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.