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Mass Effect

Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

Linearity is a bad word.

When it comes to games, linearity is one of those dreaded concepts no one dares say aloud, for fear of angering the internet. It's not the worst concept though. That terrible title probably belongs to "free-to-play", or maybe "full reactive eyes entertainment”. In fact, if you just go back a few years, linearity wasn't the hot buzzword everyone loved to hate, it wasn't even talked about. Certain games were set aside as being open world games, because linearity was the standard. Now, the script's been flipped. The last major AAA release I can think of that didn't feature an open world was Call of Duty: Ghosts, and its single-player campaign is by no means the "point" of that game.

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Meanwhile, every multi-million dollar series worth its salt features an open world, each one claiming to be bigger, open-er, and world-ier than the last. Assassin's Creed IV, Batman: Arkham Knight, and of course Grand Theft Auto V lead the charge, coming from a relatively long line of open world predecessors, but even brand new IPs, like Watch Dogs and Sunset Overdrive are launching as big, open world games. Not that we're seeing much in the way of new IPs these days. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is taking the Metal Gear series into an open world for the first time, and the recent Tomb Raider reboot combined its spectacular Uncharted impression with its best shot at placing Lara in an open world that didn't really matter.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Open worlds are basically the MSG of game mechanics. You just add a little, and it makes everything seem to taste better. Or, the way publishers see it, adding an open world is a guarantee that your game will sell better than if it didn't. Because open worlds sell, you see.

And why wouldn't they? Video games are, at their core, about interacting with a world and having agency over it. A big open world that doesn't lead your anywhere by the nose is pretty close to the ultimate expression of that concept. Some people see video games' endpoint as the holodeck from Star Trek, a fully immersive, totally realistic simulation of whatever you want to experience. They aren't terribly far off, at least if the progression of open world games is anything to work off of. Add a health bar and a wanted meter, and Picard is basically playing Grand Theft Auto: XXVII.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

But there's another school of thought here, the idea that games are a focused exploration of a specific set of concepts and mechanics, that they shouldn't try to be everything, because you'll never perfect that. Games didn't start as trying to replicate the holodeck experience. At first they were trying to replicate ping-pong, to be fair, but then we got into focused looks at more fantastical mechanics. Mario let you jump twice your own height, and asked you to figure out how to best control that. Mega Man put you through a gauntlet of mazes and traps, then asked you to learn from the environment and figure out how to best use the tools you'd acquired from bosses. Even Adventure wasn't trying to simulate something so much as it was trying to help you learn that dragons could look like ducks too.

BARF

BARF

But, in order to properly explore those mechanics, those games had to be linear. Directed. Focused. It wasn't a technical limitation either, considering that River City Ransom came out in 1989. To be fair, RCR was a pretty small, simple take on the open world concept, but it does show that the idea not only existed, but was possible, even in the early days of game design. But, RCR was big and spread thin. There wasn't a ton of complexity to it, most of the fun was had in seeing how the open world and mechanics could be abused. It introduced the world, or at least the few people who had played it at the time, to emergent gameplay, which would go on to become one of open world design's strongest selling points.

The point is, games were linear for a long time for a reason, and it wasn't technology. A linear, heavily directed experience is the best way to show players how to best take advantage of deeper mechanics, the easiest way to adjust the difficulty curve, and the easiest way to tell a story. Look at Ocarina of Time's Shadow Link battle. Link enters an empty room with an island in the middle. You walk over to the island, nothing's there, but you see a door on the other side of the room. You check out the door and it's locked, so you turn back the way you came and suddenly Shadow Link is waiting on the island. It's a simple experience, but distinctly affecting, and one of the most memorable parts of that game. Obviously it's just a tiny moment in one room, but it works as a microcosm of Ocarina of Time's design philosophy as a whole:

Make the player think they have agency.

Nothing to see here...

Nothing to see here...

The best linear design is all about illusion- tricking the player into assuming they have choices over how events transpire. In the locked room, Link can go anywhere, but reaching the other door will trigger the encounter. So the developers put the island in the middle of the room, giving the player an extra stop on their journey, a point of interest that delays the inevitable. You have a choice of stopping at the island, but you have to go to the locked door, no choices there. Of course, you don't really choose to go to the island either, since it was put there specifically so you'd notice it and go there first. It's a magic trick of game design, perfect direction that wouldn't be possible in a nonlinear experience. Ocarina of Time does it the whole way through. Hyrule Field opens up to four or five areas, but you can only get so far into each before having to turn around due to missing equipment. You can choose to hit up the Zora river before Death Mountain, you just won't get very far. In the end, Death Mountain has to come first.

It's a great way to tell a story, and a great way to prey on player expectations and surprise them. Of course, open world mechanics do worm themselves in everywhere, because more choice is actually a pretty good selling point. If games really are power fantasies, then choice is what makes us feel powerful. The more choices, the more power, and the more those choices affect the world  the better they become.

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Of course, when you get to a situation like Telltale's The Walking Dead games, which feature choices with real consequences to them, most of the power is stripped away. Power doesn't react well to real consequences, it just wants immediate gratification. If I choose to ramp this car over a bridge, I want to see a sweet jump and maybe an explosion at the end, not get a ticket and file paperwork for the damages I caused.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Which is why everything is open world now. Power fantasies are not only in right now, they've defined games for a very long time. It may suck for some, but it is true. All those big, AAA open world titles I mentioned up top are all power fantasies. The bigger a world is, the more thinly spread it is as well. Choices don't really have consequences in an open world because they can't. The whole world can't shift so easily, that would require a massive amount of assets that most developers just don't have. It's why Mass Effect's and Infamous's moral choice choice systems are all smoke, mirrors and fluff, and why Telltale's the Walking Dead is such a small, linear experience. An open world is better suited to power fantasy, because it inspires choice without consequence, while a linear experience is better used when trying to tell a cohesive story.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

It's why linear shouldn't be a bad word either. Linearity lets you focus on mechanics and refine them to perfection, lets you get players caught up in a focused narrative, lets you construct a difficulty curve that makes sense. Opening up the world and letting the player mess around as they choose throws those things out of balance. Which isn't to say open worlds are bad. They aren't just mindless power fantasies, they can only be huge worlds to explore, or have rich histories to discover, like Skyrim, Shadow of the Colossus, or Wind Waker.

So, no, linearity isn't a bad word. Neither is open world. Instead of thinking of them as positive and negative concepts, maybe we should start thinking of the two like we do writing perspectives. A novel can be written in first person or third person, with an omniscient narrator, or an unreliable one. They're different tools, with different uses, and each one is best suited to a different kind of job.

Except for the free to play tool, that tool broke years ago, no way we're going to fix it now.

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....


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Why do Romantic Options Suck?

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Why do Romantic Options Suck?

Commander Citrine Shepard of the SSV Normandy didn’t have time for romance. To her, the characters who wanted to jump her bones were boring, flat, and occasionally psychotic. Thane was clearly on a suicidal rebound after the death of his wife, Jacob may as well have been a computer terminal that hung out in the weapons lab, and Garrus was just a friend. Not to mention Samara was the virgin mary and the commander would feel like a predator by responding to Yeoman Chambers’ repeated requests for a consequence-free night. Either way, this was a suicide mission goddamnit. No time for fun or games or trying to figure out how you would even get Garrus’s armor off in the first place.

I will take ANY excuse to use this image. Any excuse.

I will take ANY excuse to use this image. Any excuse.

I mean, isn’t that thing like fused to his body at this point? Have you ever seen him wear a t-shirt?

In real life though, Commander Shepard didn’t romance anyone because the player (me) wasn’t interested in the handful of options presented. Personally, Tali seemed like a fun character to interact with, and I like her rapport with my Shepard. It seemed a shame she couldn’t be romanced by a Shepard of either gender. So, I rolled a male Shepard on another run just to see what happened.

I was just as bored with her romance as I was with everyone else’s.

Quarian containment suits also function as convenient censors in case of unexpected intimate situations.

Quarian containment suits also function as convenient censors in case of unexpected intimate situations.

Bioware games are often hailed as some of the best written games of all time, with fantastic characters and, of course, romantic options. Unfortunately, those romantic options fall flat more often than not. Just be nice to a character, and eventually they’ll want to jump your bones. Then, you’re treated to a sexless sex scene and go on with your game, only ever thinking about it when the character mentions your night together in passing.

The problem is that there isn’t a lot of space in Mass Effect, or even any Bioware game, to develop a relationship past the surface level one presented to you. Tali might grow as a character after you complete her loyalty missions and see how she acts in dire situations, but your relationship with her never goes beyond a commander-subordinate or friend-friend, unless you flip the magic switch that makes her super physically attracted to you.

These kids belong together, mostly because they can never ever leave their crazy space armor,

These kids belong together, mostly because they can never ever leave their crazy space armor,

Dating sims excel at growing a believable relationship between you and another character because that’s all they do. You only get to have actual conversations with your partner characters in Mass Effect between missions, the meat of the game. Essentially, it’s a matter of where the gameplay focus is. If the gameplay focus is romance, you need to make it work. If it’s shooting aliens with fireballs, romance is probably a secondary concern.

That’s not to say what Bioware does isn’t admirable. Their characters are spectacular, and it’s easy to see why people want to fall in love with any of them. Garrus is charmingly awkward, Tali is sweet and kind, Jacob is...uh...well, you get the gist. There’s the secondary problem of the odd selection of characters you’re given to romance. There are always complaints that certain characters’ romances are exclusive to one gender, or that some characters aren’t romanceable at all.

In fact, Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider addressed this in a blog post recently. He mentioned that people are always disappointed, either in the romances themselves or the selection of available romances. He says he’s been accused of having an agenda by fans angry that their character didn’t get picked. And he answers the burning question that’s been scorching my tongue since the Tali romance annoyed me so much, why not drop them entirely?

To be fair, Dragon Age gets a little more risque than Mass Effect does, but that's probably because Alistair doesn't wear a 10-ton suit that's keeping him alive.

To be fair, Dragon Age gets a little more risque than Mass Effect does, but that's probably because Alistair doesn't wear a 10-ton suit that's keeping him alive.

Gaider says that Bioware’s strength is in their character writing. That romances are a Bioware signature, something unique that they do that almost every other major game developer can’t even get started on, let alone get right. Gaider asks what they could replace romances with? Whatever it is, he says, had better be “damned good.”

And I’m inclined to agree with Gaider, if only because other romantic “options” fall flat on their faces. Maybe Bioware doesn’t nail the romantic part of the equation, or even the choice part super well, but they do make characters you want to fall in love with. I’ve never seen another game with characters that even get close to approaching that.

"It's only natural that I fall in love...because you are the protagonist and you talked to me like 30 times."

"It's only natural that I fall in love...because you are the protagonist and you talked to me like 30 times."

The Persona games feature various romantic options as “social links”, relationships you can build to give you a boost in battle. The problem is, there’s really no choice to them. Sure, you can pick better options that’ll please your chosen paramour, but at the end of the day, as long as you talk to them enough, they’ll go out with you. Persona 4 doesn’t even penalize you for cheating on your girlfriends. You could be dating the entire town, and no one even bats an eye. And trust me, they all know, it’s a tiny town.

Hubba's a creepy old man, but at least he's open minded.

Hubba's a creepy old man, but at least he's open minded.

Fire Emblem: Awakening’s shipping mechanic, in which you pair off characters to increase their stats and create new units from their children is less about romance and more about playing matchmaker god. Pick who goes with who, and as long as they’re compatible, they’ll pop out a kid for your army. No choices, no mess, no fuss. It’s like chess, but you can pick the pieces up and make them kiss until a new piece magically appears.

Even games that feature romantic interests for their protagonists without the illusions of choice tend to be lame. Uncharted’s Elena exists mostly to shrug and look annoyed whenever protagonist Nathan Drake quips after slaughtering a village of mercenaries. Most of the time, we don’t even get to to know the love interests. Shadow of the Colossus starts with the death of Mono, Wander’s beloved, and we have to help rescue her. Dishonored begins with the murder of the empress, and then eventually gets around to telling the player that oh yeah, turns out she and Corvo were totally getting it on in the bedroom and you should probably take this whole thing more personally.

To be fair, Mono never said NOT to make a deal with the devil for her life. She never really said anything, actually...

To be fair, Mono never said NOT to make a deal with the devil for her life. She never really said anything, actually...

That’s mostly a quirk of writing though. Revenge is an easy motivation for the slaughter of thousands,  and games tend to have less than stellar writing, simply because they need to put their priorities into making something that plays well. Obviously, there are plenty of games that buck the trend, but when you combine stilted writing and the illusion of romantic choice, you’re just asking for disaster.

Go on! Bake her a cake!

Go on! Bake her a cake!

Very few games nail both sides of that equation Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story is a visual novel with dating sim elements, and has two spectacularly well-written paths for its romanceable characters. Of course, they’re the only two characters in the game, and since it’s a visual novel, it lives and dies by its writing. Unfortunately though, it’s not the standard. Most of the time we have games like Persona, with great writing, but sort of lackluster “romance” elements, or Fire Emblem, with an interesting romance system, but a lack of real options.

CHROM: LIVE AND UNCENSORED.

CHROM: LIVE AND UNCENSORED.

Seriously, the fact that Fire Emblem: Awakening doesn’t let you ship the male cast with each other is a crying shame, especially considering the way some of them act around each other.

But, romantic options are here to stay, simply because they’re popular, and for good reason. We like having choices, we like to customize our experience. Also, some consumers really like the idea that they’ll get a PG 13 sex scene at some point during the game. But, they might just keep feeling half-hearted, at least for a little bit.

Big-budget, AAA titles don’t prioritize fantastic writing, because it’s not something they think their core audience cares about. Similarly, they tend to avoid having same-sex relationships in games because they want to remain “uncontroversial”. Due to budget and time concerns, It’s harder for smaller indie games, which often have the space to prioritize good writing, to have significant romantic options if that isn’t the whole point of their game, like in Analogue. Like it or not Bioware really is the only studio with a big budget behind them who tries to have significant romantic options at all in a game that isn’t about romance. Maybe Intelligent Systems will try harder with their next Fire Emblem though. Hopefully they learn from their mistakes, because man, I ship Chrom and Frederick so hard.

They're adorable!

They're adorable!

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

Games can’t have sex in them. Sure, Mass Effect can insinuate sex and cut to black, and God of War can feature a topless lady or two, but when it comes to a realistic, mature depiction of sex, major publishers and the ESRB get skittish.

Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Full frontal, uncensored nudity will get you slapped with an AO rating. Adults only, 17 and up, the video game equivalent of movie’s NC17. It’s been described as the kiss of death for any game that gets it, since none of the console manufacturers let AO games on their machines, and many brick and mortar stores refuse to stock them as well. Games that get the dreaded AO are often resubmitted with edits and censors to bring them down to an R, just because they’d never sell otherwise. The only console games rated AO are Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was re-rated after the hot coffee scandal, and re-re-rated after a patch, and Thrill Kill, which was never released. Everything else is sleazy PC games like Riana Rouge, and Wet: The Sexy Empire.

An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

So PC is where sexy games thrive, not just in North America, but all over the world. While North Americans got Sierra’s Soft Porn Adventure in 1981, Japan was hot on our tail just a year later, with Koei’s Night Life, a PC-8801 game that birthed the eroge (EROtic + GamE) genre. Interestingly, Night Life wasn’t meant for single dudes; it was marketed towards couples, with a catalog of sex positions to try out and a schedule for tracking a woman’s period. It might seem weird that Koei was at the fore of the sex game industry, but other Japanese publishers jumped on that boat immediately. Square, Enix and Nihon Falcom all published early eroge in the 80s. In 1986, a company called Macadamia Soft released 177, a game named after the Japanese legal code for rape, wherein the layer character did some pretty horrible things. The controversy made it all the way to the Japanese diet, and cooled eroge publishing for a time, until developers banded together to put 18+ stickers on all their games, a practice that still exists in Japan to this day.

Not to be beat, American developer Mystique upped the ante, releasing the infamous Atari 2600 “porn games” Bachelor Party, Custer’s Revenge, and Beat ‘Em and ‘Eat Em in 1982. All three are renowned for being generally awful, amazingly offensive, and for being punchlines that come up whenever sex and games are mentioned in the same breath. Mystique vanished in 1983, another victim of the video game market crash, and was replaced by Playaround, who went on to release a handful of adult-themed games, though impressively, each of Playaround’s games had two modes, one intended for men, and the other for women. Of course, they were aimed towards straight men and women, but still, a fairly forward thinking move from a company who almost released a role-reversed version of Custer’s Revenge.

If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

After that, Japan started delving deeper into new erotic genres. ASCII made Chaos Angels, an erotic RPG, in the 90s, Kaneko modified Qix, Taito’s tile-revealing puzzle game and put pictures of women in various states of undress under the tiles, making Gals Panic. Japanese developers were, and are, fantastic with names. Meanwhile, America was seeing tamer games like Leisure Suit Larry in 1987, which featured no nudity, but strong sexual themes. It was definitely made for adults, with lots of sexual references and dirty jokes, but it rarely gets any more mature than, say, Family Guy. Even so, retailers refused to stock Leisure Suit Larry, Sierra employees threatened to quit over the game, and Sierra received massive amounts of hate mail.

Dating sims and erotic visual novels dominate Japanese PC games in a way we don’t see here. Sex is just a fact of games there, while in North America, even Leisure Suit Larry’s tame, 14A approach to sexuality was cause for uproar. Of course, eroge have their own set of issues, like the growing number of underage, or loli, characters being featured, which has been cracked down on by the Japanese Diet, but that seems like a fairly reasonable thing for the media to get up in arms about. Either way, both in the East and West, sex and games mostly meet on PC.

Once CD-ROM games picked up, and the multimedia craze of the late 90s got into swing, full motion video became a natural fit for western erotic games. Black Dragon’s Riana Rouge, one of the few AO-rated games, featured a Playboy Playmate in the starring role, with stunning, 1996-quality video encoding to make sure you couldn’t see very much of the uncensored material anyway.

Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

These days however, porn games in the west tend to fly under the radar They’re low budget productions that rarely find wide distribution or popularity. Bonetown, a 2008, download-only PC game from before being a download-only PC game was cool, is known almost exclusively as a punchline, just like Mystique’s games. But that’s pretty much where erotic games end in the West. Bioware continues to put romance options and sexless sex scenes in their games, and modders will never cease striping the clothes off of any character who happens to be in a PC game, and that’s about it. There’s also Second Life, which, pretty much caters to any kind of sexual desire or fetish you can think of. However, all of the sex and sexual associations we attribute to Second Life are exclusively fan contributions. People use Second Life as a way to live out certain sexual fantasies at times, and, as far as I can tell, it seems to be doing a much better job of it than any other game on the market, even if it wasn’t explicitly intended for that purpose.

Japan continues to have erotic games, mostly in the visual novel genre at this point though. Mirroring the trend of recent adult-themed interactive fiction games, those developers seem to have found that it’s easier to create the illusion of a sexual encounter with drawings rather than 3D models, and words rather than janky penis controls. Sex simulators are mostly the realm of games like the controversial RapeLay, which, for all of its truly disgusting aspects, also happens to be a pretty terrible game, and a worse sex simulation. But first and foremost, it is disgusting.

Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Otherwise, the highest profile sex game in recent memory was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s hot Coffee scene, a sex minigame left in the debug menu that was unlocked by a hacker fan. Of course, after being discovered, Rockstar ruched to correct the issue while being assaulted by a media frenzy about how games were corrupting the innocent children with weird, janky, polygonal sex. After that, it’s mostly indie developers, as well as authors who contribute to the growing pool of adult interactive fiction. As the industry matures, fewer people seem to want to throw their hats into the sexy ring.

People want sex, sure. Sex will always sell, but publishers don’t let it. When it comes to video games, it’s probably more accurate to say that the promise of sex sells, because real sex isn’t something the ESRB, Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo want to let you get involved in. Meanwhile, indie developers are working in smaller confines, often in less popular genres, where it would be more difficult to accurately simulate sex in any realistic way. Plus, plenty of people don’t want to be seen as making porn, which is pretty reasonable.

177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

Of course, sexual themes still work their way into western games. As mentioned multiple times, Bioware insists that all their games have romantic options that culminate in sex scenes, indie developer Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus games include a sex scene or two among the many logs you read, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a AAA game that didn’t make a dick joke somewhere in it. The promise of sex sells, and it will continue to, because if anyone ever promises more, Fox News will bear down on them like a sack of hammers, just like the did to Rockstar.

Is it a good thing? Well, even in Japan, where sex in games goes unchecked, we get games like RapeLay and 177. In the west, we get exploitative titles like Bonetown and Rianna Rouge. Sex is a great thing, but when it comes to industrializing it, it seems impossible to avoid the sleaze. So next time you see a sex scene in a game, appreciate all the risks it took to get it in there, and also pray that Oculus Rift VR sex games don’t take off anytime soon. You know, just to be safe.


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The Primer- Some Lovely Games

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The Primer- Some Lovely Games

This month’s primer is about love. Falling in love, romantic love, platonic love, sexy love, and everything in between. So, games about love, basically, in some way or another. Some fail at presenting their view on love, some succeed, but all of them make love a central focus of at least a part of the game. But hey, let’s stop talking and fall in love with some games, shall we?

Chulip:

Yeah, that tree has a mustache, what of it?

Yeah, that tree has a mustache, what of it?

Chulip is a video game about consent. It’s also a video game about kissing enough people in order to gain the strength to survive a lightning bolt to the face.

Chulip is weird.

You play as a boy, who, after being rejected by the girl of his dreams, decides he has to kiss everyone in town to “strengthen his heart.” You do this by watching the daily lives of the people in town, who operate on a real-time schedule, and helping them out with their day to day lives. Once you make them happy, you can give them a kiss. If they aren’t happy, your kiss will be creepy-weird, and cause them to hit you.

Unfortunately, Chulip suffers from frustrating trial-and-error gameplay and a lack of direction. Infamously, one mission ends with your character getting struck by lightning, instantly killing you if you don’t have enough health. But the quality of the game itself aside, Chulip is fascinating as one of the few games that’s about having a positive relationship with the game world, rather than a destructive one. Hurting anyone emotionally deters or even ends your progress. Being a creep by playing on the swings at night will get you shot by cops. Kissing people who don’t want it will quickly lead to a game over. In order to progress, you need to build a positive, even loving relationship between you and the world.

But you should probably kiss someone in real life instead of playing Chulip.

 

Mass Effect 2:

You just can't find loyalty like this anymore.

You just can't find loyalty like this anymore.

Mass Effect broaches the subject of love in a few ways. There’s the obvious relationship options the game presents you with, characters your Commander Shepard can romance and bed during the adventure, each with a more embarrassing sex scene than the last. But the romantic love options will be explored in a later game on this very list, because Mass Effect 2 explores platonic love about a thousand times more effectively.

Unfortunately, not a real romance option. We can dream though.

Unfortunately, not a real romance option. We can dream though.

Essentially, Mass Effect 2 is a 20-hour long trust exercise, where success is measured by the strength of your relationships with your party. The final mission opens up fairly early on in the game. It’s easy to skip recruiting about half of your party, and go straight to the final boss after five or six hours of playtime. But your party will be slaughtered. Not because you aren’t a high enough level, but because your teammates don’t trust you.

Shepard, seen here in her Galaxy-famous Rom: SpaceKnight cosplay.

Shepard, seen here in her Galaxy-famous Rom: SpaceKnight cosplay.

Every party member you recruit can offer you a “loyalty mission”, in which you help them through some personal problem that might be distracting them while on the job to save the universe. You’re encouraged to build stronger bonds with your favourite party members so they don’t die in the final mission. And those deaths are permanent. Anyone who didn’t trust you enough is dead forever, including in Mass Effect 3. Additionally, you have to assign jobs to certain characters, and through getting to know them better, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about who should be doing what. One wrong decision leads to a dead teammate, and no one wants that. Mass Effect 2 rewards forming relationships with these fictional characters. You’re supposed to get to know them, talk to them between missions, and help them with their personal issues, and for making friends and finding love, the game rewards you with a better ending.

Platonic love keeps you alive in space. As for romantic love...


Saint’s Row IV:

This has nothing to do with romance, it's just the greatest video game screenshot of all time

This has nothing to do with romance, it's just the greatest video game screenshot of all time

Saint’s Row is famous for being Grand Theft Auto’s wacky cousin. You know the one. They’re successful at what they do, but the older, more serious members of the family don’t really want to pay attention to them, lest it encourage them to act even wilder.But, unlike Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row doesn’t particularly want to be the grim, gritty reflection of society at its worst, it wants to have fun, and that means taking things a little less seriously.

The boss takes many faces, like an Ogre..

The boss takes many faces, like an Ogre..

Saint’s Row IV features a pretty extensive Mass Effect parody, down to the silver and blue spaceship that you can run around between missions. Of course, the ship is filled with your party members, and every single one can be romanced, regardless of sex, gender, orientation or humanity. It’s a goofy take on Mass Effect’s often derided romance options, which Saint’s Row reduces to a single button you press to ask the other character for some good space loving.

Where Mass Effect nails platonic relationships with a cast of characters most players end up wanting to hang out with, Saint’s Row points out that many players were just going through the romantic relationships for the ending sex scenes. But it also shines a light on a few things in its irreverence. For example, Mass Effect does essentially boil down any relationship more complicated than friendship down to a binary button prompt, rather than something more elaborate. Dating sims can afford to have a long drawn out courtship phase, Mass Effect really can’t.

...or a cold, emotionless woman with a bad nosebleed.

...or a cold, emotionless woman with a bad nosebleed.

Also, that Mass Effect severely limits the characters you Shepard can romance, and separates them by gender. In Mass Effect 3, A male Shepard can only romance certain female characters and one male, while a female Shepard can romance a handful of males and two female characters. In Mass Effect 2, there aren’t even any serious same-sex relationships at all. Shepard is meant to, at least partially, be an extension of yourself, and limiting your sexuality that way is pretty frustrating. Why can a female Shepard sleep with Liara but not Tali? Why can’t a male Shepard take his relationship with Garrus to the next level? Sure, certain characters may have predefined orientations, but does that mean aliens share our notions of sexuality? Can’t you at least make a move on them?

In a strange way, Saint’s Row IV is the single most progressive mainstream game when it comes to relationships. Your character can be male or female, sure, but also anything else you choose. They can be gay, straight, queer, into open relationships, pansexual, robosexual, whatever you choose. It’s a little bit sad that it took making fun of another game’s lack of progressiveness to get to the point where these this kind of inclusiveness is in a mainstream game, but at least we’re here at all.


Bioshock Infinite:

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Sort of like how Mass Effect tries to make an entire game about building multiple relationships, parts of Bioshock Infinite definitely want to make you fall in love with Elizabeth, your near-constant companion and combat partner.

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Not only is Elizabeth constantly around you, she’s the focus of the story, and moonlights as an on-again, off-again damsel in distress. She can interact with the world in ways you can’t, like looking through windows and sitting on benches, making her feel more real, and her animations are significantly more detailed than anything else in the game. She revives you when you die, throws out ammo when you’re running low, by all accounts, she should be a characters players grow to like by the end of the game.

The problem is that she, like most things about Bioshock Infinite, is window dressing. She’s a spawn point for ammo and health packs, and her “deeper levels of interaction” amount to sitting on benches every once in a while. It’s a cute touch, but never once does the layer actually do anything to change their relationship without the story demanding it. Where the original Bioshock is a game about player agency, Infinite tries to show what happens when you take it away. Unfortunately for it, a game centered around any relationship that removes agency sort of nullifies the whole point of a relationship.

It's up to you! Not that it really matters

It's up to you! Not that it really matters

Infinite eventually comes around to revealing the nature of your character’s relationship with Elizabeth, but at that point it doesn’t matter. Your personal history with her as a player is entirely passive, the only choice you ever make with her is what kind of brooch should go on her necklace, which amounts to a big load of nothing. Whether or not removing player agency was part of the point of Infinite is up for debate, but your relationship with Elizabeth is meant to be the core of the game, and it’s pretty hard to fall in love when you don’t have a choice.


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Turn on, Tune In, Drop out (of Videogames): The Pandora's Box of Fan Interaction

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Turn on, Tune In, Drop out (of Videogames): The Pandora's Box of Fan Interaction

After a long, drawn-out twitter feud last week, Phil Fish cancelled his upcoming game, Fez 2, quit videogames, and for a few days there, quit the internet.

You might know the story by now. Phil Fish, game designer, creator of the “worst map ever” award winning game, Fez, and subject of the documentary Indie Game the Movie, is prone to emotional outbursts. If you haven’t heard of him from the projects he’s been involved in, you might remember the time he said that all Japanese games suck while on stage at last years Game Developers Conference. Or maybe you know him from his frequent twitter battles with games analyst Kevin Dent. Or maybe that time he publicly stated he couldn’t update his own game after releasing a broken patch due to Microsoft’s draconian patching policies.

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And more recently, Marcus Beer, who rants as the accused Fish and Braid creator Jonathan Blow of using the press as a means to an end. He specifically cited the fact that neither gave comments on Microsoft’s self publishing policy for indie games until after the fact. This led Beer to call the two “self-styled kings of indie games” and accused the pair of only giving quotes to the press when it suited their needs.

Fish took Beer to task on twitter, fans of the two, as well as casual observers and the legion of people don’t necessarily like Beer, but definitely don’t like Fish got involved, and the rest is history.

Basically, there hasn’t been a moment in the last couple of years where Fish wasn’t in the public eye, made even more apparent by his active twitter presence. Going back through his replies and looking at forum posts about him around the internet, it’s pretty clear that a significant number of people took it upon themselves to constantly put Fish down. Heck, according to him, the reason he’s getting out of videogames isn’t because of his most recent argument, but the constant abuse he faces on the internet, day in and day out.

 

The thing is, I find it hard to blame him for this. It’s hard to make things for an audience that seems to only be out for your blood, especially something as personal and draining as a videogame. I think he could have handled it more elegantly and not quit videogames entirely, but at the end of the day it’s hard to argue with the kind of abuse he put up with.

We live in an era of facebook, twitter and e-mail, where the person who created your favourite game, song, movie or book is just a few keystrokes away. But for most people, we live in an era where the person who made something you don’t like is so much closer. It’s hard to be genuine and express your gratitude for something you like. It’s easier to find someone you don’t and by a jerk to them. Abuse is easy to give, but it’s hard to filter through for the person getting it.

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Sure, Fish has a reputation for making emotionally charged, off the cuff remarks, and he probably knows that. Yes, he could have put two and two together and realized that being constantly active on twitter and engaging with his trolls would eventually lead to a situation like this, but these days, it’s becoming impossible not to be a public persona.

Look at Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai. There aren’t a lot of public Japanese developers, at least not public from a Western perspective, but Sakurai has an active twitter presence, he writes a monthly column on game design in Famitsu magazine, and when developing a Smash Bros. game, makes daily updates to fans on his progress.

Nowadays, he posts pictures to the Smash Bros. community on miiverse, Nintendo’s Wii U social network. The most interesting comments are preserved by a blog called Please Sakurai, where the blog’s manager spotlights the posts made by people specifically trying to contact Sakurai.

 

Wherein Megaman is Sakurai, and DK is the fans.

Wherein Megaman is Sakurai, and DK is the fans.

As far as I know, Sakurai doesn’t speak English, but the people trying to reply to him, at least on the North American miiverse, don’t really know that. They request (mostly outlandish) characters, new info, and occasionally, get very angry and try to insult Sakurai personally for his design choices. 

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These aren’t the only mean-spirited comments on the blog, but they’re probably some of the most mean spirited. The blog doesn’t really highlight any posts that are people having rational, logical problems with the game, but knowing how the internet works, I have to imagine they’re very, very rare in the first place.

There are plenty of positive comments too, but always tied to requests. I know Sakurai can’t read these, so I’m left to imagine what would happen if he could. First of all he wouldn’t be able to do anything, because I’m pretty sure the character roster and choices about cutscenes were finalized a long time ago. But I wonder if he’d be disheartened by the negative comments. Maybe not enough to change anything, definitely not enough to make him quit, but enough to make him wonder why there are people who are dedicating their time and internet presence to attacking him.

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Not so say that communication between audience and creators is a bad thing. Look at what happened to Mass Effect. Fans got together and expressed their displeasure with the game, then found rational arguments, and presented a unified front. The organized campaign wasn’t one of personal attacks or internet bile, but of a reasoned argument made by people who loved Mass Effect, and wanted to see it end in a more satisfying way.

Whether they were right to do it, or if the ending actually sucked, or if their motivations were pure doesn’t matter. What does is that they created positive change in a game they loved by speaking with the creators. And they did it without resorting to being anonymous jerks on the internet, at least for the most part.

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The internet’s obsession with social media and reducing anonymity has opened this channel for people to communicate with creators. The audience and the artist are no longer separated by each other by security guards, PR handlers, critics, and the work they’re associated with. The two can now speak, one on one.

I think it does more good than bad. I think a lot of people have thick enough skin that an anonymous internet troll won’t affect them as much, and are more capable of focusing on the people who stay positive. I also think we might see more instances of fans banding together and creative negative change. Right now, focus grouping and the unbelievable success of Call of Duty has “told” publishers that first person shooters will always sell, and a game needs multiplayer to be viable. That’s completely different from this, but it’s not hard to imagine that publishers and market researchers will turn to the internet next, and look to the masses of uniformed fans who don’t necessarily know what they want out of a game until they get it.

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But, I also think that having this channel opened between artists and creators makes both more informed. Fans get to learn more about how the sausage is made, and developers find out more about what they people who play their games want. They can choose to listen or not, and then hope that when they don’t, the internet abuse will be worth it because they’ll know they’re right.

It’s become impossible not to be on some social network or another for people under 30, and as time keeps passing, less and less of people responsible for making the media we consume will be able to be private people. The internet has offered these people Pandora’s box. Do they want to hear exactly what fans want from them? Do they want to know what’s popular? Do they want to hear the personal stories of the people who were touched by the thing they made? All they have to do is open the box. But with that comes the abuse, the trolls, and the people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

For now, the choice is theirs. The box isn’t open for everyone just yet. But give it a few years, and there won’t be a single person left without a presence on the internet. After all, everyone always opens the box; we all just want to know what’s inside.

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