Girl in the Machine
Monday, January 28, 2008
Sister slasher samurai slashing zombies up in here.


Am I done now? No? Fine.

This is a screenshot from Oneechanbara: Vortex, part of a Japan-only series (yes, it's a series) of hack 'n slash, zombie-dispatching, motorcycle-riding, bikini-wearing, samurai/cowboy proportions. The series was first introduced in 2004 on the Playstation 2 and has seen many iterations and upgrades since then. Recently, Oneechanbara Revolution was announced for release on the Wii, bringing what I'm sure will be very imaginative motion controls to the unique franchise.

Oneechanbara's name is something of a mouthful indeed, combining the words "sister," "samurai," and "slasher," which I suppose says it all. It combines Dynasty Warriors-style combat with the occasional motorcycle romp, and players can typically switch between protagonist Aya and her schoolgirl sister, Saki, for even more zombie-goring shenanigans. There is also, inevitably, a dress-up mode.

That's all there is to it, really. You play as a waifish Japanese girl dressed in a bikini and cowboy duds who drives around on a motorcycle hacking legions of the undead to pieces with a samurai sword invoking magnificent sprays of blood and oh by the way, remember that zombie whale? It's all just as ridiculous as it sounds, and frankly it leaves me confused.

True enough, Oneechanbara combines everything your stereotypical gamer nerd desires: chicks, ultra violence, sweet bikes, and samurai/cowboy action. The thing is, however, it's so goddamn kitschy that not only are you utterly unable to take it seriously, it doesn't even take itself seriously. It's a goofy game that cranks up the camp without crossing the line into ick-territory. Games like Dead or Alive alienate female gamers with gratuitous panty-shots and gravity-defying tit physics in an otherwise great fighting game; Oneechanbara achieves exactly what it sets out to do while keeping things, well, strangely light and fun.

Plus, you have it give it this: the ladies of Oneechanbara are all kickass, take-no-prisoners, zombie-stomping gods of the blade that are never victimized. The games don't exactly set out to make you think, and they're far from intelligent as far as concepts go, but there is something there.

In the end, is Oneechanbara over the top and ridiculous? Definitely. Is it offensive? No. I expect many people will disagree with me, and that's perfectly valid. But, looking at the big picture, this is a game that, while it may toe the line, it does so with humor, and you can't help but look at it as an amusing parody of everything that's wrong with the gaming industry.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 7:59 AM + Link to this post

Friday, January 25, 2008
Linkfest - Like a Surgeon Edition

Video games have been getting a lot of love in the medical department recently. Being a virtual scalpel aficionado myself (of course Trauma Center's just like the real thing!), it makes my internal organs feel all warm and squishy when I read these articles:

"America's Army" Player Uses In-Game Medic Training Help Save Life
A man named Paxton Galvanek helped rescue two victims of a car crash with the medical training he learned from the PC game America's Army. It might be a good idea to give this game to your best PC-gaming buddy before your next road trip.

Study Finds Wii Beneficial for Surgeons
A recent study has shown that surgeons perform better on performing virtual surgical procedures after training on a program designed for the Wii. Maybe they should give Mario Galaxy's balance puzzles a try too?

Trauma Center Wii Accessory Kit
Many thanks to Gay Gamer for pointing out this (dare I say?) gut-busting accessory for the Wii-mote.

Check 'em out, and have a slice-happy weekend!

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 12:59 PM + Link to this post

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The Sexy Space Women of Mass Effect

In Bioware's latest action RPG, Mass Effect, players are introduced to an expansive universe populated by diverse races, dazzling planets, and compelling adventure. Players explore this universe as the customizable Commander Shepard, and along the way questgivers range from the hulking krogan to the jellyfish-like hanar. One of the game's most advanced races is the asari, the first beyond the ancient Protheans to acquire space travel.

I have mixed feelings about the asari. Despite their ability to reproduce with those of any sex, the Galactic Codex refers to them as "an all-female race," and they definitely look just so. It's not surprising that the most human-looking race is also the only one that's all-female, but I'll get to more of that in a minute.

In many ways, I really like the asari. First off, their scientific prowess enabled them to be the first modern race to take to the stars. Their culture is one that values observation and logical reasoning before action, owing to their impressively long lifespans. They possess an intellectual capacity that is unmatched, celebrating interspecies communication and inclusion. Their breeding method emphasizes unity, both literally and figuratively: during a process called "melding," the asari and her partner essentially become a single functioning nervous system.

During their 1000-year lifespans, the asari experience three stages of life. The first is the curiously-named Maiden stage, wherein the asari is characterized by a need for restless exploration. The Matron stage comes next, bringing with it the inclination for settling down and reproducing. Lastly, the Matriarch stage marks asari that are old and wise with experience, often becoming councilors for the younger members of their race.

It's not hard to see the uncanny subtext beneath the classification of these stages. Maidens are, by definition, "young unmarried women," and I find it puzzling that a term specifying the necessity for men is being applied to an all-female race. Similarly, matrons are denoted as "married women," falling perfectly into step with a stage in life that's uncomfortably close to the good old "biological clock" myth. Words like maiden and matron have long, traditional histories that tie in directly with the patriarchal system of heterosexual marriage, and to be used in this situation is a misnomer at best and thinly-veiled sexism at worst. "Matriarch" is, however, spot on, and it pleases me that they didn't continue the trend with something like "old bat."

Though the asari live to a ripe old age, a complex system of cell regeneration keeps them from showing it. They all stay forever young-looking, even the wise matriarchs, which, while being pretty cool, doesn't keep me from raising an eyebrow. There's a lot to be said about how demonized female aging is in our own culture, and it's no coincidence that a race comprised totally of women is not only uniformly slim and comely, but totally ageless so that they can stay this way.

While the asari are just as diverse in personality and motivation as any other race, their presentation in the game is a mixed bag. They are strong, competent leaders, and their representative in the galactic Council is one of the most outspoken and shrewd. However, the first time Shepard encounters a group of asari (either in the Consort's Chambers or Chora's Den), they are all sex workers (prostitutes in the former, strippers in the latter). I hate to say it, but neither of these cases surprised me in the least. It would have been much less ick-inducing had there been even a reference to male sex workers, or at least members of other species. Also unsurprising is the skimpy wardrobe employed by many of them. Poor Matriarch Benezia is so strapped into her top that her boobs look like they're struggling to escape.

Overall, I've found Mass Effect's depiction of women to be overwhelmingly positive. However, just like most games, it has its missteps. I'm very fond of the asari for the most part, although their (unfortunately expected) objectification makes my skin crawl (see also: the Viera). Despite the many points in the game's favor, it becomes just another example of how difficult it is to find female video game characters -- and particularly those of an all-female race -- that are designed without bias.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 8:08 AM + Link to this post

Friday, January 18, 2008
There's Something About Krystal

There's something about Krystal that bugs me. I know, I'm in the minority here, but she never sat quite right with me. I guess the sudden disappearance of Katt Monroe after Star Fox 64 didn't help much, but I was unhappy with this less-than-stellar substitute. Thousands of questionable pictures featuring the sexy blue fox were circulating all over the internet, doing little to improve my opinion. Well aware that I was more than a little prejudiced, I decided to give her a chance as the Star Fox series grew over the years.

Where did she come from, you might be asking? Krystal started out as one of two main characters in Dinosaur Planet, a Nintendo 64 game Rare was developing in 2002. However, with the upcoming release of the Gamecube and few opening titles to release at the time, Nintendo made a deal with Rare to transform the 3D action adventure game into Star Fox Adventures. The game received a full makeover to help make it relevant to the rest of the Star Fox series; as a result, Krystal went from a 16-year-old adventuring cat to a 19-year-old blue fox demoted to the role of damsel in distress. Sure, you play as her for about the first five minutes of the game, but after her capture (and even after her release), Fox takes over.

Unfortunately, Krystal's role in SFA was not a very good first impression for me. Rare missed a great opportunity for using her and Fox together in the game, but I guess Tricky was already taking that role. Although I had misgivings about her, that didn't stop Krystal from gaining an undeniably huge fanbase, furry or otherwise.

Star Fox Assault for the Gamecube saw Krystal go from ineffective damsel to a full-fledged member of the Star Fox team. While she remained The Girl of not only the team but also the entire game (aside from the Aparoid Queen I guess, but she doesn't count), I was grateful to see that she wasn't slathered in pink. I do however call shenanigans on the constant hip-popping and coy body language she displayed in every single dialogue scene she was in (and I don't think the destruction of Corneria is a good time for that kind of thing). Nevertheless, it was great seeing her in a more active role than she was in SF Assault.

Although, it would be naive to say that Nintendo wasn't pushing Krystal as a sexy pinup girl during the time of SF Assault's release. There are several official images out there (including the title image above) that are less than innocent. Sexing up Krystal may have sold more games, but it wasn't doing much for the image of female characters in the video game industry.

Star Fox Command is where Krystal really shines. The text-heavy story and multiple endings give her character an opportunity to be explored. The game focuses primarily on her and Fox's rather unstable relationship, which can be either mended or not depending on the path you choose. The story begins when Fox forces Krystal off the team for fear of her safety, effectively ending their relationship. With good reason, Krystal is hurt and angered by Fox's actions, and she ends up joining the Star Wolf team.

What I love about her role in this game is that the story reveals her flaws. Krystal is not just a 2D psychic piece of arm candy for Fox--she's stubborn. She gets mad when she's hurt. She makes bad decisions, but can also fix them. Krystal appears constantly in the game and even becomes the main character for some endings. Although, I probably could've lived without the Kursed ending; not only is the name cheesey (although she doesn't change her name in the Japanese version), her Jaded Space-Roamer outfit is a little too sexified to take seriously.

SFC really did change my mind for the better. Sure, I'm still not a huge fan, but I was happy to see Krystal as a more fleshed-out, three-dimensional character rather than a cardboard poster girl for the Star Fox team.

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 3:21 PM + Link to this post

Monday, January 14, 2008
A Kingdom Ruled by Strength

(SMT: Nocturne plot spoilers to follow!)

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is an RPG for the Playstation 2 wherein the world ends as soon as the game begins. The Conception is occurring, a hellish and barren transformation of the world in preparation for the birth of a new one. Demons rule and war in the transforming planet, and merely a handful of humanity's survivors remain. However, there is a catch.

The Reason. The new world can only be fashioned according to the vision, or Reason, of a human subject. In a bid for survival, the humans develop their own Reasons and compete with one another to become the creator of the new world.

Chiaki Hayasaka is one of these combatants. She's a cold, somber high school student raised in the upper crust of society. Following the Conception, she awakens all alone in the demon-occupied cities, and the change is more than jarring. Global apocalypse aside, she is now, as a human, the lowest of the low. Her weakness next to the might of the ruling demons is torturously palpable, and she finds strength only in forming her Reason.

Yosuga: survival of the fittest, elitism, the establishment of rigid castes. Chiaki's solution to her own fears of inherent weakness is to use her Reason to elevate herself above all life and institute a highly-organized class system. Seeking the strength to fully constitute her resolve, Chiaki seeks out the dying Gozu-Tennoh, leader of an enormous demon faction called the Mantra, and becomes imbued with his power. As a human leader possessing such demonic might, the Mantra become quite a threatening force in the race to establish Reason.

Chiaki is a villain that I can really get behind. Gaining Gozu-Tennoh's power grants her the means to be both brutal and utterly ruthless in her quest. She is unusual, commanding, tough, but desperate, and she shows a depth of character not often conferred upon female villains. Though she desires rigid order, her caste system isn't perfect: separating the weak from the strong would only breed paranoia and mistrust. Establishing herself as the leader of these castes would merely have her looking over her shoulder for anyone who would dare supplant her. Her Reason -- and her version of the game's ending -- is symbolic of chaos, which speaks volumes of her character's irony.

So Chiaki's definitely no pushover, and, awesomely, her character design reflects that. Upon receiving Gozu-Tennoh's might, her right arm twists and mutates. She gains an enormous, gnarled, acquiline hand that can crush bones to powder, and puts it to use in one of Nocturne's bloodiest, most tragic scenes. At that moment, it becomes more than clear how she's been transformed not just physically but mentally by the incredible forces around her.

Strong female characters don't have to be model citizens. I adore villains, and it's so good to see a woman among the baddies that can truly and believably pull her own weight. Chiaki's background and motivation is not just a flimsy add-on to a fanservicey character design or cardboard personality. She's the real deal, and I hope that in the future there can be more kick-ass female villains like her.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 8:26 AM + Link to this post

Friday, January 11, 2008
Inevitable Femininity

I've racked up a lot of hours on Guitar Hero III. Sure, the boss battles are kind of gimmicky and the difficulty curve is nearly vertical, but the walls of chez Plasma have been alive with the sounds of the Rolling Stones and Dragonforce nonetheless. And while I do love Judy Nails in all her pierced and tattooed glory, my consistent partner in rock has been the underappreciated Casey Lynch. Casey has flown under the radar since she was introduced in Guitar Hero II, and the recent news concerning Judy has only buried her further into obscurity. Knowing nothing about her, I decided to check out her profile in GH II:

Casey Lynch - A veteran of the tour circuit, Casey's dirty, low-end growl and ultra-heavy riffs have influenced budding shredders from Maine to Alaska, she's tough, she's brash, and she'll break your heart faster than an E string.

Okay, I can get behind that; girl sounds really badass. In GH II, Casey is heralded for her down-and-dirty, heavy-metal style. Sure, she's basically wearing a bra, but nothing about it suggests objectivism (like Judy's torn-in-the-right-places outfit in III); in fact, it's more comparable to a male punk rocker with his shirt off.

And then Activision came along. While playing GH III, I read from Casey's profile that she decided to take a more feminine approach to her look. While there is nothing inherently wrong with choosing to be more feminine, it's the way in which her profile worded this change: she is described as "finally discovering her feminine side."

Let that sink in. "Finally." She "finally" discovered her feminine side. It's only one word, but it speaks volumes. By including this word, Activision is suggesting to us that because Casey is a woman, it was only a matter of time before she would shed her "dirty," "growly" ways and take on a more feminine persona.

Of course, this problem isn't restricted to Guitar Hero; we as a society are still struggling with it. Words such as "feminine" imply that the traits this word labels are not only inherent in women but also those traits that one must possess in order to be acceptable as a woman. To not possess these traits, or to act "masculine," suggests that a woman is not being herself, but trying to be a man. Because femininity is inherent in women, it is an inevitability, and any woman who doesn't conform to it is lying to themselves about who they are.

I've written about feminine female characters in video games before. I would like to clarify that I am in no way condemning femininity itself; what I do have a problem with is how femininity is treated as the only proper way for female characters to be, that to be "feminine" is to be "woman-like." I am frustrated over the feminization of Casey Lynch not only because of her unique character in GH II but also because every other woman in the game has received a feminine makeover as well. Activision has erased the individuality among their female characters, reducing them to an indistinguishable blur of ripped jeans, breasts, and leather.

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 2:09 PM + Link to this post

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Apologies to our readers! Classes are grinding up again and I have been unbelievably swamped this week. However, PlasmaRit will definitely be here on Friday with another juicy post, and you can expect me for certain on Monday. Thanks for popping in and we'll be back to our regular schedule in no time!

 Posted by BomberGirl
 6:20 PM + Link to this post

Friday, January 4, 2008
First Friday Drinking Game

Happy New Year, kiddies! Drag out the half-empty bottles of champagne and get ready for the the first FFDG of 2008!

Several of you probably received a copy of Super Mario Galaxy over the holiday season, and to celebrate this wondrous occasion, January's drinking game is all about Mariooo iiiin spaaaaaace. And really, who can resist pairing bubbly, sparkly champagne with this bubbly, sparkly game? Hand the kids some white grape juice and let's get crackin':

1 drink for every level featuring the Bowser Jr.'s (seriously, what happened to the koopalings?)
1 drink for every curse word uttered during those insane ball-rolling-over-hole-punched terrain stages
2 drinks for stages that involve holding the Wii-mote perfectly vertical (this rule can be combined with the previous one)
1 drink every time Cosmic Mario just barely beats you
1 drink for each boss battle that involves hitting it with its own projectiles
1 drink each time you fall off that stupid water race track
1 drink for every Cosmic Comet that appears
2 drinks for every Speed Comet that appears (to get you fired up and ready)
3 drinks for every Daredevil Comet that appears (so dying won't seem so bad)
1 drink every time you consider feeding a Luma until it explodes to be kind of weird
1 drink whenever the mushroom space crew's cracked-out voices creep you the fuck out
2 drinks whenever Luigi gets himself into a pickle (warning: this rule is for the hardcore)
3 drinks for realizing that Rosalina looks exactly like Peach with an emo swoosh

And finally:
Finish your drink when Peach ends up getting kidnapped AGAIN (really, girl should invest in some effective body guards by now)

Warning: Excessive drinking during game play may result in drunkenly-guiding Mario into a blackhole to his stretchy, implodey death. Play with caution!

Think I forgot something? Suggest a rule in the comments section!

What drinking games do YOU want to play every month? If there is any genre or specific game you want featured in FFDG, drop me a line at PlasmaRit at gmail dot com.

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 2:43 PM + Link to this post

Wednesday, January 2, 2008
A Strictly Female Affliction

In 1995, Cyberdreams published a one-of-a-kind adventure game for the PC that was based on Harlan Ellison's unsettling short story, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." The dystopian premise of both is basically the same: an all-powerful supercomputer called AM has taken control of the Third World War and destroyed most of humanity. Only five survivors remain, and they waste away in an underground chamber plagued by immortality of AM's making. Spurred by his hatred of humanity, AM has been torturing the five for 109 years, and this is where the game begins.

The basic structure of the game is this: the player navigates through five "stages" based on the psychological state of each character. The character must outsmart AM's torments by overcoming the challenges within. It's much more complex than that, really, but I'm afraid I don't have time to do the game's depth justice right here.

What I do want to discuss is something that bothered me greatly while playing through this otherwise stellar game. To begin, it isn't surprising that, of the five main characters, only one is a woman.

This is Ellen, whose cage deep underground is a splintering canary yellow. We learn just as she's introduced that she has a paralyzing fear of this color, which the game unfortunately (and repeatedly) describes as driving her to "hysteria." AM consistently focuses Ellen's torture on the color yellow, as we quickly see when we're presented with her stage:

An enormous, solid gold pyramid.

As we navigate the halls of Ellen's psyche, it's her fear of yellow that guides us. What could have possibly caused this unusual phobia? Why, after over a century of confronting the color, does it still inflict such panic?

We uncover the answer when Ellen enters a sarcophagus and finds herself in a very familiar elevator.

There's a piece of yellow clothing on the floor. Much to her horror, Ellen finds that she's locked in the elevator, and the clothing springs to life as an ominous shadow, taunting her, revealing her secret at last. Ready to know what's caused this terror of all things yellow?

She was raped.

To be completely honest, as circuitous as it all seems, I was expecting it. And it makes me sigh.

Rape is a tricky thing to incorporate into any fictive medium. It's violent and ugly and terrible -- and very real. I definitely do not doubt Harlan Ellison's writing prowess, either. However, what makes me uncomfortable about the inclusion of rape in a woman's backstory is that it's such a go-to motivation for fleshing out female characters. She's weak because she was raped; she wants revenge because she was raped; etc., etc. We see it so often (admittedly more in written fiction and comics rather than video games) that it's become cliche.

What's more, it's a strictly female affliction, which serves only to hammer home the cold reality that this is a danger that mostly women have to face.

This isn't cut-and-dried, of course. I'm not calling for an issue as tough and universal as rape to be excised from all of fiction. We also have to consider that the original short story was written in the sixties, and that rape is very rarely -- if ever -- dealt with in video games. However, in this particular case, Ellen is the only woman of five vastly differing characters, and, in a game as beautifully written and richly-detailed as this one, it's disappointing to say the very least.

Of Ellen's fellow prisoners, a former Nazi scientist must face the horror of his own work and a man whose wife was locked up in an insane asylum has to deal with his guilt. These are just two of the varying backstories that we come across. And we've seen this over and over: male characters with branching personalities and motivations are a sharp contrast to their more static or cliched female fellows. This is a much more general but just as prevalent affliction. If female characters were granted the same depth and diversity, it would be another step closer to a less patriarchal culture.

"I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" is an intricate game that'll both disturb and challenge you. Its puzzles and narrative are what most adventure games wish they could offer, and if you can dig up a copy, I highly recommend it despite its flaws.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 10:15 AM + Link to this post

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