Kerrigan and Consent

The following will contain plot details from Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm.

Sarah Kerrigan has long been one of my favorite video game characters. I love her design, artistically. Her voice acting has always been spot-on (who doesn’t love Tricia Helfer, Galactica’s own Number Six?), and I’ve always been a fan of the Zerg, Starcraft’s ruthless race of quasi-insectoid creatures whom Kerrigan commands. Worth mentioning is her role as an unapologetic female villain. All too often, while lauding representations of strong female heroes, we forget that antagonists are equally important, especially ones that can manage to break the standard mold of “insanely jealous” or “a woman scorned.”

Of course, Kerrigan tiptoes awfully closely to the latter. She certainly has the standard ‘tragic anti-heroine backstory’ box checked and double-checked. For those unfamiliar, Sarah Kerrigan was a soldier in Arcturus Mengsk’s rebel army until he left her to the Zerg after a failed mission. Infested, Kerrigan becomes the Queen of Blades and devotes herself to spreading the Zerg’s dominance across the galaxy, and getting her revenge on Mengsk in the process.

Not the most innovative motivation, but it is refreshing to see a female character who isn’t afraid of her own strength. The anti-Elsa, so to speak. But even fierce, audacious Kerrigan has a major problem: consent.

The issue of consent crops up in two places. The first is obvious; her entire character arc depends on it. Kerrigan does not choose to become infested, and even though she takes advantage of her abilities as a paragon of the Zerg, it’s never completely clear how much is Sarah, and how much is the result of the Zerg Overmind’s meddling in her psyche.

But given a lack of evidence one way or the other in the narrative itself, it’s easy to give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume that Kerrigan’s identity is perfectly consistent from her Terran self to her Zerg. While her transformation remains non-consensual, she owns her resulting identity.

There’s a second issue of consent that pops up at the end of Wings of Liberty, however. Assuming that Kerrigan is fully aware and in-control of her Queen of Blades identity, it means that Jim Raynor completely subverts Kerrigan’s consent when he uses the Xel-Naga artifact to turn her, once again, into a human.

Now, this course of action isn’t solely personal. The Queen of Blades is still responsible for millions of human deaths, and any way of neutralizing her is acceptable through that lens (after all, just outright killing her is also a betrayal of her consent). But there’s something deeply troubling about how the game frames this as a Big Damn Hero moment for Jim. At best, this is a sad but necessary action. Kerrigan was not a damsel-in-distress, and Raynor didn’t rescue her from a big nasty dragon.

Suffice to say, I was worried about how Heart of the Swarm would portray Kerrigan. The first few missions did not make me any more optimistic. Kerrigan is lovesick for Mr. Raynor and mostly thankful (though a little conflicted) for his actions.

But, a few missions in, Kerrigan inevitably becomes the Queen of Blades once again. Her motivation in this is pretty iffy — she thinks Raynor has been killed, and wants to use her Zerg powers for revenge. But even though the development is trope-heavy, there’s something important here. Kerrigan chooses to become Zerg once again. There are now no assumptions to be made about how accepting she is of her transformation; Sarah Kerrigan is fully, consensually, the Queen of Blades.

This is not trivial. It’s arguably the most important concept to Kerrigan’s arc, and the one thing that Heart of the Swarm needed to do to successfully advance her story. Starcraft 2 certainly had storytelling missteps. But affirming Kerrigan’s consent makes up for the hiccups. I’m assuming that her character growth is finished, for now. The game’s finale, Legacy of the Void, focuses more on the Protoss, and Kerrigan’s desire to exterminate the big baddy in the sky is a lot less interesting to me than what she’s done before. Still, if this is the last we see of her, I’ll be happy enough.

Games of Yesteryear: Final Fantasy III, or How Four Onion Kids Fostered an Obsession

Welcome to the first installment of my Games of Yesteryear series! I’ll be talking about a lot of games from my past, a lot of which you hopefully haven’t seen discussed a whole lot. This entry might be the most popular and well known of the games I’ll feature here, simply because of the series it’s in. I originally wrote this for a Final Fantasy retrospective anthology that unfortunately went under, but now you get to read it for free! Hooray!

There are Final Fantasy fans, and then there are Final Fantasy fanatics.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about Final Fantasy III. The third entry in the series was released in 1990 in Japan on the Famicom. While it was well-received in its homeland, its massive size combined with the Super Nintendo looming on the horizon meant the original game would never make the hop over the Pacific. Over 16 years later (the largest localization gap for any Final Fantasy game), North America finally saw a version of the game, although heavily updated from the original 8-bit release. Prior to this, fan-translated (technically illegal) rips of the game were the only hope for English speakers to experience a missing link in the series. And when the remake finally landed, I, like a quintessential RPG hipster — equipped with a fingerprint-smeared Nintendo DS and NES emulator instead of a six-string and six-pack of PBR — sauntered through my pack of friends chanting, “Oh, I played that before it had named characters.”
Ah yes, those characters — those were what drew me in. The Onion Knights (or Onion Kids, depending on your translation) are the strangest leading characters in the series, if not in the entire jRPG genre. We’re never filled in on what in the world an “Onion Knight” is (though, I always like to think George R.R. Martin took his inspiration here), and the characters themselves are blank slates. While that sounds like a relic that hasn’t aged well, it’s also charming in its own way. The remake gave the kids names and personalities, but when I first booted up that fan-translated ROM a few years after Final Fantasy VII had brought the series into the mainstream, the sight of those odd, genderless youths with funny hats drew me in just as quickly as booming music and CG visuals ever could.

Those quirky kids held my interest long enough for the gameplay to really kick in. The job system, now a staple of the series, is Final Fantasy III’s most visible innovation. To some, “innovation” might seem a strong word. After all, Dragon Quest III used a similar class-switching paradigm years earlier, and static classes have been used in games for years, including the original Final Fantasy. Heck, we could probably trace the original idea back to chess. But Final Fantasy III’s use felt different, deeper, and it inspired the growth systems of Final Fantasy V, XI, Tactics, and even games outside the series.

The remake gave the kids names and personalities, but when I first booted up that fan-translated ROM a few years after Final Fantasy VII had brought the series into the mainstream, the sight of those odd, genderless youths with funny hats drew me in just as quickly as booming music and CG visuals ever could.

What makes FFIII diverge from previous class-based role-playing games? In my opinion, it’s simply diversity of the classes. Dragon Warrior III hewed pretty closely to the same classes seen in the original Final Fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons and pretty much every fantasy role-playing game, be they computer or pen-and-paper. Fighter. Cleric. Wizard. Along with a couple of silly classes that are more about solving some specific puzzles rather than battle. This classic combination is pragmatic, sure, but it reduces the combat decision tree essentially to “should I attack, heal or fireball?”
Final Fantasy III significantly expands this. Why have a generic Fighter when you can have a Dragoon, a mashup of a dragon hunter and 17th century European mounted infantry? Why summon banal lightning bolts and shards of ice when you can strap on your pointy Summoner cap and call down Bahamut, the God of Eidolons himself?
Those are just two of now-defining classes in the series that Final Fantasy III created; others include Geomancer, Scholar, and Dark Knight. And while those classes add some much-needed flavor, they also add strategic value in the same way the original game’s Red Mage played the jack of all trades, master of none role. Dragoons trade the ability to take heavy damage for the ability to jump out of harm’s way and dodge all of it. A Scholar will key in on an enemy’s weakness (invaluable before the age of GameFAQs), while the Geomancer sacrifices consistency and choice in attacks for an unlimited casting pool. To be sure, some of these classes are better than others, and in the end, you’re best served by beefing up a quartet of overpowered Sages and Ninjas. The idea of class balance came much later; most of Final Fantasy III’s classes were designed for use in a specific dungeon or two. But still, just the fact that a myriad of class options existed at all was a big step forward for the genre.
Of course, gameplay is only one aspect of a successful Final Fantasy game. Story and characters are just as important. In this, the game admittedly feels dated. The story is told mostly through the supporting characters, your motivation for proceeding is never really more than “save the world,” and the setting simply seems stagnant. The plot, unfortunately, does not have the same gut-wrenching emotion of Cloud sending Aeris to her watery grave, or Squall wrapping his arms around Rinoa in the frozen black emptiness of outer space. The story here is much more simple: evil sorcerer Xande threatens to upset balance of light and darkness by seeking immortality. A group of light warriors, aided by Xande’s former allies, Unei and Doga, gather the plot coupons necessary to find him, kill him and push back the darkness. Roll credits.
But even with the simplistic series of events, there are plenty of memorable story elements. The revelation that the respectably-sized continent where the game begins is actually a tiny portion of the entire world, floating above the ancient lands below. The village of the gnomes, which requires the player to shrink their characters to enter. Uncovering the Invincible, a massive airship fully equipped with a bed, shops and storage (a pretty damned cool feature for the time). And the old sage Doga and his moogles — the first appearance of the furry little winged creatures.
The unreleased Wonderswan Color port

Final Fantasy III also introduces a theme which would become common in future games: the idea that the game’s main villain is actually just a henchman for a larger, more destructive force. In FFIII’s case, Xande is revealed to be a simple servant for the Cloud of Darkness, an almost literal embodiment of death and chaos. This sort of switcheroo left some players of Final Fantasy IX mystified, but Final Fantasy III used the same plot device years earlier. In fact, the last-minute appearance of Necron in FFIX is almost certainly a reference to Final Fantasy III. The two battles even share similar music — a slow, moody progression of ambience progressing into an uptempo electric theme that’s more thrilling than doleful, especially when compared to the operatic climaxes of Final Fantasy VI and VII.

And that’s as good a transition as any into my absolute favorite part of Final Fantasy III. The music. My God. Even if you don’t play the game, you owe it to yourself to listen to the soundtrack. And make it the original soundtrack, not the DS port. There’s nothing wrong with the port, but it takes listening to the 8-bit original to appreciate how much work and originality was produced from so small a palette as the Famicom’s sound chip was. I can truly say, without exaggeration, that it’s some of Uematsu’s best work. He pushes the Famicom to its limit and squeezes out every bit of musical power and variation it has to offer.
The battle theme is simply the best standard Final Fantasy battle music there is, no question (all right, all right, Blinded By Light from Final Fantasy XIII comes pretty close). Two separate airship themes, both fantastic. Some of the most oft-remixed tunes of the series in the forms of Elia Maiden of Water, the theme for one of the game’s supporting characters, Tozas, the spritely theme of the gnomish village, and the solemn, Asian-inspired overworld theme, Eternal Wind. Several renditions of these songs can be found on official albums and from amateur mixers, but my favorite versions happen to be vocal mixes sung by Risa Ohki on the Pray and Love Will Grow albums.
All that, and I haven’t even mentioned my favorite song yet. Not just my favorite from the game’s many admirable tracks, but my favorite song from the entire series. Entitled Forbidden Land, it’s the song that plays in Eureka, the game’s optional dungeon. I forgive you if you haven’t heard it. To my knowledge, it’s never been remixed on any of the thousands (exaggeration, but only barely) of Final Fantasy remix albums, nor is there any representation in the fan remix community (a single Japanese remixer has tackled the song on YouTube). I’ll give you a second to go dig up the tune. Finished? Cool.
I remember entering Eureka and literally sitting back in my chair to listen to the music. Even in the best games, that’s an exceedingly rare reaction for me these days. I was blown away by the epic creepiness, the irresistibly catchy melody, the spooky minor chords and the key changing to a brief, hopeful major bar before falling back into dejection. I allowed the song to loop once, twice, and halfway into a third time before taking a step forward and promptly getting slaughtered by Eureka’s beefy inhabitants. Oh well. A chance to spend more time there.
Job concept art from the DS version

For all I’ve talked about the ins and outs of Final Fantasy III, a large portion of the American fandom’s introduction to the game came in the form of references from other entries in the series, most of which would be completely missed by unfamiliar players. I’ve talked some about the core Final Fantasy concepts that FFIII introduced, but even beyond Dragoons and moogles, there have been a handful of winks and nods that intrepid fans may have spotted. I’ve already mentioned FFIX’s use of the Invincible, but even more obvious is the existence of two key items named Doga’s Artifact and Unei’s Mirror which play an enhanced version of the sages’ song from Final Fantasy III when gathered together. “Onion” monikered weapons have also appeared in several of the later games as beginner equipment, and in Final Fantasy X, a plush version of the Onion Knight himself was Lulu’s ultimate weapon. And little oft-forgotten Final Fantasy III finally got some due recognition when it was included in spinoffs such as Dissidia and Theatrhythm with just as much reverence as any other game in the series.

I can’t claim that Final Fantasy III is the best game in the series; that would be somewhat disingenuous. I can claim that it did a whole lot of work in shaping the series that we know today.

Now Final Fantasy III has been remade and ported to multiple devices, which means the younger generation can appreciate the allusions somewhat effortlessly. Back in my day (he said, tapping his cane on the tile) we had to take the word of a friend-of-a-friend who had supposedly lived in Japan for a few years. Today, FFIII is playable on the DS, PSP, mobile phones, and it’s even being held up as a launch title for the recently-Kickstarted OUYA console. From unreleased and all-but-forgotten to a flagship title in just a few years. Not bad.
I can’t claim that Final Fantasy III is the best game in the series; that would be somewhat disingenuous. I can claim that it did a whole lot of work in shaping the series that we know today. Most of us will name Final Fantasy IV, VI or VII as our introductions to the series, and I’m in the same boat. But Final Fantasy III was the first game that really made me sit up and examine the series as a whole. It was the first game that made me think about the themes, art styles, musical motifs and game design decisions that make Final Fantasy more than just a bunch of games marketed together. It was the game that made me realize the entire series, with all its strengths, faults, evolutions and tropes, is something intensely unique.
The later games made me a fan. But Final Fantasy III made me a fanatic.

Review: Earthbound, by Ken Baumann

Back in June, I backed a Kickstarter from Boss Fight Books to produce a series of longform essays slash retrospectives slash something something video game books about a few specific titles. I did this primarily because Anna Anthropy, one of my favorite game developers, was slated to write a book on ZZT, an ancient, strange little adventure/creation game I have fond but vague memories of.

BFB’s first released title is Earthbound, based on one of my favorite games of all time. For those who haven’t played it, Earthbound is a quirky RPG released on the SNES. You play as a quartet of children traveling through a fucked-up version of Everytown, USA to kill an evil alien invader … or as some have interpreted it, travel back in time and abort the evil alien invader. Yeah. It’s a weird game.

So I was excited and curious to sit down with Ken Baumann’s take on the seminal title. Curious because I had no idea what to expect. Would the book be a simple, longform review? A deep exploration of the game’s themes? A history of the game’s development? A dissection of the game’s mechanics?

Well, there’s some of that. Mostly it’s a personal essay connecting the author’s life to the events and characters of the game. And that’s cool — we have a lot of writing on games themselves, but not a ton on what they mean to the people playing them.

The question, then, is does it work and is it worth buying? And the answers … mostly, and yes. I say mostly because there are some life events that Baumann seems to try a little to hard to connect, and those sections end up feeling more like the author thought “Oh, I need a memory to fill in this section” rather than “oh, traveling through Threed really makes me remember x, y and z.” The ending is legitimately poignant, however, when (without giving too much away) Baumann relates his own near-death experience to the climactic battle where the four youths must fall on their knees in prayer, placing their faith in the people they’ve met on their journey.

Earthbound is a great start for Boss Fight, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they produce next (lucky me, my backer status means I’ve already preordered them!). Next up in the series is Galaga, which produces a hilarious image in my mind of that books author Michael Kimball trying desperately to relate the mechanics of a top-down shoot-em-up to his life (“The clone ship that attaches itself to my wing reminds me of my twin brother…”) I suspect Galaga’s format will be somewhat different from Earthbound’s, which is even cooler, as it means the series is unlikely to become formulaic.

I recommend Earthbound, and I highly recommend keeping an eye on Boss Fight Books. Complex, thought-provoking writing surrouding the world of video games is desperately needed, and I’m hoping BFB can be one of the fishes in that ever-expanding pond.

Review: Star Wars The Old Republic – Revan

A clumsy, disappointing followup to a seminal game

*Very minor spoilers follow*

While the exploration of the Old Republic era started in the comics, Bioware’s original Star Wars game, Knights of the Old Republic, created a massive interest in the events that occurred thousands of years before the appearance of Luke Skywalker. At the center of this story was Revan, the eponymous hero of Drew Karpyshyn’s new novel. Ever since the end of the original KOTOR, Star Wars fans have wondered what happened to the mysterious Jedi-turned-Sith-turned-Jedi. And, if they’re like me, they couldn’t be more disappointed.

The basic plot is simple: Revan, now married to Bastila, remembers there’s some great threat in the Unknown Regions and goes to seek it out. The secret, as we learn in the first chapter and as anyone familiar with The Old Republic can guess, is that the Sith are out there, waiting, plotting their invasion, so a significant portion of the novel is seeing the view of the Sith Empire culture from the eyes of one of it’s citizens. It plays out pretty much how you’d expect. There are very few twists and turns, and even the ending, while slightly unexpected, isn’t terribly surprising.

The most glaring problem with Revan is the characterization. Now, I fully admit that Karypyshyn had a rough job here. One of the main conceits of the KOTOR games is the ability for the player to create their own sense of who Revan (and the Jedi Exile, in the second entry) is. So there’s necessarily going to be some disparities between Karpyshyn’s Revan and mine. That’s not my problem. My problem is that the other characters act nothing like themselves, if they have any characterization at all. Gone is the strong, capable Bastila Shan. She’s been replaced by a Stepford Wife that seems to exist solely to say “I love Revan SO MUCH!” Canderous has been castrated, and he acts toward Revan like a rescued puppy toward its master. The rest of the characters are waved away with the flimsiest of excuses: “Oh, we can’t possibly ask Mission to help save the galaxy with us. She owns a shop now! A SHOP!” This run down of all the companions from KOTOR (except Carth, who, for some reason, is not mentioned once) and the reasons why Revan doesn’t want to talk to them gets pretty absurd.

Lord Scourge

The weird characterization doesn’t stop there. It’s not just consistency with previous material — the novel has a plethora of internal consistency problems. Revan oscillates from a paragon of justice, completely unwilling to do anything anyone would frown on, to a witty rogue, charming the pants off of everyone he meets, to a heretic, bravely straddling the line between Light Side and Dark Side. If you asked me for a single trait that defined Revan, I couldn’t give you one. And that’s just lazy writing, in my opinion. The new Sith character, Lord Scourge (who, it must be said, is really the main character of the novel) undergoes similar contortions. He starts out as a typical Sith — not so much evil, as just kind of a dick. About halfway through the novel, he has an about face and starts to think of a couple of people as his friends, suddenly grows a heart, etc. There’s almost no incentive for this — any motivation that’s present is given to him offscreen.

And thus, we come to the second glaring problem of the book. A good 75% of the plot — everything that’s not Scourge’s story — happens offscreen. Revan’s entire plot arc is just him remembering things, or having visions about things. Nearly every chapter in the first half of the book begins with Karpyshyn giving us a narrative infodump about something that happened in KOTOR, or something that happened between KOTOR and Revan, or something that’s going to happen in The Old Republic. I understand this is a setup for Bioware’s next game, and that you need to refresh people who haven’t played the older titles in years, but the author chooses the clumsiest way to do it. Instead of cleverly dropping a few reminders here and there, he just decides to organize the majority of the novel as if it’s the introduction in a video game manual. I can count two significant actions Revan takes in this novel. The rest of it is just backstory.

Strange and lazy choices, such as infodumps, are accompanied by wooden dialogue, horrible pacing and weak descriptions

Finally, I was very much surprised with how weak the novel is on the technical side of things. Strange and lazy choices, such as the aforementioned infodumps, are accompanied by wooden dialogue, horrible pacing (action scenes that go on for pages and pages, followed by major decisions and time shifts that are barely mentioned in passing) and weak descriptions. I say I’m surprised because Karpyshyn’s other Star Wars novels have actually garnered a fair amount of praise. But after reading Revan, I’m not in much of a hurry to track them down. I believe Karpyshyn knows how to tell a decent story, as evidenced by his role in Bioware games such as Mass Effect, as well as what I’ve played so far of The Old Republic. And normally I can forgive mechanics if the story is intriguing enough. But the problems here are so glaring, and the story so lackluster, that I can’t help but notice every little detail. I don’t normally expect great literature from Star Wars books, but I do expect some authorial effort and external editing, something Revan is in dire need of.

In the end, I can’t even really recommend this book to die hard Star Wars fans. The plot informs The Old Republic, and I’m sure some of the characters in Revan are the same we’ll be fighting in endgame raids in a few months. But all the relevant information can be found in a few minutes on Wookieepedia, and the read would probably be just as enjoyable. At the very least, I was at least able to plow my way through to the end — it was never so painful that I couldn’t continue. But I can’t say I had a good time of it.

Story vs. Choice, and Video Games as Art

Warning: Spoilers for Dragon Age 2 follow

Something like five years ago (has it really been that long?), Roger Ebert posited that video games are not, and possibly can never be, art. I don’t really feel like rehashing that argument (you can view the epic mound of responses here) — suffice it to say that my definition of art is abundantly less draconian than Ebert’s. To me, art is anything man-made and tangible designed to provoke an emotional reaction from the beholder (including lust, which means I consider even pornography a form of art!)

But let’s stop to think about a middle position, somewhere between Ebert’s point-of-view and mine. Maybe video games ARE art — but are they any good at being that? One of the beautiful things about different forms of media are that they each excel in specific ways, while failing at others. Movies can give us a visual form of a story in a way nothing else can; the most wonderfully written description pales in comparison to even the most poorly filmed movie, in terms of giving us an image of what the scene or characters look like. In contrast, a movie will never, ever be able to get inside a character’s thoughts the way a book can. Music, paintings — they all have their strengths. Do video games?

Many people think of video games, at least those that focus on a story, as an interactive movie. If we go down that path, video games seem clearly inferior. It’s just a movie that has removed authorial intent (something I don’t find at all important, but some do) and inserted repetition. If a developer sets out to make a game solely as a piece of art, wouldn’t making it into a movie improve it? And the answer is, yes. If you’re trying to provoke the exact same feelings that a movie does, it would seem the smarter choice would be to just make a movie.

But here’s where I reject that initial premise: video games and movies have a different strength … at least in my opinion. I think I finally came to realize this while playing Dragon Age 2. One of my favorite characters is Bethany, your player character’s sister. She’s actually just kind of a normal, if a bit sheltered, girl, with no real quirk. But I liked her anyway. And then what happened? She died.

I felt sadness, anger, and eventually, acceptance. Upon reflection, I knew why the writers had made that decision. It added to my player character’s, well, character. And I went on with the game, remembering my sister fondly. It was only after I completed it that I browsed the Dragon Age wiki and found out that Bethany’s death was not at all preordained. She could have died in a number of ways, including at the beginning of the game. Or, if I’d made my choices differently, she may not have died at all.

Here’s where people like Ebert would smile and say this is PROOF that games aren’t art. If Bethany could have died in any number of ways, or not at all, than her death means NOTHING. Without intent, there’s no story! Who’s to say what “really” happened?

All true. But that didn’t make it any less sad when I saw her die in my arms. And this is where I think games excel. Bethany’s death provided me with an emotion that I never could have felt in a movie, book, or anything other than interactive fiction: choice. My choices killed Bethany. Not my character’s choices, though that is what they became; that can be felt in any type of media. My choices. The emotion of regret — “if only I had done this” — is incredibly powerful. And it’s one I’ve never ever been made to feel by anything other than a video game.

“But!” the protesting reader screams. “Can’t you just reset and try again?” Well of course you can. Aside from the fact that this may be inconvenient depending on the length of the game, this is entirely possible. And it has to be possible for the issue of regret to come about. If I’d not been given the opportunity to choose this path, I could never regret it — and to truly give me the choice, I’ll have to be able to choose to keep her around too. But even if I replay the game, does that somehow nullify the original emotion I felt? Of course not. People in high towers like to somehow pretend that stories are written in stone, and anything that sullies that vision of ‘canon’ is ruinous. That’s absurd. I can read as much Ginny-Hermione slashfiction as I can fit on my harddrive, and still feel butterflies in my stomach when Ginny kisses Harry in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The same goes for any form of art. Multiple interpretations exist, but they don’t all have to be mutually exclusive.

I think this is the root of the uproar a lot of people had at Ebert’s explanation. His reasoning was not illogical; in fact, it was entirely logical. That was the problem. Art is not a logical proposition. If it was, computers could and would be making terabytes of art without any human interaction. Art is emotional. And when you say “X is not art,” you’re essentially saying “I know you think X has made you feel angry, sad, regretful, happy, and horny. But it really hasn’t, trust me.”

So here’s my challenge to Ebert (as I know he reads this blog religiously), and anyone else who disputes that video games are art. Find me a painting, movie, book, song, play, radio drama or anything else that can make me say “Wow, I really wish I hadn’t done that,” and I’ll give more credit to your train of thought.

Story vs. Demographics — What’s Fair?

Dragon Age II’s Merrill, as drawn by squanderling

Making commercial art, or really, any art that’s designed for an audience, is always a matter of balancing self-expression with enjoyability. Sure, if your 500,000 word stream-of-consciousness epic about sea slugs is just dying to be written, put that baby on paper!

But on some level, writers want to produce something that people will connect with, and sometimes yes, something that will make us a little bit of cash as well. At what point, then, does an artist “owe” something to her target audience?

I started thinking about this as I scrolled through my daily (okay, more often than that) check of Kotaku, and came upon the following article, covering the complaint by one fan about the lack of romance options for straight male players and the writer response from Bioware, the developer.

Let me start by saying that it annoys me when people with a strong love of heternormality include other people in their argument, as if we all agree with them. The original poster, Bastal, complains that:

BioWare neglected The Straight Male Gamer

And this is offensive on its face. I am a Straight Male Gamer (such an important concept, apparently, that it needs to be capitalized!), but I did not feel neglected. I did not feel neglected when I played, as I generally do in Bioware games, as a bisexual female character, and I did not feel neglected when I replayed, as again is customary, as a bisexual (and kind of an asshole) male character. Go ahead and complain that you feel neglected, but please don’t lump me in to your anti-gay, anti-woman tantrum.

Even worse is the assertion that the two romance options for a heterosexual male character, Merrill and Isabela, are somehow not normal, not sufficient:

Unfortunately, those choices are what one would call “exotic” choices.

Exotic? I doubt the poster could have chosen a more offensive word if he tried. For the uninitiated, Merrill, as seen at the top of this post, is a quirky Elven woman, so I suppose I can understand that. Maybe some people just really can’t get past the pointy ears. But the other option is Isabela. Who is Isabela? A sharp-witted pirate, one who is, shall we say, experienced in the ways of love. So did Bastal label Isabela “exotic,” and thus undesirable, because of her sexuality? It’s a possibility, and that’s incredibly misogynistic. But the more likely scenario is because she looks like this:

For the vision-impaired: she’s not white.

So yeah, there’s also a creepy racial undertone to this whole argument. Bastal is not even simply complaining that there aren’t enough wimmin for his taste; he’s complaining that there aren’t enough chaste white wimmin for his taste, and Bastal don’t approve of no miscegenation. The argument is gross and offensive from the beginning, but Bastal brings up a fair topic for discussion. Bioware has made games where, say, a homosexual male character has no romance options, and this is generally acceptable, because it’s not necessary to shoehorn every sexual option into every game. But imagine there were no options for a heterosexual male character. Is this somehow less acceptable because the Straight Male Player is the target audience?

Privilege, or Demographics?

Those who fail to recognize their own privilege tend to get understandably angry about being accused of bigotry. I don’t hate “the others,” they insist. It’s the others who are demanding unfair benefits that outweigh their representation — it’s all about the demographics. I represent x% of the population, so I should get exactly x% of the consideration.

Hopefully, most of you are shaking your head about how lame that reasoning is. For those of you that aren’t, it may be because you’re thinking of this in the setting of a video game, and not a book or a movie. The main character in Dragon Age 2 is supposed to be a representation of the player, right?. But that’s not the case. Bioware long ago dispensed with the idea that the player character is a simple avatar. Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard and DA2’s Hawke are voiced characters with opinions, fully formed backgrounds and agency. Yes, your choices influence their personality (more on this next week), but the age of the silent, blank canvas protagonist is over.

The other problem with this reasoning, of course, is that the writers never once removed choice from the player. Even in earlier Bioware games, your player can be a homosexual, or asexual, or whatever — there just may not be a character in your party with whom you can consummate your love. What Bastal is demanding is that Bioware cave to his expectations and actually design the OTHER characters in the game based on demographics.

When you look at this demand from the perspective of any other type of art, it clearly falls apart. The focus should be on the story, and on the characters. They should grow from conception to creation. Their sexuality should be something that is a part of them, the same way as hair color; it shouldn’t be thrown in because 80% of our players are blond, and therefore 80% of characters need to be towheaded as well.

Kaidan Alenko is bland, but at least he’s not randomly gay

Bioware has actually gotten better at this over the years. The romance options in their early games were very formulaic, but even then, they didn’t force sexuality on a character when it clearly didn’t fit. Dragon Age 2 is some of their best work. It’s a lesson in what happens when the romances are not designed by committee, but by natural character growth. The sexuality and romance just fits. Stoking love in this game never felt like I was just checking a box in my character’s profile, and that’s an achievement of which the developers should be proud.

But should they be worried? Target audience is always a part of marketing. For good or bad, if I write a literary novel from the point of view of a gay character, it’s likely to be labeled as ‘LGBT Fiction’ and ignored by the mainstream public. There’s nothing anyone can do about that. A reader who doesn’t want to read about, or play, a homosexual character doesn’t have to. If Bioware’s sales drop off sharply because of this (I seriously doubt it), they’ll have no one but themselves to blame for not addressing the correct market.

Where Bastal crosses the line, however, is in the insinuation that an artist OWES her target audience something. How entitled of him! If a fan of Fantasy novels picks up a book marketed as Fantasy, and it has no magic, he has every right to say “I don’t like this book, and I’m not going to read it because it doesn’t have magic.” He does NOT have a right to say “How DARE you for not putting magic in here! Your target audience enjoys reading about magic! You OWE us!”

This, I believe, is the answer. Bastal has every right in the world to say “Unless you include a white heterosexual woman for me to romance, I won’t buy your game.” But Bioware has the right to say “This is the story we’re telling. Deal with it.”

Writers do not owe an audience anything other than the best story they can produce. They do not owe you any elements you think to be required. They do not owe you a sense of heteronomality because most of the population is heterosexual. They do not owe you a release date. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: Bioware is not your bitch.

I don’t normally comment on video games here. While video games are one of my life’s passions, nearly half the internet is devoted to them (the other half, of course, is porn). But when gaming and writing merge (as they do in the best games, in my opinion), I think it’s a valid topic for discussion here. The newly released Dragon Age 2 exemplifies great video game writing in a couple of ways, so I’m going to talk about that in a couple of different posts. More to come.