Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Treatise On Trinkets and Grime

When discussing matters of immersion, it's easy to address overt aspects of design: how people behave, how  clothing or armor is designed, how a plot develops, and so on. Yet immersion is not only about things that people recognize openly, it is also about things that people notice subconsciously. Little things that the viewer may not actively notice while watching, yet these things can still detract from how much they're drawn into the movie or the game.

In Lindsay Ellis' review of Cutthroat Island, she compares the movie to Pirates of the Caribbean:

"One of the things that makes Pirates of the Caribbean work is how grimy it looks - all those gross nautical details. This film just reeks of a sound stage...mighty clean well-kept ship for a bunch of pirates. Every ship has been freshly painted. And then with this gaping, probably fatal wound in her chest she's reacting to it like it's a bothersome mosquito bite."

There's certainly merit and substance to these complaints, because while we're used to addressing large problems in movies (plot holes, characterization, actions), it's harder to justifiably "nitpick" the smaller parts. Yet that is an important task, because while we might be loathe to acknowledge it openly, those smaller bits do contribute to our immersion into a given work. The reasons can be tactile or sensory, or they can simply just be detail-based continuity. For example, if someone is walking through muddy terrain, we expect their boots to be muddy. If a scene is meant to be in a cold place, it cannot be expressed by actual "coldness", and as such must be conveyed through the actions and costuming of the characters.

For example, one part that bothered me about the otherwise stellar Game of Thrones is that in the scenes north of the wall, it just doesn't feel that cold when it's supposed to be absolutely frigid. There's no real sense of "chill", and while the characters are certainly bundled up as well as can be, there isn't a sense of biting winds or bitter cold. Thinking about this, I noticed that there was a definite lack of certain properties that I would generally associate with coldness: you can't see the characters' breath, for example. The way that snow and wind behave are also generally underplayed. It tends to feel more like a set than anything, even though the scenes are presumably shot on location.

The thing about these little details is that while addressing them individually might be "nitpicking", they do add up over time. Eventually a movie can look too "clean" or too "neat". It can be "unconvincing" or "unimmersive" or "plastic-looking" or any other number of aggregated terms that all come down to those little overlooked details. It's the kind of thing that makes badly-done CGI distracting or unpleasant, as in the Star Wars Prequels. It doesn't feel like a place you could imagine yourself being, it looks like "a fake thing made for a movie". When what's supposed to be a world looks more like a set or, even worse, a greenscreen, you're going to end up with problems.

Of course, it's all well and good talking about theory, so let's move on to actual applications - whether or not they actually worked.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail - Mud & Grime, Wear & Tear
While most people remember MPatHG for its abundance of quotable (now over-quoted) lines and ridiculous scenarios, it's easy to forget one of the more subtle aspects of its design. It was one of the first movies set in a medieval period that actually tried to be medieval. Terry Gilliam's fastidious devotion to accuracy often annoyed and frustrated the other Pythons, but ultimately it gave us a relatively muddy and realistic depiction of the period in a movie that was supposed to be over-the-top and ridiculous. To really understand the "realism" at play, one must look at the kind of movies that came before Holy Grail - movies like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood or the 1963 "Lancelot and Guinevere". These movies were clean and fresh in almost every aspect - the dirtier, grittier aspects of those worlds was ignored both visually and thematically. By contrast, Holy Grail looks arguably authentic until someone loses an arm in a ridiculous manner.

The end result is that despite being overtly a comedy, there are parts where Holy Grail feels far more real than the "serious" movies that preceded it. The duel between the Black Knight and the Green Knight was far from realistic, but it still felt more real and had more impact than most of Flynn's high-energy swordfights. The peasants in the movie are certainly jokes in and of themselves, but the fact that they're actually picking through, and covered in, dirt and soil is something that differentiates Holy Grail from its predecessors. As a result it felt more like people actually in an environment and less like a school play with a slightly larger budget, and I don't think the movie would have been half as funny if there wasn't that contrasting sense of seriousness and maturity to constantly undermine.

These concepts were an important element for the design team behind the Lord of the Rings movies. According to DVD commentary and interviews, the costumes were specifically "worn out" with faded colors and dirt to make them feel more like actual, lived-in clothes. The stated goal of this was not just to look good, but to immerse the audience with subtle details. Costume designer Ngila Dickson said, quite specifically, that "the less people notice the details of the costume the better job we did in a sense, because that means the costumes have helped to completely absorb you in the story." Again, these are small details, but they make a big difference in the subconscious perception of the movie's content. And it's not just fantasy, of course - compare Hamburger Hill's tired, grimy vets with the cleaner depiction of similar soldiers found in John Wayne's Green Berets. The former looks real, the latter looks sterile, and that's exactly the point of each of those movies.

Dragon Age: Origins - Blood
Speaking philosophically, the blood in DA:O represents a lot of what the game is "about". It's meant to add grit and a sharper, more mature edge to the concept. It ends up being ridiculous because nobody takes it seriously, so people are just walking around covered in gore and making wisecracks. That, in general, is the best summary of Dragon Age as a concept that I can possibly give. It wants to be mature, but has a childish mentality about it and can't actually take things seriously enough to actually address serious aspects.

The obvious thing about the blood in Dragon Age is that it doesn't look like blood, it looks like a video game version of blood. Of course, it IS a video game version of blood, but generally this is supposed to be disguised if an attempt at realism is being made. Dragon Age's blood is so goofy and ridiculous that I wouldn't even really consider it "M-rated" or whatever, because it looks about as convincing as the "blood" in Adventure Time. It's not convincing or believable, it's obviously there because it's "edgy". This is reinforced by the way people handle death and murder in the Dragon Age universe, which is to say "lightly and gaily".

When done well, the inclusion of blood and gore can definitely add to a work, creating a visceral feeling of fear, disgust, and revulsion that helps establish the stakes present. The gore was absolutely vital to Saving Private Ryan, for example, because without it there wouldn't be that sense of how horrifying combat actually is. Gore, and our instinctive reaction to it, can create emotional evocation that lead to greater empathy and immersion. In Dragon Age, the blood just seems to be there for shock value, and ends up being campy and ridiculous instead of intense or disgusting.

Warhammer Fantasy - Trinkets
This is a concept that may seem dissimilar to the previously addressed concepts, but in its own way I think it's just as important. "Trinkets" refers to the bits and baubles and objects that a person uses for their own sense of fashion and factorization. Jewelry, feathers, talismans, charms, and so on can all be used to really give a sense of "customization" for a character's wardrobe. As a compromise between style and utility, these items are small enough to be unobstructive while still being visually interesting and representative of a character's personality.

The reason I think trinkets are important is that they're the bits that make costumes feel like clothes that actual people would wear. It's the little bags and pouches that, in moderation, make a character feel more sensible and more realistic, because they're things that a character would actually have reasons to wear. It's the good-luck charms that help establish something about a character without having to delve into overt, unsubtle character design to do it. And in general, Warhammer Fantasy is absolutely amazing for that kind of thing. There are so many little charms and necklaces and holy seals to plaster on everything and there's supported reasons for them having all those things. Every character feels like a person on some level, they've all got some quirks that are believable and reasonable even when they're somewhat outlandish or unorthodox. Just look at the State Troopers or the Free Companies and you can see how individual they all look without compromising the integrity of the group. Their clothing is notably diverse while still maintaining a coherent theme, and they're visually engaging without being unrealistic.

The lower-level armor in Dark Souls are similarly ornamented; there's pouches and straps and belts and they all add a level of believability and vitality to the designs without getting into ridiculous Rob Liefeld / Final Fantasy X territory. They break up the design as well, making them more visually interesting than just "a robe" or "a suit of armor". It's more than that - it's an outfit, worn by a person. It looks like something a person would wear. It feels layered, not just plastered on like a lot of designs do. The individual elements are realistic and sensible, but the aggregate is more visually interesting because there's all these little things working together.

Assassin's Creed - Hustle & Bustle
When we're talking about things being "lived in", cities are naturally one of the most monumental examples of the concept. Assassin's Creed takes this a step further than most games by making it a relatively important part of the game - the crowds serve simultaneously as a method of concealment and an obstacle during chases, and their presence assures an abundance of witnesses in most cases. While there are certainly problems with how this affects the gameplay of Assassin's Creed, in terms of immersion AC's cities are well-developed and interesting. The different groups of people passing through them - men and women, guards and citizens, rich and poor - adds a feeling of life to the city and makes it more than just a "video game level".

A busy city or "lived in" area provides a feeling of life and vitality to a setting. It elevates it from a shallow sound stage to an immersive area that feels like a real place. The settlements in Pirates of the Caribbean (such as Tortuga and Singapore) have a similar musty charm to them - they're loud, they're vibrant, and they're grungy. They've got a lot of energy and wear to them. They feel "alive", they don't feel like cobbled-together sets populated by unenthusiastic extras. And really, what makes them feel that way is a combination of all the previous traits - characters with motley and varied costuming, grunge and grime on everything, and the general sense that people live here. It's not sterile or flat or empty, it's a place with color and character. And that's how you immerse an audience: you make the world feel alive.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Getting to the root of sexist design.

"Wearing what society forces her to, what a cruel male-dominated culture!" is most accurate.
Within fiction, the constraints of an author's interference means that things exist in two separate states. The first is "things as they are", and the second is "things as they have been made to be". The former is the reality understood by characters in-universe and deals with issues of an in-universe perspective. The latter deals with authorial intent and things outside of the universe itself. When discussing the design of a game or movie or novel, it is important to distinguish these two aspects. As a connoisseur of believability, the divide between  what is real "in-universe" and what is orchestrated by the author's overt influence falls directly into my domain. What I deal in is material that distracts the audience from what should be a seamless self-contained narrative, and for many people "the sexist influence of an author or artist" is distracting and unpleasant enough to cause problems.

Today I'm going to talk about revealing clothing on characters and the perceptions of sexism that they entail. This is something I've talked about before, if you're interested. Addressing the various -isms (sexism and racism primarily) is almost always a question of the meta. Characters can have varying beliefs without hurting a story. A character can be misogynist and racist and it won't reflect poorly on the author or on the book itself. However, this is done by separating the character's perspective from the author's perspective. A character's beliefs in-universe are "things as they are". If it feels like the author endorses that character's beliefs, or if the author directs events in the story to support those beliefs, then it changes to "things as they have been made to be". It calls back the artificiality of the exercise and suggests that the author is doing things for reasons other than simply telling a coherent story.

In many cases I've seen well-meaning feminists attack "things as they are" when they meant to attack "things as they have been made to be". The preeminent connection between "sexy clothes" and "creepy author intent" made many women leery of feminine clothes at all, to the point where that dislike is itself a trope. I can also find plenty of examples of "non-feminine" women who saw themselves as being different from (and thus better than) more traditional women. This piece by Jenn Frank, for example, reflects a time in her life where she believed this to be true. These people are (or were) missing the point of complaints about sexist design: it isn't what they're wearing, it's why they're wearing it.

Let's discuss this image. Two female knights clad head-to-toe in realistic plate armor and carrying reasonably-designed weapons are confronted by an 80s fantasy standard - the improbably-clad "warrior woman" obviously designed as an insane sex object and not as an actual character.  One woman has an eyebrow raised in disbelief. The text below reads "I say we kill her on Principle".

Given the background of the gaming community and game-related art designs, it's easy to defend this as a feminist piece. Two realistically-designed female characters standing up to a "blonde bimbo", representative of the chauvinist male designer? Sounds pretty progressive. But is it really? Is two women threatening to murder another woman for the way she's dressed really progressive? No, that's what we call "slut-shaming" or "body policing", and in its own way it's just as bad as making a female character sexualized in such a way in the first place.

The problem with the scenario depicted in this image is that they're addressing "things as they are" and not "things as they have been made to be". The reason chainmail bikinis and high heels are offensive and misogynist is founded in meta-reasoning, not in direct in-universe reasoning. In fact, the decision to wear them is inexplicable in-universe, which is the problem. Women are shown looking like, and wearing, what the author thinks is sexually attractive, and not what makes sense for them as human beings. There is no reason for the female fighter to be wearing those things. It is not that the things are wrong for her to wear, or that she is a bad person for wearing them. It is that the designer is a bad person for reducing her to a sexual object incapable of making sensible decisions. It is the artist, not the character, who is at fault here.

Now, in-universe, there is a total absence of justification for the woman's garb. She even looks kind of confused in the picture. And yet what do the well-armored women say to her? "I think you should die." For what crime? For being objectified by a force that is beyond her control? Yet it is also a force beyond their understanding; being inhabitants of this fictional reality, they cannot acknowledge the artist without breaking the fourth wall. Now, for purposes of this comic, they could have easily done that: a caption akin to "I feel like we should kill an artist for this" or something along those lines. But they didn't. They blamed her, because there's no one else to blame. They have been presented with a scenario that, in itself, does not make sense. What are they to make of this?

Yet even in that sense there were other options available. If the concern was practicality, then the sentiment expressed should have been one of matronly or sisterly disapproval - "Oh, come on, you're going to get yourself killed going into battle like that", or even a simple "are you kidding me?". It should, in short, have been something other than "we have to kill her for dressing like that". There are women who dress in revealing or "impractical" clothes, and while many feel that they are forced into doing so to gain societal acceptance, many women simply enjoy doing it for its own sake. To express disgust at these women for making a choice is neither "feminist" nor "okay". It's like people who see the "skinny versus curvy" discussion and, rather than coming to the conclusion that all body types are okay if the woman in question is comfortable with it, instead deciding that skinny women are just wrong and should instead become curvy. The problem isn't that "one's better than the other", the problem is that women should be allowed to make choices like adults (and phrasing it like "one's better than the other" boils it down to "you should have a different body type so men will find you attractive"). "Making choices" is, itself, at the heart of this discussion, even if the choices themselves are illusory.

Let's look at the game Lollipop Chainsaw. When discussed in a "things as they have been made to be" sense, LC is a pretty open-and-shut case: it's a game where you play a ditzy, airheaded, incredibly objectified female character who wears skimpy outfits in a manner that's obviously designed for the arousal of straight male gamers. Everything about Juliet's design is a cliche "peppy cheerleader" who doesn't particularly mind that all her foes are calling her "slut" or "whore" or threatening to rape her, who doesn't mind that the men she rescues are more concerned with her appearance than anything else, who doesn't mind much of anything really. For some, Juliet is the "perfect" video game girl - she's attractive, energetic, and doesn't mind when you say rude things to her. In fact, she doesn't mind much of anything. But that's things as they have been made to be.

From a perspective of "things as they are", Juliet Starling is an energetic, attractive highschool student in a relatively "goofy" universe. Nothing about Juliet's character is impossible, just unlikely. All her traits can be found in "real people" with the notable exception of her reaction to death and danger - and even that is common in-universe, as nobody really seems to give much of a damn about dying. It could definitely be argued that some of her behavior is problematic - her fixation on thinness, for example - but as it stands she is not an impossible or even an unrealistic character. From an in-universe perspective, Juliet is by no means "unbelievable". She wears what she wants, she does what she wants, she acts how she wants.

But Juliet's not just "in-universe", is she? She's not a person. She's a construct, designed by an artist to fulfill a role. That role is "be a sex object", "be as many arousing things for nerds as possible", "exist for the pleasure of others", etc. The player's role in the game is "the camera", constantly panning and zooming and rotating around Juliet's body without her being aware. If the player attempts to take a peek up Juliet's skirt, she will unconsciously move her hand to block the player's view - she doesn't know that the player is there (because the player's not real in-universe), and yet something compels her to protect her modesty. This is non-consensual voyeurism. Attempting to look up her skirt nets you an achievement. The game rewards you for this, as though it's goofy harmless fun. Here's why it's not:

This is professional model and Cosplayer Jessica Nigri, who was hired to play Jessica Starling at Lollipop Chainsaw's E3 booth. She's blonde. She's attractive. She's wearing the same skimpy clothes that Juliet wears. She's sporting the same peppy attitude. The difference is that she's also an actual human being, with her own identity and agenda and desires. Jessica enjoys cosplaying and does it frequently; she doesn't seem to mind wearing revealing clothing in the least. But she's not Juliet Starling. Juliet Starling is okay with rape threats and ogling - she takes them in cheerful, goofy stride. This is not a realistic expectation for Jessica Nigri, who is a real person.  "Sexy cosplay" is frequently associated with a desire for attention and, by extension, automatic consent. "Dressing sexy" is considered "asking for it"; the act of wearing those clothes makes you implicit in any untoward behaviors directed at you. "Dressing sexy" is not the bad part - that's the exercising of individual choice. What's bad is the assumptions made by others about what "dressing sexy" permits them to do to the person doing it.

Here's the problem with Juliet Starling, the video game character: she doesn't actually have agency. She doesn't even really have the illusion of agency. In-universe she's doing what she wants, but it's impossible to address the game purely in-universe. Juliet is designed to appeal. She's designed to be flirtatious, sexually open, ditzy, and easy-to-please. She's designed solely to want to please men. This is the real "unrealism", and this is the real thing that makes her design sexist and disgusting: not what she wears or who she is, but the fact that she has been created as a puppet, an automatic consent-giver who the player can ogle without reprisal or chastisement. Players can move the camera around her body all they want and she can't say "no" or ask them to stop or become creeped out. She can't do anything about the player because the player isn't real to her. This kind of "fantasy" setup doesn't seem like it should extend into real life (and many argue that it doesn't - it's just a game, after all), but in many cases it does.

From "Oh, You Sexy Geek!" by Courtney Stoker:
The video is not meant for geek women to view, and feel empowered by seeing representations of other geek women. It is meant to be viewed by men who wish to believe that, despite their own inability to meet cultural standards of masculinity, there are geek women available to them who are “sexy” in two ways: 1. These women do fit a physical standard of beauty, and 2. These women want to please men, want to be sexually appealing to them.

Because geek women are often clearly aiming their performances at geek men, geek men and women often place blame on the women who dress this way. A comment on Geek Tyrant, written by a blogger who is posting a collection of “cosplay cleavage,” is illustrative. Venkman writes, “And ladies, maybe some of you will find these images offensive, but these are women that are dressing like this. We didn’t ask them to, they do it on their own, and if women dress like this, the fact of the matter is…guys are going to stare [sic].” This sentiment lands the blame for the objectification of geek women squarely on the shoulders of women, and characterizes men’s responses to these women as inevitable, natural, and uncontrollable.

The voyeur culture that games and movies tend to support is part and parcel of this problem. Sexist artists and authors design female characters who exist to be ogled without complaint (or meaningful complaint - many characters of that ilk will whine in a manner that's meant to be, in itself, arousing). Characters like Ivy or Taki from Soul Calibur are designed as sexual objects in manners that don't even bother to match up with their backgrounds and personalities. This ad, for example, offers Ivy herself up as an "advertisement" - look, if you play our game, there will be large breasts and you will be able to look at them. Again, it's not that they're wearing revealing clothes that's the problem, it's the fact that those revealing clothes exist as part of an overarching effort to dehumanize them and remove their agency as characters. They are "fap fodder". They exist to arouse. And while many will argue that "it's fine" because "nobody's really getting hurt or objectified" (they're fake characters, after all), the way these characters and how they're allowed to be treated reflects on real life more than people assume it does.

There's two lessons here that are wholly intertwined. The first lesson is about "who you should direct your frustration and anger at", and that's the author or the artist, not the character themselves. Hating a character, or a cosplayer, or a model, or anyone for "dressing sexy" is not okay. If you feel like they were forced into it and that's your problem, blame the person doing the forcing, don't blame them. The complaint about female characters dressing in impractical clothing should be that "they would choose something different", not "they look like a whore". Agency is the most important aspect here - it separates a person from a non-person, after all. Characters who are "dressed" in sexy clothing are deprived of agency by their artists. Women who are objectified at conventions are deprived of agency by their oglers. If a woman chooses to wear revealing clothing, that's entirely her business - "wearing sexy clothes" is not an implicit agreement to surrender agency.  Ostensible feminists deride and despise scantily-clad female characters because they've come to the understanding that those characters are "sexist", but they don't follow up on the root cause of what makes it sexist.

The second lesson is that the difference between a "good character" and a "bad character" is founded entirely on whether or not they can be reasonably justified in-universe. Juliet Starling is difficult to deal with "in-universe" because she seems flagrantly unnatural, even though her component aspects are not necessarily that bad. The same is true of Ivy or Taki. When things don't make sense "in-universe", the blame goes to the creator. It's entirely possible to make attractive characters who make sense and aren't sexist, it's just a question of why those characters exist. Vasquez from Aliens is a well-known example of a solid female character, and despite Hudson's taunting it's actually pretty hard to mistake her for a man. The point was that you didn't notice it because it never felt like Jeanette Goldman was hired for the size of her bust, but instead for her ability to convincingly portray the role she needed to portray. By contrast, characters like Juliet can't feel real because the artist's intention is always there. There's no sense that their design "makes sense in-universe" or that their wardrobe is "reflective of their choices" because you're too busy being overwhelmed by the sheer force of "this character exists to sell the game to teenage boys". The reduction of a character to "basically a pair of tits" is implicitly condoned and supported by the game's developers.

This is my closing link: an editorial by Patricia Hernandez concerning the representation of Juliet Starling in Lollipop Chainsaw, and how it relates to her own life and her own experiences. This is an incredibly emotional piece in a way I don't even feel I'm qualified to comment on. But if there's one thing I'd like you to take from it, to draw from it and apply to this article, it's the fact that Juliet isn't the "problem" or the "aggressor". You shouldn't hate Juliet. She is what she is, and by itself that's fine. If she is anything negative, it is the victim of a misogynist design process. You shouldn't blame the goddamn victim for being mistreated.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Playing At War

When does it become "real" to us?
War, in its many forms, is a constant and reliable source of material for games. Whether it's an "on the ground" perspective like a first-person shooter or an "eye in the sky" like a strategy or tactics game, the basic mechanics of war from past to present to future form a solid mechanical base for gameplay. It can be the individual skill of lining up a shot, parrying an attack, or sprinting across a field while under fire. It can be the management skills of maneuvering units to strike an enemy's weakness, keeping troops happy, or securing an optimal position for an upcoming battle. The act of participating in or conducting a war is a game of sorts, with rules of its own - how weapons work, how physics work, how participants are to conduct themselves, and so on. War has formed the basis of thousands of games, from Chess to Call of Duty, from Rainbow Six to Lasertag, from Command and Conquer to Paintball.

Yet at some point there must be an acknowledgment that games aren't war. It's not possible to make a game that is anywhere close to being like war; at most, you'd just get accurate physics simulators like ARMA. You cannot get an understanding of the complexities of war by playing a game because the game separates you from all the things that make war what it is. Games aren't war, and players don't want them to be war. If they wanted to be part of a war, there are plenty of actual wars available. However, a problem arises when game developers try to tell a game's story as though it was a war - as though players ought to be treating the game seriously, and learning something about war from the experience.
This was the noble, but perhaps misguided, goal of "Six Days in Fallujah", a game designed by a team that included an actual participant of the battle of Fallujah. The goal of the game was to depict a harrowing, harsh reality - a "survival horror" game, rather than an "action" game like Battlefield or Call of Duty. Players would be immersed in a highly lethal scenario where their player-character is as vulnerable as any real soldier would be. The nature of the game was meant to reflect the actual battle and teach players about the nature of war, as opposed to being a politicized, glorified shooting gallery. However, the game saw opposition (and was ultimately canceled) from groups who saw the game as exactly that: a game, not an immersive learning experience. The fear always exists that even if the game has good intentions, it can be played in a manner not supported by its concept. You'll always be able to "get frags" and "own noobs" because ultimately it is, in fact, a game. The way that the information is framed prevents players from truly understanding the experience and opens up problems related to the necessity of a game being "fun" or "amusing". Here are the things that separate games from war, and in essence explain why the former can't really be used to teach about the latter.

This would make a good ad for an MMO.
1. Games Are Voluntary
A defining trait of a game is that you choose to play it. Games are fun. Games are designed for recreation and enjoyment. Games are something that you play when you want to entertain yourself. If the game wasn't fun, you would not play it - or at least you wouldn't do it very often. War is sometimes, but not always, voluntary. Even when it is voluntary to enter military service, it is not voluntary to exit it. Being in the military is a job, a calling, or a duty, not usually a "fun activity to pass the afternoon". Even people who enjoy war and enjoy being in the military are committed to it more than gamers are simply because regardless of how they feel about it, they're still stuck in it.

What's lost in the transition between "war" and "game" is that you, as a human being, have one life. When you die, that life is over. Your experience in this world is complete, and depending on what your beliefs are about the afterlife, you may not even exist anymore. Soldiers come from all sorts of walks of life and, like any human being, have years of experience behind them, and all that can end violently, suddenly, and decisively. It can be a sniper's bullet or a random mortar or an IED, but that human being's life is now over. As a soldier, they are in a situation that they may not get out of. Everything they are ends in this war; everything is at stake for a cause that may not even be that important to them. This is something that games simply cannot convey, unless you are willing to spend a huge amount of time getting to know every single participant in the conflict as a human being. Games are about soldiers from faction x and soldiers from faction y and they might as well be henchmen in a James Bond movie.

Think about the fact that Six Days In Fallujah had to brand itself as "survival horror". Theoretically, any realistic game featuring combat would be "survival horror", and yet they're not. Games about war are "action games" or "tactics games" but almost never "survival games". Relatedly, survival games have an interesting effect based on their very premise: they're interesting and immersive until you die. This is something I've noticed in many players - once they've died the first time, there's less incentive to actually try to stay alive, and less visceral reactions to fear. Why should you? It's just a game. You might get killed and have to go back a bit. Big deal. But before you die, you're able to put that aspect out of your mind and get immersed. Of course, the problem with that in a game about modern combat is that your death will almost certainly be something you can't see or avoid, like the aforementioned snipers, IEDs and mortars. It's hard to connect to that emotionally except in a very immediate "wow, I just died and basically couldn't do anything about it" sense - a sense more useful than "ugh this game sucks and it's too hard", but a more difficult sense to consistently evoke.

As an aside, in the list of "things that are misandrist about games" (which is really more of a joke than anything), one notable inclusion is the fact that men are often "forced" to go to war while women don't have to. Barring historical games (which don't even bother to convey the reality of conscription), I actually can't think of any games where actual male-only conscription is a factor. Valyria Chronicles had conscription, but for the entire population. Most other games are about voluntary or hired soldiers, including Mount&Blade, a game that by all rights should see you calling up the sons of landowners to fulfill their duty to fight. If anyone has an actual example of a male-only conscription in a video game, please be sure to mention it in the comments.

Some aspects of war ARE like a game, to the detriment of personal responsibility.

2. Games Are Remote
It's a simple point, but it's worth mentioning: when you're playing a game, you're not there. The conditions that combat occur in are not the same as the conditions gaming occurs in. The sensory overload of a combat situation is rarely evoked in games because it would be too frustrating and disheartening to players. Instead, players are often thrown into loud, confusing situations, but are given guiding instructions and relative invulnerability to help them get through it. The stress and immediacy of a combat situation are not modeled accurately for the sake of ease of play, and this necessity of "fun" deteriorates from the game's value as a learning tool.

Even beyond this, though, there are factors that simply cannot be replicated. Things like adrenaline, defensive chemical responses, and even lack of sleep cannot be adequately modeled into the game process in a way that helps the player understand the thought processes of a soldier in the field. This is not only a problem for games, but across all mediums of understanding combat: the reality of existence "in the field" is not the same as the reality of existence in normal conditions. While this sounds like it's only making excuses for poor behaviors ("it's okay that he shot those civilians, you don't understand what it's like in the field"), this aspect is ALSO important because the weight of decisions has more impact when you're standing right there, as opposed to thousands of miles away flying a drone. This isn't just something related to war - any life-or-death situation is going to carry a weight and emotional impact that cannot be fully understood by someone who hasn't been part of it.

It's true, though, that games can be immersive, and can at least try to do something about this aspect, but ultimately it's never going to be the same. The strong emotions felt during combat - whether joy or rage or grief or terror - cannot be understood by someone who's not in that situation. A gamer and a soldier might celebrate when they've killed a foe, but for a soldier there's something more primal at work, a surge of adrenaline and fear that escalates the response beyond a simple "I did it". Even after reading dozens of autobiographies from soldiers in combat, I can't even come close to saying I understand those feelings myself, and perhaps even the soldiers themselves don't truly comprehend them. It's enough, I think, to know that there's an impassible barrier between "sitting at a computer or on a couch" and "having your life on the line" no matter what the situation is. It's the same with any traumatic event - people who say "they've been there" and reveal they've just played a game about it would not be taken seriously. You don't know until you have really been there.

This is what "enemy" boils down to.
3. Games Aren't About Human Beings
While I've already distinguished the gap between "the player" and "a soldier", this point is more about the gap between NPCs and soldiers. NPCs in games have more in common with shooting-gallery targets than real people; they're there to play a mechanical role, not to "be real". In a shooter, enemies pop up to shoot the player, and in return the player shoots them in the face. At no point is there any real potential for a reaction other than "pop up, shoot, be shot at". They don't surrender, they don't flee (though they do "tactically withdraw"), and they don't negotiate. They don't behave like human beings, who would most likely be concerned for their lives at least to some extent. While it's true that many soldiers fight to the death in war, it's ridiculous to say that all of them would, or that they would continue to assault given the near-suicidal circumstances that most enemies face in shooter games. The behavior that NPCs frequently demonstrate in games is not congruous to the idea that they're supposed to be actual people. This becomes an incredibly volatile issue when the enemies in question are real-life groups like Arabs or Russians - the idea becomes "they're not human, of course you have to kill them all".

FFT had an entire class based around
 non-lethal options and negotiation.
In some cases, games try to justify the forced bloodthirstiness of their mechanical paradigm. Whether the solution is super-hostile aliens like in "Gears of War" or robotic enemies like in "Binary Domain", some games recognize the fact that it makes no sense for human soldiers to behave like this and simply makes them "not human". In other cases, games try to make enemies more human, either through characterization or through actual mechanical changes. For example, in both "Final Fantasy Tactics" and the "Tactics Ogre" series, the option exists to recruit enemies. In "Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together", your chances of recruiting an enemy soldier on the battlefield are related to the compatibility between your alignments and the loyalty the soldier in question has to their commander. This adds a level of depth to the interaction; yes, you will in most cases be killing your enemies, but the potential exists to find a more peaceful solution as well (though telling the enemy just to leave or desert would have been nice). Stealth games like Metal Gear Solid generally offer you the ability to ignore or tranquilize enemies instead of forcing you into a lethal encounter, though the ease with which one can take down one's foes nonlethally may have the effect of rendering the lethal option as pointlessly cruel rather than unpleasantly necessary. These simple measures support the idea that your enemies are human beings - you can interact with them in the same way that you would interact with a human, which may make the (sometimes necessary) act of killing one of them more important and meaningful.

"Obviously some sort of suicide tactic"
Yet when games like Max Payne 3 try to characterize their faceless, soulless enemies as "human" or "humanized" and fail to deliver on the actual things that make someone human, then there's a problem. By rights these characters should behave like humans, but they do not. This is what is known as Ludonarrative Dissonance: the gameplay ("ludo") does not match up with the story and the setting ("narrative"). This makes the gameplay functionally useless to the story; the reality depicted by the gameplay is not the reality depicted by the story. Think of GTA4 - the careless "run over everything and shoot dozens of people" gameplay is obviously not the same as the "every death is a tragedy" story, yet the game pretends that the two are linked. This is exactly where the half-developed humanization goes: these enemies are meant to be human, and their deaths are meant to be serious like a human's death, yet they do not behave like humans. Yet war is conducted by humans against humans, and war cannot be understood through a game consisting of a human fighting targets. The empathy and understanding that are key for interpersonal relationships become useless in a game where your only option for interaction is permanently-justified murder.

It's fine, just wait for the respawn.
4. Games Lack Consequence
Even in the case that a game is immersive or has mechanics that support non-violent resolutions, it's still generally too easy to "undo" things that go wrong. That is, after all, the nature of most games - injuries can be cleaned up, mistakes can be fixed, teammates can be revived. The game must go on, and if all the pieces are broken, how can that happen? There must be some way for the game to continue being played. There must be more pieces, or the pieces that exist must be mended. Whether this manifests itself as regenerative health or infinite enemies, there is certainly a precedent for games that ignore the realities of a situation in order to deliver a more "cinematic" experience. And, of course, there is the almighty "save/load", near-total control over time itself within the constraints of the gaming experience. The coherent narrative of a game's story, even if it is vicious and realistic and grim, can be ultimately undermined by the simple fact that it is a game, and games can be negotiated with in ways that reality cannot.

In real life, there is a feeling that I think almost every person has experienced in some way. This is the experience of "this can't be undone". This is something that has such permanent consequences, and there is the immediate understanding that this will accompany you for the rest of your life. Wars, of course, provide thousands of these moments - whether it's being crippled, watching a friend die, accidentally killing a noncombatant, accidentally killing someone you were certain was armed and proved not to be...war is defined almost by its post-experience effect as it is by the actual time spent in it. Games intentionally lack such experiences. There's always some way to start over - yes, it might take a while, and choices can be given some weight, but nothing is permanent. It can't be. It's not technically feasible to do it and it's certainly not financially viable.

In a game, this is just a background.
Games don't teach responsibility. They might find ways to evoke the concept, but they don't teach it. They can't. Games are escapism - they're what you go to do in lieu of dealing with real life and real permanent consequences. You do things in a game you wouldn't do in real life because now it's okay. Again, this goes for all games, not just video games. Nobody would compare "being at war" to "playing laser tag", and yet people still try to make serious games about wars that just don't understand why their commentary is limited. Even the games that do try to be serious about things like "loss" and "death" tend to miss out on the civilian elements. The one exception I can clearly think of is Eidos' "Kane & Lynch: Dead Men", where civilians were sprinkled logically throughout the level and were highly likely to catch a random bullet as you shot at a cop or something. This reinforced the fact that Kane & Lynch was a game about terrible human beings, but even then it just didn't have any real consequences or weight to it. "Far Cry 2" was a game purportedly about helping civilians at the expense of everything else, yet there are almost no actual "civilians" in the game - it's a mostly-empty jungle populated by the occasional outpost or jeep patrol. Whether the reason is moral ("can't have the player shooting civilians when  they're supposed to be helping them") or technical is beyond my knowledge, but it certainly had an effect on the game.

While many people disliked Heavy Rain, and for some fairly good reasons, my experience playing it was marked primarily by ignorance. I played the game under the (mostly true) assumption that failure would actually result in bad things happening - the death of a character, the loss of evidence, etc. I also assumed, based on the auto-saving nature of the game, that I had one shot at this (well, at least "one shot before I'd have to start over"). As such, the decisions I made felt like they had as much weight to them as I think it's possible to give a game, and the game was designed in certain ways to attempt to model stress, fear, and even insanity. In one section, a protagonist has to chop off his own finger. Is this the right thing to do? Is it worth it? The conveyance of fear, anxiety, and pain was among the best I've seen in games (and I've seen a lot of games). Yet many people played it casually, laughing at the overwrought nature of the trial. And why shouldn't they? It's just a game.

This is an article about war, and about games, but I hope you can see that the lessons go far beyond both of those things. Experiencing anything in a diluted media format is just not going to be the same at all as experiencing it in real life. This doesn't mean that games, movies, and art shouldn't try to convey educational information through their particular medium, but it does mean that it's just not going to be totally possible. Yet to me the real lesson is this: games should either be informative, or they should be games. The bizarre hybrid of "serious" and "not-serious" ruins both elements, whether it's meant to be a fictional story or a representation of reality. People praise GTA4 because its cutscenes are serious and mature and then don't stop to include its gameplay. People praise Uncharted because its protagonist is likeable and well-written and then dodge the issue of "he's killing hundreds of men". People praise Metal Gear Solid because it tells a serious story with serious elements like the usage of technology and the nature of war and then they also laugh at it because it's a comedy game for children. At least I think it's for children, I can't imagine who else is supposed to laugh at the monkey in MGS4.

Either teach us something or give us good gameplay. If you can actually do both, great. But it's so much more likely that the conflict of interests between your different priorities - "artistic value" and "fun value", "storytelling" and "gameplay", "technical limits" and "budget limits" - is just going to make it all break down. The rules for "making a good game" and "depicting a convincing reality" are so different that you really have to ask yourself, as a developer, if it's worth it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Fantasy and Reality: Grounding and Novelty

Dragons aren't real, but their components certainly are.
"Fantasy" and "reality" are two concepts that seem like they should be totally at odds. They're practically conceptual opposites - one's about adherence to an existing system, the other is the rejection of that system. Realism is stodgy and boring, fantasy is flashy and exciting. Realism is grounded and tangible, fantasy is floaty and immaterial. The idea of caring about realism in a work full of dragons and wizards and griffons and demons seems ridiculous to many people, because we've already gotten past the point of "reality". Things aren't realistic in one sense - why should they be realistic in any other?

Yet most fantasy, most notably Tolkien-derived fantasy, draws its ideas from myths and legends. The thing to remember about myths and legends is that at one point people thought they were how the world worked. That's what makes them myths and legends and not just "stories". People thought that dragons were real and that they lurked over the next hill - nevermind that they hadn't seen one themselves, because they hadn't seen a lot of things themselves. The same is true of explorers and their understanding of the world. To an explorer, a sea serpent was no more impossible than a giant squid, a gryphon was no less unfeasible than a rhinoceros, and so on. The only difference between "what might be" and "what is" was the proof of their own two eyes. Despite this, if we were talking about a fantasy work that included such fantastic beasts, the general assumption is "all bets are off". Further attempts to call for realism would be undermined by the fact that there's already such creatures in the work.

Fantasy and reality seem like they're at odds because they represent different things - fantasy is imagination, reality is limitation. Yet we can experience reality much more coherently and clearly than we can experience fantasy, because reality is a manifold sensory experience and fantasy generally exists only in two senses. Therefore, the combination can make a more meaningful experience: taking the creativity of fantasy and making it more tangible by connecting it to things that we can understand in sensory terms. The duality of the reality/fantasy concept is actually pretty easy to explain. Think back to your childhood, to any time you spent exploring in the woods, in a cave, or in your backyard. Think about the feeling of potential - you're a child, you don't know how the world works yet, there could be anything behind the next rock. The experience is exciting because you're exploring in a very sensory manner - there's sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations (including temperature and kinesthetics)...the process of "exploring" for a child combines the very real, very tangible "actual life" with the unlimited potential of "fantasy".

Ashitaka's curse has more impact when grounded in the physical nature of a bow.
Reality is Familiar
"Reality" consists of the familiar things that our brains can connect to on a visceral and tangible level. Having objects and people behave realistically allows us to draw upon our own experiences and understanding of materials and events, which helps us immerse ourselves into the experience. We know what stone is, we know what wood is, we know what steel is - and if we can use that knowledge to add depth to the work, the work prospers. Movies and games are an audiovisual medium, but humans have far more than two senses. Drawing in something as basic as the sense of touch or smell can make a work respond better in the confines of two-sense expression.

Reality exists to serve as a familiar base for what's going on by providing tangible materials and sensory experiences similar to those found in real life, and ergo our own lives. While the creatures and objects of fantasy are "unrealistic", their composition is often formed of realistic elements. Dragons aren't real, but they have scales like a reptile, leathery wings, and breathe fire (among other things). All of those elements exist in reality, and thus the composite formed by that sensory data informs the audience's understanding of a "dragon" even though dragons aren't real. While it's possible to intentionally try to avoid real materials to get a more "pure" form of fantasy, such materials will exist at most in an audio-visual format, and as such cannot connect or resonate with the audience.

Understanding the value of realism should not be a measure of absolute adherence, but rather understanding which bits of realism will give you the benefits you're looking for. Realism provides increased tangibility and coherence, and those simple things will open up a world of new design options and possibilities. For example, the simple act of conveying damage more realistically will create greater empathy and tension in a narrative. Having characters behave sensibly according to their personalities reinforces the fact that they're supposed to be "real people" that the audience should care about. Adding factors like weight and fatigue to a game's climbing makes the act of climbing more tense and more emotionally connective. Realism helps audiences understand things that do exist in reality but can't exist in fiction as they are shown it.

LOTR went out of its way to make its world tangible.
A lot of very effective but relatively simple techniques are founded in just making things more realistic. It's why the original Star Wars movies tend to feel more tangible and evocative than the prequel movies - because the full-CG sets of the prequels just don't feel like something you can touch. When characters start jumping out of flying cars and doing ridiculous stunts it stops feeling like a place you could actually be and starts feeling like a goofy cartoon. In many cases such CG is defended under aesthetic grounds, and that's fine - aesthetics are a matter of opinion. But the objective reality is that realism has very concrete and identifiable benefits, and rejecting realism should be weighted with the benefits you'll be getting from doing so.

Certain problems may arise with realism, however. The first potential problem is that unless the work is totally realistic, decisions about what's real and what's not are going to be on the author's hands. When realism has been suspended in the past, it's not going to cut it to say "hey, we can't do x element, it's not realistic".  When you say that regenerating health is okay but female protagonists aren't, the audience can pretty much tell what your agenda is.The second potential problem is that if you're talking about what's real and what's not, it's your onus to know what's real and what's not. When you start making mistakes or bad calls about what's possible and what's not possible, then it detracts from your work. In some cases this is nitpicking, in other cases the entire premise can be founded in faulty concepts. Whether or not the audience cares is going to depend on who, exactly, the audience is.

I think a big problem with "realism", though, arises from the fact that people don't really understand the range of what it entails. When you hear "realistic shooter", the assumption is generally "brown and boring". When you hear "realistic fantasy", it's much the same. As I tried to show people in one of my previous articles, "real" and "stylistic" can go together perfectly well. The problem is not actual "realism", but the implications foisted upon the concept by its misuse. You can have a brightly dressed character in a colorful environment and have it still be totally realistic as long as you know which cultures and environments to draw inspiration from. It's a question of knowing how systems work and what they mean, not a matter of aesthetic limitations. Realism is a set of tools to use for emotional effect, not a set of principles to blindly adhere to.
"Boringly realistic"?
Fantasy is Creative
Hercules' Hydra was a "puzzle boss".
The "fantasy" part of the concept brings with it creativity and novelty. We have a pretty good understand of things in reality, and while there's always things we don't know, it gets kind of boring just dealing with "real things" over and over because we already basically understand them. The ostensible value of "fantasy" is that it brings in scenarios and situations that we would not normally encounter - impossible creatures and magics that provide new information for us to pore over and digest. Well-done fantasy treats its elements logically and factors them into the narrative: what would things be like if we had x? How would we deal with y? Fantasy allows for a dynamic that wouldn't be possible in a purely realistic world.

Our brains constantly seek novelty; it's just part of what we are as humans. It's why we get bored. When we're talking about realism, there are a lot of things that we can cover - far more than most people actually give credit for - but there are limits. The advantage of fantasy is that in many cases you can come up with creatures or places that would just be outright impossible in real life. The player can set about attempting to understand this new content through trial-and-error; one of the charm points of early D&D was that most players didn't know the monster manuals by heart, and thus actually had to figure out how to defeat enemies. Most monsters are designed in a sort of "puzzle boss" manner: yeah, trolls are huge creatures that hit really hard, but the actual exciting part about them is that they regenerate unless you expose them to fire or acid. The process of "it's growing its parts back, what do we do", followed by a trial-and-error exercise, is part of the process of discovery, and that's what makes exciting gameplay.

Clash of the Titans did pretty well representing this element of fantasy (naturally since it's a mythology-derived work). It did this by using monsters as catalysts for exploration rather than simply "combat obstacles". The problems and solutions that arose within the story were only possible because of fantasy, but the application of logic and critical thinking is what makes them interesting to watch in the first place. Medusa is not a "real" character by any stretch of the imagination, but the rules of her existence and the way Jason maneuvers around it is compelling to watch because it involves active thinking and discovery, not just brute strength. It's a scenario that doesn't have an equivalent in real life, but thanks to fantasy it was able to happen. That doesn't mean it wasn't grounded - hell, mirrors are real, after all - but the fantastic elements played off of the realistic elements to create a tangible solution.

Dungeons are unrealistic, but offer unique dynamics.
It's not just monsters, of course - fantasy is full of places and things that seem impossible in real life (though real life shouldn't be undervalued in that regard), and the inclusion of those elements allows for more meaningful exploration. Dungeons, tombs, labyrinths, ruins...all things that exist in real life, but at most on a fraction of the scale of fantasy. The reason they're bigger is because that means there's more to interact with - more puzzles to solve, more traps to avoid, more monsters to kill. This plays into the sense of discovery: "what's around the next corner" has a much broader answer when you're not constrained by "things that exist in real life". An ancient dungeon full of still-functional traps and gadgets isn't totally realistic (apart from a few exceptions), but it's a gameplay experience that you can't get within the bounds of plausibility. That doesn't mean it can't take benefits from realism, but the basic concept just isn't realistic in and of itself. Again, we break from reality to deliver something novel.

Heck, even something as simple as a geographic switchup can create new dynamics and new situations. There are only so many plausible matchups with real-world situations; games like Ace Combat use familiar technology but mix them into new political and geographic scenarios. This can be expedient for gameplay purposes ("we want to have WW2 but with 1990s technology") and for narrative purposes (the ability to tell stories with new and exciting starting points). The point is that fantasy and non-realism in general can be used to make new things happen, and in many cases those new things are going to provide gameplay or narratives that aren't feasible within the boundaries of reality.

Of course, one of the common problems with fantasy as an actualized genre is that there's so much repetition and so many reused ideas. "Tolkien-esque" fantasy is so common now that it generally doesn't feel fantastic anymore. It's identified as "fantasy", but only because that's the genre we're used to putting things like elves and dwarves and orcs into. As an actual fantasy concept, there's no longer a sense of discovery or novelty regarding those things. They've been used so many times and in so many ways that it just seems ridiculous. The reliance on established tropes undermines all the benefits that fantasy should be providing. We see a troll and we go "oh, a troll, better kill it with fire" because we've seen them so many times before. There's no sense of discovery and experimentation, just a puzzle we've already solved a thousand times.

Are elves "fantastic" or "familiar" at this point?
In the early parts of The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee had never seen an elf; the prospect of meeting one was almost magical to him. Once he'd been around them for a while they no longer seemed particularly impressive - they're certainly graceful and wise, but they're now just another part of the world. Therein lies our (fairly direct) metaphor for the reader. When Tolkien created elves based on Norse mythology, they were new and interesting, and made readers want to learn about them. Their culture and civilization conjured up new ideas and new aesthetics that didn't work for mortal humans. Now we have so many types of elves that the concept is essentially meaningless apart from "pointed ears". The value of fantasy is in novelty and creativity, and relying on established things undermines that. In fact, the idea of novelty and creativity is why a lot of fantasy fans don't like realism: because fantasy is about exploring new things, not being stuck in old ones. Yet at the same time, they often don't recognize when tropes have worn out their welcome and are themselves serving as impediments to new things.

For fantasy to truly take advantage of its best features, it needs to be new. We like fantasy because it gives us an opportunity to experience new things that aren't part of reality. It lets us put our brains to work on puzzles and problems that wouldn't arise in scenarios constrained by reality. It relies on its content being new and fresh because the value of "fantasy" is found in mental stimulation. To that end, fantasy needs to stop getting caught up in what it already is and start putting more thought into what it could be. It needs to be more than just a strange or unrealistic aesthetic and start making use of the values that made people like it in the first place.

Everything but the magic is tangible.
Fantasy & Reality Intertwined
Both fantasy and reality have their benefits in a work. Reality grounds, fantasy expounds. Fantasy makes impossible structures and unbelievable creatures, reality conveys them in a manner that the audience can connect to. Fantasy is the castle, reality is the masonry. Eliminating fantasy from the equation limits the opportunity for new and exciting stimuli for the audience; eliminating reality means that those new stimuli are just weird, abstract things that don't feel tangible at all. There's reasons to have both, and they don't necessarily cancel each other out.

Think about the success of a franchise like Game of Thrones: the concept is largely realistic in its construction, but makes use of specific unrealistic elements for greater effect. The baseline of "realism" makes the things that aren't realistic more meaningful. The reward for this dynamic is a far greater level of societal acceptance than fantasy media has received in the past; not since Lord of the Rings has fantasy been as mainstream-acceptable, and LOTR was itself fairly grounded. It's not a question of "high magic" or "low magic" though - rather, it's the conveyance of elements within the universe. It's easier to make convincing costuming than convincing CGI; believable magic effects are possible, but they're much more work than believable prop design.

Game designers often talk about the feeling of exploration in "kid in a backyard" terms like the scenario I described earlier. It's the idea of pure, childish exploration, a search for novelty and interesting things. It's what drove Shigeru Miyamoto to create the Zelda games. It's what's inspiring the upcoming Dragon's Dogma. It's the feeling of "I'm actually walking through the woods, and I don't know what's around the next corner or what I'll find". Reality reflects the memory of actual physical exploration - of walking through the woods, touching the bark of trees, feeling low-hanging leaves sweep against your face, listening to the sounds of rustling undergrowth and bird calls.Fantasy reflects the sense of discovery you felt that is hard to recapture with "real things", because "real things" at this point are so familiar to you. As a child, you were probably happy just finding bugs or old coins - as an adult, those things are so familiar that you need something new to interact with.

In short, the two elements of "fantasy" and "reality" connect heavily to each other. Fantasy isn't tangible and comprehensible without reality; reality might not be as exciting and novel without fantasy. Fantasy shows us exciting new worlds, reality connects us to basic concepts of understanding and empathy. We use the fantasy to escape, we use the reality to make the escape seem real. Each has their own set of benefits. The idea that they are necessarily at odds doesn't help anything - it just displays ignorance of what both are truly capable of achieving.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How To Write Empowering Female Characters

Nonsensical design, or empowering ideal?
A few months ago I posted an article called Project: Representation asking for people (primarily women and minorities) to provide descriptions of what they thought would be an idealized representation of their race, sex, or other status identifier. This was in response to two major things. The first was my own uncertainty about my already-established idea of "to write female characters well, just write them like men". This was the idea of characters being defined not by their sex or race, but instead by their personality, career, etc. The potential problem with this was that "have everyone be like white men" might not be the best option, and actual women and ethnic minorities might have some traits that they thought were important or central to their identity.

The second issue was one of idealization. It had been argued by some that a busty, beautiful female character was to women what a buff, handsome male character was to men - a tool for escapism, and a representation of the ideal figure or body type. I had heard this argument be challenged due to the underlying issues surrounding representations of men and women, especially in comics. Men are there to be "awesome", women are there to be ogled. The designs of female characters are not appealing to women, because their figures, appearances and personalities aren't actually their "ideal". Many women seemed to be uncomfortable with the representation of women in comics because it felt like they were there solely to be sexy, and they didn't have the agency or justified representation that most male characters were assumed to.

Empowering, or bland?
In Project: Representation I tried to get a sense of what attributes would define a good female character, or a good minority character, besides being a "good character" in a neutral sense. Each issue raised its own question that I wanted answered: firstly, "is it better or worse to make a minority character devoid of any cultural traits in the name of avoiding stereotyping", and secondly "what sort of character or traits would you find empowering?" Unfortunately I only had a few respondents, none of them female, so I wasn't really able to get a good sense of what people actually wanted. The few people I asked directly gave me the relatively common-sense answer of "it depends on how it's used in context".

This article by Vivienne Chan (click this link it is the basis of the rest of the article) answers a lot of my questions more directly, at least in terms of one person's perspective:

"Everyone – and I do mean EVERYONE, male or female – is going to have a different answer to “what makes a great female lead in a video game."

The things that Miss Chan describes as being her own ideal are things like:

"...shamelessly beautiful, almost to the extent that it can be offensive.  She would have long dark hair, she would be tall, and she would be athletic with slamming curves."

"...her ability to beat down enemies – women and men alike – without breaking a nail, and she would do so wearing whatever the hell she thought was the best thing to wear at the time, whether it be a skimpy catsuit unzipped to her navel or full body armor."

"She would be charming and intimidating at the same time, and will make no goddamn apologies for who she is or what she stands for."

"Screw the “muted” attractiveness that Jade from Beyond Good and Evil brought to the table – I want a lady who is unapologetically gorgeous and is comfortable in that skin."

What's funny about these examples, to me, is that it feels like if I saw this character in a game or a comic, I'd assume it was designed by a man, and ergo assume it was sexist. The classic idea of an ostensibly empowered female character who is drop-dead gorgeous and "kicks ass" and is charming and capable and powerful and self-motivated...well, that seems kind of cliche in a shallow quasi-feminist "Joss Whedon" way, doesn't it? But it's something that a woman wants in this case, very specifically in fact. It's her own terms for what would define a character that she would want to be like. There must be some element that separates her desire from the offensive cliche. Let's examine each element of what Miss Chan wants in order to come to an understanding of how their context and presentation can influence the end result.

Issue A: Character Agency And Self-Determination
One of the most easy-to-identify things in this description of an ideal character is that the character exists on her own terms. She is not subordinate to anyone, she is not weaker than anyone, she is not chained by anyone or anything. The things she does are under her own terms: she "wear(s) whatever the hell she wants", she "will make no goddamn apologies", she is "unapologetically gorgeous and is comfortable in that skin".

These are traits that exist in many sexist characters, but the problem with those characters is that it doesn't feel natural for them. It feels like a justification, because the actual issue is that they're like that because it's something that the author finds attractive. The influence of authorship creates a scenario where a character with such a design cannot be considered neutral, because there's so much obvious justification there for shallow, sexist desires. When Starfire talks about how great being nude is, it's difficult to address that as a legitimate character trait because it feels like an empty excuse for the artist to draw a nude character.

In such a scenario, the character's agency - even if it exists in-universe - is unpleasantly overtaken by the author's control. A female character who kicks ass and chews bubblegum and does a billion slow-mo kills in a slinky nightgown or catsuit (Aeon Flux, Resident Evil, Ultraviolet, etc) is not traditionally thought of as empowering because behind that concept is the lurking terror of a creepy, objectifying male writer or director. Even though "the writer" or "the director" don't exist in-universe, their presence is felt strongly enough that it's nearly impossible to think of such characters as being "a woman exhibiting agency". When a female character wears immodest clothing, or has large breasts, or is attractive, it's attributed to a male designer.

As a result of this, there's been a feminist cultural backlash against characters who possess those traits no matter what the conditions are. The real problem is why they're showing skin, or why they're attractive - something I've tried to illustrate in many of my previous articles. Alyx Vance is praised because she's somewhat plain and dresses modestly, which ostensibly makes her feel more "real" and "empowered", but in terms of her behavior she's still a sycophantic second fiddle to her silent protagonist companion. Saber from Fate/Stay Night is praised because she wears a modest dress and armor, but her design is still a very blatant "kawaii anime girl". The Last Psychiatrist wrote multiple articles on how Katniss from the Hunger Games is ostensibly empowering because she dresses modestly and has a bow and arrow, but in the actual narrative she does almost no "empowering" things. How characters dress or look isn't the problem - it's why they dress and look that way, and what it means in a meta-sense. Miss Chan identifies this fallacy by noting that she doesn't want to be someone who possesses "muted" attractiveness, she wants her ideal character to be legitimately attractive.

Miss Chan wants her ideal character to be attractive because "being attractive" is something that makes her feel more powerful and more capable. This reasoning is perfectly sound and accepted when discussing male characters. Nobody says that Snake or Dante or Batman are objectified because they're attractive, since the greater context of those characters is that they're attractive on their own terms. It gives them social power and influence, rather than making them objects of potentially undesired attention. Namor hangs around in a speedo because it makes him feel powerful and desirable, not because he feels obligated to do so by society. Nobody will ever accuse Namor of "asking for it" because of the way he dresses. Nobody will drug Namor's drink and call him a slut. Miss Chan's description of her ideal character's attractiveness has the kind of meaning to it that an empowering male character's attractiveness has: it gives them more power, more control, and more self-esteem. These are the things that define the difference between "sexy for one's own purposes" and "sexy because someone else forced me to be".

There is a very fine and indistinct line between "being sexy because I want to be" and "being sexy because you want me to be"; many women dress attractively and revealingly and find it to be perfectly empowered, while many others feel forced and uncomfortable with it. The issue is not what is worn, or how someone looks, but why they look or dress that way. When female comics characters are almost unilaterally made into gorgeous women with unrealistically large breasts, it doesn't feel like it's empowering them, it feels like "that's what the male artists want them to look like". When Miss Chan says she wants her ideal character to be drop-dead gorgeous, that's because it gives her character more control, more influence, and more power - the kind of things that make a character "escapist" to begin with. They are part of the central concept that a character who is empowering should have agency, should be in control of their own fate, and shouldn't be shackled by other people's desires or demands.

Issue B: Masculine and Feminism, and the role of Diversity
One of the issues that was present in Project: Representation is the fact that the standards used to determine a sensible character seem to be very masculine in nature. A character who is depicted as being capable of agency often does it in very masculine ways because the traits we think of as being "empowering" are traditionally associated with masculinity. What I wanted to get at with some of my questions was "how would you make a female character who exhibits agency while still possessing feminine traits that you think positively of?"

We get characters like Vasquez from Aliens who are "empowered" because they're total badasses. They're physically strong, they curse openly, they kill things and enjoy the hell out of it. They exhibit almost entirely masculine traits, but just happen to be women. That's great, because it breaks down gender lines: nobody's gonna say Vasquez can't do the job, look how tough she is. However, the inherent problem in this is that characters who are "awesome" or "badass" are basically masculine-by-design, whereas characters who are "weak" or "submissive" are showing largely feminine traits. The pre-existing roles show their influence by glorifying behaviors associated with masculinity and vilifying behaviors associated with femininity.

Now, if we were going to get truly gender-neutral, the traits we value aren't honestly that bad. It's the grouping that's potentially problematic. Masculinity includes power and strength and self-determination, but it also tends to include less desirable traits like aggression, denial of emotions, and abrasive personalities. Similarly, femininity in its classic definition implies submission and physical weakness, but also positive traits like empathy and care. It's easy to draw up lines based on assumptions of gender, but the actual issue is that the traits themselves need to be addressed individually as positive or negative traits.

Miss Chan attempts to balance these traits by taking the best of both - her ideal is "caring but ferocious", "charming but intimidating". While this might seem somewhat cliche for a "badass female character", I can think of male characters who've pulled it off without a problem - with Chris Redfield in RE5 being the most obvious example. Chris is not rough, abrasive, rude or crass. He's thoughtful, he's caring, he's empathic, he's emotionally available, and he's also a huge muscled-up badass who punches the hell out of boulders. Nobody (or nobody I know) thought less of Chris for not being an asshole, yet "be an asshole" is sort of implicit in the idea of a tough, manly, masculine soldier-man character - the gruff, power-armored anti-hero who takes no shit from anyone and is totally badass and does all the stuff you'd wish you could do if you were also a jerk.

I like characters, male or female, who take things seriously, and are taken seriously. I like characters who dress like they actually have a reason behind it, who are pragmatic and logical when it comes to decision-making, who behave professionally when the time comes. Part of why female characters like this are a big deal is because it feels like many "female badasses" ultimately aren't taken seriously, or aren't actually that capable. When a female character puts on utilitarian armor, it feels empowering because it's their choice. They have a reason to dress like that, and it's a professional one. The aspect of "the author wants them to look sexy" is removed, and it's replaced with "the character wants to protect themselves", which gives the character a greater sense of agency.

But at the same time we need to acknowledge that many women do, in fact, choose to dress attractively of their own volition (though separating them from women who feel forced to dress in such a manner is difficult). The issue is that when such characters show up in fiction, it could be either their own reasons or the author's reasons. Again, going back to Starfire, if you take her seriously she's pretty empowered - she doesn't care what other people think, she's extremely comfortable with her body - but at the same time she feels hollow because those things seem to be more like justifications for the artist rather than actual character traits.

When feminine traits are made part of a feminine character, the part that it's crucial to identify is: "is this what the author believes all women are like?" In many scenarios it seems like the answer is "yes", because there's not enough diversity to offset it. If you have a reasonable number of strong, capable women, then a female character who is weak and submissive feels more natural because it's her as an individual, not her as a representative of her gender. The same is true of all "feminine" traits - if you have enough diversity that such traits don't feel forced, the resulting product is more natural. It's part of treating women like "people", instead of some weird subset of humanity who all somehow behave the same even though there's over 3 billion of them.

Heck, you can even go back to the complaint with League of Legends that sparked my article regarding it. It wasn't that "sexy women" existed in the game, it was that nothing but sexy women existed in the game. While male characters were diverse in size, shape, and background, the accusation being made was that the female characters in the game had a much smaller design range, which strongly suggested an agenda. This idea was backed up by the artist's rebuttal: making a character too strong or muscular would make them "not like a chick", which is outright fallacious. Of course it would make them "like a chick" - the only thing that makes someone "like a chick" is whether they're of the female sex. Women range from skinny to fat, from undefined to super-muscular, from supermodels to bodybuilders. That diversity is shown for the male characters, but the problem is that the female characters don't have it, and that's bad design. It shows that the designers implicitly associate "female" with "sexy", and that's straight-up biased.

Case Study: Kharma
I would like to conclude by telling you about a female wrestler in the WWE named Kharma, because Kharma's design uses and illustrates a lot of the points I just discussed.. This is Kharma.

To explain to you why Kharma is great, here's the rest of the WWE women's division. Please keep in mind that while male wrestlers in the WWE are "superstars", female wrestlers in the WWE are "divas".

Divas are not taken seriously. They don't have to wrestle as well as their male counterparts because "wrestling ability" is not why they're hired. Kharma is the first female wrestler in a long time to be taken seriously. When Kharma's music hits, bad things happen. She is one of three female wrestlers in the history of the Royal Rumble to actually participate in the event, and one of the other wrestlers (Beth Phoenix, who is very capable in her own right) tricked The Great Khali into kissing her so she could pull him over the top rope. Wrestling is not normally great for women's rights, is what I'm saying.

Here's a clip that basically illustrates the difference between Kharma and every other diva:

So first there's the normal Divas match, and it's a mess. The wrestling is bad, the selling is bad, and all the announcers care to talk about is "lol look how hot they are". The crowd doesn't care, because the match is terrible, just like all Diva matches are terrible. Then Kharma's music hits, and the crowd is ecstatic. The announcers go out of their way to sell the audience on how powerful Kharma is, not how attractive she is or how cute she is. That's the kind of reaction that a male wrestler gets; hell, even her music is a man's music, because Divas tend to get peppy pop themes, not ominous, rumbling rock. The reaction she gets is "oh shit", not 'aww, how cute". She comes out with badass music, she cleans house, and she leaves, just like a badass male character would.

This is empowerment. She's a female wrestler, and she's taken seriously. She's powerful. She's in control. She doesn't feel like a person who got her job as a wrestler because of her irrelevant attractiveness, she feels like a person who got her job as a wrestler because she kicks ass. And the crowd loves her. The problem with the Divas division isn't just that it's shallow and sexist, it's that every Diva is like that, and so it turns into "if women are going to wrestle, this is what it has to be like". Kharma is different in every way and she's still positively received, and if there's ever been a sign that the WWE can expand their women's division to include actual serious competitors on the same level as their male counterparts, she's it.

And the thing is, it's not just a question of how people dress or act. The WWE Superstars are a diverse bunch, and their clothing (like superheroes) ranges from full-body suits to basically a speedo. So it's not a question of skin, it's a question of why the skin is there. There's not really a suggestion that Randy Orton wears a speedo because he's trying to appeal to the huge male fanbase, he wears it because he wants to wear it, just like Namor. The real problem with the Divas is not that they're sexy or that they're scantily clad, but that they're not taken seriously by anyone, and wrestlers like Kharma are a way to try to undo that. If the WWE wants to follow up on this they should hire a bunch of female MMA fighters and have them start doing clotheslines and dropkicks and other high-velocity, high-impact moves that can be sold well.

The key to writing a female character well is to make her make sense in-universe. The more diverse and multi-faceted your universe is, the more believable she will be as a character. The more believable she is as a character, the more easily she can be accepted as being an independent individual with some sense of agency and self-determination. There are no traits that specifically make for a good female character, because "good" is a manner of representation and context, not a manner of who or what they are.

The same is also true of writing good male characters.