Yes, an Austen-themed video game. “In the virtual world of Jane Austen, it is not about kill or be killed, but invite and be invited with gossip our weapon of choice.”
Hi, I'm Heather, long time gamer and virtual backseat driver. I recently finished my MA in Cinema Studies from NYU and now I want to harvest my powers to ponder the deeper (and also shallow) meanings of video games. You can also see my writing on Gamastura, Girl Gamer Vogue, and Medium Difficulty.
Warning: If you have not played Final Fantasy VII yet and plan to, and you have managed up until now not to find out the big spoiler, please don’t continue reading.
I somehow had managed to live 23 years without finding out so I want to protect those who don’t know, although I often wonder if I had gotten it spoiled for me, if it would have been easier for me to deal with.
After the “incident” occurred, I cried my eyes out and never played the game again. Many people who I’ve talked to about this have told me I am ridiculous, and maybe there is some truth in that, but I dare anyone to question the power of games as a storytelling medium after suffering this loss themselves.
I wanted to tell my story of losing Aeris in a way that did justice to how deeply I was hurt when I was playing the game. I haven’t written a poem since high school but I felt like it was the best way to express the 32-bit hole that this game left in my heart.
As someone who critiques things like it’s their job, it’s not very often I experience a piece of media that leaves me speechless. Videogames are still a very young art form, and I feel as if it’s going to take many more years of figuring things out before more than a few mature works can even begin to exist in the mainstream, but The Last of Us is an incredible step in the right direction. It’s hard to believe that the same company that less than 10 years ago was making a weird orange bandicoot run away from boulders, would be able to leave in me a complete state of awe and contemplation after finishing one of their games. (Note: many spoilers ahead)
Obviously there were some stepping stones to get to this point, the most notable of which came in the form of three incredibly entertaining and cinematic games in the tradition of the good kind of blockbuster action/adventure movies. This was a smart formula, and I absolutely acknowledge the importance of the Uncharted series. They made great strides in lessening the gap between two mediums, and was undeniably entertaining and fun, but it didn’t exactly shake me to my core artistically. I’ve heard a few great thinkers in the games industry comment on how we need to stop comparing games with movies, and although I do think it can be a hindrance, I believe that Naughty Dog’s formula has so far been a very successful one. When we examine the best way for games to tell a story however, I think what it comes down to is a question of choice.
I’m from Pittsburgh, the zombie capital of the world, (also featured in The Last of Us in all it’s yellow bridged glory) so I’m all for a good tale of death and infection, but for anyone who has any brains left uneaten, I think it’s easy to admit that the zombie trend has gotten a bit out of hand. Back when I saw the original trailer and demos for this, I was intrigued, but not enough so that I was about to run out on launch day and pick up a copy. The addition of a young girl as a sidekick made me moderately excited, but I had my doubts about her actual role in the story and made the assumption that she was just a tagalong/obstacle for the same kind of generic dude to protect through the same old zombie survival story. I’m happy to admit I was proved wrong. Luckily, a friend was willing to lend it to Ryan and I, and we were somehow able to keep from getting the ending spoiled for us. Now I will admit, I did not actually play this one (as I seriously lack the hand-eye coordination and patience to get through this type of game) but took on a very Ellie-like role of providing backup and a careful eye for arrows sticking out of decomposing corpses.
From the first few minutes of the game, it was obvious that Joel’s daughter was going to die. Not to undermine the pain of losing her in such a horrific way, at the hands of a human soldier no less, but she’s not on the box, so it was safe to assume she wouldn’t be coming with us. One of the things I find fascinating about this game is how right from the get go, everyone is the enemy. Humans, infected, soldiers, dogs, they all just become obstacles you are forced to take down to continue on your journey, there is no choice involved. Sure, you can sneak past Clickers and some of the other enemies, but it’s not like you’re doing it out pity, necessity is your motivator, plain and simple. Because the game puts you in such an extreme state of distrust and constant fear of everything and everyone, I often found myself guessing what was about to happen, especially when it came to encountering new characters, and even though I was often correct in my horrible assumptions, the predictability never took away from the drama of each experience, and I never could have guessed the ending would unfold exactly how it did.
As someone with an ever critical eye about the representation of women in videogames, I have to take some time to talk about Ellie. At first I thought it was fine to have it her around, but it took a large portion of the game before she really begins to serve her purpose and come into her own, and that’s not a complaint. The way that Naughty Dog chose to wait until the last third of the game to have you actually play as Ellie was a smart choice in my opinion. It comes as a refreshing shock to suddenly become Ellie after Joel’s accident.
Not knowing if he’s alive or dead, she stalks a deer through a pristine, snow covered field with her bow and arrow. The switch of characters invokes a renewed sense of the struggle for survival as this young girl fights for her life. Although it is easy to assume she will be weaker and more helpless than the character you’re used to playing, after a few minutes as Ellie we see how fierce she has grown. She is just as capable a survivor as Joel, and has her own unique strengths. The game fulfills their male lead quota to satisfaction, and thrust you into a new experience that I don’t think anyone who played the game up until this point could complain about, no matter what their stance on female game characters.
The bond the player forms with Ellie before stepping into her shoes is undeniable, which is what makes her such a milestone character as far as female game protagonists go. Nothing is presupposed about her ability as a hero or a survivor, it is earned through action, which makes her strength as a stand alone character undeniable. After having the opportunity to play as Ellie, switching back to Joel felt like both a relief and a disappointment. I think the way the gameplay is divided between the two characters through the end of the game is a fascinating device to show who is really in control. Ellie’s struggle propels her into violence and adulthood, but the demands of surviving turn her into something she is not prepared to become, and so she must retreat within herself, and the control returns to Joel.
Zombie stuff being all the rage generally lends itself to a pretty standard visual style of gloomy, grey and bloody, which serves it’s purpose in setting a dire mood, but The Last of Us does not follow in that tradition. Borrowing from some of the beautiful, full color landscapes of the Uncharted series, most of this world is in full scale color. The juxtaposition of the dire state of the world with the greenery and butterflies all around is an extremely powerful metaphor for what the game wants to tell us.
There are moments where we are forced to slow down and soak in our surroundings, usually while the characters have some kind of meaningful conversation. We are literally made to stops and smell the flowers (or the rotting corpses, whichever is readily on hand.) Ellie’s innocence and wonder for seeing the world around her for the first time, and Joel’s renewed sense of kinship and fatherhood becomes something beautiful despite their bleak situation, and then watching them discover the horror and the wonder of the world around them is a fascinating journey to take. Though all the trials they face, the beauty of their bond is what helps them survive. And how about those giraffes? Even Fellini would have liked that part.
In the end, when Joel chooses their relationship over saving the human race, it’s difficult to say with certainty whether it feels completely wrong, but the game gives you no choice but to play along. After finally finding the fireflys, and discovering that against all odds, your journey was as important to the fate of the world as Elle had hoped, it’s hard to feel like you are doing the right thing as you gun them all down, but you don’t have the choice to stop. The awkward balance of the actual gameplay being at it’s most difficult and the stress of just wanting to see what happens was a bit of a disconnect at the climax of the game. We assume we are fighting towards the painful death of one or both of the characters as we plowed through throngs of soldiers (the least fun enemies to fight in the game) dying again and again. One such unsuccessful attempt resulted in Joel being shot to death after grabbing Ellie, which we thought was the actual ending of the game until it reloaded and allowed us to try again. By not having us actually deal the final gunshot, it reinforces the power of the game as the storytelling agent. We once and for all hand off any sense of control and put fate into the hands of the game, but it’s almost a relief not to take on the responsibility of our actions.
After the dust clears, we find ourselves back on the road, once again playing as Ellie. Joel makes a trying gesture by sharing some anecdotes about his daughter and how he thinks she and Ellie would have been good friends. It feels strange. We feel as detached, confused, and wonder what could possibly be left of the game. In one last attempt to have some semblance of understanding or control over her own fate, she speaks out to question Joel. Although I’m sure she knows the truth, she recognizes that the choice has already been made for her and there is nothing more she can do, so she resigns to his lie. Ellie did not get to make her own choice and neither did we, and that’s what The Last of Us leaves us with.
Most videogames set us on a quest where we get to be a hero who saves the world. The Last of Us forces us to make a different kind of choice altogether. It’s easy to think that the moral of the story is that humans are selfish, horrible monsters only trying to look out for themselves, but I think it’s hard to not be bit a little bit happy that Ellie does live. I think what we are really left with is that nothing is all that black or white, it leaves us feeling uneasy, but not in the least bit unsatisfied. The choice to end the game this way was an incredibly bold one, and I think an important step in the development of videogames as a legitimate storytelling medium.
When I think back on some of the other big triple A titles from the past few years that have been praised for their story and substance, (Mass Effect, Deus Ex:Human Revolution, and Dishonored) they have all tried to take games to the next level of storytelling by letting the player have some degree of choice in terms of who the characters are and how the story turns out. Although I have had very positive experiences with this formula as far as crafting my own character goes, unfortunately in the end what usually happens is a wishy-washy middle ground ending that no one is really happy with. At the end of the day it’s impossible for an artist to truly tell the story they want without being able to control the ultimate fate of their characters. The Last of Us provides a linear path you are forced to follow, but in exchange for your loss of choice, you get a beautifully told, complete story where the potency of your connection to the characters is greater that any customizable protagonist I’ve ever played. I can’t say with certainty whether it’s better for videogames to yield the potency of interactivity to immerse players in a pre-made story like this one, or to allow a world where you craft the story yourself, but there’s a reason that choose your own adventure books never became bigger than Lord of the Rings.
Ryan and I were finally able to get our hands on The Last of Us and finished our playthrough a few days ago. Full article coming very soon!
The “It’s Just a Game” Zine is now available for purchase!
I wrote a final fantasy POEM in it for gosh sakes! Pick one up!
I know I’ve been reblogging this a lot, but I want to make a specific post here on Bad-at-Games as well, because this project means a lot to me.
IT’S JUST A GAME is now available for purchase! It started out as a little tiny idea I had and so many people were interested in contributing that now it’s a 2-volume affair, filled to the brim with awesome work by 26 amazing people (comics artists, writers, game designers, etc.), all frustrated with the way people usually talk about games.
I painted the covers in black India ink, which was really fun, and I’m really happy with how they turned out.
And I’m actually paying my contributors, too, so the more the zine sells, the more $$ my awesome creators-of-stuff will get. AND! And and and! If it does super well, I will consider putting together a third volume. And you can submit to it! If that happens!
Oh, and quit your whining: It’s just a game.
The release of the “It’s Just a Game" zine is coming up fast!
I was trying to decide what to submit and decided to tell a story about the time when I played FF7 and fell in love with Aeris only to have to watch her be MURDERED. I immediately had to go cry in the bathroom for like an hour and then I never played the game again (and I LOVE final fantasy so it was a big blow to quit). I was originally going to write an article about this, as that is my usual means of creation, but after giving it some thought I decided I would write a poem for the first time since high school. It seemed like the most dignified way to express my ridiculous and heartfelt reaction to the whole situation. In any case, it’s going to be featured in volume 1 if you’re interested! Volume 2 will be killer too though, my sister Anna has a great comic about MTG (Magic the Gathering) You can get it here on Sept 3!
Dry your tears and turn off your consoles: It’s Just A Game comes out in less than a week!
Due to the volume of submissions, I’ve decided to make It’s Just A Game into TWO 24-page volumes, both of which will be released on Tuesday, September 3 and sold for $10 each on my Etsy page. Volumes One & Two feature 26 contributors in total, including new work by Dave Myers, Soha El-Sabaawi, Jacob Smiley, Austin Walker, & Tanya X. Short, just to name a few.
The whole project is shaping up to be like 4 billion times better than even I expected, and if you aren’t excited yet, you really should be.
I’m spending this week working on my own art for the zine, including illustrations for some of the pieces and cover art for both volumes (a preview of Vol. One’s cover is above).
So on that note, back to work for me! Please keep your eye on this tumblr for more updates, and definitely put aside $10 or $20 for one or both volumes next week. Trust me.
Just another heads up that i will be at Pax Prime this weekend doing interview for the GTFO documentary. If you’ll be there and want to talk to us about gender and videogames we’d love to hear from you, whether what you have to say is positive or negative! Please feel free to reach out to me on here or at my email: email@example.com
I am also hoping to check out some after parties and such so if you know of anything or want to invite me do that too!
(I will not be cosplaying sadly but come and say hi if you see me waltzing around with my camera in hand!)
*this is a repost from my other more general entertainment blog anal reading. Even though it’s not videogame oriented, i hope you’ll enjoy!
Orange is the New Black is a show about many things, prison stereotypes, lesbian sex, NPR, long distance relationships, but more than anything it’s a show about women, and that’s a rarer thing these days than we’d like to admit. Beneath the nudity and topical references, this show comments on what a woman’s place is in the world today, and questions how much control she has over her own destiny. Some of these women landed themselves in jail through their own intentional disregard of the law, some by accident, and others by boldly living by their own codes no matter what the cost. At the end of the day, Orange is the New Black is a portrait of the literal and metaphorical factors that make modern women feel trapped, and the drastic measures one might try to set herself free again.
Although at times a bit uneven, the genius of this show is baked right into the premise. Women are brutal. We understand how to push each other’s buttons and get under each other’s skins. So it stands to reason that when you put a bunch of women in a cage with nothing at stake but their identity, the mind games and complicated relationships are all that you’re left with. And by god does it make for good TV.
The way the setting of the prison strips the concept of what it is to be a woman today down to the bone is really resonating with people in a way other shows (even those featuring female protagonists) cannot do. If we look at some of the most acclaimed strong female characters in today’s TV world through the lens of the Bechdel test (which asks whether a work of fiction features a conversation between two women not talking about a man,) we wouldn’t get very favorable results. However, Orange is the New Black has some advantages backed right into the premise that forcefully expand on the topics our female characters are talking to each other about. Gender is always omnipresent, making us constantly focused on the idea of how the nuances of one’s sex and sexuality play into every interaction. When male characters are featured in Orange is the New Black, it’s often in a way that at least rouses some interesting questions about the male to female dynamic. The way the male prison workers choose to wield their power in mostly feeble attempts to try to control the female prisoners creates a fascinating juxtaposition. We are constantly slapped in the face with how powerless they are in their current situation, but at the same time they seem larger than life. The way that Red has used her alpha personality to make the kitchen her own little empire and gain power even beyond the inner sanctum of prisoners, but still has to sit back and do nothing when one of the guards decides to take a piss in her carefully crafted thanksgiving gravy pot is enough to make you tear your hair out. We see nearly all these women as powerful in their own way, trapped by a system built to contain them in and outside of prison. It all nods at something much bigger.
Jenji Kohan is a fascinating voice emerging in today’s TV landscape, but I think she is still figuring out how to gain control of her voice. She has a lot of great characters and ideas that explode onto the screen in a somewhat untidy fashion. Like many people, I enjoyed the hell out of the first few seasons of Weeds, but the longevity of the show completely killed it. I am curious to see how Netflix decides to handle the quality vs. quantity conundrum of having a hit show on their hands. I really do hope they will take the high road and let the show run it’s course with dignity. The freedom to end a story in less than 8 seasons might be exactly what Kohan needs to reign in her characters in a way that can become a potent and complete story.
I’ve talked to many people about this show lately, and although most have raved about it overall, I’ve found some surprisingly conflicting opinions about certain characters, especially Piper, the show’s protagonist. Some people sympathize with her, others with her fiance. Some think of her as a strong hero, others as a horrible person. We are used to TV we can understand. Even when a tapestry of multi-dimensional characters is beautifully woven like in Mad Men or Game of Thrones, whether it was intentional or not, Orange is the New Black takes things in a new direction by showing us a world where things are not so straightforward. Each episode reveals to us, piece by piece, that no person can be taken at face value. Even the most despicable characters slowly become more human. The aforementioned horrible prison guard, “Pornstache” even becomes somewhat sympathetic when his misconstrued relationship with Daya cause him to rearrange his priorities, or when we begin to see the more complicated truth behind the seemingly deranged lesbian inmate known as “Crazy Eyes.”
The show constantly makes us see the deeper side to everyone, for better or for worse. Nothing is ever as clear as it seems. From the touching spectacle of the show’s intro, through the violent and unsettling end of the season, the conflicting forces of humor and emotional depth make it a bit overwhelming to swallow all in one bite, but that’s what makes it such a fascinating show. Everything we thought we knew about this world becomes grey. It doesn’t make for very straightforward viewing, but much like the wild landscape of a women’s prison, nothing is black or white, but orange is sure a more interesting color.
I was reminiscing tonight with Mikey about how one of my earliest career dreams was to be a kirby artist. He was so fun to draw. He still is.
An ode to kirby, I think I wanted to be him more than I even wanted to draw him,
I often write about videogame misadventures that my sister and i had while growing up. check out her blog for some great drawings and such.
Booked my flight today! I’ll be at Pax Prime, seeing stuff, writing stuff and most importantly working on the GTFO documentary which is super exciting!
If you’re going and you have something in particular to say about women and gaming (positive or negative), give me a holler. I want to talk to you!
The Doubleclicks Music Video “Nothing to Prove”
This video is important. I watched this today and teared up at work. It’s so amazing to see work that does a great job of reflecting the heart of where those of us who are fighting against sexism in gaming are coming from.
When we first got our very own Xbox 360 one of the first things we did was buy Castle Crashers and received a kindly gifted Mad Catz controller so 3 of us could play together. As a child of Double Dragon and the original Ninja Turtles games, there is nothing I love more than button mashing shoulder to shoulder with some good friends (and it’s sadly kind of a rare thing nowadays.) We played the crap out of Castle Crashers, getting every pet and secret item imaginable until we just couldn’t play anymore. It was easy to want to keep playing over and over again with new friends because it is such a straight up impeccably well designed game. Needles to say I was super pumped when I heard that Behemoth was coming out with a new game.
When I first saw the trailer (which is amazing and hilarious in it’s own right) my mind immediately went to Little Big Planet. Now, LBP is another game I love. It has all my favorite things, like stickers, outfits, animals to ride and most importantly my videogame holy grail, couch co-op. I have written about it before and how as someone who is sometimes straight up incapable of doing certain kinds of basic videogame tasks (like jumping) you can get past such day ruining obstacles by just dying and spawning past where you got stuck after your partner makes it through. This is a wonderful convention more games should explore. It allows a certain margin of error for inexperienced gamers (or in my case, sub-par, anxiety-ridden jumpers) that makes it possible to join in on the fun and play a game that might not have been possible or desirable before. With all that LBP accomplished (4 person co-op, level builders, did I mention outfits and stickers?) I wondered how Behemoth could possibly live up to those standards with a $15 arcade game…
But low and behold, they did.
Battle Block Theater is well worth your money. For your $15 you will get:
-One of the best narrators I have ever had the pleasure of being mocked by.
-Inventive and super tight level designs and gameplay mechanics
-Jillions of neat character skins for you to commit suicide or murder with any time you like.
-a variety of nifty weapons (including a dancing frog that explodes on impact. Not as many as in Castle Crashers, but each has it’s own unique traits that can change the way you overcome or create certain obstacles)
-A zany storyline that makes very little sense but still adds a certain something special to the game. (The tale is definitely more of a story than Castle Crashers. It’s wackiness outshines it’s narrative merits, but it’s nice to see them try to implement more of a story.)
-Cool animals and nifty gadgets to get around and die because of.
-Level builder! (I have not given this a try yet as it seems like you might need to be a genius to create something that actually works, but I bet it’s pretty cool and can totally see it being a fully functional level builder. You also get access to countless crazy levels built by other people and special levels that I think are made by Behemoth, which are so hard they will most likely ruin your night.)
-2 on 2 multiplayer versus stages of many varieties (I wasn’t as into this since I’m all for making love not war but I can see it being very fun and there are a bunch of different mini-game modes you can play with 4 people.)
*important note that I didn’t realize at first when buying this game. The co-op story mode is only 2 players, not 4. This is the one big downer for me as I was a huge fan of the 4 player co-op in Castle Crashers and LBP and was really looking forward to trying these puzzles with a full team of 4 but alas, no go.
Overall, this game is a lot of fun, but it also gets incredibly difficult. Even with my partner by my side who is a crazy jumping and maneuvering expert, things got pretty tough and towards the end. I often became deadweight or more often than not, a sacrificial lamb for him to jump on top of to make it through the level. (The game totally encourages killing your friend to get ahead and for general merriment, which is done in a funny enough way that it doesn’t lead to hard feelings…usually.) Some of the latter puzzles required Super Meat Boy level skills to make it through, which I most certainly do not have so it did become a little frustrating. I recommend not doing more than one set of 9 levels at a time if you’re playing with a friend or significant other to prevent controller throwing and hair pulling. In terms of playing alongside a non/novice gamer, I would say you are safe with the first few sets of levels, but something like LBP or Castle Crashers is probably a better way to help someone get their sea legs. All and all I really did love this game, but I almost wish the story was more of a real story and not just written off as (*KIND OF A SPOILER) an ambiguous crazy joke in the end. Surprise, surprise. I suppose that’s just the Behemoth way, and it’s certainly entertaining so I’m not disappointed. As far as Hatty goes, I suppose we’ll just have to buckle our pants and move on with our lives.