The Growing Role of Sex and the “Queer” in Gaming

Some weeks back, I participated in a brief discussion on a forum that I’ve been a part of for quite a long time. This discussion revolved around the role of sex in games, specifically the role of homosexual content in gaming. The forum is a Christian site dedicated to games. I’m not really a driving force behind the site anymore; I was, at one point, and the evidence can be seen in this Kotaku article. That wasn’t so long ago. Months have gone by, and perspectives have changed, and I’m no longer as much a part of the site now as I was then, though I will never deny the influence that I’ve taken from there as I’ve grown as a writer.

That said, the focus of the thread in question was a response to an IGN article, discussing the history of sex in gaming. In the tradition of every IGN article ever, it was poorly written, but raised some pretty good points. (On another note, would it be too much to ask for IGN to hire a decent editing staff, or to at least proofread their content? That’d be great…) It was, ultimately, a justification for the place of sex in gaming, and my goal here is not to justify. In fact, I want to explain: Why do we need sex in games? Why do we need characters with defined sexual orientations? I’m not gay; why would I care if a game presented a character as gay or straight?

The easy answer is that art reflects life. Easy answers aren’t what discourse deals in, and it’s not how understanding is reached. The “easy answer” would assume that games are art (which is a pretty big assumption to make, given some of my past thoughts on the concept), but it would also equate gaming with film and literature. Is that incorrect?

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The Problem with “Fable 3″

Over the summer, I came into possession (through slightly illicit means) of a mostly new copy of Fable 3 (okay, I got it from Goozex).

I’d never been “into” the series in general. The humor was just north of being functionally retarded, the “moral” choices in it seemed insignificant, and by Fable 2 the combat and RPG systems seemed almost non-existent. But that didn’t stop Fable 3 from coming out, and I’ll be honest, the draw for me was the latter half of the game. “Be a king!” the ads proclaimed. “I want to be a king,” I thought. “I want to make choices.” So I sought out the game… and didn’t play it for a while, because I thought I had made a huge mistake. Yes, like Gob.

Mostly, though, I had other games to play, and I was in the middle of a prolonged Halo: Reach binge that lasted way too long (and not long enough, if you ask one or two of my friends). Lionhead’s newest just wasn’t interesting enough to be worth my time.

That’s too bad, because I found some really cool stuff contained in Fable 3, once I got past the bad voice acting, even worse writing and piss-poor characterizations. (This is supposed to be British humor? Because I’ve watched BBC shows, and they’re funnier than this ever was. I mean, I’m supposed to laugh at a bird taking a shit right in the opening video. That’s not funny. That’s peddling to the lowest common denominator in gamers, and that’s the last thing this industry needs right now.) The problem with Fable 3, however, is the reason that it’ll never be a good game, or even a great game. It’s a simple problem, and one that plagues more games than I think most would care to realize: the problem with Fable 3 is that it’s half a game, and things end just when they’re starting to get interesting.

Let me explain.

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Something in the water…

Some months ago, I wrote an interesting piece that was intended as a direct rebuttal to a Kotaku article criticizing a Christian website with which I had been long affiliated. On that site, I was at times a writer and usually an editor tasked with something that was usually quite difficult: somehow “fix” the pieces that were being published on the site, while being met with much resistance. The final published review I wrote on the site was a review of Alan Wake; that was followed by the Kotaku rebuttal, which led some here, to a blog which had been dormant for over a year.

That isn’t going to be the case any longer.

I’m writing this post to say that I’m going to be back in full swing, intending to write (at least) one post a week, with a refocusing. As much as I love music and film, I want this blog to be about games, and how it intersects with other aspects of the culture. Games as a whole cannot be taken by themselves, and so here I am, and here we are.

Games are – by necessity – influenced by the environment in which they were created. No designer exists in a bubble outside of the culture, just as no musician does, and no writer does.

In the same way, we see representations of what interests and influences the artist in the art itself: Kojima was influenced by this, Miyamoto by that, et al. And so it goes.

I don’t mean to say that I’ll analyze things and put them where I believe they should go. That is far too lofty a goal for me to undertake. What I mean is that I’ll write about what interests me and place it here, because it’s the least I can do.

I’ve not been unsuccessful on the writing front since the last post here. I wrote a fairly lengthy piece over at Bombadillo, detailing my experiences playing with morality and choice in Fallout: New Vegas and a number of other titles. It gets a little long-winded by the end, and could probably have used the benefit of another editor, but that’s the way that goes.

I’m currently playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, reading George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows and watching Mad Men, season 4. Nothing if not mainstream, right? But this comes after a three-month stint of reading exclusively Cormac McCarthy, of watching Korean cinema (I Saw the Devil will change your life; no Saw movie will ever be adequate, ever again), of working so much in my day job that I could hardly sleep at night from exhaustion. This is not an excuse, but a reason, a reason to begin again.

And so it goes, and on.

Hope you stay around for the ride.

-D

(Sort-Of) Reviews: Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, Heavy Rain

In the past two months, I’ve played through three very story intensive games, two of which I now count among some of the best of the year.  These are Heavy Rain, Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption.  The first two are more or less triumphs, the former a meandering, unfocused, beautiful game, and the latter a taut thriller with the trappings of Twin Peaks and Stephen King’s most solipsistic works.

Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, is an excellent but flawed game.  Its story winds and strays the focused journey that it should be.  Neither are its characters as engrossing or memorable as those found in Grand Theft Auto IV or any of its episodes.  Arguably, the world is more of a character here, but I find it an unfocused mess that’s a bore to travel through and tiresome to explore.  Still, the brutal violence, coupled with the classic imagery and excellent development of the main character place Redemption as a game firmly following GTA4’s lead.

Because it does follow in GTA4’s wake, the flaws of Redemption are put in sharp relief.  The grimy, claustrophobic canyons of steel and concrete that made up Liberty City have given way to a sprawling landscape, with barren deserts and snow-topped mountains.  And somehow, none of that manages to be quite so compelling as Rockstar’s previous outing, or even competing games in the open-world genre, such as Assassin’s Creed II and The Saboteur.  While neither of those games are necessarily as well put together as Red Dead Redemption ultimately is, they find themselves more compelling, more enjoyable and far more memorable than the vast majority of Redemption actually is.

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Hiatus Over…

I’m attempting to start posting with some regularity again after a bit of a hiatus, simply because of busyness and lack of time.

I’ve got a couple of (sort of) reviews lined up, one for a game and one for an album.

Stay tuned.

Treyarch and Activision’s “Black Ops” Success

In the midst of Activision’s ongoing Infinity Ward-related drama, two pretty big announcements came out of Bobby Kotick’s Evil Empire. The first was that Bungie – soon-to-be erstwhile developer of Halo and former Microsoft subsidiary – had signed a ten-year deal with Activision.  While I respect the news that this represents for both organizations, I’m not really going to comment on it.  Bungie has long since passed off my radar, mostly because their development style has become something quite stagnant and uniform with expectations for gamers.  The Halo universe isn’t something that innovates, and never was; it instead takes its cues from other properties in other mediums, and its story evolved into something rote and predictable.

The second announcement to emerge was to debut the newest Call of Duty, subtitled Black Ops.  Following Activision’s plans of  yearly Call of Duty franchise installments, developed by two developers, means that the problems that Activision is having with Infinity Ward are handily side-stepped by passing development duties on – as they did with Call of Duty 3 and Call of Duty: World at War – to Treyarch, an Activision-owned developer that I am not exactly fond of.  Why?  After seeing one shoddy port too many, I started completely ignoring the company, alongside Neversoft, Vicarious Visions, and a host of other Activision-owned developers.

Yes, that’s right, I’m no fan of Activision. (Nor am I much a fan of Call of Duty, but that’s another thing altogether.)

Yet with the announcement of Black Ops, I find something truly appealing coming out of Treyarch’s camp.  The concept of a game that goes through the earliest of covert ops, through Vietnam and into the present is something that could be quite powerful – profound even – if done correctly.

Time will tell.

In Response to Mr. Ebert…

Earlier this week, the brilliant, esteemed critic Roger Ebert wrote again that he believes that video games can never be art.  When he first made this argument some five years ago, I disagreed with him quite strongly.  Here was, I thought, a man that could not and would not ever understand the way that games were, the potential that they had, the point that many attempted.  Here was a man that would not and could not see that games were meant to reach heights heretofore unseen by the likes of cinema and books.

Since then, my view has changed quite dramatically.  Before now, I cited examples such as Indigo Prophecy and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as being the closest that games had come to art in form, as the closest they had come to meaningful narrative and true artful focus.  They were games that attempted to break the status quo: games that did not cater to the masses but focused on instead delivering their respective visions without deviating for a second.  And while that’s not entirely true, in that the former unraveled by the end and the latter featured two sequels that deviated quite a bit from the fantastical nature of the original, it was my view, and I stood by it.

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