Tag Archives: videogame

Beyond ‘Ace’ Attorney: (sort of) my talk from 2014’s Lost Levels

affection

What follows is a best effort reproduction of the off-the-cuff talk I gave at Lost Levels this past March. I had a draft of some sort prepared in advance, then threw it out at the last minute. This will necessarily be different from both the prepared text and the delivered version, but the gist of it remains intact.

I think Phoenix Wright is an ace attorney.

This is a double-entendre, and admittedly, not an especially clever one. “Ace” is short for asexual, you see, so it follows that in addition to being known as the primary protagonist of Ace Attorney, mainly for being a good lawyer, we can argue for Phoenix Wright as being ace in the other sense — a cutesy bit of wordplay without much substance behind it. Or is there?

Here is the thing: I’m asexual. It took me the majority of my life to arrive at this conclusion, largely because I had no idea what being asexual actually meant, or how I could be one. Please name me an openly asexual character in film or television who is not a) a non-human character, b) aimed at children, or c) evil. I’m sure there are a few that exist somewhere, but they’re a rare bird, especially next to the surfeit of examples we have for hetero, bi and gay characters.

Part of the problem is that asexuality is defined by not doing a thing. And not just not doing the thing, but having no desire to do the thing, which makes it different than having a character who is, say, celibate, or in possession of a low libido. In fact, if there’s anything that irritates me more than not having good examples of asexual characters to refer to, it’s for people to conflate “asexual” with “chaste” and point to examples of relationships where the issue of physical intimacy is shot down, but not for lack of desire. (See: Shepard and Samara in Mass Effect.) And if there’s anything that irritates me more than that, it’s the assumption that sexuality is inextricably tied with romantic attraction, so asexual people can’t possibly have emotional relationships which play out as romances.

somarried

Enter: Phoenix Wright. Phoenix cares deeply about several people in his life, but the games never pair him off with everyone, except in a single flashback case where he’s in a relationship with a woman (and it’s strongly implied to be chaste). The series even goes so far as to give him a daughter, but it goes yet further by making her adopted, and when asked when he’s going to find his daughter “a new mommy” he repeatedly laughs off the idea.

So here we have a character that the franchise is going well out of its way to have him fulfill this particular social role of parenthood, without any of the other heteronormative trappings that tend to accompany it. He wouldn’t be alone, but let’s go further: he’s made uncomfortable by kissing (AA5 DLC case), he denies up and down any sort of adult relationship with Maya (AA2) while risking his life for her (AA3), and of the two people he gets closest to professing something like love to (his mentor Mia; his friend Edgeworth), one gets retroactively paired off (Mia with Diego Armando), and the other is… apparently going on dates with Phoenix to his daughter’s magic shows (AA5 case 5), despite the two of them clearly living very separate lives on opposite sides of the city.

So what do we make of this? For me, when I look at all of this together, I see a guy who is a lot like myself: someone with strong emotional bonds with people which might even be interpreted as romantic, but for whom physical acts of affection either don’t occur to him (see: Dahlia/Iris, and if you want to stretch things, Maya) or upset him (see: Orla, and yes I know she’s an orca).

Is it compelling, incontrovertible proof? No. And I don’t expect this to either have crossed the series writers’ minds or be something Capcom will ever weigh in on one way or another. It doesn’t really matter to me how a character like Phoenix Wright is ‘intended’ — his portrayal is at least ambiguous enough that I was able to read into him something that I could recognize, and for me that is a rare, precious thing.

I’ve written before how it was only through fandom that I finally managed to articulate how it felt to be asexual. I still think fanworks are a great resource for exploring all these things that published media don’t or won’t address, but I’m glad that for the Ace Attorney games, at least, I don’t need to resort to fanfiction to find a character whose actions make sense to me.

This all makes me wonder what we can do to better explore asexuality in games — through characters, sure, but perhaps through gameplay as well. I asked the Lost Levels crowd for a few ideas (a passing hippie suggested “become a higher being” as one solution), but I wonder what all you out there think, as well. Are there asexual characters (who aren’t anthropomorphic animals or cartoonish villains) we can point to in games? How would we handle asexual romance? Or just being asexual, when there are no quick routes to its representation? I think all the work that has been done by queer devs in the last few years points the way, but I can’t say for certain where I, at least, should be going from here.

(Except to write cute fanfic of Phoenix and Edgeworth holding hands, but that was always going to be forthcoming…)

We who are about to die salute you

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I just suffered my first real ‘bad end’ in X-COM: Enemy Unknown/Within. Brainwashed comm operators sabotaged my base and, having just come off a string of terror missions leaving most of my top-ranked soldiers KIA and my high-end MECs in for repairs, I didn’t stand much of a chance against the ensuing alien horde. So it goes.

Starting off on a fresh file with the Enemy Within expansion appears to have been a big mistake, as there are a lot of balance issues and weird staggering of events that make it difficult to proceed conservatively, even if I felt like it. As it is, I’m playing chiefly to have something to play. There are few enough games that can be played one-handed (my dominant hand is still, unfortunately, too injured to do much more than press Enter occasionally), and fewer still that don’t seem to fall into the trough of either puzzle games or sims, and better the devil that you know, I guess.

Still, something’s been rolling around in my head since I read Michael Lutz’s piece on First-Person Scholar about “replay value” as a quality of performance art. In it, Lutz suggests that the reason Spelunky expresses (that ol’ canard) “replayability” for him is not just the emergent dungeon design, but the particulars of its interlocking parts.

A scholar specializing in drama and performance art, [Peggy] Phelan has influentially argued that “performance becomes itself through disappearance”. According to Phelan, performance’s chief attribute is its ephemerality, its execution in a particular way, by particular actors, in a present moment that can never be reproduced [...]

I replay Spelunky not simply because it has varied or hidden content, but because the experience of losing unexpectedly and then restarting is so fundamental to the play experience. Now in addition to the first encounter with the ghost, the ghosts of many, many dead Spelunkers figuratively crowd the peripheries of my gameplay. The satisfaction of a successful run is nonexistent without the memory of the myriad failures that precede it, and even the smallest achievement is followed, inevitably, by another parade of deaths -– but the specter of future accomplishment has already been conjured.

I’d like to dispense with the idea of “future accomplishment” here — I only include the end of the quote so as not to change Lutz’s meaning — and focus, really, on the performance of loss. Because I like the idea of playing through doomed scenarios, not in anticipation of some 11th hour Hollywood cliche, but to see it all crumble as well it must.

Too dark? I don’t know. I remain convinced that a major issue many people had with the original Mass Effect 3 ending was that you couldn’t really save the day. Not how you wanted. Not how the series had set you up to believe you could. And I actually rather liked that the game pulled the rug out from underneath you like that. It changed the rules and made every win state horribly unacceptable. Love it. Give me more.

Another game I managed to play recently was Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight. It’s a damned triggering game and I needed a lot of self-care afterwards because — spoiler — the protagonist almost surely kills himself at the end, no matter what you do. But I suppose I’m glad I played it because that’s the point of the game, to reveal in the harshest terms the raw brutality of this man’s depression. Or, as someone suggested to me when I discussed it with them afterwards:

I feel like [Actual Sunlight] is a game about using the hopelessness of the worst case scenario to make the possibility of hope more apparent.

You can’t “win” Actual Sunlight. You can only participate in a doomed situation. If I replayed the base defense mission in Enemy Within a hundred times I’d probably get no closer to completing it, simply by virtue of how poorly equipped my remaining units are (the same way Evan, we might say, was not adequately equipped to combat his suicidality). No, it’s not about the “specter of future accomplishment” here, not within the context of these units or these representations. It’s more about that certain poetic catharsis gained from bringing something to the only end available to us.

Put another way, my Enemy Within squad, my Commander Shepard, and Actual Sunlight‘s protagonist are each headed toward death (unless you take the interpretation that Evan doesn’t die at the end — not a reading I hold to, personally), but the particulars of getting there make up the actual performance. The real disappearing act, you could say.

(See also: Lee’s demise in The Walking Dead; most samurai films; nearly any classic arcade game; Super Hexagon except for a few skilled individuals.)

Future-proofing Critical Distance

criticaldistance_kotrt_newI was speaking with one of my favorite game critics the other night. He told me, wistfully, of how proud he was of his most popular article to date, and how he wished he could take credit for it — but he couldn’t, because he’d face untold harassment.

This is sadly common. Every writer I’ve known who has signed their name to a deeply personal piece of writing — especially if it’s an account of the harm they’ve experienced in life — has faced no end of online abuse for doing so. They also seem to get pigeonholed, shut out from being known for any of their other contributions to become, instead, that one who wrote that one thing. The latter might be natural of how we process microcelebrity within our incredibly niche sphere of writing but it’s unfortunate and frankly awful all the same, and taken together with the former, it poses huge risks and endless disappointment for writers no matter if they sign their work or don’t.

(This is not, I should add, some impassioned defense of “confessional writing” or whatever semi-pejorative you wish to drum up. My stance at Critical Distance has always been that we welcome all kinds of critical games writing and commentary, which is great, because what we receive each week is always richly diverse. This here is decrying the fact we can’t seem to talk about assault, sexism, racism, harassment and so on without the writers inviting those same things upon their head, as though the universe decided it must prove a point.

Anyway,)

I wanted to tell this critic friend that “some day things will be better.” That some day we will grow out of fouling up comments sections and hurling abuse over social media. But I doubted it would happen within the lifetime of this present games crit ecosystem of ours.

Meanwhile, we’ve all seen what the ephemeral nature of the web does to the critical writing that already exists. Check out all the 404s this (quite well intended and lovely) Twitter bot has drudged up, just by going through Critical Distance’s archives. A former colleague of mine, Mark Filipowich, blogged recently about this as well. The longer C-D goes on, the worse this problem is going to get.

At that moment I imagined my critic friend’s work not only never seeing proper attribution, but evaporating into the digital ether when the site which hosts it dies, or moves, or revamps. Not only was it all but certain we wouldn’t be around in time to see a web readership that could treat his brave words with the respect they deserved, it was a pretty sure thing even the words themselves won’t outlast us.

It’s been proposed a few times now that Critical Distance create some sort of anthology, and I’ve always been a little resistant to the idea. Obtaining the rights would be such a headache, I told people. Organizing, doing the layouts, motivating volunteers, going through the endless debates of how long and which pieces and do we want to do a print version… It’s hard enough to do that sort of thing without distraction; it’s an unimaginable drain on your energy when you have a full-time job on top of that.

But this needs to happen. I’m convinced of this now. We need to do something to preserve some of this writing before it vanishes.

And there are other projects Critical Distance needs to get a move on as well: more Critical Compilations (we welcome your pitches!), an updated search engine, more foreign language coverage, new podcasts, cross referenced tagging system, resources for new writers. These are all things we’ve discussed (and continue to work on) behind the scenes, but it’s slow going. We’re a completely volunteer outfit, most of us work, and all of us find our free time in short supply.

There’ve been suggestions for how to help remedy that too, of course. I’m not going to launch into proposals for those today, but they should sound familiar: tip jar buttons, subscriptions, funding drives, etc. Frankly I’m a leery of asking for money until I send out the remaining backer rewards for my GDC trip — those are still coming, I promise — so don’t expect to see C-D rattling a coin jar in your face in the immediate future, but still. This is something we need to address, if we’re going to be able to commit the human resources to seeing these projects happen.

Please note this is not saying Critical Distance is in jeopardy of shutting down. Ben and I have enough worked out between us that we’re pretty sure we can sustain the site for quite a while. I’m talking about expansions only here. Mind you, I think some of them are pretty necessary — post tagging and the anthology in particular. Especially the anthology. If we even print one copy and bury it in a time capsule somewhere, I want this work to survive. It’s the least we owe these writers.

(No, I am not actually suggesting we print out a single copy and bury it somewhere.)

So, there you have it. Someway, somehow, this is a thing I want to see happen. When Ben handed Critical Distance off to me in 2011 I was mostly concerned with just following on the path already set out ahead of me. Now I have worked on the site nearly as long as Ben has — hard as that is to imagine for me, still — and it feels like it’s time for the site to start growing up. After all, it’s here to outlive us both.

Animal Crossing QR Code Geekery, Part 1

Quick post, and the first of several, I hope. If you’ve been reading me on Twitter you know that I am a teensy bit obsessed with Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I’ve been happily designing little outfits for my mayor since I discovered the option to do so, and now that I’ve unlocked the QR Printer at Able Sisters, well!

So, in honor of Tron Day, have a bit of Tron Couture, plus a Sailor Moon fuku and a (completely unisex!) TNG Starfleet miniskirt.

“Tron Couture”
HNI_0023
HNI_0024
HNI_0026
HNI_0026


Sailor Moon serafuku
HNI_0028
HNI_0029
HNI_0030
HNI_0031


Unisex Starfleet Miniskirt (Command, TNG)
HNI_0036
HNI_0037
HNI_0038
HNI_0039

Also, if you’re looking for more ACNL QR designs, I highly recommend the stuff Anne Lee has been curating! I’m currently wearing one of the summer yukata featured here.

So, Gamasutra

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When I went to GDC in March I gave myself an ultimatum: I needed to find a job while I was there, or I would surely die.

Hyperbole aside, I really did need a new job. I’d been a moderator at a kids’ game for over three years, and although I’d been promoted twice, the time commitment versus the pay was terrible, and every shift left me feeling emotionally wrecked. The kids were terrible. Though my immediate superior and the coworkers I interacted with most were great, everyone else was a nightmare. And did I mention the pay?

It’s funny. I don’t consider myself particularly money-obsessed. I laugh at people who are. Look how frivolous you’re acting. But as a professor of mine might say, money is a game that’s very hard to quit playing. I had gone to GDC on others’ dime and unless I wanted to be faced with the same situation year after year, I had to improve my own take. Just a bit of breathing room would be fine. Nothing special. Just enough to live without constant anxiety attacks would be nice.

I didn’t, incidentally, come away from GDC with a job. I stopped by the career pavilion once, saw the lines of desperate fresh-faced college grads queuing at every booth, and turned around. I’m still using all the wasted resumes I printed as scratch paper.

The first few days back at home were demoralizing. I had had a great time, and met plenty of wonderful people, and Terry Cavanagh even borrowed my eyepatch. But I’d surely squandered all the hard-earned money everyone had given me through the GoFundMe campaign. I was a failure. I’d be working at this kid’s game until the studio went belly-up, which was probably soon, because for as much as I liked my manager I can’t at all sugarcoat how terribly the thing was run from the top down. I was preparing to ask my surrogate family if I could move back in with them.

Then about a week later, this happened.

I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to leave my moderation job and work solely for Gamasutra. It took a few weeks to get everything ironed out — at one point I was working 13 hour days working both jobs at once — but now things are laid back and happy and for the first time in my life, I don’t feel like a hostage to my employer. I don’t have to worry about not making rent in a given month because I’m too sick to work one day out of seven. I don’t have to drive myself ragged for a few extra cents worth of overtime.

There are other perks too. Psychological benefits mostly — and I don’t mean in the cheap corporate sense, but the actual good the Gamasutra job seems to be doing for my emotional health. I’m not used to a work environment I look forward to coming into each day, as I do with Gama. I’m not used to all these foreign concepts like supportive coworkers and weekends off.

I know, this is the sort of stuff a lot of white collar folks take for granted. It’s no doubt becoming increasingly uncommon, though, and I will never let go of how freaking privileged I am to have a job right now, to say nothing of one I actually enjoy. I’m not here to brag. Just express my thanks.

Thanks, everyone, who sent me to GDC. I accomplished what I set out to do and more, not in the way I expected to, but totally sideways and weird and much more gratifying, in the end.

Also, I highly recommend having an editor with the same first name as you, as it allows one to say things like “Yeah, Kris is a great editor.” No, that will never stop entertaining me. If I wasn’t easily amused I wouldn’t be such a Twitter addict.

(Finally: yes, I know I still owe plenty of people donor rewards, and yes, they’re coming! Now that I’m finally adjusting to the rhythm of the Gama job, I expect I can follow up on these things soon. In the meantime, there are always photos of my cat.)

More Context-Sensitive Spec Ops

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My friend and Iraq War veteran R. had a chance to go back through Spec Ops: The Line again recently and elected to send me his blow-by-blow impressions by email. I believe those who enjoyed the first post on his impressions will like reading through R.’s second look below.

R.’s notes are reproduced in full with only minor touch-up for clarity. Again, I am expressly not the US Marine here, so I’m trusting the accuracy of his observations.

Oh, and also- spoilers for the game again, obviously.

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Best Emergent Trends (and Other Things) of 2012

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Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to narrow this list down to anything that is in anyway manageable. It’s been a great year for games- especially indies. At this point I think it’s more useful to look back at certain movements in this year’s releases rather than specific titles.

Naturally, in the course of that, we’re going to be discussing plenty of titles. I started out creating this “game of the year” list believing I didn’t have much to say about this year’s offerings. The more I looked, the more I found was there. This has been a great year for the single-author game; for grassroots and fan-driven projects; for outsiders; and especially for animated discussions about the medium. In this I’m very much in agreement with Michael Abbott– I believe we’re going to look back on 2012 as another important watershed year for games and criticism. The only lingering question I have remaining is– did it sneak up on you too? Or did you already pick up on it months before?

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Let’s name some Super Hexagon patterns

Apparently Terry Cavanagh has his own names for these. Maybe you do too? Post ‘em if you got ‘em.

The Warble

The Record Scratch

The Crochet

The Crochet

The School Hallway

The School Hallway

The Butterfly

The Butterfly

The Snowstorm

The Snowstorm

The Spiral (aka The Junji Ito)

The Spiral (aka The Junji Ito)

The Spider Web

The Spider Web

Beyond Complete Freedom of Movement

super_hexagon-crop

The title of this post refers to Henry Jenkins‘s “‘Complete Freedom of Movement': Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces,” which itself references the 1998 game Die by the Sword. The article, as well as the book in which it appears, is a valuable precursor to some of the recent discussions the ludodecahedron have engaged in regarding games as a virtual outdoors.

It’s been over two years since Roger Ebert enraged the hive, and despite the insistent hopping about from all corners that No One Damn Well Cares about the “are games art?” question, we still seem to keep trucking it out. The latest came from Guardian guy-with-a-blog Jonathan Jones, whose forays into the “but is it art?” arena are long documented, and about as neatly thought out as shoving stuff into a blender to see what happens.

He’s just a guy, though, and not a terribly interesting one at that. It’s the damned question itself that seems to take on a life of its own and clog up my reading agenda for TWIVGB every few weeks. As games blogging strawmen go, it’s probably right behind “can games tell stories?” and just before “are casual games games?” in terms of frequency on my RSS feed, and none of them are terribly fruitful lines of inquiry (if only because the obvious answers to the three are yes, yes and yes).

Given this, the last thing I should be doing is throwing my own two cents (more a haypenny) in here. But no matter how often this “are games art?” thing gets brought up, and no matter how many bloggers leap to defend the vidya, I always feel like the best argument is one they aren’t making. Where “but X is interactive, and it’s considered art” everyone is quick to mention participatory theatre, dance, and all the rest, and yet they neglect to mention the most glaring example of all:

Installation art.

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Context-Sensitive Spec Ops

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I was ecstatic to learn that an old high school friend of mine, R., had recently picked up Spec Ops: The Line, and was playing it over Steam just a scant couple days after my own play-through. After leaving high school, R. went into the Marine Corps–he served two tours in Iraq before returning to California to pursue a degree, where we got to reconnect over IM.

R.’s been very open about sharing some of his war experiences with me for my research on an upcoming project, as well as lending his perspective on films and articles I’ve shared with him. (For instance, I linked him W.’s “Call of Apathy” to see whether it jived at all with his own impressions about his fellow vets, or even himself– he said that it didn’t, but he did agree that the most destructive force to reckon with during a tour like his or W.’s is the long stretches of boredom.)

On the subject of war-themed videogames, he and I have generally agreed that they’re horseshit. But having now put Spec Ops: The Line behind me, I was interested what an actual veteran thought of its depiction of war in the Middle East and some would say critical message. So naturally once I learned he’d picked it up I bugged the hell out of him about it.

What follows are a few spoilers for the game. R. isn’t a professional writer so a few of you might be a little disappointed by the brevity of his impressions, but I think he brings a unique take to things, especially since he (as of this writing) hasn’t been exposed to Spec Ops‘ source material either.

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