OneGate

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If Deus Ex 1 were made by Eidos today

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The highest praise for Human Revolution over the past few weeks has been that it ‘does the original justice’ and that it’s ‘a worthy followup’ or whatever.

But it’s not, and it takes some pretty dramatic Deus Ex 1 revisionism to claim that it is. While Human Revolution has some surface similarities it’s a drastically different kind of game in many ways, made by a team that either didn’t properly understand Deus Ex, or willfully ignored what made it special—preferring instead to ‘modernise’ it into an unholy union of Metal Gear Solid and Mass Effect 2.

Things that made Deus Ex a special game, one fondly remembered 11 years later:

  • a great deal of player freedom at any moment
  • a great deal of player control, never taken away except in conversations
  • a consistent world, governed by elegant rules, that behaves in logical and expected ways
  • large and open maps that can be approached in many different ways
  • movement through and interaction with the world that feels organic and self-governed
  • a bunch of other shit not so important to this post

Things that Eidos ignored, discouraged, or otherwise mishandled:

  • all of the above

Reasons why all of the above are poorer in Human Revolution:

  • poor level design that funnels players through small area after small area, each populated by a small number of enemies which do not pursue the player out of their designated area
  • a lack of consumable items (ballistic armour, thermoptic camo, hazmat suits, and so on) that give players options at any time
  • a reduction in player abilites like lockpicking and multitooling
  • boring augmentations, most of which don’t interact with other game systems in meaningful ways (though there are some nice exceptions)
  • handholding in the form of objective markers on the radar
  • game design that routinely takes control away from players, either briefly in the form of the snap to cover system or the tedious Icarus landing system, or more drastically in the cutscenes in which Jensen usually acts like a blundering idiot
  • stealth gameplay that takes it cues from Metal Gear Solid and is more about problem solving (which crate has the level designer placed here so I can avoid this guard?) rather than organically hiding in the environment

The best way to explain the differences is to show them, which someone has already done with this amazing mod that parodies modern game conventions and Human Revolution in particular. As well as ridiculing the cinematic takedown rubbish, it nails the poor level design. While the maps in HR appear large at first glance, they are stream loaded and enemy AI is restricted to small areas. The effect is that each play space is actually quite small, with a main path and some all-but-signposted alternative routes through a vent or through, maybe, a different vent. You complete one area and then you’re funneled through a door or a corridor into the next. Along with the other problems, it reduces the gameplay possibilities and results in a game that feels far more directed, controlled and restrictive than the original Deus Ex.

I can’t make a mod, so I’ll stick with words.

Here’s Liberty Island if it were made by Eidos today.

You start on the dock, and that is the first map segment. A cutscene shows JC arriving by boat and blundering over to Paul. The camera lingers on JC’s face because that’s usually what happens in the movies. Paul waxes lyrical about his and JC’s augmentations, and eventually gives you your objective. The game puts a marker on the radar leading you to a point 20 metres away, off the dock. There’s a gate at the dock entrance that serves as a streaming load point. You open it and walk though, the next segment is fully loaded up, and the radar updates to direct you to the front door of the Statue, with a secondary objective marker to go meet Harley Filben at the other dock.

The island outside the Statue is divided up into, let’s say, four different segments which you pass through in a linear order, and the enemies are restricted to those segments. The segments are separated by, say, doors or gates that funnel you into the next segment.

It’s probably daytime too; there’s no benefit to making it nighttime because the stealth isn’t light-based and the gold colour scheme makes slightly more sense this way. Actually let’s check Blade Runner. Night or day in that movie? Mostly night. Okay it’s nighttime then.

You move through these segments, which have far more crates in them than you would expect, all lined up handily to accommodate the cover stealth system. You take down a few NSF and are awarded more XP for being nonlethal and for using the 3rd person cinematic takedown ability. Along the way you deviate and head to the other dock to meet Filben. He seems evasive, so the game enters a convoluted persuasion minigame in which you pick a few conversation options from a dialogue wheel and the game displays a graph showing how persuasive you are being. You don’t listen to a word Filben says because the graph is all that matters. Anyway, he gives you the front door code so that must have gone well.

As you progress through the map you stumble upon a ‘secret’ back entrance to the Statue, but it requires Hacking Level 2, and you spent your first augmentation upgrade on making your inventory slightly larger than a match box. This is obviously The Hacking Path and you haven’t upgraded yourself properly. Don’t worry, there are probably two or three vents behind those glowing yellow boxes over there. Feeling patronised, you decide to take the front door anyway.

The game loads up the interior of the Statue. The Statue itself is split into three levels, each its own segment with its own enemies who will not wander from their assigned levels. Alex appears on your infolink to tell you Gunther is being held prisoner in there and the radar will update to show you his precise location. You exchange a few jokes with Alex (Fiction Writing For Dummies says that builds an emotional bond) and then head off to find Gunther. You cinematically take down the guard outside Gunther’s makeshift prison cell. When you enter the room there is a cutscene showing JC walking awkwardly over to him and the camera does the slow foot-to-face closeup reveal of badass Gunther. Then it enters an in-engine conversation with another inappropriate persuasion minigame where you can try to wrangle some extra information out of him via choices in the dialogue wheel. Gunther discusses at length the difference between mechanical augmentation and nanoaugmentation. You don’t have the option to give him a pistol and follow him while he guns down NSF, because the engine can’t support the AI crossing between segments like that. At the end of the conversation he turns away slightly from the camera and when you have control again he’s just gone.

Then you ascend the statue level by level, either snapping to cover behind the dozens of boxes lying around conspicuously, or moving through the vents which are everywhere. There are 27 computers in this map which you can access with the passwords that are lying right next to them, and all of them contain the same quirky email about employee rights and responsibilities. About 7 or 8 also contain a joke Nigerian banking spam mail.

Then you reach the top of the statue and find a door. You Use it and a cutscene begins revealing the NSF leader who is threateningly waving a gun. JC casually walks up to the terrorist leader, ignoring the gun pointed at him, and in fact turning his back on it several times. After a lengthy discussion about the Ambrosia haves and have nots the game reverts to an in-engine conversation with another persuasion minigame, featuring a graph showing how persuasive you are being. At the end you are given some options on the dialogue wheel: empathise, antagonise, or fight. If you choose fight (let’s go all the way with this) the game enters a Setpiece Boss Battle and dumps you right in front of the boss and he starts shooting before you can even fucking react. Seven reloads later you win and you watch a cutscene showing JC standing over the bleeding boss as he mutters a dying line of dialogue out of a Dean Koontz novel. You get 2500 XP for Getting Things Done and are rewarded with the Defending Liberty Steam achievement.

Well done.

Written by John Pike

18 September 2011 at 1:05 am

Waiting for breakfast

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[Spoiler warning: this article discusses significant parts of Anachronox’s story, including big reveals, so it’s really only intended for people who have played and finished the game, or people who don’t intend to. If you do plan to play it one day, here’s the spoiler-free version: Anachronox is excellent. You can still read about halfway down before getting spoiled, and there are some more warnings before they arrive.]

In a way it’s a bit hard to reconcile a love of Deus Ex with a love of Anachronox. Despite being made by the same company, albeit different studios in different cities, they’re very different. Deus Ex is one of those wonderful immersive sim things that values player freedom and expression while Anachronox is a console-style RPG with the linearity and low interactivity that usually implies. The design philosophies behind Deus Ex are what I think video games should be all about, while Anachronox is something else.

And yet. Tom Hall’s Anachronox is something very special. This game haunts me. Ten years after its release I still think constantly about its story, setting, characters. It’s a story about a timeless struggle between advanced civilisations, about strange planets and stranger inhabitants, about a space adventure and personal struggles, about comradeship and loss and redemption. It’s a game with eccentric men and dangerous women, with a self-aware robot and a shrunken planet, with an alcoholic superhero and a reincarnated secretary. It’s hard to describe and at the same time simple: it’s brilliant.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by John Pike

10 August 2011 at 5:18 am

Posted in Games, Uncategorized, Writing

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An MMOmoment: Shadows of Angmar

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MMOGs not usually being renowned for their effective storytelling, it’s worthwhile mentioning when a good example comes along unexpectedly. This one is from Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online, which in its first ‘volume’, Shadows of Angmar, presented a complex and mysterious tale that spanned over a year of content releases and covered most of Eriador, from Bree to Rivendell to Angmar and further.

Along the way it sometimes falters into corny dialogue, doubtful quest design, and nonsensicality, but at its conclusion it draws together the genre’s strengths and delivers a moment of emotion and reflection rarely seen in any genre.

Sparing the details, it involves a servant of Sauron, Amarthiel, and her quest to reforge a ring in the same forges where the rings of power (including the infamous One Ring) were made. Caught up in her plan are two elves: Laerdan and his daughter Narmaleth. To accomplish her goals, Amarthiel corrupts Narmaleth and inhabits her body. Rather than heed advice that his daughter is lost, Laerdan does all he can to get her back, including deceiving the player to ensure no one will stop him, however hopeless his quest is.

Before Amarthiel (in the body of Narmaleth) can succeed, her master Mordirith returns, after having been defeated by the player in earlier quests. Rightly wary of her ambitions, he strikes her down, cuts off her hand, and takes the ring. Before he can finish her Laerdan arrives, and to save his daughter he enters a fight with Mordirith he has no chance of winning. He is killed, and Mordirith leaves Narmaleth in her sorry state. Seemingly rid of Amarthiel’s spirit, Narmaleth helps the player in a final battle against Mordirith. In the fight she is finally defeated, and with a last effort she kills Mordirith. Successful, the player returns to Rivendell alone.

In Rivendell is the final resolution to Shadows of Angmar. You return to Laerdan’s room, where another elf gives you a parcel she discovered that Laerdan addressed to you, perhaps knowing that he wouldn’t return. Attached is a letter, in which Laerdan thanks you for your help, and begs forgiveness for his deception. Referring to the parcel, he writes, ‘Perhaps this will help you understand why I have done all that I have.’ Opening the package, you find his reason, his motivation, and his defence: it is a portrait of his daughter Narmaleth.

In LOTRO players have houses they can decorate with various items, including paintings. The story over, with enemies and friends all slain, the player can return home and hang the painting on a wall.

It’s one simple in-game object, but this painting communicates more meaning than blocks of NPC text ever could. Rather than trying to explain everything as a book or a film would, LOTRO explains it as a game can. In that painting is a constant reminder of all the effort we put in over the previous year, and (fantasy nomenclature aside) the very human story at the heart of it: a father’s love for his daughter, and his will to do anything to save her.

In a fantasy setting like Tolkien’s, it would have been easy to lose sight of those personal stories in an attempt to tell an epic adventure. What Turbine did right was to bring everything back to these two characters, and close their story in a way that allows us to remember it every time we go home.

Written by John Pike

14 March 2011 at 6:23 am

Bulletstorm and a morality issue

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A game’s morality is rarely questioned in game criticism. Certainly when a game is reviewed the question of morality is rarely addressed, which is generally as much a result of poor story crafting as an unwillingness on the part of reviewers. It’s a shortcoming compared to film criticism, which generally isn’t afraid to question a film’s moral standing and judge it accordingly. Maybe the sheer amount of gaming’s blood and gore over the last few decades has made it a moot point.

It’s a problem when it comes to a game like People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm. At present we only have a demo and pre-release details to go on, but the inclusion of ‘skillshots’ with names like Facial, Rear Entry, Double Penetration, Gang Bang, and other pornographic terms has raised some eyebrows. Its marketing doesn’t do it any favours, with CliffyB speaking wistfully about ‘blowing out a man’s asshole’. Richard Clark at Gamasutra has sensitively and measuredly questioned Bulletstorm’s content, and we can mostly (though perhaps not completely) ignore an absurd Fox News story that blamed Bulletstorm and its ilk for rape crimes.

But most coverage of the game has progressed in the usual manner of screenshots, trailers, previews. Perhaps when the game is reviewed some writers will criticise the names of the skillshots. But I doubt it. They might find them funny, after all, as they’re entitled to. But I hope reviewers don’t simply ignore the obvious and unsettling coupling of sex and violence.

Bulletstorm has a degree of sexualised violence I’ve never seen in a mainstream game before. Living in Australia, I’m very familiar with the rather tenuous accusation of sexual violence levelled at Grand Theft Auto 3 a decade ago by this country’s classification board: that you could hire a prostitute and then kill her afterwards. Those were two different acts, and there was nothing violent about the sexual act itself. Yet it was enough to cause a temporary ban and editing of the content.

Bulletstorm, on the other hand, has no such excuse. How this game passed through the classification process unscathed is a mystery, and probably more worrying than the game itself. The violence and sex are inextricably combined in these skillshots. Shooting an enemy in the face is rewarded with a word that describes the act of ejaculating on someone’s face. (Whatever the more dim-witted of Bulletstorm’s defenders might claim, there’s no chance of Facial referring to a beauty treatment.) Shooting someone in the butt is rewarded with Rear Entry, and given the violent context the subtext of anal rape is clear. Gang Bang needs no explanation.

The names of these skillshots have turned what could be a passable shooter into a juvenile sex fantasy. At its most innocent, it’s teenaged boys giggling under the sheets. At its most guilty, it’s about fucking a girl (or a boy) in a gang bang, deeply penetrating her, fucking her in the ass, and at the moment of climax ejaculating on her face. That’s the game the developers at People Can Fly have created, supposedly because they think it’s a laugh.

Fox News went way too far, but its article has some justification. Bulletstorm is a contributor to a very troubling sexual culture. One in which ejaculating on a woman’s face and teaming up with buddies to tag-team (or whatever) a woman is considered acceptable. Rugby teams cop flak for it when stories of their ‘team building’ escapades come to light. Bulletstorm shouldn’t be allowed to escape its own responsibility.

That may be the most important factor here: responsibility. I’m no prude, but the thought of a 15 year old boy — an age when he’s finding his first girlfriend and experiencing his first intimate relationship — blowing away enemies and being rewarded with supposedly positive and rewarding terms like Facial and Gang Bang is deeply troubling to me. Developers making a game that will be played by millions must consider the impact of their product.

For a few years there RapeLay was the posterboy of gaming’s potential debasement. It still is. Taken on their own, of course RapeLay is ‘worse’ than Bulletstorm in its depictions of hideous sexual predation. But RapeLay will always be the nicheiest of niche products, the domain of the irredeemable. Those of us accustomed to normal and healthy sexual relationships need not concern ourselves. But Bulletstorm, packaged as a typical over the top shooter, can inveigle its way onto millions of screens, with its attitude that dominating and objectifying sexual practices are acceptable and fun. It’s far more influential than an obscure Japanese game most people will never hear of, and therefore more concerning. I’m not talking brainwashing. I give people more credit than do Fox News and the like. I’m talking the creation and moulding of a sexual culture, something that should never be treated lightly.

I’m aware I’m laying a lot at the feet of Bulletstorm here. As far as objectifying sexual practices go, the endless supply of terrible internet porn is a thousand times more responsible. That doesn’t mean we should welcome and reward any crossover of this stuff into mainstream games.

Game reviewers have an important role to play if they feel the medium’s ethics is an issue worth discussing (and maybe even something worth protecting). Imagine, if such a thing is possible, if Bulletstorm was a film. I suspect a dominant thread in reviews would be its puerility, its utter lack of a moral base. It’s just as acceptable for games to be judged the same way.

Written by John Pike

18 February 2011 at 8:48 am

Posted in Games, Writing

‘Not advisable for a tourist to visit the canals at night.’

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Fascinating for a Deus Ex geek in the daytime though. Disappointingly I didn’t see Wan Chai market itself, but following on from the last post here are some other photos of Deus Ex-ish locations around Wan Chai in Hong Kong.

Wan Chai police station.

A touch bigger than the game version.

More beyond the click …

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Written by John Pike

27 June 2010 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Games, Uncategorized

You will soon have your god, and you will make it with your own hands.

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This started out as a nostalgic look back at Deus Ex and why, for me, it’s the greatest game I’ve ever played. But with more details of Eidos Montreal’s prequel Human Revolution coming out of E3 recently, it’s evolved into something else. Now it’s more a comparison of all three Deus Ex games: what the first did right, what the second did wrong, and how the third might be doing a bit of both.

Ten years later is a good time to look back. It’s all the more appropriate with Human Revolution due for release before long — especially since Deus Ex fans are apprehensive about whether it’ll stay true to the series (by which they mean Deus Ex 1, but more on the sequel later).

Deus Ex was an important game, that was obvious right away. Even before its release it was much hyped in the games media. It was a Warren Spector game with a rich heritage. For people familiar with the Ultima games of the early 90s in particular, there were expectations, and for good reason; Deus Ex has an impressive pedigree. It’s often considered a member of the same family of important titles like Ultima, System Shock and Thief.

It’s been ten years, and it’s difficult to gauge just how significant Deus Ex’s contribution to the medium has been. It’s strange that a game considered a classic and widely praised didn’t spawn a flood of clones. Nothing has followed directly in its footsteps besides its own sequel, and in fact there are some characteristics of Deus Ex that modern games seem to shun. But it’s probably fair to suggest it contributed to the ongoing maturation of the industry. Its near future setting allowed it to deal with real political issues, not just philosophical ones, and Deus Ex’s accessible first person gameplay opened it to a potentially large audience. Its commercial success might have helped pave the way for BioShock years later, and the melding of shooter and RPG is increasingly common now as a method for character advancement. It’s been a significant game in the history of the medium, and arrived at an appropriate time: a game for a new millennium.

My own relationship with Deus Ex has been long and personally important. I didn’t follow the industry closely in those days and didn’t know which games were considered noteworthy. So I hadn’t played the Ultimas, hadn’t played System Shock in 1994, Thief in 98, or System Shock 2 in 99. Deus Ex was my first introduction to this family, and immediately it was something special. I remember it keenly. The first mission, the game loads and places you on a dock on Liberty Island. The sound of the sea, the wind, birds, the boat’s engine idling on the calm water behind; the music evoking just the right mix of suspense and adventure; a dark mood, pale clouds lit from beneath by the city of New York across the bay; and rising above a short distance away, the decapitated statue of Lady Liberty. It was a density of atmosphere I’d never experienced before, and I knew things had changed before I’d taken a step. That was the moment I realised a potential of games I’d never considered.

The start of a great adventure.

Following its release it was immediately praised. The combination of action, adventure and RPG came together to form something new and compelling. It was, in fact, difficult to describe. It puzzled the occasional checklist reviewer who marked it down a little because, well, the graphics were a bit dated. Or the voiceacting was a bit weak. The shooting gameplay was clunky. All true. The graphics were less impressive than other recent releases, character models were generally ugly, the shooter gameplay wasn’t as fluid as Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament, stealth wasn’t as involved or nuanced as Thief.

A lot of the recent previews of Deus Ex: Human Revolution based on the E3 presentation are frustrating for the way they speak about Deus Ex ten years on. Previewers are quick to defend any changes in DX:HR by arguing that, well, Deus Ex was actually really rough and messy now that we think about it. The technology was dated even then, there was a lot that could be ‘fixed’. That’s true. It’s also not the point.

Fortunately at least one DX:HR developer understands that. PC Gamer suggested to art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletete that Deus Ex’s artistic message was inconsistent because greasels and karkians didn’t seem to fit into the world, to which he responded:

Yeah, yeah. But hey, it worked. It totally worked.

Smart man, him. That’s the point that needs to be made: Deus Ex worked. Its ‘flaws’ are meaningless. It’s gone beyond the point of criticising any single part of it as weak or messy. Not even the sum of its parts any more, it is simply Deus Ex. That’s why any changes to the game in sequels or prequels are always dangerous: the moment you change something, even to make it better, it becomes a little bit less Deus Ex and a little bit more Something Else. It’s also why defending changes in the prequel by using the rationale that, hey, Deus Ex wasn’t perfect you know, misses the point entirely. We went through that with Invisible War, we’re going through it again now.

It’s a conundrum for all concerned: everyone wants the ideal followup to a classic game, but how can that ever be possible when every change necessarily makes it something different? The ideal Deus Ex is only ever a dream, the ideal sequel never possible. Not back then, not now. There are some characteristics of Deus Ex that help explain its longevity, however, and which any followup should keep in mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by John Pike

23 June 2010 at 11:44 pm

The kneejerk defence of RapeLay

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So CNN dragged RapeLay into the spotlight again, prompting a Manga creator, Nogami Takeshi, to respond with a defence of hentai games and their content. Translation here.

I was a little surprised by how many games journalists and commenters agree with him, and seem to think RapeLay is perfectly fine. The defence of Japan as a country and society in the face of some aggressive quotes in the CNN article is probably fair enough; but I’m more interested in his defence of hentai games, including ones featuring the rape of women and children like RapeLay — because a lot of the arguments echo the ones we use to defend violent games here. Trying to find a difference between the two arguments is kind of interesting.

Those products are developed for rational adults. You surely don’t believe that a rational adult would be influenced by such a game into committing rape, do you? Of course, in Japan, both that game you reported about and the hentai manga I draw are only distributed and sold under strict age restrictions to adults.

We make works of art. Let me say that again. It is just art. I assume that you are capable of distinguishing fiction from reality like we do. Are you not?

I don’t think ‘it’s just art’ is ever an excuse for anything, but the rest of this sounds familiar. If we defend violent games by saying they’re aimed at adults and they won’t make you pick up a gun and kill people, it seems pretty fair that Nogami can use the same argument for hentai games. Non-interactive hentai porn is nothing new and seems to have a strong audience, and there’s a genre of porn involving rape fantasies. A lot of S&M deals with it, and that kind of stuff (for some reason) is enjoyed by very balanced people in stable and fulfilling relationships.

The ludophobes would no doubt suggest playing a rape game will lead you to rape. Or, you know, “While I don’t think that playing games causes people to go out and do things, what it can do for those who may already have that preclusion is further break down social barriers to them taking that action.”

I don’t think it’s that simple (and nor is Nogami’s defence). It’s more an issue of this kind of content working to shape attitudes towards women in particular. It’s not a case of virtual rape = real rape, it’s a case of submissive depictions of women = submissive perceptions of women. All this western porn showing men ejaculating on women’s faces has a similar effect, and I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. (After all, it’s commonly accepted that unrealistic depictions of men and women in magazines results in unrealistic attitudes towards our own bodies. It would be disingenuous to suggest popular cultural productions have no effect on us, because that’s obviously untrue.)

But in that case, what about our arguments that violent games are fine for adults to play? Anyone who suggests a violent game will make someone imitate the violence, like your Jack Thompsons and Michael Atkinsons, doesn’t understand the issue — but there’s still the point about attitude shaping. I think it’s also disingenuous to suggest that depictions of violence, in all media, has no effect on adults. I have no doubt the barrage of violence has a (probably very serious) effect on our attitudes towards each other: the fear of strangers, the voluntary isolation within crowded communities, and so on. There’s always someone wanting to do bad things to you. And the glamourisation of violence has always encouraged young men to beat the crap out of each other. The effect of violent media is an old issue, and there are a lot of similarities in the arguments that defend it, and the arguments Nogami uses.

I do think there are a couple of important differences though. For one, violent media tends to align viewers with a Good Guy. Violence might be a solution, but it’s a good solution to a bad problem. In RapeLay the viewer/player is clearly not a good guy. That’s one of the redeeming features of violent films/games/whatever. Even in something like Manhunt there are reasons for it, it isn’t mindless. In RapeLay you’re just getting your rocks off at a helpless victim’s expense.

More importantly, there’s the problem of sexual depictions of especially children creating a market for it. This is the reason there are such harsh penalties for simply possessing child porn: if you help to feed the market, you’re indirectly contributing to the exploitation of real victims — even if the depictions are virtual.

Following from that, if we compare the effect of these kinds of violent and sexual depictions, there’s another big difference. Young men fighting each other is simply not as emotionally and personally destructive as the sexual assault of an unwilling victim. Or if we don’t want to go that far, at least the subjection of women in a dominated role, in an era when equality is an almost-global ideal.

There are a lot of circular arguments here and a lot I’m not taking into account (not least cultural differences, but I don’t know enough about Japan). But the short version: the differences between violent media and sexually exploitative media are pretty subtle, and suggests to me that arguments in defence of violent games should be a little more careful and detailed to avoid contradictions. In any case, discussions about these things should be about media representations in general, and not focus on a particular medium, which has been the case in all the coverage of RapeLay. It ignores all similar representations elsewhere and suggests it’s a new problem with video games.

At the same time, seeing gamers and especially games journalists blindly defending something like this because they see any criticism as a threat to their medium is simply harmful to this whole discussion. While I don’t think simply banning stuff we don’t like is a mature response, we are always free to criticise tasteless creations. RapeLay is one such.

Written by John Pike

12 April 2010 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Games, Writing

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