Fridge

Women and Geek Culture or Why the Fridge Has to Go

I grew up reading Green Lantern. Much like Doctor Who, there have been multiple Green Lanterns in the lifetime of the comic, and you always have your favorite (The 10th and Hal Jordan.) Yet, Hal wasn’t my first. That honor goes to Kyle Rayner.

I could go into the backstory as to why Kyle got the ring, and who his predecessors were, and why Hal came back; but none of that really matters. All that you need to know going in was that when he took the mantle of GL, he was the only one and he loved it. Kyle was young, reckless, and took his role with little seriousness.

That was until this happened…

Fridge

…yeah, that’s his girlfriend.

Long story short, she thought Kyle should take things more seriously; but he wasn’t the listening type. Unfortunately, one of his villains (aptly named Major Force) was, and decided to kill and stuff her into above fridge. The ensuing guilt propelled Kyle into being the hero that he was destined to be…

…and it also was the first instance of “fridge-ing”

Congrats, Geek Culture! We helped create a terrible narrative trope!

Unfortunately, things haven’t really gotten that much better as the years of have gone by. Female characters in comic books, games, and television have been mishandled, mischaracterized, and all together misused since then. For every Orange is the New Black, there are multiple shows, games, and comics that just do everything wrong.

Examples, you ask? Okay.

Game-wise, the two most recent offenders are Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and Watch_Dogs; which both use “fridge-ing,” as a narrative technique to motivate their respective heroes.

MGS1

In MGS: Ground Zeroes, Big Boss/Snake is required to rescue former associates Paz (a female officer) and Chico (a young male soldier) from a government run facility. By the end of the game you have rescued them both, but it’s found out that Paz has had a bomb placed inside of her. So, in one of the most gruesome moments put to gaming, the male characters dig into her abdomen, un-anesthetized, and rip the bomb out.

PazGZ

It’s gross, over the top, and not the worst part.

After the bomb is removed and she comes to, she relates that she has a second bomb placed inside of her as well; and so she jumps out of the helicopter to save the rest, exploding mid-air. It is not revealed unless you go through some of the side content where the other bomb was hidden…

…her vagina.

Within the audio logs you find, you discover that Skullface (the villain) had not only his men rape Paz, but he had Chico rape her as well, and THEN placed the bomb into her. The audio logs are long, uncomfortable, and disgusting. There’s no narrative or gameplay value to their existence in the game outside of shock value and as a means to motivate the player character to revenge in the upcoming sequel.

Though not as graphic, Watch_Dogs is just as bad.

Watch Dogs

In the game, there are two main female characters, Clara (a hacker who befriends the player avatar) and Nicole (the player’s sister.) Suffice it to say, both ladies have little to no story arc simply because they exist only to continue to push the main character forward.

Nicole’s only contribution to the plot is to be captured, held hostage, and kidnapped multiple times over and over again to bring the player character to action. At multiple points in the game, the player has to hand hold her through an action filled situation, because she is unable to defend herself on ANY level.

Ironically, her subplot ends with her leaving her ENTIRE LIFE behind in Chicago, taking her son with her; as the player character realizes that her continued existence within the gamespace (Chicago) would only result in her getting kidnapped, killed, etc. over and over and over again.

(Did I mention that she had a daughter that the main character got killed because she was in a car with him when he was attacked by thugs? Yeah, that too)

Clara might be the bigger problem. She is introduced as a competent rival hacker, but soon afterward she just becomes an objectified character model walking around the hideout of the player. Unfortunately, this is not out of the ordinary for most video games. Because of her lack of development and any story arc to speak of, she becomes less a character and more a piece of set dressing.

(Oh yeah, there’s also the fact that her model is actually based off a well known porn actress too…which has very little to do with the argument above, but it sure doesn’t necessarily help matters either.)

The icing on this terrible cake is that she ends up being “fridged” as well by the end of the game. It is revealed that she had a hand in some of the events leading up to the game, which tangentially led to the death of the Aiden’s (the player’s character) niece. While visiting the grave of the girl, she is gunned down as the player is trying to rush forward to save her in real time gameplay.

This, of course, is followed up by the player having to listen to a 2 minute long voicemail she left, just before she died; apologizing for her involvement and wishing to “just disappear…”

…which in turn motivates Aiden into the final act of the game.

It’s all very frustrating, to say the least.

Yet, much like you see in other forms of media, there is a silver lining, a ray of hope that shows things are changing; if only ever so slowly.

Take a game like Transistor.

As fellow Promethean Stewart wrote,

Transistor is a beautiful story about a woman whose voice (literally) was taken from her. It’s about her lover. It’s about a city that they both love deeply, but isn’t what it used to be. It’s about change, and remembering the way things were without ever being able to go back.”

Most importantly, it not only stars a female (Red) as a lead, but it gives her a complete, well written, and genuine story arc. She is not used, she is not thrown around by events in the game space, she is the one CREATING those events. In other words, she is a fully realized character.

Red has more of a voice without having one, has more of a message without saying a word, than any of the previously mentioned examples above….

…Cue Dramatic Irony

Joss Whedon, known for his work on Buffy, Angel, The Avengers, and much more said in an interview once,

“When people say to me, ‘Why are you so good at writing at women?’ I say, ‘Why isn’t everybody?’ Obviously there are differences between men and women – that’s what makes it all fun. But we’re all people.”

It’s a pretty straightforward sentiment, but one that geek culture is now just starting to embrace, albeit slowly. Hopefully as we all continue to move forward, and as the medium continues to mature, we’ll see more games like Transistor, Gone Home, or Mirror’s Edge.

Geek culture has to come to terms with the fact that sexism and misogyny are deeply ingrained, and figure out what we can do to excise that cancer from our favorite hobbies. I’d like to believe that we are all better than this…

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Friday Feature: Transistor

A little while ago (2011) a brand new game studio, called Supergiant Games,  showed up at PAX with a cute little action game. Gameplay-wise, it was nothing to shake up the action game scene, even by indie game standards What made this game truly unique, though, was it’s art-house style and peculiar narrative design.

In Bastion, the landscape itself formed up around the protagonist as he made his way through the game, fighting off enemies as they popped out of the ground. Much like the land itself, the narration of “The Kid” and his story happened only as you played. None of the story was told through cutscenes and the narrator only ever responded to the player’s actions. These two components of Bastion gave players the feeling of more involvement in the story. Rather than playing the game to reveal the story, the story was about what they were doing.

Of course Bastion was still a very linear game, but its claims to fame – gradual terrain and responsive narration (not to mention the absolutely unbelievable soundtrack by Darren Korb) – are no less well-earned.

But just last week, Supergiant Games released their second title: Transistor. 

Transistor is more than just a worthy successor Bastion.

The gameplay feels like a natural progression from where Bastion began. Both games would comfortably be described as “action” games, but Transistor incorporates strategic “tactics”-like elements (other “tactics” games include Final Fantasy TacticsAdvance WarsFire EmblemX-COM, and The Banner Saga) that make Transistor feel a bit more grown-up. Less technically speakig, of course, Transistor is just plain fun! As the titular weapon downloads more “Functions” (the game’s name for your attacks), experimenting with different combinations becomes almost as entertaining as the plentiful battles that adorn your journey.

Transistor is a beautiful story about a woman whose voice (literally) was taken from her. It’s about her lover. It’s about a city that they both love deeply, but isn’t what it used to be. It’s about change, and remembering the way things were without ever being able to go back. It’s even more than that, I don’t want to spoil any of the story, because it’s worth your investment. Suffice it to say that it rivals or even surpasses its AAA, giant game company, contemporaries while coming from a still-very-small studio.

The story is probably best described as a sci-fi noir romance. It has classic elements of all three genres, but it adapts them into something wholly new and claims it for its own. Where both Bastion and Transistor are set against the backdrop of collapsing “civilizations,” Transistor‘s approach is able to carry the romantic sub-genre in a way that Bastion wouldn’t have been able to, and as a result the protagonist is far more sympathetic, even while silent.

The game also carries on the grand tradition of having an unparalleled soundtrack, something I find to be an asset to any game, but it makes ones like Bastion and Transistor really stand out from the crowd. Darren Korb’s work is the music that the games industry deserves.

All-in-all, Transistor is just worth your time and money, don’t be kicking yourself when it starts getting tossed around as a possible game of the year – play it now!

Forward Momentum

There are  a lot of lessons that can be learned from the 8 Bit era of video games:

-Vegetables are always good for you (especially mushrooms)

-It’s dangerous to go alone.

-There’s always a proper order in which to tackle things (like robots)

-Looks can be deceiving (or box covers aren’t everything)

Mario 1

but the most important is one simple statement…

Move Forward.

In many of those classic games there was no going back. All your character could do was continue forward. You might have missed a power-up, you might have forgotten to grab a coin, or you may have timed a jump poorly and been de-powered; but none of it mattered. You had to keep moving forward.

In a weird way, that was one of my first life lessons; that regardless of what has happened sometimes all you can do here is

Move Forward.

Mega 1

Those early games taught me that sometimes all you can have is your forward momentum; and sometimes that will have to be enough. Much like the games that we loved, life is full of ups and downs and sometimes it will throw things at us that will try to bring us to a screeching halt. It will put people in our path, some to help and some to hurt. It will throw us into the middle of a storm and not tell us how to swim. It will throw you into a no-win situation and expect you to come out on top.

In the games, it was the past that educated you. You had to learn from your mistakes – and there would be many. You had to remember what had come before, to better understand it in the future. More importantly, you had to understand that you couldn’t dwell on what happened before, because what was after was just around the corner. You couldn’t help but to…

Move Forward.

This is a lesson that I still struggle with today. Things happen and I want to dwell on them. I let them sit and fester inside of me and let life pass me by. I don’t want to move forward, I want to go back to the way things were. I want to correct the mistakes of the past. I want to go back to a time when there was still a chance for something good to happen…but I can’t…and neither can you. All we can do is…

Move Forward.

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Much like the games, it is healthy to reflect on what has happened before, but only with the knowledge that it’s to help you in what is to come. Dwelling in the past, trying to get back there, does no one any good. The past is there to educate the present and to effect the future. Mario learns the same way we do; through trial and error and continuing on, despite circumstances.

There are things in life that we will miss; relationships that we didn’t take the chance on, job opportunities that we let slip on by, and many others. There are mistakes that we will make; hurting someone close, choosing the wrong side, ignoring the obvious among other things. This is the way of things, one of life’s few constants. Nonetheless, if we are to keep living all we can continue to do is take one step on and

Move Forward.

It is one of life’s hardest lessons, and one that many of us still have a hard time overcoming. It’s a lesson that’s hard to teach, let alone grasp. Yet, the 8bit games that we love gave us a simple visual metaphor for that exact thing. Whether they knew it or not, those creators were teaching us something as kids that would help us for years to come; a lesson we could pass on to everyone who came after.

There will always be days that seem dark. There will always be times when it seems like we can’t move on. Luckily, there was an Italian Plumber who struggled with the same thing, and showed us the answer. We are indebted to the pink bottomless pit that reminded us what matters is the journey forward. It is in the sacrifice of the blue hedgehog that we were able to see that going onward, despite all obstacles is always the greater path.

To no matter what…

…Move Forward

 

Friday Feature: Tiny & Big

Every now and then there’s a game that comes along that just gets you. You deep dive it and nobody sees you for a week, and then you go out to share your experience with everyone only to find out it’s not a great game.

“It’s too short!” they say. “Those controls are terrible!” they moan. “There’s hardly a story at all!” they cry.

Well I’m undeterred. I’m still going to recommend this game.

Tiny & Big: Grampa’s Leftovers is pure gold. No matter what you say.

You play as Tiny, the oddly shaped inventor, armed with his three trusty tools: Laser, Rocket, and Hook. Big, the other titular character, is a bully who stole your inheritance from your gramps: magic underpants.

All of that doesn’t really matter, though, because the point of the game isn’t to advance the story. Though the cutscenes are amusing and the intelligible grunts of the two main characters are worth a few chuckles, this game is, at it’s heart an puzzle/action game.

The “puzzles” of the game aren’t puzzles so much as they are areas that are difficult to traverse. In order to make it easier, you have to rely on Laser (which cuts through things), Rocket (which pushes things away), and Hook (which pulls things).

There are collectibles in the game, secret rooms to find, and above all a fabulous soundtrack. The developers worked with a handful of independent bands to create a fun and unique soundtrack that you can customize as you play. One of the collectibles is new tracks for your radio to play while you solve puzzles, so finding these little floating tapes becomes even more interesting than getting to the next area after a while. Because you only start off the game with one song, by the end of the time you get the last level, you’ll probably be kinda burned out on that one, as well as the first few tracks you find.

The game is done in a cel shaded art style, evoking a comic-book feel which is accentuated by the fact that most of the game sound effects are accompanied by onomatopoeia words the flash up next to the source of the sound. “POK!” flashes up when your hook sinks into a rock, and “BZZZT!” or “ZORT!” will show when your laser activates. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s seamlessly integrated and adds both character and charm.

I’ll have to admit here that the art style and the soundtrack are both unparalleled in their greatness – but they’re the best part of the game. There are places in the game where having such awesome style makes the game’s flaws stick out a bit. The really cool cel shading feels a little underutilized when there are only two characters and really only three environments in the whole game: desert, pyramid interior, and a virtual game-within-a-game world. There are also places where the artistic awesomeness makes me willing to ignore even the most grievous of gameplay flaws, so you take the good with the bad I suppose.

When I really step back and think about it, I have to tell you that Tiny & Big feels a bit like it’s somewhere between a game prototype and a full game. It is a bit too short and it could have benefitted with a bit more fleshing out. Sigh. Truth hurts.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m still recommending it! Even with it’s flaws, it’s still fun to play and if you buy the version of the game that includes the soundtrack ($15; the game by itself is $10) it’s a very worthy purchase.

 

Friday Feature: The Humble Store

It’s unusual for me to feature a storefront over a product or work, but I feel like The Humble Store for PC games deserves a special mention. It springs out of the Humble Indie Bundle events that began several years ago, where independent game developers joined together for a “pay-what-you-want” sale where a portion of each sale would go to the Childs Play charity.

Humble Indie Bundle has been through 11 incarnations, each with a set of independent games which, when you purchased the set, you could often get the Steam  download code for each game. Usually at a reduced price from what you’d get from the Steam storefront – with the added bonus of donating to charity.

Humble Bundle has also introduced several other bundle sets, including the Humble Book Bundle and the Humble Android Bundle, each with the same goal: companies who enter their product to receive a reduced commission and donate the rest to charity.

While The Humble Store isn’t a pay-what-you-want operation, they do donate a portion of each sale to any of a handful of charities (Child’s Play, American Red Cross, Electronic Frontier Foundation, World Land Trust, and Charity: Water). Their breakdown is as follows: 15% of each sale goes to their operations as the Humble Tip, 75% goes to the creators for their work, and 10% goes to the charities. Nearly all games that are also available on Steam also come with a Steam redemption code (since basically all PC gamers rely on Steam for their game library).

So next time you go to buy a game on Steam, pause and take the extra step to go check The Humble Store and see if they have the game for the same price – because then you know you’ll be giving some of your purchase to a few good causes.

Friday Feature: Twitch Plays Pokemon

The Internet is a weird place.

Sometimes, those oddities give birth to something that is nothing short of amazing.

I give you, Twitch Plays Pokemon.

For the uninformed; Pokemon is a game for Nintendo’s handhelds that involves a character traversing environments, catching creatures, and battling them against other trainers to gain badges. It’s a classic role playing game in every sense of the word. It’s actually not that hard when playing on your own; but when it’s over 20,000 people, that’s a different story. But we’ll get to that.

Twitch (or Twitch.tv) is a video streaming website where game players can go and stream their gameplay live. It’s amassed millions of viewers and much like Youtube, has it’s own batch of celebrities and high profile streamers that people will tune in and watch. You can find just about any game being played and watch for hours; while chatting with others enjoying it at the same time.

Which brings us to Twitch Plays Pokemon.

What at first glance seems to be one of the worst games of Pokemon being played ever, is actually one of the greatest social experiments of our age being played out on the internet. Unlike every other stream out there, it’s not just one person playing the game. It’s actually everyone in chat who has control over what the character does.

Instead of talking about the game being played, the entire chat window is filled with, “up, down, a, b,” etc., as all the viewers try to push the character through the game. As I said earlier, this would be no big deal if it were one person playing the game. Yet, in this case there are thousands now, and some of those people have other goals in mind.

Yes, there are thousands of players trying to play the game properly, but for every one of them there is another who is trying to keep them from progressing. Thus, the game becomes one of the most infuriating things to watch on the internet. The character spins around, goes back and forth, lets go of important items, releases pokemon, and so much more to its detriment because of these players. Yet, it is this back and forth that makes this game so interesting to watch.

Despite the back and forth, Twitch Plays Pokemon is halfway through the game. It’s an incredible accomplishment considering how the game itself is being played. Yet, this is not the most interesting story to come out this. That honor goes to the overarching meta-narrative that the players themselves are creating.

Because there are so many people playing, the character does things which he wouldn’t normally do and the community has taken upon itself to explain these things in some of the most hilarious ways. Certain items have become divine relics, mantras have been created, and when a pokemon is released a different pokemon is then blamed for the action. Just go through the Reddit page for that stream and you’ll see just what I am talking about here.

Twitch Plays Pokemon is the internet in a nutshell. There are those who wish to use it for good, and there are others who want (as Alfred put it), “to just see the world burn.” You should definitely give it a watch, if only for a couple of minutes. It has the uncanny ability to make you laugh and scream all at the same time….Seriously. I mean, 22.3 million viewers can’t be wrong?

You can watch it HERE

Everyone Looks Classier in a Mech-Suit

Mech

Zord

Gundam

Evangelion

Jaeger

Titan

 

Geek culture has always been infatuated with big robots. Whether in manga, anime, video games, or television, there have always been stories of pilots and their larger than life suits that save the day. As always, the question is, “why?” What is it about this “mecha genre” of story that draws so many of us to it, and keeps us coming back for more?

 

 

The answer is they are always relatable stories.

 

Not in the sense that we all would want to pilot multi-story mechanical monstrosities (though that would be a selling point for many of us,) but rather it is the motivation of the pilot that makes these stories reach out to us. It is the “why” of the pilot that keeps us all tuned in.

 

Why They Fight

 

…because there are things in this universe worth fighting and dying for.

 

The Power Rangers fought to protect Angel Grove (in Power Rangers.) The Voltron pilots protected the galaxy itself (in Voltron), and more recently, the Jaeger pilots (from Pacific Rim) fought to prevent the invasion of Earth from Lovecraftian creatures from another dimension.

 

 

In all these expressions of the genre, the pilots and other characters are fighting to protect something. That “something” may be existence itself, while for others it’s simply protecting a way of life. In some of my personal favorites, they are fighting because it is the only option; and it is the right thing to do. Regardless, in each instance the pilots are fighting for the greater good…for something worth fighting for.

 

Simply put, a man will go to great lengths to protect something that he loves. It is a simple and relatable truth that sits at the heart of the much of the mecha genre. We all would care to believe that, if given the chance, if given the ability, we would rise to the occasion and fight.

 

Why they Use Mechs

 

…because what they are fighting is both literally and figuratively bigger than themselves.

 

These are stories of men and women taking on gods and monsters; of fighting ideals and political machines; and these are things that a person cannot do on his own. They simply do not have the power. In many cases, they are completely powerless before their mech comes into the picture. Take for instance the more recent film, Pacific Rim. In it, the world is on the brink of being destroyed, and conventional wisdom and warfare has done nothing to stop the creatures from carving paths of destruction. It takes the creation of Jaegers (the mechs of this universe) and their pilots to finally turn the tide.

 

 

They use and choose to pilot their mechs because it gives them a chance; a chance to survive, to hold the line a little longer, to fight back the end for just one more day. The giant suits in all these examples are the equalizer; they are the one thing that puts the pilot on the same level as whatever they may be fighting.

 

In the real world there are bullies, anxieties, stress, social structures, and physical conflicts that can make anyone think that the situation is, “too big for me.” Life can have a way of making us feel utterly powerless in the shadows of these type of problems. The mecha genre tackles that internal fear on a very literal level; showing our heroes and heroines taking on creatures and powers that outclass them in many ways. Yet, they have the one thing that many of us hope for; a way to fight back, a way to win.

 

Why There’s Always A Team

 

…because, in the end, you can’t always do it on your own.

 

For Voltron and The Megazord to be formed, all the pilots are needed to come together to construct them. Jaeger pilots go into The Drift and let their minds fall in sync with each other to pilot their suits. Even in the Gundam series, the individual pilots have to overcome their differences and act as a team to fight back against the opposing forces.

 

 

With certain exceptions, most entries into the mecha genre revolve around a group of individuals who are fighting together. Ideals, god creatures, militaries, and monsters are too large for just one man or woman to tackle alone… even in a large multi-story death machine. One of the best examples is in the PSOne RPG Xenogears, where by the end of the game the pilots are tasked will killing their universe’s equivalent of god. Nonetheless, in most cases of the genre it requires that the team to come together, sometimes literally, to defeat what lay ahead of them.

 

This again hearkens to the simple fact that we need each other. John Donne said, “no man is an island.” For all the flash, the mecha genre tries to communicate the fact that if humanity is to succeed – humanity has to do it together.

 

 

There’s a lot of reasons why we all watch our shows with big robots, and some may be more shallow than others. Yet, these shows speak to us on very base levels; they tell a relatable tale in a completely unrelatable situation. We will never fight literal monsters, nor will we ever be fighting inside of a giant robotic cat. Nonetheless, we all have our own “monsters” we fight on a daily basis, we all have our ideals and way of life that we will fight to protect.

 

The big robots that we love to watch give us hope. They represent our ability as a species to overcome what is put before us; no matter how big or small. The very tangible mechs represent the intangible spark that we all share that gives us all the strength to stand up to adversity.

 

Maybe these seemingly ridiculous shows are trying to say that despite the odds being stacked against us…

 

…we still have a chance.