Home > A-to-Z Challenge, Geek, Mass Effect, Science Fiction, Video games > A-to-Z Challenge Twenty-Two: Video Games and Narrative Literacy

A-to-Z Challenge Twenty-Two: Video Games and Narrative Literacy

A recent article by Emily Gera at Polygon focuses on the controversy in the new Tomb Raider game that arose when gamers learned that it would include the suggestion of rape. It’s a pretty decent article, and as Emily reports, writer Rhianna Pratchett found a silver lining to the controversy:

“There’s silver linings that come from just talking about these things,” she said. “Once I did get announced and could talk, we could finally discuss how we think about female characters in games.”

It goes without saying that this is an important topic. Female characters in video games have often been stereotyped under the “damsel in distress” theme, or they’ve been objectified to conform to some kind of ideal sexual standard, with exaggerated curves or large breasts. So it’s good that we’re starting to finally have a dialogue on how women are portrayed and what kinds of roles that they have in the games. Recent polls show that nearly half of gamers are female.

It’s actually pretty hard to find games with positive portrayals of women that aren’t also hypersexualized. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few possibilities (and I’m sure someone might disagree with me, and that’s okay). The first up is the female version of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect games. For Mass Effect 3 she was given a default look that was voted upon by gamers and it tilts away from what I’d like to see, but the fact that they featured the female version in ads I think was a big step.

I would also nominate Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2, who was very self-sufficient and intelligent. Give her a gun and a problem to solve and she’ll take care of business.

While it’s true that there’s a bit in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 where she gets injured and you have to find some kind of extract to help heal her (kind of playing into the “damsel in distress” narrative–but she does get right back up and kick ass afterward), she’s a strong person and, I feel, completely undermined most treatment of women in video games.

There’s another thing that Pratchett brings up:

According to the writer, the games industry is only beginning to gain a sense of what to do with the narrative designers they have hired, adding that often these writers are hired guns brought in late during development. The result is similar to attempting to write a film while the film is being shot – games writing is continuously in flux as other aspects of the release are being tweaked and re-worked.

There are some games that really highlight this process, with subplots that seem to go nowhere, or are completely dropped. One of the most obvious examples in my mind is Mass Effect 3, where it seems as if several of the important foreshadowing and subplots from Mass Effect 2 were just completely forgotten (whatever happened to the dark energy subplot?).

Gera further quotes Pratchett:

“The narrative literacy in games is quite low,” said Pratchett, “but we should be interacting with all areas of the team because story comes through everything.”

I don’t know if I agree with Pratchett when she says that narrative literacy in games is low. Perhaps there are design and end product issues with games related to the narrative, which makes sense given the focus of games on the gameplay mechanics. In fact, it can seem sometimes like a story is being told at you like a movie, which often seems at odds with the interactive nature of video games. I can imagine that ways to get around the limitations in games is to keep writers on staff full-time so they can work out these details before they even start coding.

However, I think that there are several games that are high in narrative literacy, maybe because they’re so story-driven. Let me list a few of them here and talk about them briefly. I have plans to delve deeper into some of them at a later time (I’ve been saying this for over a year now and life keeps happening…). So here’s my brief list:

  1. Mass Effect Trilogy
  2. Bioshock Trilogy
  3. Alan Wake
  4. Half-Life 2 (and Episodes 1 and 2)

Mass Effect often strains under the weight of its own narrative, as does Bioshock. However, the central stories of all three Mass Effect games is classic science fiction. For instance, in the first game Sovereign, the Reaper–a member of an ancient race of sentient machines–talks about how they have used technology to guide the technological and social progress of races in the galaxy for millions of years. That’s a very fascinating idea to explore. Mass Effect 2 raises questions of identity, a la Shepard’s resurrection at the hands of Cerberus.

Bioshock is one of the most complex series of games I’ve ever played. I actually call them philosophical dissertations in video game form. The first one especially has my attention as being a take on Ayn Rand’s objectivism. It has a lot of imagery relating to her novel (second-rate, in my opinion) Atlas Shrugged that’s really important. Bioshock 2 takes on different philosophies, like altruism. Bioshock Infinite is probably the most complex of the three, and has a lot to say about determinism and the illusion of choice.

Alan Wake is a favorite of mine because it’s almost a meta-narrative. It’s got a pretty straightforward horror story narrative, but it plays on the video game aspects pretty interestingly and the story is pretty awesome. The game and the narrative work together as light is your best weapon, and light is perhaps the central motif of the game.

It’s hard for me to talk briefly about Half-Life 2 and the expansion games. As far as video games go, I would rate it as the most loyal to science fiction. I mean, think about it: the protagonist is a “rogue physicist” with an MIT education. That’s pretty outstanding. One of the parts that sticks with me the most is one of Doctor Wallace Breen’s communications the protagonist, Gordon Freeman:

Tell me, Doctor Freeman, if you can: You have destroyed so much. What is it, exactly, that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.

You spend most of the game destroying and, yes, killing to get to this final part. The antagonist levels this criticism on you, and it gets at the heart of the paradox of Gordon Freeman as a protagonist: he only destroys. And it’s true: there isn’t one thing in the game, that I can’t think of, that he actually creates.

Anyway, I think I’ll actually be getting to writing more on all four of those. But for now, I hope you enjoyed this post, gentle readers.

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