Thursday, July 19, 2012

Beyond Good And Evil: A Game For The Post 9/11 World

It is no surprise that a game named after a Friedrich Nietzsche book has layers of philosophical and political depth. Beyond Good And Evil is a game for the War In The Middle East, post-9/11 world; a game that applies even better to a WikiLeaks world of 2012. in my opinion, than the world of 2003. 

 The Alpha Sections are the primary antagonists in this game. They are can be thought of in various different ways, depending on how you interpret the game. Hillys, the planet the game takes place on, is under an apparent threat of the DomZ, a species of hostile extraterrestrials who appear to be attacking the planet parallel to the activities of the Alpha Sections. The Alpha Sections essentially hijack the planet's political system, taking credit for "holding back" the DomZ. They achieve this through propaganda that is viewable on every street corner in the City that constantly parrots the "success" of the Alpha Sections, and how the opponents (a rebelling network named IRIS) need to be stopped at all costs.
 There are two ways I've thought about this game (which doesn’t mean there aren’t many other possible interpretations). The first is from the view of the Middle Easterners in our world (the Hillyans in their universe.)
 The Alpha Sections may be an analogue for the United States. In the view of some people, America used 9/11 as an opportunity to invade Afghanistan (some people even say America caused it, though those two viewpoints don't necessarily intersect.) The Alpha Sections established power on Hillys because the attacks by the DomZ frightened people to submission, and made people more lenient about the actions of those who defended them. As a result, some people think America only promoted war in Afghanistan because the populace was scared. The Taliban and al-Qaeida might even be represented by the DomZ, a catalyst towards invasion, a scapegoat for people that were lying. 
 However, the game might also be interpreted from the side of America. We might see the Taliban working with al-Qaeida, and want to be the whistle blowers that stop it. Perhaps the IRIS Rebel Network is an analogue to the people who worked with the US and their allies in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban. They exist to promote the truth to Hillys, to bring about freedom. Their only way to break through propaganda was the truth, and the truth was communicated with photographic evidence. 
 Another interesting idea, however you choose to interpret the game, is the optimistic idea that informed citizens will do the right thing. In some ways, the IRIS Network reminds me of organizations like WikiLeaks; they exist only to tell citizens the truth. What Hillyans actually do with the photographic evidence isn't sure until the end of the game where the whole populace is in open defiance of the lying Alpha Sections. Certainly, this view is optimistic; we have people in our world that can easily see the evidence of the truth, but choose not to listen. However, something about it is comforting and romantic; the idea that people will listen to the truth and change their world because of it is a powerful one. 

A Broken System

I, along with the gaming community at large, was shocked by a recent post I saw on The Verge titled "'Fez' developer reposts 'kinda broken' patch with no plans to fix." In this post, it was detailed how the developer of Fez, a highly popular indie game on Xbox Live Arcade, had no plans to fix a bug in the patch of his game. According to the article: 

""We're not going to patch the patch," the developer writes on its official site. "Why not? Because Microsoft would charge us tens of thousands of dollars to re-certify the game."
 I am not usually as interested about writing about the business side of games. In fact, I'd rather write more about them as an art form. However, when a game is potentially broken and will stay that way because of silly Microsoft business practices, it seems to be a problem. This is simply a sad state of affairs.
 In an era where developers working on Steam can patch their software with no fuss, having to pay Microsoft hand over fist to make a game work is ridiculous. It's the sort of silly business problem that would only exist in the video game realm. That's too bad, because at the end of the day the people who get hurt are the creators and the consumers. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Video Game Brain Space Needs YOU!

 Today, Leigh Alexander over at Gamasutra made a characteristically excellent post called "In The Sexism Discussion, Let's Look At Game Culture" a post about handling the issue of sexism in the games industry. In it, she challenged people to work harder on taking down the social constructs and operations that make it so hard for women to be heard in the games industry. My favorite few paragraphs read: 
Despite all the snarking and outrage about booth babes at E3 this year, when I walked the show floor it wasn't the costumed women that let me know I didn't really belong here anymore. It was the content, and the attitude to content. 

Men reciting marketing lines about weapons and explosions. The question every trailer and presentation aimed to answer was who do you kill and how do you kill them. I thought of all the good, smart guys I know on dev teams and struggled to reconcile it with this numb, mean litany, devoid of much aside from the quest for dollars. Shoulder to shoulder, men marched proudly in their studio tees. The more money they have made off of shooters, the higher they held their heads.

We have a mainstream culture that doesn't represent what a mature, progressive audience wants to buy. It's not always a problem when this happens -- interesting, independent creation will always thrive on the fringe of any medium. But here we have a mainstream culture many healthy adults cringe at being associated with. It's not just good dumb fun: There's something sick about it.
 I'd just like to say that we need more women's voices in games. We need women everywhere; we need them at conventions, on podcasts, on Twitter- we need women who have a voice and something important to say. Not only that, we need homosexuals, we need bisexuals, we need African-Americans, Hispanics, Europeans, etc. We need to highlight the people who have something important to say. Don't share articles and content written by bigots because it is inflammatory, share articles that further our discussion and make us think. Stop letting people with important points be marginalized, and let the bigots get off easy. 
 We have some of the most understanding, hip people of any industry in ours; there is no reason why we should be known for marginalization and hatred. 

Jade: An Enlightened Character.

Throughout much of their history, Video games have been marketed to boys and young men. A majority of the most popular game franchises in the world (Super Mario Bros., Call Of Duty, The Legend Of Zelda, etc.) revolve around boys and men living out fantasies that appeal to them. Even the most popular female characters (Samus Aran or Laura Croft) are just avatars made to be projected on. There are almost no interesting, strong female characters that are the stars of a game. 
 Jade, from UbiSoft's Beyond Good And Evil, is one of those rare characters that makes one think. 
 One of the ways that game developers slip in female characters is by making them "one of the guys". Gears Of War, for example, does feature female characters; the only problem with these women is they are essentially treated as faceless men with breasts. Jade is not, at all, like "one of the guys". She is an excellent martial artist who can do some real damage with a jō, but at the same time she isn't unrealistically strong or powerful. Her strength comes from her agility and speed. In that way, Jade feels not only like a woman you could relate with- but an actual person; there is something refreshing about controlling a character that doesn't crush spinal columns with a single strike. Instead of relying on brute force, Jade uses stealth and intelligence to stay alive and get ahead.
 The first time you see Jade, she is meditating with one of her charges (an orphan). In just a few moments of cutscenes one of Jade's defining features is inferred: she has a passion for truth. She seems to be enlightened in a Buddhist sense; Jade is a master of self-control and meditation. Unlike many cartoonish video game women (think JRPG characters) she never flies off the handle, or loses control- even when everything is falling apart around her. Her clear interest in truth and understanding of the world informs her profession; she is a government reporter armed with a camera. The whole drive of the game comes not only from external sources (the advances of the propagandizing Alpha Sections against the planet of Hillys) but from Jade's quest to obtain real evidence of the truth. 
 Finally, the third interesting part of Jade's personality is intertwined with her own inner enlightenment and understanding of the world. She loves her family. Every time she talks to her "Uncle" Pey'j, you can tell their bond is something unique in games. Their rapport is, on the surface, witty and fun; below the surface one can tell that Jade loves her pig uncle. When they hug or touch the game goes a long way to make players see how much deeper their relationship is than any other I can think of in video games. Jade also treats the orphans she takes in like her family, as they are the only family (besides Pey’j) she has.
Her entire life is devoted to helping the children of her lighthouse orphanage and discovering truth. She is an intellectual character, an emotional character- an important character.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Unsurprising Truth

The Unsurprising Truth 
We are nearing the end of a console cycle. The bigwigs of the industry are wrapping up their work on the PS3, 360, and Wii- and are getting ready to enter a new generation. This generation has seen multiple new franchises sprout up, or become popular. Assassin's Creed, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Little Big Planet, Uncharted, and so many more have just become expected, and routine.
Recently, Gamasutra posted an article titled: "What do console players want most? Essentially, more of the same." (

"Nielsen surveyed more than 4,800 players between the ages of 7 and 54 years old using a number of different metrics, and found that the most anticipated titles across the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii were Halo 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and Just Dance 4, respectively.
Other games that made the lists included Madden NFL 13, Assassin's Creed III, Borderlands 2, and numerous other major follow-ups.
In fact, the only new IP titles in Nielsen's data were two Wii games: The Last Story, and Everyone Sing -- every other title in the survey data was either a sequel or a licensed property." 

 While the end-of-cycle-game-drought is nothing new, seeing the yawning last cycles of this generation is no less stifling to the people who are bright-eyed and enthusiastic about games and their future. Quite simply, there is no new IP left. No one sees the need to do anything else with these consoles, so perhaps the nails are already being slammed into the coffin.