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March 5, 2015

A Blithering Post on Power and Respect


So if you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’ve been using the internet long enough to have heard the phrase “strong female character” -- and if you’ve been on even longer than that, then you’ll have seen rebuttals of the phrase so biting that you’d think they were straight outta Ace Attorney.  You’d think that given those arguments, the rest of this post would be about how video games need more strong female characters.    And you’re half-right.  All things considered, is there ever a time when we SHOULDN’T be asking for that?  Besides, you know, when it consistently happens in fiction?

But let me step back a bit.  Yes, women need better representation in fiction, including -- if not especially in -- video games.  It’d help if they appeared more often, but at this stage I’d take quality over quantity if it came down to it.  But you know what?  Male characters need better representation, too.  No matter the gender, any given hero or heroine could stand to get a boost in quality.  It’s more obvious with the ladies, yes, but I don’t think my demands are unreasonable.

Well, usually.  Maybe.  Possibly?  Well, that’s neither here nor there.


If you’ve read some of my stuff before, you probably know that I’ve grown weary of the whole power fantasy aspect of video games.  That’s not a recent development; I’ve felt that way for years now.  It seems like a stupid-ass thing to whine about, considering that it’s hard to divorce games from the power fantasy/wish fulfillment/escapism aspect, but it’s not impossible. 

Games have either thrown them out entirely (Shadow of the Colossus), or created scenarios where the aspect is less obvious (any given Zelda, but let’s go with Majora’s Mask in honor of the remake).  And then there are those that turn that power into a core conceit, gameplay-wise and/or story-wise; Okami is my go-to example, but I could make a pretty strong argument about The Wonderful 101.  Don’t worry, I promise I’ll talk about it in-depth someday.


At this stage in the game (ha), I don’t think it’s wrong to hope for more -- especially when the standard-fare stuff has started showing some serious signs of age.  We’ve getting close to the limit of what we can do (or enjoy) when games are just about one-sided displays of power and strength.  A game like Street Fighter where you test your skills against an opponent who’s as good as or better than you?  That’s cool.  A game like Assassin’s Creed where you stand in a circle and counter everyone into oblivion?  Not so cool. 

A game like Resogun where your life is on the line every second as you struggle to save the last humans?  Awesome.  A game like Resident Evil 6 where you can power-bomb mutants and give zombies elbow drops?  Awesome in theory, but in practice it’s one of the biggest tonal inconsistencies ever committed to a disc.  A game like Mass Effect where your words are as important (if not more so) than your bullets?  Sick.  A game like Watch Dogs where a number of your actions tangibly make the lives of others worse, directly and indirectly?  Makes me sick.


The exception to the rule is that if you’re going to make a game that puts a huge emphasis on power, it has to be so unbelievably thrilling that no one would even bother thinking critically.  But since not every developer can be Platinum Games (and even then, I wouldn’t write off the rest of what their titles offer), we’re stuck with games that try to impress us with sheer displays of power, but end up falling short.  Call it a misappropriation if you will, or shortsightedness if you prefer; I’d prefer to imagine that creators can’t break out of modern-day conventions because -- executive meddling aside -- they haven’t considered the possibilities available.  And there ARE possibilities.  You don’t need me to tell you that.

“Voltech, you hot dog-munching fool!” you bellow as I muse on the proper temperature needed to cook said wieners.  “Enough of your eagerness to go on complaint-filled tangents!  If you don’t have a point to make, then my time is better spent elsewhere on the internet!”  And to that I say, calm down.  Before you leave a comment (or just leave in general), I need you to understand where I’m coming from on this.  Games and power are almost always going to go hand-in-hand, but that level can be controlled.  The reason I’m so concerned about them is because that power has a distorting effect.  Its context informs the content built around them, and that’s not always for the best.

So let me ask another question: do we like the characters we like because of their perceivable strength?


I’m sure I’ve said this before in some capacity, but I’ll say it here again: a character’s worth is NOT tied to how much harm they can bring to others.  The lines get blurred because generally speaking, video games express themselves via combat (among other things, like exploration); so by the logic of some games, a character who contributes nothing to combat might as well be an NPC or a damsel in distress -- the ultimate failure state, right?  I mean, just think of BioShock Infinite; to this day I can’t help but wonder what people would think of Elizabeth if she didn’t toss items to Booker or screw with reality for the player’s benefit.  Would people still love her?  I would, but that’s because I’m weird. 

I’m generalizing, of course.  I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re not so gauche as to think less of a character because he/she isn’t some battle-hardened brawler.  But my concern is that there’s a perception where “power = quality”.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a belief held by real people, even if that’s incredibly likely.  It doesn’t even have to be a mindset that creators hold in their hearts during production.  No, it’s all about the perception -- the idea that “strength = a good character”.  It’s a nebulous cloud that hangs over every medium, not just video games; because of that, there’s potential for a product and its particulars to get distorted.


The common theory is that when people ask for, say, “strong female characters”, they’re actually asking for well-written female characters -- ladies with depth, agency, variety, and more.  I agree with that, and I’d say that you could apply the sentiment to every character, regardless of gender.  That in mind, I’d like to both redefine and broaden the concept.  What matters most, I think, is that a character -- through whatever means necessary -- starts off as or becomes (or stays as) one who can earn something of immeasurable importance from the audience: respect.  It’s easy enough to earn some praise by making a character do something “badass”, but that strikes me as something of a shortcut.

Think of it this way: do we need every president to be a frontline fighter or war hero to take a seat in the Oval Office?  No, of course not.  Granted it wouldn’t hurt the cause (a good number of presidents have been war vets), but in most cases, presidents are chosen because the majority of voters perceive them as the right person for the job.  Their intelligence.  Their charisma.  Their courage.  Their composure.  Their decisiveness.  Their assertiveness.  All those things and more feed into the respect that earns them the keys to the White House.  Characters -- video game or otherwise -- are more or less on the same axis.  If given a chance to express themselves, they can make an argument for your love.  For your respect.  And they don’t have to hit a single man. 


I know that video games don’t exactly have processes that lend themselves to creating good characters.  From what I’ve heard, the story (such as it is) is only there to glue together levels and assets that have pretty much already been made.  That’s kind of a problem, but for now it can’t be helped.  Still, I’d like to imagine that at some point, the games industry will reach a point where the large-scale creation process will get a lot easier, and devs can work in different angles and directions. 

Imagine booting up a game for the first time, and you immediately understand that everything in it was built around scenarios custom-made for a unique character, instead of slotting a character into standard conventions.  Games small and large have done that before, but if that happened on a wider scale and/or more frequently, just think of what sort of stuff we could get.  Not all of them would be perfect, but they’d at least be different.


Here’s a hypothetical game for you.  You play as Emily, a sweet -- if awkward -- young lady who just wants everyone to get along…and who accidentally destroyed the world.  But as she comes to, she discovers that it’s not just her world that’s gone; it’s every world, across every dimension.  She winds up in a concrete version of the Akashic records, and reasons that she can use the data stored within the mystic library to reconstruct the world. 

The trick, however, is that she’s not the only one in the library.  Every other Emily from every other alternate dimension is there as well -- and some of them aren’t so willing to use the library for altruistic purposes.  It’s up to you to figure out how to bring back your world, whether that means cooperating or clashing with the other Emilies.  And, you know, the materialized, vengeful embodiments of the lost worlds’ vestiges.

But basically, she’s got no choice but to face herself -- in both abstract and literal terms.  As one should.


That’s a pretty nebulous premise, I know.  I can think of ways to put that stuff into a semi-cohesive (if smaller-scale) game, but you get the idea, right?  Games can define themselves via their systems.  That much is obvious.  But we can make those systems based on the natures and tool sets of characters…which is also obvious.  What can they do?  What do they want to do?  What will they become?  What were they before?  Who are they?  Those are all questions that anything with characters -- i.e. too many fictional products to count, finished or not -- can answer.  That can be done with combat or displays of power, in all fairness, but that’s not the only way.  That should be the ketchup on top of the hot dog.

Now, I’ll be honest.  I’ve been trying to link the gameplay and stories into a cohesive unit (if only in theory) with this post.  But as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m doing so with a strong lean towards stories.  Characters can be -- if not are -- the starting point for any product.  Almost inevitably, that’s what people are going to latch onto first.  I understand that for now, there’s a certain level of futility in asking for more out of our developer overlords gathered atop mountain summits that stroke the stars.  And I understand that if we’re hungry for good stories, we’re better off reading books first and playing games second.  Or third.  Or fourth.  Or fifth.


Here’s the thing, though: we’ve reached a point where no one can claim that “the story doesn’t matter in games”.  Nintendo foresaw years ago that at some point, better hardware and graphics wouldn’t be enough to win favor.  It’s looking as if the Big N bet on the wrong horse with alternate control schemes, but there’s a point to be made in there.  The PS4 and Xbone haven’t been tapped to their fullest yet, but given the sheer number of games that have fallen apart in every department except graphics, it’s safe to say that there needs to be a change.  Thrilling gameplay can offer that, no question…and it would be fine if we could get away from the conventions plaguing damn near everything these days.  So one possible avenue is to make games with -- gasp -- better stories.  A good story can save less-than-original gameplay, after all.

But you don’t need me to sell you on the importance of a good story and good characters, and here’s why.  If “the story doesn’t matter in games”, then answer me this: why is it that more and more games are trying to give us narratives and create cinematic experiences?  How can the story not matter when games like Tomb Raider, DmC, The Last of Us, God of War, Infamous, BioShock, Dead Space, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Destiny, The Evil Within, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bayonetta, Killzone, Guilty Gear, Transistor, Braid, Shadow of Mordor, and even Call of Duty at least try to tell a competent story?  And even that’s not a complete list?  And even THAT’S ignoring the armada of games half-built on telling stories?


Look.  There’s always going to be a place for games that put the emphasis on action and button-presses over everything else.  I understand that, and appreciate it.  Likewise, there is a place for games that put power in the hands of players -- but that’s a tool that needs to be used responsibly.  With skill.  It can’t be the go-to in every situation, and it sure as hell can’t be the only thing a game is built on.  So let it be known that, contrary to popular belief, there is a method to my madness; I like games that give me control over a central character that’s respectable, not just powerful.  And because I’m playing as such a character, I can create an intimate connection that’s hard to match in other mediums.  Reading a story about a deer trying to survive?  That ain’t bad.  Playing as a deer trying to survive?  S-tier stuff.

I don’t expect anyone reading this to suddenly drop everything and start making a game based on one rambling-ass post.  I’m not even begging that you take my words to heart, and assume that what I’ve said here is “how it should be”.  But what I’m hoping for is that I’ve at least given you a chance to appreciate games in a different light.  Not just to divorce quality from power, but to think back on the stuff you like, understand why you like it, and enjoy it even more because it’s not just a love based on intangibles.  This post may be full of my ideas, but I hope that it’s a post that gets the gears in your head going -- makes you eager to reminisce and realize things instead of assuming the worst of an industry in flux.  After all, hope never dies.


So, take what I’ve said here as you will.  Agree, disagree, whatever.  But if nothing else, I hope you’ll do me a favor: if you can, think of one of your favorite video game characters and talk a bit about why that’s the case in the comments.  Do you know why you like them?  Can you explain why?  I’m eager to hear it, whether it’s from fondness based on respect or just admiration of their power.  I’m guessing that you would’ve done that already even if I didn’t ask, but I just thought I’d make that more explicit.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say for now.  Thanks for reading, and here’s to the rest of 2015 -- a brand new year for video games. 

And Persona 5.  It’s gonna be so awesome, you guys.

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