Friday, October 24, 2014

Fashion in FFX-2


Let me state upfront that my opinions about fashion should absolutely under no circumstances be taken seriously.

Let me reiterate. Never listen to my opinions about fashion.

Also, after reading the article I’m responding to, I called it “disastrous” in a tweet. That was quite rude, and incorrect, despite my misgivings. The offending tweet has been deleted.


Design as Characterization

This Paste article by Gita Jackson is a good look at how videogame character designers often prove themselves to be completely clueless by making clothes for women characters that, in Jackson’s words, make them look like “a 12-year old who got lost in a costume shop.”

Yuna’s . . . extravagant redesign in Final Fantasy X-2 is a primary example of this. I really don’t know exactly how to explain why it’s so bad, and frankly, I’m not gonna rip on how much skin is showing because that would both oversimplify the issue and be ignoring what’s actually wrong with it.

Nevertheless, when one compares OG Yuna to new-school Yuna side-by-side, it becomes pretty apparent which design is superior and why: X Yuna’s design matches the character. It’s a religious garb for a religious journey and it looks good on her. Say what we might about problems related to Yuna’s relentlessly modest femininity and how one might react to that being changed, it simply does not make sense for her to go from one outfit to the other, or at the very least, the work is never done in the narrative to show such a change in character that would justify it. Playing X-2, Yuna’s basic personality is largely similar to what it was in X, so the change not just to this radical new outfit, but a whole set of radical new outfits, doesn’t really work.

So basically, I agree with Jackson here that the outfit is ridiculous and I agree with most of her main points throughout the article, but then she writes this:

X-2 is woman centric, and about a woman’s journey, with Yuna rightfully taking her place as the central character.

This I fundamentally disagree with, and I think we can glean some insight on the character designs in X-2 by deconstructing the game's feminine facade to reveal (what I interpret to be) it's male focus.

A Man as A Cyst

Let’s hop back to Final Fantasy X for a second. I could spend hours doing this (and perhaps in the future I will,) but to keep it short I think if I told you the entire story of the game and it’s characters without telling you about everything that happens before Tidus meets Yuna, you would insist that Yuna is the main character. Then I’d have to tell you “No, sorry, there’s some stuff I left out about this twit of an athlete named Tidus who won’t keep his dumb mouth shut.”

This is not a controversial statement. FFX is about Yuna, but for some inexplicable reason, grafted onto the game like the pumpkin on Sora’s face for his Halloween Town costume in Kingdom Hearts, is Tidus. Talk about bad fashion. Way to ruin a fun costume by over accessorizing with a pumpkin eye patch.

Leigh Alexander goes into this pretty well in this Gamasutra article (which I have serious problems with, but again, another day), but if I can field a guess here, I’d say Kitase, Nomura, Nojima and crew started with a story about a man as was their default mode of operation, then found out too late if it all that their focus had moved far away from him and didn’t re-orient the game’s perspective to correct. Frankly, I’m being generous here, it wouldn’t be that absurd to say they wrote a game about a woman and then Square’s marketing department said “BUT DUDES YO,” considering that they also pulled “BUT EFFEMINATE TEENS YO” on Final Fantasy XII, significantly harming that game’s narrative focus as well (and I say that as a devout fan of games about effeminate teens.)

So FFX is a game that should be about a woman, but insistently focuses on a man.

I’d contend that FFX-2 is basically the same.

Women as Bait, Men as Reward

Tidus dies at the end of Final Fantasy X. Or he disappears? Technically, according to the game’s logic, he doesn’t really “exist” at all per se but, look, he ends up gone. For Yuna especially, this is sad. They were making a romantic connection near the end there.

FFX-2 is supposed to take place two years after the end of FFX, and a depressing amount of it’s plot centers around how “Tidus might still be out there.”

In fact, he is, and the reward for completing the game 100% is a resurrection that was about as nonsensical as his death and his existence. This is boneheaded on several levels.

  1. A game that could’ve taken the opportunity that few games do to show the mourning process instead becomes fixated on the idea that a dead person can be brought back to life. So basically the game, instead of being a helpful story about how people deal with death, perpetuates the least healthy idea that a person in mourning can deal with. (This could be an article on it’s own.)
  2. As a result of this, instead of allowing players to focus on Yuna’s life as a woman who recently gained independence and agency after the dissolution of Yevon, we instead get to focus on her fixating on That Boy She Liked from back in the day.

This is the pitfall of a significant amount of content targeted towards women created by men, that they feel so uncomfortable attempting to relate a woman’s experience that they eventually have to find a way to wrap the narrative back around to men.

FFX-2 doubles down on this in particular by making Tidus a pseudo-reincarnation of a historical figure from Zanarkand’s past, some dude named Shuyin, making the game largely about exploring this character’s history, rather than Yuna’s own. At every turn, FFX-2 refuses to actually be about Yuna. Compare and contrast Yuna to, for example, Squall or Cloud or Zidane. In their games we get to see little bits of those characters entire lives and piece together the puzzle of their persona by observing psychologically affecting moments from different periods. Not once in the FFX-2 do we see any events that might have developed Yuna’s character in the two years between FFX and the present, and even in FFX, those moments of backstory centered around her father, not her (or her unnamed mother.)

The game doubles down on it’s non-focus on women especially hard by putting her, Rikku, and Payne into situations that are shamelessly designed to titillate players, who I would guess that Square assumed were mostly straight men. I could be kind and say that these moments are also alluring for queer women but I seriously doubt that Square is actively thinking of them when it puts the main characters in bikinis in a hot spring and things gets weird. I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. X-2 actively regresses from X’s portrayal of women with scenes like this.

So in other words: the game has you play as a woman, but distracts you from that woman and her life by constantly talking about this male character who’s basically the same cyst of a male character from the last game, and then it tithes over it’s presumably male players by putting in a bunch of suggestive pseudo-lesbianism that goes absolutely nowhere from a narrative perspective, existing purely to titillate, rewarding patient play with more ways to dress up the characters (presumably hitting the Refresh button on the hetero male sexual imagination) and then resurrecting the utterly useless male main character from Final Fantasy X. Frankly, I can think of few other games that actually pander that hard to a male audience.

Given all that, it isn’t even remotely surprising to me that Nomura didn’t know how to execute on Yuna’s redesign. However good a character Yuna may actually be, FFX already proved that Square had no interest in altering their masculinity-centered narratives to accommodate this far more interesting woman, and FFX-2 doubles down on it in the worst possible ways, and so it makes quite a lot of sense, to me at least, that Square seemed to have no interest in figuring out what a woman might want to wear.

Thanks for listening, I hope none of this comes off as dismissive of what is otherwise a fun and smart article.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Argue Literature 101 with A Gamergater. I Am Correct.

I do not intend to write a piece about GamerGate for this blog. Others have written amazing pieces already, and the volume of good pieces is high enough that my contributions would be irrelevant, especially as someone who is largely not a victim.

Today on Twitter I argued with a 'gater about basics of literary analysis. Let me state this unequivocally: He is wrong. I am right.

This storify of that argument was compiled by Twitter user @Hacaplus (Display name: Count <3 Hacula)

Your Nanomachines Are Bad, and You Should Feel Bad

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hatred Is Fascist Garbage.

Also it uses the image of a heavy metal fan as it's protagonist and I'm not happy about it. Read about that here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Water Temple Analysis: Part 1

Not twelve hours after I began this draft on August 11, I received the devastating news that Robin Williams, one of the most talented American film actors and a personal hero of mine, had taken his own life at the age of 63. Williams, on top of being an actor and stand-up comedian whose talents defy my own ability to describe them, was also a huge fan of anime and video games. Knowing that as a kid made me feel like a legitimate person for being so consumed by these things. Williams was in particular a fan of The Legend of Zelda and even named his daughter, Zelda Rae Williams after the titular character. This piece and more to come are dedicated to his life and his legacy.

Ocarina of Time is among the most beloved games ever made, arguably the most beloved, and yet it features also one of the most hated dungeons of any videogames as well: The Water Temple. And sure, it’s easy to accept the surface level criticisms that the dungeon is long, tedious and such, but what do those statements actually mean? What is actually wrong with the Water Temple?

I think I know why, but before I jump into analyzing the temple directly, I think we need to ask ourselves a few questions about how Ocarina of Time is designed.


The most recognizable pattern in the level design of Ocarina is a sense of partitioning. The dungeons are not linear in a traditional sense, but unlike the Water Temple, the other dungeons are designed in such a way as to insure that after Link has completed every task in a certain part of a dungeon that he need not return to that section. This makes it easier for players to parse out the dungeons and contributes to the smooth challenge curve that makes the game so pleasurable and memorable.

The first part of the Deku tree consists of ascending floors while collecting the dungeon map, the compass, and the slingshot. At the top, Link kills one of the big skulltulas then falls down the center of the dungeon and breaks a thick spider web with his weight and velocity. Then the dungeon becomes a fairly linear progression of rooms that circles back on the room you fell down in (which when completed do not require returning to), then Link solves a puzzle in that room to access a new set of rooms that lead to the boss.

(The original version of the above paragraph originally said it was impossible to escape the Deku Tree after falling down the center and breaking the spider web. This was brought to my attention by @Invisifool on Twitter, and I thank him.)

In Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, after Link picks up Princess Ruto and is able to carry her up to the entrance level of the dungeon, there is no reason to return to the lower floors where we found her. After we finish the set of five rooms that end in Link obtaining the boomerang and clearing out some of the nasty tendrils, there is no reason to return to that set of rooms either.

In the Shadow Temple, acquiring the Hover Boots is a self-contained challenge that, after completion, totally ends it’s portion of the temple. This leads into a middle section that has a forking path that eventually ends with Link taking a ride on something resembling a Hylian warship to the final section of the dungeon. Once Link jumps off that ship, there’s no returning.

It’s not so much that the dungeons in Ocarina are linear so much as they write a peace treaty between linearity and non-linearity by breaking up something of a linear progression into multiple smaller, linear parts. (Worthy of note: we can see a similar design philosophy in, of all things, the Silent Hill games that debuted only a year after.) This makes the temples flow really well. So how does the Water Temple contradict this design philosophy?


Put it this way: The Water Temple, largely as a result of using the rising/falling water mechanic (an element I despise far less than my fellow fans and peers,) ends up being something of a Rubik’s Cube dungeon. You can’t approach the dungeon in large chunks, you have to solve the entire dungeon/puzzle at the same time. The biggest parts of the dungeon you can ever leave behind after completing is basically individual rooms, and given the proclivity the temple has for locked doors (more on that later), even these individual rooms can cause one to backtrack very, very often.

Whereas the previous temples are all laid out as a sort of steady horizontal progression, the Water temple is laid out as four rooms in each cardinal direction on three different floors that have different types of accessibility based on where you have the water level at, and most of those 4 rooms branch off into complex sets of rooms themselves.


This is honestly a minor problem that I think time has overemphasized because it’s easier to recognize than more severe design problems, but it is a problem nonetheless.. (It’s more “surface-level” as FilmCritHULK would say.) Using the Iron Boots to progress through flooded areas is tedious for a lot of players. Most point out how equipping and unequipping them requires a full pause to perform, interrupting forward progression, but to me, the more severe problem is that equipping the Iron Boots prevents Link from moving in any particular direction while we waits to fall to the ground, as opposed to being allowed to shift his weight forward to allow continuous movement while engaging with the various bits that require the equipping and unequipping of the boots.

The 3DS version of the game made a big step towards fixing this problem by allowing the Iron Boots to be equipped as a “quick item” a-la sub weapons like the Hookshot or Bombs, but I’ll have to find footage of the 3DS version to see if the game also fixes the problem forward movement while falling.


This is another thing I don’t find nearly as annoying as many others. Resetting the water level isn’t the bad part to me, it’s that there are only a few places to do it. Specifically, there are only three areas in the temple where the water level can be reset.

Now this could be solved by allowing the water level to be reset to anywhere inside the temple, but this would likely require creating three new songs for the Ocarina, which would require, among other things, scenarios for those songs to be taught, and a redesign of the user interface to make room for those extra songs. This is ineloquent.

The problem to me is not so much that the water level can only be reset in certain places, but rather that requiring the player to backtrack to where the water level can be reset often causes the player to lose track of where they were in the first place. This could be solved with a system that allows the player to mark the map with personalized markers a la Borderlands, but again, that would also require a redesign of the user interface.

Both of these seem ineloquent when compared with the solution that would make the most sense: restructuring the dungeon to be similar to the other dungeons such that it was structured in portions. Make the dungeon such that you reset the level once when you enter to get to the bottom, then have the water climb and follow Link as he approaches the boss room. This would merely require reconfiguring a few rooms, and makes the dungeon much easier to approach.


The reasons that the Water Temple requires so much backtracking is in part because players who are unfamiliar with the dungeon often find themselves gaining small keys at one point or the other, and then progressing into parts of the dungeon with said keys that then subject them to more locked doors, thus requiring them to go back and find more small keys. A particularly egregious example of this is when I progressed into a large room with a waterfall that contained hookshot platforms steadily going down the waterfall that I had to steadily shoot upward. It was a small, fun challenge, but my reward for completing it was to discover that I did not have the small key required to leave the room on the other side, and thus I had to backtrack out, find a small key, complete the task again, which was now more tedious than fun, then enter the next room.

There are examples of this in other dungeons, but there isn’t nearly as much of it, and it isn’t nearly as egregious, seeing as to find the key one is looking for often requires backtracking through multiple rooms and resetting the water level.

Thus, the structure of the Water Temple varies greatly from the design philosophy that permeated the dungeons that came before. How did this happen? My personal guess is that there were small teams each working on the game’s individual content chunks and that the game’s somewhat rushed production schedule led to a possible lack of oversight. Because the thing is that the Water Temple isn’t even necessarily bad, but it is totally contrary to the rest of the game. Both in terms of design and enjoyment, it stands out for it’s unfortunate unique qualities.

So: the design of the Water Temple is incredibly flawed on both large and small scales. But perhaps this also achieves an effect that matches up with what the Water Temple is trying to achieve in the context of the game’s narrative? I’m going to cut this off for now, but I’ll try and return soon enough with some more on how the temple exists in the context of the game’s narrative.

Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014


Narcissism in Games

“Games About Games”

If there’s anything in vogue in games criticism right now, it is to profess that one is tired of “games about games.” In a short section of mainstream game history, we got Bioshock, Braid, Spec Ops: The Line, and The Stanley Parable among others, all of which were focused around questioning the content of game narratives and the design dogmas around which certain types of games are built, and for a critical audience already largely aware of say, how fucked up it is that you shoot literally hundreds of living breathing people, or the problematic nature of the Damsel in Distress trope, enthusiasm for the niche “genre” as it were wore thin quickly. (For others, I emphasize. I am always excited when one of these games comes out.)

But to profess that one is tired of Games About Games is to say multiple things, both about that genre of games and about the medium as a whole, that simplify the topic:

  1. That Games About Games are only “about games.”
  2. That Games About Games are, in fact, about the medium of games.
  3. That there is a strict binary between Games About Games, and games that are not critical examinations of the medium.
  4. That most games do not speak through a language that is self-referential, and are therefore not at least somewhat concerned with themselves, and that Games About Games are unique in this sense.
  5. That games do not speak through a language that references other games, and are therefore not at least somewhat concerned with the cultural context in which they exist, and that Games About Games are unique in this sense.

Each of these is false and I’d like to address them individually.

1. Games About Games are only “about games.”

Games that tend to be categorized in this fledgling sub-genre also have other thematic and design interests. Spec Ops: The Line is a critique of the shooter wholesale: of it’s design tropes and narrative tropes alike. By being critical of the narrative tropes of the shooter, Spec Ops becomes a critique of the subtext of western interventionism in western shooters, and as such becomes a critique of the ideology of western interventionism full stop, and this is discussed at decent length in Brendan Keogh’s book on the game, Killing is Harmless. The Stanley Parable is, in one of it’s many possibilities, critical of the idea of games as a form of escapism, and in doing so becomes critical of the capitalist reality that many are trying to escape when playing games. It points it’s finger away from the medium and towards the world around it.

Games About Games, in our rush to dismiss them, have become simplified as though self-reference is their only real point of concern. This is a broadly reductive viewpoint.

2. That Games About Games are about the medium of games.

And whilst #1 is reductive, the entire categorization of “Games About Games” is at the same time overly broad.

There is no detail that I can give here unless I take each game apart specifically, but Games About Games are not about “games.” They are about specific things that concern games as a medium. Metal Gear Solid 2 is about sequels. Spec Ops: The Line is about violence in games. The Stanley Parable is about games that sell the idea of “choice” as a mechanic. And of course, it should be remembered that this is only part of what these games are about, as they also have concerns with topics that need not be categorized, necessarily, inside of their critique of “games.”

In my eyes, there has yet to be a game so postmodern and recursive as to be actually concerned with or critical of what the actual limits of or problems with telling a story in games. Games About Games concern tropes.

3. There is a strict binary between games about games and games that are not critical examinations of the medium.

The Stanley Parable, a discussion of choice in games represented in a very abstract space and with very abstract mechanics. It represents choice as a movement through spaces. But to put it simply, not all games that discuss games as a medium play or look like Stanley. There is both various content in games to critique, and various ways to critique that content.

Thus, I ask that we consider, for example, the subtle differences between classifications of media that are based on critiquing media. To name a simple example that I actually feel qualified to discuss, let’s think about the difference between parody and satire. The most accepted version of what the difference is is that parody is most often made in humorous ode to the media it is referencing, whilst a satire has some teeth, and intends to take a bite out that media, to make a point, a critique of that media. But even this basic understanding does not have steady earth beneath it. For example, what say we of Mel Brooks’ magnum opus Blazing Saddles, which at various times makes a loving joke about the western (“Head them off at the pass? I hate that cliche!”), pointedly critiques the politics of the western (the conflict between the black sheriff and the white townsfolk), and in the ending deconstructs the western so viciously as to call the entire premise of a western a fabrication? What ratio of irony/sincerity precisely determines whether your film is making fun of something, attacking it, or just pulling it apart altogether? And what do we make of say, Yeezus, an album whose main point of interest is in taking that even further by at various points existing in states of complete irony (“Blood on the Leaves”), states of total sincerity (“Bound 2”) and various points in-between (“I Am A God”)?

This categorical confusion that we observe in other mediums exists in videogames as well. Spec Ops is broadly speaking a satire of the shooter, but in the early moments is it  not “just a shooter?” This is a tool of satire that is common across the practice, to make your work appear as the thing it later intends to critique. Thus, not every moment of something we might consider satirical actually is particularly satirical.

But leaving it there would be over-simplistic. Let’s hop back to Blazing Saddles momentarily. It’s worth noting that on top of having various moments that exist within the spectrum of parody and satire, there are plenty of moments where Blazing Saddles is just sincere storytelling, even if the story it’s telling is a comedy. For example, when the sheriff is attempting to convince Gene Wilder’s character to become his deputy. These scenes simply play out as narrative, there’s nothing about them or the jokes within these scenes that make any particular points about the western or film, critical or otherwise.

Back to games. We can use this as a lens by which to analyze, for example, Braid. Braid is broadly critical of the Damsel in Distress trope that provides the narrative basis of, among others, the Super Mario Bros. games, but this criticism, to the games detriment, only constitutes a small portion of the game’s actual playtime. Much of it is simply puzzle platforming, during which time the game’s satirical narrative remains stagnant. We are not experiencing criticism of the Damsel in Distress trope in these moments, we are simply experiencing system and designs.

This opens up an additional option. Not only are their Games About Games which are at various points not About Games but there are also various games not categorized as such that, in particular moments, are About Games, that are critical of the medium or, more often, the genre of games that that game is most easily categorized into.

Locked. What a love of doors these humans have.

This is a line, for example, from Legacy of Kain: Defiance wherein Kain points out the absurdity of his predicament in a way that is a sort of in-joke for the audience about the nature of action-adventure games. Progress is impeded by doors. These doors are locked. We must find the various keys that go in the various locks. However, as a narrative, Defiance largely obeys the tropes of it’s series without subverting them (and in fact reiterates motifs of the series to reinforce their meaning), and does not really exist to question or criticize the series it comes from, but in a conventional understanding of parody and satire, this leaves the remark about the doors as largely a standalone moment of meta-humor.

This also must be considered when we’re discussing particular games that are revolutionary within their genre. I’d argue, for example, that Final Fantasy VII spends a lot of time pulling apart tropes and narratives that are central to classical Japanese Role-playing stories, but clearly FFVII does not easily fit within our understanding of what constitutes a Games About Games.

But that conventional understanding also falls apart because for this to remain true without alteration, we must consider games in a vacuum, and as soon as we acknowledge the existence of the world outside of the game and the influence that world has on the game, that assumption begins to fall apart.

4. Games do not speak through a language that is self-referential, and are therefore not at least somewhat concerned with themselves, and Games About Games are unique in that sense.

Games have a language they use to speak to gamers and that language is developed through consistency. Classical game design is reliant on a language of self-reference.

Self-reference is the basis of game design and architecture. When I complete a level in Castlevania for example, the set of mechanics does not switch out between stages. I do not go from playing a platformer with strict controls to playing a rhythm game. And when I complete a level in Castlevania the jump and whip controls do not change either.

On an even smaller scale, among the most basic tenets of game design is challenge escalation, the idea that games get harder as they go on, and challenge escalation already implies that we take old content and remix it into new content per James Howell’s terminology and criticism. A basic example would be the introduction of axe knights into situations in which medusa heads appear in Castlevania, after the introduction of both elements separately. For us to understand these moments, we have to understand similar elements from the game previously, such as in the Castlevania example where we have to understand how best to move around the Medusa heads and also how best to approach the axe knight, the dissect and recombine both of those understandings to be able to parse out this particular challenge.

5. Games do not speak through a language that references other games, and are therefore not at least somewhat concerned with the cultural context in which they exist, and that Games About Games are unique in this sense.

Think about how many games have a jump button, and how many games build challenges around jumping, or shooting, or improving characters by changing the parameters of what that character can do through statistics. The fact that we have common enough terms on which to establish genres, which in games are largely defined not just by narrative tropes, but by similar sets of system mechanics basically denies this outright. Some games are as simple as “This game, but with that idea instead of this idea” and that only reinforces that games are constantly existing in reference to each other.


To me, the attempt to denounce Games About Games has the result of attempting to insist that games exist in a vacuum. This, of course, is not true. Games, like all media, exist in the contexts of culture, both the cultures in which those games were created and the cultures in which they are enjoyed, and criticism in many ways simply cannot exist without understanding pieces of media side by side, by doing intertextual criticism. Our understanding of how Final Fantasy often inverts and subverts religious myth is enriched by an understanding of how Dragon Quest tends to do the opposite. Our understanding of the politics of Metal Gear’s approach to action gameplay that attempts to de-emphasize violence are enriched by an understanding of how most military fiction games do the exact opposite. The idea that Portal is something like a “feminine” re-imagining of the shooter only makes sense by comparing it to the “masculine” shooters we perceive it as responding to.

I guess in conclusion I should say I understand why it’s easy to tire of the games that emphasize their intertextuality, but I feel like an opportunity is being missed to use these games as a way to rethink our understanding of the medium as a whole.

And for what it’s worth: Spec Ops and Stanley Parable are good games. Braid and Bioshock are not. Thanks for listening.

  • Austin C. Howe.