Monday, 1 July 2013

The disappointment of Kazumi and the joy of The Last Of Us.

*** WARNING: Discussions of an explicit nature below, plus spoilers for The Last Of Us ***

When approaching the world of anime and manga, there are a few things worth keeping in mind. Most media (just like Western media generally) will fall back on uncomfortable tropes and cliches. People will be stereotyped because of race, gender and age, and unhelpful/dangerous "ideals" will be presented. And as with any cultural background, a whole new set of problems arises. In order to best appreciate the medium, a working knowledge of these issues helps to get to the essence of the story, without being too bogged down by the shocking characterisations and uncomfortable visuals around every corner.

Today's post is about how very happy I was with The Last Of Us, and how very disappointed I was with the first volume of Puella Magi Kazumi Magica and for largely the same reasons. I think I'll start with the bad.

Kazumi starts off with a naked, teenage girl in a box. Enough said? I wish. This girl is the essence of cutesy. She steers clear of the helplessness depicted by many other "moe" characters, but of course she doesn't get off completely. She's an amnesiac. One that loves cute clothes, eating everything on her plate, and  hates it when people have bad skin and when women try to do men's jobs. Ouch. I might be being a little harsh, but not much.

This comes from the IP that turned the magical girl genre on its head, with a gritty depiction of the reality of this trope. How do these powers manifest? What must be given up in order to wield such power? And how can we still appeal to the loli-lovers?

Within the first half of the book, she's forgotten to wear a skirt, (which exposes her underwear, but when she DOES wear a skirt, it's clear she isn't wearing any because half of her bottom is exposed from above anyway) and she's had run ins with two witches with problematic representations. One is a woman trying to succeed in a man's profession, and the other is a cosmetics salesperson who preys on girls with ugly skin and damaged hair. This is hardly progressive stuff, but please. I've been dying for more Puella Magi, and now this?

Let's talk about some good things. I was very pleased with the brief discussions of our own ability to be drawn into and taken over by depression (a running theme of the series) and the other two girls in the witch-fighting trio are girls with drive and ambition. There you go. A balanced review? Hardly. But it's the best you'll get.

For all the aforementioned reasons and more, The Last Of Us represents a better look at how characterisation should be handled. These aren't just characters breaking the mould, these are characters for whom race, gender, age and sexuality have no bearing on their potential and demeanor. The best character is the 14 year old Ellie, a product of the post-apocalyptic world who has seen horrors and knows what she needs to do to survive. There isn't time for fear. All these characters exist in a world 20 years after the collapse of mankind at the hands of a strain of cordyceps that attacks humans, adding a great pseudo-scientific spin on the zombie apocalypse trope. They don't have time or energy for terror and grief, which is ultimately the main character flaw of our other main character, Joel. Without wanting to be too spoiler-heavy, the cliche of the white, male hero is turned on its head in a glorious and unsettling way. Stick it out to the end, people. The payoff is marvelous.

The leader of the main organisation trying to right the capsized boat called humanity, is a young, driven, black woman, and one of the very few characters with a still-functioning sense of morality. There is at least one (living) homosexual character in the plot, and he is gruff, resourceful and jaded. His sexuality is only referenced by a few mentions of his "partner" and a side-splitting scene involving Ellie and a magazine; a moment which makes up one of several poignant set-pieces that emphasize the need to hold on to what humanity remains.

This is a story about dealing with grief, resourcefulness in the face of terror and ultimately a tale which leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, with little hope for humanity (not their survival, but their worth, generally). This is not a happy tale, but one as thought-provoking as it is well-executed.

I'd like to see more genre-defying IP's like The Last Of Us, and less like Puella Magi Kazumi Magica, thank you. You may not constitute the essence of a typical Magical Girl fare, but you're riddled with cliches and sexism, Kazumi.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Tumblr Blog of Daily Sketches

Wooo. You are correct, I have started a tumblr blog of daily sketches. I will be uploading one sketch every weekday to my tumblr.

Here's a sample:

See you around!

Lots of love,


Friday, 10 May 2013

Drawing More Cats

Or are there just more drawings of a few cats?

I love drawing these kitties! Now to make a living out of it...

Take care,


Drawing cats

I've been inspired by my wife's beautiful sketches, and the lovely comic, Cats Are Weird, by Jeffrey Brown.

I'm going to draw some cats.

Too late! I did it already!


Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Drawing again

I miss drawing. Once upon a time I drew !chickens to go with every post and even added some to worksheets for my students. Time to practice!

Here's a koala for no reason:

Take care.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Dragon's Crown and Those Breasts

There's a certain context missing to the debate/discussion around the sexism in Dragon's Crown. If you haven't read the articles or seen the trailers, here's a recap: Dragon's Crown is a 2D brawler with stunning artwork, but heavily (to the point of being grotesque) sexualised female characters. Were' talking disturbingly large, exposed breasts with child-like faces. Nothing we haven't seen out of shonen manga, or... so much anime.

Jason Schreier wrote up an interesting article, with some potentially childish language. He needed to fired off a follow-up article as an apology for some of his terminology, but mostly to draw attention to the homophobic response given by the lead artist, George Kamitani.

Mr. Kamitani, upon hearing the suggestion that his art direction was comparable to that of a 14 year-old boy decided that the best way to get his own back was to draw some homoerotic artwork in the style of the game and suggest that such a tone was probably more up Mr. Schreieder's alley. Obviously an excellent response. Wait, what?

Now, that homophobic slur might seem shocking to some in the context of their own sensibilities. Or perhaps not. 

It didn't surprise me. And not just because HUGE breasts were present in their last fantastic title, Muramasa: The Demon Blade.

If you've watched much anime, particularly those aimed at older teens/young adults, you'll know that homosexuality as a punch-line is a staple in many shows. My recent watching and re-watching of Ixion Saga DT, OreImo and Nodame Cantabile reminded me how far a culture that is generally getting more progressive has to come in their depiction of homosexual characters. Regardless of your ideas on homosexuality, these shows often don't offer human dignity to their gay characters.

Now we have some context for the response, but let's look at the original issue that Schreier and many others raised: Those giant breasts. If you watch the trailer linked to earlier, you'll see the problematic depictions of the Amazon and the Sorceress. The perceived issue is one of inclusion and image. Either we're reinforcing impossible, negative stereotypes of what is attractive, or we're catering to the male gaze by having our females as sex objects and our men as power fantasies, thereby excluding many women from enjoying the game. I see both of these issues as problematic. I also see my own inability to fully enjoy such gorgeous artwork on the grounds of particular character designs personally difficult. My wife felt ill just looking at the trailers.

The context for these games is a gendered Japanese games industry. Their games industry mirrors the rest of their popular media. Manga is cordoned off into groups based on an audience's gender and age. There is shōjo, shōnen, josei and seinen, and that's without delving into the popular erotic, audience-based genres. What we're given here is a shōnen game: It has sexualised female characters, violence, skill-development along with other elements common to the broad genre. It's very much like the pulp comics popular in the middle of last century, catering to male fantasies, often to the exclusion of a female audience. We're a long way from seeing our own media completely breaking free of the tropes that hold us back artistically (New Girl's recent depiction of Angie the stripper as a character with potential, which ended after three episodes with a "stripper steals your stuff" gag was a personal reminder), so it comes as no surprise that this Japanese game aimed at young men follows the tropes of a well-established and often troublesome genre. The sexualisation of children is another feature of the shōnen manga and anime that often comes up. 

This particular incident is a reminder that sexism and homophobia is alive and well. It's more common than just a set of giant boobs in a videogame. The roots are much deeper in social behaviour and what is normalised by the media we consume. What is more concerning than the fantastical violence of our media is the everyday behaviour depicted. We're told that women are a prize to be owned, men will save the day and gay people are a joke. 

Hear it from a teacher: Just spend some time in a high-school yard to hear what "girls can't do" and why "he's such a fag" and you'll see why sometimes things are more important than "prudes being prudes".

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Bioshock Discussion Post-Mortem

So here's where I stand: We have gaming developing in two (or more, but we'll stick with two for the minute) directions. One offers entertainment from narrative-heavy immersion and the other from satisfying game-play mechanics. I think after our discussion, Bioshock Infinite works hard at both, which creates a jarring effect where the entertaining combat feels as at home in the shining narrative as having to win a basketball game to see the second half of a spoken word performance. I think a strong game-play focus can be paired with a strong narrative, but for my eyes, it has to look a little different if it wants to achieve more.

During the latest podcast after-party chit chat we had little discussion about "games as art" and it really opened our eyes to the real questions- can football be art? Can chess be art? Can the "game-y" component offer an artistic expression of someone's thoughts, ideas or philosophy? Does the player now become the artist?

And what would we end up with if game-play had to offer artistic expression. My fellow podcaster, Aaron, offered something- perhaps only as a joke. Perhaps not. What if we were to create a quadriplegic simulator? What if your abilities were limited from a traditional game-play perspective? Surely that could offer artistic self-expression through the game-play mechanics present.

I think much of Bioshock's thematic strength, philosophical discussion and science-fiction ideas would lose something without interaction. I don't think it would work as well as a movie. I think a fantastic movie could be made from the events, but I think having the world to explore by choosing where to look, who to talk to and which path to take makes for a more interesting experience than a film would. There's a scare (perhaps cheap) that happens late in the piece that is frightening because of the player's need to react- the player's agency heightens the impact of the scene.

I understand that at this point some people might be feeling uncomfortable. But I love FPS games, I hear you say. I like the challenge of monitoring health and ammo stores, but I also want high production values and characters I care about. I think we can and will always have such games. I don't see FPS games in their current form becoming a thing of the past. They have an incomparable way of tying tests of skill with reward in the form of narrative progression and different challenges, which us gamers love. However, I often feel this lies at the heart of some people's discomfort when it comes to videogames. As I've mentioned previously, it's sometimes hard to take the narrative seriously when you have to do skill checks to hear the next part of the discussion.

A video of the Oculus Rift being experienced by a 90 year old woman offered some insight into some directions that immersive game-play might take. Without HP, mana, ammunition, loot or cross-hairs, can we still call them games?

That's another issue doing the rounds as the dust settles from the reawakening of the "art-games" genre. It's in the name, people. No matter how we evaluate their execution, games like Dear Esther and Proteus ask us to judge them on their artistic sensibilities and the experience of the environment they offer, all without any sense they are testing us, or that we are at play against an opponent. How fun is the game-play? What game-play?

Are they games?

Many people have put forward the idea that we need a re-branding of the medium. Does calling them "games" trivialise them in the eyes of non-gamers? Maybe. Should we call them Interactive Entertainment? Too long, and IE is already taken as an acronym for a terrible web browser.

I don't have answers, but I love the conversation.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Bioshock Infinite, Telling People about Videogames and the Action Points Podcast.

Bioshock Infinite - Telling People About Videogames - Hey, Listen

There. That's the plan for this post. Got it? Good.

Bioshock Infinite spoke to me in a way that games haven't done in a while. Almost a Mother 3 experience. I felt things. I marveled at intricacies. I was engaged by the world, the lore and the loopholes. But more than that, Bioshock Infinite opened my eyes to the current limitations of the medium.

It's easier to see how such visually impressive, aurally interesting and thematically powerful set pieces are let down by the fact there are "bosses", sheilds, health from garbage and all the other videogame tropes we know and (don't always) love. These are stat checks in a shooting gallery. We're playing I Spy for ammo when an interesting narrative built around Quantum Physics, oppression, nature vs. nurture, faith, baptism and redemption is playing out around us.

I loved it. Despite what many have said, I found the combat engaging with plenty of strategy and there are several scenes which will stay with me for life, but after trying to show someone else the wonder of Bioshock, I came to realise a few things. Kirk Hamilton puts it well in his article on the violence in Bioshock Infinite. It could have been the game to give validity to our pastime in the eyes of many "non-gamers". But maybe, just maybe it needs to stop being a game.

I would argue that more than the ultra-violence, more than that first act of violence and that policeman's face and more than the juxtaposition of clean air and bright skies against the bloody themes, it is the health packs (pineapples, whatever) and littered ammunition that hold Bioshock back from reaching that specific potential. For many, the idea that it's an arena of simulated violence where we must keep watch over a health bar and ammunition count is enough for them to disqualify it from having anything interesting to offer. They don't play laser tag for the story. They'd probably just see a movie.

I was sitting at a desk with two friends (who happen to be Christian ministers), as one tried to show the other something of the world of videogames by showing him the original Bioshock. The first was very excited about discussions of morality and the idea of how transient and impermanent death is in these virtual worlds, whereas the other couldn't wait to escape. I've had much experience with trying to show videogames to people who generally don't touch them (yes, they still exist) and I would have taken a very different approach to our little play-test. I understand that more than the violence and the idea that we might have some hand in it, it's often the game-y mechanics that will be even more off-putting.

I would have started from the beginning. I would have kept an eye on our friend as he saw the water after the crash, the architecture, the recorded speech by Andrew Ryan, explaining Ayn Rand's Objectivism. But as soon as any exploration, or too much of a fire-fight was required, I would have stopped and asked for an opinion. See? Philosophy? Art? Engaging narrative? My approach is flawed, but it usually gets the conversation going, even if the person won't actually engage first-hand with the medium.

Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany are exciting entities because much of their philosophy is built around not looking back. They want to throw off the shackles of a medium born out of young men's hobbies, with metrics that were easy to run because of limited tech. We willl always have RTS games and stat-heavy RPGs where the mechanics are obvious, and many of the D&D influenced titles will still wear their dice on their sleeves. If we want to share something important, maybe we need less game, more experience.

My friends and I have been working on a little podcast of geekery. It intends to speak with a distinctly Australian/Malaysian/Melbournian accent on board games, manga, anime, videogames and whatever geeky things have taken our fancy.

So please check out the Action Points Podcast! hosted by the marvelous, Aaron.

It's good to be back.

Much love.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Fun in the mail - Itoshiki Nozomu figure

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei - Itoshiki Nozomu - Sunday X Magazine UFO Prize (SEGA)

ZETSUBOUSHITA~! (I'm in despair!)

Just kidding!

I'm delighted with this lovely figure, depicting the teacher, Itoshiki Nozomu, from Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei! Especially at the cheap price I got him! As (currently) the only scale figure of the character (the SD Nedoroid is adorable), I'm pleased that despite the low price he's got some great detail to him.

He looks very "posed", rather than natural, as he's in his despair pose, but his face is smiling, as if the actor is reenacting the stance for a fan photo shoot. It actually comes off as rather adorable! The shading on his clothes is of a higher quality than many catcher prize figures, and he stands very well, even without a base.

His desk comes with a rope (for hanging himself - unsuccessfully) and a class list. The class list actually details the other figures in this figure series, rather than the usual students from his class in the manga and anime. The rest were girls from various series, posed in a classroom, intended to have him as the sensei. Cute, but I'd have preferred to have a list of all his usual insane pupils.

Doesn't he look lovely with the Tachikoma? His glasses are made of clear plastic, and his face is very accurate. He could only be the one and only Itoshiki Nozomu!

Don't despair! He often pops up on Ebay for a steal! Grab him while you can!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

St. Valentine's Day

There are few things as lovely as a morning spent with My Love. We swoon over manga characters, cook breakfast, talk about what the day might have in store and reaffirm our love and commitment to each other. And often snuggles with kitties ensue.

Our little bubble of joy is only penetrated when a chill wind blows in from the North. A literal chill might be much appreciated in this season of sticky nights, but there is someone so certain we couldn't possibly be happy for the long term that they'd continuously question every life decision and motivation. Ah, well. Imagine how devastating it would be to have happiness pouring forth from every direction, right? That's why it's alright when kitties chew through controller cables or work is less than enthralling.

Today's ride in the sun as we shopped for computer parts and comics was a reminder that no matter what anyone says, we can ride side by side through life, singing soppy love songs, serving at church, watching anime and...

...Playing with toys!

As you can probably tell, I installed some LED's in my cabinets!

"Now our house looks even MORE like a toy shop!" --My Love

Thanks, My Love, for a purple hippo, for your care and concern and for standing up for me, even when I'm no longer my own ally. You're a wonder.