Oh, hello. I didn't see you come in. I hail from the now-defunct 1UP and am looking for a new home/community for the grand reopening of my blog. Why I didn't think of Destructoid earlier is anyone's guess, but it seems like things will be a good fit here...or at least I hope they will. If you like esoteric ramblings on small, nitpicked issues in gaming, you've come to the right place. Maybe I take things a little too seriously, but I like to think of it as passion rather than pretention. Please to enjoy.
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.
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 blogposts 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.
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 Simulator, Octodad 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.