Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lollipop Chainsaw or Why Buffy Did It Better

Before I even started to talk about this game, I thought it might be nice to open with the video that plays as you start the game. This is our first introduction to Juliet Starling. She's the typical ditzy blonde head cheerleader who just also happens to fight monsters. Wait.... I'm pretty sure I've heard this story before. As a geek girl, the Whedonverse is pretty much unavoidable. I've been a fan of the movie since I was probably too young to understand a lot of its implications and I remember being scandalized in middle school when I found out they were making a television show out of it. The television show (full disclosure here and something I am completely ashamed to admit... I haven't ACTUALLY finished it despite owning every season on dvd... bad geek, i know) did a pretty good job of portraying her as a well rounded and flawed human being once you got past the ditzy candy shell. In Lollipop Chainsaw, they never manage to crack that shell. 

From minute one, Juliet is portrayed as hypersexualized and pretty much clueless. She does very flexible and suggestive yoga on her bed, takes a steamy silhouetted shower, talks about how she eats lollipops to keep her energy up (or constantly keep the gamer in mind of her oral fixation... or OMG blowjobs!), and also manages to - despite being the ideally built girl for most men - show off her insecurity about her "great big fat butt". They made it the morning of her eighteenth birthday, though most of the game she comes off sounding like a fifteen year old girl. I guess it's easier to masturbate to a scantily clad cheerleader when she's legal... even if she is just a virtual fantasy.

The most fully developed character in the game is her boyfriend Nick. I'll throw in a spoiler alert here just for courtesy sake, but it's ironic that he is one of the better characters in the game because he is actually a disembodied head. Sure, he doesn't start the game off that way, but in the prologue poor letterman Nick gets bit by a zombie while waiting for ditzy Juliet. She then does what any well-adjusted and not psychotically attached person would do and cuts off his head then performs a magical ritual to keep him alive. Nick spends much of the game attached to Juliet's belt like some sort of horrifying keychain. He gets some of the best lines in the game, but still manages to insult Juliet's "driving" (chainsaw dash is one of the skills she acquires) and objectify her as she changes between any of her barely there costumes by saying "Man, I wish I had a penis". I will give them credit as not all of her costumes are super revealing. There are two that I have unlocked so far (one a bonus for preordering with Gamestop) that actually give her a little bit of coverage. One is Ash from Evil Dead or Army of Darkness fame and the other is a version of that stuffed bunny she is hugging in the opening video. Mind you, that's two among about fifteen or so costumes.

I'm a big advocate of putting your money where your heart is and I'm not really a huge fan of the way that women in video games are treated. I could tell from minute one that this was going to be a lot of scantily clad, yet somehow virginal (she has a line about having lots of experience keeping guys out of her body), idiotic portrayals of women. That mother who causes Juliet and her sisters to "wear their vaginas proudly" is completely oblivious to the fact that her daughters and husband are monster hunters, despite the fact that her father calls it "the family business". And yet, here I am, playing this game. Why? In short, games with female main characters seems to generally do poorly. I'd rather support games with female main characters in the hopes that developers continue to make them and eventually get it right. It's a lot more complex than that, but I'm sure I'll get around to writing about that later.

It has sucked up the better part of my gaming time for the last two weeks or so because, like Shadows of the Damned, it is just fun to play. It's goofy and it's got a great sense of humor. It references George Romero (Juliet cheers for the San Romero Knights) and James Gunn's Troma days. It's not a stupid game, but it is a game clearly written with the male gamer in mind. I knew this going in because I'm familiar with the movies James Gunn has written and directed and I've played at least two Suda51 (now three) games. I adore the movie Slither and find Super to be a good though incredibly disturbing movie, but the women in them are not well-developed characters. In either movie, the female characters are reduced to little more than pedestal inhabiting virginal angels (Elizabeth Banks in Slither or Liv Tyler in Super) or hypersexualized manic pixies (Ellen Page in Super).

Quick rundown of the ways in which Juliet is poorly treated. 

1) The pole dancing combat sequences which pop up a couple of times in the game.... It's just a button mashing sequence where you get to see a cheerleader swing around a pole. At one point, she even exclaims that she could do this better in her clear lucite heels. Yeah, I'm sure Daddy was teaching Juliet pole dancing to fight monsters (or maybe it was her pervy old Japanese sensei who manages to fall face first into Juliet's breasts before !spoiler alert! dying pretty early in the game). This comes from a girl who actually did pole dancing for fitness reasons, but just playing those sequences made me feel squirmy and like I needed a shower. Not the sexy, steamed up shower door kind, but the scrub the skin off my body to get the dirt off because I'll never feel clean again kind of shower. 

2) There is actually an achievement for looking up her skirt called "I Swear! I Did It By Mistake!"... and I actually did. She generally covers up her girl parts when in a standing position, but then goes flipping around with her legs at angles I'm pretty sure can only be reached by a contortionist. The hints section makes comments about "Hey! Please don't look up my skirt!" or "Fighting in that outfit is pretty scandalous! Perv!". It's kind of ridiculous. 

3) Through the game, Juliet is supposed to rescue survivors. Most of these survivors are male and most of them manage to say pretty horrifying things. Things to which I personally would respond "You realize that I just saved your life and I'm carrying a chainsaw, right?" For instance, "I'm totally masturbating to you later" and "I never thought I'd be saved by someone with such sweet tits". Yes, this is apparently where I live now.

4) The worst offender is during one of the early boss fights with their punk rock character. This mohawked "My Chemical Romance wannabe" calls her a number of pretty horrifying things. I made a list while one of my guy friends played through the boss fight..... "stupid cooze", "whore", "sleaze", "slag", "fucking bitch", "cocksucker", "vanilla slut", "dirty slut", "barbie-looking slut", and "zombie-hunting slag" were among the ones that I caught. Would I have as much of a problem if they didn't generally pertain to her sexuality? Probably not. But that's how you go for the throat when you're a misogynist zombie punk, I guess. I mean, aside from literally lunging for the throat. Sure, Buffy was punished in the series for her sexuality quite a few times - I swear, y'all, I'll get around to finishing it and see if that trend extends past the first five seasons - but I really don't remember her often being called a whore or a slut. Generally, the vampires were pretty much just terrified of her. Or got some sort of weird undead erection over trying to kill her.

(Ending spoiler type stuff here... Just skip this next paragraph if you actually care)
5) I think the worst thing about this game for me was the fact that despite Juliet being the main character and the supposed heroine of the game, she doesn't even actually get to be the one to save the day. It is through sacrifices made by the two men in her life that the emo goth kid who orchestrated this whole zombie apocalypse is defeated. The final boss fight is a giant late in life Elvis lookalike called "Killabilly". Juliet's father makes it possible for her to reach the monster's core by jumping his motorcycle (with an absurd amount of dynamite attached to it) into Killabilly's chest. Then Juliet runs into the hole, finds a headless zombie body, and has to attached Nick's head as a "Nick bomb" to send a detonate message to the giant zombie's body. Yeah, it's a ridiculous game, but it's fun. And all is well that ends well because dear old Daddy is safe (though he thinks he lost a teste and repaired "the ol' scrote" with a staple gun) and Nick gets to return though his head ends up stuck in Juliet's sensei's body. The sensei also makes a last request of Nick... he asks that he make Juliet do lots of cartwheels in "those little white panties with the teddy bears on them".

The interesting thing is the way that Nick is an object in the game. It's the first time I've ever seen a guy's choice and agency removed in a video game. He protests early on about how he isn't sure if he can do this whole "just being a head thing", but Juliet is kind of emotionally abusive in the way that she laughs off his concerns. Her reasoning? It's like totally awesome to have a decapitated head for a boyfriend (I guess despite her oral fixation, she doesn't like giving blowjobs?) because she can sneak him into movies and he's super immune to carpal tunnel. Nick even tries to get her to leave him behind and she yells at him and tells him that he doesn't really get a choice in the matter. He points out that she has taken away his choice and made him no better than the zombies they have been fighting. They definitely aren't a picture of healthy relationship conflict resolution. It's an absolutely fascinating dynamic though, since I am so used to watching guys be the dominant decision makers in video game relationships. They get to save the girl, run off into danger without a thought for anyone else, and generally act like insensitive dicks. Juliet (despite all the aforementioned objectification and "OMG, she's a hot chick who fights zombies with a chainsaw.... let's look up her skirt or try to hang out with her after school 'cuz maybe she'll sleep with the pathetic sniveling dude she saved from zombies despite her boyfriend's head being attached to her ass like a keychain") acts like most dudes in video games.

Again, it's not a perfect game when you analyze it from a social or gender perspective, but very few things come even remotely close. Remind me to play through Heavy Rain again sometime soon and think the role of women in that one through thoroughly. I will say it is a fun game with a fair amount of replay value. I mean, she does fight zombies with a chainsaw that shoots rainbows (when asked where the rainbows come from, she just says "from awesome"... which is basically true). The controls are solid and the camera doesn't provide the same sort of frustration I've experienced in similar games. The script is pretty funny in a lot of places. James Gunn did a great job of fleshing out the concepts and characters he was provided. I will say that the soundtrack is pretty fantastic and you can customize it during replays when you find a few tracks that make you happy. It even got me to listen to a Skrillex song and (oh, man, I can't believe I am admitting this in a public forum) enjoy it. I tend to play with a four song playlist of Skrillex, Sleigh Bells' "Rhythm Riot", Toni Basil's "Hey, Mickey", and "Lollipop"... I can not remember the artist on that and I'm too lazy to look it up right now.

To finish this up (since I'm starting to rearrange my letters... apparently I get a bit dyslexic when I'm sleepy), it did bring up an interesting conversation with my fiance. He asked me at what age I would be okay with our imaginary future daughter playing a game like this... considering all of the fantastic things said to her by the males in the game. I told him that would really depend on her maturity level, but with me as a mother I doubt she would look at the behavior of the males in the game and think that their behavior was okay in any sort of way. Despite Juliet's ridiculous body image issues, she's still pretty kick ass. He didn't ask at what age I would be okay with an imaginary future son playing the same video game. Hmmm... That should be an interesting conversation.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Prototype 2

I bought The Witcher 2 and Prototype 2 on the same day. I have played through the first story based achievement in The Witcher 2 and am about 100 gamer points away from completing Prototype 2 (and have already beat the game... about halfway through my second playthrough). For someone who got to somewhere around the last boss fight and gave up on the original game, this says something about the improvements that were made to this game's mechanics.

I liked the original Prototype. It wasn't necessarily a deep story motivated by a fantastic main character. In fact, Alex Mercer is sort of a dick. He's not even close to a hero, though I think early on he is guided by the same sort of "what just happened" motivation as the main character in the game Infamous. It is, however, the sort of game where you can karate kick a helicopter out of the sky and turn your limbs into a multitude of weapons. It's just mindless slaughterhouse fun (sort of like my as of yet undeclared love for House of the Dead:Overkill on the Wii). 

I think, as yet another ethnic main character (I note this merely because the last game I recently played through was Shadows of the Damned which featured a Hispanic main character), they treated James Heller incredibly well. He has very textbook revenge motives and there is very little real development to him, but again karate kicking helicopters out of the sky. We aren't looking at deep character story here. Eventually, Heller is going to figure into a post I'd like to write about fathers in gaming. There seems to be a special place in the hearts of game developers for fathers - and for the most part damned good ones. Square Enix (or Squaresoft as I still think of them in my heads) loves to throw in a great ethnic single father into their mix of characters.

And I digress, the point of this post is simply to say that Prototype 2 is a game I began playing again immediately on finishing it. This is a very rare occurrence for me. I have games unopened - sequels and trilogies waiting to be finished. There are other things for me to be doing, but in a time when my personal life is in upheaval and my plans for the future uncertain Prototype 2 provides that perfect diversion. The controls have been vastly improved upon, so I found combat to be a fun and almost intuitive experience. When contrasted with the frustration of the original Prototype - which did manage to capture a breathtaking version of New York City - it's an incredible change. They focus less on a hundred (literally) random collectibles and give you more focused goals. The addition of Radnet is fun, but mostly because I am competitive in a very roundabout way. I like being able to check in and realize "Oh, hey, so and so beat my score in this challenge... it's on." I'm not so much of a fan of direct multiplayer where I just don't have the drive to invest in memorizing maps and controls for a single game to the point where a win feels rewarding instead of like the spirit sucking death slog of games of things like Dark Souls. 

The graphics are good, but nothing to write home about. It's just a really fantastic open world sandbox game full of infected goodness and monsters (both human and... not). If you have the chance, rent it, or pick it up. If you're thinking "But I didn't play Prototype, so I'll have no idea what is going on", they do include a convenient recap. And honestly (I feel like this bears repeating yet again), you can karate kick a helicopter out of the sky... or pounce on it and rip off any number of pieces that keep it airborne.

What can you expect from me in the future? A post about why I'm incredibly excited about the Suda51 directed and James Gunn (of Slither and Super fame) written Lollipop Chainsaw and yet also prepared for a fair amount of disappointment. I feel like it will be a hell of a lot of fun to play and I'm excited to see how they treat a female main character. Scared and excited. And that aforementioned piece about fathers and father figures in video games, probably peppered with a little commentary on how few mothers you see in them. If anyone can think of some games, I should research when writing this piece I'd be appreciative. Right now, I'm looking at a handful of Final Fantasy games, the Uncharted series, Heavy Rain, and Prototype 2.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Loners and the Push Toward a Multiplayer World

I'm a loner by nature. Despite having several siblings, I grew up an only child. I preferred the company of an imaginary friend or a book to most people. I never enjoyed sports - partly because I am not coordinated enough to be athletic and partly because most of them involve a team of some sort - and can only remember one or two close friends growing up. My best friend when I was six years old was a woman my mother used to babysit for as a teenager who was well into her fifties. Children my age made me uncomfortable and as I got older, the politics and group dynamics were complicated and completely uninteresting to me. I was the victim of some vicious rumors during my sophomore or junior year of high school and at that point, I simply excused myself from the company of the silly people who were participating in propagating the rumors.

My early introduction to video games were things that I could play with my siblings, but as I got older (and lived as my mother's only child) I got more and more into single player games. This was a place where I could immerse myself in a world that told an interesting story or let me interact with people that could only respond in certain ways. It took the unknown out of the equation when it came to dealing with other people. I also never seemed to feel the need to have others experience what I was going through in order for it to be real to me. Watching my peer group that seemed to be so much of what they were doing in high school. No one was having fun if someone wasn't watching. Nothing was real if no one else was acknowledging their existence. My reality never needed anyone else's attention to be real. (Wow, that sentence kind of makes me sound crazy.)

Lately I have seen a massive movement toward multiplayer gaming. My first real experience with it was finding out that there had been a story written into the game Left 4 Dead, but was taken out in favor of multiplayer functionality. Players would have had to unanimously vote to skip cut scenes and for some reason that didn't seem to mesh with replay value, so they nixed them. Prior to the release of many major games, I've seen people on forums posting about how they need to make the game multiplayer or they won't buy it. The DLC released for most shooters are map packs for multiplayer gaming as opposed to new pieces of the story or new missions.

This push by both consumers and game makers toward an increasingly multiplayer world distresses me. I feel like story telling suffers when games become focused on how we can experience a game as a community instead of on an individual level. There are a few exceptions to this. For instance, the Gears of War series manages to combine a cooperative multiplayer experience with excellent storytelling. I will admit that despite attending the midnight release, I still have the third installment in that series sitting here... unfinished. And yet, any DLC released for that series (as for many others) is purely geared toward the multiplayer experience.

We can make the argument that a never-ending multiplayer experience gives the gamer more game play for his or her money, except most rpg's take around 45-60 hours to complete making them cheaper as far as time investment goes than a trip to the movies. We can say that it gets people together, except most games have made it so that no more than two players can play on the same console with the same disc. I'm curious what the draw is for people who spend most of their time consumed in multiplayer gaming? What is it about the single player experience that makes it of diminished importance to today's gamers?

As someone who prefers to be alone than surrounded by people, I'm always going to look forward to games with rich single player story lines. I'm going to look forward to the games like Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, and Bioshock - which did make a paltry effort at multiplayer in Bioshock 2. There are no uncontrolled variables in a game where it is just you. I don't have to worry about people acting like jerks and exploiting glitches in the game to win an undeserved victory (like with blocking the elevator in the No Mercy campaign of Left 4 Dead). I don't have to feel like I have to explain to a bunch of guys why throwing the words "raped" and "gay" around in appropriately is offensive. I don't have to point out that it's kind of odd that they will call someone a "pussy" when they spend much of their life in pursuit of that particular piece of female anatomy - no offense meant to gay male gamers, but they don't tend to be the offenders when it comes to this sort of behavior.

Maybe to really write about this in depth I am going to have to immerse myself in some multiplayer modes on the games I already own. That piece will be a long time coming because I know I will drag my feet and find everything else in the world to do instead. I may even finish unpacking the boxes I haven't unpacked from the move - even though I have to pack them again in a few weeks. I really hate large scale multiplayer gaming, especially competitive game. I even hated the game Brink - despite how very promising it looked - because it essentially attempted to mimic the multiplayer experience while playing single player. Well, for that and the fact that it was a complete and utter disaster that failed on so many levels. Either way, my loathing of multiplayer gaming means I'll be doing a whole lot of laundry once I run out of legitimate gaming excuses to avoid it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Young Benicio Del Toro Goes To Hell With the Skull from the Dresden Files - Or Shadows of the Damned

It's taken me so long to get around to playing this game for one major reason. It seemed to be marketed and reviewed as a sort of Devil May Cry/Bayonetta type game. When I saw Shadows of the Damned suggested to me on my Xbox dashboard next to Alice: Madness Returns, I finally gave in to the little nagging voice at the back of my head. I'm really glad that I did.

First, my sole experience with Suda51 - who at first I thought was kind of a douche simply for his name, but then found out his first name is "Goichi" which translates to 5 and 1 in Japanese - had been playing the sophomoric, but very enjoyable No More Heroes. If these two games are anything to make a judgment from, Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda51 have a great sense of humor and make interesting games.

The story starts with Garcia Hotspur - a more balls than brain demon hunter who resembles a young scarred Benicio Del Toro - standing over a nearly defeated demon in a dark alley. They banter and the demon gives him the typical villainous "It's not over" blah blah blah speech before G, as his gun/sidekick is fond of calling him, blows the demon's brains all over everything. He returns home expecting to find his loving girlfriend Paula and he does find her, but he finds her hanging from a ceiling fan. And then a demon bursts out of her back and all Hell literally breaks loose. The Lord of Hell, a guy with the very unmenacing name of Fleming, shows up with Paula tucked inside his coat (leaving me with the question of where does he keep his body?) and basically tells Garcia that this is revenge for all the demons he has killed. The exchange between the two of them is a lot of creepy sexual innuendo with Fleming saying, "Admit my... endowment is larger than yours and I'll let her go." Either a sense of stereotypical Latin American machismo or a need to drive the plot further causes G to basically tell him to shove it. Fleming threatens her with all sorts of rape, torture, and repeated murders because it is hell and that's the sort of thing they are into before he jumps out the window taking Paula with him and Garcia follows into the vortex to Hell. And that's the start of the game. It's your typical damsel in distress story where the hero has to fight his way through Hell to get his girl, more often referred to as "Angel" pronounced for authenticity with the g as an h.

Before I touch on some of the problematic social issues with the game, I will tell you this was fun as hell to play. And here I apologize for the unintended pun. It's full of immature dick jokes... his transforming weapon/sidekick is named Johnson, but the primary pistol is called the Boner - eventually becoming the Big Boner and the Hot Boner. His method of transformation is basically calling a phone sex line to become a cannon like weapon that the main character fires while shouting things like "Taste my Big Boner!" There are some really cool 2d levels that look like they were made out of paper and are reminiscent of old style arcade games. Level design is beautiful, there are some simple puzzle elements, and the music is amazing. I would actually listen to the Spanish guitar style track that starts the game because I really enjoy it. There is fantastic world building here and each of the major bosses in the game gets a back story that makes them sympathetic. I actually kind of felt bad for killing some of them because their human lives were so depressingly sad. 

And here, where I talk about the gender and ethnicity problems of the game, I'm going to get a little spoiler riddled. Just a warning, not that there is any great twist.

The first thing that struck me was the main character. Hurray, an ethnic main character in a video game and one that is Hispanic! That's pretty uncommon and I love seeing diversity in video games. And then you start to listen to him talk. He's a ridiculous stereotype. A swaggering, tequila (to be fair hot sake and absinthe as well) swilling, cowboy boot wearing stereotype. He swears in Spanish, throwing out "puta", "cabron", and "pendejo" frequently. I lived in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and don't think I ever saw anything as ridiculously stereotypical of this. It's also offensive that he comes off as nearly illiterate. Those books I mentioned earlier giving the back story for each demon boss are read alternately by Johnson and Garcia. Johnson zips through in his sophisticated British accent making witty quips, while Garcia struggles like a second grader. He sometimes even has to sound out words. It was painful to experience.

And yet our hero's treatment is nowhere near as bad as the way they treat women in this game. First thing is first, but holy unhealthy relationships and objectification of women, Batman! Paula is your typical blond, alabaster skinned, perfectly built video game girl. After the initial scene where she is found hanging in a nightgown, she spends the rest of the game running around in white lingerie. There is very much something of the virgin archetype in her treatment. She is a possession caught in a tug of war between Garcia and Fleming. I'm not even sure if we ever see her as a real person. Garcia eventually tells Johnson as they are traveling through Hell that he found Paula in a dumpster. Johnson says, "Hey, I thought you met at a supermarket." Garcia admits it was a dumpster behind a supermarket. The closest this game gets to remarking on Paula's treatment as a possession is Johnson's response of "And you just brought her home and kept her?" Like she was a puppy that you found whimpering in the rain. You don't do that with people! Their "love story" evolves further as the game progresses and Garcia tells Johnson of how she didn't speak for weeks until the phone rang and she screamed at him not to answer. When he went for the phone, she tore it out of the wall. This all makes sense later when you find out - I told you spoilers were coming - that Paula is essentially the Lord of Hell's mistress and Fleming likes to harass people over the phone. There is a dynamic of Paula being highly jealous and slightly unhinged; Garcia reminisces fondly over telling her he was married (as a joke) and laughing when she came at him with a knife. The end speech even solidifies Paula's place as an object in Garcia's eyes. "I fell in love with the Lord of the Underworld's mistress and I will keep fighting until she is mine alone... because I still see love in her eyes and I love killing fucking demons." He doesn't fight for her because he loves her, but because she is a possession to him. Her adoration - which may or may not exist because I'm still not sure we ever see her when she isn't possessed in some way - is certain, but his feelings are just that he loves killing demons.

The objectification of women goes further as there are sequences where a giant topless dancing stripper - very reminiscent of Paula, but probably a result of Garcia's psyche - moans orgasmically and then bends and becomes part of the walkway that you must traverse. Paula is frequently disassembled or beheaded, literally reduced to objects and pieces. Or turned into a vessel for a demon to inhabit and as our hot-blooded Latin American stereotype main character can't keep his hands off her, he is surprised when yet another demon pops out of her. Or she goes crazy and starts chasing him, leaping to wrap her legs around him and kill with a simple kiss. Dude never learns. There is also a lot of creepy rape-y overtones to the game. An opening scene with "dead" Paula on the bed and demons crawling over her running their hands over her body. Fleming saying, "Hey, she came onto me" and referring to her as a "peach".

There is a strong female character that you never see, but is referenced in Johnson's favorite story. A story called "The Unbreakable Huntress" that he tells as you find a series of pieces of art depicting scenes from it. Basically, she is the only woman who ever made it to challenge Fleming. He makes pretty short work of her and then there is an implication of rape, where she says something along the lines of "You may have me, but you'll never own me." Fleming is impressed and she's punished for being strong by being made Queen of the Underworld so Fleming can brutally murder her over and over again. Like I said, women are NOT well treated in this game.

I will give it to the game that they give you a lot of female bosses, though all of them are or were prized for their beauty at some point. The Sisters Grim are terrifying and some of the toughest bosses in the game. Justine is easily defeated as she is fought in one of those artistically styled 2d levels, but she basically runs around in combat lingerie singing a sort of siren song and dancing in most of the cut scenes. Even Paula becomes a sort of boss at the end - though your goal is not to kill her but take off the six wings she has sprouted from her back. When she goes from damsel in distress to crazy codependent "Why didn't you save me? Why didn't you die with me if you love me? Why did you let them kill me over and over again?" shrieking angel, her hair turns red and her lingerie black. 

When Garcia ultimately saves the girl, she wakes up in their bed, surprised and grateful. They are sitting at a table where she has prepared the caprese salad he enthused about earlier in the game and some hamburgers. She says they are a "special recipe" and continues to giggle mindlessly and talk about planning a trip to Mexico to see if they'd like to settle down there. Once again, for authenticity points, Garcia says Mexico where the x is an h. The phone rings. It's Fleming, clearly, joking about how you can tell a lot about a man by what kind of meat he likes between his buns. Like I said, it's sophomoric humor and dick jokes, but it somehow works. The demons come, Fleming kidnaps what he considers his girl, Garcia goes after her, wash, rinse, and repeat I assume. 

One of these days I'm really going to have to analyze why I continue to play games where females are marginalized and treated the way they are in games like this. I even enjoyed this game and feel a sort of shame about that. More so, I'm looking forward to Suda51's next venture with director James Gunn - who did the movies Slither and Super - called Lollipop Chainsaw. It's got a female main character who is a blond pig-tailed zombie-murdering cheerleader. I guess I'm just going to have to balance out my desire to see "real" or at least real adjacent female characters with the fun experience of playing games from Grasshopper Manufacture.

And I really need to hook up my Wii and go play No More Heroes again. It was sophomoric, but I can't remember if the women were treated anything like this.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Catherine and Sexism - It's Not What You Think

I've been reading a lot of articles lately about sexism and gaming or feminist characters in young adult novels. These are things that have been on my mind a lot lately. I suppose in order to finally the argument with my fiance about whether Bella or Katniss is a better character or even a good feminist role model for young women, I'll have to finish dragging myself through Twilight - for the record I made it through two books and would rather drag myself through a field of salt and broken glass after having all my skin flayed from my body. I've linked to a lot of these articles on my Facebook page or you can always follow me on Twitter at girlvszombie. I also recommend following the fantastic femmissgeek as she was the source I found most of the articles through.

In particular, there was this article about gamers as a community working to remove sexism from games. As with most things, I have points where I agree and disagree, but it got me to thinking about the game Catherine. 

Yes, Catherine is absolutely guilty of putting women in sexually provocative positions and turning them into objects. In the booklet that came with the game there is even a picture of Catherine eating pizza that looks like something else entirely when first viewed because of the way the booklet opens.

For those of you not familiar with Catherine, it is a game that follows a guy at the crossroads of a relationship. He's been sort of happily plodding along for a few years in this relationship with his girlfriend Katherine. On the day that she starts to pressure him - because her parents are bothering her about it and because of what her friends are doing - about finally getting married, he gets drunk at the bar he goes to every night (for drinks with his buddies) and meets a bubbly, young blond named Catherine whom he wakes up next to in the morning with no recall of what happened the night before. Katherine and Catherine are both blondes and conventionally attractive. Catherine is definitely a male sexual fantasy and she is very much meant to be and you can definitely see this as all very sexist.

The real problem comes from the fact that this game had a really great chance to explore relationships. It took the opportunity to make a game that would be interesting to both sexes and completely attempted to alienate women. Katherine is reduced to a shrill harridan most of the time, pressuring the main character about getting married and having children. She nags and sends passive aggressive text messages. She's the stereotype of what an adult relationship is to most adolescent males. She's the reason that a bachelor party is this sort of funeral dirge for the freedom of the groom. It's supposed to be the choice to grow up, the choice to be a mature adult and yet there is nothing really mature about the relationship.

Catherine is reduced to a male fantasy - with one exception. She's the 22 year old that a guy takes home from the bar with no honorable intentions and finds clinging to him and expecting a relationship. Some of her first lines in the game are about how relationships and marriage are almost unnatural and like prison. That it is better to be free. In both situations, the main character finds himself trapped between two women who both want to trap him in a relationship. Catherine couldn't have just been telling the truth about not taking anything seriously. She couldn't have just slipped out quietly in the morning and left it at that. Instead we are repeatedly subjected to scenes where she either shows up at the bar at the end of the night or wakes up purring about last night and how she's never let anyone do THAT with her before.

Without getting all spoiler riddled on you, I'll say that the game gets a lot more complicated than all that. It's a choice between chaos and order. It has multiple endings and to some degree, it explores relationships and fidelity and the choices that MEN make. I enjoyed it a lot, but the portrayal of women was insanely offensive and I'd even say that the portrayal of men is offensive as well.

Sure, this ordinary guy bumbling through life manages to nail a barely legal centerfold and she acts like she wants to be unattached and just blow his mind with the sort of sex men imagine happens with gymnasts or yoga instructors. Sounds great, right? I mean, aside from the fact that it removes all agency from the main character. He's basically helplessly lead around by his penis. He's riddled by guilt, he resolves not to do it again, and every morning there she is again. I mean, it is possible that women are supernatural succubi that men are helpless to resist, but I'd like to think that men are a little stronger than a tempting pair of breasts and legs. Shouldn't men be just as offended by their portrayal as weak and spineless walking erections as women are when they are portrayed as little more than tits and ass? Shouldn't they be offended by being reduced to the corruptors and betrayers of women?

Despite its rampant sexism, primarily reducing men and women to relationship stereotypes, this game is a lot of fun. I enjoyed the puzzle solving aspect and watching the peripheral relationships that surround the central story line are interesting. Men reflecting on the women they have wronged, their relationships with their mothers, and the one that got away. The regret and resolve and maturity of these peripheral characters is really and truly interesting. The "boss" characters that chase the main character up the steps at the end of each night are often pretty horrifying, but again generally they are just the things that are supposed to scare men about women, relationships, and commitment.

And to think, this isn't even the post I had planned for you. I've still got a lengthy piece on Suda51 and Grasshopper Studios' Shadows of the Damned and its portrayal of both ethnicity, relationships, and gender roles.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Alan Wake's American Nightmare and Serena Valdivia

I'm probably half asleep and nowhere near coherent at this moment in time, so I'm going to just apologize for that right off the bat. Earlier this week I downloaded Alan Wake's American Nightmare. Eventually, since this blog is new and I've got so many games I'd love to discuss with you all, I'll get around to talking about how much I loved that game. I'm also going to say there may be minor spoilers involved in the discussion of this game, most specifically toward the end. I generally try to avoid them, but talking about what I'd eventually like to get to go it makes them a sort of inevitability.

There is something in Alan Wake games that is about creativity and shaping the world around you with words. For someone who spent her childhood writing strange short stories and one strange summer between junior high and high school writing an embarrassing almost novel, seeing this play out in a video game is incredibly fulfilling. This standalone Xbox Arcade game is actually incredibly fulfilling.

You don't HAVE to have played the first game to understand it - though I'm still going to recommend it. Love or hate Alan Wake it does something that very few games, especially in the survival horror genre, even attempt these days.

This game follows Alan Wake and his battle with a terrifying alter ego Mr. Scratch. The easiest way to describe this game's villain is to make a comparison to the Joker from Batman. He is rampant unchained id. At turns he is charming, funny, sexy, and the sort of girl that mothers warn their daughters to avoid at all costs. And then he turns into Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Though I've never found the Alan Wake games particularly violent, there is something about the implied offscreen violence of Mr. Scratch that is truly disturbing. In a world where we show every drop of blood, every slice of the knife, every bullet exploding through a human body followed by a ballet of viscera, this is the equivalent of the the shower scene in Psycho. And it serves to be terrifying. Just listening to him describe the pros and cons of each weapon, the things he plans on doing to destroy Alan Wake's loved ones, my skin crawled. It's a truly admirable feat.

The only thing that got me feeling a little squicky about the game was the treatment of a particular female character. Alan Wake's American Nightmare is filled with damsels in distress, ladies to be saved from dark and terrifying fates. This isn't surprising considering that Alan Wake revolved around saving Alan's wife Alice.

In American Nightmare, Alan encounters three new female characters. A tough female mechanic, a scientist, and a projectionist/curator of the new Alice Wake film project that is going to be shown in town. Each of these characters encounters Mr. Scratch and confuses Alan with him initially. They each have their particular feelings about him. The first two characters are treated with a deal of respect. They are competent and helpful and without them Alan might well be stuck forever.

And then you get to the projectionist Serena Valdivia. Your first introduction to her is hearing her speaking in a seductive voice before you even enter the building. And your first encounter with her isn't too bad. You get the lights restored, she stops acting like a mindless sexual fantasy, and tells Alan about how creepy and disgusting she finds Mr. Scratch. How something about him just feels wrong. Like the Taken in both of the games, you get the feeling that she was possessed by the darkness and not really herself. The lights come on, she's a little dazed, but she is at least a human being again.

It doesn't get truly disturbing until the third time you have to deal Serena. From outside the building, you can once again hear her seductively yowling. There is something reminiscent of the insistent pleading screeches of a cat in heat. This third time her rampant sexual distraction is turned up to eleven. Alan enters the building and there is a cut scene where she says, "You could hold me down, I know you like that. Or I could be your wife, little wifey waiting for hubby, or you could be the mailman or the neighbor." Alan, ever the hero and still in love with his wife, politely turns her down. 

I couldn't help my brain from going to the rape/incapable of consent place that clearly had to have occurred before the scene with Alan. As the player sees time and time again, Mr. Scratch is pretty much a deplorable sociopath. But he's also portrayed as the charming sort of guy who could get a girl out of her pants with a wink and a smile. When Alan persists in being single minded in his task, she says, "But I want to be nasty. I want to be nasty with you." After the disgust from before, this just felt weird and awkwardly wrong to me. Why take a game that has been pretty decent in its treatment of female characters and then turn one of the characters into a mindless sex toy? My opinion may change once I replay Alan Wake, but it seems strange that this is the first time we see a female possessed by the darkness and instead of becoming one of the Taken - who are all male in both games - she becomes a brainless succubus.

Having devoted three paragraphs to this, I still have to say that despite the squick factor I enjoyed the game. The story mode plays through pretty quickly and leaves the player with a feeling of resolution. It's a world we're assured that we'll be revisiting again as Alan's story isn't quit over. The addition of an arcade mode in which Alan must survive for ten minutes against wave after wave of Taken on a variety of maps is pretty satisfying and has easily sucked up a few hours of my life.

As a whole, I'd recommend it. It's worth the price and attempting to score over 50,000 points on any of the arcade maps can keep the player occupied for enough time that he feels he gets an experience worth the fifteen dollars they are charging for it.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

More Thoughts On Being A Geek - Regularly Scheduled Programming to Resume Soon

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I've always been a little strange. At first it was the sort of normal things that children with overactive imaginations did. I went on safari with imaginary friends under tables, I had fantastic explanations for everything, and like every small child I needed to know why. Not just why I was supposed to listen to adults or look both ways before crossing the street, but I needed to know how things worked. I read incessantly and absorbed knowledge like a sponge. I had a microscope and was making slides of drops of my own blood, small sections of plants, fleas that i caught on my dog. I took a scalpel and dissected the organs that came bundled up in parchment paper inside of the chicken my mother was making for dinner that night. My fascination with why didn't exactly make me popular and I certainly never felt like I fit in.

I was most often found with my nose buried in a fantasy or science fiction book, books so large that other kids who would rather be running and playing tetherball at lunch or recess teased me for reading the dictionary. I volunteered in the library at my school - something reserved as a punishment for most kids at my school - because I found comfort in alphabetizing and order. In high school this translated to me retreating to the second floor of the library to read poems in languages I barely understood where I knew no one would bother me. Or hanging out in the computer lab.

For me, being a geek wasn't a label. It wasn't a way to define myself. It was just who I was. And you can say that it was something I reclaimed, a name that other people called me as a child in an attempt to hurt me, but that's not really the truth. As a kid I was never the sort of girl to shrug and say "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me". I was the sort of kid who sat there and let you run your mouth until you pissed me off enough to get a warning and after that I felt completely justified in nearly giving you a concussion with the spine of the book I was reading at the time - say what you will about Robert Jordan but his books made excellent weapons for a scrawny fourth grade girl.

The point is that I spent at least eighteen years of my life NOT fitting in and then I discovered I had something of which to be truly and genuinely proud. All of those eclectic little interests that I'd gathered up over the years, my love of video games, my growing interest in comic books, science fiction and fantasy novels, weird movies .... there were lots of other people like me. I discovered the geek community and suddenly I was embraced for being strange. There are all stripes and color of geek. We are a varied group of people, but there is a place for everyone. We're the island of the misfit toys and there is something so beautiful about that. When you spend a lifetime thinking that you're unusual and vaguely hoping that by some mistake you were lost by alien parents who will eventually come to take you back to your home planet, it's an unbelievable relief to find that you are not alone.

And then I read something like this article about "fake geek girls" and it makes me incredibly sad. I suppose that when you've spent your life feeling like an outsider and you begin to watch what seemed to be an exclusive part of your culture go mainstream, you start to become slightly territorial. There is always a sort of inner subculture "well, i did it first" attitude. You are always going to have your snobs who become concerned with the authenticity of everyone else. The sort of hipster geeks who are playing table top role playing games that you have never even heard of and will abandon them the second they become mainstream. What I have learned is that no matter what culture you're in - except possibly for some strange testosterone fueled frat boy bro subset - nobody likes a douche. Like Wil Wheaton says, "Don't be a dick."

I'll be the first to admit that I've been guilty of my own little inner geek subculture cattiness. I tease a demographic I call casual frat boy gamers in a good-natured ribbing sort of way. And yet I don't think there is ever a time when I would want to be participate in the exclusionary clique behavior that seems to encompass nearly every other subculture. I'd like to think that most of the community shares this view with me. So let's not ever exclude people for  being "not geek" enough or question their authenticity. Offer to share the geeky things that turn you on because you might just find someone who never realized how comfortable you can be once you learn that there are people who will love you for being just as strange as you can imagine.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

For the first time in longer than I can remember, I purchased a video game and completed it in the same day. The game in question? Resident Evil: Operation Racoon City. I have some pretty mixed feelings about this game.

As the name of my blog might have indicated, I'm a sucker for anything when it comes to killing zombies. I was weirdly excited about the fact that I was able to play through a large portion of Dead Island before firearms were even an option. If you think this is weird, sit down and discuss your zombie plan with me sometime. I made a hobby out of telling guys in bars why their chosen firearm or local megastore hideout was the reason they would be dead within five minutes. As huffy as they got about being schooled by a girl, very few of them were able to fault my logic. When it comes to zombie killing goodness, Resident Evil: ORC definitely filled this need for me. I will admit that it was mostly enemies from previous games (with one exception that I won't ruin for anyone), but considering the fact that the game occurs during the same timeline as Resident Evil 2 you can't really fault them.

What really bothered me about the game was that it didn't feel like a Resident Evil game. We've been complaining for years about the fact that you can't move and use your gun at the same time in Resident Evil and to some degree I came to miss that. With this game it seems like they made more of a push toward the "I won't buy a game if it doesn't have multiplayer modes out the wazoo" crowd. I'm a bit of a loner when it comes to video games. I like playing by myself. If I'm terrible or amazing, it doesn't matter. I don't have to listen to twelve year olds talk trash because I'm a girl... which may sound like a little thing, but there comes a time when you find yourself telling a mouthy twelve year old to come back when his balls drop and he no longer sounds like a little girl and you just shake your head at yourself. I will say that since those days I've become a lot better at not engaging with the ignorant trolls who think that it requires a penis to operate a video game controller. But I digress. The game basically plays like Left 4 Dead co op with a little Gears of War mixed in for good measure. I haven't touched the multiplayer non-campaign modes yet. I will say they did a good job giving you an even mix of male and female characters. It doesn't really matter one way or the other, but it is nice to have the option.

My criticism doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy it, but I will say that if you are expecting the experience we have come to love from Resident Evil games I would simply wait for Resident Evil 6 and hope that they move away from this squad based first person shooter action. It's a far cry from the beginnings of the survival horror genre. These days Silent Hill - no matter how convoluted the stories get - has the market cornered there.

So what's next for this gamer girl? I'm spending the next few hours playing Alan Wake: American Nightmare and ruminating on the role of fathers and husbands in video games. It's been a topic on my mind since I started noticing the predominant role of father figures in video games and a distinct lack of women in similar roles. I also have Silent Hill Downpour to play through and the I Am Alive demo to check out.

On Being A Geek

Felicia Day, one of the few media relevant geek girls I admire, reposted an article today about fake girl geeks. I won't bother linking to the article because it was pretty much about geekdom being an exclusive club defined by an obsessive knowledge of a particular obscure genre. The article in and of itself was ridiculous, but it touched on a particular pet peeve of mine.

There is a subset of women - even a few with some degree of fame within geek and gamer circles - who saw a way to gain attention by exploiting a particular niche. It is as though they thought "Hey, I'm good looking and the geek culture is starved for girls like that so I can get famous by exploiting that". I'm not going to name any names because it is simply in bad taste. I will say one of them recently popped up in the final game in a certain widely played trilogy. When your claim to geek girl fame is licking a piece of gaming hardware that manages to look less plastic than your skin.... well, you know who you are and you know what you're doing.

I realized I haven't really given anyone a proper introduction here. I'm a gamer girl - among other flavors of geekdom that i inhabit - and have been as such since i was about six years old. If my fascination with video games had a birthday, it would now be old enough to enjoy the whiskey of which I am so very fond. When asked about the games I play, I pretty much tell people that my girl card was revoked because I own somewhere well over 350 video games. I read comic books. I enjoy science fiction and fantasy novels, though more science fiction as I've gotten older. As someone who has spent most of her life feeling like she was on the outside, I love the fact that geek culture is ultra inclusive. Do I resent the fact that comic book conventions have been swarmed by fans of movies and television shows because studios figured it was profitable to market there? Yes. Would i ever laugh at anyone who demonstrated a general lack of knowledge about geeky things, but a genuine desire to learn? No.

What I do take umbrage with is the fact there is a certain subset of women who use geek culture and its general male dominated membership to make a play for attention. It sort of reminds me of Agent Perrotta, a character featured in an episode of Bones that took place in Los Angeles. She is constantly trying to parlay her career with the FBI into something like Temperance Brennan's fame and fortune. She pesters Temperance about reading a screenplay and is constantly seeking advice about things like getting an agent. Agent Booth calls her out on it, basically saying that working for the FBI is a noble cause in and of itself and should not be used to turn yourself into a fame whore. This is exactly how I feel about fake geek girls. It's dishonest and exploitative to something that is a genuine part of many people. We find acceptance and fulfillment in our chosen subculture. It is offensive to us to use it to further other ambitions when it is not something about which you are actually passionate.

If you're new to the culture and it is something you are genuinely interested in, don't be afraid. Ask questions and be open to learning. We're the subculture that allows and includes everyone, but phonies? Screw those guys.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mass Effect 3 and the Rise of Spoiled Consumers

Like much of the video gaming world, I spent the last two weeks rapidly consuming the final installment in the Mass Effect trilogy. When I reached the end, I was struck by the fact that this was the end of a series that I've invested considerable time in over the last five years or so. As I played through and encountered characters from the previous game, it felt a little like running into old friends. I sat back and contemplated the question of organic versus synthetic life and how the invention of true artificial intelligence and synthetic life forms would change the development of humanity. There will be a coming post on seeing an ending come to a story in video gaming as opposed to the stream of releases in the certain series. I hate seeing a story told well beyond its viability because people are still willing to blindly throw money at it, even buying games they have played before because it has been graphically updated.

This morning I woke to the news that a gamer had filed a complaint with the FTC against Bioware due to the ending of the game. And that the creators of Mass Effect had caved to fan pressure and were changing the endings. Processing this information made my head want to explode. There is sort of privilege among the consumers of television and video games that I have yet to see in other mediums. It is as though they feel they are entitled to a say in the formation of art forms that they have no role in other than their consumption. I have never seen people protest the ending of a book. I was a fan of Chuck Palahniuk's early novels, but as they started to deteriorate with things like Lullaby and Diary I just stopped reading. I chose not to consume something that disappointed me. There seems to be this sense of entitlement on the rise with consumers.

Last year the television show Game of Thrones faced fan backlash when they remained loyal to the story as written by George R.R. Martin. People protested as though the show's creators would go back and refilm, changing the entire course of the story by removing a key plot point. I laughed then at the audacity of an audience telling the creators of art how and what to create. And it has happened again with Mass Effect 3, but this time the result is that the creators are planning on changing the end, catering to the pressure of consumers. Where did this sense of entitlement come from and is it okay that we as consumers change the shape of works of art to fit our wants?

In a time when most media is pirated and available for consumption without paying for it, has money given consumers the power to change what they consume? With the rise of television shows that require audience voting to determine the outcome, do we feel we have the right to tell artists what and how to create? Is it okay to cry foul and file lawsuits every time we feel cheated by an ending or a storyline? I've always believed that we make choices with our money. We choose to spend money on things that we find worth it. And that is how we speak. If an installment in a series of games, a movie, a television series, or even an album, disappoints us, we stop spending time and money investing. I hate the idea that whining over our disagreements with an artist's decision could change the face of what is created.

With that said, I have read a little further into the complaints on Mass Effect 3's ending and it is less a problem with the ending of the game than it is a problem with the choice to disregard all the choices we have made through out the games. I understand being disgruntled because consumers were sold a world that changes based on the decisions you make and the ending ignores that game mechanic. Every choice you've made, whether or not to be an honorable person, does not matter because you are given three options at the end. I still don't agree with the idea that we can involve lawsuits to tell a company that creates art WHAT to create, but I understand expressing displeasure with what was created.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More Thoughts On Women in Gaming

Right on the heels of my last post about there not being any decent female characters for younger girl gamers, along comes the demo for the XBLA and PSN Scarygirl. It's a cute little 2d platformer with a sort of Tim Burton for kids aesthetic. I'm not surprised at all to find out that it is based on a graphic novel. I'm contemplating purchasing it for the sole purpose of giving a detailed review.

What I do know so far is that it is adorable. It features a little orphan girl who is basically raised by an octopus. She has a tentacle for an arm and wears an eyepatch like a pirate. This tentacle is used to grapple onto things and generally beat the daylights out of enemies. It's not an overly violent game - no much more than Super Mario Bros or Sonic the Hedgehog. Consider my interest piqued. When I clear my plate a little, it's definitely on the agenda.

I also discovered another really strong female character - though definitely out of the ESRB's recommendations for young gamers. I'm a little late to the game, but I've had Uncharted and Uncharted 2 sitting around for ages. I was about 30% through Uncharted and got sidetracked by things... other shiny game type things. This is a common occurrence for me. At any given moment, I am in the middle of ten different games with two or three I haven't even touched yet. 

I'm going to come right out and say it. I've got a little bit of a girl crush on Elena Fisher. She's tough, but still gets to be vulnerable in little ways. Drake still does that manly "gotta protect the girl" thing and she calls him on it. In a scene where he says he doesn't want her "bullet riddled corpse on his conscience", she turns around and basically tells him to quit if he wants to but not to blame it on her. She pops up and gets injured and is definitely used for a little emotional manipulation, but what is interesting is Drake's reaction. Whatever happens to Elena, the response is meant to fill in more of Drake's character. It's meant to humanize him and show that he isn't just a ruthless treasure hunter. It's meant to show that he has a softer side; underneath that scruffy shell, he's got *gasp* emotions. She's not a pawn to get the audience to react or cry. Watching her drive a jeep along the edge of a cliff in the jungle got me cheering on my couch. Their banter makes the games so much better, but the dialogue in the games is amazing. They got real voice actors to do it. It's very much like playing a very long action movie. Like National Treasure if Nicolas Cage hadn't been replaced by one of those animatronic Disney robots about a decade ago.

Chloe is another great character in the Uncharted franchise, but I've always been a fan of the girls that get to actually be one of the boys. She gets to have her twists and turns and bits of character development. I'm really waiting to see how this whole thing shakes out since Elena and Chloe both make appearances in Uncharted 3. I do find it interesting that they imply a sexual relationship between Chloe and Drake, but I don't find his romantic entanglements to be central to the characters. They are motivated by things other than how dreamy they find Drake. They get to be real people with dimensions and all. The Uncharted games have definitely been a pleasant surprise.

I'm about 40% through Uncharted 3, so I'll have to see how I feel when it is all said and done. Last thought, the graphics were amazing. In one cut scene, I may have actually been able to count the hairs on the back of Nathan Drake's neck - which of course lead my crazy brain down the path of how often he gets his haircut and how hard it must be to find a proper barber out in the middle of nowhere.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Female Characters in Gaming

Recently I had an interesting experience. I was browsing used video games at a local used books/music/instruments/games/everything under the sun store while my boyfriend purchased the things we had decided on buying - Martin Millar's The Good Fairies of New York and Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal plus a few DVD's of the boyfriend's choosing. I heard my boyfriend's voice telling a random guy, "You would really want to talk to her about that" before pointing me out to a boy in his early 20's. The boy in question was looking for an older console game that featured a lot of violence and story as a secondary consideration. Most of the games that I was able to point out to him were things that he had already played - which will happen when you're playing a console that is about five or more years out of date. I did point out two games to him - one in the survival horror genre and the other a sort of hack and slash game. The first game was Fatal Frame which he dismissed because it was out of his price range - and judging from his reaction to the second game I game I suggested, he probably wouldn't have been very interested in it.

The second game I suggested was Primal. You can read the description of Primal at the Amazon site. Following Parasite Eve - which is now available on the Playstation Network on the PS3 - this was one of the first really strong female characters I encountered in video gaming. I absolutely adored this game and for its generation the graphics are strong, even the slightly faulty game mechanics aren't a total turn off and still a sight better than the fact that you still can't run and use your gun simultaneously in a game in the Resident Evil franchise. When I tried to explain the fantastic story and action in the game, I watched his eyes gloss over. He regained interest when I pointed out some games that I had never played, but had heard were notorious for their over the top gore and general pointlessness. I advised him to update his console, left him to contemplate what I had told him, and had a great laugh with the boyfriend in the car about the whole thing. It never ceases to amuse us that my boyfriend can't stand video games and I get constantly told that I don't "look like a gamer"... whatever that is supposed to mean.

This entire story came back to me this morning while I was reading this blog post by the fantastic Catherynne M. Valente. Her point is primarily about games that tend to be aimed at a younger audience having a "girls are yucky" vibe and relegating women to useless babbling shrews who can't shut up about marriage. This is absolutely true in my experience. I play across all three current generation consoles and I own both a PSP and a Nintendo DS. I have stayed away from the Nintendo 3DS because I have very little interest in this whole "3D" fad - even got a little nauseous when boyfriend and I went to see Underworld: Awakening in 3D. Looking at the major players in video games, Nintendo consoles are the most kid-friendly. Briefly browsing the Nintendo DS titles will show a disturbing trend. You can spot a game marketed to girls by the loopy handwriting on the front and the use of the color pink. Most of these games tells girls that they can take care of babies and puppies, or be fashion designers or any number of other ridiculous "girls are fluffy, soft, delicate creatures" messages. And then I started to think back on the games I enjoyed when I started playing video games around the age of 7.

The first games I remember playing are things like Gradius, Joust, and Rad Racer. I was generally bored with the Super Mario Bros. franchise, though I spent a fair amount of my childhood playing them with my brother. I think, even then, the whole damsel in distress your princess is in another castle shtick bored me. Princess Peach was fun as an addition in Super Mario Kart, but I think there was a level of equality. You were racing and the sole objective was to win. When I played Super Mario RPG, it was hard to get excited about Princess Peach because she just seemed so weak. Bowser got a spiked medicine ball on the end of a chain, Mario got a hammer, Geno got a wand that shot stars, and Princess Peach got... a parasol? Her attacks were so weak as to be ineffectual and she ultimately got shoved into the "i'm a girl, so healing magic has got to be my thing" box. 

I have to thank my brother for introducing me to Final Fantasy VII when I was thirteen or fourteen. For the first time, I was seeing female characters in video games that weren't just damsels in distress. Aeris still had weak attacks, dressed in pink, and was sort of a fluffy romantic flower girl - BUT she got a staff and you could equip her with some pretty powerful magic... well, until the end of disc one. If you don't know what happened at the end of disc one by now (fifteen years later), I'll try not to spoil it, but I'll say it was frustrating to no longer be able to play one of the female characters I'd been leveling up for about a third of the game. Tifa was one of the strongest female characters I had encountered up to that point in a video game. She got to punch things, kick them, and do serious damage. Replaying the game now, I see that she is still largely defined by her relationship to Cloud and has her silly romantic girl moments. They all still fall into background roles though.

For awhile it seems that Squaresoft (or Square Enix as they are now called) was the primary provider of strong female characters. We got a female villain in Final Fantasy VIII and the females in Final Fantasy X were particularly powerful. My favorite Square character was Aya Brea from the Parasite Eve series who got two games on the original Playstation console and then disappeared for a decade or so. She was a strong character with unbelievable power, didn't have to rely on male characters to save the day, and was fighting a female villain - at least in the first one. I am only part of the way through The 3rd Birthday - the third installment in the Parasite Eve franchise that doesn't even get to bear the name of the franchise (possibly because you really only saw the titular Eve in the first game) - which arrived to little fanfare and hardly any ad attention last year. It has its strong points and its weak points, but for the most part when looking for strong female characters Aya still gets to kick ass. She is even joined by a pretty incredible female sniper.

I'm going to stay away from the Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, and Dragon Age franchises because they allow you the option of choosing the gender of your main character. They provide female and male characters on both end of the spectrums, and in most cases allow for homosexual relationship options... which is all pretty progressive stuff. I'm just more concerned, in this post, with the portrayal of female main characters (though Trishka gets a mention for being a NPC who gets to be just as powerful, foul-mouthed, and ass-kicking as the boys in the very poorly marketed  and fairly sophomoric Bulletstorm).

I can't really speak to Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider franchise, but from the outside she seems pretty tough and capable - though she is designed with an impossible figure. I guess I could call her a female Batman, sans cape and secret identity. Smart, physically fit in a way that takes some serious genetic gifts or surgical enhancement, and born into wealth. And instead of fighting crime, she mostly just hunts shiny treasures.

I know a lot more about characters like Ruby from WET, Faith from Mirror's Edge, and Alice from the American McGee's Alice series. I pretty much listed them in the order in which I adore them. Ruby is a whiskey-swilling assassin, but loses points for often having more balls than brains and having to be bailed out by the boys a few times in the game. She's also pretty clearly designed to entice male gamers by being classically "hot". Lots of leather and breasts that defy gravity. Whatever you have to do to get a guy to play a game with a female main character, I guess. Faith and the other runners from Mirror's Edge (that we see in game) are female. They are strong characters on the outskirts of the law with their support characters primarily being male. I suppose this could be analyzed as a form of prostitution with the females taking all the risk while the male characters get to sit back in safely insulated environments, but I'm going to choose to interpret Faith as a strong character. 

Alice gets to be in a class all her own. Alice: Madness Returns focuses on a female character who has already spent an entire game dealing with an internal world that helps her cope with the trauma of her family's house burning to the ground and leaving her the sole survivor. Years later and Alice has to go back to Wonderland. This game is dark and creepy, but my favorite part of it is that the entire plot of the game revolves around Alice dealing with psychological trauma in a very badass way. By all rights, Alice could be a victim, but instead she is a survivor. She fights and takes care of herself, ultimately becoming her own savior as well as the savior of others. Pretty damned impressive for a female character in a video game. Then again, I'm always partial to characters and story lines that find internal ways of dealing with external psychological trauma. Just look at how much I love the comic and cartoon series The Maxx.

How much of this has to do with a lack of females in video game development? How much of it has to do with the idea that there isn't really a market for video games that feature female main characters? If you look way back to the beginning of this post, how much of it has to do with male gamers being uninterested or unwilling to play as a female character because they are incapable of seeing them as being just as tough as Master Chief or Marcus Fenix? I honestly don't have the answers to those questions, but I do know that I feel sorry for little girls playing video games these days. It isn't until you start getting into games rated T or M by the ESRB that you start seeing tough, capable female characters that are even sometimes allowed emotional vulnerability. Basically, it isn't until after they've been shoved away from video games with a lot of negative advertising and messages from their male peers that "video games aren't for girls" that they even have access to the sort of female characters that they can look at and identify with.