2012 was the year that the sexual harassment endemic to many online gaming communities finally started to receive mainstream media attention. While there had long been sites dedicated to documenting it (see also Fat, Ugly, or Slutty and Not In the Kitchen Anymore) it was the backlash to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter for her “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games” doc that really set off the community’s vile and vocal undermind. Sarkeesian documented the responses she received including rape and death threats, the vandalizing of her Wikipedia page, and one guy even coded a game, the object of which was to beat up a virtual version of Sarkeesian until she was left bruised and bloody. This, people, is why the world is awful. Thankfully, Sarkeesian also received considerable support, her kickstarter hit its goal many times, over, and she recently appeared on TEDx to give the full rundown.
Relatedly, #1reasonwhy trended on Twitter after a designer asked his followers why there were ‘so few lady game designers.’ A number of industry women replied to share their stories, some of which are depressing, others hopeful, but every one eye -opening.
The Year in Games Writing
On GLG this year, Allison Bray wrote about bodies and corpses in DayZ, and I wrote about the promising/troubling phenomenon of crossplaying gender.
Elsewhere, Tom Bissell’s ostensible review of Spec Ops: The Line is actually, Benjamin-like, some theses on the philosophy of the first person shooter. Bissell asks why we enjoy video game violence, a theme newly re-relevant post-Newtown. I’ve read this piece at least ten times, and now I’m reading it again. You should, too.
Patricia Hernandez talks Gears of War and the internalization of rape culture in competitive multiplayer. And it is devastating, the saddest thing I’ve read all year.
FTL: Faster Than Light
A kickstarter-funded independent, FTL looks and plays like a fancy German board game. You are the captain of a starship pursued by evil rebel scum. Your fragile ship will be torpedoed, boarded by killer robots, pelted by asteroids, is subjected to internal fires and will occasionally experience explosive decompression. Your few crew members must make repairs, pilot the ship, and basically keep it all together while you order them to trade for parts, explore strange nebulae, and upgrade your ship with meaner lasers and death-dealing drones. Random star maps and events means your intrepid crew will die in different, horrifying ways every time. Fun for fans of Star Trek, strategy games, and those with malevolent God complexes, FTL is less than ten bucks on Steam.
A solid action-RPG from Blizzard, now mostly known as the makers of World of WarCraft. This looonng awaited sequel is fast, fun, and has a nifty skill system which actively encourages experimentation and the discovery of killer combos. D3 was one of my two most anticipated games of the year, and so, like many others, I initially found it to be a bit of a letdown. But after going through the steps with my sponsor, Francis, I’ve finally come to terms with it. My once insatiable appetite for and satisfaction with all things Blizzard has lessened somewhat, but, upon reflection, it is really nobody’s fault (not even Activision’s). I own my own feelings. So, Blizz, some part of me will always love you, and while I know we’ve drifted apart over the past few years, I can now finally say: it’s not you, it’s me.
Mass Effect 3
BioWare’s action-RPG is as big and bombastic as you’d expect from AAA space opera, but it was ultimately the little moments that I’ll remember most: target shooting with Garrus in the Citadel atrium, getting drunk and reminisce-y with Tali, and helping brittle-boned pilot Joker and the shipboard artificial intelligence EDI begin a fraught, tentative romance. Jennifer Hale’s vocal performance as ‘FemShep’ makes for one of the most beloved and relatable evil-alien ass-kicking protagonists this side of Sigourney Weaver, and she is especially good here. For this third voyage, the developers are to be commended for writing in more diverse characters. The Normandy’s three new, major crew members are all people of color, and there are now actual same-sex relationship options for a female or male Shepard: slash fiction fave Kaidan is now also dateable by a male commander, and two new characters—Traynor (f) and Cortez (m)—are gay. While BioWare’s standing has slipped with some of the die-hards (and blowhards), they still get more right than wrong: they completely reworked the game’s ending after many complained that it was underwhelming, the super-fun multiplayer component has received free new content almost monthly, and the game has gotten some solid DLC missions (Leviathan, especially).
The troubled creation of this independent title was chronicled in one of the year’s best documentaries, Indie Game. Polytron’s ode to games of the 1980’s, especially Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Tetris—all of which are pretty explicitly referenced—was the most surprising game I played this year. The setup: Gomez lives in what appears to be a two dimensional world, until an elder gives him the titular magical hat. Afterwards he can shift the plane on which he walks, jumps and climbs, rotating the world 90 degrees to see what his (and our) perspective is missing. It sounds simple, but in practice it is a revelation. Fez’s world is so pleasant, so inviting: there are cute animals instead of enemies, no death, and no countdown timers. You are encouraged to meander, discovering more of the world by solving puzzles, finding treasure maps, and decoding instructions with the help of ciphers. It’s a rich experience, accessible to anyone but it will also challenge (and at times exasperate) the brainiest puzzle fiends. Less than $10, but currently only available on X-Box Live.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
An all-star cross(-ed)over spectacular of a game featuring the talents of fantasy author R.A. Salvatore (Drizzt), comics/litigation legend Todd McFarlane (Spawn), and former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling (not a typo). This action/RPG’s lackluster sales helped bring down Schilling’s company along with the economic development board of Rhode Island, which loaned Schilling $75 million.
So, how’s the game? Nifty high-fantasy premise, some stylized, WoW-like candy colored environments and creatures. Satisfying rhythm & combo based combat. Its clever skill system actually makes multi-classing effective and fun, and the crafting system is meaty. The game’s world is huge: supposedly 200+ hours of content. The problem is that much of it isn’t very interesting: most of the quests are of the standard fetch x/kill y/ carry z variety. The faction and main storyline quests are better, thankfully: the “House of Ballads” arc is the game’s best, neatly tying your character’s background, the lore of the world, and Propp’s theories of formal characterization into a lovely rumination on the relationship between stories and their people.
You have to hand it to those crazy kids at Gearbox Games. Right before the September release of the sequel to their FPS RPG, they marketed it with what might be the most gleefully amoral trailer ever made (below). It’s also pretty indicative of the full experience. Thankfully, the most absurd, ridiculously over the top game I played this year is also the most well written—and self-aware—too: full of great characters (Ellie, Tiny Tina, and Gaige BF4-evah!), wicked humor, addictive sci-fi shoot & loot gameplay, and a surprising amount of heart. I hope to write about some of its more revelatory as well as troubling aspects in the future, but in the meantime, enjoy the (soon to be NRA approved b/c condemned?!) trailer.
Grand Theft Auto with the martial arts combat of Batman: Arkham Asylum in the world of 1980’s John Woo films. If that sounds like a bit much, well, that’s kind of the point. Taking more than a few pages from Rockstar’s successful formula, Dogs is an open world game set in contemporary Hong Kong. You play Wei Shen, an undercover cop infiltrating the Triad he blames for the death of his family. Almost immediately he starts to crack, and Johnny Depp-in-Donnie Brasco-like, Wei finds his loyalties divided, his already tenuous morality slipping. Which is convenient, because there is so much mayhem to make! As Wei, you can steal cars, and race them in secret-illegal-underground drifting contests. You can beat up drug dealers and then have them arrested, for being, um, drug dealers. There are cockfighting and karaoke minigames for some reason. You can buy Wei fancy outfits and fabulous automobiles, and really do pretty much whatever.
And the game brings the emergent, anarchic fun. Once, while tasked by a Triad member to steal a particular car for his chop shop, I wrecked half of the town with my terrible terrible driving before I could track down said car. At a stoplight I jumped out of my car and into my target’s and jacked it (by pushing the driver out onto the street). But I didn’t notice the beat cop on the corner, so had to evade a fleet of cop cars in a high speed chase, promptly destroying much of the rest of the main boulevard. I finally escaped by pulling off a ridiculous/lucky 180 turn, causing two police cars to zoom past as I floored it the other way. On my way to the chop shop I noticed I had stolen the wrong car. U-turn.
The problem with open world games is that the promise of verisimilitude only re-emphasizes how game-y the simulation is: call it the uncanny rally. You gain cash (instantly) by running over parking meters! You heal by eating ice cream! Gain a martial arts bonus from chugging energy drinks! And another by visiting massage parlors which are pretty unmistakably brothels! The game fades to black when Wei/you enter the latter, maybe because most of the women working the nonvirtual, meatspace versions of those institutions are victims of human trafficking. The game cleverly makes you complicit in Wei’s actions, practically daring you to be better than he is… which is difficult when you can only move the story forward by doing what the game makes Wei do. Social commentary masquerading as exploitation? Exploitation dressed up as social commentary? Like Wei Shen, the triad-cop, Sleeping Dogs always wants to have it both ways.
Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis.