Space…the Final Frontier: Using Limitations to Speak in Queer Gaming

mainichi

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 14

In Brendan Keogh’s article “Just Making Things and Being Alive About It: The Queer Games Scene,” he praises the game Lim and its creator, Merritt Kopas, saying that they “are exemplary of what is gradually emerging as a vibrant scene of queer game developers…who are making their own space to craft innovative and unique video games on the periphery of both indie communities and the mainstream industry” (Polygon).  In the article, “space” isn’t highlighted, but it was the word I hung on most, and it’s an essential word when considering queer games.  Games reflect society, and society is overwhelmingly heteronormative and always in favor of privileging males.  The space has been claimed. Attempting to include queerness on any level, especially in media, is met with resistance or incredibly poor representation, because the rulers of the space determine how all Other groups are seen.  Like oil in water, queer representation is pushed to the fringes and expelled from the homogeneous group.  However, because games still reflect all parts of society, many designers are not only creating games about their experience in a hostile, prejudice space but also carving out a genre of gaming specifically to explore and represent queer identity.

The mainstream gaming industry has marketed its products specifically to young, straight, (typically) white boys since its height in the 1980s.  The shift in the industry to reflect more of its audience and different cultures is shocking its privileged consumers and they’re reacting with about as much class as self-entitled, delusional people do. As Leigh Alexander says, “This is hard for people who’ve drank the kool aid about how their identity depends on the aging cultural signposts of a rapidly-evolving, increasingly broad and complex medium. It’s hard for them to hear they don’t own anything, anymore, that they aren’t the world’s most special-est consumer demographic, that they have to share” (Gamasutra).  While in recent years, many companies and producers are (albeit slowly) expanding their games and marketing to fit realistic audiences, very few outside of the indie scene are presenting significant, positively-represented, queer characters.  The games I analyzed for this week are seeking to change that: LimMainichiFor Those We Love Alive, and Dys4ia.  Although the budgets were smaller and the graphics probably couldn’t compete with Super Nintendo Mario, these simply-designed games are representing queer identity and queer games with unique, immersive challenges and narratives.  I’ll address them all separately and point out specific instances of addressing the reclaiming or creation of space for queer identity.

Lim

Lim, at the beginning, seems like it should be an easy game. With arrow keys, you move a color-changing cube through a maze. But…there are other cubes: blue and brown cubes. When you move past them, if you don’t press “z” to turn on camouflage, the other cubes will attack you, smashing into you.  However, if you do keep the camo on, the longer you do, the camera perspective narrows in on you, your movement slows, and you begin to shake until the camo eventually breaks and the assaults begin.  I couldn’t finish the maze, and I don’t even know if you can.  I always got stuck at one point where a large area was populated by both brown and blue cubes. Even if I camouflaged, I couldn’t be both. Multiple of one cube color or the other would slam into mine and I couldn’t pass.  On top of that, the audiovisuals are incredibly irritating. When you’re slammed into, a loud “thwack” sound goes off and the camera view is jarred around wherever the cube goes; when you keep the camo on, a horrible ringing noise intensifies until the disguise breaks.  Five minutes into the game, I was irritated, nauseated, and stressed.  But I certainly understood the game.

Lim isn’t about accomplishments or narrative. I don’t need to necessarily care about my cube to find the game’s value. What matters is that I translate my feelings and my experience of this simple maze into the less-than-simple reality it represents.  The space within the maze is both the physical- and identity-space people traverse everyday.  The blue and brown cubes are the “accepted” colors, the accepted identities (specifically gender and sexual) that society and its privileged constructs endorse. Your cube, the color-changing one, doesn’t conform to the limitations given.  It’s something else–a queer identity that doesn’t fit into the two-toned binary that, according to society, constitutes what is “normal” or “good.” And this game is ALL about space.  The maze, the space you traverse, has a limited direction you can go in but is, in and of itself, easy to go through…until you meet the other cubes. Like in society and the gaming industry, there is no space inherently given to queer people or games that they haven’t had to find, create, or reclaim for themselves.  And that process comes with resistance.  And that thought segways nicely into…

Dys4ia

Dys4ia, an interactive autobiographical game by Anna Anthropy, documents the designer’s experience as a transwoman with hormonal replacement therapy.  The game has a set narrative that you use arrow keys to click through and to interact with.  The game has received high praise, especially from gamers who have been waiting for not only a game centered on a trans-person’s experience but also the honesty and relatability that such a personal narrative provides.  However, it also received intense criticism, even from within the game industry, excluding players.  In an interview with Anthropy, she responded to a question about her greatest frustration working in the game space:

Right now, it’s “Is this really a game? Isn’t it just an interactive movie?” Conventional gamers are threatened by the lack of challenge in a game, like dys4ia, in which scenes progress regardless of whether or not the player fails, as though the game has failed to validate their masculinity in some essential way. All my game has failed to do is waste the player’s time. Games are defined by the player’s interaction with rules, not by her struggle with challenge – in fact, I feel challenge often gets in the way of the experience a game is trying to create, rather than aiding it. (Anthropy gamesforchange.org)

Even within the game industry, rules are placed on using unconventional design methods.  To tell an atypical story in games, Anthropy chose an atypical method.  But the gaming space is primarily catered by and to cisgender, heterosexual males who dislike games that they cannot conquer.  You finish Dys4ia by experiencing it.  You move from slide to slide by holding one of the arrow keys long enough, and sometimes you don’t even have to do anything at all.  Anthropy wanted the story–her story–to be absorbed and not muddled or distracted from with self-interested challenges.  The narrative was her space, and all players had to progress through it.  And in a rather ironic turn of events, many players couldn’t handle being pushed through a space or a story that wasn’t about them or didn’t specifically cater to their identities.

Mainichi

Mainichi‘s unique play on space deals with how many times and how many ways you manipulate the same space with specific limitations.  The story always begins the same: you are Mattie, a transwoman, and you are going to meet your friend for coffee.  After you do meet your friend for coffee, the day starts over again, as many times as you’d like.  You have limited time before you go, so you can only complete three tasks in your house before it’s time to leave.  The house is your space to manipulate; you decide which three tasks are most important to you.  You can get dressed, eat, play a video game (and there’s a nice little Dragon Age II easter egg there), or clean up (which includes bathing and make-up. You can only put on make-up if you bathe, so that takes up 2 tasks).  While there are options within your own home/space, there are really only two general outcomes once you leave.

Option 1: If you choose to focus on appearance and you go all out and bathe, dress up, and put on make-up, the crowds you pass as you go to the shop will all be passive, the barista you flirt with will respond positively and recognize you as a woman, but your friend (at the end of the conversation) will end up deflating your emotional high by reminding you that the barista will probably reject you once he finds out you’re trans.

Option 2: If you neglect one of those three tasks from option 1, you will always end up with option 2.  No matter how creative your action combo at the beginning in your own home, unless you complete the three actions that would perfectly (to use Lim‘s terms) “camoflague” you to society’s gender perception of women, the game will end with frustration.  If you neglect one of those three “required” options for “passing” as a “real” woman outside your own home (notice the quotes…notice the quotes…), someone in the game–the crowds’ people, the barista, the cashier, or even your friend passive-aggressively–will call you out, be disgusted by you, or claim you’re faking your gender.  You as the player/Mattie are given options on what you can do outside of your home, but unless you complete the “check-list” from option 1, someone before the end of the game will respond cruelly and the game will end with a thought bubble above Mattie’s head, filled with scribbles representing frustration.

For example, you can either walk through the crowd (and endure the crude insults) or walk around them.  In either case, you are either explicitly and verbally reminded that you are Other and unaccepted, or you must separate yourself physically, in which you are living that Other-ed identity no matter what.  You can pay with cash or card for the coffee, but if you pay with card, the cashier will awkwardly attempt to call you “miss” or “mister” before passing you along to the barista.  If you don’t complete all of option 1’s checklist, then the meeting/flirting with the barista will prompt him to call you “dude” and awkwardly ignore your flirting.  And if you do completely option 1’s checklist, your excitement from being acknowledged by the barista as “miss” and being invited on a date later is quickly deflated by your friend, who believes that the barista only likes you because “he thinks you’re a girl,” as though it’s a falsehood or a deception you’ve pulled off.

In either case, your space–both physically and as an identity–is only truly in your control and free of insult if you are either separate or complying to society’s rules for their cisgender space.  If you are separate, in your home or avoiding the crowds, you can do as you please without aggravated intervention, but then again, you are alone, separate, and excluded.  If you want to enter the space that is only accepting of clearly cisgender people, you must complete the checklist, limiting yourself to how you can express your body/identity-space, if you want to avoid insult and attack.  But no matter what you do, at the end of every playthrough, you will have the knowledge that someone does not accept you, will not accept your expression of your identity-space as real.

I don’t believe Brice intended this game to feel defeatist.  Like all of the games I played and examined this week, this game is a simulation.  You gain the experience, not bonus points or trophies, which forces the focus to be on the represented story–and in these games’ cases, the personhood–instead of self-interested accomplishment.  Like LimMainichi is meant to provide a place of sympathy for those who live as trans-men/women and empathy for those who are learning about what that life looks/feels like.

With Those We Love Alive

Of the four games I played this week, With Those We Love Alive had the most complex narrative, but it wasn’t necessarily harder mechanically. I still just had to click my way through the game, but I had (arguably) more options of what I chose, in the few instances I could choose my own expression in the game.

The game takes place in a vague, Lovecraftian-horror style fantasy world. You work for the Skull Queen, making her whatever she tells you to make, and you can only explore a few limited locations (which usually remain the same throughout the game). When you’re told, you have to make her certain objects, however, how you make them is up to you.  The narrative only progresses if you sleep, and anything significant that happens prompts a screen that will tell you to mark the feeling of the event on your skin with a sigil.  Literally. In real life, with a real pen.  By the end of the game, my arm looked like this:

ftwlaSIGILS

The game doesn’t tell you how or in what style to draw these emotions. You could paint a Da Vinci-style masterpiece for all it cares.  But the point is…YOU can design and create YOUR identity-space on YOUR body-space however YOU want, even though your narrative-space severely limits where you can go or what you can physically do (for now).

The world and narrative are both incredibly detailed and unique yet also vague.  The narrative you click through is entirely text-based.  Music and the occasional color-change of the text’s background accompany the story, but everything is told through text.  I thought this design choice was brilliant.  While the story represents queer/transgender experience, there are no visual standards as to what anyone has to look like.  This freedom to interpret the story based on everything and anything the text invokes in your mental landscape both allows the story to speak to nearly any Other-ed group and also does not distract from the story itself.

Eventually, after repeating a few processes, including making a few objects for the queen, you meet up with an old friend, a witch, who essentially inspires you to design an object which will lead to your escape.  I don’t think it’s any odd coincidence that the friend is designated as a witch.  In both literary and historical contexts, witches are the rebels, and society always condemns them.  By joining your friend and becoming a witch, however, you also become human. The game states that the Queen and her followers hunt humans.  Also, the dream distillery harvests them.  To be human is to be free of the Queen’s reign and to dream and create. Also though, to be human is to be hated for existing in the same space owned by the Queen and her people.  To be human is to be “a criminal” and “wasted potential,” even though your difference and expression of self is the greatest potential of all (With Those We Love Alive).

Conclusion

Space doesn’t have to be physical, but often, even physical spaces are dictated by the socially-accepted and -promoted identity that “owns” them.  The space of gender and its expressions in (particularly a Western-American) society is “claimed” to belong only to the cisgender, and even amongst that distinction, only those that to-a-T follow the rules of gender expression are accepted. Anyone outside the binary of clearly-expressed male-female is Other. Any Others, while freely exercising their identities through their body-space, exist in a social space that is hostile to anyone breaking the rules.

These four games accomplish two very significant missions.  First, they offer simulations and experiences that can either offer relatability to queer players or provide a new way to empathize with the struggles of identifying as queer.  Second, in the gaming space specifically, queer games are creating their own genre, their own space.  They are providing a place for players to easily access and find queer narratives and characters (that are hopefully portrayed well), so they don’t have to hunt through the typically cisgender/heteronormative-dominant game genres for an instance of identifying with a character/situation.  Brendan Keogh captures the progression of this movement in his Polygon article:

Despite being beautiful works, their games are often dismissed as being too short, too simple, too straightforward or simply not even games at all. But something is starting to change. Although they lack the access to funding channels and technological knowhow that have long been presumed to be prerequisites for game design, these queer developers — as different from each other as they are similar — are becoming impossible to ignore as they create video games that are unlike anything players have ever seen before, video games that are capturing the attention of an ever broadening audience. (“Just making things…”)

Big-budget games and big-name companies are no longer the only contenders for the gaming community’s attention.  Indie games, their popularity, and their unique perspectives are spreading and beginning to occupy a once, very limited and elitist gaming industry.  Granted, as Leigh Alexander points out, “it’s a vocal minority that’s not representative of most people. Most people, from indies to industry leaders, are mortified, furious, disheartened at the direction industry conversation has taken…[by] a few bad apples” (“Gamers don’t have to be your audience…”).  The elitist, crude gamer boys still exist, but they no longer own the majority of the gaming world’s attention anymore, and their domination-crazy, white, hetereosexual male heroes are no longer god.  The gaming space is, slowly, being changed so that the individual spaces people occupy–body and identity–can blend in without camouflage.

Works Cited:

Collecting Sam: What is the Real Horror in “Gone Home”?

GoneHome

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 13

Before I get technical and critical, I just have to say that I loved this game. It’s not a multi-million dollar artistic AAA game. It’s not the product of years of Bioware or Blizzard mastery.  But it is SO VERY important.  After dozens of games that casually include queer characters just to say “hey, look, we’re being diverse! Applaud us!” (and usually shunting these characters to the side or killing them off), Gone Home provides a game that both builds a positive, female character and honors the beauty and difficulty in exploring her sexuality.  I ached with relief and hope at the end.  I also began to wonder if, perhaps, even the “faults” of the game were intentional, useful tools in building the game as opposed to detracting from it.

Clever Genre Blending

I admit, when the game began “on a dark and stormy night,” in the middle of the woods, in freaking Portland, I groaned.  Another coming-of-age game on the West Coast.  Another semi-thriller game with storms and eerie forests.  But Gone Home quickly used my assumptions against me and used the air of mystery and looming danger to propel me through a rather simple gameplay.

Is Gone Home a drama? Is it a thriller? Does its narrative belong entirely to queer stories or coming-of-age?

Why not all of the above? But as you play through the game, the unknown and the lack of definitive cues towards one, clear genre keeps plays on their toes.  The stormy weather,  ominous notes, the weeping girl on the answering machine,  ransacked rooms, hidden panels — nearly everything you discover as you explore adds to the fear of the final discovery.  What happened to Sam? Did she leave willingly? Where are the parents? Who is Oscar?  You’re afraid of Sam’s fate, but then there’s the possibility of ghosts, so suddenly the supernatural haunts you too.  Now you’re not safe either.

And then, running contingent to this sense of calamity is Sam’s journals, documenting the growth of a teenager and her relationship with Lonnie.  Anxiousness, fear, and the heartwarming mundane are equally intertwined and clashing.  Because there is no certainty of genre, there is no certainty of the ending. Players can’t guess the ending or assume tropes because the genre in and of itself is atypical.

Cultural Value — Gone Home is a Mainstream & Indie Cocktail

Samantha Allen, a writer for Polygon, praises Gone Home‘s unique achievement of staying true to its story and simultaneously crafting it in a way that placed the game in public spotlight. She says:

Even in the wake of the queer games renaissance, the gaming landscape can still feel dichotomous for queer gamers: We have a choice between short form, single-author queer games or long form works that are developed by a team but weighed down by the trappings of dominant culture. I cried when I finished Gone Home because it didn’t force me to make that choice. The game doesn’t sacrifice its queer storyline in a bid for mainstream appeal. Gone Home closes the gap between the queer and the mainstream. (“Closing the Gap Between Queer and Mainstream Games”)

That’s high praise, and I couldn’t agree more. Gone Home proves that games about marginalized people do not have to only be cult classics.  Breaking this game into the public eye not only puts the social value of indie games on equal footing as AAA-games but also breaks the trend of treating queer stories (or any marginalized stories) as fetishes or atypical trends.  In the same article, Allen quotes “queer games scholar Todd Harper [who] said at a GDC panel this year, ‘Like it or not, games are culture. If we’re making games, we’re making culture'” (“Closing the Gap…”).  The arts, products of people of culture, reflect the culture in some shape or form, and video games are no different.  The interactivity of games uniquely provides a space for game designers to immerse players into worlds and stories.  The immersion is central, especially to persuading gamers to want more–story, challenge, etc…  But the reflection of culture is not complete without the opportunity for multiple voices and interactions.  Honestly, cultural reflection will never and should never be complete in reflecting the arts, because people within cultures are ever-changing.  But I digress… Gone Home is not only providing a voice unique to gaming–a well-developed, non-trope-based queer teen–but also doing it through an atypical mix of genres and audiences.

Sam: The Actual Protagonist

Gone Home is clever. Not only does its genre-mix keep you guessing but also its means for interaction–the older sister, Katie–I would argue is not even the actual protagonist.  She acts more as an avatar or a vehicle for the gamer to absorb Sam’s story. Not enough information is given about Katie to really form a gamer-character connection.  We know she just went on a trip to Europe, and that’s about it.  We assume, since the journals and letters are all addressed to Katie, that Sam has a good relationship with her.  But as for her character, we don’t know anything else.  Initially, this bothered me, since tons of games have female avatars without purpose or identity.  But halfway through the game, I realized I didn’t care about Katie, not in a malicious way, but I wanted to know about Sam.  And I think that the emphasis (or lack of it) was a very important, intentional decision on the designer’s part.

Gone Home does the classic in-media-res plot device.  When you begin, all you know is that Sam is your sister and she’s gone, and the degrees of connection between you and either of those facts is what you have to discover.  But because Katie is a relatively blank slate, I believe gamers not only have an easier time assuming her identity but also the game’s true purpose–to discover Sam, as a person, her motives, and where she is–is given the spotlight it needs.  If Katie had been given a more solid identity, it might have overshadowed or colored gamers’ interpretations or opinions of Sam. We would be seeing Sam through Katie’s game-designer-created-and-influenced eyes.  Also, the importance of Sam’s story would be cut back to include our concern for Katie and her reactions and development.  By giving gamer’s a sort of avatar to fill, we are concerned with all that matters–Sam.  We are equally solving the narrative puzzle and discovering our sister’s identity at the same time.

For that reason, I believe Sam is the true protagonist. Her story and actions drive the game.  We as Katie are just following in her footsteps, gathering the narrative as it relates to her.

And speaking of Sam…she’s a wonderful character.  I related to her and loved that there was so much I needed to learn about her (she wasn’t one-dimensional).  First, let me talk about what I loved that she wasn’t. She wasn’t hyper-sexualized, male-eye candy masquerading as a well-developed lesbian character. She wasn’t boxed in by a lesbian trope or even solely defined by her sexuality.  Her story and development weren’t framed in a mocking or non-serious manner. Danielle Rindeleau says in her Polygon article, “But the game treats Samantha’s feelings as valid and real, not just something to be ridiculed. When you are that young, and going through a fundamental shift in your identity, it does feel that dramatic. And the power of that emotion bleeds into everything you do, whether it’s playing Street Fighter 2 or writing elaborate stories about a badass pirate couple or trying to come out to your mom… Coming of age is universal” (“Finding someone like me in Gone Home).   Gone Home is about Sam exploring her sexual identity, but it’s also about the importance and impact of the teenage years in general. Much like YAF tries to relate to and empower younger readers, Gone Home allows its players the same comfort and understanding.

But what was Sam? She was a wonderfully-awkward and spirited teenager.  She didn’t know what group she belonged to, in any social arena, but she knew what she loved–adventure games, rock-n-roll music, loyal friends, and discovering new things.  She was looking for connection, with someone who “got her.”  She, like anyone but especially like teenagers, awkwardly tried to figure out what she and Lonnie were, but no matter what, Lonnie was what was most important, not the label or level of their relationship. And that’s freaking love, and I thought that that was beautiful.

Interacting with the House — The Game’s Blessing and Curse

The actual action you take in the game is boring as hell. Not gonna sugar-coat it… without the creepy music, the booming thunder, the ominous visuals, and Sam’s voiceover, I would not enjoy this game.  You walk, slowly, from room to room, picking up everything in sight, hoping that it leads to Sam.  Is that bad? Not necessarily.  As Katie, the sister dropped into this situation with no leads and no outside contact, all you can do is look.  The limited action makes sense.

I wish there was more though.  More visuals to ponder over, more voiceovers, more narrative-connected objects.  At least three significant mysteries are implied by your explorations: Sam, the parents, and Oscar.  The unknowns in the three stories pepper your search, driving you to connect your discoveries to their stories.  Enough ambiguous-ness is given, especially for the parents and Oscar, to leave room for interpretation, but I wanted more.  The game certainly presents Sam and her story well.  There’s suspense at every corner and journal entry.  But something…something still felt lacking in this game.

At first, I thought that the gap had something to do with the overwhelming amount of useless objects you could interact with.  However, I easily argued myself out of that: you have to search everything, and you should, to discover what happened to Sam. An older sister would do that, and the gamer needs to advance the narrative by discovering Sam’s traces around the house.  So what’s missing? Maybe nothing. Maybe my need for something more has to do with primarily playing games that are over-saturated with multiple means of input and feedback.  Maybe I’m just adverse to simplicity because I’ve been trained to want more.

Inserting Voices in History

I was born in the 90s, but most of the significant cultural and historical events during those years didn’t have meaning to me until I looked back on them a decade or two later.  The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Policy didn’t mean anything to me until I was old enough to process more about politics, and the taboo nature of sexuality in the 90s became more obvious the closer I looked at the intersection of politics and media.  Lonnie is a side-character, but we learn so much about her world through Sam.  There’s a clash between Lonnie’s riot-grrl, punk, third-wave feminism aura and the rigid, homophobic future in the military.  Lonnie and Sam both explore their identities, frustrations and questions through music, games, and comic books, but the closer they (and especially Lonnie) get to “the real world” and living out their identities in public, the more they realize how their down-with-the-patriarchy posters haven’t altered their society one bit.

However, we can assume that Lonnie and Sam still took control of their lives somehow in their escape together.  And in any case, the power of female voice and story is so present that Hélène Cixous would be proud.  Lonnie’s music tapes, her singing, Sam’s letters, her stories, the journals — the girls assert themselves and their voices. They reject the silence that others –their classmates, parents, the military–try to force on them.  Through art and story, they keep their identities and refuse to let them be remolded by cultural norms. Even this game, although two decades after its story timeline, does a powerful action of inserting the voices of the many silenced, especially due to their non-heterosexual identities.

Like the multi-genre nature of the game itself, the characters—through the pieces of their art we find—present, again, the kind of real woman Hélène Cixous endorsed and promoted. She, in her (in)famous article, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” says that “I have been amazed more than once by a description a woman gave me of a world all her own which she had been secretly haunting since early childhood. A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity” (876). Certainly, this sounds like Sam. Throughout the game, we are essentially collecting pieces of the family—particularly Sam though—through fragments of voice, writing, music, art, and keepsakes. Like the comic book collages Sam makes, we are piecing together the parts of the family. This fusion of character and narrative building is particularly significant when we consider Sam and Lonnie as female characters.  They are not bound by linear, expected narrative or character development; in other words, we are learning about them and they are learning about themselves both outside of and (rebelliously) within patriarchal limits.  Both the narrative progression and character development in Gone Home rejects the male-catered, patriarchal-created-binary limits of past games.

While searching for articles and reviews on Gone Home, I found a curious title called “Why Gone Home is a Horror Game” by Armi Dimaranan.  Quite contrary to my expectations, Dimaranan said that the game wasn’t “horror” because of the flickering lights or ransacked rooms; the horror was in the real world. She says:

I won’t lie, a part of me believes that even though this is a video game, that it’s set in the past, many people like Sam and Lonnie are out there living the same struggle, and essentially, are just looking for a home. But honestly, life really sucked for kids like Sam and Lonnie in the 1990s. The United States was still under the whole “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law and social media wasn’t around to help ease the pain of those who suffered. In fact, just a few months before the game took place, a man shot his coworker after the latter admitted to having a crush on him. This was the world Sam and Lonnie were escaping into.  Even if the duo escaped to live a life of whatever they choose to do, there’s still the “what will happen now” sort of effect that lingers on… This is where the real adventure game begins, in the afterthought of the prologue, in the unknowns of a burgeoning horror tale.  This is the fear that hasn’t left me since I finished the game. (Dimaranan)

And if that perspective doesn’t change the whole game for you, I don’t know what will. Like I said before, this game is clever. It lulls us into thinking that it’s just a thriller, and the worst that could happen is we see a ghost in the corner. On the contrary, the worst that could happen happens, and we don’t even see it in the game.  While we cheer for Sam and Lonnie’s character growth and eventual bold get-away, there isn’t and shouldn’t be a sense of total peace at the end. This isn’t a fairy tale.  Lesbian couples, especially teens, don’t get a free pass from prejudice and hate, especially in the 90s.  The horror is the world they’ve escaped into.  I don’t know if that’s the message the game designers were going for, but the possibility certainly does make you think about all of the Sam-and-Lonnie stories in real life.  If the game helps its players ponder more on the US’s history of prejudice and empathize more with the LGBT+ community, then that’s a game worth playing to me.

I’ll end with a quote from Mattie Brice, a writer criticizing both geek culture and Kotaku.  She explains that games like Gone Home, that treat non-heterosexual characters with respect, are not just a critique on past decades but scathing rebuke for how culture is still painfully homophobic now. She says that “How the LGBT community is still the elephant in the room. We haven’t thought of what a gamer community that assumes diversity instead of homophobic adolescent dudes looks like. There are plenty of stats of who the ‘average’ gamer is, what the actual demographics are. However, the image in our mind hasn’t changed in decades… The games I play now won’t let me be myself. No game dares to feature a transgender character that isn’t on the wrong end of a joke” (“Why I Don’t Feel Welcome at Kotaku”).  Games like Gone Home need to enter the public eye more, not just because it presents LGBT+ characters but truly because it presents them well and honestly.  Gone Home isn’t using Sam or Lonnie to market to “the average” gamer guy. It isn’t just throwing them in the plot so the white, heterosexual male hero can live while they die. This game tells their story–a very realistic, relatable story–and the horror is matching the respect this game has for its characters to the prejudice reality around it.

Works Cited:

Foot in the Door or Step in the Right Direction? AC:S & Its Variety of Characters

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 12

EvieFrye(This might be a terrible way to open an argumentative post BUT) I have no foundation for this rumor, but I’ve heard from friends and gaming sites that most of the Assassin’s Creed fanbase is comprised of female gamers.  If this were statistically true, it would not shock me. Despite its lack of strong female characters (let alone playable ones) and use of women as tools (literally, in previous games you can use women, specifically prostitutes, as cover), the AC games are very accessible to both genders. What I mean by this is that, for the most part, none of the games are so heavily sexist or laden with preference for masculinity that a female gamer could not find enjoyment in it.  The games are fun, a mix of stealth and melee fighting. There’s mystery, thrill, and a foundation in history that would please any player, from nerd to thrill seeker.

But this post is about Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and this game, depending on if I’m feeling optimistic or pessimistic, is either taking a step in the right direction for women in AAA games or just barely getting a foot in the door.  I’ll lay out the cons first, because I want to end on a positive note.

Cons

One of the biggest complaints about this game, and most of the AC games, is that it’s incredibly white-washed. Aside from Henry Green (who, admittedly, is an awesome character, although very minimally used throughout the game), there are no significant characters of color. You might catch a glimpse of a black dock worker once or twice, but AC remains incredibly limited on variety in race.  For a game that takes place during the Industrial Revolution, the mix of people in urban areas should be obvious, even in London, England. On that account, UbiSoft really dropped the ball and missed a great opportunity for inclusion.  The AC games are improving with character variety in every game, BUT…the strangest part of this game not having significant characters of color is that–as a game franchise–they have included many Other-ed types of characters, creating a sense of normalcy in variety within the games (even if, in reality, women and non-white characters were hardly seen or given power in public).  Yet, they still have not included characters of color. In AC:S alone, one of the protagonists is a woman, one of their main informants is a trans-man, and other contacts include children, immigrants, and working women, all shown in a positive light.  But, aside from dear Mr. Green, they are all white.

The second issue with the game, which might be intimately tied into the issue of color, is the role of the twins.  In Feminist Frequency’s review of the game, voiced by Anita Sarkeesian, she critiques the role that the twins play when stepping into London’s tyrannical infrastructure: “The game presents them as liberators, freeing London from oppression, bu they’re really just conquerors replacing one crime syndicate’s rule with another’s” (Feminist Frequency).  In the game’s story, in order to weaken Crawford Starrick’s (the villain) monopoly of London’s underworld, the twins earn the allegiance of another thug group, the Blighters, in order to combat him.  Most of the Blighter’s are just angry factory workers, people who have been oppressed and broken down by Starrick’s tyrannical rule of the factories and peoples’ lives.  The twins come barreling into London, win a few fights and free a few children from factories, and they’re given the keys to the kingdom.  While there is and should be a sense of accomplishment in saving enslaved children and challenging the cruel Starrick, the twins don’t actually change the system that is hurting London’s people.  The reason I said that this issue might be tied to the lack of colored characters is that, had the protagonists or significant NPCs been of another race, the act of conquering already oppressed people–like themselves–might have had a bigger role or significance in the narrative of the game. This issue also comes up in Bioshock Infinite; while you play to conquer the evil Comstock, the game is blissfully unaware and rather uncaring towards the struggles of its oppressed people.  While not every historical game needs to be a cry against social injustice, the fact that you are placed in such a turbulent time with so much power and put in direct contact with the oppressed of London, and yet you still use it for your own, selfish (dare I say it, Imperialist) needs should be telling of the game industry’s ease of ignoring and forgetting the past.

One last issue to discuss, and then I promise to be kinder to this game (which I rather enjoy, despite my critiques): Evie. She is wonderful and I couldn’t be happier with how she is portrayed.  But…despite the significance of this game having two protagonists–one male and one female (and they’re not in a relationship! Even better!)–in both public advertisement for the game and within the game itself, Evie is often slighted in gameplay.  While, at first, the game switches between Jacob and Evie rather consistently, eventually, Jacob’s story overtakes hers. His missions and storyline become the game’s focus, and even becomes more and more like a side-kick. In the gaming advertisements as well, unless you did research into the game, Jacob would have appeared to be the only protagonist (check most of the game trailers pre-release). Even on the game’s front cover, Jacob is front and center, while Evie is off to the side.  As I was searching for articles on the game, I came across one that–at first–angered me by the title, but as I read it, I found the complaint to be quite sound.  In Edward Smith’s article called “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Is Ubisoft exploiting feminism for easy PR?,” Smith questions big-name game’s approach to including women in games. True, it is wonderful that woman–well-developed, non-sex object women–are included in games (finally), but how the game designer’s advertise them still frames the industry as a male space occasionally populated by that random, weird gamer girl. Smith frames his concern, saying that:

This isn’t what the process of creating gender equality in games looks like. More helpful – more powerful – would be to simply HAVE female characters in games, for them to simply BE THERE, not for developers to point out and proclaim it like it’s some noteworthy oddity. Admittedly, it is noteworthy. As I’ve said, videogames traditionally have treated women abysmally. But I don’t think it’s instructive or helpful to draw direct attention to women being in games. It still feels like the process of “othering” women, only now approached from a different angle – othering, but via the back door…As long as the existence of female playable characters, or just female characters that aren’t heinous caricatures, is drawn attention to, women in games will feel like an alien presence. (Smith ibtimes.co.uk)

Touché, Mr. Smith. Admittedly, I do get an odd, uncomfortable feeling when game designers announce a new game, saying something like “hey look, we finally have a not-entirely sexualized woman! There’s actually a woman in this game! Her breasts aren’t triple-D and she’s not wearing just a thong! Check out the woman!”  Yes, it is good that game companies are recognizing where they’ve been lacking. But they are stuck there. Women shouldn’t be, as Smith says, an “alien presence” in games (ibtimes.co.uk). There’s no need to add insult to injury or to try to reinforce a woefully false statistic that few women play games. We don’t need to be catered to, just respected and given just as much chance to flex our autonomy as all the male gamers.

Weird, right? Who would have thought.

Pros

As I promised, I will now list AC: S’s feminist and general gameplay successes, and there are quite a few.

First and most obvious, the series now has its first, main game female protagonist and playable character: Evie-badass-Frye.  Starting with the physical, Evie is dressed like all of the classic assassins that have come before her: fully-clothed and with exquisite detail.  Her costume is intricate and the excellent graphics emphasize all of the lovely pieces, from the carvings in her leather jacket to her red sash/cloak to her eagle-head cane.  She wears boots (not heels!!!), has an assortment of weapons smuggled in her cloak, and her outfit is snug but not over-emphasizing breasts or butt.  She is feminine to a degree, with minimal make-up and an elaborate up-do, but that is never used against her (the men in the game don’t go out of their way to point out how pretty she is, as if it’s for them that her good looks exist). Her walk too is not the model, swaying catwalk most female characters display; she just walks, light and direct, which contrasts well with her brother who is a bit more trudging and forceful in his movements (and character).

Her fighting style–and I have to fangirl for a moment–is wonderful! She commands speed and strength, and her technique is definable and easily different than her brother’s (who fights a bit more like a boxer).  Her fighting noises and grunts are natural and not, as Sarkeesian says, made to sound like a woman “in the throws of ecstasy” (like in many fighting games) (Feminist Frequency).  The controller-vibration feedback, the fighting noises, and the consequent gore were all rather natural and not over-saturated or horror-film-level.  In other words, I was fighting as a skilled woman, and her movements were neither hyper-masculine nor entirely genderless. It was awesome, and I hope future AC games include more female fighters like her.

Sidenote: This does bring up another potential critique though. While Evie represents an intentionally-designed female character who actually fights to, well, fight and not to visually please male players, her fighting style is–to me–feminine. There is less overt power behind her strikes than Jacob, who is all fists and throwing his entire weight behind an attack.  Evie has direct, intentional strikes that are not about bodily power but about thought–she has specific, well-thought points of strike, usually using her boots or cane.  This is not necessarily bad. I think she fights more like an assassin than her brother, who would fit more in a boxing ring.  Also, this brings up an interesting question (of which I cannot entirely answer because I don’t have the background in human anatomy): do men and women inherently, by nature, move and consequently fight differently or have our bodies and their images of movement been so captured by social standards that we’re trained to physically move based on gender?  The classic nature vs. nurture argument rears its head.  I think the answer might have an anchor in both camps, but, again, I have no background in this area to prove it.  If the answer predominantly resides in nature, then Evie is presented to the best of the designers’ abilities; she is given physical power and is not stereotypically dainty.  If the answer is primarily nurture, then, sadly, even a woman’s abilities and autonomous bodily actions have been dominated by patriarchal standards for what is “properly” feminine.  No matter the answer though, in future games–both in the Assassin’s Creed series and beyond–I hope that female fighters will be given a variety of fighting styles, both of noticeably feminine and masculine origins, so that female fighting styles are not stereotyped in new ways.

But Evie is more than just her appearance. Between her and her brother, her character, her speech, and her interactions are by far more interesting and diverse.  While her brother (although fun and quirky) is a bit of a one-trick pony–brash and hot-headed–Evie is witty, confident, logical, a big-picture thinker, and conscious of both her own feelings and those around her. To quote Sarkeesian again, Evie “doesn’t feel like a male character who was a last minute gender swap, but like she was developed from the ground up with a strong, capable, and spirited personality” (Feminist Frequency).  While I do love Evie and Jacob’s interactions and a male-female, non-romantic duo, I do wonder why UbiSoft felt the need to not only pair Evie–an incredible character in her own right–with a less-developed Jacob but also to not just give her the reigns to her own game.  If Jacob’s personality had been stronger, perhaps their dynamic would be more appreciated, but Evie is clearly the better-developed character (and more interesting person). While it is refreshing and great to have a strong woman in a game series like AC, I feel that it is also a bit of a backhand to male players for the male protagonist to be so dang stereotypical.

In any case, UbiSoft truly did a wonderful job with Evie Frye and, in general, with their new game. The fighting style is as smooth as ever, and the graphics–especially the nearly-flawless jump between cut-scenes and exploring–are stunning.  However, the more that the AC series places characters in the thick of history and equally ignores a greater variety of people, the more disappointment their fanbase will display, I believe. History, as the popular saying goes, is written by the conquerors, but does that mean that this game series–hopefully aware of all of the failings of past empires–has to make the same mistakes and erase the multitudes that were denied voice? I don’t think so, and hopefully UbiSoft will continue to expand its cast and narrative to include not only more kinds of characters but also players’ sense of belonging too.

Works Cited:

 

Lara Croft, Interrupted:How Tomb Raider’s Reboot Both Releases and Chains Lara to Her Old, Objectified Image

laracroft

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
    Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
    Week 8, Response #7

 

In Esther MacCallum-Stewart’s overview of Lara Croft’s evolution, she quotes Pinchefsky, who says that “there’s no getting around it: Lara Croft, the star of the Tomb Raider series, is a genuine action hero with ginormous breasts, which has made her both a symbol of female self-empowerment and an object of sexual desire” (gamestudies.org).  I feel like that’s a solid quote for getting the obvious out of the way: anytime you search for reviews of Tomb Raider games (especially comparing the old and new), there will be a scathing (although deserved) review of how old Lara was symbolized by her skin-tight-clad enormous boobs and butt.  They’re not wrong; original Lara was meant to be looked at, at certain places.  She has practically become the figurehead for feminist critiques of game designers’ sexualization of women.  Yet, for all of those faults and the sad, objectifying legacy she’s become, I think it is easy to forget the positives of the old games and how the new ones might not be as perfect as we had hoped.  Simply because Lara’s appearance has evolved from a boxy Playboy model to an athletic young woman does not mean that the game’s (and the game designers’) attitude has changed in its handling of her as a person.

Praise for the old Tomb Raiders

I admittedly do not have dozens of reasons for praising the old games, but I do have one good one: at the time, when the games came out, it was exciting to have a girl adventurer. No, I am not the kind of feminist writer that praises a game simply because it has girls in it, just as a game with all males does not make it sexist.  However, I do remember when the games were in the height of their popularity, and as a young girl who was digging deep into my new obsession with gaming, I was thrilled that there was a woman solving mysteries, fighting crime gangs, and who was important. Finally, I could be Indiana Jones. I was the intelligent, badass, suave anti-hero. MacCallum-Stewart recalls a similar experience: “I have an abiding affection for Lara, both as a subject of critical debate and a gaming icon. Lara is an irrefutable part of my gaming life and has been since her inception in 1999, and when I play her, I revel in her strength and abilities, her wisecracks and her cheesy lines, as well as appreciating that she is not particularly realistic” (gamestudies.org). Does it make me a bad feminist to enjoy playing a female character because it’s exciting to try out a personality/avatar who’s over-the-top kick-butt and sexy? I don’t think so. However, the problem is that her artificial-ness is really, looking at the game now, all Lara represents. She has little to no foundation as a real person.  Also, the other significant issue is that, for all the ways I want to like Lara, it is very, very clear that those are not the reasons the game’s designers made her.  They made her to be eye-candy with a handgun. She is meant to be used not as an avatar-fantasy for women, but as an object for the heterosexual men playing.

Pros and Cons of the new Tomb Raider

About fifteen years after I was introduced to the Tomb Raider series, I’m unashamedly a bit more of a picky gamer. I don’t have a desire to go back and play the old series. My original enchantment with Lara has faded, and I’m looking for not just someone real (not perfect, just relateable) but female characters who present both a variety of women and a breakdown of the expected stereotype of femininity equaling helplessness.  To me, new Lara does that.  I’ve only played a portion of the reboot Tomb Raider (2013), but I am loving the strength of character I’m seeing. She’s young (we assume about 22-23) and a bit unsure of herself when stuff hits the fan during the shipwreck, but truly, I thought that her calculated thoughts, her questioning, and her self-talk to assure herself that she knew what she was doing helped build her as a solid character. Most adventurer-types never question themselves; they shoot-first and ask questions later; their egos are as big as their unending-ammo clips.  Lara doesn’t hate herself or constantly belittle herself, but she is testing her strength, and I think that that’s really cool to see, especially as someone her age who questions myself often in my own sphere of expertise. Also, she never questions herself in connection to her gender. So far, no one does. In fact, on her video recordings, we see her shipmates siding with her because of her expertise and certainty.

Bringing back Lara’s best trait from the original games, new Lara is a brain. She has mountains of historical, social, cultural, and survival knowledge. Throughout the game, as you’re wandering through ruins, she comments on the buildings, paintings, objects found with real, detailed explanations. She’s excited about being an adventurer. It is so refreshing to find a female character who loves what she does! She’s good at it and she’s not doing it for male approval.  But she isn’t just smart; she’s athletic, quick on her feet, and a master at honing her skills even when she’s injured. After only 15 minutes of gameplay, I remember thinking, “What. A. Woman.”  And I’m glad I can equate a woman with more than just eye-candy, and I’m glad that I can truly be impressed with her as a person.

However (it really sucks that there’s a “however”)…even with the portion of the game I have played, I am picking up issues with undermining Lara’s autonomous strength, coming primarily from the designers. When I began researching reviews and critiques of the game, I came across one particular article in which the author (who I quoted at the beginning), Carol Pinchefsky, did her research on the men (no women, sadly) designing new Lara. The main issue of the game (so far) that caught my attention was when Lara is trying to find Roth. She is cornered by one of the island’s cult leaders, who forces her against a tree and strokes her face and body. Thankfully, you can fight him and get away; if you fail, you are choked to death (although, as far as viewers can tell, Lara is not raped). Even though Lara has (seemingly) been elevated above damsel in distress, it was still concerning that that scene had to exist at all. Why the caressing? Why imply that at all? Did the designers feel the need to remind us that Lara is, in fact, a woman, and not just a woman but an attractive one that a crazy, island stranger feels the need to molest?

But back to Pinchefsky. She researched the producer’s, Ron Rosenberg, defense of this scene, where he said in an interview to Kotaku that “She is literally turned into a cornered animal” and that in the game as a whole “when people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her….’” (forbes.com).  His response not only angered but also disappointed me. Even though the game, in and of itself, has evolved Lara’s character and personhood immensely, those pulling the strings are still determined to put her at someone’s sexualizing mercy. What game creator is going to intentionally make a male character “someone to protect?” Probably no one. Because males are not supposed to be protected, but the protectors, according to social, gendered norms. And the creators are still lingering under the false assumption that mainly men are playing these games.  But even if they were, even if 99.99% of Tomb Raider‘s players were male, why make it necessary for Lara to not be someone they want to aspire to rather than undermine?  There is no reason why Lara should not be intentionally created as a person gamers think of as their protector, their avatar of someone stronger and smarter.  Lara does not have to be the damsel for any gamer to like her; she can be the knight, and there should be no craps given about that.

My second significant critique (which makes more sense considering Rosenburg’s perspective) is Lara’s death(s).  If Lara dies, either a short cutscene will be cued which, in extreme visual and audio detail, displays her death or the camera will pan over her broken body.  When I first started playing, admittedly, I died quite a few times.  The death I remember most was when I was sliding through a cave, trying to avoid a rock avalanche, but I wasn’t fast enough and Lara was slowly, with bone-breaking noises and Lara’s screams of pain, crushed.  After that, I was slowly mauled by wolves, which viciously maul Lara and rip out her throat as you watch her gargle on her own blood.  Finally, in the scene I mentioned earlier, I died once and had to watch as Lara was slowly, with elongated gasping noises and eyes rolled back, suffocated by the man who was sexually harassing her.  So, after experiencing Lara’s crude, overwhelmingly detailed and unique deaths, I was trying to remember the last time I played a game of the same genre in which a protagonist–specifically male–was repeatedly decimated in the same way.  I couldn’t.  Yes, the cutscene deaths are not unique to this game.  However, the variety and detail put into Lara’s deaths–especially considering Rosenburg’s intentions for Lara’s presentation–leads me to propose that not only is Lara yet another victim of excessive violence against female characters but also her deaths are meant to be more of a reward for players (who are intended to be male) than even her successes.

Excessive violence against women in games is not new.  Just watch Anita Sarkeesian’s “Damsel in Distress” videos and you’ll get a wide variety of genre and history in games that promote obscene violence against women to promote patriarchal agenda. And when I say “obscene,” I am referring to its literal translation: “ob” meaning “out of,” so violence which is out of scene or out of context and does not add anything essential to the theme or plot.  In adventure games especially, one expects characters to be confronted with obstacles and violence–either from nature or people–but the adventure, the challenges, is central to the story, not the violence or gore (as one might expect in a slasher film).  Past adventure games–typically male-lead–prompt the protagonist’s goal by obscenely killing off or damaging a female character connected to the main man.  To simply state this sexist agenda, the women are the male protagonist’s property, and their deaths are meant to not only prompt the male on a quest of vengeance but also to inspire feelings of strength and superiority in conjuncture to male characters (by contrasting them with weak, sacrificial females).  Evan Narcisse, a Kotaku writer, expounds on Sarkeesian’s argument, saying that “‘It’s casual cruelty, implemented as an easy way to deliver an emotional punch to the player,’ Sarkeesian says. Aside from invoking terrible attitudes about women, it’s also a cheap writing trick” (“The Problem with ‘Casual Cruelty’…).  Narcisse continues to argue that the casualness of violence against women in games has two very dark results: first, it undermines and brushes aside that, in real life, women are constantly placed in these positions against not just “unequivocally bad men” but “all sorts of men” because, as his second point states, the violence against women is displayed as a means to an end (the women’s deaths prompt story), which insidiously places the blame on the women, as if they are meant to be in the position of weakness, the receiving end of the punch (Narcisse).  In Tomb Raider, the violence against Lara is obscene; the detail is unnecessary and, arguably, eclipses the plot and character.  Rosenburg and his team intended Lara to be a victim so that players can feel strong.  I would argue that the new Tomb Raider‘s purpose is almost more insidious than the previous incarnations. Lara may have been intended for male gaze before, but now she’s given the illusion of power only to have it taken away to promote masculine players’ feelings of strength and superiority.  Lara has been made the damsel in her own game, and the male players–the intended audience–are the protagonists, the adventurers spurred to action by Lara’s sacrifices and helplessness.

While I have serious concerns and critiques against Tomb Raider, I can give praise to its mechanics in particular. I haven’t spoken much about the mechanical nature of the game, but I might update this post more once I have played more. On the technical side, the game is practically perfect. The controls are smooth and not jarring or jumpy. The weapons have realistic drawing and recoil timing. The character’s movements are realistic and immersive (thanks to controller feedback and a very interactive environment).  I have no complaints and only praises on that account.

But more to come on this game. Concerning the actual mechanics and gameplay, I have enjoyed and been floored by 99% of it. But the creators’ determination to reduce Lara based on her sex is an aggravating and noticeable thorn in the game’s side, one that could weaken female protagonists’ presentations, potentially, even more than their overt sexualized pasts.

Works Cited:

 

“Braid” is Lex Luthor, not Superman: Why sexism, pretentiousness, and apathy will kill the game

Braid

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 7, Response #6

 

To get to my discussion on Braid, I need to go through a rabbit trail. I have an issue with current hipster and boho trends. At their heart of hearts, nothing is wrong with either. The first (essentially) advocates genuineness and nostalgia and the later prides itself in supporting free spirits and all things natural.  But like all little-brother, schoolyard-bullied, swirlied-nerd groups that seek free expression and safety outside of the “norm” and its high-standard judgments, they are at risk of becoming the very elitists they ran from. Their precious, “unique” attributes begin to leak into popular culture, and so, when everyone is finally enjoying and embracing the formally-demonized traits of the group, they grip the toy tighter, insult the general populous, and bar entrance into their club unless you can go the distance and measure up. To be considered truly hardcore hipster or boho, my wardrobe alone would cost several hundred dollers per item, my diet would change to rare and self-processed goods, and my media consumption would be limited only to what no one else (save the few with “good” taste) enjoyed and which did not contradict the many invisible rules around me.  This is the worst case scenario of what often happens to grassroots trends; no matter how good the heart of the group was (and maybe still is), the body is now sickened with ugly pride and a dangerous inferiority complex.

That is what I see in Braid. At its most basic description, it is a meticulous puzzle game with excellent mechanical interworkings and a tricky story.  The game is a challenge. Its simple appearance masks a game that has tests on many levels (literally and figuratively). The narrative has mystery and (at least to gamers) many possible interpretations. But…the tone of the game (which one can only assume reflects Blow’s own opinions) is so aware of its uniqueness, of its own complicated intellectual value, that it feels as forced as a scholar trying too hard to write a “smart” paper or an emo punk band trying too hard to sound melancholy.  More importantly, Blow himself is constantly degrading other games, particularly Japanese adventure games, for “holding the player’s hand” (theguardian.com). Teaching a player how to use a sword combo and allowing players to explore logic puzzles require different training wheels, but to Blow, if a player cannot both figure out what the rules are as well as master the game, they are wasting their time and not participating in true art. Julian Murdoch, a blogger on gamerswithjobs.com, critiques Blow’s double standard of demanding player autonomy and equally aligning his opinions with mastery of the game: “And of course, he famously posted a walkthrough where he informs players that they are essentially idiots if they can’t finish the game: ‘Solve them for yourself and do not use a walkthrough! … All the puzzles in Braid are reasonable.’ This was my first encounter with the unwelcome voice of the author. Blow inserted himself into my experience of his work. I had been pre-chastised by the author: I was a moron if I couldn’t do it on my own” (Murdoch 2009).  Few games–or any pieces of art for that matter–are as critiqued or regulated as Braid is by Blow; through interviews and videos, he has set himself as a sort of standard both within the game and without it. I wonder though, how does that kind of judgment and interaction affect players and their involvement with the game? Are they playing to solve the many puzzles in the game or to solve the challenges set by Blow?

Like the corrupted modern hipsters and free spirits, Braid as a fallen version of what it could be.  For all of its accomplishments and praise, the game relies on intentionally poorly hidden sexism and pretentious, flowery writing to prop up its goals and story. Most of Braid‘s continued existence in the geek-culture’s eye is (most likely) primarily due to Jonathan Blow’s self-proclaimed genius and continual pats on his own shoulder for being the savior of modern video games.  But neither he nor Braid are Superman; they are not saving the masses from the horrid fate of falling in love with sub par games which fail to reach the ultimate, true, purest form…his games.  Granted, in many interviews, Blow presents excellent points as to why exploration and puzzles are important and unusual in games. The trouble comes when he begins to uphold himself and his style as perfection, while all other games and all gamers who cannot reach him at his level are somehow flawed or not true art/artists.  And so I dub Braid as the video game equivalent to Lex Luthor: a smart, potentially-great character whose inferiority complex defeats him more than Superman.

But before I continue connecting Blow to his game, I will address the two negative charges I have brought against the game itself: thinly-veiled sexism and off-putting pretentiousness.  The entire story hinges on an age-old trope: the Damsel in Distress.  For all of the intelligence and creativity in the game, narrative originality is not its strong suit. In an extensive interview, lead by Chris Dahlen, on Braid, Jonathan Blow mentions narrative directly–as a piece of the game–only twice and in the usual, vague fashion that most of his answers come in:

“I could’ve made any game, and found cool things to show people. And the reason for that is actually tied up in the narrative.For me, the meaning of the fiction is very, very closely related to what you’re doing from minute to minute in the game. And I think that somebody out there will understand that. Most people don’t seem to understand the story to that degree. But maybe I’m okay with that, right? But it’s personal in a different way, I guess is what I’m getting at there. It’s important enough to me that I spent three and a half years of my life trying to express it.” (A.V. Club 2008)

I have no doubt of Blow’s intentionality in creating a very specific narrative. It’s all he talks about in his interviews and videos. And even without his explanations, I can see in the game that something is happening with memory, perception, control, and paranoia.  However, Blow’s vision is so specific and the game is so vague and wistfully eloquent that whatever grand, seamless story or idea he’s trying to convey gets lost on most of his audience.

Blow, in the quote above and in much of the same interview, believes that the game derives meaning from even the minute details, and that this great, vague meaning is his mission and vendetta.  But as someone who isn’t privy to his innermost thoughts, I question how this vague mission–which apparently is revolutionary and life-altering–is best shown not only through such a redundant trope but also through such an unhinged, emotionally unhealthy protagonist.  No matter Blow’s grand scheme, the player is given Tim as their playable character. Tim is unashamedly chasing after his ex-girlfriend, The Princess, who is upset with Tim’s neurotic attempts to control every aspect of their relationship with his time-bending abilities. Without any interpretation, that is what is told to players in the little text blurbs after each world. Every text blurb is about Tim’s unhappiness about the lack of precision and perfection in his life, whether that concerns The Princess, his powers, or whatever vague work he does (which is assumed to be nuclear weaponry by most interpretations).  The gameplay reflects Tim’s obsession with precision, as every level requires absolute perfection in order to get every puzzle piece. Your control of time and space as well as the mayhem around you cannot be off in any way. And after all of your hard work perfectly nailing each level, the end level and narration reveals that the Princess has been running from Tim all along; he was the villain.

But surely if players are as intelligent as Blow says they should be, it’s rather easy to see that Tim is unstable. He’s neurotic, whiny, incredibly emo, controlling, and dangerously self-reliant. In every completed puzzle memory, Tim is surrounded by people, but he is alone. He drinks alone, he sleeps alone, he travels alone. He complains about the ease and carefree-ness of childhood. He asks for help from no one in his work or his quest. He even talks about faking his love for his girlfriend just to make sure she wouldn’t leave, even though he felt nothing for her. Yet after all this, players are supposed to sympathize with him?

I personally had difficulty attaching myself to the game. Solving puzzles just to advance Tim on his anxiety-ridden quest to reclaim his Princess felt like one of the most anti-feminist plots I’d participated with in awhile. As Anita Sarkeesian states in part 1 of her “Damsel in Distress” video series, this trope is, essentially, all about “trading the disempowerment of female characters for the empowerment of male characters” (feministfrequency Youtube).  Tim gathers the memories in order to remind the Princess why they need each other or, rather, why he deserves another shot at their “relationship.”  The game, on the surface, is entirely about Tim regaining what was lost: his Princess, his simple life, and his sense of control.  Perhaps gamers are meant to find this twist of the trope amusing: that the Princess doesn’t like the prince and she’s hiding in the castles. But Tim’s obsession with claiming her as an object, no matter how “ironic” it is, should not be dismissed with humor.  In the article “The Bittersweet Pleasures of Patriarchy Lite,” Dr. Mike Sell expounds on this backwards humor, saying that “sanctimony is just one more symptom of air-quoted masculinity: the obsession with boyhood hobbies is secured by the childish insistence that everyone else take those obsessions very, very seriously” (killscreendaily.com).  The Princess is running from Tim, and he is chasing her to take her back.  No amount of brushing-off should cover up how twisted this motivation is. But because she is running from him, we are supposed to laugh, because what girl in her right mind would ever 1.) leave her man and 2.) leave a man who is willing to go so far for her? Obviously a very smart one. It’s a pity this game isn’t about her.  Feministe.us gives an excellent summary of the insidiousness of praising this relationship: “It seems to me that Tim and the nameless characters of the epilogue represent archetypes of some kind. They don’t stand in for every man and woman, certainly, but they’re emblematic of a certain kind of dysfunctional relationship, one where ‘I’ll protect you’ turns into ‘I’ll control you.’ Where obsession with an ideal version of the other leads away from truly being able to see or emotionally connect with a real person. Where the attentions of a self-defined hero are ultimately unwanted and terrifying” (feministe.us).  No matter Blow’s intentions, the relationship represented is unhealthy, and yet he has made no comments as to why this is the vehicle for his game.

After finding her, the Princess is taken away by a strong knight. Ignoring the potential metaphors, I can’t help but feel like this ending deserves some Freudian readings of the subconscious. After the ending, I could only picture Tim as the quintessential misogynist gamer boy, the one that longs for the kingdom of his own that he could control and rule, the one that longs for the “old days” of bliss and youth instead of accepting reality and change. Tim is the “nice guy,” who selfishly goes the distance for the girl he wants, only to have her “taken” (as if people can be traded off or stolen from each other) by the jock. And even if the Princess is some metaphor for the A-bomb, then Tim has, in his delusion, been angrily blaming his “mistake” on a feminine figure, and what does that say about him? Why a Princess? If this game is some sort of critique on the false human perception of control–of life, war, mass destruction, etc…–then why frame that in the journey of an emotionally wrecked man trying to recapture a woman?

In the same interview, Blow briefly addresses the plot’s topic, saying that “In Braid, I was trying to do both things. I was trying to write about issues that are very meaningful to me, but at the same time – those aren’t the surface issues. People say, ‘Braid is about a break-up,’ or whatever. I’ve had break-ups in my past, but I wouldn’t go so far as to spend three years making a game about a break-up and forcing everybody to play it. It means more to me than that. A lot more” (A.V. Club 2008). Again, Blow avoids discussing why he framed his game in this particular narrative. Yes, gamers can sense that there is more going on beneath that (like the A-bomb theory), but the obvious, in-your-face plot seems completely inconsequential to the man who created it. For all of the “genius” supposedly behind this game, even the creator seems to have trouble explaining why most of it exists at all.

And so here is my critique on the tone of the game and its connection to Blow. Admittedly, I did struggle through the game, but mostly because I cared so little for it and its grand ideas. Yes, the puzzles were difficult (perhaps a bit too obsessively-perfect in my opinion, but that attitude certainly did fit with Tim’s character), but that wasn’t my issue with the game. Tim, as a character, was incredibly bland: a neurotic white dude chasing after his girlfriend and his “perfect” life. The text blurbs were ridiculously vague and soggy with teenage angst. The puzzles were randomized portraits of Tim’s lonely, self-centered life. And the end, for all of its grand words and pseudo-intellectual allusion to J. Robert Oppenheimer, fully reveals that Tim is a crazy-lunatic that the Princess is running from and possibly responsible for mass destruction. That last bit should sound exciting, but I was so tired of Tim and of his pointless whining that all I could think was, “Well, at least his life means something now. He’s a metaphor. Whoop-dee-doo.”  And then I shut the game off and I doubt I’ll think much on it after this.

And perhaps I’m one of the idiots that Blow often references as “not getting his game.” And perhaps I don’t care. Blow, in many cases, both supports interpretation of the game and slams anyone who misinterprets it. He also claims to have some sort of god-like intellectualism stuffed into his game (that only the chosen few can decipher), yet he never explains what it is or why he framed it in such a way.  Concerning interpretation, Blow says that “Now on the one hand, I did leave the game very open to interpretation. [But] I feel that a lot of people are a little bit too quick to take concrete bits of evidence that they find and that they recognize, and to use those to create a definitive explanation of everything and to bend all other facts to fit that explanation. Whereas, why didn’t you take those facts that you found and bend those facts to fit other facts to make another explanation” (A.V. Club 2008)?  In other words, why don’t all gamers take the facts to fit his explanation? Because, why should they? For all of his ranting on exploration and expanding the human mind, Blow has a very limited window for what he is “allowing” gamers to see in Braid. He provides mountains (vague as they are) of facts and instances to draw interpretations from, yet he is unsatisfied that no one is thinking on the exact same wavelength as he is.

Concerning the popular feminist interpretation of Braid, Blow commented that “often it’ll be somebody has an agenda – like, there was a very feminist-oriented critique of Braid [on Feministe.us] and it was an author following her feminist agenda and interpreting the game. Which was fine, but it didn’t have much to do with what I put in the game” (A.V. Club 2008).  Oh, but it does, Mr. Blow. Simply because Braid is an “intellectual” game, does not mean it cannot stoop to prejudice. To Blow, whose mind is obviously lost in the clouds of his own self-praised genius, using Tim’s abusive relationship or the sexist trope of Damsel in Distress as a tool without thought is just as dangerous as employing it because it is openly believed to be right. You cannot use the smart card as a free pass for misogyny.  As Dr. Sell explains, “The masters of Patriarchy Lite can talk the beat-structure of a good masturbation joke and the choreographic nuances of a silly walk, but can throw down feminism, critical race studies, and postmodernism, too” (killscreendaily.com).  Blow is very clearly educated, as are most of the players of his game, but his knowledge of gaming, theory, and social issues does not exempt him from sexism.  In fact, having as much knowledge as he does yet still choosing to use and ignore prejudice is further damning.

To me, it seems that Mr. Blow is less angry with the supposed un-originality of others’ thinking and more angry that no one is paying his exact vision homage. Most of this interview (in fact, most of all of the interviews I found of him) is Blow discussing how creativity and mental exploration are great, but how everyone is selling themselves short thinking in different ways than him. Normally, while authors and game designers express why their game meant a lot to them, their interpretation is hardly as tied to their personality and the value of their game like it is for Blow and Braid. As much as Blow pretends and even directly states that Braid is not about him or any emotional crisis, I would definitely question that. If it wasn’t, then why does he fight so hard to defend this formless, unexplored genius he put into the game that no one can find (or really, no one cares to find)?

To me, there’s a lot more of Blow in Tim than he is willing to admit, and Braid is his Princess. If he continues to try to control everything about it, from its interpretations to its impact in culture, he could ruin not only the relationship that gamers have to Braid but also the openness and versatility that indie gaming could become.  To end on a bittersweet note, David Thier, author of “Jonathan Blow Isn’t Going to Save Video Games, muses that “Blow is a dangerous gamer. He has serious talent. If he can surround himself with smart people that can cut his arrogance into something that communicates to an audience, he could become a great game designer. But If he helps games develop the kind of insufferable pretension that plagues other media, he’ll have robbed video games of one of their greatest assets” (forbes.com).  To bring this full circle, if Blow tries to advance video games through technological and mechanical mastery and pseudo-intellectualism–just as literature and film media has before it–while ignoring the damage it inflicts and the prejudice standards it sets, he will have only added to the pyre.  Video games will just become games–fun situations without relevance–and the cancers of sexism and elitism will ruin the genre. And that’s why Braid must be taken seriously, but perhaps not for the reasons Blow is hoping.

Works Cited

“Two roads diverged in [an Arcadian] wood…”: Critique on Agency & Praise of Empathy in LiS (ep. 5)

 

Polarized

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 6, Response #5.5

Episode 5: “Polarized”

Episode 5–logically and narratively–almost ruined the game for me. I mean, damn, look at the way it opens: with an image of Max strapped to a chair. Her lack of move-ability and control is a big theme and critique in this episode.  About half-way through, I was tempted to watch a playthrough (I didn’t), and in two words, here’s why:

Male. Gaze.

I would be interested in doing a study on the reactions of episode 5 between female and male players. As a female player, having absolutely no control over what happened for most of the episode was infuriating and invasive.  For the first fifteen to twenty minutes of gameplay, Jefferson is drugging Max, moving her around, demanding to see her “purity,” and ecstatically gushing over his capture of the other women.  The visuals alone are terrifying: cameras at every angle focus on Max, her black t-shirt doesn’t allow her to blend into the white background (sidenote: in a visual allusion, her shirt has the iconic moth from Silence of the Lambs), and Jefferson is standing directly over her and forcing his camera (his gaze) into her face and body.  Verbally, the scene was audibly assaulting, with Jefferson screaming, “stay still!”,”I need you posed and framed MY WAY!”, “I need to capture the purity of your image,”, and my favorite (gag) “I like my models to be seen, not heard.”  Until David comes to rescue her, Max is at Jefferson’s mercy, visually, audibly, and physically.

My one (feminist) praise of this scene is Max’s responses to Jefferson’s taunts and crude comments.  When he raves over Rachel having been his subject, Max can retort, “Rachel was your victim, not your subject!”  She reclaims Rachel from being his possession and creation to someone who he harmed.  Max fights him in any way she can, through her words and her wit, but your struggle is fruitless unless David can save you.

After Max is saved, she drives to the town to find Warren. If you can find them all (I admit, I didn’t), you can save many people, including friends like Alyssa, before you arrive at the diner. While I appreciated that Max can use her power here to make a difference and intentionally save others, the final decision (or at least, the one outcome) narratively negates almost everything you do in this episode.  Max does find Warren, who still has a picture from the Vortex party, and goes back in time to try to save Chloe, Nathan, and Victoria.  The conversation that comes next is with Chloe, and you must use the right speech options to keep her from going into the party and repeating herself.  While you get a sense of satisfaction from keeping Chloe safe and outwitting Mr. Jefferson, I found the conversation manipulative. The story won’t let you go farther unless you change her mind, and the fastest and most efficient dialogue options–I found–were the ones about Max, especially her and Chloe’s friendship.  In McVeigh’s article, she states that players get the most out of LiS by accomplishing a list of balanced social actions, including “balanced aggression” (nymgamer.net).  If Max is too aggressive, she will often not get the outcome she wants; if she’s not direct enough, the same. While repeating actions seems very straightforward (like going back in time to save Chloe from getting shot, well, twice), repeating conversations to manipulate them to the right aggression balance seems nearly passive aggressive.

But here’s where the game gets psychologically trippy, even though there’s only about 10 minutes left of gameplay. After rewriting that timeline, Max and Chloe end up on the beach, as they’d planned, and begin their way to that dreaded lighthouse.  Because she’s messed with time so much, I’m assuming (although I’m not entirely sure what happens next) the timelines and Max’s psyche begin to bleed together somehow. She goes into these interactive visions that are so twisted they’re practically begging Freud to analyze her. Aside from two of the visions–the diner and the memory lane–I didn’t understand their purpose. They were disorienting, and there were random moments of move-ability that seemed unnecessary. For example, in the creepy rat-maze where all of the men Max knows are hunting her with flashlights, I wasn’t sure if the writers wanted us to understand that Max was traumatized (especially from her experience with Jefferson) or, honestly, I have no idea. The multiple hallways filled with doubtful and angry voices, that disturbing conversation with Jefferson in which you have to give him a seductive answer, the maze, the snowglobe–after an entire game in which you, the player, as Max, the reality-bending hero, have control over the events around you (for the most part), I had never felt so helpless. All of Max’s fears and grotesque rewinds of her life were playing one after another, and there was nothing to achieve or control, except that you wanted to get out.  Well, thank God I did, but then comes the decision that everyone warns you about…the big one. And to be honest, if you’ve been tracking with the tone of the game, it’s not surprising.

(sidenote: I admit that the memory lane with Chloe that leads to the lighthouse was rather clever on the writers part. It reestablishes your emotional bond with her right before making a decision that will play directly off of that. So, kudos for them for making me feel something after wrecking me mentally.)

You’ve made it. You’re with Chloe. You’re both safe at the lighthouse. The Day After Tomorrow-sized tornado is heading for Arcadia Bay and….

FinalDecisionlis

Crying, swearing, existentialist rage and confusion, identity crisis: despite my fury at the final decision for being so basic (basic as in minimal in outcome), I did experience all of these things.  I praise the writers for designing a (relatively) real, nostalgic,  honest female friendship that got me so attached to these characters that the ending’s emotional charge (mostly) made up for the mess of episode 5.  If anything, the emotional struggle at the end speaks to the good character design and (overall) narrative with Chloe.

However…the final decision, I believe, has the potential to cheapen the game, if the decision-content is the basis on which the game’s success is based. Later, I will address why I do not think that this is true. However, logically, the power of decisions, the weight of consequences, the responsibility of dealing with your actions, personal connection: they were all reduced by not only the basic, two-outcome decision at the end (and its inevitability) but also the type of decision (for the sake of fewer words, let’s call it the Spock Logic).


Inevitability

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

One of my greatest English-nerd frustrations is the assumption that Robert Frost’s poem “Two roads diverged in a wood…” is about some sort of self-empowering, self-chosen decision to take the one better path. On the contrary, it’s primarily about how there were two roads and the “choice” to take one over the other didn’t matter. One could view the choice as unimportant and the actions on the road as meaningful (or vice versa), but that’s up to the reader.  Similarly, I think the dividing paths when approaching critique of this game can be grading it based on the logical progression of decisions or the empathy created between player and Max.

Anyway, poetry interpretation aside, the general principle matters. You will always arrive at this divergence in the path, and there will only ever be two paths.  At the end of “Polarized,” you will always arrive at that final, excruciating decision, and there will only ever be those two options.  The game intertwines narrative and decisions so that, despite the many times when you cannot contribute to outcome, there is a feeling that you have power over the ending and that the decisions at the beginning of episode one will influence the ending of episode 5.

So was the entire game one big ironic joke (intentionally designed by the writers) or was the primary directive from writers to players the emotional attachment developed with the characters?

I believe it was the later, and in that case, the game succeeds wonderfully.  However, the type of decision, I think, could still have been improved.  Even though both endings are messy (emotionally), the realism of this game (in relation to characters) seems disjointed when connected with such a clean-cut decision: the many or the few.


Spock Logic

In The Wrath of Khan, Spock, as he’s dying, tells Jim that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.”  Whether this is truly “logical,” or if it’s easily accepted because of our capitalistic society, or for a multitude of reasons…no matter the basis of his argument and why it permeates philosophical and ethical arguments, it comes down to quantity vs quality. After the many, many decisions made during LiS, after the many types of decisions, after the many consequences and outcomes, this is what the ending amounts to. And that is primarily what infuriates me. After playing through a game that reaps from rich concepts like memory, human connection, emotion, friendship, consequence, etc…this is it. Either you kill your best friend and stop the tornado’s onslaught or you save her and let the town be destroyed.

Yes, yes, this decision does emphasize the reality that not every story has a happy ending and many decisions in life will require some sacrifice and give some gain. But is this the moral the writers were going for? From the rest of the game, I’d say no.

If you sacrifice Chloe and save the town, you have essentially sacrificed all of the memories and experiences you had with every single person in this timeline. Even after screwing with time again and again and learning that it often doesn’t work out the way you would like (there are always good and bad consequences), you’re willing to do it one more time. Yes, you save the town and the many people that you’ve connected with. But you’ve lost that version of yourself and of them that you painstakingly lived through and helped create and tried so hard to save. You essentially sacrifice everything you’ve done in this game.

If you sacrifice the town, you save those memories and experiences. You have saved that timeline. You’ve saved Chloe, who you’ve been building a relationship with and protecting this whole game. But (you assume, although it isn’t confirmed) you have lost everyone else. Kate, Warren, Joyce… everyone is dead. You have finally dealt with the only unavoidable consequences. There is no turning back, and you’re accepting the real weight of all of the decisions you’ve made from beginning to end.

If you can’t tell already, I picked the second option. I sacrificed the town. I chose Chloe. To quote this amazing article I found, “my life is strange ending was selfish and that’s hella fine” (Wan, Zhiqing twinfinite.net).  And while everyone if entitled to make their decision and have their reasons for it, from my analysis of the game, I think that saving Chloe is the most fulfilling and “logical” ending.

(I can hear the anguished screams of the other 56% already.)

Wan (who I believe is as partial to the Chloe ending as I am) argues for the agency and power in refuting the “logical” ending, saying the following:

When you think about it on a purely mathematical level, the choice seems obvious. The life of one person weighs significantly less than the lives of thousands of people who live in this small town. Why risk the destruction of an entire town when just the death of one person would make things significantly better for everyone else? And therein lies the problem. On a story and gameplay level, the ‘Arcadia Bay’ ending basically means that every decision you made throughout the past four episodes never mattered at all. Even without all the investigation Max and Chloe did, Jefferson would still have gotten busted in the original timeline. You never would’ve built up relationships with Victoria, Dana, Kate, and the other Blackwell students that you established in the alternate timeline where Chloe survived. But most importantly, Chloe would have died while she was at the lowest point in her life. (twinfinite.net)

To set up my argument, I will quote Ms. Wan again, who does an excellent job analyzing both endings but who also chose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay: “With both endings, players are allowed to decide which event is inevitable: Chloe’s death, or the tornado destroying Arcadia Bay. Whatever you choose, the outcome is pretty damn depressing, and there’s just no way to get out unscathed. So the question becomes, how do you want Max to come out of the situation, and how do you want her to be affected by the in-game events” (twinfinite.net)?  I, first, would critique her assumption that the game only points to the inevitability of something. I may seem contrary (since I did argue that same point earlier), but that would only be true if we are critiquing the linear-narrative soundness of the game, and maybe not even then. The basis would still depend on one’s viewpoint, especially concerning fate.  She even addresses this critique of herself later in the article, saying that “sloppy ending cinematic scenes aside, I found the ‘Chloe’ ending in Life Is Strange to be a whole lot more satisfying, not to mention humanizing, than the ‘Arcadia Bay’ ending. My version of Max had decided that Chloe would be her top priority and that she’d never let any harm come to her” (twinfinite.net).  If the goal of LiS was to create a linear, point-A-to-point-B, logical story, sure, the ending would be sloppy. But that’s not the point, I do not believe, and both I and Wan address that next.

However, concerning Max, I believe she is right. She doesn’t directly say it, but Wan points to the game’s center: emotion. Empathy. “…how do you want her to be affected…?” she says. How do you want to be affected? Throughout the game, the player’s version of and the pre-existing Max walk a fine line.  Through the decisions made, the player inputs their emotions and values into Max. At those points in the game, they fuse. At those points in my game, my Max was a girl coming out of her shell yet still learning to love herself, someone who knew what it was to be loved and show love and loyalty, someone who (despite her powers) was learning to accept the weight of consequences and create a life and identity from that. Because of who my Max was, she chose to save Chloe. She loved the life and the identity she had made and experienced too much to sacrifice it again. Throughout this game, throughout this plot, she has been acted upon and every decision has resulted in something much bigger out of her control, so, finally, she accepts the responsibility of the present and gives herself her first full moment of autonomy and control.  To again quote Wan, I most certainly identify with her when she says that “personally, I thought it was rather poetic that Max tore the photo without even giving it a second thought, rather than abusing her power one more time and going back to the start to change things once again. I saw it as a sign of her being done with this power that she never asked for, and that she was done with messing around with timelines and people’s destinies” (twinfinite.net).  For me, for the Max I created, that ending was not only logical but also the most fulfilling, because it was not easy but it was true to character.

HOWEVER… (feminist critique coming in 3…2…1…) stepping back from analyzing the logical-ness or narrative smoothness of the ending, the ending, while emotionally charged, loses something significant.
Chloe dies. Or the town is destroyed. This game and the story within backs you/Max into a corner. At every turn, someone (always a man) is creating the setting for the grand scheme going on. As I’ll address in my praise of empathy in the game, the choices made within the game are significant because of what they mean to the player (your Max), but you/Max SHOULD be frustrated by the seeming inevitability and the unfairness and the ugliness of the final choice. I was pissed. I was ranting and crying and swearing at my tv screen, wishing that I could button mash my way out of this nightmare. But no matter your choice, no matter what horrible fate you accept/create (depending on your view)…Max is unchanged. Max doesn’t respond. She is sad either way; she doesn’t react in a completely opposite manner than expected (she isn’t joyous that people die, in other words), but she is given no catharsis or room to emerge from the trauma that just shaped her last week. Jefferson has just emotionally and (possibly) physically molested her. Her best friend died before her eyes. Even if she can repeat choices, it still hurts; Max isn’t a robot. A massive tornado, a cataclysm she’s been fearing for a week, is here. She’s about experience horrible loss again.
IT. IS. UNFAIR. And after surviving episode 5, I expect Max to lose it. She should be enraged. It makes sense. She needs release, no matter the ending. But either way, after making arguably the most tragic choice of the game, there’s a moment of sadness on her face, but then the sun shines and everyone moves on. A nice, neat, clean bow wraps up a game about human emotion and teenage character growth.
Heck no. Max, a very unusual protagonist for a game (she’s hipster, a girl, a photographer, quiet, etc… she doesn’t fit the usual game protagonist), implies a more relatable, hopefully less stereotyped personality and reactions. So when her best friend dies (after she chooses to go back and let it happen, in a gut-wrenching moment of helplessness)…or the town is destroyed (again, after choosing to let another kind of disaster happen)…nothing. It’s so clean, it’s aggravating. I’m less angry at the ethical implications of the game (the “Spock Logic”) than the emotionally sterilized box Max is placed in. There’s no rage, no horror, no breakdown…after having her past week, which is probably the most life-changing week she’ll ever have, defined by trauma–both inevitable catastrophe in spite of her new powers and sick, sexist fantasies fulfilled by Jefferson/Nathan—there is a collapse. Max is suddenly vacant and very very unreal. After building up a realistic, different kind of protagonist and placing her in conjuncture with the all-too-common female fear of being taken advantage of (in two different ways for Max…she can defend herself neither against the aftershocks of her powers nor the men in her life), she is expected to react. But she is absorbed into a vapid, thoughtless ending, her emotions and character erased.
Could this have been the result of poor writing on the fault of the writers? Yes. They could have simply been careless. But in that case, they have been careless a lot in connection to Max’s gender. Having a female, teenage protagonist is so important in current gaming. It’s uncommon. Creating one outside of just being a sex-symbol is even rarer. The creators, I think, brushed off how necessary it was to intentionally connect her gender to the situations they were putting her into….especially at the end. She is not allowed to release, to explode, to rage or vent or weep or release anything raw. She is polished. She is boring. She is safe.
But human emotion and the recovery after a road of trauma are not any of those things. And in a society where trauma against women is brushed off as easily as the choice to make Max female, the choice to not focus on the aftermath reveals either a complacency in hushing a necessary conversation or a patriarchal knee-jerk reaction to quiet and control female emotion. Possibly both. Either way, Jefferson mantra of seeing and not hearing his models is becoming a theme for this game. Max is seen. She is given reactions (different from emotion), but not release, not a rawness of self. She is a model; at the end, she isn’t human. She has been replaced by the pretty, easy, polished model for female characters in games. She is reacted on and against, but her reaction will never be as strong as the actions taken against her. Because, truly, her rage or horror would make real the unfairness and vileness of Jefferson and Nathan and the lack of control in her life. It would reveal the sickening insidiousness of the patriarchy and its micromanaging of her life.
But she is quieted, again and again and again, and when it matters most that she validate herself—not in opposition to any of the males or their standards but truly just in and of herself, without playing by their rules anymore—Max is absorbed into the game that she’s been forced into.


Praise of Empathy

For all of my harsh critique of the final episode, the game as a whole succeeds emotionally connecting to its players. While Max’s lack of agency and the simplicity of the final choice is frustrating, they are not the Achilles’ heel that brings down the game. However, nor should they been seen as faults within the game. Assuming that they were intentional choices within the plot of the narrative (which of course is connected to the choice mechanism), we cannot assume the game was designed solely to present complex ethical decisions or a flawless story.  One thing that is consistent throughout the game is the emotional draw. The game’s narrative center is the friendship between Max and Chloe. Surrounding that is Max’s player-created relationships with her classmates, friends, and even her rivals. What you as the player-Max build and achieve is not materially- or trophy- based. You can get trophies, but there is nothing added to the game by gaining them. By numbers alone, there is no one right way to proceed with or finish the game. Every decision has its pros and cons; there is no singular happy ending, so to speak.  What can be gained is purely emotional. The connection made between Max and the player and that Max and her life is the game’s great creation and accomplishment.  I would say that it is the only (intentional) achievement in the game.

All of that being said, I will flip the coin on my previous critique and see my argument points not as faults but as successes. The connection you have to Max and Chloe and the horror one feels at Max’s immobility reveal both a sense of player-created agency and an empathetic and equally self-created bond with Chloe.  The confrontation with Jefferson and the psychological maze are stinging with fear and anxiety. The final decision is (I would say) the most emotionally charged of the game. No matter your choice, you will lose something and you will be relieved to save something else: a terrible bittersweet.  These situations are powerful because of the symbiotic emotional life you’ve built from and as Max. Every choice in the game builds off of your connection to and as Max (and it is very important to say “to and as,” because there is a previously existing narrative which feeds you situations, but you give them meaning and empathy).  Choosing what breakfast to eat at the diner, whether or not to shoot Frank, to water the plant or not, to take the blame for the weed or not, to save Chloe or the town–these choices exist in the game without the player’s intervention, but they mean nothing and give the player nothing without the factor of empathy. Is it possible to assume then that, like the voices, scenery, music, decisions, etc, the game uses human empathy as part of its content? Is there even a word for that, like ludoempathy? Or rather, ludoaffect. You can try to play completely disconnected from your Max, but how you play the game reflects you, how you feel about the decisions, and the connection made with the game. No matter how you play the game, you are aware of how you can or do feel.  The game does not succeed because it is logically or narratively perfect; it succeeds because of the empathy created for this life as Max Caufield.  The journey that your emotions go through is vast and varied, and how you used that part of the game–which is equally part of you, the player–determines the achievement you get.

I could take my frustrations in episode 5 to be a fault of the game, but I won’t. They might be, but I prefer to see them as a success of the game. I had invested so much in the character of Max that the actions taken against her and the difficulty in her life tested me personally.  And that’s hella awesome to me.

Works Cited:

“My Life is Strange Ending Was Selfish and That’s Hella Fine” by Zhiqnig Wan. (http://twinfinite.net/2015/10/my-life-is-strange-ending-was-selfish-and-thats-hella-fine/)

“Doing the Right Thing: Life is Strange and Virtue Ethics” by Jennifer McVeigh. (http://www.nymgamer.com/?p=8452)

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173536)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — directed by Nicholas Meyer, screenplay by Jack B. Sowards

Figurehead: Illusions of Power and Control in LiS (ep.3-4)

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 6, Response #5

Considering that Episodes 3-5 are about 60-ish% of the game, I will be breaking down my analysis under each episode. Episode 5 will have its own separate post.


Episode 3 — “Chaos Theory”

ChaosTheory

A lot of really interesting things happen right off the bat, even though they are not your decisions. On your way out of the dorm to meet Chloe, Dana confesses to you how sad she is about Kate and how she wishes she could have done more to help (by the way, in my playthrough, I saved Kate).  That conversation gives more depth to her previously 2d characterization as “the cheerleader,” in my opinion. But this isn’t the only expansion or reduction of gender stereotypes in this episode.  But before I continue on that, I feel it necessary to comment on the type of decisions you begin making in this episode, starting with breaking into the principal’s office.

Considering that narrative, decisions, and character relations are intimately intertwined, all three are limited and stunted if Max is given one kind of decision to make.  When you arrive, you have no choice but to construct a pipe bomb to blow open the door.  First of all, I thought a pipe bomb was a bit excessive; second, setting a mini-bomb off, which would of course trigger the fire alarm, seemed a bit dumb considering the intellect ascribed to each girl so far; third, and my main point, is that the decision and its consequences are nullified and deemed “good” because, technically, it never happened.  In Jennifer McVeigh’s article “Doing the Right Thing: Life is Strange and Virtue Ethics,” she summarizes Miguel Sicart’s opinion of the gamer in decision-making situations: “Sicart further argues game players are moral beings that when engaged in a system behave according to its rules” (nymgamer.com).  I disagree.  For example, I do not believe it is right to public vandalize (yes, yes, it is just a door, but the type of decision is the important part and will come in later), and that is my moral belief. However, according to this game and Sicart’s assumption, I am only moral if I comply with the game’s rules (if I blow up the door).  This is a problem because 1.) this decision is turned into a one-objective mission, which conflicts with all of the other situations like this which have been multi-decision option instances (why make all of the others multi-ending decisions and this extremely limited?), 2.) now the game’s rules are conflicting with the character development and morality I am constructing around my Max, and 3.) this lends to my main critique of the game that 99% of Max’s decisions are made for her while she/you the player decide most of the actual decisions in the game.  While there were not too many instances of this in episodes 1-2, episodes 3-5 are ripe with them, which I found to be a huge problem since all of the character building you have done til now should (you would think) reveal itself in decisions you can make.

Anyway, moving on… After going back in time and having never used the pipe bomb, you are safely in the office, searching through files. You anti-climatically discover that Nathan has a disturbing record (erased with his parents’ money), which includes drugs, violent outbursts, and a sick fascination with Rachel Amber (including the word-picture of “Rachel in the dark room”).  As you are about to leave, you discover a huge sum of money, for the handicap student fund, and you can choose to give it to Chloe to pay of Frank or leave it. Building on my Max’s character, I chose to leave it, not because I didn’t want Chloe to be free of Frank, but because I didn’t want her to do it through the misfortune of others.

On your way out, Max and Chloe stop by the pool.  You can choose to go through the girls’ or boys’ locker room, and I chose boys’ just in case there were clues from Nathan. Naturally, the graffiti on the walls were raunchy and derogatory to girls, ranging from “Max is a feminazi” to “69 reasons to bang Rachel.” While the graffiti is, of course, disgusting, Max’s response to the second example I gave bothered me more: “bros will be bros.” After all the kind things Max has thought and said about Rachel, never did I think she would excuse someone talking about her like that, with the ever-pathetic and irresponsible retort of, essentially, “boys will be boys.” A lot of Max’s comments on random objects are meaningless and just drifting thoughts, like anybody has, but this one in particular struck me.  Max (well, at least my Max does. You can choose to be mean) spends so much of her time and conversations building others, especially her fellow girl classmates, up and defending them against the actions of very overtly sexist men (usually Nathan and David).  This seemed out of character, but then again, many socially-ingrained beliefs can infiltrate our personal worldview without us realizing.

On the flip-side of that penny, the pool scene, both in cut-scene dialogue and speech decisions, was very uplifting and sweet to me. In the episodes to come, Chloe and Max don’t get as much time to just unwind and open up to each other. Chloe asks Max about her life (and potential boys), and Max, my Max, is very candid and says she doesn’t want anything to do with boys, especially right now.  Chloe compliments Max on her inner strength and changing personality, calling her a “force of nature” (too soon…too soon…), and you can really start to feel growing mutual respect and admiration for each other. Chloe wants to be loving, like Max, and Max wants to be bold, like Chloe.

The next morning, Max borrows Chloe’s old stash of Rachel’s clothes (horrible foreshadowing) and they reminisce on their adventures.  In a moment of teasing, Chloe dares Max to kiss her. You can choose to take the dare or to brush her off.  I took the dare for two reasons: 1.) I was genuinely curious as to how far the game would take a romantic relationship (even though I equally  hoped it wouldn’t go far at all and ruin a good, female friendship) and 2.) it fit with my Max’s character, who wants to be more bold and spontaneous.  I bring up these instances of character development intentionally, as they will all lend themselves to my future decisions and, of course, the BIG DECISION.

After a rough argument with David (in which you can side with him or Chloe, and of course my Max picked Chloe, which causes David to leave), Max discovers another aspect of her powers.  When looking at an old photo of her and Chloe, she time jumps to that exact moment, fully conscious of her future self and outcomes.  This situation is another instance in which the option of choice is eliminated. No matter what, you are not allowed to move on in the story until you change William’s fate.  In this alternate reality, Max’s character is completely different too, which makes little sense, especially if she still moved to Seattle but was even closer friends with Chloe.  She is seen as best friends with the meanest kids in school (she doesn’t even know Warren), and she wasn’t even aware of Chloe’s accident.  Again (commence broken record), Max’s seemingly god-like power is out of her control. Even though she can use it to turn back time and save William, she has to. She cannot opt out of it. You as Max cannot opt out of it. The game’s narrative rules force you through the rabbit hole, after giving you the illusion that you at least have power over your own abilities. Not so.


Episode 4: “Dark Room”

theDarkRoom

Right off the bat, episode four smacks you with an excruciating decision: comply with Chloe’s wish to help her die or refuse.  After spending a day and night with her, you are already mourning the vast difference between her and reality-1’s Chloe: she’s more subdued yet more grateful about life, more guilt-ridden yet more thoughtful, and physically, she has her dad and has had a happy life with him yet she is paralyzed.  At this point, I as the player wasn’t sure if this would be my new reality in the game (I was really hoping not, because I feel like that would have subverted everything you did in reality-1. However, what you do next subverts reality-2’s decisions and hearkens back to my issue with decisions that you don’t have to live with). As mentioned in my last post and as I will talk about in my post about episode 5, some of the biggest and most morally-conflicting decisions in the game have either limited outcomes or are, in connection to the rest of the decisions and narrative, inconsequential. Back-talking to Victoria will make a tentative relationship with her difficult to achieve, but choosing to end your friend’s life or saving her dad from his fate have literally no effect on the game’s outcome or even your relationship with Chloe. Those decisions certainly would have carried more weight if they actually had consequences and if they changed Max’s future, but they have so little input into the story that they feel more like a “psych!” moment than an actual decision.

Anyway, back to my choice for Chloe: Prepared to live with my decision and still building on my Max’s character, I refused Chloe’s request.  I was somewhat relieved then that I could go back to reality-1, but I was also angry at the game for putting in such a huge, character- and morally- important decision, yet completely negating it narratively no matter what you do.  However, decision nit-picking aside, I was very impressed at how quickly, through reality-2 Chloe’s narrative and few decisions with her, I became attached to that reality and that Chloe.   The dialogue with Chloe, William, and Joyce were all well-constructed.

After the emotional roller-coaster of reality-2, Max’s first task (raiding Nathan’s room) once she’s back in reality-1 is hard to really get into at first, but–praise for the game’s writers–the game certainly doesn’t lag. What you uncover in Nathan’s room really begins to open up how much bigger this situation is than just a fight between Nathan and Kate.  There are photos of women in bondage/torturous positions, a pharmacy’s worth of pills, photos of Chloe drugged, and one of Max’s selfies.  At this point in the game, I really did believe that Rachel was dead, mostly because of Nathan’s disturbing collection of trophies of the woman he had “conquered.” And, as the game progresses, the theme of collecting and capturing becomes so much more insidious.

As a Post-Episode 5 edit, my critique of the theme of “collecting” women is that it’s almost ignored if you’re not paying attention. The instances are not subtle. They define episode 4 and 5. Chloe, Max, and many of the significant women in the game are being moved around the chess board of Arcadia Bay by the insidious actions of Jefferson and Nathan. The plot concerning Rachel Amber’s mystery runs parallel to Max’s powers and is by far the most realistically relatable plot. YET…aside from Max’s comments in the moment to Jefferson about how messed up he is, Max never has catharsis from the tension and emotional captivity of the game that Jefferson and Nathan are playing with her. There is no release for Max or the player. After surviving this “game” with the limited control you’re given (as both player and Max), the only thing left to do is make the FINAL DECISION. I’ll address the lack of catharsis in my next post, but my main intention in addressing it early is that the male attempt to dominate and manipulate women in this game is extremely prominent, and yet, the female characters do not react specifically against the male’s actions. They might disapprove of them, but they don’t specifically address their feelings and consequences from them.

Back to one of my most conflicting critiques of the game: Max’s lack of action for herself. Most of the game, Max makes decisions concerning other peoples’ fates, either through physical action or dialogue. As a game centering on decisions and interaction, there is nothing wrong with this. The problem I find (commence broken record) is that Max barely makes any decisions concerning herself and actions done to her.  Either others intervene on her behalf or she can do nothing. This conundrum exists, primarily, in relation to the men in Max’s life.  The main examples are Nathan (who acts against her), Warren (who acts for her), and Mr. Jefferson (who, I could argue, acts over her, since she has no means of resistance in episode 5’s dark room).  Exhibit A, Nathan attempts to attack you as you leave the dorm. Without any choice, Warren steps in for you, beating Nathan up. I chose to have Warren end the beating, since I didn’t want Warren or my Max defined by hurting or controlling others.  Aside from my issue with Max’s agency, I thought that Warren’s consistent rescue attempts also undermined his character too. Aside from Warren randomly showing up and either a.) beating up Nathan or b.) awkwardly attempting to ask her out, little else of his character is revealed. He seems nice, but very little of his friendship with Max is valued or exposed in the narrative.  Having only seen him as a potential romantic interest, the narrative seems to provide another no-choice option of treating him as such.  Since I’m always in protest of the Nice Guy trope, I always kept Warren at the distance of friendship because 1.) the world is potential ending. Max doesn’t have time for romance and 2.) I wanted to see what would happen to their relationship if they remained friends and Warren’s heroics were not automatically rewarded with romance.  Surprisingly, not much changes, although his future dialogue with Max is less enthusiastic and warm, and he immediately hooks up with another of their classmates.

I won’t go too much into the barn and party, mainly because I will talk about them through episode 5.  However, I am impressed, again, with the writers. The two mysteries, Max’s powers and the missing girls, run side by side and are always building momentum.  Even though I expected bad things, I was genuinely shocked and horrified by the basement and finding Rachel’s burial, and that discovery further emphasized that the decisions made concerning Arcadia Bay’s mystery were just as important as the almost sci-fi mystery of Max’s gift.

And, of course, the broken record starts again.  The end of episode 4, bleeding into 5, represents one of my biggest critiques of the game: again and again, the lack of Max’s agency and power, especially against men. After the Vortex party, you go back to Rachel’s burial site, and are ambushed by the photography teacher, Mr. Jefferson. He drugs Max and shoots Chloe.  In the moment you need it most, Max’s powers fail.  In one of the few instances when someone is actually acting against Max, she cannot defend herself or act out. And of course, again, it is against a man.  In the situations with Victoria or Kate, you can always outsmart the problem or make intentional, action-based decisions. But in any situations with Nathan or Jefferson, you are always powerless.