Adventures in Social Gaming

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The first time I ever got into online multiplayer gaming was when I was just a cub. Starcraft. Good old Battle.net. One of the first games to use online multiplayer, if I recall. I think I even linked in over a dial-up connection. You know, back when those were a thing.

In any case, it took me a long time to find a game. Kept joining rooms, then getting booted before the game actually started. Eventually I did find one that kept me around, a game that advertised itself as being just for new players. Sounded perfect to me.

I did get the inkling that the game organizers were a little more experienced than they let on, which was proven right once we started the game and they went with the whole ‘Haha, got you know suckers’ bit, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to play, it didn’t matter to me that it was up against people above my skill level.

It was all well and good until the end. I ended up being the second to last player surviving, not because of any measure of skill, more for just successfully staying unnoticed while everyone else got creamed. Eventually, I was found by one of the more experienced players, my defenses were circumvented, and I was routed. Would have been all well and good, except the whole while I was under attack, the other player wouldn’t stop talking about how bad I was at the game. In rather colorful terms. He organized a trap for new players those who were by nature bad at the game, and then when he had some, just harped on how poorly the new players were.

So yeah, online multiplayer did not make a good first impression on me. What I’ve experienced with it since has not shaken that perspective. Most of the time, I’m lucky enough not to deal with assholes like that, but even so, competing with people I don’t know just doesn’t carry any value for me. If we’re friends, I’ll play with you till the sun blows up and have a blast doing it. If I don’t have any connection, I don’t get anything out of it. It’s just as satisfying to be playing against the CPU, and more productive and less dramatic to boot.

So yeah, never really enjoyed playing competitively with strangers. I’ve been wondering if that extends to cooperative play, though.

There have been games built around online co-op for a while. I just never got into it. Even back when I was big into MUDs (if you don’t know what those are, think an MMORPG run through a text parser), I still largely played independently. And those will often tie you into to a large and active group as part of the character creation process. But I never really felt it. I’d use the social aspects of it all the time, but when it was time for some actual gameplay, I went out into that big, wide open, interactive world all by myself.

Even games balance for multiple players, I’d always play alone. Castle Crashers comes to mind, there. Often took a while, often led to some frustration, but well, almost none of my friends play games, and if I wouldn’t have a connection with the person on the other side of the monitor, I just don’t really enjoy that.

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That’s starting to change with me, though. Playing with strangers. Still have no interest in competitive multiplayer, but cooperative play has been growing on me, though. That started with Left 4 Dead. I began playing that a while after Left 4 Dead 2 came out, and took all the hyperaggressive jerks in the playerbase with it. The big point in that game’s favor is that it just made it easy to play co-op. Just put a game out there, players will come in. Matchmaking was easy. And you didn’t even have to wait for it. Start your game up already, it’ll be filled with CPUs at first, seamlessly replaced with actual players as they drop in. I had bought it intending it as a single-player experience, but having it so easy to play with others convinced me to give it a try. And the other players didn’t disappoint. Honestly helpful, cooperative, and when I was first starting out, instructive, they did make for a good time, and a much deeper one than I was expecting.

Portal 2 continued that trend. I had a bit of a rocky relationship with it’s coop, but the fact that it had a whole second half of its game beyond that social barrier meant that I was going to stick it out. It took me a while, but I did get randomly matched with another player that was at my puzzle-solving level, and that lead to what was honestly one of my favorite experiences in computer gaming.

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More recently, I’ve been noticing a bunch of games picking up on drop-in Co-op. You might remember from the Dark Souls LP that I experimented a bit with it there, although I didn’t get much into it outside of offering the odd bit of help to other players. The message system, though, did save my butt a few times, and I was an active enough participant in that I hope I gave other players the same thing. Dead Rising 3 works with something similar, except I’m not in control of when other players show up to help me out. So I’ll have players just randomly popping up to mow down a few zeds with me with no rhyme or reason, just helping me out as I make my way through a grim and gritty apocalypse dressed only in an afro and a schoolgirl outfit.

And you know, I’ve been finding an odd appreciation for that. They’re not getting anything out of it, that’s just other players, taking time out of their day to join forces with me. Somehow, having no connection there does make that experience more precious. I’d still take a friend like, say, you reading this right now, over an internet weirdo any day, but still, those weirdos aren’t all that bad. Especially you.

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Lagging Behind on the Leading Ladies- Part 2: The Business Perspective

Overview

So. This series here. As I had mentioned, we’re going to be covering three different categories of factors that make it difficult to have a woman as your lead in a video game; business, creative, and social. Before we get to that, though, first I feel I need to do something I’m very, very, very good at. I need to talk about myself.

Specifically, I need you guys to know where I’m coming from in all this. I spend nearly all of my time being absolutely incredible, but for this one, I need to take it two steps back, and make myself credible to you all. I don’t like putting a lot of real life into this blog, except for a few isolated places, but here’s one where I feel it’s really important to know what my foundation is to contextualize your own take on the theorizing I’m about to do.

Basically, I’m not an expert on any of this. I do have enough of a professional background behind me to make what I consider to be some educated guesses, but I’ve never worked in the video games industry. So, you know, keep that in mind.

My degree’s in Business Administration. I’ve spent most of my career as a small business consultant. I’ve worked on the outskirts of the literary publishing, the fine art, and the film industries. I have and continue to periodically write or work on my graphic novel or do other creative stuff. So the above few sentences are where I get my standing on the business and creative spheres. I currently work as a case manager, which gives me a bit of a lead on the social aspects, but honestly, most of that is just going to be drawing from my years of experience watching people be assholes on the internet. Because really, that’s as much of an expert as pretty much anyone is on that side.

So there, that’s the short and quick of what I’ve got behind me pushing me towards these thoughts. You got it? Good.

One more thing I want to highlight on this little series here. The Shameful Narcissist hit it right on the head in the last post on the subject: This is a very complicated matter. The question of why we don’t see more woman-fronted video games is something that relates to the core of how we look at each other and treat each other as human beings. This is a complex matter. And we cannot apply a simple solution to it. People on both sides of the argument have been doing that as long as the argument has been there, and it hasn’t gotten anybody anywhere. That’s the big takeaway I want you to get. We cannot have a simple solution to a complex problem. There are so many factors involved in keeping men as the primary gender for video game protagonists and trying to address one single thing as the cause for it all is just wasted effort. If you want to see the type of change that leads to more female leads in games, we’ll need to start by understanding just how many branches there are in that rabbit hole.

Moreover, this is not about misogyny or any sort of acute sexism. This is not a man vs. woman thing. If there is anyone out there deliberately making choices to keep women out of games, nobody with any sort of sense is listening to them. Rather, this is more about implicit bias. This is about the assumptions society in general makes about gender and what that means. Every culture, large-scale or small, has their own set of assumptions and acts on them unconsciously in ways that trend towards whatever group is most strongly represented there. It’s not just whatever group men or whites or whatever group in power at the time does. Look at companies and industries dominated by women, or caste- or clan-based societies, and you’ll see the same thing. These unconscious biases are usually negative on both sides, which we won’t so much see here but will become more apparent when we get into the next two sectors we’re looking at. The longer that culture goes on, the more prominent those unconscious trends become, until slowly, shifts start to happen. We’re in the middle of a shift like that now, but it’s not happening quite the way a lot involved in that dumb culture war going on right now would like. We’re going to check out why.

Let’s start giving you the Business.

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Snap Judgements on the Humble Originals

The Humble Bundle is a pretty fantastic thing. Get yourself a curated selection of games, plenty of which are probably completely new, unfamiliar, and surprising to you, and drop some money towards charity while you’re at it. A while back, they started up their Humble Monthly, a sort of book club for games, wherein you get a bunch of mostly mystery games every month as long as you subscribe.

Humble Monthly did well enough that they were able to bring a bit of funding to bear for the purposes of producing games. Doesn’t seem to be all that much, as all the games produced under that banner seem to be very small projects, but it has brought to life plenty of games that might not have seen the light otherwise. They’re all relatively small games, but they trend towards the experimental, the risky, and the unusual experiences.

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And these Humble Originals, as they’re called, are somewhat exclusive. Only a handful of them have seen release outside of the Humble channels. It used to be they were divvied up, granted one per month through the Humble Monthly releases, but now, they’re part of the collection of games offered for free download for any Humble Monthly subscriber. And this month, and this month only, I’ve got access to them.

And as always, my gain is everyone else’s gain too. Given that these games aren’t available for most of the general audience, I thought I’d do my part to let everyone know what’s going on here. Build up that good old public repository of knowledge. Of video games. Important stuff. I’ve played all of them. Some of them, all the way through, some of them until I got bored, and some, I only got a taste of. Here’s my quick impressions of what the Humble Original catalog has in store.

I can’t wait to get started. Can you imagine? Free of the traditional game funding structures, this is where the true High Art of gaming can flourish! I’m looking forward to a lot of incredibly deep experiences with multifaceted plotlines and intensely crafted atmospheres and…

Cat Girl without Salad

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Yesssssssssssss. High. Art. Achieved.

Cat Girl without Salad originally started life as an April Fool’s joke from Wayforward, developers of the Shantae series and a lot of surprisingly good classic game revivals. Way, way back in the prehistoric days of 2013, they had announced this game as a Fool’s Day gag, promising to build a game that combined elements of pretty much every genre out there. Then April Fool’s was over, everybody forgot about it, the end.

Until years later when those Humble guys started throwing money around, and brought this to life. This silly, ridiculous game idea. And you know what? It’s one of my favorites of this collection.

It still brings elements of all sorts of game genres together. Sort of. It’s primarily a side-scrolling shooter, but all your weapon pick ups are from different industries. I didn’t get to play long, but in the course of my time there, I picked up a sports gun, which used classic golf game mechanics to fire, a puzzle gun, where you matched orbs a la bubble bobble to clear the screen, a rhythm gun, where you had to play DDR to fire your weapon, and more.

You may guess it’s pretty silly. You’d guess write. The dialogue backs this up. It feels like playing a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s creative and funny and manic. So yeah.

The art is pretty neat, if a bit simple. Animation is nonexistent, everything is just a static sprite. Sometimes, they’ll switch to a different pose, but no actual movement. The game’s pretty short too, just three levels as far as I can tell. But I had a great time with it. This is already on my list to play more later.

Disc Room

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It’s a challenge game, akin to Super Meat Boy or 10 Second Run. You’re in a room with a bunch of spinning saw blades. They move around and bounce off the walls. Some have special properties. Your goal is to survive 30 seconds. Which all sounds like a typical Tuesday, really. Do so, and you unlock different challenge rooms with new fun ways to murder you with saws. Yay. Fail, and you’re pretty much right back in the action right away. It’s a really snappy game.

I enjoyed it, but this isn’t a type of game I typically spend a whole lot of time plugging into. I can see myself playing it in short spurts when the mood strikes, but not really giving it a dedicated play session.

Copoka

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If you ever wanted to be a bird in a totalitarian country, (I know I’ve dreamed of that every single day), then Copoka is the game for you.

Yeah. You’re a bird. Just a bird. You fly around. Pick up stuff for your nest. Eavesdrop into the dreary, horrible lives of the general populace. That last bit is where the real meat of this game lies. It’s an environmental narrative or art game or walking simulator of whatever the blazes you want to call it. Not much in the way of actual gameplay unless you really, really like flying aimlessly, but you can follow the breadcrumbs to pick up little glimpses into the lives of the citizenry of the oppressive regime.

I kind of like the way things are told through this game. I think it’s interesting being a completely unconcerned observer just casually picking up a bunch of tidbits of life behind the wall as you’re going along. I just wish it was deeper. The totalitarian government is same typical one you find in storytelling, the wrongs being inflicted on it’s people aren’t anything different from what you’ve seen before, and the game doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to actually say on it’s subject matter. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to walk away with. Look at these sad people and be sad too? Totalitarianism is bad? Not much room for insight in this tale.

Elephant in the Room

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Continuing the animal-themed games, in Elephant in the Room, you are an elephant. In the room. This is about as self-explanatory as games get. Your job is to make it out of the house without being acknowledged. There’s a party going on, and you’ve got to stealth your way through. If you’re spotted, you have to trample whoever sees you before they can tell anyone else you’re there. That is exactly how I make my way through parties, so I can relate to this concept.

I’m not convinced the house actually has any doors to the outside. I haven’t found one yet. Although I haven’t tried very hard. This game just doesn’t feel very good to play. The controls aren’t horrible, but for whatever reason, it just feels wrong, tactilely. It’s missing some kind of mechanical cohesiveness that would bring it all together. It doesn’t help that there’s a fair amount your elephant can do, but all you have as far as a guide goes is a quick controls screen when you first start up that you’ll likely forget half of pretty quickly.

So yeah. Not recommended.

Gunmetal Arcadia Zero

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This is a giant love letter to the NES era. Oddly enough, rather than aping the most well known titles of the generation that everyone remembers, Gunmetal Arcadia Zero feels a lot more like the average game your grandma would have bought you from the random garage sale going on down the street. Rather than aping the classics from Nintendo, Konami, or Capcom, this game feels like it draws more inspiration from the likes of Sunsoft or Data East. I’m not sure where I’m picking up that distinction, but honestly, it feels very nostalgic to me, and it draws me back to my childhood a lot more than the average Castlevania clone would.

Design, sound, most everything presentation-wise feels very much like an old NES game. The only thing that really seems out of place is the text. The phrasing is not nearly as awkward as those old NES games always were, and it’s pretty clear that the developers were not under a memory limitation in how they plotted things out. It’s not a bad thing, having dialogue and a plot that’s actually parsable, though, so I’ll forgive them this one diversion from the old school.

Otherwise, the game is fun. Lots of equipment and upgrade options that actually impact gameplay, the action-platforming is fun and responsive, and the whole experience feels very well designed. I’m not a fan of the lives system, I feel that’s a gameplay feature the industry outgrew for a reason and it doesn’t really jive well with the more limited time I have to play these days, but at least the checkpoints don’t seem horribly far apart.

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Eh, it’s a puzzle-platformer where you’re a 2d character situated on a 3d cube that you can rotate and navigate according to a fixed perspective. It’s got a lot of character. There’s a very solid visual design going throughout. I gave up on it pretty quickly though, as I lost track of where to go next and I found the navigation and the way the game would completely reset your progress every time you fell off the cube to be rather frustrating. It’s one of the things that’s part of the way I play games now vs. the way I played years ago. I hate having to repeat myself. And it may be coming from my lack of grasp of this games level rotation mechanics, but I just lost patience with having to do things over and over again.

Keyboard Sports

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Do you love your keyboard? I love your keyboard. This is a game that’s a big love letter to your keyboard, before the preponderance of gadgets such as phones and tablets make it obsolete. You play it with the entire keyboard. Forget your WASD, you’ve got to use all your QWERTY here.

It’s a very simple concept. Press a key, and your character moves to that relative position on your screen. It’s applied in so many creative ways, though, and that builds quality into it. Keyboard Sports is creative and varied and always fun and way too short. Luckily, the developers seem to be using this as a proof-of-concept for a full game, so we may be seeing more keyboard goodness some day.

Yojimbrawl

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This is a multiplayer-only game and I am too intense to have friends, so I’ll let you guess what my experience with it was.

Kimmy

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Kimmy is a visual novel with a unique art style where you’re babysitting the titular Kimmy and helping the shy, reserved child make friends by teaching all the neighborhood kids how to play classic schoolyard games lack jacks, kick the can, and bloody knuckles, which is appropriate for young children apparently.

I played it for a couple of in-game days, and its story never got to a hook. There’s obviously something going on with Kimmy and her family, how her mom works two jobs while her father’s at home all day and Kimmy doesn’t want to be alone with her dad, but details on any overarcing plot are very sparsely distributed. Most of the game is just explaining the rules of kids games, which yes, I remember, good for me, but it wasn’t compelling.

To be honest, I’m probably not going to be the best at judging a visual novel at the moment. The same issue I’m dealing with that’s changed the way I’m writing posts has also affected my ability to read, so take this impression with a grain of salt.

Oh Deer!

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So Oh Deer calls back to all those great driving games of the 16 bit era, such as… um… I’ve got this, just give me a moment…. errr….

This is… it is certainly a game. You drive. Sometimes there are lines of deer. You can drive right through them. Or not. It really doesn’t matter. At first I thought there were only two levels, because I always ran out of gas in the middle of the second area. Eventually, I learned to powerslide, which is a more fuel efficient way of moving about, and I ran out of gas sometime later in the second area. I don’t know if it’s actually possible to proceed. I don’t know if there’s any real objective here. I don’t know about this game.

Uurnog

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What, you can’t tell exactly what this game is from the name? It seemed obvious to me.

Uurnog is a very visually stylized puzzle-platformer, mechanically similar to Super Mario Bros 2. I didn’t get the chance to play very much of it, but what I did, I enjoyed. You pick up stuff. You put down stuff. All the stuff you pick up has some sort of special function you can use to alter the surrounding area. I saw some weapons to pick up, so I’m guessing there’s combat which… kind of feels like it might be a pain in the ass, but other than that? It’s charming, the earliest puzzles at least were simple without being brainless and I enjoyed my time with it. Another game I’m looking forward to spending more time with later.

Jawns

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A strategy board game. If you’ve ever played stratego, it’s like that, with all the pieces revealed and the board scaled down. Every piece has a number. Pieces beat other pieces of a lower number. It’s kind of like checkers, simple on the surface, but I could see it getting some real strategy to it. Jawns does have a single-player ‘practice’ mode, but the AI is very simple, so you’d have to pull in a friend to get the full experience. I invite you to check out an earlier description for my position with regards to friends.

A2Be

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All these Humble Originals are obviously small experiences. Didn’t have a huge team or a huge budget, and creativity is valued here over spectacle or in-depth mechanics, for the most part. Apparently, it’s valued over playtesting, too. Apparently, after the intro, something went wrong with the game’s code and it placed me in the very last area of the game, rather than the first. So I saw the intro, and I saw the final scene and the ending, and nothing in between. Kind of color’s one’s perspective on the game.

It’s a sci-fi point and click adventure. Seems very dialogue heavy, from the bits that I saw. From the presentation and the ending, I would imagine it has a lot more emphasis on dialogue and storytelling than on traditional gameplay. Full of purple prose, more emphasis on saying something poetically than saying it clearly, but it did explore some interesting, if not exactly novel, ideas in the bits I played.

I did get it working properly, but between the frustration I had with that weird glitch and my current problems in reading such a dialogue heavy game, eh. Not going to give it a recommendation.

Tiny Echo

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A point and click… environmental narrative, I think? I hesitate to call it an adventure. Nothing I’d really consider puzzles, seems most things are on a course. Which, yeah, it’s environmental as all get out. The experience just oozes somber and surreal. You’re in an odd land, delivering mail to the souls of odd beings, all beautifully arted and sounded. It’s an interesting experience. I wouldn’t imagine you’d enjoy this if you’re not into environmental narratives already, but I found it rather fascinating. I’m calling out a few other art games on this list for their lack of substance, but I don’t think this one fits that denigration. It doesn’t give many details, but it does trigger my imagination in a way that others here have failed at.

2000:1: A Space Felony

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Take a look at that name. I’ll give you one guess as to what movie it takes after. I’ll also give you one guess as to what game it takes after. Ok, maybe that second one is a bit harder.

This is 2001: a Space Odyssey meets Phoenix Wright. And as far as the film influence goes, homage is an understatement. The serial numbers aren’t filed off, there’s just a clear piece of packing tape over them. They changed things from the film the minimum amount required to maybe not get sued. I mean, I only saw the film once. And I was drunk then. And the wholesale borrowing was still very blatant to me.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad experience. I actually quite enjoyed it. Basically, you’re a detective, investigating this spacecraft that has been out of contact for a while. The only thing still active on the craft is it’s AI, Mal. You collect evidence, confront Mal with it, and point out holes in his testimony by presenting conflicting evidence. If you find he’s behind any foul play on board, it’s your job to deactivate him.

The writing is sharp and clever. A lot of dry humor that I really resonated with. The mystery isn’t exactly hard to uncover, and the controls can be very persnickety, but I enjoyed it for what it was. Not exactly a lot of replay value here and it’s over really quickly, but it’s a good experience for as long as it lasts.

Quiet City

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I’m at a real risk of spending more time writing about this game than I did playing it, so I’ll have to be brief.

Quiet City is an art game, almost without a subject. You make stuff happen. Then it stops. There is no substance here. Nothing to say or consider or think about. When you’re pushing riskier games, not all of them are going to work out, and for me, this was a massive swing and a miss.

Volantia: Kingdom in the Sky

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I believe this is the most recent Humble Original. And it’s a really solid one. It’s a city management sim, set in a land floating in the sky. You need to pull in other floating islands to grow your kingdom, take advantage of their resources, and eventually connect your landmass with the ziggurats that keep everything from falling apart again.
This game is deeper than any of the others here except for possibly Uurnog and Gunmetal Arcadia Zero. Resource management is the game of the day, and you’ve got a lot of resources to play with there. The game evolves significantly as you play it, as you exhaust the simple resources and have to move down your tech tree to build up more complicated ways of building and maintaining the necessities you need. It seems all your functions are interrelated, and it takes a lot of balancing in order to keep your city stable. You need fruit to keep your workers going but that same fruit is the easiest way to produce your building material once your dust trees run dry, often leading to choices on whether to devote fruit toward more efficient production or to growing your city in other ways. And that runs completely down the line.

The game is beautiful too. Very well developed and charming visuals, it carries a very interesting appeal. I really liked this one. I did reach the point where my city was no longer in danger of collapsing to the earth below after an hour of play, and wasn’t really compelled to play on after that, but if you’re motivated by something different than I am, you may enjoy yourself even longer than that.

And that’s the Humble Originals. When you’re specifically bringing the more experimental and risky games to fruition, you’re going to land a couple of downers, and there are definitely some disappointments here. But there are also a few real gems. And really, they’re all interesting, in their own way. I’m glad Humble Originals is around to bring these to life, even if they’re not all that accessible most of the time.

Going Downtown in Fallout Chapter 9

Last time, on Aether cruises through Fallout, we… I don’t even remember. Something about going home again. You can read it. We’re not concerned about past. We only look towards the future. And the future, for us, is the Hub.

We embark from Vault 13 and make the long trip south. A long way. It takes a couple of days to reach it. We only know where the Hub is because of Ian; he told us where to find it, a while ago. It’s about half a day south of Junktown, and since we went back to the beginning to visit the Vault, we have to travel everything we’ve done all over again.

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The only real obstacle we run into on the way there is a single Radscorpion. Which by this point is not an obstacle at all. I only include it to commemorate the fact that it manages to poison Athena. It’s true! It manages to get the drop on us, and the only attack it makes before Athena and crew blow it away manages to both get past Athena’s defenses and actually poison her! This is exciting! I rarely ever see this happen! Entire games will go by, and I don’t have to think about poison. Of course, we’re carrying around 10 antidotes because I haven’t bothered selling them off yet, so it’s no matter for us to cure it, but still! It’s like winning the lottery. Of discomfort. Yeah. We don’t even loot the scorpion’s corpse, we just leave it there as a monument to this unique moment.

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Oh, and also, it’s been 50 days since we left the Vault, I think. Our Pipboy gives us a helpful reminder that everyone we’ve ever known and loved will soon die unless we find some way to rescue them by tracking down a lonely little water chip in this awful, awful wasteland. You know, in case we forgot.

Which we didn’t, for your information.

And then, we’re at the Hub! The thriving metropolis, largest city in the Pacific Wasteland, headquarters of nearly all organized traders in the wastes. They control the economy of the region, most commerce flows through here at some point, and this is the closest thing the wasteland has to a pre-war style city.

We walk in there, and it’s surrounded by farms. Two headed cows and weird mutated corn as far as the eye can see. I gotta say, I really love that Fallout thought about agriculture. Most games only give it a passing sidequest where you have to save the odd bumpkin from some ghost of his daughter’s uncle or some thing, but you see agriculture all over the place here.

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We also bump into a caravan that’s in the process of leaving town, hitching their wagons made from the scavenged flatbeds of pre-war vehicles up to their brahmin, the two-headed cows that serve as the livestock out here. We chat up the security guard, and get some deets on the place. Apparently, we can buy pretty much anything here. Including water. You know, if they can get fresh water here, mayhaps they’d have an idea of where we can pick up a water chip.

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After that we break into some random guy’s house in the middle of the night and start quizzing him about the layout of town. He’s a surprisingly good sport about it. He tells us were to find all the necessities in town, such as the police station, the general store, and most important of all, the local bar. He also tells us that we passed by someone from the sheriff’s office who would have filled us in on all that, but we didn’t because it’s 10:00 p.m. And all the sensible people are in bed and not breaking and entering in order to ask for directions.

Athena’s a night person, remember. You guys all picked it and everything. This is what she do.

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It’s Not My Thing

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you might notice that I play video games every once in a while. Rarely, I might form an opinion on these games. And sometimes, that opinion runs completely counter to the largely accepted opinion of the general gaming public. A game that gets rave reviews, that I just don’t get into. A game that is completely panned, that I find something special in.

This is something we’ve covered before. This is ok. The fact that I hate your all-time favorite video game with a passion I had once been saving for my love life is just a natural consequence of the fact that any sort of creative work is by its own nature a completely subjective experience.

Unfortunately, nobody told the internet about that.

Once upon a time, I used to be big on being social about my videogames. Well more social than this blog, at least. Forums were my big thing. Go out, be part of a community just talking about video games. Was all well and good until the opinions came up. It’s good to enjoy video games. It’s good to discuss video games. But as soon as you had an opinion about video games, well, it had better walk the line or you’d see just how tolerant and caring the internet can be. It seemed that there were certain things with each community that you had to hold to, or you’d have to deal with all the fan rage the lowest common denominator could muster.

Final Fantasy VII was the biggest problem there. Some places, it was the dew of perfection that was delivered to us directly by angels emerging from the Chosen Land in Holy Nihon. Saying anything remotely negative about it would get you flamed out of the internet. Other places, it was an over-reviewed piece of total garbage only propped up by the conspiracy of lustful yaoi fangirls, and saying anything remotely positive about it would get you flamed out of the internet. Nearly everywhere I went, there was a game like that. Street Fighter. Dragon Quest VIII. Etrian Odyssey. I remember I got heat at one place for really not enjoying Sprung. Freakin’ Sprung. Have you ever even heard of Sprung? No you haven’t. So who even cares?

I love having my opinion challenged. It’s happened several times on this very blog. However, it seems that Joe Internet Video Game Guy has a big problem with handling opposing opinions without being a total dickhole about it. Like something they don’t? Don’t like something they do? You will hear about it until they’re satisfied.

This drove me from a lot of the video game side of the internet. For a good long while. It got to the point that talking with people about those things I love just wasn’t worth it. I’m happy to say that blogging has been a more open and enlightened experience, but still whenever I try to set my eyes on some corner of the internet that hasn’t been connected to what we’ve cultivated here, it still seems to be the same thing. Vitriol, fanrage, just blatant anger over the ‘wrong’ opinion for what is by nature a subjective experience! To me, this is the biggest thing that made so many flavors of online gaming fandom so completely toxic.

I came to a realization recently. It doesn’t have to be that way. If we can all just agree on four simple words, fandom can be so much stronger. “It’s not my thing.” You don’t like something that someone else does? It’s just not your thing. It’s their thing, but not yours. Maybe it’s a lot of people’s thing, but not yours. Maybe it’s not their thing for a lot of people. You know what? It doesn’t matter. Everyone has their own individual experiences. Someone doesn’t like something that’s holy to you? It’s not their thing. And that’s ok.

Video games are art. Or if you’re not on that side of the argument that barely matters, they’re creative works. Whatever. The point is that just by the nature of what they are and how their made, games are very much subjective experiences. Everyone’s going to be seeing something different in it. Sometimes the differences may be vast, sometimes they’re slight, but the variation inevitably exists. And that is beautiful! That means they resonate, they pull something inside of us out and make us look at it. They take advantage of the fact that we each have our own individual story, and they use that to give us an experience that is so unique to us. If games weren’t to be subjective, we wouldn’t be seeing 1% of the games we do now, and they’d all be a lot more dry.

And that is really the point of talking about games, comparing each other’s story. That’s what makes it worthwhile in the first place. If all you’re looking for is an echo chamber, why are you spending the time in the first place? All you have to gain is just hearing your same thoughts in better words, but if you’re not talking to anybody who doesn’t already have them, what’s the point? What really enhances you enjoyment of the material is seeing it from different angles, from looking through other eyes to explore it more fully. And you don’t get that from demanding adherence to your approved opinions.

So that’s how to save the internet. That’s how to make talking about games more worthwhile. Run into an opinion you don’t agree with? Engage it. Explore it. Find out where it’s coming from. Your own opinions will be all the stronger for it.

Lagging Behind on the Leading Ladies: Part 1, Why I’m here.

Hold onto your seats, boys and girls. We’re going to talk about women in video games. Specifically, women as protagonists. You may have heard, likely from someone typing with way too many caps and exclaimation points, that the industry has a bit of a problem with its leading ladies. Which is not to say they aren’t out there. There are a huge number of strong female characters in video games. Given the size of the industry, in sheer numbers, there’s even a lot of protagonists with double X chromosomes. I could make you a list of playable female characters a mile long. The problem comes in when you’re looking at proportions, in which the formerly fairer sex is completely crowded out by a wave of digital masculinity. I’d like to see women getting a bit more market share. The thing is, gender representation in games is a hugely complicated issue, far more than your random agenda-pundit on Twitter is ever going to give it credit for. If all it took for creators to work some more women into their leads was to click on the right check box, it’d already be happening. Video games are a business, this overwhelming preference for male leads wouldn’t be happening in a vacuum. There are a lot of business, creative, and social factors that may be complicating the situation, and in this series of posts, we’re going to take a look at just what may be making varied gender representation in games such a hard thing to implement.

Before we get int that, though, I wanted to get into why I care. Wait, let’s put that another way. I want to talk about why I, as manly a dude as God has ever invented who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about this stupid culture war the Internet’s been waging in which it seems a participant’s intelligence is inversely proportional to the number of words they put together talking about it still wants to see more women helming his video games.

It’s not about trying to score points for any given side or to try to pick up women by white knighting for them, because when you look as good as I do, it’s no problem getting myself an in. Nor am I just looking for some new eye candy for my screen, although I wouldn’t begrudge it when used appropriately. To some extent, I do have the social concern. Studies have shown that just hearing stories about someone of their particular demographics finding success can lead to a statistically significant improvement on skills and education tests, and people shouldn’t have to work hard to find that in their chosen medium, though.  On the flip side, unless there’s a mirror in the room I do typically enjoy looking at women more than I do at men, and having more women leads would facilitate that. But to be honest, when I’m home, trying to get my leisure on, those are both small concern to me.  Really, what it all comes down to for me is a very selfish thing. I just want to play better games with better stories, and part of that is having more interesting leads.

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Just a refresher for those of you that need it, women are those people that wouldn’t go to prom with you in high school because they were too busy thinking about me. Anecdotally, more of my personal friends who play have been women than men, although I know that’s not representative. Women make up more than half of the human population, and a significant portion of the video games market. Although their proportions in a given industry, women are involved in all occupations, including military, law enforcement, crime, and video game development. Yet for all of their involvement in real life they don’t make up a very large proportion of video game leads.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that video game protagonists are more diverse than protags in most other creative industries, in the sense of actual experiential variation if not filling the EEO checkmarks. The most recognizable video game hero is both fat and rather ethnic. Due to the strong Japanese influence and historic market share, Asian and mixed-race characters abound. I could bring you examples of characters of all economic backgrounds. And I’d guess that you still see a lot more women taken seriously in action roles than in most other media. So while video games may seem to get more heat on the internet around its representation, I would posit that there’s a lot less inequality here than in most. Inequality is inequality, and that it’s there, even if it’s better than you might find otherwhere, is a sign that we’ve still got work to do, but recognition of that fact is handy for discussion.

The problem, from my big selfish perspective, comes when certain models of characters become overwhelmingly widespread. Now, this isn’t the first time games have run things into the ground. Back in the NES/SNES era, we needed characters that could be easily represented at minimal size and pixel use, so the mascot character ran rampant. As 3d games started getting their hold, and it became easier for the technology to represent someone recognizably human, the anime pretty boy started popping up all over the place. Then, when graphics started getting realistic, well, realism is apparently white brown-haired thirty something whatever.

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Any individual character is just fine. You can’t really pull out any individual mascot or spiky-hair or generic dude and honestly say they embody the worst of their era. It’s like steak. You can make a great meal out of it, you can prepare it so many different ways, there’s a lot of variation to it, but if you eat it every day, it’s going to start tasting bitter. Such it is with characters. Variety is key to keeping things fresh and interesting. When it’s something you’ve seen a thousand times, now matter how solid it is, it’s just harder to get into it. So when everything’s built off of the same general design document, the world just starts to look bland.

Breaking away from the XY chromosome isn’t the only way to add sufficient visual interest to a character. There are other ways to add in some fun variations. After all, Heihachi is made more interesting by virtue of being old. Link is made more interesting by being left handed. Dunban is made more interesting by being absolutely gorgeous and looking remarkably like your favorite video games blogger.

Nor is strapping a pair of tits on a character enough to automatically create that visual interest. No matter how white boy he might be, Geralt is still way more obviously interesting than Left 4 Dead’s Rochelle, just from a basic design standpoint. So yeah. Characters don’t have to be women to be interesting. And while the visuals, including their demographic, are the foundations from which a character springs, But women leads are a really obvious way to both create more interest through variety in their protagonists and get the story told through a somewhat different lens that we’re just not seeing that much of. Supplanting male characters is a common idea that just strikes me as a completely blind approach to the issues, but getting some lady leads, that carve out their own identity, much as Lara Croft, Faith, and Aloy have? That’s some low-hanging fruit that remains largely unplucked.

But there’s barriers to getting there. It’s not a simple decision for most of these businesses on any level.  You know what, let’s do some science here.

No, wait.  Let’s do some SCIENCE!

We’re going to do a big scientific study, right here, right now.  You would think, if it was easy to have women as lead characters in our games, if it were a simple matter, if the only thing holding it back was a bunch of old business dudes and their outdated assumptions, the indie creators would be making more woman-led games then the establishment.  Their creators are given more free reign, the companies thrive on individuality, and the smaller a company is the more flexible and the more in touch with their market they should be able to be.  So if there weren’t any of these business, creative, or social concerns in place, I would think that they’d be more reactive to the vocal demands for more women representation and the larger place women have been taking in our culture.

That’s what’s called a hypothesis in the biz.  We’re going to run a quick survey, sample size of my Steam library, on how many games have male protagonists, female protagonists, and indeterminate gendered/choice of gender or main characters/no protagonist.  First up come the major company releases.

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Really.  Out of almost 100 games, only six female protagonists?  Not very diverse, game industry.  Fine, let’s look at the Indies next.

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See!  There we go!  Numbers are still relatively low, but that’s 12% female protagonists in the indie sphere against just over 6% in the mainstream releases!  Twice as much!  Eat that, producers!

But wait.  There was one sphere that might be skewing those results.  Let’s take a look at those numbers again, but let’s take out the Visual Novels and Environmental Narratives that have very limited amounts of player involvement from those.  Not because they don’t count as games, we’re not getting into that argument here.  But because I think it does give a more accurate picture when we’re looking at the games where the player is expected to act through their character in a meaningful way.  So here’s the numbers when we isolate those games in which the player is an active participant.

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Indies have more mixed options, but as far as stories told with a strictly female protagonist?  The proportion is basically the same as the mainstream releases. 6% vs. 6.5%.

That’s because it’s harder to work in a female protagonist than most might assume, and those difficulties are largely the same whether you’re a company outfit or an indie studio.  If we are going to ask for more gender variation in our protagonists, I feel it’s important to understand where those barriers are, because creators aren’t going to break through them until their audience is there on the other side.

And that’s what we’re going to be taking a look at in this series. I hope you’ll join me for it.

Throwdown in Junktown. Fallout Chapter 7!

Last time on Fallout, y’all decided to side with the good, handsome lawman that asked kindly for our help over the evil fat jerk that threatened us. I know it was a hard choice for you all. But one that I’m happy to see through.

So, we head on over to Killian, and let him know the good news. We got Gizmo’s confession, courtesy of the recorder we were wearing when he hired us to kill the mayor/shopkeeper. For that, Killian offers us our choice from a number of different rewards. Not quite the ‘anything in the store’ he promised. In fact, outside of the stimpaks, everything he offers is something that we already have and couldn’t get any more use out of. So yeah, for finally breaking the stalemate that has locked Junktown down for who knows how long, he gives us like five of the most basic healing item in the game. Woo.

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He follows by asking us if we’d like a piece of the action in taking down Gizmo, to which we respond that we’d love the chance to see the fat guy try to walk. With that, we head out.

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Unfortunately, we never get the chance to see that through. Killian gathers the guard, storms into Gizmo’s office, and announces that Gizmo is going for a long trip downtown. Gizmo decides that he’d rather not, so he pulls out a gun and fires a shot into Killian. All from behind his desk. The guy in fact never leaves that desk at all, so no walking for him.

In any case, Killian and his guards return fire on Gizmo. Athena takes aim at Gizmo’s bodyguard, Izo, and nails him in the head. Izo is a pretty simple combatant, no weapons, no items, nothing special, just pure physicality to him. He might be dangerous, if we didn’t find metal armor long before we’d be able to get it if we hadn’t taken on the raiders. As is, he strikes at us twice in his turn, neither of which break past our armor class.

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The guards and Killian continue the firefight with Gizmo while Dogmeat and Athena take on Izo. Athena knocks him down with a critical hit, and Dogmeat closes in and finishes Izo off herself. Next turn, a shotgun blast blows Gizmo’s chest out of him, and the crime lord is down.

This gains us the good well of most of the justice-styled folks in the town, as well as enough experience points for another level. We’ll be waiting until it’s night to level up, for the extra skill points that come as Athena’s intelligence rises. We’ve got some business in town before then, however.

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So hey, you remember Tycho, the desert ranger at the bar who taught us some stuff about survival? We check in with him, and tell him that Killian has asked us to clean up the town, and he’s all to happy to join up. He suggests we start by taking down Gizmo. Yeah… I guess we could have picked him up after turning in Gizmo’s recording, but I’ve always remembered his recruiting criteria as being after we take down the plus-sized crimelord.

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