Saturday, November 30, 2013

Male Objectification

It's difficult to talk about the objectification of men in media, especially in gaming. This is not because of denial of its existence by presumed feminazis. Rather, it is because of the overeagerness of certain groups in attempting to suggest that all instances of attractive men are objectification - an argument clearly intended to suggest that the objectification of women is not itself a problem. The goal of such groups is to reinforce the status quo, rather than to actually challenge the way men and women are presented in media. This presents a dilemma for anyone who intends to talk about the actual nature of objectified men, as the spark of discussion becomes the roaring flame of "men are the real victims", overshadowing any attempts at real analysis.
what will make my cause seem legitimate, i know, slurs used against homosexual men
Firstly, though, we need to understand what the concept of objectification actually entails. Objectification is an authorial process that presents a character as essentially lacking any agency or believability, usually for the sake of personal or audience gratification. Zooming out, a character's physique and personality can be entirely tailored such that it comes off as wholesale personal gratification on the author's part. It is not traits or features that are objectifying, but rather the reasons for their selection or inclusion. A character being large-breasted is not objectifying; a character being reduced to "large breasts" as their primary character trait is. A woman being attractive is not objectifying; a refusal to include or depict non-attractive woman is. It is entirely about the relationship between the author and the character.

Since many authors, especially in the world of game development, are straight and male, it's obvious that most instances of objectification are done by male designers with female characters. With that said, it's not impossible for men to be objectified - it's just done far more rarely. People who don't quite understand what objectification means tend to look at attractive men in games and go "yes, that's what objectification is". People compare Conan the Barbarian with Red Sonja - after all, they're both scantily clad. But of course the difference comes down to context and intent, not just "what they're wearing", which makes it a partially subjective and therefore strenuous issue.

But what about the men, though? Surely in all of gaming it's impossible to think that there are no examples of men being victimized, dehumanized, or sexualized. This is true. Male objectification does exist. But it's a little more complicated than certain groups would like it to be. So let's get started.

Men Dying En Masse, Screaming And Gurgling, With Blood Issuing From Their Mouths;
or, Who Will Weep For The Veterans Of Simulated Wars

Games love murder. Damn, do they love murder. Murder is fuckin' fun as shit. Games love fucking killing the shit out of human beings. God damn. And who gets murdered? Most of the time, it's men. Oh, sure, sometimes it's women, but women generally get murdered "specifically" - that is, as characters with actual backstories, for specific reasons. Men get murdered en masse. Men get shot and stabbed and pureed and sliced and diced and burned and frozen without so much as a whiff of regret or a last dying quote. We accept this because, shit, we have to kill somebody, might as well kill the sex we think is capable of fighting back.

And that's it. That's the reason. From a gender standpoint, men are strong aggressors, women are weak and incapable. The same logic that prevents many gamers from accepting female protagonists in action games also affects their view of men in a negative way. The expectation that men are stronger and less emotional is great - that is, if you're coming from a culture that values stoic strength. On the other hand, if you have moral qualms with the expectation that men need to bleed and die for their country, that a real man needs to be a killer, that death is the business of men and they have no right to complain about it...well, it gets fucked, doesn't it?

Masculinity hurts men. More than anything women will ever do, masculinity is what hurts men. Masculinity creates damaging stereotypes and enforces harmful expectations of what men should do. Men can't cry. Men can't run. Cowardice is wrong. Weakness is wrong. Men fight. Fighting is cool. Killing is cool. Killing men is cool, because the men you beat are either weak or cowards, and those things are wrong. Don't be a pussy. Don't be a faggot. Get strong. Get powerful. Kill or be killed; if you're killed, you're wrong. Be the best. Every moment you're not the best, you're losing. EVERY MOMENT. BE THE BEST.

We love killing in games, don't we. We love winning. We love the thrill of superiority, and thanks to protagonist-centric action games, we don't really have to worry much about the agony of losing. We don't have male characters worrying about being brutally killed or torn apart. We have stoic badasses - even survival horror gets characters like Leon Kennedy and Isaac Clarke, not poor whimpering manbabies who would basically deserve to horribly die, am I right? Yeah. Fuckin' badass. Oorah.

Three things fix this. First, we accept women in action roles, both as protagonists and antagonists. Allowing women to join men on the front lines of video game murder eases the burden of war-murder by making it so that the horrendous acts of death are not limited to the male sphere. Second, we accept men in non-action roles; games can be about all sorts of things, not just things where aggressive and assertive characters need to be the protagonists. Third, we stop accepting games where we casually kill people by the truckload. I mean, if you care about not objectifying people, it's pretty obvious that "turning people into gratification-corpses" is one of the most severe types of objectification there is. So let's stop doing that, right? It's fucking creepy.

The Automaton Cannot Love You Back, No Matter What It Is Programmed To Say;
or, Press X To Elicit The Feels

This is going to be a short section because I don't think the concepts are particularly advanced. Dating sims are traditionally designed for both men and women - for every Tokimeki Memorial there is an Angelique Trois, for every Ashley there is a Kaidan, for every Morrigan an Alistair. Dating sims are bad at depicting relationships, and it's for relatively simple reasons: they don't exactly go out of their way to try to depict realistic human behavior or simulate any sort of agency. In games like Mass Effect you can basically say whatever you want to a person and still end up sleeping with them, because otherwise the game's not fun. Both sexes in dating sims end up as automatons, existing solely to dispense sex once enough coins are put into the machine. They're shallow representations of humanity given only enough character to provide emotional gratification when fake-sex is achieved.

Of course, a notable contextual aspect is that men and women are treated differently with regards to promiscuity. A man casually picking up a woman for sex is accepted, whereas the inverse is less so. A man is expected to take the lead in a relationship, while a woman is expected to be the lesser part of the relationship. Terms like "who wears the pants", which are still used in the Year of our Lord 2013, suggest that the gender concepts of superiority/inferiority still hold traction. Male characters are not shamed for having sex, while female characters implicitly - if not overtly - are. While the situation is "equal", that doesn't magically make the results equal.

The solution to this is to stop having dating sims or romantic relationships shoved into games that don't do them well. Stop including characters like Alyx Vance, who fall in love with mute murder-machines. Stop including simplistic dialogue trees that serve to offer no real choice or options of failure. We make characters emulations of human beings to elicit emotional reaction, but part of that has to include the illusion of agency or else you might as well just be having sex with robots.

The Beautiful Boys, Whose Tunnels Are Already Opened;
or, Would You Trust The Greeks To Make Your Games

I'm going to start this section off with a short bit from Grimoire Nier, a guide released alongside the "dual game" Nier. In one version of the game, the titular character was a gruff adult; in the other, the titular character was an effeminate, beautiful teenager. The relationship with the character Yonah is changed; old Nier is her father, young Nier is her brother. Despite these being the only changes, some radically different moments of characterization ensued; things that affected Dad Nier weakly affected Brother Nier far more strongly. They also had different pasts. Dad Nier did jobs around town to make ends meet, since he was a competent adult. Brother Nier, on the other hand, was forced to resort to prostitution to pay the bills; only later, when he was more capable, was he able to take the Dad Nier role of odd jobs and hunting.

I said that extremely casually, but I want you all to understand it clearly. Brother Nier, the effeminate bishonen, was forced into prostitution (with both men and women) as a young teenager. This is a heavy plot point, and it adds an extremely sinister undercurrent to the way he's treated in the game and as a result of his design. Specifically, it affects a line that comes from this interview.

-Which scene does (Novelist Jun) Eishima like?

(Director) Yokoo: Eishima is definitely satisfied with just watching young Nier’s back while he roams the fields, since it’s zettai ryouiki and whatnot.

Eishima: I did get satisfaction from making him run like crazy.(laughs) But you see…when I get really happy watching that, my high school son would just pass by and say “But, haven’t this kid’s tunnels been opened up already?”, popping my bubble.

This is objectification of a male character in a video game. The novelist Eishima knows about and acknowledges the traumatic past of Brother Nier; in fact, she was partially responsible for writing it, although the idea wasn't hers. She even expressed some disgust at it and the tonal dissonance of a "shonen adventure" that also features such dark material. And yet she sees Nier as a piece of meat, a beautiful young man to view sexually, and her reverie is only interrupted by her son - HER SON, mind you - reminding her of his "lost purity". This is it. This is the equivalent to Quiet from MGS5 or the B&Bs from MGS4. This is male objectification. This is a man becoming meat, his agency and feelings and experiences thrown aside for the sake of empty, uncaring lust.

In my last article I talked a bit about the nature of cultural standards - how we expect murder to be treated as a normal part of a story rather than a serious event in the same way that Romans and Greeks would casually depict rape and pedophilia. If our video games were written by the Ancient Greeks, things like this would be incredibly common. Look up Ganymede, whose visage - often engaged as a bottom in acts of homosexual intercourse - is plastered across many a Grecian vase or urn. The idea of not depicting sex acts involving young, beautiful boys would strike the Greeks as being as prudish and "out of it"; not dissimilar from the way many gamers view complaints about sexualized female characters.

Objectification is not found in objective design concepts. It is not found in "bared skin" or "weakness". It is found in design reason and justification. It is found in purpose and intent. When you played Zelda ALTTP, did you notice Link's bare thighs and short tunic? Did it worry you, to think that the designers might be appealing to a pedophilic sort of crowd? What if the designer was a gay man or a straight woman? What if the designers admitted that they designed the character to appeal to gay men and straight women, as Kojima did for Quiet?* What if the author was revealed to have a Vore fetish - would you think differently of scenes where Link is swallowed whole by monsters? The important factor here is vulnerability. An attractive character is one thing, an attractive character designed to be viewed as a "victim" for purposes of sexual appeal is another. This is why Nathan Drake and Marcus Fenix are not "objectified" - because society doesn't view strong men like them in the same way that it views attractive, feminine women. It's not about beauty; it's about the implications, and how those implications affect how people are treated. A character that exists to be emotionally mistreated and belittled for the gratification of the player is objectified; a character who is "good looking" is not.

*I acknowledge that Kojima also designed Raiden to appeal to women, but this decision was far less explicitly about "sex appeal" and additionally less related to sexual vulnerability. If it was, then there would be reason to have concern over Raiden's nude torture scene in MGS2 - but as it is, it came off as a goofy joke, where Raiden is reasonably competent and in-charge even as he's forced to cover his genitalia with his hands. It's reminiscent of the way that, even as a child, Nathan Drake is still a hyper-competent individual at no risk of dying; even at his most vulnerable, Raiden is still a badass ninja who can cartwheel the fuck out of armor-suited guys.

One last note about Quiet: I've noticed people saying that it's ridiculous to complain about Quiet in MGS5 when the game contains child soldiers and torture, both of which should provoke more outrage than "a girl is sexy". Let me teach you something about Tone, readers. Tone is what gives Hideo Kojima the credibility necessary to say that he's going to make a serious game about child soldiers and not be laughed out of the industry. Tone is what suggests that a game presented in a serious and realistic way should be able to handle child soldiers as a reasonable topic of discussion, in a way that will enlighten and inform players. Tone is trust. Quiet being a sexy, unrealistic sniper for the explicit purpose of appealing to the teenage male crowd breaks tone. It means that the game now exists to be fun and enjoyable and lighthearted. Don't worry about the details - this is a goofy game with sexy babes! Everyone knows MGS games are goofy and fun. Now kill those child soldiers we talked about. Kill them. Put a gun in their mouth and blow their fucking brains out. Fucking murder them. This is a serious game. This is a real game. This is art. Okay, now back to the titty babe. You can blow her brains out too if you want. It's all in good fun.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Analysis: 300

What Is The Purpose Of "300" As A Concept

Broadly speaking, there's a huge number of battles in history. There's a smaller, but still sizable, number of famous battles. There's a smaller-than-that number of famous last stands. So why Thermopylae, in particular? Why Spartans (and only Spartans, excluding/marginalizing their allies) versus Persians? And why, specifically, do we root for the Spartans, other than the fact that they're underdogs? Why did all of these things happen in the movie "300", based on the comic by Frank Miller? Why did this happen? Why did this story need to be told?

The answer is threefold. Firstly, because the Spartans are white, despite being olive-skinned, dark-haired Greeks. Secondly, because they're politically similar to us, despite being slave-owning (and frequently slave-murdering) semi-pedophilic pagans. Thirdly, because they're ideal masculine figures of strength and courage, despite that strength and courage coming from a horrifyingly brutal lifelong training regimen.

Let's take it from the top.

Part 1: The Whiteness

The Battle of Thermopylae took place in 480 BC - which is to say, almost 2500 years ago, 500 years before Christ, 1000 years before Muhammad, and 2000 years before the concept of "whiteness" existed. It's strange, then, that we feel naturally compelled to ally ourselves with one group of Aegean pagans against another. Maybe there's a little bit more going on than that. Let's take a look.

Firstly, let's note that in the traditional schema of Western History, Greece is considered an essential forebear, along with Rome. While the Angles and the Saxons and the Normans and the Franks and the Germanic Tribes might all get attention, Western Culture generally thinks of itself as being descended from the Greco-Roman world. The reasons for this are kind of complex, but to sum up a lot of things in a pretty quick way, the Romans admired the Greeks, and Christian Europe admired the Romans. Though Europe was descended from the tribes and peoples who had torn Rome apart, there was still a great deal of admiration and respect for Roman culture. Rome itself was the capital of the Catholic faith, and was considered an absolutely holy city. The Church declared many Romans to be "virtuous pagans", worthy of emulation despite not being part of a Judeo-Christian faith system. Catholic priests did most of their writings and sermons in Latin, and worked to preserve writing and art from the Roman era. The rule of most European rulers was fashioned after Rome, the most notable being the Holy Roman Emperor, but also worth noting are the Czars (Caesars) of Russia.

So that's a lot about Rome. Catholics admired Rome, and Rome itself had admired Greece, fashioning many aspects of their art, architecture and culture around Greek concepts. So through this two-step process we get the modern idea that the Greeks and Romans are our "true" forbears. This reached its peak with Neoclassicism, wherein the prestigious peoples of Europe saw themselves as Greece Reborn, emulating their fashions, artwork and sculpture. As late as the Napoleonic Wars, soldiers would ride into battle with helmets designed in Greek styles. Despite being two thousand years away, and not even being really "white", the idea that Greece = Europe became ingrained in Western culture. Conversely, the descendants of the Persians were the Turks (although that's also much more complex), who were hostile infidels (also more complex) who threatened the unity and stability of the Christian world (see previous).

So with all that said, do you really think it's a coincidence that there are no actual Greeks in 300? Let's go down the list. Leonidas is played by Gerard Butler, not even pretending to hide his Scottish accent. British actress Lena Headey plays his wife, Queen Gorgo. Australian David Wenham plays the film's narrator, Dilios. English actor Dominic West plays that one smug guy who turns out to be a traitor and a rapist.

Huh! How about that. Nobody Greek. Nobody with olive skin and dark, curly hair to distract us from this story about the foundation of European culture. Oh, and they got a Brazilian to play Xerxes, because, you know, whatever, brown skin. And nobody on the Persian side is developed as anything but a lacky to an insane, gibbering emperor, there to be killed by brave, white Spartan warriors. Well, let's move on.

Part 2: The Values

Okay, so maybe it's kind of weird that the Spartans are being used to represent White People in a battle against Brown People. But surely we must empathize with the Spartans - after all, the Greeks are the fathers of democracy! Of republics! Of representation by the people, for the people!

"A new age has begun. An age...of freedom! And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their LAST! BREATH! to defend it." - Leonidas

But see, then we run into trouble again. The Spartans had a society based on all men becoming warriors, without exception (which makes it hard to explain the totally-fictional skeevy senator dude, as an aside). But naturally they still needed people around to make weapons and harvest crops and stuff - they weren't going to have their women do all that. So they needed slaves. Lots of slaves. Lots and lots and lots of slaves. As in "seven times as many slaves as Free Spartans", according to Herodotus. Yes. Seven times as many slaves as Spartans. Seriously.

Maybe you're thinking, well, slavery back then wasn't like slavery now. It wasn't as bad, and it wasn't drawn along racial lines. And in some regards that's true, but on the other hand you got stuff like the Crypteia. Let's explain the Crypteia a bit: it was both a method of control and a way to train their young boy-warriors and make them into man-warriors. Every Autumn, the Helots became free game, and the boy-warriors were sent among them to kill and steal at their pleasure. In this method, children were introduced to the concept of killing human beings, and the slaves themselves got the pleasure of being constantly spied upon by their murderous masters.

So yeah. Not doing too great on the whole "freedom" front. Oh well, a little slavery and ritual abuse never stopped the American founding fathers. Let's keep going.

"If those philosophers and, uh, BOY-lovers have found that kind of nerve..." - Leonidas

Now this one is kind of nuanced. Most Greek societies practiced pederasty openly, and wouldn't have really seen "boy-lovers" as an insult. The Spartans actually formalized the man-boy relationship into a one-on-one mentorship; where this gets murky is whether or not this, too, was pedophilic in nature. Some writers of the period suggest that while an adult Spartan was definitely meant to have a relationship with a boy, the idea of it being carnal was outright frowned-upon. Worth noting is that Aristotle in particular thought it was part of the reason why Spartan women had an inordinate (in his view) amount of power. So this one actually gets a pass, although for obvious reasons the PLATONIC man-boy relationship is never established in 300 either. Even that would be too close to "oh right the Greeks are pedophiles", a fact that many scholars actively refused to engage until the 1970s, because it was so harmful to their idea of the Greeks being a superior and enlightened culture.

"Immortals... they fail our king's test. And a man who fancies himself a god feels a very human chill crawl up his spine." - Dilios

So, on to the Persians. The Persian Empire at the time of Thermopylae was pretty well-established, coming off the reign of Darius The Great, who expanded the Empire, organized its linguistics and monetary system, codified systems of law, and developed a bureaucracy to manage its many peoples. A bit before Darius was Cyrus the Great, praised by historians for his respect for religious tolerance and his views on human rights, as well as his contributions to the infrastructure of the Empire as a whole. Of course this is not to say that the Persian Empire was perfect or anything - they were still an empire, after all - but they were at least comparable to Rome in terms of morality, and Cyrus especially was studied by the American founding fathers. They were a bureaucratically organized state with a goodly amount of freedoms for their citizens, based around the dualist Zoroastrian faith but with tolerance for other religions and traditions.

So in 300 they make Xerxes a megalomaniac with delusions of godhood standing at the head of a slave-army forced to revere his own divine personage above all, who cannot even conceive of the idea of failure because he is so invested in his persona as a superhuman being. He brings with him an army not just of elephants and alchemists and exotic tactics but also of horrifying monster-people. His Immortal bodyguard, far from being treated as respected, loyal counterparts to the martial Spartans, are instead turned into monstrous orc-men who dual-wield swords and dress like Hollywood ninjas.


"This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny and usher in a future brighter than anything we can imagine." - Dilios

In general, 300 seems to have a major problem with religion overall - or at least the acceptable target of pagan religions. In addition to Xerxes and his whole schtick of religious domination over the free, enlightened Spartans, you also have the Ephors. The Ephors are creepy people who creep all over shit and accept bribes and do other terrible things. It is the Ephors who prevent the entire army from moving to meet Xerxes, not based on legitimate religious reasons but because they took money from the Persians and also so did that senator guy they totally made up.

The only good Spartans are warriors. Everyone else is a limp-dicked communist attempting to undermine our way of life because they're unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure Spartan freedom and liberty and justice and apple pie and baseball and Do You See Where This Is Going

It's really kind of difficult to not see the movie's contempt for "people who would rather talk than fight", and its inference that these people are actively attempting to support our enemies and destroy our culture. Considering that it was made by and for Americans, aka "the people whose government spends half of the world's military budget by itself", who had been waging a War On Terror aimed exclusively at brown people, it's really really kind of difficult to miss the political implications of this movie.

Where this gets interesting is that the idea that 300 isn't political or racially-charged or whatever. If 300 had been about feminism or anti-war sentiment or something, everyone would realize that it was a political movie. Everyone! Every single person who watched that movie would know it was a Political Movie. On the other hand, most people who saw 300 just thought of it as an action flick. They never questioned the idea that we should root for the Spartans against the Persians. Spartans are badass, and Persians are crazy. I'm sure most of them realized something was amiss historically when the monster-men rolled up, but how many of them do you think went home and learned about the history of the Spartans and the Persians and looked at the whole "white people versus brown people" thing and so on and so forth. How many.

Well, I'm sure a few did.

Part 3: The Manliness

The real reason we root for the Spartans is that despite all the awful shit they did, they are manly as fuck. They are badass. They kick ass. The idea of rooting for a violent person is considered "politically neutral" because "action" is such a common, yet low-key, genre. There's no political implications to Commando or Predator, right? We just want to watch a strong guy kill a bunch of other guys. That's what all guys want. It's universal. Look back on Beowulf or Achilles or Hercules - they were unambiguously heroic, right?

But we're not crazy, either. We don't just murder anyone for the hell of it. We, like the American Government, only want to kill people who threaten us. We want to be violent, but we want it to be morally justified, because murder is wrong and bad. We want to kill, but we want to do it in self-defense. So we dream of that moment when someone steps up to the plate so we can totally ruin them. At least 1464 people on the internet share this dream, according to the top comment on this post. The Spartans, in particular, are fighting for Our Freedoms. They're Our Troops, as it were. Their bloodshed is implicitly connected to your continued freedom-having status, despite any analysis that says otherwise. You can't stop the killing because if that happens then we're not free anymore. You monster.

It is made explicitly clear that the majority of Persians are slave-soldiers, fighting only because of the crack of whips on their back and fear of the retribution of their God-Emperor. Yet all this really means is that they're incompetent, a flailing army of cowards and conscripts driven towards the meat-grinder of the Spartan phalanx (and then later the Spartan freestyle murder competition) to die horrific and undignified deaths. No sympathy is garnered for them despite them being forced into this by a power far beyond their control. The Spartans never make offers to accept defection. The Persians are never humanized despite being the victims of the story. They exist to serve as a group of people that it is okay for the Spartans to kill, under the reasoning that the Spartans are outnumbered, and thus are allowed to resort to any measures.

I'd like to pause briefly and compare this to Metal Gear Rising. In MGR, the "non-lethal" options of previous MGS games have essentially been removed. Sure, you can cut off a person's arm or leg and eventually they'll leave rather than fight you to the death, but there's no "shock sword" or anything like that until you've already beaten the game once. Enemies will constantly taunt you and attack you; later, during a guilt-trip sequence, this is attributed to nanomachines. Inside they are human, afraid and vulnerable, and Raiden is made to feel bad for killing them. Rather than leading him to develop a method to take down enemies without killing them, Raiden simply activates his latent "super-asshole" mode, which gives him a hilarious growly voice.

In the hands of a capable player, it would be simple for Raiden to take down enemies without killing them. Attacking their weapons, for example. Using a weapon that isn't lethal, but makes it harder to take enemies down. Avoiding enemies altogether. So on and so forth. Raiden's power is great, and that's why it's supposed to be fun to play as him - but great power comes with great responsibility. Raiden is so overpowered compared to the enemies he fights that it would be child's play for him to take down enemies in a non-lethal fashion, but the game does not provide any apart from de-limbing them. Thus we are reassured that Raiden has to kill these guys, and because they're assholes, he's morally obligated to do so.


Now think about how many people thought that Rorschach from Watchmen was a good and reasonable character.

Action movies and games and so on don't turn people into murderers. But on the other hand there is a latent culture of violence that really wants to be unleashed. It expresses itself through wars, air strikes, and "anti-terror" operations. It expresses itself through police brutality and the death penalty. It expresses itself through a huge military budget combined with constant complaints about far smaller programs like health care or food stamps. It expresses itself through an ongoing cultural fascination with vigilantes, even when they're entitled rich kids like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark. It expresses itself through the basic idea of "I want to do violence because violence is cool, but I need to find someone to do it against that's okay to hurt".

People don't think these things are political. They think the idea of challenging them is political. The status quo is normal, not political.

Politics, my friends, is everything. Everything you do is politics. The act of living your life is politics. Politics may mean the difference between whether or not you are capable of living your life. Racism is politics, even when it's academic for one group of people and unavoidable for another. Sexism is politics. LGBT affairs are politics. Violence is political. Jail is political. Budgets are political. Values are political.

Games aren't inherently political, of course. Neither are sports. But as soon as you throw a narrative over it, and establish a Good Guy and a Bad Guy, it becomes political. The Greeks would make dating sims where you find a young boy to fondle, and they wouldn't think of that as political - they'd think of it as normal. The Romans would make bawdy games about slave-rape and call each other Bottoms over their headsets (Romans accepted male homosexuality, but it was considered shameful to "take it" - Julius Caesar himself was dogged by accusations of the act). Culture is defined by normalcy; cultural relativity is defined by re-examining what "normal" means. The things that you think are Fine and Okay and Not Political are things that future generations may revile you for. Or they might think you're not hardcore enough. Who can tell with future generations.

The purpose of 300 is to tell a story that appeals to Americans. It does so by making its protagonists unrealistically white and freedom-driven, and it does so by making its antagonists weak, simpering, pagan, and Brown. It tells a story of violence that we are meant to agree with, because it is violence in defense of our Liberties and our Rights. And it kills a shitload of people, because that's fun, and cool, and we love it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Walter White Syndrome

There's a curious thing about games and movies.

The two mediums have almost a parent-child relationship; games aspire to be movies, whereas movies are often compared to games in a derogatory manner (usually "this would be more fun if it was playable"). Movies are respected and well-regarded despite their Bays and Shymalans, whereas games are despised and ostracized despite their Crusader Kings and their Planescape: Torments. Accordingly, the responses and expectations they garner are different as well. Stupidity in a movie is seen as worthy of criticism the majority of the time, while stupidity in a game is seen as "just part of the medium" in similar amounts. Movies have higher expectations placed upon them, whereas games basically accept whatever they can get. Movies are princely, fair and tall, while games are homely, stunted, and undervalued.

But this is not intrinsic. Intrinsically, there is no reason that "uninteractive audiovisual" should be a more respected medium than "interactive audiovisual". Intrinsically, there is no reason that interactive narrative experiences (electronic or traditional) should be loathed while "talkies" and "flicks" should be loved. It's worth remembering that for a while, movies were just sort of a cartoonish gimmick, accepted but not respected. They were a novelty, not a proper medium for conveying stories like books were. However, while games have struggled with this reputation for forty-odd years, movies actually got over it pretty quickly.

The difference, when you got down to it, was subject matter. It's easier, in a lot of ways, to make a serious movie than to make a serious game. A serious movie is telling a pre-made story, where actors and actresses can display emotion in response to an event in a relatively normal way. A movie, or a book, or a TV show is about one story. There's no need to worry about alternate outcomes and there's certainly no intrinsic need to make the process of reaching those events "fun". Engaging, yes. Compelling, yes. Not fun. They CAN be fun, of course, but again, it isn't a necessity.

What does this mean for subject matter? It's simple to make a movie about...anything, honestly. If there is a series of events connected by even remotely logical segues, you can get a movie. You can get a movie about people in a concentration camp. You can get a movie about people in an earthquake. You can get a movie about people falling in love and falling out of love. You can get a movie about someone dealing with moral dilemmas of every imaginable kind. You can take any set of events and turn it into a movie, as long as you find a way to keep the audience interested - not necessarily "entertained", again, but connected in some way to what's going on.

Games have a harder time with this, and part of the reason is that games generally require a minimum of ten hours of gameplay to be CONSIDERED a game. You have to INVEST in a game, and more than that if you want to see what happens in a story you damn well better learn how the gameplay system works (even if it's totally unrelated in every way). Games are high investment for, in most cases, an equivalent or lower payoff. This is especially true of games that embrace ludonarrative dissonance, making no attempt to connect their stories to the things the player is spending hours actually doing.

So What's This Walter White Shit

Part of what storytelling in fiction accomplishes, apart from the whole entertaining/compelling aspect, is that it creates hypotheticals. What if? What would you do? How would you feel? Books like 1984 attempt to immerse you in a scenario, right down to the grimy details, and ask you: what would you do? And in many cases, whatever answer you give, they have a response. Many movies and books and TV shows function as moral exercises by attempting to connect your own real life to the things these fake people are doing, because (and this is key!) you're supposed to forget they're not real. This is why you care about things happening to fictional characters: if your thought is "well that actor still gets paid" then it is pretty much provable that they have done their job poorly.

Which brings us to Walter White. Walter White, the main character of AMC's Breaking Bad series, is a piece of shit. He is human garbage. He is an absolute terrible human being in every way. And this is a thing a lot of people recognize: the creators, the actors, a lot of the fans, etc. And yet there's some people who ignore his murder, his drug-dealing, and his ego-driven family endangerment and attempt to argue that Walter is a cool, reasonable guy constantly beset by a bitchy, underappreciative wife. They argue that on certain moral grounds Walter is actually great and not awful.

See what happened here, though? Everyone involved addressed this hypothetical scenario based on real moral logic. When someone argues that Walter White is good or bad, it's not just about "the show", it's about their standards and their values. Breaking Bad is a modern show with a "family man" main character and thus despite the murder and the drug-dealing it's incredibly relatable, at least early on. The audience is meant to connect to these characters based in large part on the fact that they're very human and the consequences for their actions reflect this. When Walter spends an entire episode questioning and rationalizing his decision to murder or not murder a drug dealer he has locked up in the basement, that's a struggle we can connect to. We may not have had to ever make that choice ourselves, but it's so visceral and so low-key that we can imagine being there and to imagine the way we would think about that situation. In some ways it's no different from any other thought exercise or social experiment.

This also means that if the show got unrealistic, it would break a lot of the tension and distance us from realism that the show spent so much time building. There's violence in the show, but it's very quick and decisive, with serious consequences every time it happens. The most "cartoonish" violence in the show is two guys being very suddenly run over by a car, and yet even that had an entire episode to set it up and then an entire ARC dealing with the consequences. There is a logic to everything that is going on that requires things to maintain a realistic level of believability.

So What's This Video Game Shit

Let's compare Breaking Bad to another video game that is also about crime: Sleeping Dogs. Sleeping Dogs is a game about undercover policework, sometimes. Sometimes it is a game about shooting a lot of people. Lots of people. With guns. Lots of guns. And you get shot a lot of times and you shrug it off by hiding behind cover. And also you run people over with cars. Bad guys, civilians, whoever. But then BAM you're working for the police again to bring down this bad guy and nobody ever questions the fact that you did more damage "dicking around" than the bad guy ever did in any other circumstance. This is because the GAME part of Sleeping Dogs isn't real but the MOVIE part of Sleeping Dogs totally is.

Breaking Bad would never do this. There will never be a segment of Breaking Bad where the rules just collapse, where the main character's actions suddenly lack all consequence or relation to the reality of the world. This would never happen in Game of Thrones, either. The idea that, for the sake of player enjoyment, the rules of reality and logic need to be thrown away so the player can dick around in their own self-indulgent sandbox is a disease that only games seem to catch. And more importantly, gamers expect it, too. Gamers accept games like The Last Of Us or Bioshock Infinite, where characters casually shift from "fake reality" to "real reality" like it's controlled by a fucking light switch. "It'd be really bad if Daisy killed that kid" thinks the player after having previously murdered ten thousand permanently-hostile human beings without a single drop of remorse or regret. The reality turned back on, so now killing is Not The Answer, even though it was answering every single question up to that point.

It's expected that a video game's gameplay will be Fun. Not immersive, not compelling, not intriguing or interesting or eye-opening or horizon-broadening, just FUN. Fallout: New Vegas is a game about exploring the post-apocalyptic Mojave desert, interacting with the remnants of the Old World and the reforging of the New World. It is also a game about blowing people's heads off in slow motion, because FUN. Assassin's Creed is a game about a secret conspiracy throughout history involving major political figures. It is also a game about stabbing a shitload of people in the face and then gleefully running away like a cheeky boy, because FUN. LA Noire is a game about investigation and police procedure, about solving crimes and figuring out puzzles. It's also a game about shooting ten billion dudes in the face and regenerating your health, because FUN.

There's nothing wrong with fun, on its own. There IS something wrong with it essentially being treated as the only way in which a game can interact with its subject matter. A lot of games shouldn't be fun! They can be compelling, or educational, or immersive, or whatever else, but "being fun" is a concept that stretches games unnecessarily and ultimately separates the things you do in the game from the things you're TOLD you're doing in the story.

And here's the Walter White point.

So What's This Morality Shit

In Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones or whatever, it's possible to look at the hypothetical scenario as though it's real, and examine the emotions and values you feel in relation to them. It's not only possible, but expected. The cast and crew of Breaking Bad expect people to see Walter as a reprehensible human being, based on the characteristics he's been given. Contrary to their expectations, many audience members had their own standards they judged him by; standards like "provides for his family" and "takes a stand" and "is strong" and "is confident" and "says badass shit". Regardless of how horrific or short-sighted or harmful his actions are, those people are not judging him on his morality, they are judging him on how cool he is, and the general reaction to those people is one of disgust and contempt. It says something about the way they'd feel about a real-life Walter White. There is no "wall of fiction" that defends their viewpoint, because it's a hypothetical scenario, not just a lie.

Games don't get that. We expect game protagonists to be murderers. Not just that, but we expect them to murder for fun, not just for necessity. Some games try to curtail this - all its other problems aside, Metal Gear at least acknowledges the act of killing and gives players alternatives rather than making it the default. But that's one series compared to the hundreds that surround it, which are essentially shooting galleries full of red jelly and ethnic stereotypes (also, Kojima ruins the effect of MGS by constantly trivializing and misrepresenting PTSD, in some cases for purposes of sexualizing female characters).

We need games where we can treat the character - PLAY the character - like a real person. Not an avatar for our indulgence, not a medium for dicking around and improving our numbers, but an actual human being who happens to be under our guidance and care. This isn't impossible! This isn't even unreasonable! There's games that give the player enough choice to actually roleplay a character, so that decisions are weighted morally as well as mechanically.

I bring up roleplaying because "playing a role" is where gaming, especially gaming as an interactive narrative, really started. It was the transition from Wargaming to D&D - the idea was that you'd take a single person's role instead of an army's, and you'd make decisions based on that character's ability and personality and so on. Games have largely moved away from this, in large part due to the transition from the open, malleable world of tabletop games to the rigid, restricted shooting galleries of video games. Video games, for example, would rarely produce this as a natural moment:

You see this shit? Do you see what happened here? A player JUDGED another player/character's actions based on a moral code, a code established in large part by movies. It establishes "what it means to be a hero", and what kind of actions can stain that idea. Conversely, rather than rebutting with the in-character logic of "I do what I have to do to survive", the gamer responds with "that's just the rules of the game". They don't treat it as another reality, they treat it as a set of rules to follow in order to gain points and win rewards.

For video games, this isn't entirely the player's fault. A lot of it comes from the system. In a tabletop game, the DM/referee can punish players for doing things that are out of line, with logical consequences that match the behavior. A situation that absolutely couldn't be solved by negotiation or trickery or bluffing would be seen as unusual even in games where combat is the norm - after all, sometimes you've got reasons not to fight. But in games, it's totally expected that you won't be given that choice, and that killing your enemies will be the absolute only way forwards. How many games, now, have based their "twists" on the fact that they do exactly that, and then afterwards blame the player for doing the only thing the game allowed them to do? The answer is "like seven, at least, three of which are highly regarded in gaming spheres for doing so".

But there's one other thing too.

So What's This Puppeteer Shit

The biggest difference between games and movies is that movies consist of a cast of characters who all exist "in universe" and have feelings and relationships and emotions and senses that all exist within that universe. Their decision during the course of their stories are prompted not just by immediate desires but also by their emotions and their sensibilities. A character wants to avoid getting shot not because it's an inconvenience but because getting shot hurts and the prospect of death is terrifying. Characters have emotions and feelings and therefore characters also have stakes.

Players don't have stakes. Not really. Players have desires and whims, sure. Players want this, or they want that. They get annoyed if they die because they have to go back fifteen minutes (worst case scenario) and try again. It's comparatively hard to get players to make decisions based on "character logic", or at least logic that's similar to the emotions and feelings a character would be feeling. Players are puppeteers, alien entities controlling a character without feeling any of its sensory input or emotional variables.

It's possible to work around this. Some games do a great job of making players forget that they're sitting safely behind a computer screen and force them to feel fear and tension. Some games make characters believable enough that players feel empathy and compassion for them, even if they're not really allowed to do anything about it. But most games are inept about actually doing anything with these sorts of emotions. This is compounded by the concept of "saving", where emotional attachment is undermined by the ability to reverse consequences and ultimately reveal how "not real" everything is.

What it needs to come down to is choice and consequence. Realistic, logical choices and consequences based on realistic, logical scenarios. If you want a Breaking Bad of games, you need to deal with the morality and ethics and nuances of murdering a human being. If you want a Game of Thrones of games, you need to deal with the morality and ethics and nuances of declaring war and maintaining honor and marrying for love or duty or power. If you want a game with depth, you need to make a GAME with depth, not just a "movie with depth" stapled onto a game without it.

I don't want this to end on a negative note. I want this to serve as a lesson, a lesson about why movies are well-regarded and games are treated like toys for children. The answer is that games, and gamers, treat themselves as part of a medium that is for entertainment and indulgence first and foremost. The rare games that defy this are largely ignored because they aren't working with the expectations that have been set. If games want to be treated like something beyond "Michael Bay's Transformers", they need to start actually working towards a level of ludonarrative interaction instead of just pasting on more "serious" cutscenes to their goofy, murderous games.

Games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last Of Us and Spec Ops make it totally clear that some game devs want to be seen as adult and mature. But they (or, in many cases, their publishers) lack the resolve to push through it, to deliver an experience that can be taken seriously during 100% of the game's length. Instead, they're forced to deliver "breathers" of goofy content so they can dive into the serious stuff, with the added expectation that many people will skip the serious stuff to go back to dicking around.

Games will be taken seriously when they grow the fuck up.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Recommended Games

So there's been a lot of talk about GTA V lately.

Let's not do that.

Here are a list of games that I feel encompass some qualities of believability and immersion and that serve as a noteworthy alternative to the "action standard" common in games.

Crusader Kings 2 ($40 on Steam)
CK2 is noteworthy because it's first and foremost a game about interpersonal interactions, conflicting personalities, and political marriages. Oh, yes, there's a big map and there's wars and so on, but it's not really a "strategy" game. CK2 is a game about being a medieval ruler. Invariably, with so much power centered on a monarch and a small group of high nobles, that means it's a game about people. Wars will start in CK2 not just for economic reasons, or reasons of expansion, but also because of relationships - a principled duke who can no longer stomach his cruel, craven king, or a ruler who refuses to help an ally-through-marriage out of sheer hatred for them. A good, kind king can give way to a spoiled, incompetent one. Wars will be fought over favored successors, and soldiers will be used as playing pieces for a game beyond their understanding. And yet despite all this, CK2 contains many good and pure things, too - a parent's love for their child, or a political marriage becoming true love. CK2 is not good because it is cruel or grim, but because it is real.

Dwarf Fortress (cheap as free)
DF is a pretty cool game and you can build forts and stuff in the ground, and there's like monsters sometimes, it's cool. Sometimes it's nice to just build a fort and stuff you know, like you build forges and shit and a brewery so your dwarfs can drink beer. I dunno, it's nice. Oh, also there's an implicit anarcho-socialist message to the game where every dwarf essentially takes what they need from the common supply (a derivative of their expedition-borne beginnings). The nobility are not only useless but highly disruptive, forcing their views and laws on an otherwise orderly and equal society based on the threat of force provided to them by a designated executioner. This metaphor grows even larger when coinage is introduced - it's not even usable in its current state, since the transition from an equal commune to a capitalist system essentially drives dwarfs insane, creating widespread unhappiness that leads to revolt. The only protection that the haves can expect against the have-nots comes from the military, since the upper class will always be vastly outnumbered and thus subject to the inevitable forced will of the people unless the trained warriors remain loyal enough to maintain this unfair social system. Oh, and the monster descriptions are kind of neat.

Most of the details in that paragraph came from a Storify post that I can no longer find so if you know which one I'm talking send me it and I'll put it here instead of all this text.

Hitman: Blood Money ($9 on Steam)
It's kind of hard to include H:BM on this list since I'm trying to go for games that aren't callous murder simulators, and in many ways that's exactly what H:BM is. But unlike most violent games, H:BM is a smart game and gives you options for handling situations in believable ways. It's possible (and essentially condoned) to go on a killing spree without remorse or regret. But, more rarely, it's also possible to play the game like an adult and treat the situations like they're real and consequential and possessed of moral depth. It's possible to get through the entire game without killing anyone besides your target, but it's also possible to fuck up and have to kill someone because you made a mistake and you don't want the guards to see you. There's a sense of consequence that arises when "killing" is an exception rather than a rule, and it adds moral tension and stakes to the gameplay. It's a nice sign of what games are capable of accomplishing emotionally when they treat death as a serious part of the gameplay AND the narrative instead of a goofy thing that happens for player amusement.

King Of Dragon Pass ($6 on, $10 for iOS)
KODP is a game where you control a clan of Orlanthi, a Gallic-inspired culture from the fantasy setting of Glorantha. This world has its own rules and realities - Gods definitely exist and frequently interact with the living world, and they expect a great many things from mortals. KODP is in many ways a role-playing game, except you are "playing" an entire clan. It is your job to optimize your harvest, maintain your traditions, keep the Gods happy, and raid your foes - whether human or not. KODP is a management game driven largely by story events; these events tie in well with the management, since they draw upon resources and items that are gathered and collected as part of the management game. While there is certainly a bit of simplification for the sake of gameplay, there's actually almost no ludonarrative dissonance despite the scale of the game. Even the constant warfare and killing in the game is actually totally justified by the setting - it's how the Orlanthi live. The manual advises you to put aside your own morals and play like an Orlanthi, and that alone should tell you how deep this game is capable of getting.

Liberal Crime Squad (cheap as free)
A lot of games make claims on satire through their overindulgent content. Liberal Crime Squad may be satire. It also might not. It depends pretty much entirely on how Tarn Adams feels about politics. LCS is intentionally designed as a "SLA simulator", which is to say, a world where the radical terrorist tactics of the 60s actually accomplish goals and social change. LCS is a game about handing out pamphlets and making your own newspaper. LCS is a game about kidnapping conservatives and murdering cops. LCS is a game about protests and LCS is a game about brainwashing. LCS is a game where you can win everything without ever killing a single person. LCS is a game where you can kill a thousand people and still convince the public to enact social change. LCS is like GTA if you actually had a meaningful reason to feel bad for murdering people. LCS is like GTA if you actually had a meaningful reason for murdering people.  LCS is choice. LCS is consequence. LCS is means. LCS is ends.

Papers, Please ($10 on Steam)
Papers, Please is a bureaucracy sim where you take the role of a border official responsible for managing immigrants and making sure their documents are in order. While a great deal of this game is mechanical work, the game also manages to have an impressive narrative that connects to the gameplay rather than being separated from it. The first aspect of this is that you occasionally get applicants with some story element to them - they're visiting family, or they need a cure for some disease, or they're secretly part of a rebel movement. The second aspect is that your success affects your pay, and your pay affects your ability to provide with your family. Mess up too often and your family will starve, catch sickness, and eventually die. The second aspect connects to the first because intentionally allowing a bad applicant in for personal reasons counts as a failure, and can thus have an effect on your score. It's also reinforced by the gameplay that terrorism, plague etc are legitimate threats, thus making the entrance requirements more logical and sympathetic than just being an empty bureaucracy. Also worth looking at is the author's earlier work, "The Republia Times".

Red Orchestra 2 ($10 on Steam)
Red Orchestra 2 is a Stalingrad Simulator that takes the form of a realistic first-person shooter. The use of atmosphere and mechanics creates a highly immersive experience that really drives home how terrifyingly deadly and oppressive the war really was. From long-range fighting on the plains to house-by-house fighting in the urban center, Red Orchestra 2 helps players understand the battle that claimed at least two million lives over the course of six months. Players, especially new players, will often be killed by people that they can't see. They will fumble on reloads as an enemy rounds the corner and stabs them with a bayonet. They will take cover behind a wall only for the bullets to penetrate anyways. They will get shot in the gut and die, screaming and moaning, in total agony. Red Orchestra 2 is a game that lets you know that war fucking sucks and it makes this statement as often as it can just by the virtue of the way the game is played. There's no grand narrative necessary, no condescending story. Just you, your vulnerable body, and the thousands of believable ways that you are probably going to die without really being able to do anything about it.

SWAT 4 ($10 on Amazon)
SWAT 4 is the flipside of Red Orchestra 2; it's a realistic shooter, but in many ways it's anchored to our own mundane world rather than the hellish landscape of Stalingrad. SWAT 4 is a police simulator of sorts, where you lead a team of officers methodically through buildings, taking down perps and rescuing civilians. What separates this game from light-gun cop games or even from something like Rainbow Six is the nature of the game's bureaucracy. You have to issue warnings before you shoot someone unless they are in the process of shooting at you. You have to handcuff every living person you meet, whether civilian or surrendered criminal. You have to secure every weapon. Killing criminals, even for justified reasons, loses you points - a perfect run is done using non-lethal weaponry such as tazers and pepper spray. SWAT 4 is a game that takes death as seriously as it can, and it's a nice change of pace from the bloodthirsty TERRORIST KILLER genre of games.

Total War (Series)
The Total War series is similar to Hitman in that it's possible to play it sociopathically or morally. It's entirely possible to play Total War as a game first and foremost, throwing soldiers into danger without regard for their safety or well-being. But it's also possible, due to the game's relative realism, to try to take things seriously and actually have some level of concern for your soldiers' safety. In addition, like Red Orchestra, Total War illustrates "what war is like", albeit on a more zoomed-out level. The press of shield-walls, the rain of arrows, the terrifying thunder of cannons, all these things are represented in the game. Thousands of men die in battle, and even the most skilled warrior can do little against a direct hit from a siege weapon. This effect is compounded by Medieval 2's character development system, where generals and family members will gain attributes either through their actions or purely randomly. These generals can all die in combat, which adds a greater, more personal stake to the action in addition to concern for the lives of one's men.

Tropico 3 ($10-$15 on Steam)
When I talk about Tropico 3 I have to do it by talking about another game first, namely Bioshock Infinite. Bioshock Infinite is a story about racial tension and governmental control and economic inequality that is expressed via shooting people. Tropico 3 is a game about all those things that is expressed by actually running a government and dealing with rebellions. Tropico 3 is a game that puts you in a position of power, where you are capable of suppressing elections, spying on your citizens, and imprisoning or assassinating dissidents at your leisure. If you are relatively open, your bad policies are countered by citizens protesting and voting against you. If you are clamping down on free speech and free choice, your citizens take up arms against you, because their means of peaceful resistance have been removed. This teaches you more about violence than Bioshock Infinite's South Park-esque "both rebels and oppressors are equally bad"  lesson ever will.

Victoria 2 ($20 on Steam)
Vicky 2 is sort of a combination of CK2 and Tropico, not as "zoomed in" as either but with a lot of the same choices. Victoria 2 takes place in the period between 1820 and 1930, a period of societal and technological transition and upheaval. Choosing any country in the world, it is your job to manage that country & keep it from being subjugated by its neighbors. Like CK2, there is no real "win condition"; the default gameplay assumed that conquering territory is a positive, but it's also possible to measure success by the happiness and well-being of your citizens. It's possible to enact social reforms through supporting policies, to transition from a slave-holding nation to a free nation, to create and improve welfare programs, to give the vote to every citizen of age, male or female. It's also possible to over-tax the poor, indulge the rich, and support a course of action that ensures that the upper class stays on top. Each action will generate anger from its detractors, and managing political ideologies and rebellions is a major part of the game.

Way of the Samurai (Series)
The primary virtue of WOTS is the way it handles its plot/gameplay relationship. Rather than being one long, meandering story, WOTS games depict short scenarios with lots of points for change and consequence. WOTS3, for example, has 21 different endings. There's still plenty of "gameplay", but compared to something like Fallout New Vegas, the results are more immediate. It also means that death & failure are included in the game mechanics, since "death" means the end of the immediate game (a few hours of gameplay at most) and not the end of the total game (up to 100 hours). WOTS3 also does some interesting things with combat and characterization; as a member of a faction, you can talk to your fellow faction-members and humanize them a bit, which changes things up when you play the next run as their enemies and have to potentially cut them down. The game offers non-lethal options and even the ability to beg for mercy as ways to mitigate this guilt.


Company of Heroes is good for its immersion and pathos despite being an RTS, traditionally one of the goofier genres in terms of summoning new units into the world via a barracks. Its reliance on "gamist" bonuses drowns out its realism but at the same time its depiction of units breaking under mortar fire, screaming and crying for mercy, is almost as intense as Red Orchestra's. The voice acting really helps carry the whole experience, which is actually one of RO2's weaknesses (at least, in the sense that there's not ENOUGH voice actors).

D.Souls is a game that I don't really feel even needs explanation. It's a solid action-RPG. Its harsh gameplay creates (totally atmospheric) feelings of fear and panic and keeps players on a razor's edge at all times. It's funny, too, because if the game was gentler - more health, kinder checkpoints - it would have been totally forgettable. Nice graphics and handling, maybe, but certainly not the experience it came to be. Everything about it hinges on how seriously you have to take the game to play it well.

Deus Ex is on this list, but not Human Revolution.

Dragon's Dogma is a cool open-world RPG and it has some good action and I like the way you have to prepare for a big expedition every time you leave the safety of the game's main city. I like the way that you can turn off almost every part of the HUD, which should be mandatory. I like how you can navigate your way around the game world by using the capital city as a reference point. I like that there's lanterns and when it gets dark out it's actually really dark and not just "game" dark. I also like that it uses Shadow of the Colossus-style climbing mechanics in a full-sized action-adventure instead of it being limited to a single limited-focus game.

Gone Home is not actually on this list I'm sorry. I feel like it could have been but there's this whole feeling where you're expecting a mystery and there really isn't one and honestly I'd get a better LGBT-discovery experience by opening Twitter and asking my followers how they feel today. I mean I dunno, Jesus, at least you don't fucking murder anyone.

Metal Gear Solid 3 would have been really great if someone had made it who wasn't Hideo Kojima. Like seriously "sneak through the jungle, managing your supplies and tools" is a great idea, and then it's ruined by being a Metal Gear game. Come on, dude. Let me have the C4 and the CQC and the ability to use environments to my advantage and then get out of here with the fucking conspiracy plot and the boss battles. Go home.

Mount and Blade is really good for a game made by a single Turkish couple. It's got good fundamentals, but a kind of weak overall focus. It's a good approach to game design though, because it fills a mechanical niche with competent gameplay - in this case, an open-world medieval game with action-based melee combat. The relatively stagnant point is a bit of a problem, though; castles can change hands, but it's difficult to enact lasting change.

Sleeping Dogs was pretty cool when I thought it was going to be a martial arts action-adventure where your loyalties to the police would be tested by the realities of your infiltration of a dangerous and ruthless criminal underworld but then it just turned out to be regular GTA but in Hong Kong, and then poop fart butt video games

STALKER is immersive and cool and does a lot of good things. Its approach to open-world adventuring is a really good standard to set, since it combines relatively realistic shooting with a survival-horror-esque approach to combat. Throw in the peculiar nature of the zone and its other human inhabitants and you've got a solid all-around experience.

Okay that's it that's all the interesting games goodbye

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Design Document: "The Game of Throne of Games".

Earlier today, Ian Miles Cheong pointed out something to me that explained a lot of how I feel about fantasy, especially fantasy in games. He asked this: Where is the A Song Of Ice And Fire of video games? Where is the game that transforms "fantasy" from an escapist farce into an actual, respected genre for games and storytelling?

And that's a simple question, but it's a question with a lot of background to it that needs to be addressed. There ARE games that use the base components of GoT: successions, kingdoms, bloodlines, battles, and so on and so forth. But the problem is that none of them have ever really created a coherent ludonarrative reality where every part of the game is working to support this one real thing. Every example I can list has its problems, or at least differences with the successful GoT model.

Crusader Kings 2 is a game I love to death. It's amazing in a lot of ways. But it's a story creator, in the most zoomed-out, uncharacterized way possible. It is a game about hundreds of years of history being condensed into a few hours, it's not a game about one war or one conflict. It's a game for imagination and filling-in-gaps, it is not a game that tells a single person's story well. The Total War series has the same problem - its characters are computer-generated, with traits and personalities, but it's not a game about "telling their story". It's not personal or emotional enough to really get in there.

Final Fantasy Tactics is certainly about a single war - a war for succession, no less - but the problem with FFT is that FFT is about battles between ten warriors that ignores the battles between thousands. Things like politics and allegiance are never a huge concern in FFT; Ramza hires warriors, then goes off and does his own thing while his ever-loyal army remains by his side. Relatedly, the game's childish art (certainly a necessity of technology, yet still) does not help immerse the player into a world of medieval politics and intrigue - which, by all accounts, it is supposed to be.

An earlier work by Yasumi Matsuno was Ogre Battle: Let Us Cling Together. In many ways, LUCT addressed the previous concern without really doing so enough. While FFT's story has a succession crisis in the background and Ramza's own concerns in the foreground, LUCT's protagonist is more directly part of the game's main war. The director based LUCT on the Yugoslav wars, and correspondingly the conflict in LUCT is one divided on ethnic lines. As such, your party members have ethnic loyalties and their affiliation with you will be affected by the paths you choose. Yet at the same time this is still a game about six-on-six combat, and "morale" means very different things when you're managing a small band and when you're managing a united army.

Finally, the Suikoden series of games generally manages to do a good job regarding scale - the player generally starts in a position of power, but is deposed or betrayed and has to work their way back up. Suikoden involves large-scale battles as well as the usual "adventuring party" segments which helps to create the sense that there is an actual war going on. The reason it's not usually included in discussion of serious fantasy games is that the game relies heavily on JRPG tropes and a lighthearted, sometimes-broken tone. The art, music and writing all suggest a world where the battles aren't as serious or grim as they could be - after all, it's a game series ultimately for children.

So, thinking logically, if I wanted to make a fantasy game that would be taken seriously and would use the interactive medium to its fullest extent, here are some things that I would do.

A Single, Direct Origin
Interactivity as a game concept is about giving the player ways to interact with the environment based on justified cause-and-effect. In games like CK2, this is created by making the entire game an emergent, unbreaking chain of events and AI behaviors. For this theoretical game, founded in something more zoomed-in, it's important to start somewhere coherent so that the player has a "world" established to mess around with. Going off the themes established, there could be any number of potential situations to start with: an ethnic war, a deposed royal family, a ducal coup, a peasant rebellion, resistance against an invading force, etc etc etc. Despite the diversity of choice, this is still an important decision to make because it affects why everything is happening. Why the protagonist wants to fight whoever it is they're fighting. Why people would want to join them. What the end goal is. How the character is expected to behave. How much responsibility they bear. The situation affects the character, and the character (if they're well-established) affects the player.

Large-Scale Real-Time Tactics
The reason it's important to have things be "large scale" is because large scale, by its nature, involves death. In a small scale game it's very easy to shift things mechanically so that nobody dies. The focus on RPG systems makes it so that random character death is far less acceptable and represents a larger investment of time and energy. Compare Valkyria Chronicles with Company of Heroes. Compare Final Fantasy Tactics with Medieval Total War. Death needs to be able to happen because death is part of a story, not just an annoying mechanic where you have to restart.

Scale is important. Scale gives the sense that there's an actual war going on, and if scale can be well established the player should be reminded that thousands of soldiers are fighting and bleeding and dying for their cause. It's morally simple to have six loyal friends follow you around beating up goblins and orcs. It's a lot more complex to be leading an army, especially when that army is made up of people with their own ideas and values and families and livelihoods. Now it's about responsibility, not personal sacrifice - about what you're asking your soldiers to do, not just what you yourself are willing to do.

Politics, Agency and Consequence
One of the games I neglected to add to the list was Victoria 2, primarily because it's not fantasy. But Victoria 2 does have an aspect that's relevant to this: the idea of population politics. Individuals in a nation have ideologies, separated by class and region. Setting policies will appease or anger ideologies, and choices made during the game will shift people's ideology from one side to another. Making a powerful group angry can result in a rebellion that has to be put down, oftentimes during a crucial moment in a different war.

Now let's frame this in the concept of a single rebellion or war. Where do your troops come from? Who are your allies? Who's supplying you? Can you make every potential ally happy or would they have contradictory goals? Say you raised most of your troops as volunteers in the name of freedom. Would they be happy if you had to make concessions to an authoritarian faction in order to avoid war? Would they understand? The idea of actually having to manage morale as the end result of people's desires and values and wishes helps to create a sense of agency for all the troops you command. They're not mindless slaves. They're not chattel. They're not going to stay with you for no reason. These are people who have entrusted their LIVES to you for the sake of one cause or another. Similarly, there are many powerful figures in a kingdom - dukes, barons, counts. Are these nobles going to help you or your enemy? It will depend on your personality and your goals. The common people might flock to your banner if you promise to improve their rights, but can you afford to anger the noble class? Choices have systematic, long-term consequences because they reflect how the world perceives you and how they respond to you.

This system also solves a problem that games often encounter, where "romance" is an arbitrary choice for player indulgence. Dragon Age and Mass Efffect are the two biggest offenders here; their romance subplots don't affect gameplay, it's just a side game so the player can live vicariously through their protagonist. In a noble system, however, marriage is about far more than love alone. Crusader Kings does an admirable job with the concept, but it doesn't take it quite far enough. What we're looking for is, quite naturally, a level akin to Game of Thrones - where "love or duty" is a serious choice with consequences. Even if you choose "duty", which duty is the most important? What happens when you marry someone and your allies betray you? Would you marry someone you despised if they offered you more power? In its own way these sorts of option give a sense of agency to the spouse as well, since now they're part of the political system in a way beyond "immobile love interest". They, like everyone else in the world, have their own desires and values.

Failure Is A Gameplay Mechanic
The problem I have with a lot of games is that they're structured in such a way that people simply don't accept failures. The idea that a fudged battle or event is worth "loading state" over affects the way a story is perceived. Games can force hard choices on players, but "convenience" is rarely the reason an option is taken. There are few games where you accept an unpleasant alliance purely because you need the help - generally, games are so trivially easy and give you so many retries that even if you get boxed into a bad situation you can power your way out of it given enough effort.

Hard choices, as a rule, need to actually have consequence to be effective. If you make a bad choice, you should be able to fight out of it or deal with it in some way, but it should be DIFFICULT, and that difficulty should have meaning throughout the rest of the game. In X-COM if you mess up on a mission you might lose soldiers permanently. In Total War or Crusader Kings, a bad war (or even a bad battle) can mess up your entire kingdom. Things like this help keep players on their toes and conscious of the decisions they're making instead of treating gameplay like a throwaway, skippable part of the game.

Ludonarrative Cohesion
The biggest thing about the three prior points is that the goal here is to create a reality where gameplay and story do not diverge. It is perfectly plausible and justifiable to have a tactics-based video game that mirrors the reality of a medieval-style war pretty closely. There's nothing impossible about it, it's just a question of detail. Every decision that the player makes, whether in "management" or in combat gameplay, can exist in-universe. There's none of that weirdness where the main characters are like a thousand times more powerful than every other human for no reason, because it's a game about command, not about supermen. There's none of that bizarre choice-making in games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect where it's a direct branch into another story point because now those choices translate into gameplay with lasting effects. It all has to work together to create a cohesive reality. Every soldier that dies is real to the universe, and at the end of your road you're going to have to answer to every single one.

The Importance Of Realism
This is the last part and I think it's going to be the hardest for gamers to give up. Design and visuals are seen as a subjective thing by a lot of people, and in most respects they are. But realism, as I've covered numerous times, offers a variety of advantages in terms of how the player responds to stimuli. It helps things feel visceral and provides sensory reactions. It helps the player take things seriously. Yes, ultimately whether or not realistic designs are "good" is subjective, but that's also true of writing and you can still tell when something's being seriously written, can't you? It's the same thing. Realism, of whatever sort, is the aesthetic of the serious story.

That's not to say this is a BROWN AND BORING sort of realism, by its nature. Reality has plenty of colors (another thing that I've covered hundreds of times before). Simple, modest things like sashes and tabards take the place of oversized shoulderpads and golden armor. The real issue here is about making a story that seems like it's by, for, and ABOUT adults. It's about the fate of nations and people, not about escapism and fun. It's a story that bears responsiblity and weight to it. The visuals need to reinforce that by actually depicting adults, not circus clowns and teenagers.

The end goal here is to get, as we said, the Game of Thrones of games - a cohesive, logical story with a consistent tone and setting where characters' actions and motivations play out to create a tapestry of events. If the visuals can't keep up with the tone, then you might as well not even bother. Because this isn't just about "gameplay" anymore. This isn't about making an entertaining experience. It's about making an interactive story that people can take seriously. It's about making something that offers depth and emotion through its gameplay as well as through its human interactions. It's about making something that says "this is a thing that I could not do with a movie or a visual novel or whatever". It's about making something real.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Liberal Crime Squad

The medium of games - of "electronic interactive entertainment" - is preoccupied with the concept of games being art. Games being CREATED as art, games being PERCEIVED as art, games being CRITICIZED and LAUDED like art. And among the aristocratic class of ludologists, a monarch has been chosen - "Gone Home", a kind and caring queen from a distinguished and proper bloodline. Untained by the blood of the the triple-A commoners, Gone Home has established its credentials with the elite through a combination of eschewed "low tropes" (violence, puzzles, content) and a storyline appealing to the intellectual nobility.

But there is a secret monarch, cloaked in rags, who lurks among them. Unacknowledged, uncrowned, yet true royal blood runs through its veins. Its near-divine bearing is hidden by its common garb, yet one has to simply look upon its face to see its regal status.

That game, the uncrowned emperor of ludonarrativity, is Liberal Crime Squad.

Liberal Crime Squad is a game with a mission and a purpose. LCS seeks to create a world according to the logic of groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Manson Family - a group where individuals who seek change need only to pick up a gun, kick in a door, and shout a proper slogan. It is a world where Violence Works, where charismatic terrorists can turn the tide of public opinion with a well-placed attack and where the lines between "good" and "bad" can easily be drawn based entirely on party lines. Liberal Crime Squad is a game for revolutionaries.

The Character
Liberal Crime Squad begins with a series of character-making questions, where you walk through your life leading up to the point where you begin the struggle against Conservatism. This series includes:
1) Your sex-at-birth (this includes androgynous, and your gender can be changed later).
2) Your childhood, including incidents of punishment and family strife.
3) Your methods of expression - artistic, aggressive, introspective, etc.
4) Your teenage years, including problematic behavior, social judgments and expressions of sexuality.
5) Your plan to take back the country.

I want to tie this back to the Reigning Monarch of Video Games, Gone Home. In Gone Home you go through one teenage girl's journey, discovering political causes and her own sexuality. In Liberal Crime Squad, you go through this every time you play the game. Liberal Crime Squad allows for a huge amount of freedom in your actions and thus in addition to affecting your skills and stats based on prior experience, these questions can also influence how you play the game, or more appropriately how you create the story.

You can play Liberal Crime Squad as a psychopath (as per every other video game), but you can also play it as an idealistic protester, a charismatic visionary, an introverted hacker, an artist, a scholar, a thug, a kidnapper, an assassin, a liar, a thief...Liberal Crime Squad is one of those games that gives you a world and an objective and says "get to it". Your objective is "make the world safe for left-wing politics". How you get there is entirely up to you.

The thing about "games" is that as a medium they offer an unparalleled opportunity to be story CREATORS, not just story EXPERIENCES. Liberal Crime Squad is about crafting your own narrative, starting at birth and working your way towards the struggle for liberation. Your actions and choices are part of that. You might have to kill. You might watch friends die. You might fall in love. You might go to jail. You might be crushed by a wave of public apathy, or you might inspire sweeping legislative changes. Nothing is guaranteed, but everything has a consequence - there's only one save file, and you don't get to decide when it saves.

The Violence

Liberal Crime Squad is an intentionally violent game - not just in the sense that people will die but in the way they die. The game is mostly text, so combat is represented entirely by descriptions of actions and responses. Characters will be maimed, pulverized, stabbed and shot. And they will not die easily - they will bleed out, they will beg, they will cry, they will depart with their mother's names on their lips. What's also different about the violence in LCS is that it is almost never necessary . In addition to intimidation during combat situations (scaring potential enemies off), it's very easy and feasible to get through the entire game without killing anyone by using non-confrontational tactics such as media presence. In fact, in many ways it's EASIER, since it involves committing less crimes.

LCS does not have complicated morals in a direct sense. If you encounter a Conservative, they are an enemy. It doesn't matter if you were mowing down cops with assault rifles, if you encounter a conservative and you don't take the time to scare them off, they're going to throw themselves at you. This is, of course, unrealistic - no matter their party affiliations, people don't behave like that. But there are two relevant places where they do: the first is in the mind of people like the Symbionese Liberation Army. The second is video games. Liberal Crime Squad is like Bioshock Infinite if Bioshock Infinite had any options besides "murder".

If the player has thought even briefly of the world as being "real" in any sense - if they feel any sense of immersion at all - this should really fuck them up. It's one thing to imagine violence being applied to the people you really hate - what if it ended up requiring you to kill every "conservatively-minded" person you met? Would you really feel like you held the moral high ground when that was enough to justify slaughter? Are you okay with the idea of shooting people in the streets for their beliefs, or to support your own?

Did it bother you in The Matrix, when Morpheus justified shooting innocents because it was more important that they potentially be brought out of the computer world than to keep being alive inside it?

Do you like hurting other people?

The World
LCS holds the proud distinction of being one of the few games where gameplay truly changes the world. You see, the "liberalness" of the country is measured on roughly 20 different political points - women's rights, gun control, freedom of speech, and so on. These points are affected by legislation as well as popular referendums. The election of the president and the constituency of congress and the senate are major gameplay features affected by your success at spreading the word of liberalism. As the laws change from conservative to liberal and vice versa, the world changes as well.

For example, Freedom of Speech is essentially abolished at arch-conservative levels; publishing your own newspaper is illegal and leads to raids by the Fahrenheit 451-inspired "firemen". Women's Rights affects how many women you will encounter in roles such as police officer and corporate manager. Civil rights and labor laws affect the status of sweatshop workers you can liberate. Gun Control affects whether or not citizens are armed (although considering your intended actions, they're fully justified in BEING armed for self-defense). Even outside of these things, the likelihood of encountering conservative or liberal characters changes as you spread your philosophy. The world shifts as you play, so that you get a real sense of something happening that many games miss.

The reason this is important is not just "hey, that's neat", but also the sense that you're actually doing this for a goal. You're doing it to reduce military spending and corporate graft, and to improve the lives of the downtrodden and oppressed. You're doing it to create a better world. You might be doing it in horrific ways, but at least there's an overt justification. There's a real, visible goal to systematically work towards. Games like Spec Ops and Bioshock attempt to force moral moments when your goal is basically "you're stuck in a place, try to survive". Liberal Crime Squad doesn't "force" the moment, and it also sets up real stakes for your success and failure.

I think one of the most important parts of the game, from an artistic standpoint, is "nightmare mode". Nightmare Mode is a game mode where the world sets out completely arch-conservative; there is no freedom of speech, all crimes are punished severely, and death squads stalk the streets. It is a world where your struggle is not against mere "right-wing politics" but against an overt Fascist Dictatorship. The methods that in the regular game seemed "distasteful" or "exaggerated" now become necessary - there is no "nice way" to change the world when the state crushes free speech and demonstration. And in many ways, Nightmare Mode isn't as much of an exaggeration as one might think; I mean, we have had actual fascist dictatorships in the world, lest we forget.

One of the problems I had with Bioshock Infinite was the painting of the Vox Populi as being as bad as the Founders. The Vox Populi are an oppressed, enslaved underclass fighting for their freedom, the Founders are slavers with technological superiority who control a flying sky city. The game somehow equates these two groups as being equal. The Vox Populi do not exist in "normal" LCS. The Vox Populi are in Nightmare Mode. They inhabit a state that crushes freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of vote. They inhabit a state that is overtly in love with the idea of slavery. They inhabit a state that they can't even FLEE from, because it's fucking FLYING. And we're supposed to look at these people - trapped, beaten down, cornered - and we're supposed to CONDEMN them?

Liberal Crime Squad doesn't condemn them. Liberal Crime Squad knows what they're dealing with.

Final Note: The Problem
That's not to say LCS is perfect. There is one major problem I have with it, and that is the relative lack of agency on the part of your subordinates. Obviously it would be very annoying to manage a game where every individual member of your group has their own desires and goals separate from yours, but there's a reason why I'm picking this.In LCS, you have a skill called "seduction". Seduction can be used on anyone, regardless of sex or preference ("preference" doesn't really exist in LCS). If you date someone long enough without them getting tired of you and breaking it off, they become your "love-slave" (game's words).

Now, once again this goes back to the game's origins, with people like Patty Hearst or the Manson Family's female components. There is a precedent for people like that developing inexplicably devoted lovers willing to do anything for the cause. But it's also troubling because it's the only method by which "love" is expressed. There is no way for someone to fall in love and become an "accomplice" or a "co-conspirator" or an "ally". If someone falls in love with you, they are your love-slave, and nothing short of your death will cause them to leave the movement. In a game about liberation and freedom (esp. women's liberation) this is basically inexcusable. I don't think it ruins the rest of the game but I refuse to allow it to pass without notice.