Analysis – Violence Part II
I’ve played violent video games, I’ve suffered from depression, I’ve been house bound from injury, and I haven’t killed anyone. Yay, me! And Yay to the 99% of that demographic that can say the same! If “violent video games” were being blamed for several crimes or shooting per week, then I’d agree that something has to be done. Then I’d put it up on the same platform like anti-gang and anti-drug efforts. But for now, I’m going to say they’ve done much more good than harm, not just video games as a whole, I’m going to talk about the violent ones, the fighters, the shooters, the murder sims, and the gore desensitization, the ones that make the news.
I mentioned in part 1 of this analysis that there was a distinct lack of what I called “insiders” in the conversation. There was no one intimately familiar with the sub-culture, no one even pretended to be. There were criminal psychologists and addiction counselors, but no actual gamers except for 2, neither of which blamed games. One person was excellent at gaming and gave it up to play football. He set the controller down and made his choice. The other decided to commit murder for reasons that don’t add up in the official story, but he did not blame games. I consider myself an insider to the gaming sub-culture. I know the jargon, I know the material, I know the sub-sets of gamers, I’ve hosted gaming parties, I’ve played them most of my life and have a relatively large collection. I’ve played the fighters, the shooters, the murder sims, and the gore-fests.
I’m very familiar with the Mortal Kombat series, Manhunt, The Ship, Mass Effect, Diablo, Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem, Grand Theft Auto, and lightly acquainted with the Hitman series. I’m even going to be a nice guy and throw the opposition a few bones and mention a particular moment in Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Hopefully, me, being familiar with these games, having played them, read about them, or see them played through, will qualify me to speak on the subject. Katie Couric, has no such qualifications. Until she decides to embed herself at PAX, QuakeCon, or w00tstock, she had no reason to talk about something she doesn’t understand.
People need to be aware, that other people suck. Violence will be inflicted upon you weather you ask for it, or not. You cannot be protected from it or shielded from it. You cannot choose when this will happen. You must be prepared for it, as best you can, when the time comes. This, I believe, is a parent’s responsibility. Raise your child to be strong enough to handle the world he or she will inherit
I was a very isolated child while growing up. I didn’t associate with many of the neighborhood kids or even kids at school. Later on, when I had moved out, I found out why. People suck, particularly the people in the area where I was raised. Looking back I can see, they were actually terrible terrible people to be around. Associating with them was actually toxic to my well being. So, I had an escape, I had video games. Here I was, isolating myself, withdrawing, no parental interference, when it was actually for the best.
When I mentioned violence happens, I mean that it’s happened to me. I played a fighting game obsessively when I was in 3rd grade and thought I became really good at it. In 3rd grade I was also attending public school. Any 3rd grader in public school knows that at some point, someone will pick a fight with you. When it happened to me, I took some punches. My parents told me not to fight for any reason. This led to a recurring cycle of abuse from my attacker. When the day came that I had had enough, I launched into a combo I’d memorized from my favorite fighting game. This violent video game helped me defend myself, protect myself, protect others, and end a cycle of abuse. It might have saved my life. And it wasn’t the only time that would happen.
There were other solutions, but as any victim knows, they aren’t real solutions. Tell a teacher or a parent, call the school, they’ll do something about it. Well, that never happens. The type of people I had to face, bullies, are predators. They seek out opportunities, they hunt, they prey on weak individuals. They strike when no one is looking, in the bathroom, in the locker room, in the crowded hallways obscured by a sea of other students, surrounded by a circle of onlookers. There’s nothing the staff can legally do unless they catch a student in the act. I was on my own.
This situation reminds me of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?” Suffering only leads to more suffering. Growth comes from taking up arms, opposing, and ending them. After I stood up to my bully, I was left alone. New bullies came along, I tried to be peaceful about it, I tried talking, I tried understanding, but there are some occasions where people will hate you for no reason. You have the right to protect yourself. You have the right to live free of fear. You sometimes have to do it yourself. Fighting games taught me how to fight.
Years later, the sequel to that fighting game came out. It was supposed to come out with mod tools that would allow you to design your own fighter, your own arena, your own power-ups, modify almost the whole game. Since I was a fan of the franchise, I was ravenous for information. Just for that game, I began learning about 3d graphics, art, animation, and I discovered a hidden passion. I can plug away at polygons for hours before I notice, I probably should have eaten today. This passion is present to this day and is one of the best ways for me to relax. Because of a violent video game, I learned an artistic skill that I want to turn into a career.
Katie Couric mentioned Manhunt with a single sentence description. Since she’s unable or unwilling to do her job, I’ll help. Manhunt is a murder simulator with more points awarded for more violence and gore. You stalk the streets, confronting other computer controlled(no multiplayer) killers, luring them in with decoys, making noise, throwing rocks, and kill them with assorted weapons like glass shards, pipes, 2x4s, plastic bags, and firearms. It doesn’t quite matter as much that this player character is kidnapped and placed against his will into a (nominated best movie of the year!)Hunger Games-style killing game, but with grown adults, not children.
Manhunt is not the only “murder sim” out there. It had a sequel. I played The Ship in which every character on a cruise ship has a portrait of someone else and has to kill them, while someone has your picture, but no one knows who. The graphical depictions are all very Pixar-ish and cartoon-like. If that’s a problem, then Looney Toons should be added to the ban, and anvils. The Ship has a sequel called Bloody Good Time which takes place in a movie studio, same theme. These games and their lessons have served me greatly in my military career. No, I’m not some black op ghost assassin, but I was volunteered to perform risk assessments for bases. I sought out vulnerabilities and came up with measures to mitigate or eliminate them. It served me in a kind of “To catch a thief” sort of way. The faster paced Ship and Bloody Good Time games taught me to be resourceful in a scrape. While I’m glad I have not had to use those lessons, I’m still glad I have them.
Writing this, I’m reminded of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where Spock is recovering in the Enterprise’s sick bay after reaching out and touching V’Ger’s mind. “It knows only that it needs… but like so many of us, it does not know what.” Children need. When parents cannot deliver, children can seek out and find whatever it is. If they have no friends, then an imaginary friend can fill the void, maybe now it’s video games that can serve that purpose. The on-line games where you can play with real people, definitely fit that description. If a child is never taught to fight or to stand up for himself, then a fighting game can be that teacher. If children are not being intellectually stimulated or challenged, then video games like Spec Ops: The Line or Mass Effect can fill that void.
I know Mass Effect wasn’t one of the “violent” video games in question, but it did make the news a few years back for being a game about lesbian pornography. That story really broke my heart to see because I never even played Mass Effect, but I knew it was being taken out of context. In a world where homosexual marriage is becoming more and more accepted every month, this story is already outrageous. What it really reminded me of was the story of Christopher Reeve on Capital Hill testifying in support of stem cell research. A ban on stem cell research was put in place despite Mr Reeve’s pleas. After the vote, he went around to someone who voted against it and asked why. The only answer the rep could give was that the committee he appointed to do research into the matter said, “no.” When the process was explained to the representative, he regretted voting the way he did. In the Mass Effect scene in question, it is a touching lovely passionate scene that makes sense in the context according to what goes on, better than most Hollywood movie hook-ups. Yes, your character can choose to share this scene with men or women, and your character upon creation at the beginning of the game, can be male or female. This entire sensational story could have been easily defused if someone bothered to look into it in even the slightest way, or ask someone who has seen the scene with knowledge of the context.
Early in my military experience I saw many young enlisted men and women go down and blow half their paycheck at the bar while I played video games up in my room. I spent less money than them, and it definitely decreased the chance of me doing something stupid or getting into trouble. It was what we did every weekend. In that regard, playing video games, violent or otherwise, reminds me of fishing, or going to the bar. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or where you’re going, but who you’re with. When you go fishing, does it matter if you catch any fish? Or is it just an excuse to spend time with people close to you? Sure, some fish might be nice, but that’s never the main reason, is it? Is it? Maybe I just don’t understand the super competitive world of sport fishing. When folk go down to the bar with their crews, what’s the point? Is it to drink? Or is there a social reason? Then again, I could never stand the taste of beer, so maybe I misunderstand the reason for drinking. Either way, violent video games are used as a bonding tool, or a way to keep someone from going out and getting into trouble, there is a strong social aspect to some games, and it’s a better use of money.
Now I want to talk about some violent games that don’t get enough attention, Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Neither of these games are known for their violence, however they use the act of violence and killing in the story in a way to add an incredible amount of weight to it. There is a tragic scene in Final Fantasy VII where the player, as the main character is given the choice to murder an innocent woman in order to save the planet. This is a person who the player has come to care about, not the main character, but the player. The player has to press a button for each action, drawing his weapon, raising his weapon, and then press a final button to strike. The game puts players into a very uncomfortable position. This is the game that many will be the first to say, made them cry, or is a legitimate work of art.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a super spy espionage stealth thriller set during the Cold War. The player, in the end, is forced to kill someone he is very close to, so the Cold War doesn’t become hot. The game does not end until you pull the trigger. The main character Snake has to kill his mentor, his teacher, The Boss. As the story progresses you learn about the complex history these two people had and what they meant to each other. There’s no doubt that these two were intimate. I don’t mean sex, but definitely intimate, something more akin to parent and child. It’s unfair to say you can ever “win” the game, the end is not a reward. The player should feel an incredible feeling of loss.
These two games are just two examples of how violence is used in a deliberate way to upset and disturb the player, not as a visceral visual reward. I would add Spec Ops: The Line, but I haven’t played through it yet, I just know about it’s reputation. These are games that, on the surface, have just as much reason for the “violent video games” protesters to single out, but because no one protesting is an insider, they go unnoticed.
First person shooters seem to be the target of most of the controversy, with Halo and Call of Duty in the spotlight. They’re not the first, they won’t be the last, and there’s already plenty more where they came from. I compared them to the “grind house” level of cinema. One game series from iD software, Quake, could fall into that category, but it elevates itself to something more than that. The first Quake was a leap forward in computer gaming graphics. It was popular enough and that it spawned a whole sub-sport of speed running. Quake also spawned one of the first and one of the largest computer gaming events, QuakeCon. Make no mistake, quake is violent, but if all you focus on is the violence, you’re missing so much more. You’re missing the real worth.
Some games are designed to draw you in with gory graphics and violent imagery. It is attractive to some, and a lot of times, it’s superficial. Action RPGs like the Diablo series, depict rooms full of mutilated bodies, burning crosses, and satanic imagery, sure to draw in any angsty teenagers. Just beneath the surface there are complex mathematical formulae that create a game within a game. I’ve been fortunate to have been blessed with wonderful teachers throughout school, but trying to get kids interested in math is tricky. The students need to find their own motivation, gaming can be that motivation. It involves percentages, fractions, multiplication, probability, statistics, algebra, and possibly geometry. The benefits of the math heavy action RPGs are also many of the same benefits provided by pencil and paper dice-rolling RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, but we all know what parent groups think about that. Robbing kids of an effective tutor, because you don’t like the packaging, without finding something to replace it, does only harm. Will parents even bother to look past the surface to see it? Is that too much to ask?
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Grand Theft Auto series, the game that lets you have sex with hookers, kill them, and take your money back. First of all, this game is meant for a specific audience, an audience that should be able to handle the fact that it is all imaginary. Just because a kid plays cops & robbers, doesn’t mean he’s destined for a life of crime or law enforcement. Secondly, the Grand Theft Auto series is one of the most modded games out there. It encourages people to program their own game, their own characters, their own models, their own everything. Some people have even been hired by major developers and made a career out of tinkering because they made a mod of a popular game. GTA made the news over something called the “Hot Coffee” mod, repeat, mod. Someone modded the game in such a way that someone complained and it made the news. The developers originally planned for it to be in the game, but decided to remove it. Someone tinkered with the game and put something in, the developers are not responsible for that one.
Wrapping up, what have we learned here today? I’ve listed problems of bias and shoddy work in reporting real issues and causes of violence unfairly blamed on violent video games. I’ve given positive examples of how violence can be used to affect a story and have an impact on the player, the opposite of desensitizing. I’ve recounted my personal experience and lessons that violent video games have given me. I’ve proposed a solution to prevent any more controversy by having an embedded journalist report back, and by suggesting parents get involved in their kids’ lives. From here on out, no one can ever say that there are no benefits, and no one can ever blame the game. The information is here for anyone who cares to look.
Thank you for reading.
Analysis – Violence Part I
Violence in video games is a very polarizing issue. One one hand, there are people who play “violent video games” and see no problem with them. On the other hand, there are blow hards, propaganda peddlers, fear mongers, and attention seekers who don’t play, “violent video games” that are trying to stir up controversy for their own benefit, like Katie Couric. These are the same type of people who raged against rock music, dirty dancing, pool tables(Trouble with a capital T and that sounds like V and that stand for Video games!), and anything else that was part of a cultural revolution.
I am biased. I admit it with every review and analysis. I specifically asked for a passionate analysis, which is a contradiction in terms. An analysis should be free of bias, it should be objective, it should be a list of parts that make up a whole. To add personal feelings and make something passionate, should destroy all of that. However, I like to think my reviews and analysis still come together to form something useful, insightful, entertaining, and educating.
Katie Couric in her report on violence in video games is biased. The difference between me and Ms. Couric is that I admit to my bias, upfront. Why doesn’t she? I assume it’s either because she is unable to admit her bias, she doesn’t see it as a bias, and she just did an incredibly terrible job of being a professional journalist and investigator. On the other hand, she may just be unwilling to admit her bias. She knows she has it and she knows she’s putting on a one-sided piece with complete disregard to the truth, roots, causes, issues and underlying problems. So, be it unable or unwilling, Katie Couric is either a terrible person, or just terrible at her job. Maybe I’m wrong, I accept the chance of that with everything I type. Maybe I’m missing something. I invite further criticism, I invite discussion, I invite collaboration, and further distancing myself from Katie Couric, I offer more than a 140 character Twitter message to do it.
It’s times like this that I miss journalists and investigators like Hunter S. Thompson and Neil Strauss. They both put themselves into their work, they were part of the story, they did their homework, they infiltrated the sub-cultures that they were investigating. Katie Couric’s surface-skimming fluff-piece is a perfect example of how to not write a story.
I hate to do this, I hate to give her any kind of traffic or support, but in the purpose of fairness, this is the link where I’m getting my information. I still encourage any readers to look at the source for themselves and double check the facts, like any good reporter should.
First video – Interview with Marc Petric
There is an info bar on the bottom that Marc Petric, the guest, “says violent video games turned son into killer.” The event happened in 2007. So Katie had to dig back 6 years to find this gentleman and remind him of the trauma.
When asked, “What role, do you think, Mark, violent video games played in Danny’s actions?” “He became very withdrawn” That could be because he was a teenager. “We were wondering what was going on.” Getting involved and asking seemed like too much trouble, did it? “We did not know he was playing hours and hours and hours on end.” If you did not know that, if you’re unaware of what your teenage children are doing for hours and hours and hours on end, then you’re either lying, or just dropped the parenting ball. Immediately following that sentence, Mark says, “In fact, the longest he ever played Halo 3 was for 72 hours.” So, it sounds like you DID know what he was doing for hours and hours and hours on end? I really have to wonder what this parent considers too much? 24 hours? 48 hours? 60 hours? 70 hours? Nope, 72 is where he draws the line! It turns out that he wasn’t allowed to play those types of games at home, so then how can the games be held responsible if there’s a ban on them in the household? How do you take them away if they aren’t allowed in the house. Either the ban signaled the moment of the attack, or there was something else which triggered the attack.
Second video – Interview with Daniel Petric
“He was lovely, he was smart, he is polite, it was really really difficult to square that with everything we’ve heard about what he’s done.” It sounds like the speaker doesn’t want to acknowledge the possibility that people can change, grow, or be rehabilitated. Once a killer, always a killer, and no good can come from them? Or do I misunderstand again?
The father originally couldn’t understand what happened or why his son had changed. It might be as simple as asking because, when asked, the son straight up says he was an athlete, he had a serious snowboarding accident, hospitalized, on heavy medication and he was layed up at the house. As a person with back problems, I can understand how limiting that can be. The father did not know or understand what his son was going through. Katie says, “You compete with nameless faceless people…” and she’s right. The father was competing with other people for his son’s attention and rather than get involved, ask questions, bond and parent, get to know these people, the father chose to take the kid off of his pain medication, by that I mean the video games which have been clinically proven to reduce chronic pain sufferers. Just look at the Child’s Play charity.
I find it particularly noteworthy, even though no one else does, that Daniel does not blame the video games, he never has, and has always taken full responsibility for his own actions. So I have to wonder, why does everybody blame video games when the only person who can, doesn’t? Other people are telling him that it’s video games. It makes me a little sick.
Third video – Interview back with Marc
“I want to help get the word out to other people so these kinds of things don’t continue to happen like the Sandy Hook shooter… Columbine… They’re all related.” Yes, Marc actually said that. I’ve been saying this for years, that when the Columbine shooters references Doom in their journals, if Doom didn’t exist, it would just be replaced with something else incredibly violent like an action movie, a comic book, or literature like Dante’s Inferno. There was already plenty of evidence that the killers behind Columbine were reacting to bullying or mental illness. To say a kid who plays video games is a warning sign is like saying a kid with ears is at risk of drug use, because he listens to rock music. Video games are just this generations entertainment revolution, and anyone who can’t see that is looking in the wrong place.
Michael Welner, MD, Forensic Psychiatrist and guest submits that in this case Daniel had a pathological attachment to playing video games, and the killing happened when they were taken away from him. But doctor, if these video games weren’t allowed in the house, if Daniel went over to friends’ houses to play them, what was there to take away? Something about this doesn’t make sense or add up.
“The key attachment connection between mass shooters and video game violence is that mass shooters use the video games as training videos.” By that logic, I am Batman.
Aside from that strange first analysis of his, I think the rest of what he says has some merit. But just as he’s making sense and drawing focus away from video games, and put attention on how controlling and constricting the father was, Katie cuts him off. Way to go, Katie.
Fourth video – Quinn Pitcock whos video game addiction cost him his NFL career
Am I the only one who doesn’t feel sorry for an NFL player out of a job, given their salary? Not once during the interview do either of them mention Quinn Pitcock was also diagnosed with depression at the time. This begs the question, do you play video games because you’re depressed or are you depressed because you play video games? Either one could be true, or neither. Though it deserves a look on a case by case basis. I believe depression existed long before video games, it’s merely the most modern and recent coping device, not a cause.
Quinn Pitcock was drafted by the Colts in 2007, again, either this video is very old, or Katie Couric just loves digging up buried tragedies. Since the pastor referenced Sandy Hook, that means this is a recent video, further evidence Katie Couric is a terrible person, or can’t be bothered to find examples less than 6 years old.
On a brighter note, Mr Pitcock has since played for Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, and Orlando Predators. So it seems video games haven’t had such a detrimental impact on his career as Katie would love for you to believe.
Fifth video – Are video games to blame for violent crimes?
“Research is still wrestling with that.” No kidding? “What we’ve been able to establish is that violent video games increase the arousal, increase hostility, in a number of people who play them.” So, some people like violence? He didn’t say majority, or a percent, or any solid figure, just “some.” Way to be scientific. This is not news, we know that imagery can excite people, men like Hefner & Flint have made a living off of it. “Players are desensitized to violence…desensitized to gore.” That might be true, I’ll come back to that and call it a positive.
Now there’s an “addiction specialist.” That’s like asking a plumber’s opinion on an electrical problem. This show keeps using the word addiction, which refers to chemical changes in the brain and a dependency. The word they should be using is “compulsion.” This is part of why I can’t take this show seriously. Go take a look at the Extra Credits guys for a better explanation and exploration of the subject matter.
And this is where Michael Welner, MD loses all credibility. “Sometimes research isn’t needed” That first phrase alone chills me. “…when you have Quinn Pitcock saying he could be the best in his career and he basically threw it all away.” Quinn Pitcock also said he could have been #1 in his video game, he was getting ranked on ladders, but he chose not to. Here was a talented man who could have been excellent in 2 careers, but had to pick. “It’s a familiar story to anyone who’s dealt with the addiction model.” I’m sure video games never made Quinn think about selling his kidney, turning tricks, or waking up in a sleazy motel with no memory of how he got there, and then checking himself into a court appointed rehab facility. Yeah, discounting all those, it’s a familiar story.
“The game is designed to absorb people.” “I don’t think the developers are blameless.” So, if a woman dresses in a way to attract people, she is not blameless for any crimes committed? People still have free will. People still have a choice. Nobody is being Clockwork Orange’d into playing games, except for maybe Chinese gold farmers. “…they have to be dealt with in the same way(as tobacco companies).” The video game industry, unlike the tobacco industry, was NOT ordered to place warnings about content onto games. It was a self-policing measure from the games industry because of the controversy. They heard, they listened, and acted with full cooperation. There is a difference.
The addiction specialist begins to make sense in the next scene, I mean after she compares alcohol addiction to food addiction(compulsive eater, not addiction). “We really have to focus on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, before, during, and after.” And just as soon as she’s making sense, she’s cut off and Katie talks to someone else.
The next speaker, Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, had the ear of the White House after the Sandy Hook shooting. He claims America has a culture of violence and violent video games are contributing, but can’t be singled out for blame. I can’t argue that. When he says the video game industry is clearly in denial, I might not be able to argue, but I must ask, how does he define the industry? Has he investigated all the games that don’t sell 1,000,000 copies in a month? How pervasive are they? How much violence is in something like Fez or Super Hexagon? So when he wraps up the entire industry in one neat little violent ticking package, I have to wonder why he is ignoring everyone daring to do something different and actually help his cause? He says the industry constantly blames parents, I must agree. Parents may not be the single factor, but contributing, absolutely! We saw just how “involved” the Petric family was when their story didn’t add up.
So the White house proposed $10,000,000 for research into a link between violence and violent video games. According to Mr. Steyer, the video game industry opposed the idea. This is where the simple assistance of one gonzo journalist can help. Is the video game industry protecting themselves from exposure of a dark secret? Or is there really no link? Not one opinion on this show has come from an insider of the culture. I may as well ask a Martian about the weather on Mercury.
Then Katie brings up the labeling, that the industry “fended off government action 20 years ago,” like it was a bad thing. Katie is saying that fully cooperating and fixing a problem yourself is bad? Then Mr Steyer calls it a, “fox guarding a chicken coop. The video game industry is not a fox if it willingly polices itself. Such an uncharacteristic “nice” move is just unbelievable. “How can we let an industry that denies the science…” They don’t deny it, they just disagree, and two of Katie’s “experts” already said the science is still being wrestled with. The White House just put forth $10m to investigate, because there is no science to back it up yet. “All parents have to do is read the box.” I find that totally acceptable. “An industry that actively opposed positive measures.” No, they actively took positive measures before anyone forced legal action. Imagine if you could drive at any speed until you’re pulled over and told to drive the speed limit. Well, the video game industry is nice enough to not want to get ticketed in the first place. I see absolutely no harm, or badness, or ill will in that. The industry’s self-control seems to confuse people.
We knew it would eventually come to free speech. Again, the only arguments I ever hear about this come from outsiders who claim it isn’t, and insiders who claim it is. Who has the greater working knowledge of the sub-culture? I’ll be the last to say Call of Duty Modern Warfare is art, but I won’t judge an entire concept based on one “grindhouse” entry. To deny the epic works of Chrono Trigger, the fantasy adventure of Zelda & Link, the pantomime story from Shadow of the Colossus, the wit and parody of The Bard’s Tale, one of the greatest sci-fi epic trilogies since Star Wars, Mass Effect, the touching mystery and groundbreaking technology in Heavy Rain, is to cheat yourself out of an incredible experience you will not soon forget. The only argument Mr Steyer can muster is, “he’s wrong.” Then he talks about politicians who need courage and the needs of the family which, to me, sounds like nothing more than The Music Man running through River City.
Katie says she reached out to the Entertainment Software Association for comment. On the surface, that seems like good work on her part. Upon slight investigation, the ESA does not represent Activision, Vivendi, or iD, some of the biggest publishers in the business. To target only one representative shows a distinct lack of effort. If she had contacted Konami, Square, Ubisoft, Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Capcom, EA, Disney, and Atari, and they all turned her down, I’d be disappointed.
Last video – Warning signs!
“If your child becomes a different person” Well, yeah. Video games or not, that means something big has probably happened and needs your attention. That’s universal, not specific. This person is giving parenting advice, not video gaming addiction warning signs. Then he starts listing the symptoms of depression. Next, they start throwing out the same buzzwords I heard to describe the dangers of comic books.
Katie then says, that when you give kids with a predisposition to violence these games, “that’s when they turn into Adam Lanza.” Really? Really, Katie Couric? Adam Lanza already had developmental disorders for his entire life, long before video games entered it. The Columbine shooters also loved Marylin Manson, or has someone already beaten you to it, in making a special about the evils of music? But if you decide to discount evidence, you can compare that sweet innocent 6-year old girl down the street to Pol Pot. I swear at some point she wanted to say, “basement-dwelling.”
Wrapping up, the MD says that it’s important to talk to other parents at a community level. For some reason actually getting involved in their kids’ lives is never once brought up. Hmm? Why couldn’t she have used an example that was less than 6 years old? There are plenty of examples of South Koreans who die at cyber cafes. There’s the viral misogyny and sexism directed at “girl gamers.” There was the Norway shooter who said he used video games to train. With just a cursory amount of effort, she could have made the segment so much more!
This subject came up a while back when I was watching the Game Trailers’s retrospective special on the Resident Evil series. When the series covered Resident Evil: Nemesis, a collaborator and I began to brainstorm about the word, good examples, and what it is that makes a good one. Out of all the examples we came up with, we noticed a running trend.
The idea of a nemesis, the good ones, at least, fall into themes, or categories. There’s the multiple encounters, which are used to build a relationship with the player character. Other good nemeses can sometimes duplicate the same powers as your character. Some nemeses are obscenely more powerful than you, or possibly cheat, or who are otherwise unfair or cheap, arrogant, or invincible. The nemesis can be involved in some kind of traumatic act, making it personal. That act could be a betrayal or selling out a former ally. This usually puts them in the position to be the toadies or sidekicks of the main villain.
Sometimes a nemesis can be the main villain, but it appears, from the list we came up with, a majority of them are not. One perfect counter-example to this would be GlaDOS from Portal. She/It serves as both nemesis and the main antagonist. So, it’s possible, just not frequent.
I’m not sure how to continue the article, weather to approach it by theme or by specific instances.
First off, I’ll analyze an oldie, one of the first ones that came up when we were brainstorming, from Super Mario Bros. Goombas, Buzzy Beetles, even Spineys were easy enough to get past. The likes of Lakitu, I just ran away from until he left me alone. Even Bowser was a pushover so long as I could run past or underneath him. Though nothing made me freeze in my tracks and make me feel apprehensive faster than when I saw the Hammer Bros. Super Mario Bros 3 really toned them down, along with every game after that. They were never as intimidating or as frustrating than in their first appearance. If I didn’t have a fire flower, or a star, I’d certainly die, or at least have to take a hit. The timing and patience required to wait for them to jump and run beneath the hammers was more than my young mind could handle at the time.
The Hammer Bros, the original Bros, probably caused the strongest emotional response from me out of any other creature in the game. That’s a good sign. It’s frustrating and traumatic, but it’s a sign they were effective. Hammer Bros violate the traditional rules of a Mario monster. Jumping, or attempting to jump on them almost never works. Sure, the Spiney and Piranha Plant are the same way, but they’re just not as powerful as the Hammer Bros. The Hammer Bros have a power that Mario, at the time, didn’t have. They’re recurring in the later stages of the game. I don’t recall when they first appear, I usually take the warp zones from 1-2 to 4-1 and 4-2 to 8-1, bypassing most of their appearances. They can jump through blocks, something else Mario can’t do.
In Mario’s second American adventure, I’m talking about Super Mario Bros. 2, the mod of Doki Doki Panic, we see Birdo. Birdo is the boss of just about every level that isn’t a world boss. Sometimes you’ll even find him/her outside of the end room. Beating Birdo requires a specific sequence of evasion and attacks, taking eggs and throwing them back at Birdo. Sometimes Birdo shoots the occasional fireball, sometimes it’s all fireballs. Like Boom-Boom from Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario 3D Land, they are each recurring mini-bosses. They’re never really truly defeated, since you know you’ll be seeing them again sometime. I didn’t develop any hatred towards them, but their frequent occurrence set them up to become a solid rival. No matter how many of them that I beat, they did still get the better of me when I grew overconfident. They don’t make the top of the list, but they at least deserve mention.
In Mario’s second Game Boy adventure, Nintendo plays the “evil twin” card by creating Wario. Later, Luigi’s evil twin, Waluigi, is introduced. Wario never really achieved great nemesis status, at least according to the pattern that I’ve seen. He’s a dark reflection, but he’s never really evil, traumatic, cheap, betraying anyone, or seen as anyone’s sidekick. His personality is developed in later games and his existence is tied less and less to Mario, becoming independent, appearing in games without Mario like Wario’s Woods and Wario Ware. Waluigi is even less developed.
In the Metroid universe, there are multiple, effective nemeses. In the Metroid Prime trilogy, Dark Samus is a creature that commits the offense of mimicking the player’s character. This is a unique offense, copying, stealing someone’s identity. The duplicate is a dark reflection of the player character, doing things that the player could probably never dream of doing, yet they’re watching their specific power set be used for evil. That’s a particular form of trauma. There’s really no parallel for this trauma outside of fiction and literature, it’s a horror, thankfully, we’ve never had to face. Not unless you really do have an evil twin.
In Metroid: Fusion, the SA-X is a biological copy that stole Samus’s power suit while she was in the emergency room. It has all of her powers and at every encounter, you are forced to run rather than fight. SA-X is a reoccurring, overpowered, doppleganger, with all your old powers, and a thief to boot.
Lastly, probably the one most people immediately thought of, didn’t get their real Nemesis title until the third game. Mother Brain is the final boss, but it’s Ridley that made Samus’s hunt so personal. It’s not until a decade after the original Metroid that we learn Samus’s colony was destroyed by Ridley, and he personally murdered her parents. Ridley continues to haunt Samus by kidnapping the baby Metroid hatchling that had imprinted itself to her. Even though Ridley is eventually killed, his form is resurrected multiple times by the X parasite in Fusion, in mechanical form in Prime, and a mindless feral clone in Other M. Mother Brain has appeared multiple times, but I’ll bet Samus never felt as much satisfaction than when she kills Ridley.
Nintendo really seems to love pulling the evil twin card. In the Legend of Zelda series, Dark Link has made multiple appearances, first in Zelda II, then again in Ocarina of Time, and in Four Swords Adventure. Dark Link features the same powers as Link, but not many of the other common traits in nemeses. He might also present the traumatic trait, like the Hammer Bros, since he served as the final boss in Zelda II, he probably prompted many Game Over screens, breeding an unhealthy level of hatred for him.
Besides the Dark Link copy, my own personal nemeses from the rest of the series include Darknuts and Iron Knuckles. They’re pretty much the same thing, I’ve never seen them in the same game. They’re identified by a sword and shield. They’re the most intimidating in their first and second appearances. Link’s standard means of attacking, run up and hit it with your sword, is suddenly rendered useless. Your power is taken away from you and are forced to adapt or perish. In a room full of blue darknuts in the first Zelda game, there’s about a 50/50 chance. I don’t like fighting them, I don’t even like getting near them. I prefer to set bombs down and let them blow themselves up. Still, that doesn’t always work. To me, they’re the Zelda version of The Hammer Bros. They’ve killed me enough times to create an irrational fear. Also like the Hammer Bros, their power has been diluted over time.
Zelda II’s palace guardians, the Iron Knuckles, hit hard and have high defense. I always increased my attack first, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with them as long. They appear to possess a preternatural ability to predict where your strikes will land and block them in advance. They’ve done me in more than any other enemy in the game.
Aside from those two, there is one other personal nemesis for me in the Zelda series. When I first saw it in Ocarina of Time, I didn’t need Navi to tell me what it was or what it’s weakness was. I knew. After causing me so much grief in the original game, I knew it no matter what form it took, Like-Likes. No other creature could cause me to leave the dungeon, cost me 90 rupees, and have to start all over again after it just ate my shield. It’s unpredictable. Sometimes when you stab it, it recoils and is sent flying. Other times it keeps on rolling along, as blobs do, and sucks you in, devouring your primary means of defense. No other enemy can do that, setting them apart from the rest.
Star Fox, the mercenary pilots of the Lylat system, were given a nemesis in Star Fox 64 in the form of Star Wolf. They appear twice in Star Fox 64, and several games afterward, including Star Fox Command. Their ships are just as agile and have just as much firepower as Fox’s Arwings. The crew are arrogant, which is probably necessary for a career as a mercenary pilot. It’s not like Star Fox is exactly humble either. I actually like them in Star Fox Command, they seem to have buried any animosity and can respect each other as colleagues. That shows some real character growth, yet, they will always be rivals.
Sonic the Hedgehog’s collection of games is no stranger to mimics. Knuckles, first introduced in Sonic 3, has a similar power set to Sonic, being able to speed dash and spin jump, plus flying. Though, further on, he’s not portrayed as fast. Sonic’s other rivals include Metal and Mecha Sonic, these metal abominations were built to copy Sonic’s skillset, but always end up in the scrap heap. They show the hero what he could be, if he wasn’t “good.”
In Sonic Adventure 2, the character of Shadow is first introduced. He’s a hedgehog, like Sonic, able to harness the power of the Chaos Emeralds. He continually harasses Sonic, making multiple appearances, displays the same powers, and shows supreme arrogance by believing himself to be perfect. Arrogance is another common nemesis trait. Knuckles also develops a rivalry with Rouge the Bat, a treasure hunter (thief), that is out to steal Knuckles’s Master Emerald. Rouge, like Knuckles, displays the similar gliding and digging powers that Knuckles showcases.
In the original Prince of Persia, long before The Two Thrones, there is a puzzle segment where you run into a mirror. In order to pass it, you have to run full speed and leap through it. The mirror shatters and a shadowy duplicate comes out the other side. As the game progresses, this duplicate takes on a life of its own and will be seen from time to time, snagging health potions from you long before you’d be able to get them yourself. Not only is this creature a dark reflection, encountered numerous times, he steals from you that which you need to finish the game. Eventually you get to put him in his place.
Mega Man has battled many robot masters in his long career, but the ones that stick with him are the ones that become great nemeses. Sniper Joe has been a thorn in Mega Man’s side in just about every game. Joe is an even bigger nemesis to Protoman, who sees them all as abominations, that dark reflection concept I mentioned again. Little guys like the Mets, those hard hat wearing bad guys, as frustrating and reoccurring as they are, just don’t fall into the same categories as overpowered, betrayal, sidekick, arrogant, or having the same powers as you.
Bass, who appeared in Mega Man 7, 8, Mega Man & Bass, and the arcade games, was built by Dr. Wily with many of the same features as Mega Man, including that weapon copy ability. Bass can also jump higher, run faster, and his weapon can fire faster, and in more directions. In Mega Man 7, Bass stole the upgrades Dr. Light was building for Mega Man and Rush. Bass displays a great amount of arrogance, believing himself to be the only robot that Dr Wily needs, and going so far as to destroy Dr Wily’s 8 robot masters to prove he can defeat Mega Man.
Many years in Mega Man’s future, there is a great cataclysm and Mega Man’s replacement, X is activated. X follows in his ancestor’s footsteps, fighting for humanity. In his first battle, he is nearly destroyed by the rogue Maverick robot, Vile. Vile was chased off at the last moment by Zero. When X and Zero confronted Vile again, Zero was destroyed and X destroyed Vile. Vile has been rebuilt again and again, with more and newer enhancements, believing himself to be better than that “weakling” X. Vile fills the slots of being reoccurring, stronger, arrogant, caused trauma by killing Zero, betrayed humanity when he turned Maverick, and is the frequent sidekick or lackey to the greater villain, Sigma.
In the old NES version Punch-Out, my own personal nemesis was Soda Popinski. No matter what, I could never get past him. He caused enough anger and frustration that I began to hate him. He was much stronger, I faced him and lost many times, and he took cheap shots at me. Everyone else probably has a different nemesis in that game, whoever they couldn’t get past, like Bald Bull or Sandman.
In the first generation of arcade machines, many young gamers’ first nemesis was probably Blinky, the red ghost from Pac-Man. Once you’ve eaten a certain percentage of dots on a level, or reach a certain level, Blinky speeds up. His AI instructions are at every intersection, to always take the shortest path to reach Pac-Man. So he’s always on your tail, too, relentlessly pursuing you. If you’re not cut off at the pass by Pinky(his AI instructions are to make a turn that will aim for two spaces in front of Pac-Man), you Blinky will come up behind you, and you’ll know you’re doomed, for a long enough time to let the feeling sink in. Blinky is faster than you, which is unfair, invincible most of the time, he’s in every level, and is most likely to be the one that ends your game. Eff you, Blinky… Eff you.
Squaresoft RPGs are good at creating memorable nemeses. Final Fantasy seems to like throwing in Gilgamesh in some form or another. He’s never a push over. There’s almost always some form of Bahamut, the king of dragons. With the exception of Final Fantasy XIII, Bahamut is usually the toughest boss in the game, and you’re not meant to beat him. Beating Bahamut is a challenge and a badge of honor. Like Birdo and Boom-Boom, I look forward to seeing them and facing them in each game.
Final Fantasy IV had Golbez as the “main” villain for 99% of the game, but the biggest nemesis was probably Cain Highwind the Dragoon. He started out as the player’s best friend, but quickly betrayed him and kidnapped the player’s significant other. He appears from time to time to deliver messages, and you don’t have the chance to take him down. This personal attack is enough to breed a healthy level of contempt for your former ally.
Final Fantasy VI had several nemeses. Siegfried was a swordsman that appeared from time to time, stealing treasures from your party. He’s never really beatable when you finally find him in the Colosseum. He knows he’s strong, and flaunts it. His arrogance is not without reason. If they don’t have the power to back up their claims, then their character is not likely to appear on this list.
There is a strange purple octopus called Ultros that just likes to throw wrenches into the plans of the player characters. He’s threatening and menacing, but never really part of the overall plot. He comes off as kind of inept, yet very challenging.
Final Fantasy VI’s main end boss is a coin toss as to weather or not to include him. He beings the first half of the game as just a toadie of the Emperor, before killing him. Kefka appears many times, usually to do something horrible like mass murder or poisoning a castle’s drinking water. By the end of the game, everyone has a personal reason to see him dead. He’s arrogant, ridiculously powerful, caused many characters a personal trauma, betrayed his emperor, and shows up many times. Yet in the end he serves as the final boss, which usually Nemeses are dealt with before the end. Perhaps he’s just a different kind of nemesis.
Fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have created some of the strongest rivalries and nemeses on the list. Sub-Zero’s original murder of Scorpion, and Scorpion’s quest for revenge is one of the most memorable. Sonya’s hunt for Kano is a close second after Kano murdered her former partner. Kitana vs Mileena is the extreme form of sibling rivalry. None of these characters act as the final boss of the game, but they mark a significant personal trauma for these characters.
Street Fighter, as the games progressed, created similar, but less intense rivalries. Just about everyone had a reason to hate and hunt M. Bison. Ryu and Sagat had a personal rivalry that just cooled over time as Sagat learned to let it go. Akuma has something against Ryu, it’s like Ryu seems to piss the most people off.
My personal favorite fighting game, One Must Fall, created a company where the employees were participants in a giant robot fighting tournament. So, everybody knew each other, but not necessarily liked each other. Then there were the other tournaments outside the story mode. This was a fighting game that allowed rematches. If you humiliated one character sufficiently enough by beating them by a wide margin, on a certain difficulty, and performing scrap/destruction(fatality) moves on them, someone related to them would challenge you to a much more difficult rematch. Even winning the tournament, a prior champion can challenge you. They’re usually faster, there’s a chance they will pick the same robot as you, so they could mimic your same powers, they’re arrogant, believing you “stole” something from them, and they’ll likely hassle you again. Killian, Iron Claw, Raven, and Ice are the ones I remember strongest from OMF: 2097. In the sequel, OMF: Battlegrounds, the “rematch” theme returns, often pitting you in the very unfair one vs many grudge matches. I’d love to see Scorpion from Mortal Kombat suddenly interrupt one of Sub-Zero’s fights and make it a 2 on 1, or get a chance to play as Liu Kang and fight Quan Chi and Shang Tsung simultaneously.
In the game Mirror’s Edge, there is a world with a secret network of street running couriers. Most of the missions involve evading non-trained runners, but there is one level where you had to chase and face a particularly arrogant NPC, Jackknife, possessing all the skills and capabilities that you possessed. Jackknife was popular enough to receive an unofficial Half-Life 2 mod spin-off showing his own adventure, like the running nemeses before him Shadow or Knuckles.
Now, the list has gone on long enough, I still have many more nemeses to explore. I thought I knew where this article was going. I analyzed the long list that my friend and I had made and we saw the qualities that good, memorable nemeses have. The enemy being incredibly stronger than you, nigh invulnerable, cheap, unfair, multiple encounters, arrogant, being a traitor, being a sidekick tot he villain, or copying your powers exactly.
What I didn’t see until I began typing this article was that the majority of the best nemeses we came up with came from the early generations of gaming, when the Japanese dominated gaming, in an era before many games were being sold on graphics alone. This isn’t to say that American companies can’t write good villains or nemeses. It’s just greatly weighed in the Japanese’s favor. Maybe it’s because they’ve had more time to work on it, we may never know. When we tried to isolate our efforts to American made AAA games, we just came up short. I invite someone to prove me wrong. The best we could come up with was Blizzard and Valve nemeses. What’s another good American company that’s created a memorable nemesis?
I’d like to know the thoughts of the readership. If I hadn’t covered your favorite nemesis, what stands out in your mind? Or if I neglected a feature, speak up. My viewpoint can’t be the only one. What are the qualities of a good nemesis? What makes a bad nemesis? What makes a bad nemesis rarely came up in the initial list, because they’re easily forgettable.
The rest of the list included Abobo from Double Dragon, Donkey Kong, Carmen Sandiego, Manneroth from Warcraft III, Riku, Axel, and Pete from Kingdom Hearts, Lynx from Chrono Cross, Jackel from Illusion of Gaia, Psycrow from Earthworm Jim, Wesker from Resident Evil, G Man and Dr Kliner from Half-Life, Ocelot in his many forms from Metal Gear Solid, Players 2, 3, 4 and yourself from Magicka, Multi-shot Lightning Enchanted bosses in Diablo II, Ozzie, Flea, Slash, Magus, Dalton, Azala, and Yakra from Chrono Trigger, Arcturus Mengsk, General Duke, and Infested Kerrigan from Starcraft, Shamir Shamazel from King’s Quest VI, and Pokey from Earthbound. Honorable Mentions go to Metroids, level 3 of Battletoads, Terminators(if there ever were a good game with them), and Scar from Battlestar Galactica(if they ever were to let us fight him!).
This analysis article may be a bit inflammatory since it touches a bit on our culture and game design as a whole, not just one specific element or genre. It will also change and grow as more material and examples are added to it, from authors besides myself. This analysis is about feminist characters in games and the distinct lack of them. There will be examples of well made characters, poorly made ones, and neutral ones. If any of my readers are women, I’d especially ask for their input.
I’ve enjoyed exploring feminist ideology ever since I stumbled upon the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency hosted by Anita Sarkeesian. I’ve learned that my world view was more limited than I originally thought. Whenever I’m watching television, movies, reading comics, or playing games, I used to give very little thought to how other viewers, readers, or players might perceive the material. This article is focusing on women in games, though I could easily expand upon it and explore race in games, discrimination, or any kind of struggle.
Many problems I’ve seen depicting women in video games are the same ones also seen in films.
Madison Page from Heavy Rain
Madison Page falls into many different categories but overall I believe is a positive female character. Her opening appearance(without DLC) is a pointless shower scene. It’s obviously meant as eye candy. If the player chooses, they can enter into a relationship with the other main character, Ethan(I didn’t, she was too good for him). She does briefly try to use her sex appeal to her advantage while sneaking into a club, but it’s not her defining trait and never her first or immediate go-to strategy. The multiple endings of the game could see her as a “reward” to Ethan, but I like my ending better, with her as a best selling author on the trail of another serial killer. She can die throughout the story if you let her, but she’s not used as refrigerator stuffing(killed off in order to motivate a male character). Everyone has their own motivation to find the killer. Overall, she’s a very 3-dimensional fully developed character that acknowledges her sex appeal, but doesn’t let it define her.
Dedra from Zeno Clash
Zeno Clash is a weird game. It starts right off the bat with the main character Ghat, on the run from his own people. He’s dragging along Dedra through most of the adventure. Her presence is really never ever required. I’m not even sure what her purpose is. The game could easily happen in its entirety without her. Instead, Ghat would just be talking to himself, instead of her. She’s there so Ghat can recap what just happened, and vocally explain the world. She’s like The Doctor’s companion from the much older, and earlier Doctor Who episodes. The Doctor knew what he was doing, but the companion was needed to ask,“What’s that, Doctor?” for the sake of explaining it to the audience. Dedra is pretty 1-dimensional, but she does serve to calm Ghat and give him a shoulder to lean on in his quest. She helps center Ghat and keeps him from doing something insanely reckless. Anybody can do that, really, male or female. Ghat can be as suicidal as he wants, but as long as he has another person to take care of, he won’t.
The negative characteristics of Dedra reinforce the idea that all women are nurturers and caregivers. It’s a very Japanese view of women from an American game company. I have to wonder if the staff are huge anime fans. Not just regular fans, but the kind that make fans embarrassed. She’s not even a Token female since there are female fighters pursuing Ghat. Dedra has no other character development, but at least they didn’t turn her into a love interest or piece of eye candy. She suffers from poor character development more than being any kind of negative stereotype.
Vanessa Z. Schneider from P. N. 03
Vanessa Schneider is an interesting case. She’s a respectable professional with a bit of a unique take on her job. One can argue that she was designed with eye candy in mind. I believe that, but one person’s eye candy might be completely indigestible to another. It’s unfair to discriminate against a character for being “sexy” when sexy is really all in the eye of the beholder. Vanessa’s job is being a high-tech industrial espionage mercenary. That requires a certain body type and a certain level of fitness. The character couldn’t believably be designed otherwise.
She wears a futuristic skin-tight power suit and sometimes performs sexy poses like Bayonetta. It’s overt, but not AS overt as Bayonetta. She doesn’t strip down naked and suck on lolly pops while the camera exploits her image. The story takes place in almost complete isolation, her gender really doesn’t matter or play any part in the overall story. She never interacts with anyone, gender is simply a non-issue. She’s also very 1-dimensional, showing about as much emotional range as Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine.(That’s not a shot at Ms. Ryan’s acting ability, merely the roles that are written for her)
It’s a stretch, but I’d say that Vanessa is a positive image. She’s a bit violent, but it’s only violence against robots and not humans. Unless our future takes a drastic and unseen turn to robotics and AI, this is not a bad thing. While attractive, she doesn’t use that in any unscrupulous way. Vanessa is a dancer, as well as a mercenary. I’d hope that if my daughter ever played P. N. 03 at length, she’d be impressed with the flexibility and the way she moves, and strive to be able to replicate the moves herself. Plenty of people get inspired when they’re young by watching movies, like martial-arts movies, and might develop an interest in that. Vanessa is really harmless. Dancing takes discipline and dedication to achieve her level of proficiency, and that’s not a bad thing.
Maria & Linda from Double Dragon
These are the only two female characters throughout a long running series spanning more than 5 games. Marion is Billy Lee’s girlfriend who is kidnapped in the first game. Billy Lee has to rescue her. In Double Dragon 2, Marion is outright murdered and Billy Lee(and bro) go on a killing spree in revenge. Marion serves absolutely no purpose other than as an object to rescue in the first game. Billy Lee may as well have been mugged and he spends the rest of the game trying to get his wallet back. Then again, this was the ’80s, we didn’t expect much from the story in an action game.
The damage a game like this does goes beyond having a bad story. It puts women in the role of being a physical reward. It reinforces the idea of women as a thing that must be rescued. And once the rescuing is done, the men are entitled to some form of ownership? This is a dangerous and backwards idea to have.
Marion also should be added to the “Women in Refrigerators” database. For readers unfamiliar with the phrase, it’s a reference to an old issue of Green Lantern where Kyle Raynor returns home to find his long time girlfriend murdered and stuffed into a refrigerator. This typically kicks off a story arc of revenge. The idea of a woman’s life being sacrificed on a whim by the writers for the sake of motivating the main character is more common than one might think. It’s poor writing and disrespectful to women. I’m not saying that women can’t die, but there is a long pattern of men dying in a long noble fight, sacrificing themselves for some cause or another. However women seem to be considered expendable and when they are killed, they’re killed as easily as flipping on or off a light switch.
Other “Women in Refrigerators” include Kratos’s wife from God of War, Ava from Dark Void, Ashley from Mass Effect, Lucca and Schala from Chrono Trigger, and Max’s wife and Mona Sax from Max Payne.
Linda from Double Dragon is merely a “Token female” or as some like to call, a“Smurfette.” A Smurfette is a reference to a single female character in an ensemble of all men. It’s a small sub-division of the“Token” minority character in an otherwise all one-race cast. I’ll repeat myself and say we can’t expect much from a game from the 1980s, but when it happens again in a much more modern game, there really is no excuse, like Tanya from Red Alert, Sarah Kerrigan from Starcraft 1, the Thief from Trine, Zoe and Rochelle from Left 4 Dead 1 & 2, and Krystal from Star Fox.
I’ve stated enough times on this blog that I’m not a fan of the modern super-popular games. I’ve mostly given up on them. So if there are better and more modern examples of either “Women in Refrigerators”or “Smurfettes,” then shout out in the comments.
Sonya Blade started off as a Token lone female character surrounded by all males. She was dressed modestly, at least compared to the games that would come later. She was dressed in something you might see a woman wear at a gym. Mortal Kombat 2 was kind of better. They introduced Kitana& Meleena, so Sonya was no longer the Token female. Their stories had them each play an important role in the Mortal Kombat storyline in different ways. Their costuming wasn’t too outrageous, leotards are still acceptable in some circumstances like dancers or going to the beach.
It wasn’t until Mortal Kombat 3 that the developers really started to amp up the sex appeal with adding Sheeva, Sindel, Jade, and the other girls back. Though now their costumes lost any and all sense of functionality. It was a hard justification for the leotard from MK2, but now I can’t think of any reason for them to wear what they were wearing other than pure eye candy.
In later games came Frost and Asura. These two were probably the most covered, and least exploited, of any other female Kombatant.
I must confess, what the cast of characters lacks in modesty, they make up for in story. No matter how ridiculously dressed or obviously sexual a character is, their backstory is usually strong and important.
One Must Fall
The OMF series is without a doubt one of my favorite games of all time. Under closer examination it also has some of the best sampling of feminist characters of any other game that may be in this list. The characters are diverse in origin, race, culture, and skill. In the original OMF, Crystal Deveroux is one of the main characters in the Ganymede tournament. She’s a skilled robot pilot and fighter, but not the best. She’s in the tournament hoping to uncover the truth of what happened to her parents, engineers and designers of the (H)uman (A)ssisted (R)obot systems. She has a twin brother, Christian that is fiercely protective of her. Crystal returns in the sequel, satisfied, a little older, and a little bit mellower. It shows character growth over time.
Cosette Akira was a HAR designer that has been in the sport of HAR fighting since it began. Her legs were paralyzed in one of the older models that required the pilot to be actually present inside the robot frame rather than a digital link-up that is used in the game. The history in the back of the manual even credits the design of one of the robots to her. She still fights and proves daily that the loss of the use of her legs hasn’t detracted from her in any way. I was a bit sad not to see her in the sequel.
Angel is a mysterious figure and agent of some mysterious organization. Not much is known about her. It’s never fully explained who or what she is. No one has ever seen or met her before. Her name just appeared on the tournament roster one day. It’s hinted that she’s a “native” of Saturn’s moon, Ganymede. She is not seen in the sequel.
Jacqueline was the champion and “boss” character in one of the “career mode”tournaments, making her one of the best fighters around. She reappears in the sequel a bit older and a bit mellower, like most of the “returning” characters. She’s not obsessed with being the best, but she still fights for the fun of it. Like Crystal, this shows growth.
Ice was a hidden character in the original game and without a doubt the most difficult opponent in the game. In order to fight Ice, you had to fight on the hardest difficulty in the single player story mode, and destroy another overpowered secret character before, Fire. Ice might have been confused with Iceman, another character in the “career”tournament” mode. But since characters are identified by the color scheme of their robot, this isn’t the case. Ice and Iceman are two different characters. If you win, you win 10,000,000 points, more than any other fight. In the sequel, Ice returns and this time has a face. All this time, Ice was a woman.
I could go on, there are plenty more female characters in both games, like a pair of cheerleaders that like to work as a team, and the Jaguar master Xante. I just selected some of the stand out favorites of mine. So what do the characters I picked out illustrate? Well, in our world, where there are male dominated technical fields like programming, engineering, and robotics, these characters are positive role models. Young women who are bombarded with gender role advertisements that still tell them women should be housekeepers or secretaries, Cosette is a robot designer, Crystal works in that same field. Jacqueline and Ice are two of the best fighters anywhere. That’s not a technical field, but still a very male-dominated one which women might shy away from for the simple reason that “they’re expected to.”
Objectification of Wives & Mistresses from Overlord and King’s Bounty
This idea was addressed in a feminist panel at PAX this year (2011). They mentioned Fable and how simplistic marriage was in that. It’s treated similar in Overlord and King’s Bounty. Women were a prized item.
In King’s Bounty, you got married and had kids because “they would give you shit.” as one of the PAX panelists of “What Women Really Want From Female Characters” said. You can get divorced and marry someone else, swapping your women out like they were a fashionable accessory.
In Overlord 1, you were forced to take a mistress and could keep her or trade her at one juncture in the game. In Overlord II, you could have 3 mistresses at once and swap out your “favored” mistress any time you choose. Different mistresses gave different bonuses to your army. What’s disappointing is that each mistress has their own unique story and could be developed more, but they aren’t. I’d be interested in seeing a game entirely about two of them.(the 2ndmistress was kind of bland)
Fable, Overlord, and King’s Bounty objectify women, treating them as objects to enhance a male lead character. Overlord II, treats mistress 1 with a little respect, but still, generally continues the objectification theme.
Farah & Charsi from Diablo II
Charsi is a member of the “Sisters of the Sightless Eye,” an all female order. She becomes a blacksmith. In all my years gaming, I can’t recall any other female blacksmith(other than Farah). The entire existence of the Sisters’ order is a testament against gender roles.
Farah the Blacksmith from Act II was trained as a Paladin. Nowhere else in the game do we see a female Paladin, or in fact, any other gender swap of the character classes. There’s no female Necromancers, no male Amazons(that’d just be weird), no male Assassins or female Druids. There’s kind of some female Barbarians, but not the front-line fighters that we play as. It wasn’t until a decade later that we see male and female classes in Diablo III.
Farah& Charsi could easily fall into the “guys with breasts”category, they’re women who take on primarily male roles. But both Charsi and Farah acknowledge that there is a gender gap. They’re not,“trying to be one of the boys.” They are who they are, and they know there are additional challenges in being female. The idea of gender is addressed, not just left unsaid.
Women in X-COM
The Women in X-COM: UFO Defense, Terror From the Deep, Apocalypse, and UFO: Aftermath are pretty evenly split with the men. They get automatically generated names from all over the world, so not only is X-COM promoting gender equality, but racial equality as well. You don’t get 1 or 2, you’ll see just as many men in the ranks of soldiers.
This creates a type of gender neutrality. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, the issue is never addressed. They aren’t really given personalities, everyone is equal in their non-descriptiveness. Still, the games deserve credit for not completely overlooking women. If the game happened to be made by another developer, they just as easily could have kept all of the soldiers male.
Ava from Dark Void
I really liked Dark Void, it was a throwback action/adventure game that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish several times. The story was about as deep as a Buck Rogers adventure, but it made up for it in gameplay.
I’m not sure if they intended to use Ava as a throwback character back to the era. She seemed pretty progressive at first. But on further examination, the main character is chasing after her for more than half the game. She’s either running ahead into danger, or she’s been kidnapped and you have to save her. She’s an object. She used to be in a relationship with the player’s character, but that’s never really explored. Ava ends up being very 1-dimensional and single minded in her determination, like Kratos from God of War, but without his intensity and rage. She is killed off in the final battle, falling into the “Women in Refrigerators” territory.
Dark Void was great fun all the way through, but it is a poor example of positive feminist icons.
Zoe & Rochelle from Left 4 Dead 1 & 2
Each cast of 4 survivors has one woman in the mix. They could be“Smurfettes” or not, if you want to split hairs. First of all, I think the game should get credit for having a female character at all. There are just about as many female undead zombies as there are male. The special infected even have 2 female zombies in their ranks, the Witch and the Spitter. Undead gender equality is wonderful, but it never really addresses what it’s like to be a woman in an undead world. So, I’ll go back to calling Zoe and Rochelle, Smurfettes.
Even though Zoey and Rochelle are the only real women in the group, they are more than just “the woman.” The entire story of Left 4 Dead is told with subtlety. If you stop to examine the details of the world, like on the commentary levels, there’s a greater story being told. Just because Zoey and Rochelle don’t have a moment to infodump exposition all about their past, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Zoey and Rochelle are very down to earth “everywoman” characters. They’re not dressed in obscenely revealing clothes, they aren’t the damsel in distress, they stand on equal footing with the rest of the ensemble cast. With all the dynamic dialogue the characters have, they don’t fall into hysterics, they never lose their cool and keep it together(as well as can be expected in a zombie apocalypse). They’re a positive example for how one should behave in a horrifying situation.
Ashley & Tali from Mass Effect
Notice that I left two of the playable female cast out of the list. I’m not going to include the slutty blue girl. She practically threw herself at Sheppard the whole first game. It’s like she was meant to be the romantic interest, regardless of your gender. I haven’t played as FemShep, yet. So examining the course of the game again through her eyes would be best left to someone else.
Ashley, the soldier, on the surface could have easily fallen into the “guy with breasts” category. If you decide to pursue a relationship with her, she’ll tell you her back story about what it was like growing up, her family, her sisters, and her sister almost being victimized. It’s rare that any game of any generation will dare to address that issue.
Tali, the Quarian, I thought she was the most interesting of the bunch. I was disappointed when the game wouldn’t let me pursue a relationship with her. Yes, long isolation has hurt the Quarian species immune system. If she ever got out of that suit and into a bed, it would probably kill her. I’m sure there’s some medical technology that could boost her immune system, but it just wasn’t available on the ship at that time. Tali, a technology expert, ventured away from her Battlestar Galactica-like convoy to explore the universe on a walkabout-like rite of passage. I would have loved to have seen the convoy and learn as much about her as I did about Ashley.
Ashley and Tali were well developed characters, the blue girl was lacking.
Anne from Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episodes 1 & 2
This is a wonderful example of a well developed and positive female character. She is great for the things she isn’t(objectified, eye candy, a romantic interest, a reward, a guy with breasts, 1-dimensional, or stuffed into a refrigerator). But a positive female character should not be judged on what she isn’t. She should be judged on what she is. She’s a brilliant young girl that is unfortunately closer to her uncle more than her parents. She’s attracted to science, technology(and a bit of the occult), to her parents’ chagrin. Like the OMF women, she’s jumping into a male-dominated field. Though the game isn’t really directed at a younger audience, young girls won’t be seeing this as an example. Hopefully this sends a message to adult males that it’s okay for girls to be into tech.
Sarah Kerrigan, Nova, Mira Han, Medic, Dropship, scientist, Razagal, Mothership, Valkyre, and Banshee from Starcraft
The original Starcraft was a bit lacking in female roles. Even though Kerrigan was a covert operative at the top of the game, Jim Raynor still treated her constantly like a damsel in distress, even after she became a genocidal murderer. Throughout Starcraft 2, Raynor still wanted to “save” her. This could be an important lesson about the dangers of not seeing women as complete human beings, but what can happen if you don’t.
Nova was introduced in the canceled game and a novel before she appeared in Starcraft II. She looks to be better than Kerrigan ever was. Mira Han was a mercenary army leader and married Matt Horner(because he won a poker game).
Kerrigan, Nova, and Mira are all defying typical gender roles. There are physically challenging and demanding difficult roles that some women strive to fill. I’m proud to say that I’ve met some of them. I just wish they were more visible so that everyone could see what is possible. The same could be said of most female warriors, except the organized military aspect of their jobs is more achievable, practical, relatable, and identifiable. Unlike most female warriors, they’re not exploited, wearing plate mail power armor bikinis, none are really romantic interests(despite Jim Raynor’s delusions).
Princess Peach and Wendy O. Koopa from Super Mario Bros
First, Princess Peach is probably the most iconic damsel in distress, at least she started off that way. In Super Mario Bros. 1, 3, World, 64, and others. Peach falls into the objectification category being little more than an object to be rescued. Thankfully this pattern has broken in later years with Bowser just causing havoc. Peach herself has evolved into a playable character in Super Mario Bros 2, Smash Bros, Mario Kart, and even had her own game where the roles are switched.
Peach is a good example of a character that has grown over the decades. She started out as an object, a Smurfette, a trophy, and a 1-dimensional character. Over the years, the character has become more, but still has room to grow. She’s still more developed that Daisy or Pauline.
Wendy O. Koopa is the only female Koopa and the only female non-human in the whole Mario series. She’s the token female among the kooplings. For over 20 years she has received no development, though none of the kooplings have, really. There’s room to grow that has not been used, which is a bit of a disappointment. All things considered, the Mario back catalog of characters is very short on female characters.
Princess Delphi from Giants: Citizen Kabuto
With a name that starts with Princess, she’s probably a negative example. This Delphi is built to be eye candy. In a world of monsters, giants, tiny Scottish Jawa-like creatures, and tiny techno space-men on vacation, she’s a blue-skinned female that looks like a human woman when no one else of her race looks anything remotely like her. In the original draft of the game, she was naked. When it was released, she got a few straps of cheesecloth to cover her up.
Delphi’s story is that of a Princess who rebels against their tyrannical power-hungry parent. It’s not very original, but at it’s heart it’s a good coming of age and discovery of self story. If only the player can get past staring and ogling her. Giants is a ridiculous ride from start to finish and isn’t very good at depicting women in positive roles.
Tanya from Red Alert
Tanya the commando unit wins quadruple points for being 1-dimensional, eye candy, smurfette, and “guy with breasts.” Tanya is the commando, and that’s about all she is. From Red Alert 1, 2, & 3, she remains undeveloped and is just “the commando unit.” Tanya could probably carry her own game like the Commando from C&C Renegade. Secondly, she’s eye candy, played by Keri Whur and Jenny McCarthy. I don’t know when anyone ever hired Keri Whur or Jenny McCarthy for their acting ability. They’re the only female unit in an entire game full of male military characters. They’re a perfect example of a “guy with breasts.” Normally I like tough, strong female characters. But there’s no character development. Kerrigan, Nova, and Mira Han actually exist in a military structure, you know the kind of training they have to go through, and that military structure in which they exist is more realistically depicted and emphasized. They’re women, they’re not the only women in the military, but in Tanya’s case, as far as we know, she might be.
Kat, Krystal, and Amanda from Star Fox Command
Nintendo doesn’t seem to be keen on well developed female characters(save for Samus). Once StarFox introduced Krystal, she may as well have been called Smurfette, a romantic interest for the main character, Fox. She reappears in Star Fox Command and the biggest effect she has is to give Fox concern and worry. Like the original Smurfette(before Papa Smurf did his magic), she divides the team.
Amanda, Slippy’s fiance, appears in Star Fox Command and is a 1-dimensional object that exists in relation to Slippy. Without Slippy, she has no real personality or depth. She has as much development as Princess Peach from Super Mario Bros. 1.
Kat, on the other hand, is a skilled pilot who sometimes flies with Falco. She may or may not be better than Falco, but at least she keeps him on his toes and gives him a run for his money. She exists without any of the relationship baggage of Krystal, and is a better pilot than Amanda.
Chell from Portal
I’m not sure how or where I first learned her name. It’s not mentioned in the game at all. I never received a manual with my digital download via Steam. Chell is a positive to neutral character. She is a woman, but there are no other characters to interact with. She’s more of a gender neutral character. It doesn’t really matter who the character is or what gender they are. She’s obviously clever. The developers could have given her a skimpy outfit, but they didn’t. Overall, she’s a good example and a respectable character.
Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2
Alyx usually tops the list of positive portrayals of women in gaming, she’s certainly one of the best and most recent examples, and for good reason. First, amazingly, she’s a mixed-race character which is still a barrier in most movies, games, or any other medium. Secondly, she’s bright, technologically savvy, with realistic physical proportions and appearance. She’s never used as eye candy or a romantic interest to Gordon Freeman. She’s not the only woman in the mix, there’s Dr Mossman. She’s a powerful player in the story, not just some reward or trophy or object. I believe players were waiting for a “real” woman like her for a long time. She led the pack for a long time and that’s why she’s been remembered so fondly for so long, and why people are looking forward for Half-Life 2: Episode 3.
Samus Aran from Metroid
Aside from Alyx Vance, Samus is usually one of the top 5 “women in games”people will instantly bring to mind. In the first game, the character is presumed to be male. It’s not until the end of the first game or the beginning of the second where it’s revealed that she’s a woman. Throughout the series, her gender is never an issue. It’s amazing, from the player’s perspective, at the time the games were released, to have a female action hero that isn’t over sexualized. Fighting aliens throughout the series, she rarely meets another human, so gender is never an issue. She’s an incredibly positive role model for anyone, regardless of gender.
I’m a little disappointed by Metroid Zero Mission when they decided to put Samus in a skin tight suit in the later part of the game. Though, technically, there’s a pin-up shot of her in a swimsuit as a reward for beating most of the games in a certain amount of time or with a certain amount of item collection. The “best ending” was at least hidden, but the skin-tight “Zero Suit” was completely overt and almost pure cheesecake in Super Smash Bros. Melee. It reduces the spectacular character and her history to simple eye candy. Still, the good far outweighs the bad.
Jade from Beyond Good & Evil
Unfortunately, Jade usually slips through the cracks since Beyond Good & Evil was overlooked upon its initial release. Hopefully the HD re-release gives more players the chance to meet Jade. Jade is a struggling photojournalist trying to make ends meet. She runs an unofficial orphanage, or a shelter for runaways. She watches over and takes care of a bunch of children who don’t have parents. She lives with her uncle Pey’j, a mechanic.
The developers don’t make her a piece of eye candy, she’s never fawning over “a guy.” She’s comfortable being in her own skin. There’s plenty of men and women that populate the world, so she’s not the“Token” woman in the group. Jade is a strong and independent woman with deep convictions. I for one can’t wait for the long-time coming sequel. She’s an excellent role model for anyone, not just for women. I think that’s one of the signs of a well developed character.
Faith & Celeste from Mirror’s Edge
I wish I had Faith in my younger years. She’s a wonderful example of a character that emphasizes physical fitness as well as having a sharp and agile mind. Too often in my youth, brains over physical power were emphasized. Her character emphasizes both. She’s sensitive and empathetic, she cares about her sister, without letting that be her most defining trait. Faith would be a great role model for encouraging fitness in youths. “I want to be able to do that.” I would like to hear that from my daughter. There are male “runners”in the game, so even young men, if they can’t identify with Faith, can choose to identify with Merc.
April Ryan & Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall & The Longest Journey
April& Zoe are fantastically realized characters. An ordinary college student rarely becomes the heroine of a game. April is a starving college student studying artist that is instantly identifiable to anyone of a certain age. She lives in a dorm and gets hit on by a sleezeball who thinks he’s a real player. She has to scrounge for money to ride the subway, work on her final project for school, and fight to get paid for her waitressing hours from a cheapskate boss. That’s just the opening hour of the game. She has family baggage, a deadbeat father figure, she has 1 precious stuffed animal, and she really likes sci-fi. You learn all this in the first hour of the game, then her universe unravels and she slips into a new one. She not only has to save one universe, but two.
Zoe Castillo, the main character in the sequel also starts out in a very down-to-earth and relatable lifestyle. She’s a recent graduate, looking for work, goes to martial arts/self-defense class, has relationships, best friends, likes technology, and falls down the same rabbit hole April Ryan did in the first game.
Both women are emotionally strong, endure hardship and come out stronger. They’re both positive role models. Neither of them fall into the cliché or trope roles of sexploitation, desperately looking for a guy, or remain shallow 1-dimensional stereotypes without growth. Well, each game starts out with the main character in their underwear. It doesn’t last long, but it does hook any male players who might not want to “play as a girl.”
Carmen is my favorite character from anything ever. She is a positive feminist character, and she’s a positive role model for any young boy or girl. Yeah, she’s a criminal, but she has her positive characteristics that far outweigh that. She’s intelligent, she’s wealthy, she’s a leader, she is in excellent physical condition, she’s clever, and she’s very dedicated. I wouldn’t mind my daughter or son looking up to and wanting to be like her.
Carmen is a woman, but it is never played up the fact that she is a woman. Carmen is the greatest thief of all time. She’s not the greatest“female” thief of all time. She never takes advantage of it. She never uses sex as a weapon. She uses her mind but doesn’t neglect the physical aspects of her work. I wish I had her as a role model when I was younger.
Originally written on 4/27/2011
What Went Wrong – Play Length
A brand new highly anticipated game for one of the four primary systems, PC, PS3, XBOX 360, and the Nintendo Wii, is more often than not in the ballpark of $60, +/- maybe $15 depending on special editions or just how highly anticipated it is, or isn’t. And what do we get with that? How long is that game going to satisfy the player?
I just played through two games simultaniously. I switched back and forth between them. When I tired of one, I played the other. The first was Bioshock, one of the highest praised and best selling games of it’s time. The other was Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper, a relatively overlooked entry into the library of electronic entertainment. I will review both later.
After I finished Bioshock, I was very glad I didn’t pay full price and bought it on a Steam weekend deal. It certainly did not deserve the high praise I heard from the younger generation of players. It’s a wonderful technical accomplishment of lighting and art deco model design. It has its high points, but it’s mostly eye candy. The climax came and went, barely noticeable, and before I knew it, the game was over. I know there’s a sequel out and another in development. But I have no desire to revisit that world.
Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, on the other hand, was an incredible game. It’s a thinking player’s game, so that may be why it was overlooked. The mystery and suspense of investigating the Jack the Ripper killings was a great setup. But when “the game’s afoot” and you’re hot on the trail of the mysterious murderer, that was a build up. Sherlock Holmes, the character, can get physical when the need arises, but the game is all logic, deduction, and investigation. The ending will stick with you. It’s a fine example of a great adventure game and I can’t wait to start playing the next game in the series, Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis.
By now, I have certainly identified my own bias. I like to think more than shoot. So, of course, if I worked at a gaming magazine somewhere that reviewed games, I’d rate Sherlock Holmes much higher than Bioshock in general overall value. But that’s not the purpose of this article. I both started each game on the same night, and finished them both on the same night sometime later. One game was much less expensive than the other, yet, they provided me with nearly the same gameplay length. Which was the greater value?
I appreciated Sherlock Holmes on various levels. I appreciated it’s clever puzzles and the respect it showed the characters and the source material. Though the subject matter for this installment was quite horrific, I don’t want to play this game again, but I do want to play the next in the series. Then my mind wandered off to the average game length nowadays. What is it, $60 for 8-10 hours for a first person shooter? 20-25 hours for a modern RPG? What about all the games that I do play, over and over again. What is their relative game play length? Even though some games can be beaten relatively quickly, much sooner than 8-10 hours, the total amount of time I put into them is much much more than any modern game can match.
Some games have a piece of bait on a hook to encourage a second playthrough. The bait can take the form of different endings, trophies or achievements for different decisions. But at that point, you’re playing the game the way someone else instructs you, and the choice is no longer yours. There are some “ethical” dilemmas that are never very rich or deep, the Mother Theresa vs Hitler approach to video game design. In Bioshock, you can help free the possessed little girls or kill them for treasure. Fable has a similar good/evil dynamic. Mass Effect, you’re either a galactic savior or jerk of interstellar proportions. They’re rather poor gimmicks.
I cannot possibly conceive of how many hours I spent saving Hyrule or the Mushroom Kingdom in one form or another, or how much time I’ve spent planet spelunking for metroids, or blasting robots and stealing their powers. I’ve played Final Fantasy VI through at least 3-4 times. I’ve seen all 10 endings in Chrono Trigger with everyone’s level up to **. I’ve probably spent more time playing any single game of the past than any modern game. Final Fantasy VII, amazingly can easily get up to 70 hours if you do all the side quests and side stories.
Is it fair to say I haven’t played Bioshock as much as Zelda? Bioshock hasn’t been around as long, so is it unfair to compare? Has Bioshock not been given equal time as the original Legend of Zelda? While those facts are true, I don’t think it’s unfair at all. Because after the game was finished, I had no desire to play it again. Bioshock had 8-10 hours of opportunity to make me want to play again. I’m just not interested at all. Zelda had less time than that, and succeeded beautifully!
Is this because games like Bioshock are longer than games used to be? It never took me 8-10 hours to hunt down and beat Dr Wily and all his robots. I know sometimes after I finish a modern game, I feel exhausted, thinking back to every step it took to arrive there. I don’t feel up to starting all over again. Is that a fault in design? Are these longer games getting less overall gameplay life than other shorter games? Do games have to be shorter, so short that maybe there’s no need for save points? It may be a point worth investigating with something interesting to discover.
So I have to ask the question, what games are out there, now, for this generation of console, that people continually play? What makes you want to start the trip all over again? What are the games that stick with you? I think there is some awareness of this in the industry with the existence of XBOX Arcade, PS Store, and Virtual Consoles. You can buy your favorite games again and play them. This, the existence of such a feature reinforces what I already believe, why I started this site in the first place, that modern games have much to learn from their predecessors.
I can personally say that Castlevania Lords of Shadow made me want to play it through again, even though it was quite a long trip. I thought it was a disappointment to the Castlevania legacy, but it stood well as its own game. Torchlight had loads to offer. What it lacked in play length, it made up for in replay value. If I continue, I’ll start naming games farther and farther in the past. The modern market really has little to offer me.
Establishing a 3 dimensional character
Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone wants to write that big epic, the next big thing, the one that will be remembered. And there’s a lot that fall short. Most end up looking like shallow copies of something else, maybe taken to an extreme. Players just don’t care enough about the game, or the characters in it. So how do you make them care? How do you write a good character? Let’s take a look at the most memorable and see if we can find out what makes them so.
Exposition vs Action
A character can be defined through the actions they take in the game, the actions they took before the game, referenced through in game dialogue, like that thing they did, at the place, that one time, with that guy. And lastly, through the background information in the game manual. A lost art that last one.
Left 4 Dead 2
The game doesn’t have much of a story on the surface, at least not a traditional one that is all spelled out for you. If you really wanted to know it all, you’d have to play a bunch, and pay attention to every little detail of the environment. But “zombie apocalypse” “all heck breaks loose” is enough.
Their actions all define them as tough badass zombie hunters. However, the characters are developed more strongly via in game dialogue. For example, Nick says, “I think you guys should know, I’m not legally allowed to own a gun. I hope you’re all okay with that.” Now there’s a number of reasons why that could be which is left up to the imagination. All of them tell you that he has a criminal record. There are other statements like that for all the other characters. It’s very atypical, it takes a lot of deduction and inference. But those statements, what they say, and how they say it, tells us a lot about each person.
Commander Sheppard from Mass Effect has a few tiny variations. In the beginning you get to choose and custom tailor Sheppard’s past. Is Sheppard a war hero, a ruthless killer, the soul survivor of a tragic massacre. Was Sheppard born on Earth, a colony, or live in space. Is Sheppard a warrior, technician, a bionic super soldier, or some kind of mix.
Depending on your choices, a series of side missions will open up to reflect them. Someone from your past, whichever past you chose, will appear to test your convictions and moral fiber. At some point, an your military record comes into play in a mission, all depending on what you chose. It only plays a small role. It helps to give Sheppard some color, but it really doesn’t carry enough weight in the story to mean anything. They meant well, it was a nice try, but the lack of weight is what stops it from being as effective as it could be.
The set characters who don’t have a flexible backstory and history are more fleshed out than Sheppard himself.
One Must Fall
The OMF series creates 3 dimensional characters by telling a story in between stories. The first game set up characters using the in game manual, through the in game dialogue, and the victory sequences. The sequel shows some returning characters, years later in different positions. Some have started their own rival robot businesses, become professionals, retired and fight for fun. The new fighters have to rely on the in-game dialogue. It skips spelling out all the in-between years.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
The 3 dimensional characters are created in the different civilization faction leaders. Each person has a short biography, political and operational beliefs, and goals for the future of society.
The Longest Journey
April Ryan begins the game as a starving college student. Her problems are very relateable, at least at the start. Besides worrying about scraping together enough money for a ride on the subway, there’s school, and work. Though you can learn more about a person with how they deal with problems. She reacts with a sense of humor, and the occasional science-fiction reference. Her low rent room is decorated in a way that also describes her. She keeps a stuffed animal in her closet. And there’s a few segments where she mentions her dad with very negative connotation.
The Bard’s Tale
The Bard is quite single minded and one dimensional. And that’s exactly what he should be.
Flipping through the early pages of a D&D character manual, there are some helpful hints and a list of things you can consider to help flesh out a character, things like childhood, alignment, religion, family, heritage, bloodline, account for any family members, political views, goals, hopes, and dreams.
Most of the better Final Fantasies have someone close to the main character die. Lots of supporting characters die. In Final Fantasy 4, half your party dies in one way or another. They were close to the main character, they had some kind of relationship.
I’ve said before that a changing relationship is what creates good drama. So you first have to create those relationships and histories.
Half-Life 2 brings together all the survivors of Black Mesa. Beyond Good & Evil gives the main character a group of orphans to take care of, and an uncle figure. Mortal Kombat has several fighters that are already familiar with each other from somewhere outside of the tournament, Kano & Sonya, Scorpion & Sub-Zero, were the first pair. Later, the relationships, links, and associations only grow and expand.
Establishing Limits & Codes of Behavior
What wouldn’t someone do? What lines wouldn’t they cross? How far would someone go? For what reason? Answer these questions and you’re well on your way to writing a 3 dimensional character. This can manifest itself in a fear, a learned rule, or a professional one.
Does someone break their own rule? Does someone cross a line? Does someone become a killer to defend themselves? Will someone overcome a fear? Is it for their own sake or for someone else’s?
There are many ways to do it, some ways combine easier than others.
Analysis Character Growth
We’ve seen how dynamic characters and static characters are used. Static characters are easy to write, they’re one dimensional, operate from simple motives, usually fill a single purpose or represent some kind of idea or maybe an archetype. But how do you write a dynamic character? How do you write growth? You have to take the character somewhere, write events that shake up their status quo, and throw them into situations that are outside of their traditional zone. Let’s look at some examples.
The story of Overlord 2 has some surprising heart to it. The evil Overlord, trying to rebuild his tower, is met with an empire that discriminates against any and all things magic. People hate you because of how you were born, not because of anything you’ve done. The Overlord systematically destroys the Empire piece by piece, recovering the pieces of his tower.
Max Payne’s long journey into the night comes from him reacting to situations that upset his status quo. A drug addict murders his family, so he follows the trail of drugs and supply to the top. In part of the investigation, he is framed for the murder of a cop. He’s deep undercover and the only one who knows he’s undercover is murdered. So he has to react to his former comrades turning on him. He can’t go to anyone for help that he normally would have. The policeman has to go outside the law for help.
The second game has Max betrayed at almost every turn. Once again he’s stripped of allies and has to rely on means outside the law to find out who’s trying to kill him. He even falls in love, which when you consider his limits, his code of behavior, his ego, the person he wanted to be, the woman he falls in love with is definitely outside his normal comfort zone. When you have a very well defined character, explore what it would take to get them to act out of that character.
Commander Sheppard doesn’t go through as many changes as his crew does. The “security guard” Garrus begins fed up with bureaucracy and relishes the opportunity to join Sheppard’s team. The events and methods Sheppard uses in his newfound freedom as a Spectre operative, makes Garrus lean more towards the renegade side of things. He always believes in truth and justice, he’s just a little more Dirty Harry about it.
Wrex, an alien from a warrior race that dreams of something more for his species. He’s watched as they degenerated from a super power to a scattered clan of mercenaries. “When was the last time you saw a Krogan scientist?” He says at one point, describing the plight of his species. They were made sterile by a biological weapon. At one point in the journey, the villain claims to have developed a cure. However, the facility has to be destroyed. Wrex is so torn by this conflict of interest, he may even turn on Sheppard and will have to be killed. That’s up to the player.
The women aren’t as interesting. They’re development is mostly in the way of love interests for Sheppard. There are still some problems with developers not being able to write strong female characters. They tell you more about themselves the more attention you give them, the more questions you ask, and the friendlier you are to them. Especially that little blue slut. She’s easy. But back on track, the stories they all tell are all about moments where their lives have changed and had a situation that upset their personal status quo.
April Ryan from beginning to end is not the same person, though she always retains her strong sense of humor. And in the sequel Dreamfall, she goes through an even more drastic change. She begins as a starving college art student, and as a very 3 dimensional character, and has the unlikely events involving two universes thrust upon her. If you begin with a 3 dimensional character, then the story practically writes itself.
Beyond Good & Evil
Another example of a well developed 3 dimensional female character, one of the few, is Jade. The game begins with her trying to eke out a living and earn money. She’s a photographer and is hired to photograph evidence of a conspiracy. When the plot thickens, Jade develops a strong taste for truth and justice, to expose the conspiracy that has her planet in a vice grip. When she gets too close, the government strikes back at her, kidnaps her children, and destroys her home. At this point, she actually gives up. She breaks down. It’s a powerful scene. And I hate to say it, but pain usually provides some good character growth.
Start or finish with a well defined 3 dimensional character, introduce scenarios that take them out of their traditional routine, find situations that conflict with their code of behavior, find what it would take to get them to act out of character. And it might sound a bit sadistic, but adding a dash of pain seems to work well, too.
Originally written on 4/10/2011
Analysis Character Growth
Character growth vs static characters
Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI are two of the best examples I can think of for observing character growth. Each game introduces a large cast of playable characters. Then, throughout the game, it makes a point to bring each character to the center stage and gives them a chance to shine in their own personal side quest. At the end of each plot thread, they all end up changed, having grown for the better.
Lucca, Crono’s best friend from childhood, science and engineering are her best friends. Her mother was crippled and lost the use of her legs in an accident from a machine Lucca’s father built. Ripping back and forth through time, Lucca has the opportunity to go back and stop the accident from ever happening.
Magus, a magically gifted human raised by evil monsters joins the party to avert a great disaster. During part of the journey he has the chance to revisit those monsters who once raised him to be a weapon, and destroy them. He has another moment of growth and catharsis through violence as he has to destroy his insane apocalyptical mother.
Frog is… a frog. He was actually a squire to the great hero of the kingdom, Sir Cyrus. Cyrus was on a quest to defeat Magus and save the kingdom. He fails. Magus kills Cyrus and rather than kill the squire, Glenn, he turns him into a half human and half frog creature. Frog goes through a period of self pity, but instead of being consumed by it, uses this new form and becomes a better swordsman than he ever was before. He never approaches his old castle openly, preferring to stay in the shadows, and protect the queen anonymously.
Frog also meets the ghost of Cyrus and lays it to rest by providing him a proper tomb. All this time Frog was wracked with guilt that he was weak and unable to protect Cyrus. Meeting Cyrus, seeing that he does not blame Glenn, gives Frog the courage to continue in the main quest.
Robo, a.k.a. R6-6Y, a.k.a. Prometheus, was created to study the humans in order to better exterminate them. An accident wiped his memory and shut him down. Lucca reactivates him and he joins the party out of thanks. While exploring, Robo encounters the rest of the R6 series, all programmed to kill. They thoroughly thrash him and send him down a waste disposal chute. But, he’s a robot and survives. To him, it was traumatic, being turned on by his brothers.
Later, Robo becomes a gardener, reviving an entire forest, and a shrine is dedicated to his perseverance and respect for life. Sometime after that, he meets his programmer, another program called Mother Brain. It reveals Robo’s original programming, to kill humans. He has the option of submitting to reprogramming, but his memories and thoughts are all he has, and refuses to surrender them. In the end, he is forced to destroy his creator.
I won’t go through the whole cast of Final Fantasy VI, there’s quite a few. I’ll just pick a few.
Celes, one of my favorite characters, begins as a professional soldier. She’s quite single minded and one dimensional. As the game goes on, she is repeatedly forced into situations that require her to dabble in areas outside her comfort zone. First, she is forced to dress up like an “opera floozy” and sing, then play the damsel in distress and “let” herself be kidnapped. When the world is destroyed, she wakes up on an island and has to nurture Sid the engineer back to health. She becomes more feminine, shedding her tough skin, begins to rely and trust others, even falling in love with a thief.(I mean, treasure hunter.)
Setzer the gambler, lives his life up in a giant floating casino airship called the Blackjack. “The goal of life is to be free of obligations, otherwise you lose the ability to gamble” is his philosophy. He lives a very unattached and carefree life. He lives his life by the flip of a coin, often using that to make major decisions. When he loses his ship in the cataclysm, he loses that lust for life and starts hanging out in bars, drinking. Celes finds him and snaps him out of that stupor. They go find another ship and the two of them “put the band back together.” In their quest for the second airship, Setzer recalls memories of a lady friend, Daryl. Daryl believed that sometimes you had to “feel” your way through a situation. And in the final moments of the game, he tosses a coin to go either left or right. At the last minute he stops, and “feels” the need to go the other way. After he makes the decision, that other tunnel they were previously headed towards directed to by the coin, collapses. One of his last lines is, “Daryl, I’m beginning to sound just like you.”
Gau, the feral child, first meets the party on the wilds called the Veldt. The party is kind to Gau and he instinctively sees them as friendly, and kinda… follows them home. When the world ends, he returns to the wilds only to meet them again and rejoin the team. At a point in the party’s adventures, they meet Gau’s father. They dress Gau up, make him look nice, and try to show the father a son to be proud of. Sadly, the old man is crazy and rejects him. Gau is still a feral child and is now certain he will never have a normal family. But he is welcomed by the party.
Now that’s interesting, Gau’s story doesn’t have as happy an ending as it could have been. It didn’t reconcile with his father, instead he gains the party as a family. It suggests that there are many different definitions of family, not just the biologic.
Cyan, the noble samurai of castle Doma establishes his presence very strongly when we’re introduced to him. We’re supposed to know he’s a tough guy and expert with a sword. He almost single handedly repels an invading force. He originally joins for the sake of revenge for the attack on his castle. When the end of the world comes, he finds a solitary mountain hideaway to live in. He becomes a poet, writing love letters to someone who lost their significant other in the disaster.
Throughout the game he has an intense dislike and distrust of machines or anything mechanical. In the original version he was supposed to overcome this technophobia and gain the “tools” ability, like Edgar. Instead, in the end credits he “masters” the use of technology by flipping a switch to save Edgar’s life. It’s a small, but very strong and symbolic moment.
Look at any one of these characters, they are very different people, in very different places in their lives at the end of their adventure than when they were at the beginning.
And now for the other side of the coin, Kratos vs Sora
First off, Kratos from God of War 1. I could say God of War 2 and 3 as well, since he doesn’t change or grow at all, in any way. There is a moment near the end of the game where Kratos is assaulted by several dozen copies of himself. This could be a reference to MacBeth, how after one murder, he must keep committing murder after murder to cover it up. Or, a reference to how anger and revenge will consume you and is self-defeating. But no, it’s just overcome with more excessive violence. And that’s how Kratos solves all of his problem. Unlike Sora, Kratos has no supporting cast of people to care for, which makes his story comparatively shallow.
Sora from the Kingdom Hearts series is almost a metaphor. He’s a symbol, an infectious force to those around him, he is courage and inspiration incarnate. And he always keeps hope alive. He has his memories taken from him in Chain of Memories, but he is still the courageous, inspirational, and hopeful character that he was before. This was an important part of the story that proposes we are more than just our memories. His stagnation of growth in Kingdom Hearts 2, there’s no excuse. The stories, fates, and relationships of the characters around him, like Riku, Micky, and Kyrie, are more fascinating than Sora’s story.
Comparing Kratos and Sora, their ultra violence and childlike hopefulness are both essential to their character. To change that is to change the whole feel of the game. Would Kratos’s story be better if he grew and changed over the adventure? Will Sora reappear in Kingdom Hearts 3, and will he change at all?
Take a look at Kratos at the end of his adventure, is he any different than when he started? Sora, has he really changed that much once he first picked up a keyblade?
All of these characters have been memorable. Some grew, some didn’t. All remained “themselves” throughout. The games with better stories are the ones that changed. Is there a game with a good story that also has a stagnant character?
Half-Life manages to weave a story of horror, adventure, science-fiction, and intrigue. The character of Gordon doesn’t change, but the situation he’s in puts constantly changing stresses on him and the people he’s around. Like Crono from Chrono Trigger. It’s the supporting characters that drive this story.
This character was a supreme disappointment when compared to the odyssey we’re familiar with of a poor farmhand becoming a Jedi knight, or the rogue scoundrel nerf hearder that finds something worth fighting for. Luke and Han from episode IV are in very different places and became very different people by the end of episode VI. Even Darth Vader grew from faceless villain to a sympathetic concerned father.
This Starkiller character doesn’t change, grow, or evolve at all. The story of Rhom Kota was more interesting than Starkiller. I’d like to see more of him! Maybe he’ll appear some time in The Clone Wars computer animated series. I won’t go into depth about The Force Unleashed 2. I don’t know who was the worse lovestruck whiner, Starkiller or Anakin from the prequels.
Lara Croft’s early adventures were quite shallow. She was an explorer and adventurer like Indiana Jones, except she just wasn’t as likable. Lara had no support cast to flesh out her character. Indiana had Marcus, Sallah, and Marian. Lara had no relationships or links with anyone. Indiana had Bellock, and those other German agents he kept running in to. Lara didn’t change or grow at all. They were stories really not worth telling. Indiana went from that young, “it belongs in a museum” looking for “fortune and glory,” to seeing the true value of the artifacts outside of money. Lara’s pretty much stuck in that “fortune and glory” phase.
In her later adventures, she does gain a support team, and there’s even some recurring characters and villains from previous games. I wouldn’t call the games masterpieces, but they’re a distinct improvement over the first few.
Not always renowned for their story, but they do possess that element of change and growth. The player character grows, gets stronger, passes great milestones in the adventure. Each character’s journey is a little different. Everytime they replay the second zone, thoughts of their first time through come to the surface. “Ah, I remember going through this area with my shaman, those were fun times.” It’s a huge leap whenever you get that next new skill or great new weapon. It changes up the playing dynamic each time.
Following Jim Raynor from Starcraft I and II, is a great example of a character’s growth. He starts of as a marshal in a backwater town, to rebel, to revolutionary, to possible savior of the universe. And he’s constantly surrounded by someone, either the player, or one of the supporting characters to play off of. SC2 reveals a bit of Raynor’s past when he was young and robbing trains.
Not entirely game related, but still draw upon the elements of good storytelling. The every day adventures are kind of forgettable. But whenever we read one that totally changes the status quo like (something) Crisis for DC, or when a main character dies in The Death of Captain America or X-Men’s Messiah Complex, that story is going to stick with us.
Dynamic characters that change and grow over time make for some of the most memorable and deep story experiences. Static main characters are okay, so long as they’re surrounded by ones who aren’t.
Originally written on 4/6/2011
More than once, when I’m trying to review a game, I have to think about how it stands up against the rest of the genre, or if it’s based on an already pre-existing intellectual property, how it stands up against the series. Note, this should apply for sequels, as well since they have just created a franchise of their own.
Around Mario’s 25th anniversary, there were a slew of celebratory videos promotions, and interviews from his creator Myamoto. One of the best and most beloved games in the Mario series has to be Super Mario Bros 3. However Myamoto said in one of those interviews that it was his least favorite game. Apparently, there was a mindset at Nintendo at the time that repeating your old work “didn’t make sense.” Why would anyone pay and play that when they could still play the first? That mindset explains Super Mario Bros 2, as well as Zelda 2. So whatever they come up with, would have to be significantly different from the first. Myamoto thought that Mario 3 was too similar to the first for his tastes. Thank goodness Capcom didn’t believe that or else we might not have The Blue Bomber.
When you see a game with a title that you recognize, it automatically conjures up images and feelings that you associate with the original. That’s both the delight and difficulty. What a title means to you is what it means to you personally and what it means to someone else is something else entirely. That game title might have everything someone ever wanted, while to you, it’s missing the very core and soul of the experience. This places an incredible amount of responsibility on the designers.
Let’s begin with Star Wars, that’s one of the largest “franchise” games out there. When you talk about Star Wars, you can open up a flood gate of feelings from fans. I don’t imagine that there’s any definitive Star Wars game that is all things to all fans. Star Wars games chop up the experience into very focused games.
X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter put you in the seat of a starfighter, reliving the average rebel pilot’s experience. There’s even a Death Star run. But, you can’t be a Jedi. You could imagine you’re a Jedi, for all the difference it makes on the story. But there’s no real significant Jedi abilities. You’ll have to wait for another game for that.
Dark Forces 2 was one of the earliest opportunities to be a Jedi, or at least a Jedi in training(I’m skipping those weird Atari games). Force push,, pull, lightning, jump, heal, swinging a light saber all around. You might be able to say Super Empire Strikes Back also let you be a Jedi, in its own way.
Republic Commando and Battlefront focused on the experiences of being the common soldier fighting for one side or another.
Some of these games tell their own story, exploring never before addressed points in the time line like The Force Unleashed or Shadows of the Empire. The story takes just as much priority as the gameplay. It crosses the line between game and an electronic choose-your-own-adventure book.
There’s many many more titles like Rebel Assault or Knights of the old Republic. But they all represent one or more of those focused experiences. That’s what all these games have in common, they all recreate portions of the experience.
Let’s take another franchise,
With a new X-COM in the works, will it be an X-COM game, or just have the X-COM title? X-COM has always, to me, been about overcoming the incredible odds that are stacked against you from the very beginning. Even as the game goes on, you have to be prepared to overcompensate. Things never really become “fair.”
Part of the X-COM experience deals with the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. The new version looks to have it, a board with missions all over the country, choosing to take one mission or another, your actions during the mission change the outcome. I just haven’t seen if there’s any base building elements or base defense missions.
There were a few games in the series that focused on one aspect or another. X-COM Interceptor focused on the shoot down scenarios of X-COM with some base building and research. X-COM Enforcer was all tactical action. It departed a bit more from the formula, but it’s another window into the X-COM universe.
Pretty much all of the original numbered series and the X series remain true to their roots. But when they branch off from that into Battle Network, MM Zero, and Star Command, they take away the essential elements to their experience. Anyone who sees the name Megaman expects a particular experience. By taking that all away, the players and fans are being robbed.
A “Mario game” to me will probably mean going to its roots on the NES. Yes, I know, “Mario Bros” came out before “Super” was added to its title. But I believe Mario is at his best with side scrolling, goomba stomping, shell kicking formulas. Mario 64 was an interesting direction and I wouldn’t mind seeing that formula continue in addition to the side scrolling versions like New Super Mario Bros for the DS and the Wii. The fact that Myomoto doesn’t like to repeat himself, he prefers to innovate every time, we can expect to see Mario do many more sports and party games before another Mario 64. A revisit to Mario 3’s world or Super Mario World would be a treat in Mario 64’s style. For some reason, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy 2 just never resonated with me as strongly as those classics. You could have replaced the main characters with happy smiling fish and it would be just as good.
I’ve expressed my disappointment with Lords of Shadow in the Old vs. New section. It’s mainly centered around the removal of everything familiar from the series. It has about as much to do with Castlevania as the Doom movie had to do with the game. It didn’t do anything to recreate the experience or feel of the other games.
This one is very near and dear to my heart. The Nintendo incarnations were atrocious. I won’t even bother to much they failed. I’d rather focus on how much the new game succeeded. Part of being a ghostbuster is the incredible amount of destruction they always seem to leave in their wake. The game has that, and in fact keeps a running tally of how much damage you do. The game’s story is slightly convoluded in order to recreate some famous scenes like the battle with Stay Puff’t and Slimer in the Sedgewick Hotel ballroom. If they weren’t in there, I would have wished they were there. Besides getting a proton pack, the game remembers to include the slime blower. If it wasn’t included, I’d have wished it was. The old team back again, the original cast, the writing, seeing them all back in action is half of the experience right there. It wouldn’t be right to make a game without them. I’m highly doubtful of Sanctum of Slime’s “new” ghostbusting team. And I think that might be part of why Extreme Ghostbusters didn’t last. There are only two things missing from the game. The first was being able to drive Ecto-1 and blare the sirens. And there’s even a joke about it in the game, “hey, why don’t we let the rookie drive? Naaah.” I don’t know if I could stay on the road, I’d just end up ramming into everything. The second thing is that it was missing a force feedback vibrating mouse. I imagine they tried it but the motor ended up burning out too quickly.
We’ll see what happens with Max Payne 3. But it won’t be Max if he is no longer a melodramatic master of metaphor. It wouldn’t be “him” if they decided to take out his grim narration like they did to Deckard in Blade Runner Director’s Cut. If the comic book cut scenes are replaced with all in-game cinematics, then that’s another strike against it. “When you’re staring down the barrel of a gun, time slows down” is what Max says. Bullet time may be the only thing they keep since it’s being developed by a whole different studio. We’ll see. But all of that, plus the insane gunplay, is what makes Max who he is. The concept art I’ve seen and preliminary descriptions in press releases don’t look or sound encouraging.
Most of the negative things that I’ve read about Other M involve the issue of the voice acting. Until Other M, we had an image in our minds of who Samus is, and her personality. Nothing along all the other games really contradicted who she was in Other M, but it left much open to interpretation. And different people interpreted it differently. Or, it could just be for the purposes of the story like I speculated in my other Metroid article. Regardless, that unintentional and perceived change in the character did much to cause dissatisfaction with the game.
This one is probably the most difficult to get right. Any one character from any comic has several interpretations depending on the time period(golden age, silver age, modern age, pre crisis, post crisis). Any one character has probably been around long enough to have gone through many major life changes. For example, Batman, he had a bat dog named Ace a long time ago. People were asking if Robin would be included in the new Arkham Asylum. If they had said yes, which Robin would it be? Dick Grayson? Jason Todd? Tim Drake? Damian Wayne? The good villains go through just as many changes as the heroes. The Penguin was a criminal that eventually retired to run a high class bar. The Riddler gave up his life of crime to run a private detective agency.(wouldn’t it be cool to see them team up?) Mr Freeze’s disease has advanced so far that he is just a head in a jar at this point. Poor guy.
For any superhero game to tell a story, there’s many variables to consider. Who to consider? Which version? What aspects of the character do they include or reference to? For another example, Tony Stark. Should a game(or movie) focusing on Iron Man bring up his battle with alcohol that brought him closer to death than many of the villains in his rogue’s gallery. That was a very pivotal event for the character. Some fans who think that’s one of the most important events in Tony Stark’s life, would be disappointed and maybe cry fowl that it was neglected in a game. So, any superhero game is difficult, based on the amount of material to take into consideration.
I could go on and on with any other character because any character that doesn’t grow, doesn’t change, doesn’t challenge and test relationships, is probably a boring one and hasn’t survived this long.
I’ve recently been playing the series of Sherlock Holmes adventure games. I’ve read a few of his adventures while I was in high school, though I know there’s much more I haven’t read. I know that any interpretation of him, either in game, the Robert Downey Jr movies, or the new BBC TV series will have much to live up to. He’s lasted this long as a fascinating character, so there’s been endless debate and analysis of him. He’s one of the few fictional characters that has had a real biography written about him. I honestly know of no other. But what to include?
He was a huge cocaine addict, often relying on it for inspiration like Popeye to spinach. Obviously, that’s never going to be acceptable in today’s world. He played the violin, although never very well. That’s not something I’d want to really force on an audience or player for any length of time. The author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never made Holmes exclaim or shout, his word of choice was always “ejaculated.” Reading that anywhere has a totally different connotation today.
What adventure or adventures would Holmes take in a franchise game? Would the game recreate A Study in Scarlet or Hound of the Baskervilles? Or tell a new story entirely. From what I’ve seen, they create wholly new stories for him. And that’s not a bad thing. Many of the elements that appear in multiple Holmes stories appear in the games. If they tried something crazy like making Watson a policeman and Holmes live anywhere but 221b Baker Street, I wouldn’t give the game a second look. But you know as well as I, there are some terrible franchise games out there that would do something just as drastic as that.
This makes me think of Alice in Wonderland. There’s been many versions of Alice’s story, some more radical than others. I’m thinking specifically of American McGee’s Alice and upcoming sequel, Alice: Madness Returns. In this “version” of the story, Alice is a mental patient and wonderland may or may not be a delusion. That’s quite a departure from the original source material! I don’t mind when you add depth where there was none before, like the new Ron Moore Battlestar Galactica series. You’re not really overwriting any continuity that way. But I’ll bet this new take on Alice didn’t win over anyone who was a fan of the original book. It was so different that I wouldn’t consider it a franchise game until that sequel was announced. Though on a positive note, I think it possibly inspired a few folk to read the original book.
Speaking of books, Dante’s Inferno. I was a huge fan of the original book! This game is one of the worst offenders and best examples of how to make a bad “franchise” game. It took everything that made the original great and threw it out the window. This main character Dante was not a poet. He planned to marry Beatrice instead of having an unrequited love for her. This Dante was a warrior, a brutal and savage one(and a rapist) while the Dante in the books shied away from any sense of confrontation(demons from hell can be intimidating). Virgil is a central figure in the books, in the game, it’s never even described why he is there.
The game was a perfect example of an action game. Would the books make a good action game? Doubtful, but not impossible. It may make for a better environmental action/puzzle game in the vain of Tomb Raider than God of War. Dante would have to navigate hell, finding ways to avoid some of the monsters like the minotaur, Cerberus, and the harpies of Dis. Talk with the people he met in the book, ask for clues on getting through to the next circle. Getting past the last circle would be a very difficult puzzle if it follows the book. Purgatorio would be perfect for that exploration, environmental action/puzzle style as well. Climbing the mountain, following the example of everyone ahead of you. And all the while, Virgil is accompanying you with commentary and dialogue from the book. Paradiso wouldn’t make for much of an interesting game. Maybe DLC only for people who wanted some closure.
Now that I’ve got my mind thinking of darkness and evil, Overlord! Overlord II, even though it took place a generation later, the tower was destroyed, you’re a completely new character, don’t visit any of the same worlds(as they were before), it keeps everything that made the first game great. The wacky minions, the tower customization, the control scheme, and adds upon it. The game adds a lot to the series without forgetting what made it great.
I could go on, but I’ll leave that up to you. Post examples of good franchise games and bad franchise games. Or use my examples with your own personal spin. Say what made the original great, and what it means to you. Pick a game or a movie or some other pre existing property. It can be a movie that came from a game or a game from a movie, or comics, or books, or anything.
Originally written on 3/31/2011
Not every game needs to have a good story. Some stories are deliberately kept simple since that’s just not where the focus of the game is. But some games which try, fail. They try to take themselves seriously, create some iconic quotable bad-ass, and unintentionally shallow character. I’d like to take some examples and point out why I think they fail at the attempt. This is just my opinion, there’s a good chance I have no idea what I’m talking about. Keeping that in mind, we can begin.
I’m going to mention some “best sellers” and bring attention to their weak story, not because I hate them, but to illustrate a point. They may be awesome and technical masterpieces or financial cash cows, but their story could be weak for one reason or another. Perhaps there was never much effort in its development, or the writers had yet to learn how to write well.
Tomb Raider vs Lara Croft
Lara began her career as little more than a sex symbol. She had the wealth of Bruce Wayne, the adventurousness of Indiana Jones, the strength of a circus acrobat, and the flexibility of a stripper. In the beginning, she was a loner, no relationships or ties to anyone. I’m glad they never gave her a romantic interest. But later she was given a crew of people who help her on her expeditions. That helped a bit with fleshing her out as a character, and pointing out the direction to go, but they’re still not much more than talking heads with exposition.
The new Lara Croft series of games, spearheaded by Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light give her a partner for her adventure. The lone heroine must now learn how to get along and play well with others. Right in the opening of the game, the story is more interesting than any other intro video I’ve seen for a Tomb Raider game.
God of War vs Greek Mythology
It will take some time before we see if Kratos’s story has as much staying power as the original Greek pantheon. So, I’ll have to analyze it another way.
Both include many of the same characters and the same root, but which do I find more enjoyable?
Kratos, has killed just about everyone he’s ever known. If he doesn’t get them the first time they meet, he’ll be sure to get them later or in the sequel.
Greek Mythology is rich with soap opera caliber drama. Zeus, besides being the powerful king of Mount Olympus, has a fling at the drop of the hat with just about any other female in the pantheon. He cheats on his wife, has many illegitimate children, and it eventually causes more friction and clashes when the family gets together. Zeus the titan slayer in the beginning is not the same playboy Zeus by the end of his biography. The rest of the “cast” in the stories of Greek mythology are just as complex with their relationships. And that is (part of )why the stories have lasted as long as they did, why they evolved.(cultural significance played a part, too)
Mortal Kombat games vs Mortal Kombat movies
This isn’t a movie review site, but since it involves movies based on a video game, it fits.
The first movie was a bit different, it took some liberties, but it was passable. The second movie was really bad. I cringed several times. It’s not even one of those “guilty pleasures” movies that I watch and say I don’t. I don’t want to see it again. I’m going to address the second movie working under the assumption that no one who worked on it gave half a crap about it. It was just a job. It was made to capitalize on a phenomenon and fad, and that’s about it. The writers were rushed and told what to do by someone who had no idea what they were doing. The movie was nothing more than name dropping proper nouns and expecting people to react positively, regardless if they got it right or not. It was designed to be a special effects showcase, not an actual “whole” movie.
Normally, we shouldn’t expect much from the plot of a martial arts movie. But imagine for a moment that someone were to write a screenplay that focused on the characters and their relationships. Relationships, relationships that change, advance, grow, and test and challenge themselves are what make good drama. MK was never about drama in the first place, it was always known for it’s signature brutality and incredible violence. I see no reason that both camps can be appeased.
I like the story for Mortal Kombat. I’ll admit that. I like the overarching story that involves the tournament. I enjoy the rivalries. From the story, you know some match-ups will be more spectacular and more emotionally charged than others, Sonya vs. Kano, Noob Saibot vs Scorpion, Raiden vs Shao Khan, Kitana vs Meleena, Shang Tsung and Quan Chi double teaming Liu Kang. The battle between rivals will dramatically change, add, or end a relationship. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know it will be something big.
Scorpion could carry his own movie, like what we’ve seen in the new webseries. There could be a whole movie based solely on any one of these rivalries.
Half-Life 2 vs Doom 3
Is Half-life science fiction? Maybe. It shows humanity through a lens, the dangers of centralized power in an individual. Is Doom science fiction because it takes place in space? Hardly. It’s horror. Does science fiction have any bearing on whether a story is good or not? No. Can something be labeled science fiction and automatically have more story than something that’s just plain action or horror? Maybe. But science fiction is an addition that can be tacked on to any story. It’s heart will still remain with the characters.
Half-Life’s hero Gordon Freeman has a network of people around him that know him, trust him, count on him, and are inspired by him. More than that, the characters all have relationships and history with each other, they all worked at Black Mesa, some of them are family members. One of them becomes mole. All together, the cast of Half-Life 2 is more developed, more likable, and more effective than Doom 3.
Doom 3’s characters didn’t matter. There was a bad man that needed to be taken out. His relationship with the main character or his lacky could have been anything. There’s no development, growth, or change. There’s no one to care about, no relationship link. Oh, look, another random scientist died horribly. Big deal? Should I care? Doom 3 could have been much scarier if they included a cast like Half-life 2 and put them in peril.
Castlevania vs Lords of Shadow – absence of familiarity
Castlevania’s story didn’t really take off and grow into its own until Castlevania III introduced multiple playable characters. Each character had their own separate and personal reason to see Dracula destroyed because of what he’d done to them. Symphony of the Night added dialogue, more characters with personality, and the relationships between them added character depth.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not 100% satisfied with the new Castlevania Lords of Shadow. It was a great title by itself, but it just didn’t feel like a Castlevania story. That was because the story lacked anything familiar or recognizable as “Castlevania.” There were no returning characters, no returning bosses, no returning environments. Everything was original, which reinforces my feeling that it would be a great original game, just change the title.
Battlestar Galactica series vs Battlestar Galactica Online
The game BGO hasn’t come out yet, but I don’t have high hopes for it. It takes much of what was great about the Battlestar series and blows it out the airlock.
Think of the series, look at any one character and follow their growth. No one, no one who survives, is left unchanged from the beginning of season 1 through the end of season 4. Look at Col Tigh’s transformation from officer to tortured resistance leader, to broken drunk, and his recovery. Look at President Roslyn’s original season 1 schoolteacher out of water to spiritual leader, to powerful executive leader. Look at Lee’s journey from pilot to politician. Anders goes from pyramid player to resistance leader, and eventually a pilot.
The game, will that have any sense of the story and experience that made the series great? Or will it be nothing but a series of online deathmatches?
TMNT vs any other beat ’em up brawler
The Ninja Turtles have been part of gaming since the NES days. The games were generally good, and the story was never more than an excuse to get them all fighting again. Shredder has kidnapped April/Splinter, go get them back, and then finish him off. Shredder has stolen Manhattan, get it back, and then finish him off. Shredder has taken the Statue of Liberty and created a time machine, get it back and travel through time, then finish him off. If there wasn’t such a strong recognition with these characters, the games wouldn’t have sold as well, despite how good they are. I get more satisfaction out of fighting Shredder for the 100th time than I would fighting some nameless villain with no history, no relationship that we’ve never seen before. Part of any franchise game is to sell an experience. If a game doesn’t do that, if it doesn’t draw upon the pre-existing relationships already available, it misses the point.
Street Fighter IV
Fighting games and martial arts movies aren’t ever expected to have much of a plot. But I appreciate Street Fighter for the same reason I appreciate Mortal Kombat, for the characters they created. Street Fighter has it’s relationships, friendships, and rivalries. Some matches are charged with emotion and venom, while some are more friendly and sporty. Ryu vs Ken is a classic and friendly rivalry, while Bison has made many enemies.
Final Fantasy vs any other RPGs
Square knows how to write relationships. When a character dies off, it has an effect. That goes for Aeris as much as it goes for Zack, Shadow, General Leo, Rachel, Daryl, Gaulf, Tellah, and Palom & Porom. And that’s just 3 Final Fantasy games.
Characters don’t always change through dialogue and death, sometimes a fight will do it. Thinking of drama and catharsis through fighting in RPGs always reminds me of the charged fight between Frog and Magus in Chrono Trigger. If I saw a version of Chrono Trigger on the big screen, I wouldn’t be satisfied if the two didn’t fight one-on-one, and then Frog refuses to finish Magus off. That way I can have my cake and eat it, too. In that case, I think it would work.
Gears of War
Nothing I ever saw, heard, or read about this game made me half interested in it. Invading army, tough guy kills them all, lots of expendable extras. What is the story? Why has it gone on for three games? Does Marcus have any strong relationships with other characters? Do they change and grow over time? Are they challenged? Or are they just static relationships that remain the same all throughout? Is there a story worth telling?
I played through the first one. The story wasn’t anything too original. It’s a shame what happened to the commander, but it wasn’t like their relationship changed at all. Cortana was there and was nice to hear a voice in your ear that wasn’t an alien death gasp. She’s likable, but there’s no growth to their relationship. She’s used as a piece of equipment, and that’s it. What about Halo 2 and 3, anybody? Does Cortana become more than equipment? Does she upload herself(and forget to back herself up for some reason) into an alien computer and sacrifice herself for Master Chief? That would suggest she’s more than a program. Do they try that? The original was a great action game, a great shooter, but not a good storytelling experience. Later on I may write musings on what makes a good action game.
The relationship between Chell and GlaDOS is a fascinating one. GlaDOS very subtly grows from teacher to tormentor. GlaDOS later ceases her subterfuge and directly tries to kill Chell. That’s a very simple and well done example of how changing relationships creates drama.
Zelda classic vs Toon Link
In the first few Zelda titles, I could follow the story. The games seemed to jump around within time, sometimes skipping a generation or so. After Majora’s Mask, I lost track of who was who. When “Toon Link” appeared, I lost interest. Each game seemed to introduce some new villain. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The amount of time it takes to complete any Zelda game is more than enough to establish a good story. But since the stories are all self contained, unrelated to Gannon in any way, they’re just not as memorable to me. They’re fun, great, stand alone fairy tales, they follow a Zelda game formula. But they’re just not as memorable.
Pokemon – “Pokemon, what happened to you.”
Find that song, it should explain my point. I’ve never been a Pokemon fan, I’ve never played any of the series. But the song helps support the point that emulating character archetypes without building strong relationships between them is futile.
Comics vs Comic movies
This one probably shouldn’t be in the list, but it follows the same pattern I’m trying to illustrate. X-Men, Batman, Spider-Man or anything else Marvel.
Just about every movie based on a comic franchise is all over the map, neglecting history and the relationships formed over years. Any Spidy fan was just waiting to see Peter Parker’s friend and one of Spider-Man’s few allies, Doctor Curt Conners, take a leading role. The fact that the two must come to blows is a tragedy. One friend is trying to help another. Their life is on the line. That’s more compelling and dramatic than what Spider-Man 3 gave us. Seriously, Venom, Sandman, and Harry as the new Green Goblin? 3 villains? Didn’t they learn from the other Batman series? Too many villains means no one gets as developed as much as they deserve, and the movie is a watered down tasteless slop of a mess. The ending of Spider-Man 2 with Doc Ock was probably the closest example of a comic book movie that got it right.
X-Men, I don’t know if any fan was truly satisfied. It takes well known characters and neglects half of their characteristics. Nightcrawler was hardly the happy swashbuckling “blueberry muffin” that I knew him for being. Sometimes the changes are for the better, a little retroactive continuity corrections can help when story lines go on too long or get too convoluted, like that Phoenix saga thing. Oh yeah, F- Storm. She was about as disappointing as Nightcrawler’s interpretation. Nightcrawler or Storm could carry their own movie. They tried to give Wolverine his own movie, as if he wasn’t already covered enough in the other 3 movies. Instead, they introduced more and more characters that they didn’t develop.
Iron Man 2 had some high and low points. I like how they touched on Tony Stark’s alcoholism. But they only touched on it. An entire movie focusing on his battle would have been more interesting. But since I don’t know Tony Stark’s life as well as I know, say, Steve Rogers or Kurt Wagner, I don’t notice everything that’s been left out.
I’ll go see Captain America, he’s been a long time favorite of mine, Joss Whedon’s Avengers, he’s always an awesome writer, and maybe X-Men First Class. But after those, if they don’t impress me, I give up on comic book movies as a whole.
Left 4 Dead 2 vs FPS
You could fill a graveyard with all the forgotten, uninspiring, FPS games that fail to capture the imagination. Left 4 Dead 2’s experience is more memorable than most. There are zombies, 4 survivors try to escape. In their struggle for survival, their characters develop. The survival plot develops with every step forward they take, but the characters grow more memorable and distinct with every line. The small moments, like talking about Jimmy Gibbs Jr, Ellis’s reverence for him compared to Nick cursing his existence. Compare both the first and second game in the series. L4D2’s cast is stronger than the first all because of their dialogue. The gameplay and experience is nearly identical between them, but L4D2’s characters are stronger.
Sometimes, when I play, I imagine the horde of zombies is made up of terrible uninteresting characters from forgotten FPS games.
Mario classic vs Mario recent
Mario reminds me of Jason Statham. If Jason Statham isn’t stealing something or driving really fast, I’m disappointed. Mario’s career was similar. He started his career running, jumping, fighting Bowser and DK, but over time, he just lost his way. If Mario isn’t kicking koopa shells and throwing fireballs, I’m disappointed. When he started fighting this “Bowser Jr.” character, it’s like the creators just forgot the 7 Koopalings. Mario spraying water around being environmental? Mario playing all sorts of sports? They’re straying off the beaten path. Sure, Mario’s story never had the depth of Dante(the book, not the atrocious game), but whenever it strays from that classic formula, the story is weaker, there’s none of the familiar relationships, and it’s a disappointment to me.
Someone educate me, please. Show me the character relationships. Is the story any good? Why is it good? I know there’s supposed to be a “frame” story that ties them all together regardless of how the games are separated by centuries. But should a game take 3-4 installments before it actually makes sense or ties together? Since a good story comes from relationships, I don’t think it should.
Metroid / Max Payne, relationship with themselves
These are two very solo characters. Samus Aran, until very recently, works alone. Max Payne rarely meets anybody he doesn’t shoot.
Even though Samus is mostly mute, and the story is told through pantomime, it manages to tell a great story without words. Metroid II has no words through it and does a good job, the actions speak. As Samus explores SR-388, she meets newer and bigger metroids. The manual of metroid hunting she’d written suddenly goes out the window and she’s in jeopardy. The battle with the queen, the discovery of the hatchling, imprinting on Samus, saving her life from the cavern, the great Xenocidal Samus rapidly changes from killer to conservationist as she realizes the importance of the creatures. Her relationship with herself, her ego has changed and grown. Super Metroid also told a story with no words, the actions tell the story. Some times, there just are no words for when someone kidnaps a child, drugs it, raises it as their own, and eventually murders it in front of you. Samus’s frantic and desperate search for the metroid is a memorable one. And I doubt anyone who took the journey wasn’t filled with rage in the final battle with Mother Brain. And anyone who’s played Other M should know that sometimes no words are better.
Max Payne wasn’t as incredible a story as Max Payne 2. Max Payne 2 was able to draw, heavily, upon the relationships and characters from the first game, Vladimir Lem, Mona Sax, Jimmy Gognitti, Jum Bravura, and the conflict and struggle with maintaining those relationships, as well as the relationship with himself as a cop, in the face of a rapidly and drastically changing circumstances is a great example of drama in a story. Max Payne 3 looks to be developed by different people in a totally new story with no prior relationships to draw upon(not that many survived Max Payne 2). The odds are good that the story won’t be, unless the writers have experience and write with relationships in mind.
Dante’s Inferno vs Dante’s Inferno
One of the greatest works of literature in any language and it’s been reduced to a super violent gore-fest. When I first read Inferno, I was taken in by Dante’s plight, he was a broken man who lost the love of his life, Beatrice. She saw this and offered him a guide, his favorite poet, Virgil, where he dared to travel through Hell for the chance of seeing her again.
The game removes that Dante and replaces him with a testosterone filled rageaholic almost indistinguishable from the likes of Kratos. Now, in the book, Dante was kind of a sissy. But I imagine anyone actually traveling through Hell will be just as hesitant and afraid. In the game, Beatrice is nothing more than an object, a damsel in distress, a treasure. Game Dante felt no real loss, he may as well be questing for his favorite book that someone took from him. I’m never convinced that he actually loved Beatrice at all. He doesn’t even recognize Virgil or acknowledge that he was his favorite poet(or that he could even read). The book builds a relationship between him and Virgil, it’s completely absent in the game.
I’d be less offended if they just called it The Inferno, focused on some random crusader, and didn’t draw upon Dante at all.
I think these are sufficient examples. A good story has good character relationships. Once you establish those, the characters start to write themselves. A bad story tries to emulate successful characters and archetypes, but neglect relationships. A hero is really only as good as those who support him, or oppose him. Relationships with villains are sometimes as important as the relationships with friends. Changing himself, reexamining the ego counts, it changed the character’s relationship with himself.