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The Other of All Game Protagonists

by Zen

Posted on Monday, December 7, 2015
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Two games came out on the NES with the same design goals, but with different inspirations.  Both games were open-world action games that emphasized the hero's gradual mastery over an environment, but while The Legend of Zelda attempted to capture the spirit of adventure of a young child playing in the woods Metroid was inspired by the solitude and anxiety of the film Alien.  Understandably, this led to two very different protagonists.  Zelda's Link as the chosen hero, guided by destiny to rescue his princess, is a trope that even as a child I couldn't stomach.  His rise to victory is pre-ordained, a series of formalities the game, like its world, is obligated to bestow.  Metroid's Samus shows up similarly under-equipped, and similarly unlocks the secrets of her environment to gain the power to achieve her goal, but the game inherited Alien's emphasis on its heroine's personal struggle.  Even after awkward world-building was forced into the series Samus retained her potency, her desperate strength.

Metroid 2's only indication
that Samus is a woman

It is mercifully mundane nowadays to note that Samus, like Ripley who inspired her, is a woman.  At the time it was something we talked about at recess.  "But the manual calls Samus 'he'!" Those of us who knew the code for her second quest (of course we couldn't beat the game ourselves), where the armor came off and her hair came down, knew the translators had just made the same assumption we had.  Seeing this made me think, probably for the first time, about where these assumptions came from.  But in the end Samus acted as a glorified peep show, rewarding the player with a flash of skin for completing the game quickly.  The positive impact of this representation was overwhelmed by objectification.

A few years ago I read a story about a man whose daughter loved playing Zelda games but wasn't interested in playing as another boy saving a girl.  He hacked the game script for Wind Waker so that it was a story about a young girl saving her brother, and it ended up working perfectly.  This is a really sweet story, one that highlights many of the imperfections to which "typical gamers" have the luxury of blindness.  There was a time I'd have sworn that gamers would cling to this anecdote as being indicative of video games' universal applicability, that the girl's desire to play Zelda at all meant vindication that games were more than mere focus-grouped novelty and had genuine cultural value, for everyone.  I now know better.

The backlash, in a smirking equivocation that has become all too familiar, came in the form of a version of Metroid hacked so that Samus is a man.  Neither hack was a high-profile event, but the audacity of this absurd rebuttal presages GamerGate's core tenet: that even one heroine is too many.  That young girls should stay out of the treehouse.

How powerups are acquired in Other M
This juvenile tantrum presaged something else: Nintendo itself rescinded Samus's heroic status, releasing a new Metroid game whose only purpose was to retroactively excise all agency, power, and courage from its once ground-breaking protagonist.  This game, Metroid: Other M, is the most aggressively sexist game I have ever played, made all the moreso by its determination to undo the barely-progressive "mistakes" of its forebears.  Its purpose was to reassure us that Samus, while she may have done cool stuff once, is ultimately nothing but a pretty vessel for male will, delirious with her desire to procreate.  Her newfound weakness illuminated a path of unconscionable derogation.

At the center of the most important moment in gamer culture right now is a series of videos made by Anita Sarkeesian on the representation of women in games.  A lot of nerds have responded with threatening vitriol, and while no video she could possibly have ever posted to YouTube justifies death and rape threats, I was somehow still surprised by how calm and careful her videos are. All she does is follow a trope from its origins in other media through the history of video games and then point out that, while these are mostly very good games that she can enjoy despite their problematic elements, those elements are still troubling enough to warrant attention and discussion.  It's the product of someone who clearly has a great love of the art form and wants to see it rise above its shortcomings.

For any element of the gaming community to react badly to this is confusing on many levels.  First are the obvious ones: I don't like to think about how people in our society could ever be this morally bankrupt, and that anyone could watch this video series and not only find fault with it but feel the need to make a "rebuttal" that attempts to invalidate rather than engage her points takes an uncomfortable degree of dishonesty and intellectual laziness.  What keeps me wondering, though, is how wrong I was about gamers' priorities: I have always known gamers to be so obsessed with the art form that they see as "theirs" that they want it to be all things to all people.  It isn't just that they like games, it's that games are the best.  It's that a higher class of people like games, smarter people who see the value in something the rest of the world doesn't understand.  There's a smug pretense about it all, and I always found this overcompensating myopia to be constitutive for gamer culture at large.

The controversy over Anita Sarkeesian, as well as GamerGate, highlight the shameful truth: that these gamers are more interested in abusing women than they are in video games.  Rather than wanting to see games eliminate those qualities that lead to justified derision, rather than shepherding a fledgling art form into true cultural relevance, they lash out at anyone who suggests they overcome their deep and protected bigotry.

Of anyone who still thinks this is an example of "boys will be boys", or of a vocal minority, I ask simply to consider the example of Samus Aran.  An already-problematic character, she nevertheless blazed a trail of representation that, if supported, could effect real change in how young boys are taught to think about women.  I have already written about the power this art form can have over the way that we care; to not only shout down any attempt to listen to women about how our art affects them but to find whatever meager sprig can grow in the wasteland of mainstream representation and pull it up by the roots represents a degree of hatred and willful oppression that nobody can afford to ignore.
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Preparing to Die

by Zen

Posted on Saturday, April 12, 2014
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So I last wrote about the problems that go with using zombies as the object of violence in a video game.  I was hyperbolic and self-righteous, but there's nothing in there I would want to take back, short of pointing you to some of the more recent research into the Kitty Genovese case that shows I maybe should not have used it as an example.  All the same, I'd like to talk now about one of very few games that actually does something interesting with zombies and undeath: Dark Souls.

The undead of Dark Souls are essentially ordinary people, but afflicted with a curse that gradually eats away at their memories of home and self.  The game is set in and around an asylum where the undead are sent in hopes of preventing the curse's spread.  Their ultimate fate is a violent madness, such that other undead serve as the game's foes as well as merchants and allies.  By far the most important thing about undeath in Dark Souls, however, is that it represents a real-world affliction that the game gives genuinely sweet and sincere perspective on: dementia.

There are two storylines in the first Dark Souls that I'd like to highlight.  Anyone who plans on playing the game should probably stop reading, since I'm going to spoil the ways one's interactions with these characters unfold.  While these aren't story spoilers in the usual sense, they're a part of why Dark Souls is a brilliant and challenging game and I recommend letting the game reveal itself to you naturally.

The first character on the list is Big Hat Logan, a ravenous scholar who has ditched his apprentice and keeps getting himself captured:
Initial meeting:
  Mm, you seem quite lucid! A rare thing in these times.
  I am Logan. I'm a bit cooped up, as you can see.
  I have a bright idea. Suppose you set me free?
  I'm old and empty-handed, but i could repay you with my knowledge, and sorcery.
  This place is melting my mind. The inactivity is repressive!

In the Duke's Archives, after rescuing him:
  A great pool of knowledge, the fruits of superior wisdom and an unquenchable desire for truth.
  Some would say Seath had an unsound fixation …But his work is a beautiful, invaluable resource.
  All progress demands sacrifice.
  And I certainly bear no antipathy for that wonderful scaleless beast.

After defeating the area boss in the Duke's Archives:
  Oh, there you are, it has been a while.
  Or were you just here?
  This fascinating place defeats my sense of time…

Then later:

Later still:
  …Who are you…
  …Stay clear…stay clear of my work…
  …Curses upon you!
  …How dare you disturb me!

After this you find his clothes in a heap, and if you search carefully you'll find him in another area of the archives running around naked.  He attacks you on sight, wild and paranoid.  The player has witnessed Logan's decline from celebrated intellectual to babbling fool, and there is no "good path" to take with Logan to prevent this fate.  It's a sad perspective on the fragility of intellect, where we witness perhaps the heaviest fall from greatness in the game.

But for me the most poignant story in Dark Souls will always be that of Siegmeyer of Catarina and his daughter, Sieglinde.  It's always been a heartbreaker, but when I sat down to write about it I realized it was even sadder and far more real than I had thought.  Siegmeyer is an undead adventurer.  He's friendly and good-natured, but not really up to the task of scurrying around Lordran getting into scrapes.  Time and again the player helps him out of a bind, and eventually comes across his daughter.  She's not undead, but she's come to Lordran to track him down and make sure he spends his remaining time comfortably instead of being a burden on others and getting into trouble.

Sieglinde is just as sweet and kind-hearted as her father, but when the player eventually comes across their reunion it's the aftermath of his inevitable decline: he has gone hollow, and it was up to her to put him down:

My father…all Hollow now…has been subdued. He will cause no more trouble.
It's finally over…I will return to Catarina.
You assisted us both greatly. I can hardly return the favour.
Oh, father…dear father…

Rather than leave him to his fate in the Undead Asylum, Sieglinde sought to look after her father herself.  When the time came for him, it was left to her to pull the plug.  This is the scene that rewards the player for helping Siegmeyer through all of his difficult troubles, and it's representative of the tone of Dark Souls in general.

Dark Souls 2 made a tiny change that drives these themes even further.  Instead of being called "Humanity", the item that returns the player to full human status is called a "Human Effigy".  Upon creating a new character, the player is not prompted to decide the character's appearance or background until Strowen the firekeeper bestows one of these, saying it is a doll made in the image of a famous adventurer.  She then says it is the player's image, and this is when appearance and background are decided.  The doll is in fact completely vague in appearance, but the act of trying to make it out as one's self allows one to recall one's own self by trying to project it on the effigy.  Instead of a magic soul item, it's a definite focus for "getting it together" and recovering one's sense of self.

A few years ago my father was diagnosed with vascular dementia.  It's been a long and gradual decline, full of worry and crisis and hard decisions.  The worst thing about it is that whatever hard decisions you make, and however correctly you make them, the result is the same.  The best you can sometimes hope for is to make him comfortable for a very slightly slower decline.  Most players won't even realize it, but Dark Souls forces these kinds of decisions.  At the end of the game it's up to you whether to prolong a misguided and exploitative source of warmth and life for a little bit longer or plunge the world into an age of darkness.  Fans still can't agree much on which is the "good ending", because there isn't one.

Ultimately, Dark Souls is far kinder to the player than it is to its characters and world.  Advertisements for Dark Souls 2 proclaim that it's not about death, but life and learning.  This is an optimistic spin, but not untrue.  As with all stories that dwell on themes of the inevitability of death, Dark Souls teaches us to hold on to what we love and make the most of our time.  It also brazenly confronts the fact that not all of us live out our days as ourselves, and sometimes we lose those things we cherish before our time really comes.

The undead aren't always cannon fodder, hellspawn, or an apocalyptic plague; sometimes they're our parents.
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by Zen

Posted on Tuesday, February 19, 2013
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Villains in video games are a troubling thing.  I don’t even mean villain characters like Sephiroth and Kefka, or anime conventions about saving the world from a malevolent ham.  Now that we’ve actually developed the medium to a point that moral questions become relevant, the question for all video game violence is: “Just whom, exactly, are we supposed to have fun killing?” Video games are generally violent and almost always supposed to be fun, and while most negative reactions to this violence are ill-considered and reactionary, I don’t think it’s responsible to neglect the issue entirely.  The fact is that we have found solutions to the problem of video game violence that are in many ways more socially dangerous than the problem itself.

It doesn't get any easier than this.
Nazis, for example, are the ideal antagonists: they’re never the underdogs, they’re maximally white, they fought to build a fascist empire that committed one of the most appalling genocides in human history, and they lost the war.  It is a convenient moral loophole that a fighting force existed who were so ideologically repugnant that any act committed against them could be considered, at worst, justice.  Over and over again the victory pornograph played for us, until Nazis became cartoonish impossibilities.  Instead of a terrible lesson about unchecked nationalism, instead of an illustration of the tendency toward racial scapegoats in the face of poverty, we have Snidely Whiplash and his Silly Accent Brigade.

After too much of this we risk feeling sorry for them.  So once the buzz of moral superiority wears off and the crass repetition is impossible to ignore, whom do we kill?  Monsters and aliens were always fair game, of course, but those can still be conceived as having rights and morals.  Self-defense takes some writing to make plausible, too, and you always risk the audience identifying with the people he or she is slaughtering.  This is where horror films supplied the next step, and it is my position that despite its grounding in kitsch and classic horror the zombie is as morally problematic as any human antagonist, and probably more so.

There are thousands of games that are just this.
It’s not just that Zombies are a lazy device, or that there is only a small number of stories you can tell that include them.  The problem is that zombies are such a forced black-and-white morality, the nuclear option of unsympathetic antagonists, that people who are specifically into them as a genre are probably sociopathic.  Nothing about them is particularly interesting, so the only exceptional characteristic they have is that you can laugh and smile as you shoot them or blow them up.  Or set fire to them.  Anybody who is, as a rule, a fan of anything with zombies in it is probably just a fan of setting people on fire.  The very thing that made Zombies terrifying in early horror (their lack of moral agency) has made them a flashpoint for contemporary disaffected blood lust.

It’s like that scene at the beginning of Bad Boys II (yeah, we’re doing this) where the heroes are performing a drug bust, but there’s no reason for the audience to care that these people are doing drugs.  They’re having a party in the woods, and happen to be popping some pills.  Is this gunfight going to be a thrill ride?  What if someone in the audience has ever done a drug and it wasn’t a big deal?  Well, what if we also make them members of the Ku Klux Klan?  Problem solved, fire away!

A 2000 Penny Arcade strip that almost makes a point.
It’s a mostly unspoken rule these days that it’s okay to hate anybody who is a member of any form of the Nazi party, or the KKK, or is a pedophile.  That’s probably fine, since those are some spectacularly terrible things.  It should not be okay, ever, to delight in their being the victims of indiscriminate violence.  And here is where the problem has turned itself around.  We needed a scapegoat, an easy target that wouldn’t make us uneasy.  But now that very desire has revealed itself as reprehensible.  In this way Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are no different: one has virtual innocent victims and one has virtual victims that are sanctioned by the community, but both revel in the violent act itself.

The common theme is one of dehumanization, and it’s a serious problem.  The fantasy of video games, the escape from reality they provide, is that nobody in them is a real human being.  Once a person becomes accustomed to looking at people this way, the danger is developing a solipsistic lack of concern for one’s fellows.  I would like to make, or at least see made, a game that explicitly reinforces this tendency.  Thus made concrete, we will have the opportunity to confront it.

In this game the player will commit no violence, witness no shocking images, and be exposed to absolutely no sexual content of any kind (in fact, this lack of agency and exposure is the goal itself).  The game is set in a nondescript New York apartment, which should be fully interactive.  There is a television with compelling dramas playing, a newspaper, Monopoly, and other everyday distractions.  The player can make coffee, order pizza, call a friend, etc.  The only remarkable thing about the setting is that outside, in an alley, Kitty Genovese is being murdered.  If the player tries to interfere, call the police, or even look outside then he or she loses the game.

Kitty Genovese
This is not a murder simulator (per se - it is, arguably, a second-person murder simulator), and it won’t train anybody to become violent, yet it is perhaps the most base and monstrous game imaginable.  What it will train is a lack of concern for other human beings.  It is the worst kind of role play, explicitly encouraging the player to not help anyone, ever.  To this end, care must be taken in ensuring that the player is never ignoring the game itself, but instead focused exclusively on the task of ignoring the atrocities that occur within the game (for example, if the player is idle the game will automatically start toward the window or the phone, forcing the player's hand).

Jack Thompson once proposed that no video game developer would dare make a game about killing video game developers, since they would be training their own murderers.  Thompson assumed that video games so perfectly aped human experience that a player would find himself confused about what was real and what was the game.  Whatever apprehensions one has about games and technology, it's flatly evident that no such confusion exists.  I want to emphasize that the game I propose here is very different, because even though the murder in the game is a mere simulation of a real-life event, the player's active ignorance of it is real.  Part of the threat, too, is that once a person sees, face-to-face, the victim of a savage beating who is in danger of being murdered, involvement is inevitable.

The real murder of Kitty Genovese, as told and retold in college classrooms of every discipline in the humanities, was made possible because everyone who could have helped her was able to ignore the sounds and suggestions of her fate that reached them.  While these indicators are more urgent and real than anything we encounter in a video game, they nevertheless can be desensitized even where an encounter with the murder itself can not.

Ultimately, whether the target of your simulated violence is a simulated Nazi or a simulated game developer or a simulated woman in an alley, we have to have our debate about violence in games in a way that ties into the things about them that aren't fantasy, aren't simulated.  We have to wonder why we want to pretend the things that we pretend.  Video games aren't going to train us to do anything other than the things we're already inclined to do, but they can have a more powerful effect on our ideas about race and sex than any film or book ever has.  They can also have an effect on our ideas about humanity itself, and threats to the way that we care are considerable indeed.  I don't think we're going to prevent any real-life violence by preventing simulated violence, but we can maybe hope to exert some control over our apathy, and that's a start.
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Poverty as Art

by Zen

Posted on Thursday, September 8, 2011
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Several months ago the National Endowment for the Arts announced that it would be expanding its definition of art to include video games. There was a lot of predictable confusion about what this meant, but now that the storm has subsided I'd like to take a look at some of the truly positive things we might see as a result of this.

The fact that it's now possible for authors of video games to receive federal grant money has fascinating possibilities, not least of which is the divorce of game development from the corporate bottom line. NEA grants are available only to non-profit organizations, which means more or less that money is available only to authors more interested in making games than in making money. The paradigm of the starving artist has been missing from video games, instead represented by the risk-taking entrepeneur. When you hear "video game exhibition" you think of a trade show like E3 instead of an art exhibition. And while I believe it should be possible for artists of any sort to make some proper money doing what they love, the only way to keep it from staying merely a business venture is to make it somewhat impractical.

Thus far we've seen publishers trying to fill a double role. A field like video games can only advance if boundaries get pushed, and companies need this advancement to compete. This is why Namco has anything like a Digital Hollywood Game Laboratory, and why they would give Keita Takahashi a million dollars to "proactively ignore" corporate marketing instincts and make a game like Katamari Damacy. But that story more resembles a gifted engineer producing an inventive patent from the lower levels of a company than an artist setting up a work of art within or against a particular culture. It's unheard of for the artists to not intersect with the industry, but that intersection has at least managed to change in recent years.

This change has enabled small companies to get their games released on a global scale without signing all of their intellectual property over to the publisher. This appears to be the arrangement that Jenova Chen (né Xinghan Chen) has with Sony, who have contracted him for three games to appear on the Playstation 3, two of which (Flow and Flower) have been released already. Chen has repeatedly shown a willingness and desire to give up the easy, profitable path for more artistically fulfilling work. He co-founded a company called Thatgamecompany (TGC), which he indends to keep small and personal, and he gave up a secure position at Maxis to do so. They've apparently made action games that follow traditional formulae internally, and these games were allegedly quite promising, but Chen says he decided not to spend his time on anything that wasn't pushing him creatively.

All of this is just marketing, of course, if the games don't show this personal touch. His newest project, Journey, promises to live up to this talk by alienating most core gamers. It's an online game that seeks to remove all of the convenient chatter from the online experience. No gamertags, no voice chat, no text. All the players get with which to interact are a unique identifying mark (so that you know if you've played with that person before), a shout, and one's actions within the game world. The goal of the game is to traverse a vast desert and reach a mountain on the horizon, but the reasons and the method are left unstated. The players are supposed to work toward that goal, either together or independently, and presumably the story will become more clear as they do so.

What excites me about this project is the attention to how players interpret the actions of others in a video game. Anyone who follows professional Starcraft has seen how playing a game can be a form of expression, but most online games do little more than provide a list of canned animations and phrases. Starcraft's example is that the game itself ought to be enough, and the question is whether an inteface on the PS3 can allow for expressive gameplay rather than relying on a layer of menus and XBox Live features to pretend that anything like communication is happening.

Emmanuel Levinas, a 20th-Century Jewish philosopher who worked hard to develop an ethics out of the work of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, concentrated on the "face-to-face" of human interaction. For Heidegger this meant a recognition of the other as being fundamentally the same as oneself, but Levinas went further. He said that when one encounters the other there is always already a responsibility for the other, and that this innate commandedness is fundamental to any such experience. Every human interaction, then, is already a response.  Furthermore, it is this act of being "singled out" by the other that establishes one's own identity.  That's right: "face-to-face" interaction with others is fundamental to our being in that the gaze of the other establishes us in our being.

I'll try to leave the explanation of Levinas to just that, but outside the context of philosophy it seems a relatively odd claim. In context it's clear just how bold a claim it is: that such relations, such responsibilities, are the primordial foundation of all human interaction. More to the point, it is the experience of being faced with another person that allows us to recognize our own personhood.

So far online gaming has built its social elements by making chat programs bleed down from above into the games, but a project like Journey promises to start from scratch, making us interact in ways that are similarly primordial for a video game. That is to say, reducing our social gaming experience to the initial revealing made possible only through gameplay itself. My hope is that this will make it possible to have an online game without a "gamer culture", letting us discover for ourselves what playing a game together really means.

Anyone who played Ico has experienced the prototype of this experience: Yorda was a character within the game world whose plight was the same as the protagonist's, and as the player one couldn't help but feel that connection by proxy. But Ico only shed light on how far video games have to go: ultimately the character players felt kinship with was a mess of pre-scripted weakness and extremely convincing animation. Once the façade breaks down, once the glass darkens and the player recognizes the experience for what it is, this interaction becomes tiresome and irritating. The great promise of a project like Journey is for us to experience Ico's fellow feeling on a truly human level, one that never reduces to rote interactions. As a commercial enterprise, the odds are against this project's success.

The core ideas behind Journey are, to me, a breath of the freshest air. The question marks that plague the game all have to do with everything we haven't heard: how the gameplay is actually going to keep people working together for an extended period, and how the game is going to make its multiplayer experience last more than a week after its release. My fear is that TGC is going to undermine itself by removing all of the traditional or comfortable elements from its game; without the hook of engaging and satisfying gameplay--elements of game design that Jenova Chen apparently considers himself to be above--to hang it on, all the audacious and brilliant social commentary in the world isn't going to make a mark on the industry. Which is probably fine, because the industry would only have learned all the wrong lessons from it anyway. But this brings me back to the point I started with: that sometimes the industry is better served by an unprofitable, audacious disaster than it is by another blockbuster hit. Maybe in the next few years some new artists can get just enough grant money to push the boundaries of what video games can and should do, and the lack of executives looking over their shoulder is going to let them do just that.
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