Welp, my name is Baron, and I'm from Canada. I've been playing videogames religiously since I was a wee lad. I kind of treat this hobby or pastime a little more seriously than others I know. How certain individuals have passion for film or literature, even music, I feel towards video games. Silly? Probably. But eh, it's me.
Yeah, it's Bonnie Tyler in a post about Duke Nukem, sue me.
I currently type this on Notepad, sitting in my same old cubicle doing my same old boring routine while dreaming about doing anything other than this trollop. I mention this only to give context to what I'm about to say.
Where the hell have all the action heroes gone? Not just in video games--although this is the major point of discussion--but everywhere? Where are the Arnolds or the Stallones? For that matter, where are the Duke Nukem's?
"Gone," most would say, with a pleasant smile and a wicked gleam in their eyes. "All Gone"
After all, the Action Hero by definition isn't much of a character, is it? It's not somebody we can relate to on an emotional level, and really by its very nature, it certainly dismantles the Games As Art Movement. the GAAM is a fickle beast--one often championed by those who would relish the sight of Madden or NBA Live or MLB The Show disappear into the ether. It is also championed by people like myself, who want to see this medium move ahead but are not so pretentious as to believe that games like Madden and Call of Duty are without merit. It may not be artistic merit like, say, Bioshock, or (like most believe) Shadow of the Colossus, but there is merit to these mass-consumption games.
I'm getting off on a tangent, so please bear with me while I try to make a coherent point.
The Action Hero is important. Most people decry games like Gears of War as a chest-beating male power fantasy like it's a bad thing. I'm here to say, it's really not, and without positive male enforcement in your life it can get pretty bad--but I'm getting too far ahead of myself. So in trying to surmise the point I'm making in my final paragraph, I'll take you on the journey I experienced to get here.
This man was one of my heroes.
I was a young boy when I first saw Arnold Schwarzenegger. I thought his Austrian accent was totally bad ass, I loved his body (in a totally not gay way) in the sense that it was something I aspired to be. Guys like him and Stallone were take-no-shit bad asses who would do anything it took to get the job done. In essence, these individuals on film represented masculinity in its purest, most testosterone-driven form. No one can deny seeing any of these action movies and thinking "I'd love to be John McClane for one day". Just to be able to have that confidence, bravado, and assuredness that the day will be won, and you will get the pretty girl.
For me, Action Heroes are important to young males. They're important in helping to build an image of masculinity, and the lack of exposure to, quite frankly, shit blowing up, guns being fired, and cheesy one liners is detrimental, I believe. Back in previous generations, most men grew up to be men because of their fathers. That strong, masculine presence helped shape and define them, but for children of my generation I don't think that's really the case. By the time we came into this world, men were disappearing. I don't mean that in some Collectors sense, but in the sense that, in brutal truth, most boys of my generation grew up fatherless and with only one parent or, at worst, with a stepfather who didn't give a shit.
If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm just posting random game-related photoshop jobs I've done.
I'm not going to bore you with psychoanalytical bullshit, because that's not the point. The point is to discuss and lament the loss of the Action Hero.
So with that context in mind, fatherless and with a young mother taking care of her young boy, the only real way I could get any sort of masculine influence was through movies, television, and video games. I've said this many times and, no matter how sad you think it is, much of my morality is derived straight from the mouth of Optimus Prime. That cartoon robot was, as pathetic as it may sound, my role model. He was everything I aspired to be.
As I came to own my first console (an NES), I came to appreciate the other aspects of masculinity, and not just the unwavering steadiness that guys like Arnold and Optimus represented. I appreciated that body type didn't really matter as much as character did. Strength in character was perhaps the most important thing to learn. I learned it from guys like Mario Mario, who were fat, pudgy, Italian, hairy, and still as valid a hero as guys like Duke from G.I. Joe.
And so with this journey well underway, let's fastforward to 1997.
Duke Nukem. Perhaps gaming's first and only Action Hero. Sure we've blown up demons on Mars, we've dethroned tyrants in forgotten lands, and by this point we've saved the Princess three or four times... but there was something different about Duke, something special.
For me, and many young boys like me, The Duke represented something that was out of reach. Something that was different to what not only games, but our educations had been teaching us. The Duke was foul-mouthed, he was cocky, arrogant, self-righteous, a bastard, and he had still gotten the girl... or girls. He was the most cock-sure sonofabitch in the known world, and the alien scum were damn sure going to pay for shooting down his ride.
The thing about Duke that separates him from the pack is that he's his own character. He is not a guy you take the role of. He is not a guy who is an empty vessel, a conduit into the world of strippers and grainy, pixelated, two-frame skin-flicks. He was his own man, and even though you controlled his actions, it never felt that way. If anything, you as the player felt like the sidekick. The Kurt Russel to that chinese guy's kung fu in Big Trouble in Little China. You were the silent guy hovering just behind The Duke, waiting for him to blow the guts and snot out of alien pigs hilariously dressed as LA Cops. We would laugh and listen as The Duke cracked wise about the OJ Simpson chase on television, we would quietly smile with glee when we gave strippers money for some glorious pixelated boobies. We were, in essence, not being "bad" men, we were instead watching someone else be a bad man.
And add to all of that, Duke Nukem was forbidden. If your parents knew about it, if they had an inkling of its subject matter, it was not going to happen. You Would Not Play It no matter how much you whined or protested. It was not good for you, and that only strengthened its allure.
So what then, is to become of this character? This true character? Apparently nothing, if current press is to be believed. I doubt it, personally.
The reason I say that Duke Nukem is the only true action hero of gaming is because there is no other like him. Some would argue Gordon Freeman, or The Doom Guy, or even Nathan Drake are Action Heroes--but they aren't. They are either soulless vessels with no personality, or they are written as rogues with a heart of gold (and voiced by Nolan fuckin' North). The Duke wasn't like that. He was a chauvenist pig, he was a creep, but he was a sexy creep. He was a walking, talking, Action Hero cliche that spoke to us with often stolen one-liners and cheesy commentary. All of this wrapped up in satisfying FPS gameplay, and it's easy to see why Duke Nukem had (and still has) the impact it does on gamers.
Contrast this with guys like Soap from the Modern Warfare series, and the two do not compare. Soap is a soulless vessel, even in MW2. He has lines, and one hell of a cool accent, but he does not have character. He does not speak to us, or through us. He is instead, a hollow husk that we climb into and bomb around for a few hours every other year.
And yet I still keep coming back to Duke. When I think of Duke Nukem Forever, or when I think of Duke Nukem 3D or the mediocre N64/PS1 games, I think not of "becoming" The Duke. I think, instead, of joining my favourite Action Hero for one more adventure together. And that's the key difference between the Action Hero and the shells of a character like Link of Zelda fame. While true they do have names, and people react to them as if they are real, they aren't, while The Duke soldiers on, offering his hand to pick you up from your life of mediocrity and insecurity to--if not become, then most certainly join the Action Hero as his sidekick. And that's okay with me.
Sometimes I don't need to be the focus of attention. It's great to venture into Ferelden and fell the Darkspawn with my dog's stench. It's also great to hop on Goombas with my Lugz and red overalls. Hell, sometimes it's even great to just sit in Azeroth and soak it all in... all those players in their own, unfolding stories... but there is something undeniably magical about taking on the role of the Sidekick, of being next to the Action Hero, if only to say when the credits roll "I was there. I stood (played) next to greatness, and I saw it all."
Action Heroes are important, not just because they can give guys like me something to aspire to be, but also because they can also be a manly guide to help you come to terms with who you are, what you're going to be, and what you'll never become. I can say that The Duke helped me through all of that stuff, and it wasn't because I played as him for awhile, it was because, somewhere in my overactive imagination, we had become good friends, and I always eagerly await an adventure with a good friend.
In my last blog, I took issue with Japanese roleplaying games. This one's a bit different.
Something has piqued my interest on the Western front. I (or is it me? It's early, it's Monday, stfu) being a big fan of Western RPGs, I do wonder about BioWare. I obviously love their stuff, even if my fanboyism with the BW Boys only came about after playing Jade Empire for twenty minutes at a friend's house. And I have to admit, I liked it. I however never bought a copy, and my Fanboyism didn't reach critical mass until I played the RPG de jour Mass Effect way back on release day in 2007. My deep, dark, shameful secret?
I played it because I heard you could have sex in it.
This is something I've never told anyone--I may have hinted at it in conversation, but I don't think I've ever outright admitted it. It's a shameful truth, and one I have to say will haunt me for a long time. But it is true. I heard nothing of Mass Effect but "You can have hot alien blue sex" and I was sold. Maybe this is betraying my Games As Art honourary membership, but I do wonder just how many others are out there like me. Who don't get laid very often, whose contact with the opposite sex is awkward at best, and who seeks sexual fulfillment with palm in hand. Okay, too graphic, but you get my point.
That however, is not the point of this... blog. Things eventually turned around. I've got a girlfriend now and, while infrequent, sexual intercourse is still better than masturbation. Again, too graphic, but whatever.
The point I'm getting at, is that I'm not who I was merely two years ago (or now three? I'm terrible with numbers). I'm different. I've had time to delve into many BioWare games since. Everything from Baldur's Gate to Neverwinter Nights 2, I've even tried out Knights of the Old Republic--though I found it bland due to its Star Wars license.
What I'm driving at amidst this cacophony of rambling nonsense, I suppose, is that I've grown to appreciate BioWare's succinct and sharp writing. I've come to appreciate the worlds (or galaxies) they create, and most of all I've come to appreciate just how fine a point they put on relationships. I don't just mean the sexual kind, either.
With all that said, something about the rabid BioWare community is troubling me. It is startling to see on the Social.Bioware site just how many people are openly, shamelessly decrying the developer for being too 'tame' with their latest batch of sex scenes. Now, rewinding to 2007, I have to admit that the first Hot Alien Blue Sex I encountered was kind of a let-down. I was a horny fellow (well, still am), and I wanted to see some poorly animated, awkward, but all the same steamy sex scenes. Maybe not explicit or pornographic in nature, but what I ended up getting was a finely rendered blue arse and a rather romantic, charming subplot. This in and of itself isn't a problem, but I have to wonder... do all of these BioWare fanatics miss the point?
I have to admit, in Mass Effect, I was just trying to bone everything in sight. Picking the right options just to see if I could "Do It" with that character. It never worked, and I was upset that I could only sleep with somebody once, just once, in the entire game. In the grand scheme of things, it made sense (just as everything in a BioWare game does). Even though I had loathed Mass Effect for seducing me with its wry sex appeal, it had gotten me to stay. I was in bed with BioWare, and unlike other developers where I would quietly dress myself, get my shoes, and creep out the door, I decided to stay. I bought the ticket and took the ride, so to speak--and loved every minute of it.
As time rolled on, I lost sight of the original reason I wanted to play Mass Effect. Instead of a finely rendered blue arse, I fell in love with the characters themselves. The universe. Hell, sometimes I'd even boot up the game just to listen to the incredibly peaceful, relaxing jazzy synth that served as the menu theme (Seriously, it's incredibly relaxing).
Dragon Age rolled around in October of 09, and after trading in roughly six games to GameStop in order to obtain my copy, I had once again heard about all of the sex and violence and blah blah blah, but I wasn't interested in that. This was a BioWare RPG straight from its very roots. In other words, I had matured a bit, and I was now in it for the game itself.
Flashforward five or six months, and Mass Effect 2's COLLECTORS Edition (nice pun, BW), has been played, experienced, and every last drop of content has been wrung from its gleaming surface. I felt like a ShamWow, soaking it all in, catching up with old friends, and being moved to white-knuckled thrills and fear in the climactic suicide mission. If Mass Effect 2 was anything, it was an orgy of emotions for me, but that's not my point.
The point is, how the fuck does anyone complain about the sex scenes being toned down? So we get a see-through bra with Miranda. So what? I was more pissed at the fact that on my third playthrough, I did all that work with Tali to see her face and got cock-blocked. That pissed me off.
That said, I fell in love with Jack. I don't know why. She's not my type. She's tattooed from head to toe, is balder than a stripper's (yeah), and has one hell of a foul mouth. Worse than mine, in fact... but still, I fell for that jumble of polygons and I fell hard. In the romance/sex scene right before the climactic suicide mission, I found myself being moved. Nearly moved to tears, in fact, because what I had found in this game was profound to me. It was a moving love story that wasn't quite about me, but more about the angry girl I was helping to foster into a woman. I won't bore you with the details (and spoilers), but honestly, I was touched.
So with all of this in mind, with all of the wealth of emotional content to be found in BioWare games, I have to wonder why it is that people openly bitch about not getting any CGI tit? After all, I've currently got several (free) porn sites open as I type this. I'm not wanking, I'm just proving a point.
Maybe it's fantasy, maybe it's about finding that connection with someone--be it virtual or real. Maybe it's about becoming somebody you're not to be with someone you'd want. I have no idea what that means, but it sounded intelligent.
I mean really, I've been desperate--I think we all have, at some point--but there has to be something going on with these people who are consumed by their desire to see their Shepard get it on with their romantic interests in these games in a rather explicit and pornographic matter. I mean really, the 30 hours of content, the suicide mission, the falling-in-love with the characters and the setting... all of that is cast aside because JLB666 didn't get to see a beaver shot.
It's at this point where I wonder what the BioWare people think. I had asked for a mod in Dragon Age because I'm terrified of spiders. I got it. There was a fellow who works there that was nice enough to help me out and that's only strengthened my belief in how wonderful those boys (and girls) are.
Yet I wonder, then, what they must feel to drop what will probably be the Game of the Year in 2010 (if not the decade 01-10), to only find that their most die-hard userbase is only interested in a dating sim with the benefit of full-on pornographic material.
I'm not sure what the answer to this question is--hell, I'm not even sure what the question is. But... I dunno. Maybe it's just a weird quirk the inhabitants of cyberspace have, but I have to wonder sometimes, just sometimes, if maybe the fans of probably the most illustrious RPG company in gaming are just a bunch of nerdy shut-ins with girl/boy problems. Hey, I'm not knocking it, because I was and am one of them, but still, when it comes down to it... I'd take the tame sex scene that strikes me in a profound way over the full-on graphic porno that some BioWare fans wish it was.
The linoleum of this dingy Wal-Mart has been polished to a mirror shine, but that doesn’t hide the scratches, the dirt, or the feeling of disgust as I timidly prod the glass case, pointing at the game I want to buy.
The man who is assisting me, wearing a blue vest that barely fits around his illustrious waistline nods his shining, bald head, and jingles some keys.
It’s here I begin to think about my hobby of choice. The one thing I find I am most passionate about is video games and yet, there are still some aspects of this hobby, community, industry—whatever you want to call it—that I still cannot quite comprehend.
In this blog, article, whatever the hell it is, I want to talk about Japanese games.
I’m standing here in this Wal-Mart, with this bespectacled bald, fat employee of the Golden Smile because I had previously spent the last three hours digging through catalogues and tracking down a copy of Demon’s Souls. I was buying it for a friend, you see. I myself am not an avid player of ‘traditional’ Japanese games. In fact, most of the Japanese games I’ve played (and enjoyed) have been provided courtesy of either Capcom or Konami. So I found it strange as Uncle Fester—with his pasty white skin and sausage fingers—clumsily pawed at the case and retrieved what seemed to be the only copy left in this region of Ontario, Canada, that I was actually buying something that, in my opinion, didn’t look in the least bit enjoyable.
“It’s hard as fuck,” is what my friend had said to me. I had inquired about why this would make a game enjoyable. I mean, surely the whole point of playing video games is to enjoy the story, right? To get lost in a beautiful world created for you, the player. To meet interesting characters and to play a bit of fantasy along the way. At least, that was my idea of a good video game. My friend James… well, not so much.
“That’s crap. The point is to beat the challenge. To overcome the obstacle and accomplish something.”
I asked him then what he hoped to accomplish from what I understood to be an incredibly frustrating game.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. I like the challenge, isn’t that enough?”
Something didn’t sit quite right with me, however. Looking back on it now, watching as this portly man of six-foot-three inches hobbled over to the checkout counter, I couldn’t help but wonder… just what the hell was so appealing about these games?
Perhaps I should give a little backstory on my own tastes and interests, first.
My name is Baron, I enjoy Action Adventure titles, First Person titles (shooting or otherwise), and, well, everything except for sports and racing. I prefer story-driven experiences, but I won’t balk at the idea of spending my game time with a silly, over the top, and downright ridiculous title as well (whether intentionally so or not). However, the one common trait amongst all the games I’ve played, all the games I’ve enjoyed, have been that they’re primarily developed by a Western developer.
Noticing this now, watching as the portly man rushes my game through the thing-a-ma-bob that scans the item, mashing his large fingers on a keypad to wave off the 17 or over security check, I start thinking about it more.
It’s not that I particularly *dislike* Japanese games, because I can testify to Dead Rising, Street Fighter IV, Earth Defense Force 2017, Metal Gear Solid 4, and a slew of other Japanese-developed games sitting both on my game shelf, and in my Xbox 360’s hard drive.
So what exactly is the problem, then?
Another friend of mine is walking with me down the street, and he’s raving about new details on Final Fantasy XIII. A game I can safely say I have zero interest in playing. He goes on about the battle system, about how unique the playstyle is, about how it’ll probably have one of the most engaging stories he’s ever seen, and I snicker, and I laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
I tell him that Japanese games—the ones I’ve played—are not renowned for their plot and their emotional attachment.
“You like Silent Hill.”
I do, I tell him, and yet I still think the gameplay is fundamentally broken and without merit.
It is at this point, he gives me a puzzled look.
“So why don’t you like them?”
It’s a good question, and one I’ve asked myself a dozen times since. Why don’t I like Japanese games? Why can I not feel the hype for a game like Final Fantasy XIII? Why did I despise Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2? Why is it that I cannot seem to wrap my head around a gameplay style that consists mainly of reading and pressing the A button once or twice?
Perhaps that is unfair, because I distinctly remember Lost Odyssey using the Left or Right Trigger a couple of times.
I think, to be honest, where it started—my severe dislike for what is considered ‘traditionally Japanese’—stems from two seemingly inscrutable gameplay rules.
Rule Number One:
Thou Shalt Make Thine Game with androgynous and rather creepy heroes and heroines.
Rule Number Two:
Thou Shalt Punish Thy Player should they seek to play the game in any way but ours.
Yeah, that seems to fit.
A perfect example of Rule Number One is, well, any “traditionally Japanese” game I’ve ever seen. Be it Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts, perhaps throw in Vagrant Story or whatever the “cool” Japanese game is at the moment. As you can tell, I don’t even rightly know what the trends are to even make a relatively modern comparison.
While I haven’t played these games—and have no desire to—I have to wonder about why they are so popular. They feature what appear to be a large cast of flat-chested women (in and of itself not a bad thing) with spikey hair and big round eyes wielding impossibly large weapons and wearing armour that makes absolutely no sense. Of course, nothing has to be logical, but there is something quite strange in Dante of Devil May Cry fame wearing a red leather trench coat with no shirt and three leather belts around his chest. I didn’t even mention the skin tight leather pants.
Perhaps it is a cultural thing I am missing. Perhaps the Japanese definition of masculinity is not defined by how many muscles they have or how square their jaw is. In fact, as I understand it, the Japanese male ‘ideal’ is a rather slim and lanky individual with a fair, unblemished face and perfect hair. I can understand that, even embrace that. I have no qualms with that aspect, but the fact that these characters often wear attire that leaves their gender rather ambiguous does alarm me to some degree.
The question I guess I am posing for Rule Number One is… why?
Rule Number Two is a different beast entirely, and does play into a game I thoroughly enjoyed up until Disc 3—Lost Odyssey.
My experience with Lost Odyssey was enjoyable, even if a bit disappointing. I thoroughly enjoyed the tomes of “One Thousand Memories” or tears. I can’t remember the title. I also thoroughly enjoyed the story itself, as seemingly cliché as it was. I even enjoyed some of the characters—Jensen for instance, being my personal favourite.
It has always been my thought that when given a party-based RPG, it is up to the player to essentially pick their favourites and bomb along the story. While some of Lost Odyssey’s shortcomings were annoying, they did not break the game for me. When I came across Mack and the other grandchild of Kaim, I didn’t like them. I found them annoying and rather predictable. Not to mention I had much more powerful characters already representing their class and skill to a much more effective degree. I figured, eh, what the hell? Why not just keep my party and bomb along.
That’s where the problem started.
You see, Lost Odyssey—about half way through Disc 3—you run into a monster/boss called the Ice Crystal, or something to that effect. Now, the monster itself wasn’t much of a problem, save for the fact that out of the entire party that was selectable for that battle, only Jensen and the Queen were of any real level to take the thing on.
Not only that, but some of the monsters’ attacks were just downright cheap. It has come to be an expectation of mine that if enemies do not scale to the player’s level, they will often kill you, and then let you go back to an easier area to grind until you could defeat the beast. Not so with Lost Odyssey.
As it turns out, I had spent 35 hours enjoying Lost Odyssey to be stone-walled two thirds into the game. The game itself seemed to mock me as each attempt seemed more futile than the last. It was very simple. A level 30 Mack (and the other one) just could not keep up with the beast. I was doomed. I had backed myself into a corner and it meant playing the entire thing over again, as I had only one save file.
Now I know, I know, ‘stupid Baron’ you cry, ‘you always use more than one save file’… but honestly, I didn’t see the need for it. All obstacles before that point had been eventually overcome, even if it took ten tries to find the right pattern or combination. I expected this Ice monster to be no different, and yet for some reason, the game had literally forced me into a permanent game over.
It’s true. I could not progress any farther. I was completely stuck and with absolutely no other alternative, I eventually tossed my controller onto my bed in disgust, turned the game off, and never played it again.
That’s but one example of how playing the game the way you want to play it is dangerous in a Japanese game. Other examples are Shinobi for the PS2, or any of the ten thousand Ninja Gaiden games—games that repeatedly dog you for not being ‘skilled’ enough.
Does no one else find this rather detrimental?
I’m all for challenge. One of the most challenging final missions I’ve ever played was the final mission to Dead Rising (24 Hour Mode). Those Special Forces guys were just an absolute pain. But through cleverness and perseverance, the day was eventually won, and I had completed the game. It bothers me that I can’t do that with games like Lost Odyssey, because they sniff out ‘errors’ you’ve made and repeatedly punish you for wanting to play the game with characters you like, as opposed to ones they would like to force on you.
At this point, I doubt I will ever finish Lost Odyssey, and that is a shame. I was enjoying myself quite thoroughly and considered it one of the best purchases I made in 2008, until Disc 3.
So the question, I guess, is why people find these games appealing when there is a very real chance that the game itself will try to bone you out of all your progress, unless you obey the game and play it ‘their’ way? Another game that did this was .Hack, a cool, enjoyable JRPG that had a great story but ultimately screwed me out of an ending because I had chosen my companions and they were not the ones the game thought I should have.
Perhaps this is the reason I shook my head and laughed as the portly bald man handed me the Wal-Mart bag with Demon’s Souls contained within. My friend was going to go through hell trying to beat this thing, and I knew that. Hell, he relished it and even gloated about it.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Hell, I’m not sure if I was ever going anywhere with this. I guess I’m just trying to create a dialogue here, to help me understand what is so appealing about these titles. As of right now, I don’t get it.
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, either.