Something tells me you’re offended that I’m offended.

The topic of being offended has cropped back up, with comedians who favor rape jokes and ableist memes. The latest iteration, in response to being offensive, is often a cry out against sensitivity and censorship, that offended parties want a dictatorship with thought police. Making this relevant to our interests here, Colin Moriarty over at IGN adds in that what he describes as political correctness stifling out creativity and the exploration of controversial material.

Let’s get to the meat of this and save the nuance for dessert. As the existence of this post implies, there are many flaws about Colin’s approach to this topic. I will first meet him at his “Let the free market decide!” slant, which is both problematic and hypocritical. For one, the public saying they don’t like certain content isn’t censorship or any threat against the US’s (because Ben Franklin doesn’t speak about the constitution of the whole world, you see) concept of free speech. Our laws protect us from the government telling us what we can or cannot do, but businesses bend to consumers because of, wait for it, the free market! And, as well, businesses don’t bend to consumer pressure also because of said free market. Game developers can ignore as many angry people as they want and continue making problematic material, but some don’t because of whatever business model or philosophies they ascribe to. So let’s stop throwing around faux-intellectualism, no one’s country-given rights are at risk here. What’s at risk is things people like Colin enjoy might go away to the pressure of another force, and they don’t like that. Which leads me to how crappy it is to use the “free market” stance in the first place. It equates ethics and individuals’ value with money in a system that favors the rich. Gaming isn’t and hasn’t been a cheap hobby to upkeep, so to say those with the money should decide the kind of content of games is plain lazy when that is mostly white heterosexual men. The problem here is that the old guard is backed up against the wall as a diverse market demands games to change, and you get pieces like Colin’s resorting to arguments of privilege.

Moving on, Colin also makes the mistake of creating a straw man of the activism surrounding problematic material in games. We’ll use his example of the Tomb Raider mishap: Talking about rape isn’t what needs to go away. The possibility of games depicting rape isn’t bad either. What is the problem is developers handling complicated issues without understanding how it affects the audience. What Ron Rosenberg said fired off many alarms, that this is most likely another fudged attempt at using rape as a theme in a game (I understand that some who demoed it feel better about the game, but the argument centers around material the public has access to). Context matters here, because our society trivializes rape and there isn’t a game in my memory that properly utilized rape. And with gaming culture under large scrutiny for homogeny in development teams and sexism, the comments Ron made were legitimately criticized. It was all the language that settled back into using rape as a plot device and not treating it with the gravity it deserves. The problem here is that Ron and everyone else related to the PR of this Tomb Raider didn’t mean to be offensive. I would say the vast majority of the cases that people criticize games and publications for being offensive, the accused didn’t mean to be. THAT’S THE PROBLEM.

Without getting into theory, it is becoming more obvious that society has engrained problematic attitudes and behaviors into our everyday mentality, so we accidentally do and say sexist (among other) things. And none of these people want to be sexist, nor want to offend gender minorities. This is what needs to be fixed, and why people continue to mobilize whenever these topics arise! There is a difference between being unintentionally offensive and being intentionally so. When you accidentally offend someone you care about, you apologize and amend your behavior. But when you intentionally offend someone, you don’t care if they are offended and are doing it for a particular reason. This mobilization of activism isn’t targeting people who want to be offensive, rather, those saying things aren’t offensive because they themselves aren’t offended, so no one should care. Sound familiar? If we continued to ignore things we didn’t like, nothing would change. There are many things and people I want to offend. I don’t care if I offend those who are anti-marriage equality, shame kinky sex, or think the Men’s Rights Movement is a legitimate cause; I intentionally craft my messages to offend such people. However, if I found out that things I said offended people with disabilities, in poverty, of another nationality, or any other non-ideological descriptor based solely on these said qualities, I would apologize and change because I didn’t mean to and wouldn’t want to again unintentionally. That said, most MRAs can go fuck off.

Also, what is cute about the “save creativity!” angle is how much people like Colin are protecting incredibly old, entrenched attitudes. There’s a push against how video games deal with sex because it is incredibly UNcreative. Scantily clad women with no other purpose than to be so? What is creative about that? There is nothing creative of our western culture appropriating and exotifying other cultures, we’ve been doing that way before free speech was written into law. Or the glorification of a war we had no business initiating as another excuse to shoot brown people? Something tells me that’s not the “fresh” Colin is looking for. The people that Colin’s article represent don’t want anything to change, unless you consider figuring out how to get a girl as close to naked as possible without financial retribution creative.

This didn’t even get into the workings of the sexism, racism, and other problematic aspects of video games. And it doesn’t have to, though reading up on that conversation would probably have saved Colin from writing that piece. The reality is that it is becoming more and more unprofessional to be sexist and racist, even unintentionally so, and the public is making publications and developers aware of this social change. And as a company that focuses on games as things “guys enjoy,” IGN should take some notes.

The State of Diversity Criticism and “do your fuckin’ research”

Alright folks, strap on in, because we’re going to be hitting a lot of points today. While this topic encompasses many writers and publications, the main focus of my post is a recent piece on 1UP by JP Kellams on gender topics in videogame criticism.

The theory in the middle is mostly okay stuff, but those who regularly engage in the critical circles of videogames will find them all rather familiar. JP starts and ends his piece basically saying that he hasn’t really looked into feminist critique enough, but there isn’t really any critical lens used in the gender debates currently going on. The loudest social justice members, apparently, are histrionic, irrational, and polemic in their efforts to discuss diversity issues within this great art form. JP goes on to posit some ideas for “rational” discussion, like the male gaze, concept of the Final Girl, and that the homogeneous makeup of development teams creating a very narrow range of games for other people to enjoy.

I’m just going to come out and say it: way to go, you are just another dude in the game industry who thinks they are saying something Smart about gender issues for the First Time that social justice proponents have been harping on and on about FOREVER. JP can find solace in that he’s not the only guy regurgitating critical lenses; it’s actually quite an epidemic.

I wanted to know why this kept happening. I figured that if JP was interested enough in calling the current social justice initiative ineffectual, he would at least be following the conversation? Ironically, the only person I saw him following on Twitter (where most of this discourse happens) that had anything to do with the English speaking diversity activism he was addressing was Kate Cox, who did a fucking three part piece on the male gaze as it pertains to videogames. The people writing, curating, and publicly promoting diversity discourse are more than aware of the concepts JP talks about, many trained academically in critical theory and consistently use it. It’s there, and people who aren’t paid and are constantly ignored by bigger publications tirelessly engage developers and publications with problematic material using critical theory. If anyone is skeptical, you can go ahead and gander at my collection of writing, all unpaid and on my own time.

So, if publications like 1UP and Kill Screen (not the only ones, just showing the breadth of sites with this problem) have men reiterating what minority activists have been saying all along, or worse, positing ideas that rely on stereotyped, shallow knowledge of minority issues, what is the cause? Why is it 1UP would commission a piece about gender theory discourse from JP, who admits he’s not the best person to ask in his preamble, and not the many people in the trenches who ARE the experts? Why are the publications that do, like Kill Screen and Kotaku, continue to produce problematic material in opposition to these writers?

For one, there is this assumption that diversity issues are just a bunch of inflammatory/liberal opinions not really based in anything but feelings. Many of these men who are writing on social justice don’t do any research on it, despite being writers and having that as a part of their job. This activism is backed by years of research and critical theory with evidence and solid philosophical groundwork. There is a deserved amount of anger in this movement because despite all of this evidence, people dismiss minorities as self-serving. It’s not until a dude comes along with a stoic and detached demeanor to say something that it’s given any credit.

Risking alienating some of my friends, a lot of this lies in publications being structurally built against culture criticism and the minority writers who would be providing this rich and compelling argument for diversity initiatives and being extremely hesitant to change. Here’s the real talk: it doesn’t matter if behind closed doors you are totally sympathetic with minority issues; if you can’t publicly and systemically promote diversity issues, then you are part of the problem. And, yes, I know all the excuses; people need money, they need to keep the immature audience that reads their material, and bosses find talking about these issues too risky in the face of increased profit.

There is no way the community is going to become familiar with the critical side of social justice if publications continue to devalue this sort of discourse by barring culture critics exposure and pay, qualities decidedly considered being “professional.” The stuff that “actually matters.” Instead, people with the position to enact change exploit social justice circles by only reporting on and discussing extremely emotional and inflammatory topics. They look for the offended, they look for the victims, and ignore those continuing to work to change the discriminatory nature of videogame culture.

So, why is it that articles like JP’s happen? Because they are part of a “Gender, Sexuality, and Videogames” week. That means they are niche and only important for a small amount of time then get tucked away before anyone gets funny ideas. The painful part of this is that 1UP is churning out some really good stuff on this topic. But we don’t want a version of Black History Month, we want positive representation of diverse identities in our development teams, mastheads, and games.


And how do you do it? I dunno, maybe you can include the people who talk about it every. single. day. into your plans.

PS: Don’t even think of trying to tell me what’s “practical.” Practical is often code for intentionally settling for less because the ideal takes too much effort.

ETA: I am not the only nor first person to say something about the erasure of minorities from critical discourse. Check out this blog post written by Alex Raymond nearly three years ago basically critiquing the same thing. That slowly but surely change is taking its sweet ass time.

ETA2: I spoke with JP on Twitter, which was basically him using Tone argument to devalue my piece, that if I was nice and polite, he would have a conversation. This is after his original article that said the social justice movement is hysterical and irrational.

He also wanted to make clear that he wasn’t “taking sides” and was being even handed between social justice and the skeptics. He said I was turning it into a social justice thing and he never intended that. So he literally had no idea of the discourse and fell into every trap of dude trying to be logical where women cannot. And this isn’t even considering how super problematic a lot of his statements were, especially with Bayonetta. This whole “play it safe” without actual research on what has been done really needs to stop.

Here’s the deal: There ARE very valuable things people in a place of privilege can do and say that would contribute to this discourse. I would say the social justice movement badly needs more cis straight etc men to further grow its philosophy and reach. And there are already really awesome guys who are a part of it and I what I love about them is that they LISTEN FIRST. There’s usually a gut reaction, but after listening to what bothers a person, or what has already been said, they avoid the usual trappings of privilege. They also ASK QUESTIONS about their position and what they can do. I love my straight cis dude friends, and I’m learning more angles and skills because they help diversify the movement.

Stand up for yourself – Concerned victim blaming

This bit is in response to a lot of the reaction to Katie Williams’ piece on her experience at E3. It’s a must read and I encourage everyone to give it a look and see some of the comments.

We need to talk about victim blaming. It comes in many forms and appears very often whenever minorities speak about experiencing discrimination. Taking a step past the obvious meaning, it lends absolution to those who act in discriminatory ways by assuming there’s nothing anyone can do to change them. So we go for the one perceived as weak and malleable to do something. If they didn’t dress so provocatively, they wouldn’t get raped. If they just would have stood up for themselves, the game industry wouldn’t be so sexist. This is often coming from allies with good intentions and persuasive rhetoric, like a response Susan Arendt did on the Cross Assault fiasco. I point this out because Susan is a professional in the industry and obviously meant this post to be compassionate and encouraging. Though unintended, there is an implication that minorities, in both these cases women, are not doing enough or doing it wrong, and that’s why bad things happen to them. You can also read Susan’s amendments to further reinforce the nuance of the situation she was speaking to. It isn’t just immature men from the dark corners of the internet making things difficult; women also can contribute to putting the pressure on other women to be responsible for the state of the gaming community.

This reminds me of when someone at my undergrad university wanted me to do a speech on continuing activism into post-grad life. I didn’t know I was an activist. But when I finally got up to speak, I realized that merely existing in a discriminatory space is activism is “doing it right.” The idea that someone is obligated to be publicly angry and aggressive towards their abusers puts the responsibility of creating a post-sexist world on those who are negatively affected by it, and not those who have the power to change things. Katie didn’t only have snarling men criticizing her, but also women who insist she asked for it, because it doesn’t happen to them! Let’s take a step back and think about what it entails to be a woman videogame journalist. It means every single day, you’re most likely going to see something sexist and be expected to be okay with it. You are less likely to rise through the ranks of writer, and you are often forgotten since everyone still assumes videogames is just a boys’ thing. Your gender is never brought up when you crank away writing solid news pieces, but always whenever competency and sex appeal is brought into the conversation. You are often told that sexism is a risky subject and really just an opinion. So, on top of that, surrounded by booth babes, and eventually taking a chance to publish about it, is it completely unfathomable to think one just doesn’t want to deal with for a day?

If this is still too abstract, let me give a personal example. Here are the things other women who are transgender say to me whenever I speak about my experiences of discrimination:

Have you considered hormones?
Do you have a deep voice?
Maybe you need more makeup.
Why don’t you just go to LGBT safe spaces?
Just have surgery.
Why aren’t you more confident?
Don’t admit you’re transgender.

Instead of addressing culture’s cissexism (often erroneously called transphobia), I am told to change myself, literally to change my body, so I can be a happy person. I face discrimination every day and encounter depression triggers at least once a week. Those comments above claw at the back of my mind constantly and I’m super aware of how my frustration at being unable to control society encourages me to change myself. But what would that help, really? If I just magically changed my sex right now, how would the world become less discriminatory other than less people being rude towards me?

E3, the videogame industry, and patriarchy look immutable, but it isn’t true. They can change and we can change them. Just think what you’re asking of a person when you tell them to be an in-your-face revolutionary when they encounter multiple instances of sexism in just a day.

What about the men!? re: Tropes vs Women

Alright, some issues need to be cleared up, both for the genuinely confused and the frothing comment sections across all publications. Let me give you the multiple reasons why “Men have it bad too, why do women have to get all this attention!?” is a shitty derailment of what’s important:

1. Women’s issues don’t require tackling men’s at the same time to be valid.

Look, there’s very few people who are going to say things aren’t messed up for guys as well. Men’s issues are important and few people talk about them. But it doesn’t make sense to demand initiatives that focus on women’s topics to also include men. That’s an issue for another time or for someone else to tackle, maybe, like, all the men who constantly bring up that men have issues?

2. The industry listens and caters to the gendered interests of men.

It is not up for debate that women have the short end of the stick in the videogame industry; it’s widely acknowledged that most games are marketed to men, made mostly by men, and reported on mostly by men. Everything is constructed with men’s interests in mind, and women suffer way more gendered harassment and discrimination, intentional or not, than men. There is a dire need to stop this, which is why there is a huge focus on women. If men were to mobilize about their issues, game companies are extremely more likely to respond, while women’s movements are often met with scorn and skepticism.

We all know that games are treated like fantasy, an escape. The thing is, it’s largely men’s fantasies and escapes being catered to. Everyone else has to give up their fantasies and comfort zones to accommodate for men’s. There are plethora of men characters for guys to relate to and project themselves on. Yes, the muscled guys can get tiring, but they are a power fantasy, not used as sex appeal. Women, on the other hand, pretty much only have the option of projecting themselves on a sexualized woman. Being sexy is cool, but it shouldn’t be the only option. Men are at a comfortable advantage here, while women have to deal with so much on top of trying to legitimize their arguments of sexism.

3. This is not reverse sexism; misandry doesn’t exist.

Here’s a hot button issue a lot of dudes are falling to: “All of this stuff is ignoring men, it’s misandry!” I can tell you that anyone who uses misandry in this way has no idea how the social justice movement uses the word misogyny. Let me break this down:

Yes, you can find definitions that say misandry and misogyny are basically hatred for men and women. That’s the dictionary version that no one uses, rather, misogyny is specifically the systemic discrimination against women. So, yes, I can make a misandrous statement like “All men deserve to die, because, yeah” but that’s a surface level this conversation is way past.
To be frank, there is no systemic force that discriminates against men. What we all notice is that culture values a certain TYPE of man, and that’s where men’s issues come in. However, there isn’t discrimination against men for being men.

4. All of the discrimination perceived against men is actually misogyny.

Misogyny is the root of all of all discrimination pertaining to gender and sexuality. Why are men depicted as muscle-bound hulks? And those who don’t fit into the perfect model bullied? Because men who act at all like women are looked down on! It’s because the qualities of weak, sensitive, needy, emotional, etc, are all attributed to women, and men do their best to not be called one. Women have been adapting over the decades and can have qualities traditionally associated with men while not feeling dissonance with their gender. Men are at a snail’s pace with this. It’s the same reason why homosexuality is discriminated against, or anyone of any queer identity or sexuality.

There are also comments like “Why do men have to do all the saving?” These are all plays off of misogynistic wish fulfillment and power fantasies of men. Men do all the saving because it’s assumed women can’t save themselves. If we address the misogyny at work, and women are depicted saving themselves and being heroes, notice that all those negative “misandrist” tropes disappear.


Looking at all of the guys mobilizing to bring light to men’s discrimination, you can see the lack of research and thoroughness. Everything is vaguely centered around being he-man superheroes. It is far more likely that people in the social justice community, which is mostly social minorities, actually know what needs to be worked on. Everything going on with the retaliation against Tropes vs Women and other social initiatives is just that: a knee-jerk reaction. There is not one person in geek social justice activism that will deny the need for men allies in the cause to help explore how men fit in.

This whole “What about the men?” backlash has no legs to stand on. It’s all hurt pride and lack of awareness on the actual issues.

The Type of Woman I Want Others to See: Why I Wore Heels to PAX East

It was probably 40 degrees American and windy. Being from South Florida, I tend to lose track of how different the temperature feels after I get goosebumps on my knees. I spent my first night in Boston clinging to the inside of my detective coat, which was apparently poor at insulating heat. The air felt more brisk as the night went on, as if the energy of all the fans and artists of the game industry dispersed in the atmosphere. In my own room, I went through my meticulously rolled and sectioned outfits in my luggage, choosing which would be the first casuals and professionals alike would gain their initial impressions with. Cue my horror when I notice all of my leggings missing, forgotten on a dresser drawer, from my dresses-of-rather-courageous-length-only wardrobe.

I decided to take a trip to Harvard Square in the morning with the set of casual attire no one would ever see me in- comfy jeans, fluffy yellow hoodie, and feminine flats with a famous checkered pattern. Being a recent admirer of Esperanza Spalding, I decided to let my hair go free, messy but weightless. I figured a quick trip to Urban Outfitters wouldn’t be criminal, since the majority of the gaming community seemed to own everything plaid anyway. I remember enjoying the feeling of being lost in a city crowd, until I was called sir.

At first, I didn’t think the person was talking to me, because I’d first have a panic attack before entering a public space without makeup. It wasn’t until they mentioned a resemblance to Lenny Kravits that I turned to a man staring at me, since I was the only person of color within a few yards radius (something cities like Boston made me extremely sensitive about). Despite my pointed flats and twice-mascara’ed lashes, this gentleman felt it necessary to remind me that everyone saw who I ‘really’ was. That I wasn’t fooling anyone. On the train back to my hotel to change before the convention, I told myself I’d never dress like that again.

There’s two sides to these mass gathering of gaming folk, one being that I can talk with anyone about my interests, but I must also appear professional at all times. An unfortunate part about being a professional who is transgender is to be convincing. Whether my new acquaintance or I likes it or not, they will make a snap judgment of me, that I’m a woman, or I’m obviously not a woman. In an industry dominated by heterosexual men, my appearance is closely tied to any form of success. I have to battle with the implicit tension of possibly threatening their sexuality, or just their reputation with being associated with someone like me. You see, people don’t believe that I’m a woman because I say so; even self-proclaimed liberal and open-minded individuals will backdrop my identity thinking that I wasn’t always a woman, and that it’s perfectly okay that I made this ‘choice.’ What’s worse, just wearing clothing from the women’s section isn’t enough. In order for men to feel comfortably heterosexual around me, I have to be near porn-star grade in appearance, as if to make up for what’s different about me. Everything may be unintentional and reasonable considering the unlikelyhood they have experience with people who are transgender, but it is far from innocuous. This is why I wore heels every day at PAX East.

About 17 minutes after I read Leigh Alexander’s “Types of Women Men Like Better Than Me,” I cried. I cried because it prompted a good string of tweets about how insecure I felt over managing my image in a professional space. I try to make it a policy to not say depressingly self-conscious things in public, but it was a needed catharsis. I was also tired with the amount of effort it took just to appear average, to have a fair shot as just being a person. I lied to all of my friends who expressed concern over my heeled travel methods; I shrug and smile until I go home and tear up in pain because that’s what I have to do. There, I said it.

I wore knee-high laced up leather boots to the “Death of Vox Games” panel, where the group metamorphosed into Polygon. Standing in line during Q&A, I was anxious because I was only woman going to engage the panel. I wondered if my dress was too short, if my hair was okay, and if I was legitimate enough to press the Polygon staff on their growing but still lacking diversity. This isn’t unique to Polygon, but most publications both paid and hobbyist. They took a bold step of attempting to set a new standard for writing about games, and are self-aware about the precedent they should be taking on this issue. What shocked me about their response was the small amount of women that applied to write for them. Upon memory, out of about 650 applications, 12 were women writers. Doing some quick calculator work, that’s not even 2%. Assuming their newest recruits were headhunted, I was in the physical presence of a quarter of the women applicants that very day (I included myself in that). Why is this? Obviously, since there was a mess over Polygon’s opening line-up, people would aim to fill this need they have, right?

It wasn’t until I went to another panel that day that someone recognized me from my question. She told me that she aspired to write about games but, after her foray into the scene, bowed out because of the homogenous mastheads of online publications. Since videogame culture started from an angle that marginalized minorities, she found staff that didn’t explicitly support diversity issues to be the ones to hand wave these sorts of concerns. Having now personally met some of Polygon’s staff, I’m confident that their representation of diversity is definitely a concern. However, I can see how their involvements with past publications show they stayed either silent or blissfully unaware of minority concerns.

She made me realize that not everyone is like me, that not everyone feels like they have to contort themselves in order to fit in. Some people give the system the finger and move on with their talent elsewhere. Polygon limits its diversity by being a super team of established writers, because minorities are still catching on that there’s a need for their voices in the industry and that not everyone in gaming excuses discrimination with all of the usual flawed arguments. I was part of the rarity that came knocking on their door; most minority talent needs to be discovered for the first time and cultivated. It’s not until minority voices are valued on teams such as Polygon’s that people like her would take a risk and apply. She made me reflect on the example I’m setting for other writers, and that possibly one day, others would look to my path.

I’m not quite sure what to change yet, but I figured I should be candid. That while I love the things I do and try to love the person I am, there’s an incredible pressure to be attractive just to have a chance. Past this ramble, I will continue to wear heels and be incredibly conscious of my appearance. This is my personal path that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, but there needs to be stories of transgender experience in writing about videogames. About being a woman in videogames. I wonder, with the next person I meet, will they see the woman I want them to see?

Must I Say Goodbye?: Leaving Behind jRPGs

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than talking about jRPGs. What exactly does the term mean, and am I okay with that? The idea of Japanese RPGs vs. Western RPGs seems like a false dichotomy. Rather, it’s just jRPGs vs. everything else, perpetuating a style and audience that “others itself” from its sibling genres. What bothers me the most, though, is how relatively unchanged this genre of gaming is from 20 years ago. There have definitely been advances in technology and a greater breadth of writing, but just how much jRPGs currently rely on nostalgia to succeed isn’t a difficult argument to make.

jRPGs are an ode to the fans. They seem determined to recreate that special place for a very particular group of people at a certain time in video game history. Nostalgia doesn’t feel like living, however. It’s that familiar ghost of pleasant feelings without much thinking—nice to reminisce about—but a corpse to drag around if you cling to it. That’s how jRPGs feel to me now, a weight that I constantly rationalize carrying. I just feel too old for them now, grown past the usual tropes and mechanics. This is because jRPGs only earn such a title and standing by including a large amount of conventions from a niche of games, and if you mess with that formula too much, a game drops outside of the tastes of the fanbase.

In a sense, jRPGs represent a lot of what’s wrong with video games. Namely, things being there just because. Many of these titles advertise 60+ hours of gameplay, but a lot of that time is spent grinding levels and includes other filler tactics. The numerous cutscenes would be worth it if they were something other than the usual young genki girl flirting with the dismissive and brooding protagonist. Again. jRPGs are actually embarrassing to play now, as evidenced by the many sheepish smiles and explanations that I had to give my friends when they walked in on me playing Tales of Graces f.

Short of destroying genre lines entirely, I think that these games could revitalize a once high demand sector of video games. The later installments of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series—and Altus games overall—have garnered wide attention. Persona 3 and 4 captured my own attention in a way that I’d consider indentured servitude if it meant that Persona 5 would soon be within my grasp. Those games obviously pander to the same crowd by choosing a setting common to a lot of anime (a Japanese high school) but also explore themes and mechanics that we don’t commonly see in jRPGs. All of the main characters are nuanced characters and resist the stereotypical roles that other games would have shoved them into, and the games themselves have a macabre overtone. The Persona series might stick to the usual aesthetics of the jRPG, but the themes have matured with the crowd following the series instead of transporting them to the past. While saving the world is a part of it, Persona 3’s main allure is exploring the strength of interpersonal ties and what it means to live. In its sequel, you’re solving a murder mystery and entertaining LGBT issues with some of your party members. These aren’t topics that you’d find in your favorite SNES RPGs and their predecessors. This doesn’t devalue jRPG classics, but rather implies their time has come and gone.

Ultimately, the context surrounding Final Fantasy XIII-2 describes what feels like the drawn out death of a genre. Artistic risks are treated with extreme disdain and the most blatant fan service is encouraged. Games are just another arrangement of the same mechanics alongside a thin story that barely justifies their presence, and aren’t we past that? Given the hyperactive cycle of the game industry, fans eventually are going to get bored of playing the same ol’ thing, especially when other genres are adapting jRPG elements to fit into their own arsenals. That might describe how I’m feeling about jRPGs now, bored and slightly disgusted. Developers will find themselves scrambling (if they aren’t already) when fans abandon their monopoly on a tradition.

I think that jRPGs can be saved by risky behavior, as I see Persona 3 and 4 as large, smart risks. Dating sim and dungeon crawler? Nothing like what we’ve seen before and each iteration of the series opens up new possibilities for the interaction of these qualities. We hear about how the inclusion of minorities would alienate the player base, but the opposite actually happened with Kanji and Naoto in Persona 4. Instead, there was discussion about figuring out one’s sexuality and how the culture that a person lives in changes their relationship to gender. jRPGs have the maneuverability to pull off some out-there content, which Atlus consistently proves. While other RPGs struggle with immersing the player in a photorealistic fantasy world, jRPGs are inherently equipped to produce highly stylized, pleasantly bizarre head-trips. Unfortunately, looking at the jRPGs that have cropped up over the past few years, I see little evidence of breaking old habits. So I guess it’s goodbye for now.

Dear Esther, We’re Moving Past Story

There seems to be a couple of conversations that just won’t die. At any given moment in the discussion on how we are to consider games, someone is choosing their position on whether the rules of the game matter or the narrative in a game, while another decides if a particular video game is even a game or not. While there is value in any critical thinking, it’s curious writers still feel they have something to add to conversations that always dissolve into some sort of nihilism.

We have smart pieces like Leigh Alexander’s “Tale Spin” that continue to tiptoe towards the edge away from these questions, taking sure but frustratingly small steps (“Opinion: Tale Spin”, Edge, 19 March 2012). In the essay, she moves past the allure of equating everything noble about games to their capability to tell stories, batting away shadows that still linger of the “but other mediums…” attitude.

Her article ends with a shrug, considering an alternative way to look at games, but it also offers an insight that she might have not seen coming: storytelling in games has never followed the methodology of other mediums. The moments that Alexander mentions are especially poignant to players, and we’ll never get past this conversation if we continue to see storytelling in games as being like the traditional story elements that we recognize in other mediums and not as the moments of experience that games often engender.

A recent victim of the “legitimacy police” is Dear Esther, unable to catch a break from one armchair opinion to the next. It’s also a game that fails to produce much when assessed by its story and not its narrative design. The narration is one of many elements that the game offers, but players rarely move past it to analyzing its storytelling methods. In actuality, Dear Esther is about encountering many poetic moments while simply walking through a space. Listening to a speaker is only part of some of those moments. It is the change in visual details on a second run through that causes the player to doubt themselves and others.

These moments when the player questions their memory and realizes that this isn’t the same walk that they took before is how Dear Esther tells its story. For some reason, we’re quick to throw out the interactive element of in much of storytelling that existed long before video games. From bards weaving epic tales for an audience to a child in our own century interjecting their thoughts and questions into a tale told at bedtime, stories have been mutable and dependent on those involved in telling and listening to them. Video games reinvent this idea by using game mechanics as a method for the player to internalize the narrative, a method in which their personal disposition interacts with and changes the story. In essence, Dear Esther is provocative because the interaction takes place within the player and not superficially within the game.

In a sense, Dear Esther puts most games that feature walking as an activity to shame. It critiques games that use innumerable amounts of game mechanics to communicate experience. It achieves much with just one. It is the next game in the line of great level design in which the Half Life series resides. Dear Esther implies that every game with walking in them can achieve the moments that it does, and that there is something to aspire to. This is because we commonly see the narrative experience as merely story, stock plot, characters, and setting used as a vague excuse to explain why the player is hitting monsters and mixing items. While Dear Esther has a narrator, he only creates a sense of linearity to subvert it on a second playthrough, which ties into how the game gives the player moments to experience. That’s the purpose of all of the game’s elements: the visual design, heavily limited actions, and changing details. There is no fat in Dear Esther because everything in it aims at doing one thing and that is allowing the player to internalize these moments.

Alexander is right. Games like Mass Effect 3 and Tales of Graces f will not be the highest form of video games as stories. They rely too much on story to provide an experience and rarely allow the player to internalize moments. Video games are still in a position in which storytelling remains a spectacle and is regarded only in a superficial manner. If the medium’s storytelling is assessed through the narrative structure that allows players to feel these moments, then narrative in games isn’t something that you take or leave but is integral to a game’s experience. Dear Esther’s public recognition allows us to make a paradigm shift towards recognizing how video games do it differently and to build upon the first steps of exploring the medium’s capabilities even further. So let’s do it.

Fans, Capitalism, and Mass Effect 3’s Ending. Oh My.

How can something like this happen? My finger begins to cramp from scrolling through all the screaming and virtual facepalming over the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle on Twitter. I eventually felt pressured to race through the game just to see what was going on. While I didn’t like the ending, it was for completely different reasons than all the petitions and flash floods of protests on BioWare’s forums. Most importantly, the nature of the ending didn’t surprise me; it felt completely natural given the structure of the series, which let me personalize the experience but not dictate anything major. The only way someone could be so genuinely upset enough to demand refunds and reparations is if they weren’t aware what kind of game they were playing. However, facing claims of false advertisement and deception, is BioWare at fault for dissonance between its marketing and actual product? Why this conflict exists is layered but predictable, product of many issues in the game industry that we let fester and explode.

Let’s Start with Some Snobbery

First, how can someone be upset with Mass Effect 3’s ending to such an uproar? There’s a usual expectation that endings of any medium stand a risk of being unsatisfying, with a usual negative response “meh, that ending sucked.” I saw this attitude mostly with other game writers and developers, who split on whether or not they liked the ending but didn’t seem surprised or shocked that it existed. Being a part of videogame development and media also distances a person from mass marketing because they are more aware of the relationship PR serves to the process of a game getting sold. So when advocates claim betrayal because the marketing doesn’t match the product, it shows these players have an investment to the culture that surrounds the game crafted by the company. They look back on the series and see BioWare’s catchphrases, everything as a result of their choices and personal stories. Players started to romance the brand of Mass Effect, especially as BioWare became more responsive to its fans.

A critical eye can see that the Mass Effect series does not put player agency at the forefront of the narrative. I mean narrative as the structure and method of how a player experiences game, with only one aspect being the story. Having played the first two games multiple times with varying character and story goals, I went into Mass Effect 3 knowing there was little I was actually influencing. One way to look at what is actually going on is the player brings nuance to the epic story that is Shepard. The ending transcends Shepard from hero to legend, and legends lack nuance. We know the general events, such as saving the Citadel from Sovereign and defeating the Collectors, when it comes to legends, but what the hero was actually like is left to our imaginations. In a sense, Mass Effect 3’s ending clued us in that the player was merely filling in the details this whole time.

The narrative structure of the series never allowed players to change or influence large events in the game; no matter what, someone has to die on Virmire, Sovereign will be overcome despite saving the Council or not, the Collectors will abduct your team and you will watch someone be processed into the human Reaper. There is only one large story choice the player has, and that’s killing their Shepard at the end of Mass Effect 2. The narrative doesn’t allow the player to interact enough with the story to change it radically, only determine some minor details. That’s not to say Mass Effect is a bad series or failed at this, but it clearly doesn’t match what the fans thought the series was all about. These fans are upset that the ending only added nuance to Shepard’s final action, unaware that’s what was going on the entire time. BioWare’s misstep was hyping up this player-centric rhetoric and thinking the simple addition of a dialogue choice was what the fans wanted.

Money is Our Weapon and Hostage

Obviously, there are hobbyists who wrote out their analysis and feelings in an eloquent manner, but the vast majority (at least $80,000 worth) relied on what they perceive to be consumer rights to challenge BioWare. All of us have witnessed this when shopping or eating, when exchanging money for goods, there’s also a power relation where the customer gets as much as they want out of the transaction, including undue respect and service. We really shouldn’t be surprised about this reaction, because it’s endemic to a capitalist culture. Ever heard of “the customer is always right”? It’s now a subconscious mantra that manifests whenever we are displeased in a retail space. However, there is no law that states the customer is forever correct, it’s just many companies enact differing levels of this concept. This is the same with the videogame industry, companies ultimately bending to every whim of the player as long as they are a paying customer. A good fan is one that pays, and they can throw as many tantrums as they want as long as they keep paying. So the system is really what’s at fault here; fans are acting in such an extreme manner because of an ingrained “I give you money and you give me whatever I want” attitude, and companies’ customer service allows fans to be as vile as they want as long as they continue to give them money.

It’s not a secret that the main goal of AAA games is to make money, and “pleasing fans” seems like a great way to make money on paper. This relationship now structures the video game community, with companies and fans trying to figure out how to get as much as they can out of one another, always in some form of money. Mass demand shapes development and media cycles, building up a game with intense hype until it releases, then forgetting about it a couple weeks later. This is why this movement used money as a way to threaten BioWare; they insisted on refunds, raised money to show their financial influence, and tapped into that customer-merchant relationship to imply BioWare owed them something because they paid money. BioWare has visibly become more “whatever you want, fans” by changing their attitude from epic storytelling to compelling action, including modes to satisfy non-RPG fans, and having the masses decide on a canon look for the default woman Shepard. Many decisions aimed to catch more fans while keeping current ones satisfied. The artistic direction the series goes comes into conflict with this, because in the end, videogames are art with creative people making them. There’s often a line between doing something for money and making something for art’s sake. The media is particularly interested in this tension, quick to explain why they think BioWare should or should not modify the game in any way. BioWare tried to stuff their face with cake, but not anymore than most videogame companies. The problem lies in the genuine creativity and progressive nature the company seems to have constantly being at odds with its financial relationship to a demanding audience. They should have seen it coming with the community’s reaction to Dragon Age II and how an artistic expression was ultimately ignored because it didn’t directly serve their customers’ expectations.

The End of the World as We Know It

There are already the typical sky-falling predictions on both sides of the argument. If BioWare stands up for their product and tells fans to deal with it, they hold no value for those who support them. Decide to change the game in reaction to the fans, lose all artistic integrity. Many journalists disparage the fans for feeling entitled to their game, but participate in a media culture that has them remain silent about certain politics to keep readership. There is nothing innately wrong with anyone involved; what is wrong is how much we continue to support the negative aspects of the system we’re in. Capitalism is ultimately exploitative in nature, and things get nasty when that exploitation isn’t mutual. Because the relationship between companies, media, and fans are all monetary, peace is kept only with as much pandering towards the one handing over the money possible. Current events show that artistic and personal integrity are becoming domain of the buyers, and the only way to fix that is to change our relationship to money.

One Day That Wall Is Gonna Fall: Game Design for Everyone

Mmm Mmmm Mmm Mmmm MmMmmMmMm

Step by step, a world constructs itself, piece by piece, under his feet. A bourbon from the bottle voice reminisces about each tremble of the hammer, every breath of the bellows. Synesthetic is the only way that I can describe Bastion, but instead of stimulating the senses, it evokes memories that I’ve never had. The music is integral to the experience, like vibrating brushstrokes to the wonderful painting that is Bastion. When asked how he pulled off such an amazing score, Bastion’s composer Darren Korb cited pouring a lot of love and hard work into the music to match up to and exceed the quality of games with big budgets. In his talk at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this year, Korb showed how a two person team provided all the beats, hisses, and narration of Bastion with little glamour. I sat in the back row with my pen bleeding through my notebook as I watched a process I could theoretically enact myself given enough passion and grit. In passing, he mentions how one of the vocal tracks of the game, Zia’s “Build that Wall,” is a cultural artifact of a country at war. It is strangely soothing despite describing an impending doom of a people locked up in their stronghold.

I noticed a strong presence of indie developers at GDC, all with a similar message: “You can too.” The frankness of Korb’s talk revealed quality work assumedly monopolized by large development teams and sponsored by publishers with deep pockets. I felt the excited unease around me of people unsatisfied with solving artistic limitations by just throwing money at it. Pulling my pen away, I wrote out the lyric still in my memory: “One day that wall is gonna fall.” Bastion is a contemplative war anthem for the strengthening indie developer movement, a force growing large enough to raid the hill that triple-A companies have claimed. It gives a melody to the thesis of Anna Anthropy’s newly published Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Anthropy also spoke at GDC, echoing her book’s “you can too.” Rise of the Videogame Zinesters describes how and why homogeny is behind the hoarding of game design by the few and provides resources and guidance to start developing a game despite being excluded from current development culture. Where Korb lends that motivating hum to urge your body, Anthropy gives you the sword and the confidence to wield it. Both describe inner strength and self-expression, not a wealth of money, as the key to producing an independent game.

Mmm Mmmm Mmm Mmmm MmMmmMmMm

“Build that Wall” isn’t just a call for war, however. As Kate Cox describes in “I’m trying to undo it, remember?” Zia’s song is also a spiritual, a binding hymn against oppression (“I’m trying to undo it, remember?, Your Critic is in Another Castle, 4 October 2011). She describes it as something persevering through time until the Kid is unable to bear his conscience anymore. Eventually, we all must deal with the pain, hum, and create a new world. Anthropy’s book seems to describe this new world, where games are a decentralized mode of personal expression. By making the tools and methods approachable for everyone, video games gain a diversity missing from the current model of production. A spiritual works like a tide. As more people sing, it grows until it sweeps over castles and leaves a new shore to walk on. During the Experimental Microtalk session at GDC, Anthropy described the philosophy behind the collaborative game Keep Me Occupied with mechanics that rely on the player being a drop in a wave of change. Games can inspire and chip away at walls once impenetrable. Bastion and Keep Me Occupied act as testaments to the untapped egalitarian nature of game design, telling the community that only some of the experiences in life can be told by triple-A studios.

Zia’s song wasn’t meant to be a challenge to gaming juggernauts, but it will be on the lips of those leaving GDC this year. Mine smiled when the bookstore cashier knew Rise of the Videogame Zinesters’ price by heart and seeing its bright cover poking out of bags. As developers take another year to absorb the experience and toil at their craft, there will undoubtedly be a rise in personal expression, of homemade games that speak to us in ways previously discouraged. I remember leaving the conference, the air of San Francisco brisk and lively. Go ahead game industry, build that wall.

Women, the Ensemble, and Narrative Authority in the Final Fantasy Series

How gender informs design is a subject rarely discussed but holds a lot of value as we explore how to express gender topics in games. What exactly is a feminine narrative design? There isn’t a concrete answer, but we have the benefit of the Final Fantasy series to consider the question, including its games led by women characters. This isn’t to say that what we find there is definitively feminine storytelling, but rather how the series shifts in technique whenever women dominate the cast.

A curious trend exists of women-led Final Fantasy games being ensemble stories rather than their men-led siblings with their single-character focus. Mostly notably in Final Fantasy VI it becomes unclear who exactly matters most in the story, since Terra is most often seen as the head of the party. However, Celes takes control for the last part of the game. Final Fantasy X-2, XIII, and XIII-2 all fall into ambiguity, in which the team is emphasized over the individual in terms of the game’s design. Contrast this to series favorites, like VII and VIII, which has male leads with no question as to who the story is about.

We can formally express this ambiguity by looking at how the series experiments with the difference between the story’s main character and protagonist. Most often these characters are the same, but they also often diverge in the series. Final Fantasy gives us two games with the clearest split between the main character and the protagonist. Final Fantasy X features Tidus and Yuna respectively, and XII features Vaan and Ashe. It’s interesting in these games that the main character is a man because the main character is the perspective that the player takes on. Main characters are there for the player to most immediately relate to and trust (or mistrust), while the protagonist drives the action of the story and clashes with the antagonist. Tidus and Vaan are quite literally tag-alongs to a party of much more pertinent characters but offer their unique outsider perspectives so that the player isn’t lost when dropped into the action. It’s Yuna’s pilgrimage that Seymour is out to stop, Ashe’s legitimacy to power that threatens Vayne. Now, who exactly is the main character and who is the protagonist of VI?

What makes games like VI and XIII interesting from this perspective is how much the women share narrative responsibility with other characters. Lightning is the cover character for her game, but control often shifts to other characters. As well, her perspective is constantly informed by the meta-narration of Vanille, who is arguably the actual central character of the cast. Both she and Fang act as protagonists while their Cocoon party members are scrambling to adapt to the consequences of their actions. How it’s probable that you’ll remember the women and forget the men in a video game is remarkable, though the men take more narrative authority than they would allow women in other games. This ambiguity most likely adds into gamers’ frustrations with the game, as it is generally unfamiliar ground for everyone involved. However, there is a general gendered reaction to XIII similar to Dragon Age II’s reception; it also focused on an ensemble cast and took narrative importance away from the player character. The oft male-dominated old guard took issue with this change while many minority gamers felt more room to relate to characters.

My best guess as to why narrative importance is more egalitarian in these titles is a combination of two things: sensitivity to distancing men from relating to the main characters by spreading out the focus and the role that women typically are assigned in stories. The lack of women in proper starring roles in games isn’t a new thing, and what Final Fantasy seems to be doing is cheating. We can have strong women only if the player isn’t forced to identify with them throughout the entire game. This also taps into the usual function of women serving as the source of the social cohesion of their group. Very often parties present a child/maiden/mother trifecta (e.g. Rikku, Yuna, and Lulu) used to keep a group functioning, especially acting as emotional guidance for the male characters. Following this idea, video game women can only continue to do this as leads until game designers figure out different or more nuanced roles for them. On the other hand, the ambiguity of roles that these games provide is preferable, as they share influence throughout the entire cast instead of just coming up with excuses as to why the majority of characters fight for the main character.

Gender politics influences more than costume design and word choice but also design decisions that govern our relationship to the game. This is important for diversity causes in gaming, as how players can empathize with the characters determines a large portion of their enjoyment. It also opens up more discussion about the seemingly arcane practice of narrative design, drawing attention to how elements such as characters and point of view reinforce design ideologies. With a new Final Fantasy on the horizon, it will be interesting to see a sole woman lead or a male-led ensemble cast.

Valuing the Feminine: Why I Love Vanille

Let me come out with it now: my favorite Final Fantasy characters tend to be the classic cheerful and energetic archetype, like Aeris, Selphie, and Vanille. It’s usually because I bring a lot of myself into games, and want to relate to someone in a fantasy world. Before I really looked into gender studies, I didn’t realize how problematic these characters were in respect to women’s portrayal in games overall. While I have that perspective now, I still look back at my connection to them with fondness. It wasn’t until recent conversation with peers that I tested my defense of these women; their reception is mostly negative or dismissive because they are seen as hyperactive and hyper-feminine, perceived to serve the very narrow interests of hegemony. For the most part, I agree. The fandom Final Fantasy appeals to expects certain characters in their party, as consistently having that stereotype of a young girl just past sexual maturity shows. So I’m not going to argue against how they are problematic, rather just the short end of the stick they receive.

If there is a vantage point transition gives me, it’s to see how people react differently the identities they think I have. I experienced a shift of privilege when my appearance went from others pegging me as some sort of male to seeing me as a woman. One thing that, to this day, bothers me is how my happy-go-lucky, sensitive persona went from a characteristic of being well rounded as male to a sign of weakness and unintelligence as a woman. What was before friendly and comforting became ditzy and vulnerable. It’s been a battle for me in the workspaces I inhabit, as I either have to be myself and treated this way, or hardened and forceful with my competency, which brings on another set of gendered insults. I’ve experienced this recently when networking and socializing with other game writers, encountering some who devalue my opinion because I’m feminine. So I have a stake in this, one that tells me something else is going on with how we’re treating this type of character. We often demonize the feminine because it seems regressive in our gender politics, but decidedly feminine women aren’t the issue. It’s the values that see femininity as inferior we still need to look at.

I came to this realization when playing Final Fantasy XIII. It’s a game where the women stole the show and I barely remember what the men actually did, which is nice for a change. Lightning and Fang seem to get all of the credit, though, and not undeservedly; I’d go to say Fang was Woman of the Year in 2010. However, mostly due to the vocal direction her actress was given, Vanille was received with general disdain. I, on the other hand, loved her and thought she was the most important and nuanced character in that game. But that’s because I don’t think being badass, physically adept, and androgynous is the only way of being a strong woman. Sometimes the strongest character is the person who ties everyone together, is the subliminal, caretaking force that gives everything meaning.

Vanille’s role as the narrator, along with the aesthetic that came with being from Pulse, reminds me of the social function as storytellers women in some Native American (and I’m sure other) cultures, serving as their tribes’ memory and history. While the flashbacks explained everyone’s personal motivations, it was mostly Vanille’s memories that revealed the cause of the entire catastrophe. In a sense, her story of burden and guilt is thankless because it’s not the type of courage we’re used to valuing. The game wouldn’t exist without Vanille, but we’re ready to forget her.

This all might tie into feminist theory that hypothesizes work relegated to the private sphere and dubbed as feminine isn’t really seen as work or accomplishment, but expected duty. In order to get recognition, you must make a show for yourself in the aggressive, angled masculine space. Meaning, we’re already primed to either fetishize or degrade Vanille if we don’t identify with her. I feel like her theme summed it up for me, a track of someone walking a melancholy path and struggling to keep on a smile. XIII’s crew was full of angst, and without Vanille smiling, the group wouldn’t be able to hold itself together. So she kept doing it, even when it she didn’t want to. I personally empathize with the amount of courage and effort that takes, and wished I had someone to recognize it in my own life.

I don’t want to let Square Enix and other companies off the hook for the obvious pandering towards the hegemonic gamer base when it comes to characters like Vanille, but I also challenge gamers to check if they’re harsher on feminine characters. Are we measuring competency and worth with a masculine measuring stick? Let’s not relegate the feminine only to the service of hegemonic interests, but allow feminine people to feel as empowered as heroes. The Final Fantasy series is actually a good place to start exploring this topic with its range of feminine characters, to identify what is problematic, and what is heroically feminine.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

If the philosophies concerning the criticism of sequels weren’t convoluted enough, the Final Fantasy series makes things even more complicated. Given the reception of Final Fantasy XIII and the framework that Square Enix created for it, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is explicitly about correcting the mistakes of its predecessor and providing as much fan service as possible while doing so. XIII-2 is XIII with a different story and a checklist of changes requested in popular reviews and on message boards. Contrast this with Final Fantasy X-2, which had a completely different set of mechanics than the game before it and just how transparent XIII-2 is as a fix becomes clearer. A lot of XIII-2’s value comes from the correct choices that it made to improve, but it also makes you wonder if Square Enix improved the right things.

All in all, this is a testament to a company listening to its fans. Players complained about not having areas filled with NPCs, and they got it. Freedom to explore? Check. Flexibility with the party? More item creation? Mini-games? All there. We even got quick time events just to cover all the bases. However, all of these qualities are grafted onto what was XIII and feel especially hollow. Sure, you don’t get tunnel-like maps anymore, but instead, you get a whole bunch of one-area maps that you still barely interacted with. You can choose what sequence of places you visit, but there is still a very strict, unchanging storyline that forces you to complete them in a certain order. These mechanics might calm the fans that just want their old JRPG back even if it results in pointless grinding and uninteresting battles, but the main issue is that fans don’t always know what they want. Grasping for the familiar is everyone’s gut reaction, but not necessarily the correct choice.

The problem with XIII is that it was already trying too hard to cling to the past. The development team involved didn’t construct all of our favorites, yet they are trying to implement all of the series’s mainstays. XIII-2 perpetuates this attitude of “We don’t care what the game is like, just give us ATB, moogles, and spiky hair!” The series found itself at a crossroads as a result of some bad timing. With the boom of open-world games and player-driven narratives, there’s an expectation for Final Fantasy to change alongside the evolution of other RPGs and to have a reason for its design decisions outside of providing fan service. Because Final Fantasy has been gliding on its laurels for so long, not even the fans actually know what they want except just another Final Fantasy. In XIII-2’s case, adding in more traditional elements didn’t make it a better game, it just shows how little ingenuity went into these games.

Something that did need to change from XIII is the battles and the strange dissonance that players feel when when they are used to controlling the actions of their party members. Instead, players were given a system that makes them a director or general, who manages tactics. XIII-2 doesn’t try to rectify that strange feeling of wanting to do more than wait to hit ‘Auto.’ Rather, it tries to add in more spice with monster collecting. Unfortunately, the monsters that the player collects actually hinder the team because they are only accessible by roles, and the main characters are typically better at said roles than the monsters. The Crystarium was only slightly edited, really just a glorified aesthetic makeover to typical leveling, as you can max out your characters’ abilities easily before the end of the game. This feels out of place in both games, whose narratives imply tactical moves and attention to cause and effect. It makes the beginning seem more interesting, but as you get closer to the end it becomes reminiscent of the blandness that was Final Fantasy XII’s class system at the end game. Square Enix tries to jam choice into a system that is not built for it. Something successful about XIII was how many elements reflected the dramatic situations of the characters. Choice wasn’t something those characters had the luxury of, rather, running and adapting was. And really, there is no choice in the narrative of XIII-2. Instead, the use of time travel gives the illusion of flexibility. The series has long relied on the illusion of choice to manage its narrative, and slapping on time travel to a game very focused on one particular event reveals the games’ innards, and they aren’t pretty.

Can this game placate fans upset about XIII? Sure. However, for anyone who mostly enjoyed or wanted something different from XIII, XIII-2 is going to look like a company grasping at straws to keep their cash cow intact. There are some that won’t blame Square Enix for regressing to serve its fans, but that doesn’t mean a good game is a result of doing so. It shows that the series is failing to adapt to the changing landscape of the gaming industry and is satisfied with just cranking out numbers instead of fantasies.

How Could He?: Exploring Social Issues Through ‘Dragon Age II’

Dragon Age II is subversive on multiple levels, focusing on character relationships with fluid sexualities instead of the usual epic storylines. What most people miss upon a superficial playthrough is BioWare’s statement on contemporary social issues. Everyone can recognize the set-up: the Templars as the safeguard of tradition and society, while the Mages represent the oppressed and the often abused. It’s not a huge leap to compare this conflict between social (typically religious) conservatives and minorities like the LGBT community.

The game exaggerates the relationship, creating a situation that couldn’t happen in reality. Thus, the philosophical ideas that inform the conflict aren’t constrained by the factual details of our world. No one is implying that the LGBT community turn into blood magicians and that the religious march out to cage and murder them, but this conflict still echoes the tensions felt in the lives of real people. BioWare was successful in avoiding moralizing by not choosing a side, while providing enough interactions to allow the player to take a stance on their own. While it is easy to side with the Mages, especially when one thinks of them as social minorities, one cannot ignore how many of them do resort to blood magic and turn into demons.

Anders blowing up the Chantry is at the center of this issue, tying sympathy and anger together in an uncomfortable knot. General reception of his actions has been negative, creating the possibility of a more “obvious” support for Mages to be made problematic. The player’s gut reaction is to reprimand Anders in some way, that pushing against violent oppressors is okay—until you get violent yourself. Comparing him to a contemporary social minority, however, lends a perspective that complicates our thinking of both Anders and social change.

BioWare uses Anders to ask, “What led up to this? Why did he do it?” The player takes a position of privilege in comparison to the other Mages in the game, since they are open about their Mage identity and don’t face the danger of finding themselves stuck in the Circle. It’s simple for the player to assume a “be patient, one day it’ll all get better” attitude that inactive sympathizers really do adopt when speaking to groups like the LGBT community.

Hawke is more of a witness to social change than a catalyst, and despite choosing to support the Templars or the Mages, it’s too little and too late for Anders. From his point of view, there is only blood on his hands. Does he murder by his own volition or with apathy?

From Anders’s perspective, if every day without equal rights is a day too long, every Mage murdered before he executes his plans to free them is on him. The player encounters many situations in which Mages are forced to submit, turn to blood magic, or die. Additionally, there remains the personal anguish of constantly remaining in hiding and being told by a culture that something is wrong with him. It is no coincidence, then, that the “demons” that he deals with are named Justice and Vengeance, literally an embodiment of rational anger towards society.

Dragon Age II offers no solution to the problem that the Mages face except for what Anders does, and it questions the lengths that need to be gone to in order for social justice to be accomplished in reality. Most gamers find themselves in a position of privilege concerning LGBT rights, passively witnessing the community achieving social rights. They only occasionally lend their voice to this cause, despite the many discriminatory murders and overall culture of oppression that devalues these lives. The player’s relationship to both this viewpoint on social issues and Anders’ actions is based on whether they can actually blame him for his actions.

Deciding whether what he did was right or wrong is only the most superficial analysis. Instead, the game forces the player to consider if blowing up the Chantry is what’s necessary for the oppression to end. Anders wants to ask players that call him a terrorist if they could live with themselves if everything stayed the same.

This question isn’t supposed to have an easy answer. The ending events along with Fenris’ and Merrill’s personal quests complicate Anders’s position. The nuanced nature of Dragon Age II’s character drama speaks to the messy politics of reality. It trains the player to begin thinking “from this perspective” and breaks good/bad dichotomies. Dragon Age II is a testament to the social relevance that games can have by its blurring of the players’ sense of right and wrong and by its translation of that new understanding into actual activism for issues that exist in reality.

Second Date – Ikezawa Hanako, a Trans* Narrative

(Trigger Warning for trans* transition experiences)

Katawa Shoujo doesn’t make anything easy. Every positive has a caveat, each charming thoughtful moment its headdesk. Last time, I talked about how Hanako’s path exemplified the sexual exotification of disability in the game, mostly through giving the player a main character without a superficially notable disability. Upon a first glance, there seemed to be little application for this analysis outside of criticizing pandering to men’s interests in visual novels, however, my personal connection to Hanako provided me with something else. I saw her do something that triggered a muscle memory from my past: She covers her face.

This is emblematic for the teenage stage of life where you think everyone is always watching you. Appearances matter, especially how you dress, your hair, your face. Imagine having that double fold and outside of high school; that was me. Growing into a transgender identity isn’t a quick and magical process many people imagine, rather, it’s a very long and awkward transition. A transition with the destination constantly changing. One of the most painful experiences is claiming an identity that others don’t see or believe. Without the aid of fashion tips and makeup, people in my day-to-day life wouldn’t see me as a woman, and I lived that for a long time. One of the things I did was cover my face. I liked scarves, straightened my hair and grew out long bangs, tried to make a posture where I hid my jaw line with my hand seem natural. I felt awkward, and looking at Hanako, I now know everyone else knew I was awkward, despite my efforts.

Then there was the social anxiety, some that stays with me today. Whenever someone approached me and looked at my face, all I could think of was how they were staring at my trans-ness. It made me feel ugly. I felt ugly when people stumbled to identify me, I felt ugly whenever a guy would forcibly call me “dude” and make sure there was a yard between us. Hanako was the Id I battled with, wanting someone like Lily who didn’t notice what was transgender about me, who was sensitive to when I need to leave social gatherings, that I needed extra steps to feel comfortable. Society does two things to people like Hanako: shames and sexualizes them. Hanako’s path is a story of someone who survives both, however, she can only overcome the shame inside the bounds of Katawa Shoujo. It’s the same with being transgender, as one can ignore, hide, or embrace what distinguishes them from a cisgender identity, but it others will allow it to rule their interactions. People will interact with trans* people in accordance to essentialized notions of sexual orientation and relegate trans* bodies to sexual fetishism. Which, in turn, exotifies being transgender in the manner Katawa Shoujo does to disability.

I both criticize and empathize with Hanako’s decision to share her disability in a sexualized setting and ‘giving into’ sex with Hisao to gauge his interest. In my experience, when being transgender is the elephant in the relationship, sex is typically the answer. To parallel Hisao and Hanako’s relationship, an inexperienced cisgender partner will seek to answer questions about the transgender person’s body and their sexual chemistry with an identity they haven’t slept with before. Sex can often happen quickly, and will usually determine whether the cisgender partner will continue the relationship. Hanako needed to know what Hisao was there for, and sex was more about Hisao figuring out his feelings rather than their mutual satisfaction. The unfortunate truth is Hanako and transgender people know they are often viewed only through what makes them exotic, and once it becomes familiar, interest fades. What is lamentable is how oblivious Hisao is to this, and how players can excise their empathy for his situation without being aware of their contribution to the systemic oppression of those exotified.

The developers probably didn’t plan Hanako to be an exploration of the exotic or trans* issues. I also don’t claim to represent every single person with a trans* identity. It also isn’t a suggestion that players or anyone participating in visual novel culture are rapists or otherwise condemnable people. Katawa Shoujo, however, normalizes the exotic and makes it palatable to more hegemonic identities; it’s easier to explore feelings surrounding dating someone with a disability or transgender identity when they are a video game character bent to satisfy the player. It only serves hegemonic gamer identity, but future iterations of games aiming to explore the diverse range of relationships possible would benefit from looking at the ground Katawa Shoujo covered.

Narrative Is a Game Mechanic

Narrative is a naughty word. Its appearance in video game discussions trigger froth to arise from corners of mouths and paints internet forums red. This is most likely because of a prevailing insistence on entertaining an old binary argument: video games are just another medium for storytelling as opposed to narrative being an inconsequential component in games. The latter opinion, along with the ideas of ludology and formalism, mostly won out, and narrative studies maintains its underdog status in the debate. A recent addition to the barrage of anti-narratology essays is Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a game mechanic,” which further insists on binary thinking in terms of narrative (“Narrative is not a game mechanic”, Raph Koster’s Website, 12 January 2010). Koster’s treatment of narrative as feedback and static information perpetuates a limiting attitude by misrepresenting what narrative actually is. However, it is not only one person or even the more active subscribers to this school of thought, but instead an ingrained perspective on narrative that polarizes the gaming community and stymies expression in the medium.

This discussion often hits a roadblock because most people use the terms “narrative” and “story” interchangeably. From a design perspective, they are separate ideas. Narrative refers to how something is communicated, most often it is used to refer to the way that someone tells a story. We refer to a narrator, not a “storyer,” because the process of communicating an experience is at the heart of the word. Stories are descriptions using narrative elements, such as characters, plot events, point of view, and other mechanical techniques. Following this line of thought, Koster’s (among many others’) claim that “games can and do exist without narrative” is misleading.

Games don’t necessarily tell “embedded stories,” such as saving the world from catastrophe, but they do always have a narrative. The easiest way to know if something has a narrative is to ask a person about their experience with that thing, and if they describe abstract events, like feeling excitement or finding something difficult, there’s a narrative there. Before anyone dismisses this as some sort of postmodern babble, what the player is actually experiencing has always been at the forefront of designers’ minds, but instead of just fun, narrative enables mechanics to express multiple and complex experiences. Games are constantly communicating experiences to the player, as when the height of all your pieces in Tetris is juxtaposed against the increasing speed of the falling blocks to create tension and provoke anxiety. In fact, how the game design world talks about “experience” closely relates to what narrative actually is or where narrative goes to provoke more than just a singular feeling. By relegating narrative elements to the service of rules and objectives, Koster removes the potential for narratives unique expression in games. Looking at narrative as only the context and sometimes the content that the rules exist in restricts it to exposition, and most creative work is only partly exposition.

What makes this perspective on narrative difficult to support is its relative absence in games, though more development teams are starting to focus on it (see job descriptions of narrative designers). So far, video games rely largely on past media to tell their stories—for example, by creating cinematics or filling an experience up with text and dialogue. What we are just starting to find out is how games can tell stories in their own unique way, which often manifests in minimalistic games, often dubbed “art games.” The most popular example is Ico, which communicates the relationship between the protagonist and Yorda through a hand holding mechanic. The player receives the complex emotions of a relationship through the ludic circumstances that surround the situation that the characters find themselves in. You’re anxious when Ico has to leave Yorda on her own to solve a puzzle, breathing a sigh of relief when you find her unharmed or panicking when she’s captured. Your finger both feels at home and cramped on R1 as Ico drags her along. Without going too far into interpretation, Ico tells the typical boy-saves-girl story without relying on the narrative elements native to other mediums. Flipping the more commonly used term of ludonarrative dissonance, this is ludonarrative resonance, which would just be the successful use of game mechanics to communicate a narrative experience. In short, if game mechanics are meant to provide players with experiences such as fun and anxiety, then narrative actually is a game mechanic, as much as game mechanics can also be narrative elements.

Ludology and narratology aren’t mutually exclusive studies. In fact, their combined perspectives will improve how video games influence players. Both are formally concerned with how the player interacts with the game and receives the intended experience of the developers. Keeping these aspects separate from one another only harms progression. Instead, one should include artists such as writers in the beginning stages of development so game mechanics and narrative design add necessary layers of complexity to communicate big ideas that only games can experience.