Author Archive: theoracraft
This piece goes out to the Junior girls of a good acquaintance’s health class. Pardon me while I elaborate, but rest assured that it’s worth a laugh.
A lovely experience came my way over both the internet and the short space of a friend’s living room. Upon realizing we had enough gaming capable PCs on hand, four other friends and I decided a StarCraft II LAN party should commence. We’re all amateurs. There was live streaming, there was embarrassment, and people discovered how hard it is to do commentary with all the players in the same room. There was oddly no alcohol.
After my collaborator Grethade uploaded the evidence or our silliness, an online friend who shall be known as Coach ended up watching it… during free time in class. In no time, he’d gathered a gaggle of students interested in seeing how the match played out, so with his finger on the mute button, betting commenced. Gambling over money in school would be in ill taste, so they bet on the right to demand “Any Time Push-Ups” of their losing peers and Coach. Apparently the my friend was banking on me, and was rewarded with the joy of making a young man do push-ups in the middle of the cafeteria lunch line, the loss a symptom of not thinking a girl could beat the guys.
Though for the record, I’m a “girl” that’s been gaming for 15 years at the time of this writing.
A few young men making their bets based on the gender of the gamer is… a hint at a bigger topic for another time. As I said, this is for the girls of that class that asked their Coach to put a question to me: what game has the strongest positive female character?
As easy as it would be to prattle off the first name that came to mind, I sat down to write up something a little more detailed. All of us look for role models in our media when growing up, and I’m happy to report that while gaming does see its saddening share of poor portrayals of women, there are some great ladies out there in our games. This is far from a comprehensive list as it only contains games I’ve played. Hopefully there’s enough here for any up and coming gamer (or their parents) to find at least one game to their taste, thus the inclusion of genres and ratings.
First up: games where the pre-determined protagonist is a woman.
April Ryan – The Longest Journey
(Third Person Adventure/Puzzle) (M for Mature)
From confused college student to “Shifter,” April Ryan had more transitions in her life than just moving away from home. Discovering a whole new world parallel to the one she knows by also learning she’s one of the few that can make the jump between them, April quickly finds she bears a lot more responsibilities then she thought possible. Led to believe herself Guardian of the Balance, the fate of two worlds are on the line. The fine line between science and magic relies on her, lest they combine and be abused as they were in the old days when “Stark” and “Arcadia” were not separated by the Divide.
Chell [REDACTED] - Portal series
She wasn’t the smartest or the strongest test subject trapped in Aperture Laboratories when it was locked down, but Chell was the most tenacious. Not much is known about her. Implications litter the little nooks and crannies of The Enrichment Center implying she was the daughter of an employee, trapped with the rest while still young, at some point evaluated, and deemed an unsuitable subject for testing. A woman that doesn’t give up is a danger to a system designed to end in failure, making Chell the last hope of the stranded without her even knowing it. The only certainty? The cake is a lie.
Jade – Beyond Good & Evil
(Action/Adventure) (T for Teen)
In the poor districts of Hillys, war is a constant. The head of a local orphanage, Jade protects the children not only from the threat of the DomZ, but also guards them against the more mundane threats of the world by keeping the power on and putting food on the table. Spearheading “Jade Reporting & Co,” her most valuable weapon is a camera. As an investigative journalist, Jade has the potential to do more then crack heads: the truth could do more to end a war then any fight ever could.
Kate Walker – Syberia series
(Third Person Adventure/Puzzle) (T for Teen)
Sometimes you don’t need to fight at all to be someone’s hero. Kate Walker was just a lawyer and a good one at that, but when an assignment sends her chasing the heir to the Voralberg estate across half of Europe, it forces a person to take a hard look at their life. Chasing a man many thought crazy, players get the chance to see not only the melancholy remains of many people’s dreams, but also get the chance to see those fantasies resurrected. In the best portrayal of a mid-life crisis I’ve seen in a video game (yet still a favorite when I was young), Walker is an engaging character is how she is forced to question if she’s truly happy with her life, what more she could be doing with it, and what is really important. If a mad man could leave a trail of inventions that bring so many so much joy, what good might a little chaos do her?
Lara Croft – Tomb Raider series
(Third Person Action/Platformer) (Ranging from E for Everyone to M for Mature)
While somewhat controversial when taking her entire history into account, Lara Croft truly did throw open the door for female protagonists in games a long time ago on an original Playstation far, far away. There were ups and down… the media loved her, but her proportions were ridiculous. She was a strong character, but seemed to be made up of nothing but quippy one liners. The former Tomb Raiders were cheesy, but they were fun in much the same way an action film is. All that changed in early 2013. Lara has always been a character people could look to to break barriers and a new one was shattered when the series was rebooted. Going from a character that was simply entertaining to one gamers could truly feel for was an arduous journey, but a good one. I’ll always have a soft spot for the old days of laughing as I tumbled around the feet of a T-Rex, but nothing quite beats this new college grad turned hardened survivor that just wouldn’t give up on the people she cared about even in the face of impossible (and sometimes supernatural) odds.
Nariko – Heavenly Sword
(Third Person Hack and Slash) (T for Teen)
Scantily clad she may be… but Nariko is one character whose capabilities players will never have to question. Many of us have found ourselves on the outside looking in, and it makes her all the more relatable a character. Born on the day a boy savior was prophesied to be delivered in a divine birth, Nariko stood as a violation to her people’s very religion and all theirs hopes, and so grew up a reviled outcast. In the end she is willing to tolerate them, defy them, and even bleed for them because in the end they don’t deserve the war at their door despite the injustices they heaped on her over the years. While the supporting cast and villains aren’t nearly as well fleshed out, Nariko is a character that stands apart not as some cliche prophesied savior but rather as a woman willing to write her own destiny regardless of the disapproval of others, and comes out the better person for it.
Sarah Kerrigan – StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
(Real-Time Strategy) (T for Teen)
Through much of the StarCraft series, Sarah Kerrigan’s character was very much defined by others. A powerful psychic whose memory was wiped, trained to kill, liberated, then used and betrayed by her rescuers, it’s ironic that she didn’t have much of a chance to make many decisions for herself until she was overrun by the aliens known as the Zerg. As she began to return to herself, she didn’t flee the Zerg… instead, she took control of them. Kerrigan is a good character, but not what most people would think of as a good person. While not the most noble motivation, an awful lot of fans will be disappointed if she doesn’t get her revenge by the end of Heart of the Swarm.
Zoë Castillo – Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
(Third Person Adventure/Puzzle) (M for Mature)
A college dropout trapped in the limbo of indecision, Zoë is one of those characters you’d think would grate on your nerves if it weren’t for how genuinely voiced she is and how relatable her uncertainty. Eventually, circumstances call for action and she can’t help but step up. When her former boyfriend, investigative journalist Reza Tamiz, goes missing she finds herself chasing down the story that may have been his undoing because, “I may not like the Zoë I’m turning into, but I would have hated the Zoë who just abandoned her best friend like that.” Caught in a conspiracy spanning two worlds, that resolve will have to hold if she ever hopes to wake up.
Visit us later for the next installment: whether giving a few preset options or letting you build a character from scratch, there are games that leave the choice in your hands as to who you’re going to play. Man or woman, the experience is sometimes different, but never lesser.
After beating the new Tomb Raider, the first question I received was literally, “Was it all rapey?” With the game released and in hand, I can firmly say no. Questions like this make it obvious that the controversy is still steeping and addressing it is still prudent, especially since the game’s sales have apparently fallen below Square Enix’s expectations.
Originally, this was just going to be a dry follow up to the article I wrote about the marketing that started the debate prior to Tomb Raider’s release. However, when a writer like Ashelia over at Hell Mode publishes an article she didn’t exactly want to, it made me realize my original piece just wouldn’t cut it.
(Two disclaimers. First, as in my other article, a trigger warning as there will be talk of violence both sexual and not. Second, spoilers, which I will try to limit but which cannot be avoided as this piece is partially intended for those avoiding the game due to apprehensions about the content and as such will detail some of it.)
Too often in gaming is “mature” content nothing but “shock” content, inserted as fodder to put people on the edge of their seats. We often look down on it because it seems needless, out of place, and lacking in explanation. Tomb Raider actually manages to circumvent this expectation successfully, much to my surprise. I’ve played many a game with hard moments to ponder in them. Tomb Raider cuts right to the bone though and gets personal. It doesn’t treat me kindly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There were a lot of little things over the years that added up. My mother stopped watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when I was around. My significant other didn’t quite know if it was okay to touch me, even in a platonic way. My sister was more outspoken about the Tomb Raider 2013 marketing online then she was to my face. All these things changed, pretty quickly even, but it took acknowledgment.
Every one of them looked at me with a question they couldn’t put into words. Each one was answered more or less the same way: It’s ok. I’m not made of glass.
Yes, this game has a divide between its male and female characters. It is actually a part of its story though rather then some arbitrary attempt to appeal to a certain demographic. We are all aware that this game centers on Lara Croft and her crew mates surviving on an inhospitable island after being shipwrecked. It also becomes obvious quite quickly that people have been running aground along the beaches of Yamatai for generations. Where the slowly unfolding story shines and disturbs is in how a society has developed among those that have been trapped for years in this same hostile environment you only just stepped into.
Players are quickly introduced to the legend of The Sun Queen Himiko of Yamatai, and her supposed super natural ability to summon storms to protect her island in ancient times. Lara is quick to note that most legends have some small piece of the truth within them, and players will be tasked with discovering that truth not only through the main storyline, but also through much of the optional hidden content. Without giving away much, the long dead queen’s importance to events is not insignificant, and it leads to the island’s “Solarii” brotherhood having a fairly warped view of women.
Some are true believers, rounding up any woman that crashes ashore for a ritual that before has always ended in death. Others, if you bother to listen to them converse with each other before killing them, see it as a waste. Whether that waste is something they just don’t care about, or are torn over not being able to prevent is also unique to each man. All of them seem to carry some bitterness over this reverence due to its perceived necessity to getting home. Tomb Raider is surprisingly satisfying as a stealth game if for no other reason than to make me care and even sometimes regret killing a man because I sneaked up on him slowly enough to learn something about him even if forced to shoot him in the end.
That’s how many I was told were removed from his home.
The police told me he’d made bail. My parents and I ended up next to him on the main road toward the cities. They were taking me out to try and get my mind off the whole thing and the timing was just bad. To this day, my father doesn’t know if he made the turn fast enough to avoid being seen. We sat for about 20 minutes at a gas station just waiting for him to roll further away from us.
He was later arrested again for attempted witness tampering. Then made bail again. Then the police suddenly realized he still had all his guns. I’m murky on the details, but apparently when released the first time he was simply asked to turn his firearms in until everything was sorted. After the bail violation, they were confiscated.
That’s when the realization hit that he’d had 35 guns for months and he knew where I lived.
It was the first time I’d ever pondered whether I had it in me to kill another person in self defense. Not that I had or could legally own anything that would compare; I wasn’t even 18 yet.
Are the controversial elements of Tomb Raider necessary? No, the plot could have likely been contorted to avoid them. Do they make sense? Yes. Sad as it may be to admit.
Would it have really been more respectful to tiptoe around the subject like it doesn’t exist, or just deal with it? I do stand by my earlier assertion that dealing with the subject of sexual assault head on would be better than poking it with a stick and running for the safety of the next action scene, but Tomb Raider does at least manage to introduce the sense of disempowerment without it seeming like throwaway fodder. Whether it’s a throwaway in the sense that you go from powerless, to scared but in control, but then can later level up to assign brutal finishing moves to every weapon in your arsenal… that’s up for debate.
Funnily enough, the little thing that keeps nagging at me about Tomb Raider is the guns. The violence. The sympathy.
Oh, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for violence in this game. I’m saying Tomb Raider is yet another thing that makes me realize just how much people suck.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Plenty of people had issues with the idea of me getting a concealed carry permit. Some friends and family were either uncomfortable with firearms as a whole, or thought it unnecessary. Others offered to take me to the range. The one reaction that stuck with me though was a boy in my Speech class while in college. We needed to give a speech on absolutely anything we wanted as our final, it just had to be a solid-comprehensible-no rambling please-10 minutes. I did mine on anti-sexual assault organizations. It was painful giving it that personal touch, but in the end I figured that with such disturbing statistics on how many victims there are, at least someone in that class of 30 needed help.
This boy did a talk on firearms in general and during the midday break I asked his opinion on the best places to take safety courses. Of course, the subject of eventually wanting a concealed carry permit did come up. That’s when he dropped my stomach out.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
He elaborated that this opinion came from what I’d been through. What I’d just shared with the whole class. He couldn’t really nail down why (or refused to), but some mumbled bits about how it might color my perspective in certain situations and questions of my judgment were not quite raised.
I thought long and hard about why I would want to carry a weapon. Not because they’re “cool;” I have props for that. Not because I want someone to die; I’ve got enough nightmares to sort through in therapy. I want a gun because, like many victims, I knew my assailant, I am well aware of the fact that he knows how to obtain firearms without going through a background check, I know he’s incredibly fond of weapons, and I don’t know what he’s going to do when he gets out of prison.
It’s not just Tomb Raider: in almost all of our media we seem to expect our victims to become superheroes, to have that turning point, to get their revenge. Has it skewed the way we see the real world? Many of us have a dark little place in our hearts where we want the worst among us to pay the ultimate price, but if it ever left our fantasies and entertainment outlets, we’d be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law like anyone else. So instead we bicker about our heroes versus our anti-heroes, and how much violence makes sense instead of asking why on earth we’re continuing to find violence entertaining at all. After all, that might imply something is wrong with us.
On the flip side, a story like Tomb Raider’s may have an uphill battle to deal with in a world where victims are blamed and offenders mourned for. Or where Lara’s deaths are supposed to be so gruesome as to motivate you to avoid them, but instead we make montage videos.
Two students approached me after class, by the way.
Ironically, the most poignant moment I had playing Tomb Raider was not the most talked about one that sparked all this hubbub. It was a moment when I actually had a choice.
Not too much further into the game, you’ll end up moving through a bunker crawling with (surprise) people out to kill you. In one particular spot you find yourself behind reinforced glass with the room around you steadily filling with gas. Even as you choke and the edges of the screen begin to spatter with blood, the worst part is that on the other side of the glass is a man. A man whom on first spotting you shouts threats, but after seeing your predicament begins to mock you. He’s not going to kill you anymore. He’s just going to sit back and watch you die. I tried to smash my axe into the glass to no avail. I feared a shot from a gun might cause a spark and kill me. As the joyous heckling of my antagonist continued, I finally realized the air duct I’d originally entered the room through was still accessible and scrambled to fresh air. His shouts followed me though. In such a short amount of time, the writer, level designer, and voice actor managed to make me truly hate this character.
I shut him up with the lantern I found conveniently at my feet.
Chucking it back through the air duct, I watched it shatter on the other side, light the gas, and blow the entire glass window as well as a chunk of the wall into this man. Without a moments regret I looked at the screen, cleaned my glasses, and gave a satisfied, “Heh, go to hell.”
As I walked across the room, the man lay against the far wall, half his body crushed under a slab of concrete. The same person who only moments before was enjoying the spectacle of my anticipated demise… was now begging me to finish him off. I could have just walked away. This wasn’t a quick time event, it wasn’t something that had to be done before moving on. Even so, I still pulled up short at his prompting, aimed down the sights of my pistol, and put a single bullet in his head.
The moment that truly gave me pause though was how my expectations got promptly turned on their head.
Even as I was nudging the thumb sticks expecting some line about how he was better off or how it was merciful to come out of my television speakers, the words never came. Quick as lightning after the shot was fired and I pulled out of the tight aim view , I could appreciate Lara standing tall, glancing down sideways at the body and giving only a quiet, “Go to hell.”
That cut a bit closer to the bone than any awkward groping scene could have.
For all the complaints from one reviewer to the next about Lara becoming too adept a killer, becoming too vengeful too fast, maybe we all should appreciate how quick we are to pull the trigger. None of us had to level up those weapon specific finishing moves. Lara Croft did not shove that shotgun barrel under that random scavenger’s chin, or rake his chest with machine gun fire, or put an arrow through his throat. You did.
So did I.
None of us are any worse people for it though.
I always liked Lara Croft. She was tough, but smart. Bookish at heart. I grew up reading, writing, making art, and playing games. I was engrossed in genre works and fandom communities by my family for years.
I’d also been getting the crap kicked out of me for years. Wish I could have dealt with it as deftly as Lara, but doing backflips off people’s heads to initiate some form of bullet time wasn’t an option.
The jump from elementary to middle school was rough. The children were plenty cruel in those early years with their mean words, cliques, and coordinated exclusion. That was manageable for a kid that could just laugh at their pettiness and go read a book though. Growing up and getting my face mashed into the grating of my locker was… less manageable.
Middle school more or less turned into a several year debacle of wishing to be left alone, getting beaten up instead, going to the staff for help like you’re taught to do, watching my tormentors makes excuses, then enduring it all over again. I think getting shoved down the granite steps was the last straw in a way. It reached the point where my alarm would go off, I’d think of what was waiting for me, then promptly get violently ill and lose all the bile in my stomach before crawling back under the covers until the bus had already left. The school’s solution? Send a truancy officer to drag me in.
In High School, I finally snapped. I was going through the motions, waiting for it to be over. I outright told staff who the bullies were, what they’d done, and that if they failed to impress upon them pretending I didn’t exist would be far easier on them, I’d make it difficult.
I’d always been the type to quietly take everything that would get thrown my way until I felt I had no choice. Bullies never seemed to realize where my lines were drawn until it was too late, perhaps thinking that side of me didn’t even exist. Perhaps all those violent games were the perfect catharsis for someone under constant pressure.
When one problem boy that had been tormenting me for months tried to shove me down the stairs (a reoccurring theme), I grabbed the railing, wrenched myself upward by it, and let my momentum carry through into the punch I landed straight to his nose. Without a word, I walked past and went to class. He never bothered me again.
And we all wonder why violence is so prevalent in our media. Until violence stops solving problems we’re unlikely to move beyond it. I suppose I should thank my parents for that line in the sand, that sense of choice versus no choice, of right and wrong, or I’d feel like a much more terrible person right now.
He had 35 guns.
And I never used one on him.
Not even 18 and I still turned to a system that had repeatedly failed me before and put him in prison.
I do have to wonder if in a few years (or sooner if he makes parole) when my assailant gets out of said prison: even if I know I’m in danger, will my judgement be questioned if it comes to unpleasantries? Or will I be my own worst enemy, choke, and be nothing but a story on the news? Neither is probable: he’ll likely move along knowing nothing more about me, and I’ll probably be shooting something or other in the next Tomb Raider or whatever is hot off the shelves, flexing a trigger finger that I pray will never be needed on anything but a controller.
Every time someone apologizes to me for what I’ve been through I tell them they don’t need to be because I won. Game over? Well, yes, at least in regards to Tomb Raider. It will have a proud spot on my shelf though as a classic I refuse to part with in case I ever need a reminder as to how great I can feel even though people suck.
With the new Tomb Raider now on the horizon, and many questioning whether to pick it up, I feel the need to speak up about the issues surrounding the game out of respect for every game that has made me ask myself a hard question. Events are dragging me into the murky waters of heavy subject matter, so I might as well get it over with and grab an oar to beat this topic over the head with.
(With respect: trigger warning. Discussion of sexual violence to follow.)
For those that have been living under a rock since E3, here’s the short version. The new and gritty reboot of Tomb Raider slated for 2013 has the internet up in arms because Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg used the substantially loaded word “rape” when describing what nearly happens to leading lady Lara part way into the game as seen in the “Crossroads” gameplay trailer. Worth noting is that the trailer came out before the interview in which this was stated and while the sequence was definitely noticed and there was discussion of the uncomfortable scene, the controversy pot did not boil over until the interview.
With 10 years experience on the topic of sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many of the subjects branching off from them, I couldn’t avoid this write up forever and now hope to add a new perspective to the mix. There are points from both sides of the argument (if you can even call it that) I’d like to address individually. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be talked about definitively until after the game’s actual release so I hope you’ll pardon some of the conjecture on some points.
Now, where to start?
You Wouldn’t do this to a Male Character, Would You?
One of the common arguments brought up against the use of sexual violence is that if you wouldn’t subject a male character to the same events, it’s a poor choice of direction for your plot. John Kovalic made this point succinctly and humorously, pointing out this double standard in his web comic Dork Tower (more on Kovalic’s point about “lazy” writing later). When Kotaku asked, “Karl, do you think that a male protagonist in that same situation would have- do you think the scavenger would do the same thing, rubbing his hand against his thigh?” of Karl Stewart, the Brand Manager, he admitted that it would not have happened.
While backlash along this line of thought is understandable, it doesn’t entirely ring true to me.
Quite a bit of the progression of equality between the genders is based on equal capabilities, common interests, and universal rights. Commonalities are one of the easiest as well as one of the most positive things to bridge a divide of this sort. It makes perfect sense that people are not happy with the unequal portrayal of women versus men when it comes to this utterly gut wrenching topic. As art often imitates life though you may have a to keep a few facts in mind, hard and unpleasant as it may be.
1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Men are victimized in this way as well, and that should not be diminished. Millions of men. Approximately 1 in 33. As much as the tragedy of each individual is as devastating as the next, the statistics are not equal. The fictional depictions will not be equal in number either. This is not a matter in which fairness is even a question because crime is at its root utterly unfair. When something happens more often, it is discussed more often. When it fills a greater presence in the public mind, it makes its way into more of their media. This is not a, “women’s issue.” It’s everyone’s. But it is an issue that affects a disproportionate number of women.
Frankly, some would argue that a willingness to write more about men in these situations would be positive. Many victims are spurred toward seeking help when discovering they are not alone, and men in particular feel that much more isolated without as many examples of survivors to look up to. But featuring fewer women is not how to do that. It is not a zero-sum situation wherein every story told about a woman is stifling one about a man.
Kotaku’s interviewer may have also inadvertently posed the question in a narrow manner; it’s unlikely the exact same actions would have taken place because (on average) men and women experience discomfort in different ways for different reasons. Most offenders wouldn’t think to grope a man’s chest or kick a woman between the legs to give a few overly simple examples. Many forget that sexual violence is not in fact about sex… but rather is rooted in power. The ways in which a perpetrator would exert power, control, and intimidation over a man versus a woman are different. Anyone remember the specifics of how James Bond was tortured in 2006′s Casino Royale? Technically, that was sexual assault even though many people saw it only as cringe worthy torture. Why? Well, everyone could likely use a refresher on an important definition…
“Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.” ~ Studio Head Darrell Galagher, Crystal Dynamics
Note that the exact definitions of rape and sexual assault vary slightly by state in their legal wording, (and in some cases mean the same thing and are used interchangeably) but the generally accepted standard is that sexual assault is, “unwanted sexual contact that stops short of rape or attempted rape. This includes sexual touching and fondling.” Go ahead and watch the Crossroads trailer again if you must, but I personally find those few seconds fall quite easily under that definition; the nature of the intimidation was sexual, and the perpetrator did not have our protagonist’s consent. The wording behind the law is actually more stringent than most casual public discourse on the subject; anecdotally speaking, most people I spoke to about the trailer upon release were still excited about the game but found that one scene to be in a murky area between harassment and assault and refused to nail it down. As such, we should likely move forward with the more solid definition for the sake of evaluation and logical discussion.
While we can all understand the PR nightmare this must be for Crystal Dynamics, their campaign has done little to stifle the displeasure of some. If it was working, one would think the matter would be done, settled, and we’d all stop talking about it until the game came out to be picked apart in full. Instead, new stories creep on to my feed, hubs of data on the game see comments tanking the game despite it not even being out yet, and all this adds up until I finally found myself exasperated enough to write this and add to the stream of opinions. So what is continuing to go wrong for Crystal Dynamics, leading to so few pitchforks being put away?
In trying to calm everyone, Crystal Dynamics is falling short with nearly all parties. Assertions that rape is a, “word that is not in our vocabulary,” rather then reassuring people, is drawing ire and raising the suggestion that perhaps it should be in their vocabulary when they have made no claim that the scene shown is going to be changed. The sequence may be so brief that it wouldn’t be fair to call it a “theme” but what’s there is there. Even supporters are annoyed, feeling that the refusal to acknowledge the nature of the content for what exactly it is stands as an, “insult to our intelligence,” as Audrey Drake put it on IGN. Those defenders aren’t left with much of a leg to stand on when the company isn’t even confident enough to use the terminology. Only by acknowledging what exactly is on our plates are we able to fully tackle it whether or not the content is fleeting or in depth.
While some fans remember arguments that were centered around how lousy an archeologist Lara was given her habit of smashing things, the main controversy has centered around her appearance over the years. Yes, we saw a shift in which she became more personable and less likely to kill police officers and security guards due to glaring plot holes, but the loudest objections were raised over her fluctuating chest size and the objectification that was seen to signify.
Despite the developer’s best efforts to rectify this with the new direction in physical depiction and story telling, they are instead being accused of degrading the character in the opposite direction. Where she sat before in the realm of unrealistic perfectionism with cartoonish proportions and unnecessary acrobatics, people were instead seeing a character being subjected to fetishist levels of cinematic violence.
Is the violence excessive? Maybe. We haven’t seen the whole product yet and I’m sure that will be more easily debated once it’s out. A lot of games are facing this question these days… and movies… and even books.
Is the violence purposefully erotic? I don’t think so.
Fetishes as a whole might be widespread, some so common and mundane that people aren’t even willing to hang the word on them, but individual ones by their very nature are uncommon. Especially fetishes centered around violence. Accusing a company of trying to capitalize on this fetishism to sell a product when they have from day one been trying to distance themselves from it is ridiculous. That doesn’t mean sex being used to sell games isn’t done, but when it is, it tends to be obvious and quickly called out. The niche audience drawn to violent sexualization is not enough to drive sales in the face of the large amounts of content they wouldn’t be interested in (why not just buy cheaper and more focused porn?), and from a sales perspective it would fail the company especially when many people are already turned off of Tomb Raider right now due to the passing resemblance to that kind of excitation. Controversy and sensationalism will only get you so far, and only with a particular audience.
The fact of the matter is that it is very common for writers to knock a character down not because people enjoy watching their favorites be abused, but because they enjoy watching them get back up. The developer is not responsible just because someone, somewhere finds the inflicting of violence to be the more stimulating part.
There is something to be said for market testing and opinion polling. Making sure your choice in words, symbolism, and what not are understood and interpreted as you actually intend by the majority of the audience you are trying to reach is never a waste of time… but I would not in my own writing, nor would I want any other writer, to censor themselves just because there will always be a small percentage of the population that will willfully walk away from their work with the wrong message.
We can always call out the worst of them. Frankly, those people will be disappointed as it has already been confirmed that should the player fail the quick time events, Lara will in fact not be raped.
Oh, by the way? The internet as a whole needs to get their ears of the gutter. If I hear one more complaint about cries of pain sounding like orgasms, I may just have to go burn something. That one has been around for years. Ever wonder why the complaints have failed to make a difference? Because maybe it’s you.
Now That’s Just Lazy
Rape as Backstory has become a fairly well known trope over the years, and the degree to which it is used, badly, is high. Often times used as the reasoning to why you should sympathize with a chronically depressed character, it’s been pulled into use more and more as of late as one of the hottest reasons to become an avenging violent malcontent. Apparently having a character’s family be murdered got too cliche.
“Poor” use of sexual assault as a plot point is difficult for people to truly explain but one way to think of it would be like this: the second it becomes a plot device rather then a plot element, you’ve likely gone wrong. Why don’t we contextualize this with a statement from Crystal Dynamics?
“…[By] giving her motivation to become the stronger action-adventure hero and the girl that’s willing to fight to stay alive and move forward throughout the game, we use that device and that intimidation to make her stronger. ” ~ Community Brand Manager Karl Stewart, Crystal Dynamics
This kind of reasoning is implying that for Lara to move from scared college grad at point A to the epic hero that fans know and love at point C, then point B must either be the threat of sexual assault or something equally traumatizing. It implies that the event was chosen for inclusion not for its own story telling potential, but as a tool to get Lara where they wanted her to be psychologically. This is the epitome of lazy writing in regards to sexual assault as it ignores one of the most poignant effects on a person: many are absolutely crushed under the weight of such trauma and those that aren’t and come out the other side stronger do so not because they were assaulted, but in spite of it.
Those that honestly believe that, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” I invite you to amputate an arm and see how much more you can bench press.
Is this a problem with the writing though, or the PR department?
Rhianna Pratchett was revealed as the lead writer on Tomb Raider at San Diego Comic Con 2012. When taking questions from the audience during the Nerd HQ Conversations for a Cause panel on the game, in elaboration on responses from fellow crew to the question as to whether they ever thought they were putting Lara through too much, she showed a great understanding of the human condition. “You can’t have bravery without fear,” she told the audience. “It is about picking yourself up and doing the right thing. Not just because you’re not scared, but despite the fact that you’re scared.” Unfortunately, when the question of this specific controversy came up in the official Comic Con panel (9:52), the response was handled by Mr. Stewart again, with quite a bit of exposition on the importance of context (something I will not deny) despite many being interested to hear the writer’s own response. While the moment may not have had the context of the entire game around it, it did have the context of the trailer in which it was publicly shown. It’s the responsibility of Crystal Dynamics and their publisher Square Enix to make sure that such promotional materials accurately reflect the product. Context is important, but when releasing something that can be misinterpreted so easily, the burden to provide that explanatory material is on them.
While I have a great deal of faith in Pratchett’s work and attitude, games are a collective creation and there are many people that have a hand in deciding what makes it into the final product. The downplaying of the extent of the controversial content is actually more worrisome then if it were given a prominent role in the game. Having the event happen as an isolated incident that is never spoken of again until it’s convenient belittles the topic. Are we going to have quick time events centered around battling PTSD induced sense memories? Are we going to have to stop ourselves breaking her mentor’s hand when he tries to comfort her? Is Lara going to ever question the moment and her own humanity down the road, or only immediately after the event than just up and move on? All questions for when the game releases, but most of those are highly unlikely to be seen.
Immersion and Distance: How Close do you Really Want Us to the Game?
“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character[.] They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.’” ~ Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg, Crystal Dynamics
In an age where developer after developer will be thrilled to tell you all about every little effort they have put in to increase player immersion, Ronsenberg’s comment about projection sent up red flags to more than a few in the audience.
The gaming industry has faced ridicule for years for being too closed minded in its marketing approach to gamers, constantly chasing the demographic they think will make them the most money and not realizing this narrow approach may be alienating a potentially larger audience.
Ronsenberg’s assertion that “people” do not relate to Lara in the key way that many, many gamers relate to gaming protagonists (i.e. seeing themselves as the character since they are the one responsible for all their actions) is very easy to disprove. Your results may vary based on internet connection, but it took me 0.11 seconds. No really. Google times that.
Heck, let’s go one better and make this personal. Straight from Crystal Dynamics’ own flickr stream. This article brought to you by the third Lara from the left.
While the rash generalization about gamers and even of Tomb Raider‘s current audience is groan worthy, the true worry comes from the fact that the executive producer has made a comment that leads many to assume that he believes their entire audience doesn’t relate to the lead character, and within the context of the interview can easily lead them to then make the assumption that the game design is built around this generalization.
Most of us really hope this is wrong, but words from someone in Rosenberg’s position carry a lot of weight, and will spark a lot of theories and assumptions like this. The whole point of marketing and promotion is to get people talking after all. Stewart has outright quashed the idea that these views on character relation are company wide during his PR damage control tour, but that nagging worry still remains given that Ronsenberg has a different hand in the product then a Brand Manager.
While no piece of media can demand relation from its audience, to not strive for it does a complete disservice not just to the characters but to the rest of the audience whom are open to the connection. This does not negate the fact that there are many gamers, who are quite vocal online, who will not under any circumstances relate to a character who is not some exaggerated mirror image of either themselves or their greatest fantasy of whom they wish they could be. These are not the average gamer though, and given the narrow range you must fall in to meet these fantasies, are not the most cost effective audience to cater to given they will never be satisfied with the iconic Lara Croft. Often, even the narrow minded will still play your game, just not connect in the way intended. Anecdotally, there have been plenty of protagonists in gaming I have failed to relate to, but it has almost always been a failing of the writing and characterization (as proven by many a sequel or expanded universe deciding they’re going to put in the leg work and give me a reason to care). I also still enjoyed those games… sometimes on day one if there were enough praise worthy factors, though usually from the bargain bin until they started getting it right.
Thankfully, Pratchett saves the day again in the Nerd HQ panel as she offers some insight into the goal of the writing while giving us reason to not be entirely pessimistic. “You can feel that hurt, how scared, how terrified she is, and she grows through that and you, taking over as the player character, grow with her, which is just an amazing experience. Just to speak to what Karl was saying about Lara being more human: that’s the story we’re trying to tell as well. This isn’t a story about being female. This is a story about being human[.]”
Who can’t relate to being human?
The Minefield: is the Subject Worth the Risk?
Many arguments have been leveled at Crystal Dynamics as to why they shouldn’t even be attempting to tackle this heavy subject matter. People don’t trust games to take on the material, and screwing up would blemish the industry’s already rocky reputation within the entertainment world. Games are at their core supposed to be fun, and how can something so depressing be fun?
How many are asking what effect this content can actually have on people on a personal level?
Putting the controversy in the trailer is actually something I can give Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix quite a bit of credit for. The clip in question within the trailer is much like the trigger warning I put at the beginning of this article. Within the context of the game, the scene may be enough to disturb a victim, but I would consider the warning to be out there. Personally, being triggered was one of the best things to ever happen to me and led to quite a bit of progress in my life, but not everyone gets the happy ending of a conviction of their assailant to prison. What does media like this do for the general perception of these kinds of situations though?
Some argue that Lara is no victim, but a survivor, given she fights back, takes control, and comes out on the other side alive. Some would praise her reaction as being exactly how one would hope she would handle such a situation. How realistic a reaction is it though? Many cite “Victim Blaming” as one of the greatest reasons sexual assault is such an under reported crime. How many people, man or woman, would actually decide, “Yeah, I’m bound, he’s got a gun, but I’m going to take my chances”? Not many. The moment in the game has been equated to a life or death situation by the developers, and rape has been equated to something as serious as death by society from time to time. Next time a debate about the Death Penalty in the United States comes up, just see how many people would only use it on murderers and rapists. So what am I supposed to think when the game is asking me to hammer buttons and try my luck against a physically superior, better armed, better positioned assailant?
I’m lucky enough to think it’s a game telling a story. I’m unlucky enough to feel that somewhere, someone who plays this game may in the future be asking an unfortunate victim, “Why didn’t you fight back,” rather than asking, “What did you do to stay alive?” These situations are so difficult because they are not as clean cut as a quick time event, or even a branching option tree.
I put more hours into surviving than any gamer has ever put into even Skyrim.
But at least I’m alive.
I’ll also be picking up Tomb Raider on launch night. Ask me later if I’m offended.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with sexual violence, please consider contacting the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, either online or at 1-800-656-HOPE.
Gaming has an advantage in storytelling in the form of demanding investment from its audience in the form of interaction, leading to moments where you are asked not just to act but also to think on your decisions. This gives gamers ownership over the rewards, consequences, and even the lessons they may or may not take away from any gaming experience. This column series is about such moments as those.
Faridah Malik has got your back. You might spend an awful lot of Deus Ex: Human Revolution indoors, crawling through ducts, and cracking heads where she can’t reach you. Getting out of another country without the pilot though would be a nightmare, given the myriad of assaults and murders you have a habit of leaving in your wake.
Just think about how getting through security at the airport would be a nightmare. Forget about trying to check the (optional) explosives in your augmented arms.
While not the most heavily fleshed out character, there’s plenty to like about Malik in DX: HR. She’s concerned and sympathetic for your character from your first introduction to her as a player, but remains tough and calm under pressure throughout the game. The side quest she sets you on as a personal favor is one of the better investigative mssionss in the game, with one of the most amusing mean streak endings. All in all, you have plenty of reasons to care about your plucky pilot side kick, which never seems to bode well for any character in a dramatic game…
(Spoilers follow for Deus Ex: Human Revolution).
This game is one of the few on the market to give you the option to proceed through the game without killing every enemy in your path (except a few ill conceived bosses). There are multiple methods of removing enemies non-lethally, or avoiding them entirely. This is actually somewhat incentivized by the game mechanics themselves, with slightly higher experience point payouts for knockouts over kills, bonuses for “ghosting” unseen through an area, and an awfully shiny 100 point achievement . There is also something gratifying about moving through a world as more than a mindless killing machine, choosing willfully to take the harder path and retaining something of a moral high ground over your heartless digital enemies.
After many hours of this diligent do-goodery, I threw it all away for Malik.
Upon returning to Hengsha, your transport will be dramatically gunned down as you fly into the city. Your character will make a quick exit while still in the air onto a near by rooftop, but Malik will be in a much trickier position. Trapped in the cockpit, she’ll be forced into an emergency landing on the streets below where a number of men are waiting to turn the vehicle into something resembling swiss cheese.
Faridah will be quite insistent that you save yourself, but intervening is an option. Not one to leave anyone behind, I moved as swiftly as I could taking a tranquilizer rifle, a ranged taser, and my own two fists to every goon in sight.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough. While still running from person to person, trying to spot the additional deployments, chasing down the one sneaky sniper up on the third story of the construction zone, her last words came over my radio as the vehicle exploded, Malik still trapped inside.
Progression was still an option.
Instead, I immediately reloaded my game.
Now knowing more about the troop locations, deployment timing, and that a big freakin’ mech was going to drop in and start tearing things up, I figured I had a pretty good chance my second time through. The game laughed in my face as my friend was gunned down again. And a third, fourth, and fifth time to boot. I was stubborn, but I was reaching my limits.
Whether it was even possible to save Malik yet spare the misguided Belltower lackeys was actually still in question as I was playing for hours on end the day of release (courtesy of a few days off work due to four simultaneously removed wisdom teeth). No one had done it, posted a walkthrough, or bragged about it over a youtube video. Somehow though, I knew this was more a failing on my part then the game’s. I’m good with a controller, but not good enough for both Malik… and those Belltower goons. I had a choice to make, and I made it with a Longsword 202 ERASER Extreme Range Sniper Rifle.
When she finally rebooted the aircraft, got it in the air, and took off for a safer landing elsewhere, I took a minute to appreciate the quiet. I found I really didn’t feel much like looting the bodies of the fallen despite how precious and scarce ammunition is in DX: HR. I stayed a moment longer, considered moving on, but instead saved, and decided to give my Xbox and myself a break. It was time to change the gauze in my mouth anyway. Tasting blood was bothering me a bit more then usual.
In the end, it seemed like the right choice. After all, had I gone the other route, finding my friend Faridah’s cranium getting picked over by the Harvesters later would have likely resulted in an even bigger blood bath.
I do still wonder though if I could ever play through that game as everyone’s hero, because so rarely in games these days does everyone live.
The open beta for Dust 514 is live now, but is it worth the space on your PS3′s hard drive? As this is a beta, most of it needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but given they are already giving you the ability to spend money on it with micro-transactions… lets go wild with our thoughts, shall we?
The First Person Shooter Massively Multiplayer Online game has been a bit of an elusive creature to nail down. Twitch reflexes are a staple of the FPS genre, and doesn’t tend mix well with the lag inherent in most MMOs. How do they overcome this? By not being an MMO in the sense that most players would think. From the website’s FAQ:
“DUST 514 takes place in the massive, persistent EVE Universe, which has been thriving for nearly ten years, contains hundreds of thousands of EVE Online players, and spans thousands of solar systems and individual planets. A major war in the EVE Universe could involve thousands of players at once. DUST 514 can support 24v24 matches in a single battle in a single district on a single planet, and there can be multiple battles on a planet happening simultaneously, impacting each other in real time. The scale of DUST 514 is unprecedented.”
You’re still going into individual matches rather than the massive persistent worlds one sees in World of Warcraft that we typically associate with MMOs. You’ll still end up queuing up in lobbies or hot dropping into a hectic match out of nowhere. They’re cute lobbies though, reminding clone mercenaries that public suicide is not allowed. While not as impressive as Planetside 2‘s large scale battle numbers, Dust‘s 24v24 dwarfs the average round of Call of Duty, and additionally I’ve experienced less lag in these large battles than in some smaller games. Let’s hope that keeps up in the full release.
It is however a much heavier game than the average shooter fan may like. Dust 514 is front loaded with a lot of text and tutorials to flesh out its complex progression system. I’d expect nothing less from a tie in game to the infamously complicated EVE Online, but it can get overwhelming. While you can drop into the fight right away without experimenting and customizing, you’d be putting yourself at a severe disadvantage.
For example: I started up a sniper given my penchant for precision. I discovered there was an excessive amount of sway. Leveling up in “Sniper Rifle Operation” lessened the sway, but other snipers were outdoing me. I took note of system feedback messages, noted their gun types, and in the market found they were using more advanced models. I bought a few for myself given my skill was high enough to use them and… couldn’t even equip them because my Dropsuit didn’t have enough “PG/CPU” (er, think encumbrance limit) to even carry the thing. Having spent all my skill points on making my sniper rifle not sway like I’m having a seizure, I couldn’t level up in “Dropsuit Command,” nor take levels in one of the specific branches of drop suit types right away, and was stuck with sub-par equipment for sometime. Also, you lose your equipment each time you die as your “cloned” body is lost to the battle field when your mind is moved to a new one, so don’t forget to buy your equipment in lots.
That got convoluted fast, didn’t it? The fact that not everything is enabled yet and whole sections of the Marketplace are empty of stock just reinforces the thought that this game is going to be dense.
The leveling system itself though is something I surprisingly find I can respect. Personally, I tend to hate levels in competitive games of this sort as it tends to stunt growth, creating the impression that if you didn’t get in on the ground floor then you’ll just be the newb that’ll never catch up, which ends up chasing away new players. By creating a skill for almost everything (each weapon, drop suit type, upgrades, etc), and by making the max level of those skills relatively low, a person could within a reasonable amount of time create a character that matches their play style perfectly and stand toe to toe with veterans at least as far as levels and equipment go. Outside practice and skill, the main advantage of being a veteran is that by continuing to level beyond your comfort zone abilities, you become more flexible. You can save equipment load out configurations before deploying, and each time you die pick a new one for the situation. You may be best with an assault rifle, but when the enemy rolls out a tank, you may be grateful that you can respawn with a “Swarm-Launcher,” and be thankful you ground out the levels to have the skills to use it well.
As the new girl on the PlayStation 3 block (due to last Black Friday), I carry a bit of baggage from other consoles and other shooters. Aiming and firing with L1 and R1 takes some getting used to rather than the “triggers” L2 and R2. The hardest thing to get used to though is that every single match I’ve played has been dead silent. We all may have heard the stories of loud mouth trolls on Xbox live, but even I will put up with a troll if it’s calling targets. The most frustrating aspect of the team play is how much strategy is involved that you can’t communicate about with pick up groups. Playing in the objective based “Skirmish” mode, I often found myself shouting at deaf ears; you can’t hack that objective if you leave the “Clone Reanimation Unit” in enemy hands right behind you because they’ll just respawn right behind you before you finish. The smartest thing Microsoft ever did for fostering an online community on Xbox Live was include a headset in the box, but this also means that a team of friends investing in PS3 microphones could likely dominate Dust 514 pretty tidily. I’ll be keeping an eye on this Beta for more game types, expansions to the market place, and will cross my fingers for more player customization of your avatar or quarters.
Gameplay is fairly standard for a current generation shooter otherwise. Aim, fire, grenades, sprinting, melee, etc… it’s all there. If you’re looking for more FPS action, it’s free, and you’ll likely feel right at home once you get used to the progression system. The graphics are gorgeous and maps are sure to just keep coming given the massive number of planets in the Eve Online universe. I do hope that they find a way to encourage smooth communication between Dust and Eve players though. The importance of these massive player run corporate entities wasn’t really felt off the bat; I’ve yet to experience one of the “Orbital Bombardments” the FAQ is so excited about. Perhaps more corporate branding, making it obvious in game who you’re attacking or defending? I’d also love to read player written pitches as to why you as a gun toting mercenary should work for them. Perhaps too much to ask for as the shooting would likely start before I even finished reading, but one can hope, right? All in all, this player just wishes it wasn’t a PS3 exclusive so I could drag in more friends to spray some bullets with me and scratch our heads together while trying to find the best skill point investments.
You can check out Dust 514 on their main website and on your PlayStation 3 now.
California State Senator Leland Yee should be no stranger to gamers after he introduced the 2005 bill that made sales of M rated games to minors a crime, which was later struck down by the Supreme Court.
Well, he still wants games regulated, and apparently doesn’t like how hard gamers are defending them. In an interview, Yee shared that he thought, “Gamers have got to just quiet down[...] Gamers have no credibility in this argument. This is all about their lust for violence and the industry’s lust for money. This is a billion-dollar industry. This is about their self-interest.”
So, sit back and take your lumps like a good gamer while the lawmakers decide what’s best for you.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but this writer personally tends to speak up not just in defense of gaming, but of myself. When someone attacks my primary hobby in a way that paints it as some hazard that could turn me into a psychopath at any moment, I’m likely to speak up and prove the content of my character is defined by more than the contents of my shelves and computer directories.
Of course, The San Francisco Chronicle points out that even with violent games being some of the most visible, Wii Sports and The Sims are pretty impressively popular. Let’s just hope the gaming industry’s opposition doesn’t notice how many televisions have been the victims of Wii related accidents, and try to spin it as being induced by rage.
(Source: The San Francisco Chronicle)
Miss a game the first time around? So did we. Find out which games are worth going back for with Backlog Reviews when the newest releases squeeze your wallet too tight.
This review was done on Xbox 360.
With news that Dark Souls II is on the horizon for the many gamers that enjoy being abused, now is the perfect time to ask yourself if you should pick up the first one. As a player who never played From Software’s Demon’s Souls and grew up with turned based RPGs (most heavily based on Dungeons & Dragons), Dark Souls comes as a breath of fresh air, if inhaled through the blood filling your mouth from the game punching you in the face for the dozenth time.
The Short Verdict:
An excellent if challenging and sometimes frustrating single player fantasy RPG. A deep but vague story stands as a puzzle for players to assemble for themselves should they choose. The graphics are impressive and only suffer from minor problems. All in all, an excellent game offline marred only for its poorly implemented integrated online features and the occasional frame rate problem.
You are dead. This is how Dark Souls begins. You might even be able to recognize the character you built in the creation screen moments before underneath all the shrunken decay that currently makes up your face (don’t worry, you’ll be pretty again soon enough). The walking undead are banished to an asylum in the north to “await the end of the world.” Given that you still seem to have your mind intact, at least more so then the shambling legions walking into the walls outside your cell door, waiting might not seem like such a great prospect and so you make your escape. Before leaving, you’re told of the prophecy that one day an undead will leave the asylum on pilgrimage and learn the truth of the curse of the undead in the land of the gods. Guess where you’re getting whisked off to upon walking out the front door?
For a game so determined to not let its story get in the way of the game play experience, there is a surprising depth to it for those willing to dig. Dark Souls primarily practices environmental storytelling, letting players puzzle the tale out for themselves through rare voice overs, sparse and brief cinematics, and the moods infused into the environments themselves. Most characters encountered are either mad or on the verge of it, so long expository dialogue dumps are not something you have to brace for, though the corniness of a merchant’s maniacal laughter may grate after awhile. History tends to be gleaned through item descriptions, and your goals almost always begin vague only taking on more meaning as you progress.
With gorgeous landscapes, detailed armor and weapon models, well designed boss creatures, and a plethora of other pleasing sights, Dark Souls can be counted as a pretty game for this generation’s hardware. The monsters can be considered great because they actually behave in the manner their appearance implies. A giant big enough to pick your character up and toss you like a rag doll will have no qualms doing so if you come within reach. A dragon whose entire underside is made up of a gaping maw of rows of razor sharp teeth will rear up and try to grab you within that wide area, giving you far more then it’s swiping claws to worry about. The environments will also set the stage. A dank and crumbling trap laden fortress will set you on edge at every turn, whereas a remarkably well kept up city immediately following it will lure you into a false sense of security before its indifferent guardians try to cleave you in two because you strayed too close to them only to go back to passive guard duty if you flee.
The collision detection is also surprisingly accurate in most cases, though mostly to your disadvantage. Trying to use a broad swinging blade in a tight corridor will result in clanging off the walls and leaving you open to attack, making a thrusting weapon a better choice, feeding into strategic play. You can cut down swathes of enemies with those same broad weapons though in wider areas. There is some spotty clipping, particularly when using special attacks, and the hit detection can sometimes lag in PvP, but these issues are not frequent enough to hamper play. Bad frame rate drops in some of the larger areas can be a bigger problem though. The area Blighttown is cited as the largeest problem child given it’s an expansive zone with a lot of verticality and a perilous design that revels in chucking you off rickety platforms into poisonous waters.
Bang on sound design adds to the immersion well. The variations on each sound based on material are fabulous, with subtle changes depending on what materials are striking each other: metal, stone, wood, leather, decaying flesh, explosive magic, and more. The soundtrack has the occasional sweeping score moments but is mostly atmospheric and this is in no way a bad thing. The arrangement is what you’d expect from a fantasy game, but is appropriate and classic. Sadly, the frequency with which the music is played is low.
Dark Souls features live combat rather than turn based. This is where its vaunted difficulty lies. Part of the trick of survival is learning the timing and range of each weapon and enemy. Combat is surprisingly methodical, but satisfying. Death is handled as a respawn rather then a reload, and encourages players to learn. Boss battles revolve around studying tells and learning weaknesses rather then grinding levels. It makes the fights feel surprisingly fair. The few cheap shots it takes are spaced just far enough apart to keep you from feeling invulnerable and keep you paranoid.
While it is possible to build your character badly and spread your attribute points too thin while leveling, it’s actually pretty difficult. You can’t be a jack of all trades unless you’re an obsessive grinder (there is a HIGH level cap), but you are not nailed down to your starting class. Allotting enough points to do low level spells won’t hurt you at all as a fighter, but you will reach a point late game where specialization will give the most benefits. In other words, don’t split yourself between the three different types of magic, or suddenly decide as a melee fighter that you want to hit as hard with a bow as you do with that gigantic 40 strength requirement sword and be able to sprint in heavy armor. Get a feel for your preferences, then focus.
So why after all this praise is there a brutally, “meh,” score? As a single player game I’d give it a 4.5, but when taking the entirety of the game into account, Dark Souls is marred by its interestingly conceived but poorly executed online play.
The game automatically launches in online mode, and there is no visible option to turn it off or toggle it. You need to either not be connected to your account or to the internet. Oddly, being in party chat also bars you from online mode (which by all accounts was foolishly purposeful and not a glitch), though I cannot attest to this also being the case on Playstation 3.
Each player has their own instance of the world to play in, but can choose to try and “invade” other players for competitive combat. While level caps were added in an attempt to stop trolling, a serious glitch destroyed this aspect of the game for vulnerable low level players. There are no restrictions on what armor you can wear in the game, the only thing holding you back being if you’ve progressed far enough to discover the better gear. Likewise, there are no level caps on weapons though there are stat requirements. It is possible through a glitch to duplicate all of one’s fully upgraded end game armor and weapons from one character onto a brand new one. Thus the newest players are the most likely to have to deal with impervious trolls looking only to be a pain in your backside. This glitch was eventually patched, but characters already created with it are not removed, and its existence in the first build means that a character could still be made offline with the game un-patched then brought online later.
Covenants are an interesting idea, adding a depth to the multiplayer by giving a motivation, but also suffer from poor implementation. For example, the “Forest Hunters” are set to protect a zone and any player not of the covenant can be invaded by these players when they trespass on that area. The problem arises when you take into account that passage is necessary for completion of the game, and should you log on during a busy time of day you’ll have two to three invaders dumped on you within a few step every time. Even the helpful “Warriors of Sunlight” break the game, a covenant dedicated to helping other players by encouraging you to summon them as co-op “phantoms.” The world doesn’t scale to the number of players though and the most challenging and rewarding fights can become piffling matters, sometimes even more so with a Warrior of Sunlight due to their covenant bonus being the allowance of a wider level gap between themselves and the hosting player. The last thing you want is for the last battle of the entire game to be over in less then a minute after five sword swings and be left wondering at how anticlimactic the whole experience was.
There’s also no way to separate the co-operative and competitive play. You must be “Human” (fully fleshed, and receiving bonuses for going through the effort to maintain that state) as opposed to “Hollow” (fully undead and lacking bonuses) in order to participate in both co-op and PvP. No one can invade you while you are Hollow, but you won’t be able to summon your friends. In addition, the same penalties for dying at the hands on a creature apply for dying at the hands of an Invader and can actually be worse depending on their covenant. Everything from rare dragon scales to other things like your hard fought humanity bonus can be stolen, whereas the instigating player actually suffers surprisingly few consequences. Couple this with the trolling of low level players and the fact that some people out and out detest PvP in all games, and you have a recipe to drive new players away from the game entirely at worst.
Speaking of summoning your friends, best of luck doing so. There is no party system, no ability to join a session in progress, no way to send an invitation, or target a particular player at all. Players are summoned by placing a “sign” that then shows up in the game worlds of the others on a whole server. If someone needs help, they activate the sign and summon the player. If you want to play with a friend, you’ll have to pre-arrange a location for one of you to inscribe your sign and then proceed to spam it until the other can see it: not too fast though or you may pull it away before it has even had a chance to fully load into their world, but not too slow or you’ll be wasting all your time with it potentially sitting on a different server and lying out where another well meaning player may call you for help and interrupt your plans. Some days I was able to find my preferred co-op partner near instantaneously, others we wasted 45 minutes on our attempts until one of us had to give up and go to work.
The issue I must judge most harshly for however is the fact that online mode has the potential to wipe out all your progress. We are all familiar with the, “Do not turn off your console during an auto save, or you may lose some progress,” messages, but I suffered a glitch in which some ended up meaning all. A power outage occurred just as I was being invaded by another player. I expected I’d be reset to my last autosave, lose a bit of accrued experience, and maybe be missing a piece of gear I’d recently picked up. I was not expecting my save file to be corrupted to the point where even trying to view its details from the menu would cause my Xbox to crash and require me to delete it from the console system menu. The plus side is that Dark Souls is such a learning experience that redoing any portion of it is much easier once you know what’s what, but it still stung to lose 22 hours of gameplay, even if I made it up in 8 (with a liberal application of cooperative assistance). This issue is supposedly rare, though a friend’s save file suffered the same fate about two weeks later due to accepting a party chat invite and not realizing it would unceremoniously boot him from the game with force.
Any other complaints are piffling next to those. Like many games these days, it flirts occasionally with the idea of platforming and fails to do it well. The upgrade system has no integrated walkthrough, but experimentation is not too costly. “Parameter bonuses” are not explained, so some players don’t understand how to get the most out of their gear and skill point distribution. It’s not a game in which there is any shame in consulting a wiki.
Dark Souls stands as an entertaining hack and slash for those willing to pace themselves and not button mash. Its abusive nature and high degree of challenge make it a game I would not recommend to an easily frustrated friend, but would pass on to anyone looking for a sense of accomplishment in overcoming its trials. The journey may be important, but that sweet sense of victory is a pretty nice destination to enjoy.
High. “New Game Plus” features are included, with progressively increasing difficulty and experience rewards as well as a high level cap accessible no matter how many play throughs you are in to the game. Just don’t let the ending get you down.
This series is about those moments in games that ask us to not just think, but act, and claim full ownership of the consequences of our decisions, as well as the lessons we may or may not learn. This is dedicated to the games that ask more of us as gamers.
This particular entry may seem out of place given the lack of choice in the game I’ll be speaking about. Multiple paths, varied solutions, an emphasis on philosophy, or a design flexible enough to give a player autonomy within the game world can gift a moment much more importance then it would otherwise hold given it wouldn’t have happened without the player’s active input. In truth though, no story within a game is complete until the player adds their voice to the mix, as action is a part of the tale. Still… veteran gamers sometimes find themselves less invested in linear games with pre-scripted events due to the nagging sensation that what they’re witnessing would have happened no matter what they did.
Still though, movies, books, and music can grip and move us despite their set nature. As I look back on the massive catalogue of games I’ve played, this one moment I feel is deserving of some retrospective thought as many never gave it the consideration it deserved. There aren’t many linear games out there that through story rather then through scoring made me feel like I could have done better.
Given Halo 4′s recent release as well as a wealth of extended universe content that has come out in the intermittent time between, let’s take a trip back to a defining moment of Halo 3.
(Spoilers follow for segments of Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, and Halo 3 as well as small pieces of the extended series lore.)
In fast paced action games, characterization has a habit of falling by the wayside. It is not a genre that lends itself easily to the task, and sometimes the audience being targeted isn’t as receptive to it as many would hope, looking instead for the next thing to shoot.
Commander Miranda Keyes was very much written like a character you as the player were supposed to like, but weren’t given much reason to. The daughter of your former commanding officer in the first game, you end up under her command more out of happenstance then anything else. Stuff blows up, the bad guys are getting away, and guess who’s running the nearest ship that’s not shooting at you and can give chase? That named NPC from the opening cinematics, Commander Keyes.
Halo 2 was an ambitious game, with many events happening simultaneously. For the first time in the franchise, you actually played as multiple character: not only did you fill the role of the Master Chief, but also The Arbiter, gaining valuable insight into the minds of the opposing force and lending a depth to Halo’s overarching storyline. At the same time though, Keyes and Sergeant Avery Johnson were playing a big role within the plot, mostly off camera but for a stray few cutscences. Miranda didn’t have nearly as many character moments as her father Jacob. She may have done what was needed in a pinch, stopping this newly discovered Halo array from wiping out all life within its range, but it’s harder to fall in love with a character when you don’t get to watch them smash a couple lumbering powerful enemies with a prow of a drop ship with an abundance of snark just for the heck of it like her father did while the Marines cheered.
Despite so many contributions, you don’t even know the character’s fate until the sequel. Not only did she get back to Earth before you, and get put in command of a base, but also happened to be the one that started negotiations toward an alliance with a species formally a part of the enemy Covenant. Quite the dramatic offscreen resume, yet some die hards sadly spent more time arguing over whether she’d received a demotion just because an artist recolored the oak leaves on the collar of her uniform between games.
You knew Miranda was more then willing to put her neck on the line, take up the charge, and wasn’t asking any risks of the marine forces under her command she wasn’t willing to take on as well. She was the among the last to leave her base when it came under attack, taking up arms and ordering the wounded be evacuated first. These small noble actions gave an impression of the woman, but didn’t paint the picture in full.
The real tragedy of the character is that her final moments weren’t nearly as tragic as they should have been for many players.
In December of the year 2552, Earth was discovered to be the location of a portal leading to a Forerunner installation known as The Ark. Caught in an impossible situation, humanity had to choose whether to follow enemy Covenant forces through the portal to stop them abusing The Ark’s abilities to fire every Halo array in the galaxy thus killing every living thing above a certain level of sentience, or stay on Earth to stand fast against the incoming Flood invasion which was sure to wipe out the planet. The portal was seen as an unknown factor, too great a risk, but due to her faith in the AI Cortana as well as in the Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 (AKA you), Commander Keyes risked her reputation, voiced her disagreement directly to the Fleet Admiral, and volunteered to lead forces through the portal to pursue the enemy. Put into command of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn, she led a small fleet to The Ark, working closely with the Sangheili Shipmaster Rtas ’Vadum to push back the Covenant loyalists.
It was a conflict fought on many fronts both in space and on the ground, but eventually the Covenant not only took The Ark’s control room, but also had Sergeant Avery Johnson as a prisoner, planning to use him to override the fact that the Forerunner installation’s controls were locked for them but not to a human. Upon confirming with the Master Chief that he was too far away to prevent the catastrophe, Keyes crashed the pelican drop ship she had been planning to extract the whole team with into the control room. Alone and outnumbered, Keyes took on the Prophet of Truth’s Jiralhanae honor guard with only a shotgun and a pistol. Unable to leave, Johnson urged Keyes to shoot him then herself to deprive the Prophet of the live human touch needed. Due to only a moment of empathetic hesitation, Miranda failed to kill Johnson before taking several “Spiker” rounds to the back, dying swiftly.
Arriving on the scene soon after, the Master Chief was able to stop the firing of the rings after Johnson’s simple request to, “save the rest,” as he closed his Commander’s unseeing eyes. We’re quickly caught up in The Arbiter’s vengeance on the Prophet of Truth, striking him down for being a part of the corrupt Covenant system that had deluded so many and brought on the whole pointless war. But the most powerful moment for myself within that sequence went mostly unnoticed as it passed quietly in the background between moments of high drama.
As the Prophet breathed his last and the Arbiter had his satisfaction, Sergeant Johnson quietly carried Miranda Keyes from the battle field unto the drop ship she had flown in to rescue him. Her body would not be taken and mutated by the Flood. He may have even intended for her to receive a proper burial on Earth rather than rotting on an unknown world lightyears from home. The many implications behind that final act of respect made by a character so often used as comic relief throughout the series left an impression.
It wasn’t until after this moment that content began to surface in books and the like that gave us a glimpse of Keyes’ character. She had a difficult youth having been given up by her mother in essence because ofyour character, the Spartan program taking too much of a toll on her mother’s time and conscience. Later in life, she even learned the truth of her mother’s crimes, bearing the burden of yet another reason to hate her own flesh and blood and deny any relation. Her father was rarely home; his teaching career didn’t last long due to the need for experienced officers on the front lines. Even within the UNSC she faced near constant accusations of nepotism, despite her first assignment actually being considered remarkably bad: assigning someone who graduated from Luna officer candidate school with honors to an unarmed science vessel would seem a waste, at least until she saved multiple UNSC vessels by sacrificing that little ship in the Battle of Gamma Pavonis VII and earned a promotion as well as her first command. Many gamers would never know that by the time of Halo 2 and 3 she believed herself to be the last of her family, her father having been confirmed dead and her mother having been presumed the same. They wouldn’t know alot of things that would have given the sequence much more depth.
So to any of you considering replaying Halo 3, take a moment to consider those moments of tragedy rather then allow them to be lost in the glossy sheen of heroism. They’ll give the triumphs that much more meaning.