Saturday, 18 January 2014

Game Revolution Asks the Right Questions

Sorry I haven't updated in a while. This was meant to be posted a few days ago but I was suddenly hit with an influx of work. Actually, I still have a half-finished blog post featuring quotes that I found while writing assignments but that one's taking some effort to get back into, since I'd basically be rehashing some stuff I did for college only a month ago.

This one will be short but it's also something I find very interesting; there's a huge gap between the number of male enemies we slaughter in games compared to female enemies, which I've written about before. Specifically, this was about the number of generic, cannon fodder mooks that players slaughter in their hundreds without giving it a moment's thought, rather than named villains and villainesses. The majority of these enemies are male, or at least are male in appearance.

Thankfully, it seems like a gaming journalist has been thinking along the same lines as me; a few days ago, Nicholas Tan of Game Revolution uploaded an article he wrote titled "Can Women Be Video Game Enemies En Masse?"

I don't want to nitpick too much because I think it's a good article. It's the kind of article that needs to be seen more on mainstream gaming sites, something that is thought-provoking and acknowledges that equality for women in gaming isn't all about stomping out online abuse and reducing breast size. You also have to acknowledge that men are unfairly portrayed too and equality works both ways; unless you take the hit and have women killed as often as men (give or take; I'm not asking for a 50/50 split. That would be ridiculous), things will be unequal.

Even so, while the article gives a good overview and I hope will be enough to start a discussion, it isn't as in-depth as I would like. It would've been nice to see some more examples from games, since the only one focused on is Fallout: New Vegas (as an example of a game that gets it right). There are screenshots of Final Fight and Final Fantasy VIII but the author doesn't elaborate on either one. The picture of FFVIII's Edea raises questions, since she isn't specifically a female enemy to be killed "en masse", in the same way that Roxy and Poison from Final Fight are. Not that FFVIII isn't guilty of a lack of female enemies but I think Nicholas Tan could've provided context about why it was included.

Having said that, the author hits the nail on the head with two statements about why we don't see more female enemies in games. After writing about how enemies are more likely to be male in games designed to be realistic, Tan says the following:
"Now since most video games are not meant to be absolutely realistic, it's unnecessary that they need to follow this rule. I've blasted the heads off numerous female raiders in Fallout: New Vegas. But it's a rule that carries over, if but subconsciously, from video game developers who are predominantly men."
Apart from the "predominately men" part -- I haven't seen anything to suggest that either sex would be more or less willing to female enemies -- but the lack of female enemies in unrealistic games is due to real-world gender norms. Think of it this way; developers can introduce any number of fantastical elements into a fictional world, such as magic and monsters, but they can only do so much when it comes to subverting gender roles. If they do, it will only be to elevate the role of women and reduce the role of men; for those of you who have played the Shivering Isles expansion for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, think about the gender roles of the Golden Saints and Dark Seducers. Both are armies where the highest ranks are made up of women while males don't rise above being grunts.

So that's one of the reasons why we don't see women making up the majority of enemies in games and the second quote I'd like to use from Tan's article shows why we probably won't:
"Then of course, could you imagine a game where a male protagonist goes around murdering women and exclusively women and not just demons like harpies and hagravens? Even if the gameplay is groundbreaking and the story is told with an attention to context, it will become easy prey for the mainstream press. I mean, talk about making yourself a target and bad marketing. At best, the game would be considered a joke and be turned into an infamous meme. (Perhaps such a game would need a female protagonist killing a whole lot of other women to work.)"
Not much to say about that, other than it's correct. There's no chance of a game featuring a male protagonist massacring an all-female army being released and not becoming a target for the gaming press (or the mainstream, as Tan points out). Back when Resident Evil 5 received its first trailer, it faced controversy for featuring a white protagonist -- Chris Redfield -- gunning down black enemies, as the game is set in Africa. With gender issues being a major topic on gaming news sites, is there any way a game like the one described could exist and face a similar controversy? Is there any way it could not become the gaming community's whipping boy (or girl, if you prefer)?

As good as the rest of the Nicholas Tan article is, it ends on a silly note:
"That said, a video game where women are the primary antagonists would be an interesting experiment, so long as it's handled well (say, a devilish male scientist creates a virus that targets women because he thought it was THIS BIG but she said it was only this big)."
It's a reference to penis size, in case you don't get the joke.

I realise I'm overanalysing this but there are four things wrong with that idea:

1) It paints the male scientist as the bad guy. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, since games with all-male enemies have had female antagonists (such as Final Fantasy VIII again) but I think Tan could've used a better example.

2) I don't see how that could be considered "handled well". Surely, the best way to handle a game with women as the primary enemies would be to avoid referencing it at all. We don't acknowledge men as the primary enemies being "the norm", so why reference the female enemies as being out of the ordinary?

3) It doesn't put the female enemies in control of their own actions. Having a virus that makes them evil is a lot different than the women choosing to be evil (or at least members of the evil army, whether it's because they were intimidated into joining, they signed up because they needed money, etc.). There's already criticism from feminist circles about female characters lacking "agency"; being active participants in the game's story, rather than passive ones. So if the game is going for true equality, the women have to choose to be the bad guys.

4) The male scientist lashed out at women because a woman said he had a small penis? Really? That's like Lara Croft's quest beginning because a guy said she was fat.

I don't want it to sound like I'm criticising Nicholas Tan or the article here. Instead, let's pretend we're playing "Fantasy Video Game Storyline Writer" and coming up with our own ideas for how predominately female enemies would work instead. That's more along the lines of what I'm criticising rather than the article itself.

Like I said, I've overanalysing but there are more sensible reasons to have a character gunning down hundreds upon hundreds of men rather than hundreds upon hundreds of women. That could just be part of the fictional universe's mythology rather than for any reason for it occurring in storyline.

So if you haven't read the article, go and read it and feel free to praise Nicholas Tan for writing about a subject we don't often hear about on gaming sites. I hope it receives more exposure and makes a few more mainstream gamers think outside the box.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Good & Bad of Remember Me

This blog post will contain spoilers for Remember Me.

Remember Me has been available to download for free on PlayStation Plus for a while and, as luck would have it, I had a code for a free month-long trial of Plus that had to be used before 2014. I was interested in downloading the game partly because I think it would give me something to write about on this blog. It's a series that has been at the centre of a controversy about female protagonists, after all, so it seems like a game I should write about. I barely knew anything about it, so what if it was a game as misandric as Heavenly Sword? Or at the very least, what if the sites reporting on the lower marketing budget for games starring female protagonists were only giving half the story and there were other reasons behind the lower budget for the game?

The only thing I found out was how undeserving Remember Me was to be involved in such a controversy; it's actually a very good game and it's disappointing that the lower marketing budget articles overshadowed it to an extent. The main thing I took away from it -- and the big reason why I couldn't title this blog "The Sexism of Remember Me", like I tend to when I examine games for sexism -- is because it gets a lot more right than it does wrong. I sincerely hope that more games starring female protagonists take their cues from Remember Me.

In a lot of ways, Remember Me borrows from a lot of other popular series. The combat is straight out of the Batman: Arkham series (albeit with more user-friendly controls and a cool combo-construction system), navigating around the city is exactly like Uncharted and the ending is kind of predictable and anticlimactic too. There are even quick-time events, although thankfully they were very rare. One for each boss fight. The same goes for the main character, Nilin. In my opinion, she was only marginally better than the majority of generic, quippy action heroes we see starring in every other game these days. She was at her best when she showed some real emotions rather than typical one-liners, which didn't seem as prevalent as they are with some other modern protagonists.

It's not like the game handles any of these things badly. The combat's pretty good. The climbing is pretty good. The story's pretty good. Although she isn't exceptional, Nilin is a bit more likeable than some other protagonists I could mention. So it does it well but doesn't leap to any new heights on any of those fronts.

However, maybe the fact that Remember Me doesn't try to reinvent the wheel is part of the reason it works so well. It might not be breaking any new ground but from a gender issues standpoint, it sends the message of "yes, we have a female protagonist. No, it's not a big deal", because it offers as entertaining an experience as the other games next ot it on the shelf.

It does a good job of removing the issue of gender in several ways; there are evil male characters and evil female ones. Sympathetic men and sympathetic women. The only time Nilin's gender is referenced is when she receives a few sleazy comments from a guy in the slums at the start of the game. Thankfully, that's just a one-off occurrence. Nilin is never thought of as any more or less capable because she's a woman and the game's enemies don't treat her differently than they would any other terrorist (or "Errorist", as memory-hunters like Nilin are referred to in the game).

If I have one criticism of the game, it's that it falls back into the old pattern of having all-male generic enemies but a mix of male and female Errorists (in the short prison-break scene we see them in, that is). I may be wrong about that; it's possible that some of the Leapers -- mutated humans with deformed faces, kind of like the Splicers from Bioshock -- were female but it was difficult to tell. If pushed for an answer, I'd say the Leapers were all male too.

There were some named female villains in the game. Three of them, in fact. However, because Nilin is able to alter memories, she is able to enter the memories of two of the women and change significant events in their life in such a way to convince them to become good. It's a trend that none of the people Nilin does this to are full-blown villains. Instead, they're misunderstood and sympathetic individuals (to an extent) who we're led to believe are villains before entering their memories. Nilin alters the memories of two men and two women but, when she's done, there are still plenty of male villains but only one female one. Thankfully, the number of sympathetic characters is more evenly split between the sexes.

Other than that, there isn't much to say about gender issues in Remember Me, which is actually a good thing; no news is good news, isn't it? If anything, it's just a shame that this was the game at the centre of the marketing budget controversy and not something less deserving of success. Although, in spite of poor sales -- only 300,000 worldwide according to VG Chartz -- maybe it's similar to Dragon's Crown; perhaps the controversy helped the game's sales, in spite of how low they are.

One thing I wish had happened following Remember Me's release is I wish I had seen discussion about the game outside of boards and threads specifically devoted to it. I'd have liked to have seen it mention in gaming articles too, particularly ones about good female characters. I've probably heard the phrase, "there are hardly any good female protagonists" twenty times more than I have, "Nilin from Remember Me is a pretty good female protagonist" since Remember Me's release.

I have some other thoughts on the game, since this blog will be pretty short otherwise; the real areas where it excels are the music and the environments. If I take anything away from Remember Me, it's going to be how unbelievable the environment artists made the city of Neo-Paris look. Honest-to-God, it is astounding. It's the kind of futuristic sci-fi environment I've always wanted to see in a game but never did until now. I loved the little details added to make it seem like a "real" futuristic world, with advertisements for toys, books, television shows and the evil Memorize corporation making Neo-Paris feel like a place with a history. The only other game I can think of that used fictionial brands to build its world so effectively is The World Ends With You on Nintendo DS.

I'll be interested in seeing if anyone else has played Remember Me and what they thought of it. I'm very pleased I tried it out and I'd recommend it to other people. Hopefully I'll be able to get around to playing Tomb Raider and Mirror's Edge too, to cross those two off the list of games praised for their female protagonists that I still need to experience.

I've been attempting to bring this up in a couple of blogs now, including one that I have half-written (so it may come up again in the future) but if you haven't already done so, go over to Vicsor's Opinion and read his blog post entitled "A Diverse Cast of Characters". It delves into the Remember Me marketing budget controversy -- which now seems to have been removed from Penny-Arcade for some reason, which is why I didn't link to it here -- the actual sales figures and what it's like to be on "the side of the fence" that wants more varied protagonists but disagrees with the arguments made by the more critical and dogmatic supporters of female protagonists.

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