Queer Characters: BioShock

N.B. I originally wrote this for GayGamer on March 24, 2011. GayGamer has since ceased to exist, so I am republishing this here, and will also do so with a few other pieces over the next few months.

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Rapture is a failed dream–an attempt at utopia. Such political and philosophical ideals intrinsically have high aims, and when remaining in the realm of dreams and words on pages, often seem as if they are an ideal that will solve peoples’ problems. Unfortunately, a utopia starts falling apart as soon as human beings enter. Rapture then becomes a funhouse mirror, distorting an individual’s image by building on what was fundamentally there.

Which is to say, everyone in Rapture has their own insecurities and identity problems. For me, however, that came into sharp focus with the character of Sander Cohen. Much as with any character in BioShock, what can be gleaned from his character is not told to us outright. I had the good fortune to speak with Ken Levine about Cohen recently, and as he stated about the game in general, “You have to trust your audience.”

In this case, trusting one’s audience means not treating them as if they need everything spelled out in exact terms. Much of the named cast is Jewish, for instance, but outside of their names, it is only remarked upon in the case of a few (Tenenbaum in particular). In Cohen’s case, that means the game never explicitly says Sander Cohen is someone who likes members of his own sex. Of course, as Levine confided, “If you asked Sander Cohen if he was gay, he’d probably say no.” It’s in the details.

BioShockCohenClose.jpgCohen is a tragic figure. A man who was known for heights of artistic achievements in poetry, music, plays, and sculpture. Most of his character is explored in Fort Frolic, though you can find references throughout the game (and even some in BioShock 2). He was part of an intellectual elite that sought to elevate Rapture and extol its virtues through creative expression. There was always a hint of trouble, however. As Leigh Alexander explores, his struggle with his Muse speaks to the larger struggle and obsessions that Rapture would later face.

His inspirations are drawn from many different sources. His Wikia article mentions George M. Cohan, a man who was known for his prolific work with Broadway and the U.S. musical. In an interview with Edge, Ken Levine revealed how he is a Noël Coward figure gone horribly awry. Then looking at his in-game design, he reminds me of Salvador Dali, with his quirky mustache. One can also easily explore references to Cole Porter and other artistic giants. These men represent quite a variety of sexuality, both firmly in place and ambiguous. Clearly, Cohen is a man drawn together of many parts, and not constrained to a single image.

Cohen, like many artists, is seeking approval. In the context of his work, that means praising his writing, singing his songs, and providing lovely critiques of his work. In the context of his life, it speaks to deeper-seated issues at which he only hints. One such instance is an audio diary that includes a poem called “The Wild Bunny:”

I want to take the ears off, but I can’t.
I hop, and when I hop, I never get off the ground.
It’s my curse, my eternal curse!
I want to take the ears off but I can’t!
It’s my curse! It’s my fucking curse!
I want to take the ears off!
Please!
Take them off!
Please!

BioShockBunny.jpgThe image of the bunny mask is one that serves as very integral to Cohen’s work. It’s incorporated into his sculptures, seen around Fort Frolic, and even has place in his bedroom. The fact that it is a literal mask serves as a reminder that most people in Rapture do wear masks of some sort–compare audio diaries by people and about them, for instance. Cohen in particular? Levine expands upon an issue many people probably feel, “Cohen is wearing a mask because he’s not comfortable with himself.”

In comparison to the other elite players in Rapture’s power structures, Cohen is among the most visible to a public eye. As an artist, his work depends on him releasing bits of himself for the public to consume. He offers a service like many of the others, but his is one which begs for public scrutiny, adulation, and patronage. Scrutiny has the tendency to bring to light characteristics about one’s self that might not be comfortable to hear, however.

As “The Wild Bunny” illustrates, the mask he wears has allowed for certain actions. He can hop, but it is in vain. It never actually gets him anywhere. The reference to the ears is curious when I consider that Levine mentioned among the reasons that particular mask was chosen was for convenience, as it served as visually distinctive in a scene where a sculpture of himself is staring in a mirror. The game does have other masks, ones of cats and bird (the latter somehow recalling plague doctor masks that would infiltrate the Commedia Dell’arte scene), but in terms of seeing an image from all angles, the ears serve as a much more distinctive feature.

Of course, while Levine and his fellow designers may not have deliberately intended the meaning, the use of the rabbit is particularly striking when one considers the issue of Cohen’s sexuality. Rabbits have long been known as tricksters, and in how Cohen uses the player, as well as how he is using a mask to deflect close scrutiny of himself, it serves as a very apt choice of animal. Furthermore, rabbits are known as symbols for fertility (if you ever wondered why both eggs and rabbits are used as symbols of Easter), and in the case of Cohen, putting on such a mask can be seen as a further indication of his desire to project an image of a particular type of sexuality to distract from further scrutiny.

How do we even know Cohen is homosexual? Considering the time period, and the eras of nostalgia BioShock evokes, it is useful to keep in mind the Hays Code that was at one time enforced in the United States. Homosexuality was forbidden to be discussed outwardly in films, though this did not prevent the inclusion of topics broaching such. Instead, ‘coding’ became a way of recognizing when people were discussing a man or woman who may not be of the heterosexual sort.

While the censorship was deplorable, it did cause people to play with those boundaries and create their own set of symbols and meanings. Which is something we’re seeing here. Cohen is never labeled as just gay. What we have are audio files calling him an old fruit, for instance. Atlas discusses his insanity and talks about how he’s a Section Eight, which stood for someone unfit to serve in the military for mental reasons, or for reasons of sexual perversion. Atlas clearly means the former, though the hints of the latter do not seem far from the mark.

All of this is particularly poignant considering a line from Andrew Ryan’s opening speech as we descend to Rapture:

A city where the artist would not fear the censor.

Was Rapture as free as it claimed, or was Cohen censoring himself?

BioShockCohenEntrance.jpg

In exploring Cohen’s relationship with Silas Cobb, one of his disciples you are sent to kill, Cobb discusses the mentor situation he shared with Cohen directly, but also hints at something else: “I used to love you, I used to think you were a musical genius. You know why? Because you paid my rent, you ancient hack!” Love here could well hint at something sexual, but not necessarily. Emotions run high in Rapture, and among artists, the stereotype is that emotions are allowed to explode all over the place. However, the specific use of the word, in a world which doesn’t seem to flippantly use it, automatically made me examine the relationship and further words spoken.

When fighting Cobb’s minions, he further states, “It’s all a game, errand boy! Cohen, Ryan! Two old birds pullin’ on each other’s milk sticks!” The innuendo there is pretty straight forward, and in consideration with what else has been said, seems to paint a picture further insinuating at Cohen’s interests. Of course, this led me to wondering what, if anything, happened between Ryan and Cohen.

Cohen ends up hating Ryan. In one of his audio diaries he states very clearly:

I could have been the toast of Broadway, the talk of Hollywood. But, instead, I followed you to this soggy bucket. When you needed my star light, I illuminated you. But now I rot, waiting for an audience that doesn’t… ever… come… I’m writing something for you, Andrew Ryan… it’s a requiem.

As Levine opined, real hate is very difficult to come by without love. Therefore, the relationship they shared obviously ran high on passion, particularly in building Rapture. In the case of Cohen, it led to resentment of what could have been, the opportunities he squandered. Considering the hints at this sexuality, it’s difficult not to read into it some unrequited feelings.

Did he ever approach Ryan? Did Ryan ever reciprocate if so? The game never tells us, and Levine stated that if it isn’t in the game, the designers and writers don’t fully flesh it out as it would be pointless. As regards love, he stated, “Even if there is no sexual component, there is romantic component in a lot of peoples’ love for each other.” In my mind, this means we are encouraged to wonder, even if we cannot prove it. Either way, Ryan did end up in another relationship, and had his focus shifted by a civil war.

BioShockCohenConcept.jpgThe fact that Cohen ends up murderous means he is in no way different than the vast majority of Rapture citizens. Levine mentioned that among his team’s goals were to create human beings, which meant that everyone was treated equally. Everyone also had the same capacity to fall and become depraved killers. What’s curious about him is what he decides to do with that urge: make art.

Jack, as the player, interacts with Cohen outside of just these audio diaries, after all. He wants us to kill his disciples, artists he locked in with him in Fort Frolic, and has turned against. They have in varying ways betrayed him. The betrayal is focused largely on the fact that they wish to outgrow him and become their own artists, as seen with how each one we fight is a different type of splicer. One is nitro, one has the ice plasmid, and one is Houdini. They each have their own disciplines of art, their own persons, and it is clear that in Cohen’s rise to fame he became very much of a tyrant.

Cohen could not control his own urges, and the oppression of such seems to have pushed out a desire to be controlling of everything else. When Anna Culpepper is critical of him, he has her killed, with the help of Ryan. Due to his lack of control over himself, he attempts to exert that control over others. He is the prototypical Republican bathroom scandal.

As ever, he pushes that one step further by having the player not only kill his disciples, but photograph them in their death poses for his Quadtych, a piece whereby people can remember him when he’s gone. It is twisted on many levels, beyond just the grotesque quality his work now displays. The use of the word Quadtych is odd in itself, as it brings to mind the often religious triptych. The proper term for a four-paneled polyptych would be tetraptych, however. This both distances itself from the actual artistic conventions of that type of work, as well as calling upon the reverence that particular medium brings to mind.

The work is also disturbingly sensual in some regards. He requires visual proof of the dead forms of his former students for his work of art. The reverence for their death serves as a warning to others of what could happen if they cross him, as well as showing his power over them. The mixture of the ability to wield power over their lives after they have rebuffed his tutelage, as well as to deliberate over their corpses so long speaks to a man who sees beauty in what the player has done, regardless of whether or not the player does.

How one decides to deal with Cohen could theoretically be said to reflect how one feels towards Cohen himself. Unfortunately, it would be more apt to say it reflects the player’s feelings toward achievements. Three achievements are associated with whether or not you attack Cohen: Irony encourages you to take a picture of his corpse; to get all the Power to the People stations, you must coax him out of his bedroom in Olympus Heights to attack you; and Found Cohen’s Room is requisite on the same as the previous. The message the achievements get across is that Cohen is an obstacle to remove, even if you can leave him alone. For me, playing on a PC where achievements did not matter, it was reminiscent of the decision to save or harvest the Little Sisters.

Which fits in with the BioShock team’s vision of everyone being on equal footing and treated the same. He is considered a boss character, is no easier than other fights, and warrants his own achievements, similar to Steinman, Wilkins, Ryan, and Atlus. He is reinforced as a major player, which should have already been obvious in how he traps the player in Fort Frolic.

Sander Cohen serves as an example of what repression can do to anyone, though it may strike a particular chord with issues concerning sexuality. It is also heartening to see that BioShock not only captured an era’s politics in the larger sense, but did not shy from exploring how it affected individuals from many different backgrounds. In a world where Cohen was not free to be himself or fully admit to himself who he was, he quickly succumbs to the lure of becoming a powermonger and control-freak. At the same time, his own struggles make it difficult to not have equal measures of empathy as revulsion.

Many thanks to Ken Levine for taking the time to discuss this post and Sander Cohen with me.

Posted in Character Analysis, LGBT, Uncategorized | Tagged ,

2016: Persona 4 Thoughts

I recall an IRC exchange with Matthew Gallant when Persona 4 released. This was during perhaps the more prolific part of my writing about games career, and I was covering a lot about sexuality. His excitement was that Kanji seemed to address sexuality at all outside the norm. It was a game I constantly meant to come back to. Approximately two years ago I started an earnest attempt to do so. Of course, it was punctuated with a lot of putting the game down and coming back to it. At the very start of the year I finally finished it! Yay!

Naturally, I was rather curious as to the depiction of Kanji and how his dungeon is explored. A steamy bathhouse, where he constantly discusses his lust for men, it seemed obvious what his sexuality would be. The answer to whether or not he is interested in men sexually seems rather more ambivalent, though. Having a crush on Naoto, a male-presenting detective who later comes forth as a woman, seems to further confuse him later. Exploring his social link also seems to play with the idea of feminine and masculine.

P4Kanji

You see, Kanji is more interested in feminine pursuits, such as making dolls. He has a sensitive side that he seems to cover with a brash, rebellious exterior. In many ways, it seems to expound on the ‘we all wear a persona when interacting with people.’ In fact, when dealing with Adachi at the end, I was struck by how one of the messages that I took away is that in a world increasingly connected, it can be easy to slip into having one unified persona across multiple platforms, rather than accepting that we contain multitudes. However, it felt like Persona 4 was very confused as to how to approach gender.

What did not aid this in particular is that Yosuke is constantly teasing and mocking him about it. Asking his opinions on how a guy looks. Making comments about how he’d be uncomfortable with Kanji sharing a tent with him if Kanji did actually, y’know, like the D. Yosuke seems obsessed to a point that were his character given a slightly different glance, one could surmise his own homophobia could well be rooted in issues with his own sexuality.

P4Yosuke

When I started coming out to people in my past, after a full year of having been out, one of my male friends confessed to me that he watched gay porn at times, because he wasn’t quite sure what he liked. There is room to explore such, and I feel like a lot of our media, Persona 4 included, fails to fully explore how confusing sexuality can be as a male teenager. Kanji ultimately feels to me that he is mostly interested in pursuing his traditionally considered more feminine pursuits, and has a thing for more masculine-presenting women. Which would be fine in and of itself to explore, though it is confusing that both his and Naoto’s plotlines start off seeming to explore instead queer plotlines.

Naoto is a character I similarly felt confused by. This is a character who is very obviously presented as male at first, with titles like the Detective Prince, and whose dungeon encounter expressed bodily transformation desires when finding out ‘Naoto is really a woman!’ What this eventually boils down to is that everyone finds out she’s a woman, that she adopted a male persona as a mapping on to her favorite detective novels, and that it was a way for taking her seriously, how she saw the ideal detective (and seemingly saying that she felt it would be easier to be taken seriously as a man in that field).

Again, parts of this actually sound worth exploring: the need for women to adopt more masculine traits to make any headway in certain fields, how feminine aspects are undervalued, and the general professional hazard of being a woman who wants to be taken as exceeding at her job. With Naoto, none of this seems to actually gel, though. Instead, everyone suddenly feminizes her, sometimes to a discomfort that she seems to express. In couching it in the introduction of maybe this character is trans, it seems like the intent was to make this edgier! And then back down and make it all more ‘palatable.’ Again, rather than ambiguity, we seem to be presented with ambivalence about how to present Naoto to the audience.

Which means that in general, I enjoyed the larger strokes that Persona 4 was trying to paint with: we all have varying masks we don dependent on the situations we find ourselves in. Our ‘true selves’ are more complicated than a single vision, and this means we choose what would be more successful. As it regards exploring gender and sexuality, it feels like there could have been a good base to explore what a confusing mess it is to be a teenager, especially when you may feel isolated from everyone else’s experiences, but that is not what the game goes for. While it seems people maintain there is ambiguity in Kanji’s sexuality, it feels like ultimately they might leave it open for him to be bisexual, but do conflate his feminine interests with being responsible for the majority of his confusion (I don’t understand how this conflates into a bathhouse, as I don’t see that as necessarily in the same vein).

P4Adachi

One last thing that did strike me, and seems like it will be a central theme in Persona 5 going forward, is that we have reason to suspect and question our authority figures. Adachi flatly admits his reasons for becoming a police officer have little to do with justice, and more with holding a gun. It is a sober reminder that we can have a tendency to project a persona on a profession, sometimes forgetting the very real, complicated, messy, and flawed (some much more so than others, even murderously so) humans behind the mask of a profession.

 

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Queer In Marvel Heroes

My boyfriend and I have found a game into which we can settle for now: Marvel Heroes 2015. For me this is an amusing turn of events: it’s been within the last handful of years that I have become rather enamored with the Marvel Universe (having mostly stuck to indies and DC Vertigo before), and I did not really expect to be sucked into a free-to-play MMO of sorts. Part of how I snagged my boyfriend into the Marvel Universe (fairly easy considering the media saturation currently happening) was by reading Young Avengers and seeing queer representation in Wiccan and Hulkling. It then helped to see comics such as Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan, having Captain Marvel round up the wacky space hijinks, and She-Hulk to represent an amusing take on the legal profession (somehow we have found ourselves surrounded by a cabal of nerdy queer lawyer friends).

So, most days we at least log in to Marvel Heroes 2015, and at this point we’ve spent a fair bit of money in the game. In fact, two of the more significant purchases in my memory are for skins of existing characters: Scarlet Witch’s enhanced skin to turn her into Wiccan (a gay Jewish son of hers; it’s more complicated, but that’s comics) and All-New X-Men’s Iceman skin (he was recently outed by Jean Grey in the All-New X-Men run). Were they to release an Ultimate Colossus skin, I would likely also pick him up (he also being of the man-loving-man variety).

My Wiccan character standing next to the boyfriend's "Hawkguy" character.

My Wiccan character standing next to the boyfriend’s “Hawkguy” character.

Marvel Heroes 2015 is among that line of action RPGs that sticks to an isometric view and is heavy on its loot; these skins I have purchased are cosmetic (and in the case of Wiccan, have a completely different vocal track). Wiccan actually does reference Hulkling, his in-comic boyfriend, exclaiming that Teddy (Hulkling’s actual name) will never believe how easy Wiccan is finding it to fight as a real superhero. Iceman will hit on women, however. This makes sense, as the comics change outing his younger self pulled forward in time (again, comics) only occurred recently. While some would argue there have been hints historically, reading a text as queer is not new, and is not likely to go away any time soon, Supreme Court rulings only carrying so far in how far they can push change.

Today, as I was playing Iceman to farm some daily Shared Quests, Iceman in fact hit on Ms. Marvel, “Hey, is there a Mr. Marvel.” Wearing this young Iceman skin, the one who was recently outed, it struck me as odd to suddenly think of my character: here is someone trying so hard to hit on women that it is a bit overbearing, and probably even more telling considering how his sexuality is currently known to me.

This is odd.

The reason this is odd for myself is because I haven’t done much thinking of who my character inhabits in this universe of Marvel’s where the varying realities and alternate realities can comingle and all exist next to each other (good way to explain how you can have dozens of Scarlet Witches or Doctor Dooms running around on the same screen). This is a game whose primary focus is the game, the story serving seemingly as an also-ran of the typical comic book events. If you’ve played either the X-Men Legends or Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, you can pretty much hash out how that formula goes.

Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, in his All-New X-Men oufit.

Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, in his All-New X-Men oufit.

Which made me think in particular about the mutant metaphor that Marvel relies on: mutants are a minority among minorities (a point Chris Claremont makes in a forward to God Loves, Man Kills, which also made me raise an eyebrow). The idea is that the mutants are loathed and hated across the world: laws are set up to restrict them, they are lynched, and everyone seems invested in somehow controlling, subjugating, or ridding themselves of them as a species.

Games have not communicated this well; if anything, they have proven why people should be frightened of these super-powered heroes who are able to wreak havoc at a whim. Part of what seems to make the mutants, and the X-Men in particular, so appealing is their use of their powers and fighting a struggle that they always seem to surmount (not without casualties). This makes most games about them into a power fantasy, though the minority status is relegated to barks from enemies calling them less than human. Or to quote some Purifiers from Marvel Heroes 2015, “Human rights are for humans!

While at Wabash College, one of my later English courses was on the character of New York and how it not only has been depicted in varying forms of media over the ages, but how that character has shifted with its varying populations. Comics, naturally, became a talking point. The professor, with a mischievous look in his eyes, listened as I explained the mutant metaphor as a parallel to the struggle for queer rights in the 1970s, before he jokingly and tauntingly mentioned that the Jews had claimed the X-Men first.

I’ve met many people who feel like outcast in some regard who identify with the X-Men, and the mutant struggle. The frankly insulting comparison of Professor X and Magneto as analogues for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X is frankly so because it tries to simplify into a base comparison what a mutant struggle would be as compared to the black civil rights movements. It is not a good analogue to map it so squarely into real events in our history, even if we can see glimmers of it in varying struggles among different communities.

This makes me wonder what a game that tackles that would be like: it is the struggle of depicting privilege and having a feeling of not being able to control your fate as easily as a more privileged person might. That’s hard to convey in a game where you just beat people, beasts, and demons up while leveling and grabbing loot. Perhaps in a more story-focused game, which theoretically the announcement of the Telltale Games collaboration with Marvel could bring, this could be conveyed. However, the quest to constantly better myself along the exact same track as someone like Tony Stark or Thor (where I am to be an equal in that system in the name of game balance) makes those odd barks about my character’s inhumanity, or my noticing a slight discrepancy with a currently evolving storyline about adopting further minority stories, seem like it’s more of an, “Oh yeah, aren’t I supposed to be prosecuted by the public?” moment than an actual event in the game.

Posted in Uncategorized

Rewinding My Personality

This post will contain spoilers for the first episode of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange. There are content warnings for violence and privacy intrusions.

I liked the first episode of Life Is Strange, though for a review I would recommend Maddy Myers over at Paste Magazine. Similarly, I was not surprised to see Todd Harper look at the rewind mechanic of the game. The protagonist, Max, gains the power to rewind time, and over the course of this first episode feels very much like a tutorial for how to use that, providing a sandbox in which to try it in various scenarios. Harper noted an interaction with drones that I completely missed, whereas I noted a few people completely walked by the fact that they could help a young teen woman not be hit by a football later in the episode.

Harper further elaborates on other games that have used the rewind mechanism, but what I find interesting is that in this game, it saves me the time of being a save scummer. Instead of saving right before a decision (not actually possible, as this auto-saves), making both decisions, and then sticking with one, I can easily just start rewinding time after a decision and see how it goes. This actually caused some waffling on my part: wanting to see how both options were presented before making a decision. Max does comment on this, never giving an indication as to which would be better.

LifeIsStrangeEp1

How does the player define better? I began to realize I was slowly learning more about Max the more I played with rewinding time. Here was a character who had just moved to a town in which she had lived before, is attending an elite school, and apparently has a great future as a photographer ahead of her. Oh, and one of her old best friends lives in the town. However, her need to be liked can be reflected in her ability to rewind time, as Harper notes. She doesn’t naturally have the answers to many of the questions her classmates pose her, which puts her in the position of being able to either walk away or use her ability to gain their good graces.

In particular, the achievements in the game seem to try and push for that narrative, as the majority are for taking photographs, a handful of which only occur when getting a certain rewind portion correct and then photographing the result (a football missing a student’s head leads to it hitting a window, which can then be photographed; or a bird whose life is saved by lifting a window allows for the same bird to be photographed again in a later scene).

Which leads to a feeling that to achieve the full intent of the game, and what is expected of Max (at least from the developers’ point of view), one has to use this device to do as much as possible, and to test the extent of these powers. Therefore, better seems to indicate use it whenever possible, but at the crux of important decisions where one has to go one way or another, and can’t rewind to come up with a third option, there is no definitive answer, or even one so basically broken down as paragon/renegade. Gather as much information as possible in order to make the decision you feel would be best.

In particular, in a later scene, Max’s former best friend, Chloe, is being harangued by her father-in-law. I had guided Max to hide in a closet and the decision came up whether or not to interrupt the scene. Having earlier gone to fix Max’s camera, I had snooped around the house, finding evidence that Max’s father-in-law was both the security guard who had been harassing Kate earlier, and that he was creepily surveying the entire campus with cameras. A teacher had earlier asked Max to sign a petition to stop this from occurring, though it appears to already be in effect anyway.

Much of this can actually be skipped, but it meant that in that moment, knowing that this father-in-law was a surveillance fiend, I felt Max, whose questioning if anything she does is correct, would have chosen to remain out of the picture and not focus on her for now. She has an odd power set, is new-again in town, and has very few close friends. Chloe would later bemoan Max not getting involved, which seems out of character for her, considering she expressly stated that Max being caught there would have disastrous consequences for her (then again, we don’t know Chloe’s full story, and she had been getting stoned right before this).

This Telltale games style of adventure game seems to thrive on difficult decisions, and I much appreciate the fact that not only has Dontnod added a mechanic where I don’t feel even the urge to research my options beforehand, or needing to go look up what happens afterward, but embraced it within the framework of Max’s own confusion and willingness to be liked. It does inform about not only her own insecurities, but mimics what I felt my own reaction was in trying to figure out how I would even approach this particular run through the game. As I was getting to learn who Max was, she is learning what her limits are, and together it felt like we were both coming to terms with that before heading further into the story.

Posted in Character Analysis, Criticism, Dontnod Entertainment, Impressions, Life Is Strange | Tagged , , ,

Fumbling Through Wolfenstein

Content warning for discussions of genocide, extreme violence, and other atrocities associated with World War II. Spoiler warnings for Wolfenstein: The New Order.

I am very much a third culture kid. Despite being a dual-citizen of the US and Germany (and spending good portions of my life in both), in the US I am considered a German, and in Germany I am considered an American. And yet, I find both cultures to be fairly alien to me quite regularly (it is not uncommon to have friends express shock that I haven’t experienced this thing or another that everybody else apparently has), but can navigate both with a fair amount of ease (it helps that both of these cultures privilege being white). At the same time, since most of my schooling has been in the US, this means I have had to become very accustomed with World War II.

Being obsessed with wars was something that I saw many teen boys do as I was growing up. Having to listen to details about battles during the Civil War in front of small churches, or something akin, were a grand to-do around lunch time. I found myself interested in the social aspects of war, and because of the atrocities my country had committed against classes of people (Jews, Sinti and Romani, gay men), I had to constantly prove I wasn’t some German who was ignoring the past (because that’s apparently a thing some USians seem to think of Germans).

Therefore, I wanted to play through Wolfenstein: The New Order because I had heard it tackled topics like concentration camps and such. Recently, my maternal grandmother, who is German, had also passed, and there is some small amount of guilt there for never learning fully about her experiences growing up as a young girl during the Third Reich.

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And yet, playing through, I was left with some unease. Sure, there were depictions of horrible things, and there was acknowledgement of the horrors of the Third Reich, but going through the concentration camp felt fairly sparse. It was almost like walking through a village in Skyrim, or Lothering in Dragon Age: Origins. This may partially be because the true atrocities of concentration camps were the experience, which the protagonist, B.J., did not really have to go through. There is a scene where a machine tattoos his identification number on his arm (and a gruesome scene later where he cuts it off), but there was never really any sense that what I was experiencing was that bad.

B.J. is removed from a lot of what has happened. He is a blonde American with a square jaw, blue eyes, and a kick-ass attitude. He is the quintessential action star who is useful for killing Nazis.

I was also rather curious as to what it was like to live in a futuristic 1960 where Germany had won through the use of advanced technology (that they had stolen). Being among the rebels, however, there were only snippets here and there. A mother wanting to report her son for putting on lipstick, a letter detailing the story of a woman whose Sapphic desires would get her into trouble, and some audio files from B.J.’s love interest reading a diary about a woman who was murdering Nazis and had an abortion. Most of the context clues of the world lay in scattered newspapers printed in their original language (with translations available to the player).

There was an attempt at world building, but because of the verbs available to B.J., and the company he keeps, it became rather limited in what it could show me, the player: the German and American who grew up and has read through a culture that had to deal with its guilt following the end of the war, and those that see it as a triumph on the world stage at the exact same time.

One thing I did appreciate is that the Nazis were humanized. It may be strange to wish humanization for Nazis, but I feel it important in the fact that these were humans who committed these horrors and atrocities. We must not forget that all it takes is humans to be so cruel to each other. In fact, with the push into using machines, robots, and enhanced humans, there is the active decision to give part of their humanity up in order to achieve their goals. There is horror to be found in complacency with the status quo that robs others of their humanity.

In particular, the second nemesis B.J. faces is Frau Engel, a woman who runs the concentration camp that B.J. visits. Her first encounter with B.J. is on a train onto which he has smuggled, where she tests whether he is an undesirable by playing a game where the player has to choose a card that best illustrates a word or concept she throws out (sexy, etc.). The trick is that he can’t be an undesirable, because otherwise he would attempt to take the gun that was laying on the table and shoot her (the conceit being that undesirables have no hope, and that they would be pushed to desperation).

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Later, in the concentration camp, it is possible to overhear her talking with her effete male lover that she gets to have her fun now: she raised her children for the empire. Her selfishness fits in well with the sadistic character who shows people old vacation and war photos to see if they crack under the strain of her eye that can ferret out impurities. In fact, her lover, Bubi, seems to have a certain effete affectation to contrast with her more domineering attitude. I could never quite tell if the game what the game wanted me to think of him, where his lover, Engel, was clearly supposed to be an antagonist. She is far more present, and far more a danger to B.J., coming back even after having her lower face crushed by one of the robots she uses to control the concentration camp.

Then, in between chapters, B.J. returns to the rebels’ base. For the most part, these characters are distinct for the fact that they are outcasts in some fashion or another, banded against the system that would likely be rid of them anyway. One of these rebels is J, who seems to be this alternate timeline’s Jimi Hendrix: a black man who plays guitar left-handed and infuses the game and B.J’s reality with some psychedelics.

When B.J. asks why J doesn’t fight, J points out that the US was not much better. That the America B.J. fought for, the freedom he thinks he stands for, is all based on his privilege. Were he black, he would not likely have the same views.

This aligns well with the fact that Deathshead, the main antagonist, accuses BJ of just slaughtering Germans indiscriminately, and not being any better than the injustice against which is supposedly fighting. This argument does not work as well for me, as the Germans are not quite characters in and of themselves; the sense of a family life is hinted at, but almost every interaction is with a soldier, who yells out the same barks in German, and who must ultimately be seen as nothing more than an obstacle. Still, it does bring to light the fact that there is no black and white in this particular version of the world either.

It therefore makes sense that B.J. ends up sacrificing himself at the end: given that he is an American who woke up to this world after being stuck in his body for many years, and never truly inhabited this world, he is not one who can affect change in it. He did not live under the yolk of oppression that the Nazis had placed on the world. Plus, as J put its, he is complicit with ‘The Man,’ the big US institution that fought for freedom while not exercising those rights on its own soil. He is a man of action, who is useful during the verbs that require me to kill and destroy. During understanding cultures who have seen horrors he cannot quite fathom, he would be worthless.

However, even though I grew to appreciate the glimpses that were being taken, I realized that this was not a piece of media I would have discussed as a thought exercise with my grandmother. I could gladly discuss Draußen vor der Tür or Die Blechtrommel, this one had more for me to think about as someone who bridges that gap between (and often feels estranged from) both US and German cultures.

Posted in Character Analysis, Criticism, Informal Review | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Gaming Made Me: How I Learned to Stop Fearing and Love Decisions

As a child, I was deemed a born diplomat. The easiest anecdote to relate was when my parents would ask whom I loved more, and I would respond both, giving a compliment to each. As is often the case with a certain people, I found my teen years full of throwing everything away and then doing the opposite of what would please everyone. After graduating college? That all became muddled, and only recently have I found myself more confident in my ability to make decisions for myself.

Part of this was due to economic stability, but another was learning who I was outside of the environment provided by school. This is the type of environment where I was always on; I was always playing a role. To varying degrees, I still do this, but I am much more aware of it all and much more in control of that image based on whom I may be around at any given time.

Which is why I found games to be an essential playground for that discovery. Playing games where I could make choices, no matter how superfluous they were to actually changing the plot, made me realize things about myself. It was a chance to be on stage again, essentially. This also meant arguing with myself and considering the decision I had made.

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It occurred to me over this past weekend, as I played Walking Dead: Season Two, that I was making decisions with a very firm idea in mind. Part of the impetus was that I only had a limited amount of time to make a decision (not really, since I play in windowed mode, I can click outside the window and stall, but I have been purposely avoiding this tactic). Therefore, I found my Clementine tired of everyone’s immature bullshit. Here I was, a small girl, leading a group because they were too incapable of functioning. Granted, this is largely because everyone has varying degrees of mental health issues, considering the environment in which they find themselves.

Then again, balancing between Clementine and my own projection of her reactions, I just figured as a leader, I had to start making some harsh decisions considering the survival of the group. Sure, this led to some questioning of my motives and tactics as regards other characters in the game, but that’s what makes this more interesting to me than just killing demons over and over again in Diablo 3 (though there is a certain joy in that as well).

This was further reiterated in my recent replay of the Dragon Age series. In Origins I found myself playing a politically machinating noblewoman who married Alistair for the chance to place herself and her line back in good standing, more than actual love of him. Whereas in Dragon Age II, I found myself playing a character who was trying to constantly be the big sister to everyone. This led to good mix of responses that were incredibly brunt, diplomatic, and snarky in good measure. Breaking away from the paragon/renegade system meant I felt more free not to game the system, so to speak.

Which is relatively new to me: not gaming the system. I can spend hours theorycrafting over various card games, RPGs, etc. Yet there is a certain thrill at abandoning this when it comes to storytelling, and that is the chance to become what I believe an actual human being would be in these situations.

So, games have more recently given me a more measured reaction to situations. I feel more confident in my ability to analyse a situation and be okay if I don’t make the 100% perfect decision anymore. Not having to game the system has moved me away from the same analysis paralysis I would often face in real life, worried about how others would perceive my actions. It’s a common lesson to learn, but in my case, games helped me grasp on to that concept once again after a tumultuous past few years.

Posted in BioWare, Design, Dragon Age: Origins, Impressions, Mass Effect | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Choice Effect

Potential spoilers: Dragon Age, The Witcher.

Despite donning a different role in the various games I play, I find that when faced with the option of subjugating someone, or siding with those who hold systemic power, I always pause. Recently replaying the recent BioWare RPGs and The Witcher series, it struck me how I could not side against the Scoia’tael in the latter, nor could I find myself wanting to side against the mages in one of the former. Something in me innately wants to rebel against the notion of further subjugation, regardless of whether it would be part of my character or not.

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What seems like a fairly simple observation began when I started comparing The Witcher to Dragon Age, as I have seen many do. There are arguments about better combat systems, a character with whom to identify, a better world, and more powerful decision making. The arguments go back and forth both ways, though that last point struck me as interesting, because there is systemic racism that is apparent in both games. Yet, when I looked at my import from the first Witcher to its sequel, my decisions barely had any consequence. Then I recalled the end of Dragon Age II and realized why that was.

A story that a game metes out is a system in and of itself. The world that has been built is tied into that story (as well as the mechanics for progression; it so happens that in these two franchises, violence is rampant), and the only true way to have any effect is to change that story itself. Importing decisions means that any decision I make in a game will be of limited scope. I can side with the Scoia’tael all I want, but that won’t change the fact of their oppression, or the plight of the various elves and dwarves found wandering that world. In Dragon Age II, it is Anders’s reckless act of blowing up the Chantry in Kirkwall that allows BioWare’s writers to move the circumstances surrounding the oppression of mages forward, nothing that my Grey Warden did in Origins, nor any decisions I made in the sequel.

What strikes me about this is that it is an interesting parallel for effecting social change in real life: until the narrative changes in some significant way, all the work is merely a build up toward it. Of course, in these games, these acts happen no matter what, meaning my choice of whether to be for or against such large-scale changes colors which side I am on and how I would perceive such. Looking at the US right now, depending on how one feels about same-sex marriage, all of the seeming progress that is occurring right now means there are a range of reactions and emotions, based on peoples’ own actions and efforts in that struggle.

Which is to say, my hesitance in siding with the humans against the Scoia’tael has a clear impact in that the Geralt I play would clearly have a role in my mind, and would clearly have a mindset on how to approach decisions (granted, this one is alien to me, which is why I have not gone that route yet, despite some arguments that ‘both sides are just as bad,’ which is an argument at which I reflexively roll my eyes).

These are games that are built on decisions, and people seem disappointed when the decisions do not lend themselves to larger changes that carry over from game to game, or even from decision to decision in the same game sometimes. But, if we allow ourselves to inhabit the characters that would make such a decision, it does allow for a narrative to be constructed. These types of games are a collaboration of the players’ imaginations and reasons with the story being told.

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