Friday, August 10, 2018

Iconoclasts Is Sexist

I just got done reading through Jess Joho’s excellent rejoinder to Octopath Traveler’s perpetual bombardment of sexism. It had me nodding along in reminder of my recent experience playing through Konjak’s Iconoclasts, crystallizing some wayward thoughts I’ve been having about the game’s portrayal of its main character in Robin. For whatever reason I felt like writing this and didn’t feel like going through the process of writing a pitch email and waiting 37 weeks all to get a few no’s, so I’m basically just going to steal all her points and map them onto this game. Insert reference to recent plagiarism case here. Also, maybe I’ll rehabilitate this blog for more throwaway rants like this one. So anyway, here goes:

Iconoclasts is blatantly sexist. In it, you play as Robin, who is a silent protagonist. I don’t necessarily mind silent protagonists as a concept (hey, I put a lot of time into Hollow Knight and Breath of the Wild recently, so) but they have to be done well. But in a game like Iconoclasts, which frequently features loooooooooooooooooooong bouts of narrative exposition and dialogue, to have a character who’s just kind of….existing be the main character doesn’t make a ton of sense. She does frequently emote, and the character art work here is pretty strong for everyone. But it’s not enough. Iconoclasts includes a throwaway line about the fact that Robin, “doesn’t talk much.” Acknowledging that your silent protagonist is silent is a twee fourth-wall breaking trendy ploy at “indie gamer” brotherhood.  It’s intellectually lazy, a feeble attempt at allowing the player to “embody” her when everyone else in the game is allowed agency.

Because she can’t speak, inevitably other characters must speak on behalf of Robin. Robin is allowed no agency. The player controls her, and other characters, particularly the men in her life, must speak for her. Her brother constantly feigns to know what she’s thinking. Never is Robin offered a correction in rebuttal because she can’t talk. She is a mechanic, because her dead father was a mechanic (just like Primrose, Robin has a dead father who is the most important thing about her. Just like Primrose, Robin’s mother is mentioned like maybe once ever in all twelve hours of Iconoclasts’ runtime?). She constantly dreams about her dead father, who everybody loved. Her father wanted Robin to be a farmer, but of course she has to take after ol’ pops! Even her friend (though of course it’s impossible to know how Robin really feels) Mina frequently speaks on Robin’s behalf.

This kind of speaking over Robin is blatantly sexist on its own, but it’s disguised as being okay because, hey, she never talks bro!!!!! At one point toward the end, her brother Elro “frees” her up to do as she will. He says that he won’t try to stop her from doing the things she’ll do anymore, as if he ever had command over her actions and choices. But, of course, he did, because Iconoclasts never allows Robin to do anything of her own accord. In her Mashable piece, Joho frequently talks about the weird, leery ways in which other characters remark on how beautiful Octopath Traveler character Primrose is. By making Robin in Iconoclasts a typically capable adventurer sort of person who can’t speak, Iconoclasts tries to disguise the sexist “complements” other people say to her in a positive light. Calling her beautiful is just one great trait about her! But it’s made worse, like everything else in Iconoclasts, by Robin’s inability to reply, to clap back. She’s forced to go with the flow on everything; because she can’t speak and has no agency whatsoever, Robin never gets to choose the kinds of relationships she wants to have with others nor can she influence the nature of existing relationships. Everything is at another person’s whim. Even her dad tells her how beautiful she is (in her dreams, which sort of implies that she wants to fuck her dad, which, like, yeah).

There are characters early on who berate Robin as some kind off ill omen for seemingly very little reason. They think she brings trouble everywhere she goes, and of course, she can say nothing to rebuke these ridiculous claims. Later on, people start to praise Robin for “her” accomplishments (these are often favors she is forced to perform for other characters who are lazy). The player is given a choice in whether or not to allow a character named Royal to come along on her journey, but this is a player-driven choice. Again, Robin has no say in the matter.

Almost all of Iconoclasts’ women are hysterics, a common trope in fiction, the only exceptions being Robin and Mina. Samba frequently freaks out over Mina’s frankly level-headed decision-making, as does Mina’s mother. The Mother character whom is worshipped by all the people of the One Concern (a theocracy in Iconoclasts’ world) transforms into a monstrous witch lady when the player finally confronts her toward the end of the game; contrast this against the reveal of who lives inside the Starworm—the true God of Iconoclasts’ world—who’s revealed to be a silent, menacing but reserved bird man figure. The character Black loses her temper at the drop of a pin, perturbed at the death of her friend Grey from before the events of the game. A woman named Petra in the beginning of the game constantly berates Robin, who she perceives as being a corrupting influence upon the children of the small town Settlement 17. Robin and her friend Mina are frequently portrayed as burdensome to those around her. Iconoclasts is never aware of the ways in which it buys into these tropes so as to comment upon or subvert them, and as such it falls into the critical trap it itself has set for organized religion.

One of the main characters Mina is in an on-off relationship with another character Samba. It’s cool to see this kind of representation in games, even if it’s not that novel anymore. But Iconoclasts’ treatment of Robin as a woman makes this feel like performative tokenistic window dressing, as if the developer can handwave away criticisms of Robin as a woman because, hey, Mina kisses a lady! But it’s bleedingly easy to see through such deceptions. Silent protagonists can be done, and they can be done well, but Iconoclasts resorts to tropes and silencing (a notable difference) in trying to tell its story of theocracy and religious despotism. Worst of all, compare Iconoclasts’ women to its men and it’s plain to see: all the men are the tortured, or insightful, or enlightened, or all three type. Its women are silent, angry, or a weight upon the shoulders of men. Critics might fall over themselves in valorizing developer Konjak for taking seven years to develop Iconoclasts, yet its portrayal of women (not to mention its clumsy, laborious mechanical systems) feel backwards and undercooked. 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

\\ In the Shadow of Greatness: Nick Suttner's Shadow of the Colossus book review //

There are few games in my life which have had a more profound impact than Shadow of the Colossus for the PlayStation 2. I consider it to be my second favorite game of all time - Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls tends to take the cake for me but it varies depending on the day. The first time I ever saw the game, I was very young; I couldn’t have been much older than 12 or so. Something about it lightly intrigued me as a couple friends and I watched another friend toil over its many hulking boss battles. Yet still, my innate “gamer” instincts found a way to be repulsed by the game – a game with only boss battles, an immense landscape, and nothing else to do but ride and wait? I vowed never to touch the thing.

About five years later, that same friend lent me a copy of the game. By then, my artistic sensibilities had drastically shifted, my childish allegiance to Nintendo had all but vanished, and my desire to have new experiences was at an all-time high. And I was hooked – Colossus was impossible to let go of. I played it so quickly that it became but a blur in my mind. I went online and read up and watched everything I could find about creator Fumito Ueda’s next game The Last Guardian, and an obsession was born.

As the wait for The Last Guardian increased far longer than I ever imagined it would, the Ico and Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection was released, and my infatuation with the worlds Ueda and his team at Sony’s Japan Studios (christened “Team Ico” by fans) only seemed to grow. I’ve paid much attention to these games, played them multiple times, and have spent countless hours scouring the internet for information on their many secrets (I based my article for Kill Screen about Fez’s black monolith around what I feel is a seminal piece of investigative games writing by Craig Owens at Eurogamer about the year-spanning search for secrets in Colossus).

All this is to say that I stepped into reading Nick Suttner’s new book about Shadow of the Colossus with lofty expectations – I had actually pitched to its publisher, Boss Fight Books, to write it, but Suttner is far more qualified. I left this book feeling mostly satisfied – Suttner paints a picture of the game from start to finish, packing in descriptions of the vistas, forests, and rivers which populate the Forbidden Lands, analyzing controls, the game’s cinematic camera, and more. He documents a playthrough of the game dedicated to the book, which triggers interesting asides of working at EB Games and memories of playing the game for the first time with one of Suttner’s roommates.

The Forbidden Lands lack much in the way of landmarks. They are a place of rocks, biomes, dilapidated stone ruins, caves, a variety of flora and fauna, but differ from the spaces found in many other adventure-style games of the time, where everything is distinct and immediately visually interesting. Colossus’ lands by comparison appear rather drab, yet Suttner does an excellent job of painting them as vivid spaces filled with mysteries to explore and hidden truths to uncover. It’s this intimacy with the reader where Suttner excels as an author. In one section of the book, he recalls spending time as a child in the outdoors, overturning logs to find all kinds of insects living beneath, and connects this experience back to Colossus’ embrace of the mundane to help us to understand that finding something of interest here becomes a genuine event, and thus memorable. Suttner understands that the world here is as much a character as Wander, Agro, Dormin, and Mono.
Personally, the most striking parts of the book are those when Suttner uses his current position at Sony (a job he toiled to obtain after being profoundly shook by Colossus) in order to obtain interviews with other game developers and learn of Team Ico’s influence upon other games. Here we’re shared personal anecdotes from the likes of Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us, Uncharted 4), thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen (Journey, Flower, Flow), Polytron’s Phil Fish (Fez, Super Hypercube), From Software’s Hidetaka Miyazaki (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne), and many more. As a game designer myself and someone who’s always been a fan of the game design process, both technically and philosophically, it was thrilling to get further insights into Ico and Colossus from developers I respect and through lenses I’d never seen before. Suttner is able to uncover deeply compelling morsels of knowledge from other developers due not only to his status as an employee of Sony PlayStation, but also due to his deep knowledge and respect for games and the wider games culture. Suttner touching on Ico and Colossus’ influence beyond the scope of games would have been nice (director Guillermo del Toro and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood are noted fans of the games, and the game even has a deathcore band named after it), though he does briefly mention Colossus’ inclusion in the Adam Sandler film Reign Over Me, reflecting upon how the game’s meditative and therapeutic qualities help Sandler’s character cope with the loss of family members due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center.
I mentioned how my favorite parts of the book are when Suttner gives broader context to the game through interviews and personal connections to phenomena within the game’s world. Unfortunately, it’s in his description of the game’s main plot and sixteen battles where he starts to lose me a bit. This likely comes down to two factors: one, I’ve already played Shadow of the Colossus multiple times, and thus already know what to expect. I know that you have to charge Cenobia into pillars, I know that you must hit the rocks on top of Pelagia’s head to get it to move in a certain direction, and I know that pillars of light billow out from a colossi’s resting place upon finishing a fight. So in this way I’m not taking much from these sections of the book by default.
But Suttner’s descriptions of the bosses and clashing with them generally cease to match my experiences having fought them time and time again all these years. I often forget how to approach each colossus, as every encounter is a puzzle of sorts to solve. Fighting a colossus is toilsome – it takes a long time, and you will make many mistakes, struggle, probably even give up once in a while. Colossus can certainly be a difficult game, but Suttner’s descriptions of each of these encounters are often short, feeling like throwaway filler that’s there simply because it needs to be to fill a book’s worth of content. It’s ironic that Suttner mentions a part of the way through the book that it’s likely impossible for one to truly understand his connection with Colossus, because I started to get the feeling by his sixth or seventh colossus description that Suttner wasn’t much here to dig into this stuff, more interested is he in the smaller things and the broader context within the past, present and future of gaming culture.  Still, one wonders how one could possibly even do this aspect of Colossus justice. It’s true that everyone has a different experience, but I wish Suttner had tried harder to encapsulate in text those first-time feelings of wonder and awe upon meeting a new beast; he admits upfront that he has a hard time remembering exactly what those emotions felt like, and it shows a bit. For me it’s a shame because, again, Suttner is excellent when describing his muted experiences of stumbling upon a fruit-bestowing tree on the side of a mountain ledge or the joyously natural way fish and turtles swim away from Wander if he steps near them in a small pond or galloping through the lands atop our lifelike sequin companion or pondering that which Ueda referred to as “visual noise” of ruins within the Forbidden Lands or the game’s way of treating death maturely and with reverence.

Majestic and powerful. (Image credits: Uber Gizmo)
This lack of emphasis expands to Suttner’s treatment of other areas of the game as well. He ends on a description of climbing the Shrine of Worship, an optional feat many players never partake in, as it requires developing Wander’s stamina far past its initial scope – even I’ve never done it, mostly out of the tedium killing lizards and eating fruit required. This section feels abrupt as an ending, and lacked the descriptive prose I’d gotten used to expecting from Suttner. I asked Suttner about his decision to leave out Ueda’s upcoming The Last Guardian (see, I get the hot interviews too!) and he replied that it didn’t quite fit in the context of the book, but personally I can see mentioning this game in the context of the way people have fallen in love with the idea of it not only due to its obvious qualities, but also because it’s another game by the creator of Colossus, a prospect in and of itself extremely exciting. As well, while he does touch upon the aforementioned Eurogamer article and some aspects of the hunt for the game’s fabled “seventeenth colossus,” I can’t help but feel like there’s further investigative work to be done here.
Colossus is not a perfect game by any means, and I felt that Suttner was a bit less critical than what I was hoping for, a tad too reverent in his feelings for the game. He briefly glosses over the game’s bizarre unlockable items and time attack mode, superfluous elements which for me detract from the strong minimalistic core that the game is known for championing. His idolization of the game’s minimalism sometimes divulges into taking shots at games that are a bit wordier or more discrete in their narratives. There’s a section of the book where he discusses the differences between the more overt worldbuilding of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt juxtaposed against the implied narratives and objectives of Colossus and Dark Souls, but paints one as inherently better than the other for the means in which this information is fed to the player. While I agree that games sometimes borrow too much from anime and literature in their heady exposition, I feel that criticizing The Witcher for its brand of narrative simply because it’s different than Colossus’ is unfounded, especially when Wild Hunt has such excellent writing and depth of character. He writes, “…even for a game that stars a supernatural detective (of sorts), Witcher’s sense of mystery still pales in comparison to even a few minutes of riding around Shadow’s empty expanses.” (Suttner, 144) But aren’t we to assess games on their own terms? If the entire gaming consensus had derivatively compared Colossus to The Legend of Zelda upon launch for having no common fodder enemies to slay, no side quests, so few characters to meet, would we not have balked at the thing and forgot about it?
Still, I do share much of his reverence for Colossus, though perhaps not quite as strongly. For its flaws, the game does so much right, inspiring those innate feelings of magic and wonder. It turns players into aspiring designers, musicians, world builders, artists. One plays it ten years out and can’t help but marvel at the thing, the majesty and peculiarities of its irregular design daring but still bold in 2015. With Shadow of the Colossus, Ueda broke new ground, inspiring a generation of artists to be unafraid to venture out into the dark. And it’s the game’s unique sense of beauty that Suttner successfully taps into with this book. The way the game inspires conversation, garners excitability, has led people to remain interested at any morsel of news for Ueda’s next genre-defining work in the making, The Last Guardian, which only recently was re-unveiled for the PlayStation 4. I hope this book finds game players who haven’t yet been exposed to Colossus and makes new players of them, and thus wholeheartedly recommend it.

Monday, June 29, 2015

\\ Raiders of the Lost Croft: Tomb Raider //

This article contains spoilers of gameplay scenarios and locations in Tomb Raider, developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix. Played the Definitive Edition on the PlayStation 4. 

If the new Tomb Raider has done anything, it has given me a deeper appreciation for games with more singular, holistic visions. A complete reboot of a franchise which seemed dated after the release of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, it’s a game that tries several things at once, to varying degrees of effectiveness. With this reboot, developer Crystal Dynamics have gone back to the drawing board for their own franchise, echoing Nintendo’s mantra of constant attempts at revitalization of existing intellectual property, but instead of forging their own path, simply mucking about in the dregs of well-torn ground.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

\\ Eulogy of the First Flame: Bloodborne //

This article contains spoilers of gameplay scenarios and locations in Bloodborne, developed by From Software and published by SCE Japan Studio, and Dark Souls, developed by From Software and published by Namco Bandai Games. Bloodborne is exclusively for PlayStation 4, and Dark Souls was played on PlayStation 3.

From Software’s Bloodborne is in many ways an excellent game. When I wrote about their last releaseDark Souls II, I worried that game indicated a future fraught with stagnation and tedium for the Souls franchise. While I still fear that Bandai-Namco will attempt to bring this once-thought dangerous and intimidating series down with aspirations of near-annualization and profitability (perhaps the immediate re-release of the game in Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin confirms my suspicions), I still believe that Souls in the hands of Hidetaka Miyazaki (who saved Demon’s Souls from development hell and shaped it with his obtuse yet forward-thinking vision, and would go on to direct Dark Souls and Bloodborne) has the potential to be a consistently interesting prospect for years to come. Still, I don’t think Bloodborne is a perfect game, and I’m not confident that I would name it the best Souls title. Here, though, I will only be focusing on one aspect of the game, the lamps.

Monday, March 23, 2015

\\ Dial 2 For More: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number //

This article contains spoilers of gameplay scenarios and plot points in the game, “Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number,” by Dennaton Games, published by Devolver Digital. Played on PlayStation 4.

It’s often easy to forget that video games are a relatively new medium of expression. Looking back at our earlier days, we see a plentitude of experiments, some of which stuck and would later become popular franchises, and others which were forgotten to all but a niche few. Having not been around during the 70’s and 80’s, and having never owned a Commodore 64, a Nintendo Entertainment System, a Sega Genesis, etc. makes it hard for me to say, but it’s easy to imagine that for game designers, it had to have been a beautiful time, a vast expanse of possibility, ripe for exploration. Programming was difficult, and access to the tools and knowledge necessary to produce games were subject to only an elite few.

Things are different now. The independent games scene of the last eight or so years has finally been able to find an in with the “big boys”, and their productions became more noticeable. Nearly half of Paste Magazine’s top 30 games of 2012 alone were developed by very small teams. Some, indeed, with the financial and developing assistance of publisher support, but none faltering in their independent creative spirit. Games like Journey, Dyad, Spelunky planted new seeds upon well-worn territories with which to reinvigorate and rebuild outward in new directions.

Hotline Miami stood tall amongst that crowd of releases. Tight and brutally difficult yet satisfying gameplay, a ferociously-pulsating soundtrack which made legends out of unknown beatmakers, primitive yet eerily-effective pixel art, and a simple and relatively unpretentious premise with some faintly thought-provoking philosophical posturings all combined to form an extremely satisfying experience. By the time I had completed it, I felt as if I had arisen from something which at once felt a comforting fever dream yet also a nightmare. Hotline Miami was a self-contained, lean experience; you didn’t need more. Even if you didn’t understand its plot, it didn’t matter much; the game wanted to simply let itself wash over you with its gunshots, cyberpunk tunes, vigorously-vibrating gradient backgrounds, and, uh, masks. And that was that, or so it seemed.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

\\ Oh, The Places You'll Go: Hohokum Review //

This article contains spoilers of certain locations in the game "Hohokum" by Honeyslug and Sony Santa Monica, published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Played on PlayStation 4.

Hohokum is a game about exploration, not only of physical worlds, but of raw feelings, broad emotional states of being, and mental machinations. It’s a beautiful game which eschews conventional wisdom and embraces the pushback. It’s of little surprise that I find Hohokum to be one of the best games of 2014.

Monday, February 23, 2015

\\ A Turn for the Worst: Japanese RPG's //

Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPG’s) have long been a point of much frustration, anxiety, and sadness for me, a genre which I felt unable to meaningfully parse. In my younger days as a child, I found them simply boring, yet was never able to understand why; I always felt that there was some key ingredient I was missing, as my monthly Nintendo Power subscription often reassured me that games like Chrono Trigger, Secrets of Mana, Final Fantasy, and Skies of Arcadia were “true” classics. I read in GamePro and on IGN of the “greatest games of all time” like Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears, Suikoden, Earthbound. I gathered tales of hours lost, classes skipped, life opportunities missed, all in drawn-out anticipation of meeting Sephiroth in battle, of saving the world from Gyorg, of travelling through time with Crono and crew. Sure, I loved Pok√©mon as much as the next elementary school student, battling and trading our beloved creatures together on the playground and in cramped bedrooms after school, but that was purely tradition of bygone years.

Yet as my love of games proved to persevere, so too did my disdain for JRPG’s. In 2006, with the release of Kingdom Hearts II, I had finally found a JRPG that sucked me in when I bought it on a whim. What perplexed me was that, finally, there came along a JRPG that instantly fired all synapses for me. I cared not that I hadn’t played the original; in fact, that actually contributed to my taking a liking to Kingdom Hearts II. From the moment you begin the game, and the animation set to Hikaru Utada singing her song, “Sanctuary” plays, my young mind is filled with intrigue. When the introductory cutscenes featuring mysterious robed figures finishes, and the controls are handed to I, the player, I’m instantly confused by the protagonist I’m at the reigns of, that of Roxas.

While Kingdom Hearts II has a bit of a slow start, it does a good job of quickly introducing the player to its mechanics, by way of having the player attempt to keep a beach ball in the air with a stick, instead of with a Keyblade to the Heartless. It’s an attempt at world-building, and a cute one that I appreciate to this day, at that. But more importantly, what the game is doing is communicating to the player the general flow and style of the gameplay. It is saying that this Final Fantasy and Disney aesthetic fusion hosts an action game, not the turn-based systems dictating much of Square-Enix’s past efforts.