Monday, July 28, 2014

My Sword and My Shield

Oh my god, where IS she?


I’ve been waiting at the entrance to this cave for about five minutes. The orchestral strings slowly swell and recede as I pan my view across the bluffs, paths, and hilltops barely visible in the blinding snowstorm. I’m starting to get anxious. Am I really going to have a reload a save from twenty minutes ago again? Then finally, a blurry figure appears over the hill, sprinting down the slope. As it approaches, crunching footfalls get louder with every step. A familiar face appears under a Forsworn headdress I gifted. Phew. There she is.


Lydia.


Hey, look, a cave! I wonder what’s inside.”


---




The companion AI in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is notoriously awful. If you decide to sprint through any tough terrain, or sprint at all, you run the risk of losing your partner, momentarily or forever. She may be determinedly running into a bush, unable to decide how to go about moving the twenty feet to where you are, as you imagine your character impatiently tapping his foot, arms crossed. She might decide not to risk a two foot drop and take the long, long way around a main path, and before she reaches you she might get attacked by an ice troll. Traversing Skyrim with a follower means stopping and turning around every few seconds to make sure your partner catches up with you. It feels like what I imagine escorting a toddler through a zoo or shopping mall must be like. And I don’t think I want to be a parent.


Companions really slow down your progress in Skyrim. I attribute my having played Skyrim for 128 hours and having only finished the main quest, the Daedric quests, and the College of Winterhold questline, while many other players finish most or all major questlines in that time, to Lydia’s curious and frustrating behavior. So why did I play so much of the game with a companion that made exploring the wintry landscapes of Skyrim actively worse in most cases? I tolerated Lydia blocking narrow passages in dungeons and making me grunt at the TV, “Lydia, MOVE!” because she became part of my adventure, my story, and I soon found that I couldn’t finish the game without her.


---


Of the many characters who offered to follow me on my adventure through Skyrim, I chose Lydia to accompany me because she was probably the first person in the game I felt I could trust. She was assigned to be my housecarl after I was titled Thane of Whiterun for defeating my first dragon in the fields outside the town. Though a patriotic Nord (whereas I was an outsider Argonian), she seemed above the shady politics of Skyrim’s civil war, simply ready to serve as my trusty housecarl. She looked tough and capable with her steel armor and had a pleasant voice with an air of genuine righteousness. I figured it would be a depressing existence for a dedicated housecarl to sit in town while I was out adventuring. So I asked her to follow me, and off we went into the harsh wilderness.






Lydia proved to be both frustrating and useful, and I quickly grew attached to her quirks. She was a fearless warrior, rushing to my defense against bandits, giants, and Falmer, without regarding the safety of her own life. She almost got herself killed multiple times charging at enemies from high drops (of course she’ll run off cliffs in combat but won’t climb over a hill while exploring). And she often sent her arrows too early, foiling my attempts at sneaking. Lydia always managed to stand her ground, though, and fend off a bear by herself while I was preoccupied by a troll.


But certain enemies were too much for Lydia. She was knocked down by giants, mammoths, and some late-game bandits. But her one true fear, her one kryptonite, left Lydia vulnerable and frightened every time we encountered them: stationary boulders. There are traps in many of Skyrim’s dungeons, and most frequently in Draugr tombs, a group of shin-high boulders will roll down a slope after you when you trigger the trap by stepping on a panel. After easily dodging the rocks, they will rest at the bottom of the slope for you to walk over/around them. I did so, expecting Lydia to follow behind. But instead I heard the typical “ow” and “ugh” of Lydia being attacked, so I figured a Draugr must have been following us or got trapped in geometry until now. When I turned around, I saw Lydia repeated run into the short boulders and recoil from damage. You could tell she was getting frustrated. She was yelling, “Damn you!” at the boulders, and I was laughing. But when I approached, her health bar appeared and showed a sliver of health left. She hit her shin on a rock one more time and fell to her knee. I mashed buttons as quick as a could to equip the Grand Healing spell to revive her.


“A healing spell! Are you a--”


LYDIA, DON’T YOU EVER SCARE ME LIKE THAT AGAIN.


With Lydia, a small annoyance could become a grave danger, and I guess that’s what made having her around fun.


But Lydia was genuinely charming and interesting in her own right. Though she simultaneously endeared and annoyed me with recycled dialogue of “I am sworn to protect you” and “Honor to see you, my Thane,” she was steadfast to her principles. I could typically instruct her to stand somewhere or attack something, but when I pointed at citizens and non-hostiles to assault, she always said something to effect of, “I would never do that!” Yet she remained loyal to me throughout it all, never bothered by the request, or my occasional unsolicited violence against town guards, or later in the game, my cannibalism. She never told the authorities about my behavior, but she probably wanted to... I always wondered what Lydia thought of me; my character was exceptionally creepy. Perhaps she simply learned not to judge those in authority and to instead remain faithful to her duties as housecarl.


But it was apparent that she thought something of me. I went through a phase playing Skyrim in which I would collect all the books I found, planning to store them in my home to read some day. Of course, these books were too heavy to keep in my inventory while exploring, so I simply gave them to Lydia to hold. Her exasperated tone when she remarked, “I am sworn to carry your burdens,” every time I dropped books in her pocket meant that she knew I would never read them and was just wasting our time and inventory space.


Lydia also seemed to have some secret desires and interests. Even though she was trained to be a warrior, she seemed to enjoy using magic when given the opportunity. Though her primary weapons were the glass battleaxe I gave her and her standard bow, she would often pull out the magic staffs I would have her carry for me. She loved resurrecting wolves and shooting lightning at spiders, and I had to remember to recharge those staffs with soul gems regularly. I imagine that growing up as a Nord, Lydia’s parents shunned the idea of magic, but maybe she was always drawn to it. And I finally gave her the tools to explore a long-forbidden obsession with sorcery and necromancy.


The beauty of companion characters like Lydia is that they have just enough personality to be endearing but are also empty husks, allowing the player’s imagination to fill in the rest of the characters’ history and traits. When Skyrim first released, players talked about their experiences of “emergent gameplay,” all of the funny or cool things they saw or did that not everyone does, including epic battles between dragons and giants, goofy glitches of mammoths falling out of the sky, and pedestrian tasks of trying to properly set a table, cook a meal, and serve the food. These moments make every player’s story in Skyrim just a little different. But the random nature of Skyrim’s world alone doesn’t make our stories personal. How we frame events, decisions, and characters in our own created context, whether our imaginations be playful, serious, or cruel, allows us to co-author our (mis)adventures.


Lydia became an integral part of my adventure, but before I realized that, I tried to get rid of her. I was so frustrated by her consistently bad AI, and after losing her twice in the icy waters above Winterhold (forcing me to reload), I decided to send her back to my Breezehome residence in Whiterun. I felt liberated. I sprinted across the terrain, defying physics on steep inclines and jumping over rocky cliffs without having to worry about separating from my follower or having herself get killed. I could focus on the game’s lovely atmosphere and environments. But, something was missing… 




There was no one to say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” when I approached obviously dangerous areas, like when I entered the Draugr catacombs. As I went through the dungeon, the totally not-scary Draugr sent shivers up my spine every time they aggro’d with that creepy cough as they climbed out of their tombs. These low to high level enemies ganged up on me, freaking me out a little too much with their crazy blue eyes. So I ran the hell out of there before I died and back out the entrance. Looks like I needed Lydia after all.


For all of her silly actions and sayings, Lydia is at her best when she echoes the wonderment of discovery in exploring Skyrim.


“I have never seen anything quite like that.”


Lydia, we cleared out this Dwemer ruin last week.


“I am your sword and your shield.”


*rolls eyes* Oh, Lydia.


---

This blog post was written for Critical Distance’s Blogs of the Round Table June-July Topic  on memorable experiences with non-playable characters.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Average Emiles of War

There are many video games about war, and most have similar elements. How controversial to say, right? Obviously most war games, including both those that treat the subject carefully and not, involve the player shooting a lot of people. But also, nearly all of these games have characters with the same status in society. They’re all career soldiers thrown into combat with experience. Some, such as Captain Walker of Spec Ops: The Line and Commander Shepard of Mass Effect (yes, we are going to call that series “war games”), have chosen to enlist in the military to serve their respective country/political entity or for some other, perhaps unexplained, reason. Others, like Solid Snake of Metal Gear Solid and Nomad of Crysis, are specifically raised, even manufactured, to be the perfect soldier.






In stories dominated by military jargon and political melodrama, players are put into perspectives separate from “regular” civilian lives. If a personal conflict is portrayed in a war game, it usually regards the toll of combat on a character’s mental and physical health or relationships between other soldiers and military figures. Even though these protagonists and supporting characters might make a passing reference to a spouse and kids, players primarily observe them as members of a military before members of a family. They may be developed with an emotional depth and range and appear to behave as believable human beings, but they are consistently portrayed as exotic compared to everyday citizens.

By portraying soldiers primarily as combat experts and potential heroes, games create a divide in their worlds between those soldiers set to save the world, galaxy, whatever and civilians cheering or suffering on the sidelines. This dichotomy perhaps reflects the modern all-volunteer militaries of many western countries. The US military has been active in conflicts around the world in recent years, but civilians haven’t been conscripted to the service since 1973, during the Vietnam War. The characters in video games about war echo the soldiers of our time: freely choosing to enlist for practical or ideological reasons, perhaps being a part of a family with a history in the military. So video games, often so wrapped up in the high-stakes action of combat and politics of war, rarely explore how people ambivalent or opposed to conflicts are swept up in them.

Putting soldiers on a level different from “normal people” plays into the common nature of games as power fantasies as well. In a typical war game, players can assume the role of essentially a superhuman: a soldier capable of defeating waves of enemies to resolve an intensified crisis vaguely similar to what western players might hear on the news but never come close to experiencing. In most cases, this soldier is disconnected from pedestrian thoughts and actions, aside from briefly grieving a lost comrade or once mentioning a longing for home. Though it may be farfetched to say that many people will interpret the action and stories in these games as realistic depictions of war, I wonder if civilian players can internalize the idea that “there are soldiers and then there are us” through these games. That’s not exactly a great mindset in a society that wants to eradicate war and one that already struggles helping soldiers adjust to civilian life after combat.

One game travels back a hundred years, to a war in which civilians were drafted, to show that soldiers are indeed one of us.

Ubisoft Montpellier’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War opens in the French countryside in 1914. After the outbreak of the war, Karl, a German citizen and farmer, is separated from his French wife and their son after being expelled from the country and forced to fight for Germany. Soon after, Karl’s father-in-law Emile is called to join the war effort for France. Meanwhile, Anna, a young Belgian woman studying to become a veterinarian, goes on a journey to find her father who the Germans had captured to exploit his scientific research to create new weapons. She decides to use her healing gifts to nurse all those in need along the way, regardless of uniform. Emile soon meets Freddie, an American who willfully enlists in the French army to avenge his wife fallen to a German bomb. 


The player switches between these characters throughout the game to solve 2D point-and-click style puzzles. These characters are ordinary people disturbed by this conflict and thrown into it, and even though Freddie’s story follows a tired trope, he eventually learns his hunger for revenge is not worth the cost of war. Valiant Hearts is little interested in the international politics of World War I and rather focuses on the war’s effects on individuals and groups of people. With these simple characters trying to outlive the war in order to reunite with their displaced families, the game posits that there are no good guys or bad guys in war, just victims of a political climate beyond their control. (At the same time, though, Valiant Hearts is awkwardly allies-normative, betraying its message by pitting the heroes against an evil caricature of a German baron for much of the game.)

Valiant Hearts’ gameplay focuses on environmental puzzles that often require players to find items to repair machinery, trade with NPCs, or blow open new paths with explosives in order to progress. The little direct violence in Valiant Hearts involves a sequence shooting down enemy planes from a tank and the occasional knocking of opposing soldiers over the head during stealth. There are also a few light-hearted sequences in which the player drives a taxi while avoiding obstacles and bombs in time to “Flight of the Bumblebee” and other classical pieces of music. And the story takes its liberties separating and bringing the characters back together over an enormous battlefield and conveniently saving characters from imminent death. No, Valiant Hearts is by no stretch a “realistic” depiction of combat or the events of World War I. But it doesn’t have to be.

The elements of the game that resemble a Saturday morning cartoon, including its cutesy art and whimsical segments, while occasionally jarring (e.g. the baron), more often endear players to the characters, making the story’s many crushing moments of loss and hellish images of corpses and destruction more impactful. The player yearns for more infectiously  gleeful moments during the disheartening and tense ones that are inevitable in war. The urgency of battle scenes in which you charge amidst artillery fire particularly stand in stark contrast to the giddy taxicab sequences. Unlike many other pieces of war media that drown in their tension, horror, and nihilism, Valiant Hearts’ lighter side recalls the positive emotions of a joyful world to be cherished, a world that war does a terrible job protecting. 



While the game’s cartoonish depiction of WWI plays loose with details to demonstrate the war’s toll on its fictional characters, Valiant Hearts’ excellent system of collectibles and historical facts reminds players that this was a real conflict that affected real people. At the start of every level, the game provides optional historical tidbits to read accompanied by photographs in its menu, often about the location of the level, the event that took place there, and different aspects of combat and civilian life during the war. The game provides short accessible descriptions of tunnel digging strategies, living conditions, dog tag systems, and occasional statistics through these facts. Throughout the levels, players can find items that when examined in the menu, give even more information on their uses or the events and people associated with them. Players can pick up a rag to learn about soldiers covering their faces in urine-soaked rags to protect themselves from chlorine gas and a metal cross to learn about the importance of religion to many during the war. The most powerful moments of the game occur when players connect the trauma of the individual characters to the realization that those characters aren’t alone in their struggles. Through the game’s mini history lessons, players see that the war affected millions of people, not just soldiers but the entire European society and many other parts of the world. The facts acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices of Indian soldiers, all-black regiments, women joining the workforce, women tasked with writing letters to soldiers without families, prisoners of war, and of course those hopelessly adorable dogs of war. 



A lot of people have noted that Valiant Hearts breaks the mould as a war game that doesn’t focus on shooting, where the player’s actions are more often benevolent than harmful. But I’m more interested in that Valiant Hearts recognizes and commits to showing that many different ordinary people participate in war and are affected by it. So why can’t war games set in modern times in conflicts fictional or otherwise do the same? Though the world’s conflicts today are largely without drafts and not on the scale of World War I, the military personnel and civilians caught in them have lives outside the storm of political turmoil, or at least dream of them. Why don’t games show a variety of these perspectives? And if players must take the roles of typical gruff white guy soldiers, why don’t games explore their lives before and after war, their reasons for enlisting, their hobbies, their vulnerabilities, their fears, hopes, and thoughts? Why don’t games go beyond the insights of Mass Effect 2’s loyalty missions or the recollection of Cole Train’s thrashball days in Gears of War 3? Why do so many soldiers in war games appear extraordinary, distanced from the civilians they might save?

Perhaps the answer lies in the distance between real soldiers and civilians and the barriers of communication between them. The cultural elevation of troops in the US forbids civilians from asking about their experiences out of respect, forcing veterans to hold in memories without being understood. Perhaps developers refrain from overly personal storytelling in war games out of respect and fear of misrepresenting soldiers’ personal experiences that civilian players “couldn’t possibly understand.” So instead they get not-even-close representations in action game fantasylands that end up playing it safe in their distance from intimate emotions and introspective storytelling.

In the article linked above, former Marine Phil Kay writes, “You don’t honor someone by telling them, ‘I can never imagine what you’ve been through.’ Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels.” What better way is there for civilians to “imagine being in it” than using interactive media? With care and nuance, video games could start chipping away that barrier between soldiers and civilians, delivering stories and experiences sometimes too difficult to articulate and too personal to ask about, which some games like Dys4ia are already doing.

And they should start by treating soldiers like human beings.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Machoism and Tonal Inconsistency in DmC: Devil May Cry

There’s edgy industrial electronica music playing over images of women pole-dancing, sporting angel wings and underwear, fading in and out. The blue strobe lights are intermittently filtered by an other-worldly red hue that seems to reveal some people in the club are crying tears of blood or something. A pervy smirk appears on screen, and the rebooted Dante brings two women back to his trailer parked in the middle of an amusement park on the boardwalk. Swaying overhead lamp, squeaky bed spring noises, shaking camera. More images of women in underwear fading in and out. Late title card.




Until now, I’ve never played one of those games in which you beat up hordes of grotesque creatures in order to have words like “VICIOUS,” “SAVAGE,” or “SADISTIC” appear on screen next to a number. I chose to play DmC: Devil May Cry after hearing praise from outlets and friends and learning of the low barrier to entry. I also like weird, over-the-top silly games, so I was drawn to the edgy premise of a banker-demon-illuminati conspiracy and the laughable “fuck the police” attitude. For whatever reason, I like the idea of stylish combat behind teen angst-ridden political commentary meant to push buttons instead of being thoughtful or nuanced. Though I love many serious games, it’s been too long since I’ve gleefully yelled at my TV, “this is outrageous!” (a thing I did playing DmC) for visual and narrative bombast. Also, this game’s title spells out its own acronym, and that acronym flips the bird (intentionally?) to Grammar People by refusing to capitalize “m.” How audacious! I thought to myself how much of a dumb, fun ride this game would be.


And I was right for the most part. I especially enjoyed the parts where the game let me interact with it. The combat is snappy and elegant, and fighting demons large and small becomes a creative process of establishing stylish techniques, using different ranged and melee weapons, and choosing which abilities and combos to unlock. Traversing through the varied, surprisingly colorful environments of Limbo, the game’s demon-infested alternate reality, is also fun despite slightly unwieldy jumping controls. Flinging through levels with a grappling hook while the environment distorts and crumbles creates a sense of momentum in between combat encounters. DmC is a power trip with flair and a great game product thing with interesting difficulty modes, collectibles, and secret challenges rooms.




I get a little disappointed when the game strips control from me though--not because the game shouldn’t. I’m not one of those “cutscenes are bad” people who think games should only do interactive storytelling. It’s that the game isn’t always so tongue-in-cheek when it tells its story.


There is some really great silly stuff (did I mention SPOILERS yet?), like in the beginning when Dante walks out of his trailer naked to hear an unintroduced (and totally unphased) hooded woman warn him of this “Hunter Demon.” Then the sky gets dark and red, the demon appears, and the bright morning on the boardwalk turns into a hellish fever dream. The intense techno-metal blares up as Dante dives into his trailer slo-mo and clothes himself mid-jump, with an airborne baseball bat and pizza slice conveniently covering genitalia. This sequence is so rushed and goofy you’re left wondering what the hell is happening before you can even ask why. And that’s exactly the kind of lunacy I want in games every so often. But DmC doesn’t always commit to this over-the-top vision. At times, it tries to sell genuine emotion by using boring tropes and foreseeable twists (more on that later). DmC doesn’t quite know if it wants to be off the walls or grounded in a serious conflict.


But it does know that it wants to be masculine. The sweaty formula of a pure male power fantasy is made with the ripping through of demons by a combination of brute force and artful finesse, all while men characters are elevated at the expense of women in the narrative. We’re talking about a game in which one of the first things a woman says is, “The world is at last your bitch, as am I.”


There are some unique aspects of the power fantasy like the explosive Combichrist soundtrack that thunders with “dark” machoism. And never has a game let me murder a Bill O’Reilly parody in cyber space before. But the game also retreats to traditions of this type of game that are clich├ęd and somewhat problematic. In a game in which a giant demon bug lady screams “FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!” while puking acid, you might be able to forgive its missteps. But DmC does one unpardonable thing: it asks players to care.


Early on I thought that Dante would have a hard time caring about the situation with the evil, brainwashing demon 1% throughout the entire game. He even says, “What makes you think I give a shit?” to his focused, idealist brother Vergil regarding mankind. But, after the second level, which is a retreading of Dante’s childhood home in which he experiences flashbacks, he learns that Mundus, the head honcho demon who you instantly know will be the second-to-last boss, killed his mother and separated his family. So now Dante is totally on board with fighting the demons to fulfill a revenge quest. Clearly, DmC does not really care about its leftist themes and iconography because the main incentive for the protagonist is just a woman in a refrigerator. This trope can work in other stories (e.g. The Last of Us) but doesn’t here because Eva, Dante’s mother, is a concept rather than a character, so learning of her murder has no emotional impact. And from then on, the game alternates between the aforementioned fun ridiculousness and self-serious, ineffective emotional manipulation that asks you to relate to the characters.


DmC uses a woman to make Dante care about fighting the demons, and it also uses a woman to make him care about the future of humanity. Leigh Alexander wrote about our women heroes problem in which she discusses that while men are portrayed as independently hard and “badass,” women must be “traumatized” to become heroic. She brings up women in refrigerators as excuses for men’s adventures, while women must have been broken or vulnerable themselves before their own quests. Alexander says, “It seems that when you want to make a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to make a man into a hero, you hurt… also a woman first.”




Usually, you only see one or the other of these devices in a game, but in DmC there’s both! Kat, the aforementioned hooded woman, is Vergil’s human assistant who often guides Dante through levels from her perspective in the real world and uses spray paint to allow Dante to interact with environments in Limbo. Kat is hesitant to talk about her past with Dante. You see, Kat’s foster father was a demon, who trapped her in nightmares. Vergil found her in Limbo and rescued her. He taught her how to kill the demon haunting her, and now she wants to “deal with them all.” Of course while she had to be traumatized by a man and rescued by a man before she could become useful to the Order, Dante and Vergil found their own ways out of their nightmares. Late in the game, Vergil tells Dante he learned hacking as a way to build a “sense of control,” something the twins never felt, while Dante’s release was “killing demons and getting laid.” Classy.


Men in this story also establish control using women. Kat becomes a half-baked love interest for Dante, and naturally, she becomes damseled in the latter half of the game. More shocking is how the game presents the kidnapping. The screen goes black and white, and a sad, tinkly piano tune plays over the muffled sounds of Kat being shot by the demon police and dragged away. The scene is terribly out of place and is the most insulting thing DmC does, asking me to care about simplistic characters in a silly game about evil demon bankers controlling the world through debt.


What follows is Dante--yes, the one who said “What makes you think I give a shit?”--flips out about Kat’s abduction, wanting to save her along with the rest of mankind. Surprisingly, I relate to the early-game Dante more, or at least I buy that character. Mundus sends a clip to Vergil and Dante offering to trade Kat’s life for Dante’s. Of course the men, realizing that they’re men and not objects to be traded, decide to hunt down Mundus’ mistress Lilith to offer instead.


Vergil: “Why would Mundus care about one of his whores?”
Dante: “Because she carries his child.”


So, really, the game and its characters, without comment, treat Lilith as a talking vessel that holds Mundus, Jr. and not as a person (demon) with value. After Vergil kills Lilith during the uncomfortable “trade” cutscene, characters only refer to the death of Mundus’ child. Even the boss is called “Mundus Spawn” and not Lilith. At least she has the agency to run her own demonic club? Phew, aren’t sex workers so well represented in games?


At least at the end, Dante insists that Kat was an essential part of the triumph over Mundus when it turns out Vergil is actually evil and thinks humans are below him (after looking up stuff on other games in the series, fans must have seen this twist a mile away and even newcomers like me could see it coming, I mean do you see what he’s wearing?). But this comes long after the game has stopped being “self-aware.” Of course when we say a game or a piece of media is self-aware, we mean that it doesn’t ask you to take stupid shit seriously. I could probably reconcile troubling narrative decisions if the game was consistently a giant disingenuous middle finger.




All of the cringe-worthy self-serious instances of DmC make me rethink the entire experience. I wonder if the developers aren’t cackling with me at the game’s stupidly cheesy ending--if they’re not in on their own joke and think it’s genuinely good writing.The lazy tropes and poor attempts at emotion draw me out of the surreal Limbo and back to reality: somewhere, some kid is watching the intro I described in the first paragraph of this post and unironically thinking, “Wow. This is so cool. Dante is so badass.” There’s an uncomfortable cloud that hangs over DmC: Devil May Cry, reminding you that its vulgar, juvenile disposition might be sincere. That cloud too often prevents me from fully loving a game that is more often so fun, so imaginative, and so dumb in the best possible way.  

I admit, though, I do like it quite a bit.