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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Your Somewhat Weekly Gaming Digest: August 20th, 2011

Some of my thoughts on Bastion were echoed in the Moving Pixel team's podcast, "Exploring the Alien Frontier of Bastion." If anyone is still skeptical about whether or not they should give the game a try, this conversation will most likely dispel any of your worries. They, mostly Kris Ligman, associate the game with a western, or at least the themes of a western. I noticed through my play-through topics such as xenophobia and ideas similar to manifest destiny, as well as 'local color' type narration. They go on a lot about what Bastion did right, as did much of the gaming community, but with this podcast, you get a little anecdotal embellishments instead of an impersonal review.

Bastion is also mentioned within a great article over at Your Critic is in Another Castle, On Gaming Death. Kate Cox reminds us of a game mechanic and narrative device that is commonly over-looked: death. The analysis spans over different games and why the game over for one character creates vastly different feelings, if any, than another. I noticed with myself, I cared very little for the main character of Bastion, because the main mechanics allowed me to. The story would go on and he would make it to the end, it just takes Rucks getting the story right. It also revealed to me a big inconsistency with Mass Effect 2; Shepard dies in the very beginning, but whenever they die later on in the game, it's game over. Because I play on ez-mode I never died during Mass Effect 2, so I didn't really think of this, but Shepard and death has a strange relationship stylistically. Cox mentions how there's little anxiety over Chell dying in Portal 2 because of the quick reloading time, and squat consequences, which raises the question if players would care more about Chell if there was an involved death scene. You can find a couple of my comments on the article's discussion below to find it more about what I think on this topic.

The last mention of Bastion for this week is over at Yahtzee's Extra Punctuation column in the article "Game Stories Demand Focus." As it could be inferred from my last post, I don't find Bastion to be that much of an exemplar of good storytelling in a video game, and I also don't think that the character-centered focus Yahtzee suggests is really the right answer. Bastion did a neat and well done trick with the nuance-filled narration, and it was cute when it brought the meta-story to the center. However, only Rucks was at all a fully-fleshed character; I really think Zulf should have stolen the show to make a really awesome 'villain,' but he was just used as an antagonist rather than a compelling character. Zia, as well, was completely flat and stereotypical; it seemed like she was only there as a random connection between everyone rather than a unique character on her own. And the kid is honestly forgettable, as there isn't anything about him other than your actions. What I actually found interesting about the article was presenting the problem of having an interesting, flawed character (which is the overall go-to idea for when you write characters in fiction) when the mechanics can't be flawed. That section used as a thought experiment is worth it enough to read.

Speaking of meta-story, The Stanley Parable has quickly made its way across blogs and into hearts this past week. I am definitely among its fans, despite the bit of run-around I had to do to obtain it. It's a short and sweet freeware mod of Half Life 2 that presents the complications of storytelling in a video game in a very entertaining manner. If you haven't played it, definitely try it out or watch a YouTube video of the walkthrough, it'll be worth it. I especially liked another article from Moving Pixels, "Even Winning Feels Bad: Agency in The Stanley Parable," but won't get into it here to avoid spoiling. Definitely give it a read and give your thoughts in the comments here.

I've encountered a lot of articles talking about morality systems in games, but if you haven't read one, Brandon Perdue's "Ethical Dilemmas and Dominant Moral Strategies in Games" is a nice go-to for an exhaustive detailing of the majority of the analysis out there. They outline the problems of the way games have been trying to establish morality within their design, but the largest flaw has been attaching morality to winning. Because a lot of morality systems reward players for going into extremes, which fails to represent morality as we know it (not black and white all the time).  Predue also uses the example of the decision on Virmire in Mass Effect to save either Ashley or Kaiden to show the detachment of morality and succinctness with the narrative for game purposes. Because the two were the least interesting of all your team members (from Perdue's observations of polling and my personal opinion), it came down to the usefulness of each to decide who to save; factors like who you could romance, since you can only romance one, or which your party needs more in term of skills. Speaking from my experience, I kept Kaiden around in my original play-through because he was romance-able, not that he was anything more interesting than Ashley, even though I was totally mackin' it with Liara anyway. So there was little emotional weight to the decision, more like just efficiency. 

Along with poorly implemented morality systems, another Moving Pixels article came out about Catherine (busy folk, aren't they?). What I liked about "Sheep Men: Choice and Individuality in Catherine" was its focus on the game's portrayal of men. The community can be quick to pick a game apart for its misogyny (and heck, there's a whole bunch in this game), but I'm glad there's someone writing about the awkward men of this game. Jorge Albor also mentions how the morality meter doesn't work in the game as it contradicts many of the mechanics it's supposed to be measuring. The idea that Vincent is choosing Freedom vs Order perpetuates the stereotype of men either fleeing from commitment at all costs until they eventually wise up and settle down with a woman.

However, at the Border House (I gush knowing that a wonderful place like this exists), bullshit is thrown out the window at Catherine's claim at being a 'mature, adult game.' Gunthera1 did a great job on making sure "Catherine: Is this Mature Rated Game More than Just Sex?" didn't rely on old, hackneyed rhetoric that would demonize all men, but called out how much Atlus' game relied on stereotypes to tell its story. I've noticed that most people who wrote about Catherine casually mentioned the horrible use of sex stereotypes, kind of not wanting to open the topic because it's just so obvious, but this article really sums it up and was needed. A great read if you are unsure of how someone could find fault with Catherine's story about gender; I remember mentioning some points this article makes a week or so ago on a Catherine article, and a poster had no idea anything amiss was going on about gender stereotypes. So please, give this piece a shot!

And to wrap things up, part 2 of the ever controversial contest for Mass Effect 3's default FemShep. This time, everyone gets to choose her hair color since there was such an uprising about her being a blonde. I have many issues with this event as a whole. I found nothing wrong with the original default FemShep, so I'm skeptical as to why BioWare has decided to change her. As well, I didn't think that the voting process was really at all a good way to go about getting the fans involved, especially the ones that wanted a more recognizable FemShep in advertising. And while I can understand the frustration of a very predictable outcome to that poll (the model that was the closest to the typical standard of beauty for women), I felt the comments against blondes were as damaging as the marginalization of other the groups not represented in the model chosen. Blondes go through life facing their stereotypes and are often objectified, even by those looking to battle the currently held standard of beauty. I just think the whole thing is a big mess. But if you want, you can go vote on the Mass Effect's Facebook page.

Until next time, happy gaming!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Creation vs Destruction in Bastion's Narrative

Here is where the world was simultaneously created and destroyed.
A lot of what has the gaming community chattering about Bastion is the role of its narrative in the gameplay. Many critics of the relationship between story and games see them as one slapped onto the other, rather than having an organically joined structure. Rucks' narration of the kid's journey is often merited as the 'right way' to do story in a game, however there a strange tension between the storytelling and gameplay that could be read as narrative dissonance (or, at least, further analyzed to view a more realistic application of the techniques present in the game).

To out my personal feelings before diving into criticism, I thought the game should have been titled something similar to Rucks. The Bastion is merely a plot device that serves as a tool for something else, but it isn't the main idea of the story; as well, the kid could be pretty much anyone (being optimistic, I chose to see it as a critique on the stereotypical adventurer rather than the developers being lazy, though that took some self-convincing). Rucks controls the player's experience as well as the relationships between all of the characters; the game leaves questions open about him, leaving the player to turn off the game wondering about how they feel about Rucks' actions. His pleasantly stylistic narration is overbearing and steals the spotlight, and that (as I will argue later) makes the ending ineffectual when his narration stops. This is definitely not a slam overall on the game, I enjoyed it and it was worth my money; I just wish to extract more worth out of it rather than setting it up to be a paragon of gaming.

Ultimately, I noticed a strange ambiguity concerning the themes of creation and destruction in Bastion right from the beginning; the player is told the Calamity has everything destroyed, yet this is the beginning of a story, Furthermore, the setting is falling apart except for where the kid steps, where the path is actually being created before him. On one hand, this could be a representation of the continuing detonation and rebuilding of Caeldonia that is implied by Rucks before the player gets to choose the ending, giving the player an off-kilter and chaotic feeling to carry with them throughout the game. However, gameplay doesn't reinforce this reading, rather, it communicates a more bleak path of destruction. I found it ironic that as Rucks extemporaneously created the story, the kid was destroying everything in his path; there were so many unnecessary destroyable objects in the way of the goal, that it made me wonder if the kid was doing as much damage to the city and its people as the Calamity did.

This makes the juxtaposition of the creative mechanics at the Bastion seem either incredibly in line with the narrative, or at odds. The Bastion is used as a focus for the player's goals as well as the means to further launch more destruction through an armory of weapons, upgrades, and challenges inspired by the gods. But this is all really fruitless, because as the story points out, there's little effect the order of your buildings have on anything (and this is reinforced by nothing at all being changed when you switch around the order of the buildings, as well as there being an optimal build for New Game+). It's possible that the kid has done the same exact thing an infinite amount of times beforehand, and to learn that after it was damaged just before you completed it (twice!) adds in a bit of despair.

Now all of this doesn't sound so bad for a game to produce, it actually reveals a complicated depth that lies below very simple and intuitive gameplay. I felt like I had things to work out right up until I had a choice in how the story was ending. My intervention isn't determined by anything except for my interpretation of the events; not Ruck's, or Zia's, Zulf's, and definitely not the kid (he doesn't really have one it seems). Instead of furthering this volatile interaction of creation and destruction by activating the Bastion and instantaneously creating a New Game+ for the player (who can then go on to stop the cycle) and give the player a meta-viewpoint on what just happened, the choice of what to do with Zulf and the Bastion opens up the moving parts of a game that you rarely had to stop and think about much. There is no more narrator, no more certainty, and it almost feels like a different game. For me, the game lost all of its energy right after the last return to the Bastion (though, I nearly groaned out loud after being presented with the choice to save Zulf). The reason why, in hindsight, all of these elements seem so out of line, because the player is called into the sort for the first time and asked to sort things out. Why now, when the story is at it's most intense? Especially with a lame still image at the end? The game was fine with recognizing its own metafiction, but to then double the meta undid a lot of the organic-feeling elements (the weapon training grounds did as well, but they were covered up enough in lore that I forgave it).

Because the game wasn't about choice at all, my journey through New Game+ revealed how the creation vs destruction elements felt very arbitrary and not integrated into the gameplay. The narration seemed more of an aesthetic choice, building up the Bastion was an illusion of involvement, and the mindless destructive nature of your avatar (yes, I said it) becomes embarrassingly apparent.