Eater of Trees

Posts Tagged ‘games

(I also wrote a less formal discussion of what I liked about Portal 2 on my Tumblr.  This document contains spoilers.)

Portal 2 is unfortunately not nearly as inclusive as the first.  The first the worst problem (that I noticed) was that there was some implication that GlaDOS’s amorality was being equated with people with mental health issues.  Portal 2, however, has two points I found problematic: ableist humor (as well as some other varieties of bigoted humor) and the treatment of GlaDOS’s character.  The former was mostly small moments, but they recurred regularly throughout the game, and overall it created an environment that strongly sent a message that if you’re disabled (or otherwise nonnormative) you’re not worth anything.  The latter I’m slightly more ambivalent on, but it still contributed to an environment that made me uneasy.

Spoiler cut.

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I recently was reading someone talking about how silent protagonists in video are awesome because they let the player assume the role of the character, and the character is basically an insertion of the player into the game or some such.   Which seems reasonable on the surface, except in practice it doesn’t work that way.

My biggest issue is that they completely are not representative of the player.  At least, not if the player is me.  Most notably, almost inevitably these silent protagonists are male. (Examples coming to mind: Crono from Chrono Trigger, Gordon Freeman from Half Life (and sequels), Link from Zelda; I know there are more, feel free to look up ‘heroic mime’ on tvtropes)  They’re also often white, lack disability, and straight, but those don’t quite effect me in the same way.  (Which is to say, I’m not straight and do have several disabilities but the latter rarely would come up in the game’s story–possibly in the game play though–and the former means that I still generally like the same gender as the protagonist.)

The issue that I’ve found comes up is that I completely cannot relate to male characters.  It’s probably especially significant that I’m trans here.  This means that when I’m playing a male character, if I am in some way percieving the character as me, that I’m being forced into a roll that I have a very long history of being coerced into assuming and really would rather not.

For example, recently I was considering playing Half Life 2 again and found that just considering playing it was enough to cause me to panic about how flat my chest was.  Which is a rather unpleasant experience.  (And also: my chest isn’t flat. So it was mostly unpleasantly recalling a time when it was.)

This is, obviously, a significantly more dramatic reaction than many people would have.  But it still highlights something important: a character who is depicted entirely as silent is very rarely depicted without numerous traits that the player may not have. Race and gender being quite common but not the only examples.  And that can completely break the ability to relate to said character.  (It certainly doesn’t have to. And I will readily admit that again, my experience is not typical.  But it’s also not unique.)

Really, once this connection to the character is lost, it quickly becomes problematic.  Especially if the story is at all complex, which is less the case in early Zelda games or Mario, for example.  But when the protagonist barely has any sort of interaction and somehow drives the plot, or even more so when they don’t drive the plot and just do what people around them say, as is more or less inevitable in a video game, you suddenly have a weird situation where the game focuses on a remarkably uninteresting character at the expense of the much more interesting ones around them.

(This can also apply to the much more detail-free AFGNCAAP type protagonist if they turn out to be significantly less GN or CA than the trope would imply.  Which the TVTropes article on this points out is not entirely uncommon.  And for examples, see the advertising of nearly any RPG with character creation ever.)

And this of course doesn’t touch on the fact that most linear narratives are not remotely player controlled, and so inevitably the ‘protagonist’ is not driving the action at all.  Which, much like when some incorrect assumption about the player’s identity breaks your connection to the character, also leads to a very boring character being the focus of things at the expense of those around them.

(When games acknowledge this, though, it can work really well.  Portal, for example, works really well because the focus is not on the players character, but on GlaDOS.  Also I may be a tad biased because the silent protagonist isn’t male. But regardless the game’s focus is not on Chell at all.)

So in short, I really hate silent protagonists, especially when they’re male, and except occasionally when I don’t.  Because the narrative of “they let the player take the role of the character” frequently falls apart in practice.  Especially when your identity is non-normative or the narrative is at all complex.

We all know about hypersexualized armor.  Oblivion does a bit better on that but it still is kind of terrible sometimes.  For example, this happened:

A woman in metal armor with a low neckline. An arrow is stuck in her upper chest in a part of her body the armor doesn't cover.

I mean seriously that’s exactly why this type of armor makes no sense. (Also I went with heavy armor with this character because it seemed like it would be less sexualized.  So far I am wrong. ._.)

Also, hmmm… maybe I should get a tumblr if I’m going to make microbloggy posts like this…

Short version: The game is pretty good, beyond one plot point that I really hated and wasn’t very well done at all.  Also it stars a woman without much sexism, so that always helps. (Yes my review mostly focuses on the sexism there is, what, did you think I’d ignore every little fault?)

Beyond lie spoilers.  For pretty much everything.  So go play the game first, if you want to.

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(I’m focusing mostly on video games and fantasy here, but the general ideas definitely appear elsewhere in speculative fiction, and moreso in other media.  I’m just focusing on that combination because that’s where I’ve seen it the most lately, and also because fantasy video games seem to have not gotten passed making clones of Dungeons & Dragons, and by proxy, Tolkien.  And Tolkien had racefails all over the place, which later works sometimes uncritically copy. And Dungeons & Dragons brought a whole bunch of its own to the table, too)

(Disclaimer: I am white, and discuss racism a lot here.  It is possible I may miss things due to privilege.)

This is one of those things I’ve heard people say a lot without any actual thought into how accurate it actually is: “Oh, no, our product can’t be inclusive because it wouldn’t be realistic if it were.” …or similar statements, like “This product is great because they finally have the courage to make a realistic product unfettered by political correctness” or “This product shouldn’t be as inclusive as it is, that’s not realistic!” (I’ve heard specific examples of these comments referring to Dragon Age, The Witcher, and Echo Bazaar, coming of the top of my head.  And those aren’t the only times)

And for an amusing juxtaposition, these arguments are often found along with the reverse “We don’t have to/can’t be inclusive because our world isn’t the real and including real things would be unrealistic.”  This is also full of holes and really doesn’t actually work, either.

Obviously, these are problematic, as anyone with any awareness of privilege will quickly realize.  Ignoring or insulting large portions of potential players because their identities aren’t normative is a really cruel thing to do, made moreso by the fact that many people in positions of privilege tend to just assume that they are the only group that matters, and thus finding works when you aren’t privileged becomes nearly impossible (like, video games with informed, positive representations of transgender people? I have yet to even prove they exist.  Echo Bazaar comes close by making unspecified/nonbinary gender a fully developed option, though I haven’t seen any NPC’s who are explicitly ungendered, and besides, my gender is pretty clearly specified, so we’re not there yet.)

So people invoke these ridiculous arguments about realism when they do screw up and make bigoted fantasy.  When people say “But inclusion is unrealistic!” the problems are that completely erasing minorities usually actually isn’t, their portrayal of the culture that they are supposedly being realistic to is generally not actually, and finally, realism is actually clearly not a priority usually. On the inverse, when saying “But including real world groups would be unrealistic,” usually this is ignoring all the normative real world groups that you’ve included, and, for that matter, when the setting isn’t real there’s no reason not to have it ridiculously diverse.  And certainly no reason to make the normative race in your faux-Europe white.  After all, it’s not really Europe.

With regards to the “inclusion is unrealistic” argument, non-normative people aren’t actually a new thing.  For example, LGB and trans people have existed throughout history (there was a Roman emperor who wanted people to make them a vagina.  I mean seriously, we’re not new) . For that matter, systematically silencing them sometimes is a new thing.  Modern concepts of race are, well, modern.  In an actual medieval society things would probably have been slightly different.  And secondly, the real world is actually pretty diverse.  Even focusing on just medieval Europe, you’ve got North Africa and the Middle East right next door, for a really obvious example.  There was definitely some communication between them and Europe. (Have you heard of the crusades? They certainly weren’t friendly communication across cultures, but they were still communication.)  And of course, there’s no reason for every fantasy game ever to be set in medieval Europe.  Precolonial southeast Asia, would be pretty interesting, try setting it there (I’ve only seen this even attempted once, in Diablo 2.  Not sure it was actually done particularly well, but it’s something new, and should be inclusive if it is done well.)

Anyway, back to the medieval, since video games seem to be stuck there.  As a second point, when they are set in faux-Europe, these games are rarely even trying for realistic cultural attitudes.  I’m not particularly a medieval scholar, I will readily admit, so I can’t point out too many specific holes in it’s supposedly realistic portrayal of medieval culture, but really, there’s never really any research or effort put in to making these things accurate to the time.  I do know, for example, that those giant stone castles that are practically the hallmark of medievalness? Only really showed up towards the end.  And the armor is usually ridiculous (and that’s not even starting on the chainmail-bikini type armor.) And that the Catholic church was all over the place.  And these settings seem to have an abnormally large number of katanas or other references to Japan, usually without the non-white people to go with it (the former is by itself not particularly a problem, and I would guess the latter isn’t a problem nearly as much in games from Japan, which I’ve played rather less of unfortunately.) Which is to say, it tends to be more a popular pseudo-medievalness then anything actually accurate.

And outside of culture, the game’s world rarely is even remotely realistic.  Wounds don’t cause any lasting harm, usually, just lower a hitpoint meter that doesn’t do anything until it’s empty.  Infection and disease, which were some of the leading causes of death, are nonexistent.  Weapons tend to have completely ridiculous weights.  Frequently you can, for that matter, carry huge amounts of stuff with no effort put into modeling how you go about carrying six suits of armor without even a backpack.  Cities are really really tiny.  Farming is often nonexistent, or only there occasionally for scenery purposes, and certainly not in proportion to the food requirements of the world.  Magic tends to provide certain abilities, such as, for example, flying, or blowing things up, that would completely require rethinking how you defend a city (walls don’t work when you can fly over them).  And things tend to only happen when the player is around.

Many of these breaks from reality are completely okay, obviously.  Because it’s not the real world.  You want “medieval” fantasy, you want castles and knights.  And probably wizards and dragons.  The fact that the latter may possibly get in the way of the former if you think about it at all realistically isn’t really a problem.  And it’s a game, not a academic simulation; a protagonist centered world is not particularly a problem, because we only ever see the protagonist’s point of view.

But the point here is, you aren’t trying to be realistic.  You’re not modeling your game off of real history, you’re modeling it off of modern ideas that are related to real history but only sort of.  Thus neglecting or demeaning your audience because you claim it’s realistic is entirely out of place with what you’re actually doing.  Your not creating a bigoted fantasy because it’s “realistic”, you’re creating a bigoted fantasy because you want to (or slightly more generously, because you weren’t thinking of others beyond yourself), and realism is just a crutch you’re using to defend you’re obvious mistakes.

Now, when people claim that “We can’t put real groups of people in the game because our game isn’t the real world and that would be unrealistic!” there arguments are still really faulty. People who say this are rarely referring to games that haven’t already included large swaths of normative people.  If your game has a bunch of different “races”, and all of them have white skin, you’ve included white people.  They are also a race.  Claiming you can’t include any others because it’s unrealistic for your setting, is, well, racist.  There’s no reason for everyone to have a light skin tone in your completely fictional world.  And lets be honest, having everyone in your world be the same is really pretty boring.  On top of the racism.

And, on that topic, if your setting isn’t the real world, why not just make your faux-England population black?  It’s not like it’s actually real England, there’s no reason to copy that trait unquestionably.  (Of course, making faux-England have everyone be black wouldn’t actually solve your problems either, but it would be progress.)

The next thing I’ve seen people do, in an attempt to defend it, is to start inventing in-setting justifications for racial uniformity.  Like “Oh, but there’s black people over here across these mountains, and a faux-Asia down here in the south” …which is to say, places that the story never actually goes.  …if you’re going to start inventing these races, why not put them in the game? And if you’re going to start invoking, say, sunlight, to explain how your faux-Europe, being rather far to the north, doesn’t have dark skinned people, why don’t you put that effort into creating more diversity?  And while we’re at it, if you’re using the last one, let’s remember there’s more than one race from northern (or southern, if you’re below the equator) climates.  And they don’t all look like white people.

Really, the point is, except in very rare circumstances your game is not even trying to be realistic, and once you accept that you don’t have to follow reality, there’s no reason not to have diversity in it.  (like, Dwarf Fortress is the only game I’ve ever seen that even comes close to actually trying to be realistic.  And your dwarves can and frequently do have non-white skin tones.  Or are female.  So it’s the only game that could come close to getting away with invoking realism to defend lack of inclusiveness and it’s still inclusive. Also it frequently clearly isn’t trying to be realistic to facilitate gameplay, like, well, everything else.)

In short, if you invoke “realism” to defend bigotry in a game, it’s quite clear that you haven’t actually thought things through from the perspective of “lets make a realistic game.  Ah crap now we can’t be inclusive,” you’re coming from it from a perspective of “Hmmm how can I defend my bigotry? Oh, I know! Your point of view isn’t realistic!”

So, stop thinking like this, and actually make inclusive games.  If you promise, for example, customizable characters, but then go and eliminate large (or small) swaths of humanity, you’re basically telling said swaths “Yeah, you know what, I don’t actually care about you.”  Which is to say, you’re being an asshole to your audience.  Stop doing that, and stop trying to rationalize your bigotry, it makes you look like you’re self absorbed and don’t care about anyone beyond you.