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We've all observed stories that use the 'x days later' device. A linear narrative can avoid weeks, months and years of bunkum by jumping to the next interesting bit. It's a trick which allows the storyteller to stick to the good bits, providing it is used effectively. It's a trick we can all accept and appreciate.
Now imagine you were reading a book or watching a film where the inverse happened. Instead of moving time forward 'x weeks' into the future, the story instead took a detour which lasted for days or weeks, only to return to the main story as if no time had passed. In most cases, we would find that very odd and a little jarring (unless it's a dream-sequence or a peculiar plot twist). Yet open world games let this happen all the time.
Videogames can be rigidly linear in gameplay and story, or completely non-linear in either area. In many games story can be absent entirely, but sometimes I feel that the combination of linear story-telling and non-linear gameplay feels unwieldy. We as gamers are meant to follow a pattern of close-knit events whilst simultaneously spending hours on exploration and random side missions.
Now, for the benefit of all, I should state that this is not meant as a criticism. My mind is not made up concerning the question I raise today. I sometimes find storytelling odd in games, but I'm open to debate. I wish to hear your views. The discussion is this: should games which allow for freedom of exploration and procrastination have a central, linear storyline? Below are my thoughts on this topic. I invite you to peruse my brain etchings before commenting.
Let's start in an obvious, popular place: Grand Theft Auto. Each game in this series has had some semblance of story steering the player's actions, but only the most recent iterations could be described as 'story-driven'. In GTA III and Vice City, the character makes steady progression through a seedy underworld, whilst the narrative winds lazily towards a fiery finale. You start out completing simple missions for low-level thugs, and then move on to move complex tasks with the criminal elite. It's deliberate disjointedness works well with the sandbox environment. There are pieces of a story that follow on from each other but rarely ask the player to imagine that all these events are close-knit.
Grand Theft Auto V delivers its story in a much more linear way. All the major players become intertwined early on. The story would have us believe that the events of each mission follow on (almost) directly from one another. Whilst we may take a break from the story for random side-missions, or just plain old randomness, the story will pick up as if little time has passed. What's even stranger is that the game does a really job with its side stories. Whilst the main story is very focused, the player can also bump into a range of characters at the most unusual times and locations, leading to some memorable antics. The game tells you that the players that a vital heist is about to go down, but Michael might instead start helping the Paparazzi find a scoop. Trevor might be raging about an argument with his bank robbing buddy, but he still has time to help two old creeps assault the social elite. Unless you play the story straight through, without distraction, the focus on a rigid storyline doesn't always work.
Now there is rather basic counter-argument here: it doesn't really matter how the story plays out. The Grand Theft Auto series is the epitome of the Sandbox experience, and to take the storytelling too seriously might be doing the games a disservice. Except that the story is designed to be more serious. GTAs usual wackiness appears now and then, and satire is the marrow inside the bones of every game in the franchise, but both GTA V and GTA IV have taken a dip in the pool of gritty-realism. My concern is that these games intend to deliver a game with a more 'grown-up', focused narrative, without a major ingredient of this form of storytelling: pacing. The sandbox nature of the series robs the story of the effective pacing that would give the story real weight. I don't dislike the stories of the latest Grand Theft Auto games, but a 'completionist' Gamer like myself will only ever the see the story unfold in sporadic chunks. Any intended impact is lost.
Another argument in favour of linear stories in GTA is that these people are criminals. Whilst their monologues may suggest a sense of urgency, we can hardly be surprised if they take the week off to shoot pigeons or play tennis with their wives for a solid week. They are unpredictable, and that's fine. In open world games where you are the saviour, procrastination between major plot points is very odd.
Take Skyrim for example – my favourite game to over-analyse of late. I've said many times before that the Elder Scrolls games will draw tens of hours of my attention, but I'll never actually complete the story. In Oblivion and Skyrim, the Kingdoms are done for. If I'm meant to be the saviour, then there is no salvation for those poor NPCs. I can't even remember if I ever finishedMorrowind (which probably means I didn't).
Now I'm sure many of you did a better job on the main quests, but you would have spent copious hours not saving the world. For in-game days at a time, the quest givers sat idly by as you plunged into caves and skipped across fields. I would love for an NPC to wander past me as I've picking flowers and catching butterflies and cry in disgust, "Aren't you supposed to be fighting dragons right now? There's a dragon eating people over in the next village!"
And there's the issue. The Elder Scrolls games insist on an over-arching, linear storyline whilst simultaneously sending you out into an expansive world with no repercussions for lollygagging. The fate of the world is in your hands, but the untold evil will wait until you are ready. You're going to rest against a wall for ten hours for the potion shop to open? No worries, we'll tell the apocalypse to hold fire. All sense of drama is drained for the story. You heroic deeds carry little weight.
It wouldn't take much to give the amount of time passing a sense of context. Oblivion gates and dragons start appearing in the respective games once you have completed a set number of quests (which in itself is weird, and suggests the hero could save the world by doing nothing). Why not have the emergence of evil occur on a time frame rather than at event-specific moments? The player could still play the game as they saw fit, but the increasing number of encounters with monsters would remind the player of what they should be doing: Gee, there's a lot of flying lizards about. I best get to killing some of them soon.
And it would be nice, amongst all the NPCs that deliver the main quests, if one of them was just a teensy bit miffed that I kept them waiting for a fortnight. Just one, "Where the f*ck have you been?!" and I would feel better about the linear storyline.
Some more positivity methinks. One game that I feel got the balance of linear story and open world was Infamous. Firstly, the game gave out pieces of the map in stages, and found a decent explanation for why that was happening. Secondly, and most importantly, the game used the device mentioned above: 'x days later'. After completing a set number of missions, the game would hop forward to 'day 16', skipping chunks of time and adding more context each time. It doesn't matter that you character bounces around town looking for collectible shards or divert to side jobs, because the story is clearly happening over a long time.
Far Cry 3 also styles its narrative to match the gameplay, for the most part. The nature of the protagonist suits players focusing on the storyline or trying to complete. The character is lost on an island, and torn between saving his friends and embracing his inner murder-sadist-psychopath. Although, if you play the game to full completion, we are expected to believe that the protagonist's friends are the most patient people in the world ever. They will happily sit in that cave for a month, never question why they don't just leave.
And if the effervescent Just Cause 2 has a story, behind all the mayhem, the game doesn't try too hard to make me remember it. And that's a good thing.
I don't have a definitive answer to the question above, nor do I have a strong opinion either way. What I currently believe is that open world video games will put a great deal of thought into game and story, but less thought on how those two elements connect. I can still enjoy the story of a sandbox game, but I sometimes wonder if open world games could handle the story differently, or whether they have to be 'story-driven' in any way.
I look forward to your thoughts on this. Have you ever wished an open world game delivered the narrative in a different way? How would you have like to see a sandbox tell the story more effectively? Are there open world games that demonstrate the best pacing and direction possible?
Thank You For Reading
Hello Destructoid, I was just wondering whether you’d like to read a story.
A lot of lovely readers have, in the past, remarked that my ramblings on History and Gaming might make for a good book. Truth be told, that is pretty much the long term plan for me. I’d love to one day write a History book that brings Videogames and History closer together. I’m a long way from that, but I’ve made a start. Having said that, fiction writing is also a route I’d like to explore.
I have stories in this half-empty, ginger noggin of mine. What I lack is the literary skill to do them justice. You, the Destructoid Community have been sympathetically kind to my blogging so far, and I’m curious whether you could tolerate a little story-telling. I thought it best to ask first. Whilst the story I have in mind is influenced by games, I wouldn’t want to waste your time with fiction if that’s not what you came here to read.
Whether or not the stories appear here, I will be using my blog to practice writing fiction every so often. After a year of writing – one blog almost every week – I’m trying to give more time to writing. I’m also planning to organise myself a little better. There are three kinds of blog I like to write, and from now on I will go through a four-week cycle. Look, I even made a little diagram ^_^
From a Gaming/History blog, to an open-ended discussion blog (the ones with questions in the title), to a blog which celebrates gaming (that’s where the Gaming Fantasy Dinner Party blogs will live). In week four, I’ll write another piece of fiction, and then go back to the History.
There are a few of you that might find it odd that I’m addressing the Destructoid Community directly. Since I began blogging in January 2014, I have been posting to Talk Amongst Yourselves and the C-Blogs. I enjoy both sites, but for now I’m more inclined to present my stories to you, the Destructoid community.
Whilst I read and enjoy everything produced in both areas (I’m not much of a commenter, but I’m there, tapping that little heart button and reading intently) I nevertheless consider the Destructoid community more of… well, my community. In the last few months the time I give myself to read blogs is spent more often with this site than with Talk Amongst Yourselves. Both have their merits, but if I’m to put my nervous, amateur attempts at fiction up for scrutiny, I choose Destructoid.
I’m much more of a casual observer than a devoted community member but I feel I know the personalities and characters here quite a bit better. There’s a strong group ethos here that, if I had more time, I would like to get involved with.
If you don’t want to see my fiction in the C-Blogs, or you don’t think it should be there, I won’t be offended. I know this community will be honest and upfront; that’s why I like posting my blog here. If that’s the case, I can tell you that there is no need to read further. Below is a sample of the fiction I’m planning to write. If you don’t want stories in the C-Blogs, leave your comment below now. If the majority says “no”, I’ll just post the story to my own site and skip a week. No offense will be felt. Unless you are mean about it. Then I will cry. A lot. And you won’t be invited to my birthday party. So there.
If you’re still reading, know that you’re about to wander into the first few paragraphs of my so called ‘story’. Currently titled Objective Survive, the tale is told in second person and is rife with references to game-play and game mechanics. It’s primarily a sci-fi adventure story, which begins with the main character (you) ‘loading’ into an unknown location…
A metallic chattering fills your senses. Your feel the edges of your teeth hum and thrum with the sound. You stumble in circles. Reaching out, you realise that you cannot see or feel anything. Your eyes are filled with a cold, milky haze and your heart is striking out in panic. There is no other sensation. Are you even standing on solid ground?
You blink, and then there are shapes. First, a giant solid grey rectangle spreads out beneath you. Concrete. You are standing on concrete. Your feet find the solid ground. Second, a dozen orbs of light hover around you, at the border of the concrete floor. Lights? Lanterns? Lampposts. Third, a large green box stands at one end of the concrete. A big metal house? A warehouse with a grey, corrugated door raised up to reveal the darkness within.
These hazy shapes begin to snap into focus. The texture of the hard surface beneath you fades into existence. Yellow lines flutter into place; this must be the car park for that warehouse ahead of you. The warehouse is also beginning to find its finer details. You can make out the crenelated pattern in the metal walls, and read the number ‘8’ etched tall and white onto the flaked, green paintwork. The floating lights have their poles beneath them now.
Why are your eyes finding it so hard to focus?
More features of this place drop into your perception. The warehouse, lampposts and car park are all surrounded by rows of metal fencing topped with curled wire. You turn about and see several more metal structures of varying sizes. More warehouses, each with its own white number stamped on its side, and its own a strip of empty car park. A single-lane road connects the network of buildings, snaking off into the distance. You are in some sort of deserted compound, but where exactly?
The sky is suddenly blue and cloudless. Suddenly cloudless? Did the sky only just become blue? It’s definitely the middle of the day right now, but for a moment there it seemed like…. there wasn’t a sky. You realise how ridiculous that thought sounds. How you got here is the real mystery, not whether or not the sky has always been blue. You resolve to pull yourself together. You should find someone to help you. You are clearly suffering from a serious illness.
You stride towards ‘warehouse 8’. After a few steps, you hear a sound. The first sound you’ve been aware of so far. It came from further down the road: a hard, abrupt pop. You turn your head, and the noise repeats. And then again, but this time it happens three times in a row. Three sharp claps. Then another three claps, a little louder and harsher than before. You stop and turn, head titled, listening like a puppy to the strange commotion. New noises join the performance, distinct from the last. Different sounds within the mix. Some claps are much deeper in tone, others raspier and sharper, others…are…well… they are…
…that isn’t clapping. You’re not sure if you’ve ever heard those noises in real life, but you recognise them now. As the cloud of clamours grows closer and clearer, you finally realise what those rapid noises actually are…
You run for Warehouse 8.
So that’s that. Quite the ‘rip off the Band-Aid’ moment for myself. I’ve published quite a few blogs by now, but my fiction writing has been a private affair thus far. After reading the segment above, you might suggest that they stay that way. And that’s fine. I’d rather honesty than false-praise. If you have some literary guidance to give, I’d appreciate it.
If there’s enough intrigue in what I have to offer, I’ll publish the full first section in four weeks’ time. Next week, I’m back to the History blogs.
As Always, Destructoid, Thank You For Reading
There are hundreds of exceptional videogame characters. Mighty men and women capable of cutting down whole armies of monstrous creations. Warriors with astonishing abilities. Wielders of inconceivable magic. Defenders of galaxies. Heroes. But which ones would you actually invite into your own home? Could you actually trust these creatures to be civilized?
Sonic might be an iconic character, but I wouldn’t want him in my house. He’s far too hyperactive and overly competitive. Plus, the way he eats hotdogs proves he wouldn’t make the best dinner guest. Kratos might be able to take on the Gods, but I can’t see him sitting in my living room discussing his favourite music. Lara Croft might make for good company… if she doesn’t spend all her time bragging to everyone about her travels. Guybrush Threepwood would have to curb his clumsiness. Gordon Freeman would have to learn to be more sociable.
The “Fantasy Dinner Party” is an old topic of conversation: if you could invite any six people (alive or dead) round for a fancy meal, who would you pick? It’s a chance to say something about yourself, and a great source of debate. They don’t have to be good guys; people often choose characters like ‘Hitler’ or ‘Ghengis Khan’ because they would want to "understand them". Either way, you pick the six most interesting, erudite, and entertaining people that you can think of.
Games and gamers are constantly proving that gaming culture can be a grown up thing. So why not add another grown up conversation? Below is the first of six videogame characters that I would invite to a dinner party. I’ll talk about the other five guests in the following months. This is essentially a chance to celebrate a character I hold in high regard. I’m hoping you will join in with your suggestions. Remember that the notion of a dinner party restricts the conversation to characters that we would want to know socially. You know, the sort that will eat the food you serve instead of trying to eat the other guests.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Alyx Vance. Even in my younger years, when the Half Life series failed to appeal to me, I appreciated what a strong character had been created. Upon replaying the series last month, the brilliance of this character only shone brighter. She’s smart, funny and good company.
Gordon Freeman is one of the gaming world’s famous silent protagonists. We idolise him in the same way every NPC that meets him seems to idolise him. With no voice of his own, and a void where a personality should be, we are expected to put our own character into that space. Whilst this makes the game more personal, more real for the player, the story lacks the perspective of a central protagonist. Enter Alyx Vance, the deuteragonist that speaks for Freeman.
When Gordon Freeman is riding a pimped-out dune buggy through a dystopian waterway, dodging monsters and machinegun bullets, it’s Alyx that remarks on how fun this all is. When things are at their worst and the creepiness level is inching up, it’s Miss Vance that shows fear for both of you. She speaks to other characters whilst you smash boxes. When the game turns dark and sinister, Alyx leaves the room to let the tension take hold.
Yet she also fills the role of sidekick impeccably. Whilst she – like everyone else in the game – owes Gordon Freeman for saving her life multiple times, she can hold her own in a gunfight. I recall a tense fight with an Antlion Guard and its chums in a concrete courtyard, surrounded by apartment buildings. Alyx was firing her sidearm from a first floor walkway whilst I/Gordon danced with the charging brute. With the Guard dispatched, Alyx vaulted the rail, killed the last of the smaller Antlions. She then dashed forward and took charge of a machinegun facing down the long courtyard. I stood back and watched as she tore down a swarm of drones laughing and revelling as she did so. As I pressed on towards a Combine barricade, suppressing fire played havoc amongst the defending enemies. Alyx is a gaming partner to be reckoned with.
It is clear from the outset that Alyx is, if nothing else, a good person. Full of faith and hope, an excellent judge of character and honest. A loving daughter and loyal companion. She is more than a character I appreciate; this is a person I would invite round for dinner.
I’ve not mentioned Alyx Vance as ‘dinner guest one’ because she is my favourite character. All six characters are equally important to me. I’ve started with Miss Vance because she would be the easiest to cater for. In more ways than one.
Firstly, seating Alyx at the party would prove straightforward, due to her very nature. I can’t think of many people that wouldn’t warm to her, or find something to talk about. Her choice of conversation might turn to the technical – engineering, the sciences, robotics, etc. – but her stories working with experimental technologies would entertain most people.
Secondly, the catering. Alyx comes from a grim, dystopian world, where everything is in short supply. I wouldn’t have to go overboard with the food provided, and I can imagine Alyx scoffing at a cuisine that’s made to impress rather than sustain. A good steak, or perhaps a pasta dish, would be in order. One thing is for certain: crab will definitely not be on the menu.
As for entertainment, that too should be trouble-free. Alyx has spent a huge portion of her life running and fighting; a laidback evening would be preferred, I’m sure. A game of cards, a lazy chat over beers, something simple to unwind from all those alien attacks. Alyx will probably want to take a look at all the modern gadgets I have around the home… I’d just have to make her promise to put things back together afterwards, and avoid ‘upgrading’ my electronics.
There are videogame characters I appreciate, those that I think are brilliant and those that are so well-written and well-rounded that I wish they might be real. Even when Alyx is filtered out from the Combine and the Antlions and the Zombies, she is still an awesome character in her own right. She would make a delightful addition to any night in. Providing, that is, that I could convince my fiancé that I only see Miss Vance as a good friend.
If you’ve read this far through this odd little blog, perhaps you agree or disagree with this choice. Which videogame characters would you invite to dinner? Which of your gaming heroes/heroines is a person that you could get along with?
In the next few weeks, I’ll celebrate five more characters that have deeply impressed me in some way. You might agree or disagree with my choices, or point out an aspect of that person I should consider before I invite them across the threshold.
Thank You For Reading
It was Nietzsche that wrote, “What does not kill me makes me stronger”. In reality, that’s regularly true. When it comes to videogames, it really depends on how you are about to be killed. In some cases, dying is part of the learning process. In other games, your demise will only result in a minor punishment, or have no impact whatsoever. It’s uncommon for a video game to kill you in a way that doesn’t make you stronger.
In other words: videogame deaths are odd. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, dying in-game usually lacks permanence. Each fatality can be brushed off with nonchalance. Secondly, there is an ever-expanding variety of ways to go out. Whilst they may fit the game in some way, there’s no hiding their bizarre nature.
So the discussion I place before you, morbid as it might be, concerns weird deaths. What are the oddest ways to kick the bucket? Do you have a preferred way to go out? Below is a list of some – but by no means all – of the unusual ways game will kill and resurrect the player’s character(s).
Cute Resurrection (It’s okay, you didn’t really die)
Sometimes death can be adorable. In each and every Lego game, a player’s passing is marked by a shower of Lego bricks and an almost instant return to the fray. The enemies you face also crumble in the same fashion. In Disney Universe, the cutesy game that introduced my fiancé to videogames, your Disney-cosplaying avatar faints dramatically. In a flash, they are restored, skipping about the level with fish-sword or lollipop-club in hand. And in Little Big Planet, Sackboy pops. He is soon stitched back together, good as new, with a smile/grimace/frown on his face.
In all of these games, you could blink and miss the moment where the character dies. You can almost hear the game speaking to the young people playing: No no, don’t get upset! See? Your character is fine! Be more careful next time ^_^. It’s a wonder that a health bar and ‘death’ animations are even present, when the resurrection is so close behind. But then, these games also have ‘friendly fire’ in them. The game knows all too well that little gamers want to play fight, but don’t really want to hurt their friends. You can slap, throw and pop your friend without feeling too guilty.
Groundhog Death (If at first, you don’t succeed…)
I’ve had this topic in mind for a while now, and two recent events have pushed it to the front of my mind. Firstly, I read a very interesting community blog on Destructoid which compares Groundhog Day to Majora’s Mask. Secondly, I watched Edge of Tomorrow (a.k.a. Live Die Repeat), in which Tom Cruise must repeat the same day over and over until he can defeat an alien invasion. Without really meaning to, this movie emulates the way that many of us play action games. The more we die, the more we learn.
There are lots of games that have a ‘Groundhog Day feel’ to them. In most Action-Adventure Games or First Person Shooters, the player’s existence is ‘reset’ at the time of death. Whilst you know that you died, the game replays the same events from the last save/checkpoint. Only this time, you know what happens next. From this perspective what has killed you has actually made you stronger.
The harder the level, the more times you have to replay it; the more times you replay, the better you will get. After a few, frustrated minutes you will know where each bad guy will spawn, where the best cover is, where the health packs are… to the NPCs around you, your clairvoyance and inexplicable reflexes must look astonishing. For a moment, you looked pretty weak, but that tutorial level turned you into an epic badass!
Immortal Renewal (Life number 42, please step forward)
The Groundhog Death acknowledges the fatality, but only you know it happened. Those countless deaths were ‘not canon’; you didn’t actually fall. In other instances though, the deaths are not only accepted as part of your story, but also recorded for your convenience.
Scroll down the vast list of statistics on any Grand Theft Auto game, and you will be reminded how many times you were arrested, and how many times you were ‘wasted’. Of course, GTAs definition does not mean ‘killed’, but instead means ‘horribly and violent incapacitated but going to be ok’. A few hours later your character struts out of the hospital, ready to put that whole messy affair with the explosion and bullets behind them. Remember the time I was completely perforated by minigun rounds and then run over by a flaming motorcycle? Good times, man.
Whilst in the previous form of death, the use of checkpoints was simply a place to reset to, there are a few games that make the checkpoint part of the story. My favourite examples was in the Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver games. You character, the vampire husk known as Raziel, was meant to be immortal. To give this meaning, the checkpoints were given greater purpose. When defeated, the ‘Angel of Death’ would not die as such; he would ‘snap back’ to one of these totems. The ornate sign had captured a piece of Raziel’s essence, allowing him to return to a safe place if things got too murder-full.
Misremembered Demise (No wait, that didn’t happen)
It was only natural that I would refer to Prince of Persia when discussing death in games. By now, the way in which the Sand of Time trilogy dealt with a fail state is infamous. In each game, the narrator is also the protagonist, and as he tells the story he errs. So, if you appear to have been turned into a corpse through violent means, the narrator realises he has made a mistake. Why would he ever think he died on his own adventure? I’m not sure. But it’s a clever little mechanic that suits the time-bending nature of the series.
It’s a shame that the 2008 version of Prince of Persia did away with this notion. In that game, your magic sidekick Elika would intervene at the moment of your death. You could never fall to your doom because the floaty lady could throw you back to solid ground. This was another clever way of coping with the player’s clumsiness, but Prince’s tendency to misremember his own story added to his charm.
The Empty Space (He’s coming back…right?)
Permanent Death is becoming an increasingly popular aspect of video games. There’s no greater way to intensify a situation that including a fail state which starts you at the very beginning. Whilst some games include this as a core mechanic, others implement Permadeath as the most difficult mode. Whilst this can make a game more challenging and memorable, it can also lead to frustration and an appropriately shorter experience.
The form of Permadeath that I find more fascinating and more likely to promote a more entertaining experience is the lasting demise of a member of a team you are controlling. Whilst killing off the player’s character forever results in a begrudging restart of the game, when a member of a group kicks the bucket it can change the dynamic of the game. We are force to adapt to survive, and hope that another character can fill their boots.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown, one of my all-time favourites, can take a teammate from you in the space of one turn. There might be a shred of a chance to save them, but if your soldier doesn’t return with you on the dropship, that’s it – they are gone forever. In my case, these poor souls are usually new recruits, thrown into the crossfire without enough experience, whilst the elite members of the party hunker down and wait for the newbie to bait the aliens…
In the last two weeks I have been enjoying the cold and unforgiving world of Darkest Dungeon. Groups of four adventurers journey out into the evil unknown in search of redemption, in the form of a micro-managed RPG. If the characters don’t come back mentally unhinged or disease ridden (did a mutant pig just give me syphilis? I think that mutant pig just gave me syphilis!), then they probably didn’t come back. The stakes are so much higher when you can’t phoenix down your way out of the situation. It’s a comprehensively brutal situation, but all the more fascinating because of it.
There are, of course, many other examples. I have omitted the kinds of deaths that set out to punish you for failing – such as the soul-carving resurrections of Dark Souls. I could have also drawn on many other cases – the Bioshock games also treat the player as quasi-immortal, reconstituting the protagonist inside giant test tubes. I’m sure you can think of various other forms of death in video games, and hope that you will share them.
What is the weirdest video game death type, in your opinion? What is your most/least favourite way for a game to deal with dying and rebirth? Is there a style you would like to see implemented, but have not come across yet?
As Always, Thank You For Reading.
Might the Gaming World forgive me? May my sins be absolved? In my youth, I was foolish fool of fools. In my haste, and childish recklessness, I made a grave error: I sold my copy of The Orange Box less than two weeks after purchase. Please! Hold your chastisements for a moment, dear merciful reader. Allow me to repent, before judgement is passed.
As with most games I play, I arrived late to this soiree. I must admit that I had yet to play Half Life 2 by the release of the collection. I bought The Orange Box in 2009 – the last year of university – on the recommendations of countless, honourable gamers. I’d been told how good the Half Life games were. (Yes, I had not played Half Life 1 at this point either; the scroll of my misdeeds will only continue to unravel.) I had also heard hearty praise of Portal and Team Fortress 2, and was anxious to share in the collective ecstasy.
So the Box arrived. I played Half Life 2. I then played Half-Life 2: Episode 1. And then I played Half-Life 2: Episode 2. Once I was done… I had little feeling towards the whole experience. I hadn’t spotted what all the fuss was about. To the dismay of my adult self, I mentally shelved my memories of the experience into an alcove marked “Video Games: good, but not great”.
Now before a cavalcade of keyboards crash against a multitude of monitors in righteous rage, I must emphasise that I did not dislike my first playthrough of Half Life 2 and its extra bits. The gameplay seemed entirely competent, the atmosphere was right, and there was a visual appeal there. Whilst the story was wild and wonderful sci-fi, I was less than invested. I liked Alyx Vance – for both honourable and less-than-honourable reasons – and felt that she brought some motivation to proceedings. Nevertheless, most characters came across as superfluous, and it rarely seemed clear where I was going or why.
There were lots of nice locations and variety in weapons and vehicles, but it all seemed like lots of pieces that had been mashed together. If there was a narrative, my ignorant mind had found it wanting. The gunplay was solid, and the enemies original, but I couldn’t see exactly why this was such a momentous series.
Such a moron I was. Yet the extent of my accursedness has yet to be fully revealed; the ragged, dirt-ridden curtain has been only half drawn to reveal the full monstrosity that is to be my damnation.
As the credits fell on Episode 2, with the absolute feeling that I had gathered all enjoyment that I could from Half Life, I wheeled to face Team Fortress 2. Multiplayer games have never been my strong suit, but I had enjoyed a handful in the past. You see, I lack the competitive streak of a good online gamer. If I’m to play alongside others, I would rather play alongside them. A cooperative video game will always trump the competitive variety. The inclusion of a ‘Team Deathmatch’ mode isn’t a guarantee of my support; you’re not really working in a ‘team’, there are just people you don’t have to shoot at.
Regardless, I was willing to give the next item in The Box a chance to entertain. I didn’t…really…give it much of a chance. I played no more than four and a half matches. The ‘half’ was the last match. In my idle lunacy, I dismissed TF2 as ‘just another multiplayer’. Another ridiculous blunder on my part. To my younger, idiotic senses the game had a great visual appeal, and clearly wasn’t about to take itself too seriously. However, the few games I had enjoyed had kept me coming back by employing a feel of progression. I was comfortable with games that drip-feed the content – gain enough experience, unlock the next class of warrior or weapon – but in Team Fortress it was all already there, on a plate. With no past experience, I had no understanding of how the classes differed, how I should play, or why I should care.
As if matters could not get any worse, we turn to the final game in the set, and perhaps my greatest moment of imbecility: I played Portal… and decided that it was only ‘very good’.
The audacity. The delinquency. The unmitigated travesty that is my past existence. Whilst all about me friends and gamers unknown revelled in the majesty and hilarity of this tremendous game, I was content with the belief that Portal was a “good idea”, that was executed “really well”, and gave me a “few laughs”. Oh the shame. And what’s more, I found it quite short. I’ve since heard compelling arguments that the game was the exact length that it should be, but I was not so fair and forgiving. Whilst Goldilocks may claim that something can be ‘just right’, when something is good I want what Daddy Bear is getting: more of the good stuff. By which I mean more game time…not more Mommy Bear…
So with each game given a brisk and unfair overview I was idiotically convinced that The Orange Box had performed admirably, but at a standard that could only reach up towards my high expectations. So the collection was promptly dismissed; sold without remorse. May the Gaming Deities have mercy.
Six years have passed.
Last year, I purchased Half Life 1. There were a few reasons for this. Firstly, it was cheap. Secondly, my aging laptop needed something less challenging, as games produced in the last five years tended to leave it weaving and dizzy. Thirdly… I’m a console gamer by default, so all the games I was most interested in were on the PS3 or 360. Even after purchase, the game sat alone, unwanted, not even able to gather dust inside the virtual library.
This Christmas, I purchased a new PC, and my gaming options expanded. I bought myself a few new games, but as I glanced over my older collection on Steam, I realised that there were a few games that I should really play if I was to justify the new editions. So I dutifully, and a little begrudgingly, opened Half-Life 1.
A few weeks passed, and realisation began to brew and boil. I gradually began to realise that my dismissal of The Orange Box have been a mistake. I’d dip in and out of the game at first, playing an hour or so when I had time and between other games. I then played the second half without interruption from any other media. I’d found the experience increasingly entertaining, and was compelled to re-buy The Orange Box last week, this time on PC. I was about to realise what a fool I had been.
When I first played Half Life 2, I had snubbed the story. To me, back then, it had felt like there wasn’t much of a coherent narrative. There were lots of ‘chunks’ of very good gameplay, with a larger story hanging around in the background. Fragments of narrative, if you will. Now that I’m older, I see that this is actually a strength rather than a weakness. Most games place the protagonist at the heart of every element of the story, but in Half Life the story is bigger and deeper than Gordon Freeman. A lot of importance is placed on him, but in the end he’s another human scrambling around trying to piece it all together. Once I saw the game this way, the randomness of the set pieces – the fliting from stealthier, creepier sections back to full-on action – all makes much more sense.
I’m almost through Half Life 2 for the second time, and I’m absolutely smitten. The story, the visuals, the brief snippets of excellent human characters, the subtle humour and the darker corners of the story are all parts that I adore. I find myself more invested too: I give a little jump each time an unseen head crab pounces. I find myself looking round for every nook and cranny that might be explored. With each new encounter I find myself trying to imagine Gordon Freeman’s thoughts on all this. You know, apart from all the internal screaming that must going on inside that big brain of his.
I appreciate the little things as well now. I love the way the weapons stack up on the number keys. In a moment of panic I hit the mouse wheel or number keys one too many times, causing Freeman to juggle through his inventory so that he appears to mirror my own anxiety. I appreciate how few enemy types and available weapons there are at first. The introduction of each new feature carries some quietly implied importance. The world too, that gorgeous world that shows better than most how dystopia can be incredibly fascinating.
More than anything, playing Half Life 1 has allowed me to see just how far Valve moved things forward. The difference between the two games is staggering in many ways. The amount of thought gone into improving on the prequel is self-evident. No one was resting on their laurels; so much of the old game is replaced, enhanced or improved to make the experience as awesome as it can be.
I could go on, but that’s not why I’m here. Convincing you that Half Life is a great series would be like trying to tell a baker about the merits of bread cutting. No, we’re here because an idiot gamer has realised the error of their ways. I haven’t yet approached Episodes 1 and 2, but I have already begun to look back on the decisions my younger self has made with the serious contempt. However, my self-induced humiliation does not stop there.
With a new-found affection for one element of The Orange Box, I decided I should devote some time to what had been my least favourite segment: the multiplayer. If I could enjoy Half Life this much more than I once did, could it be possible that Team Fortress 2 could also provide some thrill? I seriously doubted it. I’d heard about different maps and game modes that I hadn’t credited the game with, (they added Hookshots recently, sounds like fun) but competitive multiplayer has to go a long way to draw me in.
So, a few days ago, I half-heartedly loaded up TF2. I played the tutorials, had a look through the inventory – some potential to customise and find new gear, that’s nice – and went to join a match. As I went to click “Play Multiplayer” I noticed…
Wait…… Huh. Why does that say “Play co-op”? What…...what’s “Mann vs. Machine”? Does this game have co-op mode? I think this game has a co-op mode! When did this game get co-op mode??
Suddenly, the moronic man-child of my past looked all the more ridiculous. Sure, this feature wasn’t there when I bought the game, but if I had given The Orange Box the love and care it deserves, then I could have been playing cooperative TF2 for the last two years! Even now I’ve only played a few rounds, but I already know that it’s exactly the kind of multiplayer I can get behind. Someone hand me a crowbar and a time machine. Someone’s got to go teach me a lesson!
There is then, one other part of The Orange Box left without a revisit. And you know what? I’m not sure I deserve it. Portal was my favourite part of the collection, but I still threw it out with the rest (of what I now know is an incredible set of games). I gave that superb video game the cold shoulder for finishing “too early”. I looked that gift horse in the mouth, poked at its teeth, and then sent it to the glue factory. If I do go back to see the Companion Cube again, it will be with flowers, wine, chocolate, and the promise of some real quality time.
I’ve got two things to ask you lovely commenters this week. Firstly, have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? Have you ever rejected a game, only to return to rediscover and enjoy the experience? Are there games you hated, but on closer inspection realised you want to be their friend after all?
Secondly, do I deserve forgiveness for what I have done? Is there redemption to be found after spurning The Orange Box? Or is my gamer soul doomed forever? Must there be punishment before forgiveness can be granted? Maybe something elaborate involving the gravity gun…
Thank You For Reading
I enjoy finding parallels between Gaming and History, and the treatment of gender in each field shows some commonality. Within the realm of videogames, gender is a topic of debate/discussion/angry rants all of itself. The representation of women is continuously dissected and revaluated. It's not something that should have to be so scrutinised, but it's good that the discussion is so positive a lot of the time. In History, women are also considered as a separate topic for discussion a great deal of the time. It's not ideal, but to avoid the topic at all would be far worse.
[Educational Warning - this blog contains mild amounts of learning and me being more grown-up than usual]
Whenever you might learn or teach a topic from any era, a section of that study will be devoted the study of the women. If you are studying World War 2, there will be one chapter or lesson on the 'role of women in WW2'. From one perspective, it may seem a shame that the distinction between male and female must be made. Yet this is our History; we can learn from it and agree/disagree with it. The role of men and women has been diverse since the beginning.
"Women in gaming" and "women in History" are therefore equally defined and distinct topics within a broader field. What I find odd is how these two topics often intertwine, especially when gender in videogames is being evaluated. On numerous occasions I have heard the case for the defence of male protagonists because 'History shows us x" or "this protagonist should be male because women didn't do x" or "men were knights/soldiers, so it makes more sense", and so on. It seems like a sensible, logical argument, which is not intended as a reinforcement to gender bias (you would hope).
In the past, I have made various connections between games and historic events. I've picked out historic bits of Skyrim and presented real life gun-blades and animal weapons. This time around though, I'm assessing a topic which, three months ago, I honestly had very little understanding of. I would never pretend to be the expert in any topic, but in this scenario I am quite the novice. I recently began reading up on female fighters with one specific question in mind: does History help the arguments against women warriors in videogames or not?
Today, I wish to address this particular line of argument, and debate whether Historic evidence does in fact support the notion that certain protagonists should be male. To keep the debate trim, I'm narrowing the focus to warriors – does History show that the female contribution in times of conflict is largely passive? Or is the female combatant overlooked for some reason? There are many arguments for why there should be more/less male/female characters in games, but which side does History land on?
The addition of a female character or the option of gender in a historic game (or a fantasy game with a historic theme) often draws scrutiny. Whilst gamers are often happy to play as whomever, many gamers question whether women would actually be in that role. Whilst this view is often shot down by those arguing that it's "only a game" or that the "world is fictional", if you take a piece of History to set your game against, you do take the stereotypes and predispositions with it. If the fantasy or science fiction world is a "Kingdom", then the ruler is a "king", and the society is patriarchal. A game might implicitly challenge the notion of gender roles, but many gamers will approach with the belief that the knight or soldier is a male occupation. To alter that perspective, there has to be evidence that women did fight.
If you had asked me Last year to name women warmongers from History, I would have fared poorly. I would have first thought of Mulan, but then reminded myself that she is almost certainly mythical. I would then have created a list of just two people: Boudicca of the Iceni and Joan of Arc. However, only one of these women was (possibly) a fighter. The former may have charged into battle on chariot, as her statue suggests, but the latter only wore armour for show and provided inspiration to her army, never going into combat. Upon my earliest investigation, this began to present as a common theme.
Whenever I came across a new famous warrior woman, I discovered that they played the part of commander rather than a front line warrior. Fu Hao, high priestess and all-round military powerhouse during the Shang Dynasty, was responsible for numerous successful military campaigns, but as a General. By the thirteenth century, the Georgian state was at the height of its power thanks to the ingenuity and military success of Queen Tamar, but said military success seems reliant on her subordinates. Elizabeth I is famous for crushing the Spanish Armada in 1588, but her contribution can be reduced down to an inspiring speech at Tilbury. Many women saw battle, and proved women can wage war, but in many cases they were at the back.
This does of course show that female characters could play leadership roles within an historically affected videogame setting. If the game in question is a strategy game, for example, then the protagonist leading those troops does not have to be a man.
There's a curious trend amongst the tales of female warriors; many of these women became combatants because a man in their life couldn't fulfil their role. Boudicca takes on the Roman legions in Britain because her husband dies and the Romans think they can dethrone her. Zenobia of Palymra, an Arab queen, took hold of her husband's military after his assassination. I'm not sure how the gender-minded proportion of the gaming world would react to a protagonist storyline based on this premise. On the one hand, the protagonist would be proving they can perform a masculine task, but on the other hand they are only able to prove themselves because the man isn't around.
For many of the female war leaders, whether or not they actually fought their own battles is not always clear. I read about the courageous efforts of Laskarina Bouboulina – heiress, revolutionary and naval commander – who organised and funded her own personal regiment in the Greek War of Independence, but I've not actually seen definite proof that she herself took up arms. I hope a greater historian than me can provide the details. Whilst these leaders often wore the armour and weapons of their male warriors, few female fighters followed their forces into the fray. It's also important to note that many of these women war male armour; few of them would go in for boob-shaped plate mail.
As I dug a little deeper, I began to find exceptions to the rule. Tomoe Gozen was the first real fighter I came across. If you'll pardon my mild misogamy: what a woman. It turns out she has already made the leap (sort of) into videogames via Persona 4, but from what I've seen it doesn't do her justice. Whilst much of her life history has been entwined with legend, it is clear that she was an incredible archer and sword
sman swoman sperson, as well as an impressive cavalry fighter. At the Battle of Awazu, Tomoe Gozen faced a force of over 5,000 cavalry with only 300 accompanying cavalry from her Lord, Kiso. She is allegedly one of only five of Kiso's warriors that survived the subsequent massacre, and only left the battlefield when ordered to do so. She cut the head of the nearest and most important looking enemy combatant, then left begrudgingly. The term 'Samurai' may be a male term, but I see a video game protagonist right here.
As aforementioned, Mulan is most likely fictional. Yet the story of a woman pretending to be a man is very real. This brings us back to that trend of female fighters taking the male role. In the 14th century Agnes Hotot, from the House of Dudley, put on her father's armour. Her father had died an hour before fighting a duel against a man he'd argued with. So Agnes went in his place. Not only did she win the fight – she knocked the man off his horse with a lance – she then decided to humiliate the man. Where some would have settle for a derisive "ha-ha! You just got beaten by a girl, na-na-na-nana", Agnes took it a few steps further, exposing her hair and bosom to the crowd. She made it very clear that a woman had just knocked a man down.
I wish I'd have been there… to see the looks on the faces of the crowd. No other reason.
Ever heard of a Shieldmaiden? It's a term most will recognise from Lord of the Rings (take a moment to remember how awesome Éowyn is). For me it was also a term assigned to Norse mythology. Lagertha is a Viking woman of legend that chose to fight alongside male Viking warriors. In one battle she apparently used her 'delicate frame' to her advantage, sneak-attacking the enemy from behind and scaring the mead right off of them. To my delight, I recently discovered that shieldmaidens are potentially real, and there might be quite a lot of them. Early archaeological assumptions have led to the misidentification of Viking skeletons – women aren't buried with swords, so this one must be a dude – and there's increasing evidence to suggest that Norse women went on raids alongside men. What proportion were women, and in what era they were most prevalent, time will hopefully tell.
Stories like Tomoe Gozen and Agnes Hotot are few and far between, often shrouded by legends and suffering from a lack of historical study. Try as I might to find the full picture of ancient female warriors, like the Shieldmaiden, evidence is very fresh or very limited. Nevertheless, the evidence is there. They might be the exceptions to the rule, but the exception is often more interesting than the norm. What's more, when we see that women who either fought or led battles, it demonstrates that women can fight. I didn't need History to know that, but History shows us that if a character in a video game is female and a fighter, then it's justified. Fictional male warriors are often placed in non-fictional environments because that makes sense to us. Well, now female warriors in the same role should make sense too.
There are many positive factors that should be considered when choosing a characters gender. Sometimes a character 'should be' male or female for a particular reason, and in other cases the player can be given the choice because it doesn't affect the game in any way.
What is clear is that History does not provide the definitive defence for why a historic (or historically influenced) game should have a male protagonists. Female fighters are in short supply throughout History, but they do exist. They are also quite awesome. I plan to find out more about them in the next few months.
Next week, I'll spend a bit more time talking about Gaming rather than History. However, I intend to revisit this topic in the future. Rather than belabour the point that female fighters exist in History, I wish to share some other female characters from History that might inspire brand new games. Those examples will include more modern references to warrior women in History. This will hopefully lead on to a broader discussion on the untapped potential of History where gaming is concerned. There are hundreds of events that could inspire some great videogames.
If you have more history to add, or a view on History and gender or Gaming and gender, please leave a comment below.