Monday, May 16, 2011

BioWare's Spreading the Equal Opportunity Love?

Bring on the same-sex, well, sex.
Gaming news has been bubbling with Mass Effect 3 news, especially in concern with the types of relationships that can be pursued in the end of the trilogy. Interesting enough, there seems to be conflicting information, as same-sex relationships will be available in Mass Effect 3, however there won't be any new options to romance. Barring change to either of these bits of information, that means certain, if not all, characters perceived as heterosexual by at least the game mechanics in the first two games will suddenly be homosexual or more likely bisexual. Debates about diversity versus character continuity have sprouted up, as BioWare has been gaining its own culture as a company with its bestseller status and new staked position in gender and sexuality topics.

What was interesting to me as I played through the Mass Effect games was that they effectively made available a lesbian option while skirting around a much larger topic they could have exploited. The idea of the Asari being genderless and seeing all species as potentially attractive is forward thinking yet generally unexplored, the closest we get to a similar strain of thinking is the character Kelly Chambers in Mass Effect 2, who is seen as rather quirky than insightful. The message the Asari could have told, however, is incredibly cheapened by the fact that they are blue versions of emphasized femininity, and in America, the sexual flexibility of women is much more acceptable (isn't it also strange that the Alliance only seems to be American people?). Liara T'Soni didn't cause any uprising or challenging of gender roles because it plays easily enough into the typified male fantasy; skeptics can just imagine how different that element of the game would have been received if, instead, Liara was a character that embodied hegemonic masculinity and responded to both Shepards amorously. The game does show how a player can personalize the game to themselves, but through advertising and the game structure, there is a canon that BioWare prefers over the others. The face of Mass Effect is a male Shepard, not a female one.

I have my feet in both camps; gender and sexual diversity in games is a progressive step and I endorse the inclusive attitude BioWare has been showing lately (looking back to the "Straight Male Gamer" episode), however they created Mass Effect like Star Wars, and created a world that is unapologetically the stereotypical space opera that caters to heterosexual men's tastes and comforts. The writers will have to do some fancy footwork to justify the sexuality change; though, it would be interesting to see Mass Effect deal with coming out issues, as that's likely the only route. Then again, I don't see the budding of homosexual desires in teammates to be completely out of the canon, as Garrus and Tali never showed romantic interest in the first Mass Effect, but in the second one, they did. Why not homosexual interests in the third? All of this worry might just be growing pains in the path towards diversity in games.

Square-Enix Falling to Its Knees

Is Square-Enix seeing the end of its
most popular franchise?
Commenting on some recent news, it seems like the lackluster reaction to Square-Enix' latest products have hit it hard, especially the utter failure of Final Fantasy XIV. They have been relatively out of the media's eye for the past couple of months after Final Fantasy XIV came out and promotions for Final Fantasy XIII-2 circulating about. As someone who used to pick up every Final Fantasy game on the release date, I am not shocked by the news and Square-Enix should be either. I don't think I will be picking up another Final Fantasy title unless reviews are heralding greatness instead of just fandom, which used to be enough for me.

All in all, I think Square-Enix is riding out the fan-base of the Final Fantasy series, scooping out money on pretty much just the name itself. I believe their last quality product was Final Fantasy X, and that was about 10 years ago, and that's a long time for such a juggernaut of a company; 1991 - 2001 we've had Final Fantasy VI - X, 2002 - 2011, we've had X-2 - XIV. The last 10 years focused on spin-offs and compilation efforts, spreading the title of Final Fantasy to everywhere imaginable, and I personally haven't found much outside of the numbered series worth playing besides Final Fantasy Tactics. This isn't to say, of the single player games, that Final Fantasy X-2 - XIII were awful  but they were alright, which isn't what Square-Enix should be doing. Final Fantasy XI was just instantiating Final Fantasy online without being terribly well thought-out, resulting in an okay game for those who didn't like World of Warcraft, XII clearly took the universe of the popular Final Fantasy Tactics and the feel of an MMO, while XIII was just trying to be as Final Fantasy as a Final Fantasy could be. Everything was funneled into graphics and showiness, nothing innovate or ultimately compelling.

What is really upsetting is that this is representative of the Japanese-RPG genre as a whole; sticking to fan-base convention and trying to be as stereotypical as possible, pumping out quantity over quality. While doing some research for a paper, I came across a brief research paper that wanted to gauge the emotional quality of video games, and if they could really make a player care about what was going on as they played. The top genre that was reported to cause a player to be emotional were RPGs, more specifically J-RPGs, with Final Fantasy VII being the game what cause the most emotion, and predictably after that, Aeris' death being the most emotional moment in gaming history. This says that at one point, Final Fantasy and J-RPGs in general were doing something right, had a quality that a lot of critics of video games say the medium could never really achieve to have. But the genre didn't change, and I believe in response, Western-RPGs have been learning from J-RPGs and are taking over the RPG market. Now games like Half-Life and Mass Effect are considered compelling games, while Final Fantasy XIII and XIV are the same old games with new graphics to hook in what their name could get them on past merit alone. This doesn't mean they need to turn the series into an FPS hybrid, but they have to find some other way to entertain the masses. Kingdom Hearts did very well and could provide some inspiration, but that franchise is also a money-milking machine. Square-Enix always entertained experimental titles like the SaGa series, but it was obvious that not a lot of attention was put into them, and were easily ignored despite interesting game mechanics. The same formula is just not relevant anymore, and I'm sad to think that Final Fantasy will soon be a relic of the past.

My advice to Square-Enix? It's time to start earning fans again instead of expecting them to sit around awaiting anything with "Final Fantasy" in the title. Use past predictability to surprise players into something completely fresh, both in mechanics and story. Don't lose the soul and culture that is Final Fantasy, but don't treat it as a static, unchanging object. I personally hope the series gets back on its feet and starts to produce awesome games, but I remain a skeptic to this old friend of a company.