Friday, November 13, 2015

Analysis: Undertale

A few people asked me what I thought of Undertale, and Undertale is definitely a game that is relevant to my area of expertise, so, here's some comments about Undertale.


1. Undertale Is At Least Giving You A Choice

The core concept of Undertale is that it's a regular JRPG, except for the fact that killing enemies is taken into account by the game's story. Unlike, say, Spec Ops The Line, there is a non-lethal solution to every encounter - and unlike Metal Gear Solid, that solution is slightly more involved than "use a different gun". It's also not tricking you with its premise - from the very first encounter, you're told that it's better to be nice and to SPARE enemies. It's unambiguous about the cause-and-effect at play.

So the core concept of Undertale is that it's a story where your actions matter, which is great. That's what games should be - interactive. That's what makes games different from movies. With regards to its core concept, I think Undertale is great.

2. Undertale Is Kind Of A Mess, Tonally

So the thing about Undertale, right, is that it's Earthbound, but not. It's a wacky world that occasionally lapses into legitimate danger for its child protagonist, just like Earthbound. And the problem with that here is that we're told some very specific things about the underground that make sense for the gameplay, theoretically, but don't work out in practice.

The underground is supposed to be dangerous. And it is. But its danger doesn't usually come from enemies who actively want to murder you. Rather, the enemies seem to be going about their regular lives, and it's purely incidental that you are hurt by their attacks. There is at least one enemy (Vulkin) who is explicitly described as not even knowing it's hurting people. By contrast, there are only a few characters (mostly in the late game) who are explicitly described as combatants, and who clearly want to kill the player.

The "Spare" actions are funny, sure, but do they really match up with the idea that you're in a hostile world? Obviously they're based on the negotiation in Shin Megami Tensei games (particularly Persona 2), but those games didn't really try to humanize the demons at all. In SMT games, the demons are capricious and random, and don't really care whether they live or die. As such, the "non-lethal" options are based on appealing to their strange nature.

In Undertale, however, the monsters are depicted in a much more "human" way. They have families, they have lives, they get upset when they lose loved ones. They have motivations and fears. Yes, there's reasons for the monsters to want to kill the human, but they don't really express those reasons at all. This undercuts the message that Undertale is ostensibly trying to convey: "Don't kill and be killed." Undertale isn't about turning the other cheek, or about using an appropriate amount of force. Undertale is about building empathy, but in a weird, "abstract comedy" sort of way.

I'll compare Undertale to SWAT 4, which seems weird, but bear with me. Both games are about dangerous situations where killing is an OPTION, but it's heavily discouraged. Both games, naturally, feature "enemies" who will surrender in the proper circumstances. Both games allow for killing, but ultimately want the player to take the moral high ground and deal with situations non-lethally.

The difference is that SWAT 4 is dealing with actual combatants - robbers, gang members, terrorists - who happen to display human psychology. It's humanizing a group of people who are usually displayed as unthinking, unyielding killing machines, and showing that the right way to deal with these people is to take the moral high ground, instead of being needlessly brutal. If you kill an enemy, it has to be in the right circumstances, and for the right reasons - and even then, it's inferior to taking them down non-lethally. There's rules. There's a sense of moral value at play.

Undertale, on the other hand, is too comedic to really get that lesson across. Sure, it's nice to spare people, but you don't get that same feeling of intensity to it. You're not convincing your enemies that you're nice and not a threat, you're just doing sort of random things and making them not want to kill you anymore. There's no real rules underpinning it. There's a few aversions (Undyne being one of the biggest) but for the most part it just seems random. And being nice isn't much harder than killing people, which undermines the moral calculus involved.

3. Undertale's Best Commentary Is Hidden In Its Worst Run

So this is the part where the real spoilers come in. There's one part about Undertale that I really like, and that's Flowey.

Flowey is a monster transplanted into a soulless plant body. "Soulless" in Undertale means that the individual is unable to truly connect, empathically, to other people. Flowey also used to possess the ability to "save" and "load", but the presence of the player took that away, and the player uses it instead.

In the "Genocide" run (i.e. "kill literally everything"), Flowey describes how he initially tried to be nice, and he originally affected time to make people happy and fix people's problems. But over time, people became too predictable - he was replaying the same time period over and over, and people's actions weren't differing enough to stay interesting. He didn't feel any real empathy towards the people around him, so he started messing with them, and then he started hurting them. Now he just wants to destroy everything, because he's tired of being here.

So, to put it bluntly: Flowey is a player. He doesn't treat the monsters as being "real people". He's nice when it suits him, but it's only for his own indulgence. He's stuck in the same loop of time and he messes with people to produce results that entertain him. He's not even sadistic - he's bored, and he views people as playthings. What makes him cruel and evil in-universe is a perfect descriptor of how most people play open world games.

People who cried over Toy Story 3 or Up or Wall-E are the same kind of people who talk about how killing is okay because "they're not real". A random pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto is just as "real" as the dog from that one episode of Futurama, which is to say, neither of them is real. They are both completely not real. The point of fiction is to make you forget that it isn't real, and to harvest visceral emotions from the made-up scenario that you're witnessing.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Batman, The Bad Man

Sometimes you find an argument so dumb that you really just have to respond to it.

This is one of those times.

Listen, let's just get this out of the way: superheroes are bad. At best they're objectivist fantasies of the "empowered individual" who keeps society in line by the power of their own moral values; at worst they're fascist celebrations of systemic violence against real-life marginalized groups. People claim that superheroes don't affect them and then say that Rorschach and the Punisher have the right idea. We've been over this.

So, point by point, here is a refutation of all the stupid shit Dean Trippe said.

First off, Batman fights those would would endanger others.

So why doesn't he fight himself? Anyways, he's spent a bunch of time chasing after bank robbers, so even within the fictional confines of crime-ridden Gotham City, Batman (like all superheroes) has intentionally worsened tense situations. Bank robbery is a crime that does not involve the average person. It's entirely between the police, the banks, and the robbers. Escalating those situations into violence is the only way that regular people will ever be in danger in a bank robbery unless the robbers are also total psychopaths. Even the famous North Hollywood shootout (directly inspired by the fictional bank robbery in "Heat") only hurt civilians once the police got involved (also like the movie "Heat").

On top of that, dude is all the time giving criminals second chances.

And yet it never seems to work. What's the lesson we're supposed to draw from that? Weird that a good-intentioned but non-functional incarceration system would convince so many comic book fans that murdering criminals is a good idea.

Yeah, he’s such a Republican. Dude helps fund the police crime lab, manages outreach programs and scholarships, donates to every freaking charity in the city, and STILL spends all his time and money saving your hatin’ ass, because THAT’S WHO HE IS.

"Fictional man with infinite money capable of doing everything still chooses to run around in bat suit getting in fights". That's the argument you're going with, and that's supposed to make him look noble. Like, you never even stopped to consider an alternative form of law enforcement beyond "Bruce Wayne puts on a bat suit and punches people". Hey, here's an idea: if crime is so bad that the police can't handle it even with a billionaire genius helping them out, THERE'S SOMETHING ELSE GOING WRONG IN THIS SITUATION.

Please tell me Bruce Wayne isn’t for higher taxes for after school programs, public housing, and healthcare, all of which reduce crime

Okay, I will: Bruce Wayne isn't for that shit because there has never been "reduced crime" in Gotham. If there was, the regular police would be able to handle crime, and Bruce Wayne wouldn't need to be dealing with it personally. This seems super obvious, guy.

Batman poured his bleeding heart out on the floor before congress to get federal assistance when Gotham needed it.

Ah, nothing says "bleeding heart" like a rich man asking congress for taxpayer funds.

Batman FREQUENTLY adopts orphans whose parents he couldn’t save or who generally just need his help. (Robinhood is like the Big Brother program, but replace Big with Bat.)

This is the one that made me write this article. This dude earnestly believes that putting children in harm's way is good and noble because "Robinhood is like the Big Brother program". You know, I've worked in a mentorship program with children, and I can assure you that if I'd ever encouraged a child to go out and fight criminals, I would probably have ended up in jail. Most cultures frown on child soldiers.

Batman is hardcore BFFs with the biggest liberal softy in the DCU, Superman, whom he respects, both for his work as a superhero AND a member of the fourth estate.

Cartoon man with infinite power respects different cartoon man with different infinite power. Wow, so noble. Certainly Superman can't possibly have any flaws, right? I mean, it's not like there have been multiple stories dealing with the possibility of a man with infinite power being even slightly corrupted or dogmatic. No, obviously Batman's association with Superman means he's a leftist. This is obvious.

Batman fights rich criminals all the damn time, son. And you know what? If you hench for a homicidal maniac, sometimes you get batarang’d and them’s the breaks. You don’t get to hurt people and get away with it in Gotham City. Not anymore.

Okay, you don't even know what you're saying anymore.

Batman doesn’t kill. Batman doesn’t use guns. Batman wants the mentally ill to get help, not be sent to prison. Is it working out great? NOT REALLY, BECAUSE WE ALL WANT MORE ROGUES GALLERY STORIES. Blame the fans for the failure of Arkham, not Batman. Dude’s doing his level best, and it’s a damn sight better than any of you are doing.

And this is the other reason I wrote this article: because this dude seamlessly shifts from "justifying Batman's decisions in-universe" to "blaming the fans for making the universe like that in the first place". This is an admission of defeat. Batman doesn't make sense, so you blame the fans and creators for making him not make sense - as though Batman is a real person who's been trapped in a ridiculous fictional world. I mean, look at that. It's a fundamental failure to understand the way fiction works.

Gotham is bad. Gotham is relentlessly bad. Why is it bad? Because it needs to be that way to justify Batman. This dude is happy to use that fact to defend Batman's existence, but then when he can't justify it anymore, he criticizes Gotham's existence for his own failures. Hey buddy, spoiler alert: if Gotham wasn't like that, Batman would have zero reasons to exist. He'd be so stupid and pointless that there'd be no way to justify him. By attacking Gotham's fictional situation you're essentially saying "yes he's bad, but it's bad because we like watching a man in a bat suit punch people", which would be a true statement.

Fiction is shaped the way it's shaped for a reason. You want a story about a strong individual rich man fighting the lower classes, and Gotham gave it to you. You can't bite the hand that feeds you, dude. Gotham is your fantasy. Gotham is what you wanted. You want to be the rich, powerful man who everyone looks up to and everyone needs. And the only way you can get that is through perpetual conflict.

This is the problem with people who think "fiction doesn't affect reality". Escapism isn't some abstract soup, where you're just randomly given things. You, the reader, are pursuing an ideal. Batman exists because its readers want to vicariously be powerful and strong and capable, and Gotham is a city where that can happen. It's fundamentally the same as a middle schooler hoping terrorists attack his school so that he can show off his sweet karate moves. Trying to pretend there's no real values involved is so obviously ridiculous that the only way you could do it is if you've been told all your life that fiction doesn't count. And guess what? Nerds have been told that. Over and over and over and over and over.

Batman is a story for children. These children are taught that crime exists in a certain way, and should be dealt with in a certain way. These children grow up to be adults who believe rape culture isn't real ("because we all know thugs in alleys are bad") and that crime-fighting is simple and easy.

You know, there's superheroes in real life. And generally, they don't work out. There's a bunch of reasons for it, but the core one is that an INDIVIDUAL COMBATANT, with NO ACCOUNTABILITY, is not the best way to fight crime. The idea of criminals being super-obvious and easily spotted is a myth that was necessary for this mindset. In reality, people like that are going to make mistakes just as often as they get it right - and unless they're held accountable for those mistakes, they're just going to make things worse.

Superheroes are a story that our society propagates because the idea of a strong, violent individual is at the core of masculine fantasies. It has never been about "results". It has always been about celebrating "individual badassness". And it's really hard for people to argue that fiction doesn't affect them when they're making genuine arguments about how vigilantes are a good idea.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Analysis: Mad Max

"Immortan", Or, The Nature Of Toxicity

"Mad Max" is a series set in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Without resources or civilization, the surviving population devolves into a crude, tribal state. New religions and cultures arise as the children of the survivors forget more and more of the world that came before them. The vacuum of power means that the strong overpower the weak and etch their own will upon the barren remnants of the world.

Which is to say, despite the common presence of "masculine" enemies, Mad Max is a series built on masculinity. Allow me to explain using examples from the series: in Mad Max: Fury Road, the warlord "Immortan Joe" has revitalized the ancient concept of "Valhalla". He promises that any of his followers ("War Boys") who die in glorious combat will ascend to the afterlife and be rewarded for eternity. Which is to say, Immortan Joe's entire religion is built on the core concept that fighting is awesome. By contrast, his enemies (such as Max and Furiosa) are trying to escape his hellish world by any means necessary.

But here's the weird thing about Mad Max, right? Max is a "survivor". But he doesn't ever take refuge, yeah? He keeps wandering. During the course of the movies themselves he's on the run, doing whatever it takes to survive. He usually starts the movie with some level of moral ambiguity, willling to do bad things in order to stay alive and to escape the current situation. Inevitably he then finds himself personally invested in the struggle, and he works with his new allies to overthrow the big bad warlord and allow a new, peaceful world to arise.

And then he leaves.

Mad Max is a survivor first and foremost. Which is why he keeps leaving his safe refuge and his grateful comrades. Because he has to end up in another situation where he's desperate to survive but then becomes morally invested. Because there has to be violence.

As a series, Mad Max condemns patriarchal warlords like Humungus or Immortan Joe. Yet the series is built on those same values - you root for Max because he's strong and capable. He's alpha. Yes, he's eventually more moral than his opponents, but he's not smart or charismatic or capable. He's a snarling, mangy dog backed into a corner. He's a killer.

Max is a War Boy. You, the audience, are War Boys. You're just here for the fight.

"Furiosa", Or, The Nature Of Virtue

Once we've defined evil, how do we define good? Well, we can't look at Max, because he's a lunatic ("Mad", if you will). So we look at Max's allies. Most of Max's allies are trying to make their way in a world gone crazy ("Mad", if you will). They're trying to eke out an existence in a hostile wasteland in a way that Max will absolutely never do. Unlike Max, they have an end goal: peaceful existence.

It's telling, then, that as soon as peaceful existence happens, the story ends. Max leaves. Max doesn't give a shit about peaceful existence, buddy. This is a common trope in movies and games, of course - most plots are centered around conflict, and so when the conflict is over, the audience stops caring. See my earlier point re: "you are War Boys".

A lot of people watched Fury Road and sympathized a lot more with Furiosa, the wives, and the Vuvalini than with Max himself. Max's reasons for being there are loose and weird, whereas everyone else has a clear goal to strive for. They feel capable of winning or losing. But there we run into the irony of the post-apocalyptic world: we want to be there, and they want to be here. None of those characters want to be involved in a highly lethal car chase with explosions and shit. None of them want that. They want to be somewhere safe, with lots of food and water and leisure time. They want your life.

Mad Max is an action movie, though. It's not survival horror. It's a movie about how badass explosions are, even if the characters you sympathize with don't like them. You want them to suffer so you can get a visceral thrill from it. Once again, you are the War Boy. You are here for adrenaline and blood and death. You are here because it is fun to kill and die. WITNESS YOURSELVES.

"Nux", Or, The Nature Of Mercy

Let's get this out there: Fury Road is an unapologetic death movie. It is a movie about cars exploding, people dying in gouts of flame and shrapnel-laden vehicle wrecks. Despite certain parts of its story beats it is first and foremost a movie designed to make the audience feel good about people dying - specifically, raiders dying. It's the traditional trope of "perma-hostiles" who cannot be reasoned with, intimidated, or forced to flee. There's more attempt at explaining it than usual (the War Boys are religious, as opposed to the usual bandit motivation) but it still boils down to the same motivation as an orc in D&D or a thug in Batman. They exist to charge at the hero until the hero kills them.

Except for Nux.

Nux is a luckless War Boy whose failures eventually leave him despondent and hopeless, at which point he joins the "good guys". He is a classic example of a mook-face turn - an individual enemy displaying humanity and joining the "right side", usually because the good guys show kindness and the bad guys do not. However, Nux's "setup" is relatively forced.

There is a scene where Nux sneaks aboard the war rig attempting to capture Furiosa and the five wives. During this scene, Furiosa is ready to kill Nux, but the wives intervene, stating that they "agreed upon" not shedding any blood unnecessarily. There is a justified reason for this: the wives give birth to children who will be raised as War Boys, and in a way, the existing War Boys are spiritual children of the wives. The wives are trying to keep themselves and their children away from bloodshed, and thus it makes sense for them to not want to kill people they see as misguided children.

But only Nux receives that treatment. Only Nux is given that chance. And, of course, he repays them for their mercy by eventually becoming useful and vital to their plans. But he's the only one who receives any mercy. Why is this? Well, to start, Nux's redemption is a "morality moment". It makes the audience feel like they're good guys because this one guy turned his life around. But obviously we can't slow the movie down with that shit every time so the rest of the War Boys get exploded and impaled and shot and stabbed. Hell yeah. Hell yeah. There's so many pale, tumor-ridden cancer victims in Valhalla tonight. It's amazing.

Here's the thing: there's a lot of misogynists who were upset about Fury Road's female characters, and about Max's reduced role. But why would they like the series in the first place, you may ask. "Patriarchal masculinity" has always been a bad thing in Mad Max. There's always been strong female characters. None of this was new in Fury Road. So why did people who were okay with Mad Max this whole time suddenly object to this slightly more overt stuff?

Man, it's almost like Mad Max appeals to masculinity, isn't it? Like its focus on glorifying death and carnage and strong, decisive characters would plug directly into an alpha-bro's brain stem and give him the adrenaline rush he craves? Weird.

Oh, right, and they also drive around in a billion cars despite the world suffering from a gas shortage. That's dumb, guys. You're not thinking that one through.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Deniable Artistry

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is almost upon us.

This is Hideo Kojima's last MGS game. Of course, every previous game was also his "last MGS game"; he famously claimed that he was going to quit after MGS2, and then again after MGS3.

But now he can't "quit". Because he's been fired. So the only way he would be able to continue making MGS games is if he goes out of his way to make them.

In commemoration of this, the death of a franchise, I think it's important to talk about what Kojima represents to gaming.

Hideo Kojima Represents The Fear Of Commitment In Games

Let's set down some facts.

Firstly, Hideo Kojima tries to make "serious games", insomuch as he (a) puts "serious topics" into his games, and (b) is praised by fans and reviewers for his inclusion of these topics. For example, both Shane Bettenhausen (formerly of 1up) and Dan Ryckert (currently of GiantBomb) have stated that they only know about PMCs because of MGS4. Both of them view this as a positive for the game itself, rather than a negative for their own education.

Bettenhausen's statements led into one of my favorite pieces of games writing - Shawn Elliott's "What I Like Least About MGS4 Isn't MGS4". Elliott's article illustrates one of the big problems with bad or lazy writing in games: the fact that audiences often can't tell it's bad, and usually don't care. Kojima writes about "serious topics", and his fans say that he's a genius, and that's sort of the end of it. They don't fact-check, they don't examine it critically, they don't care. They just sort of absorb whatever information he gives them, true or false.

And that leads into a second problem: he's not held accountable for anything, because he has an escape clause no matter what. I illustrated this concept with a flowchart:

This is the issue: there's always an excuse.

If you look at Kojima's career, if you look at the protagonists he's written, there's a lot of trends that people really don't want to acknowledge. Gillian Seed, Jonathan Ingram, and the various incarnations of Snake are all fundamentally based on one character: Ryo Saeba from City Hunter. Ryo is a tough, cool, brown-haired bounty hunter who is also a "wacky pervert". By that I mean that he peeps on women, gropes women, and generally violates women's personal space, but it's played for laughs. We're supposed to see him as a normal, red-blooded man who's "good at heart", by which I mean he shoots bad guys.

Seed, Ingram, and even Snake are basically that model poured into different scenarios. Seed and Ingram are the most obvious; Seed hits on every woman he encounters, including a 14-year-old girl whose father was just murdered, and seems to have little respect for their autonomy or agency. Ingram goes further, unstoppably groping every woman he encounters without their consent and without consequence. This reaches its zenith when he starts groping his partner's 16-year-old daughter right in front of him, as his partner demands that he stops. The game, of course, never makes you stop.

But what about Snake? Solid Snake is a traumatized loner, a genetic freak bred for war who retires to a life of solitude in Alaska because he can't stand being around other people. And yet despite this, he ogles Meryl voyeristically, then angrily rebuffs her when she shows actual interest. In MGS2 he kisses posters for reasons that only Kojima will ever truly understand. In MGS4 he ogles Naomi's breasts and pretends to drop his cigarette while she's talking so he'll have an opportunity to look at her panties. 

And that's not even getting into Big Boss. Pay attention to how this mission ends and remember: he thinks this girl is 15. And then in the next  game, that girl is raped, tortured, and murdered.

What am I getting at with all of this? It's the "Underestimating His Genius" column in the flowchart. Kojima isn't radically subverting standards with his treatment of sexuality - he's adhering to a classical model. Every time Kojima does something gross or weird in his games, he's just continuing what he's always done, because he's never really gotten punished for it. Even the people who think that stuff is objectionable end up making excuses for him. Why? Because if they admitted those flaws, then it might bring up problems with the rest of the game, and it might just turn out that the game itself is bad.

Kojima could have made Snake a rapist and people would still make excuses for him. Even people who consider themselves progressive would be hemming and hawing about "cultural imperialism" and "irony" and everything else. Even though Kojima has a history of fetishizing non-consensual interactions (voyeurism, ogling, groping), people would still go "well, Kojima can't REALLY be saying that rape is good, obviously it's ironic".

Because it's not about what Kojima wants, or what Kojima thinks. It's about what his audience wants to believe he is: a serious artist, but also a wacky funster. They want to enjoy his games without feeling bad about it. They want "fun". People hate thinking about where "fun" comes from.

I'll close out with my favorite anecdote about Hideo Kojima.

There's one MGS game that Kojima didn't really work on - Portable Ops.

Then Kojima released Peace Walker, an obvious successor to the Portable Ops model. In that game, Kojima dismisses Portable Ops with a single line (the only mention of PO in another MGS game):

Miller: Finally, we can leave all that crap in San Hieronymo behind…

This, to me, is the real Kojima. The real Kojima is a guy who gets jealous about his son liking a game he didn't make and responds by one-upping it (because he has a larger staff and budget). And then that's not enough, so he makes sure everyone knows that it "doesn't count", and denounces it whenever it comes up.

That's your "artist". A petty, ignorant creep who's somehow convinced everyone that he's untouchable. An "ideas guy" who gets praise because he's got millions of dollars and hundreds of employees, both of which were supplied by a company that everyone now knows was abusive as hell.

And people are going to keep giving him money because, hey, why not?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Analysis: SWAT 4

SWAT 4 is a first-person, squad-based tactical shooter. The player takes the role of a police SWAT team leader and is tasked with "restoring order to chaos" in a variety of scenarios ranging from robbery to terrorism. In many ways it is easy to compare SWAT 4 to other "realistic" shooters like ARMA or Rainbow 6. Mechanically, they are similar. People go down in one or two shots, making tactics and fast reflexes a necessity. The gameplay is tense and things can go bad in a few short seconds. But there's a big difference between SWAT 4 and those other games as well.

"Advanced AI", and Human Psychology

I wrote a while back about Liberal Crime Squad, a game that in many ways is on the opposite side of SWAT 4. LCS is about creating social change, SWAT 4 is about preserving order. LCS' methods range from "subversive" to "terrorist", SWAT 4 is about going by-the-book at all times. LCS and SWAT 4 have one important thing in common, though, and it's what separates SWAT 4 from Rainbow Six et al: the way characters, especially hostile characters, behave.

In real life, people have a variety of reactions to a combat situation. Some people are dedicated enough to keep fighting even when they're certain they're going to die. Some people decide it's not worth it. Some people freeze up. Some people panic. Some people run. People don't behave the same; they make their own decisions based on their own adrenaline-fueled emotional state.

This is a thing that LCS and SWAT 4 acknowledge. It is a thing almost every other shooter ever made fails at.

In LCS, every combat encounter has more options than just "shooting". You can intimidate. You can bluff. You can take a hostage. You can use realistic options to manipulate the situation in your favor, and people will behave in a relatively realistic manner. Characters have a sense of self-preservation, cowardice, or moral ambiguity. Even though the game is intentionally designed to be over-the-top political satire, the characters in that game behave more "humanly" than most other characters do.

In SWAT 4 - which is more serious than LCS by far - you are playing a police officer. It is your first priority to arrest suspects, not to kill them. To that end, there are rules that you must abide by. You must give the suspect fair warning and a chance to surrender (specifically, by shouting "Police! Drop your weapon!"). Even after you issue that warning, you do not get a "clean kill" unless the suspect is aiming at a police officer or a civilian. And even if that is the case, killing a suspect prevents you from getting full marks on a mission. The act of killing is, itself, a minor failure, no matter how justified it is.

I mentioned the game's difficulty earlier, and this, too, is important for its message. Because it's so easy to be killed, the player is forced to balance their mercy and their desire to do the right thing with their own self-preservation. You are forced to make judgment calls in the heat of the moment: was I right in shooting that person? What if I was wrong, and they didn't have a gun? These kinds of moments are narratively important, and the game's difficulty is necessary to create them.

What It Means

If viewed "objectively", in a purely mechanical format, SWAT 4 is unique, but ultimately flat. SWAT 4 is a hard game. If you look at it purely as a game, then it's "difficult" and not much else. But that's true of any game that you look at mechanically, because that's what games are: flat. They're fun. They're entertaining. You play them, and you're distracted for a while.

But if you look at SWAT 4 narratively, or contextually - if you treat it like art - it is doing something very important. It is avoiding dehumanization. Every human life in SWAT 4 is intrinsically valuable. Every death is a failure. Every suspect has the chance to give up. In most games, "human enemies" are essentially the same as zombies or robots. They are aimless, ego-less beings with no sense of self-preservation. Their only goal is to kill the protagonist. They do not have any desires or values beyond that, unless the developer wants to throw in a scene where it turns out they're also universally sadists and torturers.

That is what violence in media is. Not just "violence", the act, but "dehumanization", the idea. The idea that there are people out there who can never be fixed, and who only deserve death. This is not a "fictional" idea. It is a real one. It is a real belief held by many real people. It colors the way our society thinks about soldiers and police and anyone else whose job involves killing people. And, because of it, we become more accepting of torture and abuse by those people, because the people they're hurting were permanently evil anyways.

"Taking Things Seriously"

The thing about SWAT 4 is that, more than anything else, it takes itself seriously. It is the result of people sitting down and saying "We want to make a SWAT simulator. In order to make it accurate we are going to include a lot of decisions that some people will say 'aren't fun'. But we have to do that in order to make it right."

There are no female officers in SWAT 4. I am not blaming them for this. If there were female officers in SWAT 4, I have no doubt that (like the Tom Clancy games) those officers would be treated, and depicted, as respectfully as possible. I'm not saying that the SWAT 4 team is particularly feminist or egalitarian or whatever else. What I am saying is that they took the game seriously, and as a result, if they had included female officers, they would have taken them seriously as well.

The thing about women in gaming - when you talk about objectification, or damseling, or anything else - is that women are generally not taken seriously in games. Women are there to be pretty, and games are supposed to be fun, not serious. So you end up with characters whose physiques don't match their roles, because they're not there to be "serious combatants", they're there to be eye candy. You end up with characters whose contribution to the story is ultimately just male gratification, because games aren't meant to have serious stories, they're meant to be escapism for dudes. And the same is true about violence: it's okay to dehumanize people because killing is supposed to be a fun outlet.

If you're concerned about things like objectification, you need to start by taking things seriously. And consistently, too, because it's always going to ring hollow when you're complaining about realism in one case and then justifying non-realism in the next. If you want positive social change you have to hold yourself accountable to the standards you want everyone else to play by. SWAT 4 is not just "realistic", it's serious. It's cohesive. It works together. Its components fit. It is not ludonarratively dissident, it is ludonarratively harmonious. It works.

SWAT 4 is an enjoyable game, and as countless bungling Youtube videos have shown, it's possible to play it in a "fun" way (i.e. not taking it seriously). But the fundamental fact remains that SWAT 4 was made to be played seriously. If you are not playing SWAT 4 seriously, and you are not taking SWAT 4 seriously, you are not getting the full experience that was made for you. And it's that dedication to the message that makes SWAT 4 one of the best games - if not the best game - ever made.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


I feel like we need to lay all our cards out here on the table with this "realism" thing. I keep seeing it get misused and, frankly, I'm not super-happy about it. I mean, it all seems pretty basic, doesn't it? And yet people keep messing it up. So, once again, let's roll out the Realism 101.

1) What Is Realism?

Realism is the illusion of reality, which is to say, the inclusion of real elements and rules to increase the solidity and consistency of a work. Realism exists to connect fiction (an abstract lie) to real life. For example, creating physical sensations of touch, smell, and taste are not possible in most mediums, but by appealing to realism, those sensations can be evoked.

It is important to distinguish between "physical realism" and "cultural realism". Physical realism refers to the laws of physics behaving the same as they do in real life; fire burns, water wets, and a sharp piece of steel being stabbed into flesh hurts like hell. The purpose of physical realism is to connect the audience's senses to reality, to invoke sensations that are not normally communicable through conventional mediums, and to give a sense of weight to the proceedings. And in most cases, even worlds with magic in them are still supposed to run on basically realistic cultural rules - again, fire burns, water wets, etc., even if the rest of the world is full of "impossible" things.

When it comes to those "impossible" things, by the way, I'd like to remind everyone that myth & reality have "coexisted" on Earth since the dawn of time. People have always believed in gods and monsters and other things that exist in fantasy - but they also believed that farming works like this and smithing works like this. They believed in consistency and observable results, but they also believed in snake-headed monsters and lightning-throwing deities. These things were not, to them, in opposition. Somehow, people found a way to create civilization even though they also believed that the sun was towed across the sky by a divine chariot.

Cultural realism, on the other hand, isn't a real thing unless your story takes place on Earth. Why bring it up? Because it's commonly invoked, usually to justify adherence to genre standards or to justify sexism/racism/etc. Culture is highly malleable. Even in real life, "cultures" across the world have a huge variety of values, styles, and concepts. You can find matriarchal cultures and race-inclusive cultures no matter how far back in time you go. The idea that people from a specific time period are "just that way" is factually and provably false.

In addition, if you're depicting an entirely separate society on an entirely different planet or plane of existence, there's absolutely no reason to connect it to a real culture's mores and values - after all, those two cultures have never made contact. Why would the world of The Witcher have the values of real Europe when those two cultures have never actually intersected? Is this meant to be some kind of parallel evolution? How, exactly, did a culture created in entirely different circumstances come to have the exact same values and standards and aesthetics of Medieval Europe? Is it because you're dumb and lazy, but you want to pretend you're a serious auteur?

When someone says "this game needs to have racism and sexism because that's period-appropriate", what they're usually saying is "I want my game to have racism and sexism and I'm going to use the guise of realism to justify it", and it'd all be easier if they just owned up to it.

2) Why Is Realism?

I already basically the question of "what realism does", but it's also important to note why people invoke it. People invoke realism because they believe it is a justification in itself; it's a "high concept" in a lot of ways, and even if you're not talking about the specific benefits it offers, people are generally willing to accept "realism" as a justification for a design decision.

But - and I'm repeating myself here - most people who invoke "realism" are doing so in a very haphazard way. People use it when it pleases them and throw it away when it doesn't. And that's fine as a design choice, but it's pretty bad as a justification for design choices. I've watched people argue that male heroes have to be muscular and strong because it's not realistic to have chubby or fat protagonists, but then immediately turn around when it comes to female characters ("oh, it's okay for them to have large breasts and curvy physiques because it's just a game"). The fact is, most people who invoke realism don't actually care about it. They just want to justify their design decisions but they don't actually want to carry through and make the product "actually realistic".

If you want something in your game to be realistic, fine, good. Realism is a helpful tool in a designer's arsenal. It has utilitarian benefits for creators. It does things. But if you're trying to tell me that the culture on your made-up world has to mirror your perception of a real culture, you're trying to escape judgment for your own design decisions. You're trying to go "well it's not MY fault, I HAD to do it, because of REALISM", and that's clearly not true, because "adherence to realism" is a choice, not a rule. And that brings me into my final point:

3) How Is Realism?

I just wanted to throw this out here: if you're going to invoke realism, please be careful that you're not totally fucking wrong. Because there's a shitload of people out there with half-formed ideas about Medieval Europe that they got from Renaissance Faires and Hollywood movies, and those people are like "well of COURSE this would happen, because REALISM". If you are going to invoke realism to justify something, please, please make sure that you actually know what you're talking about.

I mean, being frank: I don't expect a designer to know everything about reality. That's impossible. But if you're specifically going out of your way to say "I had to do this because of realism", please stop for a moment, do some research, and make sure that you're actually correct.

So, to sum up:

1) Realism is a useful tool, but don't pretend that you're bound by it when you're not.
2) Don't invoke realism as a justification unless you're prepared to be consistent.
3) If you DO invoke realism, make sure you know what you're talking about.

Thanks in advance,

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Last Argument

I. Recently, in response to the new Mad Max movie, Anita Sarkeesian had some comments about the nature of violence. Specifically, the idea that "media feminism" often limits itself to the idea of women doing masculine things & being respected for it, even when those things are distasteful and hateful (i.e. "killing people").

I was thrilled, of course. You all know my thoughts about toxic masculinity by now. I don't support dehumanization, and I don't support tragedy being turned into positive, indulgent entertainment. As I've written before, it's possible for a character to be strong, confident and in control (the "positive" elements of masculinity) without being the kind of hateful person who goes around looking for reasons to murder people (the "negative" aspects of masculinity).

There are plenty of people who didn't like Sarkeesian's comments. This includes the obvious crowd, but there's a lot of people who support feminism and "progressive" ideals who felt slighted by those comments, as well. Again, I've written before about the phenomenon of people who feel that media does affect us and that some things shouldn't be turned into entertainment, but who still feel that violence is basically fine and normal. There are a lot of people out there who enjoy violence and want to make excuses about why they should be allowed to indulge in it. My favorite argument is the argument that violence is okay because it's "natural", even though the people making that argument are generally not okay with sexism, racism, and other things that are just as "natural" as killing is.

But it's not just the act of "killing" that's the problem. It's the culture around it. As always, people make the argument that they can separate fiction from reality, and then go on to prove that they absolutely can't.

II. When I talked about Rorschach a while back, I pointed out the fact that in Rorschach's world, he makes perfect sense. Rorschach lives in a world where criminals are not just people making mistakes; they are, almost universally, hardened thugs who cannot be negotiated with. As a result, Rorschach's methods make perfect logical sense, even if Alan Moore thinks they're bad.

That's the problem with violence in media. Not just "it happens", but the reasons it happens. Violence in media is justified because the bad guys are always slavering monsters who cannot ever be negotiated with. Ergo, the "last resort" becomes the first and only resort.

Who would build a world like this? Who would present a narrative where human beings behave like monsters? Imagine the kind of person who sits clutching a gun in their house, paranoid about "thugs" breaking in and murdering their family. That's easy enough to imagine, right? It's a concrete, well-established bloc in American politics, after all. "Paranoia" is the foundation of the Republican party. If we don't maintain order, everything's going to fall apart. The Muslims are going to blow up our cities and then the Illegals are going to take over what's left, and they're going to spend their welfare checks on lobsters!!

Here's the thing, though: those people? Yeah, those are the people who are responsible for our current ideas of "being a badass". Those are the "John Waynes" of the world, the kind of people who support stoic detachment because emotions might make you weak at a crucial moment. Those people wrote superhero comics and action movies. I mean, why the hell do you think superheroes spend so much time stopping bank heists? Who the hell cares about bank heists except for conservatives and people looking for an opportunity to "be a hero"? Nobody, that's who.

The mistake people make is thinking they can separate "violence" from "problematic elements". The entire concept - the dehumanization, the forced stoicism, the toxic masculinity - all of it comes from the same well. Nerd culture idolizes "badasses" because the people who created nerd culture a century ago had specific ideas about how men should behave. And even though some of the ideas from their time became unacceptable - overt racism and sexism, for example - the idea of "killing thugs" maintained its credibility because people were fooled into thinking that it's apolitical.

III. The thing about violence is that...well, let's back up. There's a lot of people who've been accusing Anita Sarkeesian and Jonathan McIntosh of being "pacifists", even though that's clearly not the case - in fact, I myself have been the recipient of that same accusation. The implicit statement being made by that accusation is that they (or "we") are naive and idealistic, blind to the ways of the world, which is why we think violence is bad when obviously it's very good and important.

But that's not accurate, for multiple reasons. First off, there's a difference between being a pacifist and being against dehumanization, in the same way that it is possible to imagine defending yourself against a mugger without fetishizing the idea. Violent media is not just about making use of violence, it's about enjoying making use of violence, and feeling morally justified for doing so. That is the disgusting part. Violence can be justified, but dehumanizing people to justify mass slaughter? And then treating that mass slaughter like it's not only morally accepted but also fun? Reflect on the fact that, seventy years ago, a movie like Mad Max would have been about cowboys gunning down Native Americans.

Second off, reflect for a moment on the idea that pacifism is "naive". Earlier, I said that the Republican Party is founded on paranoia. "Pacifism is naive" fits perfectly into the conservative wheelhouse. It's the idea that if you try to be nice to someone, they're going to take advantage of you. It's the idea that if you show weakness, someone's going to break you. It's all the worst bits of toxic masculinity combined with the worst bits of conservative ideology and people really just don't seem to get it. So even if Sarkeesian, McIntosh & I were pacifists, which we aren't, the idea that "pacifism = naive = bad" is totally derived from the kind of mindset that people claim to hate.

Violence is a thing that exists. It has a place in narratives. But, like rape, it is easy to abuse its inclusion. It is easy to misrepresent violence, just as it is easy to misrepresent rape. It is easy to trivialize violence, to turn it into perverse entertainment, just as it is easy to do those things with rape. Violence is horrific. Violence is traumatic. Violence isn't a game, but "games" are where you see the majority of violence in your life. You're so exposed to the idea of this cleaned-up, sanctified violence that you might not even understand what's weird about it, in the same way that people are so exposed to the idea of "rape = stranger in an alley" that they don't really understand what "rape culture" actually is.

IV. Some of you may have noticed that the issue of violence and dehumanization has essentially come to dominate my blog, overtaking previous issues of realistic depiction, feminism, and sensible plots. There's a reason for this: it's the last argument that needs to be made. Everything else I've ever written about is pretty much common-sense stuff. You either accept the idea that women should be depicted as possessing agency, or you don't. You either accept the idea that realism can heighten people's tactile immersion, or you don't. But violence tends to be "the exception", because people are so used to thinking of it as an apolitical concept. People get the idea that media is important, and then they stop when they get to violence.

I've watched people argue about the unrealism of "boob plate", or the dehumanization of objectification, and then immediately turn around and make excuses about why it's okay to kill hordes of dudes who throw themselves at you until you grind them into pulp. It's our culture's biggest blind spot. People understand the value of realism and they understand that dehumanizing people for audience gratification is bad, and then they throw those concepts away because it might make them feel bad for participating in mass slaughter. Even people who claim they learned something from Spec Ops The Line will make this argument, which is why I'm so dismissive of that game: because it doesn't seem like it worked.

Right now, violence is the breaking point holding together two separate worlds. In one world, media affects people. In the other, it doesn't. Either you think video games affect people, in which case subject matter is important, or you don't think that video games affect people, in which case you're going to play whatever you want. The problem right now is that the people who live in the "media affect you" world are currently attached to the "media doesn't affect you" world by way of violence. They accept the premise, but they're still attached to the idea of being a murderous badass. They'll make arguments against objectification or rape or whatever else, but when it comes to violence, suddenly they don't want to.

The idea that media affects you is a prerequisite for any other discussion of media's effects on people. You need to accept this premise if you want to talk about anything else. Things like objectification and sexist design can't exist unless you accept that premise. That's why it's so disheartening to see people who claim to accept the premise, and then immediately shut it down as soon as violence gets involved. Because the fact is, until people do that, our "media culture" isn't going anywhere. You're going to end up trapped in a world where people make excuses for Hideo Kojima putting a vagina-bomb inside a rape victim, and then making a busty sniper lady who gets graphically tortured (but also, remember to buy her sexy figurine!). These are the seeds you're sowing. That is the world you're going to inhabit until you accept reality. Silent Hill was canceled because gamer culture is Silent Hill now.