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.