I'm an actor living in Los Angeles who likes videogames. Go figure.
My ten favorite games are currently:
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence
Super Mario Galaxy
The Last of Us
Kingdom Hearts 2
Mass Effect 2
Well, not quite. Let me elaborate (Bonus: This is a spoiler-free article, please read it):
I really do believe that it’s almost impossible to pick one game as your favorite PC game, especially when you consider the overlap shared by console titles. There are just so many games to choose from and as most gamers know, truly great games tend to feel incomparable. There’s nothing quite like your own “FPS of choice” (Half-Life 2) or that “classic Lucas Arts adventure game” that still melts your heart (Grim Fandango). Games can be incredibly personal experiences; something I will elaborate on later. That’s why when trying to select a singular title, I began by first narrowing my list down to individual genres.
Though these days there are almost as many genres as games, I can say with no equivocation that my favorite genre, on either console or PC, is the RPG genre. Western? Eastern? Far Eastern? Doesn’t matter. Before you “people who don’t like 80 hour games” stop reading in disgust, let me explain my reasoning. For starters, on a very superficial level, RPGs really appeal to that OCD side that I think we all have, where we just need to get everything, do everything, and see everything that a virtual world has to offer. They operate under similar principles to Metroidvanias, MMOs, and Skinner boxes. There’s always one more piece of gear to get, one more level to climb, and one more hidden area containing riches…or certain doom! In short, there’s something about that steady sense of progression mixed with rewards that can be ferociously satisfying.
When we wade into the deeper end of the pool, however, RPGs can also provide a unique storytelling experience that other games can’t quite, in my opinion, match. It’s the same reason that most films have more complex and rewarding storylines than most television shows and why most books outmatch both; they have more time to tell their story. I’m one of those rare birds (that isn’t “Angry”…pun) that almost always forgives poor gameplay if the story is solid. Wait! Wait! Put your torches down! I still think that “fun/interactivity” trumps all, but how often in life do we get to play both actor and playwright? Hindsight is 20/20, but even so, I think there’s something about that sense (even if it’s just an illusion) of directly controlling the fate of the players as the events unfold that speaks to heart of the human condition: Choice. More than any other gaming genre, I would contend that RPGs highlight the importance of choice. “What do you do when forced to choose between those who will do the wrong thing for the right reasons and those who will do the right thing for the wrong reasons? Or is not choosing its own choice?” (To find out, play The Witcher!) These are the kinds of experiences that RPGs offer. But wait, there’s more!
RPGs also tend to provide (for better or worse) intensely memorable characters. Think of that one “whiny androgynous male” that almost made that one JRPG unplayable (Vaan) or conversely, the one “trusted ally” who’s always watching your back in those seedy space cantinas (Wrex). Whether or not we share the same faces for these characters, if you’re a seasoned gamer then somebody probably did pop into your head pretty quickly. I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case for many other genres. I’m just continually amazed by how rich and intimate the characters can make these games. Their level of reality increases the world’s and, in turn, your investment in the given circumstances of the game. In short, choices that effect people (real or not) that you have become invested in, are, by their very nature, more compelling. Why do we become so attached to these Quina Quens and Jansens? I think length of time spent with the characters probably has something to do with it. We grow accustomed to their smiles and their frowns, their ups and their downs (Watch this and culture yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HroAq_E075Y). I think strength of writing also carries quite a bit of weight. This brings me to the part of this short novel that actually matters: my favorite PC RPG, or RP(C)G.
My more perceptive readers have probably deduced that I wasn’t just lauding the virtues of a genre, but was simultaneously laying the foundation of my love for Planescape: Torment (PT from here on in). Let’s review: RPGs are great because of their capacity for compelling choices, rich narratives, satisfying gameplay, and memorable characters. Let’s build on that: PT is, in my opinion, the game that best exemplifies these qualities and, therefore, is my favorite RPG (and thusly, my favorite PC game). Make sense? No? Too bad because I’m going to keep on moving with this blog.
To keep things spoiler-free, I’ll condense the storyline of PT (for those who don’t know) into the following sentence: You play a nameless amnesiac, who awakes in a morgue and quickly comes to the realization that he is immortal and someone wants him dead. If you want a more specific idea, imagine Memento crossed with Lost Odyssey and seasoned with Groundhog Day. Your companions include, among others, a demon, an angel, and a talking skull. The talking skull does participate in combat. He fights with his teeth. If you’re not already on Good Old Games picking this up, then there’s probably not much more I can do to convince you…despite that, I will continue to try…
Thematically, PT deals with some of the most difficult and foundational questions of human existence. What does it truly mean to live, love, and die? What is the cost of knowing the “truth” and is that cost ever too high? What, if anything, can change the nature of a man? Again, should all games tackle these questions? No! But it’s really awesome that a few games try to and I believe that this is one of the very few to have done so successfully. PT is a very flawed game and it’s certainly rough around the edges. There are definitely aspects of certain quests that feel incomplete, the graphics are a bit dated, and the combat can be kind of wonky. Despite that, it has one of the most intriguing and fully realized universes I’ve ever encountered and- Ok. It’s done installing. Talk to you later.
P.S. – If forced to pick my favorite PC game of the last ten years (since “relevancy” and everything) I would say Mass Effect 2 because that game is SICK!
I’m not sure what the interest in this title is on Destructoid, but I was curious enough to sign up for the Beta. Lo and behold, I got accepted and have been playing the closed Beta for a couple of weeks now. Previously an NDA was in place, but I recently saw this on the Beta forums:
We’ve played together in DCUO’s closed Beta for months. We’ve posted back and forth, voted Up or Down, and shared this new universe together. Now, it’s time to take a step closer towards launch.
Thank you all for your play and feedback. We appreciate that despite the challenges presented by a game in Beta, your feedback in these forums has continued to help us understand the game from a player’s point of view. Your thoughts, critiques, opinions, and suggestions have given us a wealth of perspective to draw from. DCUO is a far better game today because of your efforts.
Today, December 6, 2010, the NDA will be dropped across the game. Our conversations, and our game, will be shared with the world. So keep playing, keep posting, and keep talking about DCUO.
You’ve helped us make a good game great. Let’s keep that going as we finish out Beta.
So, there you have it. No Non-Disclosure Agreement = Yes Preview.
It goes without saying that as a closed Beta, the version of the game I have been playing does not necessarily represent the final product. There were a number of bugs and balance issues that I’m sure will be ironed out by the time the final product roles around.
However, since we never heard back from Conrad’s villain, “Steve”, I thought I’d give my two cents to the community in case anybody is planning on picking it up when it releases Q1 2011 (whenever that is…).
Lastly, all impressions are taken from the PC version.
Really lastly, this is LONG. Fair warning…
Conrad already did an excellent job of outlining the character creation process as it currently stands, but if you’re still reading this then you’re probably curious about my take.
Character creation begins by selecting Male or Female. The game goes out of its way to remind you that this has no impact on gameplay. Next, you select Body Type. While having a choice at all is a step up from WoW’s singular barrel-chested design, the types don’t quite represent the full spectrum of DC characters that some fans may be expecting. Your choices are basically: tiny, medium, and large. However, all male models are pretty ripped and all female models sport an extremely full bust. While this might not mean much to some, players hoping to model their hero on some of the more lithe characters (your Robins, non-Power Girls, etc) may be a bit disappointed.
Next you get to choose whether you’re a Hero or a Villain (this affects some quests) and who you will be mentored by. The Heroes can choose from Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. The Villains get Lex Luthor, The Joker, and Circe. Each represent a different type of Powered Individual. Lex and Supes represent Meta-Humans, Batman and Joker get the Tech Guys, and WW and Circe roll with the Magic users. What does the selection of your Mentor mean for your gameplay experience? As of the closed Beta: Nothing, except for your starter mission and your final mission (about an hour of gameplay, total). All other missions, bounties, and instances can be accessed by other Heroes (or Villains, if you roll that way).
Finally, the fun part: Power Selection. As of now, there are 8 power types: Fire, Ice, Mental, Gadget, Sorcery, and Nature. The types are divided into roughly 3 categories: Defense (Fire and Ice), Control (Mental and Gadgets), and Healing (Sorcery and Nature). (More on that later) After selecting a power, you get to choose your weapon/combat style. If I remember correctly, you can choose from the following: Dual Pistols, Bow, Rifle, Hand-Blasters (Gloves that fire off concussive energy!), Brawling, Martial Arts, One-Handed, Two-Handed, and Staff. As Conrad mentioned, all weapons (technically) have melee and ranged capabilities. However, the merits of throwing your giant hammer at bad guys or pistol whipping enemies into submission are questionable. Though it is entirely possible that I am leaving one weapon out, I’m pretty sure that covers it.
Let’s not forget mode of transportation. You can select from Super Speed, Flight, and Acrobatics. As someone who’s tried all three, I can tell you that Flight is the way to go. While Super Speed will get you around faster, it also makes you scale every surface in the game…every surface in the game (even ones you don’t want it to). Acrobatics functions similarly and I can tell you that in the heat of battle or in the middle of a race (yes, there are races), the last thing you want is to accidentally run/climb up a wall or get caught on a street light (that happens a lot) when you don’t mean to.
Last, but not least, you get to select your look. You can choose to be “inspired by” a better known hero or go custom (which is obviously cooler). There are some surprising options in there. You can change your skin “type”. Want metal skin? Done. Want to be a Furry (I was surprised too) with ears and a tail to match? Your covered. You can also change hairstyles, though the current system for this is quite cumbersome. Instead of just cycling through hair options and facial hair options, there is (CURRENTLY) a long list of styles that have been “named” (e.g. The Bakerline, The Detective, etc). The names have no rhyme or reason, so you basically are left clicking on every single name hoping to find a “look” that you like. This is currently the weakest link of character creation. You can also pick several different clothing styles and choose custom colors for your gear or go with a palette that stays consistent for the rest of the game. As of now, once you’ve picked your color palette, you’re stuck with it. The options for your actual clothing seem a bit lacking at first, but you get the opportunity (and are encouraged) to change your look while progressing. All pieces of loot throughout the game have statistical and style attributes. You can elect to keep your current look or adopt a new style for that particular part of your costume (though you always have the option to go back to any previously collected style in your menu).
Once you’ve named your super person, you’re done. If you’re curious, my first hero was a Medium-build Dude with Mental Powers and Hand-Blasters. Went by the name of Gordian. They say he can tie a man’s brain into an unsolvable knot with his mysterious telepathy!!!
So, you’ve made your hulking villain that can control plants and follows the Joker’s every whim. Now what? Well, gameplay is what.
I will go ahead and say that the gameplay of DCUO is generally pretty fun. I’ve played a bit of WoW in my day and as someone who always got tired of watching my character auto-attack enemies, it’s nice to get into an MMO where you feel like you’re the one who’s dishing out the damage. All of the combat is real time and most of the powers have pretty short cooldown times so you can fire them off pretty quickly. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll try to talk about gameplay in appropriate segments but forgive me if things overlap. Let’s start with Combat.
On a PC, all of your punching, kicking, and shooting is done with your mouse. Left click for your close range/light attack, and right click for your long range/heavy attack. As you progress and unlock Achievements (called Feats) you get “Skill Points”. These go into your Weapon and Movement trees. Investing in your Weapon tree unlocks combat combos. Click three times with the left mouse button or maybe charge up a big attack by holding down the right mouse button. That kind of stuff. The trees are all very Diablo/WoW-esque except that you can’t invest multiple points into a combo (or Power, for that matter) to make it any more effective. Once you’ve purchased it, that’s it. Having only played (to the endgame cap) with a Hand-Blaster and a Two-Hander, I can say that both weapon styles had certain combos that were incredibly useful and some that were incredibly useless. They can also be a bit tricky to pull off at first, but they’re usually pretty quick to master. Again, combat is one of the strengths (in my opinion) of the game. You get this really visceral feeling when you’re smacking people around.
As far as using your powers go, you have two “Energy” bars that govern your power usage. One is your basic blue Mana bar that depletes as you use powers and (conveniently) replenishes as you dish out damage with your weapons. The other “Energy” bar is an Overdrive style of bar. As you take and dish out damage it slowly fills. As you progress, you can unlock a few especially powerful…powers…that deplete either 25, 50, or 100 percent of this bar. Most of this stuff should seem pretty familiar to most action-RPG/MMO players. My (and many player’s) one MAJOR gripe with using powers, though, is the lack of hotbars/hotbar space. Unlike many other MMO’s, in DCUO you have ONE hotbar. That’s it. On this hotbar are only six slots for one power each, one spot for a consumable (there are two varieties, health and mana), and one spot for Trinket activation (items that supposedly boost your stats when activated). This is done, I suppose, intentionally to make you think really carefully about what powers you invest in and which ones of those you want to use regularly. DCUO puts a system into place, however, that theoretically softens this blow.
Try to stay with me here – Your hero has different “roles” that they can activate while running around town. These relate back to your Power selection. All heroes, regardless of power type, start off in the “Damage” (i.e. DPS) role that stays active until they hit level 10. Upon hitting level 10, you gain access to your power’s “true role”. By hitting ‘T’ you can switch roles on the fly. As a Mental user for example, you can press ‘T’ to switch to your Controller role (remember the 3 categories of Power type?). While the stat changes seem to be nominal (if any), the main draw (as far as I can tell) of switching roles is having access to that role’s own unique hotbar. This way, you can customize the “Loadouts” of your different roles. While your Hero might like a lot of DPS spells for his Damage role he employs while soloing, when you’re grouping (which is rare) and you need to be a good team member it’s nice to be able to switch on the fly to your Control/Defense/Healing role so you can access your group oriented spells. While an interesting idea on paper, going into your menu to alter your customized hotbars can be a real pain and many players find it limiting to have the majority of their powers sitting unused in their menu.
Lastly for this section, character death. When you die, you respawn in a safe zone (not as a ghost) and you take a hit to your gear’s durability. If you’re in a dungeon or instance, you respawn at the beginning with all enemies that were dead, still dead. That’s it.
This is, like many MMO’s, what you will spend most of your time doing in DCUO. However, I have good or bad news (depending on your perspective). As of now, this aspect of the game is VERY short. I have had the closed Beta for about two weeks now. Within the first week, I quickly and easily hit the endgame level cap (level 30) while leading a normal life that involved eating, sleeping, and spending time with my family (while I was visiting the folks for Turkey Day). I’m talking about an hour or so in the morning or maybe 45 minutes before going to bed some nights (about 10 hours all told, if I remember correctly). Putting all of this aside, let’s talk a little bit about your average quest structure.
As I said before, with the exception of your first and last quests, all heroes/villains will (as of now) be doing the same quests as all other heroes/villains. All characters (regardless of morality) also have the same tutorial mission. The general structure involves meeting with a Hero/Villain that begins the chain. After heading to the first zone, you’ll be tasked with offing X number of enemies, or activating Y number of “crates/nodes/generators/etc”. You’ll head to a new zone and do the same, then one more time, and then, finally, the cool part. The cool part at the end of each quest involves a solo-instanced dungeon that culminates in a boss fight against an iconic hero/villain. They usually feel semi-epic, sometimes involve help or resistance from another iconic hero/villain, and afterwards you’re always treated to a cool little motion comic about one of the major players of that quest. One pretty cool aspect about quests is that they are all fully voiced (Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles for fans of Batman) and feature auto tracking for all of your little objectives. An average quest takes about 30 minutes start to finish. All in all, I played through about a dozen quests for my character before I had hit level 30 and only had one quest left (the climactic finale involving my mentor).
Most of the quests feature neat little stories that should appeal to fans of the DC Universe but probably won’t mean much to people unfamiliar with some of the lore. Though none of the stories told are especially epic, moving, or badass, they’re all relatively engaging enough to keep you interested in seeing them through. It should also be said that players expecting to spend a lot of time questing with friends will find that they have little reason to. The bulk of DCUO, by design, can easily be (and really should be) completed on your own. Grouping and Raiding doesn’t truly exist until the end of the game.
In addition to your basic quests, you also have a few other ways to gain XP and see the world. One such feature is Racing. Each Movement type features a corresponding series of Races throughout both Gotham and Metropolis (currently the only two cities in the game). Your reward for achieving a Platinum time after running/flying through all of the scattered checkpoints is a new style type (Remember those? They let you change how pieces of your costume look…) for your collection and some XP (not that you’ll need it). You can also go on kiosk-guided tours of neighborhoods in both Gotham and Metropolis that are narrated by Booster Gold. They count as actual quests with XP and loot rewards, though the poor quality of both the writing for Booster’s narration and the rewards will quickly put you back on the trail of your major quests. Though if you ever feel like seeing the sights, there are a ton of kiosks around both cities for you to check out. There are also bounties that get posted as you increase in level. These rogues/heroes are usually just wandering around in the open environments waiting to kill low-level players that don’t know what they’re doing or be killed by a small team of appropriately leveled players that do. The rewards (both loot and XP) make these worth doing when convenient. There are about a dozen of these, total.
Lastly there is the weird, ugly duckling of questing, “Investigations”. Hidden throughout the overworld, instances, and dungeons are small green, blue, and yellow icons (in the form of exclamation points and question marks). You can see one in one of the images above. These are investigation points. When you “Investigate” (hold down the ‘E’ key near) one, you “add it to your collection”. Different points belong to a series of different “Investigation Collections”. Each different collection is usually related in some way to the quest you are on. So what ACTUALLY happens when you “investigate” one of these often well-hidden points? A small text box appears saying something along the lines of “Investigation: The Legacy of Krypton: Episode 1: Lois Lane. 1 of 6”. What does any of that actually mean? Your guess is as good as mine. The points seem to be related by proximity, meaning that the other 5 Legacy of Krypton: Episode 1 investigation points are somewhere nearby (or will be in another zone dedicated to the quest you’re on). Your reward for going crazy trying to find all of these little icons (most of which seem to be arbitrarily placed) is…another style type for your costume and (if you keep doing them) some achievement points down the line. I think they were going for a Riddler Challenge type of thing from Arkham Asylum but as someone who loved that aspect of AA, I can tell you that they missed the mark by the wide-side of a barn. Maybe they’ll add some more features that justify (or explain) their existence (like unlocking comic covers or concept art), but as it currently stands, they have no purpose except to frustrate completionists, there’s no system in place to help you find them, and they are only ever barely tangentially related to what you are doing.
So what happens when you get enough XP to level up? Well, you do a cool little animation where you flex, your health and mana are fully restored, and you get either a Power Point or a Skill Point to spend on your Power or Weapon/Movement trees accordingly. Power Points can be invested in one of two Power Trees that (currently) aren’t very well defined. For example my Mental Hero could invest in a Telepathic and/or Illusionary Tree of Powers. Both, for example, had a power that stunned an enemy and set him on fire for a certain amount of damage. The only difference was that in the descriptions, I was able to discern that one power ACTUALLY set the enemy on fire and the other one just made the enemy THINK he was on fire. In terms of gameplay, however, there was little difference. There is also a special, separate Iconic Tree of Powers that you have access to at higher levels. You would think that these would be very costly and demonstrate great power (like the heroes that they are inspired by). You would be wrong. Most iconic powers (X-Ray Vision, Shazam Lightning Bolt, Lasso of Truth, etc) are often underpowered but flashier versions of normal powers that cost the same number of skill points. Many Beta testers agreed that they were more of a tease than anything else (I can call down a Shazam lightning bolt but it barely does any damage???) and needed their strength/balance addressed. As for Movement skills (since I kind of went over Weapon skills earlier), there are a few Passive skills that you can invest in to increase your movement speed and increase your stun resistance that I found useful. There are, however, other movement skills that require activation and I never thought it would be worth one of my valuable hotbar slots to house it when that slot could go to a legitimate “Power”. That’s about the long and short end of leveling up in DCUO.
-Dungeons, Raids, PVP, and End-Game Content
While progressing, you gain access to various dungeons in the DC Universe (not to be confused with end-of-mission instances). These are the same (as are the quests within) for heroes and villains. One feature that I quite liked was that these dungeons don’t actually exist within the game world. If you want to go to the Smallville instance towards the end of the game, for example, you don’t have to spend fifteen minutes flying there. You simply go to your PVP/Instance menu, activate the queue for that instance and wait till you get in. The game, currently, is balanced so that most dungeons (of the 6 or so currently available in “Classic” DCUO) are easily finished with a full party of four (sometimes even just 3). The layout of dungeons mimics the quests you’ll do in the overworld. They are usually large, open-air environments where you go from one zone to the next (as directed by either Martian Manhunter or Talia Al-Ghul over your communicator) and kill X number of enemies, activate Y number of “crates/barrels/panels”, go to a new area and rinse and repeat, and then finally head to the final boss encounter. I’ll go ahead and say that I found most of the final boss encounters in these dungeons to be a bit disappointing story-wise (with one exception that I won’t spoil). They mostly feature more obscure villains while your average quests will pit you against much more recognizable characters. In terms of gameplay, the bosses were usually slightly challenging and rarely frustrating. Your average dungeon takes about 30-45 minutes to get through depending on team size and level. Dungeons also supposedly feature Hard modes that should up the challenge.
After the level 30 cap, you unlock “the endgame”. The endgame currently consists of an impressive number of full-on raids that usually require a dozen heroes/villains to get through and the unlocking of Duo mode. I’ve only done a few of the raids but they seem to function (unsurprisingly) as larger, harder dungeons. The loot drops seem to be arbitrarily awarded to a few players, but they’re often not much better than what you have anyway so it’s not a big deal if you miss out on a few. The raids do seem to feature slightly more impressive story content than your average dungeon but as I haven’t played them all yet, I can’t really say for sure. A low Beta population tends to create painful wait times for these things. Duo mode, for those still paying attention, is basically a high level version of all of the instance portions of the quests you already did. Remember when you went toe to toe with Poison Ivy, well now you can do it again with a friend…but it’s harder!
Next, there’s the PVP mode that unlocks (I think) when you hit level 7. As you increase in level, you get access to new arenas to battle your foes in. There are two types of PVP Arena: Legendary and Not Legendary (or just, Arena, as it’s called). Legendary Arena’s let you play as iconic heroes and villains complete with their power sets. Normal Arenas let you play as…you. Both offer the fairly similar experience of smashing enemies while trying to capture items or stand on contested hot zones. It’s fun but not especially compelling.
So what is the point of all of this endgame stuff if you can’t do it till you’ve stopped earning XP anyway? Well, each Mentor type (Metahuman, Tech, and Magic) can eventually purchase pieces of super-mega-ultra iconic armor unique to their “type” with tokens that they earn by doing all of this endgame stuff. They take a long time to earn and the game hasn’t really made it clear which activities reward you with which type of token (because, of course, there’s different types). However, the huge increase in stats (and the cool look) will make the investment worth it for any player that’s interested in serious PVP. A final note about PVP, I chose to play on a PVE server because I didn’t want to worry about dying randomly while I was questing, but I’m sure the PVP server offers the usual experience of getting ambushed by high level players with nothing better to do. However, like WoW, even PVE servers will flag you as PVP active when you come back from a PVP arena, so be careful.
Final Thoughts and Impressions
DC Universe Online is fun. It’s also very short. There’s still a lot of balancing to be worked out, but the basic framework is there for a fairly compelling MMO. As I said before, its strength is definitely in its combat. Currently, its weakness is its length. I find it seriously hard to believe that anyone will want to subscribe to this game for more than a month at a time. Unless they constantly keep a fresh stream of content rolling out, most players will run into a brick wall upon hitting the level cap (which won’t take long). There’s definitely stuff to do at the endgame (replay old dungeons on Duo Mode, do raids, PVP, etc) but the solo experience (that defines levels 1-30) is over and the story (for now) is done. There’s some mild incentive to replay as different power/morality types, but the experience will be largely the same. The stage is definitely set for expansions as you (unsurprisingly) don’t resolve the central conflict by the end of your last mission; I question the development team’s wisdom, however, in allowing such fast progression. Apparently it’s by design (they wanted to eliminate that sense of “the grind”), but I can only see players getting frustrated with the lack of content and cancelling their subscriptions after the first month or so (maybe to renew when the next big patch or expansion rolls around). There was actually a lengthy thread on the Closed Beta forums about this same issue but a moderator shut it down. He cited collecting Investigation tokens as a sufficiently fun way to enjoy solo content at the end game…
Unofficial Closed Beta Preview Score: 7.0 (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun)
If you have any specific questions that weren’t addressed in this overly long write-up, feel free to ask. I fully leveled a Hero and Villain (Mentored by Superman and Lex Luthor, respectively) and know most of what there is to know about the Mental/Nature Power types and the Hand-Blaster (I love typing that) and Two-Handed Weapons.
So Chad's article about all protagonists having brown hair and stubble inspired me to do a good-natured rebuttal article about the current diversity of video game characters. I then lost inspiration to write anything and just became curious if I could come up with a list of characters to rival his; a list that shows the wide range of variety and diversity found in todays games. To make things fair I took all of the sequels off of Chad's list (and Too Human because Baldur has a shaved head, no stubble, and glowing blue lines on his face), but to make things slightly challenging, I decided to only use games that were released in 2010. This left me to come up with a list of 17 protagonists from high profile games that offer a measure of uniqueness and originality. As for the header image, when I was trying to think of a name for the article, I was misremembering Gary Oldman's quote from The Fifth Element as "Look at all these colorful things" and thought it would be mildly appropriate. It still kind of fits.
Oh check it! It's Bayonetta!
Yes, Travis! I AM including you!
It's a two-fer, but I'm counting it as one. Such is my confidence.
Don't object Miles Edgeworth! You ARE unique!
The P.B. stands for Peanut Butter. Spoilers.
Say goodbye to this in the sequel!
He might fit Chad's profile if he let his hair grow out, but regardless, there's only one Kratos. Unless you're doing that annoying section in the first game.
Pixel art! Use your imagination to create the character's appearance! An economic solution for these difficult times!
This is where I started making difficult choices. I mean, who knows what he looks like under there? I do know that I need five more characters, so Red Steel 2 guy is in!
Trading stubble for bondage gear.
I know, I know. There's a guy with brown hair and stubble in there, but I think he's offset by the other five.
A Truck! Talk about diversity!
HE IS A SNAKE!
and Number 1
Yes, Chad, with Monster Hunter Tri you too can play as an old Indonesian woman with glass eyes (lost after being attacked by a dragon, no less)!
And we're done. There were some close calls and a couple of reaches, but I'm proud of the list I put together. Hopefully it will illustrate that even amidst oceans of brown haired, stubble wearing men and mountains of music peripheral games, there's still a great deal of creativity in the games industry.
I don’t think there’s a hugely vast variety of content to examine for this month’s musing topic, so I apologize in advance if this article is redundant to what you’ve already read in other musings (though I haven’t read them yet). Also this is a little long, so fair warning.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to talk about sex…in games. You know, it’s that thing in Bioware games that happens when you “win” a romance with one of the characters (hopefully an attractive human female). It’s that part of God of War where after a funny yet provocative mini-game you “score” an ass-load of red experience orbs. It’s what you do in Fable 2 after you’ve exhausted the game and have absolutely run out of more interesting things to do. It’s sex…but not really.
My musing this month will hopefully illustrate everything that I think is wrong with sex in games, why it’s wrong, what developers can do about it, and the few times I’ve seen it go right. I’ll also probably have a tangent or two. It’s a fair bit of ground to cover but it all boils down to one basic point (which I will spell out for you here if you don’t feel like reading this anymore): sex, itself, is not a game, but most games treat it like one. This is a problem. If you’re burning (hopefully not while you pee) to find out why, keep reading…
Let’s first briefly discuss sex itself. Contrary to popular belief, while sex is awesome, it is not always the best part, or the goal, of most great romantic relationships. However, if you’ve never had sex and your only knowledge of it is from mainstream videogames, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Actual sex, with someone you love, can be borderline spiritual. It can be a big deal. That’s why a big part of why people get pissed off when their partners cheat on them (in addition to the whole trust and betrayal thing). Videogames, however, rarely feature sex this way.
In most games, sex is the reward for or the last level of virtual relationships. Even when it’s not in the context of a relationship, it’s treated like a game (or part of one). Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: ‘What a minute, RichardBlaine. We’re talking about games! There should be a reward for having to sit through all of those boring conversations and since games are all about ‘playing’, why is it bad to get to ‘play’ sex? Heavy Rain tries to make brushing your teeth a game, right?’ While there is some merit to this way of thinking, it’s based on presenting sex as a naughty treat for people who want to be titillated. It’s barely ever actually taken seriously. Let’s look at some examples.
Almost All Bioware Games: Bioware has been getting better about this, but they tend to feature sex as the thing that happens when you’ve talked to that one girl in your party enough times. Be honest, how many of you breathe a sigh of relief when you get to the end of the game and find out that you said the right things to get the sex scene to happen. I do. The reason why is because Bioware structures their games in such a way, so that sex is the sign that you “won” or “beat” the Romance quest, and I like winning at things. There’s usually not a reminder in your quest log, but let me ask you this: How many more lengthy conversations do you voluntarily have with your romance character after “the sex scene”? The answer is none…because the quest is over. Even if you try, you’ve normally exhausted all of the meaningful dialogue scenes the game offers in order to reach that point.
Almost All Other Games (that include sex): Generally, when sex is included in games, it’s regarded as a strategic element in the game, a game unto itself, or (like Bioware tends to do) a reward for completing something…
Fable: While I kind of respect how “matter-of-fact”-ly the game treats sex, there’s no real reason to do it unless you want a kid (which there’s also no real reason for). Before you accuse me of hypocrisy, let me explain. If the game wanted to use sex to titillate, it failed for being so heavily censored that it elicits none. If it wanted to use it in a meaningful way, it also failed because I defy anyone to “actually care” about an NPC that just says ‘Hero’ when you fart at him/her.
GTA: Sex is a way to make/lose money, regain health, or a reward for completing a date “mission”.
Indigo Prophecy: Sex gives you happiness points. While also true in real life, I have a problem with this because MILD SPOILER WARNING there’s a point in the end-game where you can choose for a character to either leave the city with their partner or stay and do their job. The game goes out of its way to paint the partner as a purely sexual object and demonstrate that the character, on the other hand, is devoted to their job. However, if you pick to stay (to help the city, because you’re devoted to your work, because the game gives you no reason to care about your partner, etc.) your character has a “bad ending”. You’re rewarded (with points and a ‘happy scene’) for pursuing sex. END OF MILD SPOILER
God of War: Sex is a mini-game that yields you lots of experience.
That’s enough. You should hopefully see where I’m going with this. Now before you stop reading because you think I need to take my head out of my ass, listen; I totally get that a lot of these examples are intentionally satirical and are aimed at older audiences that should already know better, but we all know that a lot of young people play these games and I think they send a very unrealistic message about sex. Few people of any age, hopefully, believe that if you talk at a girl for long enough, she’ll suddenly want to mate with you, but it doesn’t paint a realistic picture of romance. “Who cares?” you say. Fair enough, but it’s true and worth noting. The bigger problem is that a lot of developers want you to take it seriously more often than you realize. However, the way sex is usually implemented in video games, it’s impossible to take the act seriously; and consequently, take many of the characters and story elements seriously. I also believe that it causes you to take it less seriously than you would when it’s actually done half-well. I’m not really going to address the Uncanny Valley situation because I think it speaks for itself but it isn’t the main problem.
So when does sex work in videogames? When it means something and sometimes when it never actually happens (heavy stuff, I know). Let’s examine Half Life 2. Spoiler alert, Gordon Freeman has not “yet” banged Alyx Vance. However, I want him too (though I’d rather not watch). Why? Because the game (through narrative and character interaction/development) has convinced me that these two people “really” care about each other. I believe it, because I (the player) have been made to care about Alyx. Not in a weird voyeuristic “I’m going to look for nude mods online” way, but in the same way that everyone cares about characters from movies, TV shows, books, and games that they like. I want to see her and Gordon get together because the game made me believe that they should be together. They’re the Jim and Pam (The Office) of videogames. I think (in this case) the absence of sex puts more focus on the building of a relationship and creates a situation in which the player is more likely to believe that it’s a realistic possibility. Translation: we care more, partly because they aren’t “doing it”.
One of my favorite examples of sex in a game is in Dragon Age. “Wait, RichardBlaine! That’s a Bioware game! You said they’re bad! You’re a liar!” Not true. I always said “most” or “usually” and did mention that Bioware has been getting better about this. I, like most people, romanced Morrigan. While I was appalled by the way the gift giving system factored into the romance (talk at her AND throw jewelry at her to get her naked), I loved the way the narrative used sex in a surprising and meaningful way. MAJOR SPOILER WARNING In case you don’t know (but don’t mind being spoiled), Morrigan will stop having sex with you if she falls too deeply in love with you. I love that. The game is saying, this character cares too much about you to have sex with you, because of what it means to her. By the end of the game we find out why, and they pull another fast one on you. Morrigan offers you sex to save your life, in exchange for her disappearance and the god-child that will be born of your union. Sex suddenly has huge implications. Not having it might kill you! (Which is true in real life, by the way) It was a great moment for her character (despite what Anthony Burch wrote in his article) and a great moment for sex in games because I cared about the character and I cared about the consequences, which were significant. As a side note, I totally did it because having a god-son (haha) makes the story way more interesting. Martyrdom=Boring. A father/son relationship with super powers and moral ambiguity=Star Wars. It was good stuff. END OF MAJOR SPOILER
In examining the successful (in my opinion) cases, I think it’s pretty clear that minimizing the role of sex as some kind of gameplay reward helps. Perhaps more important to this equation are interestingly written and well paced character interactions, which will often create a situation in which love and sex are much more believable possibilities. Now there’s something to be said for the way Bioware looks to be handling that one weird, butch chick in Mass Effect 2 who seems to be into sex for the sake of it. That does reflect a lot of real world views. I haven’t played the game yet but I think that if they handle it as advertised, I’d support that “Romance story” because it’s portraying the act honestly for that character and her perspective. In a way, it’s more believable that you’d be having sex with someone like that than an innocent flower that you manage to melt in a few hours after listening to her backstory and refraining from saying things like “You’re boring” or “I don’t care”.
So, what does this mean for the hundreds of game developers reading my musing (I’m talking to you Jaffe)? Should they not use sex in games? No! Sex in games is fine. But here’s the deal, when it’s supposed to be satirical, make it clearly satirical (see: Bayonetta). When it’s supposed to titillate, be honest about it and remember that innuendo and suggestion can be more powerful than laying all of the cards on the table (there’s porn for people who want that). When it’s supposed to be serious or something that happens with a character we should care about, make it mean something to the characters and the story and don’t rush it. Those Bioware NPCs fall in love with you way too easily. It’s a real turn off when they’re too eager.
To close with, I think the best way to look at sex in games (presently) is by thinking about morality systems in games when they were very first introduced in the mainstream several years ago. They were very unrealistic, simplistic, and often depicted a much more shallow and superficial understanding of what they were trying to represent. Some people, not everyone, wanted more and I think they’ve improved quite a bit in several (though certainly not all) cases. I think sex (in games) is currently in the same place. It can provide a lot of opportunities for powerful and compelling storytelling and, hopefully, it will be handled with greater care and complexity in the future.
(This article was written from a male perspective, but I think the same points apply when you swap the pronouns.)
After reading an article today, written by known 360 fanboy Jim Sterling, I was very moved by much of what I read in the comments section. Since we all know Sterling to be something of a tyrannical ogre, I felt inspired to write a brief rebuttal to his "article" and to his nasty retorts in the comments of said article. Destructoid has shown itself to be a community in which those who have differing opinions, can be given a forum in which to do so intelligently and civilly. I hope that this article will provide a voice for the voiceless and all those poor souls who, like me, are forced to read through his oppressive writings. However, for the remainder of this blog, I will do my best to remain polite and try to logically and coherently point out all of the many reasons (several spotted by fellow members, who will remain nameless so as not to expose them to Sterling's inevitable wrath) that Jim's article is just plain wrong, in every sense of the word.
I hope those of you who feel similarly will read on.
Many of you are probably wondering why I chose that particular header image (pictured above) for this article. Well, seeing as how I hope this blog will be a general and overall rebuttal to Sterling's, I decided to make my header image part of this counter-argument. As pointed out by a fellow member, Sterling's header image...nay, all of the header images he employs are, to put it simply, "smutty filth". There is no place for such pornography on the internet, James. I understand that, like the aforementioned member pointed out, you are probably very lonely and feel the need to subject us to such imagery to make us understand your loneliness; however, I suggest you go out and try to find yourself a nice wife. Maybe by having a family, you might not feel the need to force your lonely perspective on the rest of us. I present to you an example of acceptable imagery. Above we see a family, FULLY clothed, and enjoying a plate of apples with their dog; a breath of fresh air on this site, I assure you. Please remember this image, Jim, before you feel tempted to post another image of a woman wearing a blouse.
Now to move on to the actual content of the "piece". Sterling begins his diatribe by pointing out that the new title, Hard Rain (I think some of you in the comments section might be misinformed on the name), from Quantic Dream is marketing itself as being "film quality"; which I think we can all agree, while probably effective marketing for the uninitiated, isn't necessarily productive for the gaming industry as a whole since many, though not all, developers and gamers are hoping to encourage the medium of videogames to take pride in what makes it different and unique from other forms of art. That being said, it was what followed that reasonable and defensible claim that I think many took issue with. Sterling went on to attack Hard Rain; saying things like: "It's a disservice to videogames..." and "There's a real problem...". A problem, indeed...a problem, indeed.
I know many of you are split on whether Hard Rain will be a true "game" or simply a movie that plays on the screen while "you just press buttons" (as one member eloquently put it). While I personally agree with the latter sentiment and hope that one day we will be free from a system that uses pictures and buttons altogether, I will go ahead and charitably approach this article from what I feel is the more sympathetic perspective held by many members; that Jim Sterling is attacking this game without having even given it a chance. Perhaps, as one member pointed out, his "fatness is going to [his] head", but even an understandable condition like 'head-fatness' doesn't excuse his need to condemn the game without trying it first. Let's pretend for a moment that Quantic Dream is, in fact, trying to do something new and different with our preconceived notions of story, presentation, gameplay, and interactivity. If that "were" the case, I think most reasonable gamers and human beings would find it tasteless and lacking in decency to condemn such an effort without even experiencing it. I hope that once you've had a chance to play the game, you might reconsider your stance. In the words of one member "Give it a chance".
However, the title of this article is not "Is Jim Sterling doing Decency a disservice?", something we already know for certain. I'd like to briefly examine the effects that the article in question and, in fact, all of Jim Sterling's articles are having on Destructoid as a community. Now I'm sure many of you will expect me to condemn Sterling's articles because of the harmful and contagious opinions he espouses and because of the membership requirement that forces us to read and comment on them. I don't like it any more than the rest of you. However, that being said, consider for a moment the result of those heinous pieces of writing. They have all brought together this community in an effort to speak out against our dictatorial leader. Without Jim and his articles, some of us might not have anyone to make fun of for being overweight or for having thoughts that weren't ours first. Jim is the necessary evil; he's not the villain this site needs, he's the villain we deserve. I say, 'Three Cheers for Jim Sterling!' We can always remember that however terrible his writing may be, it always manages to bring the best and brightest of our community together against him.
I'd finally like to briefly address Mr. Sterling, himself. I understand that you aren't capable of correctly understanding how "GAME DEVELOPER ADVERTISES AND MARKETS GAME TO PUBLIC", but try to "open your eyes and take the twinkie off your mouth", put it in your mouth instead. Don't speak out against Hard Rain because it's comparing itself to a film, remember that "comparisons is how the brain works". I just think it would be a shame if your ignorance about what you were writing about, your impatience and inability to properly read the materials you were criticizing, and your quick temper fueled by blind loyalty to your previously held beliefs, were all responsible for more "articles" that, like this one, "turn[ed] everyone against the game". I hope you learned something here, Jim. I know the rest of us haven't.