All posts by Mark Filipowich

Mark Filipowich writes about older, obscure, overlooked and indie games that are great for people of low income trying to keep up with the very expensive hobby that is Gaming. His writing has been featured in PopMatters, Joystick Division, Nightmare Mode, Medium Difficulty and his personal blog, big-tall-words

An Impolite Conversation: The relationship between sex and politics in three games

I recently played a game called Agarest: Generations of War for review (Filipowich, Mark. “Review: Agarest: Generations of War.” PopMatters. Oct 28 2013.). It sucked. Many games are built from the ground up on a problematic premise; baggage is built into them. Many of the problems with Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, weren’t a surprise. But Agarest didn’t have to suck. It carefully crafted its own suckiness from a really good premise.

The game begins with the player-character, Leo—a real swell guy working for a real evil empire—attacking an impoverished country of ethnic minorities. When he sees what he’s been doing first hand, Leo refuses to participate any longer. Then a fellow officer kills him because that’s what happens to traitors. Leo is left to bleed to death in a field when an angel promises to revive him in exchange for his and his descendants’ aid against heaven’s enemies.

The Angel from Agarest, a woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

The angel from Agarest, an anime woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

From there, Leo must win the war, seduce a sexy she-human and plant a clone in her baby-sac so that his sacred duty can be passed onto the next generation. This process is repeated for all five generations of slightly differently haired Leos. All the player-characters are men, all possible relationships are heterosexual and monogamous and all the women are eerily infantile and/or battered on top of the usual erotic pandering character designs. Just as bad, all potential romance options claw over one another for the player’s love after the player has invested enough relationship points (Moss, Kim. “Y’know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options.” Nightmare Mode. Dec 3 2012.). Women are just baby-making apparatuses, and to acquire one the player really only needs to ask politely at regular prompts. It’s not very difficult to spot the sexism here, but Agarest props itself up to be so much more by placing the personal and the sexual right at the center of the political.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads "What?" which was more or less the author's own reaction.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads “What?” which was more or less the author’s own reaction.

See, to maintain the order of the world, Leo mustn’t just smite the dragon-king, he has to be the kind of person that others would want to be in a sexual relationship with. The player-character doesn’t just need to seek out sex to satisfy the story, he needs to be a good boyfriend and eventual husband. Furthermore, the story demands that the player find someone willing to stick with them for the entire child-rearing process. It’s not enough to beat the bad guy, the hero must raise a good child with a good person to prevent evil from overtaking the world. If the player-character isn’t a decent, trustworthy, long-term lover and parent, the world will end. At the very least the player must be responsible enough to ensure his child will have a good upbringing; the kind of upbringing that will prepare a child emotionally and ethically for protecting the world in adulthood.

Each generation could follow a child of a different gender and a different sexuality, the game could weigh the challenge of finding a partner against that of deserving a partner. It just doesn’t. Again, the real objective of each of the five player-characters is not just defeating the bad guy, but also falling in love, coping with unrequited love, actually being a romantic partner to an individual. In Agarest, the political is directly linked to sexual relationships: loving others and being worthy of love sustains the world. The player-character’s inability to love, according to the lore provided by the game, would destroy society; being untrustworthy as lover, let alone as a parent, ends the world. That’s powerful. However, Agarest’s “dating simulator” amounts picking out the best cut of meat as the next generation pops into the player’s control.

Aragest doesn’t present sex—it could, and it’d be infinitely better if it did—it presents a specific kind of pornography; where women look and behave according to an insecure, adolescent fantasy. But it does nonetheless stumble into the complex intersection of love, family, sex, relationships, power and politics, even if it never seems to appreciate its own subject matter. I bring up Agarest as a failed instance of what another game, Hate Plus, does so well.

Hate Plus expands on Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and follows the first social collapse of the Mugunghwa, a lost generation space ship. Hate Plus chronicles the transformation of a flawed but functional society into one that is self-destructively conservative. But what makes the Mugunghwa’s tragedy so compelling is how it’s told through the many doomed love stories of its people.

New *Mute from Hate plus, with her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer's uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

New *Mute from Hate Plus against a gold background. She holds her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer’s uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

Though the plot is most immediately concerned with the fall of one government and the rise of another (and, ultimately, the fall of that government into extinction), the story is told by people developing crushes, exploring their own or another’s sexuality, committing adultery and betraying one another’s trust. It’s easy to understand how the Mugunghwa could destroy itself from a distance, but by seeing the effect of a new law, a changing fashion trend, a different standard of education through the eyes of the people living through them makes empathising with the Mugunghwa’s people natural.

For instance, a tax break for new mothers is instrumental in changing the Mugunghwa’s cultural view of women; it takes them out of the workplace and puts them in an increasingly domestic role, it makes them more desperate for work and it lowers their expectation of wage and prestige. Taking a detached and academic approach, one could see how a piece of legislation like that could undermine women’s rights, but Hate Plus emphasises the personal impact of these kinds of laws. More importantly, though, it emphasises how the changing zeitgeist dictates how characters are expected to satisfy their sexual needs.

Hate Plus is powerful because it shows how intimate something so sterile as tax reform can be. Kim So Yi, a brilliant engineer, is gradually marginalized by her government, her workplace and even by her well-meaning and otherwise decent husband. Her career is ruined the more her culture encroaches on her sexuality. Heterosexuality and motherhood become privileged and her career is significantly impacted by the sex she’s expected to have, enjoy and make public. The aforementioned tax break is passed by half a dozen rich people just trying to reach their lunch break, but it cages one of the ship’s greatest minds. Her culture silences her in the face of a sexually aggressive co-worker and it forces her to quit her work for children everybody but she wants to have. Depending on who gives or receives a blow job is immensely political and can mean the difference between a high five and prison sentence, Hate Plus shows how that distinction is arbitrated.

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae's is white with red trim and *Mute's is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she "will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!"

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae’s is white with red trim and *Mute’s is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she “will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!”

The beauty of Hate Plus is in how connected everything is. The game’s primary concern is how people relate and the player understand the relationships between the cast through their sex and their politics. The way people are allowed to love depends entirely on the Mugunghwa’s power structure, and sex is used to dictate the change of that structure. It’s important to note that the immortal space badass, Old *Mute, is not overthrown and killed because she is outmatched in arms—she isn’t—she is beaten by the slow erosion of her culture’s sex politics and her surrender is made absolute when she exploits her lieutenant’s love and trust.

Hate Plus is not ero—as the catchy credits song explains—but it ties the erotic to the political. It’s a story about conspiracy, intrigue and revolution told through sex stories, love poems and romantic confessions. It works because sociology and history are studies of sexual, lovesick people from a perspective too distant to see those details. Hate Plus shows how the personal and erotic, taken together, build and move a political engine. In that context, it’s interesting to look at another independent game invested in sex, Consensual Torture Simulator.

Merritt Kopas’s Consensual Torture Simulator is a game about two lovers consensually finding joy in one another’s bodies. It’s straightforward about the act and the objective: the player is in a sadomasochistic relationship with their girlfriend and the player’s goal is to strike their partner until they cry. Both the invisible player-character and the nameless girlfriend find joy in the interaction. There’s no twist that one of the lovers is a ghost or anything like that, it’s just two people who love each other being physically intimate with one another.

That’s where Consensual Torture Simulator, for me, becomes more interesting politically. Both the participating characters, even the title itself, are so honest. Moreover, though the player is performing the torture, not receiving it, the game monitors the player’s physical condition. Swinging a whip is tiring, and if the player doesn’t recognize their own limits they’re as likely to break as their partner. Topping is as demanding as bottoming for many of the same reasons. Performing the act successfully requires equal commitment, trust and exertion from the participants.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman's hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game's title along the right.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman’s hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game’s title along the right.

Patricia Hernandez interviewed Kopas for Kotaku about the game (“A Game Where You Torture Someone Because They Want You To.” Oct 29 2013.) and in the piece she cites some of the developer’s previous writing on violence from her personal blog (“keywords debrief: violence.” Oct 11 2012.). Kopas writes that the greatest problem with how games portray violence is in how “they conceal…structural violences.” It’s significant that Hernandez recalls that piece in a conversation about Consensual Torture Simulator because the structure of that game and the sexual act therein so honest and egalitarian. The player’s satisfaction depends on their partner’s satisfaction. If the player-character gets tired, their partner needs to have patience with them; if the partner’s threshold is reached, she trusts the player to recognize that; if either needs the stimulation to escalate than it must be on the terms of the other. Structurally speaking, neither partner holds power over the other.

Consensual Torture Simulator doesn’t present sex as a capitalist exchange between a purchaser and a provider, nor does it present violence as a colonial attack from an invader upon an underarmed, weaker “threat.” Violence—if it can be called that—is based on a structure of two, equal parties seeking the same, mutually beneficial end. Both player and partner commit to the act as best they’re able. If one needs a rest, the other recognizes it. It’s appropriate that Consensual Torture Simulator comes as a reaction to Grand Theft Auto V because it—like most triple A games—romanticizes violence as a pleasurable act to perform on an unwilling, nameless creature. The structure of triple A games, GTA V just being the most recent representative to take the floor, encourages a lopsided power structure. Consensual Torture Simulator is structurally based on two people that trust one another committed to pleasuring one another in different but equal ways.

Sex and politics may not be fair subject for polite conversation but they’re connected. Politics dictate the terms of how people may interact with their own bodies and most of the people that make up society really like getting off. The two are connected. It’s interesting to see how games—like politics, systems of rules that dictate behaviour—attempt to examine the connection of politics. Sex in games can present their players with a microcosm of power, whether through the failed but promising allusion in Agarest, the mutually dependant organism shown in Hate Plus or the reaction to a current understanding of violence in Consensual Torture Simulator. Sex is a reflection of how power influences people, and games are in a strong position to comment on how one impacts the other.

Agarest: Generations of War is available on Steam for $19.99, it’s also available under the name Record of Agarest War for the same price on the Playstation Network or for $29.99 on Xbox Live Arcade. Hate Plus is available on Steam for $9.99 and Consnsual Torture Simulator can be purchased for a minimum of $2.00 on either Gumroad or itch.io.

Sturgeon’s Law, Taste and RPGMaker

Sturgeon’s Law states that “90% of everything is crud.” If TvTropes is to be believed, there are a number of addendums to the law, such as: “if ever less than 90% of everything is crud than one needs to adjust their standards,” and “90% of people can’t distinguish crud from noncrud.” Almost everything created is a heap of load-bearing garbage to support the glorious minority of culture-forming genius. If you look at the brilliance of high art and find flaws than you aren’t reading it properly, if you see any virtue in the drivel beneath than you don’t have a high enough standard.

The attitudes enforced by these various “Laws” now associated with science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon prop up a status quo where creativity is a quality of the rare genius destined to speak on behalf of a generation and everyone else is just everyone else. The genius is born with an innate gift and duty to observe society, he—by sheer coincidence it is almost always he—produces culture from a vacuum and is rarely understood in his own time by anyone other than the keen publisher that collects the yearly harvest his work yields. Said another way, we are “raised to believe that a select few create and the rest are just fans. Rich white people create and we suck it up.” (Porpentine. “Creation Under Capitalism.” Nightmare Mode. Nov 25 2012.).

90% of everything isn’t crud, it’s just average. Average is, more often than not, good enough with greatness and annoyances peppered throughout. Most work comes with some measure of both genius and crud; arguing where and how each stand out on a case-by-case basis (ie criticism) is a long and laborious process. One worth taking but not one generally valued. The practice enforced by Sturgeon’s law is one of absolutes: a thing is beyond value or it’s worthless. Sturgeon’s “laws” and the attitudes at their root are about controlling taste and credibility to keep it in privileged hands.

Games have their own struggles over who controls “taste.” We know this. Fake geek girls, nerd cred, narratology vs ludology, formalism vs new journalism, casual vs hardcore, piracy, DRM and whatever this week’s issue is are all recurring debates that attempt to reinforce a structure where 90% of games and the people that play them are crud. Only a small number of games are valuable and only a small number of people can arbitrate the difference. Not accidentally, the top ten percent of “valuable” games cost a lot of money and heap of trash games it rests is recognizable from a distance because it’s cheap or free and therefore worthless. I quoted Porpentine earlier because Twine developers and players—perhaps more than anyone—have faced adversity for the accessibility of their material, and accessibility is the natural enemy of the tastemaker.

Developers using less specialized and inexpensive tools like Twine, Game Maker or even Unity are faced with scepticism. Games made with these engines have to prove their authenticity whereas no designed-by-committee, “core” targeting gun-porn has to prove a thing because a thousand fresh grads spend four years perfecting jiggle physics before being laid off.

The benefits of tools designed to be inexpensive and easy to learn should be obvious. But there’s a well-documented culture of tastemakers trying to delegitimize the work of small developers. Indies need to be judged by triple-A standards and they need to be as available and as public as triple A studios with an army of PR staff at their disposal. It isn’t that Indies can’t produce games of the same quality as major publishers or that triple A games don’t produce anything good, it’s just that the industry is judged by the standard of moneyed producers and quality is based on a return of investment. It’s no revelation to say that keeping up with games is impossible without considerable disposable income (Beirne, Stephen. “Poor Community Spirit.” Re/Action. July 12 2013.), so it’s frustrating that there’s such a stubborn elitist culture controlling what gets to be valued and what doesn’t.

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Expeditions Conquistador and Post-Imperial Arrogance

It’s no secret there’s a not-so-subtle undertone of colonialism in a lot of games, particularly in strategy games. Eador: Masters of the Broken World has the player reorganize the universe into its “proper” state by conquering every available territory in the game (Filipowich, Mark. “Eador: Masters of the Broken World review.” PopMatters. May 15 2013); Civilization privileges western history, where “the United States is made the ultimate inheritor of all…human advancement and elevated to the position of the most perfect and most ‘civilized’ state of all.” (Poblocki, Kacper. “Becoming-State: The bio-cultural imperialism of Sid Meier’s Civilization.” Focaal – European Journal of Anthropology. 39. 2002: 163-177.); Age of Empires celebrates the age of—er, well—empire building. These games are founded on the assumption that history is composed of distinct, easily distinguishable peoples that emerge at the same time and under the same circumstances. The objective is to represent a group in its ascension of Eurocentric progress.

What follows is a player’s attempt to enact the imperial mythology: map every acre, subjugate every rival by the most convenient means available and acquire every resource in the name of progress. Most games, however, do this beneath a layer of fantasy, or at least with the innocent veneer of a history lesson. Expeditions Conquistador on the other hand, is not accidentally colonialist; it is a colonialist fantasy. It is a game that puts the player, with their modern, post-colonial attitudes and understandings, in the role of the first military foray into Mexico. The game argues that there is no form of colonisation that does not cause harm. All the post-colonial wisdom the player may have cannot prevent the damage of imperial expansion: it preys on the player arrogant enough to think they can “fix” history.

The cover art for Expeditions Conquistador portraying a Spanish man with a black beard and curled moustache gazing at something out of frame. He's wearing steel armour and a white-short sleeved shirt. The game's title sandwiches a simple longsword

The cover art for Expeditions Conquistador portraying a Spanish man with a black beard and curled moustache gazing at something out of frame. Beneath, the game’s title sandwiches a simple longsword

The game begins with the promise that you, the player, can rewrite the colonisation of South America. As the opening text explains, “The year is 1518—a year before Hernán Cortés would be elected captain of the third expedition to the South American mainland, where he would overthrow the Aztec empire.” Cortés, however, never makes it to South America in this alternate history because the player-character is sent instead. The central question the game asks is what you would do, knowing what you do, if you were in Cortés’ place?

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The Perspective of Privilege

For the past month I’ve taken up the self-imposed challenge of playing nothing but JRPGs. There are few reasons for this but all of them can be traced back to “I like them.” In playing and replaying games in the genre I’ve noticed some patterns emerge. Initially, summarizing these patterns from over twenty years’ worth of games seemed like a daunting task. But, fortunately for me, Dutch developer SCF was able to condense much of the genre in his 2009 release, Exit Fate.

Developed using RPGmaker, Exit Fate borrows liberally from a variety of PS1 era games—particularly Suikoden II—and it’s been rather viciously criticised for the similarities it bears for past games. However, it never dresses its homages up as original content so that criticism isn’t entirely justified. The character portraits and combat models—all SFC’s own artwork—are unique and carefully crafted, and the game also features some strong writing and an interesting, if sometimes clichéd, cast and world. In essence, it’s a loving interpretation of the old blended with just enough newness to hit all the right notes. The game is available for free at SCF’s personal website, where prospective players are able to make a donation if they’d like. It stands tall enough on its own legs that one need not be intimately familiar with JRPGs to enjoy it, but the ideal audience is likely one with some experience in the genre.

Exit Fate tells the story of Daniel Vinyard, a colonel for the army of Kirgard, a superpower at war with the equally influential Zelmony. On the eve of Kirgard’s invasion, Daniel blacks out and wakes up surrounded by dead soldiers from the regiment he was to command. He flees deeper into Zelmony to figure out what happened and, eventually, attempts to bring about a nonviolent solution to the countries’ ancient feud.

Exit Fate's main character, Daniel, wearing a black trench coat with gold trim, his long white hair falls over his broad, smiling face

Exit Fate’s main character, Daniel, wearing a black trench coat with gold trim, his long white hair falls over his broad, smiling face

It’s functional as a game: it’s easy to learn and the buttons do what they’re supposed to. The story is compelling enough to see through even if it does some time to break into a comfortable stride. As mentioned, though, Exit Fate brings to mind a number of the questionable conventions that have clung to JRPGs (and games at large) over the years. Specifically, Exit Fate and the JRPGs that inspired it, are almost universally played from the perspective of privileged distance. JRPG protagonists are typically members of an aristocracy, or like Exit Fate’s Daniel, they’re respected officers of an effective military, or they’re townies in a pastoral countryside. In any case, A JRPG adventure follows the stripping and reacquisition of a lead character’s privilege.

Firstly—and this point has been raised several times before—RPGs are structured around the capitalist mythology: players begin at level 1 and they have nothing, by the time they work through the game they’re level 99 and they have everything the game could offer them. The means to improve can be taken for granted. If things become difficult, there are plenty of monsters they can gain resources from. The player will encounter enemies along their path, defeating enemies will earn experience and gold, the player will level up at determined intervals, higher levels will make the game easier and, if things are still too difficult, than the means to improve further are never far from reach. Again, this is nothing that hasn’t been said before, but it’s worth noting that this is the engine driving the genre.

Furthermore, JRPG heroes reinforce the mechanics of the games they live in. When they’re introduced they’re often characterized as naïve, disagreeable, lazy or wealthy. In any case, they’re propped up as someone with a good deal of independence. Even if they aren’t, it is assumed that there is a degree of opportunity in their reach. Returning to Exit Fate, the player meets Daniel in a palace. But on a more basic level, he’s employed, educated, young, able and respected. When Daniel is forced into enemy territory, he’s hardly treated any differently—a former enemy colonel would be happy addition to any defending military, so the worst he has to endure is a few dirty looks and double entendres.

Kirgard general, Jasper, a slender grimacing man with short, brown hair arresting Daniel with the aid of several soldiers

Kirgard general, Jasper, a slender grimacing man with short, brown hair arresting Daniel with the aid of several soldiers

Daniel’s defection may awaken his conscience and he may have less access to resources on the other side of the battlefield, but he’s still welcome in his former enemy’s country. He gets his old job back, he’s fed and clothed and—for the most part—trusted. He falls from grace only to land in slightly less grace. Then he quickly discovers and gains access to the means to fix the problems facing him.

Even in RPGs where the player is not an aristocrat or an officer, they still come from a background of privilege. Characters may not always live in a palace, but they almost certainly have a home; they aren’t always wealthy, but they’ll never be turned away from a storekeeper; they may come from a working class background but prices aren’t artificially inflated nor are wages suppressed to manipulate their living standards; they may not even be very well respected, but they can (and often do) depend on a small community for support. In these games the player and player-character can take opportunity for granted.

SCF's concept art for the characters Ljusalf and Ryan in a candlelit library. Ljusalf, wearing dull blue hooded robes, is standing over Ryan, an elderly man in a gold robe, who appears consternated.

SCF’s concept art for the characters Ljusalf and Ryan in a candlelit library. Ljusalf, wearing dull blue hooded robes, is standing over Ryan, an elderly man in a gold robe, who appears consternated.

How differently would Exit Fate look if Daniel weren’t a colonel, but a homeless man conscripted from debtors’ prison? What if being lost in enemy territory didn’t result in an invitation from his former enemies, but incarceration in a POW camp? What if he couldn’t enter a town anonymously seeking rest and sidequests because he could be visibly identified as “the enemy”? Imagine if Daniel wasn’t tasked with winning a noble war but was forced to survive one he didn’t give a damn about.

Many JRPGs (Exit Fate among them) directly deal with themes of oppression versus liberty, but almost never from the perspective of the oppressed. Players are promised results for certain behaviours and the game keeps its promise; characters aim to create a common good and they always have a chance to complete their goals. Even when these games do include underprivileged characters, someone closer to the top of the hierarchy intervenes and provides them with greater political power.

Providing a voice for the privileged while ignoring or silencing the oppressed is a criticism that could be levelled against games in any genre, but it’s particularly damning in a role-playing game where the emphasis is on the “role” the player has in influencing the game’s world. The potential roles are reduced to some permutation of privilege. Furthermore, JRPGs are celebrated for their rounded characters in deep worlds and, thematically, they’re often closely concerned with how groups and nations relate to one another. Compounding the genre’s reputation with its primary themes, limiting perspective to that of the privileged is even harder to excuse.

Exit Fate's starting characters lining up for a random encounter, Jovial, an armoured swordsman with a red cloak is at the top, Daniel, in his black trench coat stands in the centre, and Angel, in a white trench coat brandishes a longspear at the bottom

Exit Fate’s starting characters lining up for a random encounter, Jovial, an armoured swordsman with a red cloak is at the top; Daniel, in his black trench coat stands in the centre; and Angel, in a white trench coat brandishes a longspear at the bottom

Daniel is an admirable character: he sacrifices personal comfort so he can work toward a common good. But he’s the same lens through which almost every JRPG is played. Exit Fate is another instance of the genre withholding the oppression narrative from the oppressed. It isn’t even that there’s something inherent in JRPGs that prevents the perspective from broadening but it focuses exclusively on one angle of the dynamic.

So for all that Exit Fate fondly recalls from a type of game that so many fondly recall, it does bring with it a good deal of the baggage from the genre. It’s worth a play if you’ve got fond memories of Japanese RPGs from around the turn of the century. But as nice as it is to see the resurrection of old styles of design, it’s disappointing that it does not rise to the chance to offer change where it was perhaps most needed.

Breath of Fire 4's box art depicting a close up of Ryu, the protagonist holding katana upwards, the blade dividing the picture in half. Standing in the foreground is the game's anti-hero, Fou-Lu, whose long white hair is blowing in the wind.

Sexism and Power Dynamics in Breath of Fire 4

Recently, I’ve started replaying Breath of Fire 4, a game I remember affectionately. Like many, my video game diet growing up was rich in JRPGs and, while the genre tends to offer little more than empty carbs anymore, it’s fun and enlightening to go back to the apotheoses of the form. Breath of Fire 4 in particular seemed deserving of a revisit as there’s virtually no critical writing on it, which is disappointing because I remember that, as a game it was well above average and as a story it accomplished some interesting things. Furthermore, whenever it is written about, it’s mostly referred to as a game that’s been unjustly forgotten. So, I figured I would replay it and gladly contribute to a pool of criticism that was sorely lacking. It was a no-brainer. Until I met the character Marlok.

Breath of Fire 4′s box art depicting a close up of Ryu, the protagonist holding katana upwards, the blade dividing the picture in half. Standing in the foreground is the game’s anti-hero, Fou-Lu, whose long white hair is blowing in the wind.

I’ll back up for a moment. The premise of the game is that Princess Nina and her soon-to-be brother-in-law, Cray, are searching for the heir to the Wyndian throne, Princess Elina. Eventually, the party reaches the city where Elina was last seen and encounters Marlok, a greedy merchant who claims to be the last person that saw Elina. Before he’ll share any information with you, though, he insists that the party complete a handful of odd jobs for him while Nina stays behind.

After Nina is finished with some housework we never see her do, Marlok has her give him a shoulder, foot then back massage. The unnerving implication here is that Marlok has put Nina into the position of his sexy maid in exchange for information about her missing sister. The implication becomes more aggressive later on when Marlok relieves Nina and insists that he give her a massage. The screen blackens and the scene changes just as a gold flicker (which has before signified Marlok giving a duplicitous wink) sparks and Nina lets out a sharp, startled scream as he lays his hands on her.

Screenshot of Marlok at the prow of a “sandflier.” He’s wearing a burgundy dust jacket and a black tricorne. Belonging to the manillo tribe, he is fishlike with orange skin, he is accompanied by an unnamed member of the grassrunner tribe, an anthropomorphic dog.

The entire episode of the game has been chronicled on YouTube in two parts for those interested (the description of the video is particularly indicative of the tone the developers strove for). The game never expressly says that Marlok forces himself on Nina or even that anything sexual is exchanged between them. That isn’t the point. The point is that Nina is put in a position where her body is on loan to advance the plot while Nina herself never has any say in the matter.

She’s never seen brokering this deal and the player never gets any indication of what her thoughts are when it was made. In fact, the entire conversation that led to Nina staying behind is skipped. Nina could have volunteered to stay behind, she could even have intended to reach second base with Marlok for any number of her own reasons. It doesn’t matter that that’s unlikely, what matters is that she’s silenced in a situation that directly deals with her body. Marlok tells the party to track down a thief and in the next scene Nina is gone with Cray (not Nina) offering barely a sentence explaining why.

The most troubling thing about the Marlok chapter, however, is how funny the whole thing is supposed to be. Nina is unworldly and she puts too much faith in others (hell, she’s a princess in a JRPG, you probably already have a good idea of who she is) so to see her in a sleazy businessman’s office is ripe for sitcom hilarity. The joke is that she’s royalty and he’s a creep and she has no idea how to deal with it. Nina is put in this place because she’s young and she’s feminine: the dynamic would not work with another character. This scene would never play out with the silent protagonist Ryu, Cray, the archetypical brute of the team, or Ershin, who, though a woman, is never seen out of her heavy suit of armour; nor would it play out with as yet unrecruited party members Scias, a socially anxious mercenary or Ursula, another woman, but who is very professional and soldierly. Nina is the most feminine character in the central cast and that’s used against her.

Concept art for Nina, she is tall, slender and blonde with pink wings protruding from her back. She’s wearing a long, light blue shirt and brown lights. She’s holding a golden rod loosely at her right side.

Why is this scene here? Either the veiled threat to Nina’s chastity is supposed to serve as impetus for the player to accomplish Marlok’s goals quickly or the developers have so little faith in their audience’s intelligence that they have to make this character a pervert on top of a rich, exploitative liar to convince them that he’s unlikable. It’s an incredibly “rapey” scene that’s unavoidable, set up awkwardly to silence the woman involved, it puts a minor male character in control of a major female character’s body, it and it does all this to be cute.

For what it’s worth, apparently in the manga adaptation, Cray returns in time to intervene, suggesting that Marlok is perhaps more aggressive on the page than he is in the game, but that changes nothing. In either case, the story carries on without any mention of what happened between Nina and Marlok: perhaps there was no assault, perhaps Nina and Marlok had consensual sex, a light lunch and carried on with their lives. It doesn’t matter because, again, the scene cuts away before Nina can reveal what her thoughts on the situation are. Marlok cops a feel, the player gets to snicker and the game continues. Nina reunites with the party and nothing is ever said of it ever again. It’s there and gone: making the entire exchange feel more superfluous and exploitative.

The player doesn’t ever have to see Marlok again unless they choose to, where he’ll teach the party some neat spells if you bring him treasure. It’s frankly a forgettable scene. At least, if you’re in the position to forget it.

I forgot it. I’ve completed Breath of Fire 4 at least three times before picking it up about a week ago and it was only after Marlok’s name was mentioned for the first time that I remembered the scene around him. During the first few phases of Marlok’s scene—before it became too creepy—I was tempted to ignore it. After all, Breath of Fire 4 has a lot of interesting things to say about the individual’s place in the state, the criteria for separating friends from enemies, the dangers of nationalism in a shrinking world, the frailty of a justice system that punishes the guilty at the expense of the innocent and forgives evil to protect good, among a few other things. As a critic looking to write about how good the game is, I really wanted to forgive it.

The main cast of Breath of Fire 4, excluding Ryu. Left to right they are: Cray, Ershin, Ursula, Scias and Nina. Each has a distinct non-human feature, respectively: tiger stripes and tail, heavy, stout armour, rodent ears and a fox tail, doglike features and bird wings.

Of course, I get to forgive it if I want to, I don’t have to feel threatened by Marlok’s scene. It isn’t targeting me, it isn’t representing someone like me and therefore it doesn’t imply that I lack agency, the scene’s dominant figure doesn’t loom over my virtual analogue and it isn’t exploiting characteristics of my identity for laughs. Breath of Fire 4 doesn’t suggest that my silence is something to make a joke of. I can shrug it off.

It’s important to remember that this scene serves no purpose other than to diminish Nina: it doesn’t do or say anything that hasn’t already been established. The scene with Marlok strikes me as the worst kind of sexism in video games because it’s insidious. It’s a totally unnecessary scene, probably written without the intention of meaning anything, that structurally exploits and disempowers femininity for its own sake.

Duke Nukem Forever is awful but it’s obvious why it’s awful. The game is indefensible and its only value is its status as a mark of shame for the art and industry. But it’s obvious. Something like Marlok’s scene in Breath of Fire 4 strikes me as far worse because it takes place over 20 minutes of a 20 to 30 hour game. It’s easy to overlook and it’s easy to apologize for because Breath of Fire 4 is a good game and there are plenty of, like, themes or whatever.

I think about carrying on with the game and writing about what it does well but that doesn’t seem possible with such a glaring instance of sexism. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the game is an emotional and intellectual tour de force: I don’t think I’ll be able to write about it without ignoring Marlok scene. That would be enabling more structural sexism in video games. I think about what’s being lost if I drop the game now because one arbitrary and stupid scene put a messy bullet hole in the developer’s foot and, honestly, it doesn’t seem like such a great tragedy.

The cover art for The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, each features a mid-shot of the game's protagonist.

The Longest Journey and Dreamfall

Writing about the game that gave this site its name feels a bit like smugly opening a discussion about science fiction with “Did you know that Blade Runner is kind of a big deal?” But with creator Ragnar Tørnquist’s new studio succeeding in their Kickstarter campaign to continue the journey and voice actor Sarah Hamilton expected to return as April Ryan, now is a good time to get caught up with the series if you’ve missed it.

Both games are available on most digital distribution sites, but the best price seems to be on Good Old Games where The Longest Journey is $9.99 (US), its sequel, Dreamfall is $14.99 (US) and the pair together are $21.23 (US). The Longest Journey is only available on PC, where Dreamfall is $19.99 is available on Mac on the Adventure Shop or for 1200 Microsoft points on XBLA arcade under the Xbox originals section.

The cover art for The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, each features a mid-shot of the game’s protagonist.

Both games come from the tradition of the point-and-click adventure (although Dreamfall adopts action elements). Puzzle solving is generally more intuitive in the series than in some of the more obtuse titles in the genre to keep the complicated plot moving. However, what makes the games required playing (and the announcement of Chapters so exciting) is the deep and memorable characters at the centre of journey. At their core, these games are about people searching for a better life and never knowing when they’ve found it.

Both games begin in the world of Stark, which is the “real” world about two centuries in the future. The world is run in a corprocratic dystopia. Screens occupy every wall and a vapid media pares everything down to the lowest, happiest common denominator. Poverty is sprawling, permanent and ignored until it has to be pushed back down at gunpoint. That said, it’s a world that’s socially liberal. As has been noted elsewhere, the game features queer characters respectfully and without marginalization. The world is also apparently free from formal conflict. The game references riots that have been met with unabashed police brutality and a last, great cola war to end them all, but otherwise the world has apparently run out of enemies. Stark could be taken straight from a Philip K. Dick novel: sure addiction is rampant, culture is controlled and technology has consumed human identity, but that’s the cost of progress and it could be worse.

A screenshot of Stark from Dreamfall: a dimly lit, rainy street with neon ads for a nearby strip club breaking through a blue haze

A screenshot of Stark from Dreamfall: a dimly lit, rainy street with neon ads for a nearby strip club breaking through a blue haze

Opposite Stark is the high-fantasy world of Arcadia. Arcadia composed of numerous independent and generally unintrusive countries. It’s a pastoral wonderland where magic is free to anybody that studies it. However, different peoples differ radically and often violently, there’s a constantly shifting power structure that individuals and groups use to exploit others. Arcadia offers liberty and privacy, but the people of the world are as likely as not to use that against one another.

The protagonists of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, respectively April Ryan and Zoe Castillo, are both young women of Stark that shift between worlds. Much has been made of their being “strong” female characters, which they are, but what makes them exceptional is how human they are in their journeys to improve their lives.

April comes from a poor and violent family. Months prior to The Longest Journey’s opening, she runs off to the megalopolis, Newport, to study at the only school left that still teaches art. She’s underpaid and overworked (one of the first quests in the game is to cajole April’s boss into paying her money she’s owed) but she’s incorruptibly optimistic. She rolls her eyes and quips one-liners when she gets tugged along in her adventure, but there’s a sense that she belongs on the path she’s on. She’s supposed to be an unlikely hero, but through her competence and intelligence, she’s well suited for the role.

April’s most immediately visible attribute is her optimism. She’s poor and she lives in a dangerous neighbourhood, but she exudes incredible confidence that her talent will be enough to continue her life on its upward trajectory. Her biggest concern at the beginning of the game is that she’s unprepared to submit her work to an art exhibit. She hasn’t begun working, but she knows that it’s only a matter of time for inspiration to strike. That’s the attitude she takes to every challenge: she might be walking into danger, but she knows she’ll be okay because she’s savvy enough to figure out a solution. She isn’t arrogant, but she’s capable and aware of it.

The game vindicates her confidence. She is the “chosen one,” when she enters Arcadia she’s told she’s brimming with magical power, she never hesitates to put herself in danger and she always seems capable of working her way out of it. April is always comfortable, competent and positive. She may be against forces she never knew existed and the world may hang in the balance, but she’s been through worse and she can handle whatever’s next, she just needs the opportunity to succeed and, eventually, she will.

April from The Longest Journey painting an unseen picture on a large canvas

April from The Longest Journey painting an unseen picture on a large canvas

Appropriately, the game’s antagonists, the vanguard, are also motivated by a self-confidence. They’re determined to bring Stark and Arcadia together because they’re certain it’ll be what’s best for everyone. They overlook the gamble they’re taking, but it’s important that they believe they’re acting on behalf of the many. They aren’t looking to disrupt the balance because they revel in chaos or because they’re looking for personal gain, they want to tear down the divide between the worlds because they believe it would be best for everybody. There are as many people that support them as there are that condemn them.

Dreamfall’s protagonist Zoe differs significantly from April, and her perspective adds a great deal of depth to the world. Zoe is the only child of a loving, single father. Zoe was raised not in the greasy, closely watched Newport, but the warm, gold-hued cafes and campuses of Casablanca. She’s not an artist, but a gifted student of bioengineering. Also unlike April, Zoe is near paralyzed by a deep depression. After leaving school, breaking up with her boyfriend and moving back home, she becomes isolated and apathetic. Her well-meaning loved ones remind her that she has no reason—no right—to be depressed and that she should just get her life back on track, but of course that only makes her feel more depressed.

Zoe is not the chosen one and she’s not eager for a new adventure. Her journey seems more the product of chance than an orchestrated manoeuvre by unseen supernatural forces. Her primary goal is to rescue her ex-boyfriend after he uncovers incriminating information on the monolithic WATI corporation. Similarly, when she’s pushed into Arcadia—again, not because she was sent to accomplish anything, but because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time—she’s accidentally wrapped up in April’s struggle against the occupying Azadi empire.

 

Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall in front of a yellow background. She's wearing a sleeveless purple top, a large necklace with two chains and a silver armlet, her thin black hair is pulled back into a ponytail

Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall in front of a yellow background. She’s wearing a sleeveless purple top, a large necklace with two chains and a silver armlet, her thin black hair is pulled back into a ponytail

Here we also see the change a decade has made in April. In Dreamfall, April is not hopeful or confident, she’s exhausted and impatient. Her boisterousness and joie de vivre is replaced with bitterness and irritability. She’s exiled herself from Stark and taken charge of a hopeless rebellion against the Azadi. Unlike the vanguard, the antagonists in Dreamfall aren’t trying to create a brave new world for everybody, they’re trying to return to a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore. In the wake of the first game’s events, Stark and Arcadia are shocked by unprecedented circumstances. The WATI corporation and the Azadi empire have taken near absolute control of their worlds and aggressively conserve an old standard of normalcy.

The main characters of Dreamfall are still looking for a better life, but the means of achieving it have become murkier. The journey referred to in The Longest Journey series is the one to a better world and better ways of living. And when Dreamfall comes to its frustrating conclusion, the efforts to make the world better have only left people more confused and frightened by one another.

April Ryan and Kian Alvane, an Azadi soldier, facing one another in a wintry, medieval alleyway

April Ryan and Kian Alvane, an Azadi soldier, facing one another in a wintry, medieval alleyway

The Dreamfall games aren’t perfect: the plot is remarkably convoluted when it isn’t safe and cliched, but it shines in its honesty and in its lively, human characters. Again, it’s a classic that probably everybody is aware of but it’s also well-preserved, available and friendly to newcomers. With Dreamfall Chapters projected release in November of 2014, it’s a great time catch up on the series.