hot  /  reviews  /  video  /  blogs  /  forum

FRESH MEAT  
|   FROM OUR COMMUNITY BLOGS

SongSeven's blog


11:07 PM on 07.01.2014

Please Explain Video Games to Me

Can someone please explain video games to me? Honestly, I'll take whatever you've got. If you can tell me how to define them, how to identify them in the wild, please do. If you can tell me why they're special, why they're so beloved, I'd love to hear it. If you can tell me why the people who love them so are the way they are, I'll have a pen and pad at the ready. Because apparently I seem to have forgotten something. Most likely, it was my pair of rose-colored Gunnars, but I'm open to other leads.

Once I fancied myself quite the connoisseur of video games, playing the latest titles and keeping an eye out on those to come. Which was a lie, clearly, but one I could convince myself and others of well enough all the same. Yet as the years have gone by, I find myself increasingly weary of maintaining that illusion to both myself and others. I now acknowledge fully my physical inability to consume every video game released contemporaneously, but if I'm to be honest, deep down, I believe I was aware of this all along. This handicap of time isn't what ails my mind at present, at least not any more so than usual. What is, however, is the encroaching blackness on the outskirts of my vision in my search for silver linings, redeeming qualities, and excuses. Much of it has already been eaten away, yet still I fear the perfect cynical darkness that awaits.

There exists a miasma of dissatisfaction and wariness accumulated over the years around my person, tinging every breath with disappointment. No longer do I find games to be such pure, rarified air, able to be drawn in and pushed out with relative ease. No, every breath is now a calculated maneuver, taken as to avoid as much of the taint as possible. And even when successful in that aim, every expenditure takes the form of a beleaguered, wet cough whose sputum can be found throughout this very blog. The chances of this entering remission seem very slim.

Yet it didn't used to be like this. I could spend hours, if not days playing video games and find the entire experience not only enjoyable but worthwhile as well. Silver linings were abundant no matter where I looked, and evaluations were taken with only the most miniscule grains of salt. A glowing review put stars in my eyes and charges on my credit line, as these elite were of course more knowledgeable than I, and nines and above were clearly worth my time.

But that grain of salt has only grown over the years, from a pebble into a boulder, one I find myself burdened with every day, one I desperately wish to shirk. Recently, I find it so inescapable that I have begun to fear that not only am I tasked to carry this weight eternally, as Atlas before me, but that I myself am attached to it somehow, that it is no boulder, but a tumor, growing with puss and bile with every breath and step. This fear has only intensified upon the arrival of a perhaps unlikely game, one which is undoubtedly being enjoyed by countless players even now as I compose this sentence: Shovel Knight.

Shovel Knight, which has incidentally been receiving rave reviews, perfectly encapsulates my progressively strained relationship with video games as of late. My peers will laud its merits and encourage my playing it, but like so many others before it, I know I will be left wanting. Rather, to be fair to Shovel Knight, I will find it wanting, for I am entirely open to the possibility that I have begun holding video games to an unfair standard, a standard I use along with few others, it seems.

Shovel Knight is, from what I can surmise, a well-constructed game. The mechanics are consistent and fair, the progression in difficulty is smooth, and the game itself runs stably. The art and sound designs similarly look sturdy upon further inspection, replicating their influences while establishing themselves as distinct entities all the while. All of this I understand. Perhaps unfairly, all of this I also find wildly underwhelming.

I find it underwhelming not from lack of appreciation for the game's technical merits. Those, again, I will gladly acknowledge. Rather, it is from my distaste for the experience of playing such a game. More accurately, I know it to be a game which places its stock in the immediate actions taken by the player in order to facilitate its enjoyability; it is a game without especially engaging context for one's actions. Shovel Knight does indeed have a story, but it is my estimation that such a narrative is not what is intended to propel players throughout the experience. And it is this that has soured my palette.

For what is a video game without engaging context? Is it not simply a compilation of tasks requiring various degrees of skill set before its players? A game in the abstract, no matter how well-designed, boils down to that essential truth, no? And the merits of its design come from the arrangement of those tasks in a tantalizing manner for players. Typically this manifests itself in a gradual increase in the skill required for performing said tasks, with incentives, rewards, and penalties littered throughout the experience in a tantalizing trail of bread crumbs to propel players with even more force towards the game's conclusion. Games differ in the particulars of these tasks and their trajectories, of course, but their presence is a constant.

Without context for one's actions in a video game, it seems to me that the experience of playing a title such as Shovel Knight is simply a well-designed roller coaster of strife and accomplishment. It provides all the highs and lows of a carnival ride, but by its end, one still exits from whence one came with only a fleeting sense of euphoria to show for one's ordeal. The stronger the sense of euphoria felt, typically the better-designed a game is thought to be. The more "fun" it is thought to be.

Or to put it another way, take bowling as an odd but apt analogy for video game play. The essential task of bowling is to take one's ball and knock down as many of ten pins positioned just so down a polished wooden lane as possible. It's a task presented without frills and without context. One's aim is clear and unobfuscated: to throw this molded stone at those wooden sticks and make them fall over. And when they do fall over, the feeling of accomplishment will be such that I'll wish to retrieve said stone, reset said sticks, and do it all again. It's a ridiculous and artificial task that's being performed, but one the human psyche still possesses a bewildering capacity to find intriguing, with some harboring a greater capacity for intrigue than others. But is it really any different from the tasks asked of us in video games? Encounter a foe. Defeat that foe. Receive a virtual reward. Receive endorphins and dopamine for accomplishing that task and receiving that reward which will help in the continued accomplishment of said task in the future. Encounter a new, slightly more difficult foe. Defeat that foe using one's newfound skill and/or resource(s). Rinse. Repeat.

How has this been established as the measure of quality for video games? Perhaps in the medium's infancy, one would be excused for handling it with kid gloves, but games now have an over forty-year history in consumers' homes, yet pursuits of quality have yet to progress en masse beyond this realm of visceral reaction. This would be akin to films being evaluated on what moving lights, colors, and shapes appear on the screen and their ability to titillate, with little attention being paid to what said lights, colors, and shapes are or represent. It is an appraisal of the basest element of a medium, which in-turn appeals to our basest desires from said medium. From film, we desire movement. From games, we desire accomplishment. Yet film has long come to understand that movement can be used for a greater purpose. Even at forty years of age, it had understood this. Movement is now an essential vessel for artistic expression within film. Games, meanwhile, largely seem content with accomplishment being its own reward, so to speak. Exceptions exist, to be sure, but far too few for the medium to lay any claim of aesthetic equality with the likes of film at present, as many seem wont to do. Perhaps the potential for artistic expression within both is equivalent, but its numbers in application are not.

As one who has devoted much of his life to the enjoyment of video games, I believe this to be the ultimate source of my current affliction. My belief in the potential of the medium to ascend to a higher plane. My hope for a brighter tomorrow wherein the days of my life required to complete a role-playing game yield an intellectual or emotional impact greater than simply the sense of accomplishment for besting the game's final task. And the deluge of wholly adequate babes spewed forth from the industry's loins whose sheer numbers starve and dehydrate the truly exceptional specimens in vying for our attention, whose adequacy has been established as some perverse gold standard upon which the entire litter is evaluated, thus casting the withering elite further and further into the darkness. As I sit, weighted to my seat by this inescapable mass, from behind this hovering miasma, through the clouded cataracts of my cynical eyes, this is the vision I see. Perhaps it is illusory, perhaps it is confused; I would love nothing more than for that to be so. But this I believe I see, and in that, I am not wrong.   read


9:36 PM on 04.22.2014

Nice Guy Gaming: Reinforcing Rape Culture Through Dating Sims

If you've been playing video games released within the past ten or so years, chances are you've by now encountered some manner of dating simulation. Maybe it was as simplistic as seducing a dancer in Grand Theft Auto V, or as in-depth as romancing a shipmate aboard the SSV Normandy in Mass Effect. The number of games featuring some aspect of dating simulation has only grown in recent years as video games have expanded the breadth of their simulations to more closely resemble life in the non-virtual world. And in comparison with games which don't acknowledge player sexuality at all, these games are excelling in that pursuit by default. However, when it comes to the accuracy of the dating mechanics themselves in resembling real-world romance, not one of these games are successful. Moreover, in addition to being inaccurate, these mechanics also reinforce a specific set of common, toxic misconceptions of romance simply by virtue of their design, misconceptions colloquially referred to as "nice guy syndrome."

For the unfamiliar, nice guy syndrome is a relatively recent term codified through online discussion used to describe a particular set of beliefs held by an alarming number of men. The term itself is multifaceted and can used to describe different yet related phenomena depending on what context its used in. Here, it will be used to describe only one specific facet of itself, the facet most pertinent to the topic at hand, and will be defined as such: believing consciously or subconsciously that women will or should reward acts of kindness with romantic interest and/or sex. While the term itself can technically be applied to a number of different configurations (men pursuing men, women pursuing men, women pursuing women), the behavior it describes is almost exclusively men pursuing women, hence its engendered title and definition and my subsequent adherence to them both.

Nice guy syndrome understands women as little more than dispensaries for sexual gratification and romantic fulfillment, taking in payments of kindness and dispensing sex and affection accordingly. It refuses to acknowledge women's autonomy and right to choose sexual and romantic partners while assuming both of their male suitors inherently. Power is given exclusively to the pursuer so long as he provides sufficient levels of gift-giving and niceties to his prospective mate. Should the woman still deny his advances after receiving these forms of payment, she's thought to be either ignorant of the transactional arrangement that's been implicitly struck between herself and her suitor by virtue of her gender, or crooked, failing to provide the man the good and services promised by her gender in exchange for his payments of attention and common human decency. In the eyes of the afflicted, these women owe a debt to their suitors which can only be paid through sex or romantic affection, a debt some rationalize collecting by force. In this sense, nice guy syndrome is often rightly accused of reinforcing rape culture, that set of cultural attitudes and constructs which condones, promotes, tolerates, or excuses sexual assault and rape in whatever capacity.

Another classic nice guy concept

The transactional nature of sex and romance according to nice guy syndrome is virtually identical in kind to dating mechanics found in video games. Dating simulation effectively boils down to a transaction between the player and an NPC paid in small increments over long periods of time. Often times this is represented by a meter or counter detailing the level of "affection" a romance-able NPC feels towards the player's character, with kindness and generosity towards that NPC moving the meter up, and malice and selfishness moving the meter down. Upon reaching a certain level of affection, the option for sex with that character is unlocked and the transaction is complete. Some games provide additional meaningful interactions between the player and the conquered character after that sexual Rubicon, but far more place sex at the tail end of interpersonal character arcs so as to deify the act even more, to treat it as a prize to be claimed as well as a commodity to be purchased. The NPC is treated simultaneously as a miser to be bartered with and a challenge to be overcome, not as a fellow autonomous agent capable of denying the advances of those who clearly view her as nothing more than a gatekeeper of sexual gratification.

There are variations of this mechanic, of course. The most common among them is the two-pronged relationship arc which allows the player to chart the path of his interactions with romance-able NPCs towards either a romantic or platonic end. Another variation is the evaluation of most every major decision made by the player by whichever characters are present at the time. Both of these can be seen in action in BioWare's Dragon Age series, a game often lauded for its emphasis on interpersonal relationships, but unfortunately neither do much in rectifying the problems inherent to contemporary dating mechanics in video games. Two-pronged arcs fail to actually change the nature of the romantic arc in any way and grant the player the exclusive power to decline romantic entreaties while failing to do so for NPCs. Ever-present evaluation, while an improvement in theory by simulating the slow revelation of the player's personality and moral compass to potential partners, is still far too easy a system to romantically min-max, especially if the player is set on pursuing a particular character.

The only variation I've personally experienced which even slightly counteracts the toxic nature of dating simulation can be found in Persona 3 Portable while playing as the female protagonist. The PlayStation 2 versions of Persona 3 both prominently feature romance game mechanics, but these simulations fell into the same nice guy trappings that befall most games with dating simulations. In the female arc of Persona 3 Portable, there is an NPC who can be romanced, but can never be romantically conquered. He harbors no romantic affections towards the player despite his sometimes flirtatious tone, and when confronted with the prospect of dating the player, politely denies her advances, explaining that his heart lies elsewhere. Nothing the player can do can change this as his affections rely heavily on factors outside of the player's control. While this may be an alien idea to the sufferers of nice guy syndrome, it is a familiar scenario for anyone who's fallen for someone unavailable, and a far more honest and healthy depiction of romance than most dating simulations offer.


Heartbreaker

But even this variation has its problems. Firstly, this character is only found in the female arc of the game, thereby still granting him, the man, romantic autonomy, while denying it from the female half of the equation. The reasons for this are likely innocent enough, especially when taking the plot of Persona 3 into account, but it's unfortunate that a similar NPC is nowhere to be found in the male protagonist's arc. Secondly, the more glaring issue with this variation is its impact on the overall enjoyment of the game. One character here and there who is already taken or is romantically unavailable for other reasons is certainly fine, but at the end of the day, games are still an escapist medium. Dating simulations which perfectly reflect the difficulties and setbacks of modern dating, particularly for those historically unlucky in love, would surely hinder any pursuit of enjoyable escapism for players, thus defeating a central purpose of playing a game to begin with. Then again, is that not the point? To stop portraying dating and sex as mere transactions, thus reinforcing those toxic beliefs held by large populations of men known as "nice guys?" It's quite the conundrum.

The only solution readily available at present is for games to simply abandon dating simulation altogether, but such a nuclear option is entirely unsavory for those of us who believe in the medium's artistic potential. No other medium treats dating and sex as taboo subjects, and video games shouldn't either, even if there has yet to be an example of either being handled healthily. After all, there will never be an example if the pursuit is abandoned entirely. But in order to accomplish that goal, we need to begin by acknowledging that there is a problem with how we're doing things now. At best, dating mechanics are perpetuating a feedback loop for players with unhealthy, transactional conceptions of dating, and at worst are quite possibly informing the burgeoning opinions on romance for the young and impressionable, thus spreading nice guy syndrome even further, though I'll admit that is simply a suspicion as there have yet been no formal studies on this phenomenon. Regardless, change is necessary; I only wish I knew how best to bring it about.   read


8:09 PM on 04.07.2014

Podcast Playing: Distractions, Gaming, and You

I have a confession to make: I often listen to podcasts while playing video games. It's something of a shameful secret of mine considering my championing of the artistic medium of video games. That said, I know I'm not alone in this. Maybe it's a show or movie playing in the background, maybe it's music, or perhaps the radio; whatever the distraction may be, the presence of one while playing games is common practice. A common practice, I believe, that's indicative of a much larger problem plaguing video games as a whole.

When one engages in any manner of media, be it active like a video game or passive like a podcast, what is the essential goal of that endeavor? In my mind, the least contentious answer to that question is that one seeks to be entertained. Why one is seeking said entertainment to begin with, be it boredom, escapism, emotional catharsis, or whatever, is besides the point. With entertainment as one's goal, what is to be concluded from one engaging in multiple forms of entertainment simultaneously originally intended to be experienced distinctly? While this answer will be more contentious than the first, in my mind, it seems to be that one doesn't find either form to be wholly entertaining separately, and thus combines them in their pursuit of entertainment. The only other answer coming to mind is one simply lacks the time required to experience both individually as intended, and while this is technically within the realm of possibility, surely this answer only applies to an insignificant number of instances and can thus be disregarded for the purposes of this post.

If my conclusions are correct, then what does this say about the entertainment one derives from video games? It seems to me, in accordance with my reasoning above, that when one enlists the aid of an additional form of entertainment whilst playing video games, one does so to account for whatever deficiency in entertainment one finds in playing video games. Meanwhile, speaking personally, rarely do I find similar deficiencies in television, film, or literature. Instances exist with particular shows, movies, books, etc. when I will boot up a game or put music on, I will admit, but they occur not nearly as often as when playing games. Accordingly, I believe it reasonable to conclude that I personally find more video games to be insufficiently entertaining than I do works in most any other media. If I may be so bold as to speak for others, I also believe it reasonable to conclude that many of my fellow podcast players feel the same, even if some are reluctant to admit it.

As I mentioned at the outset of this post, I don't resort to other media for every video game. Games such as The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are prime and relatively recent examples of those I prefer to experience individually. These titles and those like it are typically narrative-driven experiences wherein important information would be lost if podcasts were playing over them. They are games which feature relatively tight pacing, infusing even their more action-oriented sections with snippets of dialogue and characterization to further narrative threads along. Even titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV, a game which affords the player large, indeterminate stretches of time without any narrative progression whatsoever, fall under that same banner by continuing to build the world around the player while not directly furthering any plot, often through ambient NPC dialogue or and radio stations in the case of the Grand Theft Auto series specifically. Even a title like Journey, which features no intelligible dialogue whatsoever, commands one's full attention by the pacing of its nonvocal narrative and the sheer beauty of its design.

Meanwhile, for me, titles like Dark Souls II or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are usually prime candidates for podcast playing. These games typically feature extremely large portions of time with no significant narrative progression whatsoever, or narratives so poorly done that their progression is uninteresting. Too many RPGs to count, both Japanese and Western, exhibit one or both of these characteristics, instead letting stat progression dominate the bulk of one's interest in playing them. Action-heavy titles, brawlers, MOBAs, fighters, RTSs, and the like, meanwhile, either fall into the latter category or simply forgo plot entirely, focusing instead either on character progression or competition and leaving a narrative vacancy that can easily be filled by a podcast or show playing in the background. In my experience, games primed for podcast playing are those that feel the most like virtual taskmasters. They are games which fail to provide compelling reasons for the player to best their challenges besides a promised feeling of accomplishment. They are usually, but not entirely, games without message or artistic expression (the Souls series being a notable exception). They are games designed to occupy the player's time with little to no return beyond improving the player's skill at the games themselves.

That isn't to say these games can't be fun or enjoyable. I will gladly admit to enjoying my time with many of them, Dark Souls II being amongst the most recent. However, I understand that my enjoyment of these titles wasn't of a similar depth as it was with games like The Last of Us. I didn't enjoy Skyrim for its artistic merits as a piece of interactive media, but rather as an escapist power fantasy that indulged my innate desire for personal growth by allowing me to fill up tiny progress bars with every enemy I killed. I did enjoy Gone Home because of its artistry in conveying personal, affective, non-linear narratives through the interactive exploration of a three-dimensional space. I did listen to podcasts while playing Skyrim; I didn't while playing Gone Home. One wasn't wholly captivating as a solitary work while the other was.

I believe, then, that when games are living up to the artistic potential of the medium, they demand more of our attention than those that don't. They dissuade the use of additional media in one's pursuit of entertainment by providing engrossing experiences throughout. Meanwhile, those games which allow for other media to be experienced simultaneously likely aren't what most would consider to be works of "art," enjoyable though they may be for whatever reasons. Therefore, as one who wishes to see artistry flourish in video games, I've resolved to ween myself away from those games I don't find wholly engrossing and encourage you to do the same. You may have your own criteria for which games command your full attention and which don't, and that's perfectly okay. It could be that the games you find fulfilling are the ones I don't and vice versa. However, regardless of your criteria, we've reached such a critical mass of video games these days that there is virtually no reason for us to be spending our gaming time with anything we don't find wholly engrossing. Not every game need be the best thing you've ever played, of course, but at the very least, you can find ones which don't feel in part like wastes of time.   read


5:15 PM on 03.27.2014

Zen and the Art of Dark Souls II

After finishing my first playthrough of Dark Souls II, reflecting on the experience left me with a feeling of awe. Awe not at its improved combat systems, leveling mechanics, or game engine, but rather at its story. Specifically, the story of the protagonist him/herself. The narrative surrounding the protagonist has always been an intriguingly obtuse component of the Souls series, and while the protagonist's narrative has been similar throughout all three games, it has culminated in such clarity and poignancy in this third installment that I believe I finally understand From Software's vision for players and their experiences with Dark Souls II.

For the uninitiated or the unobservant, the narrative I refer to follows closely along these lines: the protagonist begins her quest seeking to right some wrong that has befallen either herself or the world at large. Through toil and hardship, the protagonist succeeds in conquering whatever it was she set out initially to conquer. However, being bound by some otherworldly force, either by fate or by curse, the protagonist is doomed to repeat this cycle of conquest again and again ad infinitum. It is a pitiable fate, to be sure, but one that is expertly presented in Dark Souls II.

How it differs in Dark Souls II from its predecessors comes largely by way of the narration within the game's opening cinematic. Its cryptic tone bears no small resemblance to the opening of the first Dark Souls, but its actual content couldn't be more dissimilar. Rather than introducing the player to the world and its lore, Dark Souls II's narration instead introduces the player to the role she is about to assume: a person in the most dire of straits, traveling to a land shrouded in mystery and rumor with hope of a cure. A person cursed with an appetite for souls and a memory swiftly fading. A person of cyclical fate, doomed to exist in perpetual strife for all time. While this role is consistent with the Souls series' protagonist narratives, more than in any previous installment, it becomes clear that this narration isn't directed solely at the player's character; it is directed towards the player as well.


En route to Drangleic

The player, by seeking out some manner of fictional entertainment, is turning away from her life in some respect, if only temporarily. That isn't to say her life is in a similar state of disrepair as the protagonist's appears to be in Dark Souls II, but perhaps there is some real-world impetus for her seeking out works of fiction, be it loss, disappointment, or sheer boredom. In any case, both the player and the protagonist find themselves in the world of Drangleic for their respective reasons. Yet once they arrive, as is our human wont, merely existing within that new world fails to suffice. The urge to explore sets in, be it the physical space, one's physical limitations, or the extent of one's agency within the world. Through their exploration, the game eventually pits the player against enemy combatants should they wish to proceed onward. Initially, the enemies she faces are relative pushovers. In time, they grow in both strength and numbers, until eventually, she cannot best them. At least, not in her initial state. That is when the thirst for souls, the economic and leveling currency in the Souls series, sets in. For it is through souls that the player can gain enough power to best the foes impeding her progress. Eventually, given the sheer difficulty of the game and its enemies, souls become virtually synonymous with progression in the mind of the player, and the pursuit of souls becomes ever-engrossing. Yet even after every facet of exploration has been exhausted, every boss slain, every weapon and spell acquired, every secret unearthed, the desire to explore and grow fails to tire. Eventually, the player elects to begin the cycle anew, albeit with stronger faculties and against stronger enemies, allowing herself to continue pushing the boundaries of her prowess with each repetition, time and time again. And thus, the narration's prophecy comes to fruition for protagonist and player alike.

Furthermore, what's equally intriguing about the prophecy of Dark Souls II is its remarkable and presumably intentional similarity to the metaphysics of self in Buddhism. For those without any degree of familiarity with the religion, the grossly oversimplified version goes something like this: life is suffering. Suffering is begotten from earthly desires. So long as one still suffers by maintaining these desires, one remains in an infinite cycle of death and rebirth. Only by achieving enlightenment and transcending those earthly desires can one be released from this loop and finally extinguished. Now, by replacing the concept of life here with one's time spent playing the game, and earthly desires with the pursuit of progress and souls, does this not sound virtually identical to the situation the player finds herself in in Dark Souls II? One continues experiencing the same hardships again and again in the pursuit of a currency that will only temporarily alleviate some of one's suffering. The only true end to one's strife lies in recognizing the futility and fruitlessness of that pursuit and removing oneself permanently from that cycle, i.e. cease playing the game.

These same parallels could be sussed out of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls as well, to be sure, but it has only been made obviously clear in From Software's latest. Which makes sense; launching a series where the player's explicit goal is to stop playing the game would likely not have fared terribly well, and even in Dark Souls II, while every other aspect of the player's condition is explained upfront, its remedy isn't. Which is somewhat unfortunate, I think. To have a game whose expressed goal is for players to stop playing it would be fascinating to say the least, especially if it reached the same heights of popularity as the Souls series has, for that would surely mean that players were intentionally disobeying the game's orders. But I digress. To have a game that implies as much is fine for now, I suppose.   read


7:41 PM on 08.20.2013

BigFest for Vita: Big Ideas, Manifest Concerns

I'm a sucker for tycoon games. The Roller Coaster Tycoon series reeled me in at an early age, and while my tastes have expanded to city-builders and 4X strategy titles, I still yearn for the days of five dollar bathroom admission fees and colliding coasters. While Sony's BigFest likely/sadly won't feature either of those things, the novelty of its concept could very well make up for their absence. Assuming, of course, it manages to avoid the obvious pitfalls set out on the path ahead of it. Given their sheer numbers, though, it seems almost inevitable for the project to stumble.

The fundamental ideas behind BigFest are actually rather enticing. Players are tasked with the management of a music festival à la traditional tycoon games, providing amenities, setting concession stand prices, and drawing in paying crowds. The twist here is that players can also select the music played at their festivals in a non-trivial capacity. Real-world music will be featured in the game, and the songs and artists featured at highly-attended concerts will receive in-game notoriety as well, giving them more exposure to BigFest players as they ascend the in-game charts. It's a symbiotic relationship of sorts between virtual concert promoters and real-world musicians, with each satisfying the unique needs of the other. With the addition of an Animal Crossing-esque online component where players can attend rival festivals, however, the game also provides players an outlet to put their musical tastes on display for friends, allowing for the introduction and sharing of new music in a more intimate setting than the game's global "Hot 100" list.

There's a lot to BigFest that could go right, especially if its gameplay is satisfyingly deep and its online components are handled well. However, for every thing that could go right, there seem to be ten things that could go wrong. For starters, note that the game is being published by Sony. On one hand, this could be something of a blessing; because this is a Vita title, Sony may be able to advertise this game more than it likely would be through a third-party publisher. A higher playerbase is always a good thing for any game, but with BigFest's focus on online music promotion and festival sharing, it seems especially vital for this game in particular. On the other hand, Sony has a horse in the music race already through Sony Music Entertainment, and it's unclear as to how that might influence the very structure of the game. The reveal trailer states that at least some of the music offered in BigFest will be from unsigned bands, which is great. In theory. Because this is from Sony, however, how this music will be obtained is at this point questionable at best.


Like them or not, an entire library of KoL knockoffs wouldn't be good for anyone

The worst thing that can happen to BigFest is having an overly-curated music library for players to choose from, and because Sony is in the business of music, the pessimist in me foresees only that future being brought to fruition. Sure, players can promote unsigned artists, but what if those artists are prescreened as potential (read: commercially viable) additions to some Sony-owned label? What if those artists with the highest rankings get fast-tracked to record deals? While this arrangement may be beneficial for Sony and the select artists who rise above the chaff, what was once a symbiotic relationship between them and the players of BigFest would become an almost parasitic one, with Sony all but neutering any sense of musical discovery afforded to players while manipulating them under the guise of gameplay to act as focus testers for their next musical investment. It's a pessimistic prediction, I'll admit, but until Sony offers more details on the matter, it seems to me a more likely course of events than the idealized alternative.

In order to retain that symbiotic relationship between players and musicians (and publishers) which makes BigFest so promising in the abstract, I feel as though a Bandcamp-style business model would be the way to go, albeit with some tweaks. Any artist whatsoever would be allowed to upload music to the service, and any player would be allowed to host that music in their festivals for the enjoyment of their virtual audiences and any visiting players, perhaps for a certain fee of in-game currency to stay true to the actual world of concert promotion, with fees getting higher as songs and artists get more popular, and lower as they get less so. In addition to their global leaderboard standings, this could also be a good metric for bands to gauge their popularity amongst players should they choose to care about such things.

Much like bandcamp, artists could also allow for downloads of their music that could be linked to the player's PSN account, redeemable on any device capable of accessing the PS Store (PS3, PS4, Vita, computer, etc.), either for free or for a fee as designated by the artist. Paid transactions could be handled through the PS Store and Sony could take a percentage of the sale like Bandcamp does, ostensibly eliminating any need for curation on Sony's part as they would inevitably see money coming in from players who make these purchases. It really is a win for every party involved when it comes right down to it. Players will have access to a substantially larger library of music to pick and choose from, thereby allowing a greater sense of musical discovery, as well as offering more opportunities for personalization, which is always a plus as any Animal Crossing player will tell you. More musicians will be allowed to access what will for them be a promotional tool and will have greater control over how their music can be consumed by fans. In addition to any introductory price points they may wish to charge for the game itself, Sony will also see returns from this system by way of those musicians who decide to charge players money to download their music, all without alienating players or less commercially-viable bands in the process. So Sony, if you're listening, please don't go down the road I think you will with BigFest. As gamers, we can often tell when we're being used or manipulated, and mismanaging your approach with this game is a surefire way to lose consumer trust and loyalty in turn.   read


4:09 PM on 08.12.2013

The Inconvenient Truth About Game Compulsion: A Response to Extra Credits

Before reading this post, please take the time to watch the video in question in its entirety. If you're feeling particularly bored, I would also recommend their previous two videos on the topic as well, though I believe they're listed under "Game Addiction" rather than "Game Compulsion." They aren't prerequisites for this post, but they're good watches in their own right. While I'm generally a fan of the Extra Credits series, there are occasions when I take some issue, often a minor one, with the stance it takes regarding a certain topic. This is one such occasion, though the issue I find myself taking with this video isn't so much what they are actually advocating. I do believe that game "compulsion" is a real issue that plagues a lot of players in some capacity, and I agree with many of their postulates of the sources for game compulsion amongst a large majority of those afflicted. I even have a couple blog posts which detail my own experience with game compulsion which some may find interesting. Rather, the problem I have with the video is the naïveté of its message.

The message is naïve in two ways: it belittles the problem of game compulsion, and it grossly misunderstands the nature of today's gaming landscape in kind. The final minute or so of the video more or less boils down to, "buck up, kid," offering little to no practical advice beyond simply telling players to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and overcome their problem with game compulsion. Which is unsatisfying to say the least. How do you overcome game compulsion? By overcoming game compulsion, of course. Thanks, Extra Credits.

I don't want to be too harsh with my tone here, as Extra Credits is one of the few outlets I've seen address this issue beyond the more extreme cases like those who die of starvation at the hands of League of Legends. But there's only so much credit one can give to those who offer such an impotent and ineffectual message. "Using" the feeling of accomplishment in games to compel oneself to action in real life is much easier said than done when actually gripped with game compulsion. The courses of action one could apply that feeling to in real life don't simply appear to be greater obstacles than we feel we can accomplish; they seem less important as well. Making progress towards one's virtual goals begins to take precedence over making progress towards one's tangible goals, and soon enough, those goals get pushed to the side in order to power level a character for yet another 14-hour day. One's virtual goals not only begin to feel more attainable than real-life goals (because they intentionally are), but especially within RPGs or other narrative-driven experiences, they begin to take on more significance in one's psyche. Saving the world feels a lot better than retouching your résumé, even if it doesn't yield tangible rewards, but that immediate feeling of accomplishment you feel from games begins to overwhelm any sense that the endeavor is ultimately an under-productive (if not unproductive) use of your time.

And that's even after one has come to terms with how patronizing video games are at their cores. Virtually every video game is crafted to be completed by its target audience, and as such, the obstacles games present offer enough challenge to make the player feel accomplished after overcoming them, but not enough challenge to prevent that same player from surmounting it. The feeling of accomplishment in games is ostensibly an empty one, yet even being presently aware of that fact, there is a comfort in being all but guaranteed success in one's endeavors, be they virtual, tangible, fruitless, or rewarding. When one is suffering from game compulsion, that comfort can be intoxicating, making tasks without that safety net feel not only more daunting, but futile as well. Why try and possibly fail when given the opportunity to try and almost always succeed, especially when the fail-safe task is so much more interesting than the minutiae that plagues our everyday lives?

The industry is, in many ways, well award of this mentality, and it could be said that many are exploiting it for financial gains. That Extra Credits failed to mention the outright Skinnerian feedback loops that developers often consciously design into their games is a terrible shame, as gaming compulsion could easily be thought of as a two-way street rather than a solitary addiction. Some obstacles and tasks offer greater challenges, some offer less, each offering rewards of corresponding values to the player upon their completion, and game designers, especially those who design MMOs, are perfectly aware of how best to craft the experiences of their games so as to provide the optimum experience of progress for their players. Whether that gambit is being employed to extend players' accounts beyond monthly subscription dates or to coax players to purchase some time-saving mount using microtransactions, it's not-so-ulterior motive is always clear: keep them playing. Get them hooked, make them come back for more. More and more MMOs are going free-to-play these days, and the cynic in me thinks it's because MMO and mobile developers are finally learning that the first hit should always be free. Not everyone's going to come back after the initial taste, but those who do will be hooked for quite some time and eager to pay for more.

Game compulsion can be a serious problem for gamers, and isn't something to be brushed aside in the manner Extra Credits was apparently wont to do in their most recent episode on the topic. It's a surprisingly intricate issue that can't simply be addressed and corrected en masse in one web video, especially one that glosses over nearly everything that gives it its depth. Attempting to do so doesn't respect those who have experienced game compulsion in the past nor those who are experiencing it now, and it's sad to see an institution I otherwise have little issue with make such an error.   read


4:03 PM on 07.19.2013

Octodad: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Radar

I had originally planned to break this recent blogging hiatus of mine with a characteristically pretentious post on The Last of Us and all its artistic doodads and thingamajigs, but a recent playthrough of a game which had swum under my radar for three-odd years now prompted me to shelve that project and begin furiously typing this very post. I was reminded of this game by a recent IGN video covering its sequel which is set to proudly debut on the PS4 as an example of Sony's commitment to independent developers, and while its successor looks great, I figured it was high time for me to give the original a shot. The game, of course, is Octodad, which can be downloaded for your OS of choice here. It's free, and it's fantastic.

There's so much to love about Octodad. The entire premise is ridiculous, and the game very well knows it, playing up to great effect the dynamics between an octopus masquerading as a bipedal family man and his oblivious nuclear family. Much like QWOP and Surgeon SimulatorOctodad is all about control. The game provides the player a meticulous level of control over the titular character's movements, but it soon becomes apparent that such nuance is more of a burden than a blessing, as simply walking to an objective becomes a challenge in and of itself. One can imagine, then, what kind of chaos would ensue when tasked with mopping up a floor, or reading a bedtime story to Octodad's inexplicably human daughter. It's goofy, slapstick fun, and a great example of how a game's mechanics can be used to greater effect beyond simply being means to a narrative end. While the game's short cutscenes had me smirking on occasion, there's no greater joy in Octodad than throwing all the contents of a shelf onto the floor and calling it "clean." Simply put, if a game makes you excited to wash dishes, you know it's something special.

Octodad is indeed special, but not for that reason alone. While admittedly this could be reading too much into a game about an undercover octopus, I think there's ample evidence to show that beneath all its tongue-in-cheek hijinks, Octodad is actually something of an undercover art game. Not only do its mechanics facilitate a large portion of the game's "fun," in conjunction with the game's premise, they could also be seen as artistic and humorous commentary on the very nature of fatherhood.

The character of Octodad is an octopus who manages to convince his family that he's a normal, human husband and father. How he does this initially is thankfully unexplained, but the player is tasked with keeping his cover in check while performing the husbandly and fatherly tasks required of him by his family. Strange or ludicrously destructive actions raise the family's suspicion level, and once that level reaches maximum, the game is over.


Challenge accepted

Octodad isn't simply a secret cephalopod, though; in truth, he's a representation of family men everywhere, particularly those who are new to the occupation. Octodad's gameplay in turn simulates the bumbling, blundering feeling of being asked to meet particular expectations while having virtually no clue how to do so. Nothing prepares the player for the experience of Octodad, just as nothing prepares men for the experience of fatherhood, yet there's still an underlying desire to assure others that you are readily capable of the respective tasks at hand, even though that may very well not be the case. Not being able to do so in Octodad reveals Octodad's true identity and spells game over for the player. Not being able to do so in fatherhood reveals a man as the veritable fish (or octopus) out of water he is, dissipating the air of paternal certainty he so desperately wishes to convey despite himself. In both Octodad and actual fatherhood, every second of maintaining the illusion of control and preparedness is a small victory, and every accomplished task, no matter how clumsily it was achieved, is a momentous occasion. Every dad is Octodad, albeit with half the limbs, and by the game's end, the experience feels far less ridiculous and foreign than it was at the outset, which is quite a feat for a game with such an alien premise.


I would love a chance to ask the game's creators their thoughts on this interpretation of their game. It has certainly given me a deeper appreciation of Octodad beyond its ludicrous and comical gameplay, and I would hope that it was the intended effect. Then again, the question arises of how much stock should we place on the intentions of a work's creators in our evaluation of it, a question which we've come no closer to answering since its first proposal. At this point, all I know is that I loved Octodad for all the potentially mistaken reasons above, and I encourage everyone to give it a try before the release of its sequel, Dadliest Catch, on the PS4. I can at least promise it'll be time well spent.   read


1:35 AM on 05.04.2013

Dragon's Crown: Sorcery and Sexuality

The internet has been abuzz lately following the six character reveals of Vanillaware's upcoming brawler, Dragon's Crown. While its art direction, compliments of lead artist and Vanillaware president George Kamitani, is gorgeous in true Vanillaware fashion, the design of one character, the Sorceress, has caused a rift in the gaming community regarding depictions of women and sexuality in our medium, as well as the extent to which the community can hold developers accountable for questionable portrayals such as the Sorceress in Dragon's Crown. Much of the discussion thus far has been fueled by mutual ire on both sides, and I'll admit to slinging my own fair share of mud in the comment thread trenches. In an effort to rectify this lack of true discussion and atone for my past locutionary sins, I'll try to provide my account of these issues with as little contempt and indignation as possible.

The Sorceress, for reference


Already one can see where controversy may crop up with images like the one above being published by Vanillaware itself as official character art. This post isn't necessarily on why the above image can be seen as problematic, though I'll address that to some extent. Instead, I'll try to focus on the nature of the controversy itself, sussing out what rests at the heart of this issue. Furthermore, in no way will I suggest that Kamitani should be censored in what art he is entitled to produce for his games on legal grounds. As consumers and potential consumers of Vanillaware games, however, we are entitled to criticize his work and even condemn it should we find its content to be suitably appalling and possibly even detrimental, much as we would criticize similarly egregious utterances if they appeared in mundane, non-artistic conversation. A work of art which advocates against marriage equality may be legally protected from censorship, but can (and I believe should) still be criticized for its message much as anyone stating it plainly in speech could (and should) be. Accordingly, if I use language such as "fault," "blame," or "should not," understand that I am appealing to the court of public opinion, not an officially recognized court of law.

With the housekeeping more or less out of the way, to begin the discussion proper, let's begin from as similar a starting line as possible by all donning the hat of one particular demographic: straight, adult men who are able to be aroused by drawings and have preferences pertaining to the physical appearances of their sexual partners which encompass at least those traits emphasized in the above image (red hair, large breasts, slender waist, wide hips, long legs, seductive postures). For those who don't fall under this demographic naturally or who are uncomfortable with the exercise, please bear with me and try to follow along; I promise it won't be long before you can take the cap off. Alright, with our new identities assumed, let's look at the above image again. Despite the artistic liberty Kamitani took with the size of the Sorceress' various assets, while it likely wasn't a sincere reaction for those not already of this demographic, for those who truly got into the spirit of the exercise and viewed the image through the glasses of another with the appropriate proclivities, I think it's safe to say that some manner of attraction was felt on behalf of your newly-adopted identities, as you would have felt for yourself had the image been of a character with those physical qualities which you prefer. For the purposes of this post, it's through this lens of attraction I'd like us to look at the Sorceress, unless otherwise specified: to whatever extent, perhaps even sexually, let's say that she is attractive.

Given the character's posture in the above image and the visual emphasis placed on those traits which are found to be sexually desirable by a sizable population of the intended demographics for Dragon's Crown, it seems that our attraction to the Sorceress was an intentional aim of Kamitani's in designing her. Are we to fault Vanillaware for doing this? Intuitions may conflict between parties on this issue, but intentionally creating attractive characters has been a staple of virtually any narrative medium for decades, if not centuries. To keep the discussion within the medium of video games, even relatively uncontroversial games like those of the Uncharted series, which are often praised for their portrayals of women, intentionally feature casts of almost exclusively gorgeous people, both male and female, Is the Uncharted series, through characters like Chloe and Elena, accordingly problematic in the same way Dragon's Crown can be considered problematic given the Soceress? It seems not. The fact that the Sorceress is attractive alone doesn't appear to be the reason why her character design upsets as many people as it does.

Unlike Elena and Chloe, the Sorceress' design is inherently sexual in nature. In the image above alone, it's clear that skin is showing all the unnecessary places, and one look at the position of her staff, the skull of her skeleton, and possibly even his sword (should one wish to read into it on a Freudian level) reveals a rather thinly-veiled pantomime taking place between the master and her undead servant. Now, admittedly this is speculation as we have received very little information about her as a character up until this point, but I would hazard a guess and say that sexuality is not a central character trait of the Sorceress. The image above isn't some depiction of sexual empowerment, featuring her brazenly entreating her undead companion to enjoy an evening of carnal pleasure with her. If she were a sexually empowered character, I can assure you this post would read rather differently, perhaps much more positively. But alas, such is not the case, and instead what we are left with is a character who is not sexual, but rather sexualized. And that, I believe, is what rests at the heart of this backlash against the Sorceress' design.

Sexualization can be a tricky topic to discuss, particularly from my male perspective, as it can quickly lead to infantilization, but I don't think I'm doing this here. There is virtually no reason to understand the Sorceress as a character who is sometimes compelled to act by any sense of sexuality, as there's virtually no evidence for that sexuality in her character. It's hard to infantilize the sexual agency of a character by claiming its the product of external sexualization when there doesn't seem to be much of that agency there to begin with, essentially. But what do I mean when I say that the Sorceress is sexualized? In broad, nebulous terms, I mean that the "sexuality" she exudes is an external quality ascribed to her solely for the benefit of the viewer, not in accordance with any character trait she exhibits.

If the Sorceress is indeed a sexualized character and not a sexual one as I argue, I must have evidence for this sexualization, for this external quality being ascribed to her. Fortunately, I think I do. If I can direct your gaze back up to the image provided, take the two agents involved, the Sorceress and her skeleton, and separate them. Now, do whatever you wish with the skeleton, but have the Sorceress assume a neutral standing pose directly facing the viewer. With your hat on still, here before you stands an attractive woman wearing clothing which greatly accentuates those of her features which you find desirable. At this point, I would say that the Sorceress has not yet definitively been sexualized, at least not by the artist. The viewer may have, but that's his or her own prerogative as far as I'm concerned. A strong case could be made for her outfit being an example of artist sexualization, but for the sake of simplicity, I'll leave open the possibility that she selected those clothes for whatever reason of her own volition, and acknowledge her right to wear whatever the hell she wants, no matter how revealing it is. In fact, for those who have been uncomfortable with her inhuman bodily proportions and the lack of fabric covering her breasts and legs, at this point, feel free to change those things in your posed version of her to make her more anatomically sensible and modestly dressed. She is still a sexualized character without these qualities.

Alright, now, contort the frame of the Sorceress back to her original position along with the skeleton, taking note of each movement she would need to make in order to assume that pose in relation to the viewer. As you do this, assume, as we have thus far, that the Sorceress, much like every other playable character in Dragon's Crown, is not a sexually empowered or even a sexual character. With that in mind, watch as this effectively nonsexual character arches her back to assume what some have called a "courting pose," angling her buttocks to the viewer, twists her upper torso around to reveal the sheer size of her breasts and plant her staff behind her that she may grind upon it, and brings the head of her reclining skeleton, as well as the gaze of the viewer, up to her breasts. At this point, you should feel at least some degree of sleaze start to creep up from your stomach. Now, ask yourself: is there any reason why this presumably nonsexual character would perform these actions, and thus strike this pose, of her own volition? If she is as nonsexual as the rest of Dragon's Crown's cast seems to be, then no, there isn't. The only reason why this nonsexual character would perform these actions at all, regardless of her agency or lack thereof, is to pander to us, the viewers who find her to be physically attractive. The exercise I just walked you through is exactly what Kamitani had to do with the Sorceress to produce the above image, dressing, contorting, and presenting her as an object of sexual desire for the pleasure of the viewer, not in accordance with any manner of sexuality inherent within the character.

Up until this point, we've operated under one large assumption about the Sorceress in determining whether or not she's a sexualized character, namely that she is not an inherently sexual or seductive person. For the sake of thoroughness, let's abandon this assumption momentarily and grant that sexuality is indeed a notable character trait of hers. In doing so, it would seem that my issue with her posture in the image above wouldn't hold up, as her sexuality could be cited as a reason why she might strike that pose of her own volition, though why she would be getting fresh with a skeleton instead of someone more, well, living is anyone's guess. Conceding this counterpoint, I still think we can consider this sexual variant of the Sorceress to be sexualized on another front.

If the Sorceress is indeed a sexual character, what her pose in the above image implies is that her sexuality is a central component to her abilities in combat. Her character trailer doesn't show this to be the case, which is partly why I think the Sorceress isn't actually a sexual character, but if her abilities of bewitchment were fueled in part by seduction, that would certainly explain why she's attempting to entreat a skeleton through sexual provocation. And since the playable characters of Dragon's Crown don't seem to be much of actual characters, replete with personalities and backstories, but rather avatars to assume control over as a way to expereince a classically-inspired fantasy brawler, it would also make sense that a trait such as sexuality would be used primarily as a way to explain gameplay mechanics, not really as a way to flesh out the character of the Sorceress at all.

Dragon's Crown certainly wouldn't be the first game to treat the magical abilities of its female characters in such a fashion; Kamitani did draw heavily from established fantasy tropes in the creation of these characters, after all. One shouldn't attempt to defend this treatment of the Sorceress on these grounds, however, given that it's merely a fallacious appeal to tradition. In fact, the following criticisms of her treatment can be applied interchangably to many other instances of this trope as well: consider the other playable magic user in Dragon's Crown: the Wizard. Ignoring the fact that his use of offensive magics and the Soceress' use of supportive magics enforces the engendered roles of the active, male combatant and the passive, female caretaker, notice that the Wizard's magical abilities aren't fueled by sexuality as the Sorceress' are. The Wizard conjures his destructive spells using only a staff and a book while the Sorceress must additionally use her sexuality to entreat her undead minions and turn foes into frogs. Accordingly, it would seem that the Sorceress' abilities, and therefore her value in combat, are based in no small part on her attractiveness to others. It's in this sense that we can still say she's a sexualized character. Had Vanillaware reversed the roles of the Wizard and the Sorceress, giving him the powers of necromancy and transmutation and her the power of destructive magics, I can guarantee that there would be no prerequisite of sexual desirability for the Wizard to raise the dead or turn foes into frogs.

Okay, so the Sorceress is a sexualized character. Since this post is admittedly dragging on already, I won't spend the time explaining how the sexualization and/or objectification of women and female characters isn't a good thing. If you've lived long enough to start reading blogs about video games, chances are you've already heard that explanation, anyway. What I'll address instead is perhaps the most pervasive line of reasoning in defense of the Sorceress' design, something I'll call the argument from profit. The argument from profit more or less states: the design of the Sorceress is Kamitani's attempt to appeal to the target demographic of Dragon's Crown so as to sell more copies of the game, nothing more. As the video game industry is just that, we shouldn't fault Kamitani or Vanillaware for taking such steps to increase their profits.

At their cores, female sexualization, and in turn female objectification, are both expressions of sexist attitudes towards women. While some may argue my claim that the Sorceress is, in fact, sexualized, anyone who argues against the claim that sexualization is a form of sexism doesn't understand at least one of those terms. Assuming, as I believe I've shown, that the Sorceress is a sexualized character, then it can be said that her presentation is sexist in nature, and that Dragon's Crown contains sexist content. This is true regardless of how well or poorly the game sells. Had Kamitani not sexualized the Sorceress, even if not doing so negatively impacted sales, it would still be the case that Dragon's Crown would be without that sexist content. Similarly, since Kamitani sexualized the Sorceress, even if Dragon's Crown becomes a lucrative moneymaker for Vanillaware, it's still a sexist game. Economically sensible or not, sexism is sexism, plain and simple.

Vanillaware is legally protected to produce virtually whatever content they so choose, sexist or otherwise. Accordingly, Kamitani has absolutely no legal obligation to change the design of the Sorceress. However, I think it's fairly uncontroversial to say that most people consider sexism to be a bad thing. More often than not, when debates arise such as these, what is being debated isn't whether or not sexism is wrong, but whether or not the thing in question, in this case Dragon's Crown, is sexist. The presence of sexist content indicates a problem, whereas the absence of it doesn't. Furthermore, there seems to be a pervasive notion that sexism is something society should be actively combating. Again, opinions may differ on what exactly is sexist, and the lengths to which we go to eradicate sexism may be debated, but sexism itself is still seems rightly demonized.

Tl;dr: this is how I justify my criticism of Dragon's Crown. Sexism is bad. Because of that, I feel obligated to combat it in order to reduce its presence in society. Regardless of its critical reception or sales figures, Dragon's Crown is, I believe, a sexist game in its sexualization of the Sorceress. While I cannot mandate that Dragon's Crown stop being sexist through legal means, one of the means I do have at my disposal is appealing to the public. I can critique the game online and in-person, I can explain to others my reasons for thinking the game is sexist, and I can urge others to spread the word. Another one of my means is my purchasing habits. I can refuse to support the production of sexist games by not buying Dragon's Crown, and I can encourage others to do the same. Will I be "missing out" by not playing the game? In some sense, perhaps, though it's an experience I would gladly forfeit if it means playing however small a role in promoting and facilitating a gaming culture which cannot be viably pandered to through sexist portrayals of women.   read


11:27 PM on 04.22.2013

BioShock Infinite: A Tale of Two Priorities (Spoiler-Free)

I love BioShock Infinite. When taken as a complete package, It absolutely deserves every word of praise it's received and every perfect score. Yet as I go through my 1999 playthrough, some of its blemishes have begun to show. The old adage of no game being truly perfect remains as apt as ever, though Infinite's strengths make what few qualms I have with the game little more than nitpicks. One nit I found particularly interesting, though, isn't one I've seen as a common detraction from the game. I have little problem with the game's combat, the frayed ends of its interweaving narrative, or the disappointing contextualization of Vigors in the world of Columbia in comparison to that of Plasmids in Rapture. Rather, I take issue with the conflict between its BioShock gameplay and its Infinite narrative, which compelled me as the player to simultaneously adopt two contradictory play styles in attempting to compliment each one's strengths. A change in altitude wasn't the only distinction Irrational Games attempted to make between BioShock and BioShock Infinite, and unfortunately, some of the more promising changes were ultimately hampered by a reliance on series convention.

There are two essential ways one can play video games such as BioShock Infinite: one can either move rather linearly and therefore relatively quickly through the experience, or one can stop and smell the roses at any given opportunity. Some will split the difference between these two, while others will fall rather squarely under either camp. While neither approach is objectively wrong, certain games are clearly designed with one style of play in mind rather than the other. The campaigns of most military shooters fall under the first category, technically giving the player control over her position within the game world while almost constantly encouraging her to push forward to experience the next big set piece or spectacle. Role-playing games often fall under the second category, giving the player control over her position within the game world while constantly encouraging her to explore the world for loot and quests. While RPG purists may scoff at this assertion, the original BioShock is often considered a hybrid between an FPS and an RPG, with elements of survival horror added in for good measure. Accordingly, the game embraces both philosophies of agent progression in its design: there is always a clearly-defined objective to propel the player forward, but there's also ample reward in scouring every corner of Rapture in the form of both supplies and information. This hybridity would come to be a defining characteristic of the series, replicated by 2K Marin in BioShock 2 and used again in BioShock Infinite. Given the similarities between BioShock 2 and its predecessor, again allowing players such freedom in its ultimately directed experience worked similarly well. BioShock Infinite's departure from many of the first two games' defining characteristics and its retention of certain others, however, made this hybrid approach to agency far less effective its third time around.

One of the major ways in which Infinite departs from BioShock and BioShock 2 is when it takes place along the dystopian timeline. When players assumed the roles of Jack and Subject Delta, the respective protagonists of the first two games, and entered Rapture, its idyllic, utopian golden age had clearly already come and gone, leaving behind only the corrupted remnants of an ideology taken to its logical extremes. When the player, as Booker DeWitt, reaches Infinite's Columbia, however, the windy city is still thriving in many regards, only just beginning its ultimate dissolution. By shifting back the game's timeframe, Irrational is able to explore a lot more narrative threads in Columbia's thriving streets than was possible in the ruins of Rapture. This is due in large part to the explicable presence of non-combative NPCs, allowing the actions and conversations of the residents of Columbia to happen in real-time, rather than relegating them to posthumous audio logs the player happens upon throughout her playthrough.


Irrational had a vision for Columbia all their own

Unfortunately, the manner in which Infinite presents these NPCs strongly encourages rapid forward momentum on the part of the player despite the environments strongly encouraging the opposite. The actions and dialogue of Infinite's NPCs, like in many games without a consistent input method for character interaction such as a "talk" button, are based on player proximity. Events and conversations are triggered by the player steering the vessel of Booker DeWitt into designated areas carefully selected by the designers to ensure that the player's attention will be drawn to the action. Approaching an NPC from behind, for example, despite being well within their personal bubbles, often won't trigger the same event that approaching them from the front would, as it isn't clear whether or not the player's attention is focused on that NPC. Since most NPC events can only be triggered once per playthrough in Infinite, it makes sense that the developer would be particular in determining when and how they should be triggered so that as many players as possible experience that content during their playthroughs. If it was the developer's intent to create the illusion of bustling city life through their NPCs, though, as seemed to be the case in Infinite, it doesn't make sense to encourage the player to scour every environment, including those heavily populated with NPCs, for resources and audio logs as Infinite is wont to do.

After every NPC event is triggered and exhausted in a particular environment, which doesn't take long when hunting for Silver Eagles in every last barrel, crate, and register one can find, the game world quickly looses the sense vibrancy those events were meant to imbue it with. The inevitable silence that befalls each environment is disquieting to say the least, and the utility of each NPC to the narrative begins to overshadow their credibility as autonomous inhabitants of Columbia. Having the player witness a man and woman expressing their concerns about the Vox Populi can be a great way to flesh out the nuances of Columbia and its people, but when it becomes clear to the player that their conversation ends after four sentences, the man and woman no longer lend credence to the assertion that Columbia is a living, breathing world. At that point, what information they provided could have been presented equally effectively through kinetoscopes and voxophones. Moving through a crowd of people with whom one can't converse, all standing about in absolute silence causes such unease for the attentive player that one can't help but feel removed from the experience whenever that silence falls.

One way to remedy this could be to simply move through environments faster. After all, if the brevity of NPC interaction is never revealed to the player by maintaining a brisk pace, the NPCs themselves would seem more person-like in that player's mind than in the minds of those who moved slowly through the world. Doing so would be a concession made to the game, sure, especially for those of us who prefer exploring at our own pace through game environments, but it's one we often make for games designed to be played speedily. The problem with this plan is that BioShock Infinite simply isn't one of those games. Moving swiftly through an environment could cost players valuable resources which could halt one's progress, especially on higher difficulties. Or worse, it could cost players valuable information, some of which is integral to understanding even the central arc of the story. In order to experience NPC events in a more organic fashion, the player risks hampering her overall enjoyment of the game by making combat unnecessarily difficult or missing vital information.


She's upset you two don't talk much anymore

Another way to address this issue is to remove the need for extensive exploration in environments which have a higher event density than others. In an effort to avoid writing and recording hundreds if not thousands more lines of dialogue for these NPCs, this is perhaps the best option available to Infinite while still keeping the experience relatively tight. There are actually a few instances in the game when Irrational does this, propelling the player through environments with little to nothing to search for that her attention may be focused on the narrative elements of the world about her. One such instance happens midway through the game when Booker is chasing after a character through a series of hallways. At certain points through the chase, certain events would happen that any player looking forward would easily be able to see, and during my second playthrough, knowing this chase was coming, I kept my view forward and my movement brisk. During my first playthrough, though, I didn't. The hallways in which the chase take place are littered with barrels and crates, containers which the game typically loads up with resources like ammo and food. The barrels and crates in these hallways, however, were all unsearchable. As the game provided no cue for me to know this, since I had been conditioned to search every barrel and crate the game populates, especially on the Hard difficulty I was playing on, my focus wasn't on the person I was chasing as the game expected. Instead, I was looking downward at each and every crate to see if perhaps the next one would have a sniper rifle round or a silver eagle inside, missing almost completely every event I was generating by progressing through the environment.

Had BioShock Infinite approached non-combative NPC interaction in a similar manner throughout the experience, keeping areas laden with events and dialogue sparse while loading up those without many non-combative NPCs with the necessary supplies and voxophones, I'm positive I wouldn't have had the issue I did during that chase sequence my first playthrough. I would have been conditioned to expect character interaction to be paramount during that portion and would have moved at an appropriate pace to account for that, knowing that it would only be a matter of time until I'd be able to scavenge to my heart's content without fear of missing vital content. In that way, the playstyles associated with both halves of the BioShock gameplay hybrid could be fostered in Infinite while changing as little as possible to the core experience. If this alternate version of Infinite were to exist, though, something tells me a small change in level design ain't the only thing that'd change.   read


10:53 PM on 04.05.2013

Racism in Far Cry 3: Who Knew?

I recently had a chance to sit down with with a friend's copy of Far Cry 3 and was excited to give it a go. Save the malaria, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed its predecessor, and with its favorable reviews, I had high expectations. There were some things I knew about the game going in that didn't thrill me, such as the ever-present minimap, but I wasn't prepared for the dealbreaker that cropped up about twenty minutes in. Those who've played it may already know where I'm going with this, but for those who haven't, let me warn you right now: Far Cry 3 is a racist game. To anyone who wishes to contest that claim, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the following narrative tropes: the noble savage, the magical negro, the sexualized other, and the white man's burden. All four of these I encountered within the game's first half-hour, with each feeding the flames of my confusion and offense in kind, and by the time I had reached and liberated the first privateer settlement, I knew I was done with the game.

Yet, in looking back, the foulest taste still lingering in my mouth isn't even the presence of these decidedly antiquated plot devices. What concerns me the most is that I received virtually no forewarning of their existence, not from news coverage, not from previews, not from reviews. The only person I've seen address the game's racism in any capacity is Destructoid's Jim Sterling, yet in his review of the game, he brushes it aside in literally one sentence. Considering the amount of coverage Resident Evil 5 received for its racist content, why is Far Cry 3, whose content is arguably just as questionable, treated with such impunity? Must games have white protagonists killing "traditionally" garbed Africans à la Resident Evil 5 to register on the gaming community's racism Richter scales? As far as I can tell, there are only a handful of possible reasons why gamers didn't raise a fuss over Far Cry 3. Some are more plausible than others, but all are equally disconcerting.

The first possibility, likely the furthest from plausibility of the lot, is that the game actually isn't as bad as I'm making it out to be. Clearly I'm biased against this assertion, what with my writing a post arguing to the contrary, but I'll concede the possibility that I'm making mountains out of molehills. But the molehills seem to me rather sizable as they are; little effort is needed to understand the Rakyat's exaltation of the first white non-pirate with a gun on the island as their savior as an example of white imperialist fantasy. Or to understand the Tatau and its transformation of Jason Brody as a primitivist wet dream. Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer of Far Cry 3, has adamantly held that his use of these devices was meant to be hyperbolic, but since virtually no one picked up on the plot's subversive intentions, the whole affair feels uncomfortably sincere. The game effectively shot itself in its narrative foot by seemingly embracing the very same questionable action game tropes it was apparently trying to comment on. While I'm often a champion of the artist's intentions in one's understanding of a work, it's hard to interpret Far Cry 3 in the manner Yohalem apparently intended given how poorly its disingenuous nature was conveyed. But an intention is still an intention even when revealed to no one but the artist himself, and in that sense, one might say that Far Cry 3 isn't actually a racist game so much as it's a poorly written one. However, I would hazard a guess that most works of fiction with racist elements were not conceived with racist intent, yet we still feel justified in criticizing those works for that content. Despite its subversive intentions, I think we can and should do the same for Far Cry 3.


Yeah, white people!

The second possibility is that the majority of players somehow failed to notice the racism in Far Cry 3's narrative. Perhaps their tolerance for that sort of content is greater than my own, with anything shy of caricature failing to register as racially insensitive. After all, the game thankfully isn't as overt as it could have been with its themes, and perhaps it was subtle enough to remain undetected by most. But then why was it so readily apparent to me? I don't think I'm a particularly offensible person when it comes to artistic expressions, yet I stopped playing Far Cry 3 out of protest and indignation. Unless, unbeknownst to me, I'm actually hypersensitive to potentially offensive content, I don't think the game's racism is possible to miss, assuming one knows what to look for while playing it. And maybe that's exactly the problem: perhaps the majority of players aren't aware of these tropes or why they're considered offensive. They're nuanced in comparison to overt caricature, and it very well could be the case that many people simply haven't been exposed to critical understandings of them in their daily lives. The fact that many people remain convinced that Resident Evil 5 isn't at the very least insensitive seems to confirm that to some extent. If ignorance is indeed the reason for Far Cry 3's free ride, though, while we can't blame the players themselves for not being exposed to such knowledge, it paints a rather unlearned picture of the gaming community nonetheless. If we cannot acknowledge such shortcomings in the content we consume, our medium clearly isn't as mature as we posture it to be.

The third and most unsettling possibility is that players noticed these tropes, acknowledged that they were racist, but simply didn't care. Perhaps players valued the gameplay of Far Cry 3 enough to ignore the insensitivity of its narrative. Or perhaps they didn't feel that its racist content significantly hindered their enjoyment of the game as a whole. Regardless of the specifics, if this does describe a sizable portion of Far Cry 3 players, I think we as both a community and as an industry have a problem. While I understand that aesthetic tastes are subjective, and that people are entitled to value whatever they wish in their art, I feel as though not acknowledging the racist content of the game, even as Jim Sterling did in his review, is at the very least dishonest. Even when discussing the game with those players who don't play video games for their narratives, to not at least bring up these themes as a cautionary measure seems like a manner of trickery. One wouldn't discuss let alone praise Triumph of the Will without first acknowledging and condemning its pro-Nazi message, even when recommending it to those who have a penchant for cinematography. Why we don't have a similar attitude towards Far Cry 3 is utterly beyond me.

Furthermore, if we allow this content to be swept under the rug in our community's public discourse of games, we're all but condoning its presence, letting developers know that relying on antiquated and offensive tropes isn't something they need to worry about as it won't affect their sales or their standing in the court of public opinion. But shouldn't it? Shouldn't we as a community refuse to buy games that marginalize and discriminate against peoples? Or at the very least, shouldn't we as a community be vocal in our disapproval of that discriminatory content? Those who bought Far Cry 3 and enjoyed what else it had to offer could still be honest with both others and themselves in admitting that the game has questionable content, even if they don't take to the streets or contact Ubisoft personally. I guess where I'm going with all of this is that we as the video game community often shirk our responsibility to police this kind of content when if comes to light; sometimes it goes undetected, other times it's thought to be insignificant. The point we often seems to miss, however, is that it shouldn't even exist in the first place, regardless of its subtlety, and the only way we can ensure that is by at least addressing it when it arises. I won't be buying Far Cry 3. To those who haven't yet, I encourage you to follow suit.   read


3:54 AM on 03.10.2013

In Search of True Tolerance: Queer Archetypes in Video Games

By current predictions, from console reveals to new installments in venerated franchises, 2013 is looking to be a momentous year for video games. Outside of these developments from within the industry itself, however, stands something equally exciting upon the horizon, something both familiar yet foreign. At the outset of August, gaming will add yet another convention to its ever-growing roster of community-focused events. Called GaymerX, formerly GaymerCon, this new convention seeks to be the first of its kind in the gaming community, tailoring its content specifically for LGBTQ members.

As gamers all, we're no strangers to gaming conventions. Industry events such as E3 or GDC have attained an almost holiday-like status amongst the community, with consumer-focused events like PAX giving us the chance to experience the magic firsthand. By all accounts, the announcement of a new community-focused gaming convention should have been a fairly unremarkable affair, piquing the collective interest momentarily then quickly quieting back down. However, with the reveal of what would become GaymerX through Kickstarter last fall, the gaming community practically imploded in attempting to compute the very notion of a gaming convention which catered exclusively to LGBTQ members. The question most often asked on comment threads and message boards about the event was simply, “why?” Why did anyone feel such an event was necessary? Why would LGBTQ gamers want to splinter off from the community at large? Why wouldn't they wish to always operate within a larger community which implicitly champions both masculinity and heteronormativity simply by virtue of the content it consumes?

Indeed, for whatever reason, queerness in the gaming community has historically been treated as a non-issue. Let that not to be confused with respect and acceptance, however. Sexuality, much like race and gender, is often downplayed in its effect on the dynamics of the gaming community. The inexplicably intense desire for homogeneity under the unified identity of “gamers” often leads to the vilification of those who choose to embrace additional identities beyond that, as evidenced by the overwhelming reaction to the GaymerX convention. Furthermore, despite the slowly growing number of LGBTQ characters in games, more often than not, their inclusion only serves to reinforce this desire for similitude, however unintentionally. Even titles which strive to include LGTBQ characters and accommodate non-heterosexual players in their romantic options tend to gravitate towards the homogenous, as evidenced by their depictions of these characters' sexuality, as well as their statuses as queer individuals within their respective game worlds.


For more information on the event, check out http://gaymerconnect.com/

Given the trilogy's conclusion last year, Mass Effect 3 serves as one of the more contemporary examples of this trend. The first thing to note about the Mass Effect series as a whole in its handling of LGBTQ characters is that not one is poorly written or negatively portrayed. It exhibits no propensity to stereotype its gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters, and that's reason enough to applaud BioWare for its efforts in tackling non-heterosexuality. However, to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, it did take a full five years for the series to include homosexual characters in addition to its bisexual cast. Furthermore, one finds an unsettling quality about the portrayals of the series' only gay and lesbian characters, Steve Cortez and Samantha Traynor. For both, the sole manner in which they express their sexual orientation is through their use of same-sex pronouns.

Being a no-nonsense military man with classically masculine traits, Steve Cortez could easily have lost a wife in the Collector raid of his colony rather than a husband. Nothing intrinsic to his character would require revision in order to depict him as heterosexual. Similarly, the traditional femininity of Samantha Traynor lends itself extremely well to an alternate portrayal of her as heterosexual. The sexual identities of these non-heterosexual characters have been crafted to be as utterly underwhelming and unobtrusive as possible. Both characters stop at the barest minimum point away in their deviations from heteronormativity, subscribing even more strongly to traditional gender norms than some of their heterosexual counterparts. Consequently, while the inclusion of gay characters in its games ultimately represented a progressive and commendable step forward for BioWare, it's a timid one at best.

Reaching back further, another game which treats its LGBTQ characters in a nearly identical fashion is Fallout: New Vegas. There are two main characters with non-heterosexual identities in New Vegas: Veronica Santangelo, and Arcade Gannon. As with their Mass Effect 3 counterparts, neither character is poorly written or insensitively portrayed, and their sexual identities are similarly subdued. Despite Veronica’s desire for a pre-war dress, neither she nor Arcade subscribe as heavily to their respective gender identities as do Traynor and Cortez. Veronica wears an unflattering canvas hood and robe with a pneumatic gauntlet with which she pummels her enemies, and Arcade is a man of medicine, letters, and relative passivity. While Cortez and Traynor reigned in their sexual identities by adhering more strongly to the normative traits of their respective genders, Veronica and Arcade do so through their embodiment of traits likely desired by a large population of New Vegas’ demographic. Effectively, Veronica and Arcade are what are known as Mary Sue characters, characters which satisfy a sense of wish-fulfillment on behalf of their authors, or in this case their audiences, through which they insert themselves into their works in highly-idealized forms.

Veronica and Arcade both are strong-willed, quick-witted, and sharp-tongued. Every remark from the player is volleyed with an intelligent, often cynical retort. Though lacking in inherent physical prowess, their affinities for technology help ensure their survival and strength in combat. To the demographic of players who enjoy games like Fallout: New Vegas, who also likely list Nathan Fillion or David Tennant under their favorite actors, these characters hold those traits they themselves admire and strive to embody. Furthermore, by the nature of both characters’ personal quests, it’s also possible for the player to convince both Veronica and Arcade of their own personal allegiances and ideologies. The player can encourage or dissuade Veronica’s negative opinion on the isolationism of the Brotherhood of Steel, and can convince Arcade and the rest of the Remnants to fight either for the unbridled libertarian association of Mr. House or the expansive republican democracy of the NCR. In effect, these already idealized characters can be made that much more so at the player’s discretion; the fact that both characters are also gay is only auxiliary to their awesomeness in the minds of the game’s intended demographic.


Just look at those glasses

In that sense, Veronica and Arcade’s sexualities are rather politicized. By creating these characters many players would find admirable and even enviable, Obsidian afforded themselves the opportunity to transitively associate any positive feelings felt towards Veronica and Arcade to homosexuality itself, to destigmatize it through its association with these infectiously likable characters. Though any effort to improve public perceptions of LGBTQ peoples has an inherent degree of merit to it, Obsidian’s handling of homosexual characters is just as underwhelming and pandering as BioWare’s. On one hand, they managed to create two strong, queer main characters who were received with relatively open arms by players, with one managing to attract a sizable fanbase in the process. On the other hand, this embrace was largely due to the concerted Mary Sue quality of these characters in accordance with the sensibilities of those within the game’s core demographic.

Though Fallout: New Vegas has queer characters who deviate further from heteronormativity than most, characters like Corporal Betsy for example, they’re relegated to minor, non-companion roles. Their existence alone is admittedly great, but there still looms the fact that only those gay and lesbian characters whose personalities inherently make them virtually impervious to disapproval from players made it into the game’s main cast. There is still a clear apprehension on behalf of the developer to fully embrace those characters who substantially challenge what players consider normative, opting instead for those who embody players’ homogeneous ideals in virtually every other respect besides their sexual orientation in order to better “sell” what little deviation there is.

While others may exist, there’s one game in particular from this generation whose gay main character is strongly and sensitively portrayed while simultaneously deviating significantly from heteronormativity and the homogeneous ideals of its playerbase. That game is Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony, and that character is the titular Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince. It’s surprising to see such a character born from a Rockstar game, let alone a Grand Theft Auto title. Even Grand Theft Auto IV, which Ballad acts as an extension of, has Bernie Crane, a gay character whose depiction is objectionable to say the least.

Whereas Bernie acted perhaps more as a caricature of a homosexual man than an honest portrayal, Tony outwardly presents his non-heteronormative traits tastefully by comparison. His sexuality is readily apparent throughout the game yet isn’t used to any sort of effect as was Bernie’s in Nico’s confrontation with Florian Cravic, Bernie’s former identity. Tony’s non-masculine traits are similarly laid bare before the player without resorting to the extremes of Bernie’s hyper-effeminacy. Rockstar makes no effort to eschew or obscure Tony’s queerness to players, and in the face of games which further the convention to do so, Tony is nevertheless a great character. He’s sarcastic and self-aware, yet lovelorn and tragically flawed; he’s likeable yet pitiable, and relatable yet individual. And that individuality rests at the heart of Tony’s strength as a queer video game character.


Queer without compromise

It isn’t Tony’s personality or his flaws which warrant admiration in this regard. They may make him an interesting character when divorced of any qualification, but they don’t inform his quality as a queer character. Nor should they. Anthony Prince doesn’t represent some pinnacle of gay representation in games by virtue of those extra-sexual traits he possesses, for indeed such an honor doesn’t exist. To exalt him and his traits to an enviable status would simply encourage a new homogenization of queer characters under an Anthony Prince archetype, a state little better than the one currently at hand. No, Tony’s strength as a queer character comes from his, or rather Rockstar’s, daring to be different in the establishment and presentation of his unequivocally non-heteronormative identity. Inherent within him is both an acknowledgement of the differences between persons and a celebration of the individuality begotten from them. He challenges players’ desires for homogeneity by reminding them that non-normative persons such as himself indeed exist in the world, no matter how many portrayals attempt to whitewash this fact, and that these persons are no lesser of beings by subscribing to traits and personalities which differ from those held or envied by players themselves.

Are there gay and lesbian peoples like Steve Cortez and Veronica Santangelo whose sexual identities aren’t easily identifiable by their outward presentations? Of course. Homosexuality isn’t inherently coupled with deviations from gender normativity, and for many queer individuals, sexual identity doesn’t inform other facets of their sense of self. Accordingly, developers need not avoid creating characters of this sort. But there are gay and lesbian peoples like Anthony Prince and Corporal Betsy, whose sexual identities are rather easily identifiable from the outset and are coupled with deviations from gender normativity. To insinuate otherwise by excluding such characters from casts of hundreds or by tucking them deep within those ranks is, at best, a dishonest attempt at mirroring contemporary demographics in a fictional world. At worst, it reaffirms the community’s intolerance towards those with significantly deviant traits from what it considers normative, the very same intolerance brandished in the reaction towards the announcement of GaymerX last fall.

While it could possibly be argued that the abstract concept of queerness is accepted by however slim a majority of the gaming community, if developers indeed feel pressure to obscure this quality when present in their characters as implied by the trend seen in games like Mass Effect 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, it’s clear that one cannot do the same for queerness in application. Ultimately, the onus for change will rest squarely upon the shoulders of the community itself, but developers too can help begin the process simply by refusing to pander to heteronormative audiences in their depictions of queer characters. Perhaps then the community won’t freak the hell out the next time an LGBTQ gaming event is announced.

This was my last post on 1UP before the site went bust and the community was all but dissolved. Reposts suck, so this will be my first and last, but I figured I'd offer a sample of what I'm all about before getting back into the swing of things here on Destructoid. Here's hoping you enjoyed it, despite the copypasta   read


  Around the web (login to improve these)




Back to Top


We follow moms on   Facebook  and   Twitter
  Light Theme      Dark Theme
Pssst. Konami Code + Enter!
You may remix stuff our site under creative commons w/@
- Destructoid means family. Living the dream, since 2006 -