Saturday, June 16, 2012

E3 Impressions, Pt. 1: Attempted Rape & Assorted Ephemera

I've already heard people talking about how underwhelming this year's E3 was... and if you're talking in terms of razzle dazzle or Big Huge Announcements then, I guess they have a point. That said, there was plenty of information floating around about next year's biggest titles and most of them are at least worth a mention.

Titles like Halo 4 and God Of War: Ascension were no-brainers and straight-forward enough that I don't need to go into much detail. They'll do exactly what it says on the tin. Far Cry 3 has boobs in it. Dante's character redesign makes him look like a bigger douchebag than he did before in the DmC reboot. Metro: Last Light and XCOM: Enemy Unknown both look fantastic but will no doubt be cult games due to the fact that they expect you to pay attention and try. There's not a lot of substance to say about Watch Dogs right now so you'll have to settle for "wow" and "holy shit" for the time being. I'm still leery about CAPCOM after some sketchy business practices around their disc locked content and charging customers for the "true" ending of Asura's Wrath which, coupled with a fairly stagnant Resident Evil 5, make the prospects for Resident Evil 6 kind of grim. "Cross-over mode" looks like it could be an interesting gimmick but I'll need to see more to judge accurately. The RE franchise is perilously behind the times and just being able to move and shoot at the same time is not exactly a genre-changing event.

The Tomb Raider reboot looks interesting, if a bit rape-y. At one point in the demo, Lara gets fondled (sans permission) by a creepy guy while tied up... which is totally necessary to her development as a character or serves some definite plot purposes that will be revealed later, I'm sure. (Right, guys?) Honestly, I'm worried that Crystal Dynamics still don't understand how to write a female character. I respect them for trying to give Lara Croft a Nathan Drake-ish makeover (God knows other developers should be following suit...) but the key to what made Drake work was a sense of intelligence and charm and fallibility. Playing the Uncharted games, I believed that the characters had multifaceted personalities and lives of their own. That's what made me care about them.

Particularly worrying was the producer on the show floor who went on about how men can't project themselves onto a female character and how guys want to "protect" Lara. Um, no. There are some chauvinistic assholes whose idea of women is more "Madonna" than "whore," but you're still focusing on the fact that the character has boobs as a fundamental trait. You get people on her side by making her a strong, likable character or at least giving her the potential for strength, not by subjecting her to horror after horror in order to force us to sympathize with her. Still using the Uncharted games as a baseline, no on tried to rape Chloe or Elena and they are both much loved characters. Going right to "attempted rape" is the nuclear option. Not only is it an easy shortcut, it opens a can of worms I'm not sure an action/adventure video game is ready to deal with. If you need this explained to you, Crystal Dynamics, then maybe you're the wrong people for the job.

If people can't even write believable male protagonists these days then they're completely screwed when it comes to writing women. I'm starting to wonder if the real problem is that Amy Hennig, lead writer on the Uncharted games, just doesn't have the time to write every single video game character ever.

In more cheerful news: The two games I'm most excited for out of this year's E3 are easily Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls and Naughty Dog's The Last Of Us. Both developers have a reputation for ambition and quality that most lack. They could be doing Donkey Konga reboots and I'd still show up for the midnight release.

Quantic Dream is not a high output studio. They choose their properties very carefully. When Beyond gets released in 2013, it will be only their fourth game in fourteen years. Since Heavy Rain, the only thing they've released was a fascinating tech demo called Kara that I think people assumed would be the basis for their next project. The robot aspect may be gone but concept of a young girl in danger is front and center for Beyond which will feature a motion captured Ellen Page on the run and span over fifteen years in the character's life. (Which should be interesting because I can't imagine Ellen Page looking like anything other than a tiny little cherub.)

As original and interesting as Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain were, they were certainly not perfect games. The former was perhaps a little too simplistic, from a gameplay perspective, and Heavy Rain was a victim of the story and the technology not quite being there. The script sounded very much like it was written by a Frenchman who learned English as a second language (which it was) and, paired with the technology which rendered stiff character models and some flat performances, made everything feel a bit distant and unreal. The story often overcame the handicap but the issues were certainly there. It also made screaming "SHAUN!" repeatedly a low level meme. Hopefully having American actors with real chops and some upgraded tech will result in a more seamless integration.

The story seems to build more on the supernatural angle of Indigo Prophecy where you go from controlling Ellen Page's character of Jody to the mysterious invisible ghost/presence/force Aiden. It's my hope that this will also result in controls that aren't entirely in the Heavy Rain style when engaging in what looks to be fairly frequent combat situations.

Naughty Dog comes back in 2013 with The Last Of Us, a post-apocalyptic action/adventure game of a somewhat different breed than we're used to. It's a post-pandemic America so the setting seems to be more about crumbling cities where nature is taking over rather than your more typical nuclear wasteland. The gameplay seems to build off of the rock solid combat in Uncharted without the exploration/puzzle aspects. Story has always been one of Naughty Dog's strong points so I'm expecting good things as lead character Joel escorts his young charge Ellie on their trip. From the footage they've shown, Joel doesn't seem like he's only a gruff, cynical anti-hero and Ellie doesn't come off as some helpless naif who needs her hand held the entire time.

I talk a lot (and I'm sure I'll talk more in the future) about Naughty Dog's approach to character-driven storytelling, and how good they are at it, because it's such a contrast to other developers. Other than Naughty Dog and certain writers at BioWare, most developers are perfectly content to offer characters who are nothing more than cardboard cutouts. Maybe time restraints keep them from fleshing out characters or maybe they just aren't particularly good writers. Either way, it's hard not to get fatigued by the blatant adherence to stereotypes in the industry be it the rape-y attitude towards women or your lazily written macho douchebag.

This fatigue towards lazy characterization is part of the issue I have with another series that seems to be making a big play for the middle ground, so I'll hold my tongue until I finish my next blog post in a couple days.

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