Waypoint, The Red String Club, and Videogame Criticism

Recently, an opinion piece was published on Vice’s Waypoint gaming site talking about the recently released The Red Strings Club by Deconstructeam. The response was, in general, quite critical and with pretty good reason. Coupled with the podcast episode, the message from Waypoint about this game was to not purchase it because it was transphobic, greatly upsetting one of the members of Deconstructeam. Upon release of this article and podcast, one of the three developers from Deconstructeam, sat down with the writer to talk about the story decisions in the game which resulted in another article which was also poorly received.

The contentious point in question was the use of a trans character’s deadname as part of the puzzle and Waypoint staff taking a hard stance that one should not deadname, ever. While there are plenty of smarter and more qualified voices that have talked about deadnaming and trans portrayal, the writing of these two pieces highlighted for me not only a challenge for Waypoint that it keeps bungling up but also the shortcomings of the dialogue around progressive games and media.

One of my initial problems with the pieces was that it blanket equated a negative aspect of a minority identity’s life to the piece being phobic. In The Red Strings Club, Waypoint claims that the inclusion of a deadname makes the game transphobic because it was handled without context and acted as a “reveal”. The follow up piece with the developer confirms that the intent was to show an unpleasant side of being trans while also using deadnaming to paint a character in the game in a negative light. Danielle, the writer, didn’t seem to have picked up on this context, even in retrospect after speaking to the game’s writer.

This throws up a huge red flag, because the game is decidedly transphobic for including negative things that trans people have to deal with in their daily lives, and this translates to other groups as well. Media should be able to tell stories that include racism, homophobia, transphobia and other unsavory elements if they are talking about the lives of those affected. By discouraging the portrayal of the negative aspects of someone’s experience, we are denying people who might not be familiar with a given person’s life experience, the chance to learn. Additionally, the blanket discouraging of the depiction of negative experiences is a reminder that the group in question is still not a fully accepted part of our society. If they were, we would give the creators the benefit of doubt as we do to straight, white, cis creators.

While I do not think it should be a requirement to speak with a creator when critiquing the work, the fact that the writer thought that 99% of the game was amazing and that this one mistake made her denounce it, should have been a sign to pause. Even if the game’s writing does not handle the deadnaming well (I have not played it yet) it is worth to do some research if there is one glaring flaw in a game which has dealt with the subject matter perfectly until that point. I am not claiming that Danielle’s reaction is unwarranted, but the strength of the condemnation feels misaligned alongside other criticism, or missed opportunities of, on Waypoint’s site.

Some say that it is more worthwhile to be harder on smaller developers such as Deconstructeam because their small size makes them more receptive to change and more agile to enact it. To criticize a major developer seems futile due to the large amount of people involved in the creation of their games and other factors such as appealing to a mass audience that make it much harder for them to change. In progressive discourse around the Internet, the other side is often forgotten. Punching down hard on small developer teams who are trying to be progressive and share their life experience via the medium only discourages others from doing the same, and potentially shuts down further work from that developer. There is little or no incentive to release your work when the audience it is made for loves searching for why the game is problematic, even making great leaps of logic to justify their conclusion. Where is the support and the celebration of these creators and their works?

I am not saying small or indie developers do not get praise, but games that try to be inclusive and try to break free from the status quo are often more harshly picked apart and more harshly condemned. Such actions do more harm than good by actively discouraging other smaller developers from stepping beyond the status quo and deny people’s education of others’ lives.

Secondly, the whole things was based on one situation in the game which initially was not discussed at length on either the podcast or the article. Telling people not to spend their money to support the developers because they made a transphobic game without explaining the one instance in the game where you felt transphobic is asking for a lot. Without background context or reasoning, we can’t begin to fathom what actually happened or if the reaction is justified. Not only does this tell us that avoiding spoilers is more important than having a discussion and not harming the developer, but additional thought should have given the criticism more depth and nuance. This is something that I also took issue with in Waypoint’s description of Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. The site reduced the situation revolving around Ashley Burch and Deck Nine (the developer) to “beware, this game was made with scab labour.” Nowhere in their, or the internet at large, was there a discussion about why the strike affected Deck Nine when they were not the target of it, whether or not Ashley chose to do this in a show of solidarity, or how negotiating individual exceptions during a strike undermines the purpose of the strike. Instead, we get that it is a scab game and “in a perfect world, the developer would have waited for the strike to be over.”

First of all, in a perfect world there would have been no strike. Second, the SAG-AFTRA strike took almost a year before it was resolved, and asking for Deck Nine to put development on hold (the game had started in some capacity, with first announcements coming out about 4 months before the strike began) which would have put the studio out of business. For a site which claims to take labour issues seriously, Waypoint’s criticism here to shallow to reflect the message they are all about. Ashley was hired on as a writing consultant writer and as soon as the strike lifted, she was recast in her role. Not quite so simple as denouncing the game for using scab labour.

This lack of depth was also present in the Red String Club critique – apparent in the complete dismissal of context and intent in an otherwise great game.

To clarify, I am not trying to say that Waypoint’s criticism is not valid, or that they shouldn’t criticize games through their lens. Waypoint is positioning itself as a very important voice in videogame journalism and critique and I personally like most of what they do and actively cheer them on. I also realize that they do not have an easy job.

However, they need to be extra careful and develop their ideas. The shallow “us vs. them” and taking extreme positions as an initial reaction cheapens their message. It also fails to explore the complexity of the world and how these issues fit into it, realistically, in a larger scale. Instead of an exploration into deadnaming, what separates a transphobic character from a transphobic work, or even a celebration of the game’s achievements with a caveat (though delivered softer) – we get “Don’t Deadname. Ever”.

Instead of a discussion about how strikes actually work from both sides, an exploration into what Deck Nine’s options were, or just an overview of the politics around hiring and getting around strikes – we get “don’t forget: this game is made with scab labour.”

From  a site that publishes great pieces on games in Prison, the connection between a Police Quest game and a corrupt cop, and many more, I expect more consistency. At the very least, if there are not enough resources to adequately cover all the issues (and of course there aren’t – there never are), then go easy when it is clear that the world is not so clean cut. It damages any worthwhile discussion around an issue, forfeits the ability to educate people, and ruins the image.

 

Favorite Moments in Playing Videogames 2017

Being a “patient gamer”, I rarely play enough new games to make any kind of meaningful end of year list. However, each year brings a few lasting memories from the games I played and the people I played them with. I am going to try to remember my favorite moments playing games from the past year and why they were special to me. Maybe they will be interesting to you, but at least this way I won’t forget them.

Dance of Death in the Yellow Tulip in Prey

Prey is one of my favorite games, maybe of all time. I loved immersing myself in the world of Talos 1 and struggling against Typhon and robots with my wrench and my PVC glue gun. I played the game on the harder difficulty and had trouble with some of the game’s early enemies (like most people I think) but I managed to scrape by. It is usually the game’s opening that is pointed out as being spectacular, and it is, but it isn’t my favorite moment from the game.

In one mission, you need to collect a variety of audio recordings of crew member Danielle Sho so you can spoof the audio lock on a part of the station. This meant going around the station and listening to voice mails and recordings that had the character in question talk. One of these recordings is in the space station bar and lounge – The Yellow Tulip. It is a recording of Danielle’s performance of a song called Semi Sacred Geometry, an upbeat electronic song with melancholy undertones.

You need to go into the sound booth to start the song. Once the music starts blaring from the speakers, Typhon Phantoms appear and make their way towards you. These aliens are human-shaped black mists that move really fast and use psychic energy to throw you across the room and are generally very dangerous at lower levels. Usually I would stalk these from the rafters, immobilize them, and then eliminate them. Now, I am frantically pointing my shotgun in multiple directions, firing off blasts, sliding across the bar and all to the beat of the driving bass drum.

As a game, Prey has a very specific ambiance – unnerving, suspenseful, tranquil. The soundtrack rises and falls, sometimes arbitrarily, making me think I was always going to get attacked. When it is not rising and falling , it is subdued and downplayed, a perfect fit for a dead space station. The only moments of life is when you find certain items and you hear a short, melancholic piano melody.

I played the game to fit, checking every corner, trying to enter new areas from unusual directions, usually through a vent or by climbing the pipes. If there was a phantom, or a mimic, and hopefully not something worse, I at least would get the drop on it. Most of my fights early in the game were frantic and desperate attempts at survival. I would inefficiently use up resources and find the next encounter further complicated as a result. I spent, like most people I would guess, the first part of Prey feeling weak. In The Yellow Tulip, blasting away at phantoms to a bass drum and melody, was not only the game breaking form in a pleasant way, but also the only time I felt like a badass aboard Talos 1.

Beating my Nemesis in Shadow of Mordor

So this game didn’t come out in 2017 but it wasn’t until the past year that I got round to playing it. As I noted before, every person who plays Shadow of Mordor has their nemesis story. My story involves not one, but two of them at the same time. Unfortunately, I can’t for the life of me remember their names. I spent most of the early part of the game running around Mordor and collecting secrets, plants, and hunting animals.

I would sometimes get killed by Orcs, as you do, and I kept running into the same two orcs over and over again. After every death, I would see them get promoted and their level raise and I eventually told myself that enough was enough, these Orcs need to die before I really have no chance to take them down. Instead of searching for some plant or animal to fulfill some arbitrary and ultimately unrewarding objective, I started to hunt these two Orcs even though I knew I was punching above my weight.

Try as I might, I could not take them down. Oh, more levels for you Mr. Orc, how nice. I don’t know if it was that the combat hadn’t gelled with  me yet, or if I was truly underleveled, or maybe I was just really bad at this game. Feeling down, I once again declared enough was enough! And by that, I meant I needed to avoid them, pick on some smaller orc for a change. That would build up my crumbling confidence.

I looked over the Orcs known to me and found an ugly, skinny orc who was a mere level 5 or 6. In contrast, my two nemeses were well over level 15 at this point. This scrawny Orc should be no contest. I quickly made my way over to his location, harried the orcs in the area with arrows to thin their numbers, and then jumped in to fight my target. The fight was going well, I was getting in a few good hits and blocking incoming ones. Then the camera froze and I see one of my nemeses come around the corner. The camera zooms in on their face to deliver their taunt, which I must admit stung. I took down the skinny Orc and then I tried to get away but I ended up giving my nemesis another level after that.

Then I avoided these two completely, even checking the map and getting intel on their location to be sure that I would not be around them while running around and doing quests. I don;t know if it was an upgrade, or I got better, or another power, but I reached a point in the game where I could take down very strong Orcs without breaking a sweat. I decided then to return to my two nemeses and show them the new me.

I found one of them deep in an orc stronghold. I slashed my way through a sea of orcs to get to him and we fought hard. I was doing well, blocking, cutting, slashing. Halfway through the battle the camera froze again and I saw my second nemesis come over a hill. The taunt this time did not work on me because I knew I was ready.  I took both of them down that time.

Finding Out Who I Was in Tacoma

I didn’t know who I was in Tacoma, well not really. I was a freelancer sent by a corporation to recover some goods from an abandoned space station. As I progressed through the story, I became more and more disturbed by the actions of my employers. As the game’s backdrop is the future of employment, I felt that it was intentional. To myself, I rationalized it as I just had a job to do. I can disagree with my employer’s actions, even hate them, but work is work.

However, this isn’t a particularly positive feeling, especially when the corporation that contracted you thought that killing a station of innocent people is all fine and dandy in the pursuit of money. When the twist, if you can call it that, was revealed at the very end I couldn’t help but fist pump.  I now knew who I was and that was someone cool! I actually work for the AI Liberation Front and am here to save the station’s computer ODIN.

A game where you passively experience a tale of corporate oppression, the turnaround that you were fighting it all along was a great feeling and a perfect end to a touching game. It would have been easy to have it end on a cynical note and it would have been easy to present the player character as just an object to view the theatre in front of you. This small touch gave the game such much more meaning on a personal level and it left me impressed. I was no longer a passive bystander, I was fighting the good fight all along.

Solving the Final Puzzle in The Witness

I approached The Witness with the firm resolve not to spoil any of the puzzles for myself. I ended up just spoiling two, which I think is still pretty good. One was because I did not notice the ground moving in a certain area of the swamp. The second was a colour puzzle that was damaged so each dot was multiple colours. I hated that one. But hints and spoilers will not help you on the very last puzzle, the music box.

Recently, two friends were playing The Witness in tandem, having a competition to reach the end and they were strongly against spoilers of any kind. I asked them how they were competing – the number of puzzles solved? It was tied to the playtime and I am still not sure how they were measuring success. Nevertheless, I told them there is only one puzzle that matter for any kind of competition in The Witness, and that they would know what I meant when they found it.

It took me many tries to beat this puzzle, but when I was finally able to solve it I knew I had done it myself. There was no way I could have cheated or looked up a solution. In a way, it is a perfect end to a puzzle game, a last remix and challenge where you need to draw on everything you learned. A final test of your mastery – and I passed.

I don’t remember what you get when you solve it, and I don’t really care. It only mattered that I did it. Although I haven’t listened to Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King since.

The Moment that Made Me Decide Not to Refund Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds

I had been watching streams of people playing Battlgrounds so by the time I purchased it, I knew I would like it. However, there was one moment in particular that stands out in my first few solo games that defined how attached to the game I would become. I spent a few days debating (and not playing more than an hour and a half) whether to refund the game or not because my old gaming laptop was barely able to keep the game running in the first four or five minutes. Buildings wouldn’t load, loot wouldn’t spawn, and sometimes I wasn’t even able to move. I usually had to land in sparse areas and fumble around at 5 FPS and hope that no one saw me. If I got through those first five minutes though, then it was great! This moment is the one that made me decide to keep the game and to keep playing, despite being frustrated and handicapped by its performance on my computer.

One of my favorite first-person shooter games is Far Cry 2 because of the hostile and unforgiving environment it has and for its level of immersion. I had decided to approach PUBG in the same way – dropping down, sneaking around, slowly looting and expecting an enemy in every corner. I would creep across Erangel from tree to tree, taking my time to get the jump on someone, filling my head with even more tension than the game already provided.

It was raining on the island that day, and I was crouched, sneaking around like I do when I came upon one of the octagonal towers that are everywhere. This would be my refuse as the circle closed in on my spot, a small shelter from whence I could rain bullets down on the other survivors. As I was about to get on the steps, I noticed there was something wrong with this tower, one of its windows looked wrong – it had a pane of glass missing. Was there someone in there? I had heard no sounds and I doubted the inhabitant, if there was one, could have heard my sneaking over the rain. My heart started beating faster.

To make sure, I readied a fragmentation grenade and lobbed it through the window. I waited for what seemed like minutes, ready to fire as the person inside scrambled to get away fromt he grenade. Then – BOOM! The rest of the glass blew out, but there was no other sound.

I waited a few beats, still nothing. Happy to discover that whatever inhabitant had been here before, I ascended the stairs to take ownership of this little refuge. My heartbeat relaxed, I felt relieved, and I stepped into the upper level of the tower. I quickly swept my vision across the room before positioning myself to better see the fields where others would come, running from the blue.

Then I heard shots, close by. I turned as my health bar got chunked down. Someone came flying out of a small alcove I hadn’t seen and was firing as fast as they could in my direction – and hitting. I fired back, might have nicked them, but it was too late. They had gotten the jump on me during my moment of relaxation and swiftly dropped me under a hail of bullets.

Even though I did not survive the encounter, that moment occupied my mind for the next few days. When I was working, all I could think about was getting back into Battlegrounds. I loved the feeling of always being in danger, even when you think you are safe. It was a great feeling that I had been able to deduce that someone was, in fact, in that tower but they had bested me despite my best efforts.

I have put many, many more hours into Battlegrounds by now and, truthfully, it’s been a bit harder getting that feeling of tension back. I was playing pretty early, with others who were also inexperienced, and it gave me a heightened level of fear and a will to survive. Now, I do not jump at every movement. I know that crouch walking over the map is the best way to get caught in the blue. I play mostly with my friends now, not solo, and we are a bit more run and gun than when I used to play with myself.

But I will never forget the moment that made me decide not to refund the game, and eventually get a new computer.

(The first Chicken Dinner, and everyone since, was pretty good too.)

 

Prey: Who is Morgan Yu?

Prey is a game about identity. It is a game that fully embrace's Arkane Studio's mantra of "Choose the Way You Want to Play". Each section of the space station have areas that can be accessed in multiple ways depending on how you are playing the … [Continue reading]

Shadow of Mordor: The Padding of the Rings

Everyone who has played Shadow of Mordor has a story about their favorite nemesis. That orc or uruk who just keeps beating you to the ground, or always getting away - returning later with scars and bruisers ready to go for round 2.  For me, there was … [Continue reading]

Blues and Bullets: Review of a Dead Game

Episodic games always come with the chance of never getting to the end of the game. I tend to avoid them at all costs, choosing to purchase only after the entire season has been released. However, when Blues and Bullets came along, it looked exactly … [Continue reading]