The Problem with Mainstream

Video Games are completely unlike other mediums of artistic expression such as film, crafts, music, and literature; because unlike those other mediums, a video game can punish you for improperly engaging them. For example: unless you’re illiterate, anyone can read a book and understand what’s being said – even if the themes and motifs of a novel fly over your head, the book isn’t going to close itself in your face saying “you’re too simple minded to truly enjoy me, goodbye.” Likewise, music doesn’t turn itself off if you’re a terrible dancer; an easel doesn’t collapse if you don’t understand color schemes; a film doesn’t end prematurely if you can’t connect to the characters. Unlike these other mediums, a predetermined amount of skill is required for a person to enjoy video games – some people don’t understand how to coordinate themselves enough to use a controller. And if you incorrectly play a game, you’ll be punished with a “game over” or remain stuck on a level if you can’t figure out how to proceed.

I think the small amount of skill which is required for a player to properly engage with a video game is what makes the medium so fantastic, but is also what makes it nearly impossible for video games to go completely mainstream. Video games are interactive art, i.e. they can’t exist as art on their own, and they require a player to invest a part of themselves into the mechanics before they can truly be a complete experience. It is that “interactivity” which I believe prevents video games from becoming a full part of mainstream culture. However, that doesn’t mean some titles haven’t broken through the barrier and simplified interactivity to a point where nearly anyone can enjoy them; unfortunately such titles are scrutinized by their own audience as not being games at all.

Video games don’t need to be mainstream in order to be considered a strong pop culture influence or serious form of artistic expression. However, I also think video games have room for inclusion as far as a mainstream audience is concerned. The skill required to enjoy a game such as Titanfall verses the skill required to enjoy games such as Gone Home are on completely different levels. Likewise someone who enjoys games such as Mario or Rayman may not view Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja with the same integrity. I think before video games can truly be considered mainstream, culture needs to be more open minded as to exactly what kind of experience can classify itself as a “video game”. I’m excited to see developers who are bending the rules of video game development by embracing this thought provoking idea; but ultimately I believe video games shall always remain a niche experience. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that… except for the fact I lay awake at night a cry for all the people who’ll never get to experience this incredibly powerful art form simply because they lack the appropriate motor skills or hand-eye coordination. Here’s to hoping one day we’ll reach a place where the definition of a video game is so blurred, everyone can enjoy them.

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How Left Behind Cured my Cousin of Bigotry

Queer representation matters. Not only does it give hope, a feeling of acceptance, and humanity to the ‘queer community’ (I’m sorry I don’t know what acronym or term to use to include everyone, so for now, queer) but it also actively kills queerphobia. Not enough people understand how important this is, so here is an example from my personal experience:
I bought, downloaded, and played The Last of Us: Left Behind while my 14-year-old cousin watched. Let me preface with this: my cousin doesn’t “get gays”, thinks they’re “weird” and “just kinda gross”. We live in a pretty affluent area (Northern Virginia) where most women have a college degree, suburbs are empty during midday because both moms and dads commute to D.C. for work, and most everyone votes Democrat. Nobody in our neighborhood really cares who marries who or what goes on in your bedroom. As long as you’re not a grade-A jerk, everyone gets along fine. So I’m pretty sure she gets this ingrained phobia of people belonging to the queer spectrum from her hyper religious family, the likes of whom my family doesn’t strongly associate. On top of attending your run of the mill church service every Sunday, she attends a Christian private school – where I’m sure the recent social push for Virginia to be the first southern state to legalize gay marriage, is not talked about with favor. Anyway. I played the Last of Us: Left Behind which focuses on Ellie and Riley and their past together right before Ellie meets Joel – and also there’s a flashforward plotline taking place a little before the “Winter” chapter, as Ellie nurses Joel back to health. I’ll just go ahead and take this moment to point out: Wow omg a male’s life depending on the strength of a woman? Wow omg I mean who knew that was possible? *sarcasm over*.
During the scene where Ellie has almost forgiven Riley for leaving to join the Fireflies and they dance together on table tops to some hella rad music, out of nowhere my cousin laughs: “Wow it’s like a romantic scene out of some dumb chick flick movie.” Then, the game slowly eases onto them becoming closer, “It’s like they’re in love or something.” Then bam! They kiss! Young girls, discovering their preference for other girls, kissing, and being perfectly okay with it! Whoa! Queer representation, POC (person of color) representation, and queer POC representation?!?! Pretty big freaking deal in my opinion. I was totally geeking out in my own world, but restrained myself because I didn’t know how my cousin would react. However, after seeing this, my cousin did something incredible (at least to me): She dropped everything she thought before in a minute. Less than a minute. Less than ten seconds. This game changed her in less than ten seconds. She stared at the screen, looked confused, but then almost immediately had this weird look of understanding and acceptance. After a few moments, she says “I told you that it was like a romance movie! Actually, it was kind of better than a romance movie. More fun.” I agreed with her without allowing myself to gush by adding, “Yeah, I liked it better too!” We didn’t talk about it any more after that little exchange; I finished the game, and had to explain to her that Riley’s fate was sealed a long time ago. She looked very bothered by that, as was I. To be honest, I was completely emotionally wrecked by Left Behind, despite knowing how it would end from the beginning. However, it was interesting to see the turmoil my kid cousin was silently dealing with after the conclusion of the DLC, never having played the main campaign. A few days after that experience, she posted a status on her Facebook saying: “Everyone deserves to love who they love. We’re all human.”
The queer representation in The Last of Us: Left Behind challenged and may have completely changed my cousin’s homophobic views in less than ten seconds. Visibility is a powerful tool against homophobia. So whether it’s a video game putting the integrity and genuineness of its characters before the capitalism of controversy and trends, or a celebrity coming out as gay in a public setting, one thing you should absolutely not do is spew lines like: “Who cares?”, “I already knew!”, “No surprise there”, “I’m gonna come out as straight lol”. Because 1) homosexuality is still illegal, even punishable by death, in 83 countries and 2) heterosexuality is not a hurdle. Queer representation matters. It matters a lot. People deserve to play games as characters who look like them and love like them. This is very important, so please don’t insult me by acting like this is not a big deal – because acting as if Left Behind wasn’t another victory for not only the industry, but the queer population in general, is just plain asinine.
Oh, by the way: coming out is incredibly brave, but staying in the closet doesn’t make you a coward. I want you to remember that. You know who you are.

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The Mass Effect DLC’s That Could Have Been

At this point you may be saying, “Oh Nicki, is another Mass Effect post really necessary?” with a possible addition of “I mean, how relevant is this game anymore.” To which I would swiftly reply, “First of all, how dare you. Second of all, YES ANOTHER MASS EFFECT POST IS ALWAYS NECESSARY BECAUSE IT IS CONSTANTLY RELEVANT.” Besides, y’all haven’t heard me gush about the absolutely amazing DLC moments Mass Effect gave to us. From chasing rouge specters and battling a Yahg in Lair of the Shadow Broker, to the memorable one liners and unforgettable shipmate bonding moments of Citadel, and even the downright terrifying reveal of Leviathan (or was I the only one genuinely afraid of that thing?), Mass Effect truly influenced a new wave of meaningful and engaging DLC for the industry. I think we can all agree with that. However, there is always room for improvement. So here’s a list of DLC moments we coulda/shoulda/woulda had:

Huerta Memorial Friday Night Poetry Slam

It is said that modern medicine can cure the body, but only poetry can cure the soul. As fate would have it, two of the most poetically obsessed characters found themselves sharing a hospital wing during the course of the series. Is it completely unrealistic to admit that I developed a headcanon where Thane and Ashley participated in a Huerta Memorial Hospital “Friday night Poetry Slam” open-mic together? Where Thane recites his poems of hunts and goddesses and persistent self-loathing, meanwhile Ashley recites Tennyson every single time but nobody minds because Tennyson is amazing; eventually working up to a grand collaboration from both shipmates, which tragically gets cancelled due to a Cerberus invasion… Admit it, you can totally see it happening.

James’ Full Body Workout

Okay, so maybe this is simply me pandering to fanfare, but I wish to exist in a universe where I can adequately admire this virtual hunk of love. James is easily one of my favorite companions and I think if avid fans can sit and manually achieve a new pull-up record with their Shepard, we should be allowed a bonus level where the only objective is to watch James’ perfectly sculpted body become even more perfectly sculpted. But hey, maybe that’s just me. *Swoon*.

Grunt’s Birthday

Who could forget the epic story of Grunt’s birthday, as told by the lovable Krogan himself during the Citadel DLC?! Honestly, bailing Grunt out of the custody of C-Sec is one of my favorite Mass Effect moments. In my opinion, it was so unlike Grunt to not invite his Battlemaster along with his Krogan buddies on a mayhem filled day/night in celebration of his birthday – a day for which Shepard was there! I really feel like Bioware missed a huge DLC opportunity with this bit, because falling a few stories from the hospital window, getting rowdy on the Presidium’s Krogan Memorial statue, throwing bottles of Ryncol at C-Sec vehicles, joyriding said vehicles, and then crashing into a noodle stand… pretty much sounds like the best Mass Effect mission ever.

Massani and Vakarian: Masters of Home Security

Another favorite headcanon of mine, where Zaeed and Garrus go into business together after the conclusion of the Reaper attack. At first they stick to simple home security installments, but their ambition pushes them to achieve something greater. Eventually, they end up winning the big against C-Sec regarding the contract for post-Reaper Citadel protection. SVM Security (Shepard Vakarian Messani) becomes the new law of the Citadel and its citizens have never felt more safe.

Training Day at Grissom Academy, featuring Jack and a bunch of Terrified Biotics

Jack’s spectacular transformation from stone-cold-hearted-wench to the “psychotic biotic” Grissom Academy professor, would have been another wonderful addition to memorable Mass Effect DLC moments. I really feel like this addition would have given more justice to a character arc which wasn’t explored nearly enough; Jack is arguably one of the most interesting and complex characters in all of video games, yet she’s terribly sold short in the series with next to no explanation for her change from ME2 to ME3 other than “eh I guess she really likes the kids.” I would have paid good money to see this DLC.

EDI’s Shopping Trip — A High Octane Ride Through the Citadel’s Most Disturbing Sales

What if Shepard never invited EDI up to his new loft for that Citadel DLC conversation? What if instead, she actually went through with the purchase of the 2187 Blackout? What if it was just EDI. “Livin’ it up like a girly-girl.” With Joker’s credit chit. I mean, what could go wrong? Right?

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No Russian, Atomic Bombs, and Stealing Babies – Morality in Gaming

If you know me then you know I’m the biggest fan of Mass Effect you’ll ever meet. Not only that, but I’m also the most avid Bioware fan you’ll ever meet. And soon, I’ll probably be the greatest enthusiastic fan of Dragon Age you’ll ever meet (still haven’t beaten the game yet, but give me a few days). In conclusion, I love narrative driven video games. More specifically, I love video games with plotlines involving moral choices; games which require me to choose between actions that can impact my standing with NPCs and affect the skills and abilities I can use. I’m a gamer who finds her greatest entertainment from games which not only engage me with gameplay, but also challenge me morally.

While watching me battle, negotiate, and romance my through the world of Dragon Age 2 the other night, one of my friends made the comment, “you always choose the ‘good’ option!” It wasn’t significant at the time, but it’s something that has stuck with me until today. Admittedly, I do always opt for the decisions which will render my character morally “good” (or “paragon” for all my Mass Effecters out there). Even in situations where either a positive or negative moral choice has no lasting effect on the overall story arc, I opt for the side of paragons and Jedi; I began to wonder why. Although a morally positive choice offers me no benefit or consequence, why do I, as a gamer, always choose the positive side of any moral dilemma with which a game presents me? Is it possibly that this inclination says something about my moral character as a whole? Is it possible that, depending on how an individual plays through a video game, their choices and decisions represent their real-life moral compass? Don’t think about it too hard, you’ll hurt yourself. Thankfully, some really smart people have actually done research on this exact topic and published their findings in the Media Psychology Review journal. I suggest you read it if you have some spare time but I’ll warn you, it’s fairly dense. For those of us that can’t read past an 11th grade academic level, here’s the tl;dr:

A bunch of smart guys who like to study the effects of media on people’s psyche conducted an experiment which required participants to play through one of three randomly assigned game scenarios. The three scenarios were: No Russian (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2), The Power of the Atom (Fallout 3), and Free Labor (Fallout 3). In order to assess whether a player was “morally activated” or “morally disengaged”, participants were asked to write two or three sentences about the choices they made in the game scenario they experienced. The results were quite interesting.

The evidence of the experiment suggested that all players used moral management in order to enjoy the game. However, players who used moral disengagement were significantly more likely to choose the evil options; while players who reported being morally activated were significantly more likely to choose the good options. This suggests that moral activation/disengagement has a clear relationship with moral choices in video games. This conclusion can be explained by the fact that players bear the responsibility for the choices they make in the game. Those who make choices consistent with their own personal moral codes are likely to be satisfied with those choices. On the other hand, those who make morally disengaged choices will justify the choice to themselves – the most prevalent moral disengagement mechanism was the “it’s just a game” defense; with players reasoning that since the scenario was not real, their actions bore little consequence.

Players who made the evil choice did not enjoy the game significantly more or less than those who made the good choice. Additionally, it is unclear when moral disengagement or engagement occurs in the process of playing and making moral choices. Morals may be disengaged before game play begins, just before each choice is made, after the choice, or all three. This study was also clear in its conclusion that many players, when faced with a moral choice, activated their moral sanctions against reprehensible behavior rather than disengaging them. So then, moral disengagement does play an important role in the cognitive and affective experience of video games. However, moral disengagement is not a necessary condition for enjoyment of moral choice games. Just as much enjoyment can be experienced by fulfilling the dictates of one’s personal moral code and following a morally activated path of action.

Despite the conclusion of the study, stating that enjoyment of a game is not dependent upon infusion of the gamer’s personal moral code, my belief about RPG’s is this – you get out what you put in. As in, when it comes to games such as Mass Effect, KotOR, or Dragon Age – I believe a gamer can find much more enjoyment from these titles when guided by their own moral code. No wonder I find it difficult to complete the entire Mass Effect series on renegade, or (even now) get frustrated when I add rivalry points to any friends in my party for Dragon Age 2. I’m a sweetheart in real life and I want my RPG character to reflect that. When it comes to video games, I’m the sap that’s totally morally engaged.

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Seeing Double: Remasters and Definitive Editions

Are you willing to pay $60 for a game you have already played? That’s the question more and more gamers are beginning to ask themselves. When Square Enix revealed Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition at VGX, I was baffled. For a game that was released not too long ago (March 2013) it seemed rather early for a re-release of any kind. Were the differences between the original version and this “definitive edition” so radically different, that a $60 price tag was justified? It didn’t take long for Square Enix to convince me of the answer to that question – Yes. The difference in graphics alone is remarkable; Lara Croft’s character model has been completely refreshed with impressive attention to detail. Additionally, there are many new flourishes added to the Yamatai island environment, such as dynamic weather and polished shadow effects. In fact, every aspect of the game’s graphic integrity has been newly brought to life thanks to the core capabilities of next-gen consoles.

With Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition being such an obviously laborious project, it made me wonder about the future of such games and their effect on the industry. So far, the industry has produced many remastered games, including: Kingdom Hearts, Shadow of the Colossus, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Ocarina of Time, and God of War. Looking into the future, gamers have even more remastered installments to look forward to, including: Final Fantasy X/X-2 and the original FarCry. Re-rendering the old graphics and putting a vintage game on a current or next-gen (or making it available as DLC) certainly succeeds in making classic games more accessible to modern audiences. But, is that a good thing? It’s the same argument made years ago over colorizing black-and-white films, a trend for a while in the 1980s and ’90s championed by, among others, Ted Turner (whose Turner Classic Movies cable channel itself later shunned colorized movies completely). Film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel famously called it “Hollywood’s new vandalism.” But are remastered versions of our favorite video game classics a great way to make older games more accessible, or should it be, like colorizing black-and-white movies, widely considered a bastardization of the original art?

It can be argued that the best way to appreciate a classic game is to see and play it the way it was originally intended. An older style of gameplay may come off as disappointing when melded with modern graphics, making these games less satisfying than they could be. Often times, there is a certain awkwardness to these remastered games. Some of them certainly don’t look like they were built to be viewed at 1080p resolution, and even with the enhanced original graphics, there are plenty of things that remain outdated about them, from control schemes to level design to animation. However, it’s easy to make the counter-argument. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus in particular look great on the PS3, don’t get me started on how many hours I’ve logged into Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix (oh god), and as I said earlier, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is a remarkably enhanced version of its predecessor. So my question is: do the benefits of rerendering and remastering older games outweigh the risk of an experience not transferring well? Would you rather play the original version of a classic game than a remastered one?

Personally I love the idea of remasters. I think they have an important role to play in the continuance of the industry’s success. The same way classic literature garners republished anniversary editions, which may include author’s notes or newly annotated text; remastered versions of video game titles are a great way to make sure new players understand the classics which continue to influence the future. However, I’ll make the argument that a remaster should only be attempted if intended to be done “right”. That is, a complete rebuild – simply rerendering the graphics is just a lazy way to avoid innovation and creation of new content. Much like Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, a remaster needs to be a tedious labor of love and built with the same passion as the original; a passion which bleeds through a project and inspires a new wave of players to invest in the IP. So am I willing to pay $60 for a game I’ve already played? Absolutely, if the love is there.

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Positive Women in Gaming: FemShep

Jennifer Hale is one of the best voice actors in the industry, period.

Jane Shepard, also affectionately known as “FemShep” is a female gaming role model if I’ve ever seen one. Exquisitely voiced by the regal Jennifer Hale, FemShep has been a staple of badass female protagonists since the release of the original Mass Effect in 2007. In a genre saturated by the image of dashing young warriors, handsome rescuers, and roguish men who always save the kingdom (as well as a damsel or two) along the way – it was so refreshing to see the team at Bioware give me the freedom to create a galactic savior who looked a little more like me. Femshep also happens to be one of the very, very, very few female gaming protagonists that isn’t sexualized to hell and back. It’s actually a very interesting experience to play a game in which a female protagonist isn’t reduced to fan service. Of course the same can’t be said for the other females in the game, but hey, no one ever accused the gaming industry of being too progressive. Baby steps, guys. Baby steps.

This post wouldn't be complete without a cool collage featuring my personal FemShep "Olivia"!

This post wouldn’t be complete without a collage featuring my personal FemShep “Olivia”!

Other than the obvious perk of being able to romance resident Mass Effect bad boy Garrus, playing as FemShep is easily twice as fun than playing as MaleShep. For example, in ME1, I played my FemShep as almost 100% paragon, but then decided that in ME2 she needed to go full renegade; and it was awesome. Watching her pull out her pistol to intimidate gangsters and force them to back down was just one of many memorable moments.When MaleShep kicks a merc through a window, it seems kind of normal macho. But when FemShep kicks a merc through window, it’s like “Hey there Ms. Badass.” You know how Aria tells you she’s the queen of Omega, and reminds you of that fact with her own personal army? Well FemShep doesn’t need an army to remind you she’s queen of the galaxy… she just IS. I also ended up giving her a grizzly scar on her face, so she wasn’t just some pretty face that happened to get promoted up the chain of command. Contrary to my usual MO of playing through a campaign as the default male warrior/soldier, I played as FemShep first for the entire trilogy.

Postitive Female Protagonists beware, FemShep is here!

I loved playing through the whole series as FemShep. It feels bigger, harder earned. When playing as the regular grizzled, macho, space marine MaleShep all of the action kinda feels dull, scripted, and dare I say – normal. FemShep not only enhanced my love of the Mass Effect series, but she proved that developers can still write excellent female protagonists even for today’s AAA blockbusters. To quote the magnificent Jennifer Hale, “I dare developers to write a script, I dare them to write their story and include all of the action and gore and intensity they can imagine… and then I dare them to make their protagonist a woman.” An RPG space opera which passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, can be as successful as any testosterone filled shooter. Thanks to Mass Effect and FemShep, I can’t wait for first contact. It’s not going to be anything like our forebears imagined. Wars? Nah. You know why? Because we have generations of excited youth who have been prepared by games like Mass Effect to romance the hell out of aliens once we finally meet them. The future holds love. Galactic love. Alien smoochies. We are so ready. It’s gonna be great.

Thank you FemShep.

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Is 2014 the Year of TellTale?

So here’s an article I wrote for the most recent issue of Gametraders Magazine. Here’s a link to the virtual publication issue where I’m featured, you should check it out!

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Is 2014 the year of TellTale? It’s sure shaping up to be! Ever since the smash success of last summer’s The Walking Dead, which won numerous game of the year awards, TellTale has gone from little known indie studio to easily one of the fastest rising developers in the industry. Bursting into the last quarter of 2013 with two very successful titles – aforementioned The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us – already under their belt, TellTale has announced two more episodic projects they will be launching this year: Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands.

When it comes to episodic gaming, nobody is better in the business than TellTale, and the announcement of multiple ongoing projects is very good news for fans like me. But is the undertaking of multiple projects very good news for the continued success of TellTale? On the heels of The Walking Dead’s success, The Wolf Among Us was introduced to fans in October 2013, however we have yet to see a second episode of the promising Fables IP. At this point, it’s easy to say we may not see the return of Bigby Wolf and the rest of the Fables until later this fiscal quarter; is this too long a gap between episodes which should ideally be released bimonthly? Absolutely. However one thing’s for sure, fans remain hungry for more despite the excruciating wait. Here’s to hoping the delay of episodes for The Wolf Among Us are not an indication of TellTale’s overloaded work schedule.

After their quick ascension to recognition within the industry, it’s no surprise how many people are eager to work with the studio; and when big names like Game of Thrones and Borderlands come knocking on your door, you definitely don’t say no. But is adopting two completely new projects a good idea when TellTale seems to already be struggling with keeping release dates on schedule? It’s undoubtedly a suggestion to be nervous, however I have no doubt this little-studio-that-could will rise to the occasion. It’s no secret that TellTale has been doing a little home renovation: increasing their employee payroll from 125 to 160, including rumors of scoping out new locations for additional studios. Obviously TellTale’s been busy expanding itself into a beast capable of producing the AAA quality episodic gameplay we’ve come to expect of them. Plus with their titles being published on Steam, iOS, Xbox Marketplace, and the PlayStation Network simultaneously, I think we can grant these guys a little slack when it comes to meeting release date projections. I don’t think they’re spending the extra time sitting around a campfire contemplating how much profit they’re making off of our agonizing anticipation (although I’m sure they make some time for that as well). Instead, they’re using the extra time developing the best episodic gameplay in the industry, creating characters we’ll emotionally connect with, and writing stories we’ll remember long after the last episode concludes. Despite the lengthened wait between releases, I don’t fear for the quality of these IP’s.

Even more than a year after the initial release of The Walking Dead, which I have replayed over seven times completely unashamed, I have no doubt TellTale will recapture the magic and emotional heartbreak of a zombie invested Georgia and a girl named Clementine, with Season Two. Equally so, I am anxious to return to the world of Fables living in New York City, and the big bad wolf who protects them all, in The Wolf Among Us. But even greater than the anticipation I have for two of my current favorite titles, I am thrilled to see the continued growth of this once indie studio into a blockbuster developer and the stories they will continue to bring us with new universes to explore such as Game of Thrones and Borderlands. As I mentioned earlier, these guys are the best at what they do and I personally believe the minds of TellTale will be a major part of the industry’s future success.

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