All posts by Denis Farr

Denis Farr is a white, androgynously gendered, TAB, German-born and U.S.-schooled, male-sexed queer person (with a penchant for other male-sexed queer persons) who started writing about games at Vorpal Bunny Ranch (in other words, he's loquacious). He has continued with this endeavor, expanding his writing to both GayGamer.net and here at The Border House. A strong proponent of expanding diversity in games, his focus is often on how characters are depicted in games, and exploring the language we use to explicate games themselves.

Let’s Discuss: Apologies

Originally posted on Vorpal Bunny Ranch.

Oh no! Suddenly your social media feeds and inbox are full of irate people peppering you with accusations of being insensitive, a bigot, all because you used a sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic/etc. word, image, or phrase. What do you do?! Fret not, I will go through a list of actions you should take and avoid.

DO: Apologize
“I am sorry for <insert thing I did/said/insinuated here>.”

DO NOT: Shift
“I apologize if I hurt or offended you.”

Why?
It may come as a surprise, but people are not always collectively unintelligent. Indicating you are apologizing for offending shifts the blame on the people to whom you are offering the apology: “I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those knee-jerky, want-to-be-offended kids! Ooooo!” Instead, apologize for what you did, which can help the conversation move forward.

Note, the longer this process takes, or the more steps you toss in along the way to an actual apology, the more difficult it will be for some to take the apology seriously.

DO: Understand and listen
The world is a big place. You do not know everything. You will make mistakes. When someone is angry, try and listen to the words they are saying.

DO NOT: Think you understand
Making assumptions about what people are saying, rather than actually listening, can cause problems. If you receive a variety of complaints, take a moment to look into the common underlying themes, try searching the internet for resources, and learn what it is that went wrong.

Why?
Very few of us are perfect. When I was a freshman in college, I said some pretty heinous things to a black friend of mine regarding Egypt and its ancestry. I was just parroting back what I’d learned in school, and only a year or so later did I educate myself enough to learn of the historical significance of discounting Egypt as part of a rich narrative of black accomplishments — a tactic often used to belittle African Americans as ‘obviously’ inferior, as they had no culture that was noteworthy.

I felt like a tool. My friend was incredibly patient, and when I apologized, and explained why, he was glad that I had learned from the experience and that I had taken the initiative to educate myself (largely because he realized sometimes we have to come to something ourselves, and he didn’t want to argue over this — it was not his responsibility).

DO: Show consistent actions
It’s difficult, but once you’ve made one mistake, people will look out for others. If you take what you hopefully learned and make sure to educate anyone else on your team about this, slip-ups may still happen, but you can easily and quickly rectify course on the matter in the future.

DO NOT: Apologize and go do it again and again and again
Drat! We totally just did the same thing again a month later. Oh no, now we’ve happened to do this wrong! It’s a cascade!

Why?
Just because you apologized, someone does not have to accept it. By showing consistent actions, you can help repair any harm done. The focus is not necessarily to make sure everyone likes you, it should be to do no harm. That person who won’t accept the apology may never come back, but you can make sure you do not replicate that instance.

Also, whether unfairly or not, the internet is a place that can dredge up past mistakes. If you’ve been suffering foot-in-mouth disease multiple times over a short period of time, it will be that much easier to bring up past mistakes and transgressions. Remember that bit about learning? Please go look over that again.

Again, we all make mistakes. The question is whether you genuinely apologize and see what you did as wrong, or if you dig in your heels and alienate potential customers, friends, users, or whatever your case may be. While the impetus for this is the numerous game companies I’ve seen this apply to, I believe it is much more general than that.

An image of Mayday, based off Grace Jones's own depiction. A black woman wearing a grey outfit, her arms bare.

Mayday: Or, How I Learned To Love Grace Jones

The N64 box for GoldenEye 007, with Pierce Brosnan front and center, pointing a gun at the viewer.

The N64 box for GoldenEye 007, with Pierce Brosnan front and center, pointing a gun at the viewer.

It took me a while to recognize how I would approach Corvus Elrod’s theme for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table. It’s been fairly rare that a game has not managed to pull me out of some fantasy or imaginative trick with its various inconsistencies. Particularly since games don’t often make use of themes and topics I would find particularly intriguing. So, what game has  given me the ability to “talk about a game experience that allowed you to experience being other than you are and how that impacted you–for better or for worse”? The 1997 release of GoldenEye 007.

I should specify a bit and also state that I never played the campaign missions of the game. Instead, every weekend was spent with my father, brother, and our neighbor Michelle, as we played a mixture of KMFDM, Marilyn Manson, Tool, and Nine Inch Nails while playing the split-screen portion of the GoldenEye 007′s multiplayer. In the character roster itself, I learned quite a bit about myself.

First, I never selected any of what I considered to be the blander options. When I was banned from using Oddjob, I naturally selected the avatar that caught my eye next: Mayday. She was not in the base game itself, being restricted to the multiplayer game as a bonus character. Mayday was an acknowledgment of Grace Jones’s depictions of the character in A View to Kill, and was one of three depictions of non-white characters (Oddjob and Baron Samedi being the other two).

Her difference in visual appearance seemed a disadvantage in ways, as I did stand out among the rest of the roster. As someone who was quite shy and quiet in middle school (self-esteem issues surrounding my gender identity and sexuality were such a drag), it helped jump start the process of my own ability and willingness to stand apart from the crowd, realizing both the strengths and weaknesses of that position (as someone who was choosing to step into such a role). Because the game itself did not treat the topic of Mayday’s race or sex, at first it only helped me understand this from a position of appearing different from the crowd.

An image of Mayday, based off Grace Jones's own depiction. A black woman wearing a grey outfit, her arms bare.

An image of Mayday, based off Grace Jones's own depiction. A black woman wearing a grey outfit, her arms bare.

I had set myself up in the game as someone was was instantly visually identifiable as not necessarily belonging, and stood out against the backgrounds we played (in my own mind, at the very least). However, this was the push I needed to start expressing myself in my own life. This would lead to my strengthening my confidence in ways of understanding what I risked by doing so. As someone who was white (albeit with a slightly non-American accent in a xenophobic environment), I had the benefit of passing and blending into a crowd quite easily from sight alone—something Mayday did not do. My own mannerisms often gave me away, and therefore, rather than allowing my expression of gender to out me, I slowly decided to don a mask that would more immediately give myself away, and to squirrel away my insecurities.

Taking confidence from the strength I sensed in Mayday, a projection I pushed on to the avatar from my own knowledge of Grace Jones’s performance in Conan the Destroyer (I had not seen A View to Kill), I started emulating her attitude, as well as putting on makeup, wearing women’s clothing, and generally having more willingness to be confrontational. The only thing my avatar in those multiplayer sessions was capable of was aggression. While I did not express it to my gaming compatriots, I started seeing myself fighting for my own right of expression, and against tokenism. My fight was not for kills, but to win against what I perceived were the odds.

Particularly because, at the same time, I had a friend who was expelled for what I saw as reasons purely relating to her race (she is black). At this time, playing Mayday became playing in the shoes of my best friend, with whom I lost contact after she was expelled (that is,  until the introduction of social networks such as Facebook) . Here is when I started imagining Mayday’s struggles as those against an institution that would judge me unfairly. Because the fight was against people in the same room as myself, controllers in hand, I imagined them as the antagonists who would only see her skin color and make assumptions about such.

Unlike the media frenzy about the level of aggression caused from games, I was not likely to pick up a gun and attempt to solve my problems with the same tools as my avatar. Instead, I took that aggression, and decided I would make myself visually distinct, in terms of what was expected from me. Later this would also translate into pushing against the status quo, and being confrontational in general. Because I had no connection to the source text, and I was in a multiplayer environment where I projected my own issues and knowledge on to Mayday, I did see her as a pillar of strength and resistance against similar struggles to my friend’s and my own. It taught me that I could seek to blend in my entire life, or take a stand, put on my makeup, and use a measure of snarling or charm depending on the perceived antagonist.

This was an entrant in the Blogs of the Round Table of January 2012, whose theme is:

Games, like most media, have the ability to let us explore what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves. While this experience may only encompass a character’s external circumstances–exploring alien worlds, serving with a military elite, casting spells and swinging broadswords–it’s most powerful when it allow us to identify with a character who is fundamentally different than ourselves–a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion. This official re-launch of the Blogs of the Round Table asks you to talk about a game experience that allowed you to experience being other than you are and how that impacted you–for better or for worse. Conversely, discuss why games haven’t provided this experience for you and why.

Other entries are available here.


Anders, left, cupping Zel Hawke's face with a caption stating, "This is the rule I will most cherish breaking."

Dragon Age 2: Schrödinger’s Sexuality

Anders, left, cupping Zel Hawke's face with a caption stating, "This is the rule I will most cherish breaking."

Anders, left, cupping Zel Hawke's face with a caption stating, "This is the rule I will most cherish breaking."

 

It was March of last year, during the week before the release of Dragon Age 2, and I still recall that slightly feverish late night hanging around BioWare’s forums as rumors that all the love interests from the game would be bisexual. “They’re all bi!” was passed around jubilantly; someone was livestreaming a play of a review copy to show it was possible to flirt with everyone, regardless of the sex of Hawke. While I did not watch the livestream, I was in the impromptu chatroom that people had set up to discuss the issue. I myself have thus far only played the game twice, once romancing Anders as a man; once romancing Fenris as a man. My next two playthroughs will likely follow suit with playing a woman romancing Isabela, and then another who will romance Merrill.

It is fairly rare to have the option to play four different characters and romance four different characters in a game and have them all be same-sex, sure. However, what intrigues me about this game in particular is what it can say about how we react and respond to sexuality. Canonically, I do believe all the characters are bisexual, though it is not difficult to imagine one might not be aware of this.

For someone not paying attention to forums or online discussions of the game, and only basing their knowledge of the characters from the game itself, the only character who immediately appears to be bisexual is Isabela. For anyone playing a male Hawke, it would also become apparent that Anders is bisexual, as his somewhat desperate playboy personality in Awakening is contrasted with his relationship with Karl in the sequel. As David Gaider, a senior writer for the Dragon Age series,  has stated, that relationship happens, whether we see it or not, though a player who has a female Hawke and romances Anders would not necessarily be exposed to it. In that light, she might well assume that Anders is heterosexual exclusively.

Meanwhile, there is Fenris, who has the option to start a romance with Isabela if your Hawke romances neither of them. If a Hawke goes this route, one could assume Fenris is heterosexual, as he is involved in a sexual relationship with a woman. At the same time, during my male Hawke’s romance of Fenris, there was no real indication that I saw that he was interested in women. For that particular Hawke, Fenris was not bisexual (then again, he also sided with the Templars, so he was not at all a character I would use to describe my own personality). While I, in a meta fashion, knew better, this being a game where I enjoy actually inhabiting a role, that Hawke just assumed Fenris was actually gay. It made him view his history as a slave in a slightly different manner, whereas in a meta fashion, his bisexuality made me do the same.

Merrill, a Dalish elf with markings on her face, before the game's final battle. Caption reads, "(Laughs) The Champion of Kirkwall going to battle naked ... why can't I ever have that dream?"

Merrill, a Dalish elf with markings on her face, before the game's final battle. Caption reads, "(Laughs) The Champion of Kirkwall going to battle naked ... why can't I ever have that dream?"

 

I cannot speak to Merrill from a romantic sense in the game as yet, but from what I have discussed with other people, she does not really mention her sexuality outside of a relationship. The only hint we get of such is a line she has during the final battle, where she mentions wishing she could have a dream of Hawke riding into battle naked, regardless of the sex of Hawke. The comment itself does not seem to say much about Merrill other than build upon her sometimes socially awkward character. Therefore, any Hawke entering into a relationship could assume she is exclusively homo- or heterosexual.

This is something that exists to an extent in all media (there is the somewhat recent example of J.K. Rowling outing Dumbledore posthumously and after ending the books), though games that allow romance options have the ability to make this this all the more apparent due to their interactive and quantum narratives. Because the player can make assumptions about the characters based on only what the game’s text presents, I call this Schrödinger’s sexuality. Again, as this has the chance to exist on a spectrum for the character and player, either individually or together, certain states and assumptions about the character may exist dependent on the text to which they are exposed. As yet, I don’t believe we have horribly many examples of such, but depending on how games proceed in the future, this is a possibility that can occur more often.

Now, the characters actually being bisexual regardless of whether or not our Hawkes are privy to this fact does tend to underline that we can often make assumptions about peoples’ sexuality that may well be erroneous. In Dragon Age 2, this has often taken the tone of bigotry against bisexual people themselves, which also includes some peoples’ tendency to assign a certain label until proven to be otherwise (therefore, a person in a same-sex relationship is gay, until proven bi, or vice-versa with a heterosexual relationship). What the game has the chance to do in the metanarrative, then, is to apply a social commentary about people who see it through the lens of Schrödinger’s sexuality, or allow their Hawkes to do so.

As I am of the belief that Dragon Age 2‘s characterization is for the most part well-written, this then allows a further example to be drawn about how we see and assume certain aspects about people in real life. Just as assumptions about gender and pronouns to use are often made on first contact by many (though not all, depending on one’s own privileges and acknowledgment thereof), having a cast that includes at least four bisexual people speaks to society’s own expectations when people start to naysay this in various fashions. When people make the argument that it is unrealistic to have a party where so many people could be bisexual, they are imposing their own world, and in particular worldview on to the game. As someone whose friends include quite a number of people among the queer spectrum, it really is not that difficult to imagine.

Therefore, that Schrödinger’s sexuality can be said to exist in the game for some people says more about the individual, as either a player or Hawke, than it does about the game. This is where authorial intent can become tricky for some, as they are firmly bisexual, regardless of how our Hawkes may interpret their sexuality. After all, if Fenris, Merrill, or Anders (in the case of a female Hawke) never reveal their bisexuality to Hawke, that is their right and decision to make. That does not mean they are exclusively hetero- or homosexual, though.

Anti-anticitizen One

A picture of Eli Vance, an older African American male with gray hair and vandyke. His left leg is a prosthetic, and he wears cargo pants, a Harvard sweatshirt, and a green vest over that.

A picture of Eli Vance, an older African American male with gray hair and vandyke. His left leg is a prosthetic, and he wears cargo pants, a Harvard sweatshirt, and a green vest over that.

Note: Spoilers for the Half-Life series.

A while ago I started a series examining the various premises surrounding Half-Life 2. When I sat down and reflected (and wrote in my own blog, which will be where the following links redirect), I found that there was a lot I liked about the game from both a technical and narrative standpoint. For instance, looking into the situation surrounding Alyx and Eli Vance, I found not just characters who weren’t the default white NPCs, but also people whose backgrounds gave more narrative power to the situations in which they found themselves: Eli’s role as leader of a previously enslaved alien race seemed the more powerful given his age, the only near-future of the game, and his racial background based off the US.

This then made the narrative surrounding the 1984-esque questions of individuality and how we obtain security by giving in to the system all the more poignant. The figureheads of the kyriarchy, the powers we see, are put front and center through Dr. Breen and G-Man, though it leads to further questions of what is really going on and how the power structures remain even if you can get rid of the figurehead of the organization—oppression cannot be rid of by deposing of the face of your oppression. Power does not exist as an absolute, and its tendrils reach far and wide to help subjugate those it requires to rise itself up and gain its privileges.

However, the part that kept befuddling me is the role of Gordon Freeman. I couldn’t access him as a character, which left me feeling cold much of the time, as someone who enjoys inhabiting roles given him, as I would a character on stage. Often framed as an Everyman, his role is left quite bare in a world that has some rather strong personalities, causing a bit of a clash. I don’t mind extemporaneous acting, but it is a bit odd when you are still following a script, and everyone else is stuck to it. I had a problem, that is, until I started reframing how I looked how I approached Freeman.

As many allies who have certain privileges and have yet to examine them, I was once one of those who was in other spaces and had a disproportionate time spent talking rather than listening. As is often stated to allies in spaces where they may be invited expressly or not, please listen, as what we are sharing is our experience—an experience you do not necessarily have.

Freeman is the silent ally. He is no voice for the resistance. He is a figure. He is a hero. His words are his actions, which by extension are how we interact with the world. We speak against the injustice by progressing the plot, shooting the Combine footsoldiers (which does nothing to help the overall deconstruction of the power structures in place—they are nameless, faceless enemies), and helping Alyx, who helps us progress while giving voice to the story.

Gordon does not have the same experiences as the people he helps. He disappeared for a few decades, and his own background does not necessarily mesh with those whom he helps. While he is a champion whose actions help the resistance, his history and thoughts are not what Valve felt necessary to share with us: he is an ally who can help with action to shape the world, but cannot put voice to the oppression in quite the same way.

Alyx Vance holding the gravity gun. She is a woman in hers 20s, and of mixed heritage, her father black, and her mother Asian. She wears jeans, a Black Mesa shirt, and a brown jacket over it.

Alyx Vance holding the gravity gun. She is a woman in hers 20s, and of mixed heritage, her father black, and her mother Asian. She wears jeans, a Black Mesa shirt, and a brown jacket over it.

Outside of the player/Freeman, the most important player on your side would be Alyx Vance. There has been quite a bit of love for her around these parts, as she is a character who is well-acted, well-drawn, and given a role beyond just superwoman or whimpering sexpot. We called her a character done right. It is on Alyx that much of this hinges.

The world itself is difficult to care about in the same way that I do about the characters. While it is based on our own world, the landscapes are foreign enough that they do not evoke any great sense of attachment. The care and emotions put into the relationships among the Resistance group and then their relationship to Dr. Freeman is what stands out.

To be clear, the politics of the time are largely focused on enslaving humanity as a whole, as well as the Vortigaunts, but as I stated previously, the Vances’ own racial background has that much more effect. The setting of the second game is in 202-, leaving us to believe Eli Vance is somewhere between his 50s and 60s. This means he may not have been alive to see the Civil Rights Movement in the US, but it would certainly had an effect on how he was raised. It is never revealed what manner of scientist Vance is exactly, but he is proven as an inventor, and hinted at as a graduate of Harvard. Not impossible tasks given the time frame, but ones that would color his worldview: he is not someone new to facing daunting odds.

Which is why it is significant that the Vortigaunts stress he was the first to contact them and make peace. The first to champion for their cause. Gordon may be the hero of the game we play, but without Eli, he would be the hero of a vastly different world, and while his oppression by these forces would be present as conflict, the larger oppressions taking place give more context as to what is at stake.

What is also worth noting is that while there exist moments of levity and humor with both Alyx and Eli Vance, they are not so much comedic camp as the other members of Black Mesa East such as Dr. Kleiner. These are characters who have a serious mission, can still remain human, and yet trust Gordon for his previous actions. Yet they are still the leaders of their group. It is Eli who often tells Gordon where to go, or what needs be done. Alyx is often aiding him, and helping him in difficult situations, opening doors for him that he cannot himself.

Which is why the sinister overarching plot of G-Man seems all the more tied to the kyriarchy. In many ways, he is using Gordon to achieve his own aims, whatever they might be. It is not even told for whom G-Man is working. While one could surmise it is against the Combine, there is no certainty of that, as there is none that his loyalties may have shifted. What we know of his purposes is vague, beyond controlling Gordon, and setting up the events that led to the Resonance Cascade. He is the figure we see, but the tendrils that control our life and the world of Half-Life 2 remain unseen, and work at subjugating the human race, as it did the Vortigaunts.

Therefore, the story of Half-Life 2 becomes about resistance against an unseen power. While we play more privileged party in that equation, the human voice and compassion we see, the very essence of what we would likely consider the good in humanity, is embodied in the leader and his daughter: Eli and Alyx. As Gordon Freeman, we the player fight their battle for a world they wish and believe in, and one which we, by the way we enter the story, can easily take for granted as we do not fully understand their experiences or what is at stake until we see and hear their story. We listen, we stay silent, and we help them achieve their goal.

Gordon Freeman, a man in his late 20s, wearing glasses, and sporting a short haircut with a vandyke.

Gordon Freeman, a man in his late 20s, wearing glasses, and sporting a short haircut with a vandyke.

As can often be the case in terms of allies, it is Gordon who receives the lion’s share of the recognition, however. As a tale of resisting kyriarchy, Half-Life 2 gives us a look into how allies are perceived as more of a threat and given more accolades than those fighting the daily struggle, as they are seen to be setting an example for other privileged people. Which is not to say that I believe this was Valve’s intent necessarily. While Freeman is still not a protagonist who greatly breaks the mold of straight white male protagonist who is bland and boring (something rarely afforded a character who is none of these), he can set an example for ally who learns that he can help while not always having to interject his own opinion.

Gender Wars and Gendered Slurs

TW: Gendered slurs.

Please note, I have not played Dead Island, and have no immediate plans to do such. From what I have heard, there is much to be discussed in the game as regards stereotypes surrounding the playable characters, but I cannot speak to that, and this post will not delve into that beyond a specific instance outlined below.

This morning I came across a RTed message from the account of @deadendthrills, which stated the following (as with many forums, the comments may be best avoided):

“Rush-releasing an unfinished game can have unexpected hazards – like leaving the ‘Feminist Whore’ skill in. http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=2106493 #deadisland

Purna, a seeming woman of color, in a purple dress which comes across her thighs diagonally. She wears combat boots, wields a machete in her right hand, and rests her left hand on her hip. The text is the bio quoted to the left.

Purna, a seeming woman of color, in a purple dress which comes across her thighs diagonally. She wears combat boots, wields a machete in her right hand, and rests her left hand on her hip. The text is the bio quoted to the left.

Prior to this morning I only knew there were skill trees in the game and that they were divided by which character you chose to play. The particular character in question is Purna, who appears to be an Australian WOC with the following descriptor in the Dead Island Wiki:

Purna is a former officer of the Sydney Police department. After losing her career when she killed a child molester who could not be touched legally because of his wealth and connections, Purna then turned to working as a bodyguard for VIPs in dangerous places all over the world. She is hired not just for her skills but her looks as wealthy men did not mind showing up with Purna on their arm.

She is painted as an avenger, though the VIPs for whom she works are clearly men. The skill in the Tweet above that started the thread was part of code not removed fully, though never utilized publically in the game itself: feminist whore. As the string in the thread illustrates (and as the poster indicates, the * is provided because of the forum’s method of dealing with the word, it is fully spelled out otherwise):

sub Skills_Purna(){
	Skill("TeamSpirit1Purna");
	Skill("SharpApprenticePurna");
[...]
	Skill("TeamSpirit2Purna");
	Skill("FeministWh*rePurna");
	Skill("MeleeDurabilityPurna");
[...]
}

As to what the skill became (if it was not just wholly removed)? The most likely candidate to me would be ‘Gender Wars’. Looking through this guide on Dead Island skill trees, the ‘Gender Wars’ skill appears to grant the following:

Gender Wars (3 ranks) - Increases damage when killing a zombie of the opposite sex
Rank 1 = +5% damage | Rank 2 = +10% damage | Rank 3 = +15% damage”

The concept is not entirely new, and has been seen in other games. From what I could see, unlike other games in which I have seen such, the same manner of survival skill is not available to male characters (if it is, please let me know). I will also note there are two female characters, both WOC, though the other does not have a specific skill as such.

Again, the code and skill are not in the game. So far as I know, Purna does not go about invoking a feminist whore skill specifically named such. At the same time, it is puzzling why this would have been included in the first place, and may well say something about how Purna is perceived.

I also do not know the makeup of Techland’s development team, so cannot speak to it. However, when we discuss hostile environments for women in the workplace (for the instance of this blog, particularly the tech and videogame-related fields), these types of instances are a reminder of how not to make some women feel particularly welcome. Again, I cannot speak as to whether anyone on Techland’s team felt such, but surely someone saw this at some point and decided it may be best not to include it in a public release of the game itself.

Update (18:21 GMT+1): Tracey John reached out to Deep Silver, the publisher for the game, who gave the following response, “”These unfortunate actions were of one individual at developer company Techland and do not in any way represent the views of publishing company Deep Silver.” She is also following up with Techland themselves.

Update (19:03 GMT+1): Techland has responded to EuroGamer, providing the following apology:

“It obviously violates professional and ethical standards at Techland and should never have happened,” Blazej Krakowiak, international brand manager, told Eurogamer. “We’re investigating this right now and we’ll issue a statement later.

“For now, I can only express my sincerest apologies for this incident and assure you that whoever acted so irresponsibly did not represent the views and opinions of Techland.

“I’m equally sure that aside from the author of that unfortunate line of code, everyone at the office is as disturbed by this as you are.”

Update (20:45 GMT+1): Tracy John received the following apology and acknowledgment from Techland (which was updated into her original post):

“It has come to our attention that one of Dead Island’s leftover debug files contains a highly inappropriate internal script name of one of the character skills. This has been inexcusably overlooked and released with the game. The line in question was something a programmer considered a private joke. The skill naturaly [sic] has a completely different in-game name and the script reference was also changed. What is left is a part of an obscure debug function. This is merely an explanation but by no means an excuse. In the end that code was made a part of the product and signed with our company name.

“We deeply regret that fact and we apologize to all our customers or anyone who might have been offended by that inappropriate expression. The person responsible for this unfortunate situation will face professional consequences for violating the professional standards and beliefs Techland stands for.”

To be honest, I am somewhat surprised by the quick response and acknowledging that what they have done is provide an explanation, not an excuse.

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

The Politics of Game Hair

N.B. Many thanks to Latoya Peterson for allowing me to ask her a few questions, and my friend Janathan for reading and giving me feedback. I do not claim to have these experiences, but it is something I rarely see addressed.

The choices for game hair often are often disappointing. The physics for realistic hair are not quite there, meaning longer hair is rarely seen. However, as a white male with the accompanying privileges that can afford me in terms of being represented in games, it took me a while to realize just how bad the hair options are. It first started around 2000, when I began making my little Sims and basing them on real life friends—it was then that I realized, try that I might, I could not model my black friends effectively, because many of them liked to wear their hair naturally

Ever since that time I have kept an eye on the characters I am able to design in my games. From the original Sims to White Knight Chronicles to both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series (and many more besides—MMOs for instance), I have noticed that if I want to create a black character model, I am typically given at maximum four options, if that, when choosing hair options that are not treated in some fashion: cornrows, locks, mini-fros, or going the shaved route. Even more curious is that sometimes this is even further divided between selecting to play as a man or a woman; when playing Dragon Age 2, I noticed that my male Hawke had more options than my female Hawke, oddly enough (or, as is the case with Mass Effect 2’s editor, I found myself unable to emulate Jacob’s features very well). For Ronia Shepard, for instance, I found the options to shear off all her hair, or go with the pulled back ponytail look featured below (which still isn’t perfect, but alas).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

When presenting this topic to some people, there are typically two responses. Either, as I mentioned above, all hair options are horrible, so this should be seen as either a boon (this is said with a laugh, so as to make sure I understand it as a joke) or we should work on improving hair overall. The second is rarer, but also comes from a place of privilege, asking if black people really want these options? After all, the assumption goes, how many black people play these particular games anyway? And given that the assumed number is so infinitesimally small, wouldn’t that just be a waste of resources?

Of course, games are not alone in this lack of representation. In almost any media, when we do see a black man or woman who is supposed to be taken by us as attractive, there are certain standards regarding lightness of skin, acceptable facial features, and how their hair is presented to us—Eurocentric standards. The ideal is to have flattened, straightened hair for women, and short, closely cropped hair for men. This does not mean I want to excuse games, but want to point out how games are performing the same-old, which is a shame when we have games that propose that we get to create and make ourselves, to immerse ourselves in their worlds, or to inhabit some fantasy character.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

In my first example, with The Sims, the problem was further highlighted by the fact that the game had a thriving mod community. Hair options abounded, as many were not satisfied with the original stock of hair options. Try as I might, I found myself frustrated on two fronts: rarely was black hair considered, and, back in the days of the first Sims, clothing was split into three skin color categories (white, a yellow/light brown, and a light-toned black), and quite often, white was the only option for particular sets of clothing within the modding community. With the release of Sims 2, we did not seen a return to the clothing divided by skin color, though natural hair options have still been somewhat lacking in the default selection as the series progresses.

Which only highlights the related problem of the lack of diversity in the industry, and further, those voices being heard in directing a project, or coming up with its assets. It is still common that even basic skin color never goes darker than light-brown, and that the skin tones are abysmal in certain lighting conditions. It starts to seem as if it is an afterthought. Since many white people I know are still relatively ignorant in terms of natural hair,  or how the media quietly silences all but the ‘acceptable’ black beauty, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see how this occurs. Plainly: ignorance.

Games seemingly brag more and more often about their character creators, and how they have better options, allow more customization, and give the player the chance to really play themselves, or whomsoever they may choose. Myself? Yeah, I can play my pasty white-skinned self to my heart’s content, but I do not play games to always play myself, and I am one of those people aware of the self-loathing encouraged by media (both subtly and overtly) and the battles people can have about the politics of their hair in public (note: aware, not experienced). I want to play from different perspectives, even if the game does not wholly acknowledge my choices of created character.

There is a question of the social responsibility of games, and if we are to believe they have the same social responsibility as any media, we need more diversity in a number of ways, including self-representation for minorities (and theoretically for those who don’t want to play themselves all the time—much as with same-sex romance, it is folly to believe that only those who are queer would play such). The media’s black beauty standards should ideally have no role in games, though they are present. If we are to continue to open up character creators, however, we need to also allow a larger range of options, where natural hair does not get boiled down to what white society considers ‘acceptable’ and ‘politically safe.’

Inclusivity Review: Dragon Age 2

If you have any interest in BioWare’s Dragon Age 2 (and I realize many don’t, after many missteps by both BioWare and EA in this franchise and others), you’ve likely heard the bad by now: entire levels are used over and over to an annoying degree, combat has changed (which will bring people down on either side of the issue–I enjoyed the changes), etc. This review is more in the line of NonCon’s review of Radiant Historia, then, covering aspects other reviews will miss or gloss over in an attempt to only discuss gameplay.

Originally I was going to write this with a frame review in mind, checking my own privilege and examining the game in such a way. As I played the game, that approach started becoming too unwieldy to attempt, however. This review will include spoilers.

Flemeth, right, looks at Zel Hawke. The former is an elderly white woman whose hair is up in horns, and is wearing a studded leather chestpiece that inexplicably has a v-cut to show cleavage. Zel Hawke is a white man in his twenties, wearing a sleeveless, leather chest piece, and has auburn hair with a wind-blown look; tattoo markings are on his cheeks.

Flemeth, right, looks at Zel Hawke. The former is an elderly white woman whose hair is up in horns, and is wearing a studded leather chestpiece that inexplicably has a v-cut to show cleavage. Zel Hawke is a white man in his twenties, wearing a sleeveless, leather chest piece, and has auburn hair with a wind-blown look; tattoo markings are on his cheeks.

To start, I will claim I enjoyed Dragon Age 2, but that does not mean I ignored the areas in which it has problems. There were also moments that made me incredibly happy (such as realizing all the four main love interests were available regardless of the sex I chose to play–a point I’ll address again later). Most of these issues are not ones I will cover in much depth, as they likely need their own posts; I did want to make people aware of them, however.

Trigger warnings for: poor handling of issues with regards to mental disabilities (including violence by and exercised against such people), monosexism as exhibited by players, and oppression of entire peoples; the discussion will also cover sexuality and race.

Ronia Hawke, a black woman with her hair pulled back, stands right as she speak to her sister, Bethany, and brother, Carver. Both have her skin tone, and hair color.

Ronia Hawke, a black woman with her hair pulled back, stands right, her back to us, as she speaks to her sister, Bethany, and brother, Carver. Both have her skin tone, and hair color. The text reads, "Then let's go. Lead on."

Race

Allegra covered the whitewashing of the Champion of Kirkwall already. It remains in game, not just the demo. I can confirm that family members, including the uncle, change when you create a non-white Hawke. The reason the two siblings have black hair, for instance, is to allow for such diversity. The matter is not one of just swapping their skin color, but also changing their faces and hairstyles. I tried this two times, with a black Lady Hawke, and a Latin male Hawke. The results can be seen in some of the screenshots both above and below this paragraph.

Redgren Hawke, a dark-complexioned man with leather armor and white hair and vandyke facial hair. His brother stands to the right, with hair that is black and faintly dread-like. His mother, whose white hair is meant to indicate her age, covers her hands. Bethany stands left, with a black-haired pixie cut.

Redgren Hawke, a dark-complexioned man with leather armor and white hair and vandyke facial hair. His brother stands to the right, with hair that is black and faintly dread-like. His mother, whose white hair is meant to indicate her age, covers her hands. Bethany stands left, with a black-haired pixie cut.

The character creator itself is slightly better than in Origins. It is no longer the case that darker toned characters just look like tanned white people. The options are still not as robust as I would like, so it’s a step forward, but needs more work. The hair options are indicative of gaming as a whole (more directly, they’re weak), which deserves a post on its own. The specific facial features are also limiting (specifically in my mind are the options for eyes).

Kirkwall has people that are not white. The darker skin tones are actually used more often than they were in Origins, though rarely is the darkest used, from what I saw. The people are predominantly white, but as a city that is supposed to also be a accessible via sea, it has some more diversity than Fereldan and Denerim did. In the case of one of your companions, Isabela, it is difficult to say. She is darker in skin tone than most of your other companions, and her treatment by marketing is somewhat worrisome.

Isabela hails from Rivain, which, from talks with her, seems to reference the culture of the Sinti and/or Romani (the game doesn’t go into much detail, so it’s difficult to ascertain). This is the impression I received from both her character design and the references to a darker-skinned people who believed in seers (or hedge witches), which is a cultural stereotype of those two cultures–particularly in fantasy. In the first game, her model appears lighter skinned than in the sequel, but both the lighting in The Pearl, as well as the inaccurate skin tones of that character creator make it hard to clearly distinguish the intent behind her character.

Isabela was used in marketing the game. Both Bitch Magazine and Glamgeekgirl have handled the issue of her ads. In the former, we realize that while she is darker skinned in the game, the marketing lightens her skin considerably. Tied with Glamgirlgeek’s pointing out of the sexist German ad that uses her as an object to sell the game, it becomes increasingly obvious that her skin was lightened so that she would be ‘sexier’ to some notion of a  ’target audience.’ This is not new in advertising, sadly, but it is disappointing that instead of focusing on advertising diversity, they downplayed that in both reducing Isabela’s character to a sex toy rather than as a sexually-assertive and confident woman and whitewashing her for ads.

Zel Hawke in a furred, spiky armor set look down at Anders, a white male mage with blond hair. Anders looks off right.

Zel Hawke in a furred, spiky armor set look down at Anders, a white male mage with blond hair. Anders looks off right.

Sexuality

There are four romance options in the base game, and The Exiled Prince DLC offers one more, albeit a chaste romance. Excepting the DLC character Sebastian, all romance options are open to either a male or female Hawke.

I have only experienced one romance as yet, that with Anders, the Grey Warden mage, as a male Hawke and it pleased me. He references a previous same-sex relationship, and while approaching him with flirting in mind, he will stop you and ask if it bothers you that he’s been in a previous relationship as such. This serves as a buffer to any who might complain they ‘accidentally’ fell into a relationship with him, as well as providing context for his character. Anders appeared in the expansion for Origins, and many have argued he never showed an interest in men in the previous game (as if that is in indication of one’s interests).

The fan reaction has been mixed. I have seen people of all sexualities claim this is ‘unrealistic.’ There is the claim that it is ‘lazy,’ but as BioWare has clearly stated, they will not have a same-sex only option. For someone who does call himself gay, this was a compromise I was willing to accept, as it opened up the majority of the the romances to everyone. Much of the debate has derailed into monosexist trains of thought, claiming that it’s impossible for that many people who happen to travel together to be bisexual, or at least open to such. Personally, I do not find it so odd at all, especially as this ignores that both Aveline and Sebastian are clearly shown as heterosexual.

In the case of two of the characters, Merrill and Fenris, their sexualities seem to not be as clear-cut. Anders and Isabela both have clear histories that indicate they are bisexual, but the two elves don’t discuss their past romances or sex lives much at all. Therefore, their sexuality is a bit more subjective in how you play and interpret it. I do not wish to indicate this erases them as bisexual characters, but that this aspect of their lives is not as clearly indicated within the context of a single playthrough of the game.

There is a brothel again this time, and the options do not include the same trans* issues the first game had. There is a range of options, with effeminate men, women who are assertive, women who are bored, men who are gruff, and such. Some of these fall into the stereotypes of the butch male dwarf and effete male elf.

Author’s Edit: Something that occurred to me after this published. I was disappointed when I discovered that stripping my male Hawke of his armor merely placed him in pin-striped pants without a top. Doing the same with Lady Hawke put her in panties and a bra. While much guffawing was done over the awkwardness of the undergarments in Origins, this approach to it seemed a slap in the face.

An image of Kirkwall, black in the distance, with yellow and orange figures grasping their face, clearly in despair. This is during a discussion of the history of slavery in Kirkwall.

An image of Kirkwall, black in the distance, with yellow and orange figures grasping their face, clearly in despair. This is during a discussion of the history of slavery in Kirkwall.

Oppression & Xenophobia

As in Origins, there is slavery, there is the oppression of the elves who live in the ghettos known as the Alienage, the subjugation of mages, and a mixture of xenophobia mixed with intolerance of other religions as exhibited toward the Qunari. These all exist in varying degrees, and the first thing I noticed were the discussions Anders and Fenris had regarding how the oppression of mages was similar to how elves were treated: both stem from the Andrastian religion. It seems to broach intersectionality and fighting against a dominant culture, while showing how minorities can be ignorant of how divisive such a culture can be, further empowering oppression.

Fenris’s own story is that of a former slave whose tattoos were seared into his flesh with lyrium by his former master. His story line does a lot to confront his own feelings, which have placed an understandable hatred for his Danarius, the Tevinter mage who owned and mutilated him. Hawke has the ability to guide him through a process where he forges a new life and/or to directly confront the injustices done to him. Of course, in this game, confrontation means killing Danarius.

The city of Kirkwall has a history of slavery, and while that is addressed in the codices, it seems to only serve as a backdrop in which one can comment on it, or notice how the refugees from Fereldan are treated with disdain. Hawke has a few options to help her fellow refugees when she improves her own status, but it’s not really seen in any measurable effect (in my playthrough of the game so far). In fact, convincing miners to continue going back to a mine so that you can eventually fight the high dragon that will be there results in them all being slaughtered.

The Alienage is not as well explored as in Origins, though issues of interracial relationships are broached a bit more, albeit through one side quest where the question of where a person of mixed races can find acceptance. When elves and humans mate, the child always ends up as human. That oppression is not really addressed,  instead the game focuses on the subjugation of mages (which reads to me as a parallel to the criminalization of  homosexuality in various cultures and decades, but I have a whole post in mind about that as well).

The option does exist to completely eradicate Merrill’s entire Dalish village, which somewhat bothered me, but the quest in which it takes place is complicated with the aforementioned issue of intersectionality, and an ignorance or distrust of certain means (in this case, blood magic, which does not have to equate with being evil, though it does seem that way quite often). The other option is to accept responsibility for Merrill’s actions, and thus be banned from visiting her clan again. The situation requires a more thorough examination than I can provide as of now.

The Qunari’s design has changed so that they are now horned and have a more light-purple/chalky hue to their skin. As they were the only race in Origins who seemed to be non-white by default, this has been a concern of mine for a while. They seem loosely based on the old Ottoman Empire, especially in both their cultural and religious clashes with the rest of Andrastian Thedas (which reads as Christianity). Qunari society is clearly sexist, they devalue individualism (their names are merely their station in life, such as Sten), and they believe in honor given through roles and fulfillment of such.

The second act of the game is dealing with the political tensions of their continued stay in Kirkwall. This can eventually result in one of four ways of dealing with the tension. If Isabela returns the book she stole from them (which she may not do, as she may run off with it), you can either give her up to them and let them leave with her as their prisoner (you later find out she escapes anyway), or fight them for Isabela’s honor. Isabela scoffs at this and demands fighting for her own honor, which the Arishok, the Qunari leader, says is unacceptable, as she is not seen as worthy. If the book is not returned, one has to either duel the Arishok one on one, in accordance to his view of honor, or bring in your entire party to fight.

The entire situation could clearly use a lot more explication and exploration for someone better versed in the such cultural conflicts, especially as it covers both religious and cultural issues. I feel it should be noted the Qunari are constantly portrayed as more technologically advanced than the rest of Thedas, but more adamant about their opposition to magic. A mixed bag from my, admittedly limited, standpoint.

The title screen for Dragon Age 2. Orsino, the elven First Enchanter mage stands left with a staff which sports three dragon heads. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the Templars, stands right, with her sword drawn, and a shield in her left hand.

The title screen for Dragon Age 2, which uses a painting/carving aesthetic. Orsino, the elven First Enchanter mage stands left with a staff which sports three dragon heads. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the Templars, stands right, with her sword drawn, and a shield in her left hand.

Mental Disabilities

The game has a number of persons who are violently insane. Outside of Sandal, who returns from Origins, I did not really find any other instances of people with mental health issues portrayed in anything that could be considered a positive light (and Sandal is up for debate–I cannot speak to it closely).

At one point Hawke is asked to apprehend a criminal hiding in the outskirts of Kirkwall. Going there will reveal the criminal is a man who is a serial killer of elven girls. Talking to him reveals a man who hears voices, considered them demons, was told they were not by mages, and refuses to believe he is anything but plagued by demons (which should sound familiar in our own ways of communicating about issues concerning sanity). The way to deal with him is to either kill him (he begs to be killed) or return him to the authorities. There is no option for actually helping him, beyond hiding him away so his politically engaged father can continue his career, or outright killing him. His begging to be killed speaks to larger issues of our society not willing to  make room that allows many other options.

Toward the end of the second act, Hawke’s mother is abducted by a serial killer whom the player has been tracking since the first act. He has been recreating his wife, and animated her using blood magic. Hawke’s mother has the face of the man’s deceased wife. Again, the only way to deal with him is to kill him.

Again, during the same act, Varric has a personal quest that involves finding his brother, who abandoned Varric and Hawke to die in the Deep Roads. He has gone violently crazy as well, though his is the result of an item he picked up in the Deep Roads. Quite honestly, the ‘item of power makes person lose sanity’ trope is tired and as it usually results in violence from both the person who has the item, as well as to stop the violence, it is really growing problematic.

The same item is then given to Meredith, the game’s end antagonist. Her reasoning for ending up as the antagonist is perfectly reasonable in the game’s plot–as a Templar of the Chantry, she wishes to provide security at the cost of mages’ freedom. Instead of continuing that thread, she has bought the item that Varric’s brother had, forged it into a sword, and she is actually insane, which is apparently what informs her decisions. It is a Chekov’s gun that never needed to be in place, and it casts her in a final villainous light not because of her actions (which, again, could be done without resorting to her having to be insane), but because of the supposed illness that has now affected her. It was a poorly implemented plot decision that undercut both the story, as well as being ignorant toward actual issues with mental disabilities.

End

These are just the issues I have seen in my first playthrough, which lasted fifty-eight hours. Naturally, I could have missed some issues due to not seeing them, as well as being ignorant due to my own privileges. Therefore, I’d like to ask of others to speak up about other issues they have seen handled positively, negatively, or perhaps in an ambivalent manner.

Life Flashes By: A Conversation

One of our staff writers released a game last November. Considering it is a game that features a middle-aged woman as the protagonist, it seems odd that we never actually, you know, provided our readers here with a link. What game would that be? Life Flashes By by Deirdra Kiai.

Charlotte, a middle-aged white woman with short blonde hair, standing next to Trevin, a purple-haired flying male pixie-faery-person.

Charlotte, a middle-aged white woman with short blonde hair, standing next to Trevin, a purple-haired flying male pixie-faery-person.

The game’s premise is one that is familiar to us as consumers of story, but probably less so as people who game: slice of life stories told in a retrospective manner. Charlotte wakes up to find herself in a strange forest, finds out she’s been in a serious car accident, and with the guide of Trevin, a flying man-pixie-faery person, is guided along to explore significant moments in her life, alongside alternate selves that would result from a different decision being made during those scenes. It’s a far cry from the usual amnesic protagonist we see in games.

Deirdra has an interest in seeing her game played by more people, and since we at the Border House like to highlight games that feature non-sexualized, diverse women in lead roles, I asked Deirdra if she wanted to both promote the game and engage in a conversation with me. She agreed. You’ll find the conversation behind that little cut, but it is spoiler-laden, so I would recommend playing the game first, which can be found here (available for PC, Mac, and as an .slg file).

 

The format results from starting three threads, and then Deirdra and I e-mailing each other back and forth, expanding on thoughts in each thread. The topics start off specific, but also reach into general thoughts on creation, games, and communities.

Charlotte and Trevin watching a scene with a younger Charlotte speaking to her boss, an older woman sitting behind a desk. The office is cluttered with globes.

Charlotte and Trevin watching a scene with a younger Charlotte speaking to her boss, an older woman sitting behind a desk. The office is cluttered with globes.

First Thread

Denis: I recall early on your mentioning that some people were surprised by Charlotte not being incredibly likable. When playing the game, I found myself not liking her, per se, but still felt empathy for her. Particularly as she wasn’t a consumable, market-produced female for an audience. When did her general personality start taking shaper, and how did you decide on how it would shift in her various alternate paths?

Deirdra Kiai: It was always in my head that Charlotte had to be a person who feels real, with a complex personality that includes both positive and negative characteristics. Honestly, it’s such an obvious thing to me that I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. I mean, I see a lot of well-meaning male creators in various media who aim for what we call Strong Female Characters, and while that’s way better than using women as decorative set pieces or not having any women around at all, I keep feeling like there’s too much idealizing going on at least in comparison to the variety we have in sympathetic male protagonists. It’s been my personal experience that I can relate better to a socially awkward nebbish protagonist like Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island games than I can to, say, April Ryan from The Longest Journey — and I say this knowing that April’s still one of the best Strong Female Characters we’ve got in gaming. Something’s got to give.

So, Charlotte emerged with this strong reactionary stance in the back of mind, but I wanted to write about her, simply because I found her interesting. Our culture devalues middle-aged women far too much, which is a shame, because I look to a number of older women for wisdom and sheer biting wit. And with this, I figured she’d possess a mix of outward self-assuredness and inward self-consciousness stemming from awareness of failing to be what society expects of a woman — something I already feel all too well in my mid-twenties. The same, I think, goes for all the alternate Charlottes you meet in the course of the game. It’s just the outward means of self-expression that change, really. The way I personally see the alternate paths is that none of them are really better or worse; they’re just different. And, as you dig a little bit further, you’ll find that none of them are really THAT different after all.

I indeed selected the option of telling Trevin that I saw their lives as no better or worse when it came up at the end. Looking back, I was particularly thrilled at going back to her high school, for instance. I’m not quite middle-aged, but I’ve had many of the same thoughts she was having regarding nostalgia and how the entirety of high school was just… daft (are there people who haven’t?). It was curious how as time progressed, she seemed to be more critical of a particular self (or so it appeared to me), and aware of her own inhibitions that were holding her back. It’s as if her own standards for herself kept being raised.

In fact, it’s rare that we even get games that are merely slice of life dramas, to use a phrase. Particularly since this is a bunch of those little slices. Instead of asking for a changed person though, what we get is a woman who is telling a story at even this junction of her life.

DK: Indeed. I was inspired to do smaller slice of life pieces prior to this one after being exposed to a few interactive fiction games I’ve played in that genre — Photopia, Best of Three, and Rameses are excellent examples of what I’m thinking about, here — and the next logical step was to do several of those pieces all in one, telling a greater overarching story about one person’s life and how it evolves over time. And Charlotte’s story, as I like to say, isn’t even over yet. I don’t mean this in the sense that I’m planning a sequel (in fact, the only sequels I’ll be writing to this story will be of the spiritual variety) so much as it’s left open-ended because this is a story about me (in a highly metaphorical sense, mind you; this isn’t self-insertion fan fiction) and MY life is far from over, and still full of a great deal of uncertainty.

So, in a huge way, the continuation of the story comes from what people take out of it, and how what they’ve just played will affect them going forward. Not to mention the conversations about the game I hope to see more people having as more people play it. This, in turn, will affect who I become in the not-so-distant future, and consequently inform the creation of future games of mine. I’ve always been big on the idea of games being a means of communication between the player and the designer. Some people take this to mean “create a sandbox”, which is totally a valid approach, but I also think it’s valuable to do something that’s deeply personal and author-driven but still understand that this kind of communication exists and is important.

I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but part of what thrills me about games now, that didn’t even occur to me back in the day, is a new process of telling a story. Arguably, we could call what you’ve created very akin to IF, and yet, there’s that hint of something more. Even traversing Charlotte’s memories in any order we choose? While it seems superficial, it all depends on how we discover a person, doesn’t it? Part of what I don’t understand is the thought that we have blank slate characters, which I just can’t ever see being fully achieved–the system itself creates our characters, much as I believe the world’s system shape our own beliefs. Whether we are in tandem or opposition with those systems informs us, as well. The fact that you decided not to force my discovery of Charlotte down a strictly linear format in terms of time, though it might be suggested, seems to hint at such.

DK: That’s exactly why I never really understood the game design philosophy in which one puts as little “character” in a player character as possible so that players can have an easier time projecting themselves into said character. And that’s a valid stance to have in, say, MMOs, where the players actually shape the system itself; however, in single player games, what you really wind up getting is a character who represents either the game designers or whatever marketing believes the largest demographic for the game in question is going to be. There are so many unchecked assumptions in play that it’s a lot harder for someone like me to consider the character a proper representation of myself.

So, as you can imagine, I’m a lot more interested in the idea of a game showing you what it’s like to be someone else, someone who’s probably not like you at all. And to do that, you actually need to go through the work of creating a compelling character, just like you would in any other storytelling medium. But you can’t just leave it at that, or all you’re making is a movie. You have to decide what kinds of gameplay interactions are possible based on things your character would or would not do.

As for the non-linear exploration, that was something I’d had in my mind near the beginning. I’d flirted with the idea of releasing each vignette alone in an episodic format, but then decided I wanted more freedom of movement, to take better advantage of what interactive media has to offer. And I enjoy the idea of working in a medium where you don’t have to tightly control what we’re supposed to feel at each stage of the story. For instance, I like the idea that someone’s first impression of Aaron could change depending whether they first see him in the cute meeting scene or in the breakup scene. Or that people could interpret any part of Charlotte and Trevin’s conversation as either actual argument or sarcastic banter. Things like that fascinate me.

Charlotte and Trevin standing in front of a house party. Two party-goers stand right, smoking--one is an older man, and the other is a woman with red hair (age difficult to discern).

Charlotte and Trevin standing in front of a house party. Two party-goers stand right, smoking--one is an older man, and the other is a woman with red hair (age difficult to discern).

Second Thread

On your blog, you’ve mentioned isolation and exploring feelings of such in your games. This game certainly has it, but often in a questioning manner: during certain creative processes, are we more prone to be shut-off, for instance. It’s certainly a feeling I think many people who become aware of the larger world around them, and how they stick out from mainstream discussions of topics. Yet, as Charlotte learns to break from mainstream expectations from her, largely with age and experience, she does become more isolated in a sense.

DK: This is true. I think as people age and gain more experience living in the world, some mellow out and become more tolerant and accepting of others around them, whereas others go the opposite way and grow sharper and harsher. Charlotte is definitely of the latter category, and it’s a scenario that scares me, because I WANT to live a more open and less lonely life as I get older, but I keep finding myself pulled in the other direction in response to the injustice and oppression I see going on everywhere, and the so-called mainstream’s refusal to do anything constructive about it. The thing that draws me away from complete cynicism and misanthropy — something, I note, that Charlotte lacks — is a sense of community in which those of us of various marginalised groups can come together and make each other aware that we’re not alone in this. I’ve always loved Shakesville’s analogy of trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon; it’s futile if you’re doing it alone, so any reasonable person would just shrug and give up, but if you’ve got a critical mass of people shovelling their teaspoons right there with you, everything feels so much more hopeful.

It does seem as if Charlotte is set up as isolated from the very first. What resonated with me in particular is moving to a completely different country and having your accent being a point for people to ridicule (I was about child Charlotte’s age when that first happened, actually). From the start, it seems she’s set up to isolate herself, and her primary passion, writing (and reading), is one that keeps being mentioned as waning in culture as a whole. On top of being intelligent, she’s female, which obviously even sets her against her first rival in maths–his being picked on, follows him picking on her, which causes her to leave maths behind entirely.Perhaps somewhat more foreshadowing of what this would mean is the high school era (it all comes back to adolescence, doesn’t it?), where she can’t bring herself to just go away with her friend, and then reflects that they never really had anything in common except bucking the normal trends. Which is oddly at ends with her telling her father she just wants to be normal; she gives up a field of study for it, but finds she’s not accepted even when she pursues what’s considered more friendly to women’s interests.

Which always begs the question of when you find that community. It seems like in Charlotte’s mind, as she’s never had it in either a large family or her social circle, she wouldn’t be able to conceive of so many people working together at such a monumental task.

DK: That’s very true, and I think another element at play here is the privilege Charlotte DOES possess in the society in which she lives. For instance, as a white woman, she’s never had to go through some of the things I’ve experienced as a woman of colour. And it kind of echoes a lot of a sentiment I see from similarly privileged people I see entering anti-oppression spaces and being like “I’m straight, white, cis, and middle class; I don’t know anything about oppression!” and instead of doing the understandably difficult work of examining that privilege when it gets called out, they find themselves feeling alienated and pushed away by what’s perceived as hostility.

The solution to that, I want to say, is to just get over yourself, which is what I’m sure a lot of people want to yell to Charlotte sometimes, myself included. But it’s a long, hard process to figure out that it’s not all about you, and that’s something even I have trouble with a lot of the time. I still struggle with feeling like an outsider, even knowing of the importance of community. The things I know from an intellectual standpoint often seem far ahead of what my emotions understand, and I’m not surprised in the least to see that come out in the art I create.

I couldn’t help but wonder about Aaron in that regard. He almost seemed a polar opposite end of the spectrum from Charlotte, even if under that umbrella of creative artist. He also seemed to be a POC (to be honest, I couldn’t at first tell if perhaps he was just slightly more tanned than Charlotte, but the daughter also sharing his skin tone seemed to argue against that–a habit probably culled from cynicism in games), and their ability to communicate was so fundamentally flawed. If anything, it seemed he was a consoling entity that was able to sneak under her normally rigid exterior when her father died–which was further highlighted because she wrote a book about a gnome that came to symbolize both of those men.  After all, Charlotte’s work, from the bits we get, are influenced by the world around her–the very same world in which her privilege allows her to escape a lot of it. What struck me was her ability to recognize some of it, such as her friend in high school coming from a wealthy family, but then losing that ability to scrutinize anything beyond just herself. Her ‘last’ alternate reality, for instance, is having writer’s block from not going on a blind date–a seemingly dull event where she just droned on in a bored manner with a man to whom she had no attraction or connection.

DK: The awkward dinner date seemed pretty pointless in the grand scheme of things, yes, but at the same time, she had to take that chance of putting herself out there to know that for sure. And the alternate reality there was trying to show what might have happened if she’d mentally blocked herself from the outside world TOO much, taking that kind of extreme reclusiveness to its logical condition. If you finally give up completely and shut yourself away so you don’t have to deal with people you hate anymore, then there’s nothing more to really write about, is there? (Well, except yourself, of course, but unless you possess a certain amount of narcissism — which Charlotte doesn’t, aware as she is of her flaws — you get sick of yourself pretty quickly.)

Charlotte and Trevin watch a similarly aged version of Charlotte having a dinner date with a middle-aged white male, the background consists of silhouetted diners.

Charlotte and Trevin watch a similarly aged version of Charlotte having a dinner date with a middle-aged white male, the background consists of silhouetted diners.

Third Thread

I was amused by Trevin, and particularly how he interacted with Charlotte. In many ways, it seemed the two were constantly engaging in duels of wit and word. It was also very endearing how, in my game, certain responses allowed a relationship to strike up–painting Charlotte’s isolation as largely one of her own doing. After all, what we see displayed over the course of the game is a story about a friendship in the making.

DK: You’re absolutely right; that’s exactly the kind of feeling I wanted to convey in their relationship. I think the guided life review in this game is sort of a metaphor for the concept of “letting someone in”; as you get to know a person, you learn their stories, the little vignettes of lived experience that made them who they are today. I think that’s a big reason why when I was growing up, I considered characters in fiction as dear friends, and I think many of us introverted, geeky types can relate. Charlotte, as a fictional character, is like that too, except it’s a little different, because you’re actually playing the part of the person who’s sharing the stories. For many of us, it can be terrifying to open ourselves up in that way, something that Charlotte feels at first — but then, as we learn to trust and be more comfortable with who we’re sharing with, it only feels natural.

Yet Charlotte’s forced to do so, through our very desire for a story, isn’t she? Not in a sinister sense, but we are directing her life–though in a sense, the lack of choice makes it feel less about controlling her, and more about guiding her through these scenes. Something that struck me is that she is very obviously one of those literary types that’s not in the public eye, so there’s not even a sense she has any connection with an audience. She seems to disdain outright any artistic endeavor purely made to cater to an audience, in fact. When it comes down to it, even the lack of agency comes down to authorial control–Charlotte is having a direct influence over it, she won’t let us take those reins.

DK: There’s something very “old school” about Charlotte’s approach to art — I say “old school” in quotes because it’s not really that old at all — in that she considers herself separate from the audience, that what she does is “high art” because she doesn’t need to pay anyone any mind but herself. And that brings me back to the idea of community versus isolation. She’s definitely got a bit of a “lonely at the top” feeling going on, even if, arguably, she’s nowhere near the top. It’s a coping mechanism I see in a lot of highly intelligent people who have difficulties with social interaction; you convince yourself that you’re somehow superior and more evolved than all those plebs, or what have you.

Yet, to pull that into a more abstract view, isn’t that the same discussion we always have around art? I’m not of the belief that games, for instance, are the only interactive method of creating art, or what could be considered art of varying levels. Even in theater (using my own background), there is the question of audience participation and reacting to the audience so that you can take the same package and deliver something completely different depending on who’s there. Yet you’ll always have those plays that have a very strict fourth wall. I often wonder if we’ve falsely constructed this dichotomy where suddenly, now, there are more creators, rather than admitting now we’ve created more tools to make that creation easier and more visible. Even your creation of this game, funded through KickStarter, speaks to more channels to engage in the same arguments–it’s just that the argument is being made more often, and they’re made more available, if that makes sense?In other words, I never see us getting rid of the Charlottes, no matter how much progress we make in interactivity, as the computer programmer Charlotte points out. There will always be an audience for various entertainment. It’s just disheartening to see someone so removed from the audience that they can’t connect with them at all–something I’d argue we’ve also always seen in terms of superstars (again, something I think we’ve always had, but that has become more prevalent). After all, can Charlotte cope with criticism, despite being able to give it in spades?

DK: The superstar thing was what I was trying to get at; it could just be an artifact of growing up and gaining more means to discover niche interests, but I find that as time passes, “superstars” and other aspects of mainstream culture become less and less relevant and visible to me, personally. And yes, niches have indeed existed before this day and age, but it seems to me like the internet has gone a long way in amplifying that, since you have a way to connect people that’s comparatively more agnostic to geographical region and economic class. So, now you have these small-scale “minor internet celebrities” who create works I really enjoy, but still manage to be accessible as real people to me. The end result of this is that I can’t go back to thinking of creators of media I enjoy as god-like, for lack of a better word, and consequently, have very little patience for creators who embody this god-like persona in interacting with their fan bases, if they choose to interact at all.

As for criticism? Of course Charlotte can cope with it (in that it doesn’t destroy her) but does she do so in a healthy way? I imagine her as dismissing most of it as irrelevant; she expresses on many occasions that she has little patience with what she terms “mere critics”. But it is indeed sad that she doesn’t really see a middle ground between this mindset and “pandering”.

At this point, Deirdra and I decided the conversation had grown large enough that we could present it to people. If you enjoy Life Flashes By, you might consider becoming a Facebook fan, or following Charlotte and Trevin’s Twitter accounts.

Samus Aran will not be playable in DOA

A Zero Suit Samus plushie, as made by DeviantArt user BabyLondonStar. Samus is a white woman, with blonde hair tied into a pony tail, wearing a blue space suit. In her right hand she's holding a Metroid. This was the least 'sexy' image of the suit I could find.

A Zero Suit Samus plushie, as made by DeviantArt user BabyLondonStar. Samus is a white woman, with blue eyes, blonde hair tied into a pony tail, and wearing a blue space suit. In her right hand she's holding a Metroid. This was the least sexualized image of the suit I could find.

Quite recently Team Ninja revealed that its next Dead or Alive title, subtitled Dimensions and for the upcoming 3DS, will feature a stage from the same developer’s recent Metroid title. This stage would feature a hazard in Ridley, long-time Samus nemesis who rakes a fighter along the walls of the stage, and the end of the video showed Samus in her morph ball mode, lighting up (what I took to her setting off a bomb).

This led to fan speculation that she would appear as a featured fighter in the game. However, according to Eurogamer, this is not to be the case. Samus will remain as a cameo; speculation was fueled because DOA, notorious for its sexually charged depictions of women (as someone who plays few fighters, what I’ve read most about it is its use of jiggle physics–sigh) has featured cross-over fighters in the past, most recently from the Halo series. To say I’m relieved would be a small step.

As I made clear in my view of Team Ninja’s Metroid: Other M, and as our own editor Brinstar has mentioned in conversation a few times, the sexualization of Samus Aran began long before Team Ninja started making their Metroid; they were not responsible for the Zero Suit Samus we have already seen featured in Nintendo’s own fighting series Smash Bros and premiering in Metroid: Zero Mission. The series also has a history of  encouraging players to game the system to achieve shorter completion times, which will reveal Samus in various forms of undress, the ‘highest’ reward being that of seeing her in a space bikini. It should be noted, that her Zero Suit form in Super Smash Bros. Brawl is about as scintillating as one would expect from Team Ninja’s DOA series, even if covering more skin.

Therefore, the news, while welcome, only makes me wonder more what plans Nintendo has for this franchise.

N.B. The above plushie was made by DeviantArt user BabyLondonStar.

The Longest Journey in large letters above April Ryan, a white woman in her late teens.

The Tale of Homecoming

While I have known for some time that the name of this blog comes from The Longest Journey, it wasn’t until this past week that I actually sat down and played this title. Within the first twenty minutes, I already began to see the inklings of why that particular name was chosen for this space. The game is full of many instances of inclusion, but I wished to discuss one that most drew my attention: the Tale of Homecoming. Spoilers ahead.

The Longest Journey in large letters above April Ryan, a white woman in her late teens.

The Longest Journey in large letters above April Ryan, a white woman in her late teens.

April Ryan, the game’s protagonist, goes through the game being heralded as the woman from the prophecy by various peoples and species. It is when she encounters the Alatien people that the Tale of Homecoming is told, though the reason for its telling is just as important as the tale itself. April is seeking to reunite the Maerum and Alatien peoples, who have a common ancestry, and relied on each other for a mutually beneficial relationship, but went to war and are now sworn enemies.

To do this, she must see the Teller of the village, the one who is said to know all the Alatien stories, and among the reasons April came to this part of the magical world known as Arcadia in the first place. In order to even see the Teller, her guard poses to April that he will ask questions of her from the tales of Sea, Winds, Stars, and Homecoming, and she must answer correctly. Because this is an adventure game, the goal is simply to talk to people and to get the answers so that they show up in the dialog options with the guard. Fairly simple, and yet, it brings attention to a key point in this game.
April is a stranger to Arcadia at the start of the game. She is to be instrumental in its future, but she knows next to nothing about the world. In order to be the savior of the Alatien, she must first know some of their basic stories. They are stories that would be likened to fables, full of small nuggets of wisdom universally applicable, and yet tied to a particular culture with its flavor text and way of viewing the world.

Among those stories is that of Homecoming told by Neema, which you can watch on YouTube right here, and for which I’ll provide the text below:

This is the Tale of Homecoming, my Tale, and I shall tell it in my own words, as told to me by my teacher, in her words, and by her teacher in turn.

Moran was a handsome young Alatien man with strong wings and a hardy beak. He lived below the white cliffs, where the water was salty and the fish plentiful. Moran was betrothed to Anara, the loveliest girl there ever was. She was fair, and slender, and tall, and her eyes were the clearest shade of blue.

But Moran was hesitant to enter into union with Anara, to become her husband and to give her children. He would always come up with a new excuse for why they had to wait a little while longer. Now, Anara was skilled at pottery, but even more so with stories, and the Teller of the village had many times asked Anara to be her apprentice, to learn all the Tales so that some day she could take over as the Teller. But Anara refused, knowing that if she did accept the Teller’s offer, she would never be able to marry Moran, because a Teller cannot have a husband nor children of her own.

Her refusal to become the Teller’s apprentice was unheard of, because who could refuse such an honor? But to Anara, love was more important. Her love for Moran was beyond honor, beyond reason. But despite Anara’s love, Moran was still hesitant. And then one day he told Anara, “I am traveling on a pilgrimage to the far shores. I will be gone for some time, and while I am traveling, and in accordance with our traditions, I will be freed from our betrothal. Not until I come back will the bond between us be renewed.”

It was not unusual for a young Alatien man at that time to go on a pilgrimage, and the bond between the betrothed would often be cut while he was away, to be formed again upon his return. But Anara was heartbroken, because she had thought that Moran would soon want to marry her. When Moran saw her tears, he said to her, “Do not weep. When I come back, I promise I will marry you. Just wait for me, and stay with your pots, to make the time pass quickly.” And then Moran left on his pilgrimage to the far shores.

Many years went by, and Moran had exciting adventures on the far shores, but by and by, he began to long for home, and for Antara, and now he had finally realized that he loved her, and that he wanted to marry her. But when he returned, he could not find Anara amongst the pot makers.

He went to visit her family, and they told him that, after waiting for many years, Antara accepted the Teller’s offer of apprenticeship, and that when the Teller left on the last wind during the previous winter, Anara herself became the new Teller. Angry, Moran made his way to the Teller’s nest, and when he saw Anara he said to her, “You promised me you would wait!” But Anara did not say a single word in answer. She just turned around and lifted something wrapped in leaves from the cot behind her, and gave it to Moran.

Moran unwrapped the package, and inside, he found an old pot, cracked and broken in two. “What is this pot?” he asked. “And why did you not wait for me like I asked you to?” And finally, Anara spoke, and she said to Moran, “I made this pot for you, my dear Moran, when you left, because I wanted it to be my marriage gift to you. But when many, many years passed, I finally realized that you did not love me the way I loved you, and to live hoping otherwise would be death.”

“But I want to marry you!” cried Moran. “I came back!” But Anara just nodded at the broken pot in Moran’s hands, and said, “Like an old pot that is left without care, a heart may break in two, and a broken heart can never be mended.” And so Anara turned away, never to speak with Moran again. And Moran’s heart, like the pot that was left untended, broke in two, because absence makes a heart brittle.

Neema, the teller of the story, is looking for a mate herself, so that when she tells the tale of Homecoming, she is giving her own version of the story. It serves as a cautionary tale (as can be said for the other Alatien storytellers), and it reflects the culture in which such stories are told are given life by the tellers–there is no one truth to the story.

A sketch of the beach of Alais, the island on which April find the Alatien.

A sketch of the beach of Alais, the island on which April find the Alatien.

This is a fact that the Teller later reveals to April, after confirming that April is a good listener. Her firm belief is that the tales must change with every telling, because if they were not to change to reflect the people who told them, they would just be words. Words themselves are not as important to the Alatien as the meaning the words convey, and how they reflect the current teller.

Given the fact that these tales are told to April, it brings to mind the question of how she would repeat this story to other people of Stark, her own world, which serves as a futuristic setting of our own. While she would need to give context if she were to use the words directly, if she were to tell the above tale to us, without us knowing the particular rituals of the Alatien, we could likely understand them anyway.

To the left sits an elderly April Ryan in a chair while two younger people, one a man and the other a woman, sit on the ground to the right.

To the left sits an elderly April Ryan in a chair while two younger people, one a man and the other a woman, sit on the ground to the right.

Of course, given that the entire story is a frame narrative as told by an elderly April Ryan, the question of how these words are understood and reflect in the culture of her listeners, a couple in the game, and the player, is also worth contemplating. Among the reasons the story reflected with me was the nature of the beginning of the story: woman waits for her man, who is off to have adventures, because he isn’t ready to settle. It is the subversion of the fact that she neither waits for him, nor really betrays him (as I could see it also being depicted, where he comes back and has to win her back from another suitor), but instead lives her own life that struck me as particularly poignant, especially in a game with a female protagonist.