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Column: The Aberrant Gamer

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer' - What Your Dating Sim Choices Say About You

October 5, 2008 4:00 PM |

[The Aberrant Gamer is is a biweekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Ah, the much-lauded Choice in Games. We can analyze and discuss until we’re blue in the face those titles that have allowed us to make meaningful decisions, and we can write entire essays in search of the elusive game that lets us make the kinds of decisions we’d really like to make in our fantasy lives.

But there is perhaps no choice more important than the selection of our lifelong mate – and there are quite a few games that let us evaluate, elect and consummate our decision of partner. Not only are PC dating sims (sexual or otherwise) a surprisingly broad genre, numerous adventure games have incorporated pair-up mechanics for their protagonists.

Dating sim mechanics really shine when they’re used to enhance the sense of humanity in otherwise unemotional titles. The long-running Natsume-published Harvest Moon series, for example, adds partner selection and marriage to place a sense of real life alongside what’s largely a farming/raising and resource management sim; Natsume’s latest offering, the Cave-developed Princess Debut, places dating sim elements alongside a rhythm game in a young maiden’s quest to get ready for the glamorous ball.

So you certainly don’t need to be a hentai game fan to be familiar with dating sim elements. In fact, after even only a little bit of exposure, you may notice a few repetitive archetypes.
…Okay, more than a few.

Remember when we rounded up some of the most common archetypes of eroge games? Well, dating sims – and games containing elements of them – are a bit like that, even though they’re non-sexual. Of course, it’s somewhat different, too – after all, you as player are considering a lifelong love partner for your protagonist, in whom you’ve already invested a lot of gameplay hours, as opposed to being a passive observer at a buffet of often-clichéd sexual fantasies.

But still, the options you have available are likely to be generally predictable once you’ve played a few of them. And because of that, you’re likely to find that you often gravitate toward the same preferred type as your character’s wife or husband.

So what does your dating sim archetype of choice say about you? Measure yourself a hefty dose of salt, plant your tongue firmly in your cheek, and hit the jump.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - What Women Want'

September 6, 2008 8:00 AM |

-[Back after a few months' hiatus, The Aberrant Gamer is happy to return as a biweekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

“Why don’t women like the big console games?” Someone asked me recently.

As a female game journalist, I’m one of the few and the proud, although as a female gamer I’m not nearly as unique as the population of internet forums would probably suggest. Still, I’m often asked questions like these, about “what women like” and what they don’t.

And I usually get a little bit miffed, to tell you the truth. I tend to reject assertions that there must exist a uniquely female palate for video games. I feel that my preferences and aversions as far as video games have more to do with my personal taste and less to do with my gender, and my position is generally that it’s the same for most women.

Is it really?

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - Uncanny Valley Of The Dolls'

August 21, 2008 4:00 PM |

-[Back after a few months' hiatus, The Aberrant Gamer is happy to return as a biweekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

"Make her boobs bigger," someone says.

"No, no," I argue. "She needs to be petite. We’re going lolicon-style."

"How is a lolicon-style girl supposed to kick ass?"

I know, I know, but I’ve got this entire set of "kitty" clothes, and fuzzy ears, and am I really going to put them on an Amazon woman? Actually, that might be kind of cool. So I take her – my creation – and I make her a little bit taller and more muscular, and then I put the little ribbon and bell around her neck.

"It looks stupid," I decide, scrolling, overwhelmed, through plate armor and fishnets that might be more appropriate. My woman-in-progress gives me a challenging look, blinks patiently, turns her head a little from side to side while I decide what she will look like.

She should be more tan, she should wear high boots, and, okay, her boobs should be bigger. Tweak, tweak, tweak, and -- "She’s hot," my Soulcalibur IV co-pilot approves.

She is, I realize, when I give her a test run up against a bluish zombie Mitsurugi. I chose her voice and the way she poses, I gave her Tira’s big bladed ring (my proposal), and now I make her fight as if she’s dancing. She’s cool, she’s hot, she kicks ass.

And I made her.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - Material Girl'

March 30, 2008 4:00 PM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

By now, just about everybody's heard of Miss Bimbo, the browser-based "game for girls" that's ruffling feathers with its anti-feminist gameplay. Girls adopt a glam-o-rama avatar and, spending virtual "bimbo dollars" on chocolate, fashion and some unspecified "medicines," complete various simplistic challenges with the stated goal of becoming "the finest, coolest bimbo that ever existed."

This is, of course, the perfect recipe for auto-cringe: it embraces superficial and arguably destructive ideals, is ostensibly aimed at "'tweens" (itself a cringe-inducingly trendy marketing buzzword), and the website itself is a car accident of cartoonish pink featuring some kind of skank with bunny ears. Aberrant Gamer is arriving fashionably late to this party, actually, with too many outlets to link already providing analysis and experiences with the dreaded Miss Bimbo (just Google it). As for me, the servers were so stressed I couldn't even play to any significant extent. The universal verdict? Disgusting.

Games like Miss Bimbo (created by a man, by the way) just can't win. Women find them disgusting and offensive, and gamers worry about the bad PR. But aren't we being a bit hypocritical?

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - Auto-Neurotic Asphyxiation'

March 23, 2008 8:00 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

We throw around lots of insults on message boards and comment threads, but there is perhaps none so common – and so virulent as fanboy.

What does that word even mean? Dictionary.com has no idea, but UrbanDictionary.com has several definitions. “A passionate fan of various elements of geek culture… but who lets his passion override social graces.” “A person who is completely loyal to a game or company reguardless [sic] of if they suck or not… a pathetic insult.” “An arrogant person… [who takes] the console war very seriously, as if it were a real war.”

Perhaps only in games does being a passionate fan become a negative. In film, hobbyists might have loyalty to certain directors or screenwriters, and comics has its Marvel versus DC – but is this sort of aggression so prevalent on movie or comic book websites?

This column has been quick to evaluate mob psychology in gamer behavior and condemn it as one of the major elements restraining games from attaining widespread social legitimacy. But fanboyism is a much more complex issue – particularly because none of us is immune. Not even the press.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - What's My Motivation?'

March 14, 2008 8:00 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

I never had any designs on becoming a game journalist. Actually, I went to a two-year acting conservatory, and got a very good education, too. These days, I imagine my parents peek some of my articles – a defense of breast physics or a discussion of incest sex games – and wonder why they bothered sending me there.

But given the wary dance games and films have done about one another over the years, maybe I can yet use what I’ve learned. Now, it’s a rare film knockoff video game that’s worth playing. On the contrary, actually, film and games seem to be converging by moving further apart. Games that try to sell us that drawn-out, cutscene-heavy, empty-action experience that has been called “cinematic” (though to so call them seems to insult cinema) are a dying breed. Developers are learning that what makes a good movie doesn’t make a good game, and so we can hope that the film studios aren’t too far behind when they’re at the table to talk licensing.

Acting school was very much about the emotional experience. If you haven’t any experience with actors – no, not high school “Drama Kids,” but trained actors – I can tell you that the whole thing was very much as you might imagine. Lots of skinny folk in black, odd teachers who stood on chairs to shout at you, lots of open weeping. People got naked. But somewhere amid all that, we learned about what it takes to deliver honest, emotionally-grounded entertainment.

Perhaps one way to elevate games – both in terms of how they affect their audience and in terms of how they’re treated by our culture – is to take a page not necessarily from the final product of films, but from their creation process.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - Completion Anxiety Disorder'

March 7, 2008 4:00 PM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

If you're reading this column, you definitely own at least a couple video games. You probably own several, and some of you are the custodians of an innumerable collection that you meticulously arrange and then photograph for posting on internet forums. And you spend at least a decent chunk of your time playing, and another portion still of your time coveting the next purchase.

But what percentage of them have you ever completed?

Beaten, conquered, finished, whichever your pleasure. I recently spoke with Naughty Dog Studio vets Dan Arey and Bob Rafei on the launch of their new studio, Big Red Button Entertainment, and they theorized that the average gamer confronted with the average game is more likely than not to leave it unfinished -- and it seems a reasonable estimation. Rising retail costs mean that for most, it's damn near painful to crack the wallet open at the game store, and yet implausibly, despite the larger financial investment, it actually seems like we're finishing fewer games than we once did.

We demand more engaging, immersive and enduring game experiences -- and then we don't finish them. What's wrong with us?

Do you suffer from Completion Anxiety? Looking for answers? Yeah, me too.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - My Week With Pleo'

February 28, 2008 4:00 PM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Here at the Aberrant Gamer, we primarily deal with all the ways that games become part of our reality. We fall in love with game characters and we experience a range of real feelings about fake worlds. Games entrench themselves in our sociology, psychology and sexuality, and we can have real, visceral interaction with structures based in technology and artifice.

Ugobe’s Pleo dinosaur, billed not as a robot but as a “life form,” promises to develop its own identity, to respond to user behavior, and to evince a humanoid range of emotions and responses depending on its interaction. Something about its cute face, the motion of its eyes, triggers the human sympathetic response almost immediately – but just as with a baby, there’s no instruction manual that tells you just how to provoke desired responses. Most of Pleo’s literature encourages you to just explore. It’s kind of like a game, then, hinged on experimental interaction with an evolved AI. And I decided to find out, like I do with games, just how much technology could make me feel.

The Journey Begins

Pleo arrived at my house nestled in a foam block as if asleep, eyes closed and curled fetally on himself. His distinct weight, the feel of his robotic skeleton beneath his rubbery skin, almost lent him to being cradled, even though he wasn’t yet turned on. I held the sleeping “life form” in my lap, overwhelmed by a bizarre rush of maternal instinct and a shiver of futurist glee as I thumbed the instruction manual, which told me to “begin my journey” with Pleo by waking him up.

The first thing the literature says about Pleo is that he initially has several “life stages” – from awakening, to hatchling, to toddler, the last at which he stays arrested, a perpetually curious baby Camarosaurus. “Treat Pleo as you would any living creature – with care and respect,” advises the manual. All of this window dressing made it seem almost a violation to flip the thing over and put in the battery pack. I couldn’t help gently supporting its head as I flipped it over, well aware that I was already being sucked in.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Be My Valentine - The Top 5 Game Romances

February 14, 2008 8:00 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Last week’s column wondered how games might mature enough to allow for believable sexuality, and concluded that aiming for intimacy is a good start. Plenty of games already use intimacy, or the emotional connection created for the player between their character and another, as a story element, and romance has been a key driver in game stories and character development, at times even successfully.

What makes a good game love story? Surely, the same recipe that works in other media can be extended to the game world – well-developed characters, a few key, stirring moments, a protagonist with which the player can empathize, and a love object that the player can feel something about through that empathy.

But games also require certain elements that static entertainment media don’t. After all, the most blunt differentiator of games from other forms of entertainment is interactivity – and given that love is all about interaction, games have the possibility of creating more engaging romances than any of their sister media.

Just like we learned last week with sexuality and intimacy, games might not have explored all of their potential yet. That’s all right; it’s a young, adolescent medium, and adolescents are not the smoothest operators. But in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, let’s look at five game romances that are really on the right track.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Getting To The Action

February 9, 2008 12:00 AM |

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

It’s easy to knock action video games. It’s all vaguely silly, implausible stuff – bullet time, acrobatic corkscrews, explosions, and heroes who sass monsters with hip one-liners. But you can’t really blame them – after all, action video games are the torch-bearers for action films, and when it comes to emulating their conventions and allowing players to interact with them, games are quite admirable as imitators.

Take the Devil May Cry series as an example, whose next-gen successor has just hit the scene this week. It achieves the formula handily, even stylishly. And it should. A triple-A melee franchise about devils, demons, babes, guns and swords – playing it demure, intellectual and understated? It just isn’t meant to be.

So you can’t fault it for flaunting high-powered, scantily-clad females with impossible measurements, suffering under a combination of neck-breaking high heels and massive endowments that, taken as a pair, make them likely to tip over. Aggressively foxy babes are part and parcel of the action format to which the game skillfully – and enjoyably adheres.

When we talk about sexuality in video games, the closest thing we’ve got is these cleavage-spilling women, and to some extent, the endlessly resilient, solidly built and smoldering (though much more thoroughly clothed) men alongside them. This column previously defended the value in gratuitously-fleshed game gals as a useful complement to the raw, animalistic nature of brawler games. Blood, bare flesh and adrenaline rush as a package are the closest we as humans can get to our primal state, and it’s amazing that video games can tap into that.

Some people will buy my theory that video game flesh is effectively bestial; others feel it’s simply juvenile, a disservice to women and men alike. Either way, it's true we don’t live in caves anymore – and we’re growing up. So what will it take for sexuality in games to grow up, too?