Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Text:AAA
Friday, Sep 11, 2009
A comparison of the hardest levels in Peggle with Trash Panic, and why the latter is considered punishing but not the former.

Gamers love a challenge, but when a challenge is described as “punishing”, that seems to be a roundabout way of saying “not fun.” The implication is that the challenge is so difficult that trying to overcome it can be considered a form of punishment, but what it’s actually describing is a challenge that requires a great deal of precision (and maybe some random luck) and that the slightest mistake can ruin your entire attempt. The sense of “punishment” stems from the game’s seemingly extreme consequences for failure. But it’s a very fickle word; our perception of any given challenge is affected by the rest of the game around it. A game that starts off easy and then gets very difficult won’t be considered punishing no matter how hard the later challenges may actually be. Case in point: Peggle.


Peggle is a conceptually simple game: There’s a vertical board filled with floating pegs of multiple colors. You shoot a ball from the top of the screen, and try to hit all the orange pegs, at which point you’ve beaten the level. Aside from the main Adventure mode, there’s a Challenge mode. In the hardest Challenges, you’re tasked with clearing an entire board starting with just one ball. These Challenges are the very definition of punishing: With one ball you cannot make any mistakes, every shot must result in another free ball or you start over. But these are not generally considered punishing, no part of Peggle is, because the rest of the game works to ease the player into that higher difficulty.


Peggle starts off slow. The rules aren’t complicated to begin with, but it still takes multiple levels before the player is introduced to the four kinds of pegs and what they do. The game is broken up into sets of five levels, and the first set is very straightforward: The layout of the pegs is simple, and there are no moving pieces. The second set adds some large curves, the third set adds some moving pieces, and the board slowly becomes more complicated until the player feels comfortable facing the punishing Challenges.


Trash Panic, on PSN, is very much the opposite. It’s instantly reminiscent of Tetris, but nowhere near as simple. Pieces of trash fall in from the top into a trash can, the user must throw them down, either on top of another piece of trash or at a particular angle, so that they break. If left unbroken, the trash quickly piles up and if three pieces fall out it’s game over. The basic mechanics seem no more complicated than Peggle, but when the use of fire, explosives, and decomposable trash, the odd scoring system that rates you on “Eco” versus “Ego,” the lack of a proper save system, and the lack of a tutorial are taken into account, then just learning the rules of the game becomes an unnecessary challenge.


From a technical definition, the final Challenges in Peggle are more punishing because there’s no way to recover from a mistake: One bad shot means the game is over. In Trash Panic if a piece of trash doesn’t break when we intend it to, there’s a small window of opportunity to fix this mistake if we doesn’t panic. So in this regard Trash Panic is more forgiving, but it’s not the actual difficulty of the individual levels that makes a game like Trash Panic feel punishing, it’s everything else around those levels, it’s that fact that the game does everything it can to prevent the player from progressing. Without a competent save system or tutorial, it feels like the developers never wanted players to reach the fifth and final level. Where Peggle eases the player into its harder difficulties, Trash Panic throws us in headfirst.


On the Japanese PSN, there’s an “Arcade Edition” of Trash Panic that lets you play three “lives” for 100 yen (about $1) When those are gone you have to pay again to keep playing. It’s a fitting structure for the game, since Trash Panic feels like it was designed to eat quarters.


Peggle is a textbook case of a game that’s well paced. With each level lasting only five to ten minutes, we’re constantly faced with new challenges, but the actual difficulty of those challenges increases at a slow and steady pace. Gamers love a challenge, but only when it’s an expected challenge. Trash Panic’s embrace of that instantly-punishing arcade style shows how much games have evolved since the days of the arcade. If a game doesn’t ease its player into the harder difficulties it risks losing them, and there’s no longer someone else standing behind them ready to plunk down a quarter for their turn. Today’s games must pander to the player. That’s not to say they must be easy, or even that they can’t be punishing, but they must let the player know what they’re getting into. Some challenges should be for volunteers only.


Tagged as: peggle, trash panic
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Text:AAA
Thursday, Sep 10, 2009
Two amazing collections of personal stories from MMO games have been posted online.
From EVE Online

From EVE Online


There have been two absolutely amazing MMO stories coming down the blog pipeline and both deserve mentioning.


The first is Jim Rossignol’s four part series over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun about his five year experiences with EVE Online. It chronicles the formation of a small raiding corporation called The State and their wanderings across the massive universe of EVE. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, it’s a startlingly open game where players form enormous corporations and alliances. Resources must be mined, transported, and developed at player created stations. The need to ferry supplies and control markets, all controlled by players, make his stories of pirating and raiding groups fascinating both as a social experiment and purely because of how complex these online games are becoming. Fondly remembering a long conflict with another corporation Rossignol writes, “The few months in which we fought, toe to toe, is something I’d love to be able to recreate or recapture, but I know it’s lost. A singularity in the history of gaming. It was so valuable: a time when the kind of game I’d always dreamed of had come to pass: carving out our niche in a living universe, protecting the weak, working as a team to make money and bring down enemies.”


From Ultima Online

From Ultima Online


The second is a collection of musings by a former GameMater or GM of the now defunct Ultima Online. The game was one of the first graphically depicted MMO games and drew heavily on MUDs and previous Ultima games for its design. What made it unique was what a hostile and wild place the game became when contrasted to modern MMO’s. If someone unprepared stepped outside of town, thugs would descend on them immediately. The game was ridiculously unbalanced as well, allowing for master players to basically dominate the scene. Being a GM in such a culture, which resembled Hobbes’s state of nature more than a civil online game, allowed one called Backslash to collect a long list of stories. So many that he’s posted three essays so far with hopefully more to come. You can check the first post out here. He comments, “As an ex-professional deus ex machina, I have a brain full of these stories that bubble up unbidden in my memory from time to time. I thought you might enjoy if I shared a few of the more interesting stories I took part in.”


You can’t make stuff like this up.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009
The conclusion of Prince of Persia invalidates everything that the player has been doing throughout the game or in playing a game at all.

This discussion of the Prince of Persia contains major spoilers regarding the game’s conclusion.


Despite their often thuggish and brutal behavior, a few weeks ago I wrote about how the characters that we play in video games are still often made sympathetic to us through various narrative techniques that sometimes conflict with player choice.  While Niko and CJ of the Grand Theft Auto series do some terrible things while we control them, both characters’ rough edges are often softened by scripted cutscenes that give these characters justification for their bad behavior or that just simply show that they are not altogether bad.


What I would like to consider this week is a character whose reputation has suffered as a result of a slightly different and less static narrative technique that also attempted to reveal more about the protagonist of a video game, the Prince of Persia.  Much like the rapscallions of the GTA series, the Prince seems to have been largely conceived of as an anti-hero.  Much like Aladdin, the Prince emerges from the tradition of the rogue as hero.  The charming and rebellious bad boy has much going for him in the way of generating audience sympathy that can be found in other characters like him.  Unlike the bad boys of GTA and other crime sagas, characters like Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, or just about any character ever played by Cary Grant, tend through their own wit, charisma, and good looks to offset any negative feelings about their possible character flaws or even criminality.  Charm, it would seem, masks a host of vices.


Certainly, the latest re-envisioning of the Prince of Persia plays into this persona of the bad boy, especially as such characters normally relate to a female love interest (a perfect vehicle for demonstrating qualities like charm).  Like Han Solo and Princess Leia, Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swann, Peter Joshua and Regina Lambert, the Prince’s general charm is in part communicated to the player through the witty verbal cut and thrust that he and Elika take part in over the course of the game.  Nothing says sexual chemistry more than a little verbal violence.  We tend to forgive little boys their attacks on girls after all because we know that in reality it just shows that “they like ‘em” and that seems to be the case with most of these man-boys.


While some folks may criticize the relative cleverness of the non-stop give and take between the Prince and Elika, unlike many video games, it certainly reveals more about these two characters and how we are intended to perceive them than games often do.  Usually, video game characters seem to go mute when a cutscene ends and actually playing as them begins.  While this is usually because they aren’t working with a partner, the partnership between the Prince and Elika is one essential to gameplay (as the Prince serves as the vehicle for moving around the world of the Prince of Persia while Elika’s powers keep him alive) but also to characterization—one of the easiest ways that a writer can develop a character is by showing an audience what they act like around others.


Despite efforts to build the Prince into a likable rogue, the Prince has taken a real beating as a much beloved protagonist largely do to the final decision that he makes somewhat independent of the player’s control at the close of Prince of Persia.  The gameplay and plot of Prince of Persia are driven by the goal of saving an unnamed kingdom by healing its corrupted landscape.  When the Prince and Elika (and the player) finally manage to succeed in healing the “fertile grounds”, the Prince and the player is confronted with the uncomfortable truth that Elika, whose resurrection caused the corruption that plagues the land, must also die to make right the unnatural balance that was created by her previous return to life. 


Interestingly, Ubisoft did not choose to present the Prince’s response to Elika’s death as a final dramatic and unplayable cutscene.  However, despite the seemingly participatory nature of the game’s epilogue, the player is not actually given any choices about how the Prince might choose to respond to Elika’s death.  If the epilogue is played through, the only thing that the player can do is walk Elika’s body out of the temple that she has sacrificed herself in and destroy several trees that represent the lifeblood of the land.  As a result, the land once more is corrupted by shadow, and Elika is returned to life.  The Prince has chosen love over salvation.


The conversation  provoked by this unusual and exceedingly romantic conclusion is varied.  Some (as I myself do) feel that this is a reasonable conclusion to the Prince and Elika’s story.  Every indication of the Prince’s feelings for Elika as they verbally parry and thrust through a complex dance of sexual antagonism and anxiety indicates to me that a legitimate sexual chemistry and ultimately love is being developed between the characters.  It may be that I have seen too many episodes of Moonlighting, but this formula of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other because they actually really, really like each other has apparently conditioned me to view much literary and cinematic romance in this way.  Additionally, the rebellious qualities of the Prince suggest something of the Byronic hero or the Satanic Hero.  Like Satan in Paradise Lost who felt that it was “better to reign in Hell then serve in Heav’n”, the Prince chooses to resurrect what he desires rather than save a world.  Thus, I feel like this final decision is consistent with the character (and, truth be told, I kind of favor the Byronic expression of the hero over the blandly noble heroes of other literature myself).


However, given that saving the world is the focus of so many games and certainly the goal that the player has been led to believe is his or her own of over the course of this game, it is, perhaps, unsurprising and very understandable that many players find themselves to be very much in conflict with the Prince’s decision.  Those that might want to choose a more noble outcome or see the Prince as a potentially less selfish character might reasonably disagree with this conclusion.  To further rub salt in the wounds of players that might feel that saving the world is a more noble and sacrificial choice to make then to save the woman that they love, the game asks the player to make this choice right alongside the Prince, to become complicit in this more “Satanic” option. While the player controls the Prince at this moment in the game, he or she can only take actions that revive Elika and corrupt the land, there are no alternative actions (barring making choices outside the boundaries of the fictional world itself) that might allow the Prince and player to maintain an uncorrupted kingdom.  As Iroquois Pliskin puts it in his review of the game from December, 2008, Prince of Persia  “presented the player with the one of the few real ethical dilemmas of the holiday season: turn the console off, or finish the game?”


That Ubisoft seems willing to force the player into enacting a choice that they may or may not agree with and allow the player’s will to come into direct conflict with the will of the character that the player has inhabited for hours strikes me as a brave from both a narrative and gameplay perspective.  Not only do they risk making the Prince an unsympathetic character by making the player overtly complicit in his less than noble decision to embrace his own needs and desires over those of the “greater good”, but the conclusion of Prince of Persia invalidates everything that the player has been doing throughout the game or in playing a game at all.  One of the most satisfying thing that adding narrative components to video games has done for gaming is in providing a conclusion, a stopping point that allows players to know that they have succeeded in their goal, that they have “beaten” the game.  However, that this goal is the result of achieving various lesser goals throughout the game by testing their acumen at the various tasks of the game (in this case, running, jumping, fighting monsters, etc.) suggests that taking all of those minor actions are worthwhile because they achieve that victory condition.  The frustration that may arise from playing Prince of Persia may lie in the fact that the value of the actions necessary to “win” the game are all erased at the game’s conclusion.  It is as if the board that the game is played on has been suddenly swept and the 10 or 12 hours needed to complete the game were unnecessary.  The land is under the spell of Corruption and nothing has changed as a result of a laborious effort. 


The near absurdity of the reversal of the the effort of playing a game is sure to aggravate players who are accustomed to being told that playing results in achievement and winning.  The interesting thing about Prince of Persia is that it challenges the value of the work of play itself.  That the Prince makes the decision to invalidate his work in saving the world might be acceptable but that the player is forced (barring turning off the console before the narrative completely concludes) to invalidate their own work alongside him might make it easy to begin to hate this guy.  It also raises the question, though, since we have acted alongside him, do we have to hate ourselves for wasting all this time?


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Sep 8, 2009
A closer look at a study on men and their relationship with hypersexualized female avatars.
From Mass Effect

From Mass Effect


Several surveys over the past year have pointed out the glaring discrepancy between the treatment of men and women in video games. Although most games show men that have bodies that are just as physically absurd as women, the difference is that women are almost all sexualized and objectified in video games. This often does not vary even if I am actually playing as the character myself. Considering that this a video game, one has to wonder if a player is relating to their avatar in the game the same way that they do an NPC.


The logic behind having me play as a woman in a skimpy outfit with large breasts goes back to a fairly simple discovery in advertising: heterosexual men will pay attention to you if you have one in your commercial. There are basic rules for how to maximize this effect. Skimpy clothing is obviously a factor, but it’s a bit more complicated than just getting naked. A pursed, open mouth indicates submission. Shoulders wide, arms to the side and hanging also arouse attention. Characterizing this sexuality in terms of dialog usually involves the female asking lots of questions or needing the male figure to do something for them. As a consequence of these classic Hollywood and advertising formulas, video games are overflowing with them. Why do you think so many games have a woman, typically very attractive, constantly portrayed as the one giving you orders and asking you to do things? In a medium that targets men with empowerment fantasies, the objectified women in them are often just another part of that formula. And yet when you change the hypersexualized female from a person I’m observing into one that I’m playing as my avatar, none of these concepts work anymore. You are not sexualizing an object for the player’s desire, you are sexualizing the player.


From Tomb Raider

From Tomb Raider


This is the same issue that a study raised a while back, and they were kind enough to post the results on the internet. They applied a two part test to a group of men and women. First, a picture of a hypersexualized female game character was shown to them and they were asked what role they thought she played in the game. The second test presented the subject with two types of games: an FPS where you play a woman and a third person game where you play as either a hypersexualized avatar or a curvy, more reasonably proportioned avatar. Players would randomly start on one kind of game and could switch to the other whenever they chose. They had a set amount of time to play either game. Afterwards the subject filled out a lengthy questionnaire asking how well they identified with the avatar and which game they preferred. The results are not what you’d expect.


For the first part of the study, both men and women immediately noticed the hypersexualized state of the avatar. Although there was a portion of men who thought she might be the damsel in distress, for both genders the overall reaction was to assume that the avatar was the villain or a secondary character. That is, men did not rate the character any more positively than women in terms of liking her.


To summarize the study’s brief description of the sexualized versus curvy avatar, a hypersexual body is a comic book style figure, Curvy is a more normalized ratio of breasts to waist. That is, something that’s physically reasonable. Men both preferred playing as and rated more highly the curvy avatar. Women preferred playing as the hypersexualized avatar. The questionnaire asked men if they would recommend the game to a friend along with their sense of immersion or presence. The study explains, “Men had higher responses on presence and recommending to a male friend when playing as the Curvy figure, whereas women were higher at the Hypersexual figure. In fact, both of these interactions were strengthened. In addition to these two variables, two other engagement variables became significant in the control groups…Men said they would recommend the game to a female friend more often when they played as the Curvy character, while women again indicated higher recommendation when playing the hypersexual avatar.”


From SuicideGirls.com

From SuicideGirls.com


The reasons behind this radical departure from expectation are guessed at in the survey. It explains, “The men may be rejecting the hypersexual’s abnormal stature as ridiculous, as one male participant relayed how they often laugh at such portrayals when they play games featuring such characters. A more realistic body type, while still somewhat idealized in terms of voluptuousness, may provide a better draw for male gamers.” Given the inherently empowering nature of a video game, they further speculated that the discovery that women preferred playing the hypersexual avatar says more about the media’s message to women more than anything else. The study notes, “It cannot be simply concluded that women want to play as such characters, as they did not indicate enjoying playing as these characters, nor were they overtly supportive of them in their appraisals. While they might have had some negative perceptions of the character, this did not prevent them engaging with the game more when playing as that character.” That is, they didn’t particularly like the avatar, but they were more engaged and felt more powerful playing as the hypersexualized one. The study theorizes, “A woman may see such a body type as desirable due to the positioning it has in society as the form required to achieve success, particularly in regards to heterosexual romantic relationships. If women perceive this is what men want, and there is an importance ascribed to being attractive to men, then they may be more likely to accept at some level the hypersexual portrayal as the goal.”


A film critic named Laura Mulvey outlined the distinction between when a film is sexualizing a woman and when she is shown as ‘possessed’ by the male character in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. The male audience is first shown the character as voluptuous and beautiful. Every character in the film is in awe of her beauty. But as the hero wins her over and she becomes his romantic interest, her sexuality is played down. The male hero, the male viewer is supposed to be empathizing with, asserts his dominance and this dominance then should not be contested by having other people interested in his objectified female. The problem with video games is that the player is both the hero and audience. The avatar who is sexualized is also the person that we are identifying with anytime we are playing the game. As Mulvey points out most men, “cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist image.”


From X-Blades

From X-Blades


The issue of objectified and hypersexualized women in video games is often glibly dismissed because the target demographic for games is still 18 to 35 year old heterosexual men. That’s why the study is really interesting, it disputes the entire notion that this demographic enjoys playing as these hypersexualized avatars. Mulvey’s explanation for this discrepancy obviously comes with caveats: a great deal of this comes from Western Culture instead of any universal rule for men. Still, it’s important to realize that appreciating the trailer and images from Bayonetta engages this group with the usual formulas taken from film and advertising, but playing the game is another deal entirely. Perhaps the reason a game like X-Blades bombed was not just the shoddy gameplay, it’s that no one in the primary demographic that is targeted by it wants to play as a woman in a thong.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Sep 4, 2009
There is social commentary in games, but it must stay hidden in the fiction or face controversy.

It seems that whenever the subjects of games and social values crossover, it’s always in a negative way. Earlier this year, Resident Evil 5 faced accusations of racism for its portrayal of African natives. There’s no doubt that the game did contain some loaded imagery, but the game itself didn’t have anything to say about racism. Just a couple weeks ago Shadow Complex was caught up in a controversy over its association with Orson Scott Card. Some gamers were reluctant to purchase the game, giving money to Card, an outspoken opponent of gay rights. Yet once again, the game itself didn’t have anything to say on the subject. But that’s not an argument in defense of these games, it’s more of a criticism of the industry. There seems to be a lack of social commentary in games.


This game wasn't supposed to be real and that was OK.

This game wasn’t supposed to be real and that was OK.


In fact, it seems that most games go out of their way to avoid it. As more effort and thought is put into video game narratives, there’s also more effort put into avoiding any social commentary. The games that do have something to say only tackle vague, general themes. Far Cry 2 explores man’s inhumanity to man. Shadow of the Colossus explores love and loneliness. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a powerful war story when certain aspects of its gameplay are taken into account, but it’s also set in a fictional Middle Eastern country. It may say something about war, but it doesn’t say anything about a war. It stays within the safe boundaries of ambiguity. What does it say about the industry when Resident Evil 5 is the closest any game has come to commenting on racism, or that, despite its title, no Call of Duty has actually explored a citizen’s duty to serve in war?


But there is social commentary in games, it’s just hidden in the fiction. Fallout 3 is filled with examples of this: the mission, Oasis, is all about euthanasia, but instead of killing a senior citizen, which would probably have generated controversy, we’re asked to kill a tree mutant. Tenpenny Tower is all about prejudice, but Fallout 3 makes mutant ghouls the discriminated minority instead of a specific race or gender. Then you have the Grand Theft Auto games that take on immigration, gang life, and the pursuit of the American Dream, but they are set in fictional cities. They may be imitations of real cities, but they are still fake. Nothing is really real. 


This game was supposed to be real and that wasn't OK.

This game was supposed to be real and that wasn’t OK.


It makes sense that games would avoid directly addressing such topics immediately after seeing the public reaction to previous games that have tried to do so. Six Days in Fallujah was a war game set during the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, and would have followed a squad of Marines over the course of six days as they fought in the city. The game was widely criticized by gamers and non-gamers alike. Non-gamers criticized the entire medium as inappropriate for such a subject, and gamers criticized certain mechanics in the game as inappropriate. Then there’s the case of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a game that gave players a unique perspective of the events at Columbine (without condoning them) while inviting discussion about them. It was naturally met with hostility by the mainstream press and many gaming outlets, and even after being selected as a finalist for the Slamdance festival’s Guerilla Gamemaker Competition, it was quickly removed from the competition by the event’s organizer. But unlike Six Days in Fallujah, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was a finished product that anyone could play and judge for themselves, and as such, it had many supporters within the gaming industry who appreciated its attempt at social commentary.


Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!


Considering people’s reactions to these games, it seems that games are free to comment on societal issues as long as the commentary remains allegorical. When games try to portray something real, an actual war or actual violence, there’s a backlash from non-gamers who see this as insulting to the source and from certain gamers who wish to keep games “fun.”


But there’s another angle in all this to consider as well: the impact of player choice. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was a direct commentary; it was saying something about the events and wasn’t leaving much room for interpretation or at least leaving no more room for interpretation than any other standard narrative, whereas Fallout 3, took on all sides of an issue at once. The latter game didn’t directly comment on euthanasia, whether it’s good or bad, it just gave the player a choice, and through the consequences of that choice, the player was able to form his own opinions. Did you feel bad killing Harold, or did you feel it was noble? Did you feel bad forcing him to live, or did you feel it was for the best despite his wishes?


If you did feel bad about your decision, you could always reload a save and do something different. In this way, games have the innate ability to show both sides of an issue. Of course, this does dilute the significance of our actions since we can always rewind time and make a different decision, but this issue of permanence is another discussion entirely. As it stands now, some gamers are guaranteed to play though a choice-driven game multiple times, and that’s when games can take advantage of their branching paths by imbuing each path with a different message.


Games should not be limited to this kind of diplomatic social commentary. They should be able to offer a direct opinion without being stigmatized for it, but I think the former approach is better for the medium as it takes advantage of the interactivity of games. After all, any medium can preach a message to its audience, but only games can let us experience and analyze both sides of an issue without preaching a single thing.


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