Monthly Archives: April 2012

Skullgirls (Part 1 of 4)

We would like to apologize to our tens of fans. We’ve been experiencing some early onset writers block these last couple of weeks in the form of a combination of Ninja Gaiden‘s hard mode, Skullgirls, and a lack of our wife taking us out to the local Barrique’s coffee shop for a couple of hours over the weekend.

Before we get to the main body of what we’re typing, we’d like to point you to our Twitter page, which we converted from linusonatowel to eetikycar. We’ll be posting our daily video game exploits AND our musings about those exploits here, so you should subscribe. You’ll be sad if you don’t.

Let’s talk about Skullgirls. Here’s it’s logo:

Skullgirls

Skullgirls is a new 2d fighting game (less than 2 weeks old as of this writing) available over XBox Live and the PlayStation Network. It is the brainchild of highly regarded fighting game tournament ace Mike Z and the over the top artistic stylings of Alex Ahad and Mariel Kinuko Cartwright. It is only $15. You should go spend money on it if you have the means to. We’ve only had about 2.5 hours to play it since we purchased it 3 days ago, but it’s real good. It plays like a mix of Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 2, which is means that Laura got kind of grumpy with the sounds of us pressing lots of buttons on our arcade stick yesterday while she was trying to do her school work.

As the title implies, the cast of Skullgirls is entirely made up of girls. It’s rumored that playable male characters will be introduced later, but there is no confirmation of this. All of the characters are trying to kill the eponymous Skullgirl, Bloody Marie, for one reason or another. That’s not important, because it’s story, and if story is merely unimportant in a game like Halo, it’s completely meaningless in a fighting game. We’ll talk about that in detail some other time though.

Your Sexism Detection Device should be alarming you of the presence of sexist video game antics right now. Here’s a basic conditional statement that you should remember:

If there are girls in a fighting game, then there will be boobs, jiggle, and panty shots.

Those are all present in Skullgirls, but let’s examine each of the 8 playable characters and see why we don’t really think it’s very sexist at all. You will make snap judgments about the characters based on their portraits below, but it is of Paramount Importance that you not let those judgments pollute your perception of this game. Like any other character in any other video game, each character has a number of ways to interact with the player that move her beyond pure sex object status.

We’ll borrow and build on some of the ideas in Megan Townsend’s essay on Medium Difficulty from April 23rd, 2012. You should read it. We’ll start with two characters and we’ll go alphabetically. If you click on the character’s name in the heading, you’ll find her Official Character Introduction video, which will give you a bit of a taste of how she plays:

Cerebella: Diamond in the Rough


Cerebella is the game’s grappler. She wears a Living Weapon hat called Vice-Versa. During her standing hard kick, she actually yells “Gymkata!” which really couldn’t make us too much happier. Her command run move can be chained into an attack called Battle Butt that looks suspiciously like the ram horns from the Battletoads games of yesterday. She has legos on her sleeves.

Looking at her character portrait above, there’s not much we can do to illustrate that hilariously proportioned, lightly oiled curves of Cerebella’s body aren’t there to serve certain needs for some people. Apart from meeting the games teal and orange requirements, she rises above her status by being a destructive fusion of Zangief and the circus brat archetype.

If you click the Zangief link, you’ll see what grapplers look like in most fighting games. They are typically large hairy men in muscle shirts or speedos who pick the other characters up and throw them around for massive damage. They’re life bars are typically massive. They typically have several unblockable command throws at their disposal to compliment their normal throws, which makes them throw mix-upping machines. To counter these strengths, they are unusually large and slow, which makes them easy to hit and easy to play keep away from with projectiles. It takes a good deal of patience to play decently a grappler, because you have to wait for an opening to get inside the opponents safe zone so that you can take half a health bar away with one throw.

Cerebella has all of the characteristics of a typical grappler, but none of the aesthetics. In other words, she spends all of a match being real manly. Strong like bull even. She can also fly over your goddamn fireballs. Cerebella bucks the sexualization of her character design by making the player find ways to lure the opponent into her hat’s muscled, well-defined embrace. One of her Blockbusters (this game’s supers) even has her work together with Vice-Versa to stab her opponent with a sword. Did you even see the size of the horns on her hat?? If those are not tried and true symbols of acquired masculinity, then we don’t work for eetikycar. And we do.

Double: Toil and Trouble

Double starts out a fight looking like this:

Sexy nuns 4eva. We especially like the upside down cross. Then, she eats herself from the inside and turns into this:

Sexy blob of teeth, digestive tract, and boob type things! Not really.

Double immediately reminds one of Street Fighter IV’s Seth or Mortal Kombat’s Shang Tsung in that her fighting style is composed mainly of stealing key moves from other characters in the game. In fact, she never actually fights in her nun form, but instead shamelessly transforms from her innards on the outtards form into other characters to let the player know exactly who she’s stolen a move from.

Let’s not spend any time talking about the obvious Religious Commentary and instead wonder why the creators of the game took the time to draw up a curvaceous nun if they weren’t even going to let us watch her boobs bounce a little or something, like in this shitty movie called Sacred Flesh that we subjected ourselves to about a month ago. If you see it on Netflix, just keep moving. It’s not worth it.

ANYWAYS, Double transforms from one fetish object (sexy nun) to a gross amalgamation of ALL of the fetish objects represented in the game. We believe that Double is a way of the developers saying, “If you’re playing this game for the t and a, then you’re playing it for the wrong reasons.” Kind of like our discussion of Rachel from Ninja Gaiden Sigma making you terrible at Ninja Gaiden Sigma a few weeks ago.

“Quit focusing on the boobs and play the gaddang game.”

It should also be noted that Double and Valentine represent the two most readily apparent fetish characters in the game (sexy nun and sexy nurse) AND are the two “evil” characters in the diegesis. Because sex is bad or something. Or maybe it’s just NOT THE POINT of this game, which we would like to maintain. It’s a clever use of fighting game genre tropes to show how dumb the genre tropes are, and we can get behind that (tee hee).

Come back later this week for more Skullgirls Character Discussions, because it’s more fun than doing whatever else you do to procrastinate.

Further Reading:

Genre and Girl-on-Girl Action: Feminism and Skullgirls by Megan Townsend
Skullgirls.com Official Web Site

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Apples and Grapefruits

Now, let’s begin a discussion of the element of story in video games. We probably won’t be able to get anywhere near a conclusion in a single blog post, but we’re also not in a rush.

For the purposes of this discussion in this particular blog post, we’re going to focus on AAA action games in general and  Halo: Combat Evolved, developed for the XBox by Bungie and released on November 15, 2001, in specific.

Halo: Combat Evolved

I love this cheesy sci-fi book cover marketing art for Halo.

First, let’s define some things:

  • Plot – The events that happen over the course of a game’s playtime in the order that they happen.
  • Story – The events that happen in chronological order before and during the course of a game’s playtime. This includes any mythology that might be part of the game’s universe.
  • Character relationships – How the characters in a game feel towards each other.
  • Player-character relationship – How the player feels toward a character in the game, whether it be the player avatar or another character.
  • Agency – The ability of the player to make choices within the game’s world through the avatar.

Next, let’s define our position for this post, which is that books and movies should not be carelessly compared to video games. This is not to speak about the silliness of comparing a book to a movie, but that’s not what we’re here for.

We would like to start by pointing out that the Halo universe is rich and well-defined as video game universes go. One need only look at Halopedia briefly to see this. We spent fully two weeks at work a couple of years ago reading a small fraction of the 7,638 pages housed on Halopedia. During that two weeks, we read all of the pages concerning alien races and alliances, important story characters from the games and books, and walkthroughs of the levels. In all, we probably only read slightly more than 1% of the information on the site. It was a slow couple of weeks on the ranch a couple of years ago.

Mohorse

I had time to give all of my horses fashionable haircuts too. (Photo Credit: National Geographic)

Now, to focus on the first game and it’s plot. Let’s make a Story of Halo in Ten Points:

  1. A human Marine ship called The Pillar of Autumn  is attacked by alien Covenant forces. Main trilogy protagonist and player character Master Chief wakes up from a science fiction induced cryosleep and escapes in a pod to the eponymous Halo, an enormous ring shaped planet. Captain Keyes, leader of the humans, is captured by the Covenant.
  2. Master Chief drives a military jeep called a Warthog around and saves humans that were stranded on Halo after the Autumn was attacked.
  3. Master Chief successfully boards a Covenant ship called The Truth and Reconciliation and saves Captain Keyes from the Covenant.
  4. Master Chief looks for Halo’s cartographer which will reveal how to activate the Halo’s defense systems.
  5. Master Chief fights his way to Halo’s control room to activate the weapon.
  6. The parasitic flood race is released from Halo and Master Chief meets the Monitor and Caretaker of Halo, 343 Guilty Spark.
  7. Master Chief and Spark go to Halo’s Library to find the activation key for Halo. This is often considered to be one of the worst levels in the Halo franchise owing to the fact that it’s repetitive and no one likes to fight the Flood. The staff at eetikycar rather likes this level though.
  8. Master Chief tries to activate Halo, but finds out that Life As We Know It will be annihilated if he does, so he doesn’t. This upsets 343 Guilty Spark, who spends the rest of the game trying to kill Master Chief.
  9. Captain Keyes got captured again, so Master Chief has to go find him. It turns out that Keyes has been killed.
  10. Master Chief blows up Halo.

Now, if you’ve just skimmed the 10 points, you probably noticed words like truth, reconciliation, halo, covenant and guilty. Let’s ignore the religious overtones for the time being.

The point of the above list isn’t the content of the list, so much as the fact that the list never changes. No matter how many times we play through the game, the story doesn’t change. Our problem with video game story is not that it’s not good. As sci fi stories go, Halo’s is pretty strong. We did spend two weeks at work reading Halopedia after all, so there is some compelling content there for us. The problem is that everything we actually do in the game doesn’t bother the story.

Once the player has beaten the game once, it’s safe to say that they are aware of the twists and turns of the story. Given this, maybe they don’t want to go to the library with 343 Guilty Spark. Why do they want to put up with this silly little spherical robot if he’s just going to kill them later? If they were truly in the role of Master Chief, they would meet 343 Guilty Spark and say, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll find my own way out of this swamp.” They wouldn’t go along with his Diabolical Plot. Now, a player might decide to skip over the level by using the menu system, but the events in the game still stay the same.

So really, there is no player agency in the plot of Halo. In the two missions that involve 343 Guilty Spark, there is nothing we can do to prevent Master Chief from Failing. Either we Fail by dying through the loss of Master Chief’s shields and health bar, or we Fail by succeeding at our mission and retrieving Halo’s activation device, as absurd as that sounds. Either way, Master Chief is made to feel like an idiot, and there’s nothing that the player can do about it.

Even when we’re told we need to “hurry” to do something, like we are at point 8 in our story timeline when we’re running from 343 Guilty Spark, it doesn’t matter if we run through the level as quickly as possible or spend an hour jumping up and down before advancing. The story will stay the same. The only way to add urgency to player controlled events in the game is used in point 10, when we have a time limit displayed on the screen. If the time reaches 0, we explode.

This isn’t one of those games like Bioshock or Mass Effect that purports to be molded by the player’s actions, but it still presents a problem for the game. If there is no plot or story in the game that motivates the player to fight through the battles in each level after the initial playthrough, then what motivates us to play the game?

What saves Halo is the fact that we are given so much agency within the structure of the gameplay itself that maybe we don’t mind the story so much. Saying that we did a grenade jump up to the ledge where that Flood asshole is shooting a rocket launcher at us in the Library so we could shotgun him in the face is a lot more impressive than saying, “Oh, well we already knew how that would end, so we had a cup of tea instead,” after all.

All of this gets at what the real separation between video games and books or movies is. Let’s make another list, this one alternating between movies/books and video games:

  • Movies and books have the ability to spend their entire duration dealing with the story, so they ostensibly have the opportunity to put more nuance into their texts. The entirety of the text is expository, and as a result, the author can speak on any subject they deem appropriate. If a text has more nuance, then there is more of an opportunity for new interpretations and Points of Interest being found in subsequent readings after the first one.
  • Video game cutscenes are most often purely expository and used to show the characters either explaining the plot to each other, bludgeon each other with heavy handed explanations of the game’s themes, or engaging in acrobatics that would be impossible for the player to control given current technological limitations.
  • Regardless of the point of view of a movie or book, the choices are always made by the characters and not by the reader. The reader has no agency in any of the events and this can be used as a device to create tension.

    Old Yeller

    Old Yeller will NEVER SURVIVE the events of his story.

  • Tension cannot be created by story in a video game if we already know what’s going to happen, so it is created by the player controlled situations and the player’s management of health, ammo, and other finite resources.

    Jill Valentine

    The suspense of resource management was the foundation of an entire genre of games under the name "survival horror." This popular character is Jill Valentine from the Resident Evil series.

So movies and books should not be compared to video games because they’re means of interacting with the audience are intrinsically different. Although video games do certainly share some characteristics with books and movies, the pre-defined story of a video game is always less important than whatever might feats a player makes the avatar execute during gameplay. Video games are held up by their gameplay while the other media are held up by story and character development. We’ll talk about character development and other topics in a later post because our fingers are starting to hurt a bit.

Further Reading:I Like Dying a Lot  by Jamin Warren on Kill Screen
After Pressing Start: Halo CE by Philtron Rejmer on Nightmare Mode
Video games can never be art by Roger Ebert on the Sun Times
Halopedia

Rachel As The Anti-Sex In Ninja Gaiden Sigma

We recently came into possession of a copy of Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3, which is a re-issue of a re-issue of Ninja Gaiden for the XBox, which was itself a reboot of Ninja Gaiden for the NES. It is an extremely fast paced 3rd person action game that is soaked in blood (both green and red!), and it is most known for its difficulty. Our thumb kind of hurts because we’ve been playing it too much in the last three days.

We’re not here to talk about my thumb though. Let’s talk about the game’s primary female protagonist, Rachel the Fiend Hunter. She wields a big green hammer. Here she is:

Does anything stick out?

But wait, you haven’t seen Rachel in action yet. Here is a video we found called “Examining Rachel”:

Did you wonder at her jiggling bosom? Did you witness her ass, partially revealed? Did you marvel at how you can change her hair cut and color to suit your tastes? This is what people are complaining about when they say that women are objectified in video games.
Let’s take a look at the game’s male protagonist, and the character that you spend 84% of the game with, Master Ninja Ryu Hayabusa:

For the ladies.

As you can see, he was designed with “Kill everyone” in mind, whereas Rachel just got “Boobs”.

On the surface, it looks like Rachel is merely a jiggly sex object. However, based on the 19 of 19 chapters we’ve played in the last 72 hours, we would like to posit a different theory about her function. Throughout the game, Rachel is actually used as an anti-sex object. How can a character subjected to tentacle porn not be a sex object? Just watch!:

If you watch until 2:00, you’ll get to see her covered in tentacle monster spit (read: shiny).We’ll show you how Rachel is the anti-sex by using WordPress’ss’s’s delightful “Numbered List” function.

  1. Rachel doesn’t act like the typical overtly sexual dominatrix video game character in the game or in cut scenes despite her dress. Some overtly sexual dominatrix video game characters:
    Ivy from Soul Calibur

    Ivy can laugh and grind her heel into a downed opponent at the same time.

    Bad Girl from No More Heroes

    She actually hits her slaves at you like missiles with that baseball bat.

    In other words, she doesn’t actually dominate anyone, unless we count the enemies whose heads get bashed in with war hammer. She doesn’t giggle with delight when she hurts someone. She doesn’t talk in double entendres. She doesn’t even kick anyone in the crotch.
    In fact, Rachel spends most of the game either helping or getting rescued by Ryu, which would be anathema to the characters pictured above.

  2. The way she’s introduced does not acknowledge her sexuality at all. Skip to 2:50 in the video below and watch:

    She just smacks a dinosaur in the head. That’s it. If anything is sexualized in this clip, it’s the ultraviolence of exploding dinosaur heads and maybe her shoes.
    One might be able to argue that the close up of her face at the end of the cut scene is supposed to emphasize her natural beauty, but if Rachel’s sexuality is about anything, it’s the boobs.
  3. All three characters that acknowledge her beauty get killed. Gamov and Doku, two of the major villains of the story, both point to her being beautiful and strong in so many words. They are both killed through events in the story.
    To make a stronger case for this point, in chapter 4 we come across the corpse of a member of the rival Black Spider Clan named Suke who is clutching his diary. It reads thusly:
    January 24 – The woman that I saw tonight in Vigoor…she was extremely beautiful. I must persevere to keep my wits about me. Perseverance…Patience.
    February 2 – I encountered her again. That woman slays the beasts as if they were flies. The vicious way she fights is so unlike her beautiful appearance. A perfect example of extreme intensity…she is no ordinary female.
    February 6 – During the fight with the MSAT I slipped up and suffered a grave injury. I cannot reach my Black Spider brethren, my provisions are almost all gone, and my life is near its end. Death during an assignment is the wish of every Ninja, but we still have no clues regarding what happened to the Dark Dragon Blade. That is my only regret. All that is left is for me to trust my comrades, and accept these last painful moments of my destiny…
    February 7 – Although I have become so weak, I still await my death. Although I know it is only a matter of time before I perish, I wish I could glimpse that woman one more time…
    We believe the evidence here speaks for itself. Here is a man who died specifically because he became so enamored with Rachel. He even acknowledges in the first entry that her beauty might make him lose his wits (read: ninja skills).
  4. There’s no romantic tension between Ryu and Rachel of any sort. There are no punny sex jokes or too long glances. No caresses or baby spots in the eyes. Any time they meet, it’s only for less than a minute, and then one of them leaves without saying goodbye. When Rachel is attacked by the Hydracubus in Chapter 5 (or engages in tentacle porn), Ryu saves her and seconds later leaves her in the care of Ayane, whose allegiance is unknown.
  5. We will acknowledge that this next point is entirely subjective in a more pronounced way than the others, but the three chapters where the player plays as Rachel are just not as fun as the rest of the game.
    For the purposes of this point, it’s important to understand how absurdly proficient Ryu is at killing enemies in the game. Here’s a short Ryu gameplay video from the demo of the game:

    Here’s some Rachel gameplay:

    She is slower than Ryu, she has fewer moves, and she uses the least versatile melee weapon in the game. She just doesn’t have the number of options that Ryu has. If we had been meant to really idealize Rachel as a paragon of beauty and sexual desire, she would have had to be at least as effective as Ryu so that being her would be a special treat. In a game without any kind of vehicle or “invincible” sections for the main character, this would be the perfect opportunity to make the player be relatively omnipotent for a short time. Instead, she has a difficult time against enemies that we were slaughtering with ease several chapters ago as Ryu. It’s entirely possible, and probably true, that this is due in large part to the fact that you’re used to playing as Ryu by the time you reach Rachel’s sections, but there’s no feeling of excitement about learning to play her.
    Her chapters just make us kind of sad when they come up, and that’s not how a sex goddess should make us feel when she arrives.
  6. Finally, we would like to argue that the way Rachel is positioned in cut scenes, and in particular the way her breasts are positioned in cut scenes, is meant to make the player have difficulty focusing on the plot. This is due to the fact that the subtitles that come up when Rachel is on the screen appear exclusively on top of her jiggling breasts. Unfortunately, we can’t find any videos with the subtitles showing to illustrate this point, but know that we wouldn’t lie to you about this. Also, know that we’re saving for a video capture device, but they’re expensive, so you’ll just have to keep your pants on.
    We think this is so clever! With the player in Ryu’s perspective, we’re supposed to try to pay attention to the story while we’re distracted by virtual boobs. This is the only instance we can think of where the inability of men to focus on a conversation while they’re having those sorts of feeling is articulated for the viewer in a subtle way.
    The developer could be implying that the story is dumb and you should focus on Rachel’s boobs, which some might say is a legitimate argument. However, to fit our argument, we’re going to say that you can make a choice here: pay attention to the story, or pay attention to the boobs. Either you know (sort of) what’s going on in the game, or you get a few seconds of pleasure from looking at a polygon lady.

Rachel’s sexuality is non-existent in the game because it is non-existent to Ryu, the player character. In a game where the slightest distraction can see you losing vast lots of health to common enemies, Ryu doesn’t have time to think about Rachel in “that way” and neither does the player. If you do, then you’ll end up like Suke: a corpse in chapter 4 with your pocket diary in your hand. Not really, but we feel that that’s the general idea.

We at eetikycar believe this character, whose absurd body, out of place dominatrix costume, and exciting forays into tentacle porn might lead a weaker mind to distraction, actually exists to exercise the player’s ninja focus. In a game renowned for it’s difficulty, we do not think it’s a stretch to imagine that the developer placed this subtle extra hint of difficulty into the game to make the player’s mind wander and avatar die.

In conclusion, we looked at several Ninja Gaiden message boards and the comments under relevant news articles in the course of writing this blog, and there are a lot of topics and Internet denizens who will helpfully make points like “Rachel’s boobs are great and I’m happy when I see them.”