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

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  • 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:

 

Rewind: The Power of Consequence & Voice in LiS (ep. 1-2)

life-is-strange-photo-wall

  • 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 5, Response #4

The wish to go back in time and change a decision is such a popular trope in peoples’ lives that whole moves are based on it and you’ll hear someone say “if only I had  done ___ instead of ___” at least once a day.  Going into Life is Strange, I had heard about Max’s ability to relive certain points in her life, but I didn’t know how detailed it could get. From basic conversations with friends to life-altering situations, you are given the chance to go back and change nearly anything that you did not like the first time around.  As someone who, in real situations, is always preparing for Plan A-D for a decision’s consequences, this game forced me to replace the anxiety of aftermath for the quality of my decision.  Especially since, at this point in the game, all I know is that no matter what I do, a cataclysmic tornado is coming on Friday, I, as Max, can afford my focus to be a little more immediate, both in time and with people.  While Max’s narrative scenes with other characters (particularly Chloe) work on dropping clues about how to stop/survive the tornado, I find myself, as the player moving Max around in between these scenes, free to focus on immediate issues of interpersonal quality, particularly situations with Chloe, Kate, and Warren.

What I find most interesting about the decision-making process so far is the consequence warnings.  You can make a myriad of decisions or actions that have no long-term consequences, or at least no long-term significant consequences. But after at least episode one, you realize that the stakes are higher than just your social life’s status. People could die, and the town may be destroyed.  But still, after playing the game for a bit, you don’t really question the value of a decision unless those little butterflies appear in the screen’s corner.  Of course, in conversations with teachers and classmates, the consequence warning makes sense. How you interact with people leaves impressions.  But occasionally, I’ll be doing something rather arbitrary, like watering my dorm room plant, and the butterflies will appear (and then I freak out and panic and start theorizing that the world will end if I don’t water my plant correctly). I actually did look this decision up, and the only consequence of not watering your plant at the right time…is that the plant dies. That’s it. No earth-shattering butterfly-effect (killer pun).  But at this point in the game, you’ve already been trained to be aware of the power of your decisions, not just in conjuncture to yourself (although you could go through this game and play it for entirely selfish motives) but how you will affect others.  And I think that’s awesome.  After being accustomed to games where the difference between conversation blurbs is a few loyalty points or a discount at the medieval market, it is refreshing to find a game where the player has to appreciate the power of decisions, whether you’re playing a more selfish, angry Max or a more altruistic, generous Max or even a very ambivalent, apathetic Max.

As for why the game places such heavy emphasis on decisions/consequences, I couldn’t be entirely certain. Finding articles on LiS or even interviews with the creators was difficult since I am avoiding spoilers.  In Jennifer McVeigh’s article, “Doing the Right Thing: Life is Strange and Virtue Ethics,” she believes the game’s structure is meant to “[ask] players to deal with numerous compounding ethical issues in order to construct a criticisms of current social problems” (nymgamer.com).  After reading this, I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot more grand than what I was going for.”  But, as with appreciating any kind of art, people will see different intentions or reflections.  I completely understand what she means by “compounding ethical issues,” since how you handle each decision draws in your own moral system.  For me, it was paramount that I make the right decision to save Kate’s life, because my personal moral system values all human life.

(my one critique of that same situation though is that the choice for Kate to live, if the game was being realistic, was not mine. Her mental choosing to live or die was not my responsibility, although I certainly could and did persuade her to not jump. Because interactions with NPCs are all about feedback (and, really, this game is ALL about feedback), they are limited to only responding to the player and the player is limited to using them as a sort of sounding board [even if one is emotionally connected to the character]. However, confronting a suicide situation, I think, could have been narratively handled a little different, perhaps with the angle that did not put so much responsibility and control of Kate’s life on Max.)

Looking at a different decision, I was not nearly as concerned about the outcome of my plant (although I am pleased that I did not kill it), whereas another player might have rated that decision as incredibly important.  One of my favorite things about the game so far is the gathered data you are shown after each episode.  I’m glad that the decision percentages are not shown until after the episode, so that players are not swayed by general consensus.  What interests me more perhaps is seeing the amount of decisions I wasn’t even aware of.  Especially after episode 1, I saw not only the huge amount of decisions I could make, but also the amount that I did not even encounter, yet the game still counted them as a decision made because I did not contribute.  The fact that inaction can influence the game as much as intentional interaction fascinates me, since I’ve never seen a game keep track of it like this.

(Post episode 5 edit): Now that I have finished the game, I admit, I am a bit more cynical towards the plethora of decisions presented to me, even in the beginning episodes. While I appreciate the concept that action and inaction can still have consequences, I am disappointed that, in the big picture of this game, no matter what I do, I will always come to the same decision at the end of episode 5 (no spoilers…yet). Eric Swain says in his article on The Stanley Parable that “each individual choice is inconsequential… The meaning is derived not from a single set of choices, but the relationship that all of the choices have to all the others, choices represented through spatial relativity” (popmatters.com). For example, while my choices within episodes 1-5 influence my dialogue options with Chloe, whether or not I can save Kate, Victoria’s receptiveness to my warnings in episode 4, etc…, all of those choices are in connection to each other, but absolutely none of them influence the ending. The choices I make and how I want them to connect and improve each other within the game are, essentially, up to my emotional connection to them (within the parameters given to make certain decisions). There are only two possible endings from one decision, and that never changes. So what does that say about all of the decisions and narrative designed by the writers? Does that devalue everything before the ending? Or is all of the meaning in the game solely dependent on the player? I am a big fan of giving credit to authors and their intentions, but when it comes to a game like this, where everything hinges on decisions yet none of the decisions influence the end/the goal…really, does their intended value of certain decisions matter if I didn’t find meaning in interacting with them? All of the decisions and their consequent plot could have been vastly different yet still ended the same. I think that the story given to us is well done (most of it), but it discourages me that my involvement in the game was almost always inconsequential. I might have found meaning in the many decisions I made, but I was always walking on the singular path set for me.

Since this was a game about developing Max as a character and a young woman, the connection between decision and consequence should have been far more emphasized and influential in the game. While the gender of the protagonist seems to be of no significance to the game creators, the power of decision, especially in a game that hinges on choice, should be much more empowering and emphasized for a female character. Denying a female character control of the most important decision in the game is counterproductive and defeating. Yes, realistically, no one has total control over their actions. But the final choice and many of the choices leading up to it are results of actions taken against Max. For the most part, Max makes little impact of her own accord in the grand scheme of the game.

Going back to McVeigh’s comment on “criticisms of current social situations,” I would wonder if that is the game’s actual intention. Depending on the player, you could find issue with any number of situations presented in the game, or you could just drift through, either approving or ambivalently accepting everything.  Would that change in attitude or empathy make a difference to how the game is played? Since, no matter how you feel about certain situations you can only explore and decide within the parameters that Max is given, I wonder how much emotional input is expected or required for the game to turn out the way it “should.”  But then again, that’s the fun of having free will: the individual decides how much value to place on each decision in various situations.  McVeigh quotes another gaming critic who elaborates on this interesting balance between the player’s decision values and the value of decisions within the game: “GamaSutra writer Christopher Gile argues that Metagaming, which refers to the player’s ability to use knowledge the in-game characters are not privy too, alters game play in Life is Strange ‘from one where [the player is] trying to do the correct things in the moment to one where [they] are trying to find the best possible outcome for everyone'” (McVeigh).  And everyone, of course, includes the player. Granted, the player does not have to act like a good-willing god, seeking happiness for everyone. Your Max and the balance between relating to her and creating her can be very self-reflective, self-interested, and/or a benevolent self-rejecting wish-granter. While, in my playthrough, I wanted others to be happy too, my Max did make quite a few socially-deemed selfish choices. Many times, I chose what was best for me or Chloe, but not for anyone else. Was that “wrong?” Absolutely not. At least not to me, and no matter the ending or the limited outcomes, if I am seeking meaning within each choice, I think that a bit of self-interest and self-focus is important and healthy.  So yes, McVeigh’s originally grand-sounding statement (at least to my ears) has very solid reasoning. This game, no matter the decisions you make, shows you struggle and suffering–from problematic chemistry homework to abusive parents to bullying–and like in real life, you can’t just disappear.  So what will you do? And that’s the intrigue of the game.

Life-is-Strange-5

On the topic of the decision mechanics of the game, I definitely applaud the game designers and writers.  Other areas of the game, I think, could improve in many ways in order to enrich the world you’re placed in, but the decisions themselves are so engaging, it is easy to forgive most of the game’s flaws.  The flaws that bother me most though, which I think are worth looking into, revolve around voice.  Not necessarily the audible voice acting we hear (although, admittedly, I think that aspect could use some improvement.) but the character qualities and attitude carried by the words and dialogue chosen is what I’m referring to.  This also ties into  Max being a lead female protagonist.

Max is a hipster. I love that about her character.  I don’t have any statistics, but I’m sure her geeky-ness and vintage interests appealed to both male and female gamers.   From her character type, I expected unknown artist references, collections of unique items, etc… but I was still jilted by a lot of the dialogue.  The way Max talked to some of her dormmates or made mental notes on people (note the example above) sometimes felt confusing or unnatural, even for someone who is expected to be different from the start.  A lot of moments like these happen in episode 1, and it made me wonder if the writers were trying too hard to distance Max from the hyper-typical dialogue of the cheerleaders and the jocks (which was also unnatural at times). However, especially after finishing the last three episodes, I can see Max’s character, maturity, and dialogue improve and grow significantly. She becomes more consistent in dialogue and word usage, and you as a player can feel a greater consistency to her as a personality. Even though the game takes place within the span of a week, a lot of Max’s nervousness in tone and uncertainty in dialogue options fade.

The source of this initial dialogue inconsistency, I think, may have the same source as my other issue with the characters (stereotyping): the lead writers, designers, producers, and artists were all men.  Of course, I believe that a team of all men could write a good game (obviously they did, because LiS has had great success), but for a game that focuses primarily on its female characters, I expected there to be at least one female writer or designer.  Max and Chloe and other female characters are still interesting, but there’s a sense that a disconnect exists between me as a real (particularly female) person, who knows how actual women behave, and seeing these supposedly realistic characters acting very differently at times.  Sometimes the same thing happens with novels, when writers create characters of opposite gender.  Does this always end poorly? No. Sometimes the blending of gendered voices is great, especially when readers/gamers are looking for characters beyond stereotypes and expectations.  However, in LiS, I feel like the characters to suffer most from this stacked creative team are everyone but Max.  Aside from Max, everyone fits into some sort of neat, stereotypical, high-school box: the mean girl (Victoria and her “minions”…yes, they actually call themselves minions in the game), the cheerleader (Dana), the emo kid (Alyssa), the punk (Chloe), the nice guy (Warren), and the jerk–I mean, jock (Nathan).  The social roles seem extremely rigid, and everyone behaves pretty much exactly as you would expect them to.  Would this have changed if a woman was involved in the writing process? I’m not sure, but I’m almost certain that the female characters would vary a little more in personality.

However, complaints aside, I still have 3 episodes to go, so there is opportunity for improvement.  Also, my praises still go to the game’s creators for creating an emotionally and morally complex game with, not one but, two female protagonists.  For that and for the company’s stand against bullying (in the game and using the game’s profits for anti-bullying messages and groups), I’ve learned that the creators took a lot of heat.  According to an article in Paste Magazine, the producer said his gender choice for Max “was not a statement nor intentional, but simply ‘felt natural'” (Champagne, Jennifer n.pag).  His unconscious decision certainly produced consequences though, as, in a video diary, the co-founder of DONTNOD explained that “Square is basically the only publisher that didn’t want to change a single thing about the game…We had other publishers telling us ‘Make it a male lead character,’ and Square didn’t even question that once” (Rougeau, Mike  kotaku.com). In the video diary, the writers and producers discuss how they were focused primarily on explore identity building and real-world decisions that their players could relate to (kotaku.com).  Especially after jumping from Mass Effect 2, an adventure genre game, to LiS, I can certainly appreciate how relate-able and applicable and genuine to life the game feels, and I can’t wait to finish it.

Works Cited:

*http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/01/life-is-strange-creators-met-resistance-over-havin.html (“Life Is Strange Creators Met Resistance Over Having a Female Lead” by Jennifer Champagne)

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

*http://kotaku.com/publishers-wanted-to-change-life-is-stranges-protagonis-1678811522 (“Publishers Wanted To Change Life Is Strange’s Protagonists Into Men” by Mike Rougeau)

*http://www.popmatters.com/post/179065-the-stanley-parable-an-examination-of-walking-spaces/ (“The Stanley Parable: An Examination of Walking Spaces” by Eric Swain)

The Blue Pill or the Red Pill…or the Purple Pill?: Decisions on Culture, Ethics, and Romance in ME2

  • 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 4, Response #3

There is soooooo much to cover in the second half of ME2, so I’m breaking it down into 3 categories: culture, ethics, and romance.


 

#1: Culture

As Shepard traverses the galaxy, building her team and their loyalty, she becomes involved in many cross-cultural conflicts and is often deferred to as the sole person who can fix them.  As a female player and a fem Shep, I admit, I was initially flattered that someone was taking my/her opinion seriously at all, especially in politics.  However, the amount of times that Shepard–gender ignored–is given the reigns to entire civilizations and their fates is concerning.  On one hand, I’m glad that ME2 gives you a diverse crew and the chance to explore some of their homes and origins. The game doesn’t shy away from explaining up front the intricacies of different races and cultures, from relationships to governing bodies to rites of passage. However, this game, which ironically hinges on decisions, doesn’t leave much breathing room when it comes to who is actually in charge: Shepard.  In Christopher Patterson’s “Role-Playing the Multiculturalist Umpire,” he addresses the game’s “assumption that both nationalist and imperial governance are failed systems, part of exploitative cycles of violence. In contrast, the system of the multiculturalist umpire exists outside of history, and it overcomes the imperial violence and capitalist exploitation that defined all of history before it. In the game, the humans—analogous to western civilization—are best suited for this task” (Patterson n.pag).  In the game, there is an unspoken pride and fact that the human race has transcended all of the terrible -isms (racism/sexism/imperialism/etc), unlike those [insert random ME alien race here] who are so primitive that they still [insert discriminatory action here].  Even though Shepard has no Earth country of origin, Bioware does, and a lot of those messages leak through.  Patternson points this out when he explains that “texts and discourses that trumpet liberal tolerance can also work to make American multiculturalism appear exceptional and thus to legitimate the violence of U.S. imperial projects” (Patternson n.pag).  Although Shepard’s identity has flexible aspects for the player, their (pre-designed) decisions and the direction of their missions are often charged with an American imperialist agenda.  Shepard, the logical, civilized human (whose default is a white guy, don’t forget), must “fix” the savages of the galaxy and save them from themselves. In every situation, Shepard is looked to as the faultless, wise guru of all galactic issues, even though–in most situations–she is hardly qualified or informed enough to even logically make a good choice.  In the few situations where, on the dialogue wheel, Shepard can ask her teammates for their opinion, they–all experts in their own fields and (obviously) cultures–instantly lose their authoritativeness and defer to Shepard.

#1.5: Imperialism and Environmentalism

Although Patterson tackles many aspects of postcolonial critique, he does fail to mention a somewhat-hidden, yet power instance of imperialism: harvesting resources.  I didn’t figure out this part of the game til much later (although it is necessary to afford upgrades, even though there is literally no instruction on how to do it), but when I did, I binge-cleared out each star system.  I admit, I was very impressed on the detail of each planet you can observe.  Each planet had a history, a detailed account of vital resources, population (if it could sustain one), approximate age, etc… All of this only, while impressive, only further emphasized my actions: I was harvesting.  I scanned each planet, harvested every bit of precious materials, and then left. Most of these planets were lifeless, but each belonged to a life-sustaining planet that used its resources for itself. So I was either gutting someone’s homeworld or taking their resources.  And it’s such a minor part of the game that it doesn’t even tie into the story. No one comments on it. No one can stop you. I almost wish there had been some conflict concerning this mini-game.  Just like the gender stereotypes, the Western/American influence on perspective in ME2 is so ingrained, it isn’t even considered a problem; it’s an accomplishment.  And because you are the galaxy’s savior, everything done is “for the greater good,” which is probably one of the most dangerous concepts ever conceived, since that “good” is always subjective to the one determining it.


 

#2: Ethics

A lot of the ethical decisions in ME2 mix with interventions with alien cultures.  Some of the most jarring cross-cultural moments of ME2 for me was discussing the genophage (a virus engineered to stunt Krogan birth rates) with Mordin and deciding the Geth’s fate with Legion. I have not played ME1 (yes, yes, I’m a terrible person for doing 2 before 1.), so learning about the significant impact of the genophage, and many of the races’ defenses of it, was alarming.  Even more alarming was that if you wanted to become more buddy-buddy with Mordin, you would agree with his research and could, later on, destroy the only potential for a cure.  For points and for achievements, you could choose to play God and cripple an entire race…because they were “too violent” for you.

legionm32

Another instance when an entire race’s fate lay in Shepard’s hands was during Legion’s loyalty mission.  Legion, a rational, non-violent (words intentionally chosen) Geth, joins Shepard and asks that she help them re-purpose a Geth virus that was meant to turn all Geth into killers.  In a clever move, Shepard is lead to believe that the only mission is to destroy the “bad” Geth.  However, towards the mission’s end, Legion throws a curve-ball and tells Shepard that the virus could be used to change the Geth to “see their truth.”  When the moment of truth arrives, Legion says that they are too conflicted to decide, so Shepard must.  To brainwash or to destroy? I personally wrestled with this one for awhile. Was there any difference? Yes, the “heretic” Geth were literally just trying to destroy all synthetic life (which is pretty bad no matter what), but never once is it considered that the Geth might have their own correct truth. They should either be rehabilitated to be like Shepard or destroyed.  In the end I chose brainwashing, but only because committing genocide seemed the greater of two evils.

#2.5: Gender

Also, I noticed something interesting about what decisions, in general, you are encouraged to make.  Even though Renegade decisions are often brutal, excessively violent, and inconsiderate of others, a note at the bottom of my screen during a loading sequence told me that “[if you want to be more badass, improve your Renegade scores].” I can’t remember the exact wording, but it did equate “badass-ness” with the (often) self-centered, hyper-violent options of Renegade.  Paramour options, I have found, are not powerless or indecisive. Shepard can still be Paramour and get in people’s faces and assert herself.  But I never saw a note encouraging the good qualities of Paramour.  The connection between selfish violence and being awesome or “badass” shouldn’t have surprised me, considering who the game’s intended audience is, but it bothered me that the male players were encouraged to stick to stereotypes.  Violence = badass, and badass = manly.  Or so I’ve been told.

So what does that make the Paramour?

Even the awesome Lesley Kinzel seems to slip on this, attributing the male assertiveness to being badass, when she says “When I played Dragon Age 2, I walked away from my Lady Hawke feeling frustrated because I realized I had made many choices in the game based on what is considered “appropriate” behavior for a woman- soft, peacemaking, appeasing decisions. While that led me to consider my behavior in real life, it wasn’t exactly satisfying! I walk away from a ME session feeling like a badass” (“Shepard ain’t white…” Kinzel).  While it is a wonderful, very important change of pace for a female character to have power and assertiveness in games, the assumption that her attitude validates the greatness of her gender is a problem.  Even if Shepard played into all of the usual gender stereotypes and was “soft, peacemaking” and “appeasing,” as Kinzel says, she could still be amazing. Her violence or her assertiveness does not make her a badass, just as a soft-spoken man is not weak.

Action vs. Passivity isn’t the only gendered binary in this game though.  The races also exhibit very polarized traits.  The Asari, for example, are the only race we see that is entirely female in appearance.  While a very intelligent and diversely accomplished race, they are presented mainly through very sexualized characters.  Samara, Morinth, and Aria–the three main Asari you encounter in the game–are created with a view in mind. Samara, even though she’s a warrior, wears a very impractical, low-cut catsuit, complete with heels.  The first time you see her, the camera pans up, getting a very gratuitous view of her chest before reaching her face.  Her daughter, Morinth, is limited to the very typical role of femme fatal and is a genetic sexual predator.  And Aria, tight leather and all, is a pimp (and of course, all of her dancers are Asari, and all of the dancers in the game are female).  Meanwhile, the other race we see most of is the Krogan, which are presented entirely through male characters. While it is proven that there are female Krogan, the only time one is seen in the game is at a researchers lab, dead after undergoing cruel experiments.  Krogan warriors are male only, and they have very hyper-masculine rules and traditions. Acceptance is based on violence, pride, and a demanding attitude. In fact, the Krogan council only responds with respect towards Shepard once she threatens violence.  They would, according to Kinzel and the game’s standards, be “badass.”  While the races in ME2 seem diverse in culture, their incredibly gendered presentations reveal that the game designer’s intended audience was certainly heterosexual male.  Patterson describes a concept called “neo-racism” in which racial labor stereotypes are enforced while claiming to support multiculturalism (“Role-Playing…” n.pag).  Mass Effect 2, for all of its support of equal gender power, reinforces social stereotypes of hyper-sexualized women and tribal, violent men.  Mirroring neo-racism in practice, this neo-sexism appears a lot in current, big-name games and claims to support a feminist equality but actually changes very little to the status quo.

Some of the races avoid these stereotypes though. The one that comes first to mind is the Quarians.  Aside from some minor physical differences (females are more slender and males have broader shoulders), nothing seems to separate the male and female Quarians from sharing equal opportunities at respect, authority, jobs, etc… Tali, one of my favorite crew mates, is a brilliant scientist and mechanic. She is just as prone to express rage and authoritativeness as sweetness and kindness. Neither her job nor her personality is contingent on gender stereotypes.

12714344_10208704890204773_1934487074_nBut actions taken are not the only signifiers of gender in ME2. Dialogue and camera angles speak a lot to the game designers’ views as well. While the dialogue directed at Shepard is relatively gender-neutral (because Shep’s default is a guy), interactions with a few other characters attack gender directly. The earliest one that comes to mind is during Miranda’s loyalty mission. An Asari merc calls Miranda a “bitch” and says that she’s “surprised Cerberus lets you whore around in that outfit.” The female merc is in full-body armor, so perhaps script writers thought this dig would come off as humorous since Miranda does wear an impractical battle outfit. No matter what, they were wrong. No matter the outfit, her identity as a female or as someone feminine should not have been used as an insult. This confrontation is one of the many times Miranda is degraded as a female in the game.  Another is the player’s view of her.  While much of ME2 can be judged based on what you as a player can do (decisions, interactions, romance, etc…), the act of spectator can be just as interactive and influential. In almost every conversation (especially the ones in her office), Miranda is viewed from below and behind, giving the player a full view of her spandex-clad butt.  Even though Miranda and her story are interesting and empowering, the camera guides players’ eyes to what they’re meant to deem as important: her body.

Another loyalty mission which had gender-directed insults was Samara’s. While navigating the Eternity VIP section, Shepard overhears a Turian harassing an Asari dancer into coming home with him.  Shepard can intervene, but not before hearing the Turian threaten the Asari, saying “You’ve got a mouth on you! I can’t wait to see how you’ll use it.”  This is the only time in the game that I can recall where sexual violence is threatened towards a female character.  As a female player/Shepard, I was particularly happy that my only reaction was to beat the crap out of him.  However, I then realize that, yet again, Shepard’s “badass” mode is measured in violence.  As both male and female Shep, the dancer thanks you and then leaves.

While there are instances in the game that put females/femininity at a disadvantage, I cannot think of a single time when any of the female characters are intentionally granted any sort of advantage or respectful complement on their gender identity. On one hand, ME2 does give a lot of the female characters strong qualities and stories not connected with their gender. However, ignoring their gender does not necessarily empower it.  While femShep is a very powerful and female-empowering character (especially for female players) and I’m glad BioWare made her an option, all of her non-gender conforming aspects are due primarily to her basic frame/dialogue being copied and pasted from broShep.  While these copied aspects allow her to move between gender stereotypes without complaint or comment, I question whether Shepard is more empowered as a female because of this or are companies like BioWare ignoring the challenge of creating a game that intentionally addresses the female gender in a respectful and in-depth way?


#3: Romance

Even though the romance in ME2 does not take up most of the gameplay (props to Bioware for not making a story hinge on romance but still providing it), the decisions made in that department are yet another opportunity for diversity in the game.  Also, as Bioware is all about making decisions with consequences, your relationship can be long-term and carry over to ME3, which I felt made it more meaningful.

Before beginning the romance options, I did look up basic lists of who my options would be.  I was pleased to see that 1.) options were not limited to only humans and 2.) Shepard did not have to be straight.  BUT…only femShep has the option to romance same-gender (or at least, same-gender appearing) shipmates. And if she does, they do not count for the Paramour Achievement you would receive for romancing a male/male-appearing shipmate.

This breadcrumb is similar to the one tossed at players for participating in multi-cultural/racial situations. On one hand, the (stereotypically white male) player is supposed to feel accomplished for having such a diverse crew and interactions. BUT (but’s are the worst)…you are always in power and always making the decisions for them. You direct the diversity, not include it.

Just as Lesley Kinzel quotes Susan Bright who looks for “crumbs” of sexuality/gender representation in films, I would say that BioWare does something similar (“Probe Away!…” Kinzel). Yes, it is good that there are options. In most first-shooter adventure games, you get one protagonist (the white, straight dude) and you don’t even get to choose a romance. But just because the gay relationship is possible, just because the crumb is there, doesn’t mean that it counts as a loaf of bread. The relationships are never validated in the game’s achievements nor in the actual cut-scenes of the game (Shepard can always have sex with their straight partner, but not with their gay/lesbian relationships). Samara’s romance isn’t even fully acknowledged until ME3, and Kelly dances in a stripper outfit in Shepard’s quarters.  The interactions and dialogue for femShep’s potential lesbian romances aren’t nearly as fleshed out as her straight relationships. Considering that femShep, especially when ME2 came out, was treated as a side-option (and so were the only homosexual relationships in the game), I am fairly certain that I would be right in assuming that Bioware wasn’t catering her and her romances to potential lesbian/bi players, but to the usual male players who just want to watch and treat non-straight relationships as a game.

All of that being said, I am glad to hear that Bioware has opened up more relationships for both Sheps in ME3.  As for the cultural interactions, I will have to test the game out myself to see if the balance of power shifts.

This is Commander Shepard, signing out.

 

“Fight like a Girl”: ME2’s (nearly) Equal Character Options

  • 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 3, Response #2

If this post had to have a subtitle, I would have made it “The Pros & Cons of Playing a Customize-able Game Designed for White Straight Dudes.” Because subtlety is overrated. I have only played a limited portion of the game so far, but so far, I’m enjoying it immensely.  I have completed 3 dossier missions with FemShep and 2 with BroShep.

 

Even though there are indicators as to BioWare’s white male Shep-preference, the opportunities that are in the game for many kinds of characters/players have opened up an empathetic accessibility that few other games provide.  Space adventure games, at least in my experience, are not known for engaging plots, interesting characters, or significant roles to be filled (and kept) by characters of varying races and genders.  More often than not, the games are basic seek-and-destroy missions with a space marine shooting down random, repeating aliens.  Or they are Star Wars games.  However ME2 has an interesting Elysium-Firefly-esque mix of a world, where a thinned-out humanity is struggling to keep its place in a very competitive universe.  Of course, there is a champion.  Unlike the burly, faceless (well, until the end of Halo 4 that is…) Master Chief or Barbie-blonde Samus Aran, Commander Shepard is whatever and whoever the heck you want them to be.  In the character design, you can select from a variety of skin tones, eye shapes, hair styles, nose height, and almost everything in between.  In Lesley Kinzel’s blog article “Shepard ain’t white: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect,” she comments on her customization choices, saying that “The character I impose on the game avatar is multiracial, which is likely to be the norm by the year 2183 when Mass Effect takes place, although that’s not why I did it. I did it because I don’t see queer women of color as protagonists very often, not in video games, but not anywhere else in media either” (Kinzel).  Although there is a logical explanation as to why Shepard could be a queer woman of color in command, I appreciate that Kinzel admits that her choices were not because of that, but because Shepard could be different, it was time to break away from the norm.  I too followed a similar thought process in Shepard’s design, although I haven’t had much romancing opportunities yet.  However, now that I was committed to fleshing out my Shepard, I intentionally chose the War Hero psych (because Jennifer Hale’s voice is commanding and awesome, and because why the heck not) and the Colonist background (because I’m a sucker for tragic backstories).


 

However despite these great customization opportunities, I noticed something unfortunate in the promotional materials: every Shepard, except for white dude Shep, is missing. On the cover, it’s white dude Shep. On the main launch video, it’s white dude Shep (although even femShep’s launch made her white too). Even when you enter the game, the default options for Shepard, both male and female, are white. (Links to the trailers below)

Why? Of course I understand that there will be white gamers, of both sexes, but why should one percentage of this game’s audience revolve around that?  I am truly curious as to what would happen if the next Mass Effect game featured a non-white femShep on the cover, with a non-white broShep on the back.

However, to compliment BioWare, I do appreciate the variety of side-characters. There are several women (of course, all the human ones are white), who outnumber the amount of human men (one of whom is black, and the game makes no fuss about it, which is great, because why should it?), and there’s an equally good variety of aliens of varying sexes/genders.

But now that I have given them a compliment, I have to be critical again, this time about outfits.  Even though Shepard can be customized many ways, the game still presents many visual rewards for an obviously intentional male audience.  Shepard is the only woman I have seen so far who actually wears armor into battle. Miranda, Tali, Samara, Morinth, and Aria all wear clingy spandex space suits which are almost always chest-exposing. Miranda even has heels.  And don’t even get me started on Jack’s…harness.  Granted, all of these women, just like in a real world context, should be able to dress as they please.  The problem is not necessarily what they are wearing but in what context and why. As fighters in an intergalactic war, their outfits are out of place. And seeing that all but one female character (the customize-able one) is wearing ogle-worthy tight and revealing clothes reveals a flaw in their creators’ designs.   All of the male characters are either wearing casual cargo pants and t-shirts or full body armor.

But moving away from the purely visual, I found one aspect of the game’s movement mechanic very interesting.  When I was first moving around as Shepard–adjusting camera controls, learning the wonderfully easy weapons system, etc–I felt that something was off.  It took me a few minutes of just taking laps around my ship to figure out that femShep runs like broShep. She runs like a dude.  Granted, in real life, this isn’t much of a shocker; both sexes can and do run with similar motion.  However, I have noticed that in games like Mass Effect (where you can move your character at varying speeds and explore), that the male characters have a jostling, weight-throwing run (you feel, literally, that they are meant to be bigger and more powerful) and the female characters have a far less pronounced run, with movements that are usually less felt on the controller and which look more like gliding (with a lot of hip-swaying). I even noticed that Miranda moves this way (of course, because she’s in freaking heels).  But femShep runs like a dude soldier…like herself.  And that made me ridiculously happy.  Shep’s run shouldn’t be gendered. Granted, the same can be said of the dialogue options. Aside from the romances, all dialogue options for bro- and femShep are (at this point in my gameplay) the same.  No matter the action, no matter how polite or cruel, no one calls out Shepard on their gender.  Lesley Kinzel comments on this, saying:

No one ever blames Shepard’s moods on PMS and no one ever asks if she’s on the rag, no matter how much of an asshole she is. No one ever suggests that Shepard is unhappy or excessively driven because she has not known the miracle of child-rearing and therefore her life is oh-so-empty. In a firefight, no one tries to protect Shepard from the violence, and afterward, when Shepard picks up a crate full of spoils, no one asks if she needs help with that. Thugs do not spare her feelings, nor do they fail to take her threats seriously. When other aliens accuse her of being overemotional, it’s framed as a human failing, not a female one, and when they call her crazy, it’s because she is actually doing some mad shit, and not because she’s just some silly unbalanced female. (Kinzel)

As a female gamer who, whenever I actually get to play a chic, is used to my character’s sex (and my own) getting called out as an excuse or a problem, I was really glad that BioWare let femShep’s movements/dialogue stay the same as broShep’s.  I was earning my way through the game as my Shepard, not as a man or a woman.  Playing broShep and femShep right after the other also further emphasized the story, action, and character of Shepard as opposed to their sex or gender. Finally.

Once I get further in the game, I will definitely be exploring the romance options and how femShep gets different people and achievements (or lack thereof) because of them, and I will be bringing in Lesley Kinzel’s “Prove away! Mining for queerness in Mass Effect 1 & 2.”

Works Cited:

Kinzel, Lesley. “Shepard ain’t white: Playing with race and gender in Mass Effect.” Two Whole Cakes. 21 June 2011. Web. http://blog.twowholecakes.com/2011/06/shepard-aint-white-playing-with-race-and-gender-in-mass-effect/