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On Blizzard, Butts, and Beta-Testing

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I may be known here on Fandom Following for my reviews of The 100 and my article about acedia in Game of Thrones, but long, long before I started watching these shows, I played computer games. We’re talking decades. I cut my gamer girl eye teeth on Warcraft 2 and the original Starcraft. I’ve played my way through Warcraft 3 (and expansions), Starcraft: Brood War, and am currently playing Starcraft 2 and Heroes of the Storm (HotS). Yeah, I play a lot of Blizzard games, all but World of Warcraft (WoW) and Diablo; I’m not a (MMO)RPG-er.

Needless to say, when they announced the first new property in over a decade1, I was intrigued. Fine, I squealed in delight then immediately read everything they had online—backstory, all the player bios, the timeline for production, everything. The only reason I’m not in beta testing is because I don’t have time.

The Controversy

Overwatch—a 1st person shooter style multi-player online battle arena or MOBA (think League of Legends—is still in beta testing, but it’s awesome. The backstory is fairly generic but still interesting: a futuristic world where Overwatch was a team of heroes that saved the world, but they’ve disbanded and now trouble is brewing again. The animation is stunningly gorgeous, even for Blizzard, which has a history of well animated games. Most importantly to me, they have a cast of diverse characters with skills that I am drooling to try out.

Its poster child is Tracer, a “time jumping adventurer and an irrepressible force for good.” She’s like the Flash and Indiana Jones had a baby, but with Rey’s indomitable optimism and spunk. She controls her own time and pairs a bomber jacket with running shoes for a lighthearted yet casual vibe. Did I mention she’s got a Cockney accent that’s super adorable? I love her already.

She’s also caused a bit of a stir in recent weeks. It all started with a forum post from one of the beta testers regarding Tracer’s ‘victory pose’, the pose shown on screen when a player wins. It’s meant to convey how that particular character responds to success. Are they ecstatic? Cool and aloof? Goofy? Self-confident? The physicality of the pose should convey the character’s reaction and be consistent with their overall personality.

The original forum post by “Fipps” is no longer available (that I can find), but large sections of it have been transcribed in a post on Polygon. It is clear from the transcription that Fipps’ primary concern is that, from a Watsonian perspective, the pose isn’t consistent with Tracer’s character.

 

“What about this pose has anything to do with the character you’re building in [Tracer]? It’s not fun, its not silly, it has nothing to do with being a fast elite killer. It just reduces [Tracer] to another bland female sex symbol.”—Fipps, Overwatch Forum via Polygon

As Fipps argues in the post, Tracer’s pose is more consistent with Blizzard’s sultry French assassin character, Widowmaker, who embodies the femme fatale archetype.

While I’m not a huge fan of this kind of character design given how common sexualization of female characters is in gaming, Fipps has a point. All you have to do is look at Widowmaker and you know that she’d totally do an over the shoulder T&A (tits and ass) shot on her victory screen. That kind of sultry attitude is part of how she was designed as a character, as well as how she’s being marketed. Tracer, on the other hand, is primarily fun, spunky, kind, and fast. I think of her as a personified squirrel with the 10th Doctor’s hair.

 

Thus, Fipps asked that the developers to consider changing the pose to something more appropriate to Tracer’s character. Other Overwatch players responded instantaneously on the forum. Some agreed with Fipps, others defended the pose. However, the opinion that mattered most was that of the developers, who apologized and eventually chose to replace the pose with one they thought more appropriate.

I’ll get to this later.

The Response

Needless to say, not everyone was happy with the choice to replace the pose. Some framed it as a censorship issue: Fipps feedback impinged upon the developers’ freedom to create whatever media they wanted. Not only does this argument lack rational sense—the developers apparently agreed with the criticism, otherwise they would not have changed the design—it fails to understand the context in which the feedback was given.

Remember, Overwatch is still in beta testing. For those of you who don’t know, beta testing is a period prior to release when a limited number of people can play the game. These players provide feedback regarding game play, glitches, balance in character skills, and in Blizzard’s case, how well the game holds up the values they as a company laid out for the game, one of which was to create a diverse cast of male and female characters. Another was to not overly sexualize the female characters as they had in World of Warcraft.

“We want girls to feel kick-butt, equally represented.” Chris Metzen, BlizzCon 2014

Blizzard & Butts: Kotaku

Which makes this article headline/accompanying image rather hilarious and uncomfortable (see here for full Kotaku article).

To what degree they were successful in not overly sexualizing their characters is debatable. You still have the femme fatale Widowmaker and her skin-tight catsuit that is in no way something any woman would wear into battle. She’s an assassin, so they could have gone with a Black Widow a la MCU style outfit and still been sexy.

Other problematic choices include boob cup armor (though not bikini style), lack of pants on female characters, Pharah’s battle thong, visible and prominent butt cleavage, and a stereotypically blonde angel. All of these could have been fixed fairly easily to line up with their stated goal of not overly sexualizing their female characters, but I digress.

Fipps was specifically referencing Blizzard’s stated values regarding Overwatch when they posted in the forum. They did not go out of their way to post a hateful or even recriminatory comments. They submitted feedback that was requested by Blizzard, and Blizzard responded by changing the game. This is how beta testing works. It isn’t censorship nor did Fipps impinge on the developers’ freedom.

Feedback from outside of the beta testing community regarding Blizzard’s choice was harsher, more virulent. The game’s subreddit is flooded with outrage against Blizzard for changing the pose. Where Fipps’ feedback was reasonable, measured, and calm, the response to the change has been hyperbolic and angry.

Statements like “nothing says fun like pretending we’re not human” and “the entire sjw hatred of ‘sexualization’ stems from mediocre women feeling like they’re being replaced by art” are mild. I won’t sear your eyes with some of the more hateful and ridiculous comments. You can read those on your own time. I even heard some of it while playing HotS a few days after it happened. I asked a fellow gamer what Tracer was like (she’s available to play on that platform), and the response I got was, “All I know is people are mad she has a butt.”

The argument that this is all a plot by social justice warriors (SJWs) who hate attractive women is ridiculous, but not surprising. The gaming community has a deep-seated attachment to the objectification of female bodies. So much so that they seem to have forgotten that Fipps only objected to this kind of pose with Tracer, as they did not believe it accurately represented her character. If Fipps had truly objected to all sexualization, they would have at least mentioned Widowmaker who, as I mentioned above, is highly sexualized both in concept art and in personality.

Now, the objectification of female bodies in gaming is a huge issue, one that I don’t have the space to discuss fully in this article and that others have covered quite well already, though your mileage may vary of course (see, for example Bikini Armor Battle Damage’s tumblr and FemFreq’s series). However, it is worth briefly addressing posing choices and costume design, specifically as regards Fipps’ complaint.

Posing Choice

Dan over at Extra Credits does a great job breaking down her pose from a professional animators perspective, and I suggest watching the entire video if you’re really interested. He starts by listing four important criteria for making a good animated pose: readability, a sense of physicality, visual interest, and communication of character.

Breaking down Tracer’s original pose, he shows that while it fits the first three of these criteria, it doesn’t communicate much of her personality beyond posing for the camera in a sexy way. In fact, her posture, limb and eye position, and line of action are designed to draw attention to her ass and its very visible cleavage (see 15:13 in his video and onward).

 

This simply isn’t the same for the male characters who also have over the shoulder victory poses in the game (Hanzo, Soldier: 76, and McCree). The male characters shots are far more relaxed with a less arched back and a distinct lack of hip sway, contributing to the overall sexualized feel of Tracer’s and Widowmaker’s poses. As Fipps’ points out, this is inconsistent with Tracer’s character.

“[Tracer] isn’t a character who is in part defined by flaunting her sexuality. This pose says to the player base, oh we’ve got all these cool diverse characters, but at any moment we are willing to reduce them to sex symbols to help boost our investment game…”—Fipps, Overwatch forum via Polygon

Choosing this kind of pose implies that Tracer being awesome character with a cool backstory, fun personality, and badass skills isn’t enough to sell the franchise, as she is the face of the game. She must also be a sexual object and obviously so. As Dan points out in his video, humans are sexual beings, so sexuality can be a part of characterization. However, sexualized poses that contradict established personality, as with Tracer, are obviously pandering and actively harm the character being portrayed by reducing her to nothing more than a sexual object.

So what did Blizzard replace Tracer’s original pose with and how does it line up with Dan’s criteria?

As others have pointed out, this new pose looks remarkably similar to a classic pin-up illustration by Alberto Vargas, which was likely the inspiration.

At first blush, it doesn’t feel like they tried very hard. On the one hand, the replacement pose is more playful and fun, which is more in line with Tracer’s personality. Game Director Jeff Kaplan has actually been recorded as saying that he and the team believe this pose to be more in accord with Tracer’s personality.

“We actually already have an alternate pose that we love and we feel speaks more to the character of Tracer. We weren’t entirely happy with the original pose, it was always one that we wrestled with creatively. That the pose had been called into question from an appropriateness standpoint by players in our community did help influence our decision—getting that kind of feedback is part of the reason we’re holding a closed beta test—but it wasn’t the only factor. We made the decision to go with a different pose in part because we shared some of the same concerns, but also because we wanted to create something better.” —Jeff Kaplan via Polygon

Some might be turned off by the reference art being a pinup, as I was at first. However, Dan points out that Tracer is a pilot, making the reference to a pinup similar to what would have graced the noses of WWII era fighters rather whimsical, and I can see his point. It does actually seem like the kind of thing Tracer would lightheartedly reference and slightly mock in a moment of victory. She’s turning a past symbol of sexualization into a badge of victory for her as a woman: she’s the victor rather than the sexy symbol painted on his plane.

On the other hand, while the new pose is more in line with the personality a la Fipps’ original argument, it still ‘feels’ sexualized. Why? Three words: visible butt cleavage. This is not a result of posing, but rather of costuming choices. 

Costume Design

Ultimately, characters are sexually appealing (or not) regardless of developer intention. This does not mean, however, that costuming choices don’t matter.

“ ‘[S]exy’ costumes are more likely to only be subjectively appealing. Flattering (meaning: well designed, fits correctly, highlights attractive parts of the character) costumes that make contextual sense are more likely to be universally appealing, or at the very least, not be offensive or confusing.” (source)

I take “well designed” to mean unique, functional, and suitable for its purpose. This is an area that Blizzard has done well for all of Overwatch, though as I stated above, could do better. Gaming these days is swamped with bikini armor: skin baring, skin tight, overly cleavage and butt focused ‘armor’ that exists more to titillate a presumably straight male audience than to imply any actual protective function.

Overwatch manages to avoid some of the more common tropes of the objectification of its female characters: bare midrifs and crotch armor that’s no larger than a g-string, but it’s not free of objectifying costume choices. Symmetra has stripper boots, thigh dress slits and no pants, Mercy and Zarya have chest plates with individual boob compartments, Pharah has a battle thong, and the three female characters in catsuits (Tracer, Widowmaker, and D.Va) all have highly prominent butt cleavage.

The designs are unique-ish for some characters, beautiful and compelling for others. The armor is functional and suitable for most of the characters except for the above exceptions. It’s definitely better than WoW, and at the same time, it could be better and without much effort on the designers part. At times it feels kind of like Ricky Gervais’ TV commercial for Verizon. At the same time, it is a significant step forward.

Overall, I’d say Tracer’s costume is well-designed. The bomber jacket/sneaker combo is unique, functional, and suitable given that she was a pilot prior to becoming the speedy, time-traveling fighter she is in the game. The catsuit might not be as breathable as other options, but other than that, I like her design. It’s colorful, spunky, and reasonably appropriate for role in gameplay.

Speaking of the catsuit. Catsuits are popular for female characters in gaming, as they provide the illusion of protection while also being form-fitting. With Tracer’s lean, athletic long distance runner build, a catsuit does actually flatter her body by being so form fitting. It highlights one of the best features of her body—her legs—which also underscores a part of her personality, her speed. You could therefore argue that a form-fitting catsuit is a flattering design choice.

The problem with ‘form-fitting’ is that catsuits as depicted in video games never actually fit a female character the way they would fit a real human being. For one, catsuits don’t create a visible butt-crack. It doesn’t matter how tight that suit is, there is no crack. Visible butt-cracks = major wedgie. I mean, look at the pose,

 

That suit is wedged so far up her ass that it makes me wince, and probably gives her yeast infections on a regular basis. Same with Widowmaker and D.Va. Seriously. I know that male gamers probably don’t think or want to think about that, but I do because I’m a woman who has gotten yeast infections from tight fitting clothes. These ladies must drink gallons of cranberry juice offscreen.

More to the point, this is not a properly fitting costume. It’s my quibble with Tracer (and Widowmaker’s and D.Va’s) design. It’s ‘sexy’ rather than flattering, to use the definition above, because Spandex doesn’t actually fit that way. Sure, she has a nice ass and maybe you want to highlight that for some reason, but I would argue its possible to highlight an attractive lady ass with a spandex catsuit that actually fits correctly.

Or, you know a leather one that at least provides some protection.

The costume not fitting accurately contributes to the sense of sexualization. None of the male characters have visible ass cracks, nor do any of them wear catsuits. Were the female characters catsuits actually designed to fit as they do on real female bodies, they wouldn’t either. Or they could have given them, you know, not a catsuit, as they did with the males.

Overall then, the problem is one of modeling/design/costume more than a specific pose. Yes, the first pose drew specific attention to her ass and was specifically designed to do so. At the same time, the new pose still feels sexualized primarily due to the costuming decision of giving Tracer a catsuit designed with highly prominent ass cleavage. The downplaying of said ass cleavage in promo videos makes the victory pose decision even more baffling.

Nary a crack to be seen.

Whether in its first or second iterations, Tracer’s victory pose doesn’t match with the screenshot. Why give her a prominent crack, but only in still shots for the player to linger on if not for objectification purposes? The lack of consistency even within the way that Tracer is depicted in their own game just highlights the fact that the replacement pose is still supposed to be sexually appealing to the audience. 

So…..

What, Gretchen, are you saying that female characters can’t be sexy? Do you want them all to wear burlap sacks?

No, absolutely not. Like I said earlier, the objectification of female bodies is complicated when it comes to gaming; there’s a long history of objectification that I don’t have time to discuss. Not to mention that one can be just as, if not more sexy with flattering clothing and consistent posing than with overt displays of objectification. I find a consistent, well thought out character more sexually appealing than random boobs in my face, but then again, that’s just me. For game developers wishing to create what I think are truly sexy characters, I advocate starting with the criteria for posing mentioned above.

If a pose hits these four criteria well, including character consistency—the main problem with Tracer’s original pose design—move on to costumes. Does it fit the human body appropriately? Does it highlight the attractive features of the specific character rather than a generic set of criteria like big boobs or always show an ass crack? Is it contextually appropriate to the role the character plays in the game and their personality? If you can answer yes to all these things, I think that’s a good start.

However, if you, as a game developer, continue to create female characters that just so happen to have a personality for which revealing armor/clothing is ‘in character’, I call shenanigans. Also, if you only have female characters whose personality expresses itself in revealing clothing, you have a problem. Costume design needs to be equal opportunity. Five (now four) Overwatch characters have over the shoulder victory poses, three male two female. Only the two female characters had visible ass crack. Give me male characters with revealing/overtly sexualized clothing in equal numbers and I’ll be more willing to allow it for women. Better yet, give me sexualization of characters that isn’t catered specifically to the straight male gaze. Don’t know what that looks like? That’s part of the problem.

Look of this diverse cast of ladies!

I would be remiss if I neglected to also point out how important diversity is, both in demographic makeup and gaming position. The former is something Overwatch actually does quite well. 8 of the 21 characters are female presenting (10 male presenting, 2 robotic, 1 animal). There are 7 people of color, 4 of which are female presenting, (10 white, 3 non-human, 1 unknown). They have two disabled characters and three female characters that fall outside of the ‘conventionally attractive’ framework.

Yes they could do better. The inhuman characters are all coded male for some reason, so the ratio of males to females is still not 50/50, which I would prefer if they are really committed to representing men and women equally. I would prefer more male characters of color given that 50% of the female characters are non-white but only 30% of male characters are, not including inhuman characters.

Diversity in gaming position is important as well, given that traditionally female characters have been relegated primarily to support positions (healers), with a few rogue assassins thrown in. They’re “squishier” positions—meaning you have less hit points and are more easy to kill—which reflects our society’s tendency to view women as weaker.

Overwatch has four main positions: offense, defense, tank (damage absorbers), and support. Offense, and defense positions each have 2 women out of 6, tank has 2 out of 5, which is pretty good, though, again, I’d prefer it to be 50/50. It would require more female characters overall and so much the better. However, with 2/4 support positions given to females, I’m less than thrilled. Because of course you get a 50/50 ratio in the position traditionally given to female characters. The third is a male coded robot and the fourth an actual human male. Maybe they’ll add more male characters later. It would be nice to have more male support than female just to be different.

The previous two points may seem off-topic, but the handling of diverse female characters actually provides a great context for Tracer. She’s one of the two offensive female characters, so she’s both prominent in the lineup and likely a character a lot of players will want to try out and play consistently, at least if they have anything like my play style (high damage, ftw, I like killing things). It also lets you see that they’ve done so many things well with the cast of characters.

She’d still be sexy without the butt cleavage.

On the one hand, this diversity fosters the impression that Fipps’ feedback is a nitpick that got blown way out of proportion (though, not by Fipps themselves). On the other hand, we know Blizzard can do better because they’ve already done so. These ‘nitpicks’ are the cries of an audience who sees what they’ve done to improve, knows they can do better, and is disappointed that there are still issues that can be fixed without too much work on the developers’ part. Don’t tell me they couldn’t have spent another couple days fixing issues like erasing Pharah’s battle thong or Zarya’s boob cup breast plate, both of which are cosmetic rather than integral to character mechanics or playstyle.

Based on the game director’s response and their earlier statements at Blizzcon, this is something they want to get right. They’ve worked hard to create a diverse cast of female characters with different personalities. That only one of them is being primarily marketed as a sexy femme-fatale with skintight, revealing clothing (Widowmaker) is huge. I won’t denigrate that by generalizing from the Tracer pose to a pattern of sexualization for all the female characters in this game that simply isn’t there to the same degree it is in their other games (like WoW).

However, it is there with Tracer. Like I said, it’s about diversity, equal opportunity, and character consistency. Diverse group of female characters with different costuming choices that aren’t all centered around overt sexualization? Check (with the above qualifications). Equal opportunity for sexualized male and female characters? No. Male characters with the same pose are not overtly sexualized in the same way nor is their a male character equivalent to Widowmaker. Is the pose and costume consistent with the character? Ish. Neither in the original. I think the replacement is more consistent with her character and would be happy with it were the problems with the costume (ill fit) not still framed and visible for ogling by the audience.

Make her butt look like it does in the promo videos and I’ll be completely happy with Tracer. I mean, I’m 99% of the way in love with her already, so it really isn’t that far to go.

 


Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment. 

1. While they have created sequel content, i.e., Starcract 2, Diablo 3, and WoW expansions, as well as new platforms that utilize existing characters (Hearthstone and HotS), this is the first completely new game universe they’ve created since WoW, which itself was an expansion of the Warcraft games. It’s been 17 years since they’ve created an entirely new game platform.

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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Gaming

The State of the (Gaming) Union

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The PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X represent the half-life of the 8th generation consoles. Given that, an apt question is, where are we?

It’s hard to explain.

The 8th generation has brought us remastered game after remastered game. And we love what’s been served up; the Bioshocks, the Uncharteds, the Crash Bandicoots, the Gears of War. It’s exciting, to play the games that shaped our childhoods on these newer consoles. And then we pull those out and put in, what? Another Call of Duty (CoD). I remember the trailers for CoD 3, way back on the PlayStation 3 in 2006. And now this November we’re getting another World War Two-set Call of Duty.

Dice gave us something only marginally fresher with the release of Battlefield 1. But with the exception of mustard gas and trench warfare, not much else is different. There are still all the modern scopes you could dream of, and you’re spoiled for choice if your taste is for something automatic (though period accurate). It’s New, but we’ve Seen It Before. But now with 64 players per server on Conquest. Which is still a raucously intense good time. Sometimes more is better.

The Metal Gear Solid saga ended with the release of The Phantom Pain, and while it was an interesting game from a technical and gameplay standpoint, it didn’t feel much like a Metal Gear. There were flashes of it—most of the missions in Africa, the battles with Sahelanthropus, and some of the story with the child soldiers. But beyond that? It felt tame, as far as Metal Gear games were concerned. In its defense, however, that was less the fault of director Hideo Kojima and the suffocating effect of Konami, Kojima’s publisher’s influence.

Mass Effect Andromeda was a beautiful shooter, but a crappy Mass Effect game. In Andromeda, decisions were mostly arbitrary, the story was lukewarm at best, and the romances were all over the place in quality, mostly lackluster or even bad. In a series that had always been short on the men-loving-men (mlm) options to date, Andromeda was even more barren at launch than the previous entries. Bioware’s talked about fixing these issues, too, but so far hasn’t really done anything to remedy the situation.

And while Bioware does bear some of the blame for the mess that was Andromeda, it isn’t all their fault. Electronic Arts is the publisher that oversaw Bioware’s production of the game. It set the new Bioware IP up to fail almost from day one, with constantly accelerating deadlines, no unified vision, and an almost entirely rookie team spread across three physically separate studio locations hundreds of miles apart. And even if those disparate pieces finally found a way to work coherently together, they were undermined by the accelerating deadlines.

So where are we? The titanic force of Activision, 2k Games, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and such believe we want more multiplayer-only cooperative games or the same rehashed franchise, but with a different location. This is what their focus groups tell them. The evidence of this exists not just in the modern slew of games on the shelf but in the developmental difference in a game called Fuse.

When it was first introduced, it had a unique art style, it was almost wacky, it was quick and light and interesting and fun and cool. And then the developer, Insomniac Games, turned to Electronic Arts for help with getting the thing published. The result was the game was neutered, broken, and beaten into a stale-gray GrimDark knock off of the same old Call of Duty veneer that’s gotten increasingly more worn-out with every new release.

This is the difference between catering to an audience, and catering to a focus group. The latter is boring as hell. And year after year, we the audience clamor for something different.

In the midst of this dysphoria between audience and publisher, there are developers that heard the cry, and delivered a remedy.
Guerilla Games did something new with Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective game that takes place from the point of view of Aloy, a woman and an outsider, as she struggles to find a place amongst her tribe and the larger world beyond. It’s not necessarily post-apocalyptic, it’s post-technological. It’s beautiful, interesting, thought provoking, fun, and combines so many rare little touches that it feels utterly unique. It reflected an audience that’s largely ignored by the Triple-A publishers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the talking heads who tout the invulnerability of those publishers predicted its failure.

Which must be terribly embarrassing for them, considering how well the game has done, critically and commercially.
Telltale Games continues to release narratively immersive and entertaining new entries into the episodic game market. Some big studios noticed the popularity of the newer format and tried to compete there. Square Enix, a publisher on the same scale of Activision and Ubisoft, released their new Hitman game in two-mission chunks. Except there was a huge difference. While there’s an over-arching story throughout the episodes of a Telltale game, each “episode” features a coherent beginning, middle, and end that’s unique to that story, and influenced by the chapters that preceded it.

Instead of understanding this and building the new Hitman game to fit the episodic format, Square Enix just amputated a complete game and released it in small chunks and called it good.

The result? In spite of some of the most finely finessed gameplay and most beautiful graphics of the series, the game was tonally inconsistent, the pacing was unpredictable, and the little chunks of story you got in the small cutscenes didn’t actually set up a narrative to experience so much as just introduce the next sandbox for Agent 47 to kill his way through. Thus? An episodic game that’s quite clearly not designed to be experienced in the little pieces you got, but compiled as a whole. Personally, the game became more fun to replay linearly when there were more episodes to go through at a time. Because it comes together that way, like it was designed to.

Anyway. I digress.

Games made by Telltale or Guerilla or Arkane are not the norm. The game industry is in a feedback loop of only ever putting time and effort into developing Triple-A games that satisfy a focus group. And that focus group just keeps calling for a new and improved CoD, because Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was the freshest thing – in 2007.

If that sounds callous forgive me. Except look at the number of first person shooters with a military flavor that it spawned.
It’s a lot. And the problem with emulation and not innovation is not that we don’t like first-person-shooters with guns we can recognize and political situations that aren’t entirely dissimilar to the world we live in. We do; even with consistently shrinking sales year after year, CoD remains a best-selling series.

The problem arises when the mimicry these successes spawn fail to emulate the things that made the original interesting. I’ll explain more about that in a moment.

The audience, those of us out here wanting to buy games, are calling for something else. Jim Sterling expressed a similar sentiment in a remastered episode of the Jimquisition, citing variety as the actual spice of life.

We, as an audience, don’t want one game with only slight variations between them. We want different experiences. XCOM 2 is a turn based strategy game that is so successful it’s threatened to become its own franchise by itself. Which would be awesome, because it’s a fantastic game. But it’s something of a unicorn in the ever-expanding Call of Duty emulator market. XCOM 2’s turn-based strategy is quite a Far Cry (pun intended) from the traditional game being published. Unrelated to this, Far Cry 5 looks beautiful and for once in my life I can say I’m absolutely excited by a game being made by Ubisoft.

Moving on. Let’s look at another piece of the 8th generation that’s gaming speed on both console and PC markets.

Virtual Reality is a trend hot enough right now that the PC market is adapting and evolving its hardware to compete with the consoles directly. Alienware and Dell had booths that focused on their new VR-ready hardware at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). That would be exciting, too! Except, there doesn’t appear to be anything really unique about VR. At that same E3, Bethesda showcased its own VR experience, where Fallout 4 and Skyrim were now VR compatible. Which would be cool, if it didn’t look incredibly cumbersome to play, and not particularly evolutionary.

VR doesn’t feel like a unique platform to play games on. It feels like a gimmick. And an expensive one at that, with the barrier to entry for most VR devices costing far more than a standard console. Oculous Rift costs $600, and the HTC Vive costs $800, and that’s before you have a PC to plug them into. Given how expensive that is, what does it offer in terms of gameplay? Not much. Roller coaster simulators and arcade shooting galleries.

Despite its cost, however, I have a point of contention. I don’t think the rules of this storytelling medium have been figured out yet. To explain, I need to flash-back to the earliest days of gaming.

In 1972 when the original Pong released with the first Atari home console, I imagine there was a similar sentiment. Video games are a gimmick. Nothing more. I mean look at it! It’s just moving two paddles and bouncing a ball between them. And yet, Ashley Johnson, voice/motion capture actress for the character Ellie in The Last of Us won TWO BAFTA awards for her role in the game and it’s DLC. She earned two of the most coveted awards in acting for her role in a video game.

This is the level gaming has evolved to. More than forty years separates the release of Pong, and the release of The Last of Us. Gaming has evolved by quantum leaps in that time. And the leaps have almost always involved narratively pushing the hardware you’re telling a story on. Hideo Kojima did this every time he released a game. He did it first with the 1987 release of Metal Gear on the MSX2. And later on in 1999 with the release of Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation One.

We have yet to see that innovation in VR gaming. That’s not to say we won’t; actual VR gaming is relatively young and we have yet to meet the inventors that are going to take VR and make it something worth paying attention to. But for the moment, it remains unimpressive.

What about the rest, though? There’s a surge in popularity for open-world games on the scale of The Witcher 3. First things first, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Narratively, it’s fascinating. Visually, the spectacle is almost incomprehensible and when encountering monsters, often terrifying. The sound design is equally brilliant and the music is haunting and evocative. It is worthy of the almost obscene number awards heaped upon it. It’s not without faults, however; a game that features such a diversely imagined bestiary can’t seem to invent a fantasy world with people of color in any role.

But the success of the game has led to emulation. It’s almost inevitable. We’re still inundated with Call of Duty 4 impersonators, and that came out ten years ago at this point.

The problem is; when a game succeeds, those trying to mimic the game to replicate its success often mimic the wrong parts.
The Witcher 3 would have been a poorer game if it had been made by Ubisoft on the production deadline of an Assassin’s Creed game. Which is to say, an open world game is not just about the size of the sandbox, it’s what you do in that sandbox. And climbing towers to unlock vantage points doesn’t keep me wanting to play for 100+ hours. Sooner or later, you’re gonna run out of towers.

Fallout 4, dodgy story, bugs, and all, fills its world with interesting things to do and encounter as you explore. Which is the point of an open world game. It’s about inhabiting the world. Any world. Even quasi-linear games like Dishonored 2 and Prey, both created by Arkane Studios, are brilliantly rich and dive deep into the mythos of their chosen worlds. Because immersion isn’t necessarily connected to how detailed or photorealistic your graphics are. Journey and Azul are two other games that are fascinating and invoke great emotion when played. And they can’t technically hold a candle to the graphical fidelity of Batman: Arkham Knight (post patches.)

Which leads me to the point. Eventually, the purpose of games isn’t to maximize the number of polygons in a character model. We will eventually hit a technical wall where we can’t make something any more realistic. And that’s okay. The entire Borderlands franchise remains graphically interesting despite its age because it is stylized. Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, showed its age within a year.

Firewatch would have been a poorer game if it had tried for outright realism instead of building around its own stylization. Because even stylized, it is beautiful to look at. The sunsets gave me moments of pause to simply stare at the visual of it.
The whole point of this is to demonstrate one thing: gaming is not a one-size-fits-all market. And what was interesting once, ten years ago, may not be what’s interesting now.

Games like The Witcher 3, Journey, Azul, Dishonored 2, Prey, XCOM 2, Fallout 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and even Overwatch, demonstrates that the one-size-fits-all philosophy of the biggest publishers is outdated at best and outright ignorant at worst.
And while I haven’t mentioned all the best high-points in the 8th generation, this goes to illustrate a singular point: we, as gamers, want more. And the companies that provide it—Arkane, Naughty Dog, Guerilla Games, Ninja Studios, CD Projekt Red, among others—are going to be more successful than the Ubisofts and Activisions and the Electronic Arts that rehash the same games with improved graphics and expect us to be impressed.

Because we’re not. And the diminishing returns of each consecutive CoD reflect that.


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Analysis

Solas, Bull, and the King’s Gambit (a Little Game of Mind-Chess)

Angela D. Mitchell

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A look at one of the great moments in Dragon Age: Inquisition, as two former antagonists demonstrate how smart they really are.

One of the most brilliant conversations in gaming occurs between Solas and Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition, yet, depending on their choices, it’s a scene many gamers may have missed.

Spoiler Warning for all of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

“I’ve got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you’re moving a pawn? Are you even trying anymore?”
“Think about it, my friend.”

With a new Dragon Age title reportedly on the horizon, now is a perfect time to revisit great moments in the previous trilogy. In Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI), The Iron Bull’s all-important loyalty quest, “The Demands of the Qun,” sets up a huge number of game-changing possibilities for the Qunari character, who is a complex mix of subtlety, humor, and divided loyalties. If you save Krem and the Chargers, the family of lovable rogues and misfits Bull had assembled (one rescue at a time) over the past decade, you save Bull as well. Even though he goes through a tough period of adjustment and fear at going rogue, or “Tal-Vashoth,” Bull will then continue to evolve and enrich both his character and relationships as the game story continues.

However, if you don’t save his family, or if you skip Bull’s loyalty quest altogether? Bull’s character development is markedly different, darker, and more tragic. And you also miss one of the best and most beautifully conceived dialogue sequences in all of gaming.

Unexpected Comfort

While he’s happy to have saved his loved ones, Bull is now haunted—unmoored and uncertain, filled with guilt for turning his back upon the Qun, as well as with the fear and anxiety that he’ll lose control and give in to his own savagery and rage (something that actually happens sometimes to Qunari who escape the shackles of life under the Qun).

However, when Bull turns away from the Qun, one of the first companions to react with comfort (after a sympathetic Inquisitor) is, somewhat surprisingly, Solas, who shows real warmth, caring, and support in the aftermath. Previously critical and disapproving of Bull’s loyalty to the repressive Qunari regime, Solas appears genuinely moved and impressed when Bull leaves for the sake of the Chargers. It’s not exactly surprising that the secretive ancient trickster god of elven rebellion should heartily approve of Bull’s actions, but it is a warm and believable character note. And, it’s another example of the way the game’s banters show us actual relationship progression between our companions depending on our choices, and it leads to a terrific scene.

The Iron Bull (true to form as a lifelong spy) is subtle and cautious, characteristically protecting his pieces as he lays his traps.

In the aftermath of his choice, Bull himself is now nervous, defensive and on edge, terrified of what he’s done and of what he may become. There’s also an element of guilt here for Bull—how many Tal-Vashoth did Bull himself hunt, kill, or capture in years past on behalf of the Qun? Were all of them savage, as he had believed? Or were any of them like him—sane and fully cognizant, and simply unwilling to sacrifice all they loved in order to live under a repressive yoke any longer?

“You are No Beast”

While Bull is wrestling with this issue, Solas speaks up. In their first moment of real warmth together, the following conversation takes place:

Solas: You are not Tal-Vashoth, Iron Bull, not really.
Iron Bull: Well that’s a fuckin’ relief.
Solas: You are no beast, snapping under the stress of the Qun’s harsh discipline. You are a man who made a choice… possibly the first of your life.
Iron Bull: I’ve always liked fighting. What if I turn savage, like the other Tal-Vashoth?
Solas (firmly): You have the Inquisition, you have the Inquisitor… and you have me.
Iron Bull (quietly): Thanks, Solas.

I love this conversation for so many reasons. It’s an important moment for both characters: Bull, no longer operating under his previous, smooth-talking secrecy, is now actively admitting doubt and fear. Meanwhile, Solas is no longer detached and cold. He not only offers support and friendship, he is telling Bull directly, “If you need me, I’m here.”

It’s a pretty huge moment for the quiet elven mage, whose previous impulses were typically to stay silent versus to speak, to observe but not to act, and to disengage, not to engage. Significantly, it’s also one more moment that shows us Solas’s journey on his way to falling in love with the modern world in which he’s found himself…even the muted, corrupted version that now exists under the presence of the Breach and the Veil.

It’s interesting to observe Solas’s situation in counterpoint to Bull’s; Bull may have just passed his own crisis of faith, but Solas is just beginning.

The King’s Gambit

Not long after this moment of encouragement, in a genuinely compassionate gesture, Solas tries to distract Bull from his pain and anxiety by suggesting (with a slight glint of mischief) a nice game of chess. And not just any chess… MIND-CHESS. As in, no board. Just the two of them, playing mental chess as they walk and fight their way through the countryside.

Of course… as you do.

What’s fun here (and impressive) is that Bull makes noises about the inconvenience of playing the game that way, but he’s actually more than willing, and pretty soon the two men are off on their game. And when they do, I geek out the entire time. First off, because, MIND-CHESS (and why, yes, I do have to keep referring to it in all-caps), and secondly, because it’s another great way to show how brilliant Bull actually is under all the deflective tough-guy bluster, acquitting himself impressively even in a MIND-CHESS game against the freaking elven god of mischief himself.

Solas is bold and reckless, sacrificing his rooks, one bishop, and (tellingly) his queen, achieving checkmate with with the perfect piece of symbolism—his last remaining bishop (or “mage”).

Basically, everything about this situation is fantastically cool. The only way it could have possibly been cooler is if a glitter-covered unicorn riding a dragon had landed in the middle of a nearby field and sung an impromptu rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Maybe with Corypants doing a little soft-shoe nearby. (Too much?)

But we don’t really need anything else. Not even visuals. The fact remains that just listening to these two men play chess in their minds is a terrific high point in the game, and the scene would be equally so in any film or novel.

Meanwhile, even though I’m a pretty mediocre and erratic chess player myself, I love the game, and found the entire sequence absorbing and beautifully written. Kudos to Patrick Weekes, David Gaider, and the DAI writing team because—as usual with Dragon Age: Inquisition—the scene is successful on many levels at once.

The Immortal Game

First off, a little history. The game played by Bull and Solas here is actually a reenactment of one of the most famous chess matches ever played, referred to as “The Immortal Game” or “King’s Gambit.” The original game took place informally between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky on June 21, 1851 in London (on a break during the first international tournament). It quickly achieved fame for its daring, creativity, and for the showstopping drama and brilliance of its final moves. It is considered to be the epitome of the dashing, “romantic” chess of the time.

The game created an electrifying sense of drama and suspense, and was so impressive at the time that when the game was over, and he had lost the match to Anderssen, Kieseritzky himself actually telegraphed a recap of the entire game to his Parisian chess club, just to share the experience. From there, it quickly became a sensation in chess history, with the French chess magazine La Régence publishing the entire game in July 1851. As its fame grew, it was eventually nicknamed “The Immortal Game” by the Austrian Ernst Falkbeer in 1855, and the name stuck.

Chess as Personality

What’s fantastic about this particular game serving as the match between Solas and The Iron Bull is that it’s a gorgeous encapsulation of both men and their personalities. Solas developes his pieces early and makes moves that are dramatic and aggressive while Bull responds more circuitously, warily hunting for weak spots. While some might assume that Bull would be the aggressor and Solas the cautious one, for me it’s actually very true to form that Bull, as a lifelong spy, would be more subtle and careful in his approach, protecting his pieces as he lays his traps. Solas, on the other hand, is bold, almost reckless, sacrificing his Rooks, a Bishop, and (tellingly) his Queen, while laying the final trap for checkmate with his Bishop (“Mage”), and two Knights.

It’s a superb and beautifully layered scene that recreates one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of chess… and yet manages to use that existing chess match to tell us everything we need to know about these two characters. There’s even a sly elegance to the dialogue that communicates just a hint of its 19th century origins, with Solas for instance naming the King’s Gambit and Bull accepting in gentlemanly fashion. Adding an additional layer to the action is the fact that the two are literally translating the game into and out of their own cultures for one another, with Solas fascinated by Bull’s Qunari names for his pieces, even as Solas himself also does a bit of this, in calling his Bishops “Mages.”

It’s All in the Voices

The writing may be beautiful, but it’s the voices that must truly convey all of these constantly shifting and subtle emotions (remember, it’s a series of banters, so it’s set forth as a series of aural, eavesdropped conversations). With some serious heavy lifting before them in this scenario, voice actors Freddie Prinze, Jr. (The Iron Bull) and Gareth David-Lloyd (Solas) do an especially wonderful job here. Just as they do in embodying these characters in their struggles and losses throughout the constantly shifting stakes and scenarios of the entire DAI game story. I especially love the way their voices contrast during the swift back-and-forth dialogue of the game itself; Freddie’s against Gareth’s, with Bull’s rich, deep voice against Solas’s lighter one with its beautiful slight Welshness.

I’ve played DAI several times now, and I’m always delighted that these particular two men, both so well matched in subtlety, intelligence, and their capacity for deceit, are the ones playing this game. That, and the fact that they’re both former antagonists who are now on their cautious way to a friendship, one chess move at a time.

Most of all, I love the fact they’re both palpably having so damn much fun. The prospect of quiet, reserved Solas having fun is not exactly a frequent sight within the game (unless you romance him, which I highly recommend, as it’s by far the most complex portrait of Solas, and is so intrinsically tied to the main story). But he is—Solas is having a blast, and it’s even more fun to realize that he’s even enjoying the fact that he might just have underestimated Bull the tiniest bit. In return, Bull’s having just as much fun while being distracted for a little while from his inner fears, worries, and guilt.

And then, the final move: “You sneaky son of a bitch,” growls Bull cheerfully, as he realizes what Solas has managed to do. At that moment, he’s probably remembering what he himself had said about Solas not too long before—“Half our targets never even see you coming.” And Solas just proved him right, yet again. A great example of how I don’t think there’s any small detail to this game that is inconsequential.

When Bull concedes, he says “Nice game… mage,” and the title is one of respect. As is Solas’s subtle reply of, “And you as well… Tal-Vashoth.” It’s Solas capping the moment, bringing it full circle, and noting for Bull’s benefit, yet again, “You are Tal-Vashoth. And you are still yourself.”

The Bigger Picture

Upon analysis, the big-picture symbolism of Solas’s strategy here is almost painful, by the way, if you’re playing a romanced Inquisitor: He sacrifices several major pieces, and then, decisively, his QUEEN, in order to win. This can be seen as foreshadowing of both Solas’s breakup with (and betrayal of) a romanced Inquisitor… as well as the future sacrifice of Flemeth (Mythal). And let’s not forget that it’s the MAGE that takes down Bull’s King. The symbolism is all just perfect.

My own question is: does it also foreshadow Solas’s future plans post-Trespasser? It just might. Look at the game from a big-picture perspective:

  • Develop a multitude of pieces as early as possible
  • Place key pieces in strategic and useful locations
  • Sacrifice those necessary (no matter how powerful… or beloved)
  • Create compelling distractions to pull focus
  • Hide in plain sight
  • Pounce, kill, and win
  • Sit amongst the wreckage of the world and weep for what you’ve lost

Okay, fine, that last one was added by me.

Meanwhile, now’s a great time to take a look at the dialogue for the entire chess match, so I’ve included it below, and have also joined all the separate banters into one, single conversation.

The Mind-Chess Banters (Complete):

Solas: How do you feel, Iron Bull? Do you need a distraction to focus your mind?
Iron Bull: Well, this area’s low on dancing girls. Sadly.
Solas: King’s pawn to E4.
Iron Bull: You’re shitting me. We don’t even have a board!
Solas (amused): Too complicated for a savage Tal-Vashoth?
Iron Bull (grumbling): Smug little asshole. Pawn to E5.
Solas: Pawn to F4. King’s Gambit.
Iron Bull: Accepted. Pawn takes pawn. Give me a bit to get the pieces set in my head. Then we’ll see what you’ve got.
Solas: So, where were we? Ah, yes. Mage to C4.
Iron Bull: Little aggressive. Arishok to H4. Check.
Solas: Speaking of aggressive. I assume Arishok is your term for the Queen? King to F1.
Iron Bull: Pawn to B5.
Solas: All right. You have my curiosity. Mage takes Pawn.
Iron Bull: You call your Tamassrans Mages? Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: You call your Knights Ben-Hassrath? Incidentally, Knight to F3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath makes more sense than horses. They’re sneaky, and they can move through enemy lines. Arishok to H6.
Solas: Pawn to D3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to H5. Ha! All right, take some time. Think about your life choices.
Solas: All right, Bull. If you are prepared: Knight to H4.
Iron Bull: Arishok to G5. So, you giving up the Tamassran at B5 or the Ben-Hassrath at H4?
Solas: Neither. Knight to F5.
Iron Bull: Pawn to C6. Left your Tamassran hanging out.
Solas: And you, your Knight. Or Ben-Hassrath, if you will. Pawn to G4.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: Hmm. Tower to G1.
Iron Bull: Ha! Pawn takes your Tamassran—or Mage, or whatever it is.
Solas: I get the idea.
Iron Bull (teasing): Too much time playing with spirits, Fade Walker.
Solas: We shall see.
Solas (after a pause): If you have a moment, Bull: Pawn to H4
Iron Bull: Arishok to G6.
Solas: Pawn to H5. Careful.
Iron Bull: You’re the one who lost his Mage. (Chuckling) Arishok to G5.
Solas: Queen to F3.
Iron Bull: Oh, clever. Almost trapped my Arishok. Ben-Hassrath to G8.
Solas: Mage takes Pawn, threatens Queen.
Iron Bull: Ugh! Arishok to F6.
Solas: Knight to C3. You’ve developed nothing but your Queen.
Iron Bull: Don’t get cocky, you’re still one Tamassran down. Tamassran to C5, by the way.
Solas: Hmm. I will need to consider. (Pause) After careful consideration: Knight to D5.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Pawn at B2.
Solas: Mage to D6.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Tower. Check. (Pause) What are you doing, Solas?
Solas: King to E2.
Iron Bull: All right, Tamassran takes Tower. Your last Tower, by the way.
Solas: Pawn to E5.
Iron Bull: Really. I’ve got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you’re moving a Pawn? Are you even trying anymore?
Solas: Think about it, my friend.
Iron Bull: All right, Solas. I’ve thought about it. Ready to finish this? Ben-Hassrath to A6.
Solas: Knight takes Pawn at G7. Check.
Iron Bull: Mmmhmm. King to D8.
Solas: Queen to F6, Check.
Iron Bull: And now my Ben-Hassrath takes your Queen. You’ve got no Towers. You’re down to a single Mage. Too bad you wasted time moving that Pawn to… to… (Pause) You sneaky son of a bitch.
Solas: Mage to E7. Checkmate.
(The Iron Bull growls. A pause.)
Iron Bull: Nice game… mage.
Solas: And you as well… Tal-Vashoth.
Sera (if present): Uhhhh… KING me!

If you have Sera along for the final banter, her presence, and that very funny line at the end, is the perfect capper on the game (and emphasizes what a feat it actually was, and how far beyond most people it would be).

It’s a terrific and memorable scene in DAI. But just remember—you’ll never experience it, if you don’t save the Chargers.

Watching the Game on a Traditional Chessboard

Do you want a visual representation of the moves while you listen to the conversation from the game? Take a look at this video on YouTube, which provides a seamless full aural and visual recreation of the game for easy visual reference by YouTube user Huevos Rancheros.


Images courtesy of Bioware

This article is a reprint (with minor modification) of an article originally published by Angela D. Mitchell on DumpedDrunkandDalish.com.

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Nazis Upset Over Wolfenstein II Promoting Nazi-Free America

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Following a tweet from the Wolfenstein official Twitter account that included a short video teaser for the upcoming Wolfenstein II, online outrage erupted due to the tweet’s harsh anti-Nazi stance and the trailer’s inclusion of the words “Not My America” over shots of Nazi soldiers marching. Because apparently, the morality of supporting Nazis is a question again.

The spin on Donald Trump’s infamous campaign slogan drew a hostile reaction from those who decided attacking Nazis is too political for a franchise that has always been based around killing Nazis. Some took it as an attack on conservatism rather than a clever slogan with a timely message, or some kind of unfitting attempt to make the series political by focusing on the very thing the series is about.

I wish I could feign surprise. This series has let players shoot Nazis for decades now without any significant negative reaction. Unfortunately, Nazis have become increasingly relevant lately for all the wrong reasons. I’m glad we have Wolfenstein to remind us Nazism is a terrible thing. Here’s hoping other games take their lead. Maybe even the Call of Duty franchise, which is set to return to its Nazi-killing roots with this year’s Call of Duty: WWII. I haven’t bought Call of Duty in years. Give me an ad like this, and I’ll buy five copies.

Bravo, Bethesda. Bravo.

Wolfenstein II releases on October 27. Buy it and make Nazism shameful again.


Video and Images Courtesy of Bethesda Softworks

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