This Week in Video Game Criticism: Of villains, wrestling games, and Billy Mitchell
This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics ranging from what pro wrestling games miss about their subject matter to a portrait of Pac-Man champion and documentary subject Billy Mitchell.
Too Hard to Animate
(Content Warning: the articles in this section discuss topics including mental illness, homophobia and suicide.)
At Link Saves Zelda, Kelly Flatley expresses disappointment with recent developer comments on the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider, which has seemingly shied away from depicting its protagonist's PTSD:
My point here is that this development team had the groundwork laid out for them from a previous game, a comic series and a novel to make Lara Croft a character that brings to light the fact that we can suffer from these disorders yet still come out on top, still be powerful, humanistic characters with depth and agency. [...] Ignoring that Lara Croft suffers from such a condition in Rise of the Tomb Raider is something that I think is only being done due to a reluctance to tackle such a delicate issue.
Switching gears to representations of sexuality, the recent revelation that the latest installment of the Fire Emblem roleplaying games includes what has been called magical gay conversion therapy has inspired heated discussion. And while there are some debates about the accuracy of the translations being referenced, what is more at issue here is how members of the press have talked about the game and its alleged context as a Japanese cultural product. From games scholar Todd Harper:
So we should back off from aggressive critique of something, because [it's from] Japan? No. If they're gonna sell this in the US, it's an issue, and frankly discussing it now, while the game is still being localized for its 2016 release, is the time to bring it up. Localization is the time when this stuff could change for US audiences, when Nintendo could be truly global in scope and recognize that the morality of their audiences abroad might not be the same, and might require a different approach. I say this because if the situation were reversed, there'd be every expectation that a US content creator would change their content for the global market. Why is Japan immune somehow?
It should be noted (as Harper does elsewhere in his piece) that US exported games do indeed often tailor their content for international audiences, so what is being proposed here is in no way unreasonable -- at least, no more unreasonable than the localization hoops countless games go through already.
Meanwhile, developer Damion Schubert responds to the assertion that criticizing this aspect of the game boils down to imposing a Western set of values:
The problem isn't that this feature mirrors Western Conversion Therapy. It's that Western Conversion Therapy has shown us how wretched and abusive the idea [is] that gay is something that is broken, and needs to be fixed. This is a dangerous idea that feeds directly into the epidemic of suicide that plagues LGBT youth. [...] [I]t behooves game developers who actually claim to give a shit about the issue to be much more careful about the stories they tell.
Keeping the lens on Nintendo, in the latest issue of Memory Insufficient Ness Io Kain highlights how seemingly innocuous reinforcement of gendered norms in Nintendo games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf can actually replicate the day-to-day microaggressions Kain experiences:
Ordinarily, creating an avatar and dressing it as you wish is a pretty cool aspect of video games for transgender people. You say you're a woman or a man and the game treats you accordingly with no qualms or qualifications. Many trans authors like Katherine Cross and Jessica Janiuk have written extensively about how powerful video games have been in helping them become comfortable with their genders. However, the eerie similarity of the comments Animal Crossing characters make about gender to real-life daily dismissals of trans identities cheapens this. These comments force the idea that gender is a rigidly structured concept, and this is harmful for all kinds of people, especially people who, like me, don't necessarily identify as one binary gender or another.
We already feel like the world wasn't built for us. Video games offer the promise of a world that is built for you, no matter who you are, and Animal Crossing puts special emphasis on this. But it fails to deliver on that promise.
(End content warning section.)
Truth to Power
(Content Warning: the articles in this section deal with sexism, abuse and harassment.)
Let's shift gears here to talking about how some recent games have resonated positively with players. At Go Make Me A Sandwich, wundergeek looks to how Dontnod's Life is Strange handles sexist power dynamics and bullying:
[Life is Strange] portrays sexism as a reality of navigating the world as a woman without ever shying away from the terrible emotional damage that that reality creates. [...] Max, as the protagonist, finds herself the lone woman in an office full of powerful men who are demanding that she tell the truth about what happened, while also clearly conveying the subtext that doing so is clearly against Max's own best interests. Which is some powerful shit, right there.
Elsewhere, foremost interactive fiction author Emily Short shares some extended ruminations on Her Story, some of it about the game's roots in Gothic literature, but chiefly about how its themes of duality and self-presentation is personally meaningful to her as a developer and academic:
So what truth did I see in all this? I think: the social mutability of self, which is something that everyone inevitably experiences. It has been especially present in my life the past few years. I travel more and have increasingly non-overlapping social circles [...] [I]t's really really hard not to feel like there's some way that I am different. As though I turn into someone else in the moment that I'm recognized, and both the before and the after person are uncomfortable and not me.
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At Virtual Narrative, Justin Keever performs a heady analysis of Desert Golfing, concluding it's more conventional than it at first appears.
Meanwhile, at Kill Screen, Hieu Chau takes a look at the videogames that have been made based on pro wrestling and contends that most of them have missed the point:
Professional wrestling isn't about showing who the stronger competitor is. Fundamentally speaking, it's about putting on a good show for an audience through a wrestler's specific skill set [and to] document drama, put on a spectacle for the audience and develop a character within the ring.
[...] What makes other sports simulators work is that, like the actual sport they are based on, results aren't pre-determined in order to progress stories or characters, and the major moments within a match -- the ones that get an audience really fired up -- aren't planned in advance in order to get spectators to react the way they want. [...] Wrestlers, on the other hand, absolutely need to engage with the audience, because it feeds into their characters and into their overall psychologies.
Lastly, Oxford Magazine -- a publication oriented around the American South -- has a great feature on Pac-Man world champion (and King of Kong 'heel') Billy Mitchell. David Ramsey's accessible writing is a fantastic illustration of just how relevant non-games-specific publications are to talking about games. For example:
The game's four ghosts, charged with tracking down and "killing" Ms. Pac-Man, are hopelessly overmatched. Mitchell taunts and teases his pursuers, leading them into harmless circles, grouping them together and pulling them apart with such exact command that it almost seems that some flaw in the wiring has given his joystick direct control of the bad guys.
Golfing legend Bobby Jones famously said of the young Jack Nicklaus, "He plays a game with which I am not familiar." Ms. Pac-Man is my favorite video game. I am a well-above-average player, I have at certain times in my life obsessively devoted so many hours to it that I played out scenarios in my sleep, and I have observed hundreds of people play the game. I have never seen anyone play like this.
"See?" Mitchell says, fluidly guiding Ms. Pac-Man through the maze. "Absolute control. I've eliminated the mad (sic), scattering chase. That's probably how they intended the game to be played, running around out of control. But that's not how I play."
Can't Stop the Signal
I leave you with a bit of signal boosting for this great project in need of your support, brought to you by the folks at Not Your Mama's Gamer. Samantha Blackmon and her crew are gearing up to produce a video series on race and representation in games -- a vastly underserved subject and one that the NYMG's crew is well qualified to tackle.
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