Thursday, May 30, 2013

So Is It Still Okay To Fight Vampires?

The second installment of Tropes vs. Women In Video Games is out now. I'm interested in this series not only as a consumer of video games, but as a wannabe storyteller. The story elements called out by Anita Sarkeesian are both troubling and overused. As a storyteller, my job is not only to understand the messages I'm conveying, but also to avoid the blind repetition of cliches. I've been watching this series and trying to understand the underlying message and hazards behind the "damsel" tropes that Sarkeesian has been presenting, so that I can build better, more inclusive stories.

This latest episode calls out recent uses of the "male character must rescue female character" and "male character must avenge dead female character" elements in video games, as well as the "male character must attack/kill female character for her own good" element. The point here is not that women should never be killed or abducted in video games; the point is to understand how violence is being used in the story, and whether it's being used to confine women to the role of "helpless prize" or "innocent victim".

I've been trying to consider how a simple story premise might be expanded into a stereotypical male power fantasy, and how that same story might be rewritten to retain the core concepts but maintain a healthy viewpoint toward all genders. My little thought experiment goes something like this:

Start with this core concept for a game: a female character is turned into a vampiric monster; the monster then goes on a spree of violence until it is destroyed by a male character. By itself, this isn't particularly egregious; the antagonist could easily be male, and there's no real gender-focused violence here. Vampires are bad; the player destroys vampires.

So let's expand the story using the typical stereotypes. The female character was romantically involved with the male character until she was transformed. Flashbacks during the game depict her as pleasant and pure and virtuous: little more than a white dress and a smile. After her transformation, she dresses in a lot of revealing leather and less, flirts aggressively, and cackles a lot. The player chases her around the game world, fighting her minions, foiling her plans, until he catches her and defeats her at last. When she is rendered helpless, she reverts momentarily to her former "nice girl next door" image, long enough to beg the male character to put her out of her misery. An on-screen icon then shows the player the necessary button to hit in order to kill his former love.

That wasn't hard. Practically wrote itself, didn't it? And I've managed to use the same female character to fulfill three unpleasant roles: first in the flashbacks, she's someone's rather empty view of the "ideal girlfriend"; second, when she's a vampire, she's high-intensity eye candy (and since she's sexually aggressive in this role, turning the traditional sex roles upside down, she's extra threatening); third, at the end, the game gives the player the power to commit a final act of violence against a helpless female character. This last act of violence is justified because it's necessary to "fix" the female character, and because, after all, she's literally asking for it, thus vindicating the ever-popular excuse of the violent male.

Even if you're not convinced about the misogyny, you have to admit that the story as presented looks a lot like twelve or fifteen other games. It's just a collection of stuff everyone has done over and over; the same tawdry story elements recycled over and over to establish the same effect.

So how do we rescue this game from itself? At first it seems as if the obvious thing to do is just to reverse the genders of the two characters, but I don't like this solution, as it seems to suggest that this kind of treatment is offensive when directed at women, but it's fine when directed at men.

My solution is to keep the character genders, but to make the flashback sequences playable. Furthermore, the flashback sequences are playable as the female character. Make her a vampire hunter in her own right, searching for the clues necessary to destroy a master vampire, little suspecting that she will become one herself. She's on her own, fighting her own battles, solving her own problems. Develop her character a little; make her a real, interesting person. We switch back and forth between the flashback scenes with the female character, and the current-time scenes with the male character, and we find that the male character is executing a plan devised by the female character. She discovers the secret to destroying a master vampire, and just before she is captured and transformed, she leaves her notes where the male character will find them.

In the current-time scenes, the vampire that was once the female character is horrific, an inhuman monster. Nothing feminine or seductive remains; there is nothing left of the female character to save. She was destroyed in her quest to defeat evil, but in the end, she is just as much of a hero as the male character, since it is her notes and plans that help the male character to destroy the vampiric monster in the end.

In my opinion, not only is this a more original and interesting concept, it also allows both female and male characters to share the role of protagonist during different parts of the story. The female character is not here as scantily-clad scenery, not as a prize to be won, not as a misbehaving woman to dominate and correct. We've built a more gender-inclusive game, and it turned out to be a better game in the bargain.

I'm still missing the ace game development team necessary to build this game, but at least the thought experiment was interesting.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Games Are Art Too

The mediums of theater, literature, and cinema are all used for storytelling, and have all been subjected to detailed, academic, artistic analysis. You can find books and college classes dedicated to the analysis of the themes and characters of plays, books, and movies.

When will we start seeing that kind of scholarly attention paid to the stories told in video games? Yes, most video games don't have a story worth discussing, but there are a few diamonds out there in that digital rough. There are developers out there who are genuinely interested in telling deep, meaningful stories through games, and I hope that one day, they receive as much respect as any author, playwright, or filmmaker.

The problem, of course, is that while it's still possible to read a Shakespeare play, or watch Citizen Kane, it's sometimes difficult to experience older, classic games, due to system incompatibilities. Also, the act of curating old, out-of-print titles (sometimes called abandonware) is frequently considered to be piracy.

I believe there will always be folks out there willing to build emulators to support well-loved games of the past. It would be a shame, though, if some of those stories were to completely disappear because the copyright holders will neither permit free distribution of old games or provide any way for the games to be purchased and played legally.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Movie Review: Jack Reacher

Spoilers ahead, although I hesitate to call them "spoilers," given that this movie is essentially a two-hour string of tough-guy movie cliches.

What a manly movie this is. From the bar fight where Reacher (played by Tom Cruise) handily defeats five troublemakers, to the abduction of the female lead (forcing Reacher to race into action), to the climactic duel where Reacher throws away his gun so that he can beat up the villain with his own bare hands, it's clear that this is a movie made for men about men who do manly things.

In fact, excluding the women who are killed in the first five minutes of the film, and excluding the women who are only on-screen long enough to gaze adoringly at Jack Reacher, there are only two female characters in this film. There's the flirty-but-ill-fated young woman who is killed halfway through the film in order to give Reacher something to feel manly guilt and grief over (during her non-dead screen time, she is asked why she allows men to use her so badly, and she replies: "It's just what girls like me do."). Then there's the female lead, the plucky lawyer who, near the end of the film, disobeys Reacher's instructions by investigating the Big Conspiracy on her own, and is almost immediately tasered and held prisoner. Silly female character; if she had just done what Reacher had told her to do, she would have been fine.

What I find just as disturbing is the subtext in this film that seems to tell us that for certain kinds of crime, it's appropriate and necessary to cast aside due process and the rule of law. Early in the film, Helen (the female lawyer, played by Rosamund Pike) asks Reacher to help her investigate a horrific crime in which a sniper kills five random people. Helen will be defending the shooter; Reacher tells her that he will only agree to assist her if she speaks to the families of the victims. The movie then dedicates a fair amount of screen time to walking us through the innocence of the victims, the tragedy of their deaths, and the grief of their families. The father of one victim is furious at Helen for choosing to defend the shooter; when Helen returns to Reacher, she expresses some doubt over whether the shooter deserves a fair trial.

Reacher does agree to investigate this crime, in stereotypical lone-wolf fashion, and by the end of the film, he's run afoul of the law himself, and is trying to beat the bad guys while staying clear of the authorities. To underline the whole "the law cannot interfere with the anger of a righteous man" message, when a crucial antagonist informs Reacher that he will probably not be convicted for the crimes he was party to, Reacher simply shoots the man. Helen asks him, "What about bringing the guilty to justice?" and Reacher says "I just did."

I could write this off as typical tough-guy "taking the law into his own hands" stuff, but the heavy-handed indictment of the legal process, as demonstrated by the "interviewing the victims" scenes, puts an entirely different spin on the whole thing. It was merely weeks ago that important men in my government were publicly stating that due process can be dispensed with for certain type of people and certain types of crime. Such statements, combined with the ever-widening definition of what constitutes a terrorist, give me what I believe to be legitimate concern over the longevity of my human rights.

If America is quietly giving up its founding principles, I'd really prefer that we didn't have folks standing up in movie theaters and cheering about it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Deadlines and Dragons

I don't know if I'll get a chance to blog much this week; I'm scrambling to finish preparation for a Talislanta adventure I'm running on Friday. (For those unfamiliar with Talislanta, I'll just say briefly that while the official rules vary between elegant and awkward, the setting itself is exceptional.)

Unfortunately, I've put myself in the position again where I've planned the adventure around one of the PC's, and that particular player is going to be absent. Clearly I'm going to have to start putting character development into optional side-stories that can be easily jettisoned or postponed. I can recover this particular adventure, but it won't be quite as dramatic as I had planned.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Four Colors, Hold the Capes

I've had fun running superhero roleplaying games in the past, and from time to time I'm tempted to try it again. But one thing has been bugging me about the superhero genre: the costumes. It strains my suspension of disbelief to tell a story about people who put on tights and masks before they go out and save the world.

I know that this may seem to be a minor quibble, when we're talking about a genre with world-threatening supervillains and alien invasions every other week, but it bugs me nevertheless. As a thought experiment, I've been wondering if I can take the costumes out of a superhero game and wind up with something that still appeals to me.

I expect I need to enumerate the elements that do appeal to me in a superhero game, so here goes:
  • The setting should include a little (or a lot) of everything, for no good reason other than it's cool. A superhero setting should include elements of science and magic, future and past. There should be no reason not to have an adventure that includes aliens, or gorillas, or time travel, or pirates, or even alien gorilla time-travelling pirates. Ridiculous and impossible plot elements should be status quo.
  • The heroes (and their enemies) should have amazing abilities. I wasn't sure whether to include this one. Is it really necessary for the main characters to have anything more than good training and equipment? Probably not, but I think you lose a lot of the comic-book feel if you take out the amazing abilities. The heroes have to be more than just the best of the best; they have to be unique somehow. And when they go into action, it has to be more than firefights and car chases; there must be spectacular feats of skill and power. But again, without the capes, you have to think a little harder about just what kind of abilities the heroes can really have, and how they get them. My first requirement (the "everything goes" setting) helps a lot here. You can't shoot energy blasts from your hands just because you're a superhero, but maybe you can because you're an ancient Greek sorceror, or you come from Alpha Centauri, or you invented some nifty cybernetic implants, or you're the result of a secret bioengineering program.
  • The main characters must use their own resources and their own methods to stop threats that no one else can. I think the phrase "their own resources and their own methods" is key here. I think a superhero game is more interesting to play when the heroes aren't working as part of a government agency or greater authority. They can cooperate with the police and the military and so forth, but they shouldn't be subservient to those organizations. This one is more challenging to do without the capes. When we label a group of heroes as "superheroes" and give them flashy costumes, we seem to automatically assign them a special role in the game world without looking for justification. Why, exactly, would the mayor or the President or anyone else come to these people for help? Why is it okay for them to rampage around the city and defy all laws concerning search and seizure and due process and such? If you take away the capes, you force the group to really think about why their group of heroes has this special role, and I think it would make for a more interesting story in the bargain.
It almost sounds like I'm describing a game that's just "superheroes in plain clothes", but that's not what I'm going for. It's not just the costumes that bother me (though it's mostly the costumes); it's the story shorthand that the costumes represent. If you want the main characters to do all things I've described above, in the world I've described, then you really need to ask: why are they doing these things? Why are they risking their lives to save the world? What gives them the moral authority to take the law into their own hands? Why are they allowed to run around the world meddling in people's affairs? The answer needs to be more than "because they're superheroes".

The masks are hiding more than the faces of the heroes; they're hiding story development that might make for a more interesting and unusual game.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Warehouse 13

I love Warehouse 13. I'd be willing to say that out of every show that the Syfy channel has produced, Warehouse 13 is my favorite (I'd call it a tie with Mystery Science Theater 3000, but MST3K actually originated elsewhere, so I'm not sure it counts). Eureka was entertaining, but the basic formula got pretty repetitive over time; Battlestar Galactica did some amazing things, but wasted too much of my time teasing us with mysteries whose resolution was either disappointing or never occurred at all.

Yes, Warehouse 13 has its flaws. For instance, if Myka and Pete are supposed to be former top-notch Secret Service agents, why are they so bad at basic law enforcement procedures? (Pete, in particular, seems to have never taken even a basic firearms safety course). But my inner critic just seems to retire quietly to another room as soon as I hear the show's theme music.

What is it I love about this show?

The humor is a big draw for me. From the little visual gags they pull off with the informational captions, to Pete's constant clowning around and Claudia's sly self-confidence, it's a rare episode that doesn't have my laughing out loud.

I dig the world-building and the show mythology. Every so often, the show gives out a little more information about Warehouses 1 through 12, and I'd love to play a roleplaying campaign based in any of them.

But most of all, what keeps me watching this show is the camaraderie and relationships between the main characters. I think I was hooked the first time that Artie baked post-mission cookies for the team. The close friendships that tie the team together really warm my cynical little heart.

Warehouse 13 is a big fuzzy blanket I like to crawl under to get warm, and I send my highest compliments to the actors and writers that make it all possible.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Neverwinter: The Foundry

I've unlocked the Foundry in Neverwinter; in other words, I now have access to the tools that allow players to create their own game content. The tools are right in my comfort zone: simple enough to get into quickly, but with enough options and features to allow the creation of something sophisticated. There are still a few glitches -- getting rooms to join together correctly can be a bit tricky in some conditions -- and the purpose of some of the controls is not immediately obvious, but there definitely seems to be enough functionality to produce a D&D dungeon.

The big obstacle, for me, is time: after spending three hours on my first test dungeon, I had nothing but a fairly uninspired array of corridors and monsters. Adding the extra flavor and story is going to take longer. Hopefully, as I get more proficient with the tools, the authoring process will speed up.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Through the (Google) Looking Glass

It seems that most of the news stories I see about Google Glass these days are about privacy and ethics concerns. The common question is, effectively: "Is it acceptable for a someone to carry a concealable video camera around wherever they go?"

I think that these fears are somewhat misplaced. If anyone living in an urban environment thinks that they're not frequently being video-recorded, they're fooling themselves. Also, I honestly don't see how this is much different than the video cameras embedded in most smartphones these days. Should we ban smartphones from public places as well to prevent this kind of casual surveillance?

(As an aside, I think that there are larger issues than just privacy at stake. By allowing people to video-record their everyday lives, are we working toward a world where one's own ability to remember facts becomes obsolete? After all, if you can look up facts online instantly through vehicles such as Wikipedia, and if you gain the ability to digitize and store your own experiences for future reference, is there any need to remember things using your own brain? Will we, as a race, lose the ability to remember things for ourselves, offloading this responsibility to a ubiquitous global cloud of data storage?)

But the most important fact that these discussions seem to overlook is the fact that Google Glass is only one early implementation of a personal, wearable, video input-output device. Even if Google Glass is a commercial flop, or even if some enormous public outcry caused Google to shelve the project, someone else will produce another version of this technology sooner or later -- probably sooner. No matter how uncomfortable some people feel about the Google Glass concept, this idea isn't going to go away. In ten or twenty years, wearable computers will be everywhere, and we'll either have developed some sort of etiquette system around them, or we'll just all pretend they don't exist.

We humans have been working on ways to mechanize ourselves for a long, long time, and we're not going to stop because a bar somewhere in Seattle doesn't like the idea.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

First Impressions: Neverwinter

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about the older Neverwinter Nights games; I'm talking about the new Neverwinter MMO. Also, I've only barely started playing. I have one character at level 11, and that's it, which means there's a lot of the game I haven't seen yet.

But I'm liking what I'm seeing so far. The combat system is more dynamic than most MMO's I've played; constant repositioning is necessary in order to avoid area effect attacks, to take advantage of flanking bonuses, and to get clear of melee opponents so that you can take out the ranged opponents who are slowly killing you. Also, the look-to-aim system and the pace of combat is exhilarating; it's a thrill to race my cleric into the fray, blasting folks with holy light left and right, occasionally calling down a satisfying blast of divine wrath from the heavens.

The powers are loosely derived from the 4th edition D&D rules, and will be familiar to 4th edition players (Lance of Faith, Healing Word, etc.). As might be expected, the at-will/encounter/daily power frequencies have been replaced by more real-time frequencies, where you can get an encounter power off around once every 10 seconds, and a daily power off whenever you accumulate enough power points (for big fights, you might accumulate enough power points to use a daily power more than once in the same fight). This is a pleasant nod to players of the tabletop game. During one particular skirmish, a menacing-looking enemy came onto the screen, and I found myself trying to guess whether I should burn my daily power on it or hold the daily back until later in the scenario -- just like in the tabletop game.

The Foundry system that allows players to build their own quests is something I'm really looking forward to trying. I ran through one Foundry quest, and found a number of promising features, including dialogue trees, sub-quests, and even scripted events. Only players who have a character at level 15 can build quests in the Foundry, though, so I'll have to wait a little longer for that privilege.

The game is microtransaction-supported, with the typical options to spend real money to buy mounts and special clothing and such. So far, though, it looks like you get get quite a lot of play without spending a penny.

Once I get into the professions system and the Foundry, and once I've had a chance to participate in a few more multi-player parties, I may have more to say, but at this early stage, I think the game is well worth a look.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Stone of Names: May Status Update

The editing phase for my novel is stretching on longer than I had estimated. The feedback from my beta readers gave me the chance to look at the novel through new eyes, and showed me several areas where things were unclear or inconsistent. I'm fixing those now, and I expect to be done within another week or two. If I get more beta feedback, I'll keep editing; otherwise it will be time for me to give the book one last read-through myself, and then call it done.

I have a general idea for two sequels to Stone of Names, and I should probably try coming up with an outline for them just to see if I actually feel like writing them. If I do managed to get Stone of Names published, either on the Kindle store or by more traditional means, it would be good to have another book on the way so that I can build up an audience. Of course, there's no reason my next book needs to be a Stone of Names sequel, but it's an idea worth pursuing.