Answering feminist game critics

I have no problem with feminism as a political or social movement.  I believe women should be paid equally, have equal opportunities to live the lives they wish, work the careers they want to work, etc.

However, feminism as an approach to video games is a little different – it’s where I start to have some issues.  A while back I addressed this issue a bit, but I don’t think I really did it justice.  While Anita Sarkeesian, the current face of feminist game criticism, is certainly a self-aggrandizing sensationalist who tends to get her facts wrong (unforgivably wrong for a “journalist”, but let’s leave it at that) and although some other reviewers who have used the label of sexism are undeniably hacks, that doesn’t mean every point she or every other feminist game critic has ever made is without merit.  There may be some legitimate issues about the depiction of women in games raised by the feminist perspective, so let’s cut through all the bullshit and have a look.

It’s hard to deny that a lot of video games put female characters in provocative outfits and give them attractive designs.  While we might say the same for male video game characters, the definite focus is on the female form.  Even some games that don’t put it front and center throw in some fanservice, typically in the form of optional DLC.

May as well post the cover of Catherine again, since it's relevant here.

May as well post the cover of Catherine again, since as the most sexist platformer of all time it’s relevant to this subject.

As far as I can tell, Sarkeesian and other critics who generally follow her line of thinking believe that this is always wrong.  They point primarily to the sexualization of female characters and the prevalence of weak/submissive female roles in games (see especially the princess-style characters in Mario, Zelda, etc. needing to be rescued) as evils that have to be corrected.

However, these arguments don’t hold up unless we make a couple of assumptions.  First, that video games are a form of art, and second, that the artist always has a duty to be socially sensitive.

Video games, art, and social responsibility

Nobody can really agree on what makes something art, and the same goes for video games.  Film critic Roger Ebert thought that video games were not art and never could be art, and while I think he missed the mark, I can understand his position.  Games were originally created to be fun, nothing more.  Nobody in the 1980s questioned the moral standing of Pac-Man to eat the ghosts that constantly pursued him or the right of Mario to institute regime change in the Mushroom Kingdom.  While a lot of craft went into these old games, their developers probably didn’t intend for us to search our souls when we played them.

Times have changed, and I think some games have fully crossed the threshold between “art” and “not art.”  Just look at a game like The Last of Us – the story in that game was clearly intended to make the player think about the human condition.  However, many other games are still firmly in the “just meant for fun” category.  They might still be “art”, but if they are, they’re definitely popular art as opposed to important, all-capitals SERIOUS ART.  And it’s my contention that games like these have no real duty to advance the human race or empower any particular group of people.  If a game doesn’t hold itself out to the player as serious, it doesn’t express any messages to the player about how he or she should act or treat other people.  The Grand Theft Auto series, for example, doesn’t claim to depict realistic situations, and the fact that you can murder entire cities of people with miniguns and missile launchers in those games doesn’t mean that Rockstar Games is saying that you should do so.  Although this is a somewhat extreme example, most games fit in the same mold, and so when critics call out GTA, or Senran Kagura, or take your pick for being sexist – even if they have good points – I can’t really credit their arguments because I don’t believe their developers have any duty to depict their characters in a particular way.

This is a depiction of socially acceptable behavior

This is a depiction of socially acceptable behavior

If a game does hold itself out as a serious work of art and expresses a serious message, then I think a feminist critique is probably valid.  However, proper criticism needs to take context into account.  A game that depicts a man beating his wife, for example, isn’t sexist simply for having such a scene.  If the game depicts the man in a realistic light – as a total asshole or a highly disturbed man – then the beating itself is not intended as a denigration of women.  If the game puts forward the male character as a model for the player, that’s a serious problem that should definitely be addressed.

Video games as escapism

Determining when game developers have an affirmative duty to be socially sensitive is difficult.  It’s not likely that anyone will agree on where that line should be drawn.  However, the one thing that the current strain of feminist game criticism seems to ignore is that fact that most games are meant not as art but as a form of escapism.  And escapism takes as many forms as there are players.  If a game contains loads of sexual fanservice, that’s an instance of a game developer catering to their target audience.  If you find games that put girls in bikinis for no real reason to be offensive or denigrating, well, don’t play those games.  Instead of a lot of finger-wagging and calls for what would amount to censorship, a more positive solution to the issue would be to press other developers to create games that depict strong, non-sexualized female characters.  In fact, a lot of developers are already responding to these calls, and there are some excellent games out there that do feature strong female characters who aren’t just perfect Mary Sues.  There’s room in the massive video game market for both this type of game and the other type of game.

If anyone is curious as to why some gamers get so pissed off about the views of Sarkeesian et al., it’s likely because they (rightly) believe that these critics are trying to shove their way into their own escapist refuge.  They’re not merely interested in creating an alternative sort of game that advances their concept of positive attitudes of gender – they want every game to take on this responsibility, and they subordinate every other aspect of the game to this one, including personality, distinctiveness, and entertainment value (i.e. the reason the great majority of people give a damn about games in the first place.)  Video games should allow the player, whether a man or a woman, to live out his or her fantasies.  In general, video games act as a release valve for the player, a way to flee from the pressures of real life for a little while.  They don’t have a duty to lecture the player on the proper way to treat other human beings.  I work for a living, and my work is stressful and complicated.  Sometimes I just need to escape into a world where where I can legally punch someone in the face without provocation and also a world where cheerleaders kill zombies with chainsaws.  So I can’t appreciate the views of critics who condemn every single instance of lack of social sensitivity in video games.  The misfit freaks of the world, myself included, need that escape in some form.  And we form a pretty significant part of the market, if the sales numbers are any indication.

So that’s my take on it.  I’m not interested in insulting anyone for their views, and I think the death/rape/etc. threats that have been addressed are reprehensible, but there are in fact two sides of the “women in video games” issue, not just one.  Sadly, traditional media outlets, when they’ve bothered to report on this nonsense, have bought that one side of the story (pathetic insecure guys in basements typing insults at totally reasonable and nice people who just want to improve the games industry.)  The issue isn’t quite that simple.

Four portable games not to play on the plane (because they’re perverted)

I’m taking a long plane trip tomorrow, about as long as a plane trip can be while still staying inside the 48 states of the contiguous Union. The plane sucks ass and is horrible, mostly because I’m not a rich man and cannot afford even business class.

One of the things that makes a 7-hour plane ride more bearable is the fact that I can bring along my Vita or 3DS. The stupidly difficult Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl alone should take up a lot of my time and attention while shoved like an anchovy in my godawful coach seat. However, the plane being an incredibly public place, there are certain games that I feel I simply would not be able to play on it for reasons of embarrassment and public decency. The following Gamespot/Target/Walmart-sold, legitimate triple-A video game designer-made portable titles are unsuitable for travel-play for all but the most shameless and fedora-wearing-est of gamers:

1) Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed

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This one’s really not as bizarrely fanservicey as the cover or title suggest. Akiba’s Trip is really more of a nerd’s fantasy sort of game, involving an anime/game/figure-obsessed young man who meets a cute vampire girl (but she’s a good vampire, kind of like Twilight) who must strip the clothes off of secret evil vampires pretending to be normal people to protect the nerd-paradise Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara from… something.

The thing that makes Akiba’s Trip not so bad in the embarrassment department is the people you’re fighting and stripping are of both genders. This still isn’t much of an argument for playing the game on the plane. Especially not when you play dress-up with your several female companions, one of whom is a Finnish weeaboo fangirl who always wears a maid’s dress but can also wear this apparently (warning: not really safe for work.)

2) The entire Senran Kagura series

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You might think the above image doesn’t really suggest much of anything, and you might be right. But Senran Kagura is a game series that entirely involves schoolgirls beating each other up with ninja punches so hard that their clothes get torn off. This process is lovingly displayed in mid-fight cutscenes. There’s not much more to say than that. The games themselves look like decent enough Dynasty Warriors-style massive beatdown games, and from the bit I’ve played of Shinovi Versus that’s what they pretty much are, but without the thick layer of fanservice it’s questionable whether anyone would care about them.

3) Criminal Girls: Invite Only

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This bizarre title involves a young male protagonist sent to Hell and forced, for some reason, to take charge of an assortment of cute animal-eared girls who also live in Hell and lead them in battle, or something.

I haven’t actually played Criminal Girls, but I don’t think I have to play it to get the basic idea of the game, because the gimmick of this one is that you have to “punish” the girls to motivate them, and you do that by simulating a BDSM session by rubbing a lewd picture of said girls on your Vita’s screen.

I would say the purpose of Criminal Girls is obvious – from watching a short gameplay video on Youtube, the actual gameplay parts kind of looked simplistic, rushed and tacked on (though maybe it gets better as you go on, I don’t really know.) However, NIS America decided that the best way to avoid controversy with the NA and EU releases was to keep those BDSM scenes but cover them with a translucent pink fog (note: censored, but still incredibly not safe for work.) At this point, you may ask yourself whether it’s even worth the effort to try to play this game with one hand, as it was obviously intended to be played. I can’t answer that question, but I can say that you sure as hell shouldn’t play it on the plane. Especially considering how, let’s say, not mature some of the animal-eared girls in the game look. You might actually get your name on a list if you play Criminal Girls while anywhere even remotely near a public place.

4) Monster Monpiece

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I’ll be honest with you. And not just because this is an anonymous blog. I did buy Monster Monpiece. I bought it for a bargain price and mostly for the sake of journalistic curiosity, but that does not erase the fact that I bought a game in which you must rub a monster girl’s naughty bits through her clothes until somehow parts of her clothes are removed.

It’s really no help that the game itself is actually a pretty good tactical card/board game that involves some serious thinking. If you play this on the plane, the only thing your neighbor will notice is you furiously rubbing a picture of a large-breasted spider-girl on your Vita’s screen. This does have the effect of changing the monster girl’s stats in battle, but it doesn’t matter. Saying you’re playing Monster Monpiece for the card battle parts is like saying you read Playboy for the articles: it could certainly be true, because both Monster Monpiece and Playboy have legitimate non-fap purposes. But no one is going to believe you.

The new Nintendo 3DS: $200 better than the old Nintendo 3DS (I guess)

Maybe. Or maybe it really isn’t. It’s hard to say.

I earned the money for the new 3DS by writing articles about rehab centers in New Jersey.  That's not a joke.

I earned the money for the new 3DS by writing articles about rehab centers in New Jersey. That’s not a joke.

Something happened to my old 3DS. By “old 3DS” I mean the original one with the smaller screens, and by “something” I mean my now ex-girlfriend broke it in half, on purpose. All I can say is thank God I still only buy physical copies of games. I kept the box, because why not?

I haven’t played the old 3DS XL, so I can’t say how it compares to the new one, but supposedly the 3D on this one is a lot better than on previous versions. Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but it still gives me both eyestrain and a headache. Still, the incident that happened a few months ago gave me an excuse to upgrade, and this is a real upgrade: the larger screen alone is worth it.

The damn thing didn’t come with a power cord though. What’s that about? I still had my old one, but still, really. It’s a simple courtesy, Nintendo. Will you deny us that?

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The stuff next to the E rating is a little confusing. Mild Cartoon and Fantasy Violence? Is that a baseline rating for all 3DS games as a whole or something? Or these might refer to the built-in stuff that I haven’t tried yet. I instead played Fire Emblem: Awakening for a few hours, and it looked really nice.

I know this is pretty old news, but if you were wondering whether you should buy a new 3DS, I guess the answer is yes. It’s just a few dollars more than the old XL model, and it’s got a bigger screen than the original. It’s also going to host Fire Emblem: Fates coming out sometime next year, and if you don’t own a Vita, Zero Escape 3 is coming out on both platforms over a year from now, and the 3DS is probably just as good a platform to play it on. If you already own a 3DS, though, maybe consider whether you have $200 that you don’t need. Especially if you own the old XL model. Again, people are swearing by the new 3D system and the button in the upper right that apparently does something, but I’m not sure those are worth such an expensive upgrade. And again, the 3D effect still gives me a headache. Am I holding the system in the wrong place? Did I not calibrate it or something? Whatever.

So I now have to pick up the pieces of my crap life, but the 3DS gives me a little solace.

Sometimes good things really do happen: Zero Escape 3 announced

Occasionally, life isn’t total shit. One of those occasions was a few days ago, when Zero Escape 3 was announced for release next summer on the 3DS and Vita.

Anyone who’s wondering what the hell that crowd is screaming about should play 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. These two games (the first two in a planned trilogy) start to tell a story that is way to complicated to even give a hint about here. Both of them, and presumably the still to be titled Zero Escape 3, are essentially visual novels with strong puzzle elements. The characters are interesting, the twists are insane, and some of the puzzles are pretty damn challenging, generally involving or taking place during life-or-death situations. Kotaro Uchikoshi, the creator of the Zero Escape series, also wrote the cult-fan Infinity series, and those visual novels have a lot of the same elements (though they’re kind of long-winded and don’t feature much in the way of gameplay, being more traditional VNs.)

gfs_252011_2_3

999 and Virtue’s Last Reward are both must-plays for anyone who enjoys puzzles, drama, and intrigue. I enjoy all of those, and I played through both after being encouraged by a friend. One week later, I read an announcement that the third game in the series had been canceled, and I nearly cried. Well, not really, but I felt like crying. (This was all the more unbearable because VLR ends on a serious cliffhanger.)

So imagine my happiness today. I’m excited about this game. In fact, it is definitely the release I’m most looking forward to. To put this into perspective, I like Star Wars pretty well and I’m excited about the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars VII coming out in December, but I’m about 20 to 30 times more excited about Zero Escape 3. It might even beat out The Winds of Winter for anticipation value, though not by much.

Are you ready for crazy nine-way prisoner's dilemma backstabbing antics.  I hope you are.

Are you ready for crazy nine-way prisoner’s dilemma backstabbing antics. I hope you are.

Okay, enough talk. I don’t normally write posts like this, but I was too happy about this news to let it pass by without comment.

Breaking the fourth wall: A review of Contact (DS)

Contact_boxart

Have you ever wondered whether the characters on the other side of the screen knew you were there, controlling them, fighting with them? Have you ever played a game in which one or more of the characters knew they were being controlled by “the player”?

Well, chances are you haven’t, because Contact was a commercial failure. Published by Atlus and developed by Grasshopper Manufacture under the direction of famous weirdo game maker Suda51, Contact was released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS, which was still a new and fresh system at the time. This game has Suda’s marks all over it: weird story, surreal scenes that don’t make a lot of sense, puzzles with strange solutions, etc. The element of Contact that really made it stand out, however, was the fourth-wall-breaking part. The game opens with the Professor, a really professorial-looking man with white hair and a lab coat, who is amazed to see you and starts asking you questions directly. He even addresses you by name (which the game presumably gets from the DS profile.) The Professor, and only the Professor, knows that you exist, and he talks to you throughout the game. Your participation in the game is pretty cleverly woven into the story and mechanics. The game even uses the unique (in 2006) split-screen DS in an interesting way, putting the Professor and Mochi in their lab on the top screen and the main part of the game in the bottom screen.

Oh yeah, and the Professor also has a cat named Mochi. Mochi also knows you exist because you can play with him (i.e. poke him with the stylus) in the save screen.

Above: the Professor and Mochi.  Below: the primary game field.

Above: the Professor and Mochi. Below: the primary game field.

The player-controlled character throughout the game is “Terry”, a silent kid protagonist who has to help the Professor recover fuel cells to get his spaceship running again. There’s also a plot about evil astronauts, and Terry chases around a girl who may or may not be a villain, but she keeps disappearing for some reason. Despite having played Contact, I don’t really know what the game is about, although this is standard as far as Suda51 games go. Also, since Suda wrote the game, there are a few creepy and vaguely sexual parts in the game despite its E 10+ rating. For example, at one point Terry decides to caress a set of nightwear folded on a female NPC’s bed while he is alone in her house.

You didn't believe me?

You didn’t believe me?

The game itself is pretty simple. It’s a basic adventure game: you move your character around on the field, hit enemies with swords and axes, talk to NPCs, run through dungeons, and find things. Contact also features a set of jobs Terry can take on, such as chef and thief, which modify his abilities. Combat is the weakest aspect of Contact, actually – it’s pretty much “run up again enemies and hit A until they die.” Special abilities and recipes for potions and dishes that modify your stats add something to this combat system, but not much.

Even so, Contact is a good game. It feels like a very “small” game – it’s short (for an adventure/RPG game), the characters are bare sketches, and the combat is as simple as it could possibly be. These qualities might have been the reasons for Contact‘s failure to sell well. However, the game is also bizarre and weirdly fascinating, with a nice soundtrack, an interesting gimmick that doesn’t feel too out of place, and a plot that keeps you at least wondering what the hell is going on. It’s a strange trip into a different world and a pleasant break from my own. I’m happy I played it. Contact takes your morning coffee and puts a drop of fairy juice in it and messes around with your brain-wires a bit, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

So if you like Suda51 and you don’t mind a kind of crappy combat system, I’d highly recommend Contact. It’s not the greatest game of all time by any means, but it also didn’t deserve to be almost totally ignored. If you find a copy for ten dollars (probably without the manual and box, but such is life) give it a try.

Why I’m not excited about the Final Fantasy VII remake

I’m sure all this has been posted before by other, more recognized/successful/better people, but I’ll also say it: I don’t think the Final Fantasy VII remake is a great idea. It’s being hyped like crazy, but let’s examine just two reasons why the next FF7 might not be very good (except for Square-Enix’s bottom line, maybe, because they could sell a box of dog shit with the Final Fantasy name on it and it would still fly off of the shelves and get a 9/10 from IGN.)

Cloud_disguise6

1) Final Fantasy VII is kind of a goofy game

Final Fantasy VII is goofy as fuck. Yeah, it has a serious theme – the end of the world. And yes, Cloud gets both his brood and his ellipses on the whole time, and he’s a super-serious protagonist.

But consider all the bizarre parts of FF7 that don’t fit the story. There are plenty of weird little bits of dialogue that read like jokes, and even during tense situations, like when the whole party is on the ship heading out from Junon and everyone has to disguise themselves like sailors, even Red XIII, who’s awkwardly trying to stand on his hind legs. There’s even a joke character in the form of Barrett, a/k/a Mr. T. Finally, there’s the whole Wall Market sequence, where Cloud famously crossdresses and also gets gangbanged by several burly men in a bathhouse, all of course to save Tifa from creepy fuck Don Corneo. (Well, it’s possible that such a scene could be some kind of take on gender fluidity and sexual identity, but the original FF7 played the whole thing off as a weird joke.)

I guess my question is whether Square plans on including all that stuff in the remake. If they do, the new FF7 is going to have serious tone problems. All the goofiness kind of worked when I was playing this game at 10 years old because the graphics were blocky and Cloud and co. were running around with their pipe cleaner arms and big heads and it all seemed to work in a strange way. With the realistic style of newer FF games, I feel like it wouldn’t work so well.

Of course, Square might go the other direction and change a lot of FF7 for the remake. Which brings me to problem #2:

ff13x

2) The latest Final Fantasy games haven’t been very good

FF7 was released in 1997. That was 18 years ago. The FF series (and JRPGs as a whole) have changed a lot in that time. Looking at the series’ recent history, the last main numbered non-sequel game in the line was Final Fantasy XIII, released in 2010. I mostly hated that game because of its linearity. It was a pretty game and the music was great, but the actual experience of playing it was lousy. And yeah, the game world does open up after a while, but having to grind through hours and hours of the same characters saying the same things and fighting the same fights over and over again really wears you down. Who looks forward to a bowl of ice cream after being forced to eat a gallon of creamed corn?

I know a lot of people will disagree on this point, but if the new FF7 ends up anything like FF13, it’s going to 1) suck and 2) not be much of anything like the original FF7. Tetsuya Nomura is directing it apparently, and he hasn’t directed an FF game before as far as I know, so that could be interesting, but I’m still bothered by it. Then again, maybe it will be more like the soon-to-come Final Fantasy XV? Who knows if that would be a good thing.

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So that’s all I have to say about that. The new FF7 could be great, and it’s definitely a good move for Square-Enix as far as accumulating money goes, but it could easily be a big fuck disappointment as well.

A review of Robot Volume 2 by Range Murata et al.

Some days ago, I ordered a reduced-price, extremely secondhand out-of-print comic/artbook thing called Robot Vol. 2 that was released in 2006.

robot1

This series of publications is well known for its great art, and it wasn’t a disappointment in that regard. The first thing that struck me about this, and the other issues in the Robot line, are the covers. They’re all done by Range Murata, an artist who created character designs for the anime series Blue Submarine No. 6 and Last Exile. I really like his art. The characters look interesting and both character and setting often have a futuristic feel to them. Though I should mention that a few of the covers might get looked at sideways by some people, like the one to the fourth volume in the series (not strictly NSFW, but in a practical sense it definitely is.) Visitors to your house who see it might have some uncharitable thoughts about you, even though there’s nothing really objectionable like that inside the book itself. Well, there are some sexual themes in one or two of the featured works, hence the PARENTAL ADVISORY – EXPLICIT CONTENT sticker on the front, but nothing like that.

Anyway, the covers are nice, but what about the contents? These books are collections of stories created by various manga artists from Japan. The pieces range wildly in tone from weird comedy (a robotic sparrow comes from the future to help a girl avoid being assaulted by a giant hamster) to serious drama (see the piece done by Yoshitoshi Abe, the artist famous for the weird, haunting cult series Serial Experiments Lain.)

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Above, an example of one of the kinds of pieces you’ll find in the book. This one seems to be about a colorless world where certain characters can create color. It’s a really nice concept and works very well visually, with the artist adding color to the comic as the story progresses and then taking it away when the characters “wash” the colors off of themselves. A lot of the other stories in Robot have interesting art styles.

If there’s one place where Robot is lacking, however, it is in the story department. A lot of the pieces in this volume either have no story at all or have stories that make no sense. Some of the pieces seem to be scenes from existing works that were ripped completely out of their surrounding contexts. It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something, because some of the pieces in Volume 2 seem to be continuations of works started in Volume 1, but online reviews I read before buying this agree with me on the story front. And a piece near the back of the book does involve some sort of sexual theme as the warning on the cover promises, though as usual I can’t understand what the piece is about or if it’s about anything at all.

So, the verdict: don’t buy this expecting to read a compelling story. If, however, you want a fantastically produced artbook-sized set of surreal comics that don’t make sense, Robot is for you. These books seem to be mostly out of print, but I got this and a couple of other volumes used for around 10 dollars each – a pretty good deal, especially considering the fact that they seem to have retailed for around 25 dollars. There are 10 volumes of Robot out, but unfortunately only 1 through 5 have been translated into English and released in the US, so if you’re the kind of obsessive collector who must have every volume in a series on your bookshelf you’ll have to import the rest. I’d say these were well worth the money, even though I had to buy them used because the new copies cost like 600% more and Volume 2 came to my mailbox a little beat up, scratched and torn.

That’s the US Postal Service for you, though. Really, I don’t even know if they were the ones responsible for the ultimate condition of the book when I got it, but I’m going to assume they were. You mysteriously “lose” the item I shipped to the next state over, and then you won’t spare two lousy strips of tape for a printed shipping label for the replacement item? Fuck the Post Office. I’m happy they’re failing, and I hope they collapse. Maybe then I wouldn’t get so much god damn junk mail.