SIDEBAR
»
S
I
D
E
B
A
R
«
Uncharted 2 Review [Sony]
Jan 5th, 2010 by Dan

In my office there hangs a picture of Marilyn Monroe, a woman synonymous with beauty and sex appeal, but when you get closer to that picture the outline of Albert Einstein replaces the blonde bombshell. Uncharted 2 is a exactly like that.

It’s hilarious to me that in a world where I want people to stop comparing video games to movies, I find myself so enthralled by what is actually the best action movie of last year. I’m pretty sure that I said that about the first game too, but that’s how consistently the folks at Naughty Dog deliver top-notch, high-quality games. Nathan Drake is the Indiana Jones of the modern age, especially after George Lucas betrayed us all with that abomination of a movie in 2008. I’d even go so far as to say that the success of the series almost exclusively lies with the dude himself.

In the world of male power fantasies, I’d say there are a few ways to go. Muscle-bound ‘roid freaks who have big guns and kill everyone while being super macho men, suave ladies men who can get any girl they want, and the kind of skinny, smart-mouthed, clever scoundrel type (there are also combinations of these three for those who like to double dip their archetypes). Nathan Drake is the scoundrel type who gets to adventure in exotic locales in a partially tucked in t-shirt and jeans with a gun. As a guy who doesn’t own a gun or really go adventuring in exotic locales, but who does wear jeans frequently and plenty of t-shirts, how could I not want to be just like Nathan Drake?

Now that you’ve got this lovable scoundrel adventurer crafted, the next step is to have him hunt for a famous treasure, but put a spin on it somehow. The first game has Nathan hunting for El Dorado, but I won’t spoil what the spin is. This game has him searching for the Cintamani stone, a lesser known mythical object of wealth, but a valid one nonetheless.

Just like that, we’ve got two parts of every Indiana Jones movie already figured out. The next step is pretty obvious, you need a love interest for the hero. She can be either loyal, innocent, and a bit snobby or she can be sexy, dangerous, and possibly traitorous. We had Elena in the first as the first archetype and now we’ve got Chloe for the second. Perfect, we’re almost there.

The final touch for any Indy movie is a bad guy, preferably of foreign origin so that the Yanks can feel like they’ve triumphed against the world. Drake’s Fortune featured Gabriel Roman, an older British man, and his sidekick Atoq Navarro of unknown Hispanic origin. For U2, we get Eastern European warlord Zoran Lažarević. Just like that our pulp movie plot is complete.

It seems so simple when you put it that way that it really gives me pause. This is more than the plot to the (awesome) Indiana Jones movies, it’s also a fairly common plot that I find myself bored with 98% of the time, so why do I love it so much? What is so crunchy about the way this game is structured that I find myself unable to put the controller down when I’d normally just turn off the tv?

I give a tremendous amount of credit to Amy Hennig, who I know has creative authority over all of Naughty Dog’s products. It’s got to be her touch that gives Uncharted its extra little bit of awesome, because it’s an otherwise standard game. Plenty of folks complain about the shooting mechanic being imprecise not to mention the ease with which most puzzles can be completed. In fact, if you’re ever just a wee bit stuck on a puzzle, all you’ve got to do is look in Nathan’s notebook and the solution is right there. The only natural conclusion is that the strength of the game must come from the way that Hennig and the folks at Naughty Dog put together all these mechanics combined with the look of the game and the behavior of its characters.

A great example of how all of the game elements combine to create something great (and how Naughty Dog is a superior developer) has to do with the set pieces throughout Uncharted 2. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a set piece takes all of the elements that you’ve been used to dealing with throughout the game and throws them at you in some ridiculously awesome form. For example, both Uncharted games have Drake hiding behind cover on land shooting at enemies. My favorite set piece in Uncharted 2 has Nathan jumping from truck bed to truck bed, shooting enemies and using the truck walls for cover. It’s a fantastic application of the mechanics I’ve already been playing all game long and, best of all, they only use it once during the entire game.

Many developers would be tempted to try and reuse the same set pieces over and over with slight modifications. Since they spent so much time on them, they may as well get use out of them, right? Think of the old arcade and SNES classic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. They had these bonus stages where the turtles were on hoverboard-type things that they created to break up the typical sidescrolling stages. Not content to just let this happen once, they reuse the stage twice in the game, dulling the impact of how cool it was. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have something like Miyamoto’s hyper conservative use of Kuribo’s Shoe. It appears in only one level and plenty of players can just skip it with a whistle.

I applaud Uncharted 2 for taking these huge moments, the train fight, the truck part, the part where you’re escorting the cameraman, and do them only once. Then again, maybe I’m giving them too much credit, since the same background motion tech in the first two scenes I mentioned were probably first developed in the first game (that jeep escape scene comes to mind) and helicopter fights do make repeated appearances in many places, but still, it does seem like the big moments are unique.

Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, the game is not perfect. The game may not repeat set pieces over and over again, but the firefights can start to wear on a player by the 50th time he has to do the same thing. They do a better job of pacing the cutscene, shoot, explore, shoot, cutscene, lather, rinse, repeat structure that persists in this game, but it’s still not quite perfect. There are plenty of times where I’ve just thought, “Boy, I’d much rather just keep exploring around instead of shooting fifteen guys again.”

Speaking of the shooting mechanics, Naughty Dog clearly heard everyone complain about men in t-shirts taking so many bullets to take down, so they completely adjusted the bullet counts to take down enemies. Most lightly armored enemies mercifully take only two or three bullets while the seriously armored Gatling dudes (and those stupid blue guys at the end) take clips upon clips. Aiming is also a little easier and the weapon variety is way better.

Uncharted 2 is unbelievably beautiful and, more importantly, completely brilliant at exactly the same time. There was not a better put together gaming experience all last year. It’s a must play.

The Portrayal of Women in Gaming [Game Overview]
Jan 1st, 2010 by Dan

Despite the growing number of female gamers and older gamers, the larger audience in gaming does lie within the 18-35 (or whatever the range is supposed to be), male demographic, which means that games are made primarily for that audience (fortunately (for publishers), most 14-17 year-olds respond to the same marketing techniques). It follows that what comes out of the industry revolves around heavy action and sex appeal. For every indie game that attempts to take a mature look at female sexuality like The Path, there are at least five games where women are two-dimensional characters wearing ridiculous apparel meant to emphasize their unnaturally oversized assets.

Again, it’s not that surprising, right? Sex sells. It starts getting strange when you look at the results of a recent study by Carrie Lynn Reinhard (Hypersexualized Females in Digital Games: Do Men Want Them, Do Women Want to Be Them?). The results of the study showed that men prefer to play as more realistically proportioned women when they play games. They’re also more likely to recommend the game to a female friend if the avatar is more realistic. Meanwhile, women are more likely to enjoy playing as hyper-sexualized avatars and more likely to recommend these games to their male friends. It’s definitely not what I’d expect, but it makes sense given the cultural assault on women to be hyper-sexual and the empowerment the might feel, while it seems that playing as a hyper-sexualized female makes a man feel emasculated.

I guess I can kind of support those conclusions, at least with the way that I see other people play online. My entire character selection strategy is primarily geared toward emasculating and embarrassing my opponents. In almost every game where such a choice is available, I will always make my avatar either pink or female (or both) for the simple reason that it riles up the competition when they lose. I think that perfectly sums up most of the gaming landscape: sexist and immature.

Leigh Alexander is fond of saying that the immaturity of the gaming landscape is mostly due to the immaturity of the men who run it. In article she wrote titled “Bang Bang, Is Creativity Dead?” she quotes:

“There is a cycle in game development. People making games usually make games that appeal to themselves, and choose from a narrow set of inspirations — Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Tolkien, World War II, super-hero comics, and a few more. Then, those games appeal to a certain set of fans, and some of those fans will eventually grow up to make games themselves, and those games end up looking like the previous generation, because they were made to please a similar bunch of people. That loop just repeats and stays the same size forever.”

-Tim Schafer

This concept has appeared many times in her work when talking about mature games versus “mature” games. Something like the upcoming Dante’s Inferno game is rated mature because it contains gobs of bloody gore and bare breasts. A game like Mother 3, which is outwardly cartoony in appearance, is actually mature because of the way it deals with death, family, and its themes of community and isolation.

I’m not saying that there’s no place for immaturity in art, but when it’s all your work has to offer, it’s almost insulting to me as an adult gamer. Take Team Ninja’s Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, released on the Xbox back in 2003. Never mind that calling it “xtreme” is already ridiculous, but the game itself is pandering to an extreme degree. The most clear cut goal in the game is to raise the friendship levels of the beach volleyball teams so that you can give your partner as revealing a bathing suit as possible to wear. I was 17 when this game came out and even then I was too old to be amused by such obvious attempts to catch my attention.

The first great hope that we were making progress came in Valve’s 2004 epic, Half-Life 2. Not only was Alyx Vance a smart, capable sidekick to the mute Gordon Freeman, she was realistically proportioned, wore jeans, only barely showed her midriff, had no cleavage showing, and donned a jacket that covered her arms to her elbows. To this day Valve continues to render its female characters in a realistic fashion. Chell, of Portal fame, was also not sexualized and Zoey and Rochelle, the two female leads in Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, respectively, are also both modestly attired and realistically proportioned, but Valve is in the minority in this industry.

Also in the minority in the industry are women with positions of power. Video game development is unsurprisingly male-dominated (I say unsurprisingly because, in my experience, most computer scientists are men), but there are a few relatively famous women with positions of power. The first really famous woman I can think of is Jade Raymond of Ubisoft. I know I’m about to be super unfair, but Jade Raymond is known more for being hot than for her roles at Ubisoft. I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed, so I can’t really speak to its quality, but, despite her role as producer of the game, I couldn’t help but feel that Ubisoft was using Jade Raymond as the face of the game for more insidious purposes. I know that almost every video I saw where she was talking about the game was filled with immature comments by viewers about how good looking she is. Again, my statements are not saying anything about how good she is at her job. She’s clearly great at it, since she’s been named president of Ubisoft Toronto,but the immaturity of the medium has prevented some from really taking her seriously.

The other famous woman I can think of (probably because I’m such a fan of her work) is Amy Henning, the Creative Director at Naughty Dog. It makes sense that Jade Raymond has a wiki page, but Amy Hennig doesn’t, yet I feel that Amy Hennig has done way more for women’s portrayal in gaming than Jade Raymond has simply because of the characters that Amy Hennig has created for the Uncharted series.

Like Valve, Naughty Dog’s female characters are strong, confident, and able to take care of themselves. Nathan Drake, the star of the series, does have to rescue them from time to time, but both Chloe and Elena are more than able to handle themselves in the face of danger and both have saved Drake a fair number of times as well. While it is true that Chloe is a more sexualized character thanElena, she’s neither a ridiculous piece of eye candy nor a woman who trades exclusively on her sex appeal to get what she needs. It’s almost incidental that she’s hotter than Elena and, no doubt, a creative choice meant to emphasize Drake’s character arc in the second game as he is forced to choose between being selfish or doing the right thing.

It’s clear through the many interviews and videos of Amy Hennig I’ve heard/seen that she was the driving force behind forcing the moderate and respectful portrayal of women in the Uncharted series. No longer content to continue to watch women being objectified and marginalized in her medium, she was a vocal supporter of the idea that people will still like these games and characters even if they’re not all T&A. To her credit, I’ve never heard anything but praise for the characters of the Uncharted world. T&A or no, I still get hits on my blog on a daily basis looking for dirty pictures of Elena and Chloe. Could it be that men are just as happy with women who are real too? Does everything about a video game have to be a ridiculous empowerment fantasy?

I’m hopeful that the maturation of the field will yield more Zoeys and Elenas and fewer Lara Crofts and Bayonettas (new game set to come out this year focused entirely on the lead character’s sex appeal). It’s not that every game has to have realistic characters, I mean the men of Gears of War are no more realistic than Lara Croft in their own way,not to mention that even popular, respected, mature mediums feature plenty of shallow characters, but it would be nice to start seeing real people in our games.

»  Substance:WordPress   »  Style:Ahren Ahimsa