For a medium that revolves so much around killing, it’s sad that so few games show us the realistic consequences of violence. That’s probably why there are so few kids in games and why they’re always supernaturally protected from player created chaos: no one wants to sensationalize child murder. There were no kids in the “No Russian” level of Modern Warfare 2, and you can’t kill kids in Fallout 3 even though there are many in the Capital Wasteland. Despite this trend of avoidance, there have been a few recent and semi-recent games that deal with the killing of children explicitly and implicitly, and it’s no coincidence that they’re all horror games.
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The plush, cutesy, Stephen Fry narrated dream world of LittleBigPlanet is back, now with more brain twisting and ingenious level design and an entire assortment of mini-game remakes built right in. Developed by British based developer Media Molecule, LittleBigPlanet 2 is a surprisingly controversial game considering its unabashed attempts at charming gamers everywhere into joyful submission. PopMatters’ own Kris Ligman accurately and expertly dug into the game’s contradictory gender messages this past Tuesday, specifically revealing how Media Molecule negated their own attempt at encouraging a playful understanding of gender and identity (“Sackpersonhood: Constructing a Rhetoric of Player Identification”, PopMatters, 1 February 2011). It seems LBP’s cute aesthetic is to blame in more ways than one. Jumping, for example, in LBP 2 is largely unsatisfying, and despite attempts to blame players accustomed to jumping like Mario, Media Molecule has no one to blame but themselves.
I’ve stopped playing DC Universe Online. Even if it weren’t annoyingly buggy, I would’ve quit by now because I’m burned out on it. But I’m not sad or resentful about this fact. I enjoyed it a fair amount more than I was annoyed by it, and it had plenty of fun moments. Like almost every other game that I play, I had my fun and have now moved onto the next thing (Dead Space 2 in my case). That’s pretty much how most folks play games. The only difference is, now I have this sense of urgency and dread about stopping playing. Have I had all the fun that I can have in one month? I need to decide now before they charge my credit card for another month’s play time. It’s the kind of added, trap-like stress that makes me shy away from MMOs in the first place. Well, it’s one of the reasons that I shy away from them.
I have a number of friends who worked on Star Trek Online, but the closest that I ever came to playing it was watching an hour long Quick Look video over at GiantBomb.com. It looked kind of cool, and I am a Star Trek fan, but I didn’t for a moment consider playing it because I’m not an MMO-player. I vastly prefer tighter, more crafted experiences. In particular I’m a sucker for stories in games, and every MMO shares a central, fatal flaw for me: the story of my character can never matter. Because the world and its adventures need to be there for online players to experience them time and time again, my actions will never have any consequences on the world. The result is MMO stories are like a kind of Sisyphean theme park ride. While you’re sitting in your seat looking at the robots and flashing lights, it seems like you’re in the middle of an important drama, but once you exit the ride (often through the gift shop where you can get some new loot), nothing has changed at all. That is the exact opposite of the hero’s journey. Star Trek compels because Kirk and Picard are saving the galaxy and doing what no other starship captains can. I knew any collection of online theme park rides would never give me that experience.
The story of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one told in fairly minimalistic terms. While offering a wealth of cut scenes, events within the game tend to be briefly presented before returning to the action of play, conversations tend to be short, and even the dialogue within those conversations tends towards brief, clipped phrases.
In that sense, the characters themselves in the story, the three heroes, Trip (though her full name is Tripitaka), Monkey and Pigsy, as well as the story’s villain, Pyramid, all have fairly short, minimally descriptive qualities. While two of these names are derived from the nicknames of characters from Enslaved‘s source material, the sixteenth century Chinese novel Journey to the West, both Monkey and Pigsy’s names seem initially merely a way to define their obvious physical similarities to the animals that they bear the names of and possibly to suggest the generally accepted “personalities” of those animals.
LittleBigPlanet 2 might have unintentionally oriented itself toward a more elite playerbase than it realized, but you can’t mistake the good pedagogical intentions of its developers. These games are meant as Western child-rearing in a nutshell, deliberately multicultural and gender-inclusive, actively encouraging self discovery and mutable identification.
There’s just the little problem of its execution. Or rather, how it sets up and fails to deliver where it counts.
Let’s begin by considering LittleBigPlanet 2‘s approach to character design compared to more “mature” titles, like a BioWare RPG. If gender isn’t the very first item that you select, it’s certainly up there near the top. By contrast, LittleBigPlanet 2‘s character customization (which has not been altered terribly much from the original) stresses a sort of free play with gender and expression. Certainly you can gender yourself and dominant references to the series mascot as “Sackboy” enforce a specific interpretation, but there is nothing in the text itself that says a player can’t freely decide to be one thing, then another, then both, then neither. She can add an afro to her wedding dress, give the Raiden outfit Meryl Silverburgh’s wig, or whatever else she fancies. Not only can the player do this, the game wants her to do it. Experiment is what it encourages. Be playful with your identity.