Friday, 8 June 2012

103% Flashback: E3 and Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or 90s Irrelevance?

Originally published in 2012 by Ben Winterton

I was recently involved in a formal debate about the portrayal of women in videogames, and whether this can be seen as progressive or not. The general consensus seemed to be that, whilst the majority of women in video games are seen as either sex symbols or princesses to be rescued, the female characters people care about are neither of those things. For instance, much emphasis was put on characters from the ‘Mass Effect’ universe, as well as the relationship between Chell and GLadOS from ‘Portal’.

This fan theory behind GLaDOS is an unsettling reading into how female characters are received by the community.

Perhaps the biggest point of contention, however, surrounded Lara Croft, and whether her position as the most famous female videogame character can be seen as positive or not.

The argument in favour of her being a positive force is as follows: Lara is a solid action hero, who does not rely on men to save her or do the big shooting for her, but rather is more than capable of playing Indiana Jones herself (the direct reference to a similar male character being somewhat pertinent).

Now, this is all well and good, but I argue that if she is a strong enough character for all this to be true she doesn’t need to be sexualised. Unfortunately, whether justified or not, this is how Lara Croft is seen in the public eye, not least because of a certain pair of films...

Don't say they were OK. Just don't. They weren't.

And until recently, that was who Lara Croft was. A relic lost in the tomb of 90s casual sexism. But now gaming has matured (ok, it has got slightly more mature. Hasn't it? A little bit... please?) and she has become a joke. That was, at least, until the planned reboot came along.

I’d seen screenshots and read about the new ‘Tomb Raider’ angle, but I didn’t really have a strong feeling about it until I saw the E3 trailer. Firstly, she actually looks like a real person. A young woman with slightly amplified but believable proportions. Fantastic.

Furthermore, she seems slightly more real. The fight for survival seems much more intense. Put simply, the trailer Square Enix (Squeenix) released was 3 minutes of Lara getting the crap kicked out of her. It is genuinely brutal, but more importantly defines the game on its own terms. Lara is no longer a wise-cracking superhuman (*cough Nathan Drake cough*) but a real, scared, desperate person.

Hooray! They’ve made Lara Croft relevant! She is going on a quest to save her also-female friend from some dickheads! And here come the men with guns to help her get the...oh wait. Nah, they’ve fucked it up.

Note from 2014: I've since played that game (it wasn't released at the time of this article's publication) and it was a  welcomed notion that Tomb Raider was a decently made title starring a reasonably written female lead who doesn't insult our intelligence or reveal any overtly fetished design behind her appearance or mannerisms. The violence against Lara is inevitable in an action game loaded with hazards, people shooting at her and so forth and only at times did the presentation of this veer into the uncomfortably gratuitous area and is primarily only ever witnesses as a result of failure, and not just for the heck of it.

You won't get the stark stoicism of Samus Aran here, and Lara does have a wee bit of a cry near the beginning of her story arc, which makes sense. It's nice to see an origin story of a videogame superhero that actually makes some modicum of sense from an emotional standpoint and it's not like it takes away from her hero status. Scenes of emotional depletion are presented but Lara's strength comes from her dogged resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity.

The writers aren't afraid to have Lara save and be saved by her fellow crew members and it never feels that she's a damsel when she is saved, rather she is part of a team that includes dudes because why not. Let's not forget that she is the protagonist of this piece and that she drives the events of the story. My largest problem with the plot is that violence against women has been very much used as a shallow plot point to motivate the idea that you're killing a bunch of dudes because they've got some messed up cult ideas about women, which to my mind trivialises the wider issue of VAW by presenting the false idea that it's only on the fringes of our society or among 'the island crazies' that such acts are perpetrated, where this is known not to be the case.

Just having a well rounded female protagonist in a high quality console release is (sadly) activism enough if your studio is trying to tackle gender bias in this industry and the clumsily presented themes on the whole does take some of the shine of the well thought out character work for this new Lara Croft. Maybe the studios just wanted an all male cast of villains so that I'd definitely get the message that their main lead was female. Well I did get it. Cheers Squeenix. Next time you do a Tomb Raider game, I'm hoping you won't undermine your female lead by also pointing out the fact it's odd that she's female. It shouldn't treated as a pleasing novelty, even though it currently is.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

A Moment of Divine Chinspiration - 'Face' the new gaming challenge!

I am part of a regular-ish gaming group consisting of about eight or so people. We love ourselves a bit of a multiplayer contest but after playing any one particular game for a long enough time one of two situations arise. Either one or two of us emerge as some kind of demigod like champion that nobody can reliably defeat which gets old fast for the group. The other alternative is that the game itself has such a low skill ceiling that the margin for victory is so slim that each game feels more like a prize draw than a real fight. I don't know why I'm giving all this reasoning for what I'm about to share because I sure as hell didn't think it through this much when I came up with it. So here it is: Use chins on Analog sticks instead of hands. 

Famous Celebrity Chins #1 - 'Rachel' from How I Met Your Mother
 Well there I said it. But don't knock it til you've tried it and I recommend you start small. I was inspired by the never chosen 'Doctor Says' game in Wario Ware: Minigame Madness in which a crazy Doctor will demand the players add extra stupid conditions to their gameplay as they go along. Since the games in Wario Ware are so short and sweet that it wouldn't be a massive stretch for people to operate the analog stick with their chins being the only part of the body in direct contact with the stick. Please bear in mind that it is completely fine to move the controller with the hands and keep the chin fixed. This is the standard 'Chin Pivot' technique.

A lot better than moving your chin with your hands. 
Oh and if you start playing first person shooters with chins it is infinitely more fun and stupid to insist on making your chin work double shifts on both analog sticks to move and aim. Make it one shot kills for a tense race to 10 or play regularly and enjoy the pathetic scenes of combat that ensue. Also mandatory are chin puns at every turn. Winners must declare themselves 'chinvincibile' and amazing feats of 'chingenuity' must be declared 'chincredible'. Happy chinning!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Watch Dogs and The Last of Us: Why E3 can never live up to the hype

Every year, E3 comes around, and every year there are a handful of games no-one knew anything about that show off a couple of things and everyone gets very excited about. As good as all this is, this kind of anticipation is sort of irrelevant, as it can never really be justified.

Don’t get me wrong; I love E3. The next year of video game journalism is basically structured around it. Indeed, E3 has certainly come a long way since I had to glean snippets of it from video game magazines. Live streaming of developers’ key note speeches is awesome, and gameplay videos appearing all over the internet allow casual observers and those who cannot go the opportunity to have the same level of speculation as professional journalists.

This is, however, what E3 will always be; speculation. Two games that seem to be generating a lot of attention are ‘Watch Dogs’ and ‘The Last of Us’. If you don’t know much about them, I suggest you quickly look up a video of them before continuing. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

This is what I do whilst I'm waiting

 Watched the gameplay video? Cool. Then you’ll realise that we get told absolutely nothing about either title. For me, there are 3 things that make up most decent video games: story, gameplay and innovation. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but for the sort of triple-A games we’re talking about here these things seem like a decent guideline.

Now, story can never be judged very well from a trailer. Either the trailer has to say nothing, in which case it’s ambiguous, or it gives away the plot, leaving you no surprises down the line. ‘Watch Dogs’ seems to have a vague ‘Grr evil company conspiracy bad bah *shakes fist*’ type plot, and ‘The Last of Us’ has gone for Fallout without a sense of humour. Chalk one up for not being excited.

Gameplay is also somewhat impossible to judge. Let me put this way. You are a developer with a mediocre game being made that you are planning to announce at E3. Do you:

a)    Give a reasonable demonstration of what the gaming experience will be like, including all the repetition and annoyances.


b)   Put all the good bits into a ten minute demo, implying but never confirming that the game will continue to be that good and exciting.

Naming no names....

Not a hard decision is it? Even when I first saw that bit in ‘Watch Dogs’ where you hack the traffic lights to cause a car crash I thought ‘Wow, I bet you have to do that at least 10 more times in pretty identical ways further down the line’. I mean, I counted 8 different hacking….things you could do in that menu screen, and we saw at least half of them in that short space of time.

But even if my cynical appraisal of things is wrong, and these games will continue to have a plethora of exciting and new features down the line, how innovative are these features? ‘The Last of Us’ doesn’t seem to have a unique selling point at all, aside from the AI is apparently quite good and it looks nice. Seriously, it’s just a stealthy cover-based shooter with some quick-time events. Also, the quality of AI is really hard to gauge in one instance. After all, no developer is gonna show the bits where it screws up are they?

So there you go. E3 ruined. And when these games come out and are amazing you can come and smash my door in.