lørdag den 19. maj 2012

Feminists and vidya

We are fighters, us humans. I'm not referring to war, although we are certainly good at that too. I'm referring to fighting society, fighting injustice, knuckling down and getting dirty to build a better tomorrow. We fought for religions, for philosophy, for science. For peace. We fought for issues of law, class, of sexuality, of gender. We fought for music, for movies. We fight for video games, from time to time.

We've come a long way, though, and there's less and less things actually in need of fighting for. 

Problem is, not everyone gets that. One example is Anita Sarkeesian, a "feminist pop culture critic". On her blog, Anita discusses the depiction of women in various contemporary media, and she is now planning to do a series of videos on video games. The Kickstarter for the project went up yesterday, and reached its goal of 9000 dollars within 24 hours. Impressive stuff.

Now, Anita is hardly the first, nor will she be the last, self proclaimed feminist who wants to inform the world about the "sexist" and "misogynist" portrayal of women in video games. A simple search on youtube will get you hours upon hours of girls(and guys) on their proverbial soapboxes, decrying the derogatory depiction of the fairer sex in manpig video games. But she asked for money, and also seem to have the equipment and attention to make some very well produced stuff, so it deserves a little special attention. And then there's the fact that she is supposedly somewhat famous in what she does. I don't know, I don't follow feminist views for obvious penile reasons, but the resume she posts on Kickstarter looks impressive. Let's dig in.

First of all, and this is pretty obvious, the creator is extremely biased. In her presentation video, Anita promises us to do her research, and while that is all well and good, any notion of a proper analysis is lost on the outset. It's not really that she identifies herself as a feminist, although that doesn't help her credibility. It's her basic premise. See, Anita wants to talk about the sexist depiction of women in video games, the implication being that video games do indeed have a sexist depiction of women. She doesn't question this. The show is going to assume that video games are sexist, and then use that as the basis for the series. That doesn't really sound fair. Now, had she set out to make a series that would research WHETHER video games were sexist, that would be completely different. She could still make the conclusion that yes, video games are sexist, but at least there would be room for the opposite conclusion. There would be a problem to debate, an actual reason to watch the show.

Because, and that is the second thing that grinds my gears about this, what reason would a person have for watching the show? The conclusion has already been drawn, video games are sexist, and then she is gonna spend 4 episodes making a list of games and characters that affirm that conclusion? Who is the audience? People who do not agree with the conclusion should have no interest in watching, because to them, her basic premise is flawed. People who do agree will find nothing of intellectual value, but just an affirmation of their beliefs. She will be preaching to the choir. 

And that sermon costs 9000 dollars apparently. I have no idea what such a production costs, but I can't really fault the figure. She does promise to do her research and, to her credit, she seems to be under no illusions as to the fact that that is a massive undertaking. There are millions of games in a great number of genres, and to get a representative look at the medium, she would have to play quite a lot of them. And complete them. Which is at least 8 hours per game. It is a very ambitious project, and if she is going to put in the work she promises, I tip my hat to her. But who is paying that 9000 dollars? It's not people who want to discuss the subject matter, because as I stated above, there is no actual room for discussion. Her target audience most likely already agrees with her. So I think it's a fair guess to say that most, if not all backers, are people who also identify themselves as feminists. So it's a video by a feminist, about feminism, for feminists. 9000 dollars well spent.

The thing that annoys me about feminism, is shit like this. Look, women are our equals, and society should reflect that. If you are a woman, there are plenty worthwhile things to fight for, because even though we have come a pretty long way, man and woman are still not equal in all areas of life. But instead of taking that 9000 and campaigning for abortion rights, donating to womens shelters or any other issue that actually matters, this feminist and her backers decided that what they needed was affirmation. A series of extremely biased videos that very unsurprisingly tells them how right they are. What does that accomplish? People who do not identify themselves as feminist will either a) not care, or b) feel negative about it, thus getting a negative view on feminism. 

The series has one saving grace. Anita promises us to also showcase "interesting and innovative games that manages to avoid this harmful trope". So she hasn't completely shut the door on vidya, and does seem to allow for the possibility that there may be a minority of games that does not pander to us sexist manpigs. While it is great to hear that she at least entertains the notion that not all video games are sexist, it can hardly be called fair either, as she still assumes it to be a minority and something to be regarded as "special". 

The thing is, it's not a minority. It's a majority. I actually find it very hard to think of a video game that is downright sexist in its portrayal of women. Some might skirt closer to the line than others, but when I think back on my own gaming history, I can't really recall any that could be called sexist if one had actually played and understood it and its characters. And the few who ARE outright sexist are usually satirical and tongue in cheek. 

There is a couple of very obvious examples right there in her own presentation video. Take a look at this graphic she made.

Let's talk about two of them.

This girl, right here. Lara Croft, original video game sex symbol. Obviously sexist, because when Eidos decided to go for a female heroine, most of the polygons were promptly placed on her chest. Sure, I can see how a feminist might have a few objections with the need to put a huge rack on a character(note that Anita doesn't actually say what her particular critique is). 
Large bossomed or not, however, Lara Croft is one hell of a woman. Peak physical condition, expert with firearms, and capable of acrobatics that professional gymnasts can only dream of. But wait, Lara is not just the perfect action package, she is also highly intelligent and educated. Lara is a historian and expert achaeologist. She possesses a vast knowledge of ancient cultures, and have, through research and dangerous adventures, found the location of several lost cities, uncovering relics all over the globe. She is Indiana Jones, but better. And a woman. How is it sexist to portray a woman as strong, independent, intelligent, and capable of succeeding in extreme physical endeavors, something that is normally a "man thing". She is a woman not only doing "a mans job", but doing it better than everyone else. So what if she got large breasts. Some women do. Is it sexist to depict how women may actually look?

Lara is, if anything, and individual, a woman capable of standing on her own two legs. Lara never needs help, Lara takes on any challenge, and succeeds. The only male character is her man servant, for crying out loud. How is Lara depicted in a sexist way?

Well, no one liked Ashley.  Again, I am only guessing as to why Anita thinks she is a prime example of sexist depiction of women in video games. Ashley spends the entire game being a scared, defenseless girl who has to be rescued by strong, capable Leon. But is that sexist? Ashley is a young college student, barely a woman, and she has been kidnapped. That alone would reduce most people, women AND men, to helpless people in need of rescue. If a cult of Spanish madmen whisked me away and threatened me with farming equipment, I would be scared shitless. Add to that the heads of these particular Spaniards frequently EXPLODE, replaced with long, barbed tentacles. She is not helpless because she is a woman. She is helpless because she is an ordinary human being. Hell, all things considered, she holds it pretty well together, far beyond what could realistically be expected of her. 

In fact, it could be said that in the entire Resident Evil series at that point, Ashley is the only helpless female in need of male protection. Chris Redfield shared the spotlight with elite policewoman Jill Valentine, and Leon Kennedy with Clare Redfield, while Jill Valentine took the entire 3rd installment for herself. Clare was an extremely capable woman, who only needed Leon's help as much as he needed hers. She doesn't spend the game following Leon, she actively splits up with him because she can handle herself. Jill is against impossible odds with Nemesis, a huge, distinctly "male" bio weapon with the one singular goal of killing her. Even though he is physically superior, Jill still manages to kick his ass, what, 4 times? And that's only counting the required boss fights, not the numerous times the player could down him in the streets of Raccoon City. Oh yes, she did need Carlos Olivera to save her at one point in the game, but before that, and afterwards, she is the one leading a bewildered Carlos, not the other way around. 

Shit, Resident Evil 4 itself also had an "empowered" woman. Ada Wong(who also appeared in the 2nd, btw) wasn't only an expert at martial arts and firearms, but also outwits the male protagonist, "winning" over him.

While I haven't played the games of all the characters in her graphic, I feel fairly confident that pretty good arguments can be made for all of them. Cortana may be almost naked, but she is the strongest council of Master Chief, and essentially the voice that directs him. Peach may be in constant need of saving by Mario, but that doesn't mean she isn't a loved and respected ruler, and quite capable of fighting back in some games. Ms Pacman isn't much more than a sprite, one that had to be distinguishable from the very little detailed Pacman. Any critique that can be leveled at these characters would, I predict, be pretty damn superficial, because, ironically, the feminists don't look at the actual person underneath.

Sure, video gaming have their sexist moments. But I don't think we should equate "sexualized" with sexist. Bayonetta, for example, has one hell of a sexualized model, and her game is 100 % camp, and because of this, she has been an easy example for those complaining about sexism in vidya. Skin tight suits resembling leather(actually hair, but that's besides the point), quite well proportioned body, stilettos, constantly sucking suggestively on a lollipop and showing skin whenever she does a special move(not to mention what she does in those moves), and sure, that might seem very sexist. But the very same game has four male characters, three of which are inferior to her(Rodan being the fourth). The Joe Pesci-esque Enzo receives not a single ounce of respect from Bayonetta, and mostly serves as comic relief. Luka, the journalist that wants revenge on her, is a bumbling fool and never taken seriously by her. And Balder... Balder is the strong male father figure, the man who wants to control Bayonetta and force her into submission. Bayonetta beats him into a pulp, and then shoots him in the face. Then he has the nerve to kidnap her and summon God. Yes, God, the man of all men, the Fatherest Father, the big dude in the sky. She suckerpunches him into the sun. How are feminists not liking this character? 
Oh, and she displays concern and affection for a little girl, but still makes it clear she does not wish to be adopted by her, somehow managing to balance loving motherly nature with fierce independence. 

Whenever feminist starts throwing shit at vidya, they never look beneath the surface. Will Anita do this? No idea. I doubt it. She might, and if she does, kudos. I just wish she would have had the open mind from the beginning, that she had offered to do a series looking into whether sexism is rampant in video games, instead of outright assuming it. If anything, women in vidya are diverse. Sure, some of them are sexy, some of them are scantily clad. Some even acts like dumb bimbos. But the opposite is also true: some are plain, some are sensibly clad, some are highly intelligent. Video games are not sexist in their portrayal, they are DIVERSE. Is that a bad thing? Is it sexist if not every single character adheres to some cookie cutter feminist ideal? Isn't that sort of contradictory to feminism? And did someone ever stop and consider whether men perhaps suffer from the exact same cliches? I don't think they will. As I said in the beginning, Anita is neither the first, nor will she be the last. It is a shame really. If you actually care to take a proper look, you will find all kinds of women in video games. Just like in real life.

lørdag den 24. marts 2012

Review: Dark Falls: Lost Souls

Recommended: Maybe

I have quite a soft spot for horror. There's just something about being reduced into a gibbering, shrieking mess, nerves frayed like the nails of a ten year meth addict, too scared to go on, too fascinated not to. Despite having submitted myself to a fair share of scares, I never really hardened along the way, still getting scared shitless at the simplest things. And I love it.

Recent years haven't been kind to the genre. Where the major horror productions in games last gen were titles like Silent Hill 2 and Fatal Frame, this generation has titles such as Dead Space and F.E.A.R. as its genre defining titles. How sad is that, huh? And don't you dare mention the newer Silent Hill titles. I will kill your dog.

Even if the industry's top studios can't seem to get horror right, though, there is hope for fans of fear. Everyone and their mother should know about Amnesia at this point, but there are plenty of other opportunities if you want to shit your pants. Case in point -  Dark Falls: Lost Souls.

Dark Falls: Lost Souls is a first-person point'n'click adventure game by British developer Darkling Room. The third in a series, it returns to the train station of Dowerton, the location also used for the first game in the series(which, incidentally, was the first horror game I ever played). Lost Souls puts you in the role of the Inspector, a detective still troubled by his failure in solving a missing child's case, as he searches the long abandoned station.

Say, this place isn't so bad

This is no place for roaring assault rifles, booming shotguns, or impressibly durable steel pipes. Dowerton train station is a malevolent place, haunted by the dark itself, but the Inspector is defenseless against the supernatural forces nesting in the place. There is no such thing as "combat". The few times the Inspector is faced with a potentially deadly threat, the only way to live is either fleeing or solving a puzzle within a timelimit. The deadly encounters are few, though, but those that are work very well. If you want to spoil yourself of potentially the best moments(if you plan on playing, don't), check out  this clip. It has a german guy doing what germans do best: ruining the atmosphere, but you should be able to see why I was screaming like a little girl.

One thing Lost Souls do very, very well, is atmosphere. The outside of Dowerton Train Station is dead quiet, the only noise penetrating the silence being the Inspector shivering from cold, as foggy breath rises in front of the screen. The outsides are lonely, dark, and you half expect a ghost to be around the next corner. The insides, however, provide no relief. If the outside is cold and inhospitable, the interior is hell. Lost Souls have some pretty gruesome imagery, and I am fairly certain someone on the dev team had a sexual attraction to scissors. Which is some coincidence, since I have a minor phobia of them.

In Dowerton, kitchen drawers are considered passé

The interior is pretty varied, sometimes looking the part of abandoned station, sometimes looking the part of hovel for squatters, and sometimes looking the part of Pinheads summer residence. Whatever particular visual look this or that room is going for, it works incredibly well, and is a huge contributor as to why this game is so damn scary. A lot of the time, you won't see a whole lot, light being pretty sparse in the closed down train station, a simple but important element that so many AAA-horror titles seems to have forgotten. 

If the visuals are the game's high point, the voice acting is it's lowest. Lost Souls being about one man in an abandoned building doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue, but the little it does have is really, really bad. Or, well, unintentionally hilarious. The Inspector sounds like he is constantly in the middle of taking a dump, and having a hard time at it, and his lines are delivered with all the emotion of a wet sock. The rest of the soundscape, however, is beautiful and really helps drive those needles of fear deeper into your poor mind.

No. Fuck you ghost. Alt+F4.

The puzzles are a mixed affair. On one hand, a lot of them will disappoint die-hard adventure fans, on the other they will confuse and bewilder those less adept in the genre. While individual tasks to be solved are quite fun, and not so frustrating that they brake the pace of the game(thus taking the player "out of the horror"), it is easy to get lost in the train station, unable to figure out what the hell the game wants you to do next. One particular puzzle involving lighting a signal light, had me completely stumped, so much that I gave up and closed the game for the day. When I finally found the one clue I was missing, I didn't feel a sense of achievement, just that my time had been wasted. 

The controls are fairly simple, but they get the job done. Clicks on either side of the screen, or top or bottom, redirects the Inspectors field of vision. It can feel static and limiting at times, but it is actually quite helpful when searching for clues. 

I see absolutely no reason why I shouldn't follow this gentleman's advice.

The story is... Well, it starts strong. As the Inspector finds more and more clues, all the while being haunted by the victim, it is hard not to get drawn in. Newspaper clippings, strange text messages, and conversations with ghosts of bygone eras all paint a pretty intriguing picture, filled with mystery, as we learn more of the one case that the Inspector can't seem to let go. A shame then, that the final plot twist can be seen miles away, and you spend the latter half of the game kinda indifferent towards all the not so subtle hints they throw at you. But it's still a neat little story, and the goings on at the abandoned train station are eerie as hell. Not exactly Ernest Hemmingway, but hey, it's not supposed to be.

In the summer months the junkies nest, preparing for the hatching of their young.

Dark Falls: Lost Souls is a great little gem of horror game. The atmosphere will keep you on the edge of your seat, nervously clicking your way through thoroughly disturbing surroundings, with the occasionally very well done jump scare and an array of challenging puzzles. The creators understand that horror is not facing a twelve foot monster with a chainsaw. If you want to scare a person, you go for his brain, not his health bar, and while yelling boo is all good and well, true fear is when you don't have to yell anything at all. This is what horror is about, this is what it means to be scared, and while the game certainly has it's flaws, they seem insignificant next to what the game does well. 

I recommend the game if you like horror, and have the patience that adventure games requires. If that's not your cup of tea, then you should look elsewhere. If you are new to adventure games, then hey, it's far from the hardest game in the genre, although some parts will infuriate you with illogical solutions and lack of direction. I liked it a lot, and you might too.

Dark Fall: Lost Souls is 18,99 € on Steam.