Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where am I? Female Characters in Superhero Comics.( with a touch of race)

Dan DiDio is a major force behind DC comics.

If you have not guessed by now, I am a major comic geek. What you may not have figured out yet is that I am a person driven by social issues, and when social issues meld with my other interests I am all too happy to address them.

This week I found a melding place.

I want you for the next minute to attempt to think of a major female superhero from a DC comic who is not defined by her relationship to a male character.

I'll wait.....

Done? Good.

How many could you name? I am guessing not many. The truth is in the DC Universe there is a shocking number of female superheros in proportion to males. This became exceptionally evident at this years Comic-con when two female comics fans questioned why so few female characters existed . When asked of this Justice League writer Geoff Johns named Mera as a strong female character that was not basically a clone of a male. Mera. Mera, the wife of Aquaman. While I do not deny that she is a brilliant character, and the modern age has depicted her as a fierce female in her own right. BUT...

WTF Geoff Johns WTF???

I think it is pretty obvious that he simply tried to think of ANY female character that was not simply a version of a male character with female genitalia. The best he could do was to name a character whose entire existence basically hinged upon her relationship to a male character. This is something DC is famous for really. A seeming inability to create new and interesting characters that are completely separate from old ones. If you look at DC comics in terms of female characters you will see what I mean. I have compiled two lists of characters that would be somewhat well known in various media to demonstrate my point.

DC Comic Character Defined y/Originated due to their relationships to men:
Catwoman-paramour to Batman
Supergirl-Superman's cousin
Powergirl-Alternate Supergirl
Batgirl-Sidekick of/spin off batman
Oracle-Former Batgirl, batman contacts
Hawkgirl- lover of Hawkman
Zatanna- descendant of Zatara the magician
Huntress- Originally was Batman and Catwoman's daughter
Miss Martian- "niece"/spin off of Martian Manhunter
Arrowette- created as a replacement for Speedy in the recent cartoon
Stargirl- family friend/ replacement of Star-Spangled Kid
Mary Marvel- Part of the Marvel Family
Star Sapphire

DC Comic Characters Who Originated as Originals
Big Barda
Wonder Woman
Black Canary

Keep in mind I did break up the list into the various "separate" characters that used the same names and I focused on the original origin of each character. The current Huntress, for instance, is the exact same character, but her origin was re-conned so that she had no relationship to Batman. There have been multiple supergirls, four different women to go by Batgirl(I'm counting the original who was simply trying to seduce Batman, mind you), and Wonder Woman herself has two spin off characters who at different points went by Wonder Girl. It's almost pathetic how few truly original major female characters there are.

The common response by a number of comic book geeks is a simple "It's statistics not sexism" based around the idea that because women do not become police officers or join the military in an equal proportion to males that do so...women would not be superheroes. Or that instituting a quota would be unethical. Or women don't read comics like males do...


I'm pretty sure this actually accounts for a lot of shit that goes down. You notice I used both sexist and racist. Well the reason is this argument is one that is constantly referenced when it comes to race or gender in comics. Last year Danny Glover of NBC's "Community" joked about being cast as the new Spiderman on Twitter. Glover, who is a wonderful actor and self confessed geek was met with near instant backlash. It began the classic "I'm not racist but.." arguments among those who took him seriously and those simply responding to other comments about it. People began posting arguments as to why Spider-man could not be Black. Some people tried extra hard with justifying why Spider-man should be white without the intent of being racist. They were in fact annoying comic purists who could not stand for the precious order of their beloved world to change. Some were flat out racists deriding the mere suggestion of a black Spidey. Others trying their best to deny that their opinion was based in subtle prejudices they never really knew they had. All sides willingly turned to the statistics of the US saying that blacks are a smaller part of the population therefore there would not be many black heroes. It sounds logical and wonderfully realistic, and they defend that logic with the idea that comics are based in the real world. They are right, comics are based in our world with the same celebrities and everything. It's easy to understand why plenty of male readers would turn to this logic when confronting the issue of female characters, as well. It's smooth simple logic.

Yet...its not. Superpowers tend to come from accidents, alien DNA, being given power, purposely using magic, or seeking out science. Superheroes are depicted as the abnormal minority of society who choose to use their powers for good. Accidents are random chance, and those who choose to become superheroes as compared to the over all population are few and far between. Women and minorities should not be exempt from being near the source of something. Urban areas also tend to have a high proportion of minorities than smaller more rural or suburban areas, so with all these heroes stationed in cities you would assume there would be more blacks and hispanics because they tend to dominate urban life. Factoring in random chance, personal choice, and location the statistics of the real world seem a bit inadequate. A black inner city male may have more incentive to be a crime fighter to clean up his neighborhood than a suburban white male. A woman be more inclined to experiment in her own free time than face the competition of male counterparts, thus increasing the risk of an accident. I find it hard to believe that a white male would be more accident prone than a female, or a minority simply because of statistics. In terms of science and engineering these fields are slowly being approached by non-whites, as well, and a growing number of women. Magic is simply a toss up of interest and being lucky enough to find the right information.

The more intriguing is the issue of aliens, which truly shows the major problem with this argument. It suggests aliens either have the same population diversity of earth or that all significantly human looking aliens have the features of white person. Aliens are alien. They aren't human. They aren't typically citizens and our population diversity has nothing to do with theirs. The reason people think this way is that white is the baseline in our society regardless of species. To be human is to be white unless stated otherwise. It is sad but it is true. The only non-caucasian featured alien I can recall is Icon from Milestone (now a DC Owned property). Who is to say that aliens appear like Caucasian perople and not black, or asian or multi-ethnic?. Who is to say there is not a planet where matriarchy is the status-quo? Who is to say that females in every society are not viewed as the stronger of the genders? Aliens are not confined to our situation. There is no reason why a female alien  or a "ethnic" (I loathe that word somewhat) looking alien cannot become a major superhero.

Furthermore insinuating that the social hierarchy for the police department or the military is similar to the Superhero world makes NO SENSE. Police Departments are an interesting social experiment, as they embody the hyper-masculinity of American society. Women are often ostracized by men who lead the pack. Any woman has to not only prove herself adequate, but often better than the men without, of course, making them feel insecure. IN fact many women are taunted or outright discouraged from joining the force. Beyond gender there are many codes of conduct spoken and not that affect behavior. Police officers look out for each other and their families, squealers are not tolerated. Lawyers are often viewed as either troublemakers or troublesome with a few being "ok guys/gals".There is an official hierarchy as well as an unofficial one.

In the world of DC, so long as you do not cause trouble, interfere with other heroes, or get involved with "the best of the best"(IE Wondie, Supes, Bats, etc.) you are left to your own devices. Few heroes look at your gender and assume you are too weak for the job. They look at your performance and how you handle a situation then decide if you cause more hurt than harm. Male or female you have no real rules, you decide to work outside of the normal societal structure and seek justice beyond what is regulated. This means you can't quite apply the superhero role to a police officers role.

In terms of the military which is only 20% female there is a far stronger order than the police force. Many believe that while a woman's desire to aid her country is admirable it is not proper for her to join. Women are discouraged from being active in the military, and those who are must work three times as hard as their male counterparts. Women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted by their peers, as well. The environments of both the military and the police force are moderately un-welcoming to women, which is why many women avoid such institutions. There is also the simple fact that the hyper-masculine nature of the military and the force lead outsiders to agree that most women are not suited for the force. Unless the vigilante world is as equally unappealing the statistics are useless.

Throwing around statistics to justify your opinion while ignoring the outside factors or reasons behind said statistics is foolish. How many real world people have been bitten by a radioactive spider? How many alien superheroes have crash landed on Earth? How many millionaire playboys have taken up fighting crime?

Now whenever someone sees this word they sigh and grumble about being forced to do something unpleasant. Yet when properly implemented in business quotas can be used to help ensure a company breaks even at the end of the day. Quotas do in fact have their place.

That said I am against the use of quotas in many situations. For instance a show dealing with the lives of a rich white family in California having only one or two main minority characters makes sense to me. Just as a show about a black musician going back to teach music at his inner city high school having only two white main characters makes sense. There are times when reality is necessary to demonstrate the setting. The difference between this and a comic book is that comic books have more freedom due to the nature of its contents.As I stated before most powers are gained by random chance, genetics, magic, science, or some combination there of. This negates the statistics argument, but NOT a location argument, like the two examples I use above. There are not quotas in place to ensure a rainbow equal gendered cast because the shows setting doesn't allow for it. The fact is many affluent neighborhoods are populated by white people, the fact is not many white people live in the inner city. These shows do not deal with the "super-fiction" of abnormal things. Each show deals with the occasionally wacky events that the characters fall into. The races and genders for the characters typically fall in line with the setting of the show. Comics have far more leeway due to the nature of their being "Super Fiction", they bend and twist into the impossible and improbable. Heroes come and go from one place to the next, and they come from a variety of backgrounds that make the intermingling of ethnic groups possible, perhaps more so than we can think. 

While I do not believe quotas are necessary, so much as common sense, there is one statistic that should be acknowledged....51% of the population  is female. As far as random chance goes there should be more female characters. There should be more female characters who are independent of another hero. I am not saying there should be some magical number for every team. I am certainty not saying that every team should be an equal 50/50. I am saying to those who use statistics that by their own logic they should be arguing for more female characters. I am saying that there simply should be a higher percentage of non white male heterosexual characters. I am saying that there should not be a need for any quota because making a good character, that so happens to be female isn't hard!

Basically there is no reason the number of independent female characters in DC comics should be so low. There should be no need for quotas.

Most Women Don't Read Comics and Those Who Do Should Shut Up.

Once again....What.The.Frak?!?!?

The fact is we all know that males make up the more significant amount of comic book readers. This fact will not ever change so long as DC comics, and other comic companies do not attempt to branch out. It's a fucking cycle. It is not that females do not wish to read comics. It is that most comics do not connect or interest females because the companies tend to appear contemptuous of complex women.  Plenty of females can connect with a male character. Numerous women admire Spider-Man and Green Lantern. Yet whenever a woman seems to complain about there not being a female role model or hero the immediate retort is why can't women see men as role models, or what difference does gender make? Well it makes a major difference. No one says that someone is incapable of respecting and looking up to someone of the opposite gender, but it is human instinct to try and imitate the social cues of one who we feel akin to. By this I mean that people tend to drift towards people who are similar to them. If you go into a high school cafeteria in the US you will most likely find that the majority of kids are sitting closer to people of their own, race, gender, and school grade. The same goes for role models. I will be using the example of "The other" Wes Moore from the book "The Other Wes Moore".

Wes grew up never having known his father outside of meeting when he was 5. His mother was young but did her best to raise him despite her own personal follies. She warned him to stay away from drugs and moved him to better neighborhoods and schools through out his childhood. However Wes's older brother Tony was the only role model the young Wes had, and while Tony constantly told his brother to stay away from the drugs and gangs of their upbringing, Tony himself was a prominent drug dealer. Tony constantly lectured Wes, but all Wes saw was how Tony was respected as a leader, how he always had knew clothes and sneakers, and how Tony always seemed to have spending money. Eventually Wes himself got into selling thousands of dollars in drugs.

While Wes's mother tried to be a role model by working hard and telling him of the value of education, he found that the better person to look up to was Tony. Wes admits to the author(also named Wes Moore, hence the title) that he always tried to be like his brother. He was innately draw not only towards his brother success, but to his brother as being the only male role model he knew.

While anyone can be a role model to anyone, people are predisposed to those who they find similarities with from the shallow to the innate. It is simply how we function as human being. Therefore it is only natural for a girl to wonder why there is no one that looks like her outside of Wonder Woman, and even Wonder Woman is depicted as...eye candy sometimes. Plenty of young girls watched the Teen Titans cartoon on Cartoon Network, and it was because both Raven and Starfire function as real people. They are women who never are depicted as being less than the men because they are women. These two heroes gained role model status, and yet characters like the Raven and Starfire of this cartoon are few and far between.

Furthermore this argument makes me question...why can't males look up to female superheroes? If you're argument rests on the fact that gender is irrelevant why can't a boy look up to a female superhero? This reeks of a double standard. It essentially says, "women should be happy idolizing men." or that "Of the genders men are more worthy of being role models." Which is offensive, untrue, and asssssssss backward!

The reason many females do not read comics is because females often find a western comic is just not welcoming to women. The women are drawn to be over sexualized, are given slutty costumes, and are once again typically defined by a man. Nothing wrong with a slutty costume, but when art constantly depicts a vast number of women so sexually it does not embrace sexuality, but it makes a statement that women must be overtly sexual to be interesting. These costumes aren't even sexual, they're trying to be sexual, but in the end they come across of juvenile attempts to target teenage boys and drive away women(along with some men) who aren't comfortable with that. This isn't about slut shaming or women wearing what they want. Most of the artists are men and they don't draw women in reasonable costumes or to empower them often. There are many ways toe be comfortable with your sexuality and not flaunt it. A truly comfortable person, whose personality isn't overtly sexual, doesn't just flaunt their body without a reason.

Starfire is a wonderful character, but how do you give a teenager a Starfire comic and say "Live up to her kindness and goodness" when those are not the things the art, which is part of the story, focuses on. Starfire's people believed in openness and wore revealing clothes because of that fact, providing a good reason to her outfits. Yet artists enjoyed abusing this by portraying her in pornographic poses for posters and art. George Perez and early Titans artists avoided this and focused on her beauty as a person by drawing attention to her face as well as her body. In some art you are immediately stuck by how kind her eyes are and how soft her smile is. You know she is filled with love and just wants to make sure everyone is happy like she is. Yet she is often reduced to her body, her face plain and the vibrancy gone with past artists. She's only one and far better off than the Barbwire, Witchblade, Lady Death, or the Star Saphire's of Green Lantern. It is worth noting the Star Saphire costumes tend to be on the revealing side on average unlike most other Lanterns, as though their representing of love is the same as lust because they are an all female core. Ultimately these characteristics drive away women, and even men because there is a complete lack of diversity in what it means to be sexy and a woman. Ultimately what these artists and editors tell us is that to be a woman, a powerful one, your sexuality must be present not for yourself but for everyone else because you are not valid enough to not be eye candy. It's insulting to men and women in dozens of different ways leaving very few happy except those who only want ass and titties. Essentially everyone loses.

Another thing...as a woman...I can suspend my disbelief, but you have to be kidding me that a teenage Supergirl would feel comfortable wearing a skirt that literally only covers her ass, or that Psylock would wield her psyblades in stilettos without hesitation. These artists and the people who approve the art they are driven to make inadvertently tell me that these things are normal and every woman cares about being a sex object all the time. It's not about embracing sexuality or even being sexy because it is often sad. These powerful women are posed and dressed to be sex objects because they wanted to be. That is what they would have me believe, and in some cases that's true because the character is that way BUT that's a character thing not a female requirement. Catwoman is sexually confident and doesn't need a damn bit of male approval to know it. She walks into a room she can choose to own or not because she is Selena Kyle and she knows how to work the room and herself. Whether she's weather zipped up catsuits or cocktail dresses Selena Kyle is a sexy woman because no matter how you draw her she is drawn with confidence and written with confidence in that fact. When you pull down that zipper you almost dis empower that sexiness because she doesn't need to show anyone anything. She is one in charge not you.
There are MANY WAYS TO BE SEXY but not every woman needs to be sexy all the time or puts their sex appeal on display. I can't believe that in these worlds of fiction every woman tries to be a sex symbol or a 13 year olds masturbation fantasy without ever thinking about it outside of occasional jokes.

But there is one other factor at work here:

"Where am I?"
"Where are the real human women>"

Where is the strong central protagonist that is female with a consistently interesting storyline?
Well I can tell you where she is, Manga. Japanese Manga is typically read by a higher percentage of women than men, in particular Shojo which is catered to women. I am the first to admit that I was once an anime/manga junky, but I am also the first to admit that honestly... a fair amount of it is kind of trashy overly romantic love stories. Yet a fair amount of it isn't. Women read these books because there is usually a lovable female with a strength of inner character. For instance Fruits Basket is primarily a love/drama story, but the protagonist proves herself to be brave, loving, and immensely generous. A better example is Dinah of the American Binzenghast series
Dinah is a girl plagued by the innate ability to see ghosts outside of the ghost realm, and suffers from a series of psychological issues. She is prone to bouts of rage, depression, and making brash decisions. She learns to deal with her emotional problems by being forced to confront the numerous ghosts that inhabit her town. While Dinah often relies on her best friend Vincent to help, she is quite determined to become her own woman, and eventually becomes willing to confront the ghosts of the town herself. She is a true female protagonist. She is her own person, suffers from her own demons(real and figurative), and goes on a journey to overcome them. One final example is Zodiac PI a series about a 14 year old fortune teller who takes up the mantle of her mother, as a detective known as Spica using a mystical ring to solve mysteries while searching for her missing mother. The mysteries are deadly and she is in constant danger of being killed by her mothers enemies as well as those who want to keep their crimes a secret. Her love interest is second fiddle, and she often finds herself saving him.

These are stories women and men like. These are stories that captivate many women and men while DC comics tends to captivate mostly men. Even if you look at Marvel comics there are plenty of female characters that are popular and done well that stand independently; Storm, Jean Grey, Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, Electra, Spider-Woman, Songbird, Psylocke, Black Cat, and more are recognizable. By neglecting to reach out to female readers by having a strong female protagonist, or characters, DC neglects part of the market as well as simply spits in the face of the readers.

It solidifies the perception of what comics have been for years...a White Heterosexual Male fantasy that excludes diversity on the basis that it should stay its own little niche.

I'm a black female who loves comics, but I guess between the color of my skin and the parts between my legs, I am not supposed to read them. My money is not the money aimed for.

I don't even think I can address this accurately within the post. If you listened to the audio clip at the top of this post. You will know why.
Baffling....truly baffling...
"Who should we hire!?!" Dan DiDio demands with every ounce of hostility that is in his body.
We all know what he is really saying---"Who are you to tell me how to run this business!?!?!"
Well Mr. DiDio we are your fans. We are the people who keep you employed. We feed that grubby little face of yours with our hard earned cash. As fans we demand answers to our questions. As fans we demand to know...why women aren't good enough for DC comics. We demand to know why Women are SO invisible to you. To act like there were no women who wanted to be part of the Comic book industry AT COMIC-CON is, for all intents and purposes, plain dumb. Just dumb. If DC is looking to hire, sign me up! PLEASE!

Women can write just as well as men. Women, like men, can create male and female characters equally well. Harry Potter, one of the best selling movie and books series of all time, is written by a woman. Agatha Christie one of the founders of the modern mystery novel was a woman. There may not be as many comic book fans with vagina's in the world right now, but there are a signifigant amount who would be thrilled to work at DC.

This all leads to one question, true believers...Is how many female characters and female staff does Marvel have?

If you want to both listen and take a look at what happened at Comic-Con here is the link.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My response to DA2 blog and comments

And I romance him every time...

----"Ander's is a perfect example of the dichotimey between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II"

This article is actually very much describing how I feel towards DA2, and reviewing in general. The fact is a reviwer must look at a game as a Reviewer first and a fan second. Here is my comment reprinted:

"I think the over all point here is for people to be able to judge on more than one level;

1)A sequel to Dragon Age: Origins
2)A game in its self
3)A game leading up to another game.

I understand people were upset about no longer being able to create your own character, and I understand that. Yet you have to be able to make Hawke your own. In origins the truth ,as I see it, Yes you had the ability to make your own character, but it really effected very little of the overall game. I played as an elf and I played as a mage, and as a Cousland. For most of the game it had no effect on how I was perceived outside of the Origin. At least with Hawke you play a human, and if your a mage there are reactions to it. Someone tell me a legitimate difference the origins made in the gameplay except you're aware of other story elements?

I do believe DA2 was incredibly rushed, and everyone seems to agree with that.

While some people found the characters dull I found listening to their interactions enjoyable. While Aveline and Isabella are very different they posses a strange kind of affection for each other that was different than the friendship between Oghren and Anders in Awakening. That said, the characters are a bit stagnant, but that is mainly in their opinions. I just felt like with the way the game is written and designed there should be an ability to somewhat alter the course of characters. I was constantly hoping I could change characters actions but found the game very linear in that sense. On one hand I do understand that some opinions are set in stone, but it felt useless to say certain things to people. In particular Anders was UTTERLY inconsistent between Awakening and DA2 to a unbelievable extent. Anders was a snarky, selfish, laid back, but lovable mage in Awakening. Yet under the care of a new writer he became an entirely different character. In DA:2 Ander is supposed to have matured and tossed away his childish selfishness in favor of seeking justice. The hope continued from the Expansion is for Justice to have taught Anders that his selfishness ultimately leads him and other mages no where. Yet all Ander's snarkyness and his ability to simply bounce back with a joke is replaced by wavering uncertainty and obsession. There is almost zero connection between Anders and *brood* Anders.It's almost as if no one actually read what the lead writer for Anders was writing. Heck it didn't even feel like the writer played Awakening. It was just inconsistent. In terms of presenting a character. Also and this is particularly prevalent with Anders and Isabella there was so very little... indication of romantic interest. For Anders they essentially use the excuse "sense you showed interest, for the past few years he's been really into you...". It felt rushed and awkward to have him so intense when I had been so playful, and my mind kept flashing back to Awakening. Fundamentally it seemed like Anders was previously prone to using humor to protect himself instead of confronting issues. Even with the situation there should be something humorous about how he approaches Hawke, and how he feels towards others. With Isabella she was a tease but she never showed real interest in Hawke exactly. She was never really directly talking to Hawke like she would others(like casual lover Fenris).The inconsistent writing was just annoying. Then you have a character like Carver who has not a single redeeming quality about him. I get that he is supposed to be resentful toward Hawke, but he is such a positively negative human being its absolutely INSANE. All he does is complain at you, and you never find a redeeming quality in him.

I hate how people complain about the direction they took with the game. Honestly the gameplay felt exactly the same in terms of combat. Except playing a rogue felt and looked more like how a rogue should be. The game plays absolutely NOTHING like Mass Effect or other series, and the comparison (outside of the dialogue wheel) thoroughly makes me suspect that half of the people complaining have never actually played Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2. I have played both thoroughly and they are not similar in combat. In terms of the "tree" system, I can say that it is far more functional than either Mass Effect leveling systems. I also found it easier to really see where my mage was focusing on than in Origins. The Tree layout encourages one to focus their traits and their companions traits. You see where your powers are progressing to, upgrade abilities, and the specializations are immediately open to you so you can start on them from Act 1.

The wheel based dialogue honestly is a more organized system because you see which options end or continue a conversation. In the Baldur's Gate series there were times where you could only pick one or two questions out of five REALLY good ones. With the wheel you can go back and pick questions without re-readying all the options(like in Origins. This makes the system a bit more organized. There is also the fact that you can avoid selecting a choice that is very vague or seems neutral, but is the exact opposite choice you want to make. The symbols make it easy to understand roughly how the dialogue will be perceived. In other Bioware games it is really easy to perceive a dialogue option one way and instantly have a NPC perceive it another. I would often choose a very neutral choice when talking to Morrigan or Sten only to earn disapproval. Finally there is the fact that just because Origins and older Bioware games have had more dialogue choices does not mean that the responses to those choices were different from other responses. Having 15 options of what to say and only six responses to those options is really kind of a waste.

Ultimately Dragon Age 2 was flawed. It felt incredibly short in terms of game length. Act 3 feels rushed to conclusion with a sort of fake urgency. Every time I get to "The Last Straw" I think "Oh yea end of the game, right." Part of that is the fact that the game leaves so very much unexplored. For instance in terms of the Lyrium Idol, I found myself wanting to know more not so much out of curiosity but out of realizing I knew nothing at all. Not to mention no explanation as to how You-Know-Who got a hold of it.What worsens this problem is the fact that the Quanari plotvline seems to be loosely tacked onto the Mage-Templar story line. The two plots feel utterly disjointed in terms of how they connect. If there was more of a build up involving the Quanari presence in the city it would be better. If there was ,for instance, a case of mages running to join the Quanari(only to face the cold hard reality of there views) or say elves in the alienage joining in mass and the elders of the alienage asking you to stop them, there would have been more tension. Overall the game's story lines fell flat and felt horribly short.

It seems to me that in the end the developers chose to use the "time skips" of the game to deal with the lack of build up in terms of story. It is a lot easier to say that "four years have passed and tension has been increasing" than to actually show cases of it.

Then there is the fact that the number of graphical and technical glitches in the game are just pathetic. Having to reset Isabella in order to upgrade her armor? Undead that get frozen while rising from the ground? Quests that cannot end, start, or if completed give XP? . Playing with the near micro-sized subtitles on(and sometimes off) will lead to a graphical error in cutscenes in which the characters jump shape popping from one size to another in order to fit. It appears as the adjustment for characters while having the subtitle box is somewhat broken. I hate constantly going back to Mass Effect, but dear lord in ME the subtitles are a reasonable size and because there is no special box that alters the screen it's not an issue. The words appear over the cutscene as if it were a movie. This not only helps keep the player immersed but it is also SOLVES THE PROBLEM BY ELIMINATING IT AND EXTRA WORK. Simple fixes, and worse off fixes implemented in other games made by the same developer. A few glitches are completely understandable but the sheer number of glitches and bugs are ridiculous . On this level the game, as a game, is full of fail. I find it inexcusable. I am left with the constant feeling that the game was only half tested, and its quite obvious that it was not as thoroughly run through as other games. It is as though they simply said "Fuck it we'll fix everything in the patch(s)," If you scroll through the Dragon Age Wiki, you will find that most of the quest pages have a section entitled "Bugs" as will some of the characters, and numerous items. This is beyond my comprehension. I have not experienced such base glitches in a game. In honesty I have to chalk this up to laziness and the desire to put the game out as quickly as possible. The desire for this is ultimately understandable, and to a point reasonable from a monetary perspective. The more time it takes to work on a game the more money is put out not only on the game itself but on employees. Then there is also the fact that if they are not careful they may lose some of their audience after the initial thrill of Origins wears off. I'm not saying the latter is true, but a company may perceive it that way. Yet it is unacceptable to essentially screw over your fans. Whether or not you enjoyed the game, you have to admit being too cheap or too lazy to tweak/fix OBVIOUS problems within a product before shipping it out to loyal consumers is essentially a big "Screw you" to the consumer. It could be unintentional and perhaps numerous problems weren't caught until produced in mass, but even then that reeks of being too lazy to thoroughly test every aspect of your product. Bioware is known for quality, and it is in there and our best interest to keep that consistent. Usually I am far more tolerant of bugs and glitches but this is simply...maddening.The game is such a disappointment because it was honestly below the quality of most Bioware games. When you set a high standard for yourself and then for no reason, other than hubris or greed(on the cooperate side) produce a mediocre product you must expect criticism. "

Well there is my comment in it's entirety. If you can't tell my biggest gripe is the writing of the game and in particular Anders. In a few weeks will go in depth on my views of the overall writing of DA II because ultimately it is part of a larger issue with writing in general.

Keep reading and I'll still keep writing. Well I'll write regardless, but at least enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Oblivion and Why I Find It Dull and Boring.

I will go on the record now as stating that at times I did in fact enjoy playing...but I will also say this only happened after the third time of re-buying the game. My brother has recently bought the Anniversary addition of the game, which has inspired me to go into and Dissect Oblivion and my reasoning for finding it un-enjoyable.

Why Oblivion Has Such A Great Modding Community...
Whenever I read or see something about Elder Scrolls: Oblivion I come across one word, "Mods", and the assertion that the game is best played with them. However I play the game on the xbox 360, and while I have no access to such mods I can totally understand why Mods make the game better. If you've ever read
this blog you probably noticed I played the Baldur's Gate Trilogy, and if you know anything about the series you probably know there is/was a very successful modding community full of ridiculously amazing mods. However, unlike Oblivion the BG series was thoroughly immersive and interesting on it's own without the mods. BG had a distinct world with a unique and well defined sense of appeal. The mods exist to make the game more re-playable and to add a bit of color to the game. In Oblivion the mods are needed to make the game interesting for more than five minutes. The world within Oblivion is MASSIVE to the point of obnoxiousness, and to a certain extent I like that but the world is really full of nothing. There are dozens of NPCs, areas, and quests but none of them have any urgency nor anything special about them really. Admittedly there are some quests I prefer over others, that's a given with anything, but honestly most of them were kind of dry and dull. The NPC's are all the same, (literally they have the same voice actors), the quests do not have any real weight to them, and the game gave me no true sense of being a hero/asshole figure. In a "Vanilla", not modded, game you spend your
time wandering from point A to point B occasionally stopping to talk to misc. NPC 2 in order to gain some bit of nonsensical information that apprently leads you to area 6 in order to kill/steal/defend something and then return to NPC 1...and that's if you can find them. Needless to say all of this eventually becomes tedious and boring beyond words. Even during the quests I enjoyed I found myself going "Now what?" half way through a fight. I am pretty sure that is NOT the feeling Bethesda was going for...I hope, but honestly who can be too sure when the majority of quests are about as interesting as a sad clown or a brown dog. Actually...I like dogs and they can be interesting so scratch that last bit. There is a reason the game comes with tools setup so that Modder's can have a field day. The developers were frickin lazy and could not be bothered to add a unique element to any of their quests, so they went "Let's let the players do it" or I imagine it somewhat like this:
Writer " Did you guys notice how redundant the quests are?"
Designer "We can't be bothered with that."
Writer "But won't that pretty much make expanding out general audience hard if they do not find something intriguing about the game"
Designer "Good point let's just throw in some stuff so people can make their own and...what are you doing outside your cage?"

I know some of you may be going "You're just Bioware biased," or "How do you know about those cages?" Well the truth is yes I have been spoiled by Bioware, but can you blame me? I am a gamer who loves a good story and a distinct immersive world with people in them that act and feel like real people. I like having quests that are distinct and are fascinating in more ways than one. In Oblivion the only way to really get that seems to be in the form of Mods and that is a crying shame. Even if you do not buy even half of what I'm saying, I must ask you how good is a
game where AT LEAST half the fans admit they can only play it when they mod it. If the game itself is only relatively enjoyable and becomes more of a chore than a pleasure how good is it? I have read countless boards and forums and I consistently hear the same thing, "Oblivion gets boring rather fast if you don't have mods". For that reason you must question the strength of this game on it's own. I full heartedly support any and every modding community from ModtheSims to Spellholdstudios, but their works must not be the sole reason to own and play this game.

Size of the Game, the World, and Geography.
This next part is somewhere between good and bad and "eh" f
or me, as this is a major thing with Bethesda. Whether it's "Fallout" or "Elder Scrolls" Bethesda believes in one thing over all and that is open ended gaming. You create a character, are walked through a tutorial, and from there are given the entire world to explore. At first this is a major plus for the game. I thoroughly enjoyed walking and wandering through Cyrodil and simply exploring, but eventually the novelty begins to wear thin. After a half hour of simply trying to get from Point A to Point B you eventually find yourself tired and bored. The game alleviates this by having random bandits and creatures wander the path and attack you. It does help, but occasionally it is simply annoying random encounters. After killing another set of bandits you look at your map and realize "Oh crap I'm barely half there". And I know some of you are about to comment and mention the fact that there is fast travel. Yes there is.

However like almost every other game with Fast Travel you must go to most areas first to access travel to that area. That fact is perfectly reasonable, as it is reasonable to assume that if your character visits an area once or twice they may devise a "short cut.". My issue is that the existence of Fast Travel seems to be absolutely necessary otherwise traveling is a migraine beyond reconciliation. The world is so massive that once you visit every major place you do not want to walk anywhere except for a change of pace and even that decision you may come to regret. Perhaps I'm just pulling hairs here, but I simply do not think it should be almost necessary to use fast travel in order to make traveling tolerable. For instance in Fable there III there is a fast travel option, and I did use it often. Yet in Fable I did not get a sense of dread when I needed to walk. Fable has a large interconnected world but it was interesting and small enough to be fun to wander through. The novelty did not quite run thin because it was just the right size to not be overwhelmed. Though I will say in both games the random encounters would work my nerves sometimes(but thats just a me thing). Both games have fast travel; In one it is impossible to go without it, and in the other it is a perk not always used.

Having said all that I will go back to the positive of this large world. I honestly enjoyed the graphics of the various areas. The world itself was a pretty but occasionally redundant plain that seemed like it should have a life of it's own. Cyrodil was populat
ed with both peaceful and aggressive animals and people who wandered the roads. At times it was simply pleasant to stop and look at the scenery. Another big bonus is that you get to sense what your character goes through while traveling. At times I would feel that mix of tediousness, weariness, calmness, paranoia, and excitement that goes with traveling by ones self. There are times when you can positively let your guard down only to be attacked from behind by a crab or bear forcing you to defend yourself. Yet as I said the novelty of this wore thin after a few hours of game play.

Furthermore whether you are using fast travel or riding a horse there are negatives. If you use fast travel you can easily not level correctly. I will address leveling later on but basically in Oblivion enemies level at the same rate you do. That sounds fine and many games do something similar but not to the extent of Oblivion. Each character has a set of skills and if you do not raise your various combat skills, i.e get into a ton of fights, your enemy's will be far stronger than you. This means that you HAVE to do a fair bit of random wandering throughout the game to balance the various other skills you have. If you focus on your Acrobatics skill and not your Blunt Weapons skill you can easily end up with a character whose combat skil
ls are roughly at level three, but everyone else in the world is level 7 because you are an amazing acrobat. The game all but forces you to wander along the roads and wilds while only promising the reward of proper leveling. I found myself annoyed because at various points I was content to wander the cities only to realize I need to go kill a few wolves so they would not be stronger than me. There is no incentive not to fast travel beyond that. Exploration becomes an overly tedious endeavor due to the massive nature of the world, so that excuse flies out the window. But here lies the games biggest offense, none of this is clear until fairly into the game. I am a purist of sorts. I try not to look at a manual and rely on a game to explain itself to me when I first begin to play. You first begin to play and after a few hours begin using fast travel not realizing the sin you have committed by using a near readily available tool. Honestly it is like the game's designers held out two pieces of candy, one coated in lint and dirt and the other perfectly fresh and clean. Then expected you to pick the dirty one for the delicious caramel filling that is SO obviously inside. They give you a tool and then tempt you to use it knowing full well that the seemingly best way to get
better at combat is for you to wander back and forth for what seems like hours on a never ending stretch of country road. The only counter for this seems to be the occasional fights that come from quests and The Arena( think gladiators). That brings me to...

If you end up particularly doing a lot of jumping or speech craft for a period of time without doing a lot of heavy combat, you will level up your enemy/yourself too quickly. Essentially the game uses real world sense in this, if you do not train a particular ability or skill you cannot be good at it. On one hand this is perfectly reasonable, and on the other it becomes a hinderence. My character Andrala was a Redguard with a propensity for jumping, running, and stealing. I played her as a classical thief/assassin character, but the game is not made for that really. She was an average fighter but the quests I focused on involved far more stealing, underhandedness, and communication than anything else. S
he would regularly go to The Arena to train but that was not a priority after a while as she began doing other quests. Eventually she ended up leaving the city only to find herself easily bested by various creatures and people who were allegedly of the same level as her. Every creature I fought was the same level as I in name, but in truth they were far higher level than me. She was good with small groups and did her best to dodge but eventually it was just overwhelming. Her combat skills were significantly lower while her acrobatics skills, lock picking, and even some of her magical skills were near matching. Eventually it became clear that Andrala was no match for the creatures of Oblivion and I started over. It was a thoroughly disappointing experience for me as I was trying desperately hard to like the game.

The moral of the story is do not go into Oblivion without a game plan...and then be prepared to abandon that plan entirely. You cannot quite play as a mage character, and you cannot quite play as a thief, and you cannot quite play as a warrior...so you have to be in between. You cannot just focus on one or two skills because if you level up your character in these skills without working on the others you will end up seriously faulted in the other areas. You can have a general direction of your character, but you must become somew
hat of a Jack-of-All trades type. I suppose there is nothing inherently wrong with that ideology, but it's implementation created somewhat of a broken system. Forums are filled with comments by gamers(including myself) arguing over whether Oblivion was balanced or not. Those who were lucky enough to immediately be able to jump into the game without help or even with use of the manual are quick to call players like myself utter idiots over this issue. Yet any position has merit so long as there is a reason with evidence and...from the thousands of testimonies of gamers, to the Elder Scrolls wiki, to blogs/articles detailing the issues, and concluding with the decision to streamline Skyrim there is evidence of legitimate problems with the game's leveling system.
I give credit to the attempt to take leveling in more of a real world direction. We all know that someone who focuses on athletics and never studies will not usually pass their chemistry test. We also know that the best artists practice their craft above all else or at least take a significant amount of time on it. They attempted to take a similar approach with character leveling and structure by having it so that the skills you focus on most can level independently and faster than other skills. That in itself is perfectly reasonable. Ho
wever, the fact that by leveling a skill of two you can over-level yourself, and the inclusion of enemies that level at the same rate you do across the board is more of a hindrance than a help.

Yet there is another minor-major issue I find I cannot let go. As stated enemies level up with you regardless of your actual skill level. There is a serious issue I take with this and one I cannot quite let go because when I say enemies I mean EVERY character you will/can fight
in the game will be at your level. For instance if one of the rats from the tutorial wandered outside while you were walking by and your level ten...then essentially so is the rat. This basically totally discredits Bethesda's attempts at pseudo realism with the skill leveling. Fine I can accept the rats of this world are huge, like...New York rat huge, but not the same level as someone who just came back from an Oblivion Gate. There is some sense to the leveling system in that certain creatures are encountered only at certain levels due to their individual attack strength and power, but that only does so much ultimately. Keep in mind this is a simplification of wha
t happens.I am double checking the wiki as I type this because the entire system structure baffles me on this point. Essentially creature and people of the world level with you until being replaced by a stronger version of themselves, which still does not balance the issue really. I simply do not see the sense in not having a truly standard level of enemy depending upon type. I just prefer my rats to have 6 hp and stay that way depending on the environment they live in. For instance a wild rat may be scrawnier than a sewer rat, but is quicker, and a sewer rat may be thicker but its stronger. Various creatures have base attack strength and level up relative to each other so that a rat is not the equivalent of say a bandit. Also keep in mind I'm using the rat as an extreme example. The fact is sense enemies level in relation to you there is a sense of "who told the
m I was coming?" or "Why are these wolves suddenly here and different than before" But here I digress

Main Quest and immersion
I had absolutely NO incentive to complete the main quest of the game and never actually got around to purposely trying to any of the three previous times I had the game to play. According to my last save file and my journal I spent at least a week consistently playing the game and in that week I can accurately guess I spent between four and five hours playing the game. I can tell you this wasn't for lack of trying with the main quest. I just found myself doing other things for the simple fact that outside of wanting to please Patrick Stewart(Oh Captain My Space Captiain). Truly the quest seemed utterly unimportant and trivial outside of the occasional reminder that the Emperor had been murdered. Seriously if you removed the entire story line the game would be exactly the same. You are given absolutely no reason to care about this world at all. After being in a city for a while all the NPC's blur together due to the repeatedly used voice actors and lack of creative and different dialogue. I talked to dozens of different characters and they had the most 2D personalities ever. This is even worsened by how the game starts out really. Beyond a mild desire to find out who exactly the Mythic Dawn assassins were, and Patrick Stewart being his voice actor, I could not give to flying figs about Emperor Uriel Septim. You nev
er even find out why you start off as a prisoner, and for all you know you could be a child rapist or serial killer. I suppose part of this is so that you can imagine what your character is like and who they are. Yet there is a sense of being pulled out of the game by these nagging questions, and the lack of ability to give your character an even remotely unique perspective. The game is set up so that by befriending people you can gain quests easier and you must do so in the form of a mini game that makes about as much sense as watching a chicken run around and land on a color card with a choice on it. Also...I am amazing at the speech craft mini-game but it really is the MOST random way how holding a conversation. Essentially you have a wheel with mul
tiple choices of how to act:
And as you move about the wheel you watch the NPC's face to see how they will react if you select an object. The goal is the put the least emphasis on what will annoy them and the most on what will make the happy.

....You think I'm joking don't you?
Nope apparently this is the SOLE scope of human interaction. On the record I will say that my beloved Bioware typically only gives players a few choices of how to respond, be a jerk, be a good guy, be funny, ask questions. However at least you know what your character is saying and typically there is a neutral option so one can easily brisk through conversation. In Oblivion once you start a conversation you see it through until every choice on the wheel has been selected once. This mini-game ONLY exists in order to level up your speechcraft skill and gain quests. It is not bad exactly, but it ruins any sense of immersion one may have, and is honestly rather stunted. It pulls you out of the game.

Being pulled out of the game is a major issue I have with Oblivion because the moment you feel even a bit interested in the world you get pulled back out. The sensation of playing Oblivion is one I can describe as like being a traveler in a world not your own. Part of this is because you are suddenly tossed into the world, and the only back story that exists is in your head. Honestly this could have been fixed by coming up with two or three back stories for players to choose. Truthfully if the intent was for the player to come up with a back story for the character it is kind of ruined by having the player start off as a prisoner. It makes it incredibly hard to imagine your character being a farm boy visiting the city, a woman training to fight in The Arena, a man training to be part of the city guard, or a tavern wench when you automatically start off a prisoner. Simply a voice over explaining how different backgrounds land the character in prison would be nice. A farm boy who accidentally insulted a noble and ends up in jail on false charges and then having a distinct bonus in certain skills would make sense. Perhaps I ask too much but it is the little things that set up the world.

The world itself is also the issue. The fairly small group of voice actors and thousands of NPC's becomes a bit distracting at times, and I'm pretty sure the voice actors had no clue what kind of character they were voicing at times. The biggest variation seems to be either to sound grumpy, cheery, polite, or hungry. Far worse than that fact is that all of the NPC's seem like dull stereotypes without any of the humor or self parody to make enjoyable .It all blurs together and the lack of distinction makes you feel like your surrounded by aliens/robots, thus leading you to wonder why should you care about them. There is also the fact that because of the limited dialogue you fall short of actually knowing the few distinct characters well, and once their quests are done they are quickly forgotten. The only thing that sticks out in my mind about the game world at this point is the landscape which was far more interesting than any of the NPC's. In the Fable series players gain interactions by points/leve,l and the dialogue structure is somewhat similar to Oblivion but far more lucid and flowing. You are granted a changing set of interaction option based on what skills you know how to due successfully. From there a set of humorous/sweet actions occurs. Fable provides an amusing context to their "dialogue wheel" that does give you some limited sense of what each random NPC is like. The reason Fable is far more redeemable to me than Oblivion is quite simple. Oblivion puts on the facade of having a good and deep dialogue system that mostly comes off as frustrating, boring, and without truly redeeming qualities to it. It feels like your being forced to interact with dozens of NPC's whose voice actors and writers even got bored with them.

As much as I harp on the NPC issue I am going to restate a fact I said before, the world feels full of nothing. In the attempt to populate the world with people the player can kill, talk to, and listen in on the designers crippled the world. A frequent and eery joke in Oblivion is the fact that all the NPC's must have killed the children because the only indication of a child( and not just a very young PC) comes in the pair of "Child's Overalls" found in a crypt. In fact someone even added a mod so that children existed in the world because the fact is it is empty. You end up in a city and constantly feel like you have not really explored it. On the map it is massive but only a few dozen interchangeable NPC's inhabit it. The cities feel like outposts and the villages feel like taverns with houses around it. You run around and get the eery feeling like half the town has died, and that half was the interesting half. That has always disturbed me really, and it sort of distracts from the game after awhile. You find yourself not so much in a world anymore the more you stay in one area. I would prefer to have dozens of characters go about their daily business and not interact with me than those who interact poorly with me.

This leads to my next point....

Interactivity and Stealing.
Part of the open ended experience with Bethesda games is the ability to pick up and steal damn near anything and everything. This is...by far the stupidest mechanic ever because they make is damn near impossible to do so. If you steal an object in one town and fast travel to another you are immediately arrested in that town. Furthermore if you try to sell stolen objects no one will buy them because apparently they have serial numbers and a database for those numbers...I'm just guessing. It is a mechanic I have never encounter in a game before, and it is easy to see why. Stealing is such a temperamental system it constantly puts you on edge and you face being jailed fairly often. The worst part being most of the time I Accidentally picked up an object and put it in my inventory and the guards were summoned. There is no reasoning or simply being able to quickly drop it. The moment you pick it up you are done. Why in blazes would any player really steal a vase right in front of someone? You have to be quick and quiet and the house must be empty in order to be successful, and heaven forbid you have to kill someone innocent. For all the characterization options in Oblivion you honestly can't be an evil bastard. The guards ALWAYS know if you have done wrong as do the merchants. There is no rationale to the guards knowing if I stabbed someone in that persons basement at midnight when they live alone. There is certainty no reason for people in other towns to know. It is frustrating on multiple levels as you constantly have to be the good guy and unless a quest dictates otherwise you have to pay for your crimes even if they were not purposely committed.

In conclusion.
In the end I currently find myself asking one thing "Why should I play this game? Even if I did enjoy it on some subtly marginal level is it really worth getting into again?" Honestly I'm finding the answer to be no not really, if for no other reason than I despise the tutorial level. Oblivion is game that very die hard fans of the series will most likely enjoy. If you like story, a sense of urgency, fair leveling, and complete immersion however...you may find yourself in a rut. Overall I would still recommend renting the game or playing it at a friend's house because at least then you can see for yourself. It is a game worth playing at least once whether or not you end up liking it. I am glad to have had the experience and have learned from it. As I said die hard fans will fall head over heels for this game. I just honestly cannot find too much that is redeeming about it to really invest my time into it. In the end it's an experience, and it honestly made me value the modding community a bit more even if I can't partake in it.