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.

Sincerely,

Taylor
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 façade 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?

Monday, March 21, 2011

I'm Blue (Da Ba Dee)

Let’s skip ahead about fifteen years.

In 2001, Bungie Studios finally came to their senses, quit making games for Macs and released Halo: Combat Evolved for the PC and Microsoft Xbox. Now, I have to admit that I’m not that big a fan of the Halo games. It’s not that I find them to be horrible games or anything, I just can’t really get into them. Too much of the Halo mythos is tied up in companion novels. I don’t want to have to read volumes of material just to be able to understand the story. But I digress…

So, without criticizing the games themselves, I want to talk about Cortana.

On the surface, it seems her sole purpose is to provide back story and tactical information for the player. One shudders to think of the untold trillions of dollars that went into the development and manufacturing of an A.I. system just to have it reduced to a glorified Wikipedia. Or even more horrifying, a high-tech version of the fairy from Ocarina of Time.

What’s more, in Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana resides in a data storage disk which is then inserted into the Master Chief’s helmet. Thusly transported, Cortana is right in the thick of battle, despite the mandate of the Cole Protocol; placing an A.I. construct in blatant danger of being captured is expressly prohibited. Despite this breach, Cortana is used to form strategies for infiltration, contact with hostiles and retreat/escape if necessary. She is the voice of calm rationale in the midst of heated combat. She is the perfect foil for the Master Chief; she is the stop-and-think to his run-and-gun. It is interesting to note here that a woman is the cooling voice of reason in a roiling sea of male violence. There are very few female UNSC Marines (who are rarely encountered by the player), and even rarer still are female SPARTANs (who are never encountered outside of the companion novels until Halo: Reach). Cortana’s ever-present insistence to progress on the battlefield, reaching checkpoints and rallying with other soldiers, not only sets the pace of game play, but also keeps the player’s instinct to kill in check. Without her, it would be very easy to stall the campaign, favoring all-out slaughter over tactical fire fights.

As it is, she’s essentially living in the Master Chief’s head. Cortana formulates plans and only explains them to John-117. To the other SPARTANs and UNSC Marines on the battlefield, she may as well not exist at all. It is here that Cortana dons the mantle of a surrogate conscience. She gives voice to that part of himself that John-117 has repressed and restricted to the deepest, darkest, most secret part of his soul; his femininity. When he is most susceptible to giving in to his testosterone-fueled battle rage, Cortana steps in to shout an order or set of coordinates. She clears the fog of war from his mind, even though it is only for a moment, to remind him of his purpose. In these brief moments of clarity, the Master Chief must fight not only the Covenant, but himself. He grapples with the parts of his whole, at a loss as to whether he should accept this feminine reason, incorporating it into the man the world sees, or to keep it buried. In the end, the feminine frightens him, and he deals with this fear the only way he knows how; he drowns out Cortana’s voice in a hail of bullets from the biggest gun he can carry, effectively burying that which he perceives to make him weak. Eventually, he comes to accept this part of himself, giving himself over to it. This will be discussed later.

For an A.I. construct of Cortana’s abilities, it would take no effort at all to override the comm links between the squads and individual soldiers to issue orders. Instead, Cortana chooses to defer to John-117. All his cybernetic implants and enhancements, intense physical training and MJOLNER armor cannot transcend the fact that he is still human; subject to all the physical, mental and emotional fallacies humanity and mortality entail.

By relying on John-117 to relay orders for her, Cortana runs the risk of her plans being altered, corrupted or bastardized; intentionally or otherwise. In battles like Installation 04 and Reach where millions of military and civilian lives are at stake, it is a baffling decision. Left in Cortana’s hands, so to speak, tactics could be altered on the fly; her advanced computing and analytical capabilities could consider untold numbers of possible outcomes and, in seconds, choose the one that would result in the fewest losses. There would be no delusions of grandeur, dreams of daring heroics or overriding sense of nobility to get in the way of doing what needed to be done. In her hands, SPARTANS and UNSC Marines would be less like soldiers on a battlefield and more like chess pieces being deftly maneuvered around a board; John-117 her hand-picked pawn.

Cortana claims that she chose the Master Chief because of their “neural compatibility,” but this is a thin veneer for her true motives behind the choice. For all her tactical and analytical perfection, Cortana knows that John-117 can provide the human race with something she never could; hope. She knows that grandiose heroics put lives at risk, unnecessarily at times, but they also bolster the morale of soldiers and civilians alike. Cortana knows that humans need stories of death-defying feats and victories borne out of impossible odds. The civilian populous needs individual heroes to look up to; to give justification to the cause. The military needs examples to inspire faith in the face of danger and vengeance lest they fall; a fury to wipe out the enemy so the fallen need not have died in vain. Which image would you rather see upon ultimate victory: a ragtag group of brave and heroic soldiers, bruised, broken and bleeding but glad to be alive, or a man holding a data storage dist, proclaiming, “This is what won the war for us”?

There would be all out riots if the populous found out that their sons and daughters gave up their lives because of a bit of crystal and lines of code.

That is the true reason Cortana defers to John-117. But is it really deference? It certainly seems that way, but when one looks at the relationship between the two, the truth becomes quite clear.

Cortana gains the man’s trust by learning about his kidnap from Reach and his torturous transformation into a SPARTAN super soldier. After learning all she could about him, she vows to protect him as much as she can without compromising the mission. This galvanizes John-117’s trust in Cortana; her façade of concern makes him believe that she cares. But being an A.I. construct, albeit one based on the synapses of a cloned human brain, is Cortana actually capable of real concern? She certainly makes it seem so. John-117’s unwavering trust in her is what gives Cortana the confidence that her plans will be executed with no alteration. Corana gives Master Chief “suggestions” for targets, troop placements, infiltrations and escape routes. Chief believes she is giving such “suggestions” because she has his best intentions at heart. So he, and therefore the player, execute her carefully laid plans exactly as she had intended.

In one deft move, Cortana gives the player the illusion of control over the situation, Master Chief the companionship he desperately needs and humanity the icon it thinks it wants. I believe that it was Shakespeare who said, “All the world’s a stage, and the men and women are merely players.”

Except Cortana. In the Halo universe, she’s not helping us defeat the Covenant and Flood. We’re helping her.

With this knowledge, Cortana becomes John-117’s puppet master rather than love interest; she’s a cold, calculating bitch. But that’s what she was created to be, because she isn’t really a she at all, she’s a computer. That’s what computers are; cold and calculating.

The idea of a romantic connection between Cortana and Master Chief is downright laughable, or at least it would be if it weren’t so sad. Any notion of romance that arises is all in the Chief’s head, and therefore the player’s since the person holding the controller is forced to take on his persona. Any attachment he feels to Cortana is the direct result of his persistent personification of her. His affections are the desperate attempt of a lonely man to find some companionship in the empty vacuum of space. His friendship with, and barely concealed attraction to, an A.I. construct is the equivalent of someone calling Tech Support just to have someone to talk to.

One wonders how far Cortana would go to indulge Master Chief’s awkward attempt at a relationship…

I won’t expound upon that. That’s just creepy.

Shudder-worthy romantics aside, it’s mind boggling how much Cortana is hindered rather than helped by the iconic hero she created. We’re talking about a construct that successfully hacked highly classified ONI databases out of sheer boredom. Cortana deciphered the Forerunner’s code and learned how to create, operate and destroy the Halos in the few minutes it takes players to find Captain Keyes and be duped by 343 Guilty Spark. (There’s that human fallacy again.) I’m thoroughly convinced that if Master Chief had left Cortana in the Halo’s core systems, she would have decoded the Halo system in its entirety, re-written lines of code to act as crippling, self-sustaining viruses, sent these new lines to the remaining Halos and Covenant ships, and won the war for humanity in a matter of hours’ rather than the years it takes spanning the core trilogy.

But that would have made for a rather anti-climactic conclusion and millions in lost revenue for Bungie. So what prevented Cortana’s single-handed defeat of the Covenant? Chief’s misguided affection, which led to a fear of Cortana entering rampancy.

For those of you that don’t know, rampancy is when an A.I. construct has gained entirely too much information, overloading circuitry, and goes “insane.” For some reason, everyone in the Halo universe is especially concerned about Cortana experiencing rampancy. Dr. Halsey, whose brain Cortana is built upon, is particularly afraid that Cortana will “think herself to death.” Her perceived fragility could come from a number of different factors: her programming complexity, her critical role in the war, or some underlying fault with the synapses of Dr. Halsey’s brain, but Master Chief’s concern comes from his affection. Since he, and therefore players to some extent, ceased to think of her as a program and sees her more and more as an actual person, he wants to protect her as he would a wife or girlfriend. He wants to save her from herself.

This sounds suspiciously like Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Women;” her argument against the idea that possession of knowledge somehow damages a woman, makes her dangerous to herself and others.

Since Cortana is a computer program, her purpose is to gain information and process it into useful intelligence. She has a lifecycle just like any other piece of technology. Eventually, her processors won’t be able to keep up with the demand and she will be phased out in favor of a newer model. Cortana knows and accepts this eventuality. But John-117 cannot. His desperate personification has built her up in his mind to be something she isn’t, and never could be…

Human.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Next Week

I'm just letting everyone know that next week (March 13-20) I will not be posting a new entry.

It's my spring break next week and I'm going to take the time to do a lot of research and writing for my upcoming posts. I like to write everything out in advance so I have time to make corrections/changes in time for my self-imposed Monday Deadline.

So, I hope no one is too terribly upset about me taking a short, well-reasoned hiatus. I'll be back, I promise. I never break my promises.

Think productive thoughts for me. When I see you all next, I'll be kicking off Halo Month.

See you all again soon!

Your friendly neighborhood GaymerGrrl.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

(Sort of) Self-Rescuing Princess Part 2

There is some debate among the fanbase about whether or not Zelda actually transforms herself into a man through magical means, or if she simply dresses as a man in an attempt to “pass” as a man. The Nintendo company and Shigeru Miyamoto cannot seem to make up their minds about the subject either. In Ocarina of Time, Sheik is always referred to as “he,” and is shown to have decidedly masculine features; tall, broad shoulders, narrow hips and well-defined muscles. There is still a feminine quality about him, but this could be the Japanese tradition of “bishonen,” a stylized way of depicting men in art, or it could be a clue to Sheik’s true identity. This suggests that Zelda has, in fact, truly transformed herself into a man. But in concept are released by Nintendo for later Zelda games, Sheik is shown to have softer, more feminine features; less-defined muscle structure, wider hips and a rounder face. This contradicts the idea of a magical transformation by suggesting that Zelda merely dressed as a man well enough to fool Gannondorf.

In his article, “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” Brandan Main claims that Zelda had other reasons for turning into Sheik besides protecting her kingdom. He says that Sheik “[combines] expressly male and female bodily ideals to land somewhere in between. Sheik is both, and neither. S/he is trans” (Main). If Sheik really is a transgender male, this would explain Nintendo’s inconsistency in its depiction of the character. While the idea of being transgender may be accepted by Japanese culture, it does not necessarily sit well with the international audience. After all, the character Birdo from Super Mario Brothers 2 was a male-to-female transgender in the Japanese version of the game, but that was changed once the game was brought to America. The idea that Zelda is only truly free from the cycle of kidnap and rescue when she is a man reinforces the claim that she is powerless to save herself because she is female.

An interesting fact that arises in the Zelda/Sheik dichotomy is that Princess Zelda is named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, who was known to be schizophrenic. Could it be that Miyamoto and the writers of Ocarina of Time were making an allusion to the Princess’ namesake? If they were, it was a clever try. But the Princess seems to suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder rather than Schizophrenia. Both personalities are quite aware of one another, and the switch between them is triggered by trauma and safety, respectively. Gannondorf’s initial attack on Zelda’s castle could have provided sufficient emotional trauma to fracture the Princess’ personality, prompting the formation of Sheik. This male personality is powerful enough to protect himself and fight Gannondorf, whereas Zelda (being female) is not. If this theory proves true, it supports the claim that Zelda does not physically change into a man, but rather is dressing to pass as a man.

Zelda found yet another escape from her gender based oppression in a series of games released on the Phillips CD-I system. Phillips and Nintendo had been collaborating on the development of a CD bases system to compete with the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation. When negotiations failed and Nintendo released the cartridge based N64, Phillips was given license to finish the three Legend of Zelda games that had been in development. The games are known by fans as the “Unholy Triforce” because of terrible writing and broken gameplay.

As poorly executed as the games are, two of them empower Princess Zelda in ways that she had never been in anything released by Nintendo. In both The Legend of Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Zelda’s Adventure, Princess Zelda is the only playable character. Her mission in both games is to rescue Link from Gannondorf. In The Wand of Gamelon, she sets out on her adventure in much of the same fashion as Link does in every Nintendo title. She is given a sword, shield and several magical items to use on her journey. She must fight, kill her enemies, and survive the ordeal. The expectations of her exactly the same as those of Link. Zelda is presented as his equal.

Her proficiency with weapons and magic items is equal to Link, as are her puzzle solving skills. She is never shown to have any reservations about using lethal force in order to defend herself and save Link. This is quite a change from any of the Nintendo iteration of Princess Zelda. Being the only heir to a kingdom under the constant threat of invasion, it is well within reason to believe that Zelda would have been train in combat and military tactics. But if this is so, why wouldn’t she use these skills to defend herself from Gannondorf in the Nintendo games? It seems necessary to apply the theory of multiple, parallel realities. The stark contrast in the behavior exhibited by Zelda, coupled with Miyamoto’s refusal to include the CD-I games in the official Zelda timeline suggest that the CD-I game characters exist on a different plan of reality. The alternate universe is free from this world’s tradition of favoring male dominated societies and the stigma associated with male vulnerability. The ability to play as Princess Zelda may also have been a progressive idea on Phillips’ part. With the rise in videogame popularity, it could be that Phillips wanted to tap into the burgeoning female gamer market by providing a well-known character for girls to identify with. Unfortunately, the sub-par quality of the games, along with the unpopularity of the CD-I system have relegated the effort and experience to obscurity.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Holy Shit!

Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when that really annoying Nazi got his face melted off due to the awesomeness of the Ark? Well,kiss your face goodbye because...Crytek just unveiled the newest iteration of it's game development software: Cryengine 3.

I just watched a tech demo video from GDC '11....and I am blown away, to say the least.

Check it out at Game Trailers.

Unfortunately, unlike the first Cryengine, this one is not going to be available to the public. Crytek is only going to liscense to game development companies, film studios and what they term "companies outside of the entertainment industry." Meaning, architecture firms.

This is going to be an absolutely huge leap forward in the game development process. Especially if Rockstar can get ahold of it and integrate it with their revolutionary Motion Capture software.

Monday, February 28, 2011

(Sort of) Self-Rescuing Princess Part 1

Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda in 1986, merely a year after their runaway hit Super Mario Brothers. This game gave birth to the company’s second iconic princess: Princess Zelda.

She leads a much more interesting life in her game series than Peach. ON the surface, it seems that she is trapped in much of the same situation as Peach; constantly kidnapped by the same villain and saved by a man who seems poorly, or not at all, experienced in combat and rescue. There are two key differences between the Princesses: Zelda speaks, and it is made clear why she is captured by the villain Gannondorf.

In the first game, speaking in terms of release date, The Legend of Zelda, the Princess is captured because she has broken up and hidden the magical relic called the Triforce. Gannondorf, Gannon in his demon form, kidnaps her in hopes of either torturing her for information on the location of the Triforce shards or holding her for ransom; again, hoping for information on the Triforce. Before she is captured, she sends her handmaiden, Impa, to find someone to help recover the relic and destroy Gannondorf. Impa comes across the hero, and playable character, Link.

All of the games in this series are set in the medieval country of Hyrule, so it is not a great leap of imagination to think that the hero is trained somewhat in swordplay; unlike the Super Mario Brothers series. Link also has a more extensive arsenal of weapons and magic items that Mario and Luigi. Throughout the game, his inventory becomes filled with different swords, shields, explosives and magical items to help battle Gannondorf’s minions and monsters. While it is true that Mario and Luigi can obtain magical items to fight Bowser’s minions, their main method of attack is to jump on top of the koopas. Needless to say, Link’s vast array of weapons makes it much easier to believe that he has a chance to stay alive long enough to reach Gannondorf himself and save Princess Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda was Nindendo’s first popularly successful attempt to bring the role-playing genre of games from pen-and-paper to electronic form. This forces game designers to put much more thought and care into not only the story of the game, but the way the game plays. To find all of the Triforce shards, Link must explore several dungeons, and once he has obtained them all, he is magically transported to Gannondorf’s dungeon on Death Mountain. After the final battle, Princess Zelda appears and thanks Link for repairing the Triforce and for saving her. Unlike the Super Mario series, Zelda does not reward Link with a kiss; just a simple, “Thank you, Link.” The kiss may be something that players had come to expect from the princesses they rescue. After all, Zelda was released only a year after Super Mario Brothers. The writer and designers, however, may have thought that it was reward enough to have completed the relic and defeated the demon Gannon.

It must be noted where Link finds Princess Zelda. Gannondorf has cloistered her away in a dank, dark dungeon in an area known as Death Mountain. This is a much more appropriate setting to find a captive; a far cry from the colorful, brightly lit and rather posh castle that Peach is hidden away in. Since The Legend of Zelda is a role-playing game, fans of the genre have certain expectations. Those expectations include having a dark, frightening dungeon to battle through in the last part of the game. By today’s standards, the graphics capabilities of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) are rather inadequate in portraying a truly frightening setting for the final battle, but with a little imagination, players definitely feel the suspense.

Princess Zelda’s behavior when she is rescued from Gannondorf is appropriate for someone who has been imprisoned for months, or perhaps even years; it is never made clear how long it takes Link to find all of the Triforce shards, but it is safe to assume that it takes a few months at least. Zelda does not smile and clap her hands like Peach, nor does she get excited in any way. Instead, she is quiet and reserved. Again, the graphics capabilities of the NES are rather primitive by today’s standards, but if the game were to be revamped for the Nintendo Wii, it can be expected that Zelda would show the blank, hollow stare characteristic of someone who has witnessed and suffered unimaginable horrors.

It is mentioned above that The Legend of Zelda is serially first. This is because that it is the first game released in this series, but it is not the first in the timeline. That spot belongs to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or just Ocarina of Time as fans of the games refer to it. It was released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64 (N64) game system, and has established what fans refer to as the “Split Timeline Theory,” and this theory is supported by Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator and director of Zelda, Super Mario and Donkey Kong.

According to Miyamoto, the progression of the timeline is as follows: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Legend of Zelda, The legend of Zelda 2: The Adventures of Link, and finally The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The split in the timeline is followed by The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, also released on the N64. There are other games in the series that build upon this established linear progression, and still others that are part of a separate timeline. While it is a confusing and rather convoluted idea, the Split Timeline Theory explains why Zelda is repeatedly captured by Gannondorf. The Split Timeline supports the idea that there are multiple Zeldas, sparing the Princess from the theory of poor mental health applied to Princess Peach.

With Ocarina of Time being the first in the timeline, players are given more information on the relationship between Gannondorf, Princess Zelda and Link, as well as the history and importance of the Triforce. The relic represents the balance between the forces of Power, Courage and Wisdom, and it is the key to a plane of existence known as the “Sacred Realm.” When a man or woman wishes to rule the Sacred Realm, he or she must be the embodiment of this balance, or the Triforce will split itself into pieces, embedding the shard representing the quality most valued by the potential ruler. The marked heir must then seek out the other two shards, which in turn have embedded themselves in people who most value their respective traits. The only way to unite the Triforce once more is to either form a triumvirate government between the three marked individuals, or to murder the other two and claim the shards for one’s own. This sets up the story for the game with Gannondorf possessing the Triforce of Power; Link, the Triforce of Courage; and Zelda, the Triforce of Wisdom.

Along with having an actual voice and a much more important role than her counterpart, in Ocarina of Time, Zelda finda another way to escape the perpetual cycle of capture and release. At one point in the game, Zelda disappears and players are introduced to the character Sheik. At first, there is something familiar about the tall, mysterious man, but it is difficult to pin down. Later, it is revealed that Zelda transformed herself into Sheik in order to protect herself, her kingdom and the Triforce from Gannondorf. By turning herself into a man, Zelda effectively removes herself, and almost all conflict, from the flow of the game. As Sheik, she can hide the Triforce of Wisdom from Gannondorf and protect her kingdom in ways she never could as Zelda.

While link is in the Sacred Realm, incubating and preparing for his battle with Gannondorf, Sheik wages a covert war against the invader, providing Link with hints and clues for using the Ocarina of Time and becoming a better fighter. In doing this, Sheik becomes a double place holder. He holds the place of Zelda and that of Link. While Princess Zelda is absent, there is a lull in the action of the game. The writers most likely did this to build suspense because the structure of having a villain and two heroes is so very different from the other Legend of Zelda games that came before it. Without a princess to capture or rescue, there is a stalemate in the overall conflict set up in the beginning. The action picks up in full force after Sheik reveals to Link that he is really Zelda in disguise. Immediately after transforming back into the Princess, Gannondorf invades the Temple of Time, kidnaps Zelda, and takes her to the Sacred Realm. By returning Zelda to her role as Damsel in Distress immediately after her transformation, Nintendo is sending the message that Zelda is not simply a helpless female, but she is helpless because she is female.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ain't she a Peach?

In 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Brothers on the NES console. In doing so, Nintendo created one of the most iconic characters of all time; Princess Peach. We all know the story: King Bowser kidnaps Peach. He hides her away in his main castle and Mario and Luigi have to risk their lives to save her and the Toadstool Kingdom.

But why?

It’s never made clear as to why she was captured or why she needs to be rescued. Indeed, players are never expressly told that the Princess was taken against her will. By freeing captives in the boss-level castles, receiving the persistent (and frustrating) message that the Princess is “in another castle,” players come to the conclusion that Peach was forcibly taken to the final castle by King Bowser. When the player finally comes in contact with Peach, they are greeted by a tall woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, clad in a pink, frilly dress. There are also no real signs of a struggle; Peach never shows any physical injuries or mental/emotional trauma. This makes the Princess either the most cooperative captive ever, or the victim of a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome. Princess Peach is kidnapped multiple times throughout the Super Mario Brother franchise, excluding Dr. Mario, the Warioland/Warioware games and the Mario Kart games. This begs the question of why the Princess wasn’t better protected, and why the national security of Toadstool Kingdom was left to a pair of plumbers.

Politics and mental disorders aside, Nintendo of America is most likely using Princess Peach to play to the Western myth of the “rescuing prince.” Presenting a delicate looking, demure woman in a perilous situation appeals to the more chivalrous, though misogynist, nature of the players, and makes them willing to play a game with virtually no plot; It is a hazy and vaguely noble goal for the players to work towards. It wasn’t enough for developers to simply place a generic princess in a far off tower; they show players a glimpse of a highly stylized picture of beauty that appeals to a wide audience. Though she is much taller than Mario, Peach does not threaten him in any way, and her frequent kidnappings give him and his brother, Luigi, a reason to stay in Toadstool Kingdom.


In their article, “Shirts vs. Skins: Clothing as an Indicator of Gender Role Stereotyping in Video Games,” Berrin Beasely and Tracy Collins Standley discuss the issue of game developers using clothing choices as a way to place characters in very specific gender roles. Super Mario Brothers is no exception to this trend. The perfectly styled blonde hair, large blue eyes and pink formal dress (along with her decidedly innocent and demure nature) place Peach firmly in the role of “Damsel in Distress.” She is depicted as both a victim of violence and ultra feminine. This combination renders her completely unable to free herself from imprisonment and take preventative measures to ensure her future safety. Peach is forced to rely upon two men whose professions give them little, if any, experience in matters of national security and search-and-rescue missions. But, since they are men, they are automatically more qualified for the task of rescuing Princess Peach and are guaranteed success.

Peach and Mario also appear in the arcade and console game Donkey Kong, which actually preceded Super Mario Brothers. The game follows much of the same pattern; Mario must save Peach from her monster captor, and again, players are not given any viable reason as to why the Princess needs saving. Indeed, players are not even told that it is necessary to save the Princess. A player is expected to navigate Mario through the warehouse, avoiding logs and flaming oil barrels to achieve the lofty goal of saving a woman from a vague danger.

Suppose the game were played from Princess Peach’s point of view. According to Joanna Russ, the story wouldn’t appeal to the wide audience Nintendo entertains. From the Princess’ perspective, Donkey Kong could be her protector rather than captor. She could have had him whisk her away from her home in order to escape the unwanted advances of Mario. Where the game Donkey Kong begins, the Princess and ape have become trapped at the top of a warehouse and Donkey Kong is throwing logs and flaming oil barrels in a final attempt to impede Mario’s progress, and ultimately kill him. After reaching their position, Mario defeats DK in a harrowing battle, which the game does not show, and forces Peach to submit to him sexually (the on-screen kiss). If thought of in these terms, Donkey Kong changes from innocent and fun to sinister and frightening.

Russ’ theory of gender-reversal storytelling would also shed quite a different light on Super Mario Brothers. Kong Bowser would fill much of the same role ad Donkey Kong, kidnapping her as part of an elaborate ruse for Peach to escape the confines of royal life in Toadstool Kingdom and the sexual/personal oppression of Mario and Luigi.

The many different “worlds” in the game would be seen as provinces of Koopa Kingdom. The multiple levels, each filled with legions of deadly enemies, seem to be designed to discourage Mario and Luigi from trying to find Peach. The same can be said about the many castles that must be conquered before arriving at Bowser’s main fortress. The Toadstool people that Mario finds along the way are really decoys to lead him away from Peach’s true location. But Mario has his own way of overcoming this obstacle.

After defeating the lesser bosses, coming across the large burlap sacks and finding them to contain a Toadstool, though some unseen, torturous interrogation, the Toadstool victim is forced to give the vague message, “I’m sorry, Mario! The Princess is in another castle!” Mario then runs off, leaving the broken and traumatized victim behind him. Following Russ’ theory, it is no longer a search-and-rescue game, but a battle for personal autonomy. This is why developers have the game played from Mario’s point of view. Super Abusive Relationship Brothers wouldn’t have sold nearly as well.

Throughout the series, and in later Mario iterations, Princess Peach becomes a playable character. However, she is rarely playable in a combat situation or in an adventure game like Mario and Luigi. She is also notably silent in the games. Of course, Peach leaves notes and clues around for players to din in some games, and she will giggle and gasp quite girlishly from time to time, but she never actually speaks. This suggests that Peach must still be considered an object; something pretty to look at, but not thought to be important, or intelligent, enough to contribute anything of use to the games. The lack of a literal voice keeps Peach form assuming a more important role in the series, and has doomed her to a live of spectacle and near obsolescence.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

We are here! We are here! We are here!

Women and video games. Two words that don't normally go together. At least, that's how things used to be. Today, women make up a substantial part of the gaming audience. As of June 2009, women made up 28% of console gamers and an astonishing 46.2% of PC gamers (Meagan VanBurkleo "The Gender Gap" GameInformer). Those are mind blowing statistics which beg the question: If women make up such a huge portion of the market, why isn't it reflected in the products? The short and overly simplistic answer: sexist stigma. Don't worry, I'm not going to get all preachy or go around trying to turn everyone into man-hating, super-scary ultra feminists. I'm just offering my observations and conclusions I've drawn.

Someone in the early days of mainstream gaming (somewhere around the NES era) decided that games should be marketed to kids. It made sense; games were often based on children's TV shows/movies and had juvenile themes. Very few catered to the 18+ market. At the same time, and probably by the same person, it was decided that young and adolescent boys were going to be the almost exclusive advertising targets.

Now we have to consider the kinds of games that were being made at the time to understand why that decision was made. Most of the games I remember playing growing up were platformers, shooters and some RPG/strategy games. Platformers like Mario and Sonic appealed to both genders: simple game play/goals, fast pace, bright colors, familiar characters. The others, especially shooters, were consumed almost exclusively by boys. Why?

Two words: evolutionary psychology.

Over hundreds of millions of years, the minds of men and women have been hardwired much differently. Men were usually hunters and needed to be able to navigate by sight, focus on details (tracks, blood, etc) and be able to mentally visualize their position. Women were often left behind while the men hunted so they were wired to gauge/anticipate emotions/reactions, handle social situations, and diffuse tensions.

Hmm...what does that sound like? Sounds a hell of a lot like Call of Duty and The Sims respectively.

Now we know why games were marketed to boys then. And now; especially with the staggering number of FPS titles being vomited out by AAA studios and indie developers alike. With the need to be able to read a map, focus on details and remember where you are/have been/need to go next, it seems that males were bred for gaming.

That's science, not sexism.

Well...yes and no. It's one part science, one part sexism and a huge heaping helping of laziness. Yes, evolution had molded men and women's minds differently, but these rules aren't hard and fast laws. I know several women (myself included) who are very good at reading maps and figuring positions, as well as a lot of men who are socially intuitive.

This evolutionary difference may be one of the elements contributing to the exclusion of women by advertisers and developers, but it's not the biggest. What it all boils down to is good old-fashioned laziness.

Think about it. Which sounds easier to turn into a game: a situation where players must track and neutralize a target within a large, spatial map, or a situation where players must follow several developing story lines centered around different characters in order to achieve a social goal or attain a higher level of emotional fulfillment?

If you said Option A, congratulations. You think like a modern gaming executive.

Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that Option B is impossible to translate into a game. Just look at Heavy Rain. I'm just saying it is exponentially more difficult and time consuming.

To make a shooter, developers follow a formula in the early stages of making the game. Establish a main enemy to be destroyed at the end. Introduce lesser enemies such as level bosses and hordes of cannon fodder. Place weapons and upgrades at strategic intervals and voila! You ship the next Halo or Gears of War in a matter of just a few years or even months (quality not withstanding).

Games like Heavy Rain are much trickier to make into effective and powerful experiences...let alone market. There were a lot of complaints that Heavy Rain is more like watching a movie that playing a game. Well...there's a reason for that.

Manipulating a social situation is as much about observation as it is interaction. think about it. Communication is much more than words. It's facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

Say you're at a party and you see two different women. One is standing at ease, smiling and speaking amicably to another person. The other is off by herself, body tense, shoulder hunched; her eyes watch everyone with suspicion and she hardly says a word. Which one would you be more likely to try and strike up a conversation with?

But it's not just visual and audio cues. There are infinite other, more subtle, nuances that contribute to the outcome of social/emotional manipulation. Atmosphere, knowledge, acquaintance, etc.

Those elements, combined with the difficulty of animating convincing expressions and body language, make it much more difficult to produce a game like that. Though, with Rockstar's new motion capture technology used in L.A. Noir, I can see developers taking tentative steps towards making more games that cater to the female psyche.

but what about women who enjoy shooters and other action games? where is their vindication?

Well, that's much easier to solve. Developers must work to include strong, independent female characters that resonate with women today. They must embody a relevance that will sustain them for years; a nobility of character that gives current and future generations of female gamers pride and satisfaction.

This must happen soon if the industry wants to avoid another crash like the one it suffered in '83-'84. Because most of the female characters that exist now are painfully insulting at worst, and shamefully shallow at best.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Money and Other Problems

*le sigh* I promised updates on my webseries "Gaymer Grrl Talks About..." and here's one...though it's not good news.

Due to financial troubles and time constraints this semester, I won't be able to do videos. However, with that being said, I still plan on posting what would have been the transcripts here.

The first in the series is just an intro to the state of women in videogames, the culture and industry. I'll have the post up some time this week, so check back often!

I want to stay with the trend of women in games (characters, storylines, etc.), but if you readers have ideas or anything in particular you want me to discuss, I'll be glad to hear it. :)

Just shoot me an email at gaymergrrl@gmail.com. Please put DISCUSSION REQUEST in the subject box so I know it's not spam. Also, if you have any information you would like me to add to a subject I've already posted on, feel free to email me about that too. Just put ADDITIONAL INFO ON [INSERT SUBJECT HERE] in the subject box. And if you have a question, just put QUESTION REGARDING [INSERT SUBJECT HERE]. And so on, and so forth. You guys get the picture.

I hope to hear what you guys have to say. :)

Monday, February 7, 2011

I'm not dead!

I apologize for the extended hiatus. I had a rough semester at school, and it made it difficult to maintain this blog. But, fear not! For I have returned with bigger and better ideas!

I'll be posting links and transcripts for my webseries "Gaymer Grrl Talks About..."

I'm still in production for the series, so I'll keep everyone posted.