Video Games

No Misogyny in Gaming, huh?

Read this and tell me there is no misogyny in games: Anita Sarkeesian Says she Was Driven out of House by Death Threats

Read this and tell me women are treated fairly and respectfully: Anti-Feminist Internet Targets “Depression Quest” game creator, Zoe Quinn

Because, clearly, the way to deal with uppity women is to threaten them with bodily harm until they shut-up. Or accuse them of promiscuity instead of recognizing that they may-just, possibly, may-have made a good game. Because the only way a game designed by a woman could succeed is if she slept with men to get them to promote her. (Which then touches on all of our fucked up issues around sex and female sexuality, but that’s an even bigger topic).

Let’s talk about the threats Jennifer Hepler got while working at Bioware. Or the general rage directed at Bioware for *gasp* portraying characters with non-hetero sexuality. Let’s talk about the “One Reason Why” phenomenon, that finally provided women in gaming a place to speak openly about the bs we get put through. You want evidence? You want proof that this shit happens? Open your eyes.

A Quick Game Design Snap-shot

Here’s something I drew up to help me with character creation on the current game. It’s an RPG, so players will get to choose from various backgrounds. I’m not certain all of the variables I have here will make it into game, but it helps me keep track. It will also be useful to our UI designer (when we get a UI designer). They’ll be able to see what I was thinking, and come up with a much better way to represent it in the finished game.

Since the player can mix and match, I need to make sure all of these elements combine well. Functionally that means having a paragraph for each option that won’t contradict the other choices you can make. That’s the next step. character_creation1I’m really excited about the age range we’re using. That’ll let me talk about characters in different stages of their careers and families.

And yup, there is a gender slider in there. It will have some effect on the character summaries, but not as much as you might think. Because we’re normalizing fluid gender identities in this game. Which means… the characters will treat it as normal, and rarely worthy of mention. Gender will not gate career backgrounds, family relationships, or appearance options. And everyone gets to pick the pronoun they prefer.

A Moment of Appreciation For Deus Ex Human Revolution

20130611051716!DeusExHumanRevolutionCoverIt’s really well written. I can’t speak to the overall plot yet, I’m about 15 hours into the game. However, the opening is so clean and effective. It’s really a pleasure to play through.

In broad, hopefully non-spoilery, strokes: within the first few minutes of the game you know who your character is (head of security for Sarif Industries), how he’s connected to the other characters (head researcher is his ex-gf, who he clearly still cares about, and who clearly still cares about him), and what his motivation is going to be. And it’s all handled so naturally. It’s not info-dumpy at all.

You start off with him chewing out a military official on the phone about providing stringent enough security when they arrive in DC. Which gives you a ton of useful information:

  1. He’s in charge of security
  2. The company he works for is powerful enough that military officials have to do what he says
  3. They’re going to DC very soon and it is a big deal
  4. The government cares about the company

All of that from just a few lines of dialog. Which is how it should be, but often isn’t. Beyond the dialog, the visuals tell the story quite well. Jensen (your character) is sitting in a relaxed position that shows confidence and control. The woman in the room with him is sitting hunched over a bit, tugging at her necklace. So she’s nervous about this upcoming trip, he’s not. There’s a news report going on in the background, talking about their impending senate hearing.

Jensen then teases her about destroying her necklace, which lets us know they know each other well enough for him to feel comfortable doing that. This isn’t a standard head of security and head researcher: they have a connection. He believes she’s brilliant and capable. She’s worried, but she’s okay with him talking to her like that. It’s great. Then their boss comes on over the communication screen telling them to get moving. In the following discussion, she tries to get Jensen to admit that he likes the boss just a little, which lets us know this position as head of security is relatively recent.

And I’m not going to go any further, because that would get spoilery. It isn’t a perfect game, and there are some things I take issue with: there’s a minor character whose dialog is straight out of the 50s era black maid stereotype (“I be’s here for you, Cap’n!”) and we do get a woman in a refrigerator.*

So far, I’m quite happy with the game.

 

*I don’t take issue with the dead/endangered loved one as motivation. I do take issue with it being so overused. And with the endangered loved one almost always being female.

 

Lay Offs and the Game Industry

There’s this marvelous article on Kotaku at the moment explaining the cyclical nature of the game industry, and why we all get laid-0ff so frequently. Go check it out.

finish game–>launch game–>lay off devs–>develop game–>hire devs–>finish game…

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turbine layoffs
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I don’t need to explain this for folks in the game industry, but my non-industry friends always seem a little shocked when I casually say, “Yeah, got laid-off again.” It’s kinda insane as a business model. And short sighted. Which the article points out.

It would make sense, once you’ve built a team that works together well, to keep that team intact. It isn’t easy to find that many people who can work together and get shit done. And every time you build a team, there’s a ramp up phase while people figure out how to work together. But instead companies lay off large portions of their dev teams once a game launches because they’re trying to save money and, after all, they don’t *need* those people anymore. Nevermind six months later when they start in on serious development of the next game and they have to hire new devs. Because, of course, the devs they let go have gone on to find other jobs.

The thing that boggles my tech industry friends, and I totally get this, is how many man hours that wastes. You have to spend time finding candidates, grading candidate tests, interviewing, interviewing again… And many of your new hires will be unknown quantities. You don’t know how well they do their jobs, not really. Or how well they work with others.

I worked at one studio that had been a small, independent studio until they got purchased by a large corporate entity. And, just as the author of the Kotaku article says, corporate handed down strict budgets for each project. This was a bit more extreme than what he’s talking about, with trying to have a second project starting up already while you’re working on the first. They had to start up *multiple* new projects to justify keeping the devs. It was kind of ridiculous. If the main game under development didn’t need environment art at the moment, those artists would be shifted to another project. But then the main game would be finished with user interface art (for the moment) and need environment again, and those teams would get moved around. Again. It was a desperate juggle on the part of studio management, trying to do right by its employees while keeping corporate happy.

So morale suffers, big time. There’s no incentive to put your heart into a project when you know you’ll just be losing your job once it’s over.

The game industry gets away with treating its workforce like this because of the coolness factor, I think. Lots of people want to work in games. Lots of people will take crap pay in order to do that. Of course, the more experienced and senior you get, the less you’re willing to take crap pay. Which means you get fewer jobs. And there are always kids straight out of college who will gladly take those jobs. They won’t know what they’re doing. It’ll take a long time for them to build the skills.

There’s a reason the game industry skews young. The young don’t know what they’re worth, they won’t stand up for themselves as much, and they don’t have families to support. Moving to a new city for a job is still exciting, not a burden. Working until 9, 10, 11 at night is fun instead of exhausting.

As for me, and many other narrative designers, we’re even less valued than most other devs. Because everyone thinks they can write. So you end up with people whose specializations lie elsewhere writing your game. And then you have the company-wide playtests, or you bring in the mock reviewer, or you even go into Friends and Family Alpha, and you suddenly realize your story sucks. Often, it isn’t actually the story itself, but the execution that’s the problem. You have great ideas, but don’t know how to write dialog, so every character sounds the same and there’s lots of “As you know Bob, phase crystals work like this…” instead of fun story. And that’s when narrative designers get hired. Frequently on temporary contract, and primarily as firefighters. We get to fix the story, but we’re left with legacy stuff that no longer makes sense and we have to make it work.

Name Our Indie Game Studio

So, Cormac and I are doing a start-up (which I will tell you all about at some future date) and we are trying to come up with a studio name. Please vote in the poll.

Here are some of our favoritest options:

 

[polldaddy poll=7953621]

 

For context, we’re working on a very character interaction focused RPG (interacting with crew member, building relationships/reputation). If you come up with a new name–and we use it–we will totally Tuckerize you.

Where Dragon Age 2 Falls Down Narratively

dragon-age-2I love Dragon Age: Origins. I enjoyed Dragon Age 2, but it’s nowhere near the game the first was. Not narratively, anyway.

A necessary clarification here: I like Dragon Age 2, and it is a good game, and it’s so easy to see how it could have been better. The infrastructure is totally there. I’ve learned more from playing it, in its flawed beauty, than I have from most games. In fact, I’ve been replaying it this week, which is what got me thinking.

Okay. Disclaimer done. Rant begins now.

Warning: Spoilerrific

Where DA:O gives you several emotionally different endings (you die, your lover dies, no one dies and you pay a devil’s bargain, your best friend dies, you become co-ruler, you become the lover on the side for the ruler, you partner up with your assassin buddy as lovers, etc.)… That sentence ran away from me. Where was I?

Right. Where DA:O gives you endings with different emotional resonance depending on your choices in game, DA2 gives you one ending. Yeah, you can choose to kill or pardon Anders, but that doesn’t really affect anything in the world. Oh, yeah, Sebastian might get mad at you. Whatever. Sebastian is annoying, and is a DLC companion, which means he’s not central to the plot anyway.

The storyline of Dragon Age 2 is one unending series of failures. No matter what you do, it all goes to shit by the end.

First goal, get yourself and your family out of Ferelden and away from the Blight. Guess what? You kinda fail in the first 10 minutes of the game. Because no matter what you do, one of your siblings will die. It’s actually kinda cool, narratively, because the two siblings are very different and will interact with you in entirely different ways, and the choice of who dies is a result of whatever character class you pick. It does establish the premise that every action is going to cost you in this game. And, oh boy, it’ll cost you big. But the fact remains, failure number one, right out the door.

On the right: Siblings Bethany and Carver. One of them is about to die.
The Hawke family. On the right: Siblings Bethany and Carver. One of them is about to die.

You get to Kirkwall with your mom and surviving sibling, and a redheaded annoying guardswoman, but that’s a different issue. The entire first act is all about reclaiming the family name, dragging yourself and your surviving family out of the gutter and up into the nobility. Or at least the middle class. And making sure the Templars can’t touch any of you. Guess what? No matter what you do here, partial failure.

You lose your sibling. No matter what decision you make, your sibling is no longer a part of your life (except for some possible cameo moments later, if they live). Either your sibling is going to die in the Deeproads, or survive by becoming a Grey Warden, which means they’re out of your life and will always have some pretty heavy duty secrets they can never share. Plus the dying early thing, the infertility thing, the fighting nasty darkspawn thing. Yeah. Sorry, sibs. Your life sucks.

If you don’t take your sister with you into the Deeproads, when you get back, she’s being taken away and imprisoned in the Gallows by the Templars (you are a scary mage, lady, so we’re taking you away and locking you up. Sorry, Bethany. But, hey. You’re still adorable.) So you know how such a huge part of wanting status was so you could protect your family from the Templars and make sure your sister never got locked up in the Gallows? Yeah.

Or, if it’s your brother, he goes off and becomes a fucking Templar. You know, a member of the religious order that persecutes mages like you. It’s a complete betrayal of everything your family has fought for. But, you know, shiny uniform. And it does get him out of your shadow. Oh, and it makes you, his big kick ass sister who always outshone him, vulnerable to him. No family issues here.

Okay. So now, it’s you and your mom in the mansion. That’s kinda a success, right? You managed to keep her alive… (Can anyone see the foreshadowing here? Bueller?)

You are nobility. So you managed to get out of the gutter. Go, you. You also have partial ownership in a mine as a result of a quest in act 1 where you save a bunch of miners and clear out monsters from the mine. But that pesky mine just keeps having dragon infestations. So, go back to the mines to find a bunch more miners have died, but you save the rest. The mine is safe again. It’s totally a great idea for those guys to get back to work. Of course, by the end of Act 3, they’re all dead. Every last one of them. So all you did was prolong their lives working in a mine. Which is just the nicest and healthiest place for anyone to work. And then they died. Failure.

In Act 2 you also get to hook up with your love interest. Which is aways gonna have some wonky shit going on. Isabella has commitment issues, so don’t act like you’re really into her, okay?

Talktoanders
Anders

Anders, well, Anders. What can you say about him other than, don’t. Seriously! Possessed mage! With a “sensitive guy pony tail”.

Fenris
Fenris

Fenris is hot, and has an amazing voice, but then he freaks out and runs. And you can’t really blame him, because slavery. Who knows what the hell happened to him when he was a slave? PTSD for sure. You can wait for him for another three years, and he will eventually get his shit worked out and come back to you, and he’ll even have your back in the end whatever you decide. But… that’s the best romance in the game.

Sebastian… celibate sworn to the Chantry. The best you can get out of him in the entire game is a “chaste marriage”. You can pray together. Hot.

Merrill. She’s adorable. She’s quirky. She’s like the librarian girl and mad scientist you’ve always wanted to date all rolled up in one. Plus kittens! Oh, and demons. You don’t mind demons, do you? She and Anders, by the way, are kinda clingy. What is it with clingy mages?

You can’t romance Varric, which is a pity, because that chest hair is pretty fantastic. You can’t romance Aveline, who I did say was annoying (red head guardswoman), but she’s at least a seriously competent warrior. Competence is sexy. It makes up for some emotional un-intelligence.

You can hook up with Zevran if you play your cards right, but he’s not a main character, he doesn’t stick around, and he doesn’t even look like himself thanks to whatever weird changes they made to elven features between DA:O and DA2

You can’t hook up with Cullen, which is a pity, because he’s adorable. And he was so screwed in game one, you kinda want to hug him and make things work out right for him.

You can go to the Blooming Rose and hook up with a prostitute. Not my thing.

And then there’s the Arishok. I wish he was romanceable. I so wish. But he’s not. What a waste of a gorgeous voice. And he’s an interesting character. I kinda agree with him when he rants about how fucked up the city is. Actually, I agree with him on a lot of things. He’s a hell of a lot more competent than the Viscount who rules the city. And a lot more sane than Knight Commander Meredith who leads the Templars, or First Enchanter Orsino who leads the mages. And let’s not even get started on the ineffectualness that is Grand Cleric Elthina. But no matter what, you’re gonna have to fight him. Which could have been cool with a little bit more emotional resonance between you and him. It nearly was cool. But.

Either you let him kidnap Isabella as punishment for her theft, thereby losing her entirely. Or you have to kill him. And I hate having to kill him. But I also can’t convince myself to let him take Isabella. No matter what you do, he’s gone at the end of Act 2. On its own, this is actually a perfectly good plot point for the game. But taken as part of a series of continual failures, meh.

Oh, and the Viscount is dead. Remember all that work you did for him trying to keep the city stable? Remember saving his son and trying to help out with their conflict? Yeah. His son is dead, now. And so is he. And there was never any decision you could make that would change that. Really, the end of Act 2 is pretty depressing.

The Viscount is about to get his head chopped off by the Arishok
The Viscount, about to get his head chopped off by the Arishok

Act 3, you have the Templars and the Mages frothing at the mouth to have a go at each other. Initially, I find the mages more sympathetic, but by the end of the game, I just want both sides dead. And guess what, that’s what you get! I guess that’s kinda satisfying, getting to kill the dumbass leaders of both factions… But you spend so much effort trying to make peace between the two sides, and nothing you do makes a difference. And you can’t convince that ineffectual head of the Chantry to get her head out of the sand and do anything…

But I get ahead of myself. You remember your first ever goal in the game? To keep your family together and get everyone somewhere safe? Yeah. Your mother dies in Act 3. No matter what you do.

It’s actually one of the more effective storylines for me. That ending is just gruesome and heart wrenching. But the fact of the matter is that at this point of the game, you have completely failed. Your entire family is either dead or taken from you by the wardens or the Templars. And you never had any chance of making it turn out differently.

When you resolve Varric’s storyline, you end up killing his brother. When you resolve Merrill’s storyline… god, poor kid. No matter what, she’s screwed. No matter what, her mentor and mother figure bites it at the hands of Merrill’s pet demon. And she is completely rejected by her people. And her entire quest to save her people through studying old and forbidden magic? Total failure. Congrats.

Isabella. "Guys? Guys? I'm still here."
Isabella: “Hey, guys? Guys? I’m still here.”

Isabella… You know, I don’t even remember what’s up with her. Was it all resolved with the Arishok?

Sebastian, meh.

Fenris, you do at least get to kill his former master if you so desire. Or you can let him take Fenris back into slavery. I always kill the bastard. That is satisfying. That is one of the few moments I find completely satisfying. And if you romanced Fenris, you get back together and he’s with you through the end.

And then there’s Anders. Who betrays you. Again, no matter what you do. He betrays you. He lies to you, gets you to help him make his stupid bomb, tricks you into aiding and abetting him in blowing up the Chantry.

The Chantry. The center of the religion. The main power in the city. The folks who control the Templars.

No matter what you do, no matter how much effort you put into making peace between the Chantry/Templars and the Mages, Anders starts a fucking war. The end.

Okay. Maybe not the end. Not completely. You do get to kill the obnoxious leaders of both sides. Knight Commander Meredith, who is just evil from the get go. And then Orsino, the First Enchanter. Who was a sympathetic character. But then he goes batshit and eats his apprentices (or, well, uses their bodies to create a grotesque golem creature with him as the head). And, and! Turns out he was totally in on that crazy shit that got your mother killed. Ass.

So, basically, all the authority figures in the game die. Unless you let the Arishok go. And he’s the only competent one, so I guess him having a chance of survival makes a certain amount of sense.

Your entire family dies. Wait, no, your alcoholic asshole uncle who stole and the gambled away your mother’s inheritance and then sold you into indentured servitude and bitched at you a lot? He’s still around somewhere. As is his illegitimate daughter, I think. She’s kinda cool. But they’re not hanging out with you.

The religious war you tried to stop is happening.

You’ll lose all of your companions, except your lover, unless Anders was your lover and you decided to kill him for the whole starting a war thing (and really, don’t get involved with Anders).

The game is one long failure of a life. No matter what you do. Your choices don’t matter.

This in part is due to middle of the story syndrome. DA2 has to bridge between DA:O and DA3. It’s got major limitations because of that. There has to be a religious war, so that has to start in DA2. There’s probably stuff going on with the Arishok and his people (the Qunari). They are conquerors and they will be coming after the rest of the world, so we need to set that up, too.

The main character of the game has to be central to all of this, but the way they did it, you’re just running a maze where nothing you do makes a difference. Instead of making the player feel important, it makes you feel powerless.

If you want to look at the game philosophically, it’s a great treatise on nihilism and the ultimate heat death of the universe (not literally, but I feel the same way when I think about the heat death of the universe). I just happen to find that depressing.

It plays like a novel. It’s actually a pretty good novel. But I play RPGs to feel agency. To feel like my actions have meaning.

So Dragon Age 2 had a lot of great things going for it. Tension, motivation, gorgeous art, some awesome voice talent, plenty of interesting characters (plenty of blah characters, too, but whatever), and some witty banter. And it does a great job of carrying through on things that happened in the first game. But you only get the illusion of player agency. In the world of DA2, nothing you do changes anything.

Abandon hope, ye who enter here, because you’re screwed whatever you do.

Default male & female PC.
Default male & female PC.

You Were Obviously Never a Geek: Sexism in the Game Industry

That expression just about covers it.

Can I tell you how furious that phrase makes me?

The last day or more, #1reasonwhy has been trending on twitter. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a discussion of why there aren’t more women in the game industry. It’s fascinating, revealing, disturbing, infuriating, motivating–all of these things–to see what other women have gone through.

This was my contribution: sharing how some few male co-workers & supervisors had told me I obviously wasn’t a geek. At the time, I got defensive. I tried to prove that no, I am a geek! See? I have the social scars from high school to prove it. I know the Konami code. I have Star Trek earrings… I’ve played video games since I was a kid, I’ve read adult science fiction since 4th grade (almost exclusively, to my parents’ dismay), and, for fuck’s sake, I’ve published science fiction. Professionally.

But here’s the thing–I never should have been put in that position. Because it’s an ad hominem attack as well as a red herring. It’s a fucking logical fallacy, but it worked on me and that’s what makes me angry.

The only reason you say this to someone in the gaming industry is to discredit them and put them off balance. It isn’t useful information. It isn’t helpful feedback. It isn’t affectionate ribbing. This is what someone says to a woman, in front of others, to discredit her ideas and put her on the defensive. When it happened to me, I shifted from arguing my point to defending my honor as a geek. Say it often enough, and loudly enough, and other people start believing it. It’s a great way to undermine someone without them even realizing it.

I’ve had it said to me in private to justify treating me like crap. Passing me over for promotion. I’ve even had one dude tell me I was right about a particular story design problem, but I obviously had never been a geek. Unspoken, the other dude–the one who was wrong–had been a geek. Geek solidarity. No icky girls allowed in this clubhouse.

I wish I could go back and have that conversation again. Except this time, I wouldn’t go on the defensive. I wouldn’t back down. I wouldn’t be polite and try to make nice. And I wouldn’t let the fear of it costing me my job keep me silent, because a job working with people like that isn’t worth having.

Right now, I’m lucky. I’m working with a team of guys who believe in the rather shocking concept that women are people, too. And yeah, I am the only woman on the narrative team, which says something about our industry. But I am on the team and I am treated with respect. It’s the right direction.

Copywriting as Porn

It’s been long enough that I can talk about this safely.

I was doing copywriting for a company in the game industry (which is pretty much every company I’ve ever worked for, so not much of an identifier–I hope). My exciting challenge was to get lapsed users to come back to us, just for a trial run. We promised it would be better this time around. Really.

But. What I was originally writing never made it into the email blast. I was being honest, you see. “We messed up this thing, and we know it, but we listened and we think you’ll like this new thing a lot better,” was the gist of it.

This was not sexy enough for the Creative Director.

He kept giving me feedback like, “It needs more pizazz,” or “Make it more zippy.” This isn’t useful feedback. At all. Define for me pizazz. Or zip. Or spark. Or half a dozen similarly vague terms.

After a few rounds of this, in desperation, I went back to the skills from a prior writing gig I’d had (this was when I was writing articles for the Penthouse Media Group/Aka Friendfinder). I wrote the email copy as if I were writing porn.

Slip into something more comfortable, I told users. Give it a try and turn us on. You won’t regret it.

Not sure what made me gutsy enough to send that off for approval. Desperation, perhaps. Annoyance. Yeah, annoyance. That one is a BIG motivator for me. But guess what happened next.

Immediate approval.

That went out to users same day, no edits requested. Surely, though, this would never happen a second time, I thought. And yet…

When I wrote ad copy as if I were writing porn, the Creative Director loved it. Every time.

*shrug*

If it works…

It Takes a Villain

I’ve worked on a couple games now that were fairly late stage and required complete rewrites; repurposing pre-existing events or assets. The major thing these games had in common was the lack of a clear villain.

There are a lot of ways games differ from books or movies, but one of the most significant (for a writer) is that you’re not in control of the main character. You can’t control how the player feels, you can’t guarantee the player will notice a specific detail (unless you use a cutscene, which can be problematic in itself).

Usually the main character drives a story. When you can’t use that main character that way… Well, it’s pretty easy to lose direction. The story is directing itself according to the needs of the developers, not the needs of the main character. Which means it won’t feel compelling.

A villain, however, focuses a story admirably. Or it can, if you introduce the villain early enough, establish his villainy, and give him something to want. He can force the player’s hand, to some extent. He can set up ambushes, he can spy on you, he can hire someone to poison you, he can mind control the King… He can have a story. His actions can follow an internal logic and that, in turn, can make a story feel real.

Often newer writers try to be too coy with their villains. They try to hide them until the end, so it’s a surprise. Problem is that you have no reason to hate the villain if you didn’t realize he was the one causing your problems. You need to show him, or someone directly connected to him, kicking puppies pretty early on.

Ernst Blofeld, Bond Supervillain

It’s easy to hate someone who kicks puppies. It’s easy to believe the corrupt sheriff is working for a shadowy crime boss. You may not actually *see* that crime boss until late in the game, but so long as you know he exists and you can connect horrific acts with him, it works. Think of the tiers of villains in a James Bond movie. Minor guy leads to major guy.

It’s worth noting here that not all stories require a villain. However, epic adventure games? They do.

I may try starting with the villain for the next story I write. It would be different.