I’m not going to lie, there’s still quite a lot of 2011 games that I haven’t played through, but from what I have got my hands on I can say 2011 was a great year for video games, and hopefully 2012 can prove itself as a fine year too. I know this may be a little way into the year to post this but come on, it was January, what have I missed? So, for those who have not already clicked away in horror at this self-centred display of video game enjoyment, here are my most anticipated titles of 2012.
A lot of people seemed to look down on Bioshock 2 in a way I didn’t. I suspect it was partly that I was just more into the gameplay and atmosphere, and partly because Bioshock 1 set the bar so high, but like most other people I think Bioshock Infinite looks to be a true return to form for the games, and from what has been shown Irrational seem to be displaying a remarkable ability to take the spirit of the original Bioshock and transplant in an ambitious new world, characters, and story. I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised to finish 2012 calling Bioshock Infinite my game of the year. I only hope it can live up to the expectations set by what they’ve shown us so far.
For me Borderlands was far from a perfect game. I found the shooting felt better in most other FPS games, the attempts at story seemed tacked-on and unpleasant, and the environments never really caught my eye. That being said, Gearbox still did an admirable job of building a genuinely fun loot-driven FPS/RPG. There was a weird sense of fulfilment watching the numbers fly out of enemy’s heads, especially when you got to try out various new kick-ass weapons you’d acquired recently or when you dropped down a turret and watched it lay waste to your foes. If Gearbox could make another Borderlands up to the standard of the first one, that’d be pretty good, but if Gearbox could build a better Borderlands which fixes the parts of the original game that didn’t work so well, that would be awesome.
We have next to no information on this game and yet somehow that doesn’t stop me from keeping a close eye on it. I’ve been a diehard fan of the Halo franchise, and after Bungie left the series with Halo: Reach I’ve been crossing my fingers tightly and praying that 343 Industries don’t mess this up. It doesn’t sound like Halo 4 will be a particularly original entry in the series, but they still have every opportunity to prove themselves as skilled developers on this one and deliver another excellent Halo game.
Luigi’s Mansion 2
I’ve heard it said that we all remember Luigi’s Mansion being better that it actually was and in a way that’s probably true, but that fact still doesn’t dampen my interest in Luigi’s Mansion 2. I can’t even guarantee that I’ll get a 3DS at this point but if I do this game will be a must-have for me. While series like Mario and Zelda still stand up well today, I find myself somewhat weary of Nintendo’s repeated rehashing of the same games, but Luigi’s Mansion not only presents something unique as far as Nintendo games go, but also as far as video games go as a whole. With Luigi’s Mansion 2 Nintendo have my sense of nostalgia tightly gripped in their hands and they’re not letting go.
Mass Effect 3
Some seem to already be proclaiming a considerable amount of worry over Mass Effect 3, anxious that elements like the co-op mission and the seemingly heavy involvement of EA are indicators of a potentially disappointing last instalment to the Mass Effect trilogy. I think this is a possibility, but let’s not lose our heads. Bioware have proven repeatedly their ability to develop high quality video games, and Mass Effect 3 could well be finale the series deserves. I really liked Mass Effect, I probably enjoyed Mass Effect 2 even more, and if Bioware can bring us a Mass Effect 3 that does justice to the compelling world and characters laid out in those games, I’ll be a very happy man.
Duder, It’s Over
Of course, these are just the games I’m most fixated on, I’m sure the year will bring us plenty more interesting titles, and I’ve found that some of the best games of previous years have been those which I’ve not been particularly expectant for, but have come out of the blue and been such a big hit with everyone else I had to get them. I hope you’re looking forward to everything the rest of this year has to offer, and feel free to share the games you’re most looking forward to in the comments. Thanks for reading.
When the Spike TV VGAs rolled around last year I hadn’t seen the show before and was eager to see what they had to present, little did I know about an hour and a half later I’d be sitting with my head in my hands begging that for the love of all that is good Neil Patrick Harris would stop telling dick jokes. Needless to say my expectations for this year’s awards were low and yet somehow Spike still managed to undercut them. Maybe I’d just forgotten how abysmal things were last year, maybe this year really was that much poorer, but somehow the VGAs seemed just as grating as last year if not worse. Once again these awards weren’t just bad, they were outright offensive to us and to the games industry.
I don’t think I need any elaborate explanation to convey what was wrong with what we saw. From instance after instance of coma-inducingly poor humour to the depressing parade of B-list celebrities pretending to be interested in video games, the proceedings just felt like one big slap in the face. As Jeff pointed out, the more they try to big someone up as a “huge gamer” the more suspicious you become about why they feel the need to emphasise that so much, and when you’re seeing an actress being described as a “video game superfan” before announcing an award with no impression that they give the slightest fuck about video games, it does more than just raise a few eyebrows.
Once again the running theme seemed to be a vague overtone of video games not being interesting enough by themselves and needing to be propped up by the supposedly superior industries like television and music. During moments like watching Hulk Hogan nodding his head to a Black Keys performance or Charlie Sheen coming out and asking everyone “Where are the chicks?” this video game awards show seemed unnervingly detached from the world of video games.
I’ve heard plenty of explanations for why the VGAs are the way they are; TV personalities play better on TV than games industry ones do, they’re trying to appeal to the mainstream, not enough people know many prolific people from the games industry, we shouldn’t be surprised because Spike TV are generally terrible, TV awards shows in general are terrible, the VGAs are just a marketing tool, and so on. I think these are all important things to keep in mind, but I don’t think any of them should be presented as excuses for the way the VGAs are.
Firstly, even for a TV awards show I feel that the VGAs are bad and as I said earlier, even for a Spike TV production I was surprised by how mercilessly terrible it was. I recently saw one discussion of the show that basically came down to the question of whether it was better or worse than the MTV Awards. If that’s where the bar is being set we’re pretty fucked. The natural reaction to the point that all awards shows are lacking in quality seems to be one of relaxing criticism towards the VGAs, but when presented with the fact that “Hey, this isn’t just a video game problem, look at these other entertainment industries with bad awards ceremonies too”, my reaction is “Well that’s much worse!”.
The Target Audience
Secondly, does this as a whole really appeal to the mainstream? I can see how a lot of elements of it might have played better for a mainstream crowd and I’ll come back to that in a minute, but one of the things that confused me most about the show was seeing about three separate appearances of Felicia Day. Who is well-entrenched enough in nerd culture to appreciate three different Felicia Day appearances (two of them considerably long) and yet is also clamouring for Zachary Levi drinking a “ health potion” and saying “Mmm uriney”? Who is overjoyed to see the (actually genuinely respectful) tribute to Shigeru Miyamoto and yet also wants to see speeches that go on too long being dealt with by an army soldier pulling developers down to the floor and making a teabagging motion over them? Who loves seeing Wheatley make a nomination speech for the best character award and yet also wants to see the cast of Workaholics laugh about how the name Hitchcock has the word “cock” in it?
Perhaps this was genuinely Spike’s effort to try and please everyone at once but it seemed to fall rather flat. As for whether the endless deluge of pitiable humour and pseudo-celebrity appearances does actually appeal to a wide audience of gamers I can’t say, but if it does, well, that’s just depressing. I can’t see the show improving that drastically but my hope is that Spike TV are to some extent misjudging things and the legions of thick-headed brosephs fist-pumping along enthusiastically to the VGAs exist only within the minds of the Spike TV execs.
People Who Aren't Dedicated Gamers
Thirdly, do non-video games industry personalities play better than video game industry people in these shows? Yeah, they do and this is an issue I actually sympathise with Spike on, but I still feel they handled it poorly. It’s debatable that video games having so few notable figureheads is a fundamental problem with the industry, but would someone like Cliffy B really have been that poor a replacement as host? Regardless, if they’re strategy is going to be to throw up recognisable faces from TV, film and music and try to deceive us into thinking they’re passionate about our hobby when they really couldn’t care much less that’s a little insulting.
Of course, even if Spike do have the most notable video game award show this isn’t the end of the world for gaming, by now most of us have forgotten the VGAs and are back to more regular chatter of what we’re working through in our gaming backlog, but I don’t think this has reflected well on us. The night of the VGAs, Twitter was swamped with trending topics full of people who actually seemed to be respecting what Spike TV had to say, who actually seemed to be treating it as a genuine award show. Tens of thousands of people were talking about that show and there are a hell of a lot of people out there who won’t know any better than to treat Spike as a reflection of the games industry and the people who play games. When negative stigma means less people playing games and a more narrow audience of people playing games, and when the audience an entertainment industry has directly affects what they produce, I think it’s worth pondering whether the VGAs could be at least a very small hindrance for the medium.
Spike, the Industry and Us
Whether intentional or not the message from them seemed to be clear; they don’t give a fuck about video games, the industry is lame, and if you play video games you’re ripe for exploitation. We can understand how Spike TV arrived at this result but the fact that the games industry is supporting such an insult to itself and its audience is perhaps the thing that I find most worrying about the VGAs. I don’t genuinely think that people like Miyamoto and Kojima were there under the impression that they were participating in anything insulting to viewers or to their industry, but I think everyone in the industry should have some level of awareness about what they’re participating in.
Are the VGAs just a marketing tool? To a large extent yes, but they’re not masquerading as such. The VGAs come to us every year telling us that they’re a genuine award show, a ceremony interested primarily if not solely in celebrating the best games of the year and when they have no intention of doing so, it feels like they’re lying to the public for their own gain. If they consider the best way of getting people to watch their trailers almost tricking them into doing it, that doesn’t say anything good about anyone involved. However, beyond the people putting games out and Spike TV themselves there is still one last driving force behind this to blame; us.
We can write about what a disgrace the VGAs are, we can moan about the jokes, and we can furrow our brows at some of the award presentations, but an awards show needs an audience, and while I think the criticism of it is entirely merited it seems rather hypocritical when we are part of what makes it possible for the VGAs to go on year after year. It’s often said that the only worth in the VGAs is in their trailers. Can we really not wait the 24 or so hours it would take for these trailers to be put up elsewhere on the net? Are we that short-sighted and impatient? I’m not saying don’t watch the VGAs, but if you are planning to, remember that you’re contributing in some small part to something you probably claim to dislike. Personally I made sure to watch a Justin TV stream of the VGAs as opposed to getting it directly from the source, and I refrained from saying anything praise-worthy about it around the time it went out, but perhaps I’m still part of the problem. Thanks for reading.
So, this is something that has been coming for a while. My university work has been piling up, a good deal of my time on the site is now spent just moderating content, and in the sometimes small periods of time I have left I’d like to take at least some time to myself to keep me from going crazy. To be honest I’m a little surprised I’ve managed to keep delivering new blog posts almost every week this long into my current university term, but it’s gotten to the point where I think I’m going to have to put this thing on hiatus, or semi-hiatus at least. I’ll probably be able to produce some blog posts over the coming months but I highly doubt I’ll be able to do so every week and it’s likely that some posts may be shorter than what I’ve provided previously.
I doubt anyone out there is devastated by this news but if anyone was wondering exactly what happened to my blog, well, here’s your answer. Anyway, thank you to all who have read this blog at any time, enjoy your video games, and above all don’t be a dick.
Note: This blog is a continuation of Sexism in Video Games- Part 1, although at this point I believe “Depiction of Women in Video Games” would have been a more appropriate title. Still, there’s nothing that can be done about that now.
There are a considerable number of people who seem to find certain depictions of women in games off-putting or offensive but I believe there’s nothing wrong with creating works which some people may find offensive or uncomfortable, as long as you’re getting peoples consent before they experience the potentially offending content. I’d honestly feel rather uncomfortable around a game that repeatedly and heavily sexualised men, but people have a right to make such content and it’s not something that we should be aiming to completely eradicate.
It must also be remembered that a character expressing their sexuality or acting in a sexual manner doesn’t have to be something shallow or something which objectifies that character. Sexuality is a very core human component and can be dealt with on a level which isn’t all chainmail bikinis and ridiculous breast physics. What’s more, even when a character is particularly overtly sexual, we must remember that promiscuity and deeper character traits are not mutually exclusive. Over time I’ve seen a lot of people acting like once a female character is heavily sexualised that they are somehow ruined, or deeming all sexualised characters to be by default sex objects, as though because they were sexually overt and/or had a sexually pleasing appearance, that they couldn’t have a personality beyond that. This is rubbish.
When it comes to the topic of whether women might find a character empowering or not I’ve often seen far too wide a brush been painted of women’s opinions. Back when the whole debate about the sexualisation of Bayonetta was going on, it seemed like a worrying number of gamers were speaking about whether she was empowering to women or not as though it was a question with a binary answer. There was little regard for the idea that different women might have different opinions, some people were just waiting for a straight “yes” or “no”. Not all women are going to feel that the same characters are empowering or relatable or cool, everyone has their own personal likes and dislikes. Additionally, as with everyone, there are going to be some aspects of characters that women like and some that they don’t. In the Bayonetta debate many female gamers took the position they have traditionally done with video game heroines, that they liked the fact that she was powerful but didn’t like her sexualisation. Despite this, when looking at individuals within the female gaming demographic most people were again, just looking for an overly-simplified “yes” or “no” on whether they were okay with Bayonetta.
Of course, for as many holes as can be poked in these arguments, we have to face up to the fact that video games as a medium do have a problem in depicting females, to the extent that the way they do it has in some cases become an unintentional self-parody. Some industry figures even seem to be preventing games from having female protagonists with the belief that just having a female lead is enough to damage sales of the game.
The way women are depicted in games feeds into the wider societal problem of emphasis being put on the looks and sexuality of women, and I think it’s also very arguable that as video games do have a sizeable female audience, developers and publishers have a responsibility to provide them with at least some games where the majority of them are not completely off-putting or offensive in the way they depict female characters. I certainly doubt that the way video games often depict women now helps games look more approachable to a new and wider audience. Even if you don’t agree with this though, I think we can agree that deeper and more human female characters would certainly be an improvement in terms of entertainment value.
By Men, For Men?
When asked why video games depict women in the way they do the answer that I seem to see coming back surprisingly frequently, even from male gamers, is “They’re made by men for men”. As a generalisation this is of course true, but I think some use it as a more literal statement than it should be and I find that somewhat insulting. The safest bet when pandering to the interests of the traditional video game demographic is certainly to feature women who are sex objects and little more, but I find the idea that because I’m a man, that by default that’s all I want, a little ridiculous. Yes, pretty women in my video games are very nice but I don’t think I’m part of an entire sex who only wants their female characters to be subjects for them to gormlessly drool over.
What I find worse though is the implication that despite the abilities of professional developers when it comes to design, artistry, writing, etc. that because they are men they are inherently doomed to this dull-witted tendency of creating bland hyper-sexualised female stereotypes. I believe that given the chance character designers, 3D artists and writers could do a much better job when it comes to female characters and just because they’re men doesn’t mean that the female cast in their games all have to be large-breasted, revealingly-clothed women with all the character depth of a cardboard box. Video games deserve much better than this.
Solving the Problem
So, how is the industry meant to solve this one? In general I just couldn’t begin to offer a complete answer at this point. It’s that old issue of cracking the problem with the games we play being confined to solely pleasing the young male demographic, and there are people with a much better understanding of the situation than I who don’t seem to have the first clue about how we do that. What’s more, the problem of females’ appearances being far more focused on than those of males, and females being more often treated as sex objects than males is part of a societal problem way bigger than video games, one that it could take a long time to overcome.
None the less, we still do have a small handful of games coming out each year which are genuinely interested in advancing video games as an entertainment medium and/or providing interesting new experiences, and for them one of the many challenges ready to be tackled is creating good female characters. That being said I think the phrase “good female character” is somewhat misleading. Specifically creating characters that appeal to the majority of women gamers out there right now or working out how to portray the average female in games is one thing, but in general I think the future is looking at good characters that happen to be female, as opposed to “good female characters”.
Depicting Females in An Interesting Way
If males and females are truly equal then a female character can be given any traits a good male character would have. This means that making good female characters is more about the industry working out how to make good characters full stop, which is in turn part of the industry better learning how to pull off narrative in games.
However, if a game is setting itself in a realistic world then one thing it can do with females characters (just as it can with minorities), is accurately reflect the way the world treats females. No matter if your female character is strong, weak, smart, dumb, pretty or ugly, the world as a whole is going to have certain expectations of them and certain assumptions about them purely because they are female. Here I think there’s also a lot to be explored. For games that are not trying to depict realistic worlds, there’s really the opportunity for developers to fit female characters into their games in any way they like. In worlds where characters can fight dragons and shoot beams of ice from their hands or display super-human reflexes and skills with a gun, is it really that ridiculous of a leap to have females occasionally assume a different social position in this world?
Duder, It’s Over
Sadly I think we’re far from this kind of deep exploration or seeing the wide-scale inclusion of more interesting characters in games. Like a lot of other major issues in video games, bad depiction of female characters is one we’re likely to be saddled with for a long time to come. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing more examples of great characters in video games, be they male or female. Once again I'm not saying that all games should have deep characters or characters which are just sexualised, but I think collectively we could all benefit from greater variety in the way females are depicted in games. Thank you for reading.
This is a blog that I’ve been holding off on for a while because it’s on a topic that seems to incite a lot of... Well, let’s call it “heated discussion”. None the less, this is something I think deserves to be addressed and I believe we are capable of having a civil discussion about. Sexism in video games is something that’s been observed for a long time, but recently we seem to have seen the debate over it grow rather rapidly, with many of those speaking out against the way women are portrayed in games identifying themselves with the feminist movement. Sadly the debates over sexism in video games are regularly fraught with mistakes, misinterpretations and miscommunications from both sides. All too often it seems that those defending video games against accusations of sexism come away thinking that feminists are all anti-masculine, hyper-politically correct sexists, while those criticising games come away thinking that the gaming community are largely immature, irresponsible douchebags. In both cases each party also has the tendency to come off to the other as stereotypical, ignorant and overly-defensive.
As many people seem to be viewing the debate at least in part as “feminism vs. video games”, I feel the most important point to address before I say anything else is the definition of feminism. Many people seem to be under the impression that feminism is a movement concerned with aggressively fighting for women’s rights at any costs and that it holds an inherent hostility towards men. Most definitions of feminism actually state that it is simply a movement in favour of women’s rights and/or women’s equality. That’s quite a broad definition and indeed there do seem to be some very loud, delusional, misinformed and downright sexist individuals within it, but I think we can all agree that the gaming audience has more than its fair share of those too.
Neither gamers, nor feminists should be defined by their most extreme or outspoken members. I think we, as reasonable people, can agree though that the idea of women’s equality at its root is something we can all get behind. Of course I’m sure if more of us entered debates with an open mind and an air of calmness, and if the mass media stopped perpetuating tired stereotypes of both groups we’d also be far better off.
I believe the next most important point is that gamers and feminists are not two entirely separate groups. Some seem to see the criticism of sexism in video games as always or very often being some sort of external attack, when a significant amount of it is actually coming from people within the gaming audience. This kind of criticism can often be heard from women and men to whom the issues matter because they’re the very people consuming this entertainment to begin with. In fact, if you’re making a point about cutting down on sexism in video games then you’re basically adopting a feminist position on it. None the less I think too many vague and invalid points get made in these arguments, so let me start from the top.
I find the criticism that a game is sexist alone to be a rather shallow one. “Sexism” is a word which encompasses a lot of different behaviours which affect different groups of people, in different ways, to different degrees. Hypothetically, when someone says a game is sexist that could mean anything from the game overtly and clearly telling people to oppress and abuse a sex, right down to female characters not being able to equip a certain item that males can. “Sexist” has become one of those words with an understandably strong negative stigma attached to it, but this seems to have lead to some people waving the word around expecting the same appalled reaction for everything from the greatest to the most minor differences between the ways the sexes are treated in games. While calling something “sexist” is a good descriptor of the kind of argument you’re levelling against it, it doesn’t tell us anything about whether that thing is legitimately worth worrying about, in what way it’s supposedly damaging, how damaging it is, or how we can begin to fix the problem if there is one. People also aren’t going to be won over by an argument unless you clearly and openly explain the exact problem you’re talking about.
Another rather reactionary word which seems to get thrown around a lot is objectification. While there seem to be people out there with a very different mindset, I don’t think objectification of individual characters is by default the big evil demon it’s set up to be. Plenty of characters in video games are objectified and it’s just not a problem. When we encounter an enemy in an FPS or an NPC in RPG we treat them as objects; they’re just targets, quest-givers, or means to get the items we need. We don’t think about them as human beings with thoughts, emotions, beliefs and views, and yet despite how packed games are with examples of people being treated more or less as objects, it seems it’s only when the sexualisation of female characters comes into play that we hear the term “objectification”. Again, objectification is something that can happen on different scales, to different degrees and to different people.
The blanket use of terms like “sexism” and “objectification” when it comes to video games also ignore that discriminating against real people and doing the same to fictional characters are two very different things. I find it hard to believe this is something that has to be contested, but it seems that some are even under the delusion that the portrayal of mistreatment or inequality of women in a video game is by default to be taken as a general statement about women, or how it is acceptable to treat women. I’ve seen people argue this about games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Batman: Arkham City and others, and I’m amazed it’s a point that some people have ever considered valid.
The Real Problem
Despite what some people might tell you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the existence of certain video games or other entertainment in which a character or characters belonging to a specific group (be they a sex, race, or people of a certain sexual orientation) are mistreated, objectified, disempowered or fit a stereotype. The problem is that it isn’t a handful of female characters in video games it’s happening too, the problem is that it’s happening to the large majority of them.
There are some out there who seem to believe it is the upmost atrocity that characters like Ivy Valentine or Princess Peach exist and that there would be some sort of ultimate justice in a future where the entertainment industry is entirely devoid of these types of characters, but this is of course complete nonsense and in the case of sexualised female characters I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying their appearance or behaviour on a sexual level. Yes, it’s a simple and short-term thrill but many great things in life and games are.
What’s Wrong With It?
Even back before discussion about sexualised game characters was as big as it is now, I was hearing people giving the rather perplexing argument of “Why put sexualised girls in video games when you can see them elsewhere, like on the internet?”, but why combine any one enjoyable thing with any other enjoyable thing? It creates a more enjoyable end product. I get the feeling that the people making this argument actually have some sort of other gripe that they’re hiding behind this question.
I also hear people saying that it’s just plain weird to derive pleasure from what is basically a collection of pixels on a screen and if that’s your opinion then you’re perfectly entitled to it, but I would like to point out that “weird” is a relative thing. Even when you’re “looking at” someone in real-life what you’re actually seeing is the light emanated by any nearby light source bouncing off of them and the light not absorbed by them reaching your eye, triggering electrical processes in your brain. If you think about anything long enough it all seems a bit weird.
Duder, It’s Over
Anyway, that’s it for this week. As always I’d love to hear your feedback on anything here and thank you for reading.
Looking at the narrative of Halo 4, perhaps one of the most important details to note is that 343 already have their overall story-arc planned out for the entirety of the upcoming Halo trilogy, which they’ve dubbed the “Reclaimer Trilogy”. A reclaimer in the Halo fiction seems to be someone who reactivates or reclaims a Forerunner installation, so this fits nicely seeing as 343 have been very strongly implying that the Forerunner are probably going to factor even more heavily into Halo 4 and possibly the upcoming trilogy as a whole than they have in the previous Halo games. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is even set to include new terminals (like the ones found in Halo 3) which will contain texts that tie into the upcoming trilogy.
Interestingly, Frank O’Connor has said that as the UNSC were no longer at war after the end of Halo 3, they were able to put their time and resources into researching Forerunner technology and that we’ll see the fruits of this research in Halo 4. It might just be me but I get the sense O’Connor is hinting at the inclusion of new UNSC-Forerunner hybrid weapons and possibly vehicles in the coming games. The fact that it would have taken some significant amount of time to perform this research and development is what makes me suspect there may be a significant gap of months or even years between Halo 3 and at least the majority of the events in Halo 4. It’s also been said that we’re going to see more Forerunner technology in a state where it’s “not inert and dead”.
A surprising amount can be gleaned from the concept art released thus far for the game. Much of it seems to include rather picturesque Forerunner environments, although one particular image that has piqued interests is of an as yet known world. It could be a better lit Sigma 7, an all new planet Chief will visit in the game, or some other kind of new construct. Other concept art seems to show brand-new ships, although it’s not quite clear which factions of the Halo world they belong too, I’ll let you decide for yourself. One piece of the artwork also appears to contain Pelicans moving towards some of the mysterious new ships, just in case you needed more confirmation that the UNSC were returning.
The Chief and Cortana
As far as characters go, 343 seem determined to keep under wraps who will and who won’t be returning from previous games, but it has been said that not only will the upcoming trilogy deal with the “fate” of Chief and Cortana, but that they wish to use it as an opportunity to further develop Chief as a character and the Chief-Cortana relationship. Take that as you will. O’Connor has also said that Cortana’s deteriorating mental state may also be addressed in the upcoming game or games.
In case you’re unaware of Cortana’s predicament, let me explain. In the Halo universe there are two kinds of artificial intelligence, smart AI and dumb AI, the difference between the two being that smart AI can learn new information, while dumb AI cannot. Cortana is of course the former, however the problem with smart AI is that as they learn new information and their mental maps begin to interconnect and create endless feedback loops, it takes more and more effort for them to process information, until they are unable to operate properly and enter a state known as “rampancy” where they become highly emotionally unstable and must be permanently shut down. For most AI this happens after about seven years and while Cortana was first activated in late 2549, about three years before Halo 3, how far into the future it is in Halo 4 will have a significant impact on her. It was hinted at in Halo 3 that she may already be developing rampancy and some think that her rampancy was somehow created or sped up by her interaction with the Gravemind.
The New Enemy
Finally, I think one of the biggest questions has been who the new enemy is going to be in the coming Halo trilogy. The Gravemind and a considerable portion of the Flood were eradicated at the end of Halo 3 and while some think the Gravemind is capable of surviving the death of even his physical body and that there may be mindless Flood lurking on other Forerunner installations, bringing them back as the main enemy immediately would seem like a huge cop-out, as would bringing back the Covenant who were basically defeated when Master Chief and the Arbiter killed the Prophet of Truth and the last of their leaders fell. That’s not to say we won’t see the Flood or surviving Covenant Loyalists return, just that they’re unlikely to be the primary threat. As time has gone on though I’ve become more and more convinced that the main enemy in Halo 4 are a lesser-known race of the fiction called the Precursors.
The Precursors are a race whose history in the Halo universe dates back before even that of the Forerunners. They had more advanced technology than the Forerunners and were capable of both intergalactic travel and the acceleration of the evolution of life. It seems that humans are likely their direct descendents and the “mantle”, which was the philosophical code of the Forerunners, may also have come from the Precursors. All but one of the Precursors was thought to have been wiped out in a war between their species and the Forerunners, however even if the Precursors do not return as a collective threat, it may be that this single Precursor is to become Halo’s new bad guy.
Why am I so sure the Precursors (or Precursor) are the new adversary to Chief and the UNSC? Well, as explained earlier Halo has basically no other enemies left to bring out, the Halo 4 web page Microsoft put up around the time of E3 described an “ancient evil”, the new Halo novel Halo: Cryptum has gone to some efforts to further include the Precursors, the Precursors have strong connections with the Forerunners who seem to be a much more prominent part of the upcoming trilogy, O’Connor has said that something in Halo 4 has the universe in chaos, and the creature shown at the end of the Halo Fest concept art video could also well be one of the aforementioned beings.
Duder, It’s Over
So there’s more than you could possibly need to know about Halo 4. Personally, I think the people at 343 seem genuinely passionate about the property they’re creating and I expect that they’ll create a game of some quality in Halo 4. 343 seem to have been very good about bring together a group of rather talented people from the games industry for this one, I’m just worried that by iterating on the same basic formula repeatedly they’re setting themselves up for a trilogy of games that might not be everything they have the capability to be. Thank you for reading.
If like me, you’re a fan of Halo then you may have found yourself in a bit of a drought of content from this particular series of sci-fi shooters recently. It’s now over a year since Halo: Reach was released and while Combat Evolved Anniversary is only about a month away, we have up to Q4 2012 to wait for the next entirely new entry in the series. I thought now seemed like an appropriate time for some summation and speculation on the contents of Halo 4. So without further ado here’s more than you’d ever need to know about where the Halo universe appears to be going next.
Right now there’s little concrete news on anything apart from story and some visuals, but from what has been said about the gameplay we know this is going to be a Halo-ass Halo game. I doubt that comes as a big surprise to anybody, but just to emphasise what I’m talking about here, Frank O’Connor, franchise developer and director at 343 Industries, said that they had “awesome” content and/or features included in earlier builds of the game which were scrapped purely because they weren’t “Halo” enough.
About a year back Nate Walpole, an employee of 343 Industries, posted a video on the internet showing animation from what was presumably an early Halo 4 concept video, where a soldier appeared to use super power-like abilities to fight two other men. Some have believed this particular video sheds some light on the cutscene if not also the gameplay content of Halo 4, but it has been confirmed that this was scrapped and considering its nature, it certainly looks like the kind of thing that might not have been “Halo” enough to make it into the final product. What’s more, I doubt Walpole would risk his job and the secrecy of the project he’s working on by posting a video that has any real relation to the contents of Halo 4.
The E3 Trailer
In terms of character design the E3 Halo 4 trailer showed us a slightly different Chief and Cortana, with the most notable change perhaps being a jetpack inexplicably now equipped to the Chief. Both he and the Cortana have also taken on a slightly different appearance, and fans have noted that the voice coming from Cortana no longer sounds like that of her previous voice actress Jen Taylor. Again though, I think it would be overly-presumptuous to assume this is all reflective of the genuine content of Halo 4.
Firstly, it’s been announced that the Chief design seen in the trailer will not be the final design and that 343 are on about their fourth iteration of the Chief. Secondly, while Cortana’s voice does sound somewhat unlike Taylor’s, for the majority of the trailer it is muffled and we don’t really have a good chunk of speech from her to judge by. Lastly, there have been many trailers for games before now, even non-pre-rendered ones, which have shown details which were changed in the final game and this could well be another case of such a thing. 343 have shown off an all new design for the Chief’s MJOLNIR armour though, which they say they worked with the Halo community to create.
One thing that may legitimately be a clue at what we will see in Halo 4 is the Chief’s new pistol in the trailer. Don’t expect what you see there to be the final design for sure, but it’s likely that the silencer and the way the gun reloads could be a hint towards what we can expect to see in the next Halo. I wouldn’t be that surprised if we saw the Chief sporting some kind of jet pack either, especially as we have already seen such a thing implemented in Halo: Reach.
The Onyx Theory
Moving onto story, you may remember Halo 3 ended with the conclusion of the Human-Covenant War, the destruction of the Flood via a Halo array, and while the UNSC believed Chief to be dead, he and Cortana were instead stranded upon the wreckage of the UNSC Frigate “Forward Unto Dawn”, drifting towards an unknown planet (as can be seen in that E3 trailer). Fans of the Halo canon began immediately debating where exactly Chief and Cortana had found themselves and theories began flying on the online forums, two of the more bold I saw involving the idea that they’d travelled through time or teleported into the Marathon universe.
More eagled-eyed players observed that not only was the unknown planet covered with lights, suggesting it was heavily colonised or some sort of mechanical construct, but that the lights on it were forming symbols that had commonly been associated with the Forerunners throughout the series. This led to a very popular but ultimately flawed theory that the planet from the end of Halo 3 was in fact Onyx, a Forerunner construct which appeared in the novel Halo: Ghosts of Onyx. In the novel the UNSC had colonised the planet-like construct and were using it as a base to train the new line of Spartan-III super-soldiers. However, when the Covenant attacked, a group of Spartan-IIs (that’s the kind of Spartan the Master Chief is), Spartan-IIIs, Dr. Halsey (creator of the Spartans and Cortana) and an officer by the name of Mendez retreated inside the construct to find that in the centre was a slipspace rift which teleported them into a Forerunner shield world installation. Keeping up?
The shield world installations or “micro dyson spheres” are compressed bubbles of space-time which the Forerunners created to use as outer-space bomb shelters for when they fired the Halo arrays. However, the Foreunners were betrayed by an AI called 05-032 Mendicant Bias who allied with the Flood, and were forced to fire the Halos before they could retreat to the shield worlds. The plot thread involving Halsey and the Spartans trapped inside the dyson sphere was not followed up on and has been left hanging ever since. The theory that the planet at the end of Halo 3 was Onyx would have wrapped up this loose end nicely, creating a Halo 4 where Chief and Cortana would reunite with their creator and their fellow comrades in arms.
Where and When?
The only problem with the Onyx theory was that near the end of Ghosts of Onyx, the construct actually turned out to be entirely made of Forerunner Sentinels which detached from each other causing the entire construct to disintegrate, something that a surprising number of fans managed to overlook. The theory still stood up though that the planet the Forward Unto Dawn was floating towards was at least a Forerunner world if not a Forerunner shield world, and that with Forerunner technology at their hands Chief and Cortana may could be able to rescue Halsey and co. in Halo 4.
Since most of the Halo 3 ending speculation it has in fact been revealed that the planet or construct is called Sigma 7 and it has been confirmed that it is a Forerunner world. When exactly Halo 4 will take place is still something that’s unclear though, some believed that because a Halo 4 model of the Warthog had been dubbed the “2554” model it would take place sometime after the year 2554, however this was shot down when O’Connor said the UNSC actually started distributing the 2554 model near the end of the year 2552, the time around when Halo 3 ended and the exact time-frame of the upcoming trilogy still remains a mystery. What are we more sure of about where the universe is going next? Well, that’s something for next week’s blog. Thank you for reading.
Edit: As Giant Bomb user EchoEcho has noted to me, the Onyx theory also cannot work because at the end of Halo 3 the Forward Unto Down was floating somewhere near the edge of the Milky Way, while Onyx is located elsewhere entirely, in the Zeta Doradus system.
When adverts in video games are done poorly it’s at best mildly irksome, but at its worst it’s downright offensive. In fact with the fuss that has been kicked up over issues like DRM, online passes and over-priced DLC I’m surprised that in-game advertising hasn’t received at least a little more flack from gamers. Granted, it doesn’t have anywhere near the effect on the experience bad DRM or online passes do, but when we’re paying around $60/£40 for a video game to begin with, it doesn’t seem exactly unjustified to pick a bone with the publishers who then insist on going one step further to make money on the side, at the expense of their customers and the quality of the product they’re selling.
Where It Came From
It should be noted that sticking brand names in video games is not a practise invented in recent years. It looks like the earliest instance of a brand name appearing in a game was in the 1973 title Lunar Lander, later versions of which included a McDonald’s restaurant that players could find. However, the first use of in-game advertisement specifically appears to have been when 1978’s fantasy text adventure game Adventureland featured an advert for the developer’s upcoming game, Pirate Adventure. 1982’s Pole Position is also remembered as a very early example of in-game advertising and although not the first, it is certainly one of the most notable.
While the argument has been made that video games and advertising are accomplices which date back a long while, it seems in the times of yore the games industry was far more concerned with advertising through advergames like Pepsi Invaders and Yo! Noid, while now the industry has its attention more firmly set on mainstream video games playing host to the adverts of big-name companies. This only makes sense, as the original child gamers have grown up and become more discerning in their tastes, and information on what games are good and what games aren’t exists in much greater amounts, with much greater accessibility.
It would be arguably impossible to get people to pay anything near full-price for an advergame these days and even when given away free they’re usually seen as little more than a joke by gaming audiences, but in-game ads or no in-game ads, people are going to buy up great numbers of games from established high budget franchises and they’re going to pay a lot of attention to the content within. Most advergames may have been horrifically bad but at least they kept advertisement somewhat separate from mainstream video games, as product placement bleeds into genuinely high quality games, advertisements in our medium are becoming less and less avoidable.
Laying Down the Issue
I’ll admit it, I’m probably more sensitive to in-game advertising than most, but I just don’t agree with many of the justifications given for in-game adverts these days. The usual defence of in-game advertising is that introducing elements from the real world into a game world can improve the realism of the game or at very least alter the experience for the worse very little, providing that products and adverts appear in the game in the same vague ways you’d see them appear in real-life. We all know that practises like disrupting gameplay to present a video advertisement are intrusive and annoying, but what’s wrong with neon signs advertising deodorant in Splinter Cell: Conviction? Or posters for men’s magazines appearing in the shopping centre of Dead Rising 2? It all mixes into the experience well and provides the people making games with more cash, right? The problem is this view is built on a false notion of how realism in games actually works.
As I stated in a blog I posted a few weeks back, immersing the player in an experience and giving them a world which feels believable and natural (at very least for the duration of their play time) has little to do with the game mirroring the real world and just about everything to do with the game presenting a consistent and high quality experience. Let me present two examples of brand name advertising, one that I thought worked in the game’s favour and one I thought detracted from the game experience. Anyone who has played the Rock Band games has undoubtedly noticed the brand names on the instruments in the game, perhaps most notably that of Fender who even had the guitar controller modelled around their famous Stratocaster guitar. This I like. In Burnout Paradise there are a number of billboards around the game which in the UK version of the game usually bare a Burger King logo and a large real-world picture of a burger. This I don’t like.
The overall experience you have with a video game is not just defined by the kind of world it’s presenting (medieval fantasy, an approximation of the real-world, futuristic space ship) but also by where the focus of the game lays. The focus of the Rock Band games is on playing instruments and acting as though you’re in a band, so when the game does its advertising through featuring real world instruments it mixes into the experience smoothly because focus is not shifted away from the normal experience you’d be having. The same is also true of any racing or driving game that uses real world cars or any sports game which includes real world players and teams.
The focus of Burnout Paradise is of course on driving like a crazy maniac in a world specifically designed for you to do so, under a set of delightfully impossible physics. This has little to do with burger outlets, so when you’re drifting around a canyon road at break-neck speed and the game shifts your focus briefly from “You’re driving this car like a fucking madman” to “Hey, wanna grab a flame-grilled whopper right now?” it feels out of place. After being jarred out of the experience in this way we usually recognise that disruptive aspect of the world for what it is, an advertisement, we register it as a very precise component of the real world, leaving it as an irksome reminder that the game world isn’t the real world. We may even be reminded that the advertisement was simply designed and placed there by a team of game developers, further ruining the illusion. For me personally knowing it’s an advertisement, an attempt to make money off of my fun, gives it an almost dirty cheapness.
Yet More Problems
The more recognisable the brand, the more it stands out as a reminder of the real world and potentially ruins the experience, but like many other adverts in games, the billboards in Burnout Paradise carry a few more problems with the way they’re used. Firstly, at very least one of the billboards in that game (it’s on the canyon road I mentioned) is strategically placed so you can’t help but look at it, the very way it’s integrated into the game does not seem to be done so in an effort to blend in with the world, but to be deliberately invasive to your experience to the point where even if it was a billboard advertising a fictional product it would still seem a little odd that it’s presented in that way. People who seem to give the thumbs up to billboards, banners, screens, etc. in games being used for advertisements don’t usually consider that there’s a large gulf between developers using these advertisement methods in a subtle manner and them jamming them down your throat.
Another problem with Paradise’s billboards is that they, like the advertisements in a number of other games, insist on advertising their product through real world photographs. Having this contrast of real world imagery against the computer-generated imagery of the game, again, serves as an unwelcome reminder that the game world isn’t real.
Lastly, the fact that Burger King and perhaps a handful of other names are the only brands in the game doesn’t help create an environment that seems realistic. This might sound odd, am I really saying more brand names would be better for the game? But let me put it this way; a game with no real world brand names is consistent, a game where everything is branded much like it is in the real world would be consistent, a game where the world has no real world brand names except for a small number is remarkably inconsistent. If this is a world where real brands exist, where are all the other billboard advertisements?
Duder, It’s Over
I think you see my point. This is a somewhat speculative statement but I can’t help but wonder whether people who approve of the kind of in-game advertising I find frustrating and off-putting do so not because they really feel it’s that realistic, but because they either currently like the novelty of recognising something from real-life in a video game, think it looks good in theory, can’t find a justification for not liking it, or some combination of these elements. Of course the real problem is that there’s probably going to be nothing but encouragement for developers and publishers to keep using product placement in games and if the ESA have any clear idea about the situation we’re going to see a lot more of it very soon. I have to confess, as frustrating as I might find it when it’s done poorly, developers and publishers would have to go to some serious lengths to use advertising in a way that would stop me from buying a game I otherwise really wanted, and I’m sure the same applies to many other people.
As it is in-game advertising could be a lot worse right now and I for one am thankful that it hasn’t got too over-the-top yet, even if I would like to see a crack-down on badly done advertisements in games. For me the real tragedy of the situation is that most of us, on some level, use video games as a form of escapism from the real world, so seeing the people funding games trying to ensure that more of the real world bleeds into video games in a potentially negative way is a little saddening, but I guess it’s just something we’ll have to learn to live with. Thank you for reading.
Obviously, for some, clear reasoning over whether games are art wasn’t ever going to happen, because while there have been people contributing to the “are games art?” debate with intellectual and thought-provoking points, there have also been many who wanted games to be accepted as an art form so that they could feel more grown-up and validated in enjoying their favoured pastime, and try and feel as though their medium was more part of the mainstream. Personally, I think even if you’re looking for wide-spread validation of your love of video games, working out whether they are or can be art might help you feel more secure in your own opinion, but it’s never going to change the opinion of the masses.
If hypothetically, a consensus on this debate was reached in favour of video games being art, it might bump up their social standing among some circles, but most people wouldn’t even be aware of the debate or care if video games were art. The majority of people out there aren’t seeking out art specifically to entertain themselves; they’re just after whatever they enjoy. Most people don’t care that much if the television they watch or the music they listen to is art, they just consume whatever gives them personally, the most pleasure. In fact, in some cases something being labelled as art can make it seem less accessible to people than it otherwise would have been, and the last thing video games need is more barriers between them and the general public.
This kind of debate is never going to lead to some overnight revolution in the place of video games in peoples’ daily lives. Of course that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the games as art debate entirely. When taken on in the right way for the right reasons it’s a legitimately interesting topic and one that’s very relevant to the video game entertainment medium. I see a lot of people bashing the games as art debates and while I can understand people being tired of endless repetitive discussions on it that don’t really go anywhere, there’s no need to put down people who are genuinely engaged in the topic. If you don’t want to discuss it just leave the “games as art” forum threads alone and move on.
Bad Examples and Bad Arguments Against Games
Unfortunately, on the other side of the argument from “Games are absolutely art and should be treated as such so my opinion can be validated” is the view that anyone treating games with the slightest modicum of seriousness, or saying that they can measure up to other entertainment mediums is being ridiculous. There are a lot of people who say that because games haven’t tackled complex social, political or personal issues in the way that other entertainment mediums have, that they just can’t be taken seriously. Personally I think the question of how well video games can speak to us about major human issues and how well they’re doing so right now is an even more important and interesting question than whether they are art, but the way the argument over this is often handled carries its own set of problems.
I think some fail to acknowledge that while there are many works in movies, books, music, etc. that deal with deep introspection, analysis or delivering a message, there are countless examples of works in these mediums that are largely for or entirely for the simple purpose of entertaining people. Just as those over-zealously championing video games as a perfect medium hold up Bioshock and Heavy Rain as if they were the norm in video games, so many seem to ignore the enormous body of television shows, movies , books, etc. which come out every year with no greater purpose than to provide a pleasurable short-term experience.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with any entertainment that does this, we just have to acknowledge its existence. Not every video game may be hammering home a highly intellectual, thought-provoking story but they’re certainly not alone in that regard. Whatever games are doing with story now also doesn’t reflect their potential ability for how well they may do in the future. To repeat the old games discussion trope, this is a medium still in its infancy.
Where Games Really Fall Short
Many seem to make the point that because video games cannot deliver on narrative as strongly as other mediums such as movies or books, that they are therefore inferior. I think this argument begins to challenge a very real issue, but I think the people making this argument often don’t understand why narrative is important for games specifically. Narrative should not and does not exist for its own sake, narrative is simply a means to an end and that end is evoking emotion in the person consuming the entertainment. Works like paintings and music often have little to no narrative, but this isn’t a problem because they find other ways to evoke emotion in people. Similarly, when video games can evoke emotion through means other than narrative, they should receive just as much praise and respect as any other medium doing the same, but as I see it video games have two major problems in this regard.
Gameplay is of course, is the crux of the medium, it’s the core of a game, and everything else is built around it, and gameplay is very good at evoking certain emotions such as fun, competitiveness, triumph, satisfaction, productivity, etc. but gameplay alone can’t evoke the kind of emotional range the elements from movies, books, music etc. do, and so games need narrative among other things to attain this emotional range. Games are also often reliant on narrative to justify the mix of gameplay and thematic content the player is presented with and as mentioned earlier, if games are to get across meaningful messages and explore serious issues in an intelligent manner they’re probably going to be much better equipped to do so with a strong narrative backing them up.
The fact that some games exist with little to no narrative is not a problem, these works can be appreciated for what they are, just like music or pictures can. The fact that very few games in the medium as a whole are able to use narrative effectively is a problem, because it means the medium as a whole lacks emotional range and the ability to deliver deeper human experiences. What may be an even bigger problem though is that not only does the medium carry inherent properties that make it difficult to craft a high-quality narrative around its other components, but the industry also lacks motivation to move forward in terms of narrative with their main target demographic for story-based games being 18-35 males who are fairly contented with lacking action-movie style storylines. Raising the bar for narrative in video games may not sound like that big a deal, but it’s an issue that deals with uncharted territory and the only way around it would be to take risks which could not only end poorly for the people financing games but also for the people developing games.
Using the Right Measuring Stick
To make one last slight defence in favour of video games; despite the big problem they have with narrative in general, I occasionally see people comparing individual games to other story-based mediums and proclaiming that the individual game is inferior to the other medium in terms of quality because its narrative isn’t as good. This is not fair; movies, books and television rely on narrative to deliver a positive experience to a much greater extent than games do. While general statements about the shortcomings of games in regards to narrative are entirely valid, a video game thrives on gameplay, we know this, and just because a video game cannot measure up narratively, if it still holds up in terms of gameplay and sometimes other elements such as graphics, audio, etc. then there’s it can still be a work of some considerable quality.
In fact in some cases it seems like people feel they have to appreciate video games in a solely tongue in-cheek way because of their relative shortfalls and their frequently over-the-top narrative and thematic content. I think this is perfectly sensible to some degree, but when it comes to gameplay, music, environments, and things games can pull off well, even in comparison to other mediums, there’s nothing wrong with standing up and saying “I like this video game on a serious level”.
Duder, It’s Over
Overall, when we compare video games with other entertainment mediums I think we need a wider, more thorough, and more realistic analysis of both sides involved. As hard as it may be to face up to some of the shortfalls or the lack of popularity of video games, trying to hide them and pretend they’re not there, or pretend that video games are more successful than they are only makes you look bad and says that you don’t like video games, you like some idealised alternate version of video games that you’ve created in your head. Arguing unrealistically in favour of video games won’t make them any more popular and if the medium is to come into its own it won’t do so overnight.
On the other side of the argument though, we should not scrutinise games as if they were other forms of entertainment and it’s okay to give love and respect to video games. As always, thank you for reading.