Tag Archives: women in games

Feminists in Games Workshop 2013

From left to right: Rachelle Abelar (of Geek Girl Con), Samantha, Quinnae, Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) and Mitu Khandaker (DearAda and TheTiniestShark).

From left to right: Rachelle Abellar (of Geek Girl Con), Samantha, Quinnae, Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) and Mitu Khandaker (DearAda.com and The Tiniest Shark).

This past weekend (May 31st to June 1st, 2013), Quinnae and I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the 2nd Annual Feminists in Games Workshop in Vancouver, British Columbia at The Centre for Digital Media. This interdisciplinary workshop brings together a wide array of academics, developers, industry professionals and activists who work on feminist issues in games and technology.

This year, we tripled the attendance of the 1st Annual FiG Workshop. The weekend was also a historic occasion in The Border House history as well because it marked the first time Quinnae and I could meet in person. I could dedicate this entire post to describing how much fun it was to hang out with Quinnae in Vancouver but instead I’ll share a brief run-down of the workshop proceedings!

If I had to select one theme of FiG 2013, it would be this: as feminists in games, we are excited about the exponential growth of our movement over the last year but we are also realizing the need to develop new strategies to deal with increasing amounts of resistance and harassment. As feminist scholars, activists, developers and professionals continue to challenge the medium and the culture surrounding it, others seem to be clinging more firmly than ever to conservative traditions of exclusivity. Continue reading

Kickstart This: GTFO: A Film About Women in Gaming

GTFO is a documentary project by Shannon Sun-Higginson that seeks to cover the experiences of women in game development, game journalism, and pro-gaming. There are a few things I like about this project. While the phrase “women in games” has come to mean a lot of things, the documentary is focusing on interviewing women about the sexism and harassment they face in and around the industry. Also, the film is being made by a self-proclaimed “outsider” to the game industry, which could lend it a fresh perspective. The fact that it is a documentary means it has the potential to reach a wider and different audience than, say, a panel at a convention, which will bring more awareness to the issue.

Sun-Higginson is asking for $20,000 to finish the film. It is more than halfway funded with ten days left. You can read more about the project in an interview with Sun-Higginson at GamesIndustry International.

GTFO: A Film About Women in Gaming — Kickstarter

#1ReasonToBe GDC Panel Now Available on The GDC Vault

After this year’s GDC in March, Tami wrote about the panel that rocked the conference: #1ReasonToBe. That panel is now available to watch online for free on the GDC Vault. Check it out to see Brenda Romero, Robin Hunicke, Leigh Alexander, Elizabeth Sampat, Kim McAuliffe, and our own Mattie Brice talk about their experiences in the game industry and their visions for a more welcoming community.

#1ReasonToBe — GDC Vault (H/T Tami)

The 2013 Game Developer Gender Wage Gap

I’m reading through the latest digital edition of Game Developer Magazine which contains their annual survey.  The salary numbers overall weren’t concerning to me, until I scrolled down and saw the differences between the male and female survey respondents.  The next time someone tells me that men and women get paid equally for their talents in the game industry, I wanted something to link to them.  This is just plain disgusting.

programmers

 

This isn’t so bad right?  Female programmers are currently making 4.5% more annually than male programmers.  However, considering they only make up 4% of the entire field of programmers in the game industry, companies are probably paying them more to retain them.  I’m glad to see the few lady programmers we have in games aren’t underpaid.

However, expect things to get more grim.

artists

 

Male artists make 29% more per year than female artists in the game industry.  Women represent 16% of the game industry’s artists, which is sadly a pretty decent number.

designers

 

Male game designers make 23.6% more annually than female game designers, and men comprise 89% of the game industry’s designers.

producers

 

The producer field doesn’t look so terrible.  It has the highest percentage of female representation at 23%.  Women still are underpaid compared to men though: 8.3% less.

audio

 

Audio development is completely dominated by men.  96% of audio developers are male, and they make a whopping 65% more than women.

QA

 

It’s starting to get a big redundant, but here you can see that men make 24.9% more than women per year in QA.

business

Finally, in business and legal we see that men make 31% more than women.  This is a broad field that includes Community Management, CEOs, HR, IT, and admin.  I suspect part of this discrepancy in wage is that HR, admin, and community management have a lot of female representation anecdotally while upper management is dominated by men at most game companies.

I’m sure there are more details that might make these numbers less damning.  For example, we all know that games have been long dominated by men and the industry is taking small steps to change that.  As a result, many of the women who answered the survey might be new to the game industry, might not be in as senior of roles as the men who responded.  However, I don’t think this changes the fact that we need to recruit and encourage more women at all levels of every organization — and we’re failing to do so.

Leadership: look at your organization.  Compare the salaries of the women to the men who work at your company, and align their salaries.  If all of your women are junior, evaluate them.  How long have they been junior?  Are they deserving of an increase in role, capabilities, and salary?  If you don’t have many women in various departments, recruit them.  Make an effort to keep your space positive and encouraging for women.  Consider that raising women up in your company means for more mentors in our industry for the young women who might be interested in working in games.  These numbers are disgusting and we see them year after year.  Who is out there working to change it?  Every studio should be proactive in solving this, because with numbers like these — why would women want to work in games?

These images are all from the April 2013 issue of Game Developer Magazine.

 

The Fantastic #1ReasonToBe session at GDC 2013

This week I was fortunate enough to attend the Game Developers Conference and sit in the crowd for the #1ReasonToBe session.  It was arranged as 6 smaller microtalks, filling up its hour long time slot to the brim with interesting, passionate, and emotional personal presentations from the panelists about women and diversity in gaming.

The speakers were Brenda Romero (Wizardry, Loot Drop), Robin Hunicke (thatgamecompany, Funomena), Kim McAuliffe (Microsoft Game Studios), Elizabeth Sampat (Storm8), Leigh Alexander (game journalist) and our own Mattie Brice (game critic, student).  Each one took the time to talk about their experiences in and around the game industry.  The best summary of the session that I’ve found was by VentureBeat, but if anyone has the liveblog or slides from the presentation please share them in the comments.

I just want to comment about the session from an experience perspective.  First off, anyone who has been to a diversity-related talk in previous GDCs is probably familiar with the small room in the corner that they normally occupy.  This session, on the contrary, was in a large room that was mostly full.  And instead of being two rows of people who all know each other, the session will packed with a variety of new people outside the feminist gaming criticism circle including many men.  The talk generated a standing ovation to the speakers, along with a healthy amount of tears from many in the crowd (including me).  It was phenomenal.  The electricity in the room, the excitement, the positive outlook that everyone had about where our precious industry could end up — it was all infectious in the best way possible.

I asked a question through tears at the end of the panel.  I wanted to know what we could do on The Border House to focus less on the negative and start motivating the kind of inspiration that I felt after attending the panel.  There were some great answers, such as Robin suggesting that we start doing more highlights of women in the game industry — interviews and articles about them so that others can see that there are people like them out there.  I’m interested in any other ideas that our readers have, so please leave them in the comments.

We talked.  After the panel, we ended up getting booted out of the room where conversations were popping up organically all over.  We moved to the hallway where the chitchatting continued until long after the session was done.  Information and business cards were exchanged, ideas were generated, hope was prominent.  It was a beautiful moment and the highlight of this year’s GDC for me.  I felt a solidarity, a moment where it felt like we could all accomplish great change if we work together.

From left to right: Me, Mattie Brice, Donna Prior

I was so incredibly happy with the support that The Border House received at the conference.  I can’t even count the number of people who came up and told me how important The Border House was to them, to their work, to their inspiration.  It really puts everything in perspective and makes me want to be able to commit even more to this site and its growth.  I am so fortunate that this little site has grown to something that real people actually read and subscribe to and appreciate, and I love that the extremely important voices that we host here have a place to be heard.  I want every single woman in games to have the same feeling that I had after the #1ReasonToBe panel.  We’d all be unstoppable.  I hope to create content for The Border House that captures at least a little bit of the passion and hope that this fantastic panel did.  Thank you to everyone who came up and talked to me and shared their stories and their enthusiasm for the site: it truly helps.

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.

Tell The Oatmeal What It’s Really Like to Game as a Woman

Edit: Since this post was made, creator of The Oatmeal, Matthew Inman, made a much better apology post and actually donated to the Women Against Abuse organization.  

It pains me to make this post, because I’ve been reading The Oatmeal for a long time and have generally found it humorous. However, today he posted a pretty ridiculous comic making the claim that terrible female gamers get away with much more than male gamers.

A cartoon of a female gamer playing a shooter. She says "Oops! I accidentally called an airstrike on our team for the fourth time in a row! tee-hee!". Her teammates say things like "As a gamer, you inspire me." and "Aww, that's okay. I love Napalm!"

 

Hey, Oatmeal:

You know what actually sucks about being a woman who games?  Being harassed because of my gender.  People not taking me seriously because as a woman, I can’t possibly be good at games.  Not being able to stream live videos of my gaming because people will make sexist comments about me instead of talking about the game.  Having people assume that I beg for everything in games instead of earning it myself.  Reading incredibly sexist chat constantly.  Not being able to talk on voice chat without the conversation being all about me.  When I make a mistake in games, it’s because I’m a woman trying to play games.  When you make a mistake, you just suck at the game and made a mistake.  Try that on for size.

Come back to me when you have these problems, because right now I have a really hard time feeling sorry for you.

The Border House, feel free to tell @Oatmeal on Twitter how you feel about this cartoon, and that his apology didn’t really solve the fundamental issues with his comic.

Two horses in Skyrim, modded to look like My Little Pony.

The strange world of Skyrim mods

I’ve never really been much of a game-modder, myself. I’ve always preferred the vanilla experience, half out of laziness, half out of not wanting anything to break my savegames. While some people love getting every ounce out of a game, I always feel some kind of weird desire to play the game as the developer intended. Although, what they usually intend is something for Xbox that gets a PC port, but I digress.

A few blogs recommended the FXAA Post-Processor mod, which I do recommend – it adds a lot of colour to a sometimes washed out game. In the process, I came across a weird and wonderful variety of mods. This is by no means exhaustive!

Clean Female Bodies

Fantasy settings have ladies that are simply too dirty for you? Don’t like the idea of all that unwashed grottyness? The psychoanalysis you could read into this would doubt have no end. It  reminds me of troll arguments about having people of colour in games being some kind of aberration (you can imagine fantasy races and dragons and spell casting, but black skin is out?).  Kristeva’s ideas of the Abject come to mind. The disembodied body meshes on the mod site itself are equally creepy.

A "clean" white woman in a bra and pants in the game Skyrim

Nude Females

Clean bodies not enough for you? NSFW – requires site registration. This is the 11th most popular mod on this site, weirdly enough. It does pretty much what it says, although by the look of it all the breasts and the like are drawn by an amateur modder and look – strange to say the least. Some of the feature lists alone highlights how creepy this mod is:

- New default Argonian texture without nipples (nippled version is optional)
- Corrected belly button placement
- Corrected nipple placement in .msn files
- Removed some blockyness from .msn files
- Dirty and Clean version of the textures, with pubic hair and hairless versions of both
- Khajiit textures: Default version (two nipples) and Alternate Cat version (8 nipples)

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with in-game nudity. But to default every woman in the game to naked? I mean – what is this supposed to achieve, apart from mild titillation? Again, the psychoanalysts could go nuts here.

Female muscle mod

On a different note, this mod takes it the other way. From the mod notes:

Since nords are supposed to be “big and burly” as one of the devs said… It seemed kinda weird. Men look like bodybuilders and “ofcourse” women look like playboy bunnies (with reasonably sized boobs)… So heres a lil something to make them nordic women look little more formidable.

I have to say this one feels pretty reasonable to me. Does this make me a hypocrite? Of course, the site has some naked shots (why?). I’m no expert too but I’m pretty sure those breasts are unrealistic considering how ripped the models are.

A Nord woman in Skyrim made much more muscular via a user mod. She's wearing leather armour and a quiver.

Yes, there’s some mods to alter the men too, but they’re not nearly so numerous and game changing – mostly they’re part of high def conversion packs.

My Little Pony

OK – so this one is sorta cool. Convert Skyrim horses into My Little Pony livery. I think the picture speaks for itself.

Two horses in Skyrim, modded to look like My Little Pony.

Do you use Skyrim with mods? What are your favourites? Do these mods tell us anything about gamers, or am I over-analysing how people want to play their game?

A beautiful Skyrim town with a castle towering in the distance

To the Ends of the Earth: A Review of Elder Scrolls V- Skyrim

My character, Serena, looking out from her balcony in the city of Solitude. Dark eyes, dark lipstick, dark mage's clothing- but a sunny personality!

You could say I found my womanhood on the island of Vvardenfell.

My life has been, in many ways, a master class education in the fact that games are never “just games.” You see, the setting of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was a key site of my life and my evolution as a transgender woman. In some real ways, my transition began with the realisation that I preferred playing as women in life sims like this. Morrowind’s beautiful, amazing open world was where I learned more about myself than I imagined, as I adventured again and again as a claymore wielding woman bedecked in armour. The world of Tamriel taught me things about myself too numerous to list here. Needless to say, I owe it much and it has a rather special place in my heart, even for its occasional failings.

With that powerful history in mind, I gleefully turned from the eastern realms of Morrowind to the snowswept north, the province of Skyrim, home of the Nord people. This is, at last, a worthy heir to the legacy set forth by Morrowind. 2006‘s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, unfortunately, did not meet this standard in my eyes. But Skyrim, at long last, meets the very high bar set by Morrowind.

We should begin by talking about how cities and towns speak to the spirit of a game like this.

The Death and Life of Great Tamrielic Cities

Oblivion’s greatest failing was that it lent no soul to its setting: the province of Cyrodiil, the scintilliant heart of Tamriel’s Romanesque Empire. Instead, the Imperial City felt like a large town set in marble. The province itself felt, well, provincial as opposed to cosmopolitan. The expectations set by the numerous in-game books in Morrowind that glowingly described Cyrodiil came to nothing, in the end. Yet, even excepting the size of the cities and towns, their lifeless geometric placement on the map, and their lack of grandeur, there was the soullessness best expressed by the vacant, uncanny valley stares of most of the game’s NPCs.

What Skyrim shows is something that Morrowind should have taught us all too well: Bethesda captures the frontier far better than the metropole. Morrowind’s setting on the island of Vvardenfell was at the very periphery of the Empire’s reach and that fact showed itself beautifully. Skyrim is set in a different periphery but a periphery all the same: a world of the wilds with cloudcapped peaks, vast valleys still fully given over to nature, and rifts hewn over millennia of geological evolution. The sense of being at the edge of the world is pervasive sometimes. It feels real, in other words. You feel as if you stand on a world where things have happened and where things are going to happen- a far cry from Oblivion where there was no ‘there’ there.

A beautiful Skyrim town with a castle towering in the distance.

This is a province with cities that are not vast, but whose dense size is a better fit for the harsh wintry climate, as if the buildings themselves huddle for warmth. Solitude, the Imperial capital of the province, is built on an amazing rock formation that, as the loading screen reminds you, provides a natural shelter for its harbour against the powerful northern winds. That may seem small, yet it’s a master stroke that Oblivion glaringly lacked. Cities and towns in Skyrim make sense. They are located near resources, near trading lanes, on defensible land or on terrain that provides some other benefit. In other words, cities feel both planned and organic in the way that many real life settlements do. Morrowind had this feeling in spades. Oblivion had a pentagon of towns around the capital.

I dwell so much on these intangibles because they are what make giving over so much of your time to play such a worthwhile affair; they lend the world a sense of reality that enhances the simulation and makes the world simply more fun to run around in. Around each bend is unique terrain that feels less shaped by human hands and more by the forces of wind, erosion, and time.

Everything that needs to be said about this can be said via a comparison of the maps: MorrowindOblivionSkyrim. Skyrim’s map may lack the detail of Vvardenfell’s but it does capture a more realistic and detailed world.

But what of the meat itself?

Woman as a Way of Being Human

Much has been made of the fact that your character is a Dragonborn, a humanoid with dragon blood that gives them the power to use the Voice; words of power that channel great magic. Hence every last one of your friends randomly going FUS ROH DAH! every five minutes. This has become the game’s signature, and as a mechanic it works remarkably well. It adds a layer of reward to the game- you find each word of power carved into walls with other Draconic speech; the ‘learning’ takes place via a beautiful animation set to a chorus that never quite gets old.

Legate Rikke, a stern faced woman wearing Roman-inspired iron armour, exercising her right to bare arms and standing before the red and gold banner of the Empire she serves.

But what makes Elder Scrolls games a breed apart is that the main quest isn’t the only game in town. Skyrim is replete with quests, many of which are stunningly interesting, others more mundane RPG fare that nevertheless can’t help but to take you somewhere pretty. One of my favourite quests early on is helping a single mother and shopkeeper with a problem she’s having: a male bard with an entitlement complex (he even wrote the book on ‘romancing women’ in his particular town) has been pursuing her aggressively despite her continually saying ‘no.’ Your job is to make it clear to him that she doesn’t need a man to get by.

There are literally scores of quests that have this flavouring element to the world, that breathe life into characters.

On that note it’s worth discussing the women of Skyrim at length. There are strong women and weak women; good women, evil women, and everyone in between; women of faith and women of the arcane; vampire women and werewolf women; women in power and women barely getting by; women fighting for the Empire and women fighting in the Stormcloak rebellion that stands in opposition to it; a sharp tongued wizard with a beautifully eloquent darkness about her, and an absent minded professor wizard who lives for magical theory; women who are starstruck romantics, and women who need no man.

In a word, they are human.

What a concept.

There is never room for a lone woman to become a representative archetype as, say, an evil or seductive deceiver simply because there are so many diverse women. The game forces you to stare women’s humanity in the face by lending us as many motivations and personalities as the game’s men.

The very first Imperial captain you come across is a dark skinned woman; countless more women who fight and/or are in positions of power and authority abound in the game. You find women who are most at home with an axe, men who are most at home with a poem, and interestingly a lot of people who are quite at ease with both. Women are not there purely for display while the men do all the thinking and talking. In Solitude, a Nord lieutenant, Legate Rikke, is just as at-ease hunched over a strategy map as her male colleagues.

A woman rocking out with her lute out. In the hearth lit, stone hewn tavern she sings "We drink to our youth, to days come and gone. For the age of aggression is just about done."

The game’s narrative also presents you with political complexity. A volcanic eruption in the neighbouring province of Morrowind set thousands of the native Dark Elves on the long road to other lands in search of greener pastures. Many came to Skyrim where they ended up staying despite the often as not racist reception of the Nords. One book in the game reads like a right wing screed, bemoaning the Dark Elves’ “failure to assimilate” and blaming them for “choosing” to live in ghettos. It all sounds rather familiar and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Bethesda is making some interesting political commentary here. Indeed, this issue is at the heart of the complications that beset your choice to side with the Empire or the Stormcloaks at the beginning of the game.

The Stormcloaks are freedom fighters who seek independence for Skyrim, and yet they are very much a ‘Skyrim for the Nords’ group. The Empire, even for all of its abusive machinations, has little problem with the province’s growing racial diversity. The politics becomes even more complicated, of course, and this is yet another reason I’ve come to enjoy this game. You enter a world already enmeshed in complicated, worldly political theatre as this hero-with-a-destiny. Great events are in motion and the world bristles with gossip, arguments, and songs about it all. Some bards will sing of the Empire’s glorious preservation of order, others will sing a toast to the Stormcloaks and their eponymous leader, Ulfric Stormcloak.

Often as not, as you hear tales of woe, anger, and political ferment you sometimes doubt the side you chose. A remarkable feeling that mirrors the self-doubt that plagues real politics. This is a game that, mercifully, avoids the stark good/evil meta-themes of other high fantasy settings (not that there aren’t a few necromancers needing slaying).

The Crunchy Bits

A primal and particularly Scandinavian sort of beauty dominates this game; I can stand on a mountainside and look into the valley below knowing that I could walk every square metre of that plain. Very few games can say this and it adds a depth to the sweeping breadth of the title’s beauty. But that stylishness also infuses one part of the game’s interface that pleasantly surprised me. At the beginning of the game I lamented the loss of the ability to choose your birthsign. Those constellations were a part of the flavour of the old games, but I fully understood (and approved of) the slimming down of the array of statistics you have to manage. Skyrim’s system is both lightweight and flexible enough to accommodate several playstyles.

But the skill/level-up screen seemed to say to me “I’ll take your constellation and raise you a nebula!” Your skills are displayed as stunningly pretty constellations set in great nebulae that enshroud them under the three main aptitudes: Mage, Rogue, and Warrior.

This is, however, a classless game. You level whatever skills you choose, and unlike in previous TES titles the leveling of any skill contributes to your next level. Previously you chose ‘major’ and ‘minor’ skills from a lengthy list and only if one levelled those particular skills would it count towards your next class level. Gone is this confining system, replaced with something that leaves you more nimble with your talents than ever before. At present I’m playing a wizard with a great talent for thievery and the game fully accommodates this.

The magic system is also significantly improved. Although it remains awkward to change spells in mid combat (a Dragon Age-style system would have greatly benefitted Skyrim), you can now cast a different spell in each hand and the new ‘perks’ system (which operates similarly to WoW talents) enables greater granularity for magic. Dual casting fireball, for example, has a staggering effect which a single-handed cast of the spell will lack. There’s quite a lot to love here.

All that’s missing are Celtic bagpipes in the soundtrack, really. But the soundtrack the game does have is still amazing, and it resurrects almost note for note some of Morrowind’s old themes. Music that had become so synonymous with adventure for me that I sometimes ran the tracks in the background of other RPGs I played when I tired of their more droll music.

See if you can spot the dragon some miles in the distance. Beneath an overcast sky Serena's standing on a mountain pass here looking down into a foggy, rocky valley sprinkled with coniferous trees. Every inch of the land in the distance can be explored.

Skyrim is that rarest of games that fully realises the grand sweep of its ambition. The forbidding and harsh beauty of this hardened land is vivid and alive, the people feel more real, and in a vast improvement over Oblivion the spoken dialogue is extremely well done. The landscape is dotted with signs of life, even in this frontier land that is quite far from the (supposedly) glittering centre of the Empire. One finds mills with water wheels and windmills turning, farms with livestock, bandit encampments, small cottages and tiny hamlets mixed in with towns of various sizes, and occasional passersby. There is too much to tell, in many ways. The subplot quests for organisations like the Thieves’ Guild are massive undertakings all on their own which could easily be turned into (good) fantasy movies. You can marry someone of the same sex in Skyrim. You can look at a strategy map on a table and ‘use’ each pin on it to learn a location for your game map. The Dwemer ruins, in all their steampunk glory, are back. On and on it goes.

My greatest hope for this game is not that it becomes Game of the Year. That’s assured. But rather the hope that for some young child out there it plays the same role that Morrowind did in my own life: kicking open the doors of possibility and teaching, in a very real way, the all important lesson that you should be who you choose, and that you ought to be able to push headlong and succeed regardless of who you are. Morrowind was one of the first games that taught me that my sisters could kick ass. Given Skyrim’s lofty heights of achievement, I feel just as assured that it will teach a whole new generation of young people the same thing.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: Marie in a Refrigerator?

Marie Belmont: A white, brown-haired woman wearing a pale pink medieval style dress turns her head to the side sadly, with her eyes closed. She holds a blue rose at her side.

Marie Belmont: A white, brown-haired woman wearing a pale pink medieval style dress turns her head to the side sadly, with her eyes closed. She holds a blue rose at her side.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was released last week, and I’d like to share some first impressions about the story from roughly the first 30 minutes of play. Specifically, I want to discuss the only female character introduced in the game thus far.

The story, a reboot of the Castlevania franchise, is pretty typical of a lot of videogames: you are Gabriel Belmont, a (presumably) straight, white male, whose love interest, Marie (a (presumably) straight, white woman), was murdered by evil monsters. She’s dead and you’re really sad. What’s really sad is that before the plot even has an opportunity to start twisting, the first woman introduced in the story (via a dream sequence) is in a refrigerator (well, she’s technically between life and death, however she’s sufficiently incapacitated enough, given that only Gabriel can save her, that I think this counts as a fridging). Also, you are so angry that the evil monsters killed your wife, you want revenge. Apparently being a member of the Brotherhood of Light (warriors who fight against supernatural evils in the land), and being against evil monsters in general is not enough motivation to go kill those monsters.

I haven’t played a Castlevania game since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and like Lords of Shadow, the protagonist in Symphony of the Night, Alucard, is motivated to destroy Dracula because of the death of a loved one (as corrected in the comments). The other two Castlevania games I’ve played, Castlevania and Castlevania: The Adventure, were also not particularly strong in terms of storytelling, however Simon Belmont and Christopher Belmont, respectively, were motivated to fight evil (Dracula) because evil is bad and causes suffering in lots of people. I wasn’t expecting an innovative plot from Lords of Shadow, but the women in refrigerators trope existing in this game still deserves a call out whenever possible because it is annoying, and maybe someone will get a clue, so in the future they may stop annoying people with this boringness if it gets called out enough times. Creators need to find other ways to add depth to a lead character and to make him or her more interesting than killing off or seriously injuring their significant other or loved one. This shit is getting old. That said, I’m holding on to a shred of hope that Marie turns out to be more than Gabriel Belmont’s reason for character and personality development.

[This post was excerpted from a longer post covering broad game play first impressions on my personal blog.]