Exploring the uncharted territory of the gay videogame experience. Here, I explore the female/LGBT presence in videogame culture, media and industry.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: Echo Bazaar

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the mystery genre; whether it be books, film or video games, I can’t get enough of it. So when I heard about Echo Bazaar through the Extra Credits video series over at The Escapist, I dropped everything and headed straight over to the website.

Steampunk? Mystery? Free to play? Definitely count me in.

Upon arriving at the website, I took a quick look at the address bar to make not of the URL, and I was instantly struck by something very strange indeed. It was developed by a company called Failbetter Games. Normally, “fail” is not a word I would like to see in association with a game, but I tried not to let it color my opinion of the game.

After the site loaded, I expected to see the familiar “log in” and “join” options normally found on server based game screens. Instead, there were only two buttons: Sign in with Twitter and Sign in with Facebook. I groaned inwardly, fearing Echo Bazaar to be just another social media game; something to annoy the shit out of your friends and followers as you spam their dashes with constant updates about needing bricks or plywood or some other arbitrary supply (I’m looking at you, Farmville). But this wasn’t the case at all. This function allows for easy sign-in and save capabilities. As another point in its favor, Echo Bazaar only gives suggestions for wall/feed updates. If something major happens and you want to tweet about it or post it on your facebook feed, you can; but you don’t have to. Having complete control over the application posts allowed me to relax and enjoy the game, rather than spend all my time and energy worrying about spamming my twitter feed every time I completed a courier event or picked a bar fight.

The character customization screen amused me to no end. It was the standard “choose your gender, pick an avatar” fare, but the language it used is what pleased me. Rather than just having a choice between male and female, it asked if I “fancied [myself] a gentleman, a lady” or I could choose a prefer-not-to-answer option that read as follows:

There are creatures roaming the streets with faces like squid. Squid! And do you ask their gender? I think not. Quite frankly, I think it’s none of your business what I am.

On the surface, it seems silly or downright self-righteous. But I’m glad they have an option for those who don’t like to be confined to rigid gender roles.

The avatars are simple silhouettes, like what you would see in a Victorian era parlor. Whether this was due to lack of funds or server space, I have no idea, but I find it adds another level of player involvement. I don’t know exactly what my avatar looks like, so I have to use my imagination. The one I chose looks to be tomboy-ish (judging by the outline of short hair) and has what look like either flying or driving goggles around her neck.

The first thing that entered my mind was “sky captain.” (Note: this is probably a sign that I’m nerding right the fuck out and reading entirely too much about Steampunk culture.)

I only spent about 10-15 seconds on this screen, then I jumped right into game play.

It’s a turn based RPG style game mixed with elements of a table top card game (a la Magic: The Gathering).

You have a list of options, or storylettes as EB calls them, to choose from in order to advance your story. There is also a deck of cards, the Opportunity Deck, that players can draw from for additional options. You can only hold one card at a time, but once you have lodgings, you can hold two. This is especially helpful if you draw a card that is of particular interest, but you haven’t quite leveled up enough or don’t have a required item yet. Once you draw a card, a counter appears, ticking down the minutes until the next card generates. A counter also appears when you use up a move.

Free players are allotted 40 moves per day and can use up to 10 at a time (represented by a dwindling candle). Paying players get 80 moves a day and can use up to 20 at a time.

At first, I didn’t notice this feature and blew through my first 10 moves trying to decipher some writing on a wall. It was frustrating because your moves regenerate at the rate of one every six and a half minutes (cards regenerate at one every five minutes).

The FAQ page explains that the wait is so long because they writers don’t want players to “blow through the content and never come back.” They’re trying to build a fan base and give themselves time to write more scenarios.

I found this logic to be sound and learned something in the process: patience and to weigh multiple outcomes.

How many other games out there force players to slow down and think about the consequences of their actions? How many games deny us instant gratification?

Sure, we could be given infinite moves per day or instant move regeneration so we could max out our attributes and play through the game in a matter of hours or days.

But where would be the fun in that?

There are four different attributes the player has at her disposal: Dangerous (strength), Watchful (cunning), Persuasive and Shadowy (stealth or rogue). Each one has a different area of the city, Fallen London, that is conducive to its advancement: Ladybones Road (Watchful), Watchmaker’s Hill (Dangerous), Spite (Shadowy), Veilgarden (Persuasive). Players can focus on one, master them all or mix-n-match. This level of character customization ensures that players have unique experiences.

I spend most of my time in either Ladybones Road or Watchmaker’s Hill. I’ve been playing my 40 moves a day for a couple of weeks now and have slowly but surely risen to a level 18 Watchful and level 16 Dangerous. I like to fancy myself a James Bond kind of character; a spy with her ear to the ground and finger on the pulse of the city, but doesn’t back down from a brawl if it comes down to it. I’ve taken to focusing on my Shadowy attribute recently; I’m a level 12 now. So I steal sometimes to get the answers I need.

And trust me, you will need answers.

It seems like just as I start to figure out a plot point, 10 more questions arise. But I don’t mind, it just serves to draw me further into the story I’m creating with each choice I make.

Leveling up is a pretty simple process, helped along by the easy to understand, color-coded risk system: Straightforward (green), Low-risk (blue), Modest (yellow), Chancy (orange), High-risk (red), Almost Impossible (purple).

Obviously, the easier the task, the more likely you are to succeed. But there’s a downside; you won’t learn as much therefore won’t level up as quickly. Players gain experience no matter if they succeed or fail in a task. But the more difficult the task, the more XP you earn. Succeeding not only gets you XP, but important items as well. So players are left with a choice: use moves to complete easy tasks and acquire items or use moves on difficult challenges for huge XP gains.

Overall, it’s a very engaging and enjoyable game. The developers over at Failbetter Games certainly know what they’re doing; providing a deep, rich experience without spending a lot of capital.

The game is easy to learn how to play; just a few minutes clicking through the tabs will do the trick. And for all its depth, it doesn’t force you to sink vast amounts of time into it. If you only want to use ten moves that day, you don’t feel guilty about walking away after doing so. The attention to detail is astounding. There are so many factions a player can align herself with; devils, bohemians, the University, constables, thieves, high society, street urchins, rat catchers and the list goes on. Dozens of sub-attributes allow for infinite possibilities for customizing the character and storyline. The names of characters you meet along the way add yet another layer of fun to the game.

How could you possibly not want to find out more about a man simply known as “The Absconding Devil,” or enjoy the company of “The Seductive Heiress”?

The only complaint I have is the long wait for moves and cards to regenerate. But I solve that by doing something else for an hour or so (laundry, school work, take a nap) then coming back to the game.

I give Echo Bazaar a solid 90/100 for showing the world that it is indeed possible for a free, web based game to be fun.

I think we’ll be hearing more about the folks over at Failbetter Games in the future.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Peril at End House

I got a new desktop recently and have been making my way through the free game trials. (New 360 games are a bit out of my budget right now) Most of them were pretty much standard fare: Bejewelled, Jewel Quest, Fate, etc. Then I came across one that caught my interest; Peril at End House.

I got really excited at first because it's based on an Agatha Christie novel of the same name, and I'm a huge fan of her work.

I started up a new game and clicked through the opening cutscene. The comick book style layout was charming and spared me from suffering through a butchered French accent (this being a Poirot story). After the last graphic, I let out a very surprised/angry/disappointed "Goddamnit!" as I was confronted with actual gameplay:

Find a bunch of bullshit that's mixed in with a bunch of other bullshit.

It was a fucking seek-and-find game.

There has been a string of murders. I should be dusting for prints, looking for murder weapons and interviewing suspects. Not finding half-eaten pastries and playing cards in what looks like a disorganized yard sale.

I realize that Christie's books take place in the 1930s and 40s, so I wouldn't be able to do any fancy CSI style detective work, but that's not the point.

Very rarely were clues pertaining to the crime included in the list of random things I was supposed to find. Even then, there was absolutely no detective work involved. Just click the item and get a pop-up box that tells you everything you need to know about the object; who it belongs to, what it was doing int the room where you found it, etc.

There were only two instances where I actually felt like a detective, and they were way too far apart.

The first time, I had to figure out the combination to the victim's safe. It was a kind of cryptograph (where letters stand in for others. ex. A = S, B = T and so on), which I'm not very good at. But it made me think. I actually felt like I was Hercule Poirot.

The second time, I had picked up a box of half eaten candies. I had to pick them apart to find traces of drugs or poison. Turns out, they were laced with lethal amounts of cocaine.

That is what I should have been doing the whole time.

Why do I have to find butterflies and sea shells? Shouldn't I be searching for clues to secret drug habits, ulterior motives, covered up scandals and such?

Seriously. If I wanted to just look for random stuff, I'd go out and buy an I Spy book. At least that would have the nostalgia factor to keep me interested.

Why is there so much shit in the different areas? I can understand the Floral Shop Stage having a lot of stuff, but why do the rooms in the house look the way they do? Are the victims hoarders?

Am I conducting an investigation or staging an intervention? Like, "Look at all this shit. No wonder someone killed her."

Some of the shit is just impossible to find. Im-fucking-possible. In the Back Garden Stage, I had to find six croquet balls. Seemed simple enough. I found all but the red one, and I had run out of hints. I looked and loked, but time ran out before I found it.

By the way, when time runs out, you don't get to do just that room over again. No. You have to start that whole leg of the investigation all over again. Each section is about six or seven rooms. So if you're on the last room, you're fucked.

So, I started again, saving my hints because I remembered where most of the stuff was. When I got back to where I was before time ran out, I again found everything but the red croquet ball. So I used a hint.

You know where it was?

In a pile of fucking RED APPLES that were half off the screen. It blended in perfectly.

How the fuck was I supposed to see that?

Aside from impossible to find objects, it gets pretty monotonous pretty damn quick. Especially if you're like me and are really observant so you find things quickly.

The seek-and-find game play is broken up by various mini games. There is the safe cracking and poison detetion I mentioned before, but there are also matching games (match the suspect to the motive, etc.), but I didn't pay any attention to the text boxes or cut scenes. So I didn't know what went with what. But that didn't matter, because if you got three mismatches in a row, the game gave you a hint. And by hint, I mean it just flat out told you who went with what motive. And no penalties for letting it tell you either.

There is also a game where you have to piece together a ripped up newspaper article and a ripped up will. Another game makes you fill in words in a letter given to you by a contact. I didn't understand the point of that. If it contains important information, just fucking tell me, don't waste my time.

So you find all the important clues (all three of them...seriously), solve the crime (Spoiler: She fakes her death and kills her best friend because she was jealous of the woman's marriage), and end the game.

In conclusion, if you've got an hour or so to kill, this game is perfect for that. But if you're looking for a serious mystery-thriller game, or just want a game that's entertaining, I wouldn't recommend it.

Overall, I give it a 45/100. There were very few redeeming elements, and it mostly just wasted my time. If you want a good seek-and-find detective game, buy one of those CSI: games. If you're not entertained, at least you'll learn some cool science-y things.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I'm Surprised They Haven't Made... Part 2

A Twilight Game.

Now, before I go on, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am most certainly NOT a Twilight fan. I've read the books, and seen the first film; I just can't get past how god awful the writing is.

But I digress...

Whether or not you like the series, you have to admit it's very surprising that with all of its (baffling) success, there hasn't been a game tie-in.

But what would you do?

The first thing that comes to mind is a Castlevania knock-off; an action-adventure RPG where you collect different items, weapons and armor in preparation for the final showdown with the Volturi...

Except that never happens in the books.

Perhaps a gothic mystery-noire would fare better. Players take on the persona of Bella Swan; normal teen turned amateur dectective. She must gather clues and evience to prove that Edward is a vampire. She must also study the ancient magicks needed to defeat him and his family, ending their bloody reign of terror over Forks.

...but that doesn't happen either.

Survival Horror/Tower Defense
Bella has stumbled upon the secred world of vampires and werewolves, becoming entangled in their millenia-old blood-feud. Each side wants to kidnap her and use her as a bargaining chip after she befriends Edward and Jacob. She wants nothing to do with it. Student by day, supernatural warrior by night, she defends her father and her home from an onslaught of undead and lycanthropes (a la Nazi Zombie mode in CoD).

*sigh* That's still not it.

No, you know what it would be?

The Sims...or a 10 hour long Quick Time Event.

As a simulation, tweens and desperate housewives everywhere would discard the packaged "Bella" model in favor of a customized, virtual equivalent of themselves. Each playing out whatever sad little fantasy she has built up in her mind. The QTE would be even more pathetic, on every level:

Press X to bite lip

Hold A to play with hair

Click LS and RS to be devoid of all emotion

Push power button on console and do something meaningful with your life

Like with the Lady Gaga game, it all comes down to marketing and reputation. Makers of casual games or ipod games might get in on it (some sort of episodic release, maybe), but I serioulsy doubt any hardcore/mainstream developer or publisher would make a bid on that particular IP. It would destroy their credibility. Every discussion of each subsequent release by that company would follow thusly:

Gamer 1: Have you heard anything about First-Person Space Shooter 2000? I want to know if I should buy it or rent it first.

Gamer 2: You don't want that game.

G1: Why not?

G2: It's by the same company that did that Twilight game.

G1: Oh, never mind then.

The company would probably go under after that; all the while, employees would make dramatic "We're Sorry" speeches as they clean out their desks and prepare themselves for a life of unemployment. Because no other company would want to be associated in any way, shape or form with The Game That Shan't Be Named. This would put even more strain on an already beleagured world economy.

Moral of story: A Twilight game would probably cause the next Great Depression.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I'm Surprised They Haven't Made... Part 1

A Lady Gaga themed game.

Lots of bands have gotten the Guitar Hero or Rockband treatment (AC/DC, Metallica, The Beatles, Van Halen, and *shudder* Green Day). Michael Jackson was worthy of his own Dance Central clone. Hell, even Journey had their own arcade cabinet. I think they're the only ones on this list that don't have a rhythm/dance game.

Love her or hate her, she's here to stay. So, with all her popularity, why hasn't Lady Gaga gotten in on this? (Ignoring the plummeting sales numbers for music games, of course.)

Now, we have to take a look at the kinds of music games she could authorize.

1) Rhythm (a la Guitar Hero)
Well, this just wouldn't do at all since there are very few, if any, actual instruments being played in her songs. There were a few bits on her first album, The Fame, that had guitars, and Speechless from The Fame Monster is piano centric. But let's face it, she's a dance/techno artist; it's all synth and drum machine. This would be a very boring game to play with friends, let alone by yourself. Think about it, you'd have to have at least 2 or 3 keyboard peripherals. On top of that, her songs are kind of boring when you break them down like that. Sure, when you wanna just blast it and dance the night away, they're great. But on a technical level, they're nothing special. Looping synth riffs, idioticly simplistic percussion sections, and easy-to-match mid-range vocals. After the first few songs on the set list, the novelty would wear off, and you and your friends would find yourselves growing more and more lethargic. Not to mention angry that you spent $60 to sing along with her when you can do the same thing for free with an ipod and a long subway ride.

2) Dance (a la DDR or Dance Central)
If Nintendo hadn't beaten her to the punch. She could have had a lovely little play on words...Just Dance, indeed.

With that being said, this is probably the best bet for success, however marginal, when it comes down to making a game based on the eccentric Lady Gaga. But even with this style of game, there's still a huge problem.

The choreography.

Regardless of how I feel about her personal/off-stage antics, the woman is a damn fine artist. Her vocal range, flexibility and sustainablity is something that is rarely seen in the age of AutoTune; I often compare her to Karen Carpenter, though Gaga isn't nearly as good a vocalist...she's just the closest comparison. Vocals aside, one can tell she has never been trained in dance....at all.

You'd think that with all that money she spent on that fancy fine arts college she went to, she'd have at least learned the basics of dance. But I guess when you major in Batshit Crazy, you don't have much time to devote to dance.

Most of her choreography is thinly veiled sex-with-as-few-clothes-on-as-possible. And when she isn't dry humping anything she can get her hands on, she doesn't really dance; she just fidgets around alot. As with the rhythm game, you and your friends would quickly grow tired of the premise. Not to mention terribly uncomfortable when you realize you're playing Interactive Strip Aerobics.

And imagine the outcry when parents discover their daughters (or sons as the case may be) gyrating and stripping in turns. Because we all know that the majority of parents, especially in the U.S., don't give two shits about what their kids are doing until they catch them doing something they don't like.

To quote AVGN: There would be lawsuits up the ass.

So, I guess what it all comes down to is marketing. I suppose Lady Gaga would think herself much too avante guard to involve herself with a pop art like videogames. And no developer or publisher I know of would be willing to associate themselves with such a publicly/politically volatile artists.

Sure, Michael Jackson was an alleged child molester...but at least he could dance.

Plus, a meat-suit peripheral would be really tough to make appealing to the consumer.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Finding my Voice

So, I've been doing a lot of thinking over the past few weeks, and I've come to a major decision. After I post the second half of Cpt. Dare's entry in my blog, I'm going to stop doing such in-depth character analyses. It's just too much work right now with my class load. And, quite frankly, it feels like too much work; it's not fun anymore. Plus, I feel like most of the time, I'm talking over people's heads. I wanted to make Game Theory accessable to people outside academic circles, to spark discussion on the topic of women in videogames within the gaming community at large, but I don't think I've accomplished that at all.

I think I just need a break from this topic for awhile. I had forgotten how much of a massive undertaking it was to have to construct a new theoretical perspective. And I think I need to find a new way to approach it in my blogs. I've been reading over them, and they just sound entirely too sterile. I was aiming for a kind of sarcastic, cynical humor, but I feel they just sound haughty, pretentious and quasi-elitist.

I'm still going to blog; no need to worry about that. I'm just going to try several different things instead. I'm thinking about getting into the review market, and just commenting on different things going on in the industry.

To cut the self-depreicating blog short, I've come to the conclusion that academic accessability is not the key to blogging success. I'm going to try something else.


Your Friendly Neighborhood GaymerGrrl

Monday, March 28, 2011

Double Dare Part 1

Halo: ODST is Bungie Studio’s fifth title in the Halo franchise, and arguably, its most disappointing. Hardcore fans complained of the radical delineation from the usual style of game play and storytelling (given what little story telling there is in the games). Fans may have felt angry and alienated, but this divergence from the norm brought about something that is as exciting as it is frustrating.

Captain Veronica Dare: UNSC Navy and ONI Intelligence officer, Section One.

Saying the name aloud conjures feelings of respect and valor; the name implies power, fortitude, masculinity. The name was meant to convey that Cpt. Dare is, to put it brusquely, a badass. At least, that is what Bungie had hoped players would see her as. Instead, they created a character of many contradictions, prone to wild mood swings and who possesses a prodigious susceptibility to the Princess Syndrome mental disorder that seems to plague so many female game characters. Though, she doesn’t start out that way.

Cpt. Dare establishes her authority very early in the game. First, she threatens to have a Communications Duty officer fired when he does not follow her orders to re-activate the Superintendent (the New Mombasa data storage core). It is not known what rank the CDO held, but it is clear that Dare felt either being a Naval Captain alone, her ONI Section One clearance or both would be enough to see her orders carried through; either by respectful deference or intimidation. Unfortunately for Dare, her rank and clearance only garner a rather rude ending to her radio call; the CDO hangs up on her.

This doesn’t deter Dare in the least; she takes what she needs anyway. Chiefly, command of a small ODST unit. However, she assumes command in a flurry of theatrics. Dare strides aboard the launch ship, confronts and humiliates the commanding officer, leaving the rest of the squad in a state of confusion about who exactly is in command. That is, until she begins barking orders. When the squad questions the change, she becomes cold, offering no explanation, only stating that “orders are orders.”

She never lets the ODST squad forget that she is an ONI Section One officer. Her rank was her greatest weapon in gaining control, and it continues to be her preferred way of maintain that control. For Dare, what she cannot have by achievement, she tries to gain by force. When force fails, she resorts to base intimidation.

Bungie tried to present Cpt. Dare as a rough and tumble, all work and no play kind of soldier, but her behavior throughout the first few minutes of the game paints her as a bit of a bully. She is trying entirely too hard to prove to herself, and the world, that she can do just as well as, or better than, the men she serves with. Instead of being “just one of the guys,” Dare turned out to be an aggressive thug, hiding her insecurities deep beneath a stony exterior.

But not as deep as she would have you believe.

Minutes after assuming command, Dare and her ODST squad launch their drop pods and descend towards the city of New Mombasa. During the drop, the Covenant forces fire a powerful EMP weapon, knocking out the pods’ navigation and flight controls. The team gets scattered across the city and must fight toward a rally point, and then move in on the Superintendent. Cpt. Dare becomes stuck in her drop pod and panics, radioing Gunner Sergeant Edward Buck for help; she practically begs him to come and rescue her.

She held command of the ODST squad for approximately ten minutes before her gruff fa├žade shattered. The second she realized the door of her drop pod was jammed, she changed from hard, confident leader to scared, helpless victim. She does not take the time to think the situation through, or even try very hard to free herself. Instead of taking a breath and assessing the situation, Dare sends out a desperate plea for help; it is here that players become vaguely aware that Dare and Buck had been romantically involved at some point.

Gunnery Sergeant Buck was not the closest squad member to her position. Why did she choose him as her rescuer? Was it because of old feelings she still harbored for him? Or was it because she had usurped power from him mere minutes before hand? Perhaps a mix of both, but one gets the sense that it was more love tan a renege on command.

Dare falls back on the old formula that haunts female characters; woman gets into trouble, man hears of her distress, man sets out to save her, man rescues her, they live happily ever after. At least, until the woman gets herself into another spot of trouble. Halo: ODST was released twenty-three years after Super Mario Brothers, yet it made no notable progress in regards to female characters. The contradictory nature of Cpt. Dare’s character betrays the Bungie development teams complete lack of understanding of women and their utter confusion about what to do with one in a combat situation. It seems as though they could not decide if they wanted her to be a stubborn, hard headed bully or a weak, simpering vixen; so, they tried to strike a balance by throwing these extremes together in one body. But the balance was not to be had. Instead, they created an abysmal caricature of women; a personality that dances the razor’s edge between good-humored parody and cruel mockery.

By the time Gunnery Sergeant Buck reaches Dare’s drop pod, she has freed herself. The pod stands open and empty in the battle-torn courtyard. Buck assumes she has been killed when he comes upon her abandoned helmet. This assumption does not ignite a righteous fury in Buck as it would likely do if Dare were a man. There is no need to avenge her “death,” only a calm acceptance. In their book, Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the idea of the Victorian “angel-woman.” They describe the most desirable trait in a woman as being completely selfless, and that death is the ultimate act of selflessness; “For to be selfless is not only to be noble, it is to be dead” (Gilbert and Gubar 817). A dead woman forces neither burden of worry or care upon her male compatriots, nor fear for her safety because of her perceived weakness. Dare’s “death” enables Buck and the rest of the ODST squad to carry out their mission without any of these concerns, even though she is their commanding officer. It is revealed, however, that Dare has fought her way to Sub-level Nine of the Superintendent; with the help of Rookie, she manages to extract the information she needed to carry out her mission.

Throughout Dare’s limited screen time in the game, she struggles with her dual role as leader and lover. The two roles grapple for the spot of primary identification. This back-and-forth game of power is best illustrated when Dare and Rookie are re-united with the squad. IN the elevator, Dare punches Buck, angry with him for abandoning the mission in order to look for her; even though she radioed him, telling him to come save her. This goes back to the notion of the angel-woman. Yes, she called out to him for help, but in all actuality, Buck was never supposed to come to her rescue, Dare expected him to let her die; a sacrifice for the greater good. She still rewards him with a kiss for coming to her rescue. By rights, that kiss should go to Rookie since he was the one that found her and helped her reach the data core.

Seconds after kissing Buck in front of the rest of the ODST squad, Dare suddenly remembers that she is supposed to act like a commanding officer. She reprimands Buck for his failure to mention the Covenant armada en route to New Mombasa. He argues with her, saying that he was more worried about getting to Vergil, the A.I. construct that runs the Superintendent. Buck’s choice to start an argument rather than apologize and offer the information he has on the armada quickly changes Dare’s rebuke into a lover’s spat. Instead of putting Buck in his place for arguing, Dare succumbs to her Princess Syndrome once more and confesses her fear of never seeing him again. In less than five minutes, Dare’s personality changes four times. This sort of identity crisis does not bode well for Dare. How can the other soldiers in the squad respect her enough to follow her into battle if she can’t manage to keep her personal and professional lives separate?