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A Creator's Responsibility


Video games?† We need to talk.

I think I know you pretty well by now.† Iíve been playing with you since before I could tie my shoes (God bless Velcro).† And I know what youíre planning to do.† See, we gamers have been lucky to get at least three games in rapid succession that have managed to blow away our expectations -- or if not blow away, then at least impress, or demand a bit of praise. Or the occasional backhanded compliment.† And the connective tissue, the common thread behind all three?† Young female companions.

I see that gleam in your eyes, video games.† And Iím telling you right now that you need to cut it the hell out.† Now.

Listen to me.† No, seriously, listen to me.† Weíve had a good thing going with these three games.† But I know that youíre eyeing these trends like a greedy coyote.† I know youíre looking at the numbers, and the praise, and the word of mouth, and planning on getting in on this Gold Rush (or Girl Rush, now that I think about it).† And I say, no.† No, DONíT do it.† If I have to bop you on the head with a rolled-up newspaper, I will.† Donít make this a recurring trend, because not only will it diminish the effect and cheapen the end product, but Iíve got a pretty strong hunch that youíre going to screw up as often as -- or letís face it, more than youíll succeed.† So let me be the first to sayÖNO.† NO.† STOP IT.† NO.† THATíS A BAD VIDEO GAMES.† NO.† BAD VIDEO GAMES.† NO TREAT FOR YOU.

Ahem.† Now that thatís out of the way, letís talk (tangentially) about The Last of Us.

Iíve been trying to avoid getting into too deep a discussion about the game here on Destructoid as best I can.† Part of that is because I havenít beaten the game yet; Iím working on it, and before I put anything up here I want to make sure Iíve got plenty of evidence to back up my opinions.† And on that note, part of my self-imposed censorship is because I know there are going to be some strong opinions about the game for a whileÖand at times I prefer not to get too entrenched in arguments if I can help it.†

But I think Iím far enough in the game to make some statements -- my thoughts and opinions on the game (for anyone that, you know, cares about what I think).† But before I go any further, let me just say...ROYAL GUARD!

There we go.† Perfect.† Now that Iíve got my defenses up, attacking me would not be in your best interest.† Not unless you want to eat a Royal Release.† So letís keep things civil, yes?

Okay.† Right then.† I guess I should start by saying that as it stands, TLoU is a disappointment.† Iím not going to say that itís terrible, but I was honestly expecting a lot more from it.† Or if the ďgood partsĒ are tucked away in the back half or third of the game, then I was expecting more from it sooner.† Donít get me wrong, I donít think itís a terrible game (I tend to look at a lot of things favorably after suffering through Final Fantasy 13-2); I just donít think itís lived up to its potential, its aims, or its hype.† Itís decidedly average, if you ask meÖand at times not even that.

Now put down your halberds, people.† Hear me out on this.† I canít say that I bought into the hype (which is consistent with pretty much everythingIíve ever played), but I canít say Iíve ever been repulsed by it either.† Iím even on record of saying that I was intrigued and ready to see more of the game during last yearís E3.† Iíve been cautiously optimistic about the game for a while now -- and while I canít say I was enamored with it even when actual information and gameplay footage trickled in, I didnít have any problems with it just because it existed.† I just wanted a good game out of it, hyped or otherwise.

What I expected was a game that would make me wish Iíd been more excited for the game -- something that would make me go starry-eyed and shout ďGAME OF THE YEAR!Ē from atop a particularly-tall building.† What I got was a game that leaves me wondering ďWhereís the Game of the Year in this Game of the Year?Ē† And thatís on a good day.† For the life of me, I have a hard time understanding just what makes this game so special.† I have a hard time finding the tension against enemies in this game when I can one-shot anything with a little patience and a cornucopia of weapons.† The graphics are good, but it seems like the world doesnít have much to say besides ďSee this?† This is to show that in the wake of an apocalypse, everything you love is gone!Ē† The characters feel like they dropped out of The Walking Dead TV series (and take that as positively or negatively as you want), with the central relationship between Ellie and Joel almost reluctant to make an appearance.† To paraphrase a Dunkey video on the subject, there ďisnít enough game in this gameĒ -- but to me thereís not enough story, either.† Itís to a point where I genuinely believe that the game would be better if it was half as long.

Aaaaaaaaaaand now you know why I was hesitant to give my thoughts on the game.

I can (and have, to the point of absurdity) gone into greater detail on why I have issues with the game, but for now letís go with some positive thinking.† Like I said, I donít think TLoU is a bad game, and even though I have issues with it I can see the intent.† I can see the potential, even if itís not fully realized.† AndÖhonestly?† I think I know how this game could have been something truly remarkable.

Ellie should have been the main character for the whole game.† And not just the main character; the player†character.†

Letís be real here.† Even if youíre the sort that likes Joel as a character, you have to admit that heís been done AT LEAST once before in games.† And recently, in fact; youíd be forgiven for thinking that Joel is a bearded, Texan version of Booker DeWitt, thanks in no small part to having the same voice.† Iím utterly convinced that even if the game tries to make Joel look and act like the protagonist (for a given definition of protagonist, given his penchant for murder), Ellie in my eyes always has been and always will be THE main characterÖjust as Elizabeth was in Bioshock Infinite.† That aside, Joelís saga is a character arc that weíve seen before, and even if itís executed well it would pale in comparison to something that, while not 100% original, is significantly fresher.† And you could say the same about a lot of the gameplay elements as well, to the point where you could consider the next few paragraphs as a ďwhat-ifĒ imagining.

So hereís what Iím thinking: kill off Joel in the gameís opening hours.† Have the game start shortly before Ellie and Joelís first meeting (since the game proper does that anyway), and let things proceed as both a way to establish the setting and act as the tutorial.† Give the player a taste of power -- the skill and savvy that Joel has picked up in his adventures, along with no shortage of equipment even at an early stage in the game. †And then, shortly after he meets Ellie, have him get killed in a skirmish.††

THATíS the big divergence point from the real game and my what-if game; in my version, Ellie spends just enough time with Joel to get her mission, and more importantly start learning how he does what he does through osmosisÖbut even with all his skills, he ends up biting it.† So now for a large percentage of the game -- barring the odd-comrade here and there -- Ellie has to go through the world alone in the hopes of presenting a potential cure for the outbreak hidden within her blood.† Or alternatively, have Tess and Joel abandon Ellie from the outset (remember, they donít believe her at the start), and make them into the gameís final antagonists.† Joel especially; itíd be the perfect chance for Ellie to show sheís become the superior hunter.

Playing from Ellieís perspective seems a lot more appealing, impactful, and full of potential.† Imagine the possibilities here; Ellie knows what her final destination is, but she has no clue of how to get there.† She has to explore America one step at a time, taking in the sights and trying to piece together what the world was like before everything went to hellÖeven if she does come up with some out-there theories.† (Iíd imagine that sheíd end up keeping a journal of some sort, or if not that then commenting on what she finds in her travels.)† It would change the nature of TLoUís road trip, but it could work, and even change it for the better.†

Moreover, since Ellieís alone out there, it could change the dynamics of combat.† Remember, this girl doesnít have nearly as much experience or equipment as Joel -- and even in the late-game sheís got decidedly-fewer arms -- so the conflicts she faces wonít be met with the same callous acknowledgement of routine as Joel.† Sheís allowed to be scared.† Sheís allowed to show shock.† Sheís allowed to tremble behind corners at the gameís start, and by gameís end have her motions mimic (or even surpass) Joelís -- a sense that sheís overcome the ideal that drives her to evolve her efforts.† Weakness is a strength in its own right -- and being able to see and hear that for ourselves in our proxy would do wonders for changing our interaction with the game.

And indeed, the game would change.† For all the emphasis put on survival in TLoU, too much of it is focused solely on killing whateverís standing in your way or rummaging around for gear that will help you kill more efficiently.† I find it baffling that it took hours -- literally hours -- of gameplay for Ellie to even mention that she was hungry.† So why not make that an element of the game?† It could work like Snake Eater, or to a lesser extent the survival mode of Dead Rising; you need to find food out there in the world to keep your stats, your combat ability, and even your perception of the world in equilibrium.†

And sleep could get thrown into the mix too, along with a day/night cycle; the time of day determines how you can (and should) proceed through an area, but more importantly you can sleep in-game to get extra bonuses, converse with allies, write in your journal, or just plain get a breather from combatÖassuming you donít get attacked during the middle of the night, of course.† Itíd be something that rewards exploration and awareness of your surroundings, and create moment-to-moment events that others might not necessarily experience in their adventures.† Simply put, you take TLoU, sprinkle in a bit of Fallout(or Skyrim, if you prefer), add a pinch of Metal Gear Solid and Zelda, and mix thoroughly. †Now youíve got yourself a tasty zombie cake.

To be fair, just because Iíve offered up an alternative doesnít mean itís automatically a BETTER alternative (especially since all I can do is type out a basic outline).† I can see some execution problems already; certain story elements would be lost and replaced by something potentially inferior.† What Iím prescribing would change the ways in drastic ways -- and end up taking on the same flaws that plague other games.† Additional survival mechanics could break the flow of the game.† Expanded exploration could make the rest of the game shallower, or if nothing else demand more resources from the developers.† A rebalance of Ellieís tool and skill set would be a must, and end up frustrating players as a result.

But if thereís one problem above all others, itís a simple one.† Itís an annoying one, but a viable problem all the same.† Ellie SHOULD have been the protagonist, but if she was, it would likely invite hell.

If you ask me, from what Iíve been through so far the best part of the game (note: minor spoilers) is when you actually get to control Ellie.† Outside of temporarily running about with another partner character -- an issue Iíve had throughout the game, to be honest -- it offers moments of introspection.† Quiet.† Meditation.† And when the action starts up in earnest, it creates a different interplay between the player and the game than when it has two or more people going at it.† It creates a more knowable and recognizable pressure; itís one thing to play the role of the protector (and you being the player, you WILL protect her or miss the rest of the game), but itís another thing entirely to have to protect yourself.† Iím frankly surprised -- and disappointed -- that Ellie ISNíT the player character; ignoring her role in the story, every time you open up the case for the game the first thing you see when you pull out the disk is Ellieís face. Plus sheís standing in the foreground of the box art.† And just how many promotional materials put some focus on her, exactly?

But you know what?† I get it.† I totally get it.† I will argue until Iím blue in the face that TLoU would be better if Ellie had top billing and Joel was just an extra (if that), in that it could change the gameís dynamics in a way we donít see all that often in games.† It could make for a game thatís a lot riskier in its content, intent, and presentation than the game we have now.† But itís precisely because of those risks that TLoU is the game that it is todayÖand what leads into the thrust of this post.†

Ellie as the star of the game could make for a radical departure from convention -- but just because that might be a good thing doesnít mean itís a good idea in the long run.† Setting aside the industryísÖĒissuesĒ with female characters and protagonists, thereís a tyrannosaurus in the room that makes me want to forget even proposing the idea: the portrayal of violence against children.† TLoU is a violent, grisly game, and while it wonít hesitate to show Ellie taking a lethal blow (a fact that I learned many, many times as I failed at certain sections of the game), it isnít quiteas violent as what can or has happened to Joel.† More to the point, what Iím prescribing isnít just a sequence or two where Ellieís in harmís way; weíre talking about the entire game.† Weíre talking about a game where a teenage girl would get punched, clubbed, shot, burned, blown up, and torn apart for a quick zombie-meal.† That would be a category five shitstorm.

And I know it would be a shitstorm, because itís vaguely similar to one weíve had in the past.† Remember the Tomb Raider reboot, and how everyone was worried that it would be nothing but torture porn?† Remember how the audience reeled when Conan OíBrien showed off the game to his audience, and the man himself jumped at the sight of seeing a spike run through Lara Croftís head?† Now imagine everything in TLoU being done to a girl thatís not even old enough to drive, without filter, and without restraint.† Imagine everything being witnessed first-hand from Ellieís perspective.† And of course, imagine how many people would raise a stink over making the player character a g-g-g-g-girl -- and not even an improbably buxom one, at that.

Joking on that last point aside (though one canít help but debate), itís obvious that there are issues that need sorting out with violence and gender dynamics -- in games, and arguably in fiction at large.† Are we at a point where we can make content in games more extreme, and genuinely explore certain ideas using certain elements?† WellÖI think we can, if not now then at least soon.† The graphics are certainly there (though arguably they have been for more than a decade).† The resources are there.† The willpower is there.† The talent is there.† Itís just a matter of being eager enough to explore the possibilities.† Well, that, and being able to explore them skillfully.

But is it a good idea? †Or will it just make you and your creation look dopey?

We all know that video games, as they are today, have their issues.† And plenty of us have made note of that; Iíve done so many times before.† But for now, this isnít a post to point fingers at others and say ďLook how silly they are!Ē† This is a post where I ask that we point fingers at ourselvesÖor if not ourselves, then certainly at me.† We are the next generation; weíre going to be the ones that develop games, or stage performances, or pen movies, or sing music.† By now I hope that the lot of you know itís my dream -- and by and large my mission in life -- to become a writer of some renown.† An author.† Someone whose name is synonymous with tales of heroes and adventures.† Weíre going to be the creators that change the world; the question is, how do we go about it?† Recklessly dive into topics and themes?† Restrain and censor ourselves, so as to avoid backlash from an audience or our own missteps?† Play it safe, and abandon our creative visions?† Rely on trends that distort the meaning and impact, but suit the people we aim to satisfy?† Forgo reason and empathy, and give the people what we want?† What do we owe them?† What do we owe ourselves?†

What is a creatorís responsibility -- and how do you even begin to bear it?

Since itís the issue right now, letís focus on this in the context of video games and violence.† The question of violence is getting asked more and more by the day, and someoneís going to have to offer a definitive answer on it soon -- not just in forum posts or statements ready for viewing in articles across the net, but where it really counts: in the games themselves.† In an age where quasi-realistic murder isnít just possible, but a commonality, what are we supposed to do?† Offer up statements about the violence?† Accept it and move on?† Avoid it entirely?† There are plenty of options, to be sureÖBUT those options, of course, all have their drawbacks.† More importantly, what option you choose could depend on the most important factor of all: you.

Like a lot of people, I donít think every game has to be so keen on showing off HD stab-renderings.† (The mere existence of games like Rez, Kirbyís Epic Yarn, and a host of others is proof enough of that.)† You can do a hell of a lot with a good story, and put plenty of personal touches that not only make the world you create good, but irresistible to anyone who happens upon it.† The two key goals of any creator are to make their work interesting and impactful (at the basest); if you can get those down, it doesnít matter how exactly you do it.† If it were up to me, though, I would at least try not to go with excessive violence and the usual trends; a more stylized approach seems like the better option, and certainly one with more lighthearted fare.

ÖIs what I would like to say, but I know myself pretty well.† I know what Iíve worked on in the past, and what I plan to work on in the future.† On one hand, Iím a guy whoís doing his best to make over-the-top comedies with no shortages of psychic powers, superheroes, and wrestling -- and for months now Iíve been toying with the idea of a story that wouldnít be too out of place on a Saturday morning cartoon block (to say nothing of game ideas that may never go anywhere, but still amuse me).† And on the other hand, Iíve got a story that features insanity as a plot point, widespread destruction and corruption of the planet, and one character that actually gets sliced in half.† Every time I think about my dream project -- something that Iíd prefer to be the tale of hot-blooded heroes romping across a metal-infused new world -- I find ways to make it darker and darker. †Pretty much everything I touch turns into a nightmare world, where suffering and despair arenít just expected, but damn near a requirement.†

This ďcreatorís responsibilityĒ Iíve mouthed off about is something that Iíll have to wrangle with in the futureÖif not right now.† Given what Iíve learned and reasoned in the year that Iíve started blogging, if I donít practice what I preach (and preach, and preach, and preach), then Iíd be the biggest afro-headed hypocrite since Afro McHypocritterson strutted about Central Park in 1976.† How am I going to reconcile violence in my works?† What sort of statements can I make about the world, the past, the human condition?† Should I even try?† Whatís the tone?† Is it right for me?† Is it right for others?† What do I owe others?† What do I owe myself?† So many questions need answering; what I wouldnít give to just be free to write about the occasional power bombÖ

But with that said, those are questions that Iím eager to answer.† Asking and answering questions can dramatically help oneís efforts when it comes to matters of creativity; it gives focus, along with a sort of road map for where to go in oneís pursuits.† Thereís an argument to be made that if game developers asked themselves more questions more overtly, we wouldnít have to worry about terms like ďdesign by committeeĒ† and ďhomogenizationĒ being quite so rampant, but thatís neither here nor there.† Thereís only so much we can do about the present, but the future is where we can -- and hopefully will --dominate and transform art as we know it.† Have a problem with excessive violence?† Then in the future, work to tone it down in your product.† Want more female protagonists?† Have them take the reins as soon as youíre able in your creation.† Want to say something different (or even anything at all)?† Great; thatís what your magnum opus will be for.† Whether you want a complete upheaval of creative norms or just want to make meaningful tweaks to the formula, youíre free to do whatever you wantÖthat is, as long as you do it adroitly.† Because ďadroitlyĒ is a fun word to write.

How does the saying go?† ďBe the change you wish to see in the world?Ē† Fair enough; if I have my way, I intend to.† Iíve done no shortage of saber-rattling against so-called ďgrittyĒ stories in the past, and itís my sincere intent to fix that with what I put out in the future.† (Or very-near future, hopefully.)† It goes beyond liking funnier/more colorful/more idealistic stuff, even though that plays a part; in a way, itís something that also plays a part in a creatorís responsibility.

See, Iíve always believed that on some level, itís not the lessons we learn from our parents or teachers or friends that makes us who we are.† Iíve always believed that in a lot of ways, we learn the most from the stories we take in.† Itís one thing to have elders (or me) preach at you, but itís another to sit down with your favorite tale -- written, filmed, or otherwise -- and subconsciously take in the ideas that itís proposed.† Intentional or not, thereís something to be learned and felt from even the simplest of video games.† We feel it, learn it, accept it -- and somewhere down the line, weíre transformed by it.† Thatís just a part of artís nature; not something to be feared, but explored.† We have to figure out what to do, and how to do it.† If we can crack the code, then we can put out something worthy of praise, no matter what elements -- grisly or not -- we put in.† If we canítÖwell, nothing will ever change, now will it?

Maybe thatís why I take video games -- the bad ones in particular -- so seriously, as if theyíre an affront to my senses.† Maybe thatís why I take so many potshots at others, acting as if Iím in the right and theyíre in the wrong.† Maybe Iím destined to make just as many mistakes, and worse ones, than they ever will.† Hard to say for sure.† But I guess the only way Iíll know for sure, and the only way I can do my part for others, is to give it a shot.† Ask myself questions.† Ask others questions.† Figure out whatís best for me, for others, and for the story at large.† Iíve been disappointed by games before, and will continue to be disappointed.† But Iíll be damned if I donít give it my all and surpass those Iíve railed against.

Thatís a responsibility Iím glad to take on.† And I hope itís one you guys do, too.

Man, I love that song.

- Thanks for reading! And remember -- if you want to see more content from me, anytime, anywhere, be sure to check out my blog. Give it a read, so we can all become heroes! http://cross-up.blogspot.com/

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About Voltechone of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012

Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.

I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.

You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.

Be a hero. Check 'em out.

Cross-Up -- head here for posts on games, movies, and more
My Troper profile
My Facebook page
My Twitter thingamajig

I Hraet You -- the over-the-top web serial novel...of love, maybe