So Long Release Calendar

Quick Update

Some of you may have noticed I have removed the Release Calendar from the blog. The effort alone to keep it up to date was driving me crazy but I did have some other reasons linked to this month’s essay theme. Much like choosing to write a review, preview, analysis, what have you of any particular game, the writer is also choosing to give space to that game, to be promoted and discussed and talked about in a way that will ultimately be tied to someone’s decision to spend money or not on a game.

This actually started with the PC release schedule. Not only is it beyond incomprehensible to find upcoming PC releases with reliable release dates (unless the game is cross-platform with a console), but there is a veritable mountain of smaller games from indie studios and even single developers that utilize platforms like Steam and Itch without needing solid releases. The PC release schedule I put out for February was about half the size it should have been if not for all the games on Steam labeled simply as releasing in February 2018 or even just Q1 2018.

And that is before we reach the games that I just don’t think I can promote in good conscience. Anyone that read through that release schedule may have seen a number of games that made you raise your eyebrows. Kingdom Come: Deliverance was all over due to its release on two consoles and PC. Also a game labeled The Trump Supremacy, no thank you. And a game about being a pickup artist which I thought was supposed to be a parody FMV game, but the devs were apparently reaching out for reviews and were very serious about the idea that it would teach nerds to be lovers. Just, no.

So the Release Calendar is gone for now. It may come back in another form eventually but I need to retool the format if that is the case. I will see you all in March with another essay.

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Games are a product of people, they should be read that way

Spoiler Warning: The articles here will almost always contain spoilers as we break down and analyze the stories of the video game industry.

 

It is starting to look like 2018 in gaming is going to be (I personally hope anyway) the year that critics, journalists, and other writers in the community start holding creators accountable alongside their games. For many years, and the film industry still struggles with this, too, the status quo has been that because the team behind a game is made up of many different people and their different tasks, the game should be reviewed and promoted separately from the problematic members of the development team. In the first six weeks or so of the year we have seen serious hostile work allegations against David Cage and the executives of Quantic Dream as they promote their new problematic interactive experience Detroit: Become Human, a sound designer for Subnautica spouting racist remarks alongside their Creative Director equivocating between a female protagonist option and “core gameplay elements,” and the release of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, whose lead developer was co-founded by an outspoken gamergate supporter that also became hostile in the face of diversity challenges to their claims of historical accuracy.

These three game releases and their surrounding controversies are almost the perfect examples of challenges to the critique, review, and analysis side of the game industry.

Subnautica, from developer Unknown Worlds, had been in Early Access ( a term that describes a game still in active development but also available for purchase via the Steam platform) for about three years and as it ramped up to launch this past January a series of racist tweets from the game’s sound designer surfaced. Simon Chylinski made derogatory remarks about India as well as claiming that “3rd world immigrants” brought “3rd world crime rates” with them to other countries, as well as other offensive tweets dated just this past November. As these were being bandied about and remarked on throughout Games Twitter another tweet surfaced from the games director, Charlie Cleveland, asking whether players wanted a female game character or improved core game mechanics, as those were apparently the options.

    Chlynski has since been fired with many of the dev team members disavowing all knowledge of his views and tweets and Cleveland has apologized for the poll, claiming he actually wanted a female character for the game from the start but it somehow didn’t work out and that he hopes in the future to create more games with female protagonists. Because the studio made the effort to let go of the sound designer and has, at least in theory, committed to not be idiots and equivocate woman and gameplay in the future so that remains to be seen. I actually own Subnautica and haven’t quite gotten into it, but I think reviewing and talking about this game is fine, again as long as Unknown Worlds and Cleveland stick to their word.

Then there is Kingdom Come: Deliverance, long in development from Warhorse Studios and published by Deep Silver, which touts being an “historically accurate” role-playing game set in 15th century Bohemia. Highly criticised for hiding behind the “historical accuracy” label in order to exclude any non-white Europeans, this is one of those stories that probably would have slipped away to a non-issue if the toxic community and the insistence of Warhorse co-founder Daniel Vavra, a vocal gamergate proponent, that their game was at the forefront of using facts to denounce social justice warriors and revisionist historians. Unfortunately that accuracy did not stretch to actual game mechanics as the game still uses health potions and even save potions (yes, saves are based on beer being in your inventory) which are, of course, not real objects. In other words, historical accuracy is for story, not for the actual interactive elements of the game.

Had Vavra not been so vocal in his opposition to race issues about his game this would have been just another very white game that would have been catalogued with a bunch of other very white games and likely we would move on. Not that that is itself a great practice in this industry as it has set us on a fairly white and boring course in video games. But gamergate was a horrendous event in this community. It still echoes today and people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and of course women, still fight harassment every day, every hour. I understand that the development studio is made up of upwards of 70 people, but Vavra is a co-founder of Warhorse. His words hold a weight that sets the tone for the game’s entire development and the company’s response to controversy and he not only has shown he is unable to handle criticism of development choices, but he is more than willing to stoke the same flames we tried to hold back four years ago. That being said the game really should just be left to be bought or not, it doesn’t deserve coverage or print space.

That brings us to Quantic Dream and their own founder David Cage. For years Quantic Dream has developed and published divisive games such as Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the States), Beyond: Two Souls, and Heavy Rain, which have focused on quick-time  heavy interaction and adventure game style exploration to bring what Cage has claimed to be a heightened and more emotional interactive experience to gaming. These are games that are unfortunately right in the per-view of this blog, as they to with interactivity, story, and authorship in a way many top tier games in the industry do not. I say unfortunately, as back in January of this year two French publications released articles detailing a lifestyle of hostility and immaturity at Quantic Dreams that sounds more like a frat house than a highly respected game studio.

Former employees of QD detailed a series of photoshopped images passed around that pictured the executives of the company dressed in various states of undress with images of penises and dildos. Sexist and racist remarks were also detailed. On the surface these can be construed as a couple of bosses that want their work environment to be laid back and fun and goofy, but these are grown men hitting on their employees and incubating a toxic atmosphere. Casual Friday can keep people relaxed and feeling comfortable as they sit at their desks, remarking on how hot Ellen Page is while she stars in your supposedly “high art interactive experience” is just wrong. There are independent studios and devs that are actually pushing the medium forward and creating new experiences, I don’t need to play and breakdown the bad slave allegory of Detroit: Become Human.

As I said before, I understand that development teams are not generally made up of a single person. The seventy (hopefully) non-racist/non-sexist employees of Warhorse Games deserve to have their hard work evaluated and praised when their game plays well. Subnautica is currently receiving deserved praise for its meticulously handcrafted world that has nothing to do with its terrible sound designer. However, a team is just that, a team. They rise and fall on the actions of their teammates and their team leads. Chris Cleveland stands at the head of creative decisions that steer that ship of development and his crew needs to be able to trust that he will represent them professionally and maturely and will push the heads of the company to take action when a teammate paints them all in a bad light.

Game writers like myself, and critics, and journalists, need to start taking these background development issues into account when publishing. Every piece of a game is borne from the beliefs and lifestyles of the team behind it. The best games have different views and beliefs behind them, working in chorus. SOMetimes a great game comes out of a singular vision that drives the team in a singular direction, but that also means putting faith in that vision to guide the team purely. This means that if that singular vision is tainted by hate, or members of the team are working against the better beliefs of the team as a whole, we have a responsibility to call that out. Or leave it by the wayside and turn our attention to something worthwhile.

Batman: The Tell Tale Series – Lady Arkham and the Rogues

Developer/Publisher: Telltale Games

Distributor: Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment/DC Entertainment

Spoiler Warning: The articles here will almost always contain spoilers as we break down and analyze the stories of the video game industry.

 

The original villain created for Batman: The Telltale Series is an amalgamation of the Dark Knight’s top rogues and perfectly personifies a story that struggles to be its own.

 

Playing through Batman: The Telltale Series I couldn’t help but feel a pull between the desire for originality and the pull of a comfortable narrative that has reset,  and only somewhat, reshaped itself time and time again.

When Telltale Games burst back onto the adventure game scene in 2012 with The Walking Dead, they revived mass interest in the oldest genre in the industry. By choosing to adapt the original comic work (obviously famous in its own right but overshadowed to a larger audience by the television adaptation) Telltale brought a new story to a familiar world and introduced narrative choice in a way that truly felt substantial to an individual player experience. Four years and a slew of new releases (The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones, Borderlands, Minecraft: Story Mode, and two more Walking Dead games) later, the now familiar skeleton of timed button and conversation prompts was introduced to the world of DC’s Batman.

The Batman license was coming off of its own rollercoaster at the time. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice had released only five months prior with mixed success and Batman: Arkham Knight was still trying to keep its footing after its disastrous PC port the year before. The Arkham series also had Batman: Arkham Origins to try and forget. A fatigue for the story of the Bat and his first time meeting his infamous Rogue’s Gallery had started to settle in, but Telltale had the license, and developers to keep employed. Batman: The Telltale Series launched in August of 2016 to resounding average scores of 7/10 (a score generally reserved for “the game is fine, it won’t blow you out of the water, but it also isn’t bugged to hell and back).

The story told in B:TTS is a mix of old and slightly altered interpretations with a new villian that injects hints of originality that sadly don’t quite make up for the rehashes. Episode one, Realm Of Shadows opens with Batman beating up goons and meeting Catwoman for the first time, giving the player their first hint of where they are in the Batman timeline. This is not the Nolanverse or the Arkhamverse, Telltale has reset the story of Batman once again.

We also find Bruce Wayne footing the bill for Harvey Dent’s mayoral run (stop me if you’ve heard this one) and Carmine Falcone pressuring the candidate to take favors from the mob. Oswald Cobblepot, an old friend from prep school, has resurfaced after mysterious years away and is seeking a revolution for his failed family name. Meanwhile Lieutenant Gordon is holding the decent pieces of the GCPD together with twine and chewing gum.

When Falcone hints at possible misdealings with the Wayne family in the past, the original pieces start to come through as the usually perfect and incorruptible Thomas Wayne is recast as the evil mob doctor. And when Lady Arkham and her Children, a terrorist group seeking to destroy the corrupt Gotham elite, steal chemicals to develop a mind altering drug with plans to douse the city, the originality slips away again. Lady Arkham, secretly well known reporter Vicki Vale with her own grudge against the Wayne family and the current mayor Hamilton Hill, sets her vengeful anger on Bruce and throughout the adventure we are introduced, again for the first time, to Penguin, Two-Face, The Joker, and Catwoman.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it really is. B:TTS as a story is an amalgamation of the adaptations that came before and Lady Arkham personifies this. On the surface an original rogue to add to the gallery, but once picked apart she is a Frankenstein’s monster made up of Penguin, Joker and Two-Face.

The biggest reveal of the game is that Vicki Vale was actually born Vicki Arkham, hailing from the prominent family that opened Gotham’s home for the “criminally insane.” Recasting Thomas Wayne as a far more evil character, he conspired with Hamilton Hill and Carmine Falcone to remove political opponents and whistleblowers by hiding them in the institution. When the Arkham family discovered this Vale’s parents were killed and the girl was sent into foster care. She is given the Oswald Cobblepot motivation and even uses the classic enemy as a sidekick for her own plans. Penguin has always been the “What if Bruce Wayne broke bad?” character of the Rogues. Wealthy, orphaned, and unsupported so he has to fend for himself, Cobblepot turns to a life of crime and the never ending pursuit to be one of Gotham’s leading bosses. B:TTS wraps this into Vicki’s story as she holds a decades long grudge against the Wayne’s and Gotham’s elite.

Her anger against Gotham is exacerbated with her entry into the foster system where she was regularly abused by the Vale’s, her adoptive family. During Batman’s investigation into Lady Arkham he comes across a cell the young Vicki was held in and subsequently driven mad. Here we have the Joker connection as Vicki’s sanity fractures and Lady Arkham is created in the depths of her mind. Throughout the Arkham series as well as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Joker has represented the insanity of Gotham and crime as a whole, but also the insanity of Batman. Any number of events in Bruce Wayne’s life should have broken him completely and it can be well argued that running around as Batman is itself the result of a damaged mind. With all of the conspiracy and shadowy mob business surrounding the killing of his parents, Bruce could easily be Lady Arkham, taking vengeance without concern for the innocent.

Joker is a dangerous mix of unpredictability and long convoluted planning, and in Tim Burton’s Batman released in 1989, attempts to dose the people of Gotham with Smilex, the chemical that made Jack Napier the Joker. In B:TTS, Lady Arkham has developed a drug that produces anger and paranoia and plans to dose the largest train station in the city to create chaos. This is also similar to the plan from Scarecrow in Nolan’s Batman Begins.

Throughout all of this we see the creation of Two-Face from Harvey Dent. This time it is an attack by Penguin that first damages Harvey’s face and his model is very much based on Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal in The Dark Knight. There is even a choice that harkens back to the film, as Batman must decide to aide either Harvey or Catwoman during the fight that ultimately scars Dent. IN another quick bout of originality, it is actually a later fight in Wayne Manor where the left side of Dent’s body is burned and scarred to match his face. Again, also being a reflection of Batman himself, Two-Face is the embodiment of black and white justice. Cruel, cold logic about punishment for perceived wrongs and the killing of a few to benefit the many. LAdy Arkham has this same twisted sense of justice without heart. She sees the destruction of the elite and the chaos of her drug benefitting the many as corruption is brought to light and the city of Gotham is cleansed.

The reason that Penguin, Two-Face, and Joker are so often adapted, and thus some of the most well known rogues in the Batman canon, is that they are easy to write. They are warped reflections of Bruce Wayne and Batman and their motivations are pretty clear: Penguin wants glory, Two-Face wants justice, Joker wants chaos. By wrapping all of these motivations and even background story elements into Lady Arkham, Telltale cobbled together a 25% original character which results in a 25% original story. I may come back to Season 2, The Enemy Within, to see what they pull, but it won’t be high on my list.