Tuesday, June 28, 2016

[AVW012] Doing Better - The Missing Half (Part One)

Previous: [AVW011] Doing Better - Semiramis, Builder of Walls

"But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine
That's the pain
Cuts a straight line
Down through the heart
We called it love

"The Origin of Love" - Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Our last post examined the female as a representation of the passive psychological principle, And while that's an interesting idea in and of itself, you may have noticed that there's another, bigger idea nested inside of it: the idea of the male sex and female sex as a balanced whole.

This topic gets slightly afield of our main question, but I think it's an important psychological image to understand. Part of this is because of how inescapable it is - the union of the sexes is a picture of a balanced whole in Tantric Buddhism, the two columns of the Sephirot, and pretty much every story about how the universe was created. Genesis is fairly unique in that it shows the world being created by a Word of fiat instead of by pairs of divinities boning.

Anything that shows up this much in human thinking is probably worth a second glance.

The base psychological reason for this image of male and female joined in a balanced should be somewhat obvious. Humans have an instinctual desire to mate, and an understanding that most living things reproduce by mating (screw you, amoebas).

The fascinating part is how our subconscious minds anthropomorphize out from this image of primordial wholeness. The universe is made by making love. The meaning of life is love. We extrapolate out the whole of creation and the inner core of our being from this image.

The generative force of mating, and the two sexes required for successful reproduction, take on a meaning beyond the purely physical. They become the two halves necessary to make a true whole.

The Story in a Nutshell

Today's story comes to us from Plato's Symposium, where a chap named Aristophanes tells us of the primitive, original humanity which did not experience love. I'm going to nutshell the story as usual, but frankly, you should really just watch this video below. It captures Aristophane's story beautifully, elegantly, and surprisingly faithfully:

Back, way back in the day before Hercules was born or Prometheus stole fire from the gods, lived the first humans.

Now the humans of that time were unlike the humans of our day. There were only three sexes back then, instead of our 10,000 genders (or indeed, the two sexes of our ignorant fore-bearers). The Children of the Sun were the original Men, and they were round; spheres with four arms, four legs, and two male faces on opposite sides of the sphere. Similarly shaped were the Children of the Earth, the original Women, who were like two women smashed together. Last came the Children of the Moon, who were part male and part female, as the Moon is part Sun and part Earth.

These original humans knew nothing of love, for they were whole and undistracted spheres. In time, they grew tired of making sacrifices to the gods, instead turning their undivided minds to overthrowing Olympus.

This put those gods of Olympus in a bit of a bind. They wanted to slay the upstart humans for their arrogance, but then who would give them their sacrifices? It was a difficult question. But Zeus, like Alexander after him, thought of a way to split this knotty problem: he would cut the humans in half, reducing their strength and doubling their numbers.

His lighting flashed like fire, cutting the original humans in half, slicing the perfect spheres apart. All across the face of the Earth, the new humans were sprawled in confusion. Their awkward bodies stumbled up onto two unsteady feet, searching about for the other half that had been cruelly cut away from them.

Even now these new humans roam, searching for their missing self, crying for what has been lost. This is the story of the Origin of Love, and of why we half-humans desire to be united with our missing selves.

The Archetypes

On a very deep level, there is a hole in our hearts, a longing for something that is not there. At times, it may feel like something we once had and lost - as the longing for a lover no longer there or the lost comfort of childhood. If only we could go back. If only we could recapture it.

At times, it may grow so powerful we think it could only be something fated by the gods or carried over from a previous life. If only we know who it was. If only we could remember!

The magical sexual dynamic between the male and female principle is not about dominance, subjugation, or patriarchy (although it can and has been used to justify those things). It is about balance, interplay, and completeness.

This desire for wholeness is not limited to men or women, or for men or women (Aristophanes speaks highly of homosexual male and female love). Still, there is something uniquely fitting about the joining of opposites as opposed to the joining of sames which may explain why the male/female pair is the most commonly used. Joining sames can be unbalanced, and is not quite as fitting a symbol. There is a reason so many primal deities are portrayed as hermaphrodites (Hermes+Aphrodite) or sexed pairs - because we are more the one.

Now this is a big topic, and I have more to say about it than can fit in one blog post. Much like Zeus, we're splitting this one into two. This post will talk about romance as sub-plot and the second will talk about romance as genre (and why that genre doesn't exist in video games).

Real talk time: how much do you really care about Mario's backstory?

I mean, obviously the collective We is interested in it to some extent. It's been fleshed out in comic books, cartoons, and (terrible) live-action movies, but that all came after we enjoyed the crap out of  Super Mario Bros. The interest in Mario games spurred our interest in him as a character, not the other way around.

Moreover, all of those movies and comics have differing takes on Mario's backstory. They are completely incomparable - but no one cares, because it does nothing to affect what we enjoy about Mario games. We don't need a Crisis on Infinite Mushroom Kingdoms (Mushroom Kingdom Come?) to settle the cannon, because the backstory is not essential to the character. While we may occasionally wonder about Mario's prehistory, we don't really care.

Now, how much do you care about beating the levels, stomping the monsters, and saving the princess in another castle?

That's a little bit more motivating. We don't need a compelling backstory to convince us that saving the princess is a thing we want to do. In fact, we're willing to do it over and over again, regardless of the surrounding context.

The desire to save the damsel is not cultural. It is biological. It functions in every culture, of every time period, on every continent. It works without context (how much context is there in Super Mario Bros.?) and without characters (Mario, Bowser, and Peach have no true backgrounds and no true development). It works in a complete textual vacuum.

All of the above should not be controversial. What comes next will be.

Why do people think we need strong female characters? We really don't.

How strong is Mario as a character? Link? Samus Aran? Not very. Sure, strongly developed versions of these characters do exist, but the backstory doesn't matter. It's not what motivates us. It's not what makes us care.

I'm asking this for a reason. Part of the debate over 'strong female characters' is driven less by feminism and more by feminist puritanism.

Feminist puritanism is stupid, ugly, and ineffective. Feminist puritanism tells you that a female character should not be motivated by love for a man, then turns around and complains about how effective a man's love for a woman is as a plot device. You can't tell me in the same breath that we need compelling female characters and that we can't use the most compelling plot device to make them.

Feminist puritanism tells you that only a certain type of female character is truly acceptable: one who is already whole, already perfect, already complete. A woman who don't need no man. A woman with no possible plot arc because she's already a singular whole.

There are things other than love that could be used to motivate a female character (we're never explicitly told Mario loves Peach, just that he's trying to rescue her), but the search for the missing half is the most universally accessible. I simply do not understand why these puritans can't stand the thought of using it, or why they think a woman is nothing more than a sex puppet if she has a romantic interest.

C'mon people, we're better than that.

So that was romance as a sub-plot/motivation. Next time, we're going to look at Romance as a genre, and why it doesn't exist in video games.

Next: [AVW013] Doing Better - The Missing Half (Part Two)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

[AVW011] Doing Better - Semiramis, Builder of Walls

Previous: [AVW010] Doing Better – Psyche Loves Cupid

"There is a new element of rivalry in the picture: the son against the father for the mastery of the universe, and the daughter against the mother to be the mastered world."

- Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Of all the posts in this series, this one has the shakiest theoretical foundation. I'm going to take an idea from Campbell that I'm not 100% convinced of and use it to declare an entire genre of games feminine. This is less of a theory and more of a hypothesis. So consider your disclaimers disclaimed.

The Background

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell takes the Hero/Anima pattern a step further than (rather, lateral to) Jung. Instead of presenting the Anima as the Unconscious of the male and the Animus as the Unconscious of the female, he associates the Hero with the Consciousness and the Princess with the Unconscious:

"The hegemony wrested from the enemy, the freedom won from the malice of the monster, the life energy released from the toils of the tyrant Holdfast—is symbolized as a woman. She is the maiden of the innumerable dragon slayings, the bride abducted from the jealous father, the virgin rescued from the unholy lover. She is the "other portion" of the hero himself—for "each is both”: if his stature is that of world monarch she is the world, and if he is a warrior she is fame. She is the image of his destiny which he is to release from the prison of enveloping circumstance."

Campbell phrases this same basic idea in a few different ways, but the theme is the same: the male always represents the active principle (the Hero) and the female always represents the passive principle (the Prize):

"The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero's total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master. And the testings of the hero, which were preliminary to his ultimate experience and deed, were symbolical of those crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride. With that he knows that he and the father are one: he is in the father's place."
"According to one of the traditional ways of looking at these supports of meditation, the female form (Tibetan: yum) is to be regarded as time and the male {yab) as eternity. The union of the two is productive of the world, in which all things are at once temporal and eternal, created in the image of this self-knowing male-female God. "
"God, however, is but a convenient means to wake the sleeping princess, the soul. Life is her sleep, death the awakening. The hero, the waker of his own soul, is himself but the convenient means of his own dissolution. God, the waker of the soul, is therewith his own immediate death."
Now, there are many bones one could pick with this framework. In Campbell's defense, many religions and magical traditions associate the male with the active principle and the female with the passive principle. Certainly, we see many more stories in which the male Hero is the active agent and the female is the passive prize than the other way around. But that doesn't mean that this paradigm is the only psychologically satisfying route.

We've already looked at a few examples where a female protagonist is the active agent and a male character is the passive prize – Inanna, Paghat, and Psyche are all active agents in their own quest to liberate the Unconscious from its bonds. Jung would perhaps be the first to object to over-identifying male with active and female with passive, as his accounts of female patients' encounters with the Animus would attest.

But our goal is not to pit Patriarchy against Feminism in this series. So instead of picking apart the shortcomings of Campbell's interpretation, let's see where it leads us. After all, even if male=active / female=passive is an oversimplification, it is a common oversimplification. Let's pull a little more on this thread. How could we make a game from the point of view of the Mastered World – of the Anima?

The Story in a Nutshell

Since Campbell's assertion is that the woman represents "the mastered world," we're going to look at Semiramis. As a builder of walls, Semiramis is in many ways a representative of civilization itself, of the ordered and safe life. Without the protective embrace of the walls of Semiramis, the fledgling cities of Near East civilization would have fallen to wild animals, bandits, and enemy armies.

Semiramis is more of a legendary figure than a historical one, but there is evidence that her legend had its start in the historical Queen of Assyria, Shammuramat. Shammuramat was the wife of Shmshi-Adad V, and ruled his kingdom as regent after his death.

As always, the legend is more than the facts.

Semiramis was the daughter of a goddess and a mortal. After her birth, the goddess abandoned her and committed suicide. But the animals (in particular, doves) cared for the child, bringing her food until she was rescued by a "royal shepherd."

She grew and was married to a general, Onnes. Semirami followed her husband into battle and displayed such bravery that the King Ninnus demanded her hand in marriage. Heartbroken, her first husband committed suicide.

Semiramis bore a son and Ninnus conquered the neighboring kingdoms, only to die of an arrow wound. In order to preserve the kingdom for her son, Semiramis dressed as a man and led her latest late husband's armies on further campaigns of conquest, eventually ruling most of the Near East and Iran. She was also famous for restoring the glories of ancient Babylon, raising walls all around it. She was also credited with building palaces in Iran. Basically, if there's an impressive structure in the Near East, someone has probably credited Semiramis with its construction.

The name of Semiramis is associated with the building of walls, but in time it also took on less savory connotations. Later writers described her first as a seductress and a harlot, and later as a full-fledged prostitute. Dante includes her in the Second Circle of Hell, reserved for the 'Lustful,' and some Protestant sects still identify her as the creator of polytheism (and thus, the rejection of the One True God).

If the name of Semiramis has taken on some negative connotations over time, her fame as a builder, conqueror, and protector cannot be denied. While this very active woman may at first seem inappropriate for "the mastered world," her status as a patron of walls and construction make her something of a symbol for civilization – the world which has been mastered.

Like Psyche, Semiramis has a character arc. She does not start out as an active agent, but as a passive figure passed from parent to protector to husband to another husband. She starts out as a Prize, but grows into the role of conquering heroine when her husband dies and the kingdom threatens to collapse. It is her feminine attributes that allow her step up as protector of the kingdom, not mere imitation of men.

The Archetypes

If the Archetypal Hero's Journey is the quest to become the Master of the ruled world, what is the Archetypal Heroine's Journey? If we believe Campbell, it is to overthrow the Mother and become the world. But how do we build a game around being a passive object?

I'm going to argue that this genre already exists – the Tower Defense game.

In Tower Defense games, the agency of the player is limited to building up defenses and perhaps directing which direction to fire. One plays essentially as an avatar of the "ruled world," of the civilized sphere which must be defended against invasion from the outside. In this sense, Tower Defense is eminently in line with Campbell's concept of the feminine.

But as Semiramis herself did not conform to Campbell's concept (in history or in legend), neither must our feminine Tower Defense game be limited to passivity. Semiramis was a wall-builder, but also a border-expander. For a Tower Defense game to truly be in line with her legend, the player needs to be able to push the borders of civilization (the area under rule) outward in addition to protecting and nurturing the area already under control.

While this concept would work with the traditional Tower Defense set-up, we also might use this idea to reinvent the Dating Sim genre. What if we did an inversion of Huniepop? Instead of using skillful manipulation to seduce, the play could use skillful defense to ward off unwanted attention.

Capitulating to the attentions of the seducer too quickly could lead to the "pump and dump" bad ending, warding off all attention could lead to the "crazy cat lady" ending, and skillfully employing a tension between defense and encouragement leads to counter-seduction and success. Instead of choosing who to pursue, the player would choose who to allow to pursue.

While Campbell's view of the role of women in stories is perhaps overly limited and psychologically incorrect, it is not entirely without basis. It reflects the traditional roles of women in society, both for good and for bad. Demonizing traditional femininity wholesale also demonizes positive feminine attributes and roles – nurturing, protecting, motherhood, and so on. Traditional does not automatically equal oppressive.

Some of the most committed feminists find strength in frilly dresses and bodices. In Semiramis, I hope we can find a positive figure for some of the more passive elements of the feminine – as a protector of civilization instead of a footstool.

[AVW012] Doing Better - The Missing Half (Part One)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

[AVW010] Doing Better – Psyche Loves Cupid

Previous [AVW009] Doing Better - Anat and Paghat

“I felt ashamed."

"But of what? Psyche, they hadn't stripped you naked or anything?"

"No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal -- of being a mortal."

-CS Lewis, Till We Have Faces

The story of Psyche and Cupid may perhaps be the ultimate story about the Anima (not least of all because their Latin names are Anima and Eros). It also comes to us from Apuleius' The Golden Ass, though modern readers may be more familiar with CS Lewis' epic reimagining of the myth in Till We Have Faces.

Although Psyche's Latin name may be Anima, her story is more about the Animus Рabout Psyche's journey to free her Animus from a dark, female Holdfast. It provides an excellent example of how to flip the script (female Heroine, male Prize) without resorting to the Men With Tits clich̩.

The Story in a Nutshell

Of all of the Nutshelled Stories we'll look at, this one will be the most brutally summarized. The story of Psyche and Cupid is as wonderful as it is long, so if it sounds interesting I urge you to look into it further. At any rate, here's the extremely short version:

A Princess named Psyche is offered up as a human sacrifice to an invisible, marauding beast. There's all sorts of crying and wailing and whatnot, but Psyche is left chained to a rock for the beast to devour.

An invisible being comes, but it is not a beast. Instead of eating Psyche, he takes her to a wonderful castle and marries her. Psyche has full run of the castle, with only two rules: first, she is not to contact anyone outside the castle. Second, she is not to attempt to see her husband (even when he comes for his nightly visits.

Naturally, Psyche breaks the first rule and reaches out to her sisters. They convince her that her husband is indeed a horrible beast, and that she must break the second rule and uncover his invisibility. Psyche struggles between her love for her husband and her desire to know if he is a beast or man. Eventually, she succumbs to curiosity and uncovers him.

To her surprise, she finds that he is not a man or a beast, but the god of love himself, Cupid. Unfortunately, this also allows Cupid's mother, Venus, to see that he is consorting with a mortal. Cupid is whisked away by his mother, and Psyche is left alone and desolate.

This is where we get to the game part of the story. Psyche goes to Venus and begs for her husband back. Venus gives her a series of increasingly impossible tasks to complete, but Psyche passes them all (with the help of some animal friends). In the end, Psyche is made a goddess and lives happily ever after with the god of Love.

The Archetypes

The story of Psyche is long and complicated, and may not seem immediately suited for a videogame. However, Psyche's journey is one from passivity to activity, as she grows from a helpless sacrifice, to a semi-imprisoned damsel, to an active heroine on a quest to liberate her lost love. In many ways, this parallels the role of women in videogames – so if we can't make a good game out of this, we may as well go home.

But before we go into the specifics of the pitch, I want to point out a few important themes.

First, as we're said, Psyche starts out as a passive character, but grows into an active role. This gives her a genuine character arc, as opposed to starting her out as a kung-fu hacker assassin. Psyche grows and changes, as we all must in the process of coming to self-understanding (or as Jung would call it, the process of 'individuation').

Second, all of the antagonists in the story are women. Her sisters allow her to be sacrificed and then undermine her happiness. Venus, takes the role of the Dark Mother – the Bowser to her Mario. We might even tweak the original and have her mother, the Queen, be the one to offer her up as a sacrifice.

Third, in the original story, Psyche overcomes the challenges of Venus with the help of animal friends. While this is common enough in fairy tales and myths, it also somewhat undermines her agency. In our more female-positive version, we may want to emphasize Psyche's cleverness and let her work out solutions to her problems on her own.

With this in mind, I'm going to suggest a somewhat obscure genre for Psyche: the romantic puzzle game (think along the lines of Catherine or Huniepop). This allows us to enter the story at the point where Psyche's agency is on the rise and showcase her cleverness in overcoming impossible obstacles.

It would also be interesting in general to see a romantic puzzle game where the goal of the puzzles is not to win the affections of a target. In Hunniepop, the puzzles are presented as a form of seduction – of giving the women what they want in order to get into their pants. And while sex is not a direct reward in Catherine, it is a reward of the conversation mechanics (in which choosing Law rewards you with you Katherine and choosing Chaos rewards you with Catherine).

In our subversion, the affections of Cupid are already established. The goal is not to manipulate, but to liberate. Venus plays the role of Holdfast, the forces which keep the Animus in check. Each successfully completed level reduces Venus' hold on her son (instead of reducing Cupid's resistance to our seductions).

If we wanted to take a slightly different route, we could keep the traditional dating game convention of multiple romantic interests while discarding the framework of "manipulation = seduction." One of failings of dating game mechanics is that they encourage sociopathic play styles (saying 'the right thing' to maximize points) and mechanistic attitudes towards relationships (proper inputs = sex). If instead the puzzle mechanics represented breaking down external barriers to a relationship (such as bitchy sisters or overprotective mothers), the in-game relationships could perhaps be more convincing.

Relationships do take skill to navigate, but relationship mechanics built on insincerity and manipulation condition us for sociopathy. By taking the focus of the player's skill away from conversational min/maxing and towards external obstacles, we make a game more worthy of Psyche's example.

Next time, we'll be looking at another very different genre and another very different take on femininity – Semiramis, Builder of Walls.

[AVW011] Doing Better - Semiramis, Builder of Walls

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

[AVW009] Doing Better - Anat and Paghat

Previous: [AVW008] Doing a Better Job - Inanna in the Underworld

"And [Aghat] the hero replied:
'Lie not to me O virgin!
For to a hero thy lies are loathsome
How can a mortal acquire a latter estate?
How can a mortal acquire permanence?'

-H. L. Ginsberg, The North-Canaanite Myth of Anath and Aqhat, II

Just as classic Anima stories revolve around conflict between two men over a woman, many of the best Animus stories revolve around two women conflicting over a man. But Anat and Paghat do not squabble over who's the prettiest; they go to motherfucking war.

The Story in a Nutshell

It's hard to put the story of Anat and Paghat into a nutshell. It's bursting with conflicts between gods, humans, and everything in between. Even so, the key conflict of the story is universally relatable: revenge.

In the land of Cannan, there was a judge named Danel whose wife gave birth to a son. The god of craftsmen gave him a wondrous bow and arrows as a gift for the newborn Aghat. No doubt this was a great honor, but the god of craftsmen had promised the bow and arrows to another – Anat, a goddess of war.

Aghat grew to maturity and the goddess Anat came to visit him. She offered to buy the bow and arrows back from him, offering even immortality in exchange. But Aghat, perhaps from love of the bow and perhaps from distrust of the goddess, refused. He said that old age and death come to all men (calling her a liar), and besides - "what would a woman do with a bow?"

Anat, in a rage, demanded that Enki let her take revenge on Aghat (going so far as to threaten Enki with death). Enki allows her to take revenge, but with the warning that Aghat must not be killed. She sent her servant Yatpan to beat the boy and rob him of the bow. But of course, the unlucky boy died of his wounds. Looks like Aghat was right about death!

Furious at her servant, Anat chased him and Yatpan fled to the sea. While he was flying over the ocean, he dropped the wondrous bow and arrows, and they sank beneath the waves. Anat mourned, for the bow was lost and Aghat had been unjustly killed. A curse would surely come upon the land (which it did, in the form of a drought).

The best thing about this story is that all of this is an elaborate set-up for the introduction of the real heroine: Paghat, the younger, wiser sister of Aghat. Paghat's quest is to avenge her brother's unjust death and break the curse on the land.

Then, we lost the story.

Ancient texts often come to us in fragmentary form. All we know of the rest of the story is that Aghat hires a mercenary to help her, who is dramatically revealed to be Yatpan (her brother's murderer) in disguise.

We do have some tantalizing leads from other sources. In earlier years, Anat also went on quest of revenge against Mot, the god of death who murdered Anat's brother, Baal. Paghat's story is the continuation of an ancient drama of revenge and counter-revenge.

Did Paghat avenge her brother's death? Was the curse on the land broken? Did Yatpan and Anat find redemption? And why did the god of craftsmen give the bow to Aghat instead of the goddess? We may never know – but we can speculate and craft tales of our own.

The Archetypes

The loss of the original text is perhaps the biggest opportunity for this story. All of the conflicts are set up for us, but the resolution is open to interpretation. All of the ingredients for an epic story are here – we just need to choose the ending.

There's an excellent chance here to play with the old "die a heroine or live to become a villaness" theme. Anat also went on quest to avenge her brother (the Animus), but turned into something of a monster in the process:

"Anat appears as a fierce, wild and furious warrior in a battle, wading knee-deep in blood, striking off heads, cutting off hands, binding the heads to her torso and the hands in her sash, driving out the old men and townsfolk with her arrows, her heart filled with joy."
Anat provides the perfect Shadow Self for our protagonist. Will Paghat succumb to the same evil as Anat, or will she find a balance between saving the world and seeking revenge? And what of the wondrous bow sunk beneath the waves (in the depths of the unconscious)?

There's a great deal of grey vs. grey morality that could be very compelling if handled properly. Yatpan knows he has fucked up and tries to help Paghat set the world straight. Can she forgive him for his role in her brother's death, or will she reject his help? Anat also knows that her actions have brought a curse on the world, but can her sin only be atoned for by death? Or is there another way?

And at the heart of it all is the quest for the Animus that takes the form of a conflict between two powerful women. "What would a woman do with a bow?" Get some motherfucking revenge, that's what.

It's not the usual Mary Sue bullshit about women who are pure and clean and always justified in their actions, but a dirty, apocalyptic battle between two violent and morally compromised women with the fate of the world at stake.

As a cherry on top, Aghat is kind of a prick. He's a misogynist, and yet his sister is still driven to defend her family honor and the world is still cursed by his unjust death. I can't think of a more complicated ethical theme for our female-driven narrative than a quest to avenge a misogynist asshole.

In terms of game mechanics, we probably don't need to reinvent the wheel. It's going to be a brutal hack-and-slash affair, although solid archery mechanics would be a must. We're here for brutal violence and morally complex women in conflict.

This may be a matter of personal taste, but if this story were to be adapted into a game, I think it should keep as much of the ancient Near East flavor as possible. Inanna's story is universal enough to be applied to any setting, but there's something about this epic clash of goddesses and women that demands a mythic context.

Next time, we'll be looking at a very different sort of female protagonist and a very different type of story.

[AVW010] Doing Better – Psyche Loves Cupid