Category Archives: Handheld Games

Bridging the Casual Divide: The P.A.W.S Kickstarter

Anthropomorphic tigers fleeing from saucer shaped UFOs with the Pyramids of Giza in the background.

Since the heyday of Game Boy, handheld games have experienced an explosion in popularity far beyond the realm of proprietary handhelds made by big console manufacturers; to the consternation of some and the joy of many more, gaming’s vista has expanded dramatically into the screens of phones and tablets throughout the world. Their lightweight, low-cost nature has also made them fertile ground for independent developers, even solo designers, but the genre still fights for respect and recognition in the wide world of gaming.

Enter PAWS, the Prime Alien Watch Squad, the brainchild of Andreas Katelanos, Christina Antoinette Neofotistou, and Nathan Mitton with its bold combination of cuteness and strategy.

PAWS is a turn-based strategy game set on a hex battlefield that follows the quest of your anthropomorphic team to recover world landmarks stolen by mysterious aliens. Front and centre are your team of four—Spiffy the Tigress, your combat specialist and squad leader; Bobi Sue the Squirrel, a maven of ranged attacks; Dusty the bear, your healer; and Tycho the Tortoise, your tech turtle. In an interview with the Border House Neofotistou, who is the game’s artist and animator, said that it was important to her to have characters who transcended the crude stereotypes that often make their way into even independent and casual games. “there was no way I was going to have one objectified token female character in there as an afterthought,” she said. “I want to see female characters in games, I want games to pass both Bechdel Tests, and I hate the more insidious kinds of sexism like damsel in distress in Mario or Bioshock (why make a super-powered character that is incapable of handling herself?) or the ableism and sexism in Fat Princess.” This is her clear and unambiguous answer to the tired old “make your own game!” charge.

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Dragon’s Crown — Basically ‘Boobs & Butts: The Game’

Sometimes, you see an artistic interpretation of anatomy that just defies all expectations.  One that makes you wish that everyone else on the internet could experience it along with you.  Today that title is Dragon’s Crown, an upcoming 2D “multiplayer action beat ‘em up” game for Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita. I will try to find words while I write this post.

Let’s start out with the Sorceress character.  According to the game’s website, they are “bewitching women….weak of body” but have great knowledge.

The sorceress character is show.  She has a large witch hat, is wearing a black corset with basically her entire chest showing, has long red hair, and is wearing a long purple skirt with slits in it that show most of her legs.  The image to the right shows her chest and backside in the common Escher Girls pose.

Certainly not “weak of boob”.  A shot of the Sorceress in gameplay shows that she’s clothed just the same while actually being played in game, and watching the video on the website shows quite a bit of jiggle while she’s casting spells.  Umm…yeah.

A shot of the gameplay of Dragon's Crown.  Sorceress is wearing the same outfit from above.

And now, the Amazon.

The Amazon in Dragon's Crown.  She is shown with a large axe, henna tattooed legs, a tiny head, and an enormous body.  Her butt and boobs are giant compared to her waist (which sports chiseled abs).

Where do I even begin here? Those proportions!  I’m not sure how she manages to have such large boobs and a gigantic rear end without her waist being wide at all.  But even more  fascinating is how small her head is.  One of her boobs will quite literally cover her face and then some.  It’s amazing that Atlus attempted to make a strong muscular woman character who still remains completely sexualized with her Escher Girls pose, her complete lack of any armor, and her stereotypically feminine face and hair.

Dragon’s Crown will be out this summer, in case you actually want to give this company money.  I won’t hold it against you, but you better send me some ridiculous screenshots.

(h/t to Nush B on Twitter for the tip)

Edit: We need to add a link to this awesome set of revisions that turns the table around on the male characters of Dragon’s Crown.  Thanks to @gygaxis for the tip.

In Medias Res

Six months in.

Six months in.

[Author's note: This is a follow-up to my first post on The Border House. There are many ways to transition and not all of them involve hormones.  While I want to share my journey, I don't want my transition to be read as an archetype for others.]

Transitioning legally, hormonally and socially is like playing a classic Japanese role-playing game. At the start, you “gain experience” and “level up” at an exhilarating pace. Last August, I came out to my friends: Level 2! Last October, I came out at work: Level 3!

In November, I reached the bottom of the dungeon (the endocrinology department at the Emory University Hospital), beat the big boss (my long-awaited doctor’s appointment) and obtained some sweet loot: a prescription for spironolactone (a testosterone-blocker) and estradiol (a form of estrogen). This single victory merited a massive experience boost: Level 3 to Level 7 all at once!

As time wore on, however, these monumental moments spread further and further apart. This February, I legally changed my name: Level 8, I suppose. I got an F on my passport last month: Level 8 and a half? I changed the name on my car title. Hooray? How exciting…

It feels like I’m grinding now. About six months into hormone replacement therapy (HRT), physical progress is frustratingly incremental. Everyday, twice a day, I pop that same pair of pills. Everyday, I brush my hair out to see how long it’s gotten, tugging my bangs down over the tip of my nose. Everyday, I examine my body in the mirror hoping that I will be surprised by what I see.

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Diamond Trust of London

The following is a guest post from Daniel Bullard-Bates:

Daniel Bullard-Bates is a straight, white male with a liberal arts degree who identifies as a feminist and an ally. He works at the American Civil Liberties Union by day and writes fiction at night, and aspires to use his life and privilege to promote equality, protect freedom, and open minds. He previously wrote and edited Press Pause to Reflect, a blog about the social and artistic merits of video games.

A picture of the box art from Diamond Trust of London. The front cover image is a picture of soil and stones, and the cover reads “Jason Rohrer with Music by Tom Bailey: Diamond Trust of London,” and includes the Nintendo DS branding, an indiePub icon, and the E for Everyone ESRB certification. The back cover has a picture of Jason Rohrer and Tom Bailey sitting together and looking at the camera.

I first heard of Diamond Trust of London in August 2009, when Jason Rohrer was kind enough to answer a few questions for my independent video game blog, Press Pause to Reflect. At the time there was very little information to go on. He said that he was working on a game for the Nintendo DS, and that it would be published by Majesco in 2010. Already this was exciting news. Rohrer is an independent video game developer who makes his games himself and publishes many of them online for free. He said at the time, “This is my first game that will be sold in a real box in real stores, so it’s an exciting project for me.” More intriguing, however, was the premise of Rohrer’s new game: “a two player strategy game about diamond trading in Angola on the eve of the passage of the Kimberly Process.”

Diamond Trust of London did not have an easy path to publication. Majesco dropped the project in 2010. For a time it looked as if Zoo would publish the game, but they decided that manufacturing the game would be too great of a financial risk. As if that weren’t enough, there was uncertainty as to whether Nintendo would allow the game to be published with Rohrer’s box art. But the rise of Kickstarter as a venue for funding video games offered another route to release. After I and over a thousand other individuals backed the project, six thousand copies of Diamond Trust of London were manufactured and sent to Jason Rohrer’s home, where he packaged and sent them out personally.

From the front cover alone, it’s clear that Jason Rohrer’s priorities as a game designer are far from ordinary. Instead of some splashy image designed to capture the attention, the cover image just looks like a bunch of dirt, a few rocks, and perhaps a speck of something that could be a diamond. Jason Rohrer and the game’s composer, Tom Bailey, both have their names prominently featured on the front cover of the game, and their pictures take up most of the back, in a style more reminiscent of an album cover than a video game.

The game itself is meant to be played by two players, but only one cartridge is required. The focus of the mechanics are on bribery, deception, and accumulation, but the game makes no overt moral statements. Using three agents, each player pays local guides to help them acquire diamonds, bribing enemy agents and UN inspectors to gain the advantage. Each player holds their own DS and inputs their commands simultaneously, with the results being displayed to both players at the same time.

If an enemy agent is bribed, the opposing player will see that agent’s intended actions and be able to change their own strategy to accommodate. But if they know their agent is bribed, they might be intentionally misleading the other player, causing them to commit agents and resources unnecessarily. And if the UN inspector is bribed by a player, that player can then choose where the inspector next travels, blocking the sale of diamonds and even confiscating them from enemy agents.

The game is very easy to learn and deceptively simple in both visual style and mechanics, but it continues to reveal complexity with continued play. I’ve been playing the game for about two months now with a friend of mine, and at first we both believed that control of the UN inspector was the most essential element of strategy in the game. Now our games have grown much more complex, as we attempt to manage cash flow, bribed agents, frequency of travel, and deciding whether to sell diamonds now for a temporary boost or save them for the final count. At the end of each game, which takes somewhere between fifteen and thirty minutes, all that matters is who has the most diamonds. And more often than not, we both want to play one more round.

Diamond Trust of London is something entirely unique: a board game without a board, a DS cartridge game funded by players, and a singular vision from an independent video game designer. Your first game may take less than thirty minutes, but that’s only the beginning. All you need is one copy and a friend with a DS. Jason Rohrer sells the game and ships it himself, and you can find it here.

Briefly: The News

A bunch of interesting things have happened today, so I thought I would throw together a brief post.

The Good:
New Dreamfall from Ragnar Tornquist’s new studio - more info at Kotaku and an interview at Rock Paper Shotgun.

Halo 4 Creators Introduce Lifetime Ban For Sexism - An awesome initiative, and we can all agree that Kiki Wolfkill is an awesome name.

The Bad:
Chivalry Dev said adding women to their game would be “degrading”, with bonus “missing the point”.

The Headdesk:
The Vita is like a lady with 4 boobs.

Anything else going on that we’re missing out on? Comment away!

Style Savvy’s Fashion Limitations

A screenshot from Style Savvy Trendsetters. It shows a woman with long black hair and a thoughtful expression in a shop. The text box reads, Maybe what I need is... something... with an edgy kind of feel to it.

I’ve borrowed a 3DS and have been playing Style Savvy: Trendsetters, the sequel to the 2009 DS game Style Savvy. They are both fashion games that are part business sim: players take on the role of a manager of a fashion boutique and are tasked with picking out items for customers according to their taste and keeping the store stocked. With these two elements, the game combines strategy with creativity in a fresh way. A customer will come in and ask for, say, a bold shirt, and if the player picks a shirt of that taste, the customer will buy it, adding funds to the shop, which the player then use to buy more stock. Customers will often ask for entire outfits in a certain style, or if the player puts together a good outfit on her window mannequin, someone will buy the entire thing. That’s the creative part. The strategy part comes in when the player heads to the buyer’s center to stock up on items. There are a number of brands in different styles, and the player needs to decide which items will best meet her customers’ needs. Trendsetters is different from the original in that it adds men’s fashion, a slightly creepier art style as far as faces are concerned, and 3D.

I enjoy both games a lot, and yet there’s also something deeply limiting about them. Items in the game have a number of different attributes, but the most important are brand and taste, which are related. There’s an edgy brand, a gothic lolita brand, a pop brand, a preppy brand, an athletic brand. So when someone comes in asking for a pop t-shirt, the player just looks for the Mint Sprinkles brand and the customer will be all over it. In the original game, the player had to memorize which brand was which (most were obvious, but some were less so), but Trendsetters adds the ability to search the shop inventory based on any number of factors, including brand and taste, which are separate. In the sequel, if someone asks for bold pants, but the shop doesn’t have anything from the bold brand, AZ USA, something from the edgy brand Stage Dive may do.

So there’s a little more freedom this time around, but it still doesn’t quite capture what’s fun about fashion, which is putting together an outfit with unexpected combinations that somehow totally work, or combining styles that balance each other out. In the world of Style Savvy, only the expected is allowed. Successful outfits generally mean dressing head-to-toe in a specific brand. My favorite kind of outfit is to mix girly dresses with tough boots, jackets, and accessories, but in the game, that would be fashion blasphemy. You can’t mix Stage Dive and Cantata Modo! That’s just ridiculous!

But in the real world of fashion, rules are made to be broken. Traditional rules like “don’t pair brown and black” just don’t hold any more. But I’m a programmer, I know how computers work, and computers need hard and fast rules. A computer can’t judge something as subjective as style (not yet, anyway). So unless a game is purely creative, there are going to be these limitations. I don’t fault Style Savvy for having those limitations; after all, it does quite a good job of making the player feel like a boutique manager within them. But I can’t help wishing that the game gave the player a bit more freedom to mix things up, to create something unexpected.

Today in Bad Advertising: Nintendo 3DS “Not a Gamer” campaign

If you’ve watched TV recently you might have seen this set of commercials promoting the Nintendo 3DS as a device that’s not just for gamers.  The commercials show one popular female star (such as Sarah Hyland from Modern Family) playing a 3DS as she relates to some real-life experience and connects it to the game she’s playing.  At the end, she says “My name is ______, and I’m not a gamer.  But with my 3DS I’m a INSERT WITTY THING HERE.”

It’s pretty clear that handheld video games have taken a huge hit by the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Android gaming devices.  These devices have managed to bring a whole new demographic of people into the world of games-on-the-go, and Nintendo clearly wants a piece of that success.  These commercials are an obvious way to attract women who don’t see themselves as ‘video gamers’, trying to set the stage for the 3DS to be a handheld device that the mass market purchases to play games on.

I roll my eyes when these commercials come on, as there is a whole slew of problems associated with them.  The fact that women who have a handheld gaming device in their hands, who are literally playing a game have to say “I’m not a gamer” at the end could be read in a few ways.   Is that because women can’t be lumped in with the gamer label?  Is that because being a gamer requires you to only play hardcore shooter titles on your Playstation 3?  Is it because the types of games that these women are playing aren’t legitimate games?  All of the above? Here’s the videos, decide for yourself.

Writer Jill Murray Talks Race and Class in AC3: Liberation

Above: AC3: Liberation Story Trailer.

Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation, the first Assassin’s Creed game to star a female assassin, comes out in a week. Over the weekend, Daniel Kaszor at the Financial Post’s Post Arcade blog published an interview with the game’s writer, Jill Murray. In the interview, Murray talks a bit about the race, gender, and class issues that are part of heroine Aveline’s life and story, and how those issues intersect with gameplay via the different personas that Aveline can take on:

Each persona gives her different abilities and also changes the way she interacts with her environment and how characters respond to her. It really is like she is trying on different identities. She’s trying to see where within the society of New Orleans she fits. Is it as a business woman and a lady? Is it among her mother’s people who are slaves? Or does she really truly become herself when she puts on the Assassin gear and takes to the rooftops?

It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out in the game and how these issues are addressed in Aveline’s story.

Murray goes on to talk about her experiences working in the game industry, and some of the interesting historical facts that came up while researching for the game. You can read the full interview here.

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7

Characters in Mario Kart 7

I’ve been playing a lot of Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS recently, and while I think it’s a great game, the character choice is extremely frustrating.

Back in 1992, the original Super Mario Kart on the SNES featured eight characters. Of these, seven were male (Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Koopa, toad, and Yoshi) while only one was female (Peach). Almost two decades on, let’s see how far we’ve come.

Mario Kart 7 has either 16 or 17 characters in total, depending on how you’re counting. Of those, eight are available for selection initially, with the others needing to be unlocked through play. So let’s start with the initial eight. These are, it turns out, exactly the same characters as the SNES original. Absolutely no improvement on gender diversity there, then.

The unlockable characters do show signs of improvement. Here, we have five male characters (Metal Mario, Lakitu, Wiggler, Wario, and Shy Guy) and three female characters (Daisy, Rosalina, and Honey Queen).

The 17th character is the Mii, which I’m not including here since it’s something of an oddball, seeing as it is an out-of-universe character, and one which is player created. I don’t like to play as a Mii, because it feels jarring against the backdrop of all the Mario characters, but the option is there (after you unlock it).

[Note: For characters where the gender isn't immediately obvious, such as Koopa and Wiggler, I'm going off the gender given on Nintendo's official site.]

So, of a total of 16, we have 12 male characters, and 4 female ones. In the 19 years since 1992, we’ve managed to go from 1/8 inclusion, to 1/4 inclusion. It’s something, I suppose, but it’s not anything I’m going to get excited over.

It gets even worse when you look at it a little more closely, though. Of the four female characters, three of them are extremely similar. Peach, Daisy, and Rosalina are all princess archetypes with crowns and dresses, and offer little variety beyond a pallet swap, a different hairstyle, and a different voice actress.

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a teal dress, standing by a blue kart.

Daisy from Mario Kart 7

Daisy from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a yellow dress, standing by a yellow and orange kart.

Peach from Mario Kart 7

Peach from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a pink dress, in a red and pink kart.

This is hardly a staggering array of diversity we’re being offered here. In fact, I’m tempted to combine all three of these characters together as variations on a theme. For the sake of fairness, I will also combine Mario, Luigi and Metal Mario, as well as Koopa and Lakitu. In total, this gives us 2 different “ways” to play a female character, and 9 different “ways” to play a male character. If you include the Mii, those numbers go up to 3 and 10 respectively.

Things get even worse when you consider that the character selection isn’t just a cosmetic choice. Instead, the characters fall into 5 different weight classes, with each different class having different strengths and weaknesses in speed, acceleration, handling, and so on. Of the 5 classes, only 3 (or 4 if you include the Mii) have female representatives. The two that are missing are the overall most balanced class (available if you include the Mii) and the class that’s best for beginners.

And if you’re only including the default characters and not the unlockable ones, we ladies only have one choice to match our one character. Needless to say, the men have all five choices available right from the beginning.

To me, the saddest part of all this is that Nintendo are meant to be a company that pride themselves on targeting a broader demographic than just 18-35 year old men. Nintendo games are meant to be the sort of games that anyone can play, regardless of age or gender. Come on, Nintendo, you can do better than this.