Tag Archives: Saint’s Row

Opinion – Solutions for Open World Games

We’ve hit peak open world….I hope.

The open world genre is undoubtedly dominating the video game space.  From genre luminaries like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry to lesser lights such as The Division and Watch Dogs to genre newbies like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, developers collectively have concluded that the market wants more open world games.  There certainly is something appealing about the genre.  The ability to explore new worlds, take on a variety of challenges, and change your environment for the better are all something that open world games do very well.  Sadly, newer entries have taken their cues from the Ubisoft model which significantly degrades their long term prospects.  I’ve already written on why that model doesn’t work, so this will be on how to fix it.  We’ll start with something that should be obvious:

Every game mechanic should meet a threshold of fun

Playing games is a voluntary act.  We all pick up the controller because a game promises a good time (however we choose to define that).  We don’t play games for the prospect of large quantities of boring activities which is where most Ubisoft style games land these days.  Rather than emphasize the entertaining nature of their gameplay, many open world games promise hours of stuff to do in the hopes that the player will find something to enjoy.  Unfortunately, this approach results in shotgun blast side quests that are quick, unspecific in their aim, and often variations on the same theme.  Final Fantasy XV demonstrates this issue by having a map full of activities that rarely elevate beyond “kill this monster” or a straightforward fetch quest.  The end result is a world full of activities of which few are actually worth doing.  This is a trend we’ve seen in countless other games including Mass Effect Andromeda’s deluge of shoddy side content and Far Cry 4’s multiple variations on item collection.  Developers need to ask themselves if every major mechanic in the game (open world or not) is fun on its own.  If the action isn’t, than strip it from the game rather than rely on the myriad of other activities to pick up the slack.  Quantity doesn’t make up for quality.

Systems are your friend

One of the greatest missed opportunities in games is the chance to apply broader mechanic systems to open worlds.  Rather than try to craft each event, developers should establish worldwide systems that create gameplay opportunities.   Saint’s Row 2 provides a simple example of something that could be incredibly complex.  When the player takes territory in SR2, the player’s gang replaces the opposing gang thereby turning a once hostile territory into a friendlier place.  When the player goes on missions, the gang will support them in the territories under the player’s control.  This system isn’t particularly deep, but it creates a more strategic element to the game where the player could take certain territories before missions to ensure they had back up during the big fights.  Open world games are perfect for this kind of worldwide system where the player can have an important impact on the look and gameplay of the open world.  Rather than making maps a collection of static icons, developers ought to code dynamic systems that create gameplay by themselves and through their interaction with other systems.

Please stop forgetting about the story

Given the considerable energy that goes into creating enormous environments, players ought not be surprised at the sacrifices developers make in other aspects of the game.  Story often suffers as the developers must devote limited resources to creating a story wholly within the open world environment.  Whereas other style games can move character’s through new cities, different continents, and even other planets, many open world games must focus on a single place.  The evolution of the Saint’s Row series shows how this works in practice.  While the early games focused on small time street thugs trying to carve out territory in a major city, SR3 & 4 envisioned the eponymous Saints with global aspirations.  Given the limited nature of open world environments, the stories of SR3&4 had to both justify a) why the Saints had to take over yet another city and b) why everything important seemed to happen within the confines of that city.  The end result was a hackneyed plot about space aliens destroying Earth who then put the Saints in a city simulation for, you know, reasons.  I’ve focused on the environment, but characters, narrative arc, and every other aspect of the narrative declines as soon as the developer utters the words “open world”.  By refocusing on making great stories, developers could create an interesting new direction for the genre.

If the open world fad is anything like its predecessors, we can expect it to fade as it collapses under the weight of over indulgence and its lack of innovation.  If open world games decline to the point of just a few tent poles, then developers will have missed out on an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things with the genre.  These games should not have a future if they continue to mirror the Ubisoft industrial mold, but could create a whole new generation of fans if they’re willing to try something new.

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Diary – This game is not detail oriented – Shadow of Mordor

I PRESSED Y, DAMN IT.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a surprisingly mediocre game.  I’ll try to review it a little later, but I want to take a little time to investigate one of the major sources of disappointment: getting the small things wrong. It shouldn’t be a big deal.  After all, the small things are small things for a reason. However, the little touches in a game are often the most important and draw a line between fun and dull. For a game that got a Metacritic average of 84 and rave reviews from a number of users, Shadow of Mordor misses some of the tiny things that should make the game shine.

Button delays

As my line above might suggest, one of the first issues is combat responsiveness.  Shadow of Mordor pulls from the Assassin’s Creed/Batman school of fighting with timed button presses to fend off attacks.  When it works, battles flow from one swing to the next with the player feeling like an unstoppable badass.  What’s wrong then?  The delay in responding to button presses.  Pressing the appropriate button at the last possible moment doesn’t work because the game will ignore that button long before it removes the button queue above the enemy character’s head.  This isn’t much of an issue in early combat, but as the game becomes more difficult, the small issue creates a large crack.  With numerous enemies on screen attacking and a combat system based on chaining together hits, delayed button responsiveness destroys flow and make it difficult to access high levels of combat.  The little thing becomes a big thing.

Tower placement

Towers serve as Shadow of Mordor’s fast travel system.  Though no map is particularly large, towers allow the player to get around enemy patrols and pointless dead time between missions.  Unfortunately, the towers don’t cover the whole map making some areas difficult to access.  Often these areas are strongholds for enemy forces which means the area is both far from a tower and blocked by combat.  This makes sense during a mission, but becomes frustrating when trying to nab collectibles.  The player can’t take a break from combat (one of the best parts of collectibles), because the tower placement ensures that combat either must take place or be actively avoided.  Whereas a player might collectible hunt in Assassin’s Creed for a break, they must leave Shadow of Mordor to accomplish the same task.

No joy in motion

Most open world games have a mechanic whereby the player can just enjoy running around the world and soaking in the sights.  GTA and the Saint’s Row series have cars and radio stations.  Assassin’s Creed has rooftops and the occasional pirate ship.  Shadow of Mordor has…well….nothing.  The player is confined to his feet most of the time and the occasional ride on a feral Caragor doesn’t help considering how inconvenient it can be to get on one.  This doesn’t hurt basic gameplay as the maps are small, but it does hurt the downtime between missions.  There just isn’t a fun way to get around the game which hurts when that’s all the player wants to do.

Small things often add up to big things when there are enough of them.  Shadow of Mordor’s small things are often wrong and show an ignorance of what makes an open world action game tick.  They take tiny bites out of the player’s enjoyment until only the game’s true strengths are any fun.  Nailing the small things, particular in an open world game where the player will often want to mess around, is the key to making a great game.  Sadly, Shadow of Mordor doesn’t and so isn’t that game.

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Opinion – Talking About Tropes v. Women

Soooo…this went long.  Sorry!

 

Viewers of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos on women-in-games generally fall into two categories.  The first is the ever present troglodyte internet trolls that plague so much of the community.  At their best, they object, often incoherently, to Sarkeesian’s videos based on a feeling of socially progressive intrusion into what was previously a safe space.  Gamers have often been a defense group, likely resulting from starting in a culture that didn’t take games seriously, and that has unfortunately turned into a sense of automatic offense whenever video games are challenged.  At their worst, this group engages in mindless attacks and threats that only prove Sarkeesian’s point that things need to change.  The second group are the more socially conscious critics who generally agree with Sarkeesian’s videos, but shy away from criticizing them, possibly due to a fear of being included in the first group.  This is a shame because the videos aren’t perfect and a stronger discussion surrounding them would both increase their exposure and help the gaming community move towards a more intelligent position on its depiction of women.  In that spirit, I’m going to discuss my concerns with the most recent video titled “Women as Background Decoration”.  Note: You should see the video before reading this article.

Cherry Picking

The strongest of the troll arguments is often that Sarkeesian cherry picks her clips from the most damning options or ones that misrepresent the game.  While this argument is often overstated, the naysayers do have a point.  “Women as Background Decoration” shows clips from gaming’s most violent franchises yet never explains why a particular game matters.  Some choices, like Grand Theft Auto or Saint’s Row, are obviously relevant, but I’m at a loss as to why Shellshock: Vietnam or The Darkness 2 were included.  Without an explanation as to why a particular game made the cut, it’s hard to judge the value of its inclusion.  Furthermore, Sarkeesian never provides the context for her choices.  How many copies did they sell?  Who bought them?  How do they match up against other games in the genre or generally?  The existence of objectionable video games does not mean that they represent a noteworthy problem.  Sarkeesian needs to do a better job explaining why the games she presents as evidence matter, not just that sexual objectification is wrong.

In addition to not justifying the clip selections, “Women as Background Decoration” consistently uses clips and arguments that are unrepresentative of the game in question.  In one particular section, Sarkeesian points out that a prostitute in Red Dead Redemption propositions the protagonist despite being hogtied and thrown on a horse.  The NPC has clearly reverted to its original programming and is not reacting to the event in question yet Sarkeesian uses this as evidence of abuse against women programmed into the game.  It’s obviously a bug, not an example of authorial intent.  She also uses prostitutes in Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea (which condemns the philosophy behind the prostitution), Fable hookers (the later games played the mechanic for laughs, not abuse), and the one instance in Mass Effect 2 where a fully clothed woman dances suggestively.  By combining this with the treatment of women in Saint’s Row or Metro: Last Light, Sarkeesian attempts to create the feeling of a much broader climate than she actually proves.  GTA’s prostitutes are nowhere close to the level of objectification as Mass Effects “exotic” dancers, yet she lumps them all together.  Sarkeesian would be better off selecting consistently extreme examples or, at a bare minimum, noting the vast gulf between her samples.

Prostitutes Exist

The mere existence of women as sex objects in game isn’t a problem.  Prostitutes do exist in real life and often work in situations where they are demeaned by men.  Furthermore, a game about crime and the underworld ought to include these kinds of situations as they are reflective of the reality of the setting.  It’s hard to argue that a mafia game should not include prostitution as that is a major industry in which mafia engage in.  In this kind of game, strippers, prostitutes, and exotic dancers can add authenticity and a sense of place that is required to depict them.  Unless we’re prepared to ban the idea of showing a port town (Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was another cherry picked example), we have to accept that objectified women were and are real. Furthermore, we must accept that women depicted won’t move much beyond sex objects in certain situations, if only because that environment rarely treats the women as such.

That does not mean that all depictions of sexualized women are acceptable all the time.  If a developer is going to use a brothel as a backdrop, then it is incumbent upon them to show the reality of brothels.  They need to move beyond busty women who just love having sex all day and show the downsides like abuse and drug use.  Particularly in criminal settings, sexualized women ought not be glamourized outside of the showroom setting, but rather shown with the level of desperation that often accompanies such situations.  All this is to say that treating women as sex objects isn’t the problem, it’s the rest of the story that goes untold that’s the issue.

Women are NPCs too

The biggest flaw in Sarkeesian’s argument is how completely she focuses on sexualized women NPCs to the detriment of the whole universe of NPCs that exist.  Sarkeesian uses Martha Nussbaum’s theory of objectification to show how women are objectified, yet fails to acknowledge that the same could be said of all NPCs anywhere.  Going down the list (Quotes are from Nussbuam):

  • Instrumentality – “The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.” NPCs exist for the enjoyment of the player. This can be negative, such as the abuse Sarkeesian mentions, but it can also be innocuous or positive such as a question to help someone. Even in the later situation, the player is often doing the quest for the reward, not the NPC.
  • Denial of Autonomy – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.” Literally true, in this case. Also, players rarely care about an individual NPC’s needs and often see them as a means to an end. Think shopkeeper.
  • Inertness – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.” Again, it is very rare that the player actually cares about what an NPC wants. Most players think of NPCs as automata without any desires of their own..
  • Fungibility – “The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.” Most NPCs fulfill a function held by many other NPCs. Sexualized women NPCs are not special in this regard.
  • Violability – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.” Just about every enemy in every RPG ever. Also, in open world games, every NPC, not just the sexualized ones, are available for abuse.
  • Ownership – “The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.” In the case of monster fighting games, this is quite literal, but you need not go that far. Any game that allows you to buy and use the services of an NPC, such as the thieves in Assassin’s Creed, would qualify.
  • Denial of Subjectivity – “The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.” It is very rare for a game to infuse one of its many hundreds of NPCs with personality. Even rarer that it does this well.

This failure to distinguish between sexualized women NPCs and NPCs in general continues throughout the video. In the most egregious example, Sarkeesian states that GTA and Saint’s Row incentivize the player to abuse women by having them drop money when they die, but completely fails to note that all NPCs do the same thing.  There are other examples, but they all speak to same problem in Sarkeesian’s argument.  Replace sexualized women NPCs with NPCs and you have an argument against violence in video games writ large.  Almost every lurid, brutal clip of a protagonist violating a women could have been, frame for frame, reenacted with any NPC passing by.  I do think there’s a compelling argument for singling out women NPCs and sex workers in particular, but Sarkeesian never makes it.

Conclusion

“Women as Background Decoration” is still a great addition to the Feminist Frequency series.  It makes great points about how some of gaming’s most cherished franchises approach sexualized female NPCs.  I hope the future entries will stop working so hard to make an extreme case for the mistreatment of women and will instead use the ample material that already exists.

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Opinion – OMG! Boobies!

Not the source I expected on this one

There are a couple of scenes in Wolfenstein: The New Order where the hero, BJ Blazkowicz, and his love interest, Anya, have sex.  What is shocking about this is not the act of sex in the historically sex shy video game scene, but rather that it was shown with a modicum of maturity that isn’t present in even gaming’s most mature franchises.  The act of showing two character engaging in sex as a normal function of their relationship and without gratuitous Playboy shots runs counter to the games industries typical depiction of sex from a 13 year old view point.  The games industry, as a whole, has trouble breaking free of the immature perspective of sex.  New Order gives us a glimpse of how easy it would be to move away from the youthful swamp in which most video games are mired.

The most common depiction of sex in games is the mindless titillation of big boobs, skimpy clothing, and prostitution.  It’s often done from a straight male point of view (a topic worthy of its own article) and captures the simplest conception of sex there is.  Off the top of my head, I can think of strippers in Saint’s Row, the giant breasted sex minigame of God of War, and just about every game that includes prostitution ever.  One of the many problems with this depiction of sex is that it represents the act as conceived by the average teenager, rather than by the many adults who both make and are the audience for these games.  Consider the strip club minigame I tried in GTA V.  I approached a busty stripper, got a lap dance, and, when we went back to her place, the screen bounced to an unshown good time and faded to black.  This is pretty much what your average teenager thinks of when they conceive sex.  Hot women, sensual moves, and some kind of black box that is supposed to be super cool.  In contrast, New Order has two individuals who, as part of their relationship, have sex.  No lurid strip club, no sex crazed prostitutes, just people who enjoy sex as part of a greater relationship.  This is how most adults approach sex, yet it is one of the few times a game has depicted it as such.

The sad part is that even one of gaming’s greatest series has trouble with sex.  Mass Effect is well known for depicting the act in the exact opposite way.  Rather than showing sex as a dirty act between a man and oversized, throw away genitalia, Mass Effect sanctifies the act as the crowning achievement in a relationship.  Each romantic option climaxes when Sheppard and his partner having sex.  This is the pinnacle of the relationship when most adult relationships include sex well before some kind of mystical understanding is reached.  It is a fun part of the relationship that can start anywhere between the first date and the wedding day and is rarely considered an achievement.  Rather than be the sex mad teenager, Mass Effect chooses to be the virtuous abstainer whose refusal to have sex puts the act on a pedestal that it doesn’t deserve.  Again, New Order provides the more mature counterpoint.  BJ and Anya’s first time isn’t a vaunted relationship defining achievement nor does their subsequent encounter suggest anything more than stress relief and a good time.  Sex is neither glorified nor objectified in New Order, it’s just a healthy part of two character’s relationship.

I don’t want to oversell New Order’s achievement.  While BJ and Anya’s relationship is believable, it isn’t particularly well developed.  Condoms were never shown despite how important avoiding pregnancy would be while living in the heart of an insurgency.  Furthermore, most sex does not occur between a giant ball of muscles and a model with a fantastic rack.  Still, the general tone is something that few games have nailed.  New Order’s decision to depict sex in an adult way rather than as a 13 year old might is refreshing and laudable.  I can only hope other developers will follow suit.

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