Friday, December 2, 2011

Kotaku and Getting Men Sexy

For those who didn't hear the cry of the internet when my two recent pieces went up, I was a guest writer at Kotaku with "Why I Don't Feel Welcome at Kotaku." I shared with the editors and commenters why I don't frequent Kotaku anymore and how I feel there has to be a fundamental ideological shift before I do. In hopes of Kotaku continuing to be a good example of change in the gaming community, I am trying to work with them to make it more friendly to minorities of all sorts. Unfortunately, I had to put up my moderation here at my blog because I did get hateful comments, though it was mostly because I didn't want the random porn a determined Kotaku-ite wanted to share with me. Except a summation and reflection of my interaction with Kotaku within a week.

My second piece was a Moving Pixels blog called "On Men's Sexualization in Games." To anyone aware of gender and body politics in games, its common knowledge men are rarely, if ever, sexualized in video games. I decided to be a little playful and speculate on how we could actually sexualize men in media, because, well, maybe I want some man-service too? As well, it can make artists aware of how they are sexualizing women without realizing it, and remove that gaze when creating female characters. Head over to the cross-post at Gamasutra if you want to see how the average poster is trying to wrap their head around it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Meet Me at the Rendezvous" - An Audiosurf Playlist

I put together a quick playlist for any Audiosurf players to experiment with what goes into making such a thing. So your feedback helps! I had fun doing this and had a story in mind when arranging the list. See what you get from it!

1. Air - La Femme d'Agrent
2. Amon Tobin - Slowly
3. Bonobo - Kiara
4. Bajofondo - Grand Guignol
5. Badmarsh & Shri - Bang
6. Goldfrapp - Voicething
7. Daft Punk - Aerodynamic
8. Moby - Rafters
9. The Seatbelts - Goodnight Julia


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Update - November 20th, 2011

So this week I've put out two noteworthy pieces this week:

Over at Moving Pixels, and later cross-posted at Gamasutra, I wrote about the politics of accents in "Speaking in Accents and the American Ethnocentrism in Video Games." Most of my response has been through Gamasutra, where the commenters are fixated on "practical" matter that fails to cover up how much ethnocentric thinking has ingrained itself into the community. What's interesting is there isn't a challenge to the ethnocentrism, but rationalizations of how it's not a bad thing. Instead of looking at how we as an industry could view the meta of our game production when viewing something like voice acting, people are caught up in logistics and how they prefer American voice acting rather than voice acting from other countries. I think they are too scared to look into what it means for video games to see the American gamer and perspective as the "neutral." I wish I had more comments from non-American gamers.

And if that wasn't enough rabble, there's a lot of surrounding my "Open Letter to Kotaku's Joel Johnson," which is response to his "Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku." I'll save more commentary for after a couple more pieces of material surrounding this topic gets published, but here are some reaction to my letter:  Richard Goodness at Second quest felt my response "lacked teeth" and Jen Frank at Infinite Lives wants a distinction between the person and their job's role. Sit on that for a while and I'll do my own reaction soon.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why You Should Give 'Dragon Age II' a Second Chance

My debut post about Game Criticism and Dragon Age II is up at Moving Pixels!

Why You Should Give 'Dragon Age II' a Second Chance

The Border House Podcasts

I am now the host of the bi-weekly podcast over at The Border House. We talk about diversity issues in games, and hope to find some solutions to common problems dealing with gender, sexuality, race, disability, and other identities in the gaming community and industry. Here's what's been done so far:

Episode 1: Lewd-onarrative Dissonance

And I also started doing interviews of those in game development. Here's the first of hopefully more to come:


Sorry everyone for the lack of posting, but it seems like I got myself a lot of work! Little original work will be posted here, but I will easily direct you all the places my writing is featured! For ease, here is where I'm working presently:

The Border House

Game Critics

Moving Pixels at Pop Matters

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

Spoiler Warning for the Dragon Age Series.

Topics about social minorities in video games typically manifest in the relationship humans have with other sentient characters of their world or universe. Games often present humanity as space-warfaring Americans or in a setting reminiscent of feudal England, making the “Other” someone of a different species or robot of some sort, since contemporary minority rights don’t exist in these situations. Games haven’t produced a sizable amount of characters that make their cross-species (like Half-Elves) or cyborg identity important to the theme or action, effectively cutting out a large portion of already scant analysis on multi-racial and transgender politics in games.

Passing narratives, the experiences of a multi-racial or transgender character in relation to the identity society views them as, in media appear in LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg,” citing cyborg characters from films as expressions of anxiety over miscegenation. While the popular imagining of cyborgs are part human, part machine beings, the mages from the Dragon Age series act as a high fantasy response as part human, part spirit characters. Mages can receive equal treatment if their mage status is unknown; however, once revealed, they are treated with skepticism, good or evil, a practitioner of blood magic or not. Most of the mages that travel with the Warden and Hawke live passing as human while managing their cyborg identity. Using Nishime’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Mulatto Cyborg” structure, Dragon Age 2 shows a successful beginning of representing multi-racial and transgender politics.

The Good Mage

Elsa, Knight-Commander Meredith's assistant.

The Good Cyborg is the tragic figure trying to become more (white, cisgender ) human, but still outcast by society. In Dragon Age: Origins, the player encounters Tranquil mages, who celebrate their disconnection from the Fade even though it came at a high cost. Many mages volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, as a self-loathing mage can be convinced to do in the mage starting section of Origins. The plight of the good mage rests in the essentialism of society; once born outside of the standard, one could never hope to achieve the status of a “true” human. The Tranquil are often put into positions of servitude and practical application that mages are absent from, now seen as acceptable and safe to interact with other humans. The player’s interaction with one such Tranquil shopkeeper broaches the topic of humanity, implying the general assumption of the Tranquil being less than human and mage. As Nishime puts it, the Good Cyborgs are nostalgic for something that never existed for them, and can only occur inside their own minds. It is telling that taking away the mage’s connection with the Fade and spirits takes away what is mage-like about them, and leaves something other than human as a result.

The Bad Mage

Jowan using blood magic, to the surprise of everyone involved.

These mages confirm the suspicions and accusations made against their kind by the Templars and Chantry. How the player encounters them is telling: the main character battles demons and blood mages, many in scenes of destruction and rebellion. Dramatic cut scenes depict the use of blood magic and demonic transformation than any other type of magic, mirroring the unmasking of the Bad Cyborgs in films like The Terminator. They embrace dealings with demons and any grab at power that their magic affords them. Rejecting humanity by attacking it, Bad Mages resonate with the fears our culture has of identities that defy binaries. Dragon Age 2’s Meredith plays on this anxiety by highlighting the mages’ ability to hide amongst the populace and strike down the everyday person, very similar rhetoric to opponents of minority rights. This also places value in being purely human, with anything different on the path to taint that purity. Nishime observes the only way towards redemption for Bad Cyborgs and Mages alike: total sacrifice and submission. Meredith acknowledges this sacrifice near the end of the game, but forces it on the mages, seeing the “people” of Kirkwall the real victims, not the mages. Juxtaposed in this manner, mages are second-class humans without all the rights that come along with being human, even if they are well behaved.

The Mixed/Trans Mage

Anders overtaken by Justice.

Instead of looking to pass as completely human or of the Fade, the Mixed/Trans Mage embraces their hybridity and shapes their circumstances to fit their identity. These characters disturb and confuse onlookers by occupying a space that lies outside of the binary of good and bad. The progressive tone of the Dragon Age series arises from the many Mixed/Trans Mages the player can encounter, namely Morrigan, Anders, and Merrill. Mage-skeptical characters, such as Alistair, Fenris, and Aveline, are bewildered each time they attempt to apply the Good/Bad Mage mentality on them only to hear a rebuttal traversing into a gray area. Much like multi-racial and transgender people in reality, these characters manage their lives under the pressure to pass as standard while typecast as the bad cyborg and avoiding the fate of the good one. They often talk to the player as a teacher or from an enlightened viewpoint of someone who sees the social construction of being human and a mage. What is confusing to both Dragon Age’s society and our own is the perceived hubris of the Mixed/Trans Mage; why are these people being so loud? Who are they to disrupt the natural order of things? Why do we have to change for them? The struggles Anders and Merrill fight to achieve their identity-driven objectives while negotiating respect with their party members and evading Templars successfully speak to passing and identity issues for multi-racial and transgender people.

Identifying the Mixed/Trans Cyborg/Mage amongst the numerous Good and Bad ones serves as a tool for not only reading multi-racial and transgender topics in games, but also creating successful minority characters overall. Development teams need more encouragement to include these identities and their issues in games; revealing and discussing passing narratives will lend material for more diverse game characters.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Your Somewhat Weekly Gaming Digest - September 30th, 2011

This Somewhat Weekly starts off with a conversation churning through game critics' barracks started by Michael Abbott's "Game's Aren't Clocks". Kate Cox takes Abbott's core issue and explores what he most likely wanted to avoid; "What are games? How can we define them?" "Win, Lose, or Fail" isn't there to be catchy, but to set up the dilemma this particular discourse has in defining what games are. Cox makes an interesting claim to center the concept of a game around success and failure states specifically, where others would muddle around in rules and game mechanics. I was glad to lend a hand in complicating her stance, which she deftly used to strengthen her argument to a point I find it hard to disagree (and I'm the first one out the room or in the middle of a brawl when it comes to definitions of any sort).

Line Hollis then joins in with another angle, looking at the player to help define the experience going on. In "Players are Planners," Hollis picks up on the player-determined aspect of Cox's article and runs with it in another direction entirely, defining a game by how a person interacts with it. The crux comes down to the capacity of an object to be malleable and allow the participant to change it and detect their changes. This will send the discourse bucking as game mechanics are the tools to mediate and prompt a player to plan, but this isn't the argument most ludologists would make. Definitely worth a read.

Speaking of definitions, Fraser Elliot wrote up a good piece on the somewhat known game in development, Spy Party. I'm including it because I hope for a reimagining of what multiplayer is and can do in games. The details are best explained in the article, but my optimism hopes for a more diversified multiplayer experience that doesn't rely on war tactical knowledge and aiming skill with a mouse or controller. We all have more skills than how to kill someone digitally, so I hope others take the cue from Spy Party and start creating more of those games!

Moving on to some game-specific criticism, The Border House has a great article up now by Denis Farr taking a critical look at 'ally' politics in Half-Life 2. "Anti-anticitizen One" frames the player's experience and Gordon Freeman's role as the ally to the socially oppressed, creating a great metaphor about a subject difficult to explain. Farr focuses on the story's aspects one may look over, away from "Gordon saving the world" to "Gordon helping Eli and Alyx save their world." Being a silent protagonist and MIA for so long, the world of Half-Life 2 isn't really Gordon's, though he gets the most credit and recognition for the success at the end. I suggest playing the game again with Farr's interpretation in mind, it's powerful.

While Gordon's hero status is spread to the rest of the cast, Alex Raymond tosses Dragon Age 2's Hawke's hero status altogether. "A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains" taps into how the game removes the typical privileges a player has, like always saving the day, to create depth to the character drama. Many players are upset they cannot choose an option that will stop disaster, but this design decision is effective in shaking the core of player, making them feel something for the characters and events of the game because they weren't based on arbitrary decisions made by the player. Previously a strong critic of of Dragon Age 2, Raymond's perspective showed me how much I overlooked and took for granted; another piece to read before another replay.

There are many attempts to explain away Catherine's... problematic representation of gender and relationship, but I particularly liked David Carlton's personal blurb on feeling separated from Vincent and viewing the dissonance as an attempt to do the opposite of what most storytelling mediums want to do. Carlton describes in "catherine" a critique specifically aimed at Vincent that doesn't involve the player establishing empathy, which feels more honest than other critic's defenses of Catherine.

We'll look at some reactions that continue to happen in relation to Catherine that definitely fail to rationalize the gender politics to wrap up this weekly. Emily Short writes up a good summary of gender issues others have written about, but with a personal edge that makes it feel a little more real in "Analysis: Atlus' Catherine and Gender Stereotypes." It's a good read for those who haven't looked into the problems in the game, but I want to focus on the comments to the article, that I congratulate Short for suffering and handling well. In short, my reaction finds Catherine more of a trip-up than a success, because when the vast majority of games have critical gender issues, another game that uses gender stereotypes but doesn't do anything progressive with them fails to be a satire and tongue-in-cheek. Catherine would be more successful if video games didn't have its issues with gender, because the farce would be genuine and not rely on the tropes of a misogynist, heterocentric culture.

And that's about it; until next time, happy gaming!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ludonarrative Resonance

How does all this fit into a game?

Games and narratives seem to have a contentious relationship within gaming discourse; what is a game and should we read them as a narrative? What is a narrative and when does it belong in a game? Thankfully, I don’t care about these questions, as they are disguised methods of drawing lines in the sand. The how’s are much more interesting: How are narratives important to games? How does narrative fit into game design? How do games communicate narratives? How narrative originates from the game design is a rather abstract concept; in fact, most games that zero-in on ludonarrative game mechanics are thrown into the “art game” category, though all games could successfully strive for ludonarrative resonance.

Any familiarity with design will be helpful in understanding a vague statement such as “narrative grows from the design and echoes the game mechanics,” which would be in a defense of narrative in games. The elements of game design work in the same way elements of other mediums do; good design arises when elements echo their alignment to the surface aesthetic received by the viewer. Take the opening stanza to “The Raven:”

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
" 'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door

     Only this, and nothing more." (Edgar Allen Poe)

Poe didn’t just throw together words to tell the reader what was happening, but chose words that reflected the aesthetic of what was going on. For example, he used multiple gerunds to simulate the action within the story; all those rappings and tappings (as well as a napping and nothing) form a rhythm that would have the reader easily imagine the acoustics of someone knocking on a door, or window as we come to find. As well, in good Poe fashion, words that conjure feelings of the macabre and supernatural appear to set a tone without directly saying, “this is a supernatural event!” Without diving into elements like meter, the placement of every word, especially in relation to one another, makes up the design and is incredibly important to the aesthetic of the poem. This all may seem esoteric concerning games; however, artists of their particular field and the enthusiasts who consume it often are sensitive to these elements and interactions, extracting more meaning and enjoyment from a well-designed piece. This could easily apply to game designers and gamers, who are already aware of game design just by the amount of games they play.

How does this relate to games and narratives? Imagine narrative as the aforementioned repetition, diction, or meter for game design; it can strengthen and give meaning to what the player directly experiences. It gets trickier to understand with games because they add in the dimension of interactivity, and players experience the game design strongest through interaction. Let’s start with how we receive narrative in games currently; in Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, a perspective on how narrative appears in a game divides it into embedded narrative and emergent narrative. Embedded narrative is how we commonly think of narrative in games, immutable and shown to the player without their control. This often appears as cut-scenes, dialogue, encyclopedic entries, to give context to the player. This is comparable to exposition in fiction, as it is relied on to give meaning to the actions and conflicts the player will encounter. We can often use literary critical analysis to dissect embedded narrative because there is little unique to it other than being appropriated by a video game (though, this does factor into the interpretation). There is a heavy emphasis on the embedded as anything narrative tends to occur near the end of production. Emergent might be familiar as it is a common buzzword the game media and developers use to put focus on unintended, player-driven content. Narrative rarely acts in this manner because it needs narrative design to happen early in development, or happen at all. Emergent narrative acts similarly to a reader going over the ‘rappings’ and ‘tappings’ of Poe’s poem, as the connection between the rhythm and diction is implicit and is figured out by the reader rather than informed directly from the surface narrative.

Using the perspective of embedded vs. emergent narratives, I will attempt to show ludonarrative resonance, when the emergent qualities echo and strengthen the embedded narrative (or the overall design). My current stance assumes most games do not exploit emergent narrative to strengthen its design, and that a stronger focus on emergent narrative will result in a sturdier outcome. The intent isn’t to diminish the function of embedded narratives, but show that all we are doing is relying on the embedded when the emergent can add a considerable amount of depth. In fact, Jason Rohrer’s Passage flips this around and has the player drawing from the emergent narrative to extract meaning from their experience. Games like this are often tagged as ‘art games’ as the minimalist style allows mechanics to shine without much artifice piled on top. As such, Passage will give you a feel of an ‘art game,’ however I think it is an attempt to have the player engaged on a cerebral level that doesn’t involved being ‘addictive’ or ‘entertaining’ as these terms are conventionally used. That being said, spoilers for the game are up ahead, and seeing that the game will only take minutes of your time (you can play through two or three times in about ten or so), play it and see if you caught what I’m observing in relation to emergent narrative.

The characters and path of Passage.

Passage needs emergent narrative to make any sense; the embedded narrative is scant at best. You have control of a man who can travel across the screen (mostly right) and around objects. Eventually, he meets a woman to fall in love with, and she travels in front of him the rest of the way. There are some treasure-chests further on and the characters visibly age as the past and future of the path ripple on the sides of the screen. After a certain amount of time (possibly measured by steps), his partner dies and then he does, with the title “Passage” fading in on the screen. Just from this description, a player would miss large chunks of the game relating to the passage of one’s life that rests in the emergent gameplay. The player comes to understand what the game is commenting on when they realize they are unable to navigate the map easily because of their partner, missing treasures that they would easily be able to get themselves if they went solo. This feeling is strengthened on subsequent playthroughs when the player realizes they only have a certain amount of time until both characters die, and that the clear, unobstructed path at the top of the screen yields no treasures or entertainment, just a march to their deaths. There can be multiple interpretations of this game, however very little of the meaning comes from the embedded narrative. Passage is also a good example about how the narrative can be a part of the overall art direction, as players receive narrative elements by the changing landscape and the shift of a preview of the path to the reflection.

This isn’t to say Passage is the pinnacle of gaming or did everything right. Rather, it is doing something more games could; this is particularly pertinent to RPGs as they explore opportunities to engage the player with the narrative. As this game displays, complete player freedom and authorship isn’t necessary for an emergent narrative to work, or are limitless dialogue options or character customization. Linking this to a previous article, “An Apology for RPGs,” figuring out how to create meaningful gameplay when engaging the player with the emergent narrative would reconnect digital RPGs with involving the player with the narrative. Emergent narrative can appear in battles, exploring, dialogue, and many more instances than I can imagine up here. In addition, taking away the reigns from the embedded narrative and relegating it to context will thin out a lot of the unnecessary exposition and other weak storytelling attempts at instilling any sort of feeling in the player. Using the emergent narrative takes advantage of the digital medium by having the player parse through the feelings that arises through their experience with the game, rather than a few lines of text or voice acting telling them the moral of the story.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Your Somewhat Weekly Gaming Digest: September 14th, 2011

A lot of focus on the macro of gaming is stewing about in this weekly. To start off, Peter Skerrit enumerates some gritty aspects of the evolution of the gaming industry in "A generation of disappointment." It outlines many anxieties of the gaming community feels, especially concerned with the methods larger game companies use to secure money from players. I am party to many of the points brought up, especially the diminishing of single-player experiences and the full pricing of games despite having pre-launch and Day 1 DLC for sale. This isn't a rabid, misanthropic rant thankfully, which is why I recommend it for a read and ponderance. If that's a word.

Also commenting on the nature and culture of the gaming industry, Line Hollis draws an interesting argument by using a narrative perspective to tackle the "problem" of players not finishing games. "Ending v. Resolution" uses conflict to describe how a player stays submerged within a game, and how games often fail to provide true conflict. This reminded me of my time with Catherine; while the game definitely inflict pain on you for your failures, there's an implicit assumption of the game that you're eventually going to succeed and win. The narrative of the game clearly shows this as the NPCs and character dialogue are optimistic of Vincent's chances, and the rest of the game's features hinge on his narrative success. From this perspective, there is little outside puzzle-solving that could keep the player hooked to the game, which is problematic in this particular case.

It's possible that I'm already going to be partial to everything that comes out of a blog called Ludonarratology, but Sparky Clarkson's "The Crying Game" had a particular point that really struck me. Clarkson argues against the claim of a game's mechanics being unable to make a player cry, and easily picks it apart as a claim made from (how I'd interpret it) an assumption that this isn't a medium made to be emotional. The article shows that it isn't the lack of potential for mechanics to shake someone's feelings but that the current conventions of gaming that block genuine tension in a player's emotions. As Clarkson points out, a player isn't going to be torn up about a character's death because of their decision because it's easy enough to save before hand or try the game and make one different choice to save them. I would add in that the process of a game would have to start off wanting to be an emotional trip from the start of the design rather than something to add on later, which gives a hollow feeling in the end.

Michael Abbott broaches the ever contentious issue of game reviewing, taking a seemingly radical position of dismantling "Gameplay" as the focus of game reviews. I teeter back and forth on this one; I like the idea of changing game reviews from something quantitative and trying to sell the game to a buyer, and I'd like to move reviewing from assessing worth and quality to something else. "Games aren't clocks" highlights how the community might be restrained in the way it thinks about video games by its name; if we can only think of this medium as games in the digital format, how can we assess it outside of the means of entertainment value?

While we're on the threshold of the "games as art" feeling, Brady Nash responds to G. Christopher Williams' article "Why video games might not be art" with "Reader Response Theory and Video Games." Just seeing the title crystallized a lot of the unsettled thoughts I had about Williams' article, especially about the idea of art being defined as something that is experienced without the audience members' interference. I felt the article had excluded a lot of Postmodern theory in favor of everything before it, and Nash does a good job using Reader Response as a counter point.

Taking a much needed examination of the 'New Game+' feature of many games, Nick Dinicola discusses the dissonance created by this second mode of olde in "Cyclical Stories in Video Games." The article resonated with the empty feeling running through a somewhat enhanced game when you are experiencing pretty much all the same content. Most games fail to keep narrative integrity with New Game+ by not supporting its existence in the original playthrough. This echos what I mentioned in "Creation vs Destruction in Bastion's Narrative" concerning the problematic relationship of the player's final choice in the game and the availability of New Game+ afterwards.

To tie things up, I wanted to throw in a little bit of FYI for those interested. "What is a Narrative Designer" caught my eye in my feed because I had the same exact question upon seeing it as I never heard of one. Stephen Dinehart, possibly involved with the generation of this title in game production, outlines the function and expectations of a Narrative Designer, and better yet, lets it be known that the role exists! It shows that an attitude shift is in progress to include art at the beginning of production to tie into the starting game design. I am particularly interested because it is something I see myself doing, and wanted to let others know such an option exists for those who love narratives in games.

Until next time, happy gaming!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Apology for RPGs

My original subtitle for this article was “and for myself,” but it also could be “I’m not sorry for anything.” You choose.

Look at all of this choice and flexi- waitaminute.
I’ve been rather grouchy with gaming lately. This new console generation hasn’t produced anything to wow me and I butterfly from one Steam sale to the next, forgetting the vast majority of games in my library. Probably because I grew into a gamer through RPGs, specifically J-RPGs, and the climate for said genre is rather… underwhelming. There has been a lot of talk about RPGs lately, particularly tugs about the definition of RPGs and the possible death of the genre. The existential panic that will begin (if not happening already) to clamor is represented by Greg Zeschuk’s (VP of BioWare) comment regarding trying to figure out what RPGs are currently. This is somewhat alarming as BioWare is oft synonymous with RPGs, but their rhetoric surrounding Mass Effect 3 sounds as if they are distancing themselves from their roots. From what I can tell, it sounds like the company feels it is abandoning a rotting ship and embracing a broader appeal.

After Final Fantasy XIII finally had me throw down my controller (read: set down with furious care [those are expensive!]) fed-up with what game designers felt were good RPGs to be charging so much money for, I knew something was wrong. This shouldn’t be happening twenty years after Final Fantasy IV. I broke off my sixteen-year relationship with Square, having pre-ordered every Final Fantasy on faith that they would be amazing. While the latest Final Fantasy was decent, I felt a company who has weighed in so much to this genre shouldn’t be producing decent games, but epic ones. Games touting their mastery of narrative, like Heavy Rain, shouldn’t think gamers are simple enough to fall for multiple endings that aren’t significantly different from one another. I noticed that the same tricks and conventions appeared repeatedly, with innovation ignored for convention humping. There has to be more to RPGs than this; my favorite genre can’t really be dying… right?

I'm glad there are games to role-play being a sex object, totally
new and fresh! 

So what is an RPG? Are-pee-Jee? Whichever.

Let me start my adventure with a large caveat: I place little value differences in definitions when it comes to concepts and genres. Definitions, to me, are useful purely for communication and not end-all Truth finding. In the end, where we decide to draw the line is completely arbitrary; you might have a convincing argument, but that doesn’t mean much in the face of Truth. I’m not looking for Truth. I seek new ideas, enlightenment, to uncover a path. Just see this as the “Where have you been?” to the “Where are you going?” Pretend I didn’t make that analogy, it’s completely inappropriate.

It would be too easy to sound off everyone else’s opinion on the matter, only to subvert them with a witticism or two afterwards; however people tend to fall into a typical ‘ludology vs narratology’-like arrangement. This frames RPGs either in their mechanic traditions (character progression, turn-based combat, stats) or as stories (complex plot, role-playing, detailed world), both extremes being problematic. These are more conventions of the genre rather than what makes them a unique way of playing a game. As Zeschuk noted, and the Mass Effect series exemplifies, as genres are appropriating more RPG elements, RPGs become flat as they have little more to offer on their own.

The worst part is, you know you'll get the same answer
and still spend a minute thinking which to choose.

Trying to take a holistic approach, I look back to Dungeons & Dragons and subsequent tabletop adventures to be the progenitor of what we consider RPGs. What makes these games both stylistically and formally distinct are their attempt to create a system where players can interact with a narrative. The rules show how players can determine something qualitative via a quantitative method, with primary focus on building a character through statistics and direct, extemporaneous acting within this game-story world. This is where I find that tingle inside me when I go to play an RPG; it has found a way for me to interact with a narrative. When we look to the start of digital RPGs, we see these conventions carry over: manage stats of a character that interacts with unseen formulas, traverse through dungeons, go on loosely related quests. Digital RPGs made it so the player didn’t need a DM nor had to remember formulas, which is definitely convenient and breakthrough use of technology. However, it didn’t add anymore to what RPGs have been doing; in actuality, these games took away methods of interacting with the narrative. So I’m going to say something a little naughty.

RPGs have been dead this entire time.

Digital ones, at least. Tabletop has continued to grow (more people [including myself] should be interested in it!) and shape how players can interact with narratives; some have pitched the idea of a DM, stats, or too many equations over all, which digital RPGs rely on. RPGs on computers haven’t done anything tabletop ones didn’t already cover, which is a huge problem. I take that back, digital RPGs have supplied us with rich visual and sonic worlds. I don’t take back the ‘huge problem’ part though. These qualities are bittersweet for RPGs, as the demand for a better audio/visual experience conflicts with the method digital RPGs enact a narrative. These games have yet to solve the issues of borrowing heavily from novels and movies while addressing the particular needs of narrative in an interactive medium. Computers may have made RPGs more convenient, but they haven’t used their unique qualities to create an experience tabletop cannot. This isn’t to say tabletop is inherently a better medium, or that I want computers to faze them out, but rather to have a genre that does more than substitute a role-playing group. There are a couple of evolutions that make it seem like current digital RPGs do allow you to interact with the narrative; choices in decisions and who your character is. These are but a fraction of the places interactivity and narratives intersect, and are rather topical. Choices often feel insignificant or unharmonious with the story, and characters can either be blank avatars or poorly planned and in need of a restart.

You're doing it wrong.

So, what’s the solution? Find out what computers can do players cannot, and work them in as mainstays to the genre. Instead of using their computational power for convenience, use it for the impossible. Create webs of cause and effect a DM wouldn’t be able to keep track of and associate all player actions with something other than statistics. Manifest audio/visual perceptions words are unable to create, and link them to the player’s progression. There is so much more, and this article isn’t about listing them off. Rather, it is a call to start thinking and implementing.

What is and isn’t an RPG is beside the point, it’s how a game appropriates the cultural understanding of what an RPG is. Video games have been using character progression through stats and experience points, a strong sense of story, and tactical strategy to draw what they can from the genre, but the heart isn’t there. What we really have are action games, interactive fiction, and shooters that use the tropes developed from tabletop RPGs. There is very little role-playing to be had; rather, you are given an extremely limited amount of ‘roles’ to ‘choose’ from.

So let’s do something, anything. Experiment and idea-dump. Take a favorite from the genre and make it so it does what RPGs are great at: letting players be a part of narrative impossible in their own realty. Create a world that tells a player “You matter, and I can’t exist without you.” Level 5’s Georama, not enough. BioWare’s dialogue trees and wheels, not enough. Square’s Active Time Battle, not enough. Bethesda’s character creation, not enough. No more multiple endings in a weak attempt to add on reply value. No more illusion of choice.

And no more freakin’ Tolkien and Star Trek!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Your Somewhat Weekly Gaming Digest: September 3rd, 2011

Let me start off this somewhat weekly with a shout-out to Line Hollis’ reflection on the game engine she’s working on in “Mouthwash: Viewpoints.” I recommend looking back into her blog to see her prior Mouthwash posts, but this article broaches the topic of digital knowledge, and the complications with such a concept. Troubleshooting through the problem of characters possessing opinions and effectively understanding which information aligns with and refutes others’ arguments begs the question of depth and importance of in-game conversation. Hollis’ work implies an unexplored land of interaction with and between characters, breaking past the artifice of interaction in dialogue trees towards organic, impromptu conversations.

Very much related is a piece that is part of a series on uses for mapping dialogue trees. Rob Newcomb uses formal logic to generate spontaneous dialogue in “Argument Maps for Unscripted Conversation” that would enable a character to accept or disagree another’s reasoning, and give their own rebuttal.  Maybe this is on the game design collective unconscious’ mind? How conversation is generated and delivered to the players always seems to be changing, and I wonder if Hollis and Newcomb are riding the next wave to come!

Now on to a topic that has me particularly worked up, the wilting and possible death of RPGs. Dylan Woodbury’s “RPG Storytelling - The Unmet Potential” is a good summary of the general unrest about RPGs that isn’t from pandering AAA game developers. What I like about Woodbury’s article is both highlighting what’s wrong and having optimism for innovation in the genre. I am interested in more input, as the conversation seems to (as with most contentious topics) ping-pong between extreme views: RPGs are a tradition never to be abandoned or stale stories that aren’t actually games and are forgettable. Woodbury makes a good point that progress is an element distinct to RPGs that has yet to be properly exploited; instead, it is a convention (leveling your character and abilities) that is adopted by other growing genres.

Rampant Coyote from Rampant Games offers a more pragmatic look at “Why the RPG Genre is Losing its Distinctiveness.”  I felt this was an honest look at the results of the pitfalls Woodbury outlined; what is fun and interesting, and how can RPGs answer to the rubric Rampant Coyote presented. It also pulls games from BioWare into question, as you can ask if they really have been making RPGs all along. Is Mass Effect really an RPG? After realizing this question, I decided no, Mass Effect isn’t an RPG, or really a hybrid RPG. I don’t really think there’s such thing as a “hybrid RPG,” because they just appropriate conventions from RPGs. However, I could go on forever about this; I definitely plan to enter this conversation, so stay tuned for that article!

Instead, let’s talk a little about BioWare’s other RPG. While !Finished’s Alex Raymond elucidates the complicated representation of Dragon Age: Origins’ religion, the Chantry, in "And I'm through with believing."  The article is precise on how it is so easy to be an atheist or otherwise skeptic of organized religion and play a game that features a society so heavily invested in one. It pulls up an interesting thought-bubble about religion in games, which I haven’t researched but would like to now; classic RPGs seem to have a heavy investment in religions, however there seems to be a large critique of religion in video games as a whole. The Final Fantasy series is notorious for recycling the story of the oppressed rebels against the corrupt empire, and a religious group is said corrupt empire in Tactics and X (you could argue this for XIII as well).

At The Border House, Quinnae breaks down the wall of “realism” and “maturity” in some games in “I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality.” The article is particularly engaging because it analyzes the buzz-wording of “mature;” does mature really mean engaging for older audiences, or just showcasing racy, late-night images? Quinnae effortlessly assembles a dissection of how privilege infiltrates games trying to portray reality and mature topics, and is a must-read for skeptics of how the perspective of middle/upper-class heterosexual men are ingrained in how we reference reality in games.

And just in case it seems like I’m favoring RPG/story-heavy games (which I will shamelessly admit to), here is a spot-on critique of multiple-ending games and their incongruencies (I might have just made up that word). In “Thematic Confusion in the Branching Narratives of Video Games,” Nick Dinicola rather simply points out how games that boast choice and different endings actually degrade the story and game overall by having endings that make no sense existing in the same game. While I’ll leave being convinced to you and the article, I feel like it explains why so many multiple-ending games give very little motivation to view them all through the gameplay. Instead of seeing endings that vary significantly and logically from one another, games usually give endings with minute yet extreme differences between one another. Add that in the pile of criticisms RPGs have to work on!

Until next time, happy gaming!

Monday, August 29, 2011

It’s Time to Talk About it: Atlus, Naoto, and Transphobia

(Trigger Warning: Transphobia, Passing Anxiety)
(Spoiler Warning: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Shin Megami Tensi: Persona 4, Catherine)

Is he who you want him to be?
Earlier this year, I wrote a research paper on representations of gender and sexuality in video games where I chose Bayonetta from her eponymous game and Naoto in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. The wealth of critical discussion on Bayonetta speaks for itself; I had no trouble supporting my own argument about her because of the importance the gaming community attributed to shaming or empowering her (and, of course, options other than these). However, my research on Naoto resulted in pretty much nothing; from what I could tell, the gaming community felt he (it is debatable which pronoun to use, so I am using he as it is my interpretation from my playthrough) was a cross-dresser and would be referred to as a woman. There are mentions of Naoto in articles related to Kanji’s (a fellow party member) questions about sexuality, but nothing at all about the complicated politics the game design promotes in concern to transgender topics. So let this be an ode to Naoto, as he deserves a critical analysis, but also my questioning of and challenge to Atlus about their representation of transgender characters. While Persona 4 makes the player interact with the issues surrounding someone who is transgender, the games before and after featured transgender characters more in the background. It shows a deliberate move by the development team to include transgender characters in their games, and therefore make a statement about them; it is extremely rare for a transgender character to appear in a game, much less three in a row. I investigate Altus’ position on transgender topics (as shown in their games) while informed through their depiction of Naoto in the context of these other characters.

In Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, your party gets a small reprieve on an island, where the boys eventually go to the beach to pick up women. They are unsuccessful until they meet one that seems especially receptive to them, who will “show them a thing or two” and is otherwise outlandishly suggestive. Before she can take anyone back to her room, a party member notices she has hair on her chin, outing her as transgender; she admits her plan in tricking the boys and keeps the offer of sex open before departing. To say the least, this is an atrocious depiction of trans-women that relies on the sexual anxieties and (perceived) deviances of heterosexual men. Many took it as a comical and lighthearted scene from the rest of the morbid and dreary storyline, however, this is one of the very few ways trans-women are characterized in media overall, which is extremely unrealistic and damaging. Persona 3 carries on transphobia by failing to offer a character different from conventional imagining of trans-women as sexual deviants deceiving hapless heterosexual men. It also relegates them strictly to the sexual realm, as if that is the only place transgender women appear, and those are the only qualities unique to this group of people.

Based on that experience alone, seeing Naoto in Persona 4 would seem to be a cause for celebration, as he is an extremely well written character and overall engaging and respectable. However, the extremely problematic character Erica in Catherine throws the intentions behind Naoto into question. There is little information during gameplay to let the player know Erica is transgender, however in hindsight, these hints are rather malicious. Throughout Vincent’s time in the game’s bar, he and his friends are amicable to Erica but also say rather disparaging things about her femininity. The group of men seems to put up with Erica rather than appreciate her friendship, and is vaguely trying to steer away the youngest member, na├»ve Toby, from pursuing his attraction for her. The second hint comes when Erica shares that she is starting to have nightmares, which only men are supposed to be having, however it is easy to overlook this, as it appears everyone who goes to the bar has these dreams. The player finds out directly only if they achieve the True Lover’s Ending, when it is implied the guys told Toby Erica is transgender and expresses regret losing his virginity to her. It might be tempting to say that because the only real overt transphobia comes from the main villain, who happens to be her employer, and that Atlus is taking a favorable position on transgender representation in Catherine. However, like the character in Persona 3, she is the deviant, sexual trickster who seduces unsuspecting men to their sexuality questioning doom. Her friends don’t show any support and have extremely little respect for her identity as a woman; as well, her boss is constantly hitting on her, despite that he was punishing her for transitioning into a woman and seeking romance as a trans-woman. Erica herself is a great character with relatable dialogue for the most part, but the politics surrounding her doesn’t provide any optimism for trans-folk and their allies.

Transgender topics were blips in these games, which is why they more so provide the context of how Naoto is interpreted rather than stand on their own to inform the player how Atlus, or gaming overall, is treating transgender characters. A brief synopsis of Naoto’s presence in Persona 4: Naoto is a 16-year-old detective prodigy that appears at first as a mysterious character with clues surrounding the murder cases. His appearance is noteworthy as Kanji starts feeling attracted to him, and this is a tense topic as he is apparently struggling with his sexuality (that’s a whole other topic). Naoto’s relationship with the group is tense at first as he realizes they harbor secrets relating to the case, but they all see him as respectable, intelligent, and capable (it is also worth mentioning that he has a resemblance to male protagonists in other Shin Megami Tensei games). He eventually uses his fan following, who calls him the ‘Detective Prince,’ to his advantage to gain a lead in the case. In the Jungian-like TV world where Naoto confronts his ‘Shadow,’ the player finds out that Naoto is female and the Shadow wants to perform sexual reassignment surgery on him. As this scene depicts, Naoto presents himself as a man because of the environment of the police force; no one would take him seriously if he were a woman. After defeating his Shadow, Naoto decides he doesn’t need to become a male to succeed as a detective, and joins the party.

This is when Atlus promptly fails Gender 101. The game text begins to refer to Naoto as she and her, and makes no distinction between sex and gender. Whenever there is a need to divide the characters along the lines of gender, Naoto appears with the women instead of the men. In general, they keep his personality the same and make more references to androgyny to keep in line with the character they have built up. The game continues to depict Naoto as an awesome personality through the main storyline, and receives a generally warm acceptance by everyone even though there is a question about his true sex. However, the essentialist attitude similar to the antagonist’s in Catherine exposes a lack of understanding about transgender issues and tucks in an almost sinister transphobia in what seems to be overwhelming support and popularity for Naoto as a character.

Most (if not all) people who are transgender face an internal struggle with sexual reassignment. There is a heavy amount of reinforcement from society to have it in order to achieve (some amount of) social acceptance. This is a source of tremendous anxiety, especially for those cannot attain resources that allow them to transition. More importantly, not everyone wants to change their sex, or better yet, don’t feel that changing their sex should be a requirement to being treated as the gender they identify as. I saw that scene with Naoto at first as a brave proclamation to continue as a man without aiming to become male, only to be confused and devastated when the game started to turn him into a woman. This happens in attention to the assumed romantic and sexual intentions of the player by making Naoto accessible as to not threaten the assumed player’s (a heterosexual man) gender and sexuality. Because all of the females are open for romance (don’t get me started on just that thought), the logic of the game decides Naoto should be as well, and he becomes the antithesis of what he wants during his Social Link with the protagonist. There is a clear disconnect between the Naoto in the main story and the Naoto in the Social Link. While you are able to become intimate with Naoto while encouraging him to still be a man, there are options for you to persuade him to act and dress as a woman. What makes this disturbing is Naoto’s identity hinges on the player’s choices, and the gameplay mechanics encourage the player to nudge Naoto towards becoming a woman. For instance, the first trigger that can initiate romance with Naoto when choosing “I’m glad you’re a girl” when he is having a moment wishing he was born male. The second romance flag comes when you choose to protect Naoto from harm, for which the protagonist frustrates him by making him feel weak when treated as a woman. All of this is after he expresses little interest in wanting a relationship, and that he makes no indication of his sexual orientation; the game allows the player to force him into the romantic fantasies of a heterosexual man. If this wasn’t enough, there is a scene after you confess your love for Naoto when he asks the player if they want him to start talking with a higher pitch to his voice to sound more feminine, and if they choose to have a higher pitch, he will dress up in a girl’s school uniform during the Christmas event. This event is more poignant in the Japanese version of this scene; instead of the pitch of his voice, he asks the protagonist if he minded Naoto’s use of ‘boku,’ which is the ‘I’ that men use. Telling him that you want him to stop prompts the above scene, but you also can opt for Naoto to stay the same. The scene when Naoto dresses up in a girl’s uniform completely transforms his personality; he’s now always blushing, stammering, quiet, scrunched up as much as he can into himself. Very typical Japanese schoolgirl as this is just before an implied sexual scene. This scene trivializes the pressure transgender people feel to perform their gender well enough not to violate their partner’s sense of sexuality, and the incredible burden to make sure they are always passing as the desired gender. Naoto’s Social Link was an extreme waste of an opportunity to explore the intricacies of a relationship when at least one partner is transgender, something I don’t think I’ve ever been able to witness in the media.

I do find value in Atlus including transgender characters in their games, but in order for these instances to be progressive, they have to be positive and enlightening depictions. Each one of these characters appeared in the game and interacted with the player in a way that is specific to heterosexual men, and uses said culture to define their character arcs. Despite the flaws Atlus implanted into Naoto, I enjoyed his character and explored my feelings of being romantically attracted to a trans-man (which wasn’t something I considered at the time), and find this type of game to be a powerful avenue to promote diversity and understanding of those underrepresented in the media. It also shows how much other characters in games revolve around how they relate to heterosexual men, which prompts said group to inform game developers of their interest in more diverse viewpoints.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Your Somewhat Weekly Gaming Digest: August 26th, 2011

First, I'd like to give an overall shout out to The Border House, who have accepted me into their ranks. If you are thus far unaware of its existence, head on over and check it out! My previous post is now there, though now with a considerably wider audience to chat with :)

We'll open up in comfortable territory for me; Altug Isigan breaks down what parts of a video game's narrative is interactive in "Game Narrativity and Interaction". Isigan gets major points from me for providing graphs, 'cause I love a visual mapping of a concept when reading (or listening to) theory. It was a creative writing way to go about organizing game narratives, which might be why it synched so well with me, but it seems like this would be a good read for anyone interested in interactive narratives. Isigan also posted a companion graph, "Mediation, Play and Narrative in Video Games," which shows the process of how the player interacts with both the game and the author. It will be familiar to anyone who has knowledge of cybernetics or literary theory, however the graph makes it accessible to all. The discussion started there is also interesting!

Related to narrative's place in gaming is a sound-off-like article at Kotaku assembled by Mark Serrels, "Do Video Games Need to be Fun?" I personally thought this was a moot conversation, similar to "are games art" topic, because it depends so much on the definition of games. What is a game, much less a video game? And, as you'll see in this article, should we really be saying videogame? The piece is organized from one end of the spectrum to the other, though I left the article with a little bit from each respondent. As for my opinion, I don't think 'games' have to be 'fun,' when those terms are defined in the manner they are most widely used. It's like saying movies all have to be enjoyable to watch, though you feel kinda strange when you say you 'enjoyed' Schindler's List. I found that a useful perspective to have is that we look at things as art or as games, not that they necessarily are such inherently (this is trickier to hold up in concern to games). I can look at an upside-down urinal and see it just as that, and that a maintenance crew should get on that pronto; but if I decide to look at it as art, then another conversation starts. Same with video games; I am going to have a different relationship with TRAUMA if I view it as interactive fiction versus a video game. Games can invoke more than one feeling, and has been trying to do such for a long time (though, maybe we're turning around?).

Speaking of fun, Lars Doucet's blog post on accessibility (somewhat about disability, more about the general audience) really needed to be written. "RPGs, challenge, and grinding" is a misleading title, as the article is about a much larger topic. Doucet writes about how games can still be challenging for those who want it to be, but also can accommodate those who either don't like the challenge or don't have the skill. The article sites games, as well as his own, that provide difficulty control as to have the most inclusive game for all tastes; the idea of extending this to the disabled is only slightly broached, but the overarching idea speaks to a battle against ableism in gaming. If there is something that turns me off from games, it is the developers' need to punish me; I imagine there is something deeply gendered at work and I hate games that are going to squash out fun because I don't have the skill to go on. As well, I despise it when others rationalize my distaste for certain games (I'm looking at you, legion of military-themed FPSs) because I lack the skill, as if the difficulty and need for skill are the only reasons to play a game. I politely disagree.

Along the line of fighting ableism in gaming, a game project caught my eye; Voices in the Dark. It is a Chilean project that is making a game that doesn't require eyesight to play, and reminds me of some cool audio projects I've heard of in the past. However, there is a tactile feel that the demo gives you, as you have to do actions purely on the sound of your environment. Unfortunately, this excludes those who can't use hearing in the gaming community, but I hope games like this sets a bar and gets more interested in making games inclusive and especially for disabled gamers.

Moving from one diversity issue to the next, an article on Kill Screen deserves notice in exploring the topic of gender-bending in video games. Having done research on video games and gender, this topic comes up a lot, though "Walk on the Wild Side" might be the most exposure some will have to the academic side of the issue. Michael Thomsen explores how women avatars are treated differently than men ones, and that the majority of answers (especially the particularly popular "I like staring at a female's behind") are a defense to their gender rather than the complete answer. What I found particularly interesting was this particular case's findings on the the representation of healers in World of Warcraft; while there is an even distribution of men and women playing as healers, way more women avatars heal than men avatars, implying the typical hijinks of gender roles at work.

On the other end of that topic are girls being girls, or, geek girls being the girls geek guys want. Courtney Stoker starts off with the usual tense question that feminists don't like to talk about (or maybe like too much...): Are women who flaunt sexiness to men empowering or demeaning themselves? "'Geek girls' and the problem of self-objectification" does a good job of arguing the former without being insulting, which is rare. I also liked it for looking at the larger picture of gender dynamics rather than slut-shaming, and Stoker's case is hard to argue against when there are so many other manifestations of in-group/out-group the men in gaming commit. Why does Fat, Ugly, or Slutty sum up all of the competitive language towards women? Where is a "Hunkology" column and how come I don't see recruitment for booth hunks? I have to share the best lines here in case people decide to skip this article: "The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing soThey get attention, approval, and recognition from the culture when they dress as sexy Leia (or any sexy geek thing) [...] The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men."

Wrapping this up is Moving Pixel's podcast on Catherine, "Misogyny, Misandry, and 'Catherine,'" featuring G. Christopher Williams, Kris Ligman, and Skyler Moss. I enjoyed listening, as always, however the title is much more combative than the conversation, so listeners not looking for more lessons on gender shouldn't turn away from this talk. There is more focus on the male characters and how the narrative and gameplay worked together, and any conversation picking apart this game is a good thing. Kris inspired me to take back up writing about transgender characters in Atlus games (mentioned in the podcast) that I found in my research on gender and sexuality in games, so look out for that in the near future!

Until next time, happy gaming!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Diversity Watch: Bastion

As a sort of closing thoughts on my time with Bastion, I'm curious as to how I can further my agenda of promoting diversity in games, or seeing how games are an artifact of a culture's stance on diversity. This isn't meant to scold Bastion by not fulfilling their quota of minorities, but letting it speak for itself.

Race and Ethnicity
For all the fear that the industry has about touching the topic of race and ethnicity, Bastion pushes the topic out there and lets the player interpret it. What is disheartening is how easily players can overlook this tension and participate in the usual brand xenophobia (and anti-environmentalism at that) that is produced from video games. Bastion makes use of race to draw on the player's cultural understanding of them against us, of a nation against savages. The Ura draw on the qualities of the Far East (they even live in the East) to act as markers when juxtaposed against the kid and Rucks' racial features; they have paler skin with dark hair, superstitious about a pantheon of gods, move around the map sharp and quickly (reminiscent of ninjas), and Zulf's personal item is a hookah. This wouldn't be so noticeable if Rucks and the kid weren't depicted as very western (bulky males, caucasian facial features, imperialistic culture, science-orientated), however it goes a step further and marks them as very American. I was personally shocked when I first heard Rucks' voice and then confused when I saw him; the voice actor was particular in using a tone and diction that is reminiscent of African-American (I use this term to identify a specific group of people, not to be PC) local color stories. So when I saw that Rucks was depicted as caucasian, my rationalization was assuming the team was looking for an aesthetic that was patently American. Following this line of thinking, I'm sure someone can come up with an interesting interpretation of seeing the US against its eastern anxieties (most of the Middle East, China, North Korea) in Bastion. However, that's not my goal here; it's possible that those with a differing ethnicity than the canon American one would be able to identify with the wrong done to Zulf, but it would be a difficult claim as you kill more and more Ura to get to your goal. Rucks' excuse for killing all these people is flimsy and ethnocentric, as I could imagine a different reaction if Caeldonian lives were the ones at stake (or maybe they are, and that's why it's easy to kill Ura).

There's also the tucked away issue about Zia's liminal status when it comes to her ethnicity; she was raised in Caeldonia, but her race is of the Ura. There are mixed messages with the plot point of Zia running off to meet Zulf, and the implications of him claiming her as an Ura. It is unclear if Zia ever felt a sense of belonging, though this might be implied by the very subtle hints of the kid's affection towards her.

Gender and Sexuality
The game assumes heteronormativity and doesn't make any grand statements about gender. Bastion follows many traditions in this genre; the main character is a young male who identifies as a (conventionally Western) man and uses many typical props that suggest masculinity. There are some neat twists on the weapons in the game, but they are the same from every other: every type of gun you can think of and a bunch of melee weapons that require strength rather than anything else. One of the upgrades for the Bastion is a distillery which indicates that the kid is drinking throughout his adventures; I have nothing against drinking, but it is a common trope of masculinity to be a hard drinker, and this cannot go unnoticed if the main character is continually called 'the kid.' I find it problematic in an abstract way when boys in video games are assumed to have weapon and combat competency, or at least how prevalent this type of character is in video games. Rucks reinforces these expectations by the actions he points out the kid doing; I remember feeling a little put off when there was a quote of the kid having a sort of affection for one of his guns (I think there's multiple references like these for the musket). There is little room for any other expression or identification of any other type of masculinity other than the gamer hegemonic one.

Zia's representation as the sole woman (I'll assume female as well) seem more to be in service of contrasting the kid's masculinity. The (typical) emphasis on her beauty is slyly done by hearing her song and voice before you meet her. The sequence attributes the usual qualities to Zia before we even meet her; delicate sounding, beauty in an ethereal sense, a rare sight, something to chase. Rucks' narration during this sequence is ambiguous during the first play-through as the player doesn't know who he's telling the story to (I assumed he was tell me the story), and it prompts the unaware listener to admire Zia as an aesthetic. Also, seeing that her personal item is a cooking pot... It doesn't seem like Bastion is trying to leave behind any molds.

Something interesting is at work, though, when comparing the two aesthetics invoked, as they seem rather gendered. Zia's song seems to be the audio translation of the visual representation of the game; I look at Bastion and see something beautiful and delicate. But Rucks' narration, the only other voice of the game, gives the aesthetic more grittiness, enough so it isn't alienating to the type of character the kid embodies. My personal observations of the themes at work in this game sprout from details like this, and I'm sure an interpretation waits to be read there.

Closing Thoughts

More could be said about age and and ableism, but they seem to just exist in the game and don't really complicate the matter. Rucks has an interesting role as an elder, but turns out to be a threat of a harmful culture rather than an agent on his own. There is also no indication of transgender, intersexed, or asexual people, though given this allegory to America overall, it would be interesting where such characters would fit in.