Gaming Backlog November 2014

Diablo III
Ys: Origin
Hatoful Boyfriend (new)

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Murdered: Soul Suspect (new)
Several Indie Games

Tales of Xillia
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (optionally on Vita)

PS Vita
Ys: Memories of Celceta
Gravity Rush
Dragon’s Crown
Sorcery Saga (new)

Crimson Gem Saga (playing on Vita)
Final Fantasy IV: Complete Collection
Hexyz Force

Bravely Default
Crimson Shroud
SMT Devil Survivor: Unclocked
SMT IV (new)

Phoenix Wright: Justice For All
Final Fantasy III

New Games
World End Economica (PC) (save got lost, have to restart)
Dead Space (PS3)
Xenoblade: Chronicles (Wii) (save got lost, have to restart)
Costume Quest 2 (PS4)
Corpse Party (PSP) (Halloween game?)


Okay, that was a little overexaggerated, but it is true, I do enjoy Pokemon games, and with the newest ones out, I will be focusing primarily on them, at least for a little while. As football season comes to a close, at least for my Wolverines, I do want to continue working though this backlog. With my current work schedule, finding time for games is often difficult, so I tend to watch more anime and sports.

I have already beaten Omega Ruby (Mega Swampert is a BEAST), and I’m not sure how much postgame I really want to do. I plan to try my hand at the Battle Resort, if for no other reason than to give my Cradily Giga Drain from the Move Tutor, so everything else is on hold. Except maybe Tales of Xillia, I think I’m getting close to the end. But no more JRPGs for now.


My Favorite Female Characters

One of the major points of contention in video games today is the portrayal of female characters. Namely, the concern is that female characters tend to be oversexualized and objectified to appeal to a predominantly young male base. Whether this is borne out of premeditated sexism or mere laziness is a topic in and of itself, but I’d rather talk about two female characters that I really like that break this trend. Neither of these characters are particularly sexualized or objectified (one not at all), and while there is certainly a lot of room for growth for female characters in games, I think these two provide some interesting points to consider.

First is Lightning from the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. I realize that this trilogy has not gotten the most praise, and it certainly has its flaws, but what struck me most about this series is how it uses its female characters, particularly its protagonist, Lightning. JRPGs have always had a variety of female characters, but Lightning serves a unique role.

In a sense, she’s not really a female character at all–no part of her character really tends toward masculine or feminine. At best, she’s a big sister to several important characters, but her actions are not uniquely female or male in any particular way. At worst, she’s a tomboy, but the games take a lot of steps to eliminate any significant gender leanings.

Canonically, she’s clearly meant to be a woman, but her actions and development don’t really differentiate her from a male or androgynous character. Her clothes are feminine, wearing a skirt in the first game and having breast indentations in her armor, but that’s about as far as it goes. She acts like a soldier and leads her companions, but there are no sexual or motherly overtones that many female characters are bogged down with. Her reactions to typical feminine actions, particularly inĀ Lightning Returns, are met with grief and frustration. If you replaced her with a man, almost nothing about her would change. And I find that fascinating.

In a sense, she’s either a male character with a female skin (though that brings up questions on what we consider masculine), or, as I prefer to see it, she’s an androgynous character entirely. This is a welcome change in that there is nothing about her character that has to be particularly gendered, and in an industry where female characters are hampered down by their gender, it’s a surprisingly bold yet astonishingly easy approach.

My favorite female character, however, goes to Brooke Augustine, the villain of Infamous: Second Son. I love this character on so many levels. First, she’s a villain, and female villains (at least main female villains) are not common. Second, she also avoids the typical female character trappings and is written more as an androgynous solider. But what I really like about her, something that I think is unique among video games, is this: she looks like she’s in her 40s.

Hear me out on this. Most women in video games are either in their late teens/early 20s with perky breasts and slim legs and generally attractive. Look for female characters that are not attractive and you’ll be looking for a long time. The one exception is the other kind of women in most video games: old ladies. Wrinkly, haggard, white-haired old women. If you’re a woman in a video game, you’re either a young, hot babe or an old, wise maid.

This is why Brooke Augustine fascinates me so much. She’s clearly older than most female characters, probably in her late 30s or early 40s. She’s the head of a small army and directs the lives of several thousands of citizens in the world of Infamous, particularly when she basically takes marital law control of Seattle. She’s not dressed particularly differently from her other soldiers, and while her motivations are arguably motherly, her actions throughout the game indicate a ruthless, ambitious, controlling visionary whose word is law.

There’s so much to unpack with Augustine, and I wish that the game gave her a little more characterization, but what little they give us (and what they leave out) provides one of the best female characters in video games. I really hope that other games can learn from Infamous: Second Son and give us more nuanced and varied characters in general, regardless of gender. But given the ongoing concern about female characters in games in general, Augustine is a great example of how to use a female character in a traditionally male role and make it work seamlessly.

If there’s one undercurrent between these two characters, it’s that they’re both somewhat androgynous or tomboyish. Both are soldiers, both act on their own strong sense of moral code, and both eschew sexuality in favor of their duty. While I personally interpret these traits as androgynous, there is certainly an argument to be made that these are typically masculine traits. As such, I worry that game designers will simply take the approach of writing a masculine character and then sticking a female skin on it to make a “progressive female character.” Personally, this is how I interpret Mass Effect‘s approach to Shepard, and I think it’s kind of a copout. It works for Mass Effect because it’s harder to write two sets of dialogue for one character, but it wouldn’t work for Augustine. I personally have faith that good writers will make good female characters, but I would not be surprised if the AAA industry, in an effort to create more female characters, simply takes their male archetypes and textures a woman instead. This is more of an academic exercise; keep an eye out over the next few years of how female characters are implemented and whether they are uniquely well crafted female characters or sloppy rewrites of male characters. I’m excited to see how where it goes from here.

Suspending Disbelief – The Closer You Get, The Farther Away It Is

I used to love law procedurals. Law and Order: SVU was my go-to show, but shows like Law and Order, Suits, The Practice, and even Fairly Legal drew me in. Hell, I used to watch Judge Judy regularly, while it’s actually one of the better legal procedurals (in that it deals with real small claims court cases), it necessarily glosses over the mundane details of the law in favor of an interesting drama.

Law school changed all of that. I knew that law procedurals were nothing close to the truth, but now that I’ve seen how the sausage is made, it’s almost impossible to look at a show about the law and take it a face value. Where once was a clever drama that skitted details no one cared about, now is a pile of unanswered questions and logical obstacles that I cannot overcome. To wit, Suits has a subplot once about patent law (my practice), and it immediately broke my immersion, with my main concerns being 1) how the hell is someone without a science background even submitting a patent application, 2) how did the PTO respond in one day with a patent rejection (normally taking 12-18 months before first action), and 3) why the hell is anyone surprised that it got rejected (patent applications are often rejected at first by examiners, and people like me convince the PTO to allow some patentable subject matter). See also How To Get Away With Murder, where law students regularly break ethical rules to maybe get a good grade in one class (real law students wouldn’t do anything that would remotely disrupt the ethical requirements for bar admission).

Phoenix Wright probably symbolizes the greatest frustrations with law-related media. Nominally set in the United States but with arguable based on the Japanese criminal system, it really emphasizes how both to excise details in favor of good mechanics and how to be close enough to the truth to frustrate me when it goes wrong. Simply put, Phoenix Wright would make a great Evidence or Criminal Procedure exam simply in everything it gets wrong. While it makes for an excellent narrative, there comes a point where the inaccuracies with the law just take me too far out of the game to engage me.

Let’s start with the basic premise: you are a criminal lawyer just out of law school in a solo practice. Not likely, but feasible. But then comes the principal mechanic: you have to convince a judge that your client is innocent within 3 days or they are automatically convicted. Even average Americans understand the concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” but the concept of completing a criminal trial in 3 days, especially when you have to investigate the crime scene yourself and find new evidence, that’s just absurd. Real trials take years, and discovering evidence (called “discovery”) often takes the majority of that time. Not to mention that there’s no way in hell that a lawyer would be investigating crime scenes–tampering with evidence is a felony, and collecting evidence in such a manner would likely lead to dismissal in court.

But what frustrates me most about Phoenix Wright is how the game handles the burdens of proof between the prosecutor and defendant. In the American criminal legal system, the prosecutor has to argue their story beyond a reasonable doubt, and if the defense can poke one reasonable hole, the defense wins. The jury can absolutely believe that the defendant is guilty, but if there’s a reasonable doubt, then the defendant must go free.

Phoenix Wright inverts this in an almost fearsome way. Here, the prosecutors merely present a plausible idea of how the case might unfold, providing a single logical chain of events. Phoenix (that is, the player) has to find contradictions in the prosecutor’s story. If Phoenix finds the right combination of contradictions, the player wins. But in the name of drama, the prosecutor generally reinvents their story with each found contradiction, finding a way around it, often going to absurd lengths to reach it. Meanwhile, Phoenix has several great reasons why his client cannot be guilty. Meanwhile, the judge basically takes the position of “the prosecutor has a somewhat plausible point, therefore I’m going to convict this person of murder,” while forcing Phoenix to basically have an ironclad, airtight defense of his own. Prosecutors often forge evidence, but instead of it being tossed out and the case dismissed, the judge just says “well, the prosecutor still has a good story, so let’s just convict the poor bastard.”

You can see why this makes for both an excellent story and game mechanic, and also how this frustrates me as a lawyer. Even the most basic of evidence laws would completely disrupt everything that goes on in these games. And frankly, I just can’t suspend my own disbelief enough to immerse myself into the story. This is a line I cannot cross, even though basically every form of media involving the law crosses this line several times.

Now, I’ve complained about the desire for “realism” before, but what strikes me as odd is that other media take far greater leaps in disbelief, but I’m perfectly fine with it. Giant mechas despite clearly understanding that the engineering behind them is impossible? No problem. Two angels coming down to earth and killing ghosts with guns and swords made from lingerie? Bring it on. A paralegal who can summon the spirit of her dead lawyer sister to assist an inept defense attorney in his cases? Probably one of the best parts of Phoenix Wright.

But where I can suspend my disbelief for things that are clearly fantastic, the closer something gets to reality while being different from it, the more unbearable the differences get. In other words, Phoenix Wright and other law procedurals are the Uncanny Valley of the American legal system. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch a teenager with daddy issues fight demons in a giant robot made from his mother.

Games to Warm You Up

It’s pretty fucking cold here in Michigan. Fortunately, my apartment has excellent heat, and I have no real plans this weekend other than getting sworn into the Michigan Bar. While I do have to take care of a few things for work, I’m not going out if I don’t have to.

So the question remains, how do I stay warm this weekend? There are a lot of games I want to play, but which are best for a snowy weekend inside? We have to consider several factors here. First, I’m probably going to be drinking lots of coffee and eating soup, so I’ll need a game that has either long enough cutscenes or slow enough gameplay that I can take quick sneaks of hot liquids. Second, I don’t really want to move much, so anything with weird movement controls is out. Finally, I get the feeling I’m going to be playing for a long time, so it needs to be something I can sink a lot of time into.

The first game that comes to mind is Hatoful Boyfriend. As a visual novel, I’ll be watching more than playing, and the few mouseclicks I’ll need will be easy to fit in around an Irish coffee or a bowl of chili. It’s certainly engaging, being a romance sim in a bird high school. It’s a relatively short game, but it has multiple endings, so I’ll be able to distract myself for several hours at a time.

Another game that fits well is Tales of Xillia. A typical JRPG, it does not require much quick movement other than in battle, and pausing is quite easy. I’m thick into the story now, so I can optionally grind or slowly progress through the narrative. The cutscenes are not obsecenely long, but I can take advantage of them as I need to.

Winter weather can be equally peaceful and depressing, so I’m going to need a very upbeat game to keep my spirits up. It might be time to start a replay of Psychonauts, but if I have to go with a game I haven’t beaten yet, I may have to start South Park: The Stick of Truth. I was planning on saving this for Christmas, but if the weather turns for the worse this weekend, I may have to pull it out early. Everything I have heard about this game makes it sound like I would love it; its greatest compliment is that it plays like an episode of South Park. I still have several other games to play, but this could be the seal I break this weekend.

Approachable Anime

Because of my recent move and adjusting to my work schedule, I haven’t played many games this month. However, I have been catching up on some anime that were sitting in my backlog, namely Death Note and Steins;Gate. They are both excellent anime, and I highly recommend them for anime fans in general. What struck me about Death Note in particular is that it seems like an anime that non-anime fans might be interested in.

Without spoiling too much, Death Note is about a high school boy who finds a notebook that will kill anyone whose name is written in it. This notebook belonged to a Shinigami, or “God of Death” (the literal translation of “shinigami”), and the main character starts killing criminals in an effort to rid the world of evil. He is tracked by an ace detective, and drama ensues.

The best part about Death Note is that the supernatural elements aren’t the main point of the story. This anime is really about a serial killer and the detective trying to catch him. The use of a supernatural notebook is ancillary to the character-driven plot. In particular, the main character and the detective are always trying to outsmart each other, and this dynamic really drives most of the series.

What turns a lot of people off to most anime (and sci-fi/fantasy in general) is the unwillingness to suspend their own disbelief for a good story. American media have a fetish for “realism” (or what they think is realism, see EVERY GODDAMN SHOW ABOUT THE LAW EVER), and the nonrealistic elements of most anime put off potential fans. Part of the reason why shows like Cowboy Bebop do well with American audiences is because they downplay much of the non-“realistic” elements.

But Americans love murder mystery plots. It’s one of the few genres that has survived for so long. Between the myriad Sherlock Holmes variations, Columbo, Law and Order, Dexter, and so on, Americans should take to Death Note well. Admittedly, it is a very popular anime, but I’m not sure how well it would do with non-anime fans.

I have found that anime in general often will add supernatural elements to an otherwise mundane plot. I attribute this to Japan’s Shintoist/Buddhist/polytheistic history and complex mythology that invariably affects their culture, but that’s just one man’s opinion. Case in point, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo is nominally a Japanese take on the classic French novel. But instead of 19th century France, it’s set in the far future with a mix of 19th century styles and sci-fi trappings. Whereas an American take on the story, such as the movie The Count of Monte Cristo from the early 200s, is more faithful to the time period and merely streamlines parts for show, the Japanese anime approach specifically adds in these sci-fi/supernatural elements to differentiate itself from the source material. I think they did an excellent job of it, and I don’t think it’s too much to suspend your disbelief for that series.

Things may be changing, though. Anime is still fairly new in American culture, and we have yet to have a full generation of anime fans. In particular, those of us who grew up watching Dragonball Z and Naruto, even if we don’t watch other anime later, are at least open to the idea of a fantastic animated television show. Considering that comic book movies are blowing apart the box office right now, I must question my original premise that Americans have this “realism” fetish. I don’t think we Americans are quite at the level of Japan yet, but I think fantastic/supernatural trappings are starting to be more accepted in mainstream media. If the Marvel movies continue to be successful and Disney works magic with Star Wars, we might be on the verge of a massive shift in media strategy away from “dark brooding gritty realism” to a tolerance for a greater suspension of disbelief. I’m certainly excited to see where this goes.

Of course, I’m still waiting for a Scrubs-like treatment of a law procedural–that’s realism I can get behind.