Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Tag: video games

Storytelling, Video Games, and the Shape of Narrative

I’m going to espouse a controversial opinion: Video games can be another genre of creative writing and a great vehicle for story.

If you’re a gamer, you’re going, “Yeah. Duh. Why is that controversial?”

Let me explain:

Let’s consider the current “genres” of writing to be fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction (including personal essay and memoir), and dramatic writing (including stage plays, screenwriting, and comics). Of those, story arc is applicable to all in some form or another; however, some genres like poetry rely less heavily on story arc, and it is essential to other genres like screenwriting.

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Take a movie, for example, arguably one of the closest genres to video games, at least in appearance. What drives a screenplay forward is a combination of things: a character wanting stuff, trying really hard to get it, and having people/stuff get in their way; a “ticking clock,” or sense of time and urgency, what Susan Kim calls “the tyranny of chronology”; and a reason why all this is happening now, including some catalyst that sets things in motion.

BraidlogoOne argument against video games as a storytelling vessel is that the time factor isn’t the same as in, say, film. And I don’t think it is, not in the same way. But it is still important; it just functions differently. The only place time can be really controlled is in cut scenes or sort of rolling platformer situations where if you die, you can try again. I’d say some games (notably Braid) have some unique takes on time and video game death. Perhaps the argument is that the ability to try again after death lowers the stakes. And I think it does, for the player. That’s why anyone ever invented “hardcore mode.” However, I think the stakes for the character are still there. Videogames are certainly a very different modality of dramatic writing. The “tyranny of chronology” is expressed differently, but it’s still there: you know when you’ve gotten to a cut scene that is a fixed point in “story time,” a point from which you cannot return.

So what role does storytelling have in video games? The PAX panel, “Is Storytelling the Most Important Thing in Video Games?” addressed just that. While I didn’t attend, here’s a summary. One of the points that the panelists seemed to be making was that video games have a ton of subgenres, and storytelling is vital to some and more or less irrelevant to others. However, one point seemed particularly resonant to me: that storytelling is why we care about playing a game in the first place. It’s what gives us a personal stake in the game. From the Penny Arcade panel:

“What players who value story want [is] to be at the intersection of agency and meaning,” noted Cameron Harris [a freelance editor and story consultant]. From her perspective, these gamers want their actions to have meaning. They desire to be important and change the world they’re experiencing. What they really want is for the game to say “you exist” and “you matter”.

Few other genres dare try to put the viewer/consumer/player in the experience of the protagonist. Frankly, few other players have the tools. And therefore I think narrative structure is going to look different than other genres have, in a large part because of the element of player choice. Consider Mass Effect, for example. Player choice determines Shepard’s moral compass and at minimum Shepard’s B-storylines. And if Aristotle, in Poetics, spoke of the necessity of catharsis, I can think of no better catharsis than being a hero for an hour, stepping into the shoes of someone and being able to make vital, important choices.

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An interesting thought about the possible shape of story in video games is “Shandification,” as in the wandering narrative of Tristram Shandy, a term coined by the author of this video:

“The setting becomes the story, and vice versa.”

Sadly, I see pathetically few conversations about this stuff. Either I’m talking to fiction and screen writers, who often pooh-pooh video games as a legit vehicle for story, or I’m hanging out with gamers, who are so (understandably) defensive about anyone who might consider games illegitimate story vehicles that they don’t actually talk about the craft. My hope is that the ubiquitous “we,” as in both the literary community and the gaming community, can have some serious, coherent conversations about craft and storytelling in video games.

 

Thoughts? How the heck do stakes, story, and arc work in video games? Tell us, precioussss.

Review: iOS Games

Before I begin, a note.

I wanted to write something about the swamp of emotions that the George Zimmerman case brought up in me. I do not, at this time, have the words. So I point you to others’ words, others who can say it better than me: Ti Kendrick Hall, bell hooks et al., and this white guy on Facebook. I also recommend checking out this video as a reminder of the state of race (and gender) socialization in America.

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And now for something completely different: video game reviews.

Infinity Blade II

Infinity Blade II is a adventure/fighting game for the iPhone. I have not played the original Infinity Blade, also developed for iOS, but I imagine it being pretty similar to this one. Comment below if that is not the case; I’m curious.

This game’s strengths lie in the fighting mechanics and how they interface with the touch screen. Its weaknesses mostly revolves around plot. But let me start at the beginning.

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Here’s the story you’re presented with at the beginning of the game: You’re a Dude Warrior. You killed the God-King in the last game, emerged triumphant, and are now chillin’ and chattin’ with  your buddy, Lady Warrior. (Clearly I am awesome at remembering names.) Your enemies are medieval robot zombie guys called the Deathless. You are on a mission to take them out forever, as they are ruling bits of the world in a dictatorial and bad way, and you are determined to reclaim the world for humanity. The ironic bit is, you’re not *entirely* human yourself, as when you die, you just go regenerate for 6 months or so and then pop right back up, ready for fighting.

This makes for a nifty gameplay mechanic in terms of when you die, you get to see yourself waking up in the regeneration place, and you get a screencap that says “6 months later…” and you’re back. There’s actually a logical explanation for dying. There are also many times when you *have* to die. If you’re just fighting a random enemy (they’re called Titans) and get defeated, then you can reload to your last save point (i.e. right before the fight) OR your last regeneration (i.e. beginning of the castle). It’s nice to do that sometimes because it’s a good way to grind for a while and gain XP and gear. Sometimes you have to die, usually after fighting a boss. You’ll unlock a seal thingie in the floor or wall (in your effort to free the mythical dude-who-can-supposedly-help-you, Worker of Secrets), and by “unlock a seal,” I mean, “stick your hand in a hole and then there’s a flash of red light and you die.” This quest, it turns out, would really suck if you weren’t sorta pretend immortal.

The fighting in the game is, to my mind, its strongest point. You start outside the castle where Worker is imprisoned, and wander one of several ways into the castle towards some boss or other, fighting dudes along the way. The graphics are based on the Unreal engine, so as you can imagine, it’s reaaal purdy. There are three types of weapons that you (and enemies) can use: A light weapon with a shield that’s more stabby (a tap to the screen), a heavy two-handed weapon that’s more slashy (a swipe to the screen, often with arrows to point your way), or dual weapons that are mostly about dodging and slashing. You defeat enemies by blocking, parrying, and dodging until you have an opening, as well as using a ultimate power attack and magic, both of which recharge over a period of time. The magic is cool in particular because you trace a sigil in the air in order to cast a particular spell. You also spend time leveling up gear: rings that have different spells attached to them, plus better weapons and armor. There are a few silly weapons in there, too; at one point I had cardboard armor and was slapping baddies with a rolled up newspaper, because that’s the sort of gamer I am.

Here’s my big damn issue with the plot: At the end of the story, (highlight to see the spoilers, y’all) you bring the God-King’s almost-dead body to the Worker of Secrets, who (*gasp! curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!*) leaves you to rot in the pit and buggers off to go be evil. So you are trapped where the Worker of Secrets had been, and then the cut-scene flashes to Lady Warrior, who is standing outside the castle where you had started! I got super-excited! I thought, Hey, now I get to play the game again except I am Lady Warrior going to save Dude Warrior and then we’ll take down the Worker together, omg, this actually has another act and a plot and oooooohhh dang it now the story’s starting all over again, and I’m back to being Dude Warrior at the beginning. Guess replay value means going back as the same character and trying to do the bonus non-story-essential quests I didn’t get to before. And getting some nicer gear. Because, gear. Le sigh.

Just saying, developers, it would have been both easy and satisfying in plot terms to chuck in a second act with Lady Warrior as the viewpoint character. So easy! Damn you all. *Shakes ragefist*

You can get Infinity Blade II for $7. I got it for free at Apple’s 5-year anniversary sale.

 

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

Of all my cell phone games right now, this one wins hard-core. You can get it on iOS, Mac, PC, or Android. I think for Android it’s packaged in the Humble Bundle.

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It’s an adventure game, which makes clever use of the rotateable nature of your iDevice, has a killer soundtrack, and a great dry sense of humor. You play the Scythian, who is a warrior (a female warrior, MIGHT I ADD) on a sort of ambiguous quest that’s narrated in little tidbits like, “We spied a few worthless sheep lazing around in a meadow” and “We had heard about the gateway to the infinite at the summit of Mingi Taw & we thought it sounded like something cool to see.” You meet allies, such as a woodsman named Logfella and a dog named Dogfella, and enemies, such as a weird bear that does a creepy dance and a large skullmonster that totally kills the heck out of you. There’s a way to defeat it, don’t worry.

As a whole, the gameplay experience is chill, more about solving puzzles and exploring than it is about fighting, although there is enough sword in with all the sworcery to keep things interesting. There’s good use of mobile/touchscreen tech, although it’s not *so* essential that you couldn’t play this game on a computer and still be satisfied.

It’s awesome, too, because of the social media aspects: you can tweet about where you are in the game really easily, and the company does cool stuff like have fan art fests.

See! Here’s the Scythian and Dogfella, drawn by the radsauce Monica Ray!

 

You can find out more about it and buy it here! It costs five bucks (less during Steam Sale o’ clock, computer users) and is worth every penny.

 

Dungeon Raid

This is a puzzle/adventure game. It is totally stupid. I won’t even lie. But it’s addictive and a great game to play while waiting for the bus/waiting in line/sitting awkwardly in the backseat of your partner’s parents’ car while they argue about directions, y’know. Versatile. Fun. Doesn’t require all of your attention. Good stuff.

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Here’s the deal: You’re one of eight character classes of adventurer who’s on a quest in a dungeon. You get one of several randomly generated, hilarious backstories at the beginning of the game, which have zero relevance to the gameplay. Then you spend your time connecting up symbols (swords, shields, coins, health potions) to make them disappear and gain their benefits. You also get skills and “level up” your gear, adding attributes like more health and stronger attacks. You defeat monsters, which show up as skull icons. There are a few gameplay modes: an infinite dungeon, a 100-turn dungeon, and a “Pretzel Hero” challenge where you try to connect your icons together using as many loops as possible.

I would say it’s totally worth the $2 I spent on it.

Link Roundup: Vidjagaems.

So, it turns out I have a lot to say about video games. It’s sort of like me saying: “Link Roundup: Books.”

Welp.

So I decided to pick out some tasty links that involve video games and women.

First up, the sadly defunct but damn fabulous show by Kate Welsh, SheGeekShow.

There are great reviews of a ton of games. Sadly, Kate lost the will to continue the show on her own time and expense, in part because of all the dang haters were getting seriously annoying. And not even the haters. Like 70% of the show’s comments were about her appearance, positive or negative. Well, I still miss you, Kate.

Let’s talk about female game designers a tic, shall we?

Here’s Jane McGonagal, author of the fascinating read Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World, giving a TED talk about just that, along with her game, Superbetter.

Rhinanna Pratchett. Rhianna Frickin’ Prachett. Game designer for the new version of Lara Croft.

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She’s also spawner of the hashtag #1reasonwhy, and #1reasontobe, as in one reason why I’m a game designer. One reason why it’s important to have women in the industry. One reason why I’m still talking about this. Um, also she’s Terry Prachett’s daughter. Just for some extra badass points.

Are Women Led Games DOA?  Here’s an article about Remember Me, a game with a female protagonist that’s controversial because in a scene she kisses a dude. And apparently walking around in the skin of a female character, and first-person female sexuality, makes some (male) publishers uncomfortable.

And here’s and IGN article that talks about female representation in videogames and why it matters. It includes the video exploring the Damsel in Distress trope (and its second installment!) that caused zillions of dudebro nerds to freak the crap out and launch a hate campaign against Anita Sarkeesian. Frankly, it’s nice to see an article with her content interpreted meaningfully that’s not just another “OMG the horrible misogyny trolls” recap.

 

Let’s shift gears. After all that, just need some surreal humor? You asked:

Hey Ash, Whatcha Playing?

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Also I would like to point out that Ash played that one chick with all the dragons in School of Thrones. (For the record, I assume every Game of Thrones character is dead now.)

 

 

 

Why Women Need to Tell Stories

(Trigger and/or blasphemy warning: I talk about the Bible in this post.)

When I read the Grimm’s tales, I realized, “Huh. This is part of the seeds for the Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth trope.” In the tales, if there is a pretty daughter and an ugly (usually step-) daughter, then the pretty one will also be demure (i.e. quiet), kind, and loyal. The ugly daughter will be selfish, loud, and mean-spirited.

Disney's Cinderella stepmother and stepsisters.

They were framed by centuries of stories!

Let’s break that down a tad, shall we?

Here’s what these tales are weaving together:

  1. Kindness goes with beauty; meanness goes with ugliness.
  2. Silence goes with beauty; speech goes with ugliness.
  3. Kindness and silence are then correlated, as are speech and meanness.
  4. So, by extension: In order to be a loyal, true, and ultimately successful person, you must be silent, kind, and beautiful. If you are ugly, selfish, or loud, then you are the villain and will be punished.

There’s something going on that’s deeper than Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth going on here. There’s some dynamic with speech and silence that I hadn’t really noticed until I was reading Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde.

She points out the multiple instances in Medieval art and literature where women having a voice or speaking their mind is connected to them being somehow…not women. It’s not even that these images chastise women for speaking, it’s more of a symbolic correlation that in order to be properly female you have to be quiet and obedient. As Warner notes, “The figure of Obedience was traditionally represented by the iconic representation of Silence […] When the object of desire raised her voice, her desirability decreased; speaking implied unruliness, disobedience.”

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Franciscan Allegory of Obedience, circa 1330. Silence is the central figure with their finger to their lips. To me, it looks like a female figure; crones get excitingly weird in Christian historical imagery.

In the New Testament, there are some frighteningly specific injunctions against women’s voices. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (1 Tim 2:11-15) has this to say about women’s behavior in church:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

Marina Warner points out that he’s saying women can be redeemed for the apparent sin of speaking or teaching by having babies. Ladies, if you’ve screwed up already by telling your stories, then no worries, just be fecund and pop out babies, and all will be forgiven. As long as you’re also modest. And if you should become a widow, it had better not be at a young age, because young widows’ “sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.” (1 Tim 5.11-13)(emphasis mine)

To give context, Paul does actually think younger widows should remarry and bear children. He goes on a great deal in his letter to Timothy about “real widows” as being deserving of support from society. As opposed to what kind of widow, I’m not sure. To Christian society at the time the Bible was written, women’s speech was terrifying, and any woman in a position to use her voice or tell her story was socially outcast. This included unmarried women, old women, and widows who took no other husband, all groups traditionally associated with witchcraft.

So, this is all ancient history, yes?

Aside from modern Christians who still insist on an all-male clergy, there’s still some societal level of discomfort with women’s voices. I’m not just talking about Christianity or trying to pidgeon-hole Christians. I’m talking widespread Western cultural fear of women’s voices (Gynologophobia?), especially if they’re saying something “feminist” or something that threatens traditional positions of power.

Consider the case of Anita Sarkeesian. A writer and vlogger at her website Feminist Frequency, Sarkeesian made a series of videos about film called “Tropes v Women,” where she explicated film tropes about women such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Straw Feminist, and the Mystical Pregnancy. She made a Kickstarter, asking for $6,000 to fund a similar series of videos exploring tropes about women in video games. Somehow, the internet exploded at this. Her social media was inundated with harassment including threats of death and rape; her Wikipedia site was hacked with pornographic images. Consequently, her Kickstarter raised over $150,000, which says that not everyone was against her. Just some really vocal people and a “cybermob” of trolls raising a constant noisy alarm were against her. Again, speech and silence do their weirdo power-tango.

In case it’s not abundantly clear, let me spell it out: The mere suggestion of a woman raising her voice to shed light on problematic aspects of a male-dominated arena was enough to cause rampant, gibbering panic and hatred. I have heard geeks of all genders try to downplay the whole debacle off as a silly one-off thing that got too much attention. I hear some voices crying out She Spews Only Lies! I hear some voices say, I Don’t Like Her “Brand” of Feminism Because It Attacks Things I Like. I hear a lot of whispers of But They’re Just Games.

Personally, I think her case serves as a coal-mine canary. The amount of trolling, internet hate, and intimidation Sarkeesian got corresponds only to how much poisonous gas, if I may extend the coal-mine metaphor, is in the surroundings. There are plenty of ways to deal with poisonous hot air. Some people like to light a match and watch it burn. Some people like to dig alternate pathways and let the gas seep off on its own. In any case, the more we keep digging here, the more things will clear up.

By the way, Sarkeesian did finally make her video about the Damsel in Distress, and it’s pretty good. It was a almost underwhelming, actually…I found myself thinking “THIS is what they were all afraid of?”

But hey, from Biblical times until now, nothing is more frightening to the machinations of society than a woman’s voice. Here’s to the pretty heroine actually getting to speak her piece. Here’s to the ugly stepsister not being condemned to only sound and fury (signifying nothing, as the Bard reminds us).

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I want to put a brief qualifier on here lest I seem to be hating on men or not acknowledging the even greater struggles of folks who fall outside of dualistic gender categories.

I think it is important for everyone to tell their stories: our stories are what makes us human, the vital connective tissue of our species. Only some of our species, however, has been systematically silenced. (And it’s not just women.) I want to keep prodding at why until some of that nasty patriarchal gas seeps off.

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