Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Paint By Numbers

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A friend of mine was accepted into the beta for Wildstar, a Massively Multiplayer Online game made by NCSoft, a company known for polished but short-lived MMOs. They’re polished because the company has a lot of experience making games. They’re short-lived because the company has very little experience making compelling games. My friend was disappointed with the gameplay – she couldn’t lay specifics, however, as she was under a non-disclosure agreement – but remarked that the problem was that the developer and publisher listened too much to their fans.

Too much?

But there’s something in that statement; one that speaks to the design choices of a company that wishes to make a successful game and aspires to that of an art-form – famously criticized by the late Roger Ebert as an impossible feat due to the industry’s immaturity – if debased by acquiescing to the wishes of its lowest common denominator. Take the official trailer to the game:

The number of cliches and tropes in those three minutes is staggering, and to list them all would be tedious. In short, however, we have the alpha, a nondescript short-haired white male with a motorcycle and sunglasses, who gets the glory. We have the beta, a brute of a character who chomps cigars, schleps large hardware, and exists to deal with opponents the alpha doesn’t want to fight. Finally, we have what I can only describe as a walking sexual fetish – a stick figure with D cups, spilling out of her uniform, with all the anime-esque accoutrements to attract every furry in the western hemisphere – who existed to be saved (at 1:55) and to support the alpha (at 2:35).

This is an MMO, so the idea is that the prospective player will want to play as any character in the trailer. The problem is there’s only one protagonist in the trailer. The narrative is pulled out of the DreamWorks wheelhouse and says more about the target audience than it does about the game. There’s already been a controversy where-in the developers were pressured to give their female characters a breast reduction because critics noted that it was rather ridiculous. But they’re only doing what the fans want. Compare, for instance, the cinematic trailer for Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO made by Bioware and Electronic Arts:

We have the same white alpha male who takes the glory (this time in full Western motif), the same beta male who takes care of the opponents the alpha doesn’t want to fight, and the same token female who exists to be saved (at 3:00). Let’s try another trailer, this time of Rift, an MMO by Trion Worlds:

We have the same white alpha male who takes the glory, the same brute of a beta (isn’t it funny how all the betas aren’t human?), the same token female. This time she doesn’t get saved (she simply dies), but the archetypes are held aloft. In fact, in this game, one of the most popular complaints of the fans was that the female characters’ breasts were too small.

MMOs are somewhat more demographically balanced (in that an estimated 40% of the players are female) partly because they deign to depict women at all, and indeed that ratio drops precipitously in other video game genres such as first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. Most of the time in such games, women are simply nonexistent or are only damsels in distress. When they’re given actual narrative or player roles, as in Metroid: Other M, the developers seem to go out of their way to “feminize” them, which means to accentuate their weakness and vulnerability. Starcraft 2 is, likewise, somewhat famous for having its lead female character exist primarily for fan-service, in that the camera is notably following the male gaze whenever she is on screen.

In each scenario, the developers and publishers are only giving their assumed audience what they want, an in doing so feed into a self-serving prophecy: We only make games oriented towards teenage males because only teenage males like our games because we only make games oriented towards teenage males. This utter lack of introspection – largely because the developers are also mostly white, young and male – is the reason the games themselves quickly stagnate once the luster wears off and why most people outside the industry don’t give two thoughts as to the artistic quality of video games.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been acknowledgements in that direction, but when they are levied, they are levied to small independent (and sometimes one-man) productions and eschew the industry as a matter of course. Roger Ebert largely reviewed Hollywood films and found examples there-in that could reach his criteria. The Hollywood of gaming is in big-name publishers like Activision/Blizzard and Electronic Arts, and indeed, even in the most bleeding-edge games in development, there’s no there there.

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