Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Misunderstanding Feminism's Critique of The Witcher 3

Erik Kain's recent article on the issue of sexism in The Witcher 3 has prompted me to write a piece in response. The reason for this is not that Kain's arguments are particularly interesting or novel, but because they highlight some of the most common misunderstandings that prevent many intelligent people from grasping the feminist arguments advanced by critics such as Anita Sarkeesian. I'm going to elaborate on three of these misunderstandings in this blog post in order to bring some clarity to the situation.

Misunderstanding 1. Confusing the portrayal of sexism as dark and gritty with its thoughtful criticism. 

Kain uses his defense of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series and its representation of rape as an example of how the sexism in The Witcher 3 might be justified. He writes:

Some critics at the time argued that author George R.R. Martin included rape to titillate, not to show how dark and gritty Westeros was. They responded to the argument that this was a genuine attempt to show how bad things were for women in Medieval times by saying “Well it’s fantasy so that’s just sexist.”

This idea, that violence towards women in fantasy fiction works as a criticism of "how bad things were for women in Medieval times," gets raised a lot, but shows a misunderstanding of what most feminist writers mean by "critique." One point made repeatedly by feminists is that no matter how disturbing the portrayal of sexual violence against women in a work of fiction might be, it does not count as critique unless it goes to significant lengths to examine thoughtfully the systemic causes and cultural prejudices behind it. Lacking this level of development, the appearance of sexual violence ends up being a matter of exploitation, a means to stimulate and excite the player emotionally at the expense of a woman's dignity.

So if The Witcher 3's depiction of prostitutes, rape, and misogyny is more than just the usual forms of exploitation, it's up to the defenders of the game like Kain to show us where and how the game thoughtfully critiques sexism (beyond something like, "oh isn't it just awful!"). Kain doesn't provide such an account in his article.

Misunderstanding 2. Thinking that feminists want to counter sexism in fiction by forbidding its representation outright.

Kain makes this broad point in defense of The Witcher 3's inclusion of sexism in its universe:

Fiction is supposed to highlight real world issues. Rape is a real world issue. Sexism is something women actually confront in their jobs, at home. Why is it off limits to actually address that with fantasy fiction? 

This argument gets brought up a lot as a counter to Sarkeesian and others. It suggests that feminist critics are arguing for the wholesale elimination of the representation of sexism from all fiction, regardless of its context.

This is simply a misinformed view of the situation. No serious feminist critic is pushing for sexism, or any other topic for that matter, to be off limits for fiction. That would just be censorship.

Rather, what most feminist critics are focused on is how sexism is included in our fiction uncritically, unreflectively, for the sole purpose of entertainment (see point 1). Rape, physical abuse, sexual slavery, and other forms of misogyny are frequently put into fictional fantasy worlds to give it "color," to make it intense, stimulating, and/or exciting, without taking the time to responsibly explore the subject matter.

Fictional sexism might be reflective of real world sexism, but without contextualizing that in some way that interrogates the situation thoughtfully, simply putting it in the fiction contributes nothing positive, but has the effect of perpetuating it without any check.

Misunderstanding 3. Failing to see how one's own unconscious biases prevents one from understanding the debate on sexism. 

This one is more of a challenge than a misunderstanding. It is one of the harder points to grasp too, so I'll take it slow.

First, Kain argues against having something like gender equality in The Witcher 3 by stating the following:

There is fantasy out there where gender roles are much less traditionally defined. Lots of fantasy has tough warrior women who don’t need to be rescued by the knight in shining armor. It’s a genre that has a little bit of something for everyone. But much of it—the good stuff anyways—is believable.

What Kain goes on to argue from this paragraph is that putting gender equality in The Witcher 3 would undermine the realism of its medieval setting, and along with that, his ability to enjoy it. That's just how it was back then, he claims, and censoring that for the sake of some small group's "political agenda" would be silly.

At the same time, it must be noted, he has no problem with the inclusion of sorcerers and monsters (which certainly did not exist in any period of history) and does not see them as detracting from the game's realism.

Now why is this so? Why is it "the good stuff" if it breaks realism with magic and monsters but not the good stuff if it does that by changing the gender dynamics? What is behind this arbitrary preference for one flawed version of realism over another?

The reason, I would offer, is that Kain's preference is not really motivated by a desire for "realism" and beliveability but, like a lot of male gamers, by his unconscious wish to have his ego gratified. The sexism of The Witcher 3 flatters the male ego by repeatedly asserting its freedom to objectify women. Objectifying women gives men power over them and hence helps fulfill a typical male power fantasy. In other words, Kain tries to pass off his desire to indulge in a male-centered fantasy world in which women are objectified as a matter of realism when it is anything but.

If you don't believe this, consider for a moment how Kain and others who use the realism argument to justify misogyny in The Witcher 3 completely overlook how the game's so-called realistic depiction of medieval sexism is largely inaccurate. Women did not wear anything like the skimpy costumes and underwear portrayed in The Witcher 3 during that period, nor did not speak or behave in the ways represented in the game. No one, including Kain, however, seems to bothered by this lack of historical realism regarding the representation of gender in the game.

Kain therefore merely picks and chooses the bits of "reality" that most flatter his own sense of self-worth and accommodate his fantasies while ignoring the inconsistencies that come from this cobbling together. At the same time, he actively resists anyone that tries to point this out. Believability is only code for pleasure in his argument. Kain accepts what fulfills his fantasy (consciously and unconsciously) as reality and rejects what doesn't as unrealistic.

The psychological principle operating here is akin to the one used by con-artists. People are less likely to question things that please or flatter them, so hiding deceptions and lies within compliments is an effective way to create belief in them. Kain, like many male gamers, accepts the things that flatter and please his sense of self without much interrogation.

Conversely, male gamers like Kain will fight adamantly to convince themselves and others that they are not being conned. Games like The Witcher 3 appeal to sexist attitudes and fantasies that are gratifying to male egos. Because they flatter the male ego, male gamers are motivated to defend it. They don't do this consciously, but unconsciously they recognize that this certain thing (game) makes them feel good and because of this they see anything that would force them to see it for the flattery it is as a threat. If the fantasy were exposed, they would be deprived of the pleasure that believing in the fantasy (which is, by definition, a lie) gives them. So they attempt to argue that the fantasy (lie) is realistic (true).

Inevitability, because this line of argument is inherently irrational, it will fall apart when anyone looks at it carefully. This is the case with Erik Kain's defense of The Witcher 3, which, at its core, tries to convince us that a world populated by dragons, elves, and unicorns is more "realistic" than one in which women are not subject to ritual scorn and humiliation.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Metal Gear Solid and Psychoanalysis (Part I)

Though the Metal Gear Solid series has been the subject of countless analyses, one of its most important and challenging dimensions has gone utterly unexamined: its psychoanalytic narrative. To me, this is a major oversight. Symbols of castration, Oedipal conflicts, incest fantasies, and repression are all defining components of the MGS story. But no one (to my knowledge) has paid them any attention. This article is the first part in a series that will fill this gap in our critical appreciation of MGS.


Firstly, let me explain that when I say "psychoanalysis," I am referring to the seminal theories of Sigmund Freud and subsequent psychologists exploring the contents of the unconscious mind. Later in this article, I will get into the specifics of these theories. For now, suffice it to say that the basic premise of psychoanalysis is that the human psyche is rooted a set of early childhood conflicts that get repressed in adulthood. Being repressed does not mean they are forgotten. Rather, the early conflicts become unconscious templates for our future personalities and behaviors that guide us without us being aware of them. This is the core premise of psychoanalytic theory.

Some might object right here. "Hasn't Freud been discredited/disproven today?" Though this is a complicated issue, the simple answer is No. While it is true that in the U.S., psychology departments have a critical attitude toward psychoanalysis, in other regions, such as South America and Europe, it still has considerable clout. Furthermore, in the U.S. today, psychoanalysis is undergoing a mini-renaissance in the field of neurology.

More to the point, the scientific standing of psychoanalysis doesn't really matter for my analysis, because what we are talking about is the realm of art. Whether Freud is right or wrong, his theories have had a profound influence on writers and film makers, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ridley Scott, who have found the unconscious to be a compelling concept for their works. MGS, as a series deeply informed by these specific film makers, inherits their Freudian influences as well, as I will show.

Big Boss and Oedipus

To get started, let's take stock of the fact that the central drama of the MGS series is an Oedipal conflict. Big Boss is himself an Oedipal figure: a tragic hero-king who loses an eye and is punished for his unwitting "incest" (in this case, incest with himself via cloning). More importantly, the sons (Solid, Liquid, Solidus), map out an Oedipal relationship by fighting with each other and against their father for control of their destinies. The sons are completely defined by their relationship to the father, not only because they are his clones, but because who and what they are is decided by how they relate themselves to him. Some fight to overcome him, while others endeavor to complete his plans. Whatever the case, their identities spring from and are shaped by his choices.

For many of Freud's patients, the image of the father, or "father imago," played a central role in constructing the unconscious mind. In essence, he found that an image/recording of the father from childhood would be implanted in the psyche. As a result, no matter how old one got, or whether one's actual father was still living, within the unconscious mind, one was forever engaged in a childhood struggle with the father, fighting (even though one consciously couldn't see it without Freud's help) to free oneself from his control. This battle was unconsciously shaping adult behaviors.

MGS essentials literalizes this relationship with the father imago by making the sons genetic clones of the father. In this case, the image of the father is literally copied into their genes. As a result, the sons can never be sure if they are unconsciously carrying out the program of the father or making their own independent decisions. This is thematizes for the player in the many instances in which Solid Snake must question the purport of his actions. Is he fighting against his father or, unwittingly, helping to create the world he wished for?

For example, Liquid's exchange with Solid toward the end of MGS1 highlights how Snake's actions might not be his own, but part of his genetic program:

Liquid: "So why are you here then? Why do you continue to follow orders while your superiors betray you?"

Snake: "..."

Liquid: "I'll tell you then. You enjoy all the killing! That's why."

Snake: "WHAT?!"

Liquid: "Are you denying it?! Haven't you already killed most of my comrades? I watched your face as you did was filled, with the joy of battle."

Snake: "You're wrong..."

Liquid: "There's a killer inside don't have to deny it. We were created, to be that way!"

Snake: "Created?"


In MGS series in general, the sons live in the shadow of the father. They are all fighting to define themselves in some relation to him. In MGS1, this is even figured by the location of "Shadow Moses." To be in the shadow of Moses is to be in the shadow the great patriarch-father of the West.

Please Don't Take Away My Solid Snake

To go deeper into the Oedipal dimensions of the MGS series, we need to discuss Freud's theory in more detail. For Freud, the Oedipal conflict crystallizes for the child around the struggle for the mother. The mother is, naturally, the child's first love object, as she is the source of his greatest pleasures and the fulfillment of his greatest needs (coddling, stroking, feeding). The problem, however, is that the child has a competitor for the mother's affections: father. This leads to an animosity toward the father on the part of the child. He is in the way of a perfect relationship with the mother.

Now Freud noted that this conflict between father and son was often "resolved" by a certain incident. At some point in the child's early life, he would catch sight of a naked woman (usually his mother or sister) and he would realize that they don't have a penis. The child would then wonder if this lack was a punishment, possibly dished out by the father (the most powerful figure in his life). This thought put the fear of god into the child and pressed him to give up fighting with father over the mother. Consequently, the son represses his desire for the mother and identifies with the father, working to become his copy.

The repression of the Oedipal conflict, however, does not mean it is over. Like all repressed content in the unconscious, it carries on in the life of the adult. In Freud's analysis, this most frequently translates to symbols of "castration," such as the loss of eyes, arms, legs, and or body parts in dreams and works of fiction. These images of dismemberment stand in for a more fundamental and earlier threat of loss posed by the all-mighty father, and serve as a perpetually warning.

MGS is covered with these symbols of castrations. Ocelot loses his arm. Liquid is dismembered. Raiden loses his arm. Miller loses a leg. Solidus loses an eye. Solid Snake loses his virility and, in a sense, his eye through replacement. These could all be read as figurations of the unconscious conflict with the father who threatens to unman his rebellious sons. In essence, all of these characters are metaphorically castrated for their opposition to the father.

Castration also appears in less obvious ways in the series. I would include Big Boss in this list of castrated characters. Though he is the father in the MGS series, he is also an Oedipal figure guilty of a symbolic incest (cloning). He is correspondingly castrated for this, losing his eye and arm. More subtly, Kojima makes castration a core feature of MGS2, as I have argued previously. He took away our Solid Snake (a great euphemism for an erection and phallic virility) and gave us a castrato to play with instead. The player was thus castrated by the game, unmanned by the character swap.

To Be Continued...

I have so much more to say in future posts, like how Solid and Liquid represent two different paths through the Oedipal conflict, the importance of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and their relation to Outer Heaven, and the psychoanalytic significance of the clones absent mother. So please check back soon for more!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Reddit Conversation about Gender in Videogames

Below is a discussion about gender representation in videogames that I participated in on reddit. It begins with redditor DeckardPain expressing his frustration over the push to better representation. He fears it might cripple artistic freedom. But he is also trying to understand why it's such a big issue today. Redditor Genermis responds, but DeckardPain feels his questions aren't being answered. 

The Game Philosophe to the rescue! I went about systematically answering all of Deckard's Q's on the forum. The reply ending up being quite long so I decided that I would share it with my readers. The first part is a bit of the exchange between DeckardPain and Genermis. My response follows. Enjoy!

[–]DeckardPain 1 point  
Fair gender representation really doesn't have a place in any work of fiction in my opinion.

If the entire gender equality issue in video games gets to the point where developers are coerced into abiding by your specific standards and how you want to be seen as a gender, then where does the gender equality issue cross the line into the territory of game developers' & designers' freedom of expression?

If you're coercing game devs to represent X the way X wants to be seen every time, then doesn't it step on their toes a bit too much?

Example: MGS5's character Quiet. Kojima has had a risqué characters in almost every iteration of the MGS franchise. So why the problem now? Is it gender equality band wagoners just pointing the finger at anything they can? Is it that people are just becoming more and more meek? When did the movement of "you're hurting my feelings, please stop" from people older than high school kids become a thing? I'm not asking to irritate you, I'm asking because I genuinely don't get where this shit came from.
[–]Genermis 2 points  
We are tired of being analyzed, defined and represented by people other than ourselves, or worse yet, not considered at all. We are frustrated by the imposed isolation and invisibility that comes from being told or expected to choose either a homosexual or heterosexual identity.
[–]DeckardPain 1 point  
While I don't necessarily get where you're coming from because I can't really relate to your issue, I don't disagree with you or think that your stance is wrong.

One of the biggest problems I have with discussing any controversial subject with someone who is a strong advocate for the subject on either side, is that they always feel the need to go into defensive mode straight from the start.

Try to believe me when I say I'm not typing it to troll, bash, or hate on you and your preferences.

Again I only posed the questions because people rarely ever think of the bigger picture outside of themselves. Now what I'm going to say may offend or make you angry, so I'm sorry but I'm going to say it anyways but please try to remember what is in bold above.

I get that you're passionate about the subject, but you honestly sound like some Anonymous fanboy preaching on your soapbox with your first reply to me. I get that this is a product of being passionate on a subject, and I'm not flaming you or shit talking you for it. Just wanted to make sure you were aware of how it appears to an outsider.

The initial question I posed was:
If the entire gender equality issue in video games gets to the point where developers are coerced into abiding by your specific standards and how you want to be seen as a gender, then where does the gender equality issue cross the line into the territory of game developers' & designers' freedom of expression?
If you're coercing game devs to represent X the way X wants to be seen every time, then doesn't it step on their toes a bit too much?
I would still really like this question answered as best you can, because I strongly support the idea of keeping gender equality out of all forms of fiction.
I'll answer all of your questions.
where does the gender equality issue cross the line into the territory of game developers' & designers' freedom of expression?
First, calling certain groups' requests for representation a restriction on artistic freedom is a stretch. How is providing more choices and identities limiting creativity?
If you're coercing game devs to represent X the way X wants to be seen every time, then doesn't it step on their toes a bit too much?
Again, you're framing the issue as a zero sum game when it isn't. It's not about fighting over what X should be, it's about getting Y and Z to be part of the picture as well. It's not restricting representation, it's expanding it, it's multiplying the possibilities.
Kojima has had a risqué characters in almost every iteration of the MGS franchise. So why the problem now?
This is my favorite bit from you because it reveals so much about why you fail to grasp the issues at stake, so I'm going focus on it. 

You equate the current criticism of gender representation to something as trivial as the hurt feelings of high school kids and you wonder when people stopped growing up. 

Ironically, it is you who are still stuck in a high school mentality and the rest of the world that has grown up. Let me bring you up to speed.

The current critique of gender representation concerns centuries of a patriarchal worldview that sought to impose certain normative views of gender and exclude others that didn't fit into that scheme. This worldview, by the way, includes the placement of men above women, the treatment of women and objects of property (literally property not that long ago), and the labeling of homosexuals as diseased criminals (up until the 1970s in the US, gay men could be ordered by a court of law to undergo electroshock therapy to "cure" them of their disorder). The discrimination still continues today in powerful ways that include the pervasive representation of women as sex objects in popular media (the Quiet, for example) and the widespread resistance to recognizing homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgendered individuals as legitimate sexual orientations and identities.

"Hurt feelings," I hope you can see, doesn't quite capture the significance of a centuries-old culture of systematic oppression that gender critics are shedding light on today. Would you call the discussion about slavery and segregation in US and the social inequalities of its aftermath still felt today a matter of "hurt feelings"? Would you say the discussion about the colonial rape of natural resources in Africa and Asia by Europeans in the 19th century, and the systemic poverty and political turmoil that carries on today as a result of it, "hurt feelings"?
Is it gender equality band wagoners just pointing the finger at anything they can? Is it that people are just becoming more and more meek?
No and No. People are becoming more conscious of the historical and contemporary realities of gender discrimination (just as they are about race, class, and exploitation) and they are beginning to challenge people who perpetuate (consciously or unconsciously) the values and norms that have privileged a certain white, male identity at the expense of everything else.
where does the gender equality issue cross the line into the territory of game developers' & designers' freedom of expression?
I have something else to say about this question because it gets raised a lot. No one is trying to deny artists freedom of expression in any legalistic sense. The current criticism about gender is an extension of the freedom of expression--the freedom of critique. Anyone who wants to participate in any public forum, in a free society, has to accept this as part of the package. You post on Reddit or a forum, you are implicitly accepting that others can respond to your statements in any way they want. The same is true for works of art and consumer products. Creators have the right to make what they want, and the rest of the world has the right to say and criticize it however they want.

You might be thinking now, "Bah, bah, bah, bah doesn't that put pressure on creators to conform to the whining babies? Won't that push them to compromise their artistic vision?"

The answer is that this will depend on each creator. If his/her "artistic vision" entails a game with scantly clad women being rescued by muscle-bound white men, he or she is free to pursue that vision to his/her heart's content. If the voices of others point out the ways the creation perpetuates values that have systematically oppressed millions and this makes the creator feel uncomfortable, that's just too bad for the creator. Freedom of expression is a two-way street.

You see Deckard, we live in what's called a "society," and part of growing up in this society is realizing that it consists of other people who don't always agree with us or share our values or, heaven forbid, challenge our worldviews (even if we are video game makers!). I know it sucks. It'd be great if we could all just live in our own specially designed echo-chambers and have our egos endlessly gratified, but that's just how things are. Try to manage as best you can.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Bloodborne's World Will Be Divided, Not Interconnected.

Watching the recent IGN gameplay video, it seems that Bloodborne's approach to world design will follow the template of Demon's Souls fairly closely.

In Demon's Souls, players accessed the game's main zones through a central hub called the Nexus. Within the Nexus were several "Archstones" (one for each zone) that allowed the player to warp to a specific area. The zones, though they could be intricately designed themselves, were not however connected with each other, nor was the hub world attached to any of them. Rather, each zone simply had its own subzones which would be accessed by through its designated Archstone.

For many, this was a design shortcoming that Demon's Souls spiritual successor, Dark Souls, overcame by replacing the Nexus and its Archstones with a fully interconnected world in which bonfires provided checkpoints.

It seems that Bloodborne is backsliding on this point.

At around 5:10 in the IGN video linked above, you can see the player use a "headstone of awakening" to warp from a central hub, called the Dream Refuge, to the zone "Above Ground." Specifically, the player selects the subzone called First Floor Sickroom. Crucially, other, yet-to-be-activated headstones can be seen nearby.

Later in the video, after the player has progressed through the area, another subzone (Central Yharnam) is added to the Above Ground headstone. The player returns to the Dream Refuge hub and uses the headstone to warp back to this more advanced point.

The scheme appears identical to that of Demon's Souls' unlocking subzones. But how does this show that Bloodborne will be subdivided like Demon's Souls? After all, couldn't it be the case the world is still interconnected like Dark Souls, just with a detached hub world grafted on top of it?

My answer is that it is highly unlikely that Bloodborne's world will be fully interconnected, and that instead, interconnection will be limited to self-contained zones. Here's why:

If the world were fully interconnected, there would be no need for the multiple headstones of awakening we see in the Dream Refuge hub. The only reason for having multiple headstones would be a divided game world.

Think about it. If the world were completely interconnected like Dark Souls, then any warp point should be able to send you to any other warp point. Having more than one headstone in the hub world would then be a pure redundancy with no purpose. Since it's implausible that the designers of the game would just throw in unnecessary headstones, there must be something that makes them useful. And the only thing that would make multiple headstones useful would be the existence of disconnected zones.

Another point to consider is the fact that when the player in the video touches the second warp point, Central Yharnam, that returns him back to the hub (15:07), the menu that pops up does not give him the option of warping to the First Floor Sickroom warp point. He is only given the option to return to the Dream Refuge--just as in Demon's Souls where warp points could only take you back to the Nexus and not send you to other areas (even areas within the zone you are playing).

Some might wonder why From would do this. Don't they understand that Dark Souls' interconnected world was a major improvement over the hub system of Demon's Souls!

The fact is, there are plenty of reasons why From would decide to do this. One is load times. Having a fully interconnected world presents design challenges concerning where to conduct loading as the player moves through the world. From might have decided to simplify this by putting hard divisions between areas.

Another possible reason is the inherent difficulty of designing a fully interconnected world. From might not have had the time to do this, and decided instead to focus on making each zone itself interconnected without bothering to make all the zones come together as well.

Of course, without official confirmation or more gameplay, this remains speculation on my part. But I feel confident that what I've said will prove to be true. What we've seen just doesn't make sense otherwise.

But what do you think? Would you welcome a return to the Demon's Souls hub system? Or are you disappointed that From is taking a step backward? Let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Evil Within Review

The Evil Within is what you call "a flawed gem." Having played through the game on Survivor difficulty and being about to finish a run on Nightmare, I can say with some authority that the game is seriously bogged down in a lot of frustrating stuff. For example, there's a crate you can hide in one of the game's later chapters. On several occasions (but not consistently), I was "seen" by a patrolling zombie through the crate's wall, resulting in an insta-gameover (you can't be spotted in this section). More generally, the stealth in the game is not implemented well, and the same can be said for context sensitive actions, which are often finicky.

But despite these flaws, there are just a number of things that The Evil Within does well or interestingly that make it a compelling game for me. It's very challenging and demands a good deal of effort from the player. At the same time, it's a quirky game with an off-kilter sensibility and rhythm that make it stand out from the herd. These parts come together and create a kind of synergy.

The first thing we can talk about is its story. Its disorienting and fragmentary presentation is unconventional in the world of videogames. I lot of people dislike it for this reason, but I personally find it stimulating and intriguing. Rather than being direct and concrete, the narrative is dreamlike and abstract. Think David Lynch rather than Cormac McCarthy, because enjoying the story requires a certain appreciation for the surrealist tradition and its willingness to defy logical conventions. You'll have to think about the narrative if you want to make connections between events in the game, and some questions have no clear answers, but the invitation to think and speculate is something I find rewarding in and of itself.

For example, I would contend that the stylistic direction of the game is meaningfully connected to the actual narrative. Both (style and story) communicate the idea that identity and consciousness are fragile constructions of the mind that can be broken and refashioned. TEW's central villain, Ruvik, is a scientist interested in just this, i.e., the constructedness of selfhood and how it can be taken apart and made into something else. Narrative and autobiography play a major role in creating our sense of self, and the fact that TEW is willing to play with this by presenting an incomplete portrait of its events fits into this exploration of the artificiality of the self.

Unique game mechanics also serve to elevate TEW. For example, enemies get up a lot after being shot, even though they seem to be dead. To be sure they won't harass you any further, you have to burn them with matches, which are a limited resource. Viewed "realistically" it's a silly contrivance. You even have to upgrade your character so he can carry more than five matches at a time. However, in the heat of battle, it adds layers of depth and strategy to the game that are fairly unique. You can burn nearby enemies by setting a fallen undead on fire. This leads to tense situations where you use yourself as bait to lure monsters to a body, only to set both ablaze with a well-timed strike. It's nonsensical and gamey, but it's also a lot of fun and unlike anything else.

The game's aiming system is another strength I feel that most reviewers have passed over. What's special about it is that aiming your weapon zooms the camera into essentially a first-person perspective. Where most third-person shooters keep the camera just behind and above the avatar's shoulder, in TEW, you zoom right past that position to look through the character's eyes. This really threw me the first time I used a gun, but in time, I came to really appreciate the way it made battle more immersive and heightened in detail, as it is in FPS's.

As a survival horror game, TEW pulls no punches. The scales almost always feel like they are tipped against you and, for the most part, this is intentional. Opponents are usually faster, stronger, and more resilient. Resources are limited, traps are devious, and checkpoints are erratic. Overall, these design decisions serve to enhance the game.

For starters, by putting the player at a distinct disadvantage, the game embraces survival horror in ways that recent games seem afraid to. TEW isn't scary per se, but it keeps ever mindful of your situation and vulnerability, pressing you to look nervously around every corner wondering what's coming next. The relative slowness of your avatar is as essential to this feeling as is your limited ammunition. It has its shortcomings, but I find this version of survival horror more satisfying than those conjured up in Dead Space and The Last of Us. Dead Space indulges power fantasies by putting the player in the position of a powerful cyborg with advanced weaponry, and relies on jump scares and monster closets for its horror, which becomes tedious and predictable fairly early on. The Last of Us relies on visuals and narrative to shock the player rather terrifying gameplay. TEW, by contrast, achieves its horror through its core mechanics.

More significantly, difficulty is how TEW shows its respect for the player as a thinking, curious, problem-solving human being. The game is rough around the edges, but much of that comes from the fact that it isn't holding your hand and telling you what to do. Instead, the game wants the player to figure things out for him or herself. This can and will lead to confusion and frustration, but it is, perhaps unavoidably, a necessary corollary to letting the player discover things in his/her own way. There's a lot of viable paths to tackling a problem in TEW, and most of them require intelligence and foresight. The third chapter of the game, which pits you against a village full of undead and traps, manages this brilliantly. Occasionally, things don't work well, but this is more the exception than the rule and only becomes genuinely bothersome on the highest difficulties.

I think it's this commitment to serious game design that ultimately sold me on TEW. At every moment, from fighting, to resource management, to upgrading my stats between levels, I felt the game effectively communicated that how things went down depended on me and the choices I made. It respected me to think for myself when confronted with a challenge and to deal with the consequences of my actions. It regularly threw new problems my way and rarely played the same trick twice. As a result, each session felt fresh and exciting.

I'm surprised at how much I've enjoyed playing The Evil Within the past four weeks, because it's a game with serious issues. As many critics have pointed out, the controls and mechanics are opaque and sometimes inconsistent, and in many ways it is a throwback to a long-gone era of gaming. And yet, despite these problems, I've played this game more and had more fun with it than its more polished survival horror stablemates such The Last of Us and Dead Space. Sometimes I wonder if I like TEW because its flaws and not in spite of them as they give it a certain charm. But ultimately I think that in today's AAA culture of playing to the lowest common denominator, it's a pleasure to play a game that isn't afraid to treat me as an adult. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bloodborne Multiplayer Needs More Innovation

After watching some of the streams of the Bloodborne alpha today, I can't help feel that, at least in terms of the multiplayer, the game comes off as a little stale. 

I was hoping for some real innovation in this department. So far, things seem pretty much the same, with only superficial differences. Messages, bloodstains, and phantoms are still there, only now the messages appear as a scroll, the bloodstains are a tombstone, and phantoms are more wire-frame. Otherwise, they function exactly the same. Wow, what a revolution!

I haven't seen much of any co-op, but from what I've read, it seems you ring a bell to summon/be summoned. Again, not a huge change.

It might be premature, but it's starting to look like Miyazaki's secretiveness about the multiplayer system was only hiding the fact that there's nothing to hide at all.

It's a shame, because just on my lonesome, I've been able to think up much better things to do with the game. For example, why not ditch the cumbersomeness of selecting text messages and instead let the player hit a button that begins recording their play for 30 seconds. Players could teach other players about secrets and strategies by letting that recording float around the server. Helpful phantoms could be thanked by shaking the controller.

Or how about, for co-op, make it truly seamless by having players enter and exit each other's worlds automatically, without prompting. Determining whether the other player is friend or foe would become a tense, but inevitable, part of gameplay experience. Co-operation would finally have real weight and consequences, as now working together would require an actual bond of trust.

Neither of these things would have been impossible to implement. But instead of pushing themselves, FROM seems to have decided to retread their once revolutionary, but now overly familiar, multiplayer ideas.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bloodborne's Gameplay and Difficulty: On the Mainstreamification of the Souls Series

With all the recent info that has come out on Bloodborne this past week, I've decided to write-up my own thoughts about the game at the moment. Mainly, I've noticed a couple of things about the game that I think people have generally missed because they require you to read between the lines of all the various press releases, interviews, and demonstrations that have come out over the weeks leading up to and including Gamescon. These points have to do with the nature of Bloodborne's gameplay and its difficulty, as well as with how these things fit into the evolution of Souls series toward what can be called the "mainstream gaming audience."

First, regarding Bloodborne's gameplay: After reviewing the leaked footage from Gamescon and assessing it in light of From's past statements about the game, I've come to the conclusion that although Bloodborne's dark aesthetic is reminiscent of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, its design is much more influenced by Dark Souls II. In the first place, Bloodborne will return us to Dark Souls II's emphasis on mob combat with renewed force. Watching the Gamescon footage, you will see that players come against many enemies who attack in groups rather than one-on-one. This was a gameplay direction introduced by Dark Souls II and it marked a significant departure from the previous two Souls games which favored single enemy encounters. It's safe to say that the mob combat style will be a staple of Bloodborne as well, as From has said more than once that the threat of being overwhelmed by multiple enemies is part of the game's core design philosophy.

Another point to consider is how Bloodborne constructs player's combat repetoire. Like Dark Souls II, Bloodborne will emphasize the agility of the player. Dark Souls II made this into its own stat within the RPG mechanics of the Souls series. Its function in that game was to increase the character's ability to react swiftly and dodge enemy attacks. In Bloodborne, this stat has been made into an obligatory feature of  gameplay, with evasive swiftness now being a necessary part of the player's toolset rather than an optional playstyle. In essence, what was a new, experimental mechanic in Dark Souls II will now be a crucial, required component of Bloodborne.

There are lots of other little things that suggest that Bloodborne and Dark Souls II are conceptually connected in terms of design. The return of torches and dark spaces in Bloodborne hints that this attempted and seemingly abandoned mechanic in Dark Souls II is being re-attempted in Bloodborne. Also, at least one character revealed in the Gamescon footage appears to be a near copy-and-paste of an enemy from Dark Souls II. I am speaking here of the cloaked monster banging on the gate that appears around 2:45 in this video. The enemy is very similar to the Undead Jailors fought in the Lost Bastille section of Dark Souls II.

I think these links between Dark Souls II and Bloodborne should be seen as very significant. For starters, it undermines a hard and fast division between the two games that many fans have imagined to exist within From Software's development process. In an interview with Miyazaki (the director of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls), it was reported that Dark Souls II was developed by a separate team of which Miyazaki was not a part. At the time, Miyazaki was actually working on Bloodborne with another team. Some have used this fact as a way of asserting that Bloodborne will be cut from a whole other cloth from that of Dark Souls II. I think these initial comparisons between the games that I have made suggest a different relationship between the two games. Rather than happening in separate isolation chambers, it's clear that there was a good deal of communication and shared design ideas between the two teams. Indeed, it appears that the two games grew out of the same pool of ideas and were guided by same overall plan to re-tool the series into something else. It is this something else that I think fans of the first two games should take time to pause and consider, because it is part and parcel with From's apparent plan for the series since the success of Dark Souls.

The plan, in brief, is to make the Souls series into a more mainstream affair--a plan that, however beneficial it may be to the game's creators, conflicts with what some, including myself, would call the "purity" of the series. This purity, for better or worse, has to do with the uncompromising sense of difficulty, both in terms of figuring out how the overall game system works and mastering the individual challenges presented moment to moment, that the series reintroduced to the world. This is probably the most touchy subject for the games. In the past, any hint that their "hardcore" aspects would be pared back has been swiftly denounced by the most ardent fans. At the same time, there has been a consistent appeal from the wider gaming community that the game be made less unwelcoming to less dedicated gamers. Like it or not, From has shown itself to be more interested in reaching out to the latter group than in satisfying the hardcore desires of the former, and this is an attitude and approach that is written all over what we've been shown about Bloodborne so far.

Going back to the game's release at E3, snippets leaking out of a press meeting about Bloodborne being a less difficult game have been making the rounds. At Gamescon, some of these rumors became more concrete through some of From's own statements. According to multiple outlets, its developers are saying that "the sense of punishment is much less" this time around, explaining that they are aiming for a "wider audience." Some high profile fans, such as VaatiVidya, have been quick to dismiss the concerns rising from this, telling us to "trust in Miyazaki." Well, we've already been around that block before with Dark Souls II and its own "accessibility-gate," and we know where that ended, don't we?

Dark Souls II isn't a bad or easy game by any stretch of the imagination, but most fans of the first two games agree that a number of key elements that made Dark Souls and Demon's Souls so special, such as the large gaps between save-points and the regeneration of enemies, were significantly watered down in Dark Souls II. Other areas of compromise included the addition of voice-chat and targeted co-op, both of which I wrote about before the game came out. These were concessions to vocal gamers who weren't happy with the past entries and wanted to see the series remade along more popular conventions. From reps, including a Namco-Bandai Community Manager in response to my article, assured that these changes were not indications of series dilution (see the comments section of my post linked above). Once people finally got their hands on the game, however, it quickly became clear that something had happened to the Souls series over the course of Dark Souls II's development. Its vitality had been lost. Players weren't as moved by it as they were by the other games. Even diehard fans like EpicNameBro seem to have become apathetic to Dark Souls II at this point, despite having worked on the game's official strategy guide. Following its release, he hasn't done anything with the game in months.

Now, on the eve of Bloodborne's announcement, we are faced with the same situation, the same worries and apprehensions. From is once again making sounds about decreasing difficulty to reach a wider audience, and certain individuals are once again out in full force putting down anyone who dares to raise an eyebrow at these statements. My point is that we should learn from history and read these signs for what they are. Since Dark Souls, From has sought to market its series to an increasingly mainstream audience and the consequence of this is that it has become incrementally less compellingly intense and more banally accommodating.

Watching the demo footage from Gamescon and reading journalists' reports, it seems that Bloodborne will continue this trend by being a more forgiving game. Not only is the player character more agile than ever, making dodging considerably easier, the game further decreases the difficulty by installing a "regain" mechanic that lets player's quickly recoup lost health by (wildly, from the footage we've seen) striking back at enemies. In the demo footage leaked, one can see relatively inexperienced players gain back large swathes of health in this way simply by button-mashing. Some will defend this by citing reports that the difficulty of the demo was toned down to let players experience the full package. I remain skeptical of this. If thought about, the idea doesn't make much sense. Wouldn't that be tantamount to deceiving potential customers about the nature of the game, while at the same time alienating the series' biggest fans? I'm of the opinion that From's claim about the demo being dumbed-down is probably just a cover to stop diehard Souls players from finding out the truth until it's too late.

Some people say that we should simply trust in From. The same thing was suggested for Dark Souls II. Others try to blame Dark Souls II's failings on the absence of Miyazaki from the project, and using that as proof that Bloodborne will be better. I say such thinking is naive. There is clearly a great deal of overlap in terms of the concepts and design for both games, developed in tandem. If Dark Souls II failed to live up to the undiminished intensity of the prior games, it was not because Miyazaki wasn't involved in it. Rather, the shortcomings of Dark Souls II reflect From Software's new view of the Souls series as a mainstream title. Far from disappearing from Bloodborne, this broad-appeal philosophy clearly continues to be a driving force in its creation.

I worry that Bloodborne will  likely continue From's search for a wider audience by being a less demanding and less punishing game. I doubt it will be an easy game, and I hope there will be some good challenges along the way, but overall, I can't help but wonder if it will be part of the series' incremental slide to the lowest common denominator of video game culture, at which point violence, instant gratification, and accessibility become king.