A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains

“When he read to me–stupid things, dragons and heroes–he wouldn’t turn a page until I reached over and took his hand. That big man made every step of the story my choice. I loved that.” — Aveline, regarding her father

(Dragon Age 2 spoilers)

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FFVII Replay: "Just the same as him…"

The next segment of Final Fantasy VII is important because it introduces Aeris. But first, Cloud, Tifa, and Barret go on another mission to blow up Mako Reactor #5. The scenery is exactly the same as the first mission, though getting to the reactor is a bit different because the gang triggers the alarm system on the train and has to jump off, ending up in some sewers. On the way in, there’s the first of many goofy and badly-explained minigames: in order to open the door to the reactor (the same door that Jesse hacked last time), Barret, Tifa, and Cloud all have to hit buttons at the same time; this requires the player to time a button press so that Cloud raises his arms and then hits the button at the same time Barret and Tifa do. It was an annoying and nonsensical attempt to add variety to the gameplay.

Once at the reactor itself, Cloud has his first freakout. There is a short flashback to a scene where Tifa, dressed like a cowgirl, discovers that her dad was killed by Sephiroth and declares, “I hate them all!!” (referring to Sephiroth, Shinra, and SOLDIER). This is the first actual glimpse of the Nibelheim Incident we get in FFVII, and I was surprised at how early on it happens. It’s shown very early on that something is not right with Cloud, and it adds a layer of mystery to the story. When he regains consciousness, Cloud just says, “… Tifa?” It seems as if this was either not a memory of his, or something that had been deeply buried that he had forgotten. But why?

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Playing Character Death

Over the New Year holiday weekend, I played a lot of video games, finishing two of them. Coincidentally, both of those games contained scenes where you play as a character in an unbeatable scenario, where the character is eventually killed (permanently). They were similar in a lot of ways, so I’d like to examine and compare them.

The games I’m talking about are Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, and obviously this post will contain huge spoilers for those games (and the Naruto Shippuuden anime, obviously).

Let’s start with Naruto. Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 (hereafter “Storm 2”) is a fighting game that includes a single-player adventure campaign that covers the first eight seasons (just under 200 episodes) of the Naruto Shippuuden anime. Storm 2 is the sequel to 2008’s Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm (“Storm 1”), which covered the entire original Naruto anime (aside from the last “filler” arc). The show has an enormous cast of ninjas that all have unique fighting styles and abilities, which makes it perfect source material for a fighting game, and a great many have been made. What makes the Storm games unique is that they attempt to most closely recreate not only the story of the anime, but the over-the-top battles that are the main draw of the series. In normal battles, each character has their own “Ultimate Jutsu,” and at the end of each story chapter is a multi-phase boss battle split up by quicktime events (here’s an example from early on in Storm 2).

Late in the game–here’s your second spoiler warning–Naruto’s mentor, Jiraiya, faces a former student who now goes by the name Pain. It’s a normal boss battle (here’s the video if you want to watch it), but there is an additional segment at the end:

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FFVII Replay: "The Planet's Dyin', Cloud"

I picked up Crisis Core again recently, and toward the end of the game, it catches up with some of the backstory sequences from Final Fantasy VII. I’ve only played FFVII once, a long time ago, so I decided to play it again to fill in the gaps of my hazy memory. I’ve only played the first hour or so so far, but what I wanted to remark upon was how great this opening hour is for setting up the world, plot, and a couple of the main characters of the game quickly, without sacrificing excitement.

In the opening scene of the game, our protagonist, Cloud, and a group of four people who call themselves AVALANCHE infiltrate and destroy a thing called a Mako Reactor. The group breaks codes on security doors, battles through the facility to the reactor where they face a giant scorpion robot, sets a bomb, escapes before the place explodes, and flees the area via train. Throughout all of this, we learn about:
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Dragon Age: Origins: Character Babble (UPDATED)

A (ridiculously self-indulgent!) summary of my first character’s journey up until the Alienage section in Denerim before the Landsmeet. Spoilers up until then, and please don’t comment with spoilers for the rest of the game!

Here’s the character page (female Elf mage). I am annoyed the picture hasn’t uploaded… unless that is something I have to do manually? I don’t know! She has short red hair with lots of ties in it, a gray tattoo on the right side of her face, and chubby cheeks.

Character babble behind the break, because I’m pretty sure only Kate and Denis are actually interested in this~

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Wrex and the Art of the Privilege Check

Cross-posted at The Border House.

I’ve written a lot about Mass Effect previously, including a rather long criticism of some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) gender bias at play in the universe BioWare has created. For my last post, I’d like to take a look at the character of Wrex and how his situation as well as that of the Krogan species is used to teach players about privilege.

Conversations between Wrex and the other members of the crew are clearly meant to mirror conversations about race and racism on Earth, with Wrex delivering withering smack-downs of ignorant privilege. My first example, a conversation between Kaiden (in my game it was Ashley) and Wrex on an elevator, makes this connection obvious, referencing a racist attitude that even those with minimal knowledge of racism can usually recognize:

YouTube (starting around 1:37):

KAIDEN: I haven’t spent much time with Krogan before, Wrex, and I have to say, you’re not what I expected.

WREX: Right. Because you humans have a wide range of cultures and attitudes, but Krogan all think and act exactly alike.

KAIDEN: Well, I–I didn’t mean… forget I said anything.

WREX: Done.

This conversation is an obvious allegory for racism on Earth; most people recognize that treating or talking about an entire race as if they are all the same is racist (at least, I hope so…). However, the game goes deeper than that, exposing a more subtle act of privilege:

YouTube (relevant portion is at the beginning)

WREX: What can I do for you?

SHEPARD: What’s your story, Wrex?

WREX: There’s no story. Go ask the Quarian if you want stories.

SHEPARD: You Krogan live for centuries. Don’t tell me you haven’t had any interesting adventures.

WREX: Well, there was this one time the Turians almost wiped out our entire race. That was fun.

SHEPARD: I heard about that. You know, they almost did the same to us.

WREX: It’s not the same.

SHEPARD: It seems pretty much the same to me.

WREX: So your people were infected with a genetic mutation, an infection that makes only a few in a thousand children survive birth? And I suppose it’s destroying your entire species?

SHEPARD: You’re still here. It can’t be all that bad.

WREX: I don’t expect you to understand. But don’t compare humanity’s fate to the Krogan.

SHEPARD: I was just making conversation. I wasn’t trying to upset you.

WREX: Your ignorance doesn’t upset me, Shepard. …

Some privileged people make the mistake of trying to show non-privileged people that they relate to their struggles by comparing experiences that really aren’t comparable. For example, a white person saying they can understand racism because they experience discrimination for being a nerd, or whatever. This statement may not seem as racist to some white people, but it minimizes the systemic nature of racism and how deeply it affects people of color. (See also Derailing for Dummies’s “But That Happens to Me Too!“.)

Even better, Shepard follows it up by making the intent excuse–don’t get so offended, Wrex, he didn’t mean to upset you! Which is more crap, because intent doesn’t matter: what Shepard said was still offensive and wrong.

A lot of the racism allegories in Mass Effect are anvil-like in their obviousness, things that have been done over and over in fantasy and science fiction–but on occasion the game goes deeper and explores some of the more subtle aspects of systemic racism and privilege. Have you noticed any other examples of this in the game, or in other games? Do you think this is an effective way of subtly teaching players about the nature of privilege?

"You Saved the Galaxy Pretty Well… for a Girl"

I’m a regular reader of feminist political blog Shakesville. Its founder and main contributor, Melissa McEwan, is such a powerful writer that even short, seemingly frivolous posts are usually thought-provoking and meaningful; like this one. In it, she talks about how a particular song, originally written and performed by a man and somewhat sexist, becomes subversive and powerful when sung by a woman (in this case, James Brown’s “A Man’s World” sung by Christina Aguilera). A simple gender swap can change the entire meaning of a song. And since video games are always on my mind, this interesting observation got me thinking about Mass Effect.

In Mass Effect, the player has the option to play as either a female or a male version of the protagonist, Commander Shepard. Since the plot is exactly the same for both versions, most of the dialogue is exactly the same. And yet playing Mass Effect as a woman is so much more powerful, in certain ways.

In our world, particularly in the USA, we treat female leaders and other women in power with particular nastiness borne of systemic sexism. Shakesville’s series “Hillary Clinton Sexism Watch” has over 100 entries. Its sister series, the “Sarah Palin Sexism Watch”, has at least 26 entries, and she has only been in national politics for about a year. Former President Bush had so much respect for our European allies, he sexually harassed Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Women of color have it particularly hard, having to deal with sexism and racism and how they intersect, becoming an entirely new creature; the blog Michelle Obama Watch chronicles, among other things, racism and sexism against our First Lady. Sonia Sotomayor had to endure all kinds of ridiculously racist and sexist bullshit at her Supreme Court hearings. There is an extra burden on female leaders and women in power that simply does not exist for most men.

For this reason, seeing female Shepard being treated the same way a man would by her superiors, her peers, and her crew is so powerful. There is never a doubt in Captain Anderson’s mind about her abilities. Her crew is always respectful, never questioning whether she is fit to lead or disobeying her orders, even the men who were older and more experienced.

Shepard struggling with getting the Council to believe her struck a chord with me in a way it might not for a male player. Institutionalized sexism causes women to not be taken as seriously as their male peers. Women’s contributions are often downplayed or outright ignored. Many women have stories about having their statements or ideas dismissed only to see men praised for saying the exact same thing. Arguing with the Council, Shepard was put in a similar place because she is in a disadvantageous position, as a human and as a woman.

And that ending. How amazing is it to see a woman praised, without qualifiers, as a real hero? For being a great leader, period, not “for a girl”?

Granted, the situation with Mass Effect is quite different than that of subverting a sexist song; the plot of ME isn’t sexist, and playing as female Shepard doesn’t subvert much. But it does give us a glimpse of a universe where it’s possible to have a leader and a hero who is defined by her actions first, rather than her gender; and it came about just by treating the two characters equally. This glimpse affected me emotionally in a way that caught me completely off-guard. It was a pleasant surprise.