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Maturity, Inclusion, and the Game Industry in 2014

Microsoft E3 Presser

So, E3 is happening. Over Monday and Tuesday there were pressers and demos and a Brinks truck loaded with video. There’s always one or two things to stand out to me from these events, but the topic that’ll stay with me for awhile is maturity and the strange dichotomy in which this industry (fans included) needs more of it yet sometimes fails to recognize it when it appears. There are two catalysts for this post. One is the all too predictable trolling of Danielle Riendeau’s 100% on-point and valid piece on the lack of female presenters during the major press conferences. (Hat tip to the excellent work Danielle is doing at Polygon. We miss her a ton!) The other is a post from “Ashelia” on her Hellmode blog, defending the teaser trailer for the next Tomb Raider game against attacks that it’s made a victim of Lara Croft. (Apologies that I don’t have a real name to attribute to Ashelia.)

Originally, this post was mostly about Tomb Raider and a bit about Brothers and not laying charges of sexism where they don’t exist because it does disservice to those examples of brilliant work this industry is capable of producing. I can’t, in good conscience write on this topic without first calling attention to this sort of abhorrent behavior and state outright that when someone like Danielle speaks out on this topic and meets an ill-considered, reactionary response like this that it is all of our responsibility to condemn it in no uncertain terms. I don’t want these troglodytes, these soulless imbeciles, carrying the torch for who we are as gamers. I know we’re better than this. You know we’re better than this. But unless we slam the door on this sub-human behavior we’ll remain defined by it. And in case you think I’m overstating, enjoy this piece of human filth:

TwitterHate

You stay classy, asshole.

Now, the flip side of the coin is the Lara Croft: Rise of the Tomb Raider teaser:

Evidently the reveal of Lara Croft sitting in a therapist’s office, clearly dealing with trauma has somehow struck a nerve with some people who think the character is being diminished for the sin of being human. Now, before I go further on this, let’s all agree that we don’t know what kind of game this will be. Sure, Crystal Dynamix isn’t going to leap miles away from a very successful formula they established, but you can’t watch a 2-minute clip that doesn’t show gameplay or story and have any idea what the game’s merits are going to be. The problem is that the ideas expressed in this trailer should be celebrated by those who want to see more maturity in gaming. We need more games in which the protagonist pays a price for enduring trauma, yet carries on. Again, read Ashelia’s piece on this. (Update: Susan Arendt just posted a good one as well.)

This question of how you can or can’t portray women, races, or any other group, minority or otherwise, in games an important one. And nobody, no matter how deep their insight, has all the answers. Just as importantly, no one answer will suit every scenario. It’s in these, often well-intentioned cases, that the mere appearance of anything resembling a stereotype in a game automatically equates to that game embracing misogyny or racism. It’s a red-herring we should avoid embracing at all costs.

A few months ago, I read through an online discussion in which several participants (of both genders) felt Brothers is a horribly sexist game because the primary female characters in the game are victims (the mother and the captured ogre) or, by her nature, a deceitful predator. And, yes, these are very nearly the sum total of female involvement in the game. But does that make it sexist? Is one of its subtle themes that women are weak and duplicitous? I’m sorry, but no sale.

The tricky part regarding accusations of misogyny and racism in games is that they’re serious business. People put their heart and souls into making these products happen. If you don’t like a game, it doesn’t speak to you, or you think the design is bunk, that’s one thing, but to accuse people of engaging in something so ugly is entirely something else. That’s an accusation that sticks fast and is very hard to remove, so if you’re going to do it, you damn well better be certain about it. And the fact that Lara Croft is in a therapist’s office with obvious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or that a game called Brothers is focused on male relationships doesn’t mean some group of white dudebros in a writer’s room are telling you that women are weak or deceitful.

It’s impossible to avoid all potential stereotypical pitfalls, 100% of the time. What matters is context and the benefit of the doubt in any single case should be the rule rather than the exception. (And, no, Assassin’s Creed: Unity does not get benefit of the doubt for the all-male cast of player characters. Opportunity… blown.) The rebirth of the Tomb Raider franchise does not diminish Lara Croft by giving her depth and perhaps a little human frailty. It’s those very additions to her character that make her so much more amazing than in any previous incarnation. This is a Lara Croft that feels pain, fear, and desperation, and still she pushes forward, beyond the bounds known to the rest of us lesser people. Did anyone think less of the Tony Stark character in Iron Man 3 because he hadn’t gotten over the events of the Avengers? This glimpse into the next Tomb Raider makes Croft ever more the hero, because we know that whatever the adversity, it will be a story about her overcoming it.

There are obviously exceptions to the rule. The Witcher 2, much as I love that game, falls into some uncomfortable areas. It is possible to make a game that takes place in a misogynist world without endorsing misogyny and I think Witcher 2 largely succeeds in that. There are moments in it, however, lingering scenes where what should be clearly repugnant behavior makes you wonder if some in the design department instead found it titillating, which is troubling and awkward and the mere moment’s reflection upon it immediately takes away from the game. I can’t state how how much I want to be wrong about that.

In other games there are elements that are more obviously shameful and the work of minds in desperate need of maturation. Dead or Alive, anyone? I know, I know. Too easy. I also know Bayonetta is largely regarded as a strong female heroine, but I could never get over being told by a male designer that, “her clothes are her magic hair,” and that’s why she seemed to turn nude every so often. Because, magic! And why exactly did Bioware, a pretty progressive developer, feel the need to give Flemeth this particular makeover in Dragon Age 2? Crazy sack-wearing swamp lady to smoky dominatrix because, oh, that’s just the unreliable narrator of DA2… err.. fluffing up his imagination. Riiiight.

But this is where you have to be fair too, because for every bit of cheese DA2 has plenty of moments that deftly and maturely handle a range of human drama. And that’s why this gets so tricky. There’s only so many open and shut cases of actual Hate or bigotry in individual games. It’s the same problem acceptance of global warming has. It’s extraordinarily hard to look at a single weather event and say it’s evidence for or against climate change. It’s only in the aggregate that we know we have a very serious problem. Likewise the role of women and people of color in games. The industry doesn’t have a woman problem because Two Worlds or Heavenly Sword show ill-proportioned women in skimpy outfits completely ill-suited to their surroundings and role in the world. The industry has a problem because you can’t throw a rock without hitting a game that shows ill-proportioned women in skimpy outfits completely ill-suited to their surroundings and role in the world. The comic book industry is even worse in this regard and it makes the whole industry look awful.

That is what makes the piece Danielle wrote important and relevant. There was nothing wrong with any single white male being up on stage to tout game X at E3. But when you look at the whole thing, the balance is unmistakably off. And don’t tell me it’s because dudes play games and chicks don’t or because it was all design leads and CEOs making the presentations. Make that argument in 1992, if you must, but it’s outdated in 2014. Change does take time, but by now we should see more heterogeneous representation, especially at the highest level of game publishing.

Wherein, then, lies the balance? When do wet let the innocent go without comment and when do we speak? Damned if I know, but it’s a line we should all be working together to define because, yes, we need better examples of strong women in games. We need to see better portrayal of people of color in games. We need more authentic depictions of homosexuality in games. But not in every game, all of the time. What we need is balance. And in the mean time we should praise efforts to raise the bar for maturity (real maturity) and inclusiveness in games while still poking the industry with a stick at every corner, because, yes, they absolutely need to know when they feature more decapitations in their press presentations than women speakers on the stage. And when the worst offenders of the worst sorts of stereotyping sludge out from their depressed hovels, we absolutely should call them out. But as progress is made, as it has been, as it will continue to be, let’s not throw under the bus those games and people who’s only crime are telling a story that doesn’t have room to address every cause. If we truly want a big tent, there should be room for a little bit of everything.

E3 and the Longest Game

ps4 announcement

Sony has now shown its hand for the PlayStation 4 at E3, and it looks to be aiming squarely at the hardcore gaming market. In what is certainly not a co-incidence their latest press release was at pains to point out that the PS4 will be doing exactly the opposite of all the things that have so annoyed hobby gamers about the Xbox One so far. It won’t need to connect to the internet once per day. It will run used games. It might not be backwards compatible but you will be able to play PS3 titles streamed online through Gaikai. It’ll be cheaper, and have a bigger library of indie games. The message from Sony couldn’t be clearer: we’re the hardware for serious gamers, and we’re listening to what you want.

Personally I’m pretty much sold. I buy a lot of used games and the fact that one console will allow me to continue doing that and the other won’t is a deal breaker. The chance to play some great PS3 titles that I missed in this generation, like Journey, The Last of Us and Demon’s Souls is a huge attraction, as is the price. Being fairly tech savvy I can surely use my PC to mimic a lot of the added functionality of the Xbone anyway. Upgrading is a long way away for me: my 360 pile of shame is easily big enough to last me into the first year of the next generation. But unless things change drastically over the coming 24 months (and they might yet), it looks like I’m a Sony man.

But that doesn’t mean I think Microsoft have screwed up. As has been repeated tirelessly over the last few weeks, Microsoft wasn’t aiming to launch its new console at us. It’s an attempt to reach out squarely to the casual market, the two or three games a year market, the market that have been relentlessly gobbled up by smartphone gaming over the last few years. Whatever we might think of it, it’s a bold move and puts clear water between Microsoft and its competitors in the console environment.

It seems to me that in going after the hardcore crowd, Sony have chosen to play it safe. It’s a smaller market, but a solid one which will guarantee them sales. They’re effectively admitting that the days of the console as a unified gaming platform are over, and are seeking to corner the people who are sure to continue to support it.

Microsoft on the other hand are taking a massive gamble. The audience they’re going after might not want to come back to console gaming from their mobile devices. They might not want to drop hundreds of dollars on a gaming system that offers some fairly minimal usability advantages for regular media consumption over the disparate use of PVRs, PCs and tablets that we see at the moment.

This doesn’t surprise me. Microsoft have basically done exactly the same thing with Windows 8: abandoned their core market in favour of trying to recapture a segment of the mobile market. It’s clear that the bosses at Microsoft have decided that beyond the obvious conclusion of mobile being a big part of the future, mobile is almost the entirety of the future. And if there’s a company that can not only afford to gamble, but probably needs to gamble on the way the future is going to map out, it’s Microsoft.

The future remains, of course, utterly inscrutable on the matter. It could be that Kinect 2 turns out to be the transformative technology that Kinect 1 promised to be but clearly wasn’t. That would be a game changer. But I’m willing to bet that the next generation belongs to Sony. However, I’m also willing to bet that the next generation will be the last that sticks to the traditional models of production and consumption. And after the world has moved on, it’s possible that Sony will find it has cornered a market that no longer exists, and its Microsoft who’ll reap the rewards for playing the long game.

What “Next Generation” Means to Me

nextgen

We’re a couple of days away from this year’s E3, when the Captains of the Video Game Industry will issue forth with the usual ridiculous spectacle as the suits take the stage to tell us what we can expect in the coming year. Of course, the 2013 edition of E3 is different than the last eight because we’re going to be told more completely (?) what the “next generation” of console gaming is going to look like. Speaking as someone who has literally played video games for my entire life, for over 30 years- I could not give two flying, flipping f#$ks and a deep-bowel s&%t about what Don Mattrick or any of the other used car salesmen they’ll trot out on stage have to say.

Here’s why. I can already see based on the limited, willfully evasive and incomplete information from Sony and Microsoft what “next generation” is going to mean, and it alternately alienates and disgusts me. Sony has put a “games and gamers” first message out there, but already it appears that social connectivity and more-of-the-same are what they’re bringing to the table. Microsoft has apparently seen the writing on the wall that video games are no longer profitable and are instead casting their lot to claim some of the big advertising dollars that things like NFL content and cable TV partnerships will bring. Oh, and they’re also offering more-of-the-same- more Call of Duty, more Forza, more braindead and heartless AAA action-blockbusters like whatever that Irwin Allen by way of Michael Bay disaster game was supposed to be.

Beyond what appears to be a very slight uptick in graphics quality and all of this pie-in-the-sky talk about cloud computing rendering better lighting or whatever (more evidence that money is being spent in the wrong directions), it appears that the “next generation” is more about restricting how we play video games than it is about opening up new ways or new concepts to do so. With Microsoft’s reveal in particular, it seems that there is a “no” attached to almost everything. No backwards compatibility, no used games without undisclosed parameters, no ability to play completely offline, no old headsets or peripherals, no using the console without the always on and always vigilant Kinect waiting to reward you for bringing a Mountain Dew can or a Pizza Hut pizza into the room.

Everything new that you CAN do has nothing to do with games. There is all of this silly integration- with your phone, your TV, your ISP, your toaster oven. It’s almost like the Xbox One is a device designed to alleviate white whine and first-world problems- “I don’t want to have to use a remote control”, “I don’t want more than one cable coming out of my TV”. “I want a game console that also lets me have Skype calls so I don’t have to get my $500 iPhone out of my pocket”. I miss the days of buying a Nintendo Gamecube or a Sega Genesis and it did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING other than play games. It, and other consoles from previous generations, were purpose-built unitaskers that were not searching desperately for alternative revenue sources. Because they had a self-limited, contained, and realistic sense of SCOPE. They weren’t trying to “take over the living room”. Fuck you if you want to “take over my living room”. Just sell me a god damned video game machine, alright?

But the next generation isn’t about bettering video games or the video games medium. It’s about money. Since the last round of console releases, games suddenly became gigantic business- but they’ve also topped out, plateaued, and are in a precipice state where the entire industry could collapse under the weight of exaggerated expectations and unrealistic promises. That means that the coming generation is very much going to be more about finding new revenue sources to keep these juggernaut AAA franchises and astronomical console development budgets afloat- and to keep suits in jobs while appeasing the stakeholders and shareholders. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that we’ll see anything as quantum as Mario 64 or the first round of Playstation games that brought fully 3D polygon rendering to consoles. It’s going to be more of the same, but better monetized and offered to you as a service so that you can keep paying for it over time.

The groundwork for this is already laid. You put a brick down when you bought the horse armor or gave money to Valve for hats. You mortared it when you bought games on Steam that you will never actually own and can never resell, that gave the corporations reasonable understanding of your complicity to take away your right to sell that copy of Assassin’s Creed 4. When you bought map packs, skin packs, and preordered bonus DLC garbage- you told them this was all OK with you. And in the next generation, it’s going to get a whole lot worse as these hucksters scramble to make money in a business where single-purchase $60 games are not sustainable but development budgets continue to rise- all to meet some bullshit expectation that games should be more like movies.

I don’t want any of it. I don’t want umpteen refinements to the Xbox controller so that I can better control Call of Duty dog or adjust the wind blowing in Captain Price’s armhairs. Nor do I want a button to “share” videos. And for fuck’s sake, I don’t want to talk to the game console or wave ANYTHING in front of it. Any all TV functions can rot in hell, I don’t really watch TV. You’ve heard all of this before from countless others if you’ve read any video game forum or Web site in the past couple of weeks. It’s not a chorus, it’s the roar of a crowd that may actually be willing to stand up and say “no” to these sleazy hucksters that will grin and tell you that they’re selling you a “service” that they’ve created out of things that used to be free.

All is not without hope. The indie movement is in full flower, and Sony at least has made overtures to that world. I can’t stand Jonathan Blow, but that was quite a significant message that was sent by having him at the PS4 reveal. Nintendo has rolled out the welcome mat to indie developers, and aside from that they actually have wound up in an advantageous position to their competitors. They’re the only one of the big three that have come forward with a device that is clearly a video game TOY first and foremost and it offers some innovative and possibly groundbreaking features- if the damn thing would sell enough to make a case for itself to developers that could make the most out of it.

I think I’m in the same position as a lot of you reading this- I suddenly feel outside of video games, that I’m not the audience that these companies are courting anymore. But the irony is that I’m more interested in video games as a medium than ever before. Last night I took a look at The Swapper and Gunpoint, and both games seem tremendously promising, compelling, and fresh. Not to mention time spent with Monaco and Reus. None of these are AAA blockbusters, none of these are games that are designed to appeal to the broadest number of players. None of these depend on sales of nonsensical add-ons to be successful. These games feel rebellious and marginal, and I think that’s where I am with this next generation of video game consoles.

So I think that’s what I feel like “next generation” is going to be for me- a period of rebellion and gaming outside the bounds proscribed by the corporations that control this business and seek to change your behavior, your mentality, and your way of gaming to suit their financial needs. I may wind up buying a PS4, if the smaller, more independently-minded software is there as promised. No way in hell am I buying an Xbox One, I want neither a nattering nanny telling me “no” constantly nor a glorified cable box that’s trying to dominate my living room. I’m keeping the Wii U I bought on launch day even though it’s languishing- I believe there is real promise there, and we all know that Nintendo will release some top quality first party video games since that’s their priority over NFL programming and Skype. When we see what happens at E3, I have a feeling that more of you are going to have your battle lines drawn for this imminent next generation.

 

B3 at E3 2012- Day 1: Nintendo

It’s time to update NHS’ B3 at E3 2012 coverage, what with Nintendo’s stunning press conference now over and the NHS crew probably laid up in their hotel room, still reeling from a night of eating exotic, rich folks food like “six cheese pizza” at CPK and wine coolers by the pool with Snoop Dogg and Tom Chick. Frankly, I’m ashamed that my NHS colleagues have not flooded the internet with E3 coverage. We should have posts every five minutes about stuff like Halo stickers in the bathroom and whatnot. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD TODAY, and NHS has dropped the ball.

Thank goodness for the power and journalistic might of B3. Now, about that Nintendo press conference…

After being the laughing stock of the last several E3 shows, Nintendo came fully prepared this time, with guns blazing. And by fully prepared, I mean with a zombie game and by guns blazing I mean a zombie shooter. It’s called Zombu: Electric Boogaloo or something like that. They also came prepared by showing some of last year’s top games like Arkham Asylum and Mass Effect 3: Intergalatic Booty Call working on their new Wii U hardware. Everyone seemed pretty excited to play old games while holding an iPhone, using Nintendo’s new Smart Glass technology. Or to just play a Nintendo game using the new “Regular Controller”.

But to kick things off, they showed a still image of Shigeru Miyamoto’s face for ten minutes on the big screens while the Super Mario Bros. theme played. Everyone smiled and nodded affirmatively, remembering the halcyon days of youth. A bunch of midgets dressed like Mario characters rode on stage on minibikes. Then, the man himself took the stage and apologized humbly and deeply in a very Japanese way for Wii Music. Then he said “Pikmin 3” and a bunch of Nintendo nerds got excited, thinking it might be a sequel to cult Wii hit Little King’s Story.

Then, just like on Iron Chef, the new Wii U console rose from the stage amidst smoke and a light show. The speakers emitted the “you found a treasure” fanfare that’s been used in every Zelda game since 1985, and again everyone smiled and nodded affirmatively in the warm glow of nostalgia. The new console will come in 35 different colors including “black” and “white” and can support up to TWO controllers at once without overheating and blowing up. Its MSRP was not announced, but fair market value seems to be about a hundred bucks.

Bulldog-faced weirdo Reggie Fils-Aime took to the stage and announced- to everyone’s surprise- that the Wii U will play the Mario game tapes as well as minigame compliations. It seems that Nintendo is banking on everyone’s nostalgia for the “Spirit of ‘06” and the magic we all felt about the Wii launch before we played it. But the Wii U will also feature internet connectivity and stuff like Netflix, which I don’t think the Wii ever really had.

Bob Hoskins, who portrayed Mario in the Super Mario Bros. movie as well as hardened gangster Harry Shand in “The Long Good Friday” was presented and talked about Nintendoworld Land, a new theme park or something opening sometime soon outside of Wasau, Wisconsin. Seedy carnies- their toothless visages hidden by giant foam heads of beloved Nintendo characters- will wave and uncomfortably hug your children while you dine on mushrooms and raccoon tails. The park will include a shrine to Miyamoto-san made of marshmallows and pixie dust as well as a special “edutainment” exhibit that will explain to children and adult gamers alike the evils of so-called “next generation” game-playing hardware.

There was something called MiiVerse, but I think it was just an announcement that they’re going to force you to look at your ghastly MiiParade every time you turn the console on. I hope that somewhere my Miis of David Bowie, James Brown, Glenn Danzig, and Tom G. Warrior were saved.

Of course, Wii Fit U was a big hit among attendees, their bellies fat with lemon bars and foie gras eaten off of the nude bodies of strippers, provided by Electronic Arts. The new edition will feature exciting minigames like “walking” and “standing”. With the new Wii U controller, players will also be able to hold it while exercising. The 3DS was also represented. Everyone squinted and tried to move to see the giant 3D images displayed of Mario and Luigi laughing in a giant pile of money. Then Mario pops out of the screen and says “Wesa told you so! Peepala poopala!”

I have to say that in all I was really disappointed. This year, Nintendo did not bring any kind of novelty, “gotcha” joke things like the Wii Vitality sensor.

That’s pretty much all I could see from flipping through a couple of Web sites five minutes before I wrote this. But hey, ANY coverage is better than none, right?

B3 2012 Preview Trailer

Right now, there’s a tubby nerd making sure he’s got an extra asthma inhaler ready for when MORE news about Assassin’s Creed 3 this week. A dudebro is swiveling his Oakleys to the back of his bald head, applying eyedrops that will keep his eyes moistened (read: disguise his tears) while he watches trailers of Black Ops II, Halo 4 and the new Gears of War game. Some girl that smells of shampoo and mildewy teddy bears is stroking her inadvisable Yoshi tattoo, hoping and praying that Nintendo doesn’t bungle their Wii U presentation. That’s right, it’s E3 week.

And since I’m not there to join the vagabond NHS crew, lead by the destitute , drug-addled Bill Abner, that also means it’s B3 week! I won’t be feasting on lemon bars, gawking at desperate “models”, or in a back room signing an an agreement to give every EA game an 90 or better rating in exchange for a Lamborghini Countach. I won’t get to hob nob with celebrities like Tom Chick and Snoop Dogg, nor will I get to dine on the epicurean delights of California Pizza Kitchen.

Like last year, however, B3 will be far more awesome than E3 has ever been. To prove it- and in the spirit of bullshit marketing- here is a one hour and twenty six minute trailer for B3. Although it shows no actual gameplay footage, it captures all of the majesty, pageantry, and sheer amazingness that B3 offers. It should tide you over until the torrent of teasers and empty advertising crap starts to wash over us all. Come for the vikings, stay for the octopus. Really, you’ve got to see the octopus. E3 doesn’t have an octopus, does it? Octopus revealed and confirmed at B3!