On Political Agendas and Bad Stomachs

[Note:  This post may get a bit rambly.  I’m on some new medications and they make me a little drowsy/loopy.]

From my friend Caro’s Tumblr:

An example of obliviousness: on a recent piece I wrote for work in which I praised a game for the monumental act of simply portraying a relationship between women who aren’t presented as sex objects and who matter as individuals, in and of themselves and because of what they mean to each other and not just in relation to a male figure, one commenter said that games should be something we do to escape from such political agendas.

The subtle irony here is that the act of being willfully ignorant and keeping one’s mind closed is also an agenda, whether that person wants to admit it or not.  I haven’t actually played the Last of Us DLC that Caro is referencing, but my understanding of it is simply what Caro says it is – the player isn’t beaten over the head with this relationship, it simply is, and it’s entirely possible that the commenter might not even have noticed it until it was pointed out to them.  Or, alternately, now that it has been pointed out, the   commenter will refuse to play it on some bizarre “principle”, and thus a new cycle of willful ignorance will begin.

Moreover, the idea that games shouldn’t be about anything beyond shooting things is profoundly sad to me.  Frankly, one of the reasons why I’ve been sour on games lately is precisely because of the amount of virtual murder I have to commit in order to have the story play out.  I like to rag on Uncharted, another of Naughty Dog’s franchises, specifically because of all the murder I have to commit; and yet in Bravely Default, I’ve probably killed at least twice as many monsters as I did in Uncharted 3 and I’m only a third of the way through it.

TANGENT:  Speaking of which, I’ve more or less given up on Bravely Default.  I can’t remember if I mentioned that or not, but whatever.  My worst fear did in fact come to light; after clearing the map and awakening all 4 crystals, an unexplained event “reset” the game world and now I have to do the whole goddamned thing again, and I really don’t care to anymore.  I had fun enough the first time around, but I’ve got better things to do than retrace my footsteps.

TANGENT:  And speaking of giving up on things, I sent back Thief this morning, after finishing the insane asylum mission last night.  Insane asylums are as obvious a trope as anything in videogames, but it’s doubly bizarre here because for the first 90% of the mission, you’re the only person in the building.  The game actually does create a palpable atmosphere of dread, except there’s nothing chasing you, and nobody’s looking for you, and so the tension eventually fades.  But then, at the end, the game pulls a series of left turns that render the narrative – which was already pretty obscure at this point – completely incoherent and dumb.  And then, also, I picked up a series of thirteen (13!) side jobs, literally all at the same time, which says about as much as one can say about the game’s sense of pacing.

Getting back to the topic of agendas:  as a straight white male, most games are written with me as their targeted audience (or someone like me, but much younger).  Except:  I have certain anxieties and physical setbacks that are hardly ever shown in games, or movies, or books.  Remember at the top of this post, where I said I was on some new medications?  Right, well:  I don’t talk about this much, for reasons that will soon become obvious, but I’ve been suffering from IBS for the last 14 years or so.  In recent years I’ve taken great strides at getting better – I’ve made radical changes to my diet, I’m on a custom-designed (and very expensive) vitamin supplement regimen, I’ve started going to therapy, I’ve started taking anti-anxiety medication (and that took a lot of convincing, too).  And now I’m taking new medication specifically for my GI tract, and I’m hoping that’ll help further straighten things out.

The point of all this is that while I’ve certainly gotten better over the last few years, I’m still not yet out of the woods, and this specific ailment has been a source of personal embarrassment for years.  (As well you might imagine; I have not actually had any accidents, but I’ve felt like one is imminent nearly every morning commute for the last dozen years.)  I’ve missed any number of social obligations because of this, and I’ve been reluctant to travel long distances because of this, and I’m mostly just grateful that my wife hasn’t left me because of this.

What does this have to do with videogames and agendas?  Well, how many videogame characters can you think of that have anxiety disorders?  Or bad stomachs?  I can think of only one, and even then I can’t remember in which game – possibly MGS4, possibly Bayonetta – some small side character whose intense gastric distress is used as a point of bizarre comic relief.  It might’ve been funny for most 13-year-old boys (or people who think public diarrhea is hilarious), but for me it felt like a kick in the balls.

Now, I understand perfectly well why videogames and films don’t often feature characters like this – people with this sort of condition have a hard time leaving the house (and, in my case, can further complicate social anxiety issues and eventually lead to mild agoraphobia), and so it is hard to make a game starring someone who can’t go out and save the world.  And on the rare occasion when characters like this do show up in films and games, they are, more often than not, punchlines (or, worse, punching bags).  And this sort of thing does not really help to improve my outlook.  It might inspire me to get healthier, but it’s inspiration borne from shame.

This is a long way of saying that when, in South Park: The Stick of Truth, an enemy casts a spell on you in battle that causes you to shit your pants, well, my heart breaks a little bit.

TANGENT:  I am around 6 and a half hours into South Park (probably about mid-way through Day Two), and I like it quite a lot.  Even though I’m not the world’s most rabid South Park fan, I still appreciate the game’s sense of humor, but I’m just as appreciative of the actual game design.  I love how approachable the systems are; I love how deep the modification systems can go (and that you can re-modify new weapons without losing the old ones).  Hell, I kinda just love wandering around the town and seeing what there is to see, picking up random side quests for no reason other than they’re there, and that there’s usually a decent comedic payoff at the end.  I love that you can use the environment to end a random battle before it even starts.  I love the game’s commentary on the ridiculousness and overuse of audio logs and Nazi zombies.  I especially love that tacos are the game’s version of revive potions.

In other news, it’s true that the big game this week is Titanfall, but as you’ve probably guessed this is not the place for discussion about that game; I don’t own an Xbox One and I don’t care about multiplayer shooters, no matter how good they might be.

TANGENT:  I am kinda surprised at how many of my 360 friends own an Xbox One; I am also a little surprised that they stayed Xbox-centric and didn’t migrate to the PS4.  I’m still not sure what it’s going to take to get me to buy one, to be honest; and I might as well admit that at this point, if I had to buy more game hardware, I’m most likely to get a Vita.

But the other big game this week is Dark Souls II, which is arriving later this week, and which I feel compelled to at least try, if only so that even if I can’t necessarily participate in the larger conversation, I can at least understand the gist of it.  I’ve had brief, 30-minute tastes of the previous 2 games – enough to get the general idea, and enough to know that I’d probably not get very far given my current time constraints – and while I still am intimidated by it (and while I’m still under similar time constraints), I’m also still intensely curious about it, and at least want to give it the ol’ college try.  My understanding is that the game has been made a bit more approachable for people like me, while still being brutally difficult and opaque, and so I’m willing to try to meet it halfway.

weekend recap: bones

1.  The newly-announced Titanfall / Xbox One bundle sounds intriguing, it really does.  Except… I still kinda don’t give a shit about Titanfall.  Which is, of course, not Titanfall’s fault; my friends who were in the beta say it’s pretty awesome, and I’d expect nothing less.  It’s just that:  (a) I’m still not all that into multiplayer shooters, and (b) with each new major multi-platform release, comparisons between the PS4 and the XBO make it that much clearer that the PS4 is the better-performing console.  I’d get the XBO if there were a true killer app for it that specifically appeals to my tastes – and, indeed, that day may yet come – but for now, I’d rather keep that $500 in my savings account if I can.

2.  I was curious to try the Final Fantasy 14 beta over the weekend, but the installer kept crashing.  After spending 20 minutes signing up and creating passwords and squinting like mad to read the fine print (is there really no way to expand the internet within an app?), everything seemed like it was OK, but then the installer would conk out once it hit 20%.  It’s just as well, I suppose – I can’t really afford to get sunk into an MMO right now anyway.

3.  I continue to make progress in Bravely Default; my party is level 35 or so, my town is pretty much fully rebuilt, and the difficulty level is now starting to weave all over the place; dungeon mobs are still mostly one-turn kills, but bosses and “asterisk fights” are ludicrously hard.  It is not quite getting tedious, but I think that’s because I’m still only playing in short bursts.

4.  Reviews for the new Thief are all over the place; mostly negative, but some reviewers are willing to cut it some more slack than others.  Here’s the part where I tell you that I’m aware of, but never played, the original, highly regarded trilogy, and so my interest in this game is purely out of wanting something to play on the PS4.  I did play one Thief game a while ago – was it the the one on the original Xbox? – and it suffered from a lot of the same problems that Deus Ex II did, which makes sense since I think they were using the same engine.  And I wasn’t particularly good at it, though I think that’s because my experience with stealth games was largely influenced by Splinter Cell, and you really can’t play Thief like you’re Sam Fisher.  So I’m hoping that I can be a bit more patient with this one, if only so that I can not send it back after 10 minutes.

5.  Speaking of having (or not having) patience, here’s a funny story.  I rented Far Cry 2 when it first came out in 2008; played for 5 minutes, died in the very first shootout, and said “fuck it”; sent it back to Gamefly.  In the intervening years, Far Cry 2 has taken on this mythical “greatest game ever” status among certain critics and people I greatly admire, and there was always a little part of me that wondered if I gave up on it too quickly.  Fast forward to this past weekend, where Ubisoft had a massive Steam sale.  I looked up at one point and saw that Far Cry 2 was being sold for something like $2.49.  Picked it up immediately.  Loaded it up.  Died in the exact same first shootout, screen faded to black.

BUT THEN THE SCREEN FADED BACK UP AGAIN.  And a man was talking to me and the game was teaching me how to heal myself.

All this time, I’d thought I just sucked at Far Cry 2.  I never knew that you’re supposed to get knocked out in that first shootout.  I am an idiot.

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Today’s subject title is from the excellent self-titled album by The Forms.