I Want To Feel Important

It'd be an understatement to say 2014 has been a downer for me. In January and February, I felt myself stagnating. In March, my mom died. In April, I got rejected from a job I had pursued with all of my (remaining) energy. In May, things have settled into a routine, and I've been able to trick myself into having a good time on most days with some success.

Books, TV shows, movies, and games all make me feel things. Games in particular stand out as a way for me to feel good because they place me into a larger world. I've written before how Animal Crossing has been my go-to game when I feel sad and overwhelmed since New Leaf's release because it is simple and cute. That's good in short bursts, but when I've been sad for this long, a band-aid of adorableness doesn't cut it. What I need is to kill some dragons.

Blood, guts, weapons, magic, different races, a deep history, and customizing my own character. This is what I needed.

Dragon Age: Origins had enough material for me to chew and forget about my world for a few hours. Not all games need to be, or even should be, about escapism. Some games should reflect the world and comment on personal experiences. But other times it's great to jump into a fantasy world and be someone else for a change. Instead of being the freelance writer still trying to get into the thick of things, I was a hero capable of summoning large fire tornadoes and blizzards, taking on dragon hordes, and solving political disputes. I will never be that important in my real life. Some games make you feel good by making you feel important. After all, the protagonists of many stories were either destined for greatness or got roped into things and ended up becoming great; either way, they were heroes by the end.

Players can customize the protagonist's appearance in Dragon Age, choose what to say from a list of dialogue options, and influence people ranging from companions to leaders. The game takes place in a well-established place -- a country that recently regained its independence, but it's a country with complicated politics, and plenty of racism. A part of what makes me feel good when playing Dragon Age is being able to persuade and intimidate other characters when they make racist comments. Playing as a disenfranchised race feels so good when you get to point out the hypocrisy of people in power. It's the triumph of the underdog and the destruction of power structures that favor those already in power. This is often a dream in the real world, which is why I find it so important in media.

Ferelden is vast, and among your travels, you encounter humans, elves, dwarves, men, women, templars, mages, opportunistic merchants, refugees, and nobles. Each place has its own culture that you learn about by discovering documents and speaking with the people living there. These vast worlds within games remind me of my childhood glee of getting wrapped in Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, two very different series with a lot of world building. These pieces of media are so fascinating because they are different from our lives.

But let's be honest here -- sticking a sword through the archdemon's face is exhilarating. There's a lot of joy to be had in taking down twenty as many enemies as you have characters in your party.

Many of us are not powerful. We are victims of illness, circumstances, poverty, power structures, and loss. If killing darkspawn makes you feel important, go slaughter as many hordes as you can.

Journey and The Multiplayer Co-op

I don't often play games with others, and I very rarely play games with people I don't know -- especially if it's online. After hearing so many horror stories about the vile things people say in Grand Theft Auto Online or Call of Duty and other similar modern first-person shooters in multiplayer matches, I'm happy to just play single player games. Thatgamecompany's Journey was my first experience playing a game with strangers online, and it may be one of the few.

In a mistake that disabled my PS3's internet connection, the first time I played Journey was offline and therefore alone, giving me a different but equally satisfying experience that I will address later. For my second playthrough, I fixed my PS3's connection to the internet and started Journey like usual. I encountered a white robed character by the time I reached the second chapter. They led me from symbol to symbol and found the glyphs for me. I already knew where some of them were from my previous playthrough, but I went along since I didn't know how to communicate that I knew how to get these things.

This person would both rush ahead and hang back for me to catch up. With their white robe, they could fly around and then recharge their scarf before taking off again. Without that ability, I could only fly for short periods of time and then catch up to this person who could regenerate my scarf. They flew ahead to what I thought was the edge of the map. There they stood by a waterfall of sand, pressing the O button to send out a symbol above their head until I got close. They ducked past the sand and revealed an Ancient Glyph to me. As soon as I got it, they took off again, and I followed as close as I could.

I quickly found myself in what felt like a mentor - mentee relationship. This person was eager to lead me to find everything in the game and I just had to keep up. I relied on them to show me how to best reach difficult to grab symbols and to avoid the aggressive Guardians that threatened to rip our scarves. The most poignant moment for me was when we went sandsurfing together with a sunset in the background painting everything orange.

We stuck out the game as long as we could, but before the end I had to stop playing. This was the moment I was most frustrated I couldn't put my feelings into words. I pressed O three times -- not too fast and not too slow -- before I quit the game. Thank you, stranger. We'll never know who the other was, but thank you for your guidance.

In one of my subsequent playthroughs, I encountered a fellow red robed fellow in the Tunnels. (After encountering so many helpful white robed players, donning the white clothes is too much pressure for me!) Neither of us guided the other, but we would occasionally try to ping each other when finding a symbol or ancient glyph. We weren't walking close together like I often did with white robed players, but we didn't stray too far from each other. Suddenly, a Guardian awoke and was coming toward us. Like I remembered doing with other players, I darted toward the left side and pressed O quickly. I managed to get out of the way fast enough to stay out of the Guardian's sight, but my fellow traveler did not, and we frantically ran in different directions. I didn't see them again (and if I met them later in a different level, I had no way of knowing), but I knew they were somewhere in the Tunnels. Occasionally I would press O to indicate, "Hey, I'm still here! Where are you?" but I never heard or saw a reply.

Journey's multiplayer experience is executed perfectly. Thatgamecompany has said the multiplayer aspect of the game can be compared to hiking with strangers along the same trial. You move at a different pace, but when you come across each other, you at least nod and acknowledge them. You might not be experiencing the journey at the same time as each other, but you're still having a shared experience.

On the opposite side, I also had a fulfilling single player experience. In this case, instead of lighting up with joy upon finding someone else journeying, I felt less alone when I completed a chapter and had a brief encounter with the elder characters. They were much larger than me and wore white instead of red, but in this first playthrough they were all I knew about the people like me. By the time I reached the mountain and trekked through the snow alone, feeling the controller rumble each time I limped a step forward, I was lonely. There was this huge expanse but it did not appear inhabited except by creatures that wanted to attack me. When I fell and everything turned white, these elders appeared in front of me as a group for the first time. I had never been sure if it was this one white figure or a group of them, but seeing so many people similar to me wordlessly encouraging me forward invigorated me. I skyrocketed forward and flew through the mountain's clear skies to the top to meet the others. And then I cried because the experience was so beautiful thanks to the beautiful art, Austin Wintory's beautiful music, and the simplistically beautiful story.

For someone who is often quite lonely in reality, I'm not someone who seeks the kind of interaction people get from online multiplayer video games. I still prefer that first playthrough alone in Journey over the co-op playthroughs because that's the kind of gamer I am. However, each multiplayer experience I've had with Journey has been meaningful to me. It makes me feel like I've forged some friendships with new people even though I have no idea who they are. For all of you people still playing Journey and guiding new people from start to finish, I salute you.

Gone Home: Sibling Love

In lieu of Gone Home's many, many awards and nominations, I feel it's a good time to present my view on Gone Home.

Gone Home is a love story, but not just between two girls who are romantically interested in each other. As one-sided as it's presented (through a silent first-person protagonist controlled by the player), sibling love also came into play strongly. As an older sister, I related to Katie, the player-controlled character. I also left the United States for some time as I explored Europe. At least I didn't come home to an abandoned house with notes from my sister left behind.

The house in Gone Home immediately felt eerie. I heard Katie leave a voicemail for her family announcing when she would be returning home. So why was the house empty? Some lights flickered, and a couple TVs were left on as if something terrible had happened. The tone of the game never let me feel at ease despite how much I loved exploring the empty house. This is Katie's first time in this large house as her family acquired it from her uncle; it was both of our first experiences trying to find clues in various rooms. A lot of it felt familiar, though -- notes from the parents to Katie's sister, Sam, calling out her behavior, reminders for calendar events, entries from diaries. In the time Katie was away, Sam has been attending high school, meeting new people, falling in love, and had to deal with her parents' disapproval. She keeps a diary the whole time, writing directly to Katie. The player isn't given much information to go on concerning their relationship before Katie left home, but judging by Sam's frankness through her writing to Katie, I can only imagine they trusted each other even if they weren't spilling out their feelings in person.

Seeing Sam grapple with her classmates' comments made me want to pummel them for picking on my sister. Seeing the first sparks of attraction and admiration for her crush brought a smile to my face. Hearing her talk about the person she kept falling harder for had me rooting for her all the way. And more than anything getting to be her confidant made me feel special. You have a kind of history with a sibling that you don't get with anyone else, and in some ways they know you better than anyone else. (They certainly know your faults better than anyone else -- and they won't let you forget it.)

My sister and I are three years apart. Three years feels colossal when you're young, but by the time you're both in college, three years seems so minimal. We've both had some similar experiences that most people around the world have -- struggling in school, finding our own talents, making friends, losing friends, developing crushes on people, confessing and getting shot down. Sometimes I don't know what she's been up to in her personal life until a year has passed and it just comes up in conversation. More often than not, we talk about personal things through texts or online conversations. There's something weird about doing it in person, face-to-face. And that's why I can see Sam easily writing a diary to Katie rather than telling Katie all about it in person. We never see the two interact face-to-face in the game, but Sam seems like the kind of person who's unlikely to tell her big sister about this girl she fell in love with -- at least not in person.

After having spent two hours in the game learning all about what Sam's been up to, I was clearly going to be apprehensive upon reaching the end of the game. Many of Sam's notes were happy, but there was this nagging sensation that lingered in the back of my mind when I first encountered the locked attic. Sam's bolded instructions were for no one to come into the attic as this was her space. The closer I got to finding the key to the attic, the more desperate Sam sounded in her notes to Katie. She was likely never going to see her girlfriend again, and she felt lonely elsewhere. She was still developing an identity, and for the time it was undeniably linked to this woman she was dating, a woman who had shown her new kinds of music and played video games with her. Red marks in the bathtub turned out to be red hair dye and a funny momentary misdirection in how the player would receive the game's tone, but what if it was a warning for what could be waiting in the attic? Along with the ghost story vibe still in the background of the story, I was worried about what would be waiting for me.

So as I ascended the attic stairs, I was prepared for the worst, and I was terrified.

After I did a quick look around in the small space, I was relieved to see nothing ghastly about. It was just a few developed photographs hanging to dry. Sam's diary lay at the end of the hall. The credits ran shortly afterward. In this time, I imagined Katie sitting down with the diary, reading everything that Sam wanted to tell her sister, and upon reaching the end and reading that Sam was running away to be with her girlfriend, Lonnie, I wasn't happy. "What the hell are you thinking?" I wanted to yell. "You can't just run off and survive on junk food and pawn off VCRs to get some spare cash and then just drive around until you two have nowhere safe to go!" I imagined Katie running out the door in the middle of the night to find Sam before something terrible happened.

Gone Home isn't a game for everybody. It takes no more than two hours to complete, and it's much more about exploration than influencing the direction of a story. More than anything else, it's about emotion. Any game that makes me feel something beyond what was presented in the game is a piece of art.

On Revolutions: Papers, Please and The Republia Times

A much younger Carly Smith bought into the romanticized idea of revolutions. The underdog vs. the bully. The just vs. unjust. Vive la revolution!

In reality, revolutions can't be tied neatly into a bow. The French Revolution's Maximillion Robespierre led a movement of terror. Those in power should be held responsible when their actions hurt the people, but this does not mean the people leading a charge against the corrupt leaders are heroes. They're frequently cut from the same degrading cloth.

Shortly after watching my significant other play Papers, Please and lending my powers of observation to the task of checking passports, I discovered Lucas Pope's The Republia Times, a short browser game he made before Papers, Please. The first thing I thought of when starting my task of assembling propaganda was 1984's protagonist Winston Smith. A part of Winston's job is painting the Party and Big Brother in a positive light through the news. A large revolution never takes place in 1984, but in more modern literature the majority of dystopian fiction offers a glimmer of hope through a revolution. A revolution fought in blood may offer no change besides the face of the people in power.

During The Republia Times, a group will secretly contact you with instructions on joining their revolutionary efforts. Their goal is to take down the government, and so you must start printing stories that paint the government in a negative light. In hindsight, I don't know which stories were true. It's possible none of them got the facts right, and the media was only used to further a political cause. Once the coup d'etat has succeeded, the revolutionaries form the state of Democria, and they keep you on in media to work at the Democria Times.

The mechanics stay the same. The stories are the same. Another revolutionary will contact you for help at some point, and if you help them, Democria is replaced by Republia again. How many times has this gone on in a cycle? Dystopian politics see leaders switching sides as if nothing had ever happened. Winston in 1984 is the only one shocked when the target of the country's attacks switch mid-sentence. Once something has changed, it is supposed to have been that way forever and will always be that way in a process of doublethink, a term Orwell coined in 1984. I couldn't help laughing when I saw nothing change from Republia to Democria.

That brings me to Papers, Please, where you get to decide whether to provide assistance to a revolutionary group that claims it's trying to restore Arstotzka to the way it was before the current government took power. If you assist EZIC the whole way and survive to the end, the group takes down the wall at the border checkpoint, and hundreds of people make their way from West Grestin to East Grestin to visit their friends and families in a moment reminiscent of the destruction of the Berlin Wall. To get to that point, you help EZIC poison someone they claim is an assassin in a classic situation of "who can kill the other first?" Toward the end of the month, EZIC asks the player to kill the assassin.

In the playthrough where we assisted EZIC and overthrew the corrupt Arstotzkan leaders, I couldn't help wondering to myself where Arstotzka would go from here. The game ends, so there's no way to know for sure, but I firmly felt the Arstotzkan people were not safe under EZIC either.

Male and female stereotypes have different power dynamics

If you haven’t been following this series of videos from PBS Game/Show, then you should do so! They’re interesting and argued well. The previous video addressed female stereotypes in games and Anita Sarkeesian’s tropes examination, while this video is about male stereotypes.
However, I do think there is some critical information left out in this video.
Yes, male stereotypes are harmful to men. Overwhelmingly, the average male character in a game is the hero, the man who’s got to save someone or the man who’s out for revenge. He’s large, he’s muscular (sometimes to a ridiculous amount), and he’s often portrayed as someone not struggling with the emotional consequences of his actions (I do find this to a much lesser degree in indie games of course, but Heavy Rain's Ethan Mars was also an appropriately emotional character). He's also almost always heterosexual and white. That's a problem on its own.
However, more important is the reason behind male stereotypes, and that is because AAA studios are overwhelmingly white, straight, and male and resistant to change. In these male stereotypes, the men are powerful. They may not be complex, but you can sure as hell bet they can get their way by smashing through things or shooting things down. When we look at female stereotypes, we see women who are in need of rescuing, moreover as a possession, sexual connotations or no. 
I say this over and over, but that’s only because I think it needs repeating. Male stereotypes are a power fantasy (“He’s so strong! I wish I was like him!”). Female stereotypes are objectifying (“She’s really hot! I’d like to f*** her.” Alternatively: “She’s someone I need to save/reclaim and I will hurt whomever took her from me.”)
Male stereotype: I want to be him.
Female stereotype: I want to do her.
Feminism calls for doing away with stereotypes for both men and women! Everyone needs feminism, not just women.

The Proper Venue

Nukezilla's Editor in Chief, John Kershaw, made a great post yesterday about confronting the discriminiation (sexism, racism, and ableism are the ones he mentioned, though homophobia in the community is an issue as well) in the world of gaming.

In response to arguments that defend objectification and dehumanization (yes, that includes jokes about rape), Kershaw says:
The arguments usually boil down to the point that it’s all “just the way [men are] wired”. It’s an argument used to uphold the patriarchy, it’s also mostly bullshit. Men are also “wired” to shit squatting, but somehow we’ve managed to rise above that.
 Kershaw's exactly right. Men (and even women at times) don't realize they're falling into sexist territory. By blaming it on the way you're programmed to act, men are only trying to weasel away from the blame.

An article Kershaw references also draws upon that point. Game designer Nicole Leffel wrote a guest editorial to Kotaku in which she wrote about a moment at a recent game design conference:
Blame Japan. And, well, why not? It's easier to imagine that vicious cultural problems are solely the product of some Over There place halfway around the world. Within the same minute Killian made another joke, this time dismissing the gratuitously sexualized camera angles used for female characters as a sign of improving technology. Again, the crowd laughed.
Kotaku has surprised me. I normally go to them for the usual in gaming news, but here are posts about problems within the gaming community. It's a pleasant surprise. And yet for both of these guest editorials from Latoya Peterson and Denis Farr, comments have been missing the point. On multiple occasions, I've seen people say Kotaku isn't the proper venue for discussing issues within the gaming community. But those issues are just as newsworthy as any rumor or hype Kotaku publishes.