Face Off: Mass Effect vs. Persona

There are exactly three major games coming out in 2017 that I considered must-plays from announcement (the first being Horizon: Zero Dawn), and somehow they are all coming out within a little more than a month of one another. It’s going to be a busy springtime for us all, fellow gamers. My two most anticipated games of the year come from two franchises that have represented the best that Eastern and Western RPGs have to offer, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Persona 5, and they are coming out a mere two weeks apart. With only twenty four hours in each day and hundreds of potential gaming hours staring me in the face, this has caused me no small amount of distress. After preordering both I’m now fretting the pressure to rush through the first to get to the second and how I’m going to fit multiplayer into all of this. First world gamer problems, right?

But let’s say you aren’t an RPG aficionado, you’ve never gotten into Mass Effect, and you’ve never even played a Persona game (and fair enough, the last one came out as a relative obscurity in America nine years ago), but you are interested in giving one a shot and only have a mere sixty dollars to your name. Which to get? You’ve come to the right place, my friend. While these two franchises perhaps represent the very pinnacles of their genre, they also could not be more different. Mass Effect: Andromeda is coming out this week with Persona 5 hot on its heels in early April so if you haven’t yet experienced the brilliance that these two franchises have to offer, and are looking to buy in but not willing or able to commit to both. I’m here to help.

Persona and the rest of Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei franchise that spawned it have historically always, somewhat unfairly, taken a backseat to the blockbuster Final Fantasy series when it comes to Japanese RPGs, but while the latter has floundered somewhat in the last two generations, the former has bided its time with fighting game spin-offs, and absence has made gamers’ hearts grow fonder. PSN ports of the series have given a lot of players a chance to go back and rediscover these gems, and as a result Persona has greatly increased in popularity over the years, even spawning animated film and television adaptations of the last two games. The contemporary setting, compelling themes, unique style, and undeniable charm of the series has put it at the top of many gamers’ most beloved JRPGs list.

By contrast, the Mass Effect trilogy was a worldwide smash right out of the gate last gen. After giving us arguably the best Star Wars game of all time in Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare decided to create their very own space opera franchise out of scratch and did a better job than anybody could have imagined. Taking their penchant for memorable characters and nuanced interactive conversations and switching the core combat to third person shooting rather than the semi-turn-based system they’d leaned on since the Baldur’s Gate days, they took a niche genre and made it palatable to non-RPGers while retaining everything that made their titles great role playing experiences. And as an added bonus, they pushed gaming as a storytelling medium forward by making it a trilogy where your character, their stats, and their decisions from each game carried forward to the others, making each Mass Effect story unique to every gamer.

As different as they are, the two franchises do have one core theme in common: player choice. But even the way this is handled is different. Mass Effect lets you create your own character and steer each conversation while making the big decisions and crafting your character’s moral code based on the way you resolve the situations you find yourself in. Diplomacy or aggression, idealism or pragmatism, and compassion or duty are just some of the choices you have to make, and your character and the way the world around them reacts will change according to those choices. And these choices could be ported to the next game along with your character.

By contrast, Persona puts you in the shoes of an established character with more limited dialogue choices and a visual novel style of storytelling, but gives you endless ways to spend your time while navigating the challenges of high school and supernatural horrors with a limited amount of time to spend so that every choice really matters. While the story has multiple outcomes, the core game becomes about managing your limited time to build the relationships and abilities you want rather than building a character’s legacy through your decisions. Also, each title in the series is a stand alone, so there’s no baggage for players new to the series.

Combatwise, Mass Effect has refined its initially rough shooter mechanics to nearly rival the likes of Gears of War, adding a hefty dose of the sci-fi abilities they pioneered in KOTOR to make for action that is both strategic and visceral. The third game added a highly successful co-op multiplayer component with a community that still remains active over five years later. Truth be told, even if Andromeda was an online only shooter, I’d still buy it just for that aspect. And I’m not one who often does that.

Persona has stuck to the traditional JRPG turn-based approach and remains a shining star in that arena long after Final Fantasy left the premises. The strategic and often unforgiving combat relies heavily on uncovering and exploiting enemy weaknesses with a variety of skills to incapacitate them and get continuous combos that lead to a devastating full-party rushdown. It’s not as action oriented as Mass Effect’s real time gunplay, but it can be just as intense and every lick as satisfying.

But where it deviates most from Mass Effect -and most other RPGs- is in its cerebral themes and psychological symbolism. Most games will simply have a character tell you what they are feeling, but the unique scenarios of Persona are designed not to tell you, but to show you. Each character has their external selves; the face they show the world. But the series’ theme is that within each individual, there lies a shadow self, where their basest dark impulses hide, as well as a Persona, their inner self. For example, in Persona 4 each character had a dungeon essentially set inside of their minds where they did battle with their inner conflicts, things like personal jealousy, sexuality, and gender roles were laid bare and manifested as literal demons to be defeated before each character could come to terms with them. The brilliance of Atlus’s storytelling should not be underestimated.

By comparison, BioWare’s series ramps up the drama like a Star Wars film on steroids. If Persona is a zany but symbolically deep Japanese art film, Mass Effect is an incredible American sci-fi epic with moments that inspire shock, fear, exhilaration, tears, and laughter. What it lacks in abstract symbolism, it more than makes up for by balancing casual relatability with insane epicness. This series is nothing if not a crowdpleaser. Even the harshest naysayers are first in line for their copy whenever a new one comes out, and that says more than any number of complaints about facial animations can.

Both series revolve around character interactions. Mass Effect will have you hunting down each crew member between missions for fully cinematic chats where you can get to know each character as if they were your own family. If you play your cards right, you can even find a little romance. And there’s plenty of time to give everybody attention, so no big rush.

Persona uses the more comic bookish static visual novel style for conversations, but with tons of NPCs around town and school on top of your party members to hang out with and a limited amount of time in each day to get to know them, prioritizing your friendships and potential romances makes them that much more vital. Each major character has their own story that plays out over the course of the game, but how much of it you end up experiencing is up to you. Persona is as much a social and time-management simulator as it is a role playing game, and that’s something else that makes it a unique challenge.

In terms of overall presentation, Persona’s anime stylishness clashes with Mass Effect’s attempts at photorealism. This affords the former a more timeless low budget look whereas the latter will be mocked for every graphical glitch. It’s not easy pushing the boundaries of technology, so Atlus tends to stick to what they know will work for them and focuses instead on a compelling experience for the player. BioWare was at the forefront of innovation last gen, not only with pushing cinematic NPC animations to a new level, but pioneering the ability to transfer a character and their story across multiple games with Mass Effect.

At the end of the day, your inner otaku and art student will likely love you for going with Persona 5. It’s got a relatable modern setting, unique visuals and music, classical RPG combat with some twists, and one of the best storytelling pedigrees in the industry. Mass Effect: Andromeda is designed to light up every inch of your sci-fi fixation and represents the ground floor of a new era for a series that has dominated best series discussions for years. So if you’ve never felt the need to board on this gravy train before, now’s the time.

Obviously, any true RPGer is going to be buying both, but which one you prefer will rely very heavily on you as a person and a gamer. I’ve illustrated some of the many contrasts between the two series, so it really boils down to whether you prefer action or turn-based strategy, stylized visuals or attempted photorealism, stand-alone stories or continuous narratives, innovation or classicism, epicness or artfulness, and so on. Personally, I love all of these things and can’t wait to play either. But which RPG will you be prioritizing this spring?

I Experienced Mass Effect: New Earth and Didn’t Even Get a Lousy T-Shirt

Mass Effect: New Earth (PRNewsFoto/3D Live)

You know, I’d actually forgotten that they were making my favorite video game series into an amusement park ride when I suddenly found that Mass Effect: New Earth was opening last month in Santa Clara’s Great America amusement park in my home state of California. My first instinct was to run out my door and drive straight there, forsaking the earthly amenities of job, home, and family for the opportunity to be among the first to experience BioWare’s masterpiece in ride form.

But being the calm, cool, and collected geek I am, I bided my time, let the hype and the crowds die down a bit, and scraped together some cash to do this properly. Hell, I even brought along the wife and kid because why not. The words “Great America” hadn’t really entered my mind since I went as a teenager due largely to the inordinate number of awesome theme parks residing in Cali, but one way or another, I knew I was not getting out of this summer without experiencing firsthand the temple they’d practically built in my backyard paying tribute to my most revered gaming franchise. And last week, experience it I did.

mass effect new earth entrance

Yaaasssss!

In the month I waited since the ride’s opening, I was careful to avoid any and all articles that may have spoiled the experience. I wanted to go in knowing nothing, and I succeeded. Was there any possibility that this thing was going to live up to the hype I was burdening it with? Fuck no. It’s a five minute amusement park ride. It was never going to encompass the insanely epic trilogy spanning dozens of hours and worlds and hundreds of cosmic possibilities. You can’t even adequately sum up the basic concepts of Mass Effect in five minutes.

And then there’s the fact that Disney’s Star Tours had done the same thing with the Star Wars franchise nearly thirty years ago and many have trod that ground since. Hell, the Minions have their own 3D ride at Universal Studios. So maybe a little underwhelming, then? Yeah, a bit. But still, anything worth doing is worth redoing Mass Effect style. New Earth is a fun little romp through a small section of the Mass Effect universe during the events of the third game that revamps the old concept with some added twists borrowed from other Disney attractions.

When you read that this is a “4D holographic journey” you may wonder what kind of mind-bending astrophysics are implemented to bring this fourth dimension into play in a world that consists of a mere three. All it really is an added immersion factor that stimulates you with various well-timed sensations during the ride. Ever wondered what a rachni’s breath smells like? Well, now I know. That and the temperature of their slobber. So basically, I’m a better fan than you now. Thanks, Great America!  

Where Star Tours put you inside of a room that moves in time with the show to give the illusion of movement, New Earth has each individual seat move while blasting you with air and occasionally water as well as some scents, so you see, hear, feel, and smell it all. You can even smell the dust when your ship brushes against a mountain. Along with the live performer acting as your captain and the gigantic screen with 3D effects, it’s a really cool experience.

mass effect new earth spectre armour display

Spectre armour on display in both fem and bro models.

There’s plenty of fanservice on hand (both times I rode it, fangirls screamed when the captain mentioned that a certain Commander Shepard may have once ridden that very ship) including appearances from the Normandy and some of her crew, but the experience is very friendly for non-gamers as well. A pre-boarding video gives you the basics of Mass Relay travel and you don’t need to know much to enjoy a virtual space ship ride with 3D lasers and monsters and stuff.

All in all, New Earth is a great premise whose only downfalls are that it’s already been done and the experience is all too brief. The games are better, but after I shut them off I don’t have an entire amusement park full of badass thrill coasters, water slides, and churros at my disposal either. Great America was more than worth the cost of its admission (assuming you get the online discount) so the addition of a Mass Effect attraction is just geek-flavored icing on the cake. And the lines weren’t even bad on a Sunday.  

Surprisingly, I actually had trouble finding any merchandise for the recently opened ride, unless you count getting my picture taken with a life-size cutout of Urdnot Wrex. I went into most of the shops over the course of the day and found everything from a giant dragon skull replicas to multiple stores dedicated to Peanuts to a t-shirt of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy that was suggestive enough to prompt my wife to photograph it and text it to her lesbian friend, but no Mass Effect gear.

mass effect tali shirt

You shall be mine….

I’ve always wanted a Mass Effect t-shirt, but have only ever run across some pretty bland N7 logos. I was really hoping to go home with a really awesome one, but as we headed for the exit and the park darkened around us, my quest had failed. Ironically, I am irritated when other theme parks dump you from a ride directly into a themed gift shop, but the one time I actually want a whole store dedicated to an attraction, I can’t find anything. But wait! What’s that? The gift shop right at the entrance so you don’t see it coming in, but can’t miss it going out has the shirt I need but never knew I wanted sitting in the window! A killer stylized design of notorious space waifu Tali’Zorah vas Normandy herself stared back at me, beckoning.

If this seems like a fairy tale ending to a quest for merchandise from a man who normally despises souvenirs, it is. That is to say, it didn’t actually work out in real life. The shirt was there on display, but when I ran in to sing “how much is that Tali in the window?” they were sold out. My entire life, in a nutshell, folks.

It was a great day I had prompted by my love of Mass Effect, but I do have to question Great America’s merchandising stratagem. I mean, come on! You just opened this awesome ride based on one of the greatest gaming franchises last month. You knew Biodrones would be coming from near and far to throw their money at you and you drop the ball on stocking t-shirts? Shame!

Still, if you’re in the NorCal neighborhood and looking for a great way to spend your time, you could do a lot worse than stopping by Santa Clara to give Mass Effect: New Earth a go. It’s -as Tali would say- totally worth it. It doesn’t reinvent the Star Tours wheel, but it does give it a nice new video gamey coat of paint (and monster drool). Who’d have thought video game rides would turn out better than video game movies? Admission to the park is about forty dollars a pop if you order online, the crowds were extremely manageable, the roller coasters are top notch, there are carnival games and an in-house water park; there’s literally something for everyone. Just don’t go for the Mass Effect merchandise.

Rant Time: Could BioWare’s Multiplayer Fail be a Sign of the Gaming Apocalypse?

DAmp

There comes a time when you have to admit that you’re fed up and a game should not have been released in its present state. Last week, I reached that breaking point with BioWare’s latest. After spending a hundred hours on a single playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition leaving behind plenty left to do, I was genuinely excited for some hardcore RPG co-operative multiplayer. After all, Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer was the bee’s knees. What could go wrong?

I should have expected a rough time when the single player campaign had me resetting my console every few hours due to full crashes, among a multitude of other glitches. Plus so much was spent making the game insanely massive, that a lot of the little details that made previous BioWare games such a treat were missing and the game didn’t perform as it should a lot of the time. Still, I had a great time.

When I finally decided to break in the multiplayer, I was at first impressed, than underwhelmed, then impressed again. The amount of content was rather small: a few characters to choose from, several more to unlock, a handful of maps and enemy sets, and a crapton of random loot. The overall setup was like Mass Effect 3, but it lacked the polish. There were good times to be had, but overall, it was never going to be Inquisition’s feature attraction.Dragon Age Inquisition multiplayer characters

Even with the tacked-on feeling, there was a lot to do in terms of leveling up your characters. As I progressed and unlocked cooler characters and more powerful weapons I started getting really excited about my builds and the tactics I could use to bring victory to my crew. After the hectic juggling of my party in the single player quest, it felt pretty good to focus on just one character at a time and work with other players towards the common goals of kicking ass and taking names. The skill trees for each class were well constructed, and since the game’s combat engine is happening, endless hours of grinding was a joy and not a chore. Fun was both afoot and at hand.

As it was, I was playing only a couple hours a night if at all. Maybe once a night I’d get dropped or the game would freeze or something, but it seemed like isolated incidents. Until I realized it was happening as often as it was, that is. Quest-breaking glitches were popping up, robbing me of my precious time, hard-earned virtual currency, and all-important experience points.

You see, to keep losers from bailing on you mid-quest Inquisition only gives you what you’re owed upon completion of the mission. It seems like a good idea, and it is…..so long as your game works like it’s supposed to. You can only get so many isolated sessions interrupted before you notice the pattern, and once I got some more time to really put my nose to the grindstone, I discovered the second most broken multiplayer experience I’ve ever had in all my years gaming.

Dragon Age Inquisition glitch comic

This actually happens pretty much every mission.

Batman: Arkham Origins had an extremely creative and fun multiplayer mode, but I was forced to quit because it was damn near impossible to make it through a match, and sometimes to even find a match. But that was from a first time developer. BioWare did a competent job on their last game’s multiplayer so you’d expect this one to be functional at the least.

But no. During one night of intense multiplayer madness, I finally decided that Dragon Age: Inquisition’s multiplayer is not something I need in my life. At least, not in its current form. In fact, it may be a herald of an incoming video game industry crash. That products of this size are being released at all in this state is something companies like EA should be ashamed of and it could be a matter of time before gamers lose interest if it keeps up.

So what kind of night makes a confirmed Biodrone turn against his favorite dev? Well, picture a multiplayer RPG where leveling up your characters and buying chests packed with random loot is where the fun and advancement come from. Now picture that you spend hours playing the game and the game keeps robbing you of those things after you’ve already put in the work. Even casting aside all of the other bizarre glitches and bugs, this is just unacceptable.

I started up a god-tier Elementalist three times, had great games filled with me being awesome and saving my weak partners (randoms in this game are freakin’ helpless for the most part, I’ve found), and got nothing at all for my troubles. Either the server crapped out, the game itself crashed and froze my console, or worst of all the game didn’t recognize that you’d killed every last enemy and refused to let you move on; almost always near or even after the final battle. That was just an hour and a half trying to get one character though his first mission.

Just prior to that I was playing my glass cannon of a Reaver, smashing through enemies with my two-handed axe like I was mowing lawns. It was awesome. Now I understand why people play as tanks. The power could drive one to madness! Die, weak fiends, DIE! Neither puny mage nor cowardly rogue shall have the glory of the kill whilst I roam the fields of battle! I got her to a pretty high level, but hit the same wall with the game not letting me advance due to its own shittiness. The Elementalist was just the last straw.

Dragon Age Inquisition skill tree

Sure would have been cool to be able to climb that skill tree.

So my last game as a Reaver we had to find a key to the door by defeating all of the enemies. We did the thing, but the door remained locked. We spent almost half an hour backtracking, breaking random objects, talking shit about the game, and eventually trying to kill ourselves. The conversation focused on how shitty a game has to be where it becomes your responsibility to look for ways to commit suicide just to get the experience, gold, and items you’d earned so far in the broken quest.

Standing in fire didn’t help, but I found that if you jumped down a stairwell just right, you could get a little fall damage. So here were the four of us climbing up a stairwell jumping back down over and over again while our characters repeated the same sayings over and over  (as they do every game) so we could get a game over screen and at least be awarded our due. Not really the kind of epic quest we signed up for.

The ultimate insult came when we were nearly dead after several minutes of this ridiculousness and found that we could damage ourselves no further. Seriously, BioWare? There is almost no way to get fall damage in this place and you’re so worried about it that you made dying from it impossible just to make goddamn fucking sure that when your shitty game broke we had no way to collect our earned gold and experience?

lipstick middle finger gif

So after thoroughly expressing our discontent while desperately seeking a way to salvage our adventure, the rest of my party determined to play some Far Cry 4 instead and I was hoping that by starting a new mage character I would feel a little better. We all know how that worked out. A couple hours later, I was done with Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s been over a week and I’m still butthurt. It was so much fun (when it worked)! So much potential (when it worked)! So many characters to build (when it worked)! It should have been great, and it would have been (had it worked).

So this whole experience has left me pondering what the hell is wrong with the state of the game industry that a respected developer like BioWare can get away with putting out something this broken as a finished product. This is a fairly new thing, releasing half-finished games. You didn’t run into this kind of crap in previous generations. This is all Xbox/PlayStation era. I thought the problem might have been me playing a next-gen game on a last gen console (PS3), but the next-gen message boards seem to bear out that this is a problem there too. The game was released while it was busted on a fundamental level.

I’d love to give it another shot when they patch it, but why should I? I preordered this game and had been awaiting it with baited breath for years. I even cheered when they delayed it because anything that makes the game better is fine by me. But now I have to wonder about what the game would have been like if they hadn’t delayed it. The multiplayer is almost unplayable as it is. I’m sure in the future they’ll have ironed it out and maybe even added in some free DLC, but the likelihood of me gathering myself up to go back to this mess on the chance that it’ll be fixed is unlikely. As a general rule, you get one shot with me before I move on and BioWare blew it. I was playing the game right here and now and it is broken right here and now and my last experience with my most anticipated game of the year by far left a bad taste in my mouth.

fuck you half baked gif

My message to the people who saw this game released too soon. The writers I’m cool with, though.

What the hell happened? Is it the new engine? And why are no sites pointing these things out? Is it because we’re filthy console peasants and nobody cares about us?  It’s EA’s fault, isn’t it? Fuck EA. Really, though, how is it that something like this can even be released in good faith? The faithful fans buy games as soon as they come out and they should be treated to the best that the product can offer them.

The smart gamers are having to wait for Game of the Year editions or sales a year or so down the line to scoop up the patched version and enjoy the game as it should have been enjoyed in the first place (see also: Red Dead Redemption/Fallout: New Vegas). This nonsense has got to stop. Release unfinished games is going to do nothing so much as lower consumer confidence and send us fleeing to Nintendo, piracy, indie developers, and used games.

Our time and our money is valuable and if big game companies are going to pretend that isn’t a fact, then they will eventually see their income dry up. Fair warning. A game industry apocalypse is the only way this ends if screwing your customers remains commonplace. If we can’t count on the companies with the most resources to release dependable finished quality products, they probably won’t be able to depend on us buying them much longer. Sooner or later, we’re going to get sick of it. I’ve just reached that point, and with one of my favorite games of the year, ironically.

Hopefully, this doesn’t become standard procedure, but it kind of feels like it’s starting to. More and more games are being released with massive problems and the industry seems more obsessed with pushing itself further in than pulling itself out of this technical quagmire. BioWare is my favorite game developer and now I can’t even count on them so where does that leave my faith in the industry? Not in a good place. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

BioWare Should Totally Spin-off Dragon Age: Inquisition

DAspinoff

We’ve probably all spent way too much time allowing the most massive RPG in memory to devour our lives by now. Game of the year? Maybe. I put nearly a hundred hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition before finishing the story and am still not anywhere near clearing all of the side-quests. I haven’t even unlocked all of the areas yet. This game is BIG in every possible sense. Consequently, it’s also full of the variety of lore and memorable characters that we come to expect from this developer. BioWare could easily take some of the less-explored concepts they put in this game as minor diversions and expand them into something really amazing. Let’s look at a couple possibilities.

It’s a little insane that I’m already snowed under by the incredible amount of content in this game and I’m already crying “moar” but I kind of am. Some of the cooler and more creative aspects have left me wanting to fill in the blanks and further immerse myself into the world of Thedas. Following Dragon Age II, we got the animated Dawn of the Seeker film which kindly filled in the back-story of Cassandra Pentaghast, and Felicia Day’s Redemption web series about her DLC character, Tallis. Both were pretty cool. I definitely think the latest story opens up some very interesting avenues that are screaming for a continuation.

The first thing that came to mind when considering a spin-off was a prequel chronicling the rise of the Bull’s Chargers. While hanging out with the Qunari spy/mercenary Iron Bull, he introduces you to his crew of misfit badasses headed up by the snarky Krem and including an aloof Dalish elf dragon age inquisition chargers(creatively named Dalish) and a dwarf sapper, among others. While the meeting is a brief character moment in an epic story, it combines with Krem’s tavern tales of past Charger glories to outline a really interesting picture. One that could use some expanding on.

A game where you could play as Iron Bull and the Chargers in their formative years could function almost like a playable medieval Guardians of the Galaxy. The diversity of the crew and charisma of their leader alone make it a sure win, but what form should it take?

Stand-alone or episodic DLC would be easiest route since they already have the game engine built. Throw in some new locations, flesh out some of Bull and Krem’s stories, and it would be a great addition to the Dragon Age universe. A television or web series would be great too. It feels like there’s too much there to cover in a single film.

One of the best missions in Inquisition was “Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts”, where the player finally gets a chance to play The Game that Leliana is always on about. Basically, the Game in question is politics and espionage, so you have to keep up appearances at the Empress’s masquerade ball and say all the right things while attempting to bend other players to your will by gathering incriminating information and manipulating them through any means necessary.

The mission was a really great break from the usual “go there, find/kill that” missions (although there was plenty of finding and killing) that are the bread and butter of RPG’s and it forces you to think before you speak. I actually had to reload a save because I went through my usual routine of exhausting every conversation option and then realized that I had told everything I knew to the people I was supposed to outwit, which was moronic. I really love the idea of challenging RPG tropes this way and making the player think before they act in order to succeed instead of simply doing everything that’s put in front of them. I think making a full game out of this concept would be amazing.

dragon age inquisition celeneA role-playing game that’s about more than running around killing stuff for a hundred hours? OUTRAGEOUS! But Inquisition really put the idea in my head that this could be a really great thing. To do away with the focus on combat and massive worlds and instead really focus on subtle characterization, decision-making, setting, and even fashion would be a brave new world I’d like to explore. Deciding who to dance with, who to blackmail, and who to kill and how would be great, as would building a network of informants and spies to help do the dirty work. Leveling up your social skills for new dialogue options, gaining different boosts from your fashion choices, people reacting to your reputation and past deeds; these are all things that have been done in games before to some extent, but never combined into a primary focus.

Not only would this be a breath of fresh air for the genre, but I think it could be something that appeals more to female gamers more as well. The game could work as a prequel starring Leliana in her days as a bard of the Orlesian court, but the best option might be an all-new character during that same time period in order to leave the option for endings more wide open. “Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts” has several possible endings depending on the player’s choices and the thoroughness of their investigating, so a blank slate for the player to impose their will on the social scene in any way they see fit would be good so as to not step on the toes of canon.

So there’s two options for BioWare to expand on the immensity that is Dragon Age: Inquisition that I’d love to see happen. There’s so much left to explore in the universe of Thedas; the societies of the Qunari and the Dalish, for instance. We’ve seen a lot of glimpses, but Dragon Age is a bottomless pit of lore that constantly begs for more expansion. What aspect do you think warrants its own spin-off game/film/series?

Five Epic Wins and Fails in Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s that feeling again. That don’t want to write on the internet/don’t want to socialize/don’t want to go to work/don’t want to eat or sleep feeling/DVR is filling up with unwatched shows feeling. There must be a new Bethesda or BioWare RPG in town. Wait, it’s a BioWare title with Bethesda elements? Mein gott! What life-devouring chimera has gaming wrought?

A game as big as Dragon Age: Inquisition comes packaged with expectations, not the least of which is finishing a trilogy that has spanned this console generation and is bleeding into the new one. Some of them are going to be met or exceeded, and some are not.

So, fellow gamers, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Lets’ go with the good news. If I start negative my fellow Biodrones may toss bee grenades at me before I can get to the good stuff. Here are five features in Dragon Age: Inquisition that make me say yay.

Good God, the SCOPE!

This is how I look every time I open up my map.

troy community gif

Holy shit, this game is big. Not necessarily in literal surface area, just….in everything. So much to do, so many free-roam locales packed with hidden depths; you could literally eat away as much time as it takes to play through an entire action game’s campaign just aimlessly wandering and collecting materials as soon as you finish the prelude without giving a damn about any quests at all. You also get an entire town crammed with characters with lots to say at your disposal.

And when you earn your official Inquisition hideout? Well, refer back to that gif. I had no intention of spending five hours just walking around it seeing what there was to see, talking to recruits, and perusing the facilities, but I did. It took me about that long before I even stepped outside of it. And I don’t think I’ve seen it all. YOUR HEADQUARTERS HAS ITS OWN FAST TRAVEL STATIONS. That’s just your base. Think about that. I’m about 40 hours in and I’m not even very far into the narrative as far as I can tell and I still have more active sidequests than I can keep track of. And I’m not even looking for sidequests. They just fall out of the sky. You will not be bored or underwhelmed with the amount of places to go or things to do in this game. I promise you that.

 

NPC Love is the Truest Love

It’s all fine and dandy romancing your companions, bonds forged in blood and all that. But I’m the hero. The whole world loves me! I shouldn’t have to fraternize with my battlemates. Nobody wants a spurned lover with a sharp object covering their six. In Inquisition, you get a couple more options in the form of advisors. It could be a really good thing for future games to litter more romance options aside from the playable cast across the game. It makes the world feel more alive and gives you someone new to visit.

This was kind of great for me because I wasn’t really feeling my companions that much. I love me some Sera, but who could date that? Girl’s cray. It’d be like going out with a female Deadpool. Or me. And Vivienne may be gorgeous, but I don’t heart the stuck up attitude. I had my longing sights set on the lovely and demure diplomat Josephine, but she’s not a fighter…is she a lover? I got a bit of a thrill seeing her actually respond to my advances against odds. It was an unexpected treat, for sure.
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You Can’t Fight in Here, this is the War Room!

The War Council is one of the coolest new features in Inquistion. You have your advisors enter a room and look at your war map, where you can send out teams of diplomats, soldiers, or spies to help with your pacification of Ferelden and Orlais. The missions are combinations of alliance-building favors, side quests for your friends, and more story missions and areas to explore which can be unlocked based on how much power and influence you accumulate for the Inquisition.

In addition to that you have a list of perks offered by each of your advisors which can be unlocked as you gain influence and can get you things like rare equipment and materials, new dialogue options, and various other bonuses. The whole setup is really damn cool and adds a new wrinkle to the series. Plus, the missions take place in real time and not game time so if one takes several hours to complete, you can start it before you turn in for the night, and wake up with it already completed. It’s pretty much the only way to convince myself to get sleep anymore.

 

Combat is About Compromise

I’m of the opinion that the original Dragon Age: Origins is still the best of the series in terms of combat. The sequel made the grievous mistake of going for the less RPG-ish button mash approach while eliminating a lot of my favorite things like badass kill animations and booby traps.

Inquisition finds a very nice medium between the casual and hardcore RPG by allowing the player to button mash if they wish, or simply hold down the attack button and let the turn-based do its thing. Although there’s still no kill animations (whyyyyyy?) there are some traps and the game offers some pretty great grenades and really effective status ailments. Also, being able to shoot arrows and walk at the same time is badass. Sometimes it’s the little things

If you don’t have Sera armed with bee grenades, you are playing this game wrong. I can hear her giggling at the baddies fleeing with arms flailing even though she isn’t. I should probably see someone about that. Pitch grenades allow you to coat the ground in tar and slow enemies down so you can hurl laughter at them. Also arrows, bees, and hellish infernos. Have I mentioned the hellish infernos? Before just now, I mean. Fire has never been more fun in an RPG. Sooooo prettyyyyyy….

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Do it Yourself Awesomeness

I’ve been known to whine about excessive looting in games and how it takes away the joy of really earning and cherishing your gear in favor of constantly farming and praying to get something better. Inquisition throws a crapton of loot at you at all times, but the vast majority of it is just to sell off or discard. The real game is in crafting and personalizing your gear.

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While you will eventually need to upgrade, you usually spend a lot of time with your chosen loadouts before that happens and that is great. In addition to the core weapons and armour, which you can build to your own specifications depending on which materials you choose, you can craft, find, or buy additional components and magical runes which you can then mix and match to build the gear of your dreams. And the best part is that the components are reusable so you don’t have to worry about attaching them to one weapon and then finding a better one; you can just remove it from the old and busted and add it to the new hotness. This should be the shape of RPG’s to come.

 

So I’m pretty pleased. Dragon Age: Inquisition has taken most of the things I loved about the first two games and amped the scope of the narrative and the explorable world to truly epic proportions. And as you may have noticed, they have learned a lot from the Elder Scrolls games. If there’s any concept better than a BioWare/Bethesda mash-up, I have not imagined it. But it’s not all flowers and sunshine. Here are five things that make me want to strangle a nug with my bare hands.

Stop Glitchin’!

I think I can say with some confidence that Inquisition was instantly the buggiest thing I’ve ever played. And I once gave myself a headache trying to kill a backwards flying/teleporting dragon who wouldn’t leave me alone to let me fast-travel in Skyrim for an hour before quitting. While I haven’t encountered anything game-breaking (yet), things like my character’s hair turning gray in cutscenes, NPC’s walking waist-deep in the ground, conversations stalling (every time Loghain speaks especially…another reason to hate that asshole), and not being able to switch characters has been typical, as are enemies that respawn at the same time you kill them, or possibly before. I’m pretty sure once I was fighting the same bear twice at one time.

The most persistent bug I’ve found is in the radial menus where you select potions, grenades, and the like. I have to close it and re-open it every time I switch characters or it doesn’t work. This is a constant thing, not a random glitch. But the big one is the nastiest thing that can happen in a game: a full freeze. And it happens a lot. Once the whole console froze on me five times in one day. It was possibly God telling me to go outside or talk to my family or something, but still. If you want that, set the house on fire or something. Don’t mess with muh vidya.

Oh, and the freezing usually happens during a save or load operation, meaning that when you restart, the last save is corrupted and my PS3 has to spend several minutes recovering memory before I can play again from the one before that. So don’t play on only one save.

 

Where Princess Mononoke At?

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I’m not at all opposed to mounts if they are done right and granted, it’s pretty badass that my Dalish heroine can ride into battle on the back of a trumpeting elk beast. But unfortunately once you get to said battle you have to stop, wait a second or two to climb down, and then wait for your party to appear out of thin air before you commence asskickery. The uses for a mount are just not really fleshed out in this particular game.

One of my favorite features of BioWare games is the random dialogue between various combinations of party members. These spontaneous little conversations and interactions between characters do so much to make these virtual people real and contain some of the funniest and most memorable moments in their games. But those don’t happen when you are riding. You party just kind of….vanishes. I miss them already.

Another reason is that the world is so full of crafting materials and lootables that you either have to ignore them all or hop off of your mount so often there’s no point in having one. You may as well just walk and see how Iron Bull and Dorian or Solas and Cassandra will get along together. Plus, you can’t fight when mounted, which sucks.

Mounts are a good idea, but the execution here is flawed. Maybe if your whole party could have their own mounts and engage in combat from horse/halla/lizardback and you could snatch materials from there, it’d be pretty epic to explore the landscape that way. But as it is, it’s often more trouble than its worth unless you are just looking to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible while ignoring everything else.

 

Artificial Unintelligence

I love games that give you the option to micromanage, but it shouldn’t be a necessity. And when the games makes it a necessity, but won’t let you do it right……grrr. Previous Dragon Age games let you go to crazy lengths programming each individual character on how to react to any combat situation. When to go for the combo attacks, which enemy to target, etc. I cannot for the life of me understand why they took that away.

Now your AI combat options are as follows. You may tell them to “follow” a specific character or whichever you’re controlling, or you may tell them to “defend” ” a specific character or whichever you’re controlling. I’m not sure I even get the difference. When I attempted to turn AI behaviors off and just have them just fight without goddamn following anyone, they stopped doing anything at all and just stood there.

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Thanks, guys. Seriously.

And since they also took away the ability to switch between ranged and melee weapons, I find myself wading into the fray to support my tank and then find that my archer and/or mage have run right up on us and are getting creamed by the giant hammer-wielding maniac I’m flanking when I had positioned them elsewhere. I shouldn’t have to slow-mo the entire battle to babysit my ranged attackers into staying at range. Maybe if I tell them to follow each other? I haven’t noticed if that even works, but even if it did I shouldn’t goddamn have to when I already told them where to go.

 

Loathing Screens

Sometimes I feel like BioWare is trolling us with these load times. Just firing the game up takes way too long. When the “press start” screen comes press starting doesn’tregister for a few seconds so you end up mashing it until you’re sure it was read. Then it will make you wait for it to connect to the Dragon Age servers. Sometimes over a minute. Dude, even my phone can connect to my wifi in seconds and it’s not even close to up to date.

Then it must “enumerate” your save files which took a really long time until I realized it was taking all day to individually read the data on each of my 25 saves (the maximum allowed) because it…actually, I don’t even know why it was doing that. And if you select “load” it enumerates them all again. It got much better when I deleted the extras, but still: what the hell? I’ve never had this be a thing.

Then you get to the actual loading screens, which feature three text cards you can cycle through. Some of them are of the usual “gather stuff to have more stuff!” and “if you kill all of the enemies, you will win!” variety, and some are giant walls of involved text lore that require you to scroll down. Except that halfway through the load time, the screen blacks out, usually when you are not done reading the thing they put there for you to read and you spend another 30 seconds or so fuming that they are showing you a black screen instead of the wall of text they expected you to read in the thirty seconds previous but you couldn’t even focus on because you were worried that they were going to black out the screen before you were done. The fuck, BioWare? The fuck.

 

Thank You, Herald, but Your Loot is in Another Level

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This is not exactly a Dragon Age-specific problem, but Inquisition is the worst example I can think of. Getting loot drops for equipment that you can’t equip because your level isn’t high enough is just about the most annoying thing I can think of, and a sign of shitty loot design. You have limited space in your inventory, why the hell would you want it clogged up with stuff that would be killer to have now but will likely be mediocre by the time you reach their stupid arbitrary level requirement?

What really makes this one a problem is that the level advancement in Inquisition is slllloooooow. Making you work for every level isn’t a bad thing in and of itself at all; in fact, I applaud it. But when it takes hours of gameplay to gain each new level and they are giving you equipment multiple levels above you, it’s an unnecessary annoyance. Make it so you get loot that’s appropriate to your characters’ level. Why is that so hard?

 

Just to reiterate, I am obsessed with Dragon Age: Inquisition. I raged, quit, and determined never to buy another Team Ninja game when Dead or Alive 5 froze as often as this one does. So why does this one get a pass? It’s just that good. Even though the game feels broken at times, but it is so goddamn massive and fun that quitting it is simply is not an option. It’s one of the deepest and most involved video games I’ve ever played.

Further evidence? I haven’t even fired up the multiplayer. I am so immersed in the adventure and story that I can’t even consider tearing myself away from the single player. I don’t even want to be writing this right now. On that note: I’ve got to go.

Five Agonizing Choices from BioWare Games

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BioWare has given us dozens of memorable choices to make over the years, and have pushed forward storytelling in video games to previously unthought-of heights along the way. The true test of whether or not a choice has any meaning is how it makes you think and feels, and BioWare regularly serves up some emotional doozies.

The way I play these types of games is to make my choices and stick with them; even if I regret them. Most of the time, I don’t go back and load a previous save. I prefer to deal with the consequences of my actions as if the story wasn’t just a game. My first playthrough is my canon playthrough for always; no takebacks allowed. I want to see how the game bears out my on the spot decisions made with good intentions, even if things end up going full Breaking Bad on me.

In the best cases, I may make the decisions I think are right, and the results may seem horribly wrong when it’s said and done. That’s when you know you’re playing something that’s more than a simple video game. That’s when it’s interactive art. Here are the moments BioWare has given me control and left me wondering for years afterwards if I did the right thing or regretting that I failed to do it.

Why, Bastila, why?

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a huge part of the decision to switch to Microsoft’s Xbox after some great years with the PlayStation. It looked like the game of my dreams, and it did not disappoint one little bit. Compared to the newer crop of games (now with 75% more ambiguous moral choices!), this one’s may not hold up on an emotional level, but there is still one that still haunts me over ten years later.kotor bastila

Bastila is a female Jedi who acts as your right hand woman through most of the game. Cute, charming, and a little uptight; she’s a solid, dependable character and potential love interest whose character evolves away from the strict code of the Jedi somewhat as the game goes on. At one point, she gets damseled, and when you go save her she greets you as a free woman. A free Sith woman, that is. Turns out that if you haven’t corrupted her already during your evil playthrough, Darth Malak’s mental torture does the trick and she has turned against the Order and you and is convinced she is beyond redemption.

Now depending on your choices, one of three things can happen. You can decide to take her out, she can decide to take you out, or you can convince her that she is redeemable. After a lengthy discussion, I chose the wrong approach, failed to convince Bastila that she still had a chance for redemption, she came at me, and I struck down a friend. I killed a valued team mate and I felt like a total failure even as I saved the universe. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt in a video game before and if BioWare hadn’t already won a lifetime fan with the rest of the game, this’d have done it.

That Goddam Mirror

In Dragon Age 2 I was presented with a serious ethical dilemma. It’s pretty much been established that blood mages are bad news at this point, so the sequel naturally puts one in your party: a Dalish elf named Merrill. In spite of her mega dark magic affinity, Merrill’s personality is made entirely out of adorableness. While her geeky combination of intelligence and naivety is normally charming, it occasionally swings into the “wtf are you DOING!?” range.

Merrill’s pet project involves an elvish artifact; specifically a tainted Evluvian mirror that she is attempting to repair. Not only is she into blood magic, but he ends up dealing with demons and all sorts of stupidity trying to get this mirror working, supposedly for the good of her people, who have shunned her because of it. At one point you have a shard of the mirror and have to decide whether to acquiesce to her desire and let her have it or keep it from her for her own good before she destroys herself.

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Seriously, da’len, you need a new hobby.

The real question there is whether you’re the kind of person who trusts in their friends and allows them the freedom to pursue their own affairs even at their own peril or the overbearing mother hen type who knows what’s best and will fight them until they agree or part ways with you. I’m the first kind. Freedom is my most consistently prized value. But it isn’t free…

So I let Merrill fuel her obsession with the mysterious, dangerous magical artifact knowing we could handle whatever came out of it. Except what happened was Merrill’s mentor sacrificed herself when the mirror bequeathed a demon bent on possession. She took the spiritual bullet for her wayward pupil and the demon used her body to attempt to kill us all. We struck the elvish elder down in self-defense just in time for the rest of Merrill’s clan to happen upon what admittedly looked like a pretty bad scene.

The banished blood mage with her forbidden dark magic artifact and her outsider companions leaving behind the corpse of the beloved elder doesn’t look great. I gave the wrong answer to their question and was then forced to slaughter my companion’s entire clan or be killed by the very same people she was claiming to be trying to save. Damn it, Merrill. I figured we could handle any foe the game could throw at us, but I never thought it’d be innocent people. Well played, BioWare.

Geth or Quarians?

This is an overarcing issue across all three Mass Effect games that comes to a head in the final installment. The Geth are an AI race who overthrew their creators, the Quarians, exiling them in deep space. They are a regular enemy who often align with the opposition, feeling threatened by biological races and occasionally manipulated by the Reapers. The Quarians are a species oppressed across the galaxy for their nomadic ways and they are consumed with the idea of defeating the Geth and reclaiming their homeworld.

This seems like an open-and shut choice, but over the course of the series and independent Geth named Legion joins your crew and teaches you a lot about his peoples’ story, culminating in you taking a tour into the Geth’s collective mainframe where you see the events that led to their initial revolt. Turns out the Quarians instigated the war that caused their own exile when they attempted to wipe the Geth out after they achieved self-awareness. Not only that, but the Quarian leadership are mostly complete assholes.mass effect tali legion

The final conflict comes in Mass Effect 3 when the two races go Armageddon on each other over the homeworld in question. The Quarians hold the advantage but Legion has a program that would allow the Geth to achieve true sentience and hypercharge their capabilities to turn the tables and end their creators. With the Quarians unwilling to back off it was one or the other.

There is a third outcome that allows for peace, given you managed to work out a certain compromise in the second game, which I somehow failed to do. So I was tasked with deciding which race gets wiped out. Fuck my life. Given that I viewed the Geth as mechanical potential, evolving theoretical lives as opposed to the clear and present sentience of the Quarians, I was moved by Tali’s pleas not to doom her people. But it was close.

I was rewarded with a tear-inducing outcome that saw Legion desperately attack Shepard in an effort to save his people before being taken out by Tali. His last words were to ask her “does this unit has a soul?” Wracked with sorrow, Tali answers “Yes, Legion. Yes it does.” It freakin’ gutted me.

The Landsmeet

Out of all BioWare’s epic story twist, turns, and choices in their games, this is the gold standard for me. The climax in Dragon Age: Origins isn’t the confrontation with the gigantic Archfiend leading the swarm of Darkspawn engulfing Fereldan. It’s the preparations made beforehand as the country struggles with divided loyalties over an impending civil war.

The Grey Warden has to take a leadership role in unifying Fereldan against the threat. Your opposition is that prick Loghain who you must first attempt to best in a debate where he expertly twists your own words and deeds against you. Win or lose, it will come down to a duel between one of your number and the evil dickhead. If you win, you are presented with a lot of heavy options.

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I’m sorry, bro. [sob] SO SOOORRRRYYYY!!!!

In my case, I ended up compromising my own values for the good of the realm and making several decisions that were arguably wrong, but made with the best of intentions. I married my charming Templar knight (in training) Alistair to the ambitious queen of the realm, Anora, thinking the two of them would be the coolest of rulers. Except Alistair doesn’t like Anora. At all. So I lost a particularly cool party member and forced him to marry a woman he doesn’t love just because I thought it’d be neat. Shit.

Then there’s the issue of what to do with Loghain. I really wanted him to die. He deserved to die. But the thing is Anora is his daughter and I really wanted her support in this whole endeavor so killing her dad in front of her was not the call I wanted to make. So I had to lug this shithead around in my party now instead of Alistair. I then got the option to make him a fellow Grey Warden and allow him to die fighting the Archfiend. But then he would be remembered as a hero of the country and not the piece of garbage who betrayed it. I chose to let him live out his days in obscurity with a chance for redemption, but he never had to answer for what he’d done. Not only that, but as a favor to the witch Morrigan for services rendered (and possible future story intrigue), I….I let him bang her.

Don’t ask me how it ended up this way. I sold out my friend and gave the biggest bastard in the game the night of his life instead of a stump on top of his shoulders like he deserved. I’m actually rather ashamed that things ended up this way, but it’s a testament to the depth and nuance of the choices that the game offered to you. Life and conflict is about compromising and not always getting the result you want or doing the right thing and it’s not often you see that reflected in a video game.

The Toughest Call

For a lot of people, Mass Effect was the first time they experienced a truly agonizing choice. In RPG’s you are given a party of characters to be your friends and companions in all things. It’s part of the deal. On a few occasions, a character is scripted to die and it’s super sad, but it’s just part of the story. Their part is done. But what if their fate was in your hands?mass effect ashley kaidan

At the climax of that first amazing game in the trilogy, you send Ashley and Kaidan on separate missions and you only have time to save one before a nuke goes off and blows the facility to atoms. So who’s is going to be? How long did you sit and stare at the screen weighing the possibilities? Ash was kind of a racist tool, but an interesting foil and my best performer in combat by far. Kaidan…well, he wasn’t all that memorable or interesting to me and I preferred Liara when it came to biotic powers. Plus, Ashley’s kinda pretty. [blush]

If this was a one-off game, it wouldn’t have been any big deal. But Mass Effect is a trilogy, meaning th characters come back. While the second game had only small roles for either character, the closer brought them back to the forefront of the action on the Normandy. It’s like I barely even knew Kaidan. I’ve had three games to be attached to almost every other Normandy crew member in the series, but this guy’s story was cut short by my hand. Ash’s story in Mass Effect 3 was great. What was Kaidan going to be like in the third game? I’ll never know until I finally get around to replaying the entire series front to back.

So those are my dirty little first playthrough secrets from BioWare games that haunt me. They’re the kind of decisions that immerse you in the game’s world and really make you feel the stakes. As I’m sure some of you are raging about internally now, my picks were sorely limited by my status as a filthy console peasant so none of BioWare’s old PC classics made the list due to me not having played them.

So now it’s your turn. Share some favorite old school Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights tales if you’ve got them or tell us which Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or other latter-day game choices left a lasting impression on you. Or you can always just tell me how idiotic my choices were. No wrong way to play.

Could Hardcore Players Kill Gaming?

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There’s a divide in the gamer community that I’d like to address, if you’ll humor me for a few minutes.  I was fortunate enough to grow up as a first generation console gamer with an Atari 2600 in my home and gaming has been at the forefront of my free time activities for my entire life. A lot has changed since that first decade of playing Combat against my older sister and later teaming up with friends in the arcade for some Double Dragon beatdown action, and not all of it is good.

Growing up, the gaming community was a very positive place. Games were made and played for fun, and people enjoyed them on their own merits. Alone was fine, but with a friend was better. Unless you were playing Battletoads, that is. That game’s co-op play was designed to ruin friendships. The games were much harder, but the atmosphere was somehow more casual. Even competitive play was fun rather than a life or death struggle to prove superiority.

Fast forward to present day. I’ve got a full time job, a non-gaming family, and precious little money to spend on my hobbies to go along with the time sucks of responsible adulthood. As I’ve grown, so has my favorite hobby. No more controllers with a single button and a joystick/wheel. My Xbox 360 controller has some 11 buttons plus two clickable joysticks and 4-way directional pad for 6 more inputs. Most major games use all of these in some capacity (aside from the guide button which brings up the system menu).

In addition to constantly improving graphics, the features of games continue to grow and evolve, and the storytelling aspect of interactive fiction has emerged so strongly this past console generation that I don’t think there’s a credible opinion out there that would deny that games can be classified as art.

As gaming has become more sophisticated and new generations have taken up the hobby, attitudes towards it have changed. The internet has added an avenue for anonymous interaction with fellow gamers and game developers, and the result has been pretty disastrous at times.

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Is it awesome that you can team up with and challenge gamers from around the world?  Hell yes, it is. But when many of those gamers are total assholes who behave as if their entire life depends on winning every single game, even if it means cheating or otherwise playing the game in a manner that diminishes the enjoyment of everyone involved, it kind of dampens the fun.

Likewise, there are the game developers whose job it is to make the games as enjoyable and balanced as they can so the largest number of people will want to play it and have a great time doing so. They are running into the same problem where the hardcore types are massing to shut them down, sometimes over the stupidest things. Small changes to game functionality, the option of paid DLC, or an underwhelming story ending can lead to an otherwise great game being slaughtered on sites like Metacritic where anonymous users can influence a game’s score by voting en masse.

So being a long time gamer who automatically bristles at the mere mention of the word “casual”, I’ve had to reevaluate my view. You see, I love complicated game elements, and I love for boundaries to be pushed and expanded, but at the end of the day I play games for fun and that alone seems to put me in the casual domain these days.

One thing I’ve learned is that there is certainly such a thing as too hardcore. Some of the most hardcore games aren’t even particularly fun, and a lot of gamers are beginning to push HARD for games to become less fun and more of a chore to play for the sake of humoring a crowd that considers anything new, different, or streamlined to be catering to casuals. And considering the meteoric rise of gaming over the last few decades, the last thing the industry needs at this point is a move towards stagnation.

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Aim at the feet, noob!

Let me explain. Remember Halo? The revolutionary FPS that was so good it literally made Microsoft a heavy hitter in the highly exclusive console market almost overnight with the sequel that became a legendary online multiplayer smash? Well, the last couple of games added some controversial features, in particular “armor abilities” that allowed players to choose extra functionalities for their combatant such as jetpacks or active camouflage to make them difficult to spot.

Why wouldn’t you want to be able to do something so cool? Well, basically armor abilities and other loadout customizations add an element of randomness to the combat, meaning that you won’t always know what you are up against, making some of the old tried and true tactics semi-obsolete. To me, that makes a game more interesting because it requires adaptation and keeps you on your toes. But most hardcore players tend to gravitate towards repetitive behaviors and habits learned over countless hours of play that have led to success in the past, and in doing so, they become entirely resistant to change. If that sounds to you like a method that takes the actual fun out of playing a game, you might be correct. But this represents a growing preference in the gaming community.

Another hardcore gaming trope that’s becoming a problem in my opinion is looting. Loot drops are an indelible part of RPG’s. Gaining levels and fighting tougher enemies to gain better equipment is about as classic as it gets. But at some point, the loot started getting more important than anything else. Take a game like Borderlands. It boasted over 16 MILLION different guns.

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The sequel has an essentially infinite number of firearm variations. This means that pretty much every time you kill some of the thousands of enemies or loot one of the endless number of chests, a new gun pops out which you must now check against all of the other guns in your possession and their numerous statistics to decide which one to use to shoot the next batch of enemies so you can repeat the process again.

I love Borderlands, but can I be the only one who just wishes I could find a gun I really love and have it not be obsolete in a matter of minutes, or to not have to constantly pause my game and examine the limitless crap that fills up my limited inventory space trying to decide what to discard and what to keep? Well, I’m pretty sure I actually am.

And when you get into the traditional RPG’s, it actually gets worse because not only do you have weapons, you often have numerous individual pieces of armor like gloves, greaves, boots, and so on; and that’s before you get into enchantments and whatnot. It’s not unusual to spend more time fussing with your equipment in a game like Skyrim than you spend actually adventuring. Add an entire party of characters to that mix and you’re not even playing a video game anymore; you’re just playing stat-based digital dress up.

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Okay, I’ll admit it. This image makes me drool a little.

Dragon Age 2 attempted to simplify this process and prevent the visual sameness that often occurs from parties that all equip the same kinds of armor by having your main character be the only one to benefit from individualized equipment. The other characters just got general upgrades as the game progressed. Players were not pleased. It wasn’t the biggest complaint over the game, but it was one that was brought up endlessly as a reason why BioWare ruined RPG’s and is now one of the most vocally hated companies among the hardcore crowd.

The biggest complaint from hardcore gamers regarding Dragon Age 2 was the combat. In the first game, you selected an enemy to attack and pushed the button and your character then moved to the enemy and attacked it. In the second game you had to move your character to the enemy and press the button to attack it. Does that sound like a deal breaker to you? For the record, I did enjoy the first game’s semi-turn-based approach more, but the amount of breast-beating and teeth-gnashing over a pretty minor control change was way out of proportion.

The term “Skinner box” is being used a lot these days to describe games whose appeal is limitless loot drops.  This, of course, references B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber where animals were trained to perform repetitive behaviors in order to receive positive reinforcement. So, if need be, a game basically can potenitally overcome a lack of actual content by just training players to continuously jump through hoops trying to get better and better equipment heedless of the actual gameplay ceasing to be challenging or enjoyable.

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This is likely a single chest in a room full of chests that is also littered with enemy loot drops. So why do I want them all?

Normally, I’d say “to each their own” and that’d be the end of it, but the online mobilization of these types of gamers is actively attempting to wipe out non-Skinner box games as well as all variables and variations in competitive multiplayer games and it’s something that could potentially have disastrous results. Driving out casual gamers by making less creative and less accessible games or by giving mass bad reviews to quality games trying something different with the goal of driving consumers away from them is not going to do anyone any good. It’s just going to drive more developers out of the industry and eliminate game variety. In fact, it is believed that constant mass online attacks from the internet community were responsible for the sudden departures of BioWare’s founders last year.

My instinct is usually to defend my geeky brethren as the ones who support the industry and live and breathe in these fictional worlds that others merely visit, ignore, or ridicule; but in video games I think the time may have come to draw the line. Gamers have already built a reputation as entitled man-children who are hostile towards human contact and out of touch with reality. It’s not a stereotype that is accurate by and large, but it’s not entirely false either, as any sojourn to a gaming message board will show you.

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And that’s just with “normal” people.

The problem is that naturally the gamers who have absolutely nothing else in their life to do are the ones spending hours of every day raiding comments sections, message boards, and review sites to overzealously voice minority opinions and appear to be a larger factor than they actually are. It isn’t helping.

I love games, you love games, we all love games. We may love different kinds of games more than others, but I think we should at least agree that there is room for everyone. I don’t want to be stuck playing cart racing and platform games for the rest of my life, but I also don’t want every Halo to be just like every other Halo and I want developers to feel like they can experiment and introduce new ideas without being run out of town for daring to try something different.

There’s a happy medium that can be achieved here, but the only way we are going to get it is if we all think before we type and respect that other people’s opinions are as valuable as our own. Crazy talk, I know. But a lot of people will post 0/10 ratings for a game they have a minor beef with and even admit in their “review” that the game deserves a higher rating, but they are rating it lower to offset the high ratings.

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One does not simply “play a Bioware”. Also, Mass Effect 3 confirmed as “COD-alike”. 

Most of these types of “reviews” were posted on the very first day within hours of ME3′s release.

 

All of this is to say that even though you may spend 16 hours a day farming rare item drops, practicing combos, or searching for exploitable glitches on multiplayer maps and most of the remaining 8 complaining on the internet, you pay the same price for the game as everyone else (assuming you’re not a PC pirate) and your opinion on what makes a great game is not necessarily better than anyone else’s.  Naturally, you are welcome to make your case, but the unbridled hatred, venom, and spreading of misinformation that has resulted from this culture clash is not the solution.

Nothing is going to kill this expensive and growing industry faster than snobbish exclusivity. We should be welcoming more people into the fold instead of fighting against their inclusion just to make ourselves feel important. More gamers mean more money, which means more games, which means more diversity, which means more innovation, which means more quality. And just remember, a casual gamer is nothing if not a potential future hardcore gamer. So be nice! I need more clueless noobs to smash and bitch about on the internet while I hide in my cave for days on end being all casual and stuff.

Sound off below! I want to hear what you folks think about the state of the gaming industry regarding hardcore and casual tropes.

Interview: Women Gamers Speak Out

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You know what the gaming community needs? More male perspective (said nobody ever). There’s been a lot of talk and debate about women’s issues on the internet in recent days and precious little of it seems to come from the most vital source of all: women gamers. At Unreality, there happen to be two individuals who not only fit this description, but own it.

So my idea was this: we get two of that site’s finest together to give us their thoughts on gaming and the industry, and on women’s representation and place in them.  So with promises of cake (sorry, ladies, you know what they say about the cake) I managed to lure gaming bloggers Sara Clemens and Benny Bedlam into an email exchange so that their knowledge could become our knowledge. The conversation was as follows:

NV:  Let’s begin with something easy. A source of a lot of discontent with the industry among women is the rarity of strong, relatable female protagonists. But some of the ones we have gotten have been pretty memorable so let’s start positive. Could you name some of your all-time favorite female characters from video games and which one you personally identify with the most?

SC:  This one is extra easy since I did a post about it earlier this year. I like Samus Aran in most of the Metroid titles, Lara Croft, Chell, and Bayonetta, which is the one that gets me into trouble with other ladies. I just can’t help it; she’s such a snarky badass. I also catch flack for liking Chell because she’s a silent protagonist with no personality. Except she’s me, so she has the best personality, and one gamer’s silence is another’s stoicism.

The female character I most identify with would have to be Commander Shepard. The reason why is best expressed by Jennifer Hale, who provides her voice: “Paragon Shepard is who I wish I was and Renegade Shepard is what I want to say.” I like to play as a paragon with a dash of renegade.

BB: This is a really challenging question since I have played a lot of games in the past. Everybody knows I love Miranda Lawson from the Mass Effect series. She was one of the few love interests who didn’t fall for Shepard’s charms right away. She can stand on her own, which is what I love about her.

My other favorite would have to be Anora from Dragon Age and I identify with her the most. Other players tend to see her as cold and manipulative but I see her as a fighter. Her methods might not be pure, but she’s not evil and I can see that she truly wishes to be a good ruler for Ferelden.

NV: Those are some very interesting picks, ladies. I’m glad you both brought up Bioware titles because I’d like to expand on that a little. I think that particular company has done more than any other in the past two console cycles to push individualized storytelling forward while being as all-inclusive as possible with character and romance options.

But in spite of Bioware’s attempts at representation, even gay and feminist gamers have joined in the massive backlash against the company. What do you think they need to do at this point and are there any other games or franchises you would suggest to discerning female gamers looking for proper representation and empowerment?     

SC: Hmm, I’m not sure what Bioware can do to win people over. I think a lot of the Bioware backlash is undeserved, really. And I’m including all of it, including the rage over the ME3 endings. That level of vitriol really speaks to how well Bioware told Shepard’s story, and how well they were able to make the player feel like were really a part of that story.

Everyone’s Shepard is theirs, and it would be really impossible to create an ending that completely satisfied everyone. Of course, I’m speaking as a person who played with the extended cut the first time, so I don’t have the same experience as everyone who beat ME3 shortly after it came out. My glasses might be rosier than others.

As far as other female-centric games, I think Beyond Good and Evil and Mirror’s Edge are good choices. I’m hopeful for Remember Me, too. As far as franchises go, I’ll probably catch hell for it, but I like the Fable games. Now, the first one doesn’t count, since you can only play as a dude, and the third one is admittedly a step backward for the whole franchise, but I really dug the second. That’s one of the games I’m always happy to revisit. I’m cautiously optimistic for Fable 4, especially since Peter Molyneux’s off the project. I’m not a Molyneux hater or anything, but I think sometimes he has a tendency to overreach. I’m looking forward to seeing what the franchise’s inheritors do with it.

BB: I don’t think BioWare needs to do anything. I really loved what they did with Traynor and Cortez in Mass Effect 3, plus the Dragon Age series has its share of gay and bisexual love interests. I don’t think it’s enough reason to include characters such as these for the sake of diversifying or just because. You could have an all-straight, all gay, or a mixed cast as long as it fits the narrative.

People also complained about Miranda’s physical appearance because of how it objectified women. I’ve heard feminists complaint that it’s not realistic for her to fight in a tight suit like that and in high heels. For them, it makes her look like a sex object. I actually think Miranda is one hell of a woman for still being an exceptional fighter despite the outfit restrictions. Lastly, there are a lot of fans like myself that appreciate her character from inside and out.
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NV: Looks like three biodrones are we. Benny’s comments about Miranda bring up a very interesting point that I’d like to expand on regarding representation. Take a series like Dead or Alive. About half of the fighters in any of the main games (I’m discounting the DOAX oglefests, here) are kickass women with strong, diverse, independent personalities. But they are also really damn hot and exude a kind of tongue-in-cheek sexuality that sets off alarms with a lot of people. The borderline-fetishistic downloadable costume packs probably don’t help either. What are your thoughts on the balance between female representation and their portrayal as objects of male desire?    

BB: If you’re talking about just that franchise in particular, I think people should take a step back and realize that Tecmo isn’t aiming to paint a realistic approach to their video games. Japan is also known for its anime and Lolita fashion, so I believe that it’s hard for to answer that question from a general standpoint since it pretty much varies depending on the culture you were raised. For example, Americans might find it erotic to see women in French maid outfits walking around the streets but in another culture like in Japan… it’s completely normal.

I think it’s fair to have games like Lollipop Chainsaw, DOA: Xtreme Beach Volleyball, and the like because they are made simply for entertainment and humor. It’s not realistic. We have games like Tomb Raider and Beyond: Two Souls for that. Plus, I’m seeing more and more serious themed games like that being developed at present. While I believe that we will always have “sex-object” themed games, I think that there’s a positive balance of female portrayal in the industry.

SC:  I always struggle a bit when criticizing portrayals of women in media, and that goes for all forms, not just games. You’re actually hitting on a common theme within the ways women are portrayed across the board, be it video games, film, television, or literature. A lot of female characters are still very clearly designed to appeal to the male gaze while simultaneously possessing complex personalities.

Sometimes I’m crestfallen because it seems like despite these complex personalities, their real value still lies in how screwable they are. Other times I kick myself for judging too harshly, or worse, participating in slut-shaming. I don’t want to be the clothing police. Demanding women cover themselves up only serves to demonize and hypersexualize female bodies even further. Adding to all that internal struggle, some male characters in fighting games have ridiculous costumes that also aren’t conducive to fighting, and I’m way more apt to just accept them as they are.

I think the real problem stems from the fact that there just isn’t as diverse of a spectrum when it comes to female characters in media. Often we’re left judging one or two female characters in a male-dominated group so they end up bearing more than a fair share of the burden of representation. We need to work towards a place where we’ve got all sorts of women crowding the stage—sexual and not, physically tough and not, mentally tough and not, feminine and not, etc.

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NV: Speaking of representation, let me get back to Mass Effect for just a second.  It has been stated by Bioware that only 18% of gamers chose to play as a female Commander Shepherd, which I find rather troubling since FemShep is the best Shep. This may have to do with the fact that the Wii reportedly has an 80% share of female console gamers.

But console preferences aside, according to available statistics, overall only 15% of playable characters are female to go with 47% of gamers being of the fairer sex, which is a large discrepancy, to say the least.In spite of the success of series’ like Metroid and Tomb Raider, the industry maintains that heroines don’t sell as well as their male counterparts, even with nearly half of players being of the feminine persuasion. Why do you think that is and what can be done about it?

SC: I actually think the industry is starting to renege on that stance, especially coupled with those new statistics showing gaming is approaching more of a real-world demographic breakdown. With the recent reboot of Tomb Raider and titles like Remember Me and Transistor on the horizon, I think we’re seeing a move towards equilibrium when it comes to game protagonists. Well, the beginnings of a move, anyway.

We’ve just got to make sure we don’t stop moving forward, and a good way to ensure forward momentum is for women to keep making moves towards working within the industry itself. I’m raising my glass to lady developers, programmers, writers, and artists. Here’s hoping more are on the way.

BB: I don’t know the exact reason why that’s happening, but I do have an opinion about it. Well, we’ve been living in a society that’s been dominated by males for various centuries. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that it was only after the 60′s or the mad men era women were liberated from their submissive roles. This might not be related to video games, but I do believe it’s important to consider.

So, I think that men and even women are still trying to adjust to the latter being represented as dominant and strong. For example, my female friends and myself like using a male protagonist and have no qualms with rescuing damsels in distress. Why? Well, blame it on the pop culture we grew up on. At the same time, I don’t think that it’s only about picking the ‘stronger’ sex. Like Nick, I sometimes play the opposite sex for narrative purposes because RPG video games give us the power to craft our own stories.

Anyway, I do believe that we’ll have more pop culture icons like Tomb Raider for the next years to come because times are changing. A recent Forbes report noted that women are now the new breadwinners, so it’s only a matter of time. However, I don’t think we should just sit on our butts and wait for this happen. Continue the dialogue for women empowerment in a positive and constructive manner.

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Definitions of “constructive” may vary.

NV: Hear, hear. Alright, these questions are clearly too easy for you two. Let’s have a tough one now.  A lot of people are actually pointing at popular culture such as video games as being a source of sexism or general feminine depowerment due to their near-constant portrayals of weak and static tropes and stereotypes. But when someone suggests a similar correlation regarding the ubiquitous violence of the same mediums, they bristle. Do you think the two opinions are reconcilable?     

BB:  I have my thoughts on it, but I really wouldn’t know because we can only answer this question without any bias through conducting a formal study. Anyway, I’ll try my best to convey my opinion on it without confusing anyone. I don’t believe that sexism in video games cause men to treat women badly. I mean I don’t even call games like Lollipop Chainsaw or Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball sexist, but let’s just use that as an example cause it uses ‘sex appeal.’

I believe the same for violence, and I’d like to give credit to prolific FBI criminal profiler John Douglas for saying that the media cannot turn a law-abiding or moral individual into a violent criminal. Sure, it can give us methods on how to make a bomb, harass a woman, or shoot someone but that’s it. You’d have to be emotionally or mentally troubled to follow through with those ideas.

However, I do think that there’s an exception with some extremely violent games that are purely malevolent. Grand Theft Auto lets you kill civilians and commit crimes, but that’s just a part of it. Players are immersed by the story and can do other non-criminal stuff too. DOA: XBV glorifies boobs and skimpy outfits, but players also look forward to playing the volleyball campaign and mini games. The exception I’m talking about is games like Rapelay wherein the main objective is to rape a mother and her two daughters. There’s even gang rape. That’s all there is to it. I’m sure there’s also a game out there where the main objective or focus is just to hurt or torture someone.

I believe that if you have games focused purely on violent acts (without a reasonable contextual narrative to support it) such as this, I do believe that it can negatively impact our perceptions during our formative years because it cements the idea that violence is okay. I don’t think it’ll have the same impact if we are older though. Lastly, going back to Douglas… I wouldn’t even be interested in or have the need to play these types of games. Perhaps for curiosity, but that’s it.

SC:  Oh Jesus Christ this is such a great question. I’ve actually been turning this one over in my head for a while now. I don’t know if I’m ready to come down definitively on one side or the other, but that’s mostly because I keep leaning towards no, these two opinions are not reconcilable. Certainly I can see that if one makes an argument that video games contribute to misogynistic and sexist views and/or the depowerment of women, then one can also make an argument that video games contribute to the desensitizing of violence in our society.

Do I think media creates misogynists or sexists out of otherwise upstanding citizens? No. Do I think media creates perpetrators of violence out of otherwise upstanding citizens? No. Do I think misogynistic or sexist tropes in media reinforce misogynistic or sexist beliefs in people who already hold them? Yes. Do I think graphic and/or relentless violence in media reinforces violent thoughts and tendencies in individuals who already have a propensity for violence? Yes. At the very least, it reinforces the idea that violence equals power, and that’s dangerous for someone in the wrong state of mind.

However, the cultures surrounding misogyny/sexism and violence are quite different. When a shooting or any other major act of violence occurs in this country, everyone agrees it’s a tragedy. Most people, strangers even, will try to stop a minor act of violence occurring (a bar fight, etc.). But a girl gets filmed getting raped, and the evidence is suppressed. A hacker brings the evidence back to light, and he’s tried for a longer sentence than the rapists. I realize they’re minors, so their sentences will obviously be lesser, but Deric Lostutter shouldn’t be tried at all. The rapists are also the scum of the earth, so there’s that. Then CNN expresses sympathy for the rapists’ ruined futures.

On a more minor level, I write an article about how Kaidan Alenko is dumb, and people write me emails with very female-centric threats of violence. Maybe they’ve been playing too many video games. The bottom line is that it’s okay to view women as either objects or subhuman. And yes, negative media tropes contribute to that viewpoint, just like they contribute to the idea that violence is cool or powerful, or drugs are glamorous. So while I admit it might be self-serving of me, I’d rather spend my time focusing on ways to balance media portrayals of women.

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NV:  Wow. I threw you a fastball and you both hit it out of the park. Well, since it looks like I’ve gone and gotten you in the mood for a rant, let’s go with that. Online gaming culture can be a hostile place for women. There are entire websites dedicated to the displays of misogyny that spew forth from the virtual mouths of immature assholes. Both of you appear to be social gamers so surely you have some stories to share. What is the most hateful or ridiculous thing a male gamer has ever said to you?

SC: Ha ha, I assure you I was quite calm throughout the composition of my last response, thank you very much! As for war stories, I actually don’t have many good ones. I played some multiplayer games of Halo in college on occasion, but never wore a headset. Nowadays I only play online with real-life friends, so no one’s being a jerk because I know where they live. And also they’re not jerks.

I play a medieval fantasy MUD, but everyone’s too busy role-playing to actually do anything untoward on a player-to-player level. The few times I have dropped in to a multiplayer match and gotten lip from men were nothing unique. I’ve been called a c*nt and bitch, obviously, and I’ve gotten the usual untoward requests for oral sex, along with general inquiries as to the specific characteristics of my anatomy.

I talked about this here on Unreality a couple weeks ago, but I recently wrote a piece about Mass Effect for another site and received some terrible responses that were actually somewhat creative. Someone said they wished I’d get raped by a reaper. I get that reapers are really huge so the idea is that it would hurt SO MUCH, but the truth is that it’s just physically impossible. Aside from the fact that reapers aren’t things that exist in this world, it’s a lot like that SNL sketch with Christopher Walken, Ana Gasteyer, Will Ferrell, and Rachel Dratch where they talk about shinshi shinshi. That’s when Ana Gasteyer was “willing to accept her lover’s body in places no one had ever trespassed. Specifically, the ear canal.” Hilariously absurd.

 BB: Well, I was threatened to be “raped” or “ass f***ed” during multiplayer matches for FPS games. However, I don’t think it’s because I’m a woman since my username “cdrbedlam” doesn’t really say anything about my gender. Plus, I’ve heard them use it to address or threaten other male players too. Usually when someone fires obscenities at me, I shoot back some of my own. Oh, I swear like a sailor when I play video games. I was insulted and disgusted when someone propositioned me right after a game. My reaction can be encapsulated in this meme:

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NV: Hey, I never get any untoward requests for oral sex! Now I just feel unloved. You women have it sooooo good. No seriously, I think we’ve about covered it. Ms. Clemens and Ms. Bedlam, you’ve done the gaming community a great service by sharing your perspective, experiences, and insight and I thank you for it. It’s only fair in an interview about female empowerment that the ladies get the last word, so let’s have some closing thoughts and final words of wisdom from each of you.   

BB: I think it’s great that we are seeing more video games that promote female empowerment, and it will only be a matter of time when new clichés or stereotypes are formed. You never know.  Perhaps, men will be the next generation’s “damsels” in distress. It won’t happen, by waiting though because I think we should actively continue the dialogue about proper female representation.

Lastly, I think that people shouldn’t crucify every joke or game like DOAX: Beach Volleyball so quickly. There are times when a joke is simply just that. Examine the context, relationship, and culture behind what you’re criticizing because sometimes it only spreads hate instead of empowerment. Thanks, that is all.

SC:  Hopefully I’ve given you a window into one woman’s experience with the industry she loves. And I do love it, in case that’s at all questionable. Video games have given me some of the more profound experiences of my life, including facilitating some deep interpersonal interactions (as in, I was gaming with a real person in the room and we had a moment or two), and no immature dorkbot on the internet will ever take that away from me. However, I don’t think it would hurt the industry to strive to be more representative of the diversity of its ever-growing fan base, close to half of which are women. It would be nice to see less white-dude avatars in general, for that matter.