Welcome back to Level Grinding, RPGamer's news industry editorial column. I was thrilled to see such an amazing response from readers last month on the newly rebooted format. Seeing both regulars and new commenters in the forum after the last grind session did my heart good and made it all worthwhile. So, thank you again for that.
This month we'll be discussing a range of industry topics starting with tri-Ace's acquisition and ending with Anita Sarkeesian's recent lecture on NYU. I can promise you balanced opinion pieces on all of the topics, but it should be understood that I've never been a yes-man and don't write these articles with the intention of regurgitating popular opinion. Regular readers of RPGamer's editorials already know that I'm fairly strong-willed in the way I assert my perspectives, but ultimately the goal with this column is to examine the consensus of issues and highlight the weaknesses of commonly accepted arguments. None of the articles in this month's grind session exemplify that notion quite as well as the Boss Battle, mostly because of how polarizing of a figure Anita seems to be in the video game community. Still, I hope you enjoy this session and will come back for the next even if our opinions seem to differ.
We will be starting with some interesting videos that I've been keen to share this month and will end on some reader questions. As always, we'd appreciate any feedback on the column in the forum. Now, let's get on to business.
Yes, I am a fan of Jim Sterling. His personality may be abrasive, but I firmly believe that is for the purpose of satire. This video ties largely into the public reception of The Order 1886. As always, his arguments are well formed and interesting.
If you've never seen the Elder's React series of videos, now is the right time to check it out. This episode features some excellent responses to Five Nights at Freddy's.
You might plan on buying Final Fantasy Type-0 HD when it comes out in a few weeks. If so, you're probably curious about the quality of the game. Avalanche Reviews is here to help. This review is of the PSP version of the game, but most of the video should be applicable to the HD experience as well.
Nepro Japan, a company that specifically focuses on mobile phones, has announced the acquisition of Japanese RPG developer tri-Ace. Nepro has reportedly been interested in strengthening their hold on the mobile market by acquiring more studios to develop smartphone titles. Their other subsidiary, Mobile & Game Studio, has worked on a number of arcade titles and tri-Ace's experience with console games is being used to complement their development capacity. You may have heard of tri-Ace, as Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile are considered to be cult classics among many RPGamers. It's because of this history that so many people have come out in disappointment of the acquisition. Today, I'll be reviewing why this isn't a huge loss.
Founded in 1995, this JRPG developer originally worked under Telenet Japan's Wolfteam Studio and was had once been known for giving games action-oriented battle systems with relatively deep skill systems. Never heard of Wolfteam? Yes, you have; today it is known as Namco Tales Studio. To provide a brief recap, Tales of Phantasia's later stages of development were plagued with internal conflict leading to a large number of departures which would culminate in the creation of tri-Ace. The newly formed JRPG developer would go on to produce the Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile series, as well as Radiata Stories and Resonance of Fate. Recently, however, the company has strayed from its development trajectory and the results haven't been as flattering.
Something changed at tri-Ace. The last truly excellent game I can remember the company developing was Resonance of Fate, and that title is exceptionally polarizing due to its harsh learning curve. Since that time, tri-Ace has run a browser-based MOBA, developed an arcade sniper game, provided subcontracting work to Square Enix on the Lightning Saga, and, to a certain degree, has faded into obscurity. The last game the company was able to develop independently was Phantasy Star Nova for the PS Vita, and to be honest I'm not sure that it will ever hit Western shores. Even if that title is received well in its homeland, tri-Ace releases have almost no consistency in terms of critical and commercial reception.
In short, the company has never been a "great" developer — and the quality of their work has suffered in recent years. The same gradual fall from grace affected another distinguished JRPG developer: Game Arts. Game Arts, responsible for Silpheed, Lunar, and Grandia was also acquired by a large company known more for online games than console titles. Fans of their past games complained at that time about the acquisition in a very similar fashion to fans of tri-Ace today, but the reality was that the Game Arts of 2009 was not the same as the Game Arts of 1999 and the tri-Ace of 2015 is not the same as the tri-Ace of 2005. Both of these developers will always be remembered for their legacy, but their golden years have long since passed. It's time to move on.
The buzz among many Xbox gamers has been the announcement that Fable Legends will be a Free-to-Play game "done right." A number of media outlets and video game pundits have come out in support of the game's proposed model, but I can't help but fundamentally question the flexibility at play even when perspicacious writers like Keza MacDonald are on board.
According to Keza's write up for Kotaku, "Any PC or Xbox One player will be able to download [Fable Legends] for free. There will be a whole story's worth of quests at launch, with more to be released episodic-style every few months, and continuous updates. There will be no paywalls, no limited game time, no horrible "energy bars" or "gems" or whatever that take time to recharge. There will be [four] heroes available to play at any one time, and they will rotate every [two] weeks. Then if you want to keep playing a character, you can either wait for them to come back into rotation [...], or pay to unlock them permanently." She goes on to state that the Free-to-Play actually seems less risky to her than asking a full price for a multiplayer-focused take on a single player series.
Due respect to MacDonald, but I disagree with her analysis of the game's proposed pay model. Yes, the suggested model is absolutely better than paymium, recharge times, and paywalls, but is a F2P model good simply because it doesn't use the most despicable devices F2P are known for to reach into your wallet? I don't think that's all to be considered.
Though it may be hard to believe, my problem with F2P games has never been the payment method. It has always been about the treatment of content. Allow me to ask a question: if a game is developed in full and features plenty of gameplay variety, why stagger content? Why distribute quests episodically? Why take playable warriors away? That's a problem, and it's a big one.
If a game is good enough in terms of content and quality, regardless of whether it is predominately a multiplayer experience or single-player, it should receive a full release. Put the power of what to play and how to play into the hands of the gamers. Whether or not a game is too risky to buy should be determined by the player post-release. They don't need developers structuring their games differently to reduce the risk. Just let them buy the game with everything included and play it as they like. That is ultimately the most libertarian approach to video gaming, and it not only protects the gamers from the darker side of F2P investments but it also allows them to freely share the game with others and trade it in when they no longer care for the experience. Artificially lengthening and "improving" Fable Legends by periodically adding content while also taking content away is not what we need in today's video game market.
Final Fantasy XV director, Hajima Tabata, recently spoke with IGN regarding the direction of the series' future and, for me at least, it led to a few internal debates over the importance of realism in terms of game world credibility and ultimately the interplay between that credibility and the player's immersion. That's what I'm keen to hone-in on today.
Speaking with IGN News Editor Luke Karmali, the director stated that the team at Square Enix was trying to create a more realistic feel to the world and with it a more realistic Final Fantasy. "The kind of Final Fantasy I want to make, it's one where you feel this is a real living breathing world and these things could exist in real life. The character is the same too — it's a real person with real motivations. [...] They're credible; they could exist and would live in this environment and behave this way. Just to get that feeling of credibility is something that I really want to do." It's a noble goal, but with it is Tabata assuming that a gritty sense of realism leads to a more believable adventure? Is that the intent of Final Fantasy XV using the real world as a basis for a fantasy?
I've found plenty of cartoonish and relatively unrealistic RPGs to be credible in the context of their own world. And while it's true that player immersion is somewhat dependent upon believability, I don't think realism, especially photo-realistic graphical realism, is the right barometer.
We know that games can feel real even in less-than-realistic contexts. After all, it's not like Heavy Rain was the only video game experience capable of making gamers cry. Plenty of fantasy games have come and gone over the decades with varying levels of immersion. So, clearly a game doesn't have to look like a TV movie or only feature realistic characters in order to tug on the heart strings. But what exactly do those unrealistic fantasy games do to move you and how does the presentation pull you in or push you out of the experience?
The best example I can come up with of a game that acts completely unrealistic while also seeming perfectly believable within the context of its own world is Mother 3. So believable, that it broke me on an emotional level. Because the characters were all so well developed and acted under their own unique sets of convictions, I find it hard to argue that their lack of relative realism hurt their in-game credibility. It didn't matter that their motivations weren't always relatable and their animations were cartoonish, often dipping into slapstick humor; the hearts of each of those characters were real and I gave a damn about them in spite of presentation.
Still, presentation is an influencing factor. It's easier to connect with a character like Nathan Drake because he not only looks visibly believable, but also acts like a real person. His motivations are not only understandable — they are downright common in real life. Most will relate to him because they have met people in their own lives that are equally as sarcastic, short-sighted, and fun loving. The relatively realistic portrayal of his character wasn't necessary for us to connect with him, but it does establish that connection naturally and possibly more easily.
After mulling over the importance of realism, credibility, and presentation I've concluded that while realism isn't necessary for Final Fantasy or any video game, it should help people to accept the world of Final Fantasy XV and future titles in the franchise more readily. I can't say for certain that gritty realism is the direction I want to see the franchise go down (it is a fantasy game, after all), but I am interested to see how the fantasy elements of the franchise translate to what is an intentionally more realistic entry.
Anita Sarkeesian, who has long been a controversial figure in the video game landscape, recently gave a lecture at New York University regarding how she would like to see games change in the future. Stephen Totilo of Kotaku was in attendance and had a very interesting and extensive write up of the "eight things developers can do to make games less shitty for women." Her solutions to the way women have been and continue to be represented in this interactive medium don't come as a surprise considering the content of the videos she has already produced for her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series. Still, not all of her solutions hit the mark and some of those that do don't do enough good for women. They seek to treat the symptoms and not the disease.
I'll preface my criticism by stating that I have seen all of her Tropes gaming videos and haven't had many issues with them, excluding a fairly transparent research bias. I absolutely agree that video games have a propensity to depict only a narrow range of female characters. I also agree that those characters are often used as props or damsels in distress in order to motivate a male protagonist. Finally, it's hard to argue against the notion that the sexualizing of female characters in video games is commonplace. If you think any of these assessments are off-the-mark I'd suggest that you try to imagine yourself as a woman playing all of your favorite games. I'd guarantee that you'd be annoyed by the lack of realism, representation, and female character diversity.
With that said, just because I agree with many of Sarkeesian's points doesn't mean her assumptions are universal. It also doesn't mean that all of her assumptions about a media format that she has publicly expressed disinterest in are on the mark. As Stephen Totilo expresses in his write up of her lecture, she is an advocate; it is her job to draw attention to the under-discussed elements of media that affect the way games are consumed. The world needs advocates on all sides of all issues just as much as it needs engaged moderates. To that point, I make today's criticisms with complete respect to her and what she's fighting for.
Her first "fix" is the inclusion of more playable female protagonists. This can be a hard issue to address, because the need for any kind of protagonist identity is determined by the narrative's requirements. For instance, does it make sense for an American Revolutionary War first-person shooter to have a female protagonist? Considering that only men were allowed to participate in those battles, it isn't reasonable that there be an absence of female characters. That said, in a mostly-fictitious game like Assassin's Creed: Unity it makes no sense that a woman not be playable. Not only are there a number of male characters to play as in Ubisoft's latest screw up, but the most famous assassin of the French Revolution was, in fact, a woman. To sum up, I think more narratives should be more inclusive but I also wouldn't be tremendously comfortable telling writers that they should have to change their story to fit the needs of the consumer. After all, the point of fiction is freedom of creativity.
Another "easy" to solve fix is the sexualized grunting she often hears from female game characters who are supposedly engaged in combat. While I concede that too many female characters make sexual noises in video games, I have never taken a mid-combat grunt in a sexual fashion. Male characters also tend to grunt while in combat. Is that not sexual? How so?
Similarly she indicated that female characters animate very differently in some big-budget games, offering the solution of having them animate like real world woman. The problem with this solution is that there is an unequitable expectation taking place, in that male characters in video games don't move the way most men do in real life. In fact, almost no characters in an action, adventure, or fighting games move like real world people. Bayonetta and Dante from Devil May Cry both demonstrate this point well. These characters aren't supposed to move realistically; they're supposed to be larger than life.
Speaking of The Wonderful 101, she noted that the only female protagonist was garbed in pink and highlighted the media's unfortunate use of the Smurfette Principle. I couldn't agree more with her assessment, and actually would love to play a sequel to the game where more female characters are wearing colors of all kinds and Wonder Pink is actually a guy. The gendered way our society approaches colors is probably the most inane thing about modern day human society. Still, the use of pink as a gender identifier, while incredibly lazy, is another symptom of a greater disease.
She highlighted Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress as having limited diversity in terms of options, while praising the latest Borderlands for upping the number of playable women heroes. And there really is something to that. More than half of the world is female. Why is it that only one in five protagonists in any given game female? Again, I wouldn't feel comfortable forcing a creator's hand to write-in more women, but why wasn't including more women a part of creator's thought process from the beginning?
She also called for greater body diversity, lamenting the Victoria Secret physiques, and noted the way armor and garbs tend to be used on female characters relative to male characters. In this case, she means that women's armor tends to be sexy and revealing while men's are bulky and massive. This was another statement I couldn't have agreed more with, and that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who might have been monitoring my twitter feed around the release of Dragon's Crown. She then pushed for more people of color representation, as women of color are not often on display. Sadly, I'd have to say that the same can be said for men of color.
There are more arguments made by her throughout the lecture, but the trajectory is essentially the same. It all boils down to "this doesn't make sense because real women aren't like that, so please change in the future." And that is unfortunate, as her solutions to changing the way things are done are more akin to reactionary Band-Aids than they are preemptive fixes or meaningful cultural shifts.
You see, the point that I was trying to drive home in saying that these are symptoms of a greater disease is that we cannot effectively change the way games are made by pushing guilt or forcing creators into becoming more inclusive. They are not inclusive specifically because of the diversity of developers, the profit-centric focus of game publishers, and the apparent diversity of their audience. Take that all in for a second.
Those three elements actively hurt diversity in games and are not simply systemic or apathetic in nature. Not enough women and people of color hold positions as developers within the industry, and that's the bigger problem. Yes, the developers of today need to understand the representational problems of their current development methodologies, but those methodologies won't change across the board until developers themselves are more diverse. Right now, I would argue that many of them are making the kind of games that they would like to play and, sadly, that can mean more male protagonists and more sexualized females. Major publishers, to the same token, don't seem to greenlight games unless they can appeal to a largely male and mostly Caucasian demographic. It's not fair, but to them it must appear as the best route to make commercial success.
If we are to change the way people are portrayed in video games, we need to fundamentally change the culture of development and the habits of consumers. That's the heart of the disease. A homogeneous group of developers are always going to be more inclined to create media that represents them and their sensibilities. So let's focus on making the game development culture more inclusive to people of all walks of life and making sure that publishers know that women and people of color do buy games and should be marketed towards. Maybe at some point in the future the landscape will be different, but we can't just focus on the symptoms of a greater problem.
With that, the first entry in what will hopefully be many level grinding sessions has come to a close. At this point, I'd like to thank my Editor-in-Chief, Michael Cunningham, for his continual support, our beloved readers for taking the time to indulge my abrasive opinions, and of course all of the commenters in RPGamer's forums for engaging in the conversation. I'll now ask that you do the same.
If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:
What's your favorite tri-Ace game? Why?
Is there a version of F2P that is fair to the player?
Will you play a F2P Fable Legends?
How important is realism in video games to you?
What are your thoughts on Anita Sarkeesian?
I'll see you next month. In the meantime, stay tuned to RPGamer for all of the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.