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

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.