30 Days of Video Games: Day 17, Favorite Antagonist

The conflict is the reason I read and reread Frankenstein.  I actually hate the characters.  They’re all whiny and incapable of sucking it up and facing their responsibilities.  Victor always has a fever and is always swooning, and everyone around him buys it and pities him.  Then they get killed.  It’s frustrating and annoying, but the conflicts are what keep me going back for more in that book.  Conflict is necessary in a story; without it, there’s very little story.  Often when we complain that “nothing happens” in a book or movie it’s because there’s no conflict, or the conflict is so subtle we don’t really pick up on it.

The essence of video games is conflict.  It’s a game, so there’s an objective of some sort that must be met.  To meet said objective, we must overcome obstacles; conflicts, if you will.  And then there’s the ultimate conflict of all, the Final Boss.  I think my favorite antagonist would have to be Atlas/Frank Fontaine from BioShock.

One of the beauties of BioShock is that for a game classified as survival/horror, it’s very intelligent.  There’s a great deal of philosophy and moral/ethical issues at stake, and how you play the game determines a lot about how things play out in Rapture.  The underwater city has deteriorated because of a lack of ethics and morals brought on by an objectivist philosophy.  Basically, peoples’ own desire for pleasure as their main basis of existence led to the downfall of Rapture, and the propagation of that philosophy can be traced back to two men: Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine.

Ryan creates Rapture as a place for creative, free thinkers to be free from government involvement.  It’s supposed to be a creative utopia, but perfection cannot exist in an imperfect world.  Where Ryan seeks to run a utopia, his foil, Frank Fontaine, seeks to exploit it.  Their disagreements erupt into a war where Fontaine is supposedly killed.  By the time the protagonist, Jack, reaches Rapture, the city is in ruins.  Jack’s only help comes from a mysterious voice identifying itself as “Atlas”.

Atlas is, of course, Fontaine.  He takes on the name of the mythical Greek titan who held up the world, but is also an allusion to the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, who fleshed out the objectivist philosophies on which the story of BioShock is based.  If Atlas shrugs, the world comes collapsing down; therefore, the world depends on Atlas to hold it up.  By taking on the alias of Atlas, Frank Fontaine has basically declared himself the one upon whom the survival of Rapture rests.

What I like most about Fontaine is that he is a smart antagonist.  Smart villains are the really scary ones.  The big bad ones with all brawn and little to no brain are formidable and a bit scary, but when they can think?  And out-think you?  And use you as a pawn in their larger scheme?  That’s when they get really frightening.  Fontaine has basically used you, the protagonist, to achieve his own ends, and you only really come to realize it toward the end of BioShock.  You’ve spent the whole game surviving mad Splicers and psychotic Rapture citizens only to realize that Atlas, the comforting voice guiding you and asking you “would you kindly” do this favor and that, is the ultimate enemy.  How does that even happen??

Certainly, the moral dilemma about the Little Sisters and the ADAM is a major component of the BioShock experience.  But even more of an ethical issue is the realization that the protagonist, who really is you since it’s in first person, is being a mind-controlled pawn.  Atlas/Fontaine has essentially tricked you into doing his bidding.  For the first two thirds of the game, if not longer, you are going about doing his dirty work, completely convinced that it’s the right thing to do.  Only as you do more research and more of the story unfolds, and then when he tries to kill you bystopping your heart do you realize that he’s no better than anything or anyone you’ve encountered.  Rapture?  Rapture my arse.

Yes, in the end he becomes the big scary brawn over brains final boss.  But that didn’t worry me.  I can use any number of weapons on that.  What did worry me came after the face when I realized that the game had tricked me through Atlas/Fontaine.  While I had the rest of the game to go ahead and track him down and get even with him, it didn’t change the fact that the majority of the game had been what it was.

For those reasons Frank Fontaine is my favorite antagonist because he’s the scary-smart bad guy.   He’s not the scary monster under the bed; those aren’t scary because they don’t really exist.  He’s the predator out for his own gains.  And that is infinitely scarier, becausethat is real.

Tomorrow: Day 18, Favorite Protagonist.  Or, the other side of the coin.

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30 Days of Video Games: Day 4, Guilty Pleasure Game

To be honest I’m not sure where to start with this. I’ve never been a fan of the whole “guilty pleasure” thing. My best friend says I have an extra guilt muscle, which is something I’m trying to overcome. Also, guilty pleasure insinuates that one should be ashamed for finding pleasure in something, and we all know how I feel about shame. If I like something, I’m going to like it and be damned proud of it. Now, that’s not to say that all ‘guilty pleasures’ are okay, or even legal. I’m thinking, the things that aren’t illegal or harmful to oneself or to others, and therefore, shouldn’t be considered “guilty” pleasures.

So I’m sort of at a loss as to what to say is a guilty pleasure game for me. Every game I play, I play for a reason, be it story, character, gameplay dynamics, or because I need to blow off steam. There’s something satisfying about feeling fed up with something and channeling that rage through a pixelated sub-machine gun at an equally pixelated target. And maybe because that allows me to experience some sort of vicarious violence, that could then be construed as a guilty pleasure.

I think in that case a lot of hack ‘n slash games might fit the bill. Maybe Gauntlet Dark Legacy; I love the music and the castle that serves as a home to the portals to the other worlds, but when all’s said and done, it’s a fancy hack ‘n slash. There’s very little strategy to getting through the levels save for shoot the crap out of everything you come across. Maybe saving up on magic, getting food, and using skills it requires some forethought, but in terms of fighting, just mash the attack button and you’re good. And besides, it’s got a level with creepy clowns and music that involves people laughing maniacally in the background. What’s not to love?

As a result, I’m free to enjoy the scenery and the music–aka, take pleasure in those things. Perhaps the ease of combat allows me to take pleasure in it. Perhaps I’m just overthinking this. Either way, I’m not ashamed to say I like the game, and certainly feel no guilt over playing it. But since that’s what the prompt asks me to ponder…. there you have it!

Tomorrow: Day 5, Game character you feel you are most like (or wish you were)…

Rated M, for Different Reasons

Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the concept of M-rated.  Most of the games I own are M-rated.  It’s more of a coincidence than anything else.  I didn’t go out looking to get only games appropriate for those over age 17, nor did I consider that those would be the only things in my collection.  It just happens that the games I enjoy that have a good story and characters and settings also happen to be judged as appropriate for those 17 and up by the ESRB.

Most of the games explain why they’re rated M for mature audiences.  Usually it’s because of violence, other times due to nudity and/or sexual situations.  But after some conversation that’s been going on in my Dragon Age writing forum, I’ve begun to wonder if mature audiences means only those situations such as gore, violence, sex, nudity, and/or drugs. 

As a writer and literature lover I tend to approach video games from the perspective of story, character, and most of all, themes.  And it happens that the themes of such games as BioShock, Dragon Age, and Gears of War transcend the levels of violence and sexuality as far as maturity is concerned.  In those games and many others there is far more going on that I would almost call subtext that isn’t always meant for young audiences.

I began to think about this when a new forum member on the younger side said she disliked Anders and dared us to change her mind.  A forum member who loves Andes (and has analyzed him extensively and writes him beautifully) took up the challenge and wrote up a very mature, eloquent post explaining her analysis of his character as it related to the situation in Kirkwall in DA2.  The crux of her argument was that what Anders does isn’t just for Anders; it’s for the freedom of mages everywhere, and the more one understand of mages the more one will understand Anders and his motives.  The response?  It was along the lines of “good point and thanks for trying, but I got a laugh out of the fact you even did try, I still hate him.” (paraphrased, of course).

The second member’s post was well-researched, well-worded, and addressed the validity of the first member’s claims, while stating her beliefs.  The response she received was… well… typical for the age range.  I remember being that age and wanting to be right all the time.  But as I’ve grown I’ve learned to listen to other arguments and consider them, and reply in kind–or more eloquently, depending on the person with whom I’m debating.  And that’s a sign of maturity.

So is understanding what’s beneath the surface of Dragon Age 2, and even Dragon Age Origins.  Yes, both games qualify for an M rating under ESRB standards.  Another friend and I laugh over the fact that in your first fight as a human noble in DA:O, you slaughter a few large rats, and come out of it covered in blood.  And of course there’s the not-so-subtle love scene, and Morrigan’s offer.  But the choices you must make along the way: to listen to various party members, to accept the assistance of mage v. templar or wolves v. elves… while your world is being torn apart by civil war even as a Blight of darkspawn threatens everything you know and love… it’s a lot to consider and think about.  While it is just a game, many of us have to make choices that will affect the well-being of others.  As a teacher I face choices of that nature every day.  While the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, it’s still a great responsibility.

Dragon Age 2 is even more mature in terms of theme and subtext.  The game’s story has a much larger scope.  And while Meredith’s tyranny threatens only Kirkwall, the ripple effect affects the rest of Thedas.  Dragon Age 2 is about more than hacking and slashing, and exploring identical sewers, dungeons, and caves.  It’s about more than just deciding who to romance, and is Anders or Fenris cuter or a better love interest.  It’s about city struggling to run itself under a broken system, as its citizens begin to expose the system for what it is.  There are religious zealots who kill the Viscount’s son to make a point.  There are gangs preying on the weak and impoverished while the wealthy flourish and pretend it doesn’t exist.  There are people living in squalor and no one willing or even able to do much of anything about it.  Once Viscount Dumar is killed by the Arishok, Meredith refuses to allow anyone else to take his seat, becoming the sole power in Kirkwall.  And with that she wields martial law, has citizens hanged on suspicion of harboring apostates, and suspects all mages of blood magic.  Kirkwall is a broken town running on a system so broken it’s nearly impossible to fix without destroying it entirely and starting fresh.

This is what Anders seeks to do by blowing up the Chantry.  And Hawke and company are all caught up in the midst of this, looking for a better way.  You don’t have to be mature (mentally) to handle the combat aspect of it.  But to truly understand what’s going on and how the characters fit in requires a level of intellectual and emotional maturity.

Take for example BioShock.  BioShock is brilliant on so many levels.  The setting, gameplay, graphics, all of it makes for a truly beautiful, haunting game.  But it’s the story and themes that is really haunting, and must be approached with a level of intellect and emotional maturity to truly understand the irony.  Now, you can play BioShock as just a game, and enjoy killing Splicers; that’s fine.  But I’m looking at it from the perspective of what’s below the surface of gameplay.

One of the beauties of BioShock is the literary allusions.  The setting is Rapture, which is an ironic name given what’s happened there.  And of course the game reflects and alludes to the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, down even to the philosophies explored through the game’s characters.  One of the final areas of Rapture you can explore is chock full of mythological references.  And then you realize that the Splicers you’ve been shooting up have become that way because of the way Rapture has fallen apart.  They’re not just enemies; they’re people who placed their trust in Rapture, and it failed them.  One of the most haunting scenes in the game is when you’re in an empty theater, and a young man is told to play the piano; when he fails to complete the task an insane director blows him up.  Yes, the violent death is worthy of the M-rating; but it’s comprehending the senselessness behind it that truly requires maturity.

I think even of Gears of War.  The game is beyond violent, and yet it’s still highly character-driven.  The interactions of Delta Squad, and their relationships, and seeing how they hold up while trying to save their planet, make this game an intensive experience.  While it’s easily an action-adventure game and far from role-playing, seeing the characters at work is interesting.  There are so many ghosts that Marcus Fenix must deal with; Cole is a Gear now, but he still relives his Thrashball glory days.  And then there is the heartbreak of Dom searching for his beloved Maria, which is just a minor character point in the first game, but become a major plot point in the second, and finally motivates his actions in the third.  Honestly that point in Gears 3 may have been the first time a video game drove me to tears with the sheer power of character and story.

It’s cool to run around with a machine gun that’s also part chainsaw.  It’s fun to blast the soulless bad guys back to where they came from.  I love doing it, don’t get me wrong.  But to understand what’s behind the characters as they do this is truly powerful and requires a level of understanding that comes with maturity.  And maybe it’s not even conscious maturity, in the vein of “I’m old enough to handle this” or “I know exactly what’s going on here.”

I’m not trying to come across as some holier-than-thou intellectual, or trying to overly analyze or intellectualize gaming.  But mostly I’m looking at the idea that while blood, violence, sex and drugs (and maybe some rock and roll?) certainly warrant an M for Mature rating, some of these games’ themes are also more mature and should be considered by parents thinking of picking up such a game for their not-quite-M-aged child.

Women Gamers, Women in Games: Statistic vs. Stereotype

I just read a list on Cracked.com about being a gamer.  Some of the things it had to say were right on, and some things tended to pertain to a small portion of the gamer demographic.  But it had some interesting things to say about female gamers.  I know this issue is talked to death, and I know I’ll probably offend some people, and probably miss some points of discussion.  But 1.)it’s my blog and I haven’t talked it to death, 2.)if you’re offended at least you think about things (and give me the opportunity to learn more about others’ perspectives) and 3.)this is such a huge topic that I’m bound to miss things, and accept that.  So: what does it mean for me pesonally to be a female gamer, and what do I think about women in games?

Interestingly enough, current statistics show that nearly 2/3 of online gamers are women.  Normally I like to defy the statistics in my ongoing quest for individuality.  However, this is one case where I’m proud to be part of the statistics, and a member of the majority.  I’ve been gaming in earnest since I was young, and owe much of that to Samus Aran of Metroid fame.  Growing up I was used to the idea that the Princess was in another castle.  So imagine my delight when the end of Metroid revealed that the badass bounty hunter I’d taken all over Zebes was a woman!

I’ve never been one of those female gamers that complains much about the portrayal of women in games.  I’m happy to see more and more female characters taking the lead and going out to kick arse and take names, and when I play online (mostly Halo: Reach) I play as my female Spartan.  But what was troubling to me was that I recently read that many women prefer to play online as males.  Granted the study is nearly four years old, but conversely, I was having a conversation with a friend once about males and females online and he said that sometimes he intentionally plays as a female character because people underestimate him.

Now that got me thinking.  Around this time last year, Halo: Reach launched the weekly challenge of 77 online matches in seven days.  Luckily we had two snow days and one delay that week, because I spent my time playing online Halo matches.  I played as my female Spartan, but I kept my mic off mostly because I find in-game chatting distracting for me.  Normally it isn’t an issue, but during one match I got a kill, but then fell and my character made a noise.  The chat got very quiet, and then I heard one person say to the other, “I think there’s a girl playing.”  I had to ask myself, “Why does it matter?”  I can guarantee that if I was playing as a male Spartan it wouldn’t have been an issue; with my mic off, I would just be an anonymous male Spartan trying to kill everyone while they all tried to kill me.  But because I played as a female it started question and discussion.

Usually statistics go hand in hand with developing stereotypes.  However, the Female Gamer is not one such case.  66% of online gamers are women, and yet people are surprised to learn that they’re playing in a match with a female.  Is it because the stereotypical female gamer plays a different sort of game?  Or behaves in a different sort of way?  For me, when I go into a match as an openly female character, I don’t expect to be treated any differently, and I don’t behave any differently.  For me, we’re all gamers and we all have an objective, and it usually involves killing everyone else.  Why should gender matter in that objective?

It also seems to me that the perception is that stereotypical female gamers also will spend time complaining about the oversexualization and objectification of women in games.  I went to a panel at PAX East last year about female characters, and the focus wasn’t on the necessarily overly sexualized characters, but the ones that were portrayed either as realistic in terms of build or personality (Morrigan from Dragon Age stood out, which I remember because I picked up Dragon Age for the first time about a week later); or the ones who were portrayed not as overly sexual, but as helpless.  The princess in another castle, if you will.

For me, I’m less worried about female characters being objectified sexually, and more concerned about them being written as more passive, damsel-in-distress types of characters.  People may voice opinions about Lara Croft’s bust size, but at least she’s out there being proactive.  Kat, in Reach, would kick your arse if you suggested she was attractive in any way.  The stereotye of a female character as overly sexual overshadows the reality of passive DiD sorts of characters.  And since the focus is more on how women are objectified sexually, there’s no real look at how they’re objectified through being passive.

Princess Toadstool was always in another castle; theobjectof Super Mario Bros. was to save her.  Thank the gaming gods for Samus, coming along and blasting her way through Zebes!  Even after she was revealed as a female, she was still blowing up planets like it was her job.  Then in 2002, Metroid: Fusion came out.  Samus was stalked around a deserted space station by an over-powered clone of herself, and had to rely on the guidance of a computer AI, who reminded her of her dead Commanding Officer if she were to survive.  It was a different sort of game, and it portrayed Samus as slightly more vulnerable than in the past.  Coming at it from my perspective, where I enjoy character depth and whatnot, it was very interesting to see a new side to her. 

The Metroid formula changed some as the technology did, and with it, Samus changed.  The lone bounty hunter got teammates in Metroid Prime: Hunters for the DS, and in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for the Wii.  In Corruption, Samus wound up having to kill her team when they attacked her; while it followed the boss fight formula, it was interesting because Samus had worked with these people earlier in the game, and become more of a character defined by those around her as a result.  And then came Metroid: Other M.  I don’t have a Wii, but even if I did, and even as much as I love Metroid, I wouldn’t play it because of this article.  As someone who’s been in an emotionally abusive relationship, these things resonate with me to begin with; but then seeing Samus, who started out so strong and competent and capable and unapologetic reduced to that?  To see her written as a lost little girl, when she left that behind with the Chozo long ago?  Her strength was something that defined her and made her different.  To take that away demeans her not as a woman, but as a character in general.

Not all characters have gone that way.  Zelda went from the kidnapped prisoner in Ganon’s dungeon to Shiek, a highly trained fighter.  And Dragon Age: Origins has Queen Anora, who will even stand up to her father in spite of the fact that he’s one of Ferelden’s most celebrated generals.  She knows what she wants and what she has to do to get it.  And most of all, she’ll do that if it means achieving her endgame.

And that’s where I feel I am now as a woman who is a gamer.  I’m sure I’ll raise some hackles with all I’ve said, and that’s okay.  This is a difficult issue, where even people on the same side will have different reasons for why they’re on the same side.  But one thing is clear: the statistic and the stereotype don’t always match up, either in the case of the games’ characters, or the gamers themselves.  I may fit a statistic, but I’m not steretypical.  And you shouldn’t be, either.

The Dragonborn Comes… and he’s kind of a jerk.

I was on Christmas vacation for this past week, and spent a good part of it sick: with Skyrim Fever.  While the game was released on November 11th, putting me six weeks behind most other rabid gamers, receiving it for Christmas was perfect timing.  And I’ve realized that even if I had gotten it on the release day, it wouldn’t have made any difference.  The game is so vast that there’s not much more of a dent I could have put into it than I did this week.

So far my Nord, Cailan, is a level 10 specializing in dual-haded weapons, but he’s also good with a lockpick and sneaking about.  Nothing like a little cross-class work there.  He’s also Dovahkiin, “Dragonborn”, and basically the equivalent of Skyrim’s “chosen one”.  Many other Nords believe that the Dovahkiin will help quell the rebellion that has rocked their country and help restore peace to Skyrim.  As a fan of fantasy, and a person who gets paid to analyze conventions and cliches of fantasy, none of this surprises me.  But what is surprising me is how seriously I’m taking the moral ramifications of the game.

This isn’t a new concept for me, personally.  Around this time last year I picked up BioWare’s Mass Effect.  As Commander Shepard, you are tasked with saving the galaxy from a rogue operative named Saren.  You are the first human SPECTRE ever, a high-level operative that represents the best humanity can offer to the alien races of the universe.  Mass Effect employs a morality system that defines some choices as “Paragon”, or inherently good and noble; or “Renegade”, which is usually equated with bad.  Throughout my game I began to realize that many of my choices were based on my own personal morals.  In general, I like to make everyone happy.  I try to be a people pleaser and do the right thing, and not cause much of a ruckus.  So I found my Shepard doing that.  When it came time to make the agonizing choice of which character to leave behind on the planet Virmire, I had to decide between my romance and someone else.  Now, the other character, Ashley Williams, was a good character.  But it was her or Kaiden Alenko, with whom I was in a romance, so I left Ashley.  I felt awful, as if the choice my character had made in the game said something about my own personal morals.  Besides, here’s Shepard, supposed to represent all that is good about humanity… and she’s leaving a comrade behind in favor of continuing the romance.

The “chosen one” is a convention of fantasy that’s older than the genre itself.  Usually the chosen one is, like Commander Shepard, someone who represents all the hopes of the people.  His or her coming heralds the coming of hope, and is the harbinger of change for the better.  Perhaps that’s why, then, I aimed for Paragon status with my Shepard.  But after Mass Effect came another BioWare title that has since consumed me: Dragon Age.

Once again, regardless of the origin you choose, you are left as one of the last two Grey Wardens: in effect, one of only two people who can end the Blight that is destroying your homeland of Ferelden.  While the system of morality isn’t as clear-cut as Mass Effect, I found my character making choices that were for the general good, and tried to please the other party members.  One time I had an NPC kill her demon-possessed son, only for Alistair, a main character, to yell at me once we got back to camp.  You better believe I reloaded and replayed that scene so things would have a better outcome.  Sometimes I made choices that I thought were in the best interest and for the common good of most people, only for the end result to come back and slap me across the face.  For example, I crowned Pyral Harrowmont during my first play through the dwarven realm of Orzammar, only to find out in the epilogue that he shut off the city and made the dwarves isolationists.  When I did it again and put Bhelen on the throne for the betterment of Orzammar, he immediately had Harrowmont executed.

I shouldn’t let it bother me so much.  It’s just a game, right?  I’ve talked with other gamers about their choices in Dragon Age, and many find it fun galavant around a fantasy world where they can act with abandon, unencumbered by the morals and consequences of our own world.  But to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy doesn’t nullify reality; if anything, it raises it to a higher level.  If there were no consequences, would we make the same kinds of choices to kill, or believe that the ends justified the means no matter what?  Is it only consequence that defines our morals and forces us to make moral choices?

Or perhaps it is because in these fantasy situations, I am playing as the Chosen One.  The hope of entire nations rests on my shoulders, and because in reality I like to please people and do right by them, when I enter into the fantasy world I feel the need for my characters to live up to those expectations.

Which leads me back to Skyrim.  My character did a contract kill that resulted in a group of elite and mysterious assassins contacting him.  One of my tasks was to kill one of three people.  I wasn’t told which one.  I had to guess, which effectively meant their lives were in my hands.  I made my choice and did the kill.  Afterward I had the conversation option to ask if I’d made the right choice, and found I didn’t want to know.  Because if I’d made the wrong choice I’d have felt terrible.  Yes, it’s just a game, and I know I didn’t kill a real person.  But the world of Skyrim is so huge and involved, that somewhere, somehow down the line in my game I fear that kill coming back to me.

By making that kill, I was invited to join the Dark Brotherhood.  I went to check it out and figured, why not.  My first task was a set of three contract kills.  I killed the first man without talking to him, even though he was a beggar squatting in a shack.  I was chased down and arrested by the guards… and just paid my bounty to go on and do my next contract.  But with that one, I made the mistake of talking to my mark.  I said, “Someone wants you dead.”  And she said, “Yeah, probably my husband.  The feeling is mutual.”  Somehow that made her more human, and it’s a good thing my xbox froze the game because I had a serious moral dilemma that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

In Skyrim, I am Dovahkiin: the Dragonborn, the Chosen One.  My ability to absorb dragons’ souls and hence their power means that the people of Skyrim will look to me to tip the scales for either the Imperials or the Stormcloak rebels.  And I feel I have a duty to them.  I wonder what they’d think if they knew their Dovahkiin killed people for money, or picked locks and snuck into homes and stole coin purses.  Would it matter, so long as the rebellion and/or war ended?  Would it matter so long as the dragons were once again destroyed?  Yes, I am the Dragonborn and I’ve come… and I’m kind of a jerk.

Perhaps it’s just personal biases about the Chosen One convention/cliche.  Or maybe I think about these things too much.  But either way, when it comes to moral dilemmas in RPGs, it’s clear that it’s more than just a game.