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Column: The Aberrant Gamer

The Aberrant Gamer: 'Choose Your Own Adventure'

August 30, 2007 12:14 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.]

In last week’s column, we discussed BioShock’s Little Sisters as part of a legacy of creepy, ambiguous little girls in survival-horror who highlight our dark sides with their innocence and shame us by letting us see ourselves through the eyes of a child – even if those eyes are a pair of eerie orange headlamps. Mention the Little Sisters, though, and the question’s bound to come up: Harvest or rescue?

Whichever your pleasure, chances are BioShock fans (and those who are damn sick of hearing about it) have heard or participated in a discussion to that effect at some point over the past week. And in those discussions, chances are someone’s raised the issue of choice in games; that very issue came up in the comments on my last column. As I mentioned last week, I have heard in my colleagues’ work, in emails I’ve received and in various discussions lately – whether about BioShock or other games, such as in the comments of my recent column on Persona 3 – that thus far, what we’ve been offered in terms of "choices" from gaming often tend to amount to little more than what one reader called a “cost-benefit analysis”. In other words, since the impact of our choices is limited to a statistical benefit or penalty (with perhaps a different ending tacked on), any moral or emotional decision presented to us can be reduced to a technicality.

In a recent article at Sexy Videogameland, however, I explained why I feel that the immersive, richly-realized environment of BioShock makes the moral issue very much a choice[spoiler-free link], in that it very greatly alters how it feels to play the game. The sensation of having a choice, an impact, comes from my relationship to the game, a connection that I actively choose to make whenever a game is fleshed-out enough to make it possible. If you aren’t particularly absorbed in or affected by the experience of playing BioShock, or any other game, chances are you’re calculating cost and benefit rather than feeling anything significant changing for you, either.

“Choice in games” is the new Holy Grail, it seems. In the comments on the article I just mentioned, one reader raised PC games like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate as his ideal example of how a game should handle choice. When applied to console gaming or a single-player closed story, though, they become less possible because of the lack of open-endedness, real-time dynamics, or other players. But what would real, definitive branching in games, real gratification for decision-making, look like? And could it be that – of all things – Hentai games know something we don’t?

COLUMN: The Aberrant Gamer: 'Suffer the Little Children'

August 23, 2007 8:04 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. NOTE: No BioShock spoilers whatsoever beyond discussion of exposition; Leigh's twisted, but humane.]

-This week, legions of souls were pulled down into Rapture. The ruined utopia built on – and decimated by – vanity, greed and madness is compelling for many reasons; hauntingly vivid environments, unprecedented physics, and an unsettlingly lifelike quality in the smallest of aspects, in each little discarded artifact of a society torn open by excess and obsession, hiding in the fringes of their broken world.

One of the things that makes BioShock so compelling, ironically, is its humanity, a funny thing to think of when it’s so immediately evident just how far from humanity Rapture’s citizens have strayed. But it’s the objectivity of that distance that really gives one pause; though they’ve long since made fatal strides from the path of sanity, we can see behind each blood-smudged mask and spliced body, can hear in each broken moan and tortured whisper, the ghosts of who they used to be – ghosts that look quite a lot like us.

It makes sense; it’s very clear in the environmental storytelling how a tweak became an overhaul, how a paradise became Hell – rooted, as such extremes always are, in a very moderate wish. What if we could repair those traits which cause us suffering? Scientists, doctors and therapists, dieticians, cosmetologists and engineers endeavor to that end even in our real-world lives today. What if there wasn’t necessarily something wrong with us, but we just wished to be a little more beautiful, a little stronger, a little more resilient?

COLUMN: The Aberrant Gamer: 'Hot-Button Issues'

August 16, 2007 8:14 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.]

-This column has touched before on how we gamers are a highly defensive lot. We’ve all struggled a long time to convince the uninitiated of gaming’s legitimacy, fending off accusations by tech-ignorant parent watchdog groups, censorship agencies, irate politicians and hyperbolic TV specials who have latched on to the hot new scapegoat.

Why are we so sensitive? After all, it’s not like it affects us personally if a large and stubborn percentage of society continues to misinterpret our favorite little pleasure. Nonetheless, ire en masse at the slightest provocation is the norm online. Just about everyone who follows, writes or discusses gaming on blogs, chat, forums or in online play has experienced that moment of hesitation wherein their opinion on a particular gaming issue differed from the popular sensibility and they wondered, should I say this? Everyone has experienced that zero-point when, finger hovering over the “submit” button, they weighed their desire to express a point of view against their dread at the landslide of flames and grief they’d invoke.

It’s quite likely that no individual among the plugged-in, ‘net-savvy core gaming demographic is a knee-jerk lunatic; rather, this is probably an expression of mob psychology. We’re one of the most vocal mobs in any industry – why? First, let’s take a look at some of the topics most likely to create a thousand-comment explosion of offended debate.

COLUMN: The Aberrant Gamer: 'Persona 3: Two-Faced'

August 9, 2007 8:03 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.]

Much has been made of the role of player choice in games. Choice, after all, not only crafts the experience, but creates an impression of character moreso; after all, there are many games, particularly in the RPG genre, where you’re given a choice of how to respond to questions or in conversation that has little to no bearing on gameplay or plot. Rather, the act of selecting whether to give an affirmative response or an ambivalent one – even when the effect is ultimately the same – connects the player to the character, allows him to express his own feelings through the protagonist.

This is especially true for the so-called “silent protagonist”; the character who has no distinct personality of his own aside from the way the player chooses to have him express himself. This was a nearly omnipresent convention in an earlier, simpler time, when storylines were far more basic and game engines much more limited. As the role of story and characterization in games became more sophisticated alongside the games themselves, the experience became more about getting to experience a character with an interesting destiny, a difficult personality, or some foreign internal conflict we could enjoy vicariously. We learned to become the individual that the game asked us to be, and the silent protagonist quietly became extinct.

Still, truth is often stranger than fiction, as the adage goes, and can often be much more illuminating. In a voiceless protagonist’s silence, we can often hear ourselves. But can that silence actually create characterization? And more importantly, can it create that emotional conundrum that we as gamers so desperately crave – that flashpoint wherein we must choose between power and morality?

The Aberrant Gamer: 'The Usual Suspects'

August 2, 2007 8:04 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.]

Common character archetypes have become mainstays of the standard H-game. Whether it’s something heavily story-driven, like Yume Miru Kusuri, or action/puzzle oriented, like The Maid’s Story, there are general, predictable character constructs whose appearance you can rely on, and whose scripted tendencies create an element of predictability. Which isn’t so bad – after all, if you play games for the stories, let’s be honest: you don’t need hentai for that. So while the heavy use of archetypes may detract from the stories, they strongly support the primary purpose behind H-games.

And what is that, exactly?

Depends on who you ask, of course. But largely, the elements of H-games—archetypes, heavy plot, and often ambiguously intimate relations—combine to create a bizarre sort of love letter from the past, targeted toward men with unresolved issues relating to women in the teen years. Almost all H-game protagonists are teen boys, for one thing, and the classroom is the most common setting (fantasy environments, like lush resorts or expensive mansions, are second). In a recent article in The Escapist, I explained this subliminal layer that undercuts most story-driven Hentai games—the game as vehicle for reconciling perplexing male-female relationship issues lingering from youth.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common H-game archetypes and let them speak for themselves, shall we?

The Aberrant Gamer: 'Sympathy for the Devil'

July 26, 2007 8:08 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. NOTE: This week's column analyzes a game's plot from beginning to end; be advised it contains spoilers for those who've never played it.]

After last week’s look at symbolism in Silent Hill 2, a lot of feedback asked AG to look similarly at other Silent Hill games, and the most popular request was AG’s take on Silent Hill 4. It’s my pleasure to oblige— please keep the requests coming!

Silent Hill 4: The Room is generally considered the least popular of the series among fans. Let’s consider why this should (and shouldn’t) be the case—and, of course, we’ll visit all the deliciously twisted elements of aberrant psychology that make the Silent Hill series so compelling.

The town of Silent Hill is almost a character in and of itself in each game in the series. It advances to enshroud each protagonist—always an individual on the point of emotional crisis—in a sort of Biblical purgatory, a transient, flexible reality that calls them to account for past sins. And yet, throughout the course of the series it becomes evident that the town is more than a mirror for others; it’s got its own native history, the dark tale of a morbid cult whose disciples abused children, performed occult rituals, and disregarded the fabric of reality. We learn a little more about the over-arching story of the mysterious town in each game, and perhaps no greater quantity of history is revealed in any previous game than in Silent Hill 4.

That can only be a good thing, right?

Column: The Aberrant Gamer - 'Sundering the Mind'

July 19, 2007 8:04 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. NOTE: This week's column analyzes a game's plot from beginning to end; be advised it contains spoilers for those who've never played it.]

Konami’s survival-horror bacchanal Silent Hill 2 relies on dynamics of aberrant psychology as its most pivotal element. All of the Silent Hill games do, to some extent—but entering the mind of a man in his own private Hell has never been so stark, so unsettling, or so delightful as it is with protagonist James Sunderland. We’re introduced to James in the opening, when he receives a letter from his deceased wife, Mary—supposedly dead of fatal illness three years prior, summoning him to the town of Silent Hill, where she’ll be waiting in their “special place”, a hotel room where they once vacationed together.

Of course, this is illogical. The town of Silent Hill, its crumbling borders preventing escape, its evolving scenery defying reason, plays the role of a biblical Limbo in these games; the protagonists are inserted into the disorienting nightmare to confront symbols of their inner darkness. Mary’s impossible invitation, then—via a letter whose writing grows fainter, fading as the story progresses—is more of an invitation from James’ subconscious to explore the events of his past. We know—though we hope against hope—that Mary just can’t really be waiting for us in Silent Hill.

But could James, who feels himself a grieving widower, truthfully be a mercy killer? Or is it something even worse?

The Aberrant Gamer: 'Yume Miru Kusuri: Falling in Love with Crazy Girls'

July 12, 2007 12:02 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. Hentai gaming, fantasy fanfics, twisted psychology and notes from the dark side—we'll expose, discuss and enjoy the delicious underbelly of our beloved gaming universe.]

-As we’ve discussed before, the click-through, plot-branched story game is the most common format in the genre; you could almost think of many H-games more as interactive novels than games. Verbose and prosaic, it almost seems counter-intuitive to make the player sit through all that story, when one would assume that what they really want is to get to the “good stuff.”

Designers of these games seem to be aware of this, and so the plot devices that most normally appear tend to be cheap and easy shortcuts; the games need characters on the verge of revelation, with sex as the catalyst to catharsis. In so drawing them, designers kill two birds with one stone—they don’t have to make players wait too long, and they can draw depth of emotion in the story (or at least, so endeavor) at the same time.

As a result, the “troubled teen” is a conventional archetype. These novella-like H-games regularly feature young girls with emotional problems or deep-seated issues. Sensibly, from the standpoint of creating an erotic game, they’re prone to dangerous, impulsive or inexplicable behavior—like having wild relations with a boy they hardly know, conveniently enough. Sometimes, the girl characters are outright mentally unstable, straddling the line between salvation and madness.

You, of course, are the one who must rescue them. Indeed, should you reject their advances, the fragile things’ very lives could be on your hands.

The Aberrant Gamer: 'The Maid's Story: Control Issues'

July 5, 2007 12:01 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. Hentai gaming, fantasy fanfics, twisted psychology and notes from the dark side—we'll expose, discuss and enjoy the delicious underbelly of our beloved gaming universe.]

-When we think of Hentai games, we usually think of traditional “bishoujo” dating sims, the click-through stories with occasional plot branches and interruptions for a few still sexual images. The range beyond that is somewhat limited, largely because attempts to introduce other game elements often feel misplaced or awkward. There are simplistic strip poker-style card games, with progressively undressed women in the background, and more than a few fighting games that—except for the ability to punch off your female opponent’s clothing, possibly some erotic CG as a reward for victory—play pretty much like any 2D brawler.

The dialogue-tree story format is so prevalent because it’s safe, but it turns many off to the genre. Hard for people to sit through verbose text box after text box, automatically clicking, during what’s supposed to be their—let’s call it “intimate leisure time.” These games are often called simulators, but with a limited number of choices and possible outcomes, and almost entirely static imagery, the player becomes more a passive viewer than a real-time orchestrator of any actual action—so it’s somewhat of a misnomer.

But what if a sex game really were a sim? What would it look like if the player had flexible objectives, a variety of elements to manage at once—and complete control?

The Gamer's Dark Side: Bloody-Handed?

June 28, 2007 8:01 AM |

- [The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats. However, this special column deals, head on, with the subject of violence in games.]

The year is 1993, and a few kids are at the arcade, playing two-player Mortal Kombat. Sub-Zero versus Sonya, and the ninja’s winning. One of the kids is so small she has to hop up and down in the air to watch the fight, and she often does.

Sub-Zero’s being played by the oldest of them, and the kid’s practiced at this. The onlookers know exactly what’s coming. “Finish her!” They cheer in unison to Sonya’s dizzy swaying. The oldest kid bites his lip, steeling himself on the controls. Everyone’s watching, and he’s gotta do it right.

As Sub-Zero wrenches Sonya’s head from her body with the spine still attached, the oldest emits a guttural cry of triumph. The littlest child hops extra high to view the blood-drenched words spattered across the screen. Fatality.

All the kids squeal with the delight of the kill. My cousins and I.