Last month there was a great piece on Gamasutra regarding male gaze and its current effect on the industry. We are seeing a lot of articles and critical discussions looking at women in games and the industry. A few weeks ago I posted about the challenges behind designing female characters in games and this post is effectively the sequel to that one.

Once again before we get going I have to remind everyone that the following is my opinion and that I’m not speaking on behalf of male or female gamers.

Male Vision Tm

Before we talk about content, I want to touch on one of the problems at the heart of the matter. Male Vision is my upgraded term for Male Gaze: where it’s not just the camera or player’s perspective of the game viewed from a heterosexual male, but the entire world of the game. How many games have we played where men and women wear completely different styles of clothing? Or where the female role is played down to the point that it appears that women don’t exist.

When this argument comes up, most critics will respond that in these types of games, that men are also featured buff and don’t wear a lot of clothes. But what these people don’t understand (or choose to ignore) is that these male characters were designed to appeal to the power fantasy of men, and any sense of eye candy for women is just a coincidence. In God of War for example, it doesn’t matter how muscular or the lack of clothing, Kratos was designed to appeal to the fantasy of beating the crap out of anything that moves with your awesome strength .

 Examining Male Vision

God Of War

If you look at the evolution of the Soul Calibur series, each one featured the female characters wearing less and less clothing, while having their bust size increase. The problem in my opinion isn’t that characters are being designed too sexy, but that the general consensus is that Male Vision is the right way to go every-time.

Both men and women can look sexy without wearing next to nothing. There are many examples in pop culture of both sexes dressing in normal attire and can still be seductive without being sexualized. But in many games, it’s always women that have to look like they just came from stripping while the men are wearing normal clothing.

Another common rebuttal is that women should just play games that aren’t offensive to women. In a perfect world that may not be such a bad thing… but we don’t live in a perfect world.

Choices and the Lack there of:

Any kind of creative or consumer based industry has products that cater to different preferences. With the reason being to provide variety and to increase market share. Pepsi didn’t make caffeine free or diet sodas to make people happy. They did it so that regardless of the person’s preference, there was a suitable Pepsi product for them. And more importantly, if they didn’t do it and Coca-Cola did, they would lose out on a lot of profit.

It is the basic right of any consumer to not be forced to use a product they don’t want to. But the problem is what happens when there is only one option?

Personally, I can’t stand to watch soap operas and if I’m flipping through the channels and stop on one, I quickly change the channel. Now, should I blame the network and petition to have soap operas removed? Hell no. Because I have at least two hundred other channels that don’t have soap operas on them.

But, let’s say we live in a world where every major channel has nothing but soap operas on it. And no matter what channel I watch, there is always a soap opera on. At that point, I have the right as a consumer to voice my concerns because of the lack of variety.

If you look at Anime for instance, there are a lot of anime series aimed completely at the male demographic. One sub genre is dubbed “the harem situation”, in which there is one man who is always surrounded by beautiful women who each want to be with him. But there are plenty of Anime series that appeal to women with strong female leads and even the female version of the harem situation.

In the game industry however, there aren’t as many choices which is why this problem is focused on the most in this specific industry. Going back to the fighting game genre, can you name one fighting game that isn’t set to appeal completely to men? At GDC, I watched a playable demo of Girl-Fight and something tells me that it is not going to be showcasing strong female characters.

Both character design and plot development in games seems to be focused on Male Vision in the retail market. Thinking about it, there is one game that comes to my mind where the male lead isn’t in charge, and that would be Catherine. The plot dealt with Vincent, who was stuck between dating two strong women and unable to make up his mind and be assertive about whom he wants to date. Vincent was a delta personality: shy, withdrawn and not able to make important decisions. This is a complete 180 from the normal in charge male video game character.

 Examining Male Vision

Catherine

While the game was about solving puzzles in a horror situation, the theme of the game dealt with commitment in a relationship. For the majority of the game, Vincent was the weaker of the two sexes and completely at the whim of the two female characters. Even with the horror themes, there was a mature story about relationships and growing up waiting to be discovered.

Designing Women:

The other part of the problem is that it’s not enough to throw a female lead into your game and call it a day. In my last post on the subject, I discussed various negative examples of female characters that did more harm than good.

Not only are there very few games that have female leads, but the list of female characters that have their character developed over the course of the game are even shorter. One of the many problems with Metroid: Other M was that the designers completely ignored the development of Samus over the years. Instead, they tacked on relationship issues and childish behavior to a character that is traditionally seen as being strong.

The Ridley scene was completely out of character for Samus both considering her personality and the timeline of the game’s events. All made worse by the conclusion of this scene, where the toughest bounty hunter in the galaxy had to be saved and given a pep talk.

One of the best female lead characters in a game would arguably be Jade from Beyond Good And Evil. Even though Jade was a strong character, she was also defined as motherly and compassionate to her friends and the orphans she took care of. This was one of the few times where a female character was defined so well, that the story wouldn’t be the same if we replaced her with a male character.

 Examining Male Vision

Beyond Good And Evil

According to the *Entertainment Service Association, 47% of gamers in 2012 were women and there are more adult women playing games then boys 17 and younger. This is an increase of women playing games up from 40% in 2010. With that increase, it’s surprising from a basic economic standpoint, that more games aren’t being developed to appeal to women. Or at least, balance out the number of games aimed at men.

That would go a long way towards both moving away from the boy’s club mentality and to help diversify the # of mainstream titles released. But it’s going to be a hard mountain to climb, with so many advertisements  and viewpoints aimed specifically at men; perhaps someday we’ll see different game ads to appeal to the different sexes.

Josh Bycer

*  ESA Report

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 The One Hit Wonders of Game Design Part five: Odama

You have to give Nintendo a hand, whenever enough criticism about them not creating original properties builds up enough; they go out of their way to release something completely out of left field. On the GameCube, there was Pikmin, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat and today’s game: Odama.

Odama was a real time strategy pinball game set in feudal Japan… yes you read that right. Your mission is to take back Japan using the way of Ninten-do (I did not make that up) and a giant magical boulder called an Odama. The gameplay consists of you using flippers to launch the Odama around the map, hitting important encampments and wiping out enemy troops. The game also came with a microphone attachment for the GameCube controller that allowed you to give basic commands to your army.

Each level required you to move your troops from the bottom of the map to the top while the enemy army and fortifications were standing the way. By hitting triggers on the map, you could open up paths for your army or weaken the enemy army, which were required on the later levels. Eventually you’ll come to boss stages where you’ll have to deal with a monster, using a combination of the Odama and your army.

Odama definitely had a lot going for it in the originality department, but there were several major problems with the design. First as it turns out, a pinball does not make a suitable battlefield commander. There are plenty of situations where you want the Odama to hit an enemy army, or strike something to protect your army, but the physics prevented you from having that degree of control. Which on one hand is normal for a pinball game, but on the other hand, a regular pinball game doesn’t require you to manage an army at the same time.

But the killer for Odama was how the difficulty of the game was set up. As mentioned you need to get your army from one end of the map to the other to win the map and if you run out of troops the game is over. What makes things frustrating is that your troop total persisted across the levels. Due to the unpredictable pinball physics, one level could end with very little troop lost, and the next you could lose half your army.

To make things worse, replaying an earlier level to see if you could do better removes your progress. For example: Let’s say I’m on map 6 and decide to replay map 3 which I did horribly on. Once I start map 3 my progress on maps 4 and 5 are erased. As you can guess, this can lead to an annoying cycle of replaying one map to then having to repeat the other maps if the pinball gods aren’t smiling on you.

Odama is one of those games where foresight or a sequel to refine the mechanics could have created a new franchise for Nintendo. But for now, it remains on the very small list of Nintendo first party clunkers.

Josh Bycer

Up Next: A Game That Came Out a Few Years Too Soon

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Story writing is an art-form in and of itself, and one area where most games falter. Personally, I always prefer great gameplay over a great story. But a game with an amazing story can turn a good game, into an excellent one. With all the time spent playing Diablo 3, I had a chance to examine the story and in my opinion it doesn’t compare to Diablo 2.

Diablo 3 featured several problems that are inherent of bad story telling in general. Now, Diablo 3 isn’t the only game that has made these mistakes, but it’s the most recent one and a game I’m sure a lot of people have played. Of course, what follows is open season for spoilers so if you haven’t played Diablo 3 yet, you may want to avoid reading this.

1. Faulty World Logic

One of the biggest challenges when creating a fantasy setting is defining the rules of the world. In a real world setting, the writer already has this taken care of. But a misconception is that just because the world is based in fantasy that things don’t have to make sense.

If in the first 10 minutes the story declares that only Orcs can use magic, then having every single race cast spells two hours in is an example of lazy writing. One of the hallmarks of a great writer is being able to create a universe or setting that stays consistent in the rules established.

Each Harry Potter movie did a good job in showing how the world works. By taking place in Hogwarts, it allows both the main characters and the audience to see firsthand the rules of the setting. How potions work, spells are cast and the laws of the society for example.

Now, setting up world logic doesn’t mean you have to explain how everything works to the audience, only the relevant parts matter. For example, I’m a huge fan of the works of Miyazaki and one area that his movies excel in, is the setting. Each movie takes place in a completely unique setting with its own rules, laws and people. The stories never truly explain how the entire world works, only the parts that fit into the narrative and character’s lives.

In Howl’s Moving Castle, Howl knows a number of people from before the events of the movie, but the audience is never told just exactly how he knows these people. Instead, we find out their motivations for how they respond to Howl in the present and how it affects the world.

With that said we can turn out attention to Diablo 3 for this point. The problems with Diablo 3 are that the logic of the world is never really explained or fits with the narrative.

First off, it’s never made understood why returning enemies: The Butcher, Izual, and The Skeleton King were brought back to life after being defeated in previous games. Diablo gets a pass for being reborn in Leah’s body, but it’s to our understanding that once a demon is killed, they’re gone for good.

Speaking about the Skeleton King, his whole appearance in Diablo 3 is full of plot holes. Why is he a ghost for the first encounter? What happened to the person he cursed? And why is the crown so important to defeating him?

What was the entire point about the sin hearts, and why were there only two of them? The game throws different objects and people into the story, but they’re never explained why they are important. What exactly did the catapults do that would turn back an entire army of demons for instance. or why we needed to save the angel of hope?

The more plot elements that aren’t explained, leads to plot holes and logical inconsistencies that can ruin a story. What’s worse is that if the back-story of the world isn’t set, it can lead to the writers adding more layers to an already shaky foundation, which takes us to the next point.

2. RetCon:
Multi- part stories can be tricky to design, as the writer needs to keep the plot moving. A common pitfall that can happen is the writer going back over previous plot points to reintroduce them into the story with a different meaning. The hero finds out that he was the chosen one all along but didn’t know it until this very moment for example.

Or: the hero’s best friend actually hated them the entire time and was just using the hero and now wants to back-stab them. This point reeks of bad writing and the audience can collectively groan when the writer uses this point.

Diablo 3 features a very confusing retcon in the form of the Nephalem. According to the game, these are the children of angels and demons from a long time ago. They supposedly have super human powers and are set up as the game’s version of the chosen one.

This doesn’t make sense, considering how the world of Diablo was set up. In previous games, the heroes have always been regular humans who were trained in supernatural professions, and they were able to save the world. Were they really Nephalem the entire time? And if so, why did no one mention this at all over the last two games?

For all the buildup around this plot point, it never goes anywhere. The player is never given any special powers to show that they are Nephalem outside of the level 60 magic find buff. All this point is used for, is to make the player’s connection to the story very dry. Every character refers to the player as a Nephalem, instead of by their profession.

Another retcon has to do with Adria, who at the end of act 3 uses demonic magic to wipe the floor with an entire group of solders, Tryeal and the player. Whenever we met Adria, she has not shown any use of magical powers, nor does she show any after this event. But for the writer’s sake, for one minute she is given special powers to move the plot along and it is another weak point in the game’s story.

3. Loose Threads

When creating a narrative that will be developed over multiple works, writers like to leave plot points open for future development. The problem is when writers completely forget to wrap up story elements and forget that they exist.

In multi-part stories, there are two types of plot points: Meta and local. Meta points are those relating to the universe or grand plot: Sauron taking over in Lord of the Rings and the empire as a threat in Star Wars for example. Local points are those localized in the specific chapter of the story: The battle for Helm’s Deep and the Rebels fighting the first death star for instance.

The important point to remember is that local plots have to be resolved in some way by the end of the plot. One of the biggest annoyances is when writers leave multiple plot points completely unresolved to be answered in future sequels.

An example of writers getting it right would be the build up to The Avengers. Each movie has the local plot of dealing with the main character’s situation. But there are mentions and little remarks about the Meta plot of the continuity between the movies that led to The Avengers. All points dealing with the local plot are resolved by the end of the movie, but the points that had to do with the Avengers were left open for that movie to explain them.

Harry Potter is another great example: each movie dealt with a year of being in Hogwarts and had a plot based on it. Then there was the larger plot of the war between Voldemort and the good wizards that loomed over the entire series.

Diablo 3 is full of loose threads that the writers made no attempt to clear up: The thieves’ guild threat in act 1, Covetous Shen’s mysterious objects and Adria’s fate. It’s obvious that Blizzard is saving those points for expansions, but it still reeks of lazy writing.

Diablo 2 ended with a more complete plot. At the end the local plot of defeating Diablo was finished, but the Meta plot of finishing off Baal and saving the world was reserved for the expansion. It worked in Diablo 2, because throughout the course of the game, the player’s main task was to beat Diablo, and that’s where all the plot points focused on.

But in Diablo 3, those points mentioned above, were left up in the air with no attempt to explain their purpose. If the writers would have referenced them in an attempt to wrap them up for the local point, then there wouldn’t have been a problem.

4. Leah’s end and the token female: 

Leah was supposed to be Blizzard’s big plot point: featured in all the cut scenes and the next chapter in the world’s story. But, Leah’s character never grows beyond an object in the game. Her only use in game is as a key to opening up the next part of the game.

Conversations with her never develop her as a character as they deal with her talking about past events and how she didn’t believe that this could happen. The big reveal at the end where we find out that she is Diablo’s daughter doesn’t matter by the fact that she becomes possessed by Diablo and robbed of any further character development.

All these points do is show another example of bad storytelling: introducing a female character whose only reason is to be a female character. Leah served no purpose to the game, as she could have been replaced by a magical object (such as the black soulstone) without missing a beat. Kerrigan from Starcraft was a better developed character who became a major point in the Starcraft mythos.

The other problem with how Leah turns out is that it goes against the theme of the Diablo universe: corruption. The back-story and previous games are all about good people being corrupted and turned towards evil: Leoric, Tal Rasha, the dark wanderer, the rogues from Diablo 1 etc. Having someone just flip a switch from “good” to “evil” in the form of a possession was weak storytelling.

What would have been a much deeper reveal would be if Leah over the course of the game became evil on her own and betrayed the group, instead of her mother enacting a plan, years in the making. More importantly, it would allow the designers to create a new threat instead of just reintroducing another form of Diablo.

By making the main enemy the possession by Diablo, it completely invalidates Leah as a character and any meaning she is supposed to have in the game.

All the new graphics engines and platforms available are not substitutes for story development. As mentioned above, a great story won’t save a horrible game, but it can help elevate a game from being good, to a classic.

Josh Bycer

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 The One Hit Wonders of Game Design Part Four: Little King Story

I find it funny that some of my favorite Wii titles don’t make extensive use of the motion controls that the console is prided on. XenoBlade Chronicles, Super Mario Galaxy and today’s pick : Little King Story. A mix of Pikmin, city building and a lighthearted look at manifest destiny.

The story is that you play as a small boy named Corobo, who has no friends and not much going on. Until the day that he finds a magical crown that give him the power to make people follow his orders. With the crown and his new found council he sets off to create a kingdom that rules the world.

The flow of the game is that you have your kingdom which acts as your home base. From your throne you can instruct your people to build new structures, unlock upgrades, and advance the story. Money is earned by bringing back miscellaneous junk from the world and by taxing the buildings in your kingdom.

When it’s time to go exploring, you recruit townspeople from your city and instruct them to go into buildings that represent the various classes to transform them into that class. Going around and fighting in the world is done like in Pikmin, with your followers trailing the king and “launching” themselves at enemies or structures to interact with.

Your main goal is to expand your kingdom to cover the entire planet and to do so requires invading territories and conquering them. There are two kinds of territories: ones controlled by monsters, and ones controlled by rival kings. Monster controlled ones require the player to fight a mini boss to take control. While the king battles are unique boss fights that have to be seen to believe. For example one boss fight takes the form of a geography quiz and another is a pinball battle.

What I enjoyed about Little King Story was the combination of going out and exploring the world mixed with the feeling of turning your little village into a grand kingdom. The game is mostly open world, with the majority of the territories and side quests optional. The king battles represent the main quest and must be completed to progress. Very few titles attempt to combine different game genres and offer the player two ways of progressing through the gameplay.

Little King Story was not without its problems which unfortunately led it to not being a smash hit in the US. First is that the gameplay was definitely aimed at a younger audience with how the gameplay didn’t evolve over the course of the game. The city building elements are restricted to deciding what buildings go into which plots of land and the player never gets a chance to fully create their kingdom. The act of equipping characters with gear found is only used by finding set items in the world. Which means that you can’t just create new stuff or find a random item.

The game also had problems with controlling your followers similar to Pikmin. Since they follow directly behind the player, it can be a challenge to move them to avoid attacks. Annoyingly, followers can accidentally fall off of ledges and lose health in the process, which playing on the harder difficulty where everyone starts with only one health point, lead to some frustrating deaths.

One control problem unique to Little King Story was issuing orders to your followers. Unlike Pikmin, where every pikmin attacks the same, here some followers attack in close range, while others attack with arrows. The problem is that you can’t recall individual classes or like in Pikmin, selected characters. Instead you can only command everyone to return to the king, this makes setting up multiple attack groups needlessly obtuse

Little King Story was a game that was stuck between appealing to younger gamers and having the complexity to keep older gamers interested. If there was more to the gameplay such as a greater control of building the kingdom or the world being completely open world, the game may have done better . To be fair to Little King Story, the first Pikmin was even more basic in terms of content available, but it had the backing of Nintendo  and a more in depth sequel that even added randomize dungeons.

The Wii is chock full of third party titles with many of them sadly shovelware around the motion controls. This makes finding quality non Nintendo titles like finding a diamond in the rough. For those hungering for more Pikmin style gameplay before the third one is released, Little King Story should help tide things over somewhat.

Josh Bycer

Up Next: Feudal Pinball

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