioWare itself has invited feedback from fans for a long time now, as quoted twice in this column alone. It would be a shame if it was only listening to the positive feedback, don't you think? Should BioWare be forced to change the ending? Absolutely not. That would be setting a bad precedent. But can BioWare own up to its failures and still retain a devoted fan following, if not one that expands to include new individuals? Absolutely -- CCP Games did. Can BioWare maintain the artistic integrity of Mass Effect and future projects while pursuing a successful business model? I believe so -- we don't see Sean Kingston or Universal suffering by balancing the two. I believe BioWare should change the ending of Mass Effect 3, not because I'm personally disappointed with the ending or the superficial subjectivity of its interpretation, but because gaming is an art form. The more we are willing to treat it as such instead of something to fight over, the bolder and stronger it can become. That's the industry's future, if it wants it to be. As for me, I'm happy to just be along for the ride. A toast to endings. And beginnings.
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Yes, another article about the Mass Effect 3 ending. And buckle in, because it's gonna be a long ride. Trust me, I plan to make it worth your while. To say that the ending to Mass Effect 3 has caused an outcry on the Internet...

Studying sexism with Skyrim -- Fus Ro Va! Gina!

Jan 17 // Sophie Prell
-------------------- It is almost impossible to describe the mind-boggling immensity of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In its simplest form, we could describe it as a fantastic, fun game worth checking out. At its highest accolades, we call it a trend-bucking win for gamers, and for the industry. But if you peel back the praise showered on this game for its detailed environments, exciting combat, engaging plots, and freedom of choice, the issue of sexism begins to come forth. Interestingly however, Skyrim itself isn't the problem. We can see sexist tropes and memes present throughout its design, but to call out this single game would be to misplace our focus. So let us instead observe the true issue of sexism, through the lens of Bethesda's masterpiece. Let's look at how, while Skyrim didn't create this hostile mindset, it hasn't done much to challenge it. Let's look at the game's community as a representative sample of our subculture at large. Let's not blame Skyrim, but observe it and learn from it. In his review of Skyrim, Tom Bissell commented, "If you have no idea what the Elder Scrolls franchise is, you are probably either (a) an adult woman, or (b) the sort of person who once beat up the sort of person who likes the Elder Scrolls franchise." It was intended as a joke, but to some it wasn't funny, and I count myself among that crowd. Because it isn't funny to me when, even as a joke, my entire gender is dismissed. I don't laugh when people assume that, because of what rests between the legs, women must inherently be opposed to things like Skyrim. It's an attitude equivalent to a "No Girls Allowed" club, and if I can let you into my life as a child for a moment, I confess I never really had a fondness for those, either. But my frustration doesn't come from one critic making a bad joke. It comes from both his assumptions and Skyrim's content being so status quo, so utterly representative of a patriarchy that pervades all of this industry we so love. Right about here is where you say I'm crazy. Right about now is where you say, "Fuck this, I'm not reading a stupid feminist rant. She's making a big deal out of nothing." Well, I'm not crazy. And neither is any other woman who is offended when someone makes a "joke" about what she should or shouldn't enjoy, video games included. Sexism is a problem within the video game subculture, and anyone willing to actually look around will notice. It's not hidden. It's not hard to find. The most popular Skyrim mod on Curse right now is for nude females. By a 5 to 1 margin it beats out the better performance mod, meaning the subculture you and I belong to would rather see tits than see a game run better. -------------------- Somewhat... miffed at my mistreatment by the Nords and Imperials alike at the execution block, stuck in a land of unforgiving snow and fierce predators, I sought to soothe my troubled mind. Having some skill with a bow and practice as a pickpocket, I knew I could make an excellent addition to the Thieves Guild. Here, Brynjolf and the others welcomed me, though not with eager, open arms. Through time and dedication, I proved myself to them. The word of a thief is no word at all, but the skill is something to respect. So it was that I uncovered a plot by then-guild leader Mercer Frey to steal all of the thieves' belongings, leaving them high and dry. Karliah, whom Frey had labeled a traitor of the Thieves Guild, was found to be innocent, and with her guidance, Brynjolf and I were shown into the fold of the Nightingales. We defeated Mercer and rescued the guild from the brink of destruction. What's more, thanks to Karliah, we were now servants of Nocturnal, gifted with extraordinary resources and abilities. I was honored to have served under Karliah. She was capable and strong. She had experience and knowledge that I had not. Now that her betrayer was slain and the guild was once more stable, I assumed Karliah to be the one to head the Thieves Guild. Not so. Instead, she relinquished control to Brynjolf and I. To think myself a leader of the Thieves Guild was impossible; I had barely just met many of the Riften misfits, many of which I had not so much as spoken to. Surprised but honored, I left Karliah, never to see her again, and worked instead with Brynjolf to restore the Thieves Guild even further, elevating them from common thugs to reputable and honorable folk. I sometimes find myself wondering about Karliah and what she does, out in Nightingale Hall by her lonesome. I wonder about her wellbeing, and I wonder why; Why did she not come back with us? Why did she give up the honor and respect she had been fighting to retrieve from Mercer Frey? Any thief can steal a trinket. Frey had stolen Karliah's entire life. Why was she not returning to it now that she could? It is a question I cannot answer. -------------------- When I asked my friends if I should write this column, if they felt the same way or saw things the same way as I did, they suggested I try to see the game through the eyes of someone else; of someone detached from our modern conceptions of sexism and fairness of gender portrayals. What I found was a game that wasn't as offensive as I originally thought. Plus let's be honest, it's hard to stay mad at a game that lets you dual-wield magic and swords. So let's make this absolutely clear: I say none of this with contempt in my heart. I'm having a blast with Skyrim. I think it's a great game. I'm not mad, I'm disappointed.. I'm disappointed because Merrillia has no role models. And growing up, neither did I. When I was little, my brothers got me a screen printed t-shirt that read in great, bold letters, "I SUCK." It was required attire if I ever wanted to play the NES or Genesis. I was never to think of myself as a player on the same level as they, and there was no way that tight, itchy shirt would ever let me forget it. Each member of my family was an athlete: my father a weightlifter and wrestling coach, my mother a cross-country runner, one brother a basketball player, the other a baseball star. And I liked video games. My concern with the video games of yesterday and today, as exemplified by Skyrim and countless others, is that they aren't doing anything for the girls stuck in the same situation now as I was then. That girls don't have enough role models in the gaming community. I don't want girls to see this hobby as something that excludes them. They are valuable additions to our community, not something to be taken for granted, mocked, or turned away. You and I know that the Dragonborn can be male or female. You and I understand that Shepard can be hero or heroine. But is that something readily apparent to everyone? Is it as obvious to the girl picking up a controller for the first time as it is to us? I don't think so. I think there's still something to be said. I think there are still paths to be traveled, people to witness to. -------------------- Having set the thieves straight on their feet, I set my sights on the Companions next. A hardy group of warriors, steeped in lore and legend of the Nords, I was expecting them to be a bit more... hesitant to allow a Dunmer amongst them. Yet it was relatively easy to prove myself even to these sturdy warriors, and soon Kodlak, leader of the Companions, honored me with acceptance. The Companions have a secret, however, and it is one I shall not journal here, for fear of its finding. I will only say instead that this secret causes great conflict with a band of zealous mercenaries that roam the Skyrim mountains and valleys. This secret, and in turn the conflict, eventually led to Kodlak's death. Jorrvaskr came under siege and not I, nor anyone else could protect our wisened leader. We set upon a bloody quest for vengeance at first, furious and angered by our loss. We soon realized however that we had to turn our attention inward, turn it towards helping Kodlak's passage in death to Sovngarde. A great many dungeons and fortresses lay in our path to salvation, and one by one my closest Companions left my side, staying behind. Except for Aela, the Huntress. She had been the one to share the Companions' secret with me, and was a fiercely determined woman. It was she who led a great many of the attacks against our rivals, and it was she who stood by me to the end of our journey. At the innermost sanctum of Ysgramor's Tomb we found his restless spirit and calmed its bestial passions. And once again, I found myself... admittedly shocked. Though Aela had been with me throughout all of my ordeals, though she had superior skill and seniority within the Companions, Kodlak's spirit bestowed upon me the title of Harbinger. I was now what could be considered a leader of the group, though once again I felt a great, misplaced weight, as I did when Karliah left the Thieves Guild to Brynjolf and myself. After reconvening with my fellow warriors, I set them, as I had the Riften thieves, on their way. They were fully suited to carrying on without me, and my destiny still waited amongst the snowy peaks. My destiny as a Dragonborn. -------------------- Ah yes, the Dragonborn. Despite a major feature of the game being the ability to customize one's race, gender and appearance, in Skyrim's advertising, parody videos, and machinima, we see the horn-helmed male figure who stunned us all as star of the game's first gameplay trailer representing the hero. It was assumed, even before we knew what this new hero so much as looked like, that it would be male. Recall the final, spine-tingling words of the very first teaser: "...there is one they fear. In their tongue, he is Dovakhiin. Dragonborn!" Whenever a game is released that features the ability to customize a character's gender, the prominent presence associated with its ad campaign is almost universally the male one. This was the case in Mass Effect from the very beginning, as it was with Dragon Age, Saints Row, and Skyrim. But it's really just marketing bullshit. It doesn't have to be that way. Take a look at these stats from the Entertainment Software Association: 42 percent of players are women 48 percent of purchasers are women 37 percent of the entire gaming population is made up of women 18 years or older Now if those numbers were in the twenties, I could understand not catering to a female audience. But that's not the case, and when I look around I see too many great women doing great things for this industry to ignore our sex. I see too many talented gamers, industry personnel, personalities, forward-thinkers and writers. I read too many female commenters here on Destructoid. I hear too many distraught voices. We are not small. We are not insignificant. But we are not being treated equally. The year 2011 did nothing to change that, and while Skyrim was in prime position to do so, it didn't. It challenged the industry's standards on what we as gamers have been told to expect from games – particularly over the last five or so years – such as online passes and a need for multiplayer, but it doesn't deny what we as women have been told to expect from our games for most of our lives, which are namely: Women are not the heroes. They are designed to highlight form over function. They are sidekicks and lovers, but not heroes. Women are not to advertise games, even if the game features customizable player-characters. The predominantly male consumer can only identify with another of his sex, so women do not represent the games in the public eye. Women do not lead the hero. Men can make demands of the hero or lead them, but a woman may only ask for help. Women are not in a position of power or respect. If both king and queen sit before you, each with seemingly equal power over their citizens, it is to the king you will speak. This is not to negate the likes of Samus Aran, FemShep, Claire Redfield, or other strong female heroes, or even a female Dragonborn in Skyrim. But for every well-written, thoughtfully-designed, independent lady out there, we find ten pieces of vapid eye candy, the kind of empty personalities that populate utterly base, degrading, stupid shit like this Maxim list, The Top 9 Video Game Vixens. Here's a sample of how video game heroines are perceived, courtesy of the entry on Lei Fang from Dead or Alive: "...you're hoping she might kick you again, if only to get just one more glimpse of those white cotton panties she's wearing." If you're thinking to yourself, "Well duh, that's Maxim, they're paid to be pervs. The rest of us aren't like that," I'd like to once more point you to the nude mod for Skyrim. Five to one over better performance. Now, the women of Skyrim are far less likely to wind up on such a list, and at first may even seem admirable by comparison. Maven Black-Briar runs the organized crime in Riften and has no qualms about pushing you around. Three of the nine Jarls are women, and Astrid, a woman, leads what may be the deadliest guild in Tamriel's lore. But even these come with the typical backhanded stereotypes of women attached. Maven is, frankly, a huge bitch. The female Jarls are completely optional in terms of interaction, unimportant to the main quest. Astrid is a traitor who gets everybody fucking killed because she is scared of the guards, and cries over the fact. If you've been reading the prose interspersed throughout this column, you'll notice a running theme: Merrillia saves the day, assisted by a strong female, who at the last minute is bafflingly shoved aside to make way for a male or Merrillia herself to take power. I understand player empowerment, but there comes a point where a sense of progress is impeded by the game handing heaps of praise and awe onto my character without reasonable justification. It forces characters whom I once viewed favorably, such as Aela and Karliah, to act out of character; they must suddenly be disempowered so that I may take their place. The easiest way to do that, of course, is to fall back to gender stereotypes, i.e. sexism. Think back to Metroid: Other M. A character initially thought to be a strong, resilient soldier and all-around space badass, Samus is reduced to -- literally -- a weeping little girl in the face of danger. Can you imagine Master Chief stopping to wipe a few tears in the middle of a Covenant invasion? Can you imagine any male character being so scared by his enemy that he breaks down into sobs? SPOILER ALERT: Dom fucking dies in Gears of War 3, and Marcus doesn't shed a tear. He does the stereotypically masculine "Noooo!" and then threatens to rip out the throat of anyone who brings it up. END SPOILER. In order for our subculture to progress, we must defy the stereotypes. We must say no more. And we can do that, by simply not buying products we feel have let us down, by writing to developers, by standing up for what we think is important. You could even write something on, oh I don't know, a video game website like this one? Because once you've done your part, The challenge falls to game designers and writers. It's up to them to play against the stereotypes of women being emotionally fragile and men being incapable of any emotion but rage (a stereotype as equally offensive, but I'll leave it to the males out there to express their distaste of that portrayal of their gender) to create well-rounded characters we can still relate to. So, you know: Their jobs. Here's an oft-discussed example: Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 is frequently praised for her strength and personality. And to a point, I agree. She's certainly well-written, strongly voiced, and superbly animated. She's also of great use to the player by possessing useful combat AI and warning us of dangerous surroundings. But she's not your equal. Nor is Elena Fisher from Uncharted. Nor is Mona Sax from Max Payne. Nor is Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5. The spotlight is always squarely on the male protagonist, lovable and/or useful though the women may be. In order to have the spotlight shine on a strong female, one almost has to go so far as to write fan fiction. -------------------- I cannot even know how such a thing as me being a Dragonborn could be true, but it is. After fending off a dragon attack from the hold of Whiterun, the same township that held the Companions' meeting hall, I could feel the dragon's power... melding with mine. I absorbed its strength as the flesh seared into ash and fluttered away in the wind, leaving only sand-white bone. I was Dragonborn, the only kind of person who could permanently slay a dragon. I was, however, untrained. I had seen writing in the ancient dragon language throughout my adventures, but never knew how to speak them, nor how to control their power. I was instructed to meet with the Greybeards on High Hrothgar, and they in turn would teach me the power of the Voice, the way to control dragon power. With training and confidence in my newfound abilities, I set forth on an adventure that would take me from the deepest dungeons to the farthest holds, gathering allies and artifacts along the way. I would encounter the Thalmor and the Imperial Legion, as well as Ulfric Stormcloak himself. I would destroy those that came against me while turning a diplomatic cheek to the civil war of Skyrim. In none of my adventures however, did I find another like myself. Nowhere amongst the citizens did I find a female who not only took charge, but did so commendably and respectably. I may be the latest – and perhaps last – Dragonborn, but it is just as disheartening that I may be the first of my female kind. -------------------- Skyrim isn't the root of these problems. It's not the sole offender. It is simply the most recent, relevant example. It is emblematic of the problems that have persisted in gaming, even through the year 2011. It was also the game I most hoped to see change that pattern. I was sadly disappointed. Yet I don't blame or hate Bethesda for the way they've designed Skyrim. I don't believe there's any malice behind it. I don't think they thought of making the Greybeards some kind of sisterhood and then said, "What are you kidding me? Women as the wise old masters? Fuck no!" So try not to rush to Skyrim's defense with, "But it's based on patriarchal Norse mythology, so it's realistic!" A game based in a completely fictional world crafted by dozens of designers where you can run around as a humanoid cat, wielding a flaming sword in the absolute nude (with mods) is not going to carry that argument. Similarly, I'm not saying Bethesda condones sexism, merely that they passively stood by while it took place when they could have actively worked to change the course of gender politics in video games. But instead, I would wager the same thing happened with Skyrim that happens with most fiction writing: they didn't even consider strong, respectable female roles as a possibility in the first place. I wouldn't blame them. They'd be traversing largely unexplored territory. It's rare for a game where gender is chosen to have a trailer featuring the one with tits. It's rare to see a respectable female give you orders. It's rare to see a female partner to be considered an equal. Hell, so few developers have made a game featuring a main female character at all. Every one of the major, negative trends listed above is seen within the game and its advertising. While Skyrim should be applauded and held aloft as an example of goodness for all it does different, we can see that there are still a great many attitudes to change, a great number of paths to forge, and we should just as well hold Skyrim – and the industry that birthed it, as well as the community that supports it -- accountable for what hasn't been done differently. The reason sexism is a problem isn't because there are malicious designers conspiring around tables to exclude women from games. It's a problem is because we haven't demanded that this change. It's a problem because we're complacent with this concept that is so ingrained, so expected for men to fill Role A while women fill Role B that not even Skyrim, a monumental testament to human innovation and imagination that sparked the excitement of millions would truly challenge it. -------------------- *The journal ends here. You set it down, across the cold, stone tablet covering the grave of Merillia, the legendary Dragonborn who slew Alduin and saved not only Skyrim, but all of Tamriel. A statue of the lady elf stands towering before you as a monument to her heroic deeds. You look around you at the snowy peaks and evergreen pine. The wind blows hard through your clothing, a chill that cuts to the bone. You step away, assured that your own bard-worthy adventures lie ahead.*
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My name is Merillia Feldreth. I am a Dunmer, a Dark Elf. In the land of Skyrim, my kind is not particularly welcome. The Nords have their customs and ways which I admit I do not favor in my heart, but I respect in my actions....

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Skyrim launch party, a bardic tale of booze & dragons


Nov 11
// Sophie Prell
There is a dragon in the Belasco Theatre. I repeat, there is a dragon in the Belasco Theatre. I'm not the only one that sees this, right? I am surrounded by people infinitely richer and more recognizable than me, people like ...
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Counterpoint: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception


Nov 09
// Sophie Prell
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is fantastic. If you own a PlayStation 3, I highly recommend you purchase it right this second if you haven't already. Seriously. Just get up, leave this column for a minute -- don't worry, I'll...

Batman: Arkham City: What, me worry?

Oct 17 // Sophie Prell
What if it turns out it's actually not? More specifically, what if it's not awesome precisely because it has tried to be too awesome? How many villains does Arkham City have, that we know about? Catwoman, Bane, Two-Face, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Talia al Ghul, Harley Quinn, Joker, Riddler, Hugo Strange, Deadshot... Heck, they even took a villain originally made as an archenemy for the Green Lantern and transposed him in: Solomon Grundy! It's not that I don't want to fight all of those guys: I do. And I want to do it as the goddamn Batman. Which I will. But like a nice set of fake boobs, I can't help but worry that in the end, what I'll get is something nice to look at, not so nice to hold; a whole lot of style, with too little substance. In any basic literature class, you'll learn that there is a certain blueprint to follow when creating an engaging narrative. It's called the dramatic structure, and it traces back to Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle believed that a whole is that which “has a beginning and middle and end.” Seems like pretty basic stuff, right? How could anyone mess that up? Well these words were poured over, examined, and analyzed by many others over the years, as scientists, artists, and philosophers are prone to do. But for sake of time and existential musing, we'll just focus on the one who gave us our contemporary view of Aristotle's belief, German writer Gustav Freytag. And don't worry about Philosophy 101, we're coming back to Batman soon enough. Freytag broke dramatic structure into five parts: The exposition, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution. I'd like to believe that everyone reading this knows what each of those means, but the rampant abundance of “also, cocks” and “lolfags” on the Internet persuades me to (briefly) explain. Exposition sets up our story. It is the introduction, where we learn who we focus on, where we are, etc. Though we already know who Bruce Wayne is by the time Arkham Asylum starts, there is still an exposition in that the game places us at Arkham, at night, just after Batman has caught The Joker. The rising action is where basic conflict – for example, Batman must stop the Joker – is complicated by secondary conflicts or obstacles, ie. Batman must stop the Joker, but first he must fight through the other villains freed by the Clown Prince of Crime. The climax is the turning point, the most exciting moment; Batman rallies himself and sets in motion a plan to catch the Joker, putting an end to the insanity. The falling action is the solution to the climax's dramatic suspense. In a suspenseful battle where the outcome was in question, Batman has foiled the villain's latest plot, captured him, and Gotham is saved. Finally, the resolution – or dénouement – is the conclusion of all things. Following the example of Arkham Asylum, the resolution is our witnessing Batman as he flies off into the night to save the rest of Gotham, faced with a new task. What I worry with Arkham City is that, by throwing so much at the player in terms of abilities, villains, and plot threads, the dramatic structure will become so weighed down by fan service and thoughts of “Wouldn't it be cool if...?” that it will crumble into an orgy of Batarangs and explosions. And trust me, while an orgy made entirely of Batman and Batman-inspired epicosity sounds delicious, it is a hollow, unsatisfying experience. My closet full of love-stained Bat-costumes are testament to that. Think back to Spider-Man 3, painful as that is. And considering I'm using a Marvel hero to illustrate my arguments regarding a DC hero, I'm sure that's extra painful for some of you. Now, with Spider-Man 3, Sam Raimi wanted to finish off that whole Goblin Jr. storyline that needed a conclusion. But Raimi didn't want Harry to follow in his father's footsteps, so we'd better throw in a real villain. Sandman looks cool, why not him? Not kidding by the way. Raimi's justification for Sandman pretty much amounted to “Dude looks cool.” But I digress. Raimi wanted more, and as the studio knew, nothing gets the ladies wet like a bad boy parasitic alien, so best to add in Venom. And speaking of ladies, we'd better give Peter the temptation of another woman, so you'd better believe it's time to write in Gwen Stacy. Do you remember the details of each of those plot threads? When, where, and how each was resolved? Odds are no, because it's just too much for one dramatic structure to handle. And in turn, that splits the audience's focus, as well as their empathy. Who gives two shits if Peter gave the hot blonde a peck when his best friend is planning to murder him? The only piece of dramatic structure that demanded resolution was the relationship between Peter and Harry. That's it. But soon the monster was loose, steamrolling along, picking up everyone's “Wouldn't it be cool if...?” ideas and mushing them all together into one giant, incoherent, stinky pile. Because of its sheer mass and complexity, neither Raimi nor the audience could draw from the tangled mess a satisfying exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, or dénouement. So instead of having the greatest Spider-Man movie ever, aimed at satisfying everyone, we wound up with the most universally hated of the three films which satisfied virtually no one. That's what I'm afraid will happen with Arkham City. Granted it doesn't have the same constraints as a film, but many aspects of its creation are similar enough that I find myself approaching it with caution. Because while the hopes and dreams of avid fans are wonderful fuel and ignite a passionate fire under the butts of creators, those same hopes and dreams do not a wonderful plot glue make. I just don't know, fellow Bat-fans. I don't know. But what do you say we all find out together, come tomorrow? TO THE MALL!!
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Dear Destructoid readers, I have something I'd like to share with you today. It's something quite... dastardly, if I do say so myself. More maniacal than the Joker, more ruthless than Killer Croc, more relentless than Two-Fac...

Interview: Nate Kenyon on Starcraft: Ghost: Spectres

Oct 07 // Sophie Prell
Destructoid: So let's start off with the first question then, just kinda talking about how you got into the project originally, and I also saw on your website the upcoming Diablo novel, so I was just kind of curious about how that starts rolling and how you get contacted and what that experience was like for you? Nate Kenyon: Yeah. I'd never done any tie-in work before so this is all new to me. And I wrote a science-fiction novel called Prime, short novel called Prime, and it was well-received and the Pocket editor read it and liked it and contacted my agent at the time and asked if I would be interested in working with Blizzard on a Starcraft project. And Blizzard had of course read it too and they really liked it and were really enthusiastic about my work so I had a couple conference calls to sort of talk it over and talk about the story and what they wanted to do. We really clicked right away, I think. Really got excited right off the bat talking to them, they're just so passionate about what they do and the story they wanted to tell and really enthusiastic about my work and I think it was a perfect fit because they really wanted to go kind of dark with the story, and there are a lot of horror/thriller elements in the story which is a lot of what I have done in the past. So they had no problems taking it in a dark, creepy direction in a lot of ways and that was something that I love playing with. So that's how it happened and I went out to visit them and had a fantastic day-long creative with them and hashed out a lot of fun ideas and then took from there and worked on getting the outline right and I went on from there. Everybody was thrilled with this book, so that lead to Diablo which is my newest project that I just finished and that's gonna be a really big book sometime early next year. Really, really excited about that one. Great story to it and it was a lot of fun to write and I think we all had a blast kind of playing in that universe. Yeah, I'm excited about both these projects. Yeah, and the Diablo one, not to go too far away from the Starcraft one, but the Diablo one I'm kind of curious about. Because that's very high fantasy, you know medieval sort of setting, which is kind of a lot different than your other books. Am I right in saying that? Yeah, yeah absolutely. But at the same time it's funny when that's one of the reasons that they really got the experience they had working on Spectres with me; I think that they really wanted to take Diablo in a bit of a different direction and kinda reboot some of the – from a fiction perspective – reboot and re-tell some of the backstory for new fans as they get ready to launch this new game and kind of take it in a – you know, obviously it's still set in the same time frame and has a lot of the same elements and everything – to really play up the horror elements, the thriller, creepy stuff part of all that and up the stakes there. So I think I was good for that, and I approached both projects very similarly: I really just immersed myself in the worlds for both of these new books and you know, spent several months just reading everything I could get my hands on, reading wikis, talking to fans, talking to Blizzard lore team, and just really learning every possible detail I could about the entire lore history of both of these franchises so by the time that I got to the point of writing I felt really comfortable. Like I was just in part of that world. So all that stuff kinda came alive for me. Okay, well that's cool. Yeah, it was fun. It's good that you had an enjoyable experience because this, like you said, is your first kind of tie-in working within an established intellectual property as opposed to your own. And speaking of that, can you talk a bit about how your process changes or maybe doesn't change on the difference between working with an established IP versus your original stories? It definitely changes. I by nature, most of my original stuff I'm more of a seat-of-your-pants kind of writer. I think there are two different kinds of approaches, two different kinds of writers. There's sort of the more logical, outlines, takes detailed notes so we know every step, every chapter, and then there are those like-- Stephen King's kind of famous for saying you get an idea, it sparks an idea, he takes some notes, he just is off and running and sometimes he doesn't know exactly where the story is gonna take him. He may know the beginning, he may know the end, and a point or two between. That's the way I used to write. This requires a very different approach. And I was surprised actually to find that I really liked it. Before this I thought that you were hard-wired, you're a kind of writer and this is just the way you approach a story and it was what worked for you, and I changed my opinion on that. Or at least hey, I can write either way and in some ways writing with an outline and with collaborators and brainstorming and everything is even more rewarding and a better experience. I didn't write myself into a corner with these books for the most part, because I had a real good idea of where I was going. And the experience of writing with a team like Blizzard, and the enthusiasm they have for story and the talented people they have there, and just get on the phone and brainstorm these ideas and throw an idea out there and have somebody either go no, that doesn't work or suddenly have it click and everybody kind of gets excited, you feel the energy building, “Yeah yeah, that's a great way to take that,” and it's just a real high and a real fun experience to work that way. And then of course you have to take all that and hunker down in your office by yourself and write. But you know, that really carries you through I think in a lot of ways. And I think we got creative in ways with the story that I might not have without those brainstorming sessions. They certainly had a lot of plot points they wanted me to hit and great ideas and stuff too that they brought to me in the first place. And then, kind of developing that from there and coming up with things together was really a lot of fun. Okay, so you were working then pretty closely and frequently with a team to kind of help keep track and make sure that the story was... you know, very... for lack of a better word to describe it, it was very, very “Starcraft” or very “Blizzard.” And keeping track of that, you were working pretty closely then? I worked very closely with them initially, but with both these books what happened is we'll work together, we'll have some conference calls, they brought me out to Blizzard campus for both of these books for sort of a day long kind of brainstorming session. And then I work on the outline and based on what we've talked about I'll shoot it their way and then we kind of back and forth to hammer out more details and everything, and then I kind of lock myself away for three, four months or something and hammer out a draft. And you know, I'll be in touch with one or two folks usually off and on during that process by email or whatever, just if I have a question that I really need answered before I can move on or just to let 'em know how they're going or whatever. So it's really an intense process in the beginning, getting going, and then I kind of do my normal, you know, shut myself away, lock myself up, come out bleary-eyed and weird then or something, you know? Oh yeah. [laughs] Definitely. [laughs] And then of course there's another collaborative part beyond that which is when they get the draft, you know, working on revisions, working on changes to the story. That's a whole other challenge and another kind of fun thing to do because the stories always tends to go off in slightly different directions than you think and then some things might have worked on outline or if folks at Blizzard might see a point that needs to be slowed down or speeded up or changed or whatever or something's changed in the IP, you know all that stuff happens and then there's the process of where they'll give me detailed notes and talk about all these things and have another conference call and rewrite everything and get it closer and closer to what we all really want. Yeah. I think if I was in your shoes, I would be panicking I guess because I'd be thinking, “Well I want my character to have a conversation with so-and-so but how do I know that so-and-so would be available at this time?” Because the Starcraft and Blizzard universes are so fleshed-out and technical that I just figured there was a lot to kind of keep track of in that sense. There is a ton, yeah. [laughs] And Diablo is just... You know, I think one of the reasons they wanted to do this book and the way that we did it was because I think a lot of people, even the hardcore fans, may not know that there's so much backstory to Diablo, so much lore developed from day one of creation. There's so much there that is great and rich and tradition and ideas. So yeah, it's daunting and initially, since Starcraft is the first one I did, I was frozen. But once I started writing and I just let myself rely on all that research I'd done and just... really living, breathing Starcraft for like three months, once I allowed myself to relax and just depend upon that, just fall back on that, you know I know this stuff, I know these characters, I know this world now. Everything was fine, and then of course the outline was there to guide me along and keep me on track. Cool! So, speaking of outlines and everything, I wanted to ask how much of the story for Spectres was taken from the game Ghost that sadly – so sadly! – never made it and how much of that factors into Spectres the novel. Yeah. I'm actually not really sure, honestly. Certainly, Blizzard had a pretty detailed story for this book, but I also in working with them took the story in different directions from some of the things that were too drowned and that was all fine. You know, I'm not familiar with detail after detail of the Ghost game itself, certainly I know the elements and everything, but I don't know exactly where they were taking the story moment to moment. So all I can do is tell you the story certainly fleshes out that world and that timeline and explains the spectres, which is obviously a big part of everything, and Nova's story and what happened and why. So certainly some of it's there. Some of it's there, I just can't tell you exactly how much. Oh okay. Well it was a game that was kind of mysterious in its own right, so I don't think anybody really knows too much more than everybody was looking forward to it. [laughs] Yeah and I think – I hope – that fans will give this book a shot. I hope it satisfies some of that and I think the story itself is killer, I mean it's really fun. And all the elements are there for great conflict, tension, dark thriller stuff, science-fiction stuff, the idea of the spectres and the whole clash between ghosts and super ghosts if you want to think that way or whatever. That whole tension, that whole clash is epic and fun and I think this book plays it out well. Yeah, and that goes to one of my questions that I sent you: Without giving any spoilers – if you can – can you describe one of your favorite scenes in the Spectres novel? I love that question. I was thinking about it and I um... there's so many! [laughs] [laughs] I don't know, obviously I'm partial cuz you know, I like the book and everything and I had a lot of fun writing it. But there's some really great, great scenes in this book. You know early on, right off the bat, there's the opening scene where Nova has been drawn to this wasteland of a backwater planet and the Zerg are there and right off the bat there's just this epic battle which I spent a ton of time researching and making sure I was getting everything right and illustrating you know, all the different kinds of aliens, and the ways they could attack and having fun with that. I just wanted to sort of start with a bang and just kind of blow up everything and have a blast with it right off the bat and that scene I think is one of my favorites. There's some other great scenes, there's some interactions with Leo and Kat, you know, it's very kind of creepy scenes on more or less abandoned space stations and environments like that that are fun. There's a great scene in sort of propping up the center of the book you know with ghosts versus spectres in the middle of a very important city. [laughs] Yeah. That's a lot of fun, you know playing with their powers, and how would they set each other up and how Nova reacts to all that is a lot of fun. Yeah, and speaking about Nova, she was this kind of character that... again, since Ghost never came out as a video game, she was this character that a lot of people thought was really cool, but people didn't actually really get to know her until the novels and the graphic comic, Ghost Academy. And female leads are kind of becoming a thing in gaming, more so I would say than they have been in the past probably five years I would say is when they've kind of started taking off? And I just wanted to get your perspective on writing Nova, especially because a lot of times female characters get criticized as being too emotional and I would say that Nova certainly has her emotions and everything, but for good reason. Yeah. You're absolutely right. Yeah, and could you just talk a bit about writing Nova as a character? Yeah. I love this character. I absolutely love her. She's so much fun. And part of it is just the setup with who she is and you know, the constant battle-- the entire premise that she willingly goes into the ghost academy, the ghost program to forget who she is, where she came from, the things that happened to her, that's just fantastic and great drama for a character. And then in this book, being able to start to pull all that back and dump it on her while she's trying to deal with you know, the actual events that are happening and the danger around her and you know, everything she has to deal with and being able to kind of draw those elements back in and have them-- and Blizzard and I talked very early on about bringing those elements back like flashbacks, you know like hallucinations almost, things that just flash in her mind and they're so strong that she can barely even do anything, can't react to anything else, just really overwhelming, and that idea of these things coming back on you whether you like it or not is just fascinating to play with from a character perspective. And I think you're right on about she has emotions, absolutely she has emotions, but being able to play with her wanting to bury those and yet having them come back up again, and yet here she is this kick-ass heroine who's got these incredible talents and you know, she's one of the most powerful, talented ghosts that ever lived and being able to play with that and at the same time kind of draw out her vulnerability a little bit and have her battling some of those demons from her past was so much fun. She's a fantastic character, one of my favorites that I've ever worked with. Well cool! I'm glad that you had fun writing with her. I kind of found that it felt-- and I'll be honest with you, I have not had a chance to read any of your prior material, but reading up on the things that you've written before and the characters you've written before, I'm very interested in Prime and Sparrow Rock and all those. But the sense that I got from Spectres, and I don't know if this is something that is a constant in your writing, and maybe you can tell me, is that there was kind of a sense of like a mystery thriller kind of conspiracy theory thing going on. Like it just felt almost spy noir, was that a switch for you or how did you switch up your style if you needed to for Spectres? Yeah, that's a great question. Yeah, I think that's definitely part of what I try to do. And this fit perfectly. I think that's why it all came together so well and I felt like I was a good fit for it and Blizzard and Pocket did, because I think some of the stuff I've written before, the characters I've written, the plots I've written, they resonate with this book too. And yet at the same time of course it's completely different, it's in a completely different universe and everything, but you know I always feel that story is about the characters and the major plot elements that drive them forward, and everything else around them is a shell to tell that core story about a person or people and what happens to them. And this is the same thing. Absolutely there are some similar elements and things that I love to play around with and I think my second novel, The Reach, has a very strong female lead and a little girl in that book that's telekinetic and it's very much sort of techno-thriller type of read. So I was trying to write Firestarter as Michael Crichton might write it: realistic and science-based approach to telekinesis. [laughs] Yeah. So that experience, which is one of my favorite books that I've done, that experience informs Starcraft and Nova very well too. So I felt comfortable writing that type of lead, that type of story and making it feel as realistic as possible, and as epic as possible. Yeah. Well I just have one more question. I just wanted to ask you Nate, I know you're not a gamer from some earlier interviews I've read that you've done, but I wanted to ask kind of what your thought is on video game storytelling, and if you think that they can be, will be, or already are as compelling as the other forms of artistic expression like a novel, or a movie, or that? No question. Absolutely no question, they already are. You know, you just look at the level of interest and the depth of story that comes now in these games. You know I'm not a hardcore gamer, I certainly play off and on various universes and stuff, I'm familiar with Starcraft, I wasn't a hardcore player or anything, so there was a lot to catch up in that universe since I hadn't played in a long time... But yeah, there's no question. There's no question. You know, how far we've come in such a short amount of time, you know from Pong, where there was no story at all, it was just a very simple game that this stuff now is just as rich and developed as anything... you know, even having some idea of what was out there already, diving into this, the Starcraft universe, talking to Blizzard, reading the backstory, playing the game, just made me... I was blown away by it and how much more there was than even I realized to the backstory, to the universe, the characters. At the same time, it also made me realize how much there was to tell. Which is really exciting for a novelist, because you've got all this stuff to play from, to work with, but there's still definitely stories that are just kind of glossed over or just mentioned briefly that there's all these pockets within the timeline that have fantastic stories that you can write, you can develop, within those kind of tight circles. You know, as long as you play within the lines of the larger lore within those tighter circles, there's often a lot of leeway to develop things that are yours and characters that are yours and things like that. So that's exciting. But to your original question, there's no question that they are just as rich, just as immersive, just as interesting and just as much as a story as any other form of storytelling. I think you'll find a lot of readers that will agree with you, so I'm glad that you feel that way! [laughs] [laughs] Well thank you very much for your time! Absolutely, thanks so much for talking to me. I had fun!
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Recently, I was offered the opportunity to go in undercover - like a ghost, if you will - and interview author Nate Kenyon to ferret out information regarding the recently released Starcraft novel, Starcraft: Ghost: Spec...

Why the Mass Effect 3 FemShep vote was the wrong move

Aug 12 // Sophie Prell
Kim Richards of PC Gamer wrote an editorial titled “Mass Effect 3: Death to Blonde Shepard” in response to the vote, which has itself spurned another wave of disgruntled gamers. If you've somehow avoided this issue up to now, let me catch you up to speed: The FemShep with the most votes is the blonde bombshell known collectively as FemShep 5, her number in the Facebook album. But her appearance, with the tousled locks of gold and shimmering eyes of blue, call out to a distinctly stereotypical portrayal of beauty. Specifically, Western world Caucasian beauty. It is the deconstruction of FemShep 5's appearance and the association/accusation of stupidity and novice skill with blonde hair that leads the debate you can find cropping up around the Internet, but I feel there is a certain angle lacking from the discussion. Of course, while FemShep 5's appearance and what it has come to represent certainly plays a large role in the argument, what I'm here to critique is the manner in which she was chosen. Yup, this is an assault on the democratic voting process itself. Brace yourselves. Don't get me wrong. What BioWare has done with the FemShep vote is, either on purpose or serendipity, pure brilliance. With one simple contest, they've absolved themselves of any responsibility for perceived prejudice for FemShep's appearance, i.e. Hey, don't blame BioWare for the Aryan nation's collective fantasy that walks upright on your Mass Effect 3 cover, it's what the fans wanted. Not only that, but the manner in which they presented the contest was so subversive we didn't seem to notice just what had happened until the stale, heavy whiff of hairspray and fake nail glue stung our nostrils. See, the FemShep vote was a beauty pageant all along. And I don't know about you, but that's what pisses me off. BioWare took one of the small handful of non-sexualized female heroes in gaming and put her on stage for the world to judge on appearances alone, aka a f**king beauty pageant. I understand the drive for open-world gameplay, as well as customization of everything from hairstyle to nostril width in today's games, but I find myself unable to comprehend the unprecedented level of control BioWare has handed over to fans from a design perspective with this contest. Think about it. When was the last time a main character's design -- the essential artistic representation of who they are -- was up for grabs like this? Cole McGrath with his X-games wannabe redesign in inFamous 2? Sorry, not the same. In that particular situation, developers Sucker Punch had already constructed their vision, and only after extremely negative fan reaction did they plant heel and turn back. FemShep 5 on the other hand was born of positive fan reaction, and there has been no prior appearance in any of the Mass Effect series marketing to default back to. Forgetting any ideas regarding misogyny or sexism, it's just plain inconsistent to allow fans to choose, democratically or not, the look of FemShep that will be used for marketing. The world of Mass Effect was constructed and designed. Garrus, Miranda, and all of our Normandy crewmates were constructed and designed. Despite being based off Dutch model Mark Vanderloo, the face of John Shepard, whom we've come to associate with BioWare's epic space opera, is constructed and designed. BioWare chose Vanderloo's face. They picked him specifically and without fan help, presumably because they felt his look would best represent the sci-fi hero saving us all from ancient machines which lurk beyond the dark void of knowable space. That's why the choice to have FemShep's public appearance voted on is so grand, so affecting. All of the above are internal decisions, made by people who, you know, do this shit for a living. But this particular design wasn't. Sure, each of the contestants was brushed to life by an artist, but BioWare isn't having the final say as they have with the other elements. Not only that, but there has been no reason given as to why. Why now? Why FemShep? It's a line of questioning that leads only to dead end debates about patriarchy and the inevitable declaration that whoever doesn't like it is just some feminist with their panties in a twist. Which, by the way, I am. And yes, they are. It's not because FemShep 5 is blonde and therefore perceived as stupid and incapable of being a badass. It's not even that she upholds the stereotypical Caucasian beauty ideals of a long blonde-haired, blue-eyed buxom babe; that's merely an aside, a symptom of the larger problem, which was the construction of the vote itself. No male hero has ever been or ever would be dragged into the limelight and forced to defend himself like this. Hell, even if he was, there's no justification that could possibly be truthful to his nature as the idolized protagonist, and that's why FemShep 5 is so wrong. We can, as Gabriel and Tycho over at Penny Arcade have, ask this new Shepard how she responds to accusations that her hair color and blue eyes have softened her. But far from defending her honor by threatening an orbital strike, the only honest justification FemShep 5 can offer is to look back at us and ask, her robin's egg eyes begging for acceptance. “But isn't that what you wanted?”
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[Editor's note: Sophie Prell will be contributing original features for Destructoid from time to time. She is an Iowa farm girl turned award-winning gaming journalist, and is also a contributor at Dorkly.com and G4TV.com. She...


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