In-jokes are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, having an in-joke gives a clique security and structure, individuals are bound together by knowing the truth behind a witty one-liner which no one else understands. In the same way a secret handshake or a passing nod works, the in joke provides a common bond between people who may have nothing else in common. On the other hand, those not in on the joke are alienated without the context, shunned from the cool kids' table.
A quick recap for those not up to date. By the time you read this blog post, Dead Island will have its worldwide release, but earlier in the week a debug version was released on Steam by accident. While most gamers frolicked around their noclip-island-paradise, one shrewd individual going by the name of AlekseiVasiliev dug through the game files and unearth a skill for the character Purna called "Feminist Whore". This skill is not in the actual game, though conjecture believes the skill was renamed "Gender Wars" which gives Purna a 15% damage buff against male enemies. No one seems to be complaining about that...
Welcome to Fire Safety and Gender Equality 101
What surprises me is the speed with which people have denounced Techland for the code. Tracey John has written a nice blog about it, but like many others he comes off as saying "I don't know Techland, or anyone affiliated with Techland, but going by these two words they are obviously anti-feminist chauvinists." Words are just words and convey no emotion. Although I respect various groups and organisations (feminists, liberals, conservatives etc.) I laugh at a joke because it's funny, not because I wish death and destruction upon 'x' group. Since we don't have the context here, we can't find it funny, we've just heard the punchline.
All the punchline confirms is that Techland's two mistakes in the last week have been beyond idiotic and, considering they've been open for business since 1991, they have enough experience to know that they screwed up. I don't believe Techland is a hostile work environment for women, nor do I feel they bear any animosity towards the more elegant gender, but these mistakes give the impression that their work is sloppy, and that tarnishes their reputation much more than 'anti-feminist' ever could.
If this story ended there then we could laugh, put the kettle on and get back to blasting zombies away in Dead Island. However, the situation revealed something that disturbs me more than a few bloggers jumping to conclusions and a game studio making unnecessary mistakes, and that is the misogyny so many gamers bear. A quick glance at the Steam thread and you'll see comments a lot more controversial than 'Feminist Whore'. Though quite a few of them are tongue-in-cheek, what hope do we have of other non-gamers taking our medium seriously if we act like these ill-informed children?
Do you really want to call her a Feminist Whore?
I'm not a feminist, I don't agree with many feminist ideals, but at least I know that the radical feminism advocated by "man-hating feminazis" such as Adrienne Rich and Andrea Dworkin is long dead and modern feminists have next to nothing in common with them. This isn't about feminism though, this is about respect and if we gamers don't treat other people with respect then how can we command any respect of our own? Not all of us are like this of course, but if the actions of a few represent the many as Tracey John believes is the case with Techland, then we really need to get our act together.
For all it's good for, one of the large faults of the Internet is the lack of contextualisation. It's easy to misinterpret someone when all you have to go on is a wall of text, and from this springs a large portion of debate on the Internet. With this in mind I've done my very best to try to get to the core of the whole FemShep controversy, but all I can find is ignorance and hypocrisy permeating all sides of the issue.
For those who don't know, last month Bioware held a poll on Facebook to determine the face of the female Commander Shepard for use on Mass Effect 3's box art. 6 variations of Commander Shepard were posted on Facebook and fans could vote by liking the picture. Though it was never going to revolutionize voting systems, it somehow managed to get the job done and Shepard no.5 came out as a clear winner with over 31'000 votes. That settles that then.
However, a large backlash took place and several camps were set up with various factions throwing around words such as 'sexist', 'racist', 'bigoted' and 'misogynistic'. Oh dear, what caused this then? Well Shepard no.5 happened to be blonde, and white, a bit of a Barbie doll as some people pointed out. Cue the torrential downpour of hatred.
Reading the arguments is enough to consider listing yourself as a domesticated animal rather than a human on your census form. No one quite knows who to be angry with, but they're all angry. I need to settle this once and for all and call out the likes of Kim Richards of PC Gamer, Sophie Prell of our own Dtoid fame, and all Bioware fans and haters.
To start, Bioware's own involvement in this issue is marketing genius. As Sophie Prell pointed out in her own brilliant article: “they've absolved themselves of any responsibility for perceived prejudice for FemShep's appearance”. That's not all they've done though, they've turned their own fans into their marketing department. Let the fans choose the advertising, they're the ones who are going to buy the product in the first place. Whether Shepard no.5 was decided on before the vote and this was only used to validate their decision is anyone's guess, however this kind of relationship between the developer and the community is advantageous to both sides. Bioware are able to tailor their game to their fan's needs, and the fan's get what they want.
Except when they don't. Kim Richards wrote up a fiery condemnation of FemShep no.5 calling her a “Barbie faced personality vacuum.” It is at this point that we should collectively facepalm. Kim Richards admits that she will be using her own custom made Shepard when she buys Mass Effect 3, so her ire is due to her own personal gripes with the blonde bombshell that is Number 5. According to her Shepard No. 5 has:
“the face of a woman who cares more about her glue-on nails and handbag Chihuahua. She’s not the saviour of the goddamn universe “
A lot of the hatred on the internet comes down to the fact that Shepard no.5 is blonde and this is downright disgusting. Her appearance is not what makes her the saviour of the universe, it's her actions, the player's actions. On any mainstream media, Richard would be torn apart for her hateful words, you'd think that we've gotten past such stereotypes.
FemShep is without a doubt one of the most powerful women in gaming, if the fans want her to be blonde so be it. Calling her a 'personality vacuum' is redundant as none of the Shepard clones have personalities, it's up to the player to build their personality through gameplay. If Kim Richards feels that women are poorly represented in the industry, then attacking FemShep is almost as bad as attacking Samus Aran. Perhaps she should direct her rage elsewhere.
Sophie Prell on the other hand believes that Bioware was wrong to put the poll up in the first place. She believes Bioware are giving the fans too much choice in the design of the game, and the thought has some merits as FemShep isn't the only aspect of Mass Effect 3 in which fans have a say. This is part of Bioware's design philosophy though, they are staunch supporters of liberalism and allowing the player the freedom of choice is a key aspect in their recent RPGs. There are very few game developers who, even in this day, would give the option for homosexuality, but thanks to Bioware if we want to roleplay as a homosexual saviour of the universe we can. If Bioware feel they want fans to decide the face of a FemShep to be used specifically for marketing, so be it, there is absolutely no need to turn this into a gender issue, whether you're a feminist or not.
I'm not a Mass Effect fan but I intend to pick up the trilogy with the release of the finale. I also intend to play as a female Commander Shepard, not to make a point about womyn's empowerment, but because I want to. There are so few chances to play as a female protagonist that isn't embarrassing in gaming, that you'd be foolish not to take this opportunity. Whenever I'm given the chance to play as a woman, I always end up picking the male counterpart because I feel that very few developers ever do the female justice. She is frequently subjected to skimpy armor that wouldn't protect you from the common cold.
There are a few women though who I feel are genuinely important to breaking the sexualisation of the female gender and showing that they're just as important as male leads. FemShep, no matter which FemShep you prefer, is one of them and to see such petty arguments over an important character is disheartening.
Global stocks aren't the only markets facing a crisis, the MMO market is just as fragile.
In the early half of the last decade the new genre that was the MMO was thriving with games such as Everquest, World of Warcraft and Guild Wars. However, with a large increase in the volume of games the industry is churning out and our ever-decreasing wallets, is the genre doomed to fail? The signs are there, singleplayer games are being made with replayability and multiplayer in mind. Multiplayer games have become much more popular in the last few years and have a real edge over MMOs in pricing, and more player control over servers. The market is saturated with cheaply made Korean MMOs which offer the same features as the big branded games, resulting in many studios being folded and game servers shut down in the last few years.
Some games like Jumpgate:Evolution didn't even make it to beta.
This is the single most depressing graph on the internet.
This coming year is vital for the survival of the MMO market. Investors don't want to spend their spare time collecting troll ears for Fizzwidget in the latest WoW clone, if game developers can't show the capacity for evolution then the genre may not make it out of the next few fiscal years alive. The fate of the market rests on these games.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
One thing TOR has that many other games lack is pedigree. Not only does it have the massive Star Wars franchise to back it up, a franchise good enough for mint, but it's being developed by Bioware. You know those guys, the ones with the games, that sell by the wheelbarrow? Yeah them. Eight character classes and all the usual MMO goodies of raiding, questing and swag fill the world's first fully voiced online game. Due to the epic universe of Star Wars, Bioware won't run out of ideas for expansion soon and with the emphasis on storytelling rather than Womp Rat massacres the feeling of ennui that comes with so many online games could be avoided.
It's downfall? It could be seen as too similar to World of Warcraft to succeed, although it has improvements and new features, it's nothing Blizzard can't add into its own masterpiece with a future expansion. Is this the MMO you're looking for? Maybe.
No one really liked him anyway.
Guild Wars 2
Guild Wars 2 was announced in 2007. Ever since then I've gone to bed wishing for its release, but slowly its development trundled along ignoring the media spotlight while challengers to WoW's MMO crown came and went. Remember Warhammer Online, Aion and Rift? I bet you do. Last year though, the buzz began, whispers could be heard along the street about its imminent release and suddenly all eyes were on ArenaNet at events like Gamescom and PAX. Their lips are sealed over a possible release date, but they continue to tease us with trailers and videos.
The word that defines this game is 'Revolution'. ArenaNet have rewritten the rules of MMO gaming, no more quests from A to B asking to collect goblin feet, no more raids, and no saying "It can't be done." ArenaNet have promised World PvP, organic quests and huge vistas to explore. If their ambition doesn't get the better of them then this could be the one.
"You know what this game needs don't you? Cannons."
The Secret World
Picking a third MMO to spur some confidence in the market is tough. The latter two are the big hitters of course, their hype is reaching fever pitch and expectations are high, but what about the rest of the market? Being honest, TERA and Firefall don't look like game changers. Sure, you can use gamepads and the combat is more fluid, but that doesn't make a great MMO. Dark Millennium is at the very least, two years away and in this industry that's a generation.
The Secret World however, shows that MMOs don't have to be about big power armored men with hulking shoulder plates. No classes, no levels, total freedom in a dark world where conspiracy theories and urban legends come to life. What's not to love? There are a few interesting gameplay videos up already, but this is a game that sells itself on its intrigue. The "Do whatever you want" in a Lovecraft inspired world is sure to draw a large crowd of people who are sick with the standard MMO grind. Although The Secret World isn't going to be a huge AAA title, its strengths lie in its differences from normal MMOs, showing online games don't have to follow the same template. However, its ambition could be its downfall.
This is the last time I use eHarmony.
The current market situation may be chalked off as a trend by some but it is a serious issue. The genre is a high-risk investment and very few developers are willing to take the plunge. If these three MMOs succeed in taking a significant slice of World of Warcraft's subscription then it could restart the market and re-ignite creativity among developers. However, there are other dangers to the market, and evolution is the key to survival. As stagnation turns to decline, it turns to these developers to prove to us that they can make new MMOs worth our while. Otherwise, we might as well stick to Azeroth.
Brown, Dark Brown, Green, Black. That's standard palette for every Western AAA title these days, but you already knew that.
I'm not quite sure when it became fashionable to look bad. There has been a certain trend among games in recent years to be set in devastated wastelands in either Fantasy settings or Space. I first noticed it in Fallout 3. Actually scratch that, I first noticed it in Fallout. Now there is a difference between being a good game and being nice to look at, as much as I love it, Fallout 3 is the mystery stew of video games. Bland, thick textured, depressing and you're sure you've seen it before. "Oh Sevre" you say, "It's supposed to be like that." However there's no reason you can't embody hell and still look interesting. Look at WH40k for example:
They're like a glam metal band!
You can harness all the power of the Frostbite engine, but if you're going to churn out the same landscapes as everyone else, just with more polygons, what's the point?
The Eastern design philosophy however puts a much bigger emphasis on its art. Japanese games tend to be filled with colour, encapsulating concepts from wonderful anime stylings to arabesque aesthetics. From the likes of Final Fantasy to the upcoming MMO Rusty Hearts, the last thing you can say is that its bland.
Take your shoes off before you go in.
Nope. No Space Marines here.
Why are we falling behind when it comes to aesthetics? The answer is that when it comes to bigger titles, developers have to deal with publishers. The Developer's goal is to make the game, the Publisher's goal is to make the money. Enter marketing. To maximise profits some ideas which the developers have must inevitably be left on the cutting room floor. As a result, art direction and aesthetics aren't usually given priority. The emphasis in the West is on graphics, not art. There are games which break the mould i.e. the heavily stylised Borderlands and Bioshock: Infinite, but usually dev teams have to accept that they're not going to be able to do everything they want with a game. However, when it comes to profitability it is clear that the West is soaring ahead, if that's any consolation.
Profitable and Pretty.
There is one genre that is flourishing with beautiful aesthetics here in the West, and that is Indie. Indie games are able to take lessons from the world around them, their developers are able to let their imaginations run wild and absorb ideas. The downside is, similar to the East, that money can be tight and the games aren't great money spinners. However, it's a small price to pay for your artistic license back.
Without a doubt, the prettiest game of the year in an indie game. Developed by Supergiant Studios, Bastion features a lush hand-painted world, created by art director Jen Zee. Jen Zee has been heavily influenced by games such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy, and it shows when you look at the beautiful artwork from Bastion.
That's what makes indie games so beautiful, the freedom to create. Eastern aesthetics have without a doubt, influenced thousands of people ever since we started seeing Japanese games appear on the market decades ago. The ability to build on their influences and create something new and refreshing is what makes indie game devs so special.
Whether you fall into Eastern or Western camps of aesthetics doesn't matter in the end, it's all about creating something new and original. As much as I love indie games and Eastern aesthetics, I wish Western publishers would value their artists more. They've got so much talent, they're just not using it.