Female Representation in Gaming: Why GamerGate can change it for the better

It’s been a whirlwind couple of months as the GamerGate debacle has morphed into a beast that I don’t think any of us quite foresaw. Depending on your point of view, it’s done a lot of good, a lot of bad or both. But it’s undeniable that it’s cast a lot of light and a lot of mainstream attention onto issues within the gaming community that though they might not have been the initial intention of the movement, are still important issues nonetheless and issues that have been quite prominent with other artistic mediums. One such issue is that of sexism within gaming, though at this stage, I don’t want to focus on the issue of female gamers and how they are treated or represented. That’s another important issue for another time. What I want to focus on is the representation of female characters within video games.

Film has long struggled with the idea of prominently featuring female characters and for a while, the film community and the general public has been wrapped up with the idea of “strong female characters”, without realising that this was a fallacy in itself (when’s the last time someone’s called for a “strong male character?) and became a trope that allowed for bland, stereotypical representations. We don’t want “strong female characters”, we want good ones. It’s a trap that the video game industry has fallen into more often than not. There’s been a lot of bad with female representation in gaming, especially considering that the primary audience for a long time has been young adult males. There’s been a lot of over sexualisation and a lot of bland female characters that exist solely as accessories for the male protagonist. Even female protagonists such as Lara Croft were by and large devoid of personality and hyper sexualised. But fear not loyal reader, things HAVE been improving.

In recent years, there have been a number of female characters who are not just some of the most complex, compelling and endearing characters in gaming, but in recent fiction in general. Characters like Ellie from the Last of Us and Elizabeth from Bioshock are characters who have their own motivations, strengths, weaknesses, fears, aspirations, emotional nuances and character journeys. They’re strong but also vulnerable, they have their own important place and arc within the story and do not exist solely to provide support or emotional baggage for the male protagonist. Even characters like Lara Croft have been given a major update. Croft now has an actual personality besides being an unstoppable bad ass. She’s an actual character now and that’s wonderful. As games become more recognised as art, things are improving at a rapid pace. It’s no coincidence that some of the most artistic games in the last few years are the ones with this kind of diverse and effective representation. That’s not to say there’s not still bad with the good, but female representation is certainly evolving and it’s on the upswing.

Which is why all of this debate and controversy brought about inadvertently by GamerGate and the criticism of sexism is a good thing. Art is ever changing and art is controversial. This debate gets eyes on the issue in both the mainstream and from developers and players. It can shine light on the good that has happened and also the issues that still need to be improved. Sure, things might get ugly, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

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An Ode to Naughty Dog: Top 5 Moments

This September marks the 30th anniversary of the legendary studio, Naughty Dog. If you know even a little about gaming, you’ll know that Naughty Dog has been a pioneer in story driven, artistic and creative videogames over the past few decades.

Since the first game Naughty Dog released in 1989, the studio has grown and evolved to become one of the most beloved and successful gaming studios of all time. Fans will fondly remember the Crash Bandicoot and Jak series’ providing hundreds of hours of the best platform gaming available before Uncharted flipped the script and changed gaming forever. The Uncharted series raised the bar for video games by presenting players with a beautiful, exciting and character driven interactive cinematic experience that was both fun to play and fun to watch. But they didn’t just stop there as the release of The Last of Us in the final days of the Playstation 3 has proven to be one of the truly greatest games of that generation.

Now as they celebrate 30 years of innovation and excellence, let’s take a look at the Top 5 moments in a Naughty Dog game. These are moments that engaged players, that made them laugh, cry, scream or just made them feel something. Much like the best movie scenes, these are the five Naughty Dog moments that I believe will be remembered throughout gaming history.

Top 5 Naughty Dog Moments: 

5. The Helicopter (Uncharted 2)

Uncharted is best known for its cinematic moments and this sequence feels like something straight out of a blockbuster action movie. Just as Nathan Drake thinks he gets a moment to breathe, a helicopter appears and next thing you know, you’re jumping from building to building as gunfire chews up the rooftop beneath you and brawling with militia as an entire building collapse with you still inside. Top that, Indiana Jones.

4. The Giraffe Scene (The Last of Us)

I’ve already talked about this moment from the Last of Us in a previous blog, but this standout scene really highlights the range of emotions displayed in The Last of Us. It’s both touching and melancholy, telling us a lot about both characters as well as the world they live in. All with only a few lines of dialogue. This is economic, character driven storytelling at its finest.

3. A Rock and a Hard Place (Uncharted 2)

Uncharted 2 opens with Nathan Drake beaten to hell, suspended in a train carriage that is dangling precariously off the edge of a cliff. You have no idea what’s going on, all you know is that you’ve got to try and survive the next five minutes. It’s one of the most riveting openings of a game and keeps the player guessing in more ways than one.

2. Young Nathan Drake (Uncharted 3)

Uncharted 3 changes things up for a level by putting you in the shoes of Nathan Drake as a child. It was fascinating to see Drake as a down on his luck, smart mouthed street rat. It was a great insight into why Drake is the way he is and also into his relationship with his mentor, Sully. Not to mention the brilliant and exciting chase sequence that served as the climax of the level. Gaming doesn’t get much better than this.

1. The Ending (The Last of Us)

Simply put, The Last of Us has the best ending to a game I’ve ever seen. The final level is nail bitingly intense and the choices you are forced to make are morally and emotionally complex. There’s really no right answer to what happened at the end of the game, whether it was right or wrong. And that’s what makes it great. This was Naughty Dog’s best moment yet, but with Uncharted 4 on the horizon, you’d better believe they’re looking to top it.

Congratulations to Naughty Dog for thirty years of greatness and here’s to thirty more.

 

 

 

Why the Last of Us is Art: Ellie

Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Each week, I’ll be picking apart exceptional games to show you why this newborn storytelling medium has evolved from a trivial pursuit to a legitimate art form much like the film or the novel. This week is all about the 2013 smash hit, The Last of Us. Can this harrowing tale of post apocalyptic America be considered art?

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US FOLLOW

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Last time, I picked apart why Joel was such a great protagonist. He was emotionally complex, morally ambiguous and fundamentally flawed, but still relatable, allowing us to connect with him as he learned and developed throughout the story. But while Joel was a great leading man, much of the success of The Last of Us stems from Ellie. In many ways, though we control Joel for much of our playing time, the game was more Ellie’s story than Joel’s and she has quickly become one of the most beloved characters in gaming.

Perhaps the main reason why Ellie resonated with the audience was the fact that she was so relatable on so many levels. People understood why she did things, people understood and sympathised with her actions and her struggles. Even though Ellie grew up in a world completely different to the world that the audience grew up in, the echoes of our world still linger with her. She’s not so far removed from our reality that she’s alien and it makes sense to us that this is the kind of girl that the post apocalyptic world of The Last of Us would produce. She’s tough, smart mouthed and quick witted but thankfully she manages to stray away from the “strong female character” trope that so many games and films abuse so gleefully. What I mean by this is a female character whose entire existence and entire personality revolves around the fact that she’s “strong”, the fact that she kicks ass and takes names (Resident Evil’s Alice being one of the main culprits) with no semblance of any real character traits beyond being a bad ass.

Ellie isn’t just a “strong female character”, she’s just a good character. While she may be tough as nails, she has a personality. She has a wry, decidedly goofy sense of humor (“I used to be addicted to soap … but I’m clean now”) and a love for reading. She’s brave, but has her vulnerabilities. She confesses that her greatest fear is being alone as everyone she has ever cared about has died or left her. She is fascinated with the relics of the old world such as comic books, magazines, videogames, toys and approaches these with a child-like wonder that seems at odds with her usual hardened exterior. What I’m getting at is that she’s not just a bad ass cardboard cut out like so many heroes, she is complicated, multifaceted character that actually feels like a person, complete with her own likes, dislikes, fears and aspirations.

One of my favorite scenes in this game or any perfectly sums up Ellie’s character and why she’s so appealing. After a rough couple of days, Ellie and Joel have almost reached their goal. But there seems to be an impending sense of dread, as if they both know that once they get there, things will not go as planned. You take control of Joel and watch as Ellie seems to withdraw into herself as you travel through the ruins. All of a sudden, she perks up and runs off, leaving you to dash after her. This leads to a scene that is both uplifting and melancholy, one of the most emotionally resonant sequences in gaming history. You’ll notice that this particular scene was the inspiration for the whole decor of this blog.

We’ll have more more on Ellie and The Las t of Us as well as other great games in the next few days!

Why the Last of Us is Art: The Protagonist

Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Each week, I’ll be picking apart exceptional games to show you why this newborn storytelling medium has evolved from a trivial pursuit to a legitimate art form much like the film or the novel. This week is all about the 2013 smash hit, The Last of Us. Can this harrowing tale of post apocalyptic America be considered art?

Let’s find out.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US FOLLOW.

The Protagonist

Joel, played by Troy Baker

For the majority of the game, the player takes control of Joel, voiced and motion captured by Troy Baker. When we first meet Joel during the prologue, he’s a loving, if somewhat distant single father who is struggling to make ends meet. After the infection strikes and the world falls apart, the story picks up twenty years later and the Joel we knew has disappeared almost completely. Left in his place is a grizzled, amoral shell of a man still unable to cope with the loss of his only child.  This brings us to our question of the day. Why is Joel a compelling character? What makes him worthy to stand out among the multitudes of brooding protagonists populating post apocalyptic fiction?

When looking at a character, I generally ask myself three simple questions:

1. Do they feel real?

As we guide Joel along his journey, we see that while he’s the protagonist, he is by no means a hero. When he correctly anticipates an ambush by bandits, he’s asked how he knew what would happen and replies simply: “I’ve been on both sides”. He’s a smuggler, a thief and a murderer; a man who stopped living decades ago and now only survives. Throughout the early stages of the game it becomes clear to the player that while Joel exists day by day, eating, sleeping and slaughtering infected by the droves (general post apocalyptic survivor chores) he has no semblance of purpose. The only meaningful connection he has is with another survivor, Tess. The nature of their relationship is never made clear and he insists on keeping even her at arms length.

For all intents and purposes, he’s a complete scumbag.

When I ask whether a character feels “real”, I don’t necessarily mean whether they feel as if they could exist in the real world, what I mean is whether I can understand and sympathize with why that character is the way they are given the world around them. Which is why Joel works so well as a protagonist and why that prologue depicting his loss and the effect it had on him was so important. He’s not perfect, he doesn’t make the right choices. To call him morally ambiguous would be an understatement. But through all that, we understand him. Everything he does, everything he is continues to be informed on some level by that loss. Because of this, everything he does makes sense. We understand immediately why Joel has little regard for authority and little regard for human life. We understand why Joel is estranged from his family and why he refuses to trust or connect with anyone. He isn’t perfect and that’s exactly why he feels so real.

2. Do they change?

The first glimmer of hope in his murky existence comes in the form a teenage girl named Ellie, who he has to shepherd across the country as she may hold the key to curing the infection. Initially, she’s nothing but cargo to him but over time, they begin to bond and the foundations of a tenuous father-daughter relationship begin to form. This relationship is the crux of his change as a character and because we understand him to be so fundamentally defined by loss, this change makes sense. You can probably see the running pattern here. The change isn’t abrupt or unfounded. They don’t suddenly love each other after a few days of travelling. Their relationship isn’t always onwards and upwards, it’s not a completely steady progression, just like a real developing relationship. They have their ups and downs and with every beat in their story, we understand why this is happening.

By the end of the story, Joel isn’t a completely new man. Hell, one would be hard pressed to even call him a good man by the end. He makes a decision that is fundamentally selfish, in many ways immoral and irresponsible. After finding out that in order develop the cure that would save humanity, Ellie would have to die, he must choose between the human race itself and her life. He chooses her and in doing so, perhaps doomed mankind. It’s a decision that many have debated, condemned and justified. But the ending is a matter for another blog. The point is, that by the end, he has changed, but this change is justified and founded on extensive, dynamic and logical development across several hours of game play. By the end of the game, he’s learned to live again. This brings us to the third and final question.

3. What is their purpose?

What I mean by their “purpose” is, what function are they supposed to fulfil to the audience? What message are they supposed to be sending or what reaction are they supposed to invoke? To answer my answer this question, you have to understand that  to me, The Last of Us is fundamentally a story about two things: Loss and hope.

As I’ve mentioned before, loss informs every aspect of Joel’s character. He exists in spite of loss and everything he does is because of it. He shows the audience how far a man can be pushed, how far morality can be bent due to tragedy. In many ways, Joel has allowed his loss to become a disease, turning him into just as much of a monster as those who were infected.

In this world, there is no hope. It’s reiterated many times that even if the characters do survive, death is just around the corner. Existence in this world is an endless cycle of murder and horror, with brief intervals of peace in between. But through the developing father-daughter relationship between Joel and Ellie, we see that even in this world, hope can exist. His words in the final scene of the game sum up both his message and one of the enduring messages of the game:

“I struggled for a long time with surviving. And you – no matter what. You keep finding something to fight for.”

This is what Joel did, at the expense of everyone else. Was he justified in doing what he did? Who knows? It’s not something as simple as right and wrong. For Joel, that wasn’t important. He clung onto that last shred of hope and fought for it above all else. To me, that’s what Joel is all about. The idea that even through all of the loss and pain, even if there is one single glimmer of hope, you can keep fighting.