Wednesday, July 20, 2016

State of the Blog (July 2016)

A few quick announcements:

1). I'll be winding down the Archetypes Vs. Women series soon, as I've said more or less everything I wanted to say. There will be a few more posts exploring individual Jungian archetypes from a female-character perspective before it ends.

2). I've more or less put my chips on the table already for the Presidential election and the Hugos, so don't expect much on those fronts until the voting happens.

3). You may notice the StudyOke! posts disappearing soon. That's because I've decided to spin them off onto their own blog:

Unlike this blog, I'm not going to discuss HBD/Politics/Anything but Japanese Music and Grammar on StudyOke!, so please don't let it spill over. If you don't like that, tell me why I'm a totalitarian dickhole on this blog.

4). I'm considering fleeing America for Japan. This has nothing to do with the election, and everything to do with being bored out of my skull. Maybe in two or three months.

5). I really have no idea what topic to focus on next, so I may try my hand at some fiction/amateur game design. It seems a shame to have all of these opinions about art and culture and not put any of them to practice. Of course, I have no experience in programming so things are going to get messy.

But then, messy is better than boring.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Girlbusters Review

I saw the new Ghostbusters last weekend as part of a three-for-one drive in show. For those who cannot rest until they know what the other two movies were, they were The Secret Lives of Pets (which was excellent) and Tarzan (left in the middle of it).

Let's start with a disclaimer: if you only care about Ghostbusters as a flashpoint in a cultural war, it won't be good enough to win you over. All of the little Feminist Flag Waves are going to set your teeth on edge past the point where enjoyment is possible.

If you don't care about feminism or the meta-controversy, it's simply another mediocre remake. After a solid opening sequence, the film flails about for the first half trying to find a reason to exist. It's not particularly funny. the characters walk the line between two-dimensional and off-putting, and it drags around the original films like Marley's chains. It does achieve one thing - using a plot this formulaic and still have pacing problems this severe is truly extraordinary.

The humor has an ad-lib, schizophrenic energy that I can tell is intended to be funny, and yet at best can only elicit a sensible chuckle from me. It's less of a series of jokes and more a stream of silly words. My friend Rick thought it was hilarious, so this may be a matter of taste.

 Me, watching Ghostbusters

None of the characters click in a convincing way until roughly the mid-point of the film, where we learn the reason Erin became interested in hunting ghosts. I'll avoid spoiling the scene, since it's a moment that truly jumped out for me, and the only thing I can think of that improves on the original.

It is after this scene that the movie starts to come into its own. We find what was missing in the first half of the movie - a reason for any of this. Girlbusters is a movie about the search for acceptance in a cruel and dangerous world, and it carries that theme well through the final action sequences and into the credits.

Funnily enough, Ghostbusters and Girlbusters serve as something of ur-examples of gender differences. The male Ghostbusters are hunters that conflict with authority and primarily care about success. The 'Ghost Girls' are pack animals that bend to authority and primarily care about being accepted. Success in Ghostbusters comes from running a successful business in spite of opposition. Success in Girlbusters comes from getting government funding from a jerkass mayor who had them arrested.

Girlbusters succeeds in the feminist quest to turn men into women, but it fails in the quest to turn women into men. The four main characters are women, and the movie reflects that. As "feminist propaganda" goes, that's fairly weak.

As a movie, it's a mediocre reboot with moments of brilliance, like lonely wontons floating in a sea of soup. Speaking of which, make sure you stick around for the credits, as they're legitimately one of the most entertaining moments in the entire film.

Final rating: C+

Monday, July 18, 2016

[AVW014] Rethinking the Heroine (The Persona)

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

Having talked about Archetypes and Stories, I'd like to transition into talking about Characters. There's some natural overlap between these three topics, but think of this as strengthening our discussion instead of retreading old ground. Let's circle to build!

Today we're going to talk about why Strong Female Protagonists are screwing up women's representation in media.

This builds off of our previous post on why Strong Female Protagonists Who Don't Need No Man are difficult to relate to, but we're also going to take this a step further. Having embraced the Female Protagonist out to save her man (get her man, liberate the Animus), we're going to go a step further and throw out the Strong Female Protagonist altogether.

This will sound counter-intuitive at first, so bear with me. I'm not saying that Female Protagonists are bad, or that Strong Female Protagonists are never good. But if we want more billion-dollar franchises with female leads, we need Boring Female Protagonists in interesting worlds, as opposed to Strong Female Protagonists is boring worlds.

The Archetype In A Nutshell

I'm going to explain this Archetype myself, but the video below also does an excellent job:

How interesting is Mario, as a character? Not very. His background doesn't matter, he has zero character development, and he only rarely speaks.

How interesting is Link, as a character? Maybe a little more than Mario. But the character works just as well if you pick up the Hero of Time and drop him somewhere else (as the many-branching cannon of the Zelda series attests).

Even when a specific background is in play, we prefer protagonists with as little personality as possible. Gordon Freeman. Chrono. Master Chief. Do you really like the fully-voiced, characterized modern Sonic the Hedgehog better than the silent, finger-waving original? Did you like the simpering, whiny Samus from The Other M better than the mercenary with zero lines of dialogue? Of course not - you're not an idiot.

I'm not saying only idiots like this game.
But only because it goes without saying.

As the video above explains, a bland non-entity with minimal characterization (Neo, Luke, Mario, Link) is the exact sort of protagonist that drives billion-dollar franchises. Why? Because the less characterization your hero/heroine has, the easier it is for the audience to slip them on like a mask.

The perfect protagonist

The word 'persona' comes from Latin, and refers to the masks worn by classical actors. Jung uses it to describe the 'masks' we use to face the world. These masks are not our true selves, our true personalities, but rather social roles that other people can understand easily.

Removing your fake-ass Customer Service Persona

These bland protagonists don't have zero characterization. Neo is a rebellious and loyal underdog in a cyberpunk setting. Luke is rebellious and loyal underdog in a high-fantasy space setting. Harry Potter is rebellious and loyal underdog in a contemporary fantasy setting. Mario is an arguably rebellious and loyal underdog in the Mushroom Kingdom. Link is an arguably rebellious and loyal underdog in a faux-medieval setting. Sonic is a rebellious and loyal underdog in a techno-furry setting. Samus is an arguably loyal and rebellious underdog in a sci-fi horror setting.

In fact, "rebellious and loyal underdog" would describe roughly every protagonist of a billion-dollar series from the last 3-4 decades. While individual protagonists may have certain distinct pieces of window-dressing (setting, color scheme, facial hair) that appeal to particular demographics, they are all essentially interchangeable.

In other words, we expect the Protagonist to function as a mask that allows us to slip into a setting. While they may have some specific characteristics and backgrounds (Harry Potter is an orphan, Neo is a hacker), this is more about adapting the Protagonist Persona to a setting than true characterization.

The Character

Test time: can you think of any female protagonists who launched billion dollar franchises?

Take your time, I'll wait.

Time's up. Here's my list: Katniss from The Hunger Games, Bella from Twilight, Samus from Metroid, that chick from 50 Shades of Grey and Ripley from Alien.

Second test: how many of these protagonists are held up as models by Feminist Puritans?

Maybe Ripley? Even then, the first Alien movie barely passes the Bechdel Test, so she's hardly a model for hardline feminism. And since she's a white, thin, physically-abled, English-speaking woman, Ripley could never pass Intersectional Feminist tests.

Which brings us our point: if you want to sell a female protagonist to a mass audience, thus improving female representation and setting an example for young girls, make your protagonist as bland as humanly possible. Make her nothing more than a mask than young women can pull on and off like a mask.

If you put a female protagonist in your game, give her as little of a background as possible. Just throw her in a world with no explanation of who she is or rationalization for her powers. If you must include some sort of story in your game, make her a rebellious and loyal underdog.

Look, I get it. You want your female protagonist to be deep and complex, like a human being. And that's great if you're trying to write Serious Literature or make a Serious Film. But it's not how you make a billion-dollar franchise. It's not how you put a female face on a generation-defining franchise. It's not the mask that people will pull on to explore a fascinating world.

When it comes to pop culture, go boring or go home.

Next: [AVW015] Lilith, Demoness of the Night (The Shadow)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

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

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

"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken."

-Jane Austen

"Romance"does not exist as a genre of video games. That's a big statement, but it's my position and I'm going to argue for it here.

Obviously, there are video games with romantic subplots and games where romance is the main character's primary motivation (we discussed them last time). And of course, video game fans love  to shoehorn romance into games regardless of romantic content (see the global Rorschach test that is fanfiction). There are even documented cases of human beings falling in love with video game characters

But all of that does not a genre make. What I'm arguing is that even in games with romantic subplots and characters with romantic motivations, the core gameplay mechanics have nothing to do with romance. For counter-example, action games have action (shooting, punching, climbing) in their core mechanics. Puzzle games, racing games, first-person shooters and so on are not defined by their plots, but by their core mechanics. So for a Romance genre to exist, the core mechanics would need to reflect Romance.

Now, I'm not saying that no one has ever tried to make a romantic video game. It's just that they failed. And today, we're going to look at why.

Dating Sims in a Nutshell

I am going to massively oversimplify the history of dating sims and make extremely broad, sweeping generalizations. And that's okay.

The earliest crop of dating sims in Japan focused on the idea of romance on the story level, with the usual cliches one would expect, Destiny, finding 'the one,' so on and so forth. It was an idealized love, very much informed by the social narrative of monogamy and the psychological 'search for the missing other self'. 

However, these early dating sims also delivered these romantic narratives through multiple-choice gameplay. A certain string of choices led to one girl, another string led to another girl, and another string led to a "bad end" of singleness (I am massively oversimplifying here; roll with it. Here is a more detailed breakdown). A 'correct' string of decisions was needed to obtain the 'best' ending.

This multiple choice gameplay introduced a textual/metatextual split into the dating sim genre. It is my belief that this is what prevented dating sims from becoming a truly romantic genre - but let's examine this split first.

On the textual level, early dating sims emphasized themes of destiny, true love, and finding "the one." This is reinforced by the text, pictures, and sound of the game. The enjoyment gained from this textual consumption is essentially the same as that derived from reading a romantic novel or watching a romantic movie.

On the metatextual level, early dating sims emphasized physical attraction, emotional attraction, player choice and cynicism. Players were not able to respond to the text however they chose, but only through a series of predetermined choices. The only way to win the game is to target a girl and then make the all of the right choices to get her.

Because pursuing multiple girls simultaneously is generally not an option, players must choose quickly which one they want to pursue. Because there is no option to 'get to know' the girls, the players must choose one based off of physical attraction ('I like them titties') or emotional attraction ('I like shy girls'). And of course, because the game can only be won by making the choices that get the girl, the player must always do what they feel has the highest chance of success, not the most honest choice.

So the girls are only appreciable for their surface-level features, and the player can only advance by sociopathically suppressing their emotions and 'gaming' the choices. The metatext emphasizes the consumer's will ('what matters is what I want') and cynical behavior ('I will do whatever I must to get what I want'). while the textual level emphasizes over-the-top protestation of ideal, perfect love. 

The center could not, and did not, hold.

The first generation of dating sims promised romance and delivered sociopathic cynicism. There were basically two ways for this formula to break. Either the metatextual leg would break (allowing romance to return) or the textual leg would break (discarding romance). 

Where the metatextual leg broke, we got 'visual novels,' game-like collections of text, pictures, and music with no gameplay beyond 'turning the page.' By removing the compromising metatext, we eliminated the element of sociopathy and the romantic ideal survived.

Where the textual leg broke, we moved away from romantic 'true love' and towards texts compatible with sociopathic maniupulation. The most obvious example is porn games, which skip romance and jump right to jumping the bones. But there are other options!

Huniepop (which we've mentioned before), discards the idea of endings (there is no ending when a girl is seduced) and the idea of monogamy (all girls can be seduced on the same play-through, simultaneously). The girls must still be seduced with sociopathic cynicism, but sociopathic cynicism is woven into the textual level. Taarradhin removes the romance, but also gives an option to sacrifice yourself and transcend sociopathy. Hatoful Boyfriend moves us to pure parody, removing the cognitive dissonance by stripping away any pretense of seriousness.

All of this genre tinkering is fine (and perhaps necessary), but it also doesn't solve the original problem: how do we fix the rift between romance and gameplay without jettisoning romance or gameplay? 

Visual novels are fine, but I'm not sure we want to throw out the gameplay baby with the sociopathic bathwater. Games can deliver so much more than novels with pictures and a soundtrack. If multiple choice gameplay is causing textual dissonance, let's try a different type of gameplay.

Subverting the idea of romance, allowing the quest for the missing self to fall into permanent nihilistic sociopathy (or absurdist meaninglessness) is also unappealing. Nihilism can never solve the problems of Existentialism - it can only succumb to them. What we need is a better mechanic.

Creating a Genre?

The missing half of the Romance genre is gameplay mechanics that do not succumb to sociopathic manipulation. I have some thoughts on what this might involve, but they are a topic for another time.

My gut instinct is that we're going to have to discard linearity. Branching choices are fine, but they're also what makes sociopathic manipulation possible. So long as there is only one, 'best,' answer we will be stuck with the Gamefaqs dilemma.

But as I said, that's a topic for another time - and perhaps a homework assignment for any aspiring game designers out there. Romance novels do have the biggest share of fiction, after all. And the author is the second most important factor for purchasers of Romance novels. If you can solve the sociopathic manipulation problem and create mechanics that deliver a truly Romantic game, there is a potential for Minecraft-level profits.

Yeah, this is a question I'll be returning to.

Next: [AVW014] Rethinking the Heroine (The Persona)