Category Archives: Editorial

That Gorgeous Sorceress

A big controversy on the internet this past week has been the character designs in Dragon’s Crown. (Again. These designs have been around for a while, but the game release date was officially announced, with some new trailers.) I have complicated feelings about the character designs in Dragon’s Crown.

Except that’s a lie; the truth is I love the character designs in Dragon’s Crown. If I lived in a giant bubble, that would be the end of it. I’d just buy the game and giggle all the way down.
But the internet is the internet, and it feels like I’m not supposed to love this, because I am a feminist and I am A Very Bad Feminist if I support artwork like, well… that Sorceress there on the right. Her, specifically. With the boobs-n-butt pose and the long suggestive stick and dear god, those breasts, they’re like great heavy teats. I ought to be raging about this. Except I think she’s fabulous. 
I put the male wizard here for contrast, by the way, because isn’t he also fabulous? Hey, the results are in, and some ladies really dig broody, Raistlin-type goth dudes. I bet he has such the tragic backstory.

What I find most interesting about the reaction to Sorceress is that it’s not just women who are uncomfortable (though I don’t deny that some women might be uncomfortable). A lot of men are uncomfortable. It’s a similar reaction, I think, to the new Cortana design (which I loved) or Bayonetta (who I also love).

The common denominator in all of those designs isn’t just that they’re sexy designs. It’s that they’re very deliberately highlighting something about what it means to sexualize a character. In the case of Cortana, her nakedness was supposed to make the player uncomfortable. For some, this went over their head and they just leered at her. For some players this actually worked, but they didn’t seem to understand why, so there was just backlash. In the case of Bayonetta, she’s using highly aggressive sexuality as a weapon. This is a trope as old as time (seriously, it’s Hero’s Journey stuff), to the point where lots of geeks take it for granted. (“Why the hell would they build female Decepticons” I once asked, “To distract enemy warriors obviously” Oh, obviously) But when you see it writ large, completely over the top, it’s not so much that now, now, this is a problem, as “is this how things have been all along?” 
I get that this is pretty hard for the game industry. Lots of games in this era want to engage us on the topics of how most games are immature about handling sex and violence. So, in the case of violence, what kind of commentary do we end up with? Spec Ops: the Line, Hotline Miami, games that indulge in violence while they’re saying something about violence. In the case of sexuality and objectification of women, we get Bayonetta; we get Lollipop Chainsaw, games indulging in objectification in order to say something about objectification. The message gets mixed up if you’re doing a thing while you’re subtly condemning doing that thing. I’m not sure about this, but maybe that’s really the only way games can comment on things, and it either hits or it misses. Maybe we can do better; I don’t know.
But I think Dragon’s Crown is the wrong target. The anger at Dragon’s Crown is misplaced. Those boobs are supposed to look silly and maybe a little painful. They behave in a cartoony-floppy way that’s a long way from the anti-gravity boobs in, say, SoulCalibur, and that’s a good thing to me because it kind of highlights the ridiculousness of it all.
Lots of people point to, for example, Alyx in Half-Life as an example of how a female character in games ought to be. But Alyx never clicked with me that much. She’s fine; I have nothing against her, but I don’t gravitate to her in any way. On the other hand, I like Sorceress a lot. This isn’t saying “so put more crazy women like this in games.” This is saying, “hey, put more women in games, period, with a variety of designs doing a variety of things.” Not everyone’s tastes are going to be the same. If there’s only one female character in a game, she has the burden of representing all women, and that’s kind of a problem. But if there’s three or four of them, we’ve got options.
Maybe you can even have a chubby heroine in a game some day. I mean, I’m dreaming, right?
I am at least relieved that I’m not the only woman who likes Dragon’s Crown Sorceress – in fact, there’s already cosplay. You go, girls!
I’m not trying to say, if the designs make you uncomfortable, that you don’t have the right to feel uncomfortable. But if Sorceress makes you uncomfortable (and this is a question for the men) it might be interesting to ask yourself why you’re uncomfortable. Was this design surprisingly worse than many others, or was it just “the last straw”?
(ETA: I had to edit away an image on this because someone was leeching it, apologies.)

Games for Everybody

I came here to talk about spiders.

Or maybe I came here to talk about homosexuality but you should stay for the spiders.  Either/or.

I should add as a disclaimer that I haven’t played Dragon Age.  But I’m going to write about what people have written about Dragon Age. I hope that’s OK and apologize if anything uninformed slips out.  I have basically read a lot of spoilers for this game because I’m not sure when I’m going to get around to it ever.

So now that all the disclaimers are over here’s another warning that you may want to stop reading if you are offended by homosexuals or spiders.

I’m loving this post-GDC writeup by Joel Burgess about motivating players in open world games.  This is a great wealth of info for how to tackle these design needs, so if you’d like to read that first and then come back here, I’ll wait.

In the bottom half of this there is a section called “Goals and Priority.”  Quote:

When we announced Skyrim a few months back, I was lurking on the forums and saw a speculation thread about spiders. The poster, it turned out, was curious if we’d have spiders as an enemy type in some dungeons, and if we’d include an option to disable them. I thought this was silly at first, but then I skimmed the thread and saw that other people chimed in with the same sentiment.

Some people are deathly afraid of spiders. Or they are just mildly afraid of them.  They don’t want to encounter them, ever. But they want to enjoy what will likely be a huge, highly-talked-about, open-world game… without encountering the spiders.

Me, I’m weird. I love spiders.  Love watching their fascinating motion across webs as their legs crawl all around, passing inside and slipping outside of one another as they effortlessly glide, crawl and sew. I can watch one for hours.  Obviously there are people who might feel the same way, and the game might include spiders for those people who think they are awesome.  But for the arachnophobic people, spiders  would bother them, so, I suppose to accommodate those people we might have a no-spiders option.

So RPS reports that someone on the Bioware forums doesn’t like a homosexual character making a pass at him.  Because he’s a “straight male gamer” and that is obviously not for him.  Maybe it bothers him to have a homosexual advance made on his character. He’d rather not encounter that, not see it. So make it like the spiders. I like the comment from someone further down the thread about adding some sort of “gayness slider.”

Bulletstorm thought their dialog might offend people, since it’s kind of over-the-top, so they included a no-swears option, though you have to dig for it in the options menu.  “No Russian” is skippable.  The title of my post is “Games for Everybody.” Games are for you…. even if you’re arachnophobic or homophobic or you don’t like swears, or if you’re okay with shooting “the bad guys” but not comfortable with a theoretical firing of your weapon in to innocent crowds.

And I get the point but I don’t know.  I guess I’ve always been a fan of the idea of games with “teeth,” but the truth of reality is that the bigger the game, the more you have to appeal to as many people as possible with the game, which means you have to worry about things that are going to bother people.  This is one reason why horror games now are different from horror games of my youth – a bigger audience needs slightly bigger training wheels in horror. Games traditionally have been the opposite of content-conservative, with plenty of games coming out trying on purpose to be as crass as possible to see where they can push the envelope.  But they’re conservative in a lot of other ways – particularly in the choice of protagonist character and what story that character is put there to tell.  And in a world where you’re afraid to offend someone, trying new stories with new protagonists is difficult.

Imagine if you went to a movie. And before the movie there was a warning about all the content you were about to see, a big checklist of every button that might possibly be ticked… and then an option to turn that part off.  Hm, no, that’s a terrible analogy. But maybe I would’ve wished for that in Cloverfield when I was not adequately warned that the camera was going to make me throw up in my popcorn…

Okay, imagine you went to a theme park. And before doing anything…  Well, theme parks sort of do this. The warnings say “don’t ride this if you have heart problems or are pregnant.”  They aren’t truly content warnings but warnings about the experience.  They can serve two purposes with this kind of warning… they can actually warn people who shouldn’t be on the ride, and, they can also build anticipation for what people are about to see and do.  If a ride has a sign that says “Warning: you will get wet on this ride,” that’s one code phrase for “oo, fun!”  But everybody might not wanna get on that ride. And there is no “change the ride so I don’t get wet” option.

There’s an awesome disclaimer in front of many of the Silent Hill games.  A screen flashes up with a warning to the effect of  “sequences in this game may be violent and cruel.”  Typically this is overlaid over an image of something violent and cruel happening.  It’s a warning, sure, but, what it really does is reinforce that you’re about to get what you paid for, presuming you knew what you were doing when you picked up a game called Silent Hill.

But Silent Hill is like the water ride. It’s not for everyone. Maybe I didn’t come to the theme park to get wet today.  Maybe I didn’t want to see anything violent or cruel today.  There is no option to turn off the cruelness.  (Sometimes there is an option to change the blood color, at least for enemies, presuming that bothers you.)  That’s because if you want to turn that off the game isn’t for you in the first place.

But Call of Duty, say, is supposed to be a game for everyone. Even if it’s not, particularly, the game for me.

So the more mainstream you want to be, as a AAA game, and the more units you want to sell, the more pressure there is to add an option to remove anything that’s going to potentially put off a certain percent of your audience. Even if that thing is spiders.

I don’t have a particular answer for that conundrum.  I just find it something interesting to muse out loud about.

Monopoly: You’re Doing It Wrong

So I’ve been writing about video games mostly.  But sometimes I also play board games. I’m particularly fond of Dungeons and Dragons, which, while not a board game per se, has board game variants.

Whenever I tell people this, sometimes I add that there are conventions for board games; there are board game enthusiasts.  The response of the average, non-gamer person is “You mean, games like Monopoly?”

…Sure.  Except not really.

By all accounts the American obsession with Monopoly is pretty odd.  For one thing, it’s a “serious game,” one of the first games with a social agenda to penetrate the mass market (although nobody thinks about Monopoly that way, by some accounts the original intent was to create a game that showed the problems with monopolies in an economic system and how them driving people to bankrupcy is a bad thing).  For another thing, it’s not really a great game. It’s adequate, but most people who play it then complain that it has problems, such as lasting too long, and taking too long to get interesting.  A larger problem with it, which fewer people mention, is that it’s an elimination game, meaning that it isn’t over until one player remains, leaving early knockouts from the game out in the cold.  Maybe they can play Catan while they wait.

Of course, since Monopoly is the first board game people think of when you mention a board game, when you say you like board games, the thought process of the person you are talking to seems to go like this…  1) Board games = Monopoly 2) Monopoly is sort of dull 3) Why would anyone like board games?

People…  A big part of the problem with Monopoly isn’t Monopoly. It’s you.

Zack Hiwiller discusses this on his blog, right about the time I was getting in to regular conversations about it.  You can read that to get the gist of what I’m about to say, but, basically: most everybody I know plays Monopoly with two variant rules. 

1) When you land on Free Parking, you get “the lottery,” which is typically a large sum of money. The most common thing to do here is have everyone who pays an income tax throw that money in to the center of the board instead of the “bank,” then it becomes the lotto prize for hitting Free Parking. In my family, we also threw $50 in there to start to sweeten the pot.

2) When you land on an unsold property, and you don’t want it, just pass.

These aren’t the official rules.  Both of these house rules cause balance issues that actually weaken the game.  The Free Parking rule allows for an exciting “come from behind” scenario, but this leads to players who should be knocked out of the game to continue to play, which causes the game overall to be longer.  Being able to pass on properties means properties are sold more slowly, which also isn’t in the rules: passed properties are supposed to be auctioned to the highest bidder.

This is why it intrigued me to learn about the new, electronic Monopoly that is being made without dice or paper money.  My number one question about it was “Does it make you play the game by the actual rules?”

Apparently it does.  After a fashion.  It does seem to enforce the auction rule, which most people don’t use or know.  (I get why; it’s awkward to run an auction without a pure neutral arbiter, and maybe the computer will help with that?)  I would also bet that, therefore, it gets the Free Parking rule correct.  (There’s actually no reward at all for landing on Free Parking.  One of the great mysteries I have personally never understood is where exactly that Free Parking “lotto winner” rule came from in the first place, since pretty much everyone seems to play the game with that house rule and everyone who does just learned it from their families.  Who started that, and, since they don’t understand game balance and actually made a bad rule, are they still alive to be punished?)

Places the electronic Monopoly seems to differ from the standard rule set is that 1) it adds random events, such as auctions or races (according to the NYT article) and 2) It, apparently, does away with one of Monopoly’s best and most important rule sets, the ability to negotiate with other players for trade and sale of properties, Get Out of Jail Free cards, etc.  Being able to sell your properties to other players is in fact part of Monopoly’s rules, and one of the only rules that makes the modified version that most people play playable at all.  It’s fairly unlikely, after all, that you will just stumble across a perfect Monopoly of three (or two) matching properties while negotiating the board yourself.  The “you give me that one and I’ll give you this one and fifty bucks” kind of trading allows players to build up their properties without relying on bare random chance.

It will be interesting to see if this new Monopoly does well. In a perfect world, while everyone might own a copy of Monopoly for the nostalgia (mine is Nintendo Monopoly, natch), they would also realize that there are other board games worth their time and might check a few of them out.  Maybe they might find a new household favorite.  Balderdash, which is very social and a little educational, was always popular in my family, and that’s before I knew that they made games in Europe.

Or, I guess you could just play Scene It.

Augh, augh, augh.

Hiding Secrets in 3D Open World Games

For anyone reading solely due to IF Reviews, I’m taking a short break from that in this post to go back to my usual type of topic, though, I do think that writing IF reviews has done wonders for my productivity in this blog. I’m still not quite out of things to talk about in that regard and now I’m more motivated than ever to try to write one myself.

But one thing I’ve been wanting to discuss for a little while is something I noticed in playing Batman: Arkham Asylum in contrast with the game Fable 2, which I will attempt to relate in terms of The Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time.

…Does that seem interesting yet?  If so, then read on:

In Ocarina, there is a subquest involving the Gold Skulltula, a type of monster that spawns in certain hidden locations throughout the world.  There are a hundred Skulltula in total, and killing them and collecting the skull token that they leave behind gives the player access to a variety of interesting prizes.  Some prizes are near-mandatory for finishing the game, but, if you find even a few Gold Skulltulas, you will get them, whereas other prizes are less important but require a larger amount of the hidden creatures.  Finding all hundred is fairly difficult and probably won’t be done one’s first time through the game.

As Ocarina is one of the oldest 3D open-world games on a console, it’s actually surprising how well this is executed.  The Gold Skulltulas make a sound – an awful, skin-crawling sound that’s unmistakable. When you hear that awful sound, you’re compelled to look around to find the familiar creature that’s causing it.  Is it above your head? Maybe behind the nearby rock, which you need to blow up to reach it.  Sometimes you’ll be able to kill the Skulltula easy but unable to retrieve its token… in the pre-Hookshot game, though later you can grab the tokens you missed, and, if you don’t retrieve the token, the Skulltula itself will respawn.

Fable 2 made an attempt to do something like this with its Gargoyle system.  Like the Skulltulas, there are 50 gargoyles scattered throughout the world.  Killing certain amounts of them gives one access to different treasures in the Gargoyle’s Cove, and, eventually, an Achievement if you collect them all.  And Batman: Arkham Asylum also has a system like this, where the Riddler asks you a variety of questions and urges you to find secrets in the environment.  I could focus solely on the Riddler Trophies for this, but there’s a small variety of different Riddler-related objects to collect that are all hidden in the world.

From a standpoint of how well the secrets are integrated in the environment, how fun they are to find, and how well they work within the rest of the game, Batman did a bang-up job.  In Batman, the secrets don’t usually make a sound, with a couple prominent exceptions: one, when Riddler is first introducing to you the concept of finding his secrets, and, two, when you go back in to an area specifically to find more of the secrets. The latter must have required pretty smart programming.  The Riddler taunts me over my headset, but only if I go back in to an area with one of his secrets unsolved, and, if that is my only other business in that area. If I happen to be perusing a plot-related event in that region, the Riddler doesn’t distract me from that.  But if there’s no story to chase in my current area, the Riddler knows the reason I came back to that place was to track down his missing stuff.  Finding different secrets can unlock game modes, character art, or more information about some characters.  Secrets also give me some of the game’s experience points and can restore health, making it valuable to find them even if I’m doing something else.  But the most crucial thing is that the Riddler feels integrated in to the game, rather than a distraction from the game.

Here is something I didn’t think Fable 2 did very well.  The gargoyles (like Skulltulas) make an unpleasant noise.  In this case that unpleasant noise is the gargoyle taunting you in a Scottish brogue.  The gargoyles have a limited amount of voice drops and their prattle can get kind of repetitive.  They only start to spawn when you have the ability to aim your ranged weapon to destroy them, and the first time I heard someone taunting me I was pretty confused  (as were several people on the Fable 2 forums who believed this to be a bug in one of the bug-related threads that I read.).  After shooting them and destroying them, you get a quest in your log for shooting gargoyles, but initially the purpose isn’t clear.  I could live with that, but the main problem with the gargoyles is that they break the mood.  I might be traveling through uncharted countryside with a companion following behind me, lost in the feeling of exploration or the foreboding atmosphere, and suddenly I hear Scottish taunting.  Damn, it’s another gargoyle. Let me drop everything I’m doing, and turn around to find it.  Shit: don’t see it. Maybe it’s above me?  Not there either – god won’t it shut up?  I have to find it right now, because traveling all over this world can be sometimes tedious and enemies constantly respawn and if I don’t find it now I’m never going to come back this way again.

Compound this with the problem that there are a few of these you can completely irrevocably miss due to plot reasons and the treasure hunt becomes tedious, not fun.  So why does it work for me in Zelda, and Batman, but not Fable?  I have a few thoughts on this:

1. In Zelda, you’re always adventuring alone, and nobody is following around with you.  Same then goes for Batman in the context of Arkham Asylum (Oracle notwithstanding).  Of course it makes sense for Batman to want to find these things. In Fable 2 if nothing else you have the dog, and sometimes you may also be with someone else, a party member who is chatting with you, or someone you have to protect.  So even though Skulltulas make a horrible noise, and often make me drop everything I’m previously doing to try to find them, it doesn’t ever feel like I’m wasting someone else’s time, like I am with the gargoyles in Fable.

2. Someone (a cursed family) specifically asks Link to go hunt down the Skulltulas, so my motivation for finding them makes a lot of sense.  The Riddler specifically challenges Batman to find his trophies and secrets.  But in Fable 2 the reason I’m shooting gargoyles is not initially clear at all… other than, because they are very annoying.

3. Both Batman and Zelda give me pretty good rewards for finding the hidden objects. In Fable 2 rewards are always relative to my current inventory, and, really, who needs another Enchanted Crossbow +12 or whatever in that universe?  (The rewards in that game in general are sort of odd, but that’s an aside.)

4. Backtracking in Fable 2 to find hidden things isn’t generally too fun. Unless you get in to the game combat and see it as a brawler, you’ll be more likely to rely on quick travel due to the constantly respawning enemies in the game.  From there, going back to find a gargoyle you missed is made even more tedious.  On the other hand, backtracking in Batman is no problem – there’s a really good density of secrets-to-area, and it’s also possible to find a map in each section of the game showing you a location for secrets you might have missed.  Enemies don’t respawn: it’s just you versus the secrets and the occasional platforming task.  Enemies do respawn in Zelda, but they don’t level up with you and aren’t tedious to repeatedly fight; later in the game dispatching early-game enemies is trivial as you gain in power.  Fable 2 seems to always spawn enemies that are tough enough to tangle with me, which makes my personal power increase negligible.  It’s not a big deal when exploring new regions but if I can quick-travel through I resent fighting all these buff hobbes for one left-behind gargoyle (which I think maybe was down this corridor but there’s no way to remember for sure without taking notes).

5. Skulltulas and Riddler challenges pose some variety.  As I’ve said before, sometimes you can kill the Skulltula easily but not reach the token. Other times the trick is getting the Skulltula to appear (putting bugs down little holes forces them to climb out.  Or does one only spawn at night here?). As Ocarina is a much older game, some of the clues for how to find the Skulltulas aren’t always direct, but they’re always in the game somewhere.  As for Batman, you may be tasked to “photograph” a certain part of the environment, or line up a question mark with its subsequent dot and photograph that, or, you may be trying to just pick up a trophy-shaped item or a reel of tape hidden somewhere in the room. Sometimes it’s easy to see where a trophy is, just not how to get to it.   The gargoyle challenge is always the same: can you see where it is? No? Keep looking.  Shoot when found.  As a result, to make this challenging they have to be hidden in a lot of places just out of sight.

6. Sometimes just the placement is the problem. A gargoyle might be placed and poised to taunt right before I got a major plot drop, and/or right after. This works in Batman because the Riddler leaves me alone unless I’m going after him in specific. The gargoyles on the other hand care not one whit about the rest of my experience in Fable 2. I wish I could say something more concrete about why the placement didn’t work, but this seems to be the hardest part to put in to words.

The bottom line is, after comparing and contrasting these elements, if you’re making a 3D open-world style game, whether or not it has discreet areas or “dungeons,” you can’t just place secrets in the levels without a thought as to how it affects the overall experience of the user.  No, I never did find all the gargoyles and nor do I, in retrospect, care about getting that achievement, but I obsessively tracked every one of the Riddler’s secrets until he was behind bars.