A Musing About Games and Gender

In a relatively recent video series on youtube, PBS Game/Show, one of the videos discussed was “Are You Weird if You Play as the Opposite Sex?” (source below). In it, there was quite a bit of discussion into a genre of roleplaying games that allow players to design their own characters. These game include many MMORPGs and single player games, such as World of Warcraft, Mass Effect series, the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and many others. After watching the video, I have been thinking a bit about why I sometimes play as opposite genders in roleplaying games.

It would be lying if I said I often play as female characters in games. If one looks at my Mass Effect save files, the ration is something around 2:5 female to male. As a man, I still usually default to being a man in video games as well. While I do not consider this skewed ratio an issue, I have seriously thought about this particular behavior. Is it simply because I am a guy, or because I am uncomfortable playing a women, or perhaps I am unconsciously gynophobic? That last one is a joke, mostly. After thinking about it and getting nowhere, I decided to jump in and start a female Commander Shepard, back when I was playing Mass Effect 2. And I enjoyed it just as much as playing the male Shepard, even when I am getting her…romantically involved with other men, or male aliens (yep, you can do that). The experience was fun, engaging, and maybe even a little bit enlightening.

So understandably I was sorely disappointed with other games such as Skyrim, where playing male or female characters hold no difference whatsoever, aside from the occasional pronouns. In Skyrim, and most MMORPGs, the sex difference is very glossed over, and have next to no bearing on the gameplay or the narrative. At this point, I have actually surprised myself, because I am now actively trying to learn more about the female perspective from video games.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this little habit of mine has contributed to my sense of gender equality. Unfortunately, I still can’t come to any sort of productive conclusion about playing games as the opposite sex, but nonetheless, it has me intrigued, and of course I am not going to quite anytime soon.


Mass Effect 3 – A Genre-Defying Journey

Ahh, Mass Effect series. Where do I even start? There is so much that can be examined and analyzed and write books about in this groundbreaking space opera (more like space epic) from Bioware. The richness of the setting, the innovative game mechanic, the superb narrative, the endearing characters, the amazing immersion, and beautiful design are only examples of everything that deserves a detailed analysis. But alas, I have not the time or space to provide such attention to all of them. Also, providing a first impression will be neigh on impossible, since I have gone through the game(s) multiple times already. Instead, I will focus on the genre-defying choices that Bioware put in to construct the unique narrative of Mass Effect series.

Even 59 years after the Lord of the Rings is published, many modern stories in film, books, and video game still faithfully follows the romance circle and re-uses many features of quest romance, in various forms. This is not a detriment or a lack of creativity, and there are many stories that are done very well using this model. Star Wars, for example, can be basically matched, scene for scene, to the romance circle, as well as easily categorizing the various characters in the archetypal roles. Mass Effect, however, have deviated much from this convention. There is no clear quest for the player, no Mordor to conquer, no harrowing of the underworld. Instead, Mass Effect series chooses a more modern narrative construction. Instead of an visible “dark lord,” there is only an enigmatic enemy, revealing little more than his name. Instead of an overarching quest, there are military missions, each one slowly shedding more light on the truth. Instead of glorious battles against forces of evil, there are dirty, gritty, dangerous firefights. Instead of an all-knowing, impossibly wise guide, there are only squadmates who will brave hell and brimstone with you (even if she is over 900-years-old, impossibly beautiful, and ridiculously powerful. Not kidding). Even when a clear enemy presents itself in Mass Effect 3, it is done is a innovative way. There is no Mordor to journey to, no dark lord to overthrow; Mordor is already everywhere, and failure means extinction, not surrender.

These characteristic enable Bioware to bring a fresh narrative, which is only made all the more immersive by the way it is delivered. In Mass Effect series, the players are allowed to make their own decisions in the journey, and face the consequences later. Did you manage to save a particular alien squadmate? He is now a successful and progressive warlord that aims to help his people as a whole. Did you leave another squadmate to die? Your comrades will later lament and mourn her passing when the going gets tough. This mechanic, which appeared in other Bioware games and perfected in the Mass Effect series, not only instills a rare sense of agency in the player, it creates a sense of immersion unparalleled by, I dare wager, any other game to date. Instead of simply an outsider watching the story unfold, a player of the Mass Effect games will feel like he or she is a member who belongs in this living, evolving galaxy.

It is hard to describe Mass Effect series’ narrative. It is not a circle, not a simple journey, and not even a web. The most apt way to visualize Bioware’s space epic, I believe, is to borrow the Many World Interpretation from physics, where there is a universe for every possibility, as Mass Effect offers a diverging, sometimes conflicting choices, and the story can play out in so many different ways. This narrative structure is nearly impossible on any other medium, and Bioware is a pioneer worthy of applause for their achievement with the Mass Effect series. Even though many people still consider video games a second-rate medium of narrative, falling behind literature, film, and even television, games like Mass Effect will do well to disparage that belief in the near future, and help strengthen video game’s status as a legitimate art form.

Stand Fast, stand strong, stand together.


“Bring him down to our level” – A Look at the Dark Knight

While the Fellowship of the Ring has an excellent way of telling a story, it is not the only way. To enlighten myself on an alternative to the romance circle, I chose a movie that I felt would be very different from the Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, and compare them for reference. The result: after I re-watched Christopher Nolan’s the Dark Knight, is strangely informative and satisfying.

The Fellowship is, as we went over in class, a “romance circle” model, one in which the hero must leave childhood behind, dedicate herself to the quest, go into the underworld, brave herself against the dangers of hell, and rise a more prepared champion. Interestingly, Batman Begins, the prequel of the Dark Knight, follows a very similar model, but that’s another topic. On the other hand, the Dark Knight is a very different construction, from the general model of narrative, to the techniques used to build that narrative.

The Fellowship focuses on the story of, well, the Fellowship. Their story is the all-important, age-ending, battle-starting quest that will change the face of Middle Earth forever. Nothing else is more important, even the epic quests in Lord of the Rings Online. In the Dark Knight, Batman has already understood what he must sacrifice to become the “hero Gotham needs.” Furthermore, there is a huge monkey wrench in everyone’s plans: the Joker, who simply want to prove that order is meaningless, and plans to install order, no matter for or by whom, are pathetic. These premise sets up a narrative that is beyond the Batman himself, one in which the actions of Joker, the crime mobs, the mayor, Jim Gordon, and many other side characters are just as important. In a way, this makes the very city of Gotham and its 30 million inhabitants another character in the movie as well.

To construct a narrative with this kind of “connectedness” in a medium in which the audience has only a fixed view (the screen), it seems the movie actually drew the attention away from Batman, the supposed protagonist. The movie often uses a panoramic or bird’s eye view to show the larger surrounding, before drawing closer or cutting to a specific character. This enlarging of view point constructs a more web-like narrative, rather than a much more chronological one like the Fellowship. In the Dark Knight, the scene will often cut to events in different locations, happening to different characters, but often implied to occur at the same, while the Fellowship largely restricts this kind of “changing places” to flashbacks.

There are so much more that I can discuss in the Dark Knight and the Fellowship of the Ring, because of how well done these two movies are. Nonetheless, there is a dramatic difference between them in how each movie choose to tell their own narratives, which are also built very differently. The Fellowship has a more linear style because of the immense importance of the quest to reach Mordor, while the Dark Knight is what happens when a guardian who refuses to abandon his morals meets a psychotic hellbent on corrupting him.


To War – Reflections on Lord of the Rings Online

What would Tolkien have said about LOTRO? I wish we can know. Because this is one heck of a way to explore the rich mythology Tolkien has created.

In the familiar trilogy, the story is mainly focused on the Fellowship of the Ring and its adventures during the War of the Ring. However, given that there is a full-scale war going on, what happened everywhere else? Did the elves, humans, and dwarves  just sat around and waited for Gandalf and Aragorn until the few momentous battles occur at Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith? LOTRO seeks to fill this gap, and I think it did a very good job of it, so far.

I have played LOTRO  briefly once before, but for some reason I found the narrative so much more engaging this time around. The story line of the epic quests provided a nice view of the beginning of the War from a fresh perspective, of forces from both sides working to gain more advantage (aside from fighting for that one magic bullet, that is) for the looming War. These forces included many elven guardians, dwarf champions, human vagabounds, unlikely hobbit warriors, Southern raiders, local scoundrels, ring-wraiths and many more. These narrative made Middle-Earth so much more lively and colorful, providing details I have never imagined in, for example, Bree before. It is also nice to see characters, places, and events mentioned in the original material and see many characters come to life and fleshed out. I felt a pang of excitement and urgency while helping Aragorn in ensuring the safety of Bilbo and company, could not help but feel alone and confused trekking the Old Forest, and stood in mild confusion talking to Tom Bombadil.

Aside from the narrative perspective, playing LOTRO has been a fairly standard MMORPG, where target selection is done by clicking the mouse, and extra abilities are with pressing progressively large numbers of buttons. While this in itself is not a huge problem, it does show that Turbine (LOTRO’s maker) did not try very hard in pushing the envelope or challenging RPG conventions (many of which are set by another MMORPG, World of Warcraft). Granted LOTRO was created in 2007, fairly early in the history of MMO games, Turbine could have made more effort in designing a better tutorial, for instance.

All in all, I feel LOTRO is a great MMO game, despite certain shortcomings. It has great narrative, amazing world-building, and serves as a great exploration of the original material. While the gameplay itself is not very innovative, it plays smoothly and is, most importantly, fun. I believe I will continue to play LOTRO and slowly make my way through the epic quest line, if only to see what happens to Skorgrim, push towards Angmar, take on a Balrog, and even participate in Helm’s Deep (soon-to-be-released).


A Fist Full of… Drama

Being familiar with the competitive gaming culture around the game League of Legends, I have some basis for comparison when I watch King of Kong. In short, the competitive drama in King of Kong is when some people take something too seriously. And that is not a bad thing.

Having paid attention to what is basically the Major League of League of Legends, I know that what often excites people is the rivalries between the teams and players. In all honesty, much of the spectacular appeal in competitive events such as pro sports and competitive gaming lies in the people playing them, since the events themselves often do not have an interesting or existing narrative: watching Donkey Kong is watching a little man jumping over barrels and fireballs over and over, watching League of Legends is watching two teams of ten characters clobbering each other with fancy graphics, watching football (American or European) is watching a bunch of sweaty men/women going after a ball.

When the players generate drama between themselves, people pay attention. Famous biker is found to be doping? National television headlines the news. An American League of Legends player trash-talks another one on camera? Everyone posts the video on the front page of reddit. Drama between two Donkey Kong players? A documentary is made. These events draws attention from both the people who are familiar to the games and those who are not. I personally have not heard of Twin Galaxies and the competitive arcade culture until I saw the film. Drama generates excitement and exposure, and they in turn help legitimize competitive gaming.

Yes, I said “legitimize.” No, don’t pretend some of you don’t think gaming is dumb, with your jerseys and team paraphernalia. Joking aside, competitive gaming, much like competitive sports, puts the player or team on the spot, and often deemed the lesser if they are not successful or victorious. In situations like that, attitudes come into play, and people butt heads. Billy Mitchell probably believed he had to protect his position as the best player of Donkey Kong around, thus leading to some of his more unsavory comments. Perhaps Billy Mitchell is not the most likable person around, or perhaps he is a sore loser, but personalities like him create stories because of their undeniable skill set at their games and the drama they create.

FYI: Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe, and Walter Day are still involved in competitive gaming today. There are some videos of them playing in events on the Twin Galaxies website.


A Braided Reflection

Personally, I have never played Braid until now, but being a prolific gamer and having seen my roommate play the game before, I have had some preparations and planning going into this assignment. On the other hand, my partner, Logan, is very new to video games, as far as I know.

Once the game started, I noticed the “artsy” undertone of the game, well before I reached the end: the first world is “World 2,” there is no “life” system, no resources for using a powerful mechanic (the time reversal), etc. These are general “conventions” often found in video game, and Braid is outright turning them on their faces.

But Braid is doing that so well. The entire game’s puzzles mesh well together with the mechanic I learned as the games progress, and the audio experience,  influenced by the control of time, is very unique and interesting. This game can serve as a great example of merging narrative with mechanics, a sign of any great game on the market. Some examples are the little comments in the books such as “going back to fix his mistakes…” to signal Tim’s ability for reversing time, or mentioning and explaining  “the ring” in World 6 for the appearance of a new mechanic (intentionally vague to avoid spoilers).

However, the artsy undertone did go a bit too far for me, as the game begins to appear pretentious with “the Princess is in another castle,” the deadly plants that are straight from Mario games, etc. It is as if Braid is saying, “I am a hipster, and Mario is the lesser for being so mainstream.” That is my opinion and perhaps it is born out of my experience with other games.

Nonetheless, Braid is a beautifully crafted game even for a veteran gamer, with well-designed puzzles and immersive soundtracks. If I were an obsessive completionist of video games, I would not mind going back to Braid over and over to enjoy the game multiple times.