“Breaking the Industry” Response

Although it’s true that the gaming world is still less than perfect when it comes to equal representation, there have been some notable strides in the past decade. It’s unfair to assume that no progress has been made and to dismiss the games that do portray women in a positive light.

There are some badasses out there such as Sheik from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Laura Croft from Tomb Raider.

Not everything has to be about power play. Not every woman’s role has to be sexualised or submissive.

For example, Hildegard von Krone from Soul Caliber IV is a female warrior who is very much not sexualised in the game. The armor she wears is actually practical, and even her alternate outfit is elegant. Interestingly, director Katsutoshi Sasaki described Hilde as the “most alluring” female character in the game!

Additionally, Alyx from Half Life 2 is fiercely independent. She is immensely skilled at hacking and engineering and easily able to hold her own in a fight. Cheerful, witty and even practically attired, few people wouldn’t want Alyx on their side.

Whitewashing a Japanese Game

Console Game: Kingdom Hearts

Is Kingdom Hearts Whitewashed?

“I find it problematic that in the Kingdom Hearts series, Xehanort/Ansem/Xemnas is the main villain and he’s dark-skinned while all the other original Kingdom Hearts characters (good and bad) are light-skinned. I don’t think there’s an original KH character who is dark-skinned and good.” (http://stopwhitewashing.tumblr.com/post/31303774224/i-find-it-problematic-that-in-the-kingdom-hearts)

Ahem… so there’s something else I noticed while playing Kingdom Hearts. It’s something I noticed when I was younger as well, and which must be addressed. Although SquareEnix is a Japanese company, all of the characters have white European features. For example:

Sora, the main character, has blue eyes and brown hair. None of the characters portray Asian features, which might make sense if the companies working together were targeting Western children on purpose. It’s somewhat disappointing, however, that the main character had to fit the stereotype of what young gamers were perceived to look like. That’s really the motive behind this, right? The target audience is young adolescent white boys living- being white is the norm. By the way, this is how the villains look:

This is how the villains look in the Aladdin world:

Yep…

Back to the main point, as one author points out:

“Racial representation is still a thorny issue. And while there have been a few articles I’ve read that deal with race issues in gaming, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: the writers often suggest that whites and Asians make up much of the workforce in the gaming industry, but then they skip directly to a conversation about the lack of Black, Latino, and Native American characters in games.”

Apparently, this is because so many Asians make up the work environment of the video game industry. Nevertheless, this begs the question: “if there are so many Asians who work in the game industry and play games, why are there so few Asian characters?”

“Asians are perceived as being too foreign to be American.” In issue #245 of Game Informer there is an article about localizing Japanese games for American audiences. One of the producers admitted that the staff was concerned that some of the characters were “too Japanese” and would end up “alienating Western consumers.” In the case of the game, Persona, the two Asian characters were changed into African American characters. (https://thenerdsofcolor.org/2014/02/24/missing-polygons-asians-race-and-video-games/)

In our class we’ve often discussed how the issue of identity is critical to gamers – think Gamergate. We have not, however, discussed solely Asian American identity and portrayal in video games, which would open a lot of new doors. Asian Americans are portrayed in a stereotypical light whether it’s the Oriental princess or the nerdy sidekick. Why can’t there be more Asian characters? Specifically, why can’t there be more Asian characters in a game made by an Asian company?

Crossing into the Disney Brand

Console Game: Kingdom Hearts

Crossing into the Disney Brand

SquareEnix worked with Disney to create Kingdom Hearts.  SquareEnix gained popularity by creating unique characters and appealing to a teen audience. Although SquareEnix gained popularity for creating the Final Fantasy series, it received criticism over not creating games with sensible story lines. Disney, on the other hand, is known for creating touching story lines and cute kiddish characters. When these two companies collaborated, they created a game that took over the market for several years. Originally released in the early 2000s, Kingdom Hearts still has sequels that are being released. The original Kingdom Hearts made approximately 4.68 million dollars in revenue. It sold 3.45 million in US, 1.23 million in Japan, and shipped 5.9 million worldwide. Needless to say, it was a huge success.

The game uses cross overs to bring SquareEnix characters into contact with major Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck. This goes a step further when other Disney characters and worlds are introduced into the story and open for exploration such as the Little Mermaid, Alice in Wonderland, and Tarzan. By using these common and famous Disney stories, the game offers a sense of familiarity for its players. The player knows that Ursula, the Red Queen, and the black panther are all antagonistic characters. The player is also familiar with the cunning nature of the Cheshire Cat and the loving nature of Jane and her father. This becomes an advantage for the player, because the player knows what to expect. All of the worlds follow in accordance with their original stories. SquareEnix just added a twist.

The Disney brand was essential to the success of this game, because without it there would be no Kingdom Hearts. Without it, the game would lose a ton of marketing especially towards younger kids who enjoy Disney. By slapping Mickey Mouse and other recognisable figures onto the cover, the game was able to reach a broader audience and sell out quickly.

The King of Cutscenes

Console Game: Kingdom Hearts

When cutscenes run longer than movies

All of the cutscenes in Kingdom Hearts were compiled in this YouTube video: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNdcyOLuZMs). The runtime of all of the cutscenes in Kingdom Hearts is 3 hours, 21 minutes and 32 seconds. This was the first video game I ever bought, but my brother played it since I was so terrible at defeating villains. Even though I did not play it all the way through on my own when I was younger, I remember watching all of the cutscenes in between. These scenes were so well made that I didn’t mind not playing. Even now, they still captivate me.

Still… being forced to rewatch all of those cutscenes and not being able to skip them made the game seem longer. I wasn’t able to finish the game in an hour and a half like other games, because I needed to watch all of the cut scenes and that extended the time from one and a half hours to five plus hours. The cutscenes are essential to the storyline and to the overall character development, and the cutscenes in Kingdom Hearts are very well made, however, not every gamer likes cutscenes. My brother, for instance, would rather play the game instead of getting to know the different characters and their motivations. Personally, I love cutscenes because I’m a terrible player and I get to take a break and just watch what happens. Also, I’m a total sucker for love stories as in the case of Kingdom Hearts. 

I was shocked by how long the cutscenes were. I was able to get up, make a snack, leave the room and come back with the cutscene still going on. Of course, I lost some valuable information in the meantime, but it’s hard to sit and watch a game for hours on end. Nevertheless, Disney and SquareEnix worked together to craft a reasonable storyline and intriguing new world. The opening scene of Kingdom Hearts and its sequels have been viewed millions of times, because they are so well developed. They are full of easter eggs and foreshadowing that don’t become clear unless you finish the game and trust me – they make you want to finish the game!

Parallax View

Casual Game: Rhythm Heaven

Parallax View

Sounds like the name of a bad 80s movie, right? This theory actually belongs to Slavoj Zizek and is mentioned in Ian Bogost’s How to do things with Videogames. According to Zizek, “The common definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight.” Zizek goes on to establish a philosophical twist on the term, but that does not apply to video games as much as it does to life.

Bogost uses the term, parallax view, to describe the experience of playing Rhythm Heaven. According to Bogost, the term represents, “a shifting perspective between two points without synthesis.” This is true, because as mentioned in an earlier post, Rhythm Heaven allows the player to experience music simultaneously as actor (characters) and instrument (DS stick). This game makes music operational through distorted abstractions with bizarre characters and strange character movements that align to a specific rhythm in a song. The character and the song may not necessarily go together, but the player must connect the character’s actions and the rhythm in order to successfully complete a level. Sometimes the distortion becomes too much and it’s easier to close your eyes and tap along to the rhythm instead.

Strangely, it isn’t always easier to play the game without the visuals. Although some can play the game without looking at the visuals, the visuals do help in cueing the player when a beat is about to drop or change.  For example, Karate Joe is typically seen hitting pots like the one below.

However, when that pot changes into a barrel, the player knows to expect a change in rhythm and prepare his or her wrist to flick the screen differently. Without this visual cue, it’s almost impossible to know what’s coming up. The visuals and the music sometimes work against each other since the player must pay attention to both simultaneously, which can be confusing! The overlap of senses – sight and sound – can sometimes be overstimulating since there is no synthesis between the two. The player must focus on both the character and the music in order to survive.

http://www.lacan.com/zizparallax.htm

A Parallax View by Slavoj Zizek

 

It’s all in the wrist!

Casual Game: Rhythm Heaven

It’s all in the wrist!

This game can be categorised under the genre rhythm action, which Ian Bogost mentions in How to do things with Videogames (Bogost32). When playing Rhythm Heaven, “you see, feel, and hear the musical patterns in a song that otherwise go unnoticed, blending into the overall flow and feel of its melody, harmonies, and rhythm,” (33). According to Bogost, “the game bears much similarity to Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band. But Rhythm Heaven does away with the natural mappings between instruments and their rhythms, replacing the visuals and player interactions with arbitrary, often absurd fictional skins,” (34-35).

True to Bogost’s words, each level of Rhythm Heaven has it’s own story. Each level (minus the mega mixes) are completely independent from each other. Here are all of the levels laid out chronologically:

As you can see, none are the same! Each level posses a new character, a new rhythm, and a new song. Unlike Guitar HeroRhythm Heaven’s songs do not directly correlate with the characters or performance. In fact, all of the characters were imagined in order to fit the music and have little to with the actual performance of music. They each have their own plot line and their own tactics of expressing music. One level may have two scientists in love throwing flasks at each other, while another level takes the player into outer space where he or she must shoot down enemy ships in time to the music. Unlike Guitar Hero, this game allows the player to act “simultaneously as actor and as instrument,” (35). Really, it’s all in the wrist! You must know how to flick the wrist in time to the music. You must then connect that to the actions of the characters on the screen. If you figure out how to put the two together, you can conquer every level!

Another part of the game that makes it stand out is how it punishes the player for messing up. The game makes it clear when you fail to align to a specific rhythm, because it makes a distinct sound and the character that you’re playing exhibits a negative reaction.

For example, in “Lockstep” the character is noticeably out of sync with everyone else when you mess up. The character is hit by the other characters and the player hears a loud smacking sound.

Other characters make funny faces of exasperation or cringe when the player messes up. This is notable, because every level and every character’s reaction is unique.

 

The Pressure to be Perfect

Casual Game: Rhythm Heaven

The Pressure to be Perfect

Three strikes and you’re out!

Rhythm Heaven has a series of mini games where the player must match the movement of the character to whatever rhythm is in the background. Every so often, the player has a chance to go for a “Perfect” and win a medal. Winning these medals allows the player to unlock special levels and features within the game.

The little pink “P” with “Go for a Perfect!” hanging on the top left of the screen is as stressful as it is exciting. If you mess up once, then you automatically lose the session. If you mess up three times, then you lose the chance to win a perfect for that level. One you lose the chance to win a perfect for a level, you must wait until the next opportunity comes up, however, waiting feels like an eternity!

When playing for a perfect, you must put your undivided attention to the game. One little slip up, even the tiniest variation in the flick of the DS control stick, could cost you the perfect. Honestly, it’s more about pride than anything else.

I’ve never been so intensely focused on a game. It’s strange, because there is no tangible real-life outcome, there are no real-life prizes, there is only me and my pride. Still, as a perfectionist, these opportunities would simultaneously thrill me and fill me with dread! I had to get a perfect and I tried ever cheat I could just to get one, but it never worked out. You can’t turn off the game and restart a level to save up on chances, because the game automatically saves when you start a level. Trust me, I tried.

I ended up completing a bunch of perfects, but it cost a ton of time and energy. In my opinion, it was totally worth it. Seeing the “Superb!” at the end made me feel like a beast.

Videogames as Literature

My Choice: Gone Home

Videogames as Literature

Videogames have the ability to create a setting, build up characters, and share deeply emotional stories. The only difference between a novel and a video game is that the video game is more interactive.

Instead of envisioning a setting, the player can move around in it. The map in Gone Home becomes more detailed the more you explore the house. The spatial element of this video game is impressive and it also syncs up with the storyline. How could the main character possibly know every detail of a house she’s never been in? Well, she doesn’t and it’s up to the player to fill in the gaps. The player literally builds the environment around her, which is something we’ve explored when talking about Portal. In Portal, the narrative architecture allows the player to become totally immersed in the experience by building a believable environment. Similarly, Gone Home creates a believable and incredibly detailed environment. The house is filled with 90s memorabilia, and each room had a distinct personality that allowed you to recognise it instantly. For example, Sam’s bedroom was obviously hers because she had posters and homework assignments left everywhere! The house is the only space the player can explore, but it is filled more enough information than the player needs.

Exploration is encouraged and the player can examine old cassettes, photographs, books, and letters that don’t have anything to do with the main storyline. These are used to build up the separate characters themselves and to develop the characters without anyone else having to be in the house. The letters are the most important pieces to understanding Sam and why she chose to leave, but there are plenty of other clues and story lines going on as well. For example, the mother and father are having difficulties with their marriage. The mother was possibly having an affair with another man, although nothing is truly proven. The parents left the house – the player later discovers – because they are on a marriage retreat. Besides that, the mother’s personality is shown through her letters, letters addressed to her by friends, and the various wildlife/wildfire knickknacks lying around the house. The player’s character is shown through the different trophies and various homework assignments scattered throughout the house, which all serve to highlight the difference between her and her sister. The father’s character is developed through the use of his books, letters written to him, and evidences of an early childhood in the house. Even the gift Lonnie sent Sam is kept in a closet, which makes Lonnie feel like a real person. All of these things may seem superfluous if this was just a game, but it’s not. This is a story about the lives of several different people. It’s the story about a family and the trials they face separately in their own hells and together as a family.

Final Journal Entry Transcript:

“Katie… I’m so sorry. That I can’t be there to see you in person. That I can’t tell you all this myself. But I hope, as you read this journal, and you think back… that you’ll understand why I had to do what I did. And that you won’t be sad, and you won’t hate me, and you’ll just know… that I am where I need to be.

I love you so much, Katie. I’ll see you again. Someday.

Love, Sam.”

This ending moved me to tears… the moment where it all comes together – when you realize why no one is home, who the voice on the phone was (Lonnie!), and why it’s called Gone Home.

Home is a place where you belong. For Sam, that was with Lonnie. For the parents, that was in each other, which is why they were trying so hard to save their marriage and confront their issues. For Katie (the main character), that’s literally going home and feeling at peace with what happened.

 

Uncle Oscar – Pedophile or Closeted Homosexual?

My Choice: Gone Home

Uncle Oscar – Pedophile or Closeted Homosexual?

Although Sam and Lonnie’s romance dominates the majority of the game, there is a darker narrative that goes under the radar. That’s understandable, because it is told with such subtlety that it never becomes the main focus. It’s the story about the relationship between Sam’s father, Terry, and his Uncle Oscar, the previous owner of the “Psycho house.”

Below are the two arguments I’ve set up using my own interpretation and the interpretation found on online sources explaining their relationship.

Theory: Oscar the Monster

In one of the hidden passages, there is a wall covered in markings that recorded Terry’s height as he grew up. Terry’s height stops being recorded when he reaches the age of twelve in 1963. In 1963, Oscar hosted a family Thanksgiving part in his home like he does every year. This year, however, was extremely significant because some unknown evil occurs.

Decades later, you enter Oscar’s old house and go exploring. There is a hidden safe in one of the secret passage ways next to a wall with markings that recorded your Dad’s height growing up.

The safe can only be opened if the code 1-9-6-3 is entered. Inside of the safe, amongst syringes and bottles of morphine, is a letter from Oscar to Terry’s mother expressing remorse, transgression, and a plea for forgiveness. Forgiveness for what?

In the cellar of the house, the light is broken. There in the bleak room, a child’s wooden toy horse can be found. It is the only object hidden in the dark alluding to a sinister childhood memory.

According to Austin Walker’s “Transgressions – You Can Do Better,” Terry grows up to become obsessed with the year 1963. “His book’s protagonist travels back to that time to prevent a tragedy. The Kennedy assassination occurred just days before Terry was coerced into the basement on Thanksgiving Day. It became the analogue for the abuse. Terry’s mother found out on that day and the torment ceased, but the repercussions hadn’t yet begun to take hold.”

Did Terry’s mother walk in on her brother abusing her son that fateful night? If so, a lot of pieces may fall into place. For one, it would explain the tension between Oscar and his distant father – who probably did not know how to deal with the situation. It would also explain the letter of remorse written to Terry’s mother that was found in the safe. Finally, it would explain why Terry became estranged from his own wife. Perhaps he still had not dealt with the past. Perhaps this is why he was so obsessed with going back in time and stopping it from happening. Maybe he was JFK.

Theory: Oscar the Cross-Dresser

The reason Sam tried to reach Oscar is because he was a closeted homosexual, much like herself, and she needed advice. Why would she try to hard to reach out to someone who hurt her father? Wouldn’t it make more sense that she reached out to someone who went through a similar experience and could give her advice?

The house has a sewing room filled with women’s clothing – perhaps Oscar cross dressed from time to time and Terry discovered his secret at the Thanksgiving party and revealed it to his parents. The 60s were a conservative period, and homosexuality was not seen in a positive light. Thus, Oscar was rejected by the family and labeled a “psycho.”

As an adult, Terry has a difficult time coming to terms with Sam’s sexuality. Is this because he was still attached to the negative stigmas of the 60s? Is it because he saw how sad Oscar’s life turned out in the end? Maybe his obsession with going back in time has to do with finding a way to stop his younger self from ruining his Uncle’s life? Was Oscar the real JFK and Terry the young spy who could save him? One could only speculate.

Conclusion

According to Steve Gaynor, Walker’s reconstruction of the story events “100% matches my blueprint. As far as I’m concerned it’s totally accurate to what I meant to put in the game, but other interpretations are completely valid.”

(http://www.quartertothree.com/fp/2013/08/21/qt3-games-podcast-gone-homecast-with-developer-steve-gaynor/)

Hold on.

So… Oscar did abuse Terry? Oscar was a monster?

I actually had to stop and put this blog away for a few days, because this made me rethink everything for one moment.

Why is something as serious as trauma, child abuse, and sexual abuse open to interpretation? If a writer intends on using this as a way to shape the narrative, then it must be clearly defined and shown. The fact that it is hidden and “open to interpretation” is problematic because it supports the idea that physical or sexual abuse is just a matter of interpretation. Terry’s perspective is completely left out of the picture, and we’re left with fragments of what might have happened or what could have happened. If it did happen, why not just be clear about it? I understand that this is a subtle storyline and that memories are hard to recreate, but this was an intentional piece of the game. Keeping it hidden does a huge disservice to people who have actually experienced abuse. Unfortunately, real-life survivors are often told that their misfortune is the result of a misunderstanding or that they merely remembered the event wrongly. The ambiguity surrounding the event that allegedly took place only serves to reassert the belief that abuse is a matter of interpretation.

Links:

https://imaginationisspicy.com/2013/09/09/gone-home-the-ghost-no-one-sees/

http://clockworkworlds.com/post/58411117679/the-transgression-you-can-do-better

http://indiehaven.com/the-darker story-of-gone-home/

https://steamcommunity.com/app/232430/discussions/2/864977472590701710/

Para… Normal.

My Choice: Gone Home 

Para…Normal (Reference to Young Frankenstein’s “Abby Normal”)

Initially, Gone Home pulls the player in under the guise of a horror story. There is no backstory given beyond the fact that the player is returning home after a year abroad. The player learns that this is a new house that was labeled the “crazy house,” but there is no explanation to why it is called that. Instead, the game opens on a stormy night in an unlit, empty, and mysterious mansion.

While playing Gone Home, the music and setting of the game made it seem as if something dreadful had happened. You must turn on the light in each room if you want to explore it. Sometimes, as in the case of the secret passages and the basement, light was not available. The music of the game made it very tense, and the ridiculously loud mix tapes gave the game a violent edge. The only soothing part of the game was Sam’s voice, which floated into the room every so often.

Did Sam kill herself? Was her mangled body hanging from the rafters of the ill-lit attic? Was Uncle Oscar’s ghost coming back to haunt you? These grisly thoughts kept me intrigued in the game and the curiosity pushed me forward.

Moving around in an unfamiliar environment alone and in the dark surrounded by angsty music seemed like the perfect recipe for a horror game. The ghost board games, ghost literature, and seance room made this game seem paranormal – I was expecting a ghost to pop up and chase me! I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a horror game. In fact, all of the friends I pushed this onto refused to finish the game because they kept expecting a jump scare. I was expecting a jump scare as well, however, the only scary part was how touching the end of the game was.

It’s not until the end that you realize this isn’t a story about ghosts. Instead, this is a coming-of-age queer love story. Not only that, but it’s a game that explores the lives of different members of a normal family. There’s nothing paranormal about it!

So why did Steve Gaynor, the creator of Gone Home, make it seem like a horror game?

This game reflects the burgeoning LGTBQ movement in the 1990s and does a great job capturing the general attitude towards LGBTQ members at the time. Nevertheless, who would want to play a game about the lives of two seemingly obscure characters? If the player were not a LGTBQ member, would he or she understand the experience? Would the player be able to relate to the character in a meaningful way?

Ultimately, the game revealed a character that was alone, misunderstood, and confused. This character, Sam, is someone a lot of people can relate to minus the LGBTQ issues. The horror elements were just tactics used to keep the player interested in the game, like I was. The true story was about Sam and how she found herself and got in touch with her sexuality, but you don’t realize that until the end. Keeping the main storyline undercover allowed this game to reach even more people since there was no stigma attached to it. It seemed like a regular horror game when in reality, it was a game about the silent hell that LGTBQ members experienced and continue to experience today.