Saturday, January 24, 2015

Analysis: Ace Combat

When you talk about games, you quickly find that a lot of people take games personally. Like, everyone has a game or a movie that they love so much that any criticism of the work feels like criticism of themselves. Everyone has a game or a movie or a band or a tv show that they feel attached to, like it was made for them alone, no matter how many other millions of people watch it or play it or listen to it.

Ace Combat was mine. Its setting and narrative stuck out to me, and because it was relatively low-key in the gaming world, I felt a sense of ownership towards it, like I was one of the few people who was really in on it. Back before the massive network of wikis, there was a site called Electrosphere that accumulated data about Ace Combat to form a rudimentary encyclopedia. And I contributed to it. I went through text dumps and sound files to pick out obscure details about setting history and squadron names and all sorts of shit. I cared. I gave a shit about that setting and that world and that story.

I'm telling you this to give context to my dismantling of the series. I've been accused of being heartless or petty or unfair or insensitive when discussing games that other people like, but here's the facts. This is a game I loved, that I identified strongly with, and that I personally invested in. And I'm going to tear it apart, because at times we must purge things from this world because they should not exist. Even if it means losing something that you love.

Ace Combat takes place in the world of "Strangereal", a world which is essentially "modern earth" with different geography. Which is to say, it is a world that has "modern technology", but simply isn't "our world". It's a type of "alternate world" that I rarely see - a world that is (for the most part) totally realistic, but simply isn't Earth. Although there is one other relatively prominent example - the setting of Papers, Please, which is an example of the concept being applied well.

There are several reasons Ace Combat was made this way. Firstly, the designers wanted to be able to have war narratives without involving real-life politics. While there are stand-ins for real-life nations (the most obvious being the "Cold War" between "Osea" and "Yuktobania"), the fictional setting allows for a level of detachment so each side's actions can be viewed more objectively. There are "real politics" involved, but only on the level of basic philosophies (left-wing vs right-wing, hawk vs dove, etc). As a result, we end up with a narrative that has the basic beats of a real story, but doesn't connect as directly into our existing prejudices and assumptions.

The second reason for the non-real world is that it was designed to facilitate large conventional wars that wouldn't make sense in real life. Strangereal is a world without nuclear deterrence and without modern ideas of a "just war". As a result, wars fought purely for territory and dominance extend even into the 21st century. This is, of course, necessary to the gameplay - Ace Combat is a game about massive battles between fighter jets, not guerilla warfare in proxy states. What's curious about it is that while the setting generally shows the value of nuclear deterrence, there's also a pretty strong anti-nuclear message in the games themselves. Nuclear weapons are treated as being uniquely horrific in a setting where massively destructive wars are commonplace, even though we don't have those wars in real life anymore because of nukes.

The setting's biggest flaw, in my opinion, is its over-reliance on Anglo-American themes. If you're going to build a fake world, it seems like you should get more exotic with your influences. What's the point of building a whole fake world if you're just going to have people named BOB JOHNSON in every country? Oh, sure, you've got a Fake Germany and a Fake Russia and another Fake Russia, but that only takes you so far. It's established that there's black people and asian people in the setting, but there's no sign of a country where they're the majority. Get creative with it, for God's sake.

The Ace Combat games have the same basic gameplay ("fly around, shoot planes"), but different framing devices for the stories they tell. Ultimately each game tells the story of a single badass pilot who won all the battles and did all the important things, but the way the world around that story is presented changes from game to game.

Ace Combat 1 & 2 are pretty direct arcade-style games. Their stories were limited to briefings detailing why you were in a particular area blowing things up. The most notable thing about these games is that the war depicted in them is relatively pointless; it's a wholly political affair, with no real sense of a good or evil side. The remake of Ace Combat 2 fleshed this out even more; the rebellion exists because a faction in a government feels that their country is too reliant on another country. Which is to say, it's a boring C-SPAN level plot, which is itself pretty interesting when most of the other games try to provide some moral justification for the player's actions. This isn't about defending one's homeland, you're just a pilot fighting for a pro-government faction against rebels. 

Ace Combat 3 was, weirdly enough, a cyberpunk game with an anime style detailing a war between mega-corporations. The big innovation in AC3 was that the "silent protagonist" turned out to be an advanced AI running a simulation about the potential effect of a skilled fighter pilot. It also introduced a "non-protagonist" pilot who had the level of skill traditionally associated with player characters (i.e. "he won wars by himself"). While I don't think of AC3 as being particularly good, it did toy around with the "ace pilot" formula pretty well.

Ace Combat 04 was the first "conventional" Ace Combat game, detailing a war between the far-right country of Erusea and the neighboring "Independent State Allied Forces". Like Ace Combat 1 & 2, there were briefings and operations, but the game's cutscenes were told from the perspective of a young boy caught up in the war. The player character is important to "the war", but is only tangential to the boy's story. There was a sense of things going on outside the player's immediate purview - an attempt to tell a story, to make the setting larger than just "the ace" and "the pilots he's killed".

Ace Combat 5 was probably the most direct storyline. You're playing a silent protagonist with multiple talkative squadmates. Things happen in a linear fashion. A character dies in a cutscene. So on and so forth. AC5's most prominent idea is that "war is bad", and while its setup is very distinctly "Cold War", its themes are actually pretty heavily Japanese. Osea, the USA stand-in, has a self-defense force instead of an army, and its pilots espouse anti-war ideologies even as they shoot down enemy planes. Ultimately the war turns out to have been orchestrated against the wills of both countries, and the whole situation is resolved.

Ace Combat Zero told its story in the form of a documentary. The player took the role of a mercenary pilot defending the country of Ustio from its neighbor, Belka. The game introduced a "morality system" of sorts. Certain targets, such as civilian buildings and damaged planes, could be destroyed for extra money. Doing so would make you a "mercenary", while abstaining would make you a "knight". In-game comments about your character would differ depending on your playstyle. The game's cutscenes were done as interviews with pilots that you shot down, who would comment on their own experiences as well as your flying style. Like AC04, you got the sense that there was a "real war" going on, even if the player wasn't really part of it. People responded to death and loss like people do, and the documentary style created an air of legitimacy about the whole thing. It felt like a story that was being taken seriously.

Ace Combat 6 is the worst. Not just the worst Ace Combat, the worst, period. It's a story about "fake America" fighting "fake Russia" and it basically plays like a jingoistic shooter. There is zero doubt that the "Emmerians" are the good guys and the "Estovakians" are the bad guys (or, best case scenario, misguided tools of a corrupt leadership). However, the cutscenes of the game did focus on civilians trying to escape the war, and a main character loses his family while he's off fighting, so that's...something, at least. In every other regard AC6 is unacceptable, F-, see me after class.

Ace Combat X took place in the setting's equivalent of South America, which was a nice change. The story was told from the point of view of a foreign journalist writing an article about the war as it developed. While the story itself was pretty unsubtle (the bad guy turns out to have been corrupt!!), the presentation was pretty okay, and the tone made it feel like part of a larger world  - not the most important conflict in the setting's history, but a relatively normal part of it.

The weird thing about Ace Combat is that it actually doesn't really have LND - at least not in the traditional way. Your skill is 100% acknowledged as being totally fucking canon, and every other character treats you like you're the greatest pilot in the world despite your apparent lack of speaking ability. Compare this to something like Call of Duty, where the game never really acknowledges your superhuman combat ability and regenerative powers. You're just Sergeant Whatever, a dude who has killed hundreds of guys but still gets orders barked at him constantly like you're an idiot or something.

What Ace Combat does have, though, is shitty AI. AI that, at best, is reasonably competent and can take down the player if it has the advantage of numbers. At worst, though, the game's AI is barely capable of flying in a straight line. The player doesn't have to expend a lot of effort to shoot enemy planes down; they make no attempt to evade or use tactics or anything like that. They're supposed to be trained pilots, often veterans, and yet they exhibit the piloting skills of a rookie on their first day trying to figure out what all the levers do. And you're supposed to feel totally badass for gunning these losers down by the boatload. This is a phenomenon I have written about before.

I mean, this is hardly exclusive to Ace Combat, but AC is also trying to go out of its way to "build a setting". It has interviews with veteran pilots. It's trying to be a war story. It's trying to make a world. So it's one thing if the protagonist is overcoming enemies that feel like legitimately tough and competent characters, and it's totally different if the protagonist is overcoming enemies that feel like incompetent losers. It's denigrating to the story and to the experience as a whole.

I'll compare it to another game, Vector Thrust, which is an AC-inspired flight game. Compared to Ace Combat, Vector Thrust's combat is a lot more intense and dynamic. The AI is capable of more aggressive tactics, and the introduction of countermeasures (chaff/flares) makes the combat more tense on both offense and defense. As a result, a battle with only a few planes can feel serious and tense, and the player will actually lose most of the time if the odds are against them. Victory feels earned, and the setting feels cohesive. You feel like you're actually fighting veteran pilots, not hapless incompetents.

The strangest part about AC's system, though, is the fact that the games are so overtly anti-war in the first place. AC5 in particular talks about the horrors of war at every opportunity, and paints militant aggression as unequivocally evil or misguided. Yet the game has no qualms about making you the most awesome pilot ever and having everyone tell you how great you are. It's not even really meant to be subversive, like where you'd feel guilty for all the killing you're doing. You just kill people, and then eventually you kill the real bad people and it's like "oh okay, guess that's over".

For contrast, the anime series Area 88 was a big inspiration for Ace Combat. However, the mental toll of killing was a pretty huge theme in Area 88, even if the protagonist was an unnaturally skilled pilot. Fear and guilt are major concepts in the series, and the protagonist often justifies himself as "fighting to survive". Ace Combat says that war is bad, but doesn't really talk about any ideas of mental strain or guilt.

It's a series about fighter jets. Everyone wears flight suits. It works. I already covered this.

Although it's a pretty distinct reminder that "being realistic" is an easy default, despite games' insistence to the contrary. It's easy to design realistic-looking characters in realistic-looking uniforms. It's simple. It's effective. Games have to go out of their way to make ridiculous armor or costumes for their characters. They have to go out of their way to sexualize women. They have to go out of their way to make themselves ridiculous. From a design standpoint, realism is the path of least resistance. Games usually eschew realism because they feel like they have to.

Ace Combat has a neat idea for a setting but wastes itself on self-indulgent power fantasies. It's like having a documentary about World War 2 interrupted by Stolz Der Nation. You're just sitting there trying to learn about the effect that war has on the human psyche and BLAM, there's a shift into a cartoonish world where enemies charge at a lone warrior and he guns them all down. Am I watching a documentary or am I watching an action-adventure? I can't do both. You've got to decide.

In that sense, Ace Combat is the epitome of "gaming". It tells the player they're the best and the most important, but it also tells them they're mature and serious and adult. It coddles the player while assuring them that they're All Grown Up. And that's what gaming is.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Reading Rorschach, or, Responsibilities of Realism

I. In September of 1986, Alan Moore published the first issue of what would become his most well-known work: Watchmen.

His goal with Watchmen was to tear apart the superhero genre - to expose it to reality, and thus to subvert the long-standing tropes and traditions associated with the medium. Like Superman: Red Son, the comic works primarily by attaching superheroes to realistic political shifts - something that most superhero comics tend to ignore for the sake of a stable universe. The short, self-contained story allowed for plot twists and events that wouldn't be acceptable in a "long-running" universe.

One of the characters in Watchmen is Rorschach.

Rorschach is a Punisher-style vigilante; he does not imprison, he executes. Patterned after existing superheroes Mr. A and The Question, Rorschach was meant to be disgusting and unappealing - a murderer bound only by his own sense of justice. Moore made it clear, through many interviews, that he doesn't like Rorschach.

And yet many people do; in the same way that people read Judge Dredd and sympathize with its overtly fascist protagonist, or how people saw the Death Wish movies as power fantasy instead of a character study. I've written about this loosely in the past a few times, but now it's time to talk about why this happens.

The thing is...

...okay, let's zoom out. Here is how fiction works: a person constructs a scenario and then tells a story within that scenario. With me so far? Whether it's "real life" or a fantasy world, the way fiction works is that a scenario is built, and then the events of the story take place within it.

Okay, zooming out again: here's the thing about the way people see the world.

II. The vast majority of people believe that they see the world in a rational and logical manner. Very few people think to themselves "man, I'm just wrong and stupid about everything, but I guess I'll keep believing the things I believe anyways". There's always justifications. Right-wingers believe that change is a slippery slope leading to chaos and destruction; left-wingers believe that right-wingers are holding back civil rights in the name of "order". People have ideas about crime, about war, about politics, about morality, about ideology, about ethnicity, about identity, on and on and on. And generally, people believe that their views are correct, because if they weren't, why would they believe them?

I'll use an example from my own experience: I once encountered a teenager who was against war specifically because he believed that America fought using human waves tactics. He thought this because he saw Saving Private Ryan. He was "against war" because he believed that the specific Omaha Beach scenario was standard procedure. It wasn't an assumption he had any reason to question, because he'd already gotten his evidence and didn't feel the need to examine any other sources.

This is how knowledge works. If you don't know something, it's easy to admit it. I don't know a lot of things about physics and science and rocket engineering. I don't pretend to. It's easy to say that I objectively do not know those things. I am ignorant about those things, yes, but that's easier than being wrong about them.

On the other hand, if you think you know something, no matter whether it's right or wrong, you use that knowledge as a plug. Unless you want to constantly second-guess yourself, you can't really doubt every bit of information you've ever acquired. It's just not feasible. So you develop an idea, and even if there's evidence against it, you tend to cling to it.

Okay, now let's zoom back in a bit

III. When an author writes a scenario for their story, they're doing so using their own view of "reality". Most stories use reality as a base, and then differ from there. For example, even in fantasy worlds, you still have basic principles intact; fire burns, grass grows, sun shines. When principles are changed, it usually needs to be explained. For example, in a superhero story, we generally accept that superheroes exist, but their powers and abilities need explanation of some sort. Even though the rules are different from reality, we still expect the rules to make sense. This is what's referred to as internal consistency.

When a fiction writer creates a setting, either they are using their idea of reality as a backdrop, or it's assumed they are using their idea of reality as a backdrop. So, inevitably, the setting itself is judged by some level of realism, or assumed realism, even if the story itself is "fantasy". So what happens when a setting is populated by unreasoning, unambiguous thugs who can only be dealt with via violence? It's assumed that they, too, are part of the "realism".

Herein lies the curse of Watchmen, Judge Dredd, Death Wish, Max Payne 3, Spec Ops The Line et al. Stories that try to condemn their protagonists as violent lunatics, but end up putting them in a world that's more insane, violent and unrealistic than the characters themselves are.

Alan Moore didn't want people to sympathize with Rorschach; he wanted them to see him as a lunatic, not a hero. So why didn't they? Because they couldn't. Because it doesn't make sense for them to do that.

IV. The problem is that Moore put Rorschach into a "superhero world", not a "real world". Rorschach lives in a world of comic-book criminals; when he originally "breaks" and starts killing people, he does so because of a sadistic, child-murdering serial killer. He is constantly confronted by unapologetic murderers and rapists and thugs; they are not the product of his overzealous imagination, but the reality of the world that he lives in. It's easy for the average person to sympathize with a vigilante when their paranoid delusions are made manifest.

Take a brief skim of the news. The CIA torture report. The use of deadly force by police officers. The Charlie Hebdo killings, and the resulting anti-Muslim backlash that accompanied it. The world is full of examples of bad things being done in the name of defending good things. People argue that if the CIA wasn't allowed to torture and rape prisoners, then the terrorists would be able to do bad things. People argue that police are justified in shooting people because if they didn't the thugs would kill all the cops, and then they'd overrun our society. People believe it's okay to hurt Muslims because "they hurt us first".

Our society carries within it the idea that a "good person" who does "bad things" can still be a good person as long as the bad things were done to preserve good things. It's okay to fix elections in the name of democracy. It's okay to torture in the name of civil rights. It's okay to censor in the name of free speech. Everything about this is fine and okay because the ends justify the means.

In real life, this view can be challenged by pointing out the fact that the "necessity" of those actions is false. The CIA's torture program was as ineffective and useless as it was immoral. Police brutality is often applied in cases where it clearly isn't needed. Violence and prejudice against Muslims only fans the flames of extremist groups, while making life notably worse for the non-extremists. But there's no equivalent of that in Watchmen - no sign that Rorschach's actions are wrong or stupid or useless.

V. Rorschach was a failure as a character not because of who he was, but because of the world around him. Rorschach didn't make mistakes. He didn't fuck up. He didn't accidentally kill innocent people. The only time we see him "do something wrong" is when he drops a mentally ill man down an elevator shaft (because he was claiming to be a supervillain), and he's not punished for that. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre laugh about it years later, but Rorschach is never reprimanded for it; we don't even know if he was aware of what happened. As far as his world is concerned, Rorschach is 100% right, and the only reason you'd think otherwise is if you firmly believed that even serial killers and child rapists deserve redemption. But, of course, it's also made clear (in the average superhero comics) that villains don't reform. They just break out of Arkham and start the cycle all over again.

Rorschach is far from unique. Think of all the "cowboy cop" stories where civil liberties are treated as a form of red tape separating the villain from justice. Think of all the stories where there is no doubt that the villain is the bad guy, and everything the hero does in pursuit of the villain is justified. That's what Rorschach represents - not ideological extremism, but a skewed, warped idea of moral purity. Audiences like Rorschach because they think he's right, and there's nothing in the story itself to disprove them.

VI. Now we have to go somewhere with this, because this isn't just about fiction. It's about the way people see themselves, and see information. It's about why I don't take people seriously when they say they can tell fiction from reality.

There's a group of people who call themselves "Red Pillers". These individuals see the world in a certain way; specifically, they believe that women are vapid, emotional wrecks, and it's a man's job to manipulate and dominate women for their own sexual satisfaction. If you'd like a more in-depth overview of their beliefs and values, here is a post to help you get started.

The thing about TRP is that its members earnestly believe that they are right, not just ideologically, but fundamentally. They believe that their worldview is objectively correct. They don't see themselves as misogynists - they believe that they are enforcing a "natural order", even though they have to use force to do so. "We don't hate women", they'll say, "We just recognize that they need to be treated like our mental inferiors." "We aren't rapists", they'll say, "We just recognize that sometimes no doesn't really mean no. We also recognize that marriage is a contract, and women lose the right to say no when they enter it."

They think they're speaking realistically and rationally here. That's what they think reality is. When someone talk about being able to separate reality from fiction, you need to ask them what they think reality is. Because right now, reality is full of people who have "real morals" on par with a video game, and those people don't think they're crazy. They think they're the only sane ones. Which leads me to my final point.

VII. Two Quotes from CS Lewis that explain everything.

Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

You might have seen this quote floating around the internet. It's popular amongst the Manchild/Kidult Community (or MKC), because it's essentially an argument that validates their existence. It's a well-respected author telling people that it's okay to like childish things, and they shouldn't worry about what stuffy old grownups think of them because those grownups are the real children after all. I've lost count of how many times I've seen this argument made, usually to defend something objectionable.

But, as always, you must consider who is telling you that this is okay. After all, CS Lewis is just a man, like every other man out there. So let's take some of his own moral values into consideration.

I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, "Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?" But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did – if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.

CS Lewis believed, wholeheartedly, that morality was a fixed, unchanging, universal idea. He believed this because, to him, God's existence proves that there is an absolute, unchanging good and an absolute, unchanging evil. When this idea was challenged by society's changing values (in this case, "the fact that we don't burn witches anymore"), Lewis attributed this to the fact that we don't believe witches exist - and if we did believe this, it would be totally right and good to kill them. One wonders how Lewis would address slavery.

People overlook this aspect of his character when they cite that first quote, but you can't have one without the other. CS Lewis loved "childish things" because, ultimately, his real-life worldview was as childish as you can get. His view of morality, with "good" and "evil" so clearly defined, is straight out of a children's know, like the children's storybooks he continued to read as an adult. Like the children's storybooks that he encouraged people not to be ashamed of reading.

And the whole time, he thought he was being rational and objective and realistic. Because that is what people do, even when they're getting their moral values out of children's storybooks.

This concludes the examination.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Comparative Character Design: Kei Nagase

Yeah, I'm doing an actual article about character design. I know, right? Crazy. It'll be over quick though.

This is Kei Nagase from Ace Combat 5. As you might be able to tell from her design and also the fact that she's from a game called "Ace Combat", she's a fighter pilot. I bring her up in order to contrast her with a slightly different character: her original incarnation, from the game's concept art. The two characters are basically the same from a design standpoint. They have slender builds and short black hair. They're wearing flightsuits. For most intents and purposes, they are the same. So why bring them up?

Because when I hear people talking about character design, one thing I hear a lot is people defending big, sweeping design decisions. Those kinds of artists feel the need to make overwrought designs and then defend their exaggerations as being necessary to let the audience understand the character. They don't trust the audience to pick up on subtlety. So you end up with a lot of overblown characters wearing ridiculous outfits, and they get defended because people feel they have to be like that.

Look at those two designs again. They're the same, but they're not. They have different hair, different eyes, a different mood, a different feel. Their eyes, their facial expressions, their stance. All these little things. You could put those two characters side-by-side and play them off as totally different people, and I'd bet that audiences would accept it.

The "finished product" Kei Nagase is more taciturn, somber, and withdrawn. She doesn't really have a lot of emotion to her, and, as a result, "not being emotional" becomes a distinct part of her character. Obviously I've only given you a single CG model to work with, but rest assured, it's a theme that carries through - for example, here, here and here. While there's moments of intensity with her character, she's very rarely expressive. It's not that she's glassy-eyed and poorly rendered, but rather, you get the feeling that she's not totally there, like she's not really paying attention. She's a perpetual daydreamer. It's a thing.

The "original model" Kei Nagase is clearly more energetic, even though you don't have a line of dialogue to work with, or a single snippet of voice acting. Her hairstyle has more of a "punk" feel to it, even though the only real difference is a few wayward strands. Her eyes feel more intense, and convey assertiveness, in contrast to the "finished product's" detached nature. Even in the pose where she's reading her book, the original seems more involved in the action, more engaged, whereas the finished product seems lost in the work.

This isn't to say that one design is better than the other - far from it. The point of this exercise is to show that, even if you have a huge number of restrictions on your design, you can still make characters that are distinct and memorable and whose designs say something about them. Even if they're wearing a standard-issue flight suit or "realistic" armor or whatever else, you can find ways to make them people. And we're just talking about visual design; that's not even getting into the extra layers of writing and voicework and all that. So don't tell me you can't do it, because you can. Subtlety's not that bad. Realism helps. It's a thing. Pick up an anatomy book while you're at it.