Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Analysis: Battletech


Battletech is a franchise that began as a hilariously complex tabletop wargame, expanded into novels and technical manuals, and eventually found more mainstream purpose in videogames like "Mechwarrior" and "Mechcommander". Despite years of financial difficulties, bankruptcy, and legal troubles, Battletech continues to exist today in the form of Mechwarrior Online and the recently funded Battletech video game (EDIT: the tabletop game and novel series are also still in active publication).

I grew up with Battletech, and it's one of the few nostalgic properties that I'm still genuinely fond of. However, I discovered over time that there were some strange aspects of the series that would vary wildly depending on the author or developer of the work in question, and that's what I intend to write about now.


Setting

Battletech takes place in the 31st century. Humanity has spread across the stars, originally as the unified "Star League", but now as the divided "Inner Sphere". The many planets of the Inner Sphere are controlled by neo-feudal aristocracy. Unifying these disparate states is ComStar, an entity responsible for operating the technology that allows communication and transport between worlds. The Inner Sphere is rife with combat between noble houses, but its combat is of a very controlled and deliberate form. The rules of war are set by the Ares Conventions, which prohibits combat in civilian areas and defines codes of conduct for combat, but also establishes armed combat as a reasonable and justified method of settling political issues. In short, it is not "war" as it exists in our modern era, but closer to the wars of 18th century Europe - the "Kabinettskriege" fought by small numbers of professional soldiers as part of an endemic system of territory control.

On the edge of the Inner Sphere are the Clans - the remnants of the old Star League, now a genetically modified and strictly organized fighting force. Like the Inner Sphere, they operate within a very strict code of honor called zellbringen. While the Ares Conventions were designed around minimizing collateral damage, zellbringen is more about honorable combat and martial decorum, but they functionally serve the same purpose: war is a controlled event subject to many rules and regulations. It is not "total war", but a political struggle waged by professionals in set arenas.

I mention this because, while it makes sense and is essentially the only justification for "big stompy mech fighting", it's a thing that's almost buried in most of the games and books.

"Fighting" vs "War"

Most Battletech material presents itself as a fairly traditional sci-fi war. The invasion of the Clans, especially, was treated as this big alien threat instead of a relatively benign regime change. The reason for this is that it's hard to get invested in what is essentially a minor political struggle, and much easier to get invested in a hard-fought war for survival. Yet this approach drastically changes the nature of the setting and the way things are within it.

In "proper" Battletech, nobody needs to give a shit about combat except for the government and the soldiers it employs. Sure, some people might be loyal to a given government, but in reality, it's a feudal system that's entirely out of their hands. We're not talking about representative democracies and ideological battles, here, we're talking about two groups of nobles squabbling over land.

Part of this is an issue of scale. In Battletech, each successor state has a population in the hundreds of trillions, spread over hundreds of worlds. However, the number of combat regiments is far smaller - only a few thousand for that entire area. This works perfectly fine in the "political fighting" system, but not at all in the "war for survival" system.

The concept of "mechs" also makes more sense in the former category. Mechs are a great way for noble pilots to distinguish themselves from the masses, in a very showy, theatrical form of combat. However, as instruments of war, they're honestly pretty silly. In a setting that includes nuclear weapons and orbital bombardments, it's kind of ridiculous to drop a skyscraper-sized robot onto a battlefield and expect it to accomplish anything. As a fighting machine they're fine - as a war machine, they're goofy as hell.

(I will note here, though, that the mechs in Battletech were one of the first significant advances for "real robots" in the West - that is to say, robots that essentially functioned as combat vehicles, with believable limitations and technical specifications. Take that for what it's worth.)

The Moral Angle

I'll interrupt here with a history lesson. I've already mentioned the "Cabinet Wars" of the European Early Modern Era. However, this tradition of professional soldiers extends even earlier. In the Battle of Crecy, 1346, the English king's army of roughly 10,000 fought the French king's army of roughly 30,000. At the time, the population of England was roughly 3 million, and the population of France was roughly 17 million. In short, the two royal armies battling at Crecy were barely a fraction of the total population - they were groups of professionals engaging for political purposes.

In 1793, the French Republic instituted the concept of Levee en Masse. This was due to their desperate political and tactical situation; for the sake of their new government, it became every citizen's duty to defend France. This decision changed the face of warfare; in response to the increased size of France's armies, its enemies began instituting similar policies. By the time the First World War rolled around, wars involved millions of combatants on both sides, taking up a massive chunk of each country's total population. As such, wars caused massive amounts of damage to their participants, win or lose. Civilian populations were inevitably dragged in by conscription or occupation, and the scope of war was irrevocably changed.

This, in essence, is the difference between the two ways Battletech depicts combat. As a controlled political exercise, the setting makes sense. As a "total war", which is more dramatic, it falls apart. Yet because of the need for that drama, many works within the setting - from action games to tactical games to cartoons - set themselves up as good-vs-evil battles for survival. And, as a result, that's the attitude that ends up defining the setting. So why does that matter?

The thing is, as it's written, Battletech is essentially a controlled, ritualized form of combat. There are rules for surrender. There are rules for wounded enemies. There are rules for peaceful retreat. There is a level of respect for one's enemies, even if it's tempered with animosity or contempt. There's rules. And those rules exist because, ultimately, the wars aren't that important. Like the Cabinet Wars, wars in Battletech exist for the benefit of, and concern of, the ruling class, and the honor of the warrior caste.

As mentioned, the "total war" angle sets up the concept of good vs evil. The problem is that "good" in this setting is a despotic, aristocratic society engaged in constant intrigue and violence, and "evil" is an outsider society that's morally on the same level. The entire point of Battletech is that every major faction is equally petty and shallow, and they spend billions of dollars on giant war machines for the sake of their own politics. It totally changes everything about the setting to present it as a traditional "war narrative". And it changes Battletech from a dignified bout between combatants to a brutal fight for survival.

Diversity

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up with Battletech, and it was a big influence on me growing up. One aspect of it that doesn't often get mentioned is that it's pretty egalitarian in a period where that's not always guaranteed. A broad array of races and creeds are spread across the stars, and "old world" religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism still thrive in the cosmos. Pretty much any ethnic group can fit into the setting reasonably well, and non-white characters were common in the lore.

While there is the occasional cheesecake, female mechwarriors are usually depicted as tough, muscular, and capable, and the setting's most famous and skilled pilot is a woman, as well. Women from the Clans are depicted as being just as massive as their male counterparts (being genetically bred entirely for that purpose). Alongside works like Aliens, it was always baffling to me how well 80s sci-fi had established a relatively broad spectrum of characters, and how that seemed to get dialed back in the following years.

It's one of those things where it's just baffling to me that the core concept of "taking women seriously as combatants" is such a divisive concept even today. Fantasy has always been fraught with "sexy armor" and "Europe only" designs, but it seemed like, in most cases, sci-fi stuff had that shit figured out pretty well. Between Aliens, Battletech, and classic Metroid, sci-fi was doing all right for itself. So the idea that including women and minorities in games would be considered "controversial" in 2015 would have blown my mind as a kid.

Anyways, here's the takeaway: Battletech is at its best when it's an egalitarian-but-feudal universe characterized by honorable, ritualistic combat between tactically ridiculous walking robots. And really, that's distinct enough to call it a niche, isn't it?

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.

SPOILERS PROBABLY

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

Realism

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,
J.Shea