Girl in the Machine
Monday, June 30, 2008
How can Dissidia avoid a sausage fest?

The Final Fantasy series has always been a favorite of mine, RPG enthusiast that I am, though my love for it has been waning over its last few iterations. What with an onslaught of truly terrible fanboy-baiting sequel/prequels and what can only be called the fanfiction-iest writing, and not to mention a million trillion ports and remakes, it's difficult to pull your ahead above the water sometimes and feel excited about yet another Final Fantasy. Square-Enix is intent on ten more years of the same schtick, so the best a girl can do is the usual -- grin and bear it, and hope for the best.

To say that I'm skeptical about the PSP all-FF slugfest that is Final Fantasy: Dissidia is an understatement. From the day that the first screenshots featuring FFIX's Zidane and Kuja duking it out were released to the public, I've been rolling my eyes and expecting the worst for Square's answer to Super Smash Bros. It's no question that Dissidia is indeed another desperate squirt of the Final Fantasy cash cow, what with a cast of characters that will get all the fanatics salivating:

Sephiroth arriving in a column of fire? Garland running amok with his badass armor all a-glint? Mopey Squall ready to cut up some fools with his gunblade? I want to like it, Square, and though I'm resigned to the inevitably terrible gameplay and giggle-inducing script, I'm as much a sucker for my favorite characters as anybody, and Square, there is a way for you to make the reception of this little gem a bit easier.

Toss a few more ladies into the mix, please.

Dissidia's whole juicy premise is that the protagonists and antagonists of the FF series all get together somehow to punch each other a lot and earn some XP. So we've got Zidane paired up with Kuja, a nameless Light Warrior versus Garland, and what I assume will be an Advent Children-trussed Cloud squaring off against Sephiroth for the bajillionth time. Now, the entire cast has not been announced yet, and there's promise of hidden characters and various other unlockables, but with what we've currently got it's painfully easy to see the lack of female characters starring in this series. Thankfully FFVIII's Ultimecia is a guarantee (kan't wait to hear the krazy accent on that one), but with many of the other games' combatants still unannounced, I'm on pins and needles of expectation.

I've already professed my tender and undying love for VI's Terra, and I'm hoping against all hope that she'll show up to face who I can only imagine will be Kefka. The identity of VI's true protagonist has always been on shaky ground, what with an enormous cast of characters and a rather reticular plot. It's just as likely that we'll be seeing Edgar or Locke in her place, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the series's first female protagonist claims her rightful spot with this game.

Similarly, XII's main character is also not quite cut-and-dried. Though the completely useless street urchin Vaan is sort of the de facto protagonist tying all of the characters together, there's been much debate that sky pirate Balthier is truly in the spotlight. However, I've always felt that the revenge-seeking princess Ashe drives much of the story along. This is probably just wishful thinking, but I can see her filling a role in Dissidia without much opposition.

As for the other gaps in the main series roster, it's a surefire thing we'll see IV's Cecil and Zemus as well as V's Bartz and Exdeath. III will probably go the route of I and feature the nameless dude you start off with, along with either the demon Xande or (I amusingly hope) the Cloud of Darkness. If XI makes an appearance, I'll be pleasantly surprised to see a female member of any race (probably hume) take the stage, although I cynically believe that won't happen.

So my hopes for a more lady-friendly cast are sort of dying on the vine here. Female characters in the FF series are so often relegated to support roles or useless love interests, but there may be hope yet in the form of hidden and unlockable characters. Even Yuffie showed up in the ill-fated Ehrgeiz, so perhaps I can one day fulfill my dream of stomping some faces with Aeris or IX's Dagger. And as much as it makes me flinch, it's likely we'll see a dual pistol-wielding Yuna join the fray as well.

With the game so far from release, all I can do is speculate. We'll see what the future holds, however, and maybe, just maybe, Square will surprise me for the first time in so many years.

Readers, what characters would you most like to see in Dissidia?

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 10:01 AM + Link to this post

Friday, June 27, 2008
Colonization: Fun 'n Games

Sid Meier's Civilization series comprises of turn-based strategy games with a focus on growing a budding nation. Begun in 1991, the games take place in a variety of eras--you can build an empire as far back as 4000 BCE and nurture it long enough to witness World War II. The series has proven to be very popular over the years, gaining a loyal fanbase and even winning a few awards along the way. In 1994, Sid Meier released a game called Colonization: Create a New Nation. Players choose from four European nations--England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands--and set sail for the Americas (or "The New World," as the game calls it). The object of the game is to foster a colony and eventually gain independence from its mother country. Sid Meier is preparing to rerelease this game in the form of a Civilization IV standalone expansion sometime in 2008.

I was a bit taken aback at the sight of a game about colonization, although I probably shouldn't have been surprised. The idea of a game about conquering other civilizations and stealing their land is pretty tasteless to me, but unfortunately many Americans don't view colonization that way. I found that most people tend to see it through an Elementary School History Lens--you know, when you were taught how the plucky, pure future Americans who could do no wrong went on a journey for freedom and were buddy-buddies with the Native Americans?

The original Colonization game handles Native Americans in a very interesting way. Players can choose to either befriend the natives (who in turn teach them skills and help defend the colony) or wipe them out entirely. Unlike other Civilization games, Colonization focuses on trade and community interaction rather than more militant aspects. If the player defeats a native community, they gain treasure and land; however, it also severely affects their final score. Players can also send peacemakers such as Ben Franklin or Pocahontas to native communities to further improve relations or gain recruits. Unfortunately, this recruiting typically involves converting said recruits to Christianity.

Each European country has different skills when it comes to interacting with the natives. For instance, France generates tension with native communities at a lower rate, while the Spanish have a 50% military bonus against them. The Spanish military bonus in particular is rooted in history: Spain's military was sent to colonize the Americas after the Reconquista, which left an eager military rearing for action. This ultimately lead to the destruction of many legendary Native American tribes.

Sid Meier helps to raise the issues with colonization by punishing the act of attacking native communities; however, there is an issue with being able to avoid doing this. By providing the option of being completely peaceful with the Native Americans, Colonization risks perpetuating the Elementary School History Syndrome associated with the colonising America--that we were all just good buddies with the natives. It conveniently sidesteps the cruelty and abuse Native Americans received at the hands of the colonists. The remake can and should address this issue, along with some sort of penalization to demonstrate the impact colonization had on Native Americans.

The Civilization series has been repeatedly criticized for its elitist nature. Historian and anthropologist Matthew Kappell published an essay entitled "Civilization and its Discontents: American Monomythic Structure as Historical Simulacrum" that spearheads this issue. In the essay, Kappel explains how the series uses American myths concerning colonization and domination of the Americas (such as the conquering of the frontier) as a foundation for its premise. Other critics have pointed out how Colonization in particular skirts the issues of slavery, particularly the Spanish hacienda system which forced many native tribes into slavery. Removing these aspects of the colonists further paints them with a monochrome coat of goodness and innocence.

It is reprehensible that colonists are so often portrayed as brave heroes earning what land is rightfully theirs--games such as Colonization only perpetuate this myth so common among Americans and Europeans. How about a game about colonization from the natives' perspective? Battle against an army of white folk claiming the land you've lived on for centuries to be theirs--now that's a game I'd play.

For another opinion on this game, check out The Cutscene--but avoid the comments if you want to stay in a good mood.

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 8:47 PM + Link to this post

Monday, June 23, 2008
Musing over method.

As a student and especially as an English major, I find myself critiquing things a lot. Throw a piece of fiction at me and I can analyze it like no tomorrow, complete with a hefty paper with a fresh bibliography and title page, no charge. It's no question that I've found myself unconsciously critiquing every video game I play in a similar manner that I would something for class (minus the hefty papers), and after a while the analyst's chair starts getting a little tiresome.

I'm one of those English majors that's also heavily into writing fiction. I take more of a creative approach to my schooling than academic. Oftentimes I find my writer's mind at odds with my critic's mind. Obviously, in fiction, many things that you write can be analyzed in ways you never predicted, with textual evidence from your very own story supporting some political or social viewpoint you never knew was there -- or don't even support. What do you do then?

When it comes to critiquing the various and sundry aspects of video games -- from character design to plot to advertising and all the gooey parts in between -- I've found that many people will respond, "Well, the designers didn't intend for that to be sexist," or "Why would anyone put racism in a game?" or the ever-popular "You're reading too much into it." The thing is, the job of the critic is to respond to things that are, indeed, there, whether or not they were intended.

In the flashy world of English academia, there's a form of literary criticism called New Criticism. It's also my very favorite way to write papers and, incidentally, blog posts. New Criticism values close reading (or playing, as the case may be) and a strict exclusion of extra-textual sources, including authorial intent. Which, as a writer, can sting just a bit, to be honest. However, it's a Take What You've Got approach to critiquing sources that just plain works.

Here's the deal. Authorial intent, designer intent, and everything else in between, don't mean squat when it comes to critique. And this is why a statement like this:
"In terms of the reaction, we're in the business of entertainment. We didn't set out to make a racist game or a political statement. We did feel there was a misunderstanding about the initial trailer."
. . . just doesn't cut it. In the above statement to Kotaku, Resident Evil 5 producer Jun Takeuchi takes a "It's not our problem, it's theirs" approach to the accusations of racism in the RE5 trailer. However, Takeuchi's intentions (nor the lack thereof) do not absolve the trailer's depiction of black people as inhuman savages getting mowed down by a sparkling white muscleman. The point of criticism is to espouse the themes and conventions inherent in human thought as produced in different media, and whining "But I didn't mean to do it!" simply cannot makes these themes -- either problematic or not -- disappear.

Which brings us back to my initial question: What's a writer / artist / video game designer to do when a critique reveals some important theme in her work that she neither foresaw nor intended? Getting defensive about it definitely won't help; it's out there, it's what it is. Absolutely everyone is prejudiced to some degree, including when it comes to race and sex. It's my firm belief that a lot of racism and sexism is actually subconscious, molded by our experiences of social conventions throughout our lives, and the first step to overcoming these prejudices is to recognize that they exist. You are not a Horrible, Awful, Terrible person for admitting you've done something prejudiced. The point is to see that it's there, and to do something about it; to fix it, to change how you think; to spread awareness to others.

This is the point of criticism. This is the goal of analysis: to find what's really there and encourage the good while establishing a method to change the bad. That's my approach to things, and I think that anyone can benefit from viewing things critically once in a while.


 Posted by BomberGirl
 11:04 AM + Link to this post

Friday, June 20, 2008
Prince of Persia: The Alabaster Sands of Time

There are certain words and phrases we hear every now and then that immediately put us on alert--things like "fire" in a building, or "bomb" at the airport. I think we can all agree that "video game movie" is another one of these phrases. We learned the hard way with the Super Mario Bros. movie, but now we've come to expect the side of cheese that comes with our favorite video games adapted for the big screen. And thanks to directors like Uwe Boll, video game movies are pretty much expected to bomb in the box office.

Even now, I think back on some of those movies and shiver. Mario Bros.? Even as a young child, I regarded it with a mixture of fascination and horror. Final Fantasy? Pretty but hollow. Alone in the Dark? Horrifyingly bad. The Silent Hill movie stands head and shoulders over the rest in my book--a veritable best of the worst. Overall a long history ranging from meh to brain-snappingly horrible.

And now we've got a Prince of Persia movie coming along; scheduled to be released in 2009, it's currently being filmed in Morocco. When I first heard about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time being in production, several thoughts flashed through my mind. First, of course, was whether or not ol' Uwe had gotten his hands on it. A quick Google search relieved my fears: Mike Newell is in the hotseat this time. Sure, he directed my least favorite Harry Potter movie, but anyone besides Uwe is a major step forward. Next came that little red flag that goes up whenever any video game movie comes out; that feeling that I shouldn't get too excited since it's more than likely going to suck.

Then I started thinking about it a little more, and I realized that Prince of Persia may be the first video game movie in the United States to feature a person of color as the main character (let me know in the comments if I'm mistaken). In an industry that features mostly white characters, I was happy to see Prince of Persia selected for its own movie. So, I went on my naive little way, looking forward to seeing the end product of this movie--until I got a load of who will be the leading actors.

First, let's take a look at these characters straight from the source, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for the Playstation 2:

That would be Prince Dastan, the noted Prince of Persia, and Princess Farah, the daughter of the Maharajah. Now let's see who will be playing them in the movie adaptation. First up is--

. . . lily-white actor Jake Gyllenhaal playing Prince Dastan. Okay, my bitter side is trying to reason that casting wanted a familiar face for the lead role, so the more minor role of the renamed Tarmina must at least look Indian--

--oh. It's lily-white actress Gemma Arterton. What the hell, movie?

Prince of Persia is a miss right from the get-go. They take one of the maybe two games in existence with a majority cast of people of color and they whitewash them until they're practically blinding us with their whiteness. I don't have anything against Gyllenhaal or Arterton, but the idea that these two are playing a Persian man and an Indian woman respectively makes me laugh and cry at the same time. There is waaay to much history behind white people playing people of color in movies for me to be okay with this decision. Get it together, people! Minority actors don't bite, and it's not going to kill you to find a lesser-known actor. This movie was a great chance to shine the spotlight on more actors of color, and I'm incredibly disappointed Disney didn't take the opportunity. Only time will tell if Prince of Persia can pull video games out of their crappy history, but it definitely hasn't pulled the movie history out of theirs.

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 3:08 PM + Link to this post

Wednesday, June 18, 2008
S'up Dude?

Masculinity in the High School Boys from Persona 3: FES

I recently exchanged books with a friend, and he lent me a copy of Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. It was a fascinating read--I cringed throughout the book as it reminded me of the many cruelties of being a young man in high school. As the text mulled in my brain, those thoughts mingled with my longing to complete Persona 3: FES.

It's tough to speak for every character in the game, as I haven't been able to finish it while I've been away from my PS2 during my summer job. I can't want to speak for the main characters, but I'm comfortable with discussing a few of the social links that I've completed so far!

For some reason or another, I neglected to begin my relationship with Kenji Tomochika until after summer break (even though he's one of the first people with whom you can form a social link). He is represented by the Magician Arcana. Kenji's pretty much a typical high school guy. He’s got a thing for older "experienced" woman, slacks off when it comes to finals, and enjoys watching plenty of television during his free time. He usually comes to you for support and advice during the social link events--this guy needs constant validation! He reminds me of most of the youth I work with in my day job.

The Temperance Arcana, Andre “Bebe” Laurent Jean Geraux, had me worried when I first met him. This fan-wielding foreign exchange student with a passion for fashion seemed to be the perfect set-up for a big gay joke. I was pleased to discover that most of his eccentricities stemmed from being a rabid Japanophile. Still, his character design was given more traditionally "feminine" facial features, and his stance is curvier than that of the other males in the game. I can't help but wonder if the producers are trying to suggest something. I'll be optimistic, though, and assume that they wanted to include different body types, counterbalancing the poor Moon Arcana, Nozomi.

The first social link I cultivated was with Kazushi Miyamoto, the star from Sports Club. Aside from the Sun Arcana, Kazushi has remained my favorite since the beginning of the game. He is represented by the Chariot Arcana, and much like his card, he's a bad ass. He requires that you respond to his situation in a similarly bad ass way--Kazushi is focused on victory for his athletic club. Admittedly, part of his fervor comes from a deal he made with a younger nephew, but still, he won't let even a crippling knee injury prevent him from winning. When he’s down, responses like “Toughen up” are better than things like “Don’t overdo it.” When he’s injured, simply allowing him to lean on your shoulder is better than carrying him or going out to look for help. He has tremendous pride in himself, and he is slow to open up.

Based on what I've seen thus far, I praise Persona 3: FES for the variety of heterosexual Japanese males represented throughout the game, both in Gekkoukan High and out. I know that's specific, but I don't say it mockingly. Working within the context of a medium-sized Japanese port town, it's not terribly surprising that we don't see a mix of races. Still, they do show males in a variety of roles and positions, and none of the characters come off as a complete joke. Also, while those characters are presumptively straight (as no alternative is offered), folks like Bebe challenge the traditional perception of masculinity.

I also want to praise the game because the male social links are based on building relationships based on commonalities rather than tearing apart the differences of others. It would be heart wrenching if the game forced you to make a decision between athletic Kazushi and fey Bebe because the jocks refused to be around guys who can sew.

I look forward to seeing what Persona 4 has to offer in the future! I imagine that the social links system will be slightly reconfigured to become even more engaging. Any Persona fans have something in particular they'd love to see?

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 Posted by Calabar
 9:23 AM + Link to this post

Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Note from PlasmaRit

Hey guys! Sorry BomberGirl and I haven't updated--we've both been out of town, but Calabar should be here tomorrow with another great article. In the meantime, pop on over to Cerebelle and check out her great analysis of Guitar Hero's Judy Nails and Casey Lynch's clothing changes between GH II and III. You won't be sorry!

Plasma out.


 Posted by PlasmaRit
 7:26 PM + Link to this post

Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Alice Elliot's Divinity

The Messiah of Shadow Hearts

Out of all of the soft-spoken, kind heroines in role playing games, Alice Elliot may be my favorite. She supports Yuri in the first Shadow Hearts game, and she holds within her the powers of light that maniacs like Albert Simon need to dominate the world.

Messianic women aren't terribly unique in the role playing genre, but let's take a look at Alice's credibility.

To start with basic information from the storyline, we know from the beginning that Alice is the daughter of Father Morris Elliot. She began hearing otherworldly voices at a young age, and so she assisted her father with exorcisms. She has a natural connection to the spiritual world shared only by the powerful Koudelka herself. It is this kind of power, different from the dark-elemental mysticism tied to Koudelka, that makes Alice so valuable to Albert Simon.

In one of the game's most pivotal scenes, Alice enters the graveyard (the dark place in Yuri's mind from which his fusions originate) and sacrifices herself to the spirit Atman in order to protect his life. If we follow the canonical "sad ending" that leads to Shadow Hearts: Covenant, we know that she will fight Atman alone and lose to it; this act of martyrdom leads to rapid deterioration of her health and her death at the end of the game in order to save Yuri.

Her character's element is light, and she uses primarily healing class magic during battle. Her two attack spells, Blessed Light and Advent, are the only offensive light spells available outside of Yuri's fusions.

Her weapons are holy books. She begins the game with a small Bible, progressing trough other texts like the Tome of the Shooting Stars, the Tome of the Sun, and the Holy Book of Flesh. Her best armor is the Gold Thread Coat, "a long robe filled with the memories of martyrs past. The wearer feels as if she is wrapped in a warm light."

In addition, the game's cinema scenes often show her face cast in light. Back in the early days of the PS2, I know for some gamers it's tough to see past the now-deficient graphics, but the cinematic elements are there, and they carry over into Shadow Hearts: Covenant.

I don't know what it is about Alice that makes her stand out in my mind as such a successful divine heroine. Characters like Yuna and Colette sicken me with their blind devotion to their tasks, so I appreciate seeing how Alice is rounded out by her experiences from her beginnings fleeing Simon, struggling to save Yuri, and resolutely standing against her foes. I think it may be the single-minded determination of other characters like Yuna and Colette that make them so frustrating for me. To call them dynamic characters is to misuse the term.

I also find myself wondering when and where we see male characters that act in this way--not just the so-called knights in shining armor who come to save the day and rescue the girl, but quiet men who make a stand and are willing to lay their life down to protect others without turning into annoying bad asses. Can anyone think of someone?

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 Posted by Calabar
 9:38 AM + Link to this post

Monday, June 9, 2008
Character Spotlight: Mitsuru Kirijo

Summer 2007 brought the North American release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, much to my Megaten fangirly delight. I had never played any of the Persona series before, so while I was eager to dive into an experience completely different from Nocturne or Digital Devil Saga, I was a tad apprehensive about the game's anime-heavy art and story. Like many people, I equate most anime with teeth-grinding cliches and predictable plotlines, but, aside from a few missteps, Persona 3 really impressed me. A character that specifically caught my eye was Mitsuru Kirijo.

In this world of demon-battling high school kids who shoot themselves in the head to summon monsters, Mitsuru is the leader of SEES, a special team dedicated to banishing the nefarious Shadows from Japan. She's tough, smart, and serious to a fault. She's so efficient and intelligent that she finds time to be president of student council, practice her fencing, and maintain her rank as valedictorian alongside her many SEES duties. I kind of fell in love with her during the course of the game.

Not only is it awesome to see a female character so independent and smart, it's also refreshing to see that she has great relationships with everyone. The Tough Girl character is often painted as a ballbuster or a bitch, but such is not the case here. Mitsuru's fellow students and SEES members all admire her, and even an NPC at the high school continuously confesses her undying love for our red-haired swordswoman throughout the game.

Tough Girls in many fictive media also find themselves being stripped of their strong exteriors, usually in a sexist attempt to put them in their place or make them dependent on stronger male characters. Mitsuru does not fall victim to this trope. Without spoiling too much (I want you to go out and play this wonderful game right now!), I'll just say that Mitsuru suffers a deep personal crisis that leaves her showing real weakness and insecurity. She even withdraws from the game for a couple weeks as she tries to make sense of it all. However, it's Yukari -- an often brash, outspoken character who doesn't always get along with Mitsuru -- who guides her back and convinces her to be strong again. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted to see a pair of women in a video game help each other through a tough situation . . . just because! No underlying motive or anything! No secret jealousies or bitchy competition! Flabbergasted.

Truly, the most interesting part of Persona 3 is the sheer number of female characters. Out of all the playable characters, half of them are women (and one of the "guys" is a dog). As you've seen in Calabar's posts on the game, the protagonist can end up in a relationship with three of the female characters in your party, but it's important to note that only a relationship with Yukari is ever even hinted at by the main plot. Mitsuru's Social Link is just a sidequest. While there's nothing inherently wrong with a tough female character finding love, it's a huge cliche for such a character to become dependent or seem "accessible" to male characters, while there is no such equivalent for men of the same caliber.

I was pleasantly surprised by a majority of the female characters (and male characters, to boot) of Persona 3. Doubtless, I'll write more about this game in the future, so I highly recommend you go pick up a copy of P3: FES right now and indulge in probably the best JRPG to come out since Final Fantasy XII.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 11:32 AM + Link to this post

Friday, June 6, 2008
First Friday Drinking Game--Late Night Edition

June has finally arrived with the glorious summertime in tow. While schools have let out and vacations are drawing near, it is also getting unbelievably hot out--which is what makes the coolness of the night so darn inviting. Now is the perfect time to get some friends together for a little late-night First Friday Drinking (Game)!

The release of Metal Gear Sold IV is tantalizingly close, so this month we'll be raising our drinks to the entire Metal Gear series. Whether your playing a marathon or just dusting off MSG II, you can follow these simple rules with any combination of good ol' Metal Gear. Play long enough and you'll be Solid Snaking it in no time:

1 drink each time Snake has a smoke
1 drink for each cutscene that lasts longer than ten minutes
1 drink for each additional cutscene minute
1 drink every time Otacon cries
2 drinks every time Fortune whines about being invincible (we get it, already!)
1 drink for every cardboard box stealth mission
1 drink every time the sound of someone discovering you scares the bejesus out of you
1 drink whenever Psycho Mantis freaks you the fuck out
2 drinks whenever the Sorrow freaks you the fuck out
3 drinks if you find yourself missing Mei Ling
2 drinks for every torture scene
3 drinks if said torture scene involves at least partial nudity
1 drink each time Solid Snake stares at boobs (yes, posters and magazines count)
1 drink after Olga dies (make sure it's real vodka--RIP, girl)
2 drinks whenever you learn something about a character that makes you REALLY uncomfortable

And finally:

Finish your drink when you beat the game and still have no idea what's going on

Warning: Excessive drinking during gameplay may result in false notions of badassery to the point that you grow a snappy math teacher's mustache. 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
 10:36 PM + Link to this post

Wednesday, June 4, 2008
GitM Turns One!

Click for full-sized image

It's hard for us to believe, but it's been a whole year since BomberGirl, PlasmaRit, and I started Girl in the Machine.

Our very first article, Hookers on Parade came from BomberGirl. It was soon followed by my piece, Graaah! I'm Naked!, and PlasmaRit's Lara Croft's Ten-Year Mam Jam.

We want to thank all of our readers for sticking with us! Your questions and comments have motivated us to work harder and challenged our thinking.

If we have it our way, we hope to be around for quite a while! Here's to the next year!

 Posted by Calabar
 12:00 PM + Link to this post

Monday, June 2, 2008
Exploring androgyny in video games.

The word "androgyny" comes from a combination of the Greek words "andros" and "gynaika," man and woman. "Androgynous" refers to the blending of male and female characteristics in a person, often to the point of indeterminate sex. In video games, many character designs achieve androgyny through the removal, concealment, or even a combination of sex signifiers, such as rounded hips or a lack of typical body fat. The degree of androgyny varies on a wide scale, and each stage as such achieves different goals.

The most common form of physical gender-blending I've observed is what I'll call Minor Androgyny. In this class are the Pretty Boys of many a Japanese RPG and action heroes such as Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil 4, or Devil May Cry's Dante. It's fairly obvious that there's quite a smattering of feminine-looking men right across the boards in gaming, with silver-haired villains taking the lead (Ghaleon or Sephiroth, anyone?). The popularity of androgyny in Japanese culture has no doubt influenced many of these character design decisions, as seen in the gender-neutral aesthetics of Visual Kei (Japanese glam rock) and pretty boys in anime and manga.

However, this form of Minor Androgyny isn't always accepted. Metal Gear Solid 2's Raiden is probably one of the most notorious pretty boy leads. Metal Gear fans were crushed to discover that the protagonist of the game was not, in fact, the much-beloved and super macho Solid Snake, but that they were stuck playing the role of a stranger: the lithe and fair-haired Raiden. The series's creater, Hideo Kojima, intended for gamers both female and male to identify with Raiden's feminine and masculine appearance. However, the backlash against this feminine intruder was so great that Metal Gear Solid 3 parodied the fiasco with the flamingly gay Major Ivan Raidenovitch Raikov, whose identical appearance and similar name leave little to question about Kojima's intentions.

My next stage of androgyny is Major Androgyny. These characters effectively exhibit both male and female characteristics in a design that leaves sex indeterminate. Unfortunately, despite their convincing appearances, many Major Androgynes in video games are given sex-specific pronouns. Observe Lunar 2's main villain, Zophar:

Quite clearly lady on the bottom, with a more-or-less masculine face and a male chest (as seen in other states of, er, dress). However, Zophar is always a "he," and no character ever bats an eye at his androgynous appearance. Final Fantasy IX's Kuja (pictured at the top) is another great example. His features are arranged in much the same fashion: rounded hips, a flat chest, and flowing hair. Still, as always, this tiger-tailed Genome is forever a "he."

Curiously enough, the only character I've found whose sex has never been determined or assigned -- even by the game developers themselves -- is FFIX's Quina, who is referred to in-game as s/he.

Finally, we've come to our last stage: Neutrois. While Neutrois isn't actually a category of androgyny, it refers to a complete sexual neutrality in appearance and identity. Characters such as Homunculus in the 2001 Konami adventure game Shadow of Destiny or the titular NiGHTS from the popular Sega franchise exhibit zero sex signifiers in either the male or female direction. Takashi Iizuka of Sonic Team USA stated in a 2007 interview that NiGHTS "is a mirror of the child's personality, so when the children dream, they become him. So from a boy's point of view, NiGHTS will be a boy, from a girl's point of view, NiGHTS will be a girl." This view, that the player should be able to identify with the protagonist of the game no matter their gender identification, is similar to Hideo Kojima's but differs in some fundamental ways. NiGHTS's fantasy-oriented context allows for a true fluidity of gender in a way that the more (but admittedly not much more) realistic approach of Metal Gear Solid cannot. However, Kojima's self-parody with Major Raikov puts a sour spin on what should have been an admirable attempt at breaking social conventions. NiGHTS's appeal and popularity shows that video game protagonists don't have to be macho and male to appeal to gamers.

In the end, androgyny is truly no stranger to video games old and new. However, I'm sure that many of you have noticed a marked lack of "female-leaning" androgynes in this post. "Male" androgynes are far, far more common, and I can only wonder as to the reason why. My best hypothesis is that a long history of the sexualization and objectification of the female form has lended feminine characteristics with more aesthetic appeal than masculine, justifying more feminine men with soft beauty than your more masculine woman with strong features. Readers, are there any "female" androgynes out there that you can think of? Why do you feel that they're largely absent when their male counterparts are so popular?

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 2:28 PM + Link to this post

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