Archive for category Analysis and Opinion

Sexuality is Not a Game Mechanic

Dragon Age 2, BioWare’s latest RPG offering, allows players to strike up romantic relationships with party members regardless of the gender of the player character or the NPC in question. Basically, if your ideal romantic interest would have to be homosexual/bisexual in order to be romantically compatible with your particular character, they will be. This also means that you as a player may periodically experience flirty conversation from NPCS that might not match up with the sexuality you intend for your character.

After a self-professed “straight male gamer” posted on the BioWare forums complaining that he was getting hit on by male characters while playing as the male version of Hawke, BioWare’s senior writer David Gaider gave a fantastic response: essentially, “get over it.” Gaider affirmed that BioWare is committed to giving players of all sexualities the opportunity to pursure romantic interests in whatever configuration they please, which is fantastic, and a real step forward for video game relationships in general.

Somehow, though, I’m still finding cause for concern.

Video games have been struggling for a long time now to be recognized as a legitimate art form, largely because it’s not been until recently that games have even had the opportunity to have extended dialogue, like books, and voice acting, like movies. The increase in “cinematic-ness” (cinematicity?) has also led to an increase the number of memorable, “real” characters present in games.

To be fair, though, games and movies and books are often all striving for very different things. A fantasy book you read or movie you see in theaters has the aim to entertain you, to tell its own story, to present its characters in a specific set of scenes and situations. Things are a little different in modern role-playing games, especially where BioWare is concerned. While still taking part in an over-arching narrative, you’re given the opportunity to shape the world (and the narrative itself) through your decisions and interactions. And even your main character, normally the rigidly-defined cornerstone of a narrative, isn’t set in stone; you can choose different backgrounds, appearances, and, in this case, sexualities as well.

Now, contrary to what sitcoms and movies would like you to believe, “homosexual” is not a personality trait. Neither is “bisexual” or “asexual” or “only sleeps with big disfigured metal space bugbirds” (don’t judge me). But it is part of a character, of a person. Sexuality shapes interactions both personal and public, and lots of other facets of a character. Which is why BioWare’s choice concerns me.

Let me give you some perspective. I liked Final Fantasy VII just fine, but I didn’t love it like I loved Final Fantasy IX. In FFVII, with the exception of some small stat differences, all characters behaved fundamentally identically in battle thanks to all of their skill assignments being handled with Materia, useable by anyone with no restrictions. Anyone could do anything, which was a far cry from the highly specialized characters of FFIX. If I needed brute force, I knew to use Steiner. In FFVII, anyone could be my brute-force guy (or gal).

Now, perhaps it’s fallacious to use game mechanics as analogues to “real-life” traits. In fact, I know it is, and I’ll get to that. So I’ll put it in a different way. In a BioWare game, like in a good movie or book, I can expect a character to generally act a certain way. I know Garrus will have a deadpan one-liner for lots of situations. I know Miranda will choose (and suggest that I choose) the most pragmatic option in most circumstances. These are the ways these characters work, the way they react to things. They’re integral parts of their character.

So what’s not integral? Stuff that relates to or works with game mechanics. Is Miranda a fundamentally different character if she uses submachine guns instead of pistols heavily in my game as compared to my friend’s game? No, she’s still a femme fatale ice queen. Her choice of gun has an effect on gameplay, not narrative — two very different things. It affects how I experience the narrative, perhaps, but not the narrative itself. That krogan was going to meet his end regardless of the weapon used, and Miranda would still shrug it off because that’s who she is. And so is her sexuality.

Essentially, by making it something that can be adjusted, changed, deleted, what’s happening is that BioWare isn’t treating sexuality like a character trait. They’re treating it like a game mechanic. And in an oeuvre that includes games in which “relationship” has historically (and unfortunately) been defined as “a minigame with sex as a reward,” that’s actually not that surprising. In fact, I’d argue that the best way to please players of all sexualities would be to give them a handful of relationships meaningful outside of the pursuit of a PG-13 sex scene, not give them access to a large number of ultimately trivial ones.

If it sounds like I’m condemning BioWare’s decision, I truly am not. I don’t envy BioWare in their effort to please people of all sexualities, and envy them even less in trying to legitimize an art form. In fact, I don’t even think this is a bad solution to the heterosexual male-dominated “gaming culture” that thinks elves are “gay” even when they aren’t. It’s just that there’s still a long way to go if we want games to be societally progressive and a legitimate art form, and part of the latter is not just continuing to sacrifice the building blocks of a character in the name of game mechanics when there simply must be other ways to do it. Even if we haven’t thought of them yet.

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Sims Medieval: The Sims take a turn for the RPG

I truly believe that the Sims games have something to offer every type of gamer. There is no correct way to play the game and it offers so many options that absolutely anybody can find some form of entertainment within. You can play the predetermined scenarios if you’re looking for RPG-style gameplay. If you want to build something, you can set a budget for yourself and create an estate for your sims. If you want to start from nothing and work your way up, you can create a custom family and make something from nothing. If you don’t want a deep experience and simply want to be wacky, you have that option, too. Murder an entire family in increasingly bizarre ways? Try to break a man’s psyche? Steal all of the neighbors’ lawn gnomes? Impregnate an entire city’s population? Go wild. The Sims provides entertainment in spades for any player that picks up the game.

The announcement of Sims Medieval caught my interest immediately. Come on. It’s The Sims with knights, bards and wizards. How cool is that? Building keeps and castles with the Sims‘ robust construction and decoration tools? Yes, please! Despite Sims Medieval not receiving nearly as much hype juice as the core Sims titles, I’ve been following the game since I first took notice of it.

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The story/game disconnect in CRPGs

Spoilers for several games, past and present, including Dragon Age II abound in this post.

Computer RPGs excel in many, many ways. They can present a unified visual, with voice acting, immediate character visuals, and fantastic locales all realized for your playing convenience. Think of how hard it would be for a game master to create the milleu of Mass Effect through his or her voice alone.  But one element of the tabletop RPG that has always been nigh impossible for CRPGs to present is the ability to make shit up on the fly. To give an example, imagine you have the same scenario in both an RPG and a tabletop dungeon crawl – a boss fight that requires the players to fall into a trap behind one of two doorways. If this trap is necessary to set up the scene, the easy thing to do is to set it up so that no matter which door the party opens, that’s the door with the trap.

The problem here is that in a CRPG, there are things like save games and replays, so the players will learn fairly quickly that the game cheated, and that either door presents you with the trap. In a pen and paper game, there’s no replay and even if the suspicious players go and check the other door, a GM can blithely lie to them and have there be no sign of a trap. Yes, in each case you were railroaded. But in case A, you can easily find out, because the game can’t cover its tracks.

CRPGs have to balance a very careful line, leveraging their assets to make you forget that in the end, the story is by necessity on rails. Even when a game presents you with options and choices that can determine the outcome, it can only present you with so many because the story has to end somewhere.  There’s only so much room on those game discs or in that file download for variation, much as if you were ultimately reading a choose your own adventure book or using a flowchart. The game’s goal, therefore, is to make you forget that. It does so with all of the bells and whistles at its command, ultimately, and by making use of as many ‘non-choice choices‘ as it can get away with.
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Dragon Age II – The review in which I spoil the hell out of this game so if you don’t like that, why are you still reading this headline? It’s only going to get worse.

I am simultaneously awed by and slightly disappointed with Dragon Age II.

Awed by the art of the game, by the improved combat system, by the quest flow. Awed by how much work obviously went into it. Awed by the decision to focus away from the Gray Wardens who were the stars of the previous game and instead focus on a ten year period of time and unfold a story over that ten year period. Awed by some really excellent in places voice acting and dialogue options, and by a dialogue system that actually creates a voice for your character based on the kind of dialogue you choose over time. (For instance, my first Hawke almost always choice the diplomatic route and so his tone was far less sarcastic than my second playthrough.) This is a superlative game. This is a game that is superior than its predecessor in almost every single way from gameplay to storytelling.

The original, however, does not have so unrelentingly grim and painful a theme as does its sequel. In Dragon Age: Origins, you play a hero in a time of crisis who stands up against both disastrous unnatural entities bent on destroying all life while also taking action against those who attempt to use the crisis to ascend to power. While it’s a bleak and horrific threat you face, the game itself has a tone of optimism in the face of the disaster and in the end the triumph that comes feels wholly complete and justified. Furthermore, choices you make really feel as though they had a positive impact on the world.

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From the Mailbag: Satire and sexism in video games

This letter was submitted via our mailbag@nitpixels.com email address, to be read on the podcast. We may still do that, but I wanted to get my full thoughts on the subject written out.

Last October, Twisted Pixel released Comic Jumper on Xbox Live Arcade. A lot of people said it was sexist and racist. Twisted Pixel replied that it was actually parodying all the themes people were calling it out for. They pointed out that all of the sexist characters, including the player’s character, were horribly inept and that the moral was that all those themes are bad. Twisted Pixel’s next game, Ms. ‘Splosion Man seems to be taking on those same tones.

My question to you is: Do you think video games can accurately portray subtlety, satire and parody? Do you think slapstick Xbox Live Arcade games are a reasonable platform for this? Or did most gamers think Andrew Ryan created Big Daddies just because he was evil?

Thanks,
Ian

I’m actually very glad you asked this question! It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a bit since Twisted Pixel started to release information and gameplay footage of Ms. ‘Splosion Man.

I absolutely believe that video games, like any other creative medium, are a valid outlet for satire and parody. “Video game” is about as descriptive as the word “book.” Saying that you are reading a book says nothing about its contents, except that it is probably full of words. Is it fiction? Non-fiction? Historical? Is it for children or is it for adults? Is it a religious text? Political commentary? Social commentary? Book describes the object you are holding but it says absolutely nothing of its contents.

Video games are a diverse outlet and they will only grow to be moreso as time continues to pass. There are straightforward platformers that hold no illusion of being anything but a good time, like the Super Mario series. The FPS scene has an entire range of titles, from realistic war stories to shoot-em-ups. There are RPGs that take place in any setting imaginable across an entire spread of genres — comedy, drama, science fiction, history, fantasy, it’s all there. Video games can be an outlet for satire and parody just as well as any book or movie.

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Dragon Age 2: My bleary eyed response

This is intended as a kind of infodump reaction to the game. A full review will be coming as soon as I replay a few times.

It’s a good game all told. I just finished it, blazing through it in two nights of painful insomnia, and I will doubtlessly play it again to catch up on all the side quests I missed. Some of what Alex said in his demo impression holds true for me. While I think the female body type worked fine for Isabella, it’s very disconcerting to see every female in the game, even your mom, expanded to such proportions. My wife made the point that if your apostate sister was really serious about hiding from the Templars, that dress she has on isn’t going to avoid her any attention. She’s right. It’s even weirder when Flemeth shows up in her wildly different new outfit but the story tells you it’s taking place at the same time as the events of Ostagar and Lothering from DA:O. I get that Varric wouldn’t know what Flemeth used to look like, but it was still weird to see her with a boob window.

From here on in will be spoilers. So don’t read any further if you don’t like those.

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Xenogears: An exercise in unabashed nostalgia

When I was in college, I spent a lot of time drinking. I mean, hardcore, trying to kill myself, at least three-fifths of the worst rotgut I could find drinking. I was often so drunk on a daily basis that I would spend my nights unable to even go out and get drunk due to a combination of being unable to afford more alcohol and being physically incapable of going more than three feet at a time without the kind of visceral nausea that would probably have killed me had I been wasting money on trivialities like food.

During this time, I went from 312 lbs to 206 lbs. Somehow, I didn’t die or blow out my liver. I also managed to procure a PlayStation, and so, on nights when I was too slobbering drunk to even go out and drink, I would play the various games I bought on the extreme cheap. Silent Hill, an actual PS port of Diablo, and my at-the-time favorite Xenogears, possibly the best game not many people have ever heard of.

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Dragon Age II demo impressions

I didn’t like the first Dragon Age. I’m a die hard Mass Effect fan and I really wanted to like Dragon Age: Origins, but overall I thought the game fell flat. Some cool ideas, certainly, but it never really gripped me. I went into the Dragon Age II demo with extremely low expectations, prepared for more of the same — even the reviews and previews on major gaming outlets didn’t do much to sell me on the changes to the series in DA2.

The demo is fun. I didn’t expect fun, but fun I got. The combat is more enjoyable than Dragon Age: Origins (in my opinion, obviously), the Mass Effect-ization of the main character Hawke helped pull me into what little story there was in the demo sequences, and it was overall a more engaging experience. My brief experience with the demo was above and beyond my experience with Dragon Age: Origins, and it very well may have reversed my decision to not buy Dragon Age II.

I still have gripes, however. Allow me to detail them!

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The problem with hacking minigames

BioShock. Mass Effect. Fallout 3. Oblivion. All of these games are generally accepted as pretty damn awesome. You (and I) may disagree with how awesome they are, but the general consensus is that they’re great games. All of them have one thing in common that really bugs me: hacking minigames. “Oblivion doesn’t have hacking minigames!” you say. “It’s a medieval fantasy game! What are you even hacking!” There is a lockpicking minigame. It counts.

Hacking minigames are unfortunately common in AAA action/adventure titles, and the success of games such as Mass Effect and BioShock are likely to make them even more common as other developers try to learn from BioWare and Irrational Games‘ example. Just so we’re absolutely clear: I hate hacking minigames. Allow me to explain why.

They take you out of the action

To some degree they take you out of the action intentionally, with the developers fully aware of it. Hacking minigames pull you out of the explosions, gunfire and soaring magic and give you a cooldown period. You get a break from the point and shoot, even if the break is point and hack instead.

The problem is that in some parts of these games, most notably in BioShock, you are pulled away from the action too often. The hacking becomes tedious. As you get deeper into the game, you no longer want to do it at all. You start to dump all of your resources into being able to skip it or make it faster and easier, just so you can get through it. Using these minigames occasionally can certainly enhance gameplay, but when you walk into a room with 4+ hackable turrets that you either turn on your enemy or waste ammunition or EVE (mana/magic points) to kill, it doesn’t feel fun. You don’t feel clever for hacking that turret and turning it on your enemy when you do it four times in a row. You would really rather just get back to killing splicers.

They’re disability-unfriendly

The average gamer doesn’t think about it much, but there are people with disabilities that love video games just as much as everybody else. Why wouldn’t there be? Players with injuries or other disabilities want to play the same things that everybody else does, and generally they can. Maybe they won’t be as competitive in StarCraft 2 or Counter-Strike, but they’re perfectly capable of playing games like BioShock and Mass Effect, even if it means they need to keep the game difficulty quite low.

Then you throw hacking minigames into the mix. These minigames usually require stellar hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes to meet the time requirements. In the original Mass Effect, the typical hacking minigame requires you to carefully move an object through a series of concentric rings with moving obstacles. Already, that is more difficult for players with a limited range of motion than the game’s actual combat. On top of that, you generally only get 10-15 seconds to complete the challenge. Not likely. Luckily, the original Mass Effect offers an option that allows you to bypass the challenge completely. You can break down your spare, useless items into omni-gel and can spend it as currency to skip the challenge.

Mass Effect 2‘s minigames are not identical to those of the first game, but it’s the same concept. You have a short period of time to complete a reflex-based challenge. In this game, however, you don’t have the option of using omni-gel to bypass the challenge. If this only locked you out of bonus items or credits (currency), that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. The problem is that there are places where an inability to complete these minigames can stop your progress through the game entirely. For those familiar with the game, there is a gate in Grunt‘s recruitment mission that you need to hack to get through. If you can’t complete that minigame, you cannot move on with the game.

What was gained by gating the story progression with a hacking minigame? Does that gain outweigh locking disabled gamers out of an otherwise disabled-friendly game? It’s certainly something that should be considered when implementing these games.

If I wanted to play flash games I would go to Kongregate

Despite these games being high-budget releases, these hacking minigames are glorified (and sometimes simplified) flash games — or maybe something far older and simpler. BioShock‘s hacking minigame is an updated version of Pipe Mania, a puzzle game from 1989 developed for the Amiga. Pipe Mania is a classic, but it has also been copied, rehashed and reproduced so many times throughout gaming on so many platforms that BioShock‘s hacking system strikes me as incredibly uninspired. It most certainly did not make me feel like an awesome hacker. More like a  plumber.

In the original Mass Effect‘s hacking game, you’re a small sprite advancing through lanes of obstacles and moving objects. Apparently to hack a computer console, you must play a circular version of Frogger. Once again, this minigame struck me as being uninspired. It didn’t feel much like hacking either, just like BioShock‘s hacking didn’t. It was a minigame for the sake of having a minigame. Mass Effect 2 improved on giving you the feeling that you were hacking something — the game actually used a technological aesthetic instead of brightly colored squares and triangles prancing about. Aesthetics help.

Okay, that’s what makes them bad. How can they be used well?

Let’s recap. I think there are a few important things to keep in mind when designing and utilizing hacking minigames.

  • Does this minigame make sense as a hacking minigame? BioShock‘s Pipe Mania does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect‘s Frogger does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect 2‘s “match the circuits” game (seen at the top of this post) did, in my opinion, feel like hacking. It was a simple matching game, but the aesthetics and tasks associated with it were clearly technological.
  • Do not make these games mandatory! They are an excellent tool for offering bonuses or even shortcuts. But if someone cannot complete the hacking minigame (whether it be due to lack of skill or lack of motor skills due to injury), it should not stop the game/narrative dead. Minigames are not the core of your game. Minigames should reward success, not punish failure.
  • Diversify them. It’s okay to have multiple forms of hacking games. It does not need to be a new game every time the player touches a console, but two or three different ones adds spice. Not every shootout in an action game plays out the same way. Why should this? Mass Effect 2 used two different hacking games and I feel that worked very well. It reflected what sort of work you were doing.
  • Use them sparingly. Don’t do what BioShock did and put several hackable turrets and cameras in small spaces. It becomes tedium. Spread these encounters out. It will make them more meaningful.
  • Don’t add minigames just for the sake of adding minigames. Do they add something to your game? Will your game be lessened by a minigame’s absence?

TL;DR

Okay, maybe I don’t hate minigames. I just hate bad minigames used poorly.

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God of War III: In which I’m Atlas

I wouldn’t say that the God of War franchise has taught me much, but thanks to God of War III, I have learned one very valuable piece of information: I’m not actually desensitized to video game violence.

I guess I thought I was, prior to having played the game, because it seemed like I’d be able to carry out pretty much every action a game necessitated in terms of violence against my character’s enemies. You need me to kill that dragon to move forward, I’ll do it. That asshole’s breathing fire at me anyway. You need me to set some zombies on fire? They’re dead anyway, and they’re also trying to eat my living flesh, so I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

Now, you need me to kill that human being over there? That’s a little tougher. If they’re shooting at me, I tend not to have a problem shooting back. It’s self-preservation. But even in a game like, say, Uncharted 2, brimming with charm and having a dashing, likeable player character, I had an issue with the sheer number of people I had to murder in order to have my globe-trotting action adventure continue. But I did it anyway, because that was the way to see the rest of the story, and I liked the experience of playing it.

God of War III is a different beast than Uncharted, though. You don’t really need to “get” it. Its story is about standard when it comes to action games — that is, it’s an adolescent male power/revenge fantasy. All the men in the game are musclebound. All the women are scantily clad, if they’re clad at all. There’s an orgy minigame, for Christ’s sake. It is the very definition of what vocal opponents of the modern game industry hate about games. And before you suggest that I haven’t played the other God of Wars (Gods of War?), I have. All of them, even the PSP ones. I knew exactly what to expect from this game.

But I bought it anyway, because it’s a tentpole franchise for Sony and I heard it looked really good! And it was on sale. But this isn’t about me being a typical waffley consumer, or about how big companies keep putting out games that are embarrassing to have a normal person walk in on you playing while you’re rhythmically tapping buttons to nail Aphrodite. At least, not today. This is about violence.

Anyone who’s played God of War or has seen someone else play it understands what its deal is. You’re Kratos, you have weapons tethered to your body via chains, and you perform brutal, grisly attacks on mythological creatures while moving from set piece to set piece. Like I said. You ask me to kill a minotaur, no problem.

The sticking point for me came in one of the early boss fights. I was tasked with defeating a particular god (though a human-looking one) through interacting with the level and causing him to topple from his vantage point. Upon defeating him, I was prompted to press some more buttons as he lay bloody and beaten. Press triangle to punch him in the face. Jam on the X button to kick him in the ribs. Press the square button repeatedly to ram him against a wall. Finally, time the button presses properly to tear his head off of his living body. I felt a little ill after I did it.

And I couldn’t figure out why, for a while. I’d played violent games before. Then it dawned on me.

In previous God of War games, those kinds of actions would have been something that happened in a cinematic. Take down the boss, the screen goes letterbox, Kratos beats him up tears his head off. It’s bad, sure, but it’s the same as watching a gory movie — there’s a sense of detachment when it’s not me doing the brutalizing, and when I know that it’s not real. After all, I don’t have Kratos’ motivations. As in most games, I’m simply having Kratos perform the mundane actions required to progress the plot, not moving it forward personally. I am not the character I play.

But by making the brutality against a human character something I have to take action for Kratos to perform, and not just watch it happen, suddenly it carries real visceral weight. I don’t actually like torturing or brutalizing people. I don’t care about monsters, but something that looks like a man, bleeds like a man, and pleads for mercy like a man is pretty much a man to me, virtual or not. I didn’t like having to bear the weight of actions that weren’t rightfully mine.

I talked to one of my game designer friends about the issues I had with continuing to play the game. He asked me if I felt the game would’ve been improved if some kind of morality system had been added, a la BioWare or Rockstar games. No, I said, however clichéd and stupid it is, Kratos is a character defined by his horrible moral choices and his brutality. It wouldn’t make sense for me to be able to choose whether or not he’s an asshole. He will always be an asshole, regardless of my input. I just didn’t want to have to become an asshole myself to play this game.

Well, my friend said, not be snarky, but you don’t have to play it. I told him he was right, and that I wouldn’t.

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