Highlights of 2015

blog photo
After a lengthy and unplanned, but personally productive hiatus (slogged through graduate school applications and played a LOT of Fallout), I am back to wrap up 2015 and put a bow on it. This year saw the release of a number of highly-anticipated games, films, books, and television shows as well as plenty of surprise hits and a few disappointments. As just one person with highly subjective opinions, I will not be attempting any kind of top ten list or ranking system. There are so many wonderful pieces of media out there that it would be absurd for me to even pretend I could evaluate them all. But I am a big fan of taking time to look back and wallow in nostalgia, so I decided to talk about some of my personal highlights of 2015 as they relate to nerd culture and this blog.

In no particular order, here were some of my favorite moments of the past year:

Master of None
While not sci-fi, fantasy, or fairytale, Aziz Ansari’s single-camera sitcom about the experience of Dev, an Indian American actor in New York City, has plenty to offer for film-nerds and pop culture connoisseurs. The cinematography and soundtrack call back to 1970s American films, and the scripts/dialogue take some cues from Richard Linklater (whom I love), but Aziz Ansari’s contemporary content, diverse casting, and willingness to address social issues help the show feel fresh. Each episode focuses on a different ‘topic’ ranging from family relationships to racism to sexism to long-term romantic relationships, and each except the last two are directed by a different person. The show is consistently funny throughout its first season and its surprising and somewhat risky finale only makes me more excited to see where it goes from here.

Life is Strange
Since this blog was inactive until midway through Life is Strange’s episodic release, I was only really able to talk about episode 5 here so far, and what I did say about it was highly critical. But this was easily my favorite game of 2015 if only because of the emotional impact it had on me. Although I’d played Remember Me, Dontnod and Life is Strange weren’t really on my radar in January, a friend recommended this game to me and I was immediately hooked. The sci-fi premise, artistically rendered environments, and well-curated soundtrack drew me in but it was the authenticity of the Chloe and Max, and the nuanced performances by their voice actors Ashly Burch and Hannah Telle, that kept me hooked. While the pacing, puzzles, and dialogue missed the mark at times, moments like breaking into the school and going for a swim with Chloe or playing detective in her room were a pleasure to play. For all its eccentricities and missteps, Life is Strange was one of the most compelling games of 2015, as its passionate fans who spent months speculating, theorizing, and creating art and follow-up projects can attest to.

SXSW Gaming Expo
This was my second year attending the SXSW Gaming Expo in Austin and it was just as entertaining and content-packed this time as in 2014. The indie game corner is my favorite portion, but the panels were interesting and the table-top area is really fun; they’ll teach you games like Magic the Gathering if you’re a first-timer or you can play competitively if you’re experienced. You can try Oculus Rift/VR if you haven’t had a chance, and explore exhibits of older game and computer technology. I almost didn’t want to mention the event here since it is one of the only Austin-based festival activities that isn’t horrendously crowded, one of the coolest conferences/expos/game things I’ve attended, and totally free, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge it as one of my favorite parts of 2015. Plus, in case I haven’t mentioned it 12,000 times, I met Felicia Day!!!

The Martian
I have not read Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, and took my sweet time to see this movie, but I am so glad I did. I was less than impressed by both Interstellar and Gravity, but this film has earned a place in my list of favorite space movies. While the decision to cast non-asian actors in the roles of Vincent Kapoor and Mindy Park was very disappointing to me, and the tale of the sympathetic white man who the world saves/who saves the world has certainly already been told, The Martian was an engaging story with a diverse cast that emphasized the power of humanity to come together and use our knowledge and compassion to address incredibly complex issues, and that was something I appreciated. Rather than feeling dumbed down, sensationalized, or derailed by seemingly shoe-horned romances (although it does contain one of these), the film felt like it trusted and respected its audience. And Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis is probably as close as I’ll ever get to seeing FemShep on the big screen.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Speaking of space movies, the latest installment in the Star Wars saga was quite a satisfying one. While talking with people about this film before its release, I got the feeling that each of us was holding our breath, hoping that we wouldn’t be disappointed. Upon leaving the theater after watching the movie, I imagined a collective sigh of relief as we all realized J. J. Abrams actually did a really great job of rooting this film in the Star Wars tradition while opening up room for new chapters of the story to unfold. Nothing about the movie particularly surprised me, from the climactic battle to the binary of good and evil to who lived and who died, but it was quite refreshing to see beneath the Storm Trooper helmet to a black man, and to watch a woman inherit the Jedi legacy. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the story heads, and now that we’ve established that Star Wars can handle sequels and we can handle them, to the surprises I hope Episodes VIII and IX will bring.

And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the indie PC game Her Story (which I’ve written about pretty extensively on this blog), the choice-based horror for PS4 Until Dawn, the lovely Adventure Time mini-series Stakes, or the countless other 2015 productions that deserve a place on a highlights list.

There are also quite a few things from this year that I haven’t gotten to check out yet and am really looking forward to, like:

  • Tales from the Borderlands
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
  • It Follows
  • Carol
  • Sicario
  • Orphan Black Season 3

While I’d say we’re ending 2015 on quite a high note, I have a lot of catching up to do without even beginning to touch on all that next year will bring, so don’t be surprised if things stay a little quiet around here through the winter. The blog remains a priority of mine and I hope you guys will stick around as we continue reading, playing, and watching in 2016.

As always, thanks for reading! Your comments are welcome below. Happy holidays!

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Review: Life is Strange Episode 5

Warning: this is a detailed and spoilerrific review of the finale of Life is Strange, so if you haven’t played the game yet, get outta here!

With Episode 5: Polarized, Dontnod has brought Max Caulfield’s time-traveling adventures to a close. Polarized runs a bit shorter than the other episodes, at only about two and a half hours of gameplay, which lines up with the fewer opportunities for exploration and branching dialogue it offers.

The episode opens with Max trapped in a storm bunker turned photo studio with her teacher Mr. Jefferson, a much darker beginning than in any other installment. As she regains consciousness, the player can look around and examine nearby items, eventually realizing that Max’s classmate Victoria is also tied up nearby.

But this is where gameplay diverges from previous episodes. Where, in previous episodes Max can explore the environment before moving on, Polarized gives you a single option: photo-travel out of here and leave Victoria in the horrific dark room/torture chamber. This narrative device is frustrating as it conflicts with opportunities Max has in this episode and others to aid other characters in danger.

Life-is-Strange-finale-review

Instead of grabbing Victoria and getting the hell out of that bunker, the developers give Max one choice: travel back a few hours to a drug-induced photo shoot. While a convenient progression for exposition’s sake, her jumping back and forth through photos of herself doesn’t allow for any exploration or organic discovery by the player.

In fact, it leads primarily to lots of talking, and unfortunately Jefferson’s initial expository monologue comes off as cheesy and out-of-character, playing off of stereotypes of mentally ill villains even though Jefferson claims later that he is totally sane and his clear-headed planning seems to reflect that. His speeches also play into the trope where the villain explains his reasoning to his victim in great detail.

Rather than showing us, the game wants to tell us what’s going on. These issues in the first minutes of gameplay reflect concerns many fans and critics alike have raised about the episode as a whole: that the cliche story elements and changes in play mechanics in the last episode do not do justice to the unique, ground-breaking game.

everyday heroes

In many scenes the player must move Max through motions that feel pointless at best and counter-productive at worst. Walking through a San Francisco gallery talking with artists has no urgency when all the characters and locations the player cares about are back in Arcadia Bay, yet shmooze we must if we want to progress in the story. Saving characters from harm on the way to Two Whales lacks meaning when Max plans to time travel away from that moment immediately after, yet the choices are reflected in the post-credits statistics.

The episode also spends a significant amount of its running time reminding the player of conversations and interactions Max has had in previous episodes. Audio is frequently re-used, but entire scenes from the game reappear as well, as in the maze sequence when Max relives every major moment she shared with Chloe.

That particular nostalgic slideshow provides much-needed relief from the trippy and disturbing mental odyssey Max has just been on, during which we see some of the most creative material of the last episode. The creepy classroom, entirely backwards scene, and endless hallway are all surprising and delightfully innovative yet emotionally difficult moments leading up to the climax of the game.

nosebleed

During that climax, Max finds herself at the lighthouse with Chloe once again and is confronted with her final choice. Max herself becomes convinced that the tornado is her fault and Chloe seems to agree, giving her an ultimatum of sorts: travel back to the start of it all to let Chloe die, or save Chloe and let the tornado ravage Arcadia Bay.

Understandably, this has not been a popular ending choice with everyone. In each episode, one of the game’s objectives (if not the central objective) has been saving Chloe. She’s the character players know the best besides Max, and even moments before this conversation, Max tells Chloe she is ‘all that matters.’ Letting her die just feels a little off, even if it is for a theoretical greater good.

For players who chose to pursue the romance between Chloe and Max, this conclusion also reinforces tropes around queer relationships in media like the Bury Your Gays trope, where the relationship ends in death for one or both people involved. Life is Strange has consistently received mixed reactions regarding its representation (or lack thereof) of queerness. While the end scene does confirm their relationship, it also leads to death regardless of Max’s choice.

max chloe tornado

Beyond that, when an ending choice is presented in a choice-based game, especially when it fundamentally changes the universe of the game or kills a majority of the game characters, many feel that it takes meaning away from previous player decisions. This is a challenge faced not just by Dontnod, but by the entire genre. Mass Effect 3 is infamous for its end choices, and Telltale is often taken to task for not integrating player’s choices into the closings of their games.

Dontnod undoubtedly faced obstacles wrapping up their story: they’re a small studio with a limited budget and a 6 – 8 week episode release timeline. Even though they took about twice that long on Polarized, Life is Strange’s gorgeous art style, intricate world-building, and unique characters deserved more time, space, and nuance than the episodic format afforded them.

This isn’t the first time I’ve wanted Dontnod to give a project more room to blossom–Remember Me’s beautifully designed world and intriguing story were held back by frustrating game mechanics and similar budget constraints. It feels safe to say that small studios like Dontnod deserve more freedom and financial support, that nuanced subject matter like that of Life is Strange should be treated with the utmost respect, and that choice-based games should not be shackled to the five episode arc if they have a greater story to tell.

It’s also probably safe to say that trusting our French friends to give us a happy ending is usually a mistake.

life is strange tornado

Thanks for reading! As always, your input is welcome in the comments.

Review: King’s Quest A Knight to Remember

While not an original King’s Quest adventurer, when I heard about the episodic King’s Quest reboot The Odd Gentlemen was working on, I knew immediately that I wanted to play it. A fantasy adventure game with beautiful graphics and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that is short enough I can play an episode in a night? That’s a pretty easy sell for me.

Set in the kingdom of Daventry, the game follows King’s Quest’s original protagonist Graham on his quest to become a knight and eventually king. Framing the story, we hear the elderly Graham telling his granddaughter Gwendolyn stories of his youth, a fitting homage to the similarly sharp-witted film The Princess Bride.

The game also shares an actor with the film–Wallace Shawn, who played Vizzini in The Princess Bride movie and video game–but features plenty of other celebrity voices as well. Christopher Lloyd plays old Graham, while Josh Keaton gives a charming performance as his young counterpart. While Gwendolyn’s young actor Maggie Elizabeth Jones and the voice of the blacksmith Zelda Wiliams both sounded wooden to me at times, Loretta Divine and Kevin Michael Richardson each had me laughing out loud due to their excellent delivery.

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Speaking of laughing, this game is full of puns, contributing to its goofy tone. Don’t let the game fool you though: this story is dark at times and does not shy away from heavy themes of violence and death. Even with its irreverence (or maybe because of it), gameplay showed traces of Crash Bandicoot and other games I played as a kid. Without being a KQ veteran, I still felt properly nostalgic.

The graphics are contemporary and beautiful, despite clipping in any scene involving cape animation, and the elements of choice The Odd Gentlemen built in will feel familiar to fans of Fable or Telltale adventure games. While there is no tutorial or run down of lore, the world-building is solid and I didn’t feel confused by the game mechanics.

The design and controls are fairly intuitive, and the first quest is straight-forward enough that learning as you go is actually enjoyable. (Of course, for those who do feel lost, Polygon published a great rundown of the series to date.) With all of these elements working in its favor, it’s hard to be mad at A Knight to Remember for what it gets wrong, but it does make a few missteps.

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Source: Sierra Entertainment

Unskippable dialogue you hear every time you die or re-enter an area grates on your nerves after a while, and with no map, fast-travel, or reload mechanics, sometimes even the simplest puzzle takes a long time as you traipse back and forth across Daventry. It’s also hard to tell whether any choices you make in the game aside from your dialogue with Gwendolyn actually influences her actions, but I suppose that’s something only time will tell.

Overall, King’s Quest’s gorgeous and richly detailed graphics, strong voice performances, attention to world-building, and silly but sincere story make it worth a play, even if it isn’t quite sure where to challenge the player and where to make something like getting around a little easier. I look forward to its future installments, especially if any of them require playing as Gwendolyn.

Did you play the original Sierra Quest games? What did you think of the reboot? Let me know in the comments!

Flashback Friday: Morrowind

Source: Ocean of Games

Source: Ocean of Games

It’s been awhile since my last Flashback Friday, but this (belated – sorry!) post goes out to the game that cemented my love of the medium and took me from kid who gets her dad to kill the big bosses to capital ‘P’ player–The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Morrowind is an open-world, fantasy RPG released in 2002 by Bethesda Game Studios. Set in Tamriel, the game takes place on the island of Vvardenfell in the Dunmer province called (you guessed it) Morrowind.

You play as a prisoner kidnapped and sent to Morrowind on a slave ship, and are eventually recognized as a reincarnation of the Dunmer hero Indoril Nerevar, prophecied to defeat Dagoth Ur and his followers, The Sixth House. If that sounds like a bunch of crazy gibberish to you, that’s just the beginning.

The dense, beautifully complex universe and lore of The Elder Scrolls series are just one of the many things that make the game so enjoyable. The series’ free-form gameplay also contributes to its wondrous immensity; when you arrive in Morrowind, you are an unknown with little skill or money and even less direction. A herd of rats or a (g*ddamn piece of sh*t) cliff racer could kill you with ease, and in fact they do, many times over.

This difficulty, along with the game’s openness, depth, and (at the time) stunning graphics, makes Morrowind a challenge you can’t wait to face. It received generally good reviews upon release, but has accrued a large and incredibly dedicated cult following since then. So dedicated that a group of fans are working together now to create a non-commerical mod for Skyrim that remakes Morrowind in the Skyrim engine.

Of course, any remake (and especially one that plans to re-imagine many of the smaller quests and plot points of the game as it changes the mechanics behind them) is going to lose a little something of what made the original so important to its die-hard fans. For Morrowind, that list is longer than the 36 Lessons of Vivec, but a few stand-outs would be:

Combat

The fighting mechanics are…special. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Wiki describes Morrowind combat as “straight-forward,” but first time players more accustomed to the combat of Skyrim and other contemporary RPGs do not find it quite so simple. And really when you think about it, a lot is going on behind the scenes of each fight in the game. On top of that, you can conceivably kill people who are important to your quest without knowing it and totally screw yourself over, which while frustrating, adds gravity to your decisions that is absent in many other games.

Once you have a decent understanding of this deceptively complicated system, however, you can take advantage of it in countless ways, from levitating everywhere you go to smithing a weapon or making a spell that damages and heals your opponent at the same time to up your skill. You get as much out of Morrowind as you put in, and the game rewards creativity.

Skills and Attributes

Speaking of skills and leveling, there are a LOT of skills in Morrowind. 27 to be exact, compared to 21 in Oblivion and 18 in Skyrim. Skills are distinct from attributes like race, class, and gender. You can create your own class from scratch, and are best off if you map out your skill trees in advance, which makes the characters and role-playing delightfully immersive and customizable, but also very time-consuming.

NPC Dialogue and Voice Acting

This has got to be one of my favorite things about the third ES game. NPCs are not fully voiced, and many of the recorded lines are randomly repeated by different characters. This produces, in my opinion, some of the funniest character interactions in gaming history (and I say that having heard the bizarre, sometimes offensive, always hilarious things students yell in the halls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter games).

There are entire forums devoted to this topic, so I won’t list all of the famous NPC lines here. The combat lines were the most memorable for me (“There is no escape!!!”) and are most enjoyable when you picture the character saying them as you’re decimating them in a fight. Of course they probably stick in my mind because I became irritated hearing them over and over as my character once again succumbed to death.

Music

This aspect of the game may not change much with the Skywind mod, but of all the Elder Scrolls games I’ve played, Morrowind has the best soundtrack hands down. The soaring, epic tones of the main theme hit me right in the nostalgia, and some of the more playful pieces lift my mood as soon as I hear them. While the soundtracks of Oblivion and Skyrim are by the same composer, neither have quite the same awe-inspiring, world-conjuring effect on me.

Morrowind can be a quirky, buggy, and frustrating affair and, like any video game you grew up loving, the graphics and mechanics have aged rapidly as the industry makes leaps and bounds forward technologically and artistically. (Just look at the difference between the original Duke Nukem or Tomb Raider graphics and their 2013 reboots) But many fans would argue that the game is a masterpiece not in spite of those aspects, but because of them. And the massive world, intricate lore, beautiful art direction, and inspiring music don’t hurt.

Morrowind doesn’t give you anything easy, but the work you put in to advance through and even help write the story makes playing much more meaningful. The game magnifies what makes gaming special: the interactive and collaborative storytelling that allows you not just to experience a world, but to shape it.

What I’m… Wednesday: Mike and Max

What I’m Watching

I’m a little late to the party, but Sunday I saw Magic Mike XXL and damn if that wasn’t the most delightful experience! I’m sure they were making some of the ‘progressive’ choices based on what they thought would make the most money, but the fact that they catered to/represented bisexual women, women of color, gay men, and people with different body sizes and types was so refreshing to me. I also loved the dialogue throughout the movie about all that women deal with and how important it is to ask them what they want. Of course, the many talented and attractive dancers didn’t hurt either. This movie certainly didn’t have a strong plot or the same levity as the first Magic Mike film, but it was incredibly enjoyable.

What I’m Playing

life is strange ep 4 title screen

In case you haven’t heard me screaming it from the rooftops, LIFE IS STRANGE EPISODE 4 CAME OUT YESTERDAY!!! I have completed my first playthrough and I am excited to do some critical thinking and writing about it, but for now I’m still kind of processing how I feel about what transpired. I can say this episode is fast-paced and dark–darker than any previous installment–and many aspects of the game this time around felt more emotionally meaningful to me, whether a choice the player had to make, a line of dialogue, or an item or location in the game. I find it difficult to successfully theorize about single episodes when the season or series they belong to hasn’t finished yet, but I promise there is more to come from this blog on my favorite episodic game to date.

What I’m Listening To

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of covers. It’s always interested me how songs change when another artist performs them, and many of my favorite arrangements of songs are not the original versions. Of course, sometimes covers cannot be found on music streaming services like Google Play or Spotify, so please enjoy this YouTube playlist curated by yours truly.

Thanks for reading! What did you guys think about Episode 4? What is your favorite cover of a song? Let me know in the comments below!

On Ian Danskin’s Theory Part 2: Where Do We Go From Here?

On Wednesday I talked about the first three videos in Innuendo Studios’ six-part series Why Are You So Angry?, which explores where online harassment and movements like Gamergate come from. The last three videos touch on how we can try to reframe our own thinking about morality and social justice.

It can feel overwhelming to imagine solutions to issues as big as these, but keeping some simple things in mind helps. As Danskin and Sarkeesian (and I and many others state): consuming problematic media doesn’t make us bad. Creating it doesn’t make us bad. Even becoming an AJ doesn’t make us irrevocably bad. We always have the power to change our beliefs and our behaviors, or to reconsider how they affect us and others.

By change I don’t mean stop playing your favorite video games or stop eating meat or stop existing as a privileged person. Simply acknowledging that the things we say, do, and enjoy are affected by society and have the capacity to reflect social problems/affect others is an important step that validates oppressed group’s experiences..

anita quote

Of course this can’t totally solve the problem. We can’t control another person’s choices, or force them to confront their own privilege. But we can control our own behaviors and hold others accountable for theirs.

So what can we ‘privileged few’ do to deal with our discomfort and make healthy choices for ourselves and others? What can we do to make it clear that harassment is not okay and that AJs are not welcome in our community?

Danskin still isn’t 100% sure on this, and I’d say most people are in the same boat. But through a conversation with the experts – women affected by GG like Zoe Quinn and Lindsay Ellis – and his own rumination, he came up with some tentative suggestions which I have expanded upon to create my own (incomplete) list:

First of all, we can try to stop thinking in absolutes. Binarism makes the world easier, especially for people with privilege.I think Danskin is right that puritanical and binary thinking are Western concepts, and not just that, but colonial concepts used to empower some while oppressing others. If everything is cut and dry, one or the other, we get out of grappling with nuance and the feelings it brings up in us.

source: Yael Megery - Pikiwiki Israel

source: Yael Megery – Pikiwiki Israel

Second, we can try to look at the big picture, which means beyond ourselves. This is hard, because being selfish allows humans to survive. Some would argue that it is the natural and primary instinct, and that humans do not do anything without some kind of personal benefit. With that argument, I wholeheartedly disagree, but that is another post for another blog. When I say look at the big picture, I mean examine how media and social norms shape our current beliefs and, when making a choice about our actions or attitudes, ask how it affects other people who don’t have our privileges?

Along these lines, we can practice compassion towards ourselves. Much of the anger and hatred and violence turned towards cultural critics or so-called SJWs – especially female, trans, disabled, queer, and black and brown folks from those categories – comes from a sense of entitlement we get from society, but another chunk of it is a deflection of the anger or disappointment we feel towards ourselves for not being what we define as ‘good,’ for not seeing our own privilege or having it at all.

If we allow ourselves to be flawed human beings who sometimes make bad choices or miss things, but are not inherently or permanently bad, then we stop feeling the need to attack others who make us uncomfortable. Instead, we learn to cope with those feelings and show ourselves the understanding we might show a friend.

jay smooth quote

Once we show that compassion to ourselves and others, we’re able to continue watching and reading and playing the things we loved before, but also to be critical of them and help make them better.

When faced with others who choose not to acknowledge privilege, and worse, to attack those who do we can react to them in a variety of ways depending on our connection with them. If we are their close friend or family member, we can call them out and ask them to stop, or we can ask a mentor they respect to call them out.

This, as Ellis and Quinn told Danskin in their recent Twitter conversation, is really the only way to plant any seeds of change in an individual. They have to be hear it from someone they respect and be ready and willing to stop toxic behaviors.

whyareyousoangry1

source: Innuendo Studios

We can also talk about privilege (and choice and social justice and popular culture in general) on our own platforms, to allow those who are open to listen and learn in a safe space, away from conspiracy theories, threats, or attacks. This helps minimize negative effects on bystanders doing similar work or affected by the issue when we speak out.

And last, we can demand good moderation in our communities, and expel people who choose to put our safety at risk. While education can be an important step towards change for AJ, it is not the responsibility of Sarkeesian or the other people he attacks to educate him. It’s best if he can take initiative himself, but if he won’t, people close to him who also have privilege have the best chance of pushing him along the path.

So those are my thoughts on Ian Danskin’s thoughts on AJ’s thoughts on Anita Sarkeesian. Whew, that’s a mouthful! How do you guys deal with nuanced issues in your day to day life? What are the best ways we can foster critical conversations? Let me know in the comments.

On Ian Danskin’s Theory Part 1: Why We’re All So Angry

Recently, Ian Danskin of Innuendo Studios released a lovely, easily digestible video series about cultural criticism, harassment, and privilege. It was super thought-provoking, so I want to showcase and engage with his argument here. In this first piece, we’ll look at his first three videos and talk about what I think he gets wrong.

On the ‘About’ page of this blog, I talk a little bit about my tongue-in-cheek url and my drive to analyze the pieces of pop culture I love. I started this project because media we consume both shapes us and is shaped by us. The people I promote on this blog and my YouTube channel share these beliefs, and one of those people is Anita Sarkeesian.

If you haven’t yet heard of her, I’m a little concerned that you haven’t been on the internet in five years, but don’t worry–Danskin gives a great summary of her work and the backlash to it in his new videos.

Danskin’s central question is why do cultural critics like Sarkeesian receive not just floods of counter-arguments but also personal attacks against them ranging from ridiculous to terrifying? And why do some of those attackers join together to form movements like Gamergate? In essence, why are people so angry?

As a shorthand, he calls the people attacking Sarkeesian ‘Angry Jack’ or as I’ll call him ‘AJ.’ AJ is typically one or more of the following: white, male, straight, cis, and middle/upper class. This allows him to see the world at its most ideal: a world where he is not judged based on his gender, the color of his skin, his sexuality, the abilities of his body, the state of his mental health, or his wealth or class status. A world where he is an individual and defined by his individual actions.

credit: Amanda Watkins

Angry Jack, credit: Amanda Watkins

When someone says something like “I’m vegan,” or “I don’t drink,” or “that game is sexist,” it forces AJ to look at the world in a different way, to wonder whether doing or liking the things this person doesn’t do/like makes HIM a bad person. As Danskin points out, this is a complex question, but I’ll do my best to outline what we have to consider.

First things first, the value of a human being is inherent and does not come from their accomplishments or even their individual choices in isolation. Second things second, of course, we are all responsible for our own behaviors and accountable for the consequences of those behaviors. Behaviors can affect others and society at large.

Growing up, most of us believed what we saw and what we were told without questioning it. It would be exhausting to debate every single decision we made or belief we adopted, and the beliefs our society extolled are already long-established, so we accepted them as fact upon hearing of them and moved on.

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

That means that if/when we’re forced to question them, we’re questioning not just our beliefs at that moment, but an entire lifetime of attitudes and actions. And if we forget for a moment that what is up for debate is not our character as an individual, not our intentions, but the society we live in and how our attitudes and actions affect everyone, then that means we could believe we’ve been not just wrong but ‘bad’ for a long time. And that might make us feel judged for the groups we belong to or the things we enjoy rather than our character.

On all of this, Danskin and I agree, but I do think he gets one thing wrong in his argument; he posits that the AJs of the world feel this way but are hangers-on who go along with the real ‘bad guys.’ He contrasts them with ‘psychopaths’ who threaten and dox people they disagree with for no good reason. I don’t think that’s the case. First of all, as one of his viewers/followers pointed out, it is ableist to blame harmful behavior on mental illness or say that all psychopathic or sociopathic people will behave harmfully. But it’s also just plain not true.

The sad fact of the matter is, the abusers and rapists he uses as foils to online harassers in his videos are not the exceptions. They are parents and siblings and friends. They are humans. As are online harassers in communities like GG. That’s why things like rape culture and toxic gaming culture exist–those acts have the power of social norms and hierarchies behind them.

Credit: Chase Carter

Credit: Chase Carter

In the most benign of forms, AJ dismisses rather than engages with privilege. He resorts to derailment in the name of things like ‘journalism ethics.’ He posits that he and his fellow AJs are a ‘minority’ who deserves to speak, or that he is engaging in an ‘intellectual debate’ with two equally valid sides. He is Taylor Swift tweeting to Nicki Minaj about the VMAs.

At his most dangerous, the same AJ is violent and abusive. He uses hate speech to scare people who speak up about issues they care about. He makes an online game where people can punch Sarkeesian in the face. He is Redditors sending death threats to former CEO Ellen Pao.

Danskin points out that many people believe that harassers are gonna harass no matter what. But that isn’t exactly true. Harassment is a choice, a reaction to discomfort, to anger and disappointment and doubt that previously didn’t exist, that makes it harder to continue living the way we always had until someone like Sarkeesian spoke up. Those who bring social issues to AJ’s attention and spark this discomfort become symbols of the destruction of ease and innocence in AJ’s life, so to cope he chooses to lash out at them.

source: City of Renton website

source: City of Renton website

Many AJs have most grown up seeing gaming as a safe space for them, an area of culture where they can go to escape their personal disappointments. This helps explain, but not excuse, why someone like AJ might attack someone like Sarkeesian, who asks him to examine games and how they affect others. To him, this means he has to question himself, which is a scary, difficult, and – if we’re honest – life-long process.

It’s much easier to deflect. Danskin says that AJ is less a type of person and more the mindset we enter when we are faced with our privilege and enter defend-and-attack mode. I agree that every person with privilege, at one point in another in their lives, feels uncomfortable about taking advantage of privilege or having it at all says about their character. We privileged few each have the ability to become an AJ.

But that reaction is a choice. To avoid becoming one, we have to develop alternative reactions, new coping mechanisms. We have to recognize that a) it’s okay to feel discomfort but b) the social issues being exposed are bigger than our individual discomfort and therefore c) the debate at hand isn’t actually about our morality at all.

Thanks for reading! On Saturday we’ll talk about how we can create just online spaces and hold ourselves and others accountable. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts, like what do you think of Danskin’s videos? Where does harassment come from? Why do I get so defensive when someone says they don’t drink soda?

What’s In a Name? Part 3: Conclusion – Thematic Analysis of Her Story

SPOILER ALERT: this series contains plot details for the game.

If you haven’t seen them yet, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series now.

In case you have no idea what’s going on, this is the third and final installment of WIAN, my analysis of the game Her Story. So far, we’ve talked about the title of the game, the names of the main characters, and their sisterly relationship. In addition to Hannah and Eve, many other characters in the game share names with figures from history or mythology, which is what I want to look as we wrap up today. Watch the video below or keep reading for more.

Florence, the midwife who steals and raises Eve, shows similarities to Florence Nightingale, a nurse during the Crimean War who also had an interest in writing.

Simon is the name of the apostle later called Peter in the New Testament.The name Simon means “he has heard,” and in the end his character doesn’t just bear witness to Hannah and Eve’s story, his death allows it to be shared.

When Hannah gets pregnant, Simon wants to name the baby ‘Ava,’ but Hannah refuses. She doesn’t want her daughter to have a symmetrical name and be plagued by the same issues of identity and reflection as she and her sister were. She wants to name the baby Sarah, another biblical name.

source: Good Reads

source: Good Reads

The Orson Scott Card novel Sarah describes the events that befall Abraham and Sarah in Genesis from Sarah’s point of view, expanding the few sentences they get in the bible to 300 pages. Eve’s interviews do a similar thing for her life and that of her sister.

After the events of the game, Eve’s child is named Sarah, as we know from the chat messages that appear on the database computer. The player watches the videos alongside Sarah, to learn ‘why her mother did what she did.’

Reflection, Representation, and Storytelling

In her interviews, Eve often connects her life to fairy tales she read in books growing up. She even calls her final interview ‘a real life fairy tale.’ For her, growing up across the road from Hannah, Hannah’s life was what hers was supposed to look like, what she read about in books. So she cut her hair like Hannah’s, moved like Hannah, and eventually lived not just with Hannah, but as Hannah.

Many women feel compelled to look, dress, and act like the characters they learn about as children, the women they see on television or in movies. They are princesses or evil witches, good or bad seeds, and they provide archetypes after which girls are expected to model their own lives. Girls are set up to compete with their sisters to be the prettier or more likeable one, to perform womanhood more perfectly, because only then can they receive their fairy tale ending or their blessing from God.

source: Wikimedia Commons

source: Wikimedia Commons

These ideas of what makes someone a successful girl, what makes them the hero of their own story, are passed down from generation to generation in stories we tell and books we read. We learn them from such a young age that it can be difficult to remember they’re only stories

As time went on, both Hannah and Eve realized that aspects of living as one person didn’t feel good. That it limited them, made it difficult for each to be her authentic self. When Eve finally lets go of being one with Hannah, she embraces her individuality, getting a tattoo and wearing a wig. And when she is ‘herself,’ the man she’d always fawned over falls in love with her, separately from the character she played, and gives her the baby she’d longed for when her sister was pregnant.

Hannah is understandably angry at this turn of events. She was taught that acting a certain way would deliver her happiness and then found out that wasn’t true. She lashes out, and although she may not have intended to, she kills Simon.

source: Sam Barlow

source: Sam Barlow

But Eve doesn’t condemn Hannah or blame her. She protects her because in the end, neither of them is a ‘villain’ or a ‘damsel,’ and they aren’t in competition with one another. By telling her story, Eve liberates not just herself, but also her sister and her daughter, from these boxes. As Eve is giving her last interview to the detectives, Hannah is escaping the police and her past.

Each of the women in the story sheds the skin of her namesake and embraces her flawed, fully realized self. And as we play the game, we learn to let go of a little bit of our own preconceptions. To question the stories we tell ourselves.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this analysis, you might like my review of GTFO The Movie or my analysis of the Mass Effect Trilogy.

What’s In a Name? Part 2: Hannah and Sisterhood – Thematic Analysis of Her Story

SPOILER ALERT: this series contains plot details for the game. 

On Sunday I published Part 1 of my three-part mini-series on Her Story, which focused on the meaning behind the title of the game and Eve’s name. Like Eve, Hannah shares much with her biblical namesake, but has a critically different fate in the game. To hear more, watch the video below or keep reading.

Hannah

In Judeo-Christian mythology, Hannah is Elkanah’s first wife of two and his favorite, but she doesn’t give him children. This upsets her, so she prays to God for a child and eventually is blessed by Eli the High Priest with six.

In Her Story, Hannah falls in love with Simon first and doesn’t want to share him with Eve. She marries him and gets pregnant by him, but has a miscarriage which renders her infertile. Yet she never receives a blessing, never bears him a child, and never lives the story book life that sat just out of reach for so many years.

Sisterhood and Rivalry

Throughout the game, we hear of times that Hannah resented Eve. She once held her head underwater, considering drowning her before relenting and letting her breathe. Another time, she hit her ‘harder than she needed to’ when imitating a bruise she got because of Eve’s actions. It’s even suggested that she tried to kill Eve before she was born, that Eve was never supposed to make it into the world. The song Eve plays for the detectives further underlines this ambivalent relationship.

In ‘The [Dreadful] Wind and the Rain,’ the older sister drowns the younger, prettier one because the man she loves is more infatuated with her. The younger sister is described as having long yellow hair. Since Eve wears a blonde wig when she performs as a musician, and is the one whose pregnancy is successful and who Simon eventually ‘chooses,’ she can be read as the younger sister in the song. But instead of having her story told by a fiddle made of her body, Eve tells her story herself.

In the Bible and the song Hannah’s ‘character’ competes with other women for a man’s affection. But unlike in those stories, in Her Story (as in the mini-game in the recycle bin) ‘Player Two’ or Eve ‘wins.’ The game offers an alternative to the cultural mythology about femininity and the role of women in society: maybe obedient, shy, and innocent is not the natural or only way to be. Eve is gnostic, confident, and even a little reckless but she still wins Simon’s heart, and is not the person who kills him. Of course, in the end the sisterhood is not really a rivalry at all. Instead, Eve’s acceptance of her individuality gives each woman freedom; the autonomy to tell her own story.

her story artwork

Thanks for reading! Share your theories in the comments and keep your eyes peeled for Part 3 of this analysis. Part 3 is here!


Flashback Friday: Mass Effect

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) wrapped up June 18th, but in its three day span it brought us more information about the most anticipated games and most beloved series of the year than the other 362 days bring us combined. One highlight of the E3 coverage was Bioware’s announcement of the fourth game in the sci-fi action RPG series Mass Effect.

While Mass Effect: Andromeda takes place in the same universe as the first three Mass Effect games and brings back some familiar elements (like that damn Mako), it takes place in the Andromeda Galaxy rather than the Milky Way, and will not revolve around the trilogy’s hero Commander Shepard. Instead, an entirely new human protagonist will take his/her place.

When I saw the N7 logo and heard the familiar chimes play at the end of the trailer, a wave of nostalgia passed through me. I actually played the Mass Effect games after they’d all three been released, but the effect they had on me and my life is irrefutable, so I figured I’d take a few moments this Friday to honor what I unabashedly call my favorite video game to date.

In Mass Effect, the player can customize their character’s race, gender, and appearance. The female Commander Shepard, voiced by Jennifer Hale and affectionately nicknamed ‘Femshep,’ was one of the first female protagonists I played who really resonated with me. Yes, I’d played Tomb Raider growing up, and I’ve made no shortage of female Elder Scrolls characters in my time, but no other female playable character in a game has made the same impact on me as Femshep.

source: Bioware

source: Bioware

There are a few factors that play into this. First, as I mentioned, Jennifer Hale is a phenomenal voice actor who brings humor, strength, empathy, and nuance to her performance in the trilogy. Without her skillful portrayal of Femshep, I doubt Manshep’s female counterpart would have received anywhere nearly as much love from the fans as she did.

In addition, Femshep’s story arc breaks from storytelling tradition. There are literally millions of stories about one man saving the world from imminent doom, but how often do we see a woman take that role in a game? And how often is she able to do it not as a brusque anti-hero, but as a compassionate and generally well-adjusted human being?

Of course, playing Paragon is a choice, which is another thing that helped Mass Effect succeed. The player is in total control of Femshep’s abilities, what she says in conversation, which missions she takes, and with whom she starts/maintains relationships. If Mass Effect weren’t a choice-based game within a rich and well-designed universe, her character would not feel nearly as relatable. (Those of you who are already starting your rant about the ending, stay with me.)

source: Mass Effect Wiki

On that note, the friendships and romances available to Shepard bring another layer of meaning to the experience. In all three games, Femshep is given both male and female romance options (the Asari gender debate aside). And Manshep has male love interests in the third game. This romantic and sexual fluidity allows the player to see their lives represented by the hero character. LGBT people–and particularly bisexual, asexual, and trans folks–rarely see themselves depicted on any screen, so seeing themselves reflected in an accomplished and important character is incredibly meaningful.

Of course, it’s not just Femshep who fans find inspirational. Kaidan, Ashley, Garrus, Liara, Thane, and the other characters in the game each have passionate followings, because their personalities and back stories were carefully and intricately constructed. (And come on, have you heard Garrus’ voice?) Bioware chose not to shy away from those relationships, even releasing downloadable content after the end of the trilogy that allowed the player to get closure from those relationships regardless of how their playthrough ended.

Mass Effect certainly hit some stumbling blocks along its journey. As I touched on before, the ending left something to be desired for many players. The sexualizing makeovers female characters like Femshep, Jack, and Ashley received from game to game were puzzling for lots of folks (do biotic implants also refer to…well, implants??), and the lack of gay male romances in the first two games was frustrating for some as well. We can only hope that Bioware has learned from those mistakes.

source: Bioware

source: Bioware

But at the end of the day, I’m as excited for ME4 (which Bioware insists we NOT call it) as I’ve ever been for a game. And since it’s not coming out until ‘Holiday 2016,’ I have plenty of time to complete my…would it be the fourth playthrough? Eh, who’s counting…