Okabu Review

Let’s get this out of the way: Okabu is freakin’ adorable, no matter what demographic you claim.

Hand Circus’s PSN-exclusive puzzler looks like a cross between Katamari Damacy, World of Golden Eggs and some inspiration from those childhood books by Eric Carle. The aesthetic created by both the visuals and soundtrack is succinct and fantastically so; much of the reason I pressed through the game was the result of feeling immersed in this zany, super-stylized world. With so many games looking to grab gamers with photo-realistic graphics or unashamed anime art direction, Okabu pulls off every on-screen moment of eye candy.

The art style invites a spectrum of players, enjoyable to children and adults alike. They also prime the player for a certain experience, one that involves head-bobbing to electronic tribal-esque music and randomly zooming across the landscape. Okabu looks like a game for kids with the smooth controls of one for more mature gamers. It’s a game a player wouldn’t feel too embarrassed about when someone walks in on—they’ll mostly like be curious as to what all the spectacle is about.

The developers brought together their ideas by making Okabu’s environment the puzzle; there is little abstraction and every skill learned has a direct application. Players control cloud-whales (one with a whaling hat, ironically) that can absorb water and spit food items that have an effect on the environment. Mostly, though, they serve as loyal steeds to characters with unique abilities (such as harpooning, also ironic I might add). The puzzles are straightforward and physics-based, but require a little finesse and smarts considering the wacky ways the characters solve them.

Where Okabu succeeds is implicit; described as saving “the once-peaceful lands” from an “army of industrial contraptions,” the player is ready for a lecture on how to be more environmentally conscious. While there are some overt stereotypes of environmentalism such as technologically-advanced enemies or using recycling bins, the message is rather subtle. Gameplay takes precedence over any sort of moralizing, making the puzzles feel like community work without being completely drab.

Okabu seems to shoot for a younger demographic with the potential for a family-play experience as its target audience, and towards that goal, the pacing is spot-on and accessible. The physics puzzles are moderately difficult, with older players finding much to do while younger ones feel challenged. However, the game still struggles with its identity.

With Okabu’s appeal to children and parents, including scores and leaderboards felt dissonant with the communal, cooperative feel of the game. Gathering fruit that grants points and then racing to the end felt like a competitive ploy taken from a triple-A game and inserted where it didn’t belong. Including a timer doesn’t promote any ingenuity when solving the puzzles.

Another issue is that Okabu’s mechanics encourage the player to think multiple steps ahead using their character’s abilities, but strangely, there are often arrows to follow and text that outline what needs to be done. A particular level comes to mind where the player saves a village and proceeds to clean it up using tactics familiarized in previous levels. Instead of empowering the player to figure everything out on their own, the game blocks action until a villager triggers pre-scripted events. Spots like this could have been a powerful moment where the player synthesizes all of the lessons learned beforehand, but Okabu shies away from asking them to use their grey matter.

The merging of single player and co-op into one mode also throws off the balance in Okabu. It isn’t difficult to run through the game alone, and there isn’t any change to levels when someone joins in. Some points are easier with a partner, but they’re simply ‘less annoying’ rather than requiring two-player-specific strategies. Two competent players in co-op is also redundant and sometimes a drawback as there isn’t enough to do simultaneously to keep the pace going. The co-op seems designed for an older player guiding younger one, which is a great way for an adult and child to play. However, not all other combinations benefit from this setup, and Okabu seems like a single-player game that could-have-been.

It’s worth noting that small bugs and a lack of options or any sort of menu made Okabu difficult to get through at times. The elimination of interface and customization makes the game seem more approachable, but something as simple as a manual save isn’t available. During my playtime, the cloud-whales often caught onto terrain, and more than once glitched through objects. In a game that forces a restart of the entire level instead of saving your progress with checkpoints, this is extremely frustrating.

Okabu is a game that begs to be liked, and it deserves recognition for taking risks in a family vein; few games manage to be fun for children yet still accessible to adults. As a bonus, the environmentalist angle isn’t in conflict with the gameplay, but is instead used effectively to add context to the players’ actions. However, it’s a shame that the balance seems off and that minor technical issues exist—these things make it hard not to be ripped out of the beautifully crafted world.

Why You Should Give Dragon Age II a Second Chance

Which game was the biggest disappointment this year? Many gamers (me included) would answer with Dragon Age II by BioWare. With recycled environments, combat void of tactics, and a meaningless item system, BioWare seemed to do quick work of unraveling the success of Dragon Age: Origins. After completing the game, I read some criticism that changed my mind. So much, in fact, that I count Dragon Age II as not only superior to its predecessor, but one of the best games that I’ve ever played. This turn of my dissatisfaction into fervency led me to reflect on how game criticism enables such changes in perspective.

In “Games Aren’t Clocks,” Michael Abbott challenges the preoccupation that critics have with judging a game’s value mostly around its gameplay (“Games Aren’t Clocks”, The Brainy Gamer, 11 September 2011). Abbott’s take on the issue implies that gamers will put up with lackluster results in something like narrative as long as the gameplay is good enough, but not the other way around. This doesn’t excuse Dragon Age II its many negatives, which have been fleshed out by many critics. However, the complaints focus on gameplay and are spare in commenting on a character drama rarely seen in games. Good writing is rare to come across in gaming, and Dragon Age II engages with the conversation on how to imbue a game with meaning through its narrative elements.

It’s possible that gamers haven’t figured out a use for criticism, as the recent debacle over game reviews’ ratings teaches us. Most game criticism strives to assign objective-like values onto games with the assumption that the reader is researching a game for purchase. On the other hand, articles like Alex Raymond’s “A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains” offers a viewpoint that the player might have not considered (“A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains”, While !Finished, 27 September 2011). This type of game criticism is a means to understanding the game rather than an assessment of its value, a lens to highlight certain features and focus a player’s attention to subtleties that surface elements obscure. Raymond pushes aside the categories that Abbott finds unsatisfactory, like gameplay, to center on the characters. A knee-jerk reaction might accuse this perspective as one that views games under the same rubrics that define literary or film criticism, but it is actually the tension surrounding character interaction that makes Dragon Age II so compelling. The game’s characters are unconventional in having lives and pursuits of their own, acting upon the story world as they want to, and not asking the player for permission to do so. The player visits their party members, watches them interact with one another, and changes the tone of the game by building rivalries and friendships.

In her article, Raymond readjusts some aspects of Dragon Age II perceived as faults into evidence of a great game. Some players saw Hawke as ineffectual, unable to control many of the game’s events. Raymond’s analysis instead suggests that the game is forcing the player to experience something that they don’t feel often in games: powerlessness. It uses the player’s predisposition to having control against them. Instead of being like other games and looking to empower players by giving them the illusion of freedom and choice, Dragon Age II tells the player that they are not a superhero. Instead, Hawke is a survivor and witness to catastrophic events that they had little to do with by comparison to others. The constant character drama reinforces this feeling; the “game” exists in the relationships, not the events.

This is when the light bulb went on for me. Like others, I had a mild affection for most of the characters in Dragon Age II but felt like there was little to them. I didn’t realize that seeing the sheer skill that went into building their characterization occurs only over multiple playthroughs. How the player handles these relationships, what kind of personality Hawke has, the stance they take in the Templars vs. Mage conflict, all change the nuances of the character’s attitudes and personalities. The ultimate example of this process, for me, revolves around Anders destroying the Chantry, as it is an event that prompts the player to parse complicated feelings with their own ideology. Was Hawke Anders’s friend, lover, or rival? Were they for or against the Templars? Given the choice of what to do with Anders afterwards, the player must reflect on what brought them to this point and what seems to be the most monumental choice for their game.

I replayed the game three times after this realization. I saw a bubbly, benign Merrill and a stubborn, selfish one recontexualizing the fate of her clan. I can’t decide if Fenris is an outright bigot or a justified skeptic, as I’ve seen both versions of the character. In other words, Dragon Age II presents gamers with meaningful interaction with relationships themselves in video games, a feat commonly fumbled at by other games. It took only one section of one article to reach this level of appreciation for a game that I thought was past redemption. Game criticism can add replay value to games and make them culturally significant, a process that takes looking past just the gameplay and considering what the whole might mean.

The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

(Spoiler warning for the Dragon Age series)

Topics about social minorities in video games typically manifest in the relationship humans have with other sentient characters of their world or universe. Games often present humanity as space-warfaring Americans or in a setting reminiscent of feudal England, making the “Other” someone of a different species or robot of some sort, since contemporary minority rights don’t exist in these situations. Games haven’t produced a sizable amount of characters that make their cross-species (like Half-Elves) or cyborg identity important to the theme or action, effectively cutting out a large portion of already scant analysis on multi-racial and transgender politics in games.

Passing narratives, the experiences of a multi-racial or transgender character in relation to the identity society views them as, in media appear in LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg,” citing cyborg characters from films as expressions of anxiety over miscegenation. While the popular imagining of cyborgs are part human, part machine beings, the mages from the Dragon Age series act as a high fantasy response as part human, part spirit characters. Mages can receive equal treatment if their mage status is unknown. However, once revealed, they receive skepticism, whether they are good or evil, a practitioner of blood magic or not. Most of the mages that travel with the Warden and Hawke live passing as human while managing their cyborg identity. Using Nishime’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Mulatto Cyborg” structure, Dragon Age II shows a successful beginning of representing multi-racial and transgender politics. Whereas the multi-racial cyborg negotiates between multiple races, the transgender cyborg balances their transgender identity with a ‘recognized’ one of their society, usually as a woman or man.

The Good Mage

The Good Cyborg is the tragic figure trying to become more (white, cisgender) human, but still outcast by society. In Dragon Age: Origins, the player encounters Tranquil mages, who celebrate their disconnection from the Fade even though it came at a high cost. Many mages volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, as a self-loathing mage can be convinced to do in the mage starting section of Origins. The plight of the good mage rests in the essentialism of society; once born outside of the standard, one could never hope to achieve the status of a “true” human. The Tranquil are often put into positions of servitude and practical application that mages are absent from, now seen as acceptable and safe to interact with other humans. The player’s interaction with one such Tranquil shopkeeper broaches the topic of humanity, implying the general assumption of the Tranquil being less than human and mage. As Nishime puts it, the Good Cyborgs are nostalgic for something that never existed for them, and can only occur inside their own minds. It is telling that taking away the mage’s connection with the Fade and spirits takes away what is mage-like about them, and leaves something other than human as a result.

The Bad Mage

These mages confirm the suspicions and accusations made against their kind by the Templars and Chantry. How the player encounters them is telling: the main character battles demons and blood mages, many in scenes of destruction and rebellion. Dramatic cut scenes depict the use of blood magic and demonic transformation than any other type of magic, mirroring the unmasking of the Bad Cyborgs in films like The Terminator. They embrace dealings with demons and any grab at power that their magic affords them. Rejecting humanity by attacking it, Bad Mages resonate with the fears our culture has of identities that defy binaries. Dragon Age II’s Meredith plays on this anxiety by highlighting the mages’ ability to hide amongst the populace and strike down the everyday person, very similar rhetoric to opponents of minority rights. This also places value in being purely human, with anything different on the path to taint that purity. Nishime observes the only way towards redemption for Bad Cyborgs and Mages alike: total sacrifice and submission. Meredith acknowledges this sacrifice near the end of the game, but forces it on the mages, seeing the “people” of Kirkwall the real victims, not the mages. Juxtaposed in this manner, mages are second-class humans without all the rights that come along with being human, even if they are well behaved.

The Mixed/Trans Mage

Instead of looking to pass as completely human or of the Fade, the Mixed/Trans Mage embraces their hybridity and shapes their circumstances to fit their identity. These characters disturb and confuse onlookers by occupying a space that lies outside of the binary of good and bad. The progressive tone of the Dragon Age series arises from the many Mixed/Trans Mages the player can encounter, namely Morrigan, Anders, and Merrill. Mage-skeptical characters, such as Alistair, Fenris, and Aveline, are bewildered each time they attempt to apply the Good/Bad Mage mentality on them only to hear a rebuttal traversing into a gray area. Much like multi-racial and transgender people in reality, these characters manage their lives under the pressure to pass as standard while typecast as the bad cyborg and avoiding the fate of the good one. They often talk to the player as a teacher or from an enlightened viewpoint of someone who sees the social construction of being human and a mage. What is confusing to both Dragon Age’s society and our own is the perceived hubris of the Mixed/Trans Mage; why are these people being so loud? Who are they to disrupt the natural order of things? Why do we have to change for them?

Dragon Age II’s Passing Narratives

The struggles Anders and Merrill fight to achieve their identity-driven objectives while negotiating respect with their party members and evading Templars successfully speak to passing and identity issues for multi-racial and transgender people. Anders’ struggle with Justice describes how these minorities fair in the current social climate in reality, fearing the persecution of those who don’t understand him while controlling his deserved anger from being destructive. No one has answers for Anders’ problems other than to be a good, patient mage, and eventually society might change to make things better. This frustration builds in a culture for which there is no outlet for his feelings, much like predicament of multi-racial and transgender people finding little comfort in their allies while performing saint-like behavior around the oppressors. Anders’ story shows that society will not change quickly enough for the Mixed/Trans Cyborg, and instead, a cataclysmic change to the oppressive structure must occur. Merrill has even more hybridity to her identity; she is a Dalish who lives in the city, alienated from her clan, humans, and city elves while also marginalized for her blood magic. Her tense dialogue with Anders reveals the need for a pluralistic look on their issues, as Anders is quick to criticize Merrill despite their similar paths. Dragon Age II tells a tragic story of the Mixed/Trans Cyborg that tries to hold onto their roots while developing their borderless identity: instead of eliminating an overarching institution, Merrill can only be free once the bond with family that holds her back is destroyed.

Identifying the Mixed/Trans Cyborg/Mage amongst the numerous Good and Bad ones serves as a tool for not only reading multi-racial and transgender topics in games, but also creating successful minority characters overall. Development teams need more encouragement to include these identities and their issues in games; revealing and discussing passing narratives will lend material for more diverse game characters.

Ludonarrative Resonance

Games and narratives seem to have a contentious relationship within gaming discourse; what is a game and should we read them as a narrative? What is a narrative and when does it belong in a game? Thankfully, I don’t care about these questions, as they are disguised methods of drawing lines in the sand. The how’s are much more interesting: How are narratives important to games? How does narrative fit into game design? How do games communicate narratives? How narrative originates from the game design is a rather abstract concept; in fact, most games that zero-in on ludonarrative game mechanics are thrown into the “art game” category, though all games could successfully strive for ludonarrative resonance.

Any familiarity with design will be helpful in understanding a vague statement such as “narrative grows from the design and echoes the game mechanics,” which would be in a defense of narrative in games. The elements of game design work in the same way elements of other mediums do; good design arises when elements echo their alignment to the surface aesthetic received by the viewer. Take the opening stanza to “The Raven:”

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
” ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this, and nothing more.” (Edgar Allen Poe)

Poe didn’t just throw together words to tell the reader what was happening, but chose words that reflected the aesthetic of what was going on. For example, he used multiple gerunds to simulate the action within the story; all those rappings and tappings (as well as a napping and nothing) form a rhythm that would have the reader easily imagine the acoustics of someone knocking on a door, or window as we come to find. As well, in good Poe fashion, words that conjure feelings of the macabre and supernatural appear to set a tone without directly saying, “this is a supernatural event!” Without diving into elements like meter, the placement of every word, especially in relation to one another, makes up the design and is incredibly important to the aesthetic of the poem. This all may seem esoteric concerning games; however, artists of their particular field and the enthusiasts who consume it often are sensitive to these elements and interactions, extracting more meaning and enjoyment from a well-designed piece. This could easily apply to game designers and gamers, who are already aware of game design just by the amount of games they play.

How does this relate to games and narratives? Imagine narrative as the aforementioned repetition, diction, or meter for game design; it can strengthen and give meaning to what the player directly experiences. It gets trickier to understand with games because they add in the dimension of interactivity, and players experience the game design strongest through interaction. Let’s start with how we receive narrative in games currently; in Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, a perspective on how narrative appears in a game divides it into embedded narrative and emergent narrative. Embedded narrative is how we commonly think of narrative in games, immutable and shown to the player without their control. This often appears as cut-scenes, dialogue, encyclopedic entries, to give context to the player. This is comparable to exposition in fiction, as it is relied on to give meaning to the actions and conflicts the player will encounter. We can often use literary critical analysis to dissect embedded narrative because there is little unique to it other than being appropriated by a video game (though, this does factor into the interpretation). There is a heavy emphasis on the embedded as anything narrative tends to occur near the end of production. Emergent might be familiar as it is a common buzzword the game media and developers use to put focus on unintended, player-driven content. Narrative rarely acts in this manner because it needs narrative design to happen early in development, or happen at all. Emergent narrative acts similarly to a reader going over the ‘rappings’ and ‘tappings’ of Poe’s poem, as the connection between the rhythm and diction is implicit and is figured out by the reader rather than informed directly from the surface narrative.

Using the perspective of embedded vs. emergent narratives, I will attempt to show ludonarrative resonance, when the emergent qualities echo and strengthen the embedded narrative (or the overall design). My current stance assumes most games do not exploit emergent narrative to strengthen its design, and that a stronger focus on emergent narrative will result in a sturdier outcome. The intent isn’t to diminish the function of embedded narratives, but show that all we are doing is relying on the embedded when the emergent can add a considerable amount of depth. In fact, Jason Rohrer’s Passage flips this around and has the player drawing from the emergent narrative to extract meaning from their experience. Games like this are often tagged as ‘art games’ as the minimalist style allows mechanics to shine without much artifice piled on top. As such, Passage will give you a feel of an ‘art game,’ however I think it is an attempt to have the player engaged on a cerebral level that doesn’t involved being ‘addictive’ or ‘entertaining’ as these terms are conventionally used. That being said, spoilers for the game are up ahead, and seeing that the game will only take minutes of your time (you can play through two or three times in about ten or so), play it and see if you caught what I’m observing in relation to emergent narrative.

Passage needs emergent narrative to make any sense; the embedded narrative is scant at best. You have control of a man who can travel across the screen (mostly right) and around objects. Eventually, he meets a woman to fall in love with, and she travels in front of him the rest of the way. There are some treasure-chests further on and the characters visibly age as the past and future of the path ripple on the sides of the screen. After a certain amount of time (possibly measured by steps), his partner dies and then he does, with the title “Passage” fading in on the screen. Just from this description, a player would miss large chunks of the game relating to the passage of one’s life that rests in the emergent gameplay. The player comes to understand what the game is commenting on when they realize they are unable to navigate the map easily because of their partner, missing treasures that they would easily be able to get themselves if they went solo. This feeling is strengthened on subsequent playthroughs when the player realizes they only have a certain amount of time until both characters die, and that the clear, unobstructed path at the top of the screen yields no treasures or entertainment, just a march to their deaths. There can be multiple interpretations of this game, however very little of the meaning comes from the embedded narrative. Passage is also a good example about how the narrative can be a part of the overall art direction, as players receive narrative elements by the changing landscape and the shift of a preview of the path to the reflection.

This isn’t to say Passage is the pinnacle of gaming or did everything right. Rather, it is doing something more games could; this is particularly pertinent to RPGs as they explore opportunities to engage the player with the narrative. As this game displays, complete player freedom and authorship isn’t necessary for an emergent narrative to work, or are limitless dialogue options or character customization. Linking this to a previous article, “An Apology for RPGs,” figuring out how to create meaningful gameplay when engaging the player with the emergent narrative would reconnect digital RPGs with involving the player with the narrative. Emergent narrative can appear in battles, exploring, dialogue, and many more instances than I can imagine up here. In addition, taking away the reigns from the embedded narrative and relegating it to context will thin out a lot of the unnecessary exposition and other weak storytelling attempts at instilling any sort of feeling in the player. Using the emergent narrative takes advantage of the digital medium by having the player parse through the feelings that arises through their experience with the game, rather than a few lines of text or voice acting telling them the moral of the story.

An Apology for RPGs

I’ve been rather grouchy with gaming lately. This new console generation hasn’t produced anything to wow me and I butterfly from one Steam sale to the next, forgetting the vast majority of games in my library. Probably because I grew into a gamer through RPGs, specifically J-RPGs, and the climate for said genre is rather… underwhelming. There has been a lot of talk about RPGs lately, particularly tugs about the definition of RPGs and the possible death of the genre. The existential panic that will begin (if not happening already) to clamor is represented by Greg Zeschuk’s (VP of BioWare) comment regarding trying to figure out what RPGs are currently. This is somewhat alarming as BioWare is oft synonymous with RPGs, but their rhetoric surrounding Mass Effect 3 sounds as if they are distancing themselves from their roots. From what I can tell, it sounds like the company feels it is abandoning a rotting ship and embracing a broader appeal.

After Final Fantasy XIII finally had me throw down my controller (read: set down with furious care [those are expensive!]) fed-up with what game designers felt were good RPGs to be charging so much money for, I knew something was wrong. This shouldn’t be happening twenty years after Final Fantasy IV. I broke off my sixteen-year relationship with Square, having pre-ordered every Final Fantasy on faith that they would be amazing. While the latest Final Fantasy was decent, I felt a company who has weighed in so much to this genre shouldn’t be producing decent games, but epic ones. Games touting their mastery of narrative, like Heavy Rain, shouldn’t think gamers are simple enough to fall for multiple endings that aren’t significantly different from one another. I noticed that the same tricks and conventions appeared repeatedly, with innovation ignored for convention humping. There has to be more to RPGs than this; my favorite genre can’t really be dying… right?

So what is an RPG? Are-pee-Jee? Whichever.

Let me start my adventure with a large caveat: I place little value differences in definitions when it comes to concepts and genres. Definitions, to me, are useful purely for communication and not end-all Truth finding. In the end, where we decide to draw the line is completely arbitrary; you might have a convincing argument, but that doesn’t mean much in the face of Truth. I’m not looking for Truth. I seek new ideas, enlightenment, to uncover a path. Just see this as the “Where have you been?” to the “Where are you going?” Pretend I didn’t make that analogy, it’s completely inappropriate.

It would be too easy to sound off everyone else’s opinion on the matter, only to subvert them with a witticism or two afterwards; however people tend to fall into a typical ‘ludology vs narratology’-like arrangement. This frames RPGs either in their mechanic traditions (character progression, turn-based combat, stats) or as stories (complex plot, role-playing, detailed world), both extremes being problematic. These are more conventions of the genre rather than what makes them a unique way of playing a game. As Zeschuk noted, and the Mass Effect series exemplifies, as genres are appropriating more RPG elements, RPGs become flat as they have little more to offer on their own.

Trying to take a holistic approach, I look back to Dungeons & Dragons and subsequent tabletop adventures to be the progenitor of what we consider RPGs. What makes these games both stylistically and formally distinct are their attempt to create a system where players can interact with a narrative. The rules show how players can determine something qualitative via a quantitative method, with primary focus on building a character through statistics and direct, extemporaneous acting within this game-story world. This is where I find that tingle inside me when I go to play an RPG; it has found a way for me to interact with a narrative. When we look to the start of digital RPGs, we see these conventions carry over: manage stats of a character that interacts with unseen formulas, traverse through dungeons, go on loosely related quests. Digital RPGs made it so the player didn’t need a DM nor had to remember formulas, which is definitely convenient and breakthrough use of technology. However, it didn’t add anymore to what RPGs have been doing; in actuality, these games took away methods of interacting with the narrative. So I’m going to say something a little naughty.

RPGs have been dead this entire time.

Digital ones, at least. Tabletop has continued to grow (more people [including myself] should be interested in it!) and shape how players can interact with narratives; some have pitched the idea of a DM, stats, or too many equations over all, which digital RPGs rely on. RPGs on computers haven’t done anything tabletop ones didn’t already cover, which is a huge problem. I take that back, digital RPGs have supplied us with rich visual and sonic worlds. I don’t take back the ‘huge problem’ part though. These qualities are bittersweet for RPGs, as the demand for a better audio/visual experience conflicts with the method digital RPGs enact a narrative. These games have yet to solve the issues of borrowing heavily from novels and movies while addressing the particular needs of narrative in an interactive medium. Computers may have made RPGs more convenient, but they haven’t used their unique qualities to create an experience tabletop cannot. This isn’t to say tabletop is inherently a better medium, or that I want computers to faze them out, but rather to have a genre that does more than substitute a role-playing group. There are a couple of evolutions that make it seem like current digital RPGs do allow you to interact with the narrative; choices in decisions and who your character is. These are but a fraction of the places interactivity and narratives intersect, and are rather topical. Choices often feel insignificant or unharmonious with the story, and characters can either be blank avatars or poorly planned and in need of a restart.

So, what’s the solution? Find out what computers can do players cannot, and work them in as mainstays to the genre. Instead of using their computational power for convenience, use it for the impossible. Create webs of cause and effect a DM wouldn’t be able to keep track of and associate all player actions with something other than statistics. Manifest audio/visual perceptions words are unable to create, and link them to the player’s progression. There is so much more, and this article isn’t about listing them off. Rather, it is a call to start thinking and implementing.

What is and isn’t an RPG is beside the point, it’s how a game appropriates the cultural understanding of what an RPG is. Video games have been using character progression through stats and experience points, a strong sense of story, and tactical strategy to draw what they can from the genre, but the heart isn’t there. What we really have are action games, interactive fiction, and shooters that use the tropes developed from tabletop RPGs. There is very little role-playing to be had; rather, you are given an extremely limited amount of ‘roles’ to ‘choose’ from.

So let’s do something, anything. Experiment and idea-dump. Take a favorite from the genre and make it so it does what RPGs are great at: letting players be a part of narrative impossible in their own realty. Create a world that tells a player “You matter, and I can’t exist without you.” Level 5’s Georama, not enough. BioWare’s dialogue trees and wheels, not enough. Square’s Active Time Battle, not enough. Bethesda’s character creation, not enough. No more multiple endings in a weak attempt to add on reply value. No more illusion of choice.

And no more freakin’ Tolkien and Star Trek!

It’s Time to Talk About it: Atlus, Naoto, and Transphobia

(Trigger Warning: Transphobia, Passing Anxiety)

(Spoiler Warning: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Shin Megami Tensi: Persona 4, Catherine)

Earlier this year, I wrote a research paper on representations of gender and sexuality in video games where I chose Bayonetta from her eponymous game and Naoto in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. The wealth of critical discussion on Bayonetta speaks for itself; I had no trouble supporting my own argument about her because of the importance the gaming community attributed to shaming or empowering her (and, of course, options other than these). However, my research on Naoto resulted in pretty much nothing; from what I could tell, the gaming community felt he (it is debatable which pronoun to use, so I am using he as it is my interpretation from my playthrough) was a cross-dresser and would be referred to as a woman. There are mentions of Naoto in articles related to Kanji’s (a fellow party member) questions about sexuality, but nothing at all about the complicated politics the game design promotes in concern to transgender topics. So let this be an ode to Naoto, as he deserves a critical analysis, but also my questioning of and challenge to Atlus about their representation of transgender characters. While Persona 4 makes the player interact with the issues surrounding someone who is transgender, the games before and after featured transgender characters more in the background. It shows a deliberate move by the development team to include transgender characters in their games, and therefore make a statement about them; it is extremely rare for a transgender character to appear in a game, much less three in a row. I investigate Altus’ position on transgender topics (as shown in their games) while informed through their depiction of Naoto in the context of these other characters.

In Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, your party gets a small reprieve on an island, where the boys eventually go to the beach to pick up women. They are unsuccessful until they meet one that seems especially receptive to them, who will “show them a thing or two” and is otherwise outlandishly suggestive. Before she can take anyone back to her room, a party member notices she has hair on her chin, outing her as transgender; she admits her plan in tricking the boys and keeps the offer of sex open before departing. To say the least, this is an atrocious depiction of trans-women that relies on the sexual anxieties and (perceived) deviances of heterosexual men. Many took it as a comical and lighthearted scene from the rest of the morbid and dreary storyline, however, this is one of the very few ways trans-women are characterized in media overall, which is extremely unrealistic and damaging. Persona 3 carries on transphobia by failing to offer a character different from conventional imagining of trans-women as sexual deviants deceiving hapless heterosexual men. It also relegates them strictly to the sexual realm, as if that is the only place transgender women appear, and those are the only qualities unique to this group of people.

Based on that experience alone, seeing Naoto in Persona 4 would seem to be a cause for celebration, as he is an extremely well written character and overall engaging and respectable. However, the extremely problematic character Erica in Catherine throws the intentions behind Naoto into question. There is little information during gameplay to let the player know Erica is transgender, however in hindsight, these hints are rather malicious. Throughout Vincent’s time in the game’s bar, he and his friends are amicable to Erica but also say rather disparaging things about her femininity. The group of men seems to put up with Erica rather than appreciate her friendship, and is vaguely trying to steer away the youngest member, naïve Toby, from pursuing his attraction for her. The second hint comes when Erica shares that she is starting to have nightmares, which only men are supposed to be having, however it is easy to overlook this, as it appears everyone who goes to the bar has these dreams. The player finds out directly only if they achieve the True Lover’s Ending, when it is implied the guys told Toby Erica is transgender and expresses regret losing his virginity to her. It might be tempting to say that because the only real overt transphobia comes from the main villain, who happens to be her employer, and that Atlus is taking a favorable position on transgender representation in Catherine. However, like the character in Persona 3, she is the deviant, sexual trickster who seduces unsuspecting men to their sexuality questioning doom. Her friends don’t show any support and have extremely little respect for her identity as a woman; as well, her boss is constantly hitting on her, despite that he was punishing her for transitioning into a woman and seeking romance as a trans-woman. Erica herself is a great character with relatable dialogue for the most part, but the politics surrounding her doesn’t provide any optimism for trans-folk and their allies.

Transgender topics were blips in these games, which is why they more so provide the context of how Naoto is interpreted rather than stand on their own to inform the player how Atlus, or gaming overall, is treating transgender characters. A brief synopsis of Naoto’s presence in Persona 4: Naoto is a 16-year-old detective prodigy that appears at first as a mysterious character with clues surrounding the murder cases. His appearance is noteworthy as Kanji starts feeling attracted to him, and this is a tense topic as he is apparently struggling with his sexuality (that’s a whole other topic). Naoto’s relationship with the group is tense at first as he realizes they harbor secrets relating to the case, but they all see him as respectable, intelligent, and capable (it is also worth mentioning that he has a resemblance to male protagonists in other Shin Megami Tensei games). He eventually uses his fan following, who calls him the ‘Detective Prince,’ to his advantage to gain a lead in the case. In the Jungian-like TV world where Naoto confronts his ‘Shadow,’ the player finds out that Naoto is female and the Shadow wants to perform sexual reassignment surgery on him. As this scene depicts, Naoto presents himself as a man because of the environment of the police force; no one would take him seriously if he were a woman. After defeating his Shadow, Naoto decides he doesn’t need to become a male to succeed as a detective, and joins the party.

This is when Atlus promptly fails Gender 101. The game text begins to refer to Naoto as she and her, and makes no distinction between sex and gender. Whenever there is a need to divide the characters along the lines of gender, Naoto appears with the women instead of the men. In general, they keep his personality the same and make more references to androgyny to keep in line with the character they have built up. The game continues to depict Naoto as an awesome personality through the main storyline, and receives a generally warm acceptance by everyone even though there is a question about his true sex. However, the essentialist attitude similar to the antagonist’s in Catherine exposes a lack of understanding about transgender issues and tucks in an almost sinister transphobia in what seems to be overwhelming support and popularity for Naoto as a character. Most (if not all) people who are transgender face an internal struggle with sexual reassignment. There is a heavy amount of reinforcement from society to have it in order to achieve (some amount of) social acceptance. This is a source of tremendous anxiety, especially for those cannot attain resources that allow them to transition. More importantly, not everyone wants to change their sex, or better yet, don’t feel that changing their sex should be a requirement to being treated as the gender they identify as. I saw that scene with Naoto at first as a brave proclamation to continue as a man without aiming to become male, only to be confused and devastated when the game started to turn him into a woman. This happens in attention to the assumed romantic and sexual intentions of the player by making Naoto accessible as to not threaten the assumed player’s (a heterosexual man) gender and sexuality. Because all of the females are open for romance (don’t get me started on just that thought), the logic of the game decides Naoto should be as well, and he becomes the antithesis of what he wants during his Social Link with the protagonist. There is a clear disconnect between the Naoto in the main story and the Naoto in the Social Link. While you are able to become intimate with Naoto while encouraging him to still be a man, there are options for you to persuade him to act and dress as a woman. What makes this disturbing is Naoto’s identity hinges on the player’s choices, and the gameplay mechanics encourage the player to nudge Naoto towards becoming a woman. For instance, the first trigger that can initiate romance with Naoto when choosing “I’m glad you’re a girl” when he is having a moment wishing he was born male. The second romance flag comes when you choose to protect Naoto from harm, for which the protagonist frustrates him by making him feel weak when treated as a woman.

All of this is after he expresses little interest in wanting a relationship, and that he makes no indication of his sexual orientation; the game allows the player to force him into the romantic fantasies of a heterosexual man. If this wasn’t enough, there is a scene after you confess your love for Naoto when he asks the player if they want him to start talking with a higher pitch to his voice to sound more feminine, and if they choose to have a higher pitch, he will dress up in a girl’s school uniform during the Christmas event. This event is more poignant in the Japanese version of this scene; instead of the pitch of his voice, he asks the protagonist if he minded Naoto’s use of ‘boku,’ which is the ‘I’ that men use. Telling him that you want him to stop prompts the above scene, but you also can opt for Naoto to stay the same. The scene when Naoto dresses up in a girl’s uniform completely transforms his personality; he’s now always blushing, stammering, quiet, scrunched up as much as he can into himself. Very typical Japanese schoolgirl as this is just before an implied sexual scene. This scene trivializes the pressure transgender people feel to perform their gender well enough not to violate their partner’s sense of sexuality, and the incredible burden to make sure they are always passing as the desired gender. Naoto’s Social Link was an extreme waste of an opportunity to explore the intricacies of a relationship when at least one partner is transgender, something I don’t think I’ve ever been able to witness in the media.

I do find value in Atlus including transgender characters in their games, but in order for these instances to be progressive, they have to be positive and enlightening depictions. Each one of these characters appeared in the game and interacted with the player in a way that is specific to heterosexual men, and uses said culture to define their character arcs. Despite the flaws Atlus implanted into Naoto, I enjoyed his character and explored my feelings of being romantically attracted to a trans-man (which wasn’t something I considered at the time), and find this type of game to be a powerful avenue to promote diversity and understanding of those underrepresented in the media. It also shows how much other characters in games revolve around how they relate to heterosexual men, which prompts said group to inform game developers of their interest in more diverse viewpoints.

Diversity Watch: Bastion

As a sort of closing thoughts on my time with Bastion, I’m curious as to how I can further my agenda of promoting diversity in games, or seeing how games are an artifact of a culture’s stance on diversity. This isn’t meant to scold Bastion by not fulfilling their quota of minorities, but letting it speak for itself.

Race and Ethnicity

For all the fear that the industry has about touching the topic of race and ethnicity, Bastion pushes the topic out there and lets the player interpret it. What is disheartening is how easily players can overlook this tension and participate in the usual brand xenophobia (and anti-environmentalism at that) that is produced from video games. Bastion makes use of race to draw on the player’s cultural understanding of them against us, of a nation against savages. The Ura draw on the qualities of the Far East (they even live in the East) to act as markers when juxtaposed against the kid and Rucks’ racial features; they have paler skin with dark hair, superstitious about a pantheon of gods, move around the map sharp and quickly (reminiscent of ninjas), and Zulf’s personal item is a hookah. This wouldn’t be so noticeable if Rucks and the kid weren’t depicted as very western (bulky males, caucasian facial features, imperialistic culture, science-orientated), however it goes a step further and marks them as very American. I was personally shocked when I first heard Rucks’ voice and then confused when I saw him; the voice actor was particular in using a tone and diction that is reminiscent of African-American (I use this term to identify a specific group of people, not to be PC) local color stories. So when I saw that Rucks was depicted as caucasian, my rationalization was assuming the team was looking for an aesthetic that was patently American. Following this line of thinking, I’m sure someone can come up with an interesting interpretation of seeing the US against its eastern anxieties (most of the Middle East, China, North Korea) in Bastion. However, that’s not my goal here; it’s possible that those with a differing ethnicity than the canon American one would be able to identify with the wrong done to Zulf, but it would be a difficult claim as you kill more and more Ura to get to your goal. Rucks’ excuse for killing all these people is flimsy and ethnocentric, as I could imagine a different reaction if Caeldonian lives were the ones at stake (or maybe they are, and that’s why it’s easy to kill Ura).

There’s also the tucked away issue about Zia’s liminal status when it comes to her ethnicity; she was raised in Caeldonia, but her race is of the Ura. There are mixed messages with the plot point of Zia running off to meet Zulf, and the implications of him claiming her as an Ura. It is unclear if Zia ever felt a sense of belonging, though this might be implied by the very subtle hints of the kid’s affection towards her.

Gender and Sexuality

The game assumes heteronormativity and doesn’t make any grand statements about gender. Bastion follows many traditions in this genre; the main character is a young male who identifies as a (conventionally Western) man and uses many typical props that suggest masculinity. There are some neat twists on the weapons in the game, but they are the same from every other: every type of gun you can think of and a bunch of melee weapons that require strength rather than anything else. One of the upgrades for the Bastion is a distillery which indicates that the kid is drinking throughout his adventures; I have nothing against drinking, but it is a common trope of masculinity to be a hard drinker, and this cannot go unnoticed if the main character is continually called ‘the kid.’ I find it problematic in an abstract way when boys in video games are assumed to have weapon and combat competency, or at least how prevalent this type of character is in video games. Rucks reinforces these expectations by the actions he points out the kid doing; I remember feeling a little put off when there was a quote of the kid having a sort of affection for one of his guns (I think there’s multiple references like these for the musket). There is little room for any other expression or identification of any other type of masculinity other than the gamer hegemonic one.

Zia’s representation as the sole woman (I’ll assume female as well) seem more to be in service of contrasting the kid’s masculinity. The (typical) emphasis on her beauty is slyly done by hearing her song and voice before you meet her. The sequence attributes the usual qualities to Zia before we even meet her; delicate sounding, beauty in an ethereal sense, a rare sight, something to chase. Rucks’ narration during this sequence is ambiguous during the first play-through as the player doesn’t know who he’s telling the story to (I assumed he was tell me the story), and it prompts the unaware listener to admire Zia as an aesthetic. Also, seeing that her personal item is a cooking pot… It doesn’t seem like Bastion is trying to leave behind any molds.

Something interesting is at work, though, when comparing the two aesthetics invoked, as they seem rather gendered. Zia’s song seems to be the audio translation of the visual representation of the game; I look at Bastion and see something beautiful and delicate. But Rucks’ narration, the only other voice of the game, gives the aesthetic more grittiness, enough so it isn’t alienating to the type of character the kid embodies. My personal observations of the themes at work in this game sprout from details like this, and I’m sure an interpretation waits to be read there.

Closing Thoughts

More could be said about age and and ableism, but they seem to just exist in the game and don’t really complicate the matter. Rucks has an interesting role as an elder, but turns out to be a threat of a harmful culture rather than an agent on his own. There is also no indication of transgender, intersexed, or asexual people, though given this allegory to America overall, it would be interesting where such characters would fit in.

Creation vs Destruction in Bastion’s Narrative

A lot of what has the gaming community chattering about Bastion is the role of its narrative in the gameplay. Many critics of the relationship between story and games see them as one slapped onto the other, rather than having an organically joined structure. Rucks’ narration of the kid’s journey is often merited as the ‘right way’ to do story in a game, however there a strange tension between the storytelling and gameplay that could be read as narrative dissonance (or, at least, further analyzed to view a more realistic application of the techniques present in the game).

To out my personal feelings before diving into criticism, I thought the game should have been titled something similar to Rucks. The Bastion is merely a plot device that serves as a tool for something else, but it isn’t the main idea of the story; as well, the kid could be pretty much anyone (being optimistic, I chose to see it as a critique on the stereotypical adventurer rather than the developers being lazy, though that took some self-convincing). Rucks controls the player’s experience as well as the relationships between all of the characters; the game leaves questions open about him, leaving the player to turn off the game wondering about how they feel about Rucks’ actions. His pleasantly stylistic narration is overbearing and steals the spotlight, and that (as I will argue later) makes the ending ineffectual when his narration stops. This is definitely not a slam overall on the game, I enjoyed it and it was worth my money; I just wish to extract more worth out of it rather than setting it up to be a paragon of gaming.

Ultimately, I noticed a strange ambiguity concerning the themes of creation and destruction in Bastion right from the beginning; the player is told the Calamity has everything destroyed, yet this is the beginning of a story, Furthermore, the setting is falling apart except for where the kid steps, where the path is actually being created before him. On one hand, this could be a representation of the continuing detonation and rebuilding of Caeldonia that is implied by Rucks before the player gets to choose the ending, giving the player an off-kilter and chaotic feeling to carry with them throughout the game. However, gameplay doesn’t reinforce this reading, rather, it communicates a more bleak path of destruction. I found it ironic that as Rucks extemporaneously created the story, the kid was destroying everything in his path; there were so many unnecessary destroyable objects in the way of the goal, that it made me wonder if the kid was doing as much damage to the city and its people as the Calamity did.

This makes the juxtaposition of the creative mechanics at the Bastion seem either incredibly in line with the narrative, or at odds. The Bastion is used as a focus for the player’s goals as well as the means to further launch more destruction through an armory of weapons, upgrades, and challenges inspired by the gods. But this is all really fruitless, because as the story points out, there’s little effect the order of your buildings have on anything (and this is reinforced by nothing at all being changed when you switch around the order of the buildings, as well as there being an optimal build for New Game+). It’s possible that the kid has done the same exact thing an infinite amount of times beforehand, and to learn that after it was damaged just before you completed it (twice!) adds in a bit of despair.

Now all of this doesn’t sound so bad for a game to produce, it actually reveals a complicated depth that lies below very simple and intuitive gameplay. I felt like I had things to work out right up until I had a choice in how the story was ending. My intervention isn’t determined by anything except for my interpretation of the events; not Ruck’s, or Zia’s, Zulf’s, and definitely not the kid (he doesn’t really have one it seems). Instead of furthering this volatile interaction of creation and destruction by activating the Bastion and instantaneously creating a New Game+ for the player (who can then go on to stop the cycle) and give the player a meta-viewpoint on what just happened, the choice of what to do with Zulf and the Bastion opens up the moving parts of a game that you rarely had to stop and think about much. There is no more narrator, no more certainty, and it almost feels like a different game. For me, the game lost all of its energy right after the last return to the Bastion (though, I nearly groaned out loud after being presented with the choice to save Zulf). The reason why, in hindsight, all of these elements seem so out of line, because the player is called into the sort for the first time and asked to sort things out. Why now, when the story is at it’s most intense? Especially with a lame still image at the end? The game was fine with recognizing its own metafiction, but to then double the meta undid a lot of the organic-feeling elements (the weapon training grounds did as well, but they were covered up enough in lore that I forgave it).

Because the game wasn’t about choice at all, my journey through New Game+ revealed how the creation vs destruction elements felt very arbitrary and not integrated into the gameplay. The narration seemed more of an aesthetic choice, building up the Bastion was an illusion of involvement, and the mindless destructive nature of your avatar (yes, I said it) becomes embarrassingly apparent.


Mattie is currently an independent, medium-agnostic game designer. There are many philosophies going into her work; for one, she makes games on accessible platforms that people without programming knowledge or reserves of disposable income can develop on. This includes programs like RPG Maker VX, Twine, and also analogue games. Her games test the edges of what is thought possible with game design and aim to be inclusive on multiple levels. She also focuses on narrative design and experiments with narrative and experience in games. Mattie seeks independent contracting, collaborations, and design roles on larger teams.

Completed Works

01-04/18 – Feastings
12/05/17 – DAFRA Pairing Ceremony
05/12/16 – empathy machine
08/19/13 – Mission
08/10/13 – EAT
04/06/13 – Blink
01/27/13 – DESTROY ALL MEN
11/06/12 – Mainichi


Among the many forms of writing she does, Mattie is mostly known for game criticism, particularly around the topics of diversity issues and narrative. Her work draws from current events, academia, and personal experience, blending it together to engage audiences with new ideas and ways of thinking. Mattie’s writing is frequently featured on Critical Distance, and now is a regular contributor that curates noteworthy writing about video games. Besides essays and articles, Mattie also writes fiction, spanning prose to in-game writing to monologues. Samples of her fiction is available on request.

Writing Portfolio

Alternate Ending (2011 – Present)

The Border House (2011 – 2013)
02/11/13 – Decolonize Me*
11/19/12 – You Want To Make a Boyfriend – You Just Don’t Know it Yet*
11/12/12 – Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game*
08/21/12 – Pay Up – You are What You’re Worth*
04/13/12 – The Type of Woman I Want Others to See: Why I Wore Heels to PAX East*
02/27/12 – Valuing the Feminine – Why I Love Vanille*
02/15/12 – Doing it Right – Playstation: The Official Magazine Handles Transphobic Hate Speech
12/30/11 – An Escape of One’s Own*
11/15/11 – An Open Letter to Kotaku’s Joel Johnson*
10/25/11 – The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age*
08/30/11 – It’s Time to Talk About it: Atlus, Naoto, and Transphobia
08/25/11 – Diversity Watch: Bastion

Nightmare Mode (2011 – 2013)
01/17/13 – Would You Kindly*
12/20/12 – Pursuing My True Self*
11/15/12 – No Exit: How Games Change People*
03/26/12 – Fans, Capitalism, and Mass Effect 3’s Ending. Oh My.
02/20/12 – Love Interest: Sakazaki Yuuya, the Parody
02/05/12 – Love Interest: Second Date – Ikezawa Hanako, a Trans* Narrative*
01/22/12 – Love Interest: Ikezawa Hanako, the Otaku Exotic
01/08/12 – Love Interest: Werner Herzog, the Power Fantasy
12/25/11 – Love Interest: Tsukaba Muneshige, the Meta-Samuari
12/18/11 – Love Interest: Arianna Bell-Essai, the Teacher’s Vixen
12/11/11 – Love Interest: Derek Nevine, the Anti-Gamer

Moving Pixels at PopMatters (2011 – 2012)
04/10/12 – Must I Say Goodbye?: Leaving Behind jRPGs
03/27/12 – Dear Esther, We’re Moving Past Story
03/14/12 – One Day That Wall Is Gonna Fall: Game Design For Everyone
02/28/12 – Women, the Ensemble, and Narrative Authority in the Final Fantasy Series
02/27/12 – Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review
02/14/12 – How Could He?: Exploring Social Issues Through Dragon Age II
01/31/12 – Narrative is a Game Mechanic*
01/20/12 – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review
01/17/12 – Mass Appeal vs. Accessibility in Video Games*
01/03/12 – Those Games Left Off of the “Game of the Year” Lists
12/13/11 – Storyline? In Skyrim? No Thanks!*
12/07/11 – Girl With a Heart of Review
11/29/11 – On Men’s Sexualization in Video Games* **
11/15/11 – Speaking in Accents and the American Ethnocentrism in Video Games* **
11/01/11 – Why You Should Give Dragon Age II a Second Chance

05/23/13 – re/ActionDeciding History
05/20/13 – Game CriticsCorpse Party: Book of Shadows Review
05/01/13 – re/ActionA re/Action*
02/19/13 – Paste MagazinemPlayer Issue 81 – Islands in the Stream
02/03/13 – Pokemon: Unchained
10/30/12 – Gamercamp MagazineThe Artistic Comeback of Games
08/06/12 – Ctrl+Alt+DefeatIssue Eight – Queer Explorers in an Intimate Frontier (pgs. 26-29)
04/24/12 – Paste MagazinemPlayer Issue 42Who’s the Bad Guy?*
03/01/12 – Ctrl+Alt+DefeatIssue Five – I’ll Never Be the Queen of Ferelden (pgs. 12-13)
11/28/11 – KotakuWhy I Don’t Feel Welcome at Kotaku*
11/10/11 – Game CriticsOkabu Review

* – Featured in Critical Distance‘s “This Week in Videogame Blogging”
** – Featured on Gamasutra
*** – Featured in Rock Paper Shotgun’s “Sunday Papers”


Mattie has appeared at conferences and other events to talk about her writing and the role she plays in the game industry as a critic and activist. She’d done speeches, talks, panels, and podcasts, and has related experience in teaching and workshops. Mattie now makes speaking events a major focus in her work and is always looking for opportunities. Contact her if you would like her to appear at your conference, meeting, or university!

Here a selected list of invited talks:

“Gesturing Towards Utopia: Designing Radical Futures Through Play” – Parsons School of Design – New York City, NY (11/2015)
“Fashion in Games” – International Festival of Independent Games – Culver City, CA (10/2015)
“Visions of an Alternate Games Future” – University of Southern California – Los Angeles, CA (10/2015)
“The New Normal: a perspective on unpaid emotional labor for queer acceptance” – Arse Elektronika – San Francisco, CA (10/2015)
“The DIY Revolution of Games – How Trans Women Changed Video Games” – Stanford University – Palo Alto, CA (04/2015)
“Consent in Interactive Media” – GaymerX2 – San Francisco, CA (07/2014)
“Opening Keynote – The Queer Movement and Our Everyday” – GaymerX2 – San Francisco, CA (07/2014)
“Why You Matter to Video Games” – City College of San Francisco – San Francisco, CA (04/2014)
“collected/borders: Organizing in Queer Advocacy” – Different Games – New York City, NY (04/2014)
“How to Subversively Queer Your Work” – Game Developers Conference – San Francisco, CA (03/2014)
“Challenging the Current Model of Social Impact Games” – University of Santa Cruz – Santa Cruz, CA (11/2013)
Graduate Game Design Lecture – San Francisco Art Institute – San Francisco, CA (11/2013)
“Why Personal Experience Matters to Game Design” – Control Conference – Amsterdam, Netherlands (11/2013)
“International Keynote: Earnest Games” – Game Connect Asia Pacific – Melbourne, Australia (10/2013)
“Keynote: Why Personal Experience Matters to Game Design” – International Festival of Independent Games – Culver City, CA (10/2013)
“Critical Condition: The State of Games Criticism” – International Festival of Independent Games – Culver City, CA (10/2013)
“Challenging the Current Model of Social Impact Games” – University of Southern California – Los Angeles, CA (10/2013)
“Taking Alternate Reality Games Back from Marketers and Museums” – No Show Conference – Boston, MA (09/2013)
“Those Excluded From Games Studies” – Digital Games Research Association – Atlanta, GA (08/2013)
“Default Like Me” – International Game Developer Association Leadership Summit – San Francisco, CA (08/2013)
“Difference in Design: Creating Space Through Personal Perspective” – Different Games – New York City, NY (04/2013)
“Interdisciplinary Inspirations” – Parsons School of Design – New York City, NY (04/2013)
“#1ReasonToBe a Woman in the Games Industry” – Game Developers Conference – San Francisco, CA (03/2013)
“Writing the Unsung Experiences: Diversity in Game Storytelling” – Game Developers Conference Online – Austin, TX (10/2012)
“Well Played – Analogue: A Hate Story with Christine Love” – International Festival for Independent Games – Culver City, CA (10/2012)
“The Digital Paramour: Sexual Scripts in Video Games” – Arse Elektronika – San Francisco, CA (10/2012)
Lavender Graduation Keynote “Continuing Activism”- Florida Atlantic University – Boca Raton, FL (05/2012)


Mattie Brice is an artist and design researcher working with play and games to engage social issues and create new cultural practices. Her approach is interdisciplinary, mixing theoretical research with critical practice with a focus on grassroots activist change. She began her career as a media critic in games journalist publication like Kotaku and Paste speaking to the experiences of marginalized players and creators while introducing alternative narratives of design to contemporary industrial practices. Mattie participated in DIY movements that distributed tools and resources for marginalized people to be able to make games without programming knowledge or formal game design training and began making her own work, the first being Mainichi which toured exhibition spaces internationally. She also organized community events around diversity and games such as the Queerness and Games Conference that focused on bringing together marginalized voices into a community of practice and thought. Currently Mattie teaches design research at NYC universities such as NYU and The New School and is developing play experiences and methodologies for creating interventions for power abuse and discrimination in professional and intimate networks.

Email: mattie.brice@gmail.com

Twitter: @xMattieBrice


Mattie’s background in media, teaching, and social justice advocacy in games exposes her to a unique experience and knowledge set relevant to current concerns of the industry. She can consult and conduct workshops on topics surrounding diversity issues, inclusive design, and narrative. Contact her for pricing! Here’s some of the services she offers:

*Reviewing game material for issues concerning sexism, racism, and other forms of marginalization
*Offering analysis and workshops related to workplace treatment of minority employees
*Editing and feedback in the way of narrative and game design
*Creative writing, copy editing, essays, articles
*Advice on PR and marketing in concern to diversity issues
*Classes and workshops on writing, diversity, and other areas I specialize in

Testimonials soon to come!


I am involved with events and organizing, and other side projects that require managing teams. My most common roles are scheduling, managing teams of diverse talents, and outreach. I focus on projects that are accessible and community orientated, aiming to provide a service that is otherwise non-existent or exclusionary. I’m available to join teams or consult on already existing organizations. More events to announced here as they go live!

re/Action – Editor in Chief
Queerness and Games Conference – Co-Organizer