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JetMoto is the most subtly progressive hoverbike racing game of 1996

I’m a sucker for re-purchasing the games that I loved as a youth, even if I still have physical copies of them. I’m such a sucker in this regard, in fact, that I have purchased Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Streets of Rage 2 no fewer than three times each. When I know that I love a game through and through, when I know that I’d be happy to play it any time, any place, when it goes on sale, I can’t help but splurge, because I know exactly what I’m going to get.

Except sometimes, the games surprise me, especially the games I pick up again after leaving them on the shelf for years and years at a time without thinking of them. Sometimes I pick them up again and see them in a different light than I did when I was a youth.

It’s probably been a couple years since I repurchased JetMoto, SingleTrac’s sci-fi hoverbike-motocross grappling-hook stunt-race extravaganza, originally released in 1996 on the PlayStation. It’s a goofy, over-the-top game, but it has the distinction of being the first game I purchased for my PSX that I really and truly loved. (Before it, I had to make do with the confounding Aquanaut’s Holiday and the decent-but-not-particularly-exciting Ridge Racer Revolution, which spent more time in my Discman than my PlayStation on account of its delightfully weird techno soundtrack.)

I recently got myself a PS3, figuring that we were at the end of a console generation and the time would never be better to catch up on all the Sony exclusives I’d missed out on for the last seven years (that Nathan Drake! What a card!). Not having much to play on it after I’d gorged myself on FFX/FFX-2 HD, I installed the PSOne Classics that I’d bought over the years to play on my PSP and fooled around with those. I loaded up JetMoto, played it for a while, and had a realization.

JetMoto has a more progressive stance on gender than an awful lot of games.

The game has a playable cast of twenty riders (subdivided into four different “teams,” identified by brand, in what might be the most ham-fisted case of product placement in a game from its era), and of these twenty riders, nine of them are women. It’s not complete 1:1 parity, but it’s pretty close! It’s a nice touch, too, that the default rider the “character select” screen starts on is a woman–and she also happens to be the character on the title screen.

The graphical limitations of the system mean that JetMoto doesn’t mess around with individuated character models for different riders–with some slight differences in size, all “Butterfinger” riders look alike, as do all “Mountain Dew” riders–and so all of the riders, male and female, appear the same during races, clad in their motocross-esque jackets and helmets. Fittingly, the characters on the title screen are also girded in this “X-treme sports” gear, but a second glance at the character front and center reveals it to be obviously Dakota–her long black hair and feathered accessory marking her distinctly.

The game is obviously about the vehicles and not the riders–but it’s a nice touch that the “face” of JetMoto, at least by default, is a woman.

The riders you can choose from aren’t terribly distinct from each other, and they’re only defined by a handful of assets–a portrait on the character select screen, a paragraph of backstory, and a full-body portrait which is displayed in the winner’s circle if you happen to place first–but these are enough to offer each of the riders at least a little bit of personality. And while it’s true that a couple of the ladies in the roster are partly defined by their relationship to male riders, the flavor text often seems to suggest that they’re in a better position than their counterparts.

Shannara, for example, is the ex-wife of one of the male riders–we’re told that she races on a modified bike that she won in her divorce settlement, a machine built for someone twice her weight. Her ex-husband, by contrast, is a man whose “spirit sank with his ranking, harsh bitterness [reducing] him to little more than a hired gun to run opponents off-track.” Shannara’s stats are considerably better than those of her ex.

“Quick Jessie” West is introduced as the protege of Mark “The Max” Corri, and we’re told that her biggest hurdle to an impressive debut season may be having to compete against her mentor, but The Max’s profile likewise mentions that the biggest threat he faces “this season” probably comes from Quick Jessie.

The other women in the line-up are defined by their own merits–at least, to the extent a character can be in three or four sentences. Shirow is “the first female Japanese heavy bike rider,” and it’s rumored that she has cybernetic enhancements. Irons grew up in the rodeo. Harris is a bungee-jumping, skydiving adrenaline junkie. “Bomber” is a mechanic who builds the fastest, heaviest bikes in the whole circuit.

It probably doesn’t mean a lot, in the grand scheme of things, that there are so many different female racers in a hoverbike game from 1996. But I spent an awful lot of time playing JetMoto when I was twelve, and I can’t help but think it had an effect on me.

(Caveat: Although I eventually came to favor Bomber, I spent most of my time playing as Kari Kelley, AKA “Wild Ride,” by far the best stunt racer in the line-up, whose “legendary victory parties” have been “declared illegal in some states”–so maybe the game doesn’t deserve THAT much credit in helping me to be progressive in my thinking–although I DID eventually marry a girl named Kari.)

At the very least, the uniformity of character models in-game means that JetMoto doesn’t overtly sexualize its racers. That’s a pretty low bar to set for a game, especially a sci-fi motocross game, but this is 1996 and we have to start somewhere.

There ARE girls in skimpy outfits in JetMoto, it’s true: if you come in first place in a race as a male rider, part of your reward in the winner’s circle is having the trophy presented to you by a woman in a skimpy outfit (a bikini, Daisy Dukes, etc.). Conversely, however, if you’re playing as a female rider, the trophy is handed to you by a beefcake dude in hot pants. The game has ogling, yes, but it’s equal-opportunity ogling. For whatever that’s worth.

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This “trophy babe/trophy hunk” feature of the game is also the source of one of the subtlest, most delightful twists in JetMoto‘s sneakily diverse presentation. While it’s possible to set the game to always display a male or female trophy presenter in the game’s options menu, the default setting is “Rider’s Choice.” The wording here, I think, is key, because by invoking the characters’ preferences, the game is allowed, without much fanfare, to suggest that two of its twenty riders are gay.

Yes! I was positively delighted to discover upon revisiting JetMoto that if you come in first with either Harris (the aforementioned adrenaline junkie) or “Rhino” (something of a beefcake hunk himself) and the game is set to “Rider’s Choice” of trophy presenter, both of these riders will choose someone of their own gender. Neither character’s description on the select screen offers any hint as to their sexuality (and why would it? Remember: Sci-fi motocross game), but I’m not sure there’s another way to read having a same-sex trophy presenter when the trophy presenters are eye candy and the game declares them “Rider’s Choice.”

Is this the ideal handling of a diverse and balanced approached to gender, race, and sexuality? Of course not. But for 1996, it’s almost certainly more progressive and forward-thinking than you’d expect: a nearly 50/50 split of men and women, a fair modicum of ethnic diversity (African-American, Native American, Asian, African… Australian), and a subtle acknowledgement that 10% of its rider pool is gay.

So I salute you, JetMoto. You are far and away the best game about hoverbikes, and I won’t hear any arguments against it. (Actually, if there are any arguments against it, I would like to hear them. I’d like to start a robust and thoughtful conversation… about JetMoto.)

 

Super Mario 3D World and the joys of jumping in video games

Super Mario 3D World and the joys of jumping in video games

Hey! Apologies for the hiatus. I have been writing for other places.

My newest article went up at Kill Screen yesterday. It’s about Mario, his legacy as “Jumpman,” and how he’s been at the center of defining what it means to jump in a videogame. Go check it out!

 

Grand Theft Auto V as grotesquerie

 

Enough has been written about Grand Theft Auto V in the week since its release that I’m hesitant to attempt any kind of incisive criticism; the best writers in gaming have been at work on that since long before I even got my hands on the game.

I have been trying to sort out for myself, as I’ve made my way through the first part of the game, why I am enjoying it so much. Why I have always enjoyed this series. Why I feel affection for its protagonists, even though they are unquestionably Bad People by any reasonable metric. Of course it’s possible to feel sympathy for the Devil, but I’m somehow uniquely susceptible to it in this medium in a way that I haven’t encountered in others. I don’t watch Breaking Bad. I’ve never really been a fan of Scarface. Niko Bellic, on the other hand, is a character for whom I have considerable love.

I have been trying to understand why I am willing to invest myself in characters like Michael and Franklin (not so much Trevor, yet, I’ve just gotten to him and thus far I don’t like him very much) when I am so resistant to do it in other media. I think I’ve finally boiled it down: GTAV is a grotesquerie, both in its world and in its characters.

The first thing that it is important to note is that the world of Grand Theft Auto is unambiguously horrible. It is horrible in some of the same ways that the real world is horrible, only more so. There has been a lot of talk amongst games writers about Rockstar’s “failed satire,” but I don’t even know if satire is really what they’re going for here. I think that the aesthetic of the Grand Theft Auto series has drifted completely away from satire, if it every truly fit the term. From where it stands now, I think that it would be more accurate to call GTA a grotesque.

Both the world and the characters of GTA are meant to elicit both disgust and pity in the player. The counterpoint of those two emotions is what makes a grotesquerie so compelling: the player (or reader, or viewer, or what have you) wants to continue the narrative because they want to see whether or not the characters come to a place that’s less disgusting, less pitiful.

In Liberty City or Los Santos (or the rest of San Andreas, or even in Vice City), the subtext of commercialism, materialism, and capitalism that runs beneath our everyday lives is made explicit. The radio spews vile filth almost unceasingly. The billboards are suggestive and woefully adolescent. The people you pass on the street are vapid and superfluous, by design as much as by the convenience of programming. If this were satire, there would be some narrative commentary, some pointed suggestion as to the meaning of such excesses, but in GTAV there is none. It is the worst of the world made uglier, turned up to eleven, and presented to the player with barely a raised eyebrow. Again: grotesque. This is America-as-gargoyle.

In the world of GTA, sexism is rampant and horrible because the whole world has been crafted from a male perspective. Whether this implies a narrow, insensitive worldview on the part of the developers (likely) or a conscious decision to recognize the omnipresence of the patriarchy and depict it as even more omnipresent (odds are slim), the effect is the same: the disenfranchised are now nonexistent. The complex and interesting women who populate real life and so often go unrecognized by those with privilege are here less than invisible: in Los Santos, they simply do not exist. All of those angry dudebros who lashed out when critics gave GTAV less than a 10? This is their perspective given form and verisimilitude. And, like everything else in the universe of GTA, it’s horrible. A grotesque. An exaggeration that turns what is wrong into what is unconscionable.

It might be possible to set a GTA in a world that was not horrible in these ways (it would, in all probability, be more interesting), but this hideous fun-house mirror of real life makes it considerably easier to empathize with our protagonists. Oftentimes, they’re the least horrible guys in the room. But these three miscreants are grotesques, too, in the traditional sense: they are characters who simultaneously evoke disgust and empathetic pity.

Franklin’s kind of sad. Michael is sad, like, profoundly sad. Trevor, well, Trevor’s a whole ‘nother animal. But he’s pretty pathetic himself. (And, hey, while we’re on it– Niko Bellic is pretty sad, too.)

These are the kinds of characters which I would probably have a hard time watching on television (or–and I shudder to think of it–on stage). I think that my disgust would probably overpower my pity pretty quickly. Something about the medium of games, though, makes me give these guys a second look (it might have to do with how much, on a mechanical level, I like Shooting Bad Guys and Driving Fast Cars).

But I think there’s more to it than just that. In a world which is orders of magnitude worse than our own, we’re allowed to partner up with them and try and guide them toward being better–helping them to have more control over their lives, helping to dig them out of the pits of misery in which they’re entrenched–even if the journey there is over the bodies of wave after wave of thugs.

As I play the game, I don’t murder civilians for no reason. I try not to get anybody killed if I can avoid it. When I’m playing as Michael, I have him call his wife after every mission, hoping against hope that now that he’s back in the game and feeling more of a purpose to his life, he might start to treat her a little more humanely, and a genuine relationship might emerge. (Pretty sure this one’s a futile hope on my part. Gonna keep trying.)

GTA is complicated. At the same time that it glorifies hideous violence and makes the player complicit in it, it asks them to pity its miserable characters and try and guide them toward a place where they’ll be happier. But those two dueling emotions–disgust and pity–are the basis of any classical grotesque, from Frankenstein’s monster to Caliban to Smeagol, and it’s why even those of us who cringe at the hideousness of Rockstar’s ugly universe can buy in.

Looking at the game as an example of the grotesque doesn’t make the problematic elements go away, but for me it’s been a lens through which to understand my engagement with it.

Bioshock Infinite and player agency

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[Note: This is an article primarily about the ending of Bioshock Infinite, and as such it contains numerous spoilers, as well as spoilers for the original Bioshock. Probably you shouldn’t read it if you haven’t finished these games. There are also some references to other games–the new Tomb Raider, Mass Effect 3, and Red Dead Redemption–but they’re less explicit. Nevertheless, fair warning.]

There have been a number of essays written recently about the strengths and weaknesses of Bioshock Infinite. It is a hugely significant game for a number of reasons, and it deserves most of the praise (and most of the criticism!) that it’s receiving from the gaming press. I can certainly go on record to say that I enjoyed my time with the game thoroughly, and despite a few criticisms, I’d easily call it one of the best games I’ve played in the last couple years. But the final half-hour of the game, after the final battle has been fought, in which all of the game’s secrets are laid bare before the player, left something of a sour taste in my mouth.

Bioshock Infinite has one of the most frustrating endings of any game that I can recall. It gains much of its emotional impact by being deliberately dissatisfying to the player, and it thwarts a player’s sense of agency in a way that few other games dare to–for better or worse.

Inevitability is at the heart of Bioshock Infinite’s narrative. It’s a theme that is brought up frequently throughout the game, most often by Robert and Rosalind Lutece, who show up periodically to remind Booker of how little choice he has in the events of the story–and, simultaneously, to remind the player of how little choice THEY have in influencing the narrative. None of the minor choices present throughout the game have any significant effect on the events of the plot, and indeed, some of them are even decided for the player.

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An early scene in which the Luteces ask Booker to call a coin toss always comes up heads, but Booker can actually call it either heads or tails. Importantly, however, it is Booker, and not the player, who makes this decision. This scene accomplishes a couple different things: first, it reinforces the overarching theme of the game, that the events of the world will play out in a certain way no matter what the player does; second, it creates dissonance between the player and their avatar, Booker–”why,” the player must ask themselves, “does the game not offer me input on this binary choice, when I have already been asked to decide between two courses of action earlier in the game?” (The scene is also, as Kevin Wong points out at Gamasutra, a nice little hat tip to Tom Stoppard.)

Booker tells Elizabeth, on a number of different occasions throughout the game, that there’s nothing he can do to wipe away his past. Ultimately, of course, that turns out not to be true–not only is Booker able to atone for his sins, but he is able to literally prevent them from ever having occurred–and all it takes is allowing himself to be murdered.

This is an exceptionally powerful ending to the story, but at the same time it’s very frustrating to the player–neither Booker nor the player have a complete picture of the situation until the final moments of the game, and by that point it’s too late. Once all of the pieces are in place, there’s nothing left to do but watch yourself be killed and watch the credits roll. The inevitability of the narrative hits you hard, and you have to sit by yourself on the couch for a while and sort things out in your head.

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The question that was left ringing in my head, for days afterwards, was: “If the whole point of the exercise was that there was nothing I could do, why did I play the game?”

Bioshock Infinite’s comment on player agency in games seems to be that, at least narratively, it’s an illusion. None of the choices that you make have any real consequences. There is nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the story. Just like Booker, you are brought into the world of the game in order to play your part in events over which you have no control. Even death can’t stop you from playing your part: die outside the company of Elizabeth (who would otherwise resurrect you), and you reappear inside Booker’s apartment, only one door away from picking up where you left off. (And is it the same Booker? Does it matter?)

Like everything else in the game’s story, Booker’s ultimate demise (or is it a willing sacrifice?) is thrust upon the player without ever allowing them to take ownership of it. It’s not clear that it’s a choice Booker is making, and it’s not at all something that the player can make the decision to undertake–we don’t even really know it’s coming until a moment or two before it happens.

In no other medium could you so powerfully confront the player with their own narrative impotence, and that makes Bioshock Infinite very potent! In some ways, however, it makes me wonder whether the plot of the game wouldn’t be more satisfying in a different medium. Someone’s edited every story sequence in the game into a 3.5 hour film. Would the same messages about inevitability be just as compelling if the story weren’t interactive? Is the impact of the game’s ending dependent on the player’s belief that they might have some agency, or is it weakened by the player’s expectation to take ownership of the actions of their avatar?

“Nobody tells me where to go,” Booker says, close to the end of the game, and it’s an ironic statement on a number of levels. On the one hand, we as the player are telling him where to go. And on the other hand, there’s really no choice in the matter. As Elizabeth points out, the game brings us to the same place no matter how we try to fight it. And in the end, what happens to us? We are, as the many Elizabeths so appropriately echo, “smothered.” Frustrating! There’s nothing we can do. There was never anything we could do.

In the original Bioshock, one of the greatest twists in gaming plays heavily off the fact that you can’t progress in the game without following its prescribed, linear set of objectives. “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” And you have, of course, been unwittingly obeying the entire time. One of the great elements of thematic dissonance in that game, however, is the fact that the second act involves ridding your avatar from another character’s mind control, and yet the linear progression of objectives remains–you’re just taking orders from a different character, and though you’re no longer under the influence of “mind control,” you cannot deviate from the narrative’s path without bringing the wheels of the game to a screeching halt. You are, essentially, still a slave, and not a man. Players ask themselves: what have I really freed myself from, in the end?

I was always fundamentally disappointed with this element of Bioshock, and I think that I’m not alone in that assessment–the game’s ending is generally considered to be less compelling than its mid-game climax. I’m re-evaluating that assessment in the wake of Bioshock Infinite, however. My dissatisfaction with Bioshock’s second act was only retrospective–in examining the themes of the game once I’d finished it, I felt like there was a bit of hypocrisy there. While I had the controller in my hand, I didn’t feel any of that dissonance, because the narrative was aligned with my interests as a player: Tenenbaum wanted me to take down Fontaine, and she gave me instructions as to how I might do so. That was fine. After the betrayal I’d just experienced, I wanted to take down Fontaine, and I was willing to follow her “suggestions” as to how I might proceed, “would you kindly” or no.

Instead of asserting the player’s narrative impotence halfway through the narrative and then falsely “freeing” them from that impotence, Bioshock Infinite uses the last thirty minutes of the game to show us just how much of a pawn we really are, and then drive it home by murdering us and letting us watch the credits with slack jaws and a vague sense of betrayal.

As gamers, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief about how much agency we have in a linear narrative in order to see that narrative through to the end–as long as the game gives us a compelling reason to do so. Playing through the Tomb Raider reboot, I didn’t care that I was helping to turn Lara into a mass-murderer, or that so much of the narrative (and indeed, the gameplay!) was “on rails.” The premise of the game is that Lara’s in a terrible situation and that she and her friends will all die if she doesn’t resort to some extreme measures. (Kirk Hamilton calling out the game’s homages to The Descent over at Kotaku underscores this pretty well.) Tomb Raider isn’t a game that’s particularly concerned with issues of player agency, and so players don’t feel too compelled to consider moral culpability as they play it. I think that’s just fine.

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There’s a reason, however, that there have been some good arguments raised about whether or not Bioshock Infinite’s ultraviolence undermines its narrative (and, of course, its accessibility to non-gamers or casual gamers). When a game strives to remind us, throughout its story, both that our character cannot wash the blood off his hands and that we may or may not have any choice in the actions that we’re taking, we start to look a little more critically at the slaughter that we’re perpetrating. This isn’t Yamatai–we’re not forced to choose between helping Lara slaughter thousands of men or watching her die. This isn’t even Rapture, where we’re forced to put down scores of Splicers that want to harvest us for our ADAM.

In Columbia, we kill hundreds of men because… Booker’s a bad guy already, and that makes it okay? Because we’ve been brought here by fate (or the Luteces) and because we have no choice? Because if we let them kill us, we’ll wake up back in our apartment and step out the door and… keep on killing? That’s a sort of WarGames scenario, right there. The only way to win is not to play. In Tomb Raider or the original Bioshock, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel–kill all the bad men, and eventually the killing will stop, and you’ll be safe. In Bioshock Infinite, if you kill enough bad men, then… none of it will ever have happened? Well, that’s cool. I’ll tell you how else that could happen, though: don’t play the game in the first place.

Obviously this isn’t a course of action I suggest anybody take. The game is awesome. If you don’t play it, you’ll be missing out on all sorts of wonders. I only mean to highlight the ways in which the game’s ending makes you reflect on your experience throughout the narrative and ask yourself, “why?” This isn’t Mass Effect 3 or Red Dead Redemption, games which also involve inevitable final sacrifices but allow the player to internalize, come to terms with, and follow through with those sacrifices as though they were their own decisions. Nor is it Shadow of the Colossus, which telegraphs its protagonist’s fate within the first hour of the game and dares the player to continue anyway.

Bioshock Infinite, by keeping the player’s blinders on until the final sequence, never allows players to understand the full import of their situation until they’re waist deep in the river and the only thing left to do is drown.

It’s a bold, powerful choice. Is it a good one? I’m not sure I’ve figured that out yet. Maybe the fact that I’m still sorting through it in my head means it was a good decision. Not all art needs to be cathartic, and sometimes brilliant pieces are deliberately dissatisfying. Nevertheless, I’m not sure I’ll be returning to Columbia anytime soon. The game aims to frustrate, and it succeeds! I will go and play some other things, and perhaps when my frustration has subsided, I will return. I’ll let you know how long that takes.