Is there such a thing as a blogger retweet? It's not quite cross posting, and it's not quite plugging something.

Anyway, all ya'all should go over to Concepts by Thomas van der Heiden, and check out his newest set of illustrations. They're character sketches for a pitch he and I worked on in the past. Good stuff.


Acting Without Acting

Though I haven't touched on it much recently in my writings, (aside from a few scattered comments about Super Street Fighter 4 on H. T. Parnell's) I've been thinking a lot more about some of the old discussions I've had about gender roles in games. The conclusion we seemed to come to, amid much discussion, is that there are two separate problems at play here:

First, the overall dearth of female characters in games, particularly ones that are portrayed as capable of engaging in the same activities as men with the same level of skill.

This strikes me as a larger umbrella issue that contains the issue of patriarchy that was brought up re: Super Street Fighter 4. Women are less common (in games) than men, because men are seen as the norm, so that the variation of including a female character is something that must be both explained and reigned in, as to not be too unusual. Addressing the overall problem may not address some of the co-morbid issues, but it's certainly a place to start.

Second, the overall dearth of emotional qualities that have historically been considered “female”.

This is particularly sticky, however, because by describing these as qualities as “female”, I am implying that they should be embodied, mostly, by female characters. Doing so would be the fastest way to solve the actual physical gender imbalance without actually helping the problem in any way. Not unlike trying to push for civil rights by giving a lot of work to Stepin Fetchit, and even then it'd probably be worse, cause there's something to be said for being the first African American actor to ever be given a screen credit.

Even discussing this issue is a little troublesome, though, because it's so easy to accidentally jump horses mid discussion, and to start discussing the specifics of people, as opposed to looking at platonic forms of female and male. That is, if you think that such platonic forms exist/are meaningful concepts. I tend to think they're helpful for discussions of narrative, but trying to prove that they are is clearly beyond the scope of this particular discussion. Suffice it to say that I believe that they are. Perhaps I'll diatribe about why at some point.

This issue is also difficult, because it's more insidious and subtle than the problem of “Over 80% of game characters are male”. This problem (as is the case with all problems of equality, if you get down to it) starts in the culture. America, and to some degree Western Europe (though less so) has always greatly valued physical prowess, self-determination, and the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps no matter what, even so much as to be to the detriment of qualities like endurance, intuition, and being conciliatory.

The real heart of this second problem is that games buy into a mentality in which a "male" way of acting is considered positive, and a "female" way of acting is considered negative or irrelevant. This is partially because of overarching cultural factors, and partially because games in particular have always been based almost exclusively on these traditionally "male" activities. So, before we get too deep into this, what the hell am I talking about?

In the Jungian sense (as well as the ancient Chinese philosophy sense), activity is considered to be an essential male characteristic, while passivity is considered to be an essential female characteristic. There's a valid epistemological question as the core of this, to ask whether “not doing something” can be a valid descriptor, but suffice it to say that Taoism, for one, sidesteps this issue entirely.

Taoism, which focuses heavily on the interplay of gender as amorphous characteristics, largely detached from any instantiation, believes that the essential female characteristic is “wei wu wei”, or “action without action”. The comparison is made to water, which, while soft and yielding, is capable of overcoming virtually any obstacle, and shaping things otherwise thought unassailable, like earth and stone. Taoism submits that the universe has a natural order, and that by acting in step with (and being lead by) the natural order, not only does one achieve more satisfaction, but one is also more effective at accomplishing their goals. (As a purely academic concern, it also proposes that this is the ideal way for everyone to act, but still identifies it as inherently female)

I'm not here to speculate about the truth of this theology, other than to say that I believe there is some non-zero amount of validity to this way of acting: action based on sensitivity to surroundings, and non-attachment to the results of said actions.

Whether or not these qualities represent something inherently “female” is an epistemological gender studies question that I have no interest in tackling. I am much more interested in the relative lack of these qualities, and others like them in games. For lack of a better term, and wanting to avoid overstepping the purview of this article, I shall refer to these qualities as “wei wu wei”.

A previous essay I wrote posited that most main characters of video games are extensions of the typical male action hero. Gears of War, Devil May Cry, Borderlands, Left 4 Dead. Even Gordon Freeman, while more nuanced, is basically that archetype. While trying to gender these characteristics is probably a mistake, we can all agree that the laundry list looks something like this:

Physical Prowess
Willingness to use physical force in order to accomplish one's goals (usually noble)
Courage and adherence to goals in the face of overwhelming odds

Plus many others, I'm sure. Don't get me wrong; these are all awesome characteristics. I really kind of enjoyed that Marcus Fenix and his squad getting swallowed by a worm the size of rhode island occasioned no more pause from him than “Well, then we gotta cut our way out!”

But characteristics like intuition, social graces outside of the context of manipulation, sensitivity to surroundings, nurturing, and willingness to stay in step with the natural order (or even fighting for the natural order) are all characteristics that are all markedly different than, or, in some instantiations, even directly opposed to, the list above.

The problem, as has been elucidated before, is that it's pretty easy to make a game about “you did this awful thing to me, so I'm gonna beat up you and all your cronies”. Making a game about building relationships, synthesizing disparate pieces of information, or achieving success by gaining immunity to the throes of gain and loss of daily life are all... a little less unclear. I think a game could be made out of these principles, but no one can submit that it would be less challenging to create than a beat'em up.

Now, if we're discussing real life, obviously a mix of all of these qualities are necessary to be a functional human being, but this is not so in games. The world of Gears of War is constructed so that Marcus Fenix needs to embody all of the action hero characteristics to succeed. The problem is partially the characters, where no one is creating characters that embody these wei wu wei characteristics, but it's also that before the characters even are introduced, the game mechanics and the story frame success and failure in terms of your ability to succeed at those very particular kinds of action hero tasks. When you get swallowed by a giant worm, it's undeniable that the appropriate response is to try and get out. To do anything else would mean failure of the challenge set before you.

And that's just the point: games are almost universally about events to which the only appropriate response is to be an action hero. Just putting in characters that embody this kind of wei wu wei thinking wouldn't do anything, because they would be monumentally ineffective, unless a conscious effort was expended to make it not so. This isn't because the action hero is the baseline, and variance must be accounted for, but just because that kind of mentality is so ingrained into the game industry.

This is to say nothing of the difference between valuing wei wu wei in story vs. valuing it in gameplay. JRPGs have done a decent (or at least the best available) job of emphasizing the value of wei wu wei in story, but at the end of the day, 70% or more of your interaction with the game consists of you fighting people for the purpose of ending their life or preserving your own. So you're left with a poor choice at the end: do I have a final confrontation that doesn't reinforce the message (the value of wei wu wei), or do I have a final confrontation that the player cannot meaningfully participate in? Obviously, the stakes of the fight are greater than just preserving your own life, but if the final victory is still won by the action of killing the bad guy...

Final Fantasy 6 errs on the side of the former: While you are fighting for the preservation of life, and the ultimate validity of human existence, Kefka can't be brought into the fold of Terra's quasi-Gaia worldview, and so needs to be fought and killed for the safety of the planet and its population.

Xenogears errs on the side of latter: While you fight and beat the boss, the planet is still more or less screwed until Elly steps in, who manages to save the day, ultimately by forgiving the villain, and making him understand the value of her worldview.

So... how can the action of “making someone understand the value of your worldview” be made into an engaging game mechanic?


Just a heads up...

For those of you southpaws out there, I just recently wrote a review for the Razer DeathAdder: Left Hand Edition for the Wowhead blog.

It can be found here.


I Shoulda Been A Mathematician...

(Comments continue on the post below. I encourage you to check it out.)

I've been replaying Xenogears recently (which I've already gone on about plenty in other posts), so I'll try to stay away from why I like it so much, but it made me realize something.

While I love it, I'm always reticent to describe Xenogears as a "good game". No one will ever tell you that it didn't have tons of problems: Low resolution sprites, the inability to speed through dialogue, repetative Gear Battles, the lack of a map, poor pacing, occasionally awkward dialogue, and the fact that they clearly ran out of money earlier than they expected, and had to drop half a dozen minor plot threads, just to name a few.

And yet, I still love the game, and have played it start to finish multiple times, despite it taking over 40 hours.

It seems to me that the issue of whether or not a game is "good" is kind of irrelevant. The only thing that matters is "Am I enjoying myself?", but this isn't really meant to be a treatise on the subjective nature of experience. Of course everybody reacts to, and therefore enjoys, different experiences to different degrees. I suspect, however, that everybody has a little mental dial regarding games, on which there is a zero point, under which a game is not worthwhile, and over which it is. Every game gets placed somewhere on that dial based on all the elements that make up a game (let's say story, gameplay, and style. Sure it's an oversimplification, but looking at that is for later), multiplied by some coefficient representing how much emphasis you put on those things at the moment, all of which is modified by some coefficient based on how many other demands (self-imposed or otherwise) you have on your time.

[A*(quality of story) + B*(quality of gameplay) + C*(quality of style)]*(Scarcity of time) > 0

is the formula by which you determine whether or not you're going to play a game. Of course, all of these are too difficult to nail down for a formula to actually be useful, other than perhaps a stylistic overlay for a bunch of game reviews.

What this points out, though, is that while the quality of a game is the quality of the sum of its parts, for some players (like myself), no amount of failure on some fronts can make up for truly exceptional story, gameplay, or style. I play Xenogears because the particular story they tell rates very highly on the "quality of story" spectrum for me, and I'm predisposed towards having a very high coefficent associated with narrative.

Likewise, I play Borderlands because the style column is through the roof, and solid multiplayer is a strong boost to the gameplay column. Without multiplayer, the lack luster to non-existant story means it just barely eeks in above the zero line.

I would describe myself as having a huge coefficient for story, a moderate one for gameplay, and a small one for style, with bonus points going towards stories that emphasize personal relationships and the fantastical as juxtaposed with low fantasy, as well as big bonuses for strong co-op multiplayer, and well tuned competitive play.

Or, in typical H. T. Parnell Fashion:

Story is the best
Things are better with your friends
Graphics can suck it

What about you?


The Coming Revolution

So, I've been musing a lot more on the topic of my last blog post: The lack of pushing narrative boundaries in games, and the more I think about it, the more I realize it reflects my general lack of satisfaction with most venues of the entertainment industry.

Seth Godin, in his blog, talks a lot about how the traditional ideas behind marketing don't work anymore. Spam, junk mail, and the like have become so intrusive, and privacy has become so scarce that in order to effectively market to someone, you must have their permission. (He even coined the phrase “Permission Marketing”) Likewise, he talks a lot about the benefits of having a product, service, or some other identifying characteristic that is worth talking about.

I know, of course, that railing against Hollywood and the derivative nature of most films isn't worth your time, but I'm starting to think that the entire system is broken.

Movies are expensive. They need to gross about three times as much as they cost to make in order to be a good investment. If I'm going to sink over a hundred million dollars into a movie (not in any way unreasonable), unless it grosses at least three hundred million dollars, I'm losing money. If it grosses only one hundred million, I've lost two hundred million dollars. It's hard to imagine a studio surviving that, and even if they did, anyone and everyone involved with the decision is going to get the axe.

Add in to this fact that I could pay 10 dollars for a movie ticket, another 10-15 for dinner, double that plus a babysitter if I'm a couple with kids, and I'm paying $60 to see a movie (and that assumes 10 for the ticket, which we all know is pretty generous). If I want to see “Up in the Air”, am I going to pay $60? Or am I going to wait 6 months, and get it from my netflix account for virtually free?

The best possible motivation for actually going to a movie theater is when it provides something you won't be able to get at home: spectacle. And with the advent of 3d TVs, that's under fire too. (This is not to say that movies in 3d are the only kind of spectacle, but for the moment, it's an easily identified one)

But all of this leads to a system in which studios need to be constantly trolling for the next huge smash hit, to pay for all of the movies they make that aren't smash hits. If you're constantly looking for the next big thing, and know that a wrong decision could cost you your job at the drop of a hat, which movie are you going to make? Something that's weird and new and edgy? Or something with an established IP that you know is going to bring in a decent number of people?

To some degree, I know that this is the way that it must work. Indie projects (be they games, music, movies, or any other kind of entertainment) are indie because they enjoy such a small market share. With money comes responsibility, and responsibility changes people. But I can't help but look at what's coming out recently, and go “Really? This is the most original stuff that Hollywood has to offer?”

Simply put, I think a crash is coming, and I, for one, welcome it. Just like Seth Godin proposes that the current paradigm of marketing (yes, I just legitimate used the word paradigm, pardon me while I punch myself in the face) is dying, I wholeheartedly embrace the (hopefully) coming breakdown and rebuild in the way movies are made and distributed. Hopefully whatever rises from the ashes is something that rewards creativity more than our current system.

Now if only we could push the game industry to the same place...