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Column: Diamond In The Rough

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Sexualization in Video Games

December 11, 2009 12:00 PM |

mass-effect.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom continues last column's examination of the sexual politics behind games by examining game designers' (and gamers') reactions to certain games.]

Video game designers, PR companies, and gamers are deeply worried about sex.

Now hear me out: the average “mainstream" game is both obsessed with a peculiarly fragmented (but extremely popular in mainstream culture) version of hypersexuality, and deathly afraid of more realistic, meaningful sexual connection. There's a reason our games are filled with snarling, emotionless (aside from their totally straight love for their buddies) bros and women being crushed under the weight of their hypersexualized characterization.

People are very worried about sex. The worry may vary in its shape, orientation, and direction, but it is still something that makes a lot of people very nervous. They're very worried about thinking about sex. They're worried that thinking about sex, or consuming certain representations of sex will show them to be any of a number of deviant, unpopular, stigmatized representations of sexuality (or worse, to be party to those sexualities themselves).

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Sexualization in Prince of Persia

November 24, 2009 12:00 PM |

pop2.JPG['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom examines the sexual politics behind gamers' reactions to certain games.]

It’s no secret that I am a fan of the most recent Prince of Persia game, and that I find the criticism leveled at that game to be puzzling. In some ways, the rejection of the game (and of the Prince especially) always struck me as incomprehensible. Recently, while playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I was reminded of the Prince, and not just because Nolan North voices both Drake and the Prince. Specifically, the sexual tension in Among Thieves reminded me of that less-well developed, much maligned tension in Prince of Persia.

It's not a secret that a lot of people were annoyed by the Prince’s voice. They were annoyed by the way he sounded, and the way he talked, and what he said. I think that there's something interesting about what they didn't like about him, and about what they aren't saying when they say they don't like him. One especially common knee jerk reaction went as follows: “The Prince sounds like a callow frat boy, and he has too many muscles.”

Likewise, people found the sexual nature of some of the Prince and Elika’s conversations unpleasant or off-putting. It’s too sexualized and too plainly stated (by the main characters), they said, it would be better if their changing relationship was implied.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Remade in Whatever Image We Want

October 15, 2009 12:00 AM |

pop3.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom examines reboots and remakes, and why such games can hide wonderful surprises.]

Franchise reboots are extremely popular these days. Video games may not have reached their reboot saturation point (Hollywood, on the other hand, definitely has), but reboots, remakes, and “re-launches” of games and franchises have become an important part of the industry. For developers and publishers, established IPs can be (or are often seen as) a boon for marketing, thanks to the supposed, vaunted built in audiences such games come with. Their significance for gamers is something to be debated.

Sequels are, of course, par for the course in the video game industry. No one is ever surprised when successful, bankable games receive their second or third sequels (assuming they don’t drop the ball on the second game), but a series reboot does elicit a raised eyebrow and word or two of censure or approbation.

Though this is doubtlessly a habit inherited from our days of seeing wretched 70’s and 80’s properties reborn for the screen, reboots are definitely an interesting prospect. Not content to produce a somewhat similar title (gameplay-wise) with a few tweaks, and a new story, developers head out into uncharted waters, in search of that elusive beast, innovation (or the almost as sought after “fresh” ideas).

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': On Lara Croft And "Relatable" Heroes

September 24, 2009 12:00 PM |

tr1.JPG['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom examines Lara Croft, her strengths and weaknesses, and looks to her future]

It's pretty obvious to most people that Lara Croft is not the "everyman" so many developers are mistakenly, humorously obsessed with. Never mind that this everyman is often a gravelly-voiced, shaven-headed, hugely muscled lout who kills lots of people. He is, after all, “relatable.” He cracks jokes while curb-stomping aliens! So Lara Croft is not a guy, right? That's one step in a different direction. That already sets her apart from an unpleasantly large number of video game heroes.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': All Aboard The Last (Narrative) Express

August 25, 2009 12:00 PM |

dincar.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom continues his previous discussions of game narrative with a look at The Last Express's attitude to storytelling.]

If we want to explore the possibilities for branching, reactive, fluid narratives, we obviously need to explore possible ways to realize this goal. We can talk all we want about the potential for deep, almost procedurally generated stories, or emergent narratives, but it’s also important to examine the material we already have before us, be they video games or other.

The problem with video games, as I’ve mentioned previously, is that they so clearly start and end unto themselves. They do not take place in a world, they do not provide views onto separate lives. Even the ones that aim to do so fail in their ways. Grand Theft Auto creates a city that moves and lives around you, but in your absence, in your presence, during your inactive moments, it refuses to change.

When worlds do change, they do so only in the most perfunctory, ineffectual ways. Stalker: Clear Sky creates a set of factions that war for territory. Yet when one faction defeats another, the effects are only temporary. When you boot the game back up, the same mercenaries will have reoccupied their lost fortress. Tangible, permanent persistence is a lie or trick, regardless of the format or system.

Perhaps the answer is not, then, to create so massive and “realistic” a world, but to consider the ways in which a smaller, more detailed, more controllable world might work as a place for plotting to occur. It’s no secret that games that focus on fewer people and places often can imbue those things with more life, more character. Playing the most recent Prince of Persia, or Half Life 2, leads one to appreciate the controlled, directed method of world-creation and characterization.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Plotting, Emergent Narratives, and 'Story Spaces,' Part 2

July 2, 2009 4:00 PM |

fc2_1.JPG['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom continues his previous discussion of calls for video game design reform in the areas of narrative and story. In the latest instalment, he begins with a discussion of what "narrative" is.]

Narrative can’t help but have an internally coherent organizational logic (called “plot”). The important things about this logic are that it a) unfolds in time for a reader, that is, has a beginning, middle, and end, b) that the experience of reading is one of reading—of discovery and deciphering rather than production and self-creation, and c), that because of this, narratives appear for readers as pre-existing objects, things separate from a reader that demand to be seen and interpreted.

This last point is critical: narratives happen to readers, and speak of an intelligent, exterior design to readers. This is true even when we tell stories to ourselves (the principle on which psychoanalysis works)—we encounter a structure of meaning, or plot, outside ourselves, and re-narrate it to ourselves.

Narrative always comes first, and unless we’re very clear about what we mean by “story spaces” or “tools for making narrative,” it’s unclear how we might provide readers with tools, rather than pre-existing narratives, out of which they themselves will produce narratives, ex nihilo.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Plotting, Emergent Narratives, and 'Story Spaces'

June 12, 2009 8:00 AM |

br7.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom looks at calls for video game design reform in the areas of narrative and story.]

Recently, bloggers, gamers, game designers have been discussing the future of video games as they’d like to see it. Some of the more intriguing conversations they’re having concern emergent narratives, authorial control, and story making as opposed to storytelling.

Notable bloggers and game designers, Doug Church, Michael Samyn, and Steve Gaynor, have argued that traditional narrative modes of in-game storytelling need to be replaced with newer methods. Church (albeit back at GDC 2000!) argues that we should "abdicate authorship"++ altogether, while Gaynor and Samyn argue, in their more recent and suggestive articles, that video games are a medium uniquely able to create a new tablet for user-created content, termed “story space,” and that the narratives that come from this will be “emergent.”**+

This article will examine the assumptions and statements already made about these topics. Next week’s article will conclude by exploring their flaws and strengths, and ultimately the potential, both good and bad, of their ideas. A final article will bring my discussion to its conclusion, using an older game to point the way forward for narrative in games.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': More Complicated, Please

May 10, 2009 4:00 PM |

x3_terran_conflict_pc_07.jpg ['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom jumps into X3: Terran Conflict, so you don't have to go through the hassle.]

There’s something to be said for complexity, especially when it comes to games. This is despite the fact that so many ways, simple or intuitive games are easier, more fun to play. It’s not just Nintendo and various designers telling us this: we understand that our experiences with games are often hampered by muddled instructions, overly complicated UIs, and jam-packed missions structures.

Most people know what they want, and they filter their game consumption accordingly. This isn’t to say that a person who loves Peggle can’t also love Neverwinter Nights 2. On the contrary, many gamers enjoy switching back and forth between these different kinds of games, depending on their moods.

Even so, some games revel in their complexity, and for the right gamer, this complexity is absolutely worth it. The harder it is to succeed in a game, the more rewarding the experience, supposedly. There comes a point however, a certain level of obtuseness and opaqueness in game design, where I just give up.

I’m willing to play shooters with way too many buttons, RTSs with ridiculous amounts of options and tasks to perform, and of course, RPGs with long, wandering stories, murky, deep leveling systems, and unclear directions. I like the fiddly bits in these games, but I draw the line when a game makes enjoyment a nigh-impossible goal.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Forget 'Combat Mode Engaged'

April 16, 2009 8:00 AM |

Alpha_Protocol4.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom looks at combat, dialogue, and other methods of engaging with game worlds.]

Combat is the biggest, most central game mechanic in most titles today, with platforming and environmental interaction coming in a close second. Even games for children feature extensive combat and platforming.

From Pokemon to Madworld, combat is the easiest and most popular method of interacting with and affecting the gameworld. And you can see why—developers are good at this. They’ve done it a lot, and they kind of have it down. When designers attempt to give gamers another set of tools with which we can affect the game and its denizens, gameplay often suffers.

There may be exemplary games that follow this route (Myst is the aging heavyweight of this genre, while games like Indigo Prophecy and Portal are examples of the newest generation), but for the most part, developers, designers, marketers, and even consumers have learned to steer mostly clear of such titles.

While I think it’s admirable that a portion of the industry still strives to forward the puzzle/adventure genre, it’s exciting to witness the evolution of other, less popular alternatives to combat. In particular, I like games that let the way I’ve built my character affect the outcome of the games. This kind of approach often manifests itself as RPG or RPG-lite gameplay elements, like those seen in many action adventure games today. Sure, you can change how you win, but you can’t change what you win.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': How Does This Make You Feel, 'Partner'?

March 31, 2009 8:00 AM |

medium_2556037408_168eb73b6b_o.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom discusses questionable and offensive imagery and themes in Resident Evil 5, and how these elements undercut the rest of the game.]

One thing that has been repeated about Resident Evil 5 is that the game may include offensive imagery, but that you become inured to these images when you get in the thick of combat. This might be the case during certain sequences where you don’t have time to think, but there’s no escaping it for long.

As soon as you do, Chris and Sheva find a butcher’s block, topped with a dead animal and buzzing flies. The game’s helpful text blurbs will then say something like “The smell is awful. Why would this be here?” A butcher shop with meat in it isn’t offensive or out of the ordinary, and in fact is part of everyday life all over the world.

However, the peculiar Othering of normal occurrences (like a butcher shop having meat, knives, and flies) so that they fit into a frantically horrified conception of village life in Kijuju is pervasive and carefully orchestrated.

medium_3029397822_8e1d1d6fbb_o.jpgThis is What's Horrifying

This kind of characterization is prevalent throughout the first two chapters. Some of the initial establishing shots are careful to emphasize the flies that are everywhere, and thus, the unclean, eerie aura that such sounds bring to each scene. If you are going to depict this kind of situation, you need to have a strong authorial voice, one that presents the events either as “objectively” as possible (a task few, if any, attempt), or one that clearly directs the player and takes a side.

Art does not exist in a vacuum, nor do any forms of media or entertainment. You cannot make this game and portray these events and not telegraph your feelings as regards the proceedings. And Capcom hasn’t; from every “creepy” slaughtered animal to every collection of skulls and candles in a shack (”It must be some kind of ritual,” Chris advises us), Capcom’s intentions are transparent.