Thursday, March 31, 2011

Female characters in video games: Female protagonists

Seeing how it's still March, and thus Women's History Month, I have an excuse for a feminist post. Having read some interesting pieces on female characters in video games in the recent past, the topic has been on my mind. In this series of posts, I will share my thoughts on various issues of female characters in video games, as well as articles that helped provoke these thoughts.

Post #1: Depiction of women in video games
Post #2: Good female characters in video games
Pose #3: (below)

Female protagonists in video games

Yesterday's post was about making female characters in games strong characters. This is about the need for more games with female protagonists. Most games I play nowadays actually allow the player to choose the player character's gender, so in a way I can't really complain about not having enough female protagonists. But here's the question: Am I a fan of a certain type of game that happens to feature gender choice? Or am I drawn to these games in part because I can play as a female character?

Growing up with our Sega Genesis, I never thought much about games that forced me to play as a male. Still, whenever a choice was given, you can bet that I chose the female character. This doesn't mean I wouldn't try out Axel or Max, but I'd always come back to Blaze. It just seemed natural. Most of these games, however, were pretty light on plot and character. The character on screen wasn't so much your avatar as it was an image that let you beat up the bad guys. I didn't have to relate to the feelings of the cowboy or the hedgehog on the screen in order to enjoy what the game had to offer.

Those games can still be fun, but the games I truly love are ones with involved, engrossing stories and complex, engaging characters. And in these types of games, I have to admit: I have a high preference for games where the player character is female. In my post on female protagonists in Pixar and DreamWorks movies, I argued that one of the reasons we see so few of them is that girls are generally better at relating to the opposite gender than boys are (this may even carry through to adults and contribute to the perception of any non-action movie with a female lead as a "chick flick", but that is a discussion for another day). I still think there is truth to this idea, but I don't feel it as strongly when it comes to video games. It's one thing to relate to a protagonist in a book or in a movie, but the player character in a video game is special. Their choices are your choices, their trials are your trials, their triumphs are your triumphs. When you have control over a character's actions, the character starts crossing over from being just a character to being you. I love to be immersed in the stories of games I play, and I can't be as immersed when the player character is a guy because, honestly, I'm not very good at thinking and feeling like a guy.

So what RPGs have I played through as a male character? The list is pretty short.
1) Pokemon. You may or may not count it as an RPG, but either way, the main character's gender is pretty insignificant. I chose a character name that was non-gender specific, so essentially, my character might have just been a tomboy.
2) Final Fantasy Tactics. I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but when I played this game, I pretended that I was actually one of the female members of my party, rather than the actual player character "Ramza". He may have been the boy born to privilege, but I was a close friend and advisor. Everything good Ramza did was with my advice, and everything stupid he did was against my advice (the story made more sense that way, anyway, as he does a bunch of dumb things beyond the player's control). So even though this was a game with a male player character, I found myself a female substitute.
3) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2. KotOR2 did something clever that got me to play against type as both evil and male: You would get one of two possible party members depending on your alignment, and one of two other possible party members depending on your gender. So once I finished the game as a Light Side female, I went back and played through as a Dark Side male, so I could meet the two alternate companions. I had trouble enough relating to the protagonist when I played as a good female (this was one of my criticisms of KotOR2). But I definitely never related to my evil male protagonist, mostly because I usually can't stand making evil choices in games, but partly, I think, because he was male.
4) Uhh, actually, that's it!

Looking at this evidence, I am left to conclude that I really do heavily prefer playing games with female protagonists. I daresay I even feel a little sexist right now. A friend in high school gave me Grandia and I never played it--was it because the main character was a boy? Is this why I've still never tried out Half Life 2, despite many recommendations? Oh no--am I missing out on an expansive realm of fabulous games because I am prejudiced against male player characters?! OK, calm down, I think it's not actually as bad as it might seem. After all, it was only on my second playthrough of FFT that I picked out a female character to represent me; the first time through, I was perfectly happy to have a male player character. I'd still love to check out Half Life 2, if I ever find the time. It's just that BioWare makes really great games that I love for many reasons beyond having a choice in my player character's gender*. If it weren't for that, maybe I would have played as male player characters more often.

* I am grateful to BioWare for giving us the choice in character gender (and for giving equal opportunities for romances in recent games). But even they aren't perfect. I'm tired of all the protagonists being male "in cannon" or "by default", and seeing only male protagonists in all the trailers and posters and promotional materials. Sorry, it has to be said.

Anyway, the point that I'm trying to make with this somewhat winding personal account is that this female gamer, at least, is drawn to games in which she can play as a female protagonist. And I'm sure I'm not the only one. Girl gamers are real, we are many, and we want to be marketed to. We want games that were made for us, or at least that were made with us in mind.

Why shouldn't there be games with female protagonists? Girls can be heroes, too. I understand if a historical FPS wants to have a male protagonist. But as I mentioned yesterday, in a fantasy or sci-fi world, the gender disparities observed in human history that have limited the number of female action heroes need not apply. Besides, the heroes of video games are super human, anyway--why can't they be super women?

Shepard. Kicks. Ass.

If my personal anecdotes aren't enough, here are some better arguments for seeing more female protagonists in games:
1. Female protagonists are not to be feared by Doc at Inner Child Gamer
2. Response: Female protagonists: A "risk" worth taking by Brinstar at The Border House
3. Halo: Reach writer – “We’re not serving half our audience” by Cuppycake, quoting Tom Abernathy, at The Border House

As argued in those articles, female protagonists won't hurt video game profits as much as you might think. And even if having a female protagonist affects them a little, it's the right thing to do. Young girls like to play games, they like playing games with girl protagonists, and they need good role models to look up to as much as boys do. They deserve it--it's only fair.

There's the well-known Catch-22 of women in video games: We need more women designing video games so we can get more and better female characters in games. But we need more and better female characters in games in order to make more women interested in designing games. The Catch-22 can be broken. We just need both sides to take a leap.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Female characters in video games: Good female characters

Seeing how it's still March, and thus Women's History Month, I have an excuse for a feminist post (why I should feel like I need an excuse is another issue...). Having read some interesting pieces on female characters in video games in the recent past, the topic has been on my mind. In this series of posts, I will share my thoughts on various issues of female characters in video games, as well as articles that helped provoke these thoughts.

Post #1: Depiction of women in video games
Post #2: (below)
Post #3: Female protagonists in video games

Good female characters in video games

Extra Credits did a great video on the subject of what makes strong, realistic female video game characters. Concise, thoughtful, and amusing, it makes better points on the matter more eloquently than I could. So check it out:

You can also watch the video here.

Did you watch it all? OK. As the video points out, the traits that define a good female character are the same traits that define any good character, since a good character should not be defined by gender. That said, there are both genetic and societal differences between the two genders, which may be mined to strengthen a character of either gender.

I don't have much to add on the ideas in the video about societal pressures put on women, other than that I agree with them that women who neither fully accept nor reject the societal standards placed on them are the most realistic and engaging. Also, it can be very interesting to explore societies in fantasy or sci-fi where the societal expectations for men and women are different from are own. The drow of Dungeons & Dragons, which I've encountered in Baldur's Gate II, make an interesting (if somewhat evil) example of this, as do certain aliens in Mass Effect (such as the Asari, a single-gender species). I'd like to see more of this.

As far as genetic differences go, in fantasy games that already have magic and mythical beasts, it's not any more of a stretch to imagine that some of the genetic differences between the genders, such as men's greater strength and suitability for combat, do not exist or are altered. In sci-fi featuring a future version of humanity, there is also some flexibility here, since the use of advanced technology may allow women to be as capable as men in combat (Ashley in Mass Effect argues a woman can shoot an assault rifle as well as a man; I'm not going to argue with her). In almost every game I've played, female characters are males' equals in skills and attributes (including strength). I think it works and makes sense. But some genetic differences can't be eliminated without redefining what a man and woman are. And by that I mean woman's ability to bear children.

As the Extra Credit video points out, issues of motherhood could make for a very interesting character. I've had several party members over the years who have been fathers, but only one mother as a companion (not counting the DTB for the Human Noble origin story in DAO): Samara in Mass Effect 2. However, she was a very, for lack of a better word, alien mother. Her children were all fully grown (hundreds of years old, in fact), and she had made rather un-motherly vows as a Justicar to hunt down and kill her somewhat monstrous daughter. The story is made far more poignant because she is the mother, but her actions could have been done by any Justicar who made it her mission to kill a dangerous member of her species. I can't think of a prominent video game character I've encountered who was really a more "normal" mother. And I've certainly never played as one.

Healthy mother-daughter relationship

In the Baldur's Gate 2 expansion Throne of Bhaal, if you play as a male player character and romance party member Aerie, she becomes pregnant and actually gives birth to a child, which you carry around in your backpack for the rest of the game (it's very safe, stuffing it in with all the swords and daggers and things). This makes me wonder what it would have been like if it were possible for a female player character romancing Anomen to become pregnant. It could have been timed so that the child would not have come to term during the events of the game, and the character would still have been in the early stages of pregnancy at the end of the game. How much harder would it have been to choose between remaining a mortal with Anomen to have the child or becoming a god? (I don't know what would have happened in the latter case: Would the child be lost during the transformation? Would it be born a demigod? Would it be born mortal, and the mother as a god would have to give it up, watching it age and die?). Maybe for some that would have made the decision easier, but for me it would have been much more heart-wrenching.

It would be interesting to see a game featuring a mother character trying to protect her children as they cross a war-torn country (as the video suggests). But really, I'm happy any time I meet a dynamic, believable, engaging female character not defined by her sex (and this goes not just for games, but also for movies, TV shows, etc.). I'm lucky, actually, that I play games with a lot of strong, interesting, complex female characters. BioWare (and others...but I mostly play BioWare) excels at making good characters, and many of them are women.

Both men and women like to see female characters in games. And great games, for the most part, have great characters. So let's see more great female characters in games. Then everybody wins.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Female characters in video games: Depiction of women

Seeing how it's still March, and thus Women's History Month, I have an excuse for a feminist post (why I should feel like I need an excuse is another issue...). I don't do this very often, but occasionally I get inspired. I did write one post on leading ladies in computer animated films by DreamWorks and Pixar; this may sound oddly specific, but I justified my selection. Realizing I wrote that post in March 2009 makes my blog feel old. Anyway, having read some interesting pieces on female characters in video games in the recent past, the topic has been on my mind. In this series of posts, I will share my thoughts on various issues of female characters in video games, as well as articles that helped provoke these thoughts.

Post #1: (below)
Post #2: Good female characters in video games
Post #3: Female protagonists in video games

Depiction of women in video games

Let's start with the basics. Laying aside the roles, goals, personalities, and any substance of the female characters in video games, what do they look like? You probably know where I'm going with this. Thanks to the perceived video game target audience of teenage boys and men who still think they're teenage boys, women in video games are generally scantily clad with improbable curves. This is a well-worn issue, with its arguments and counter-arguments, but it is still relevant. The following is my opinion on the matter, mostly a rehash of a comment I left on a post on the subject by Kara of Crayons and Cylons.

I've seen the argument before: "Women are over-sexualized and physically idealized in games," followed by someone replying "Well, it's just as bad for men, look at those unrealistic bulging muscles!" But it's not the same. Sure, the video game heroes of both genders are usually idealized, perfectly fit, strong, never flabby. If the women of games were slim yet solid, fit, amply supported and covered, with well-toned arms and legs, that would be fine. But that's not how it is. All too frequently, female characters in video games have over-sized boobs and skimpy clothing.

Unrealistic muscles are not as bad as unrealistic breasts. Having bigger muscles may actually be something legitimate to aspire to. I don't mean that all guys should have big muscles (many body types are perfectly fine), but it's not unrealistic for guys to work out and get bigger muscles. It may not be possible or healthy to get muscles as huge as the crazy ones in certain games, but at least some growth is possible. Big breasts, on the other hand, can only be attained through an unhealthy operation that is frowned upon in most circles. Furthermore, big muscles in men are a sign of strength, which one might expect one's character to have if he is a great warrior. Big boobs are just of sexual value--and if they're too unruly they could actually hinder an action hero.

How about the skimpy clothing? There are many examples in games where the same set of armor looks like actual armor when put on a male toon, and a glorified bikini when put on a female toon (e.g. WoW, Guild Wars, even Dragon Age: Origins). Even armor that offers full coverage of skin may have a spandex-like material in some choice spot when put on a female character (e.g. Hellgate: London). Game designers don't seem to realize that women, too, could get stabbed in the stomach, or thigh, or upper chest. Some guys might like the sexy outfits, but when they're so unrealistic in this way, I find it messes with the immersion of the game.

So while both men and women may be idealized in games, the female characters are far more sexualized. Why? Not only do more guys play those games (though studies suggest the gender skewing isn't as great as is often imagined), I think they may be fussier. Sexy female in revealing outfit: men are happy, women put up with it. Sexy male in revealing outfit: women may be pleased, but many men will be put off by it. I'm used to seeing women in bikinis, but I know a lot of guys who hate seeing guys in Speedos. Well, that's my theory, at least.

This problem has been complained about enough that I think there are some changes happening in the gaming industry, but it's a difficult habit to break. Characters' appearances are a small factor in the quality of a game, so I don't know if I'd ever refuse to buy a game because a female character in it was too sexualized (a game that has the poor taste to go that far over the top likely has other quality issues, anyway). And having a sexy woman on the cover probably helps sell some games. As long as this economic motivation exists, there's no real reason to change... other than common decency.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Spring break: Kirkwall (Dragon Age 2)

Last year, I spent my entire spring break playing Mass Effect 2. This year, it was Dragon Age 2. Unfortunately, I haven't finish my game as I had last year. The difference is the Housemate didn't go home for spring break this year, so I had to spend time with him and couldn't devote all of my waking hours to gaming. But he was nice and left me alone to play DA2 a lot, and I made it through Act 2 (it's a long game). Here are some random thoughts and notes about the game so far. No real spoilers, but it will make more sense if you're familiar with the game.

-Kirkwall, where most of the story takes place, is a Quite the delightful decor. That first boat ride to the city--the first glimpse of the statues, like the Argonath but instead of imposing kings, emaciated people, chained up, holding their faces in despair. Even knowing that the city had historically been a center for slavery, I still didn't initially understand why anyone would want to decorate with such horrifying statues. Then the game helpfully explained: to break the spirit of the slaves. Ah. Well played. Ugly statues aside, I've become very fond of Kirkwall, in a way that I haven't felt about a game city since Athkatla in Baldur's Gate II. Like Athkatla, Kirkwall feels big enough to be a real city, and it feels lived in. I can imagine that the people I see on the street are part of the population, going about their daily lives even when I'm not there. The fact that the party companions seem to have their own projects going on, and even have their own interactions with each other outside of following you around, also helps with this immersion, allowing me to believe that I am just a part of a busy world.

-My hair sways! I have shoulder-length hair, and I can see it sway a bit when I talk. It's not like individual strands moving, but a general swish is still something new. Finally, longer hair styles look sort of natural. So pretty!

-Wait, the Qunari have horns? Sten didn't have horns in Dragon Age: Origins. OK, I looked it up and it explained that most Qunari have horns, but Sten in DAO was one of the special ones born without horns. That's why he was chosen to be a scout of sorts, since he wouldn't be as scary to the humans and other non-horned beings with whom he'd have to deal. A bit of retconning there, but that's fine.

-Seriously? No one knows I'm an apostate (i.e. illegal mage)? I walk around town in a full-length robe with hood, and a gnarled staff with a skull/stone/scary symbol on the end. I even talk to the templar (whose job it is to keep mages locked up and under control) dressed like this. I summoned a tempest in the frakking Chantry...during the day! With people there! Really? No one? This is probably the biggest hole in the story, that you can cast spells all over Kirkwall and no one will call you out for being an apostate (at least not all the way through Acts 1 and 2). This makes me think back to Athkatla in BG2, a city in which magic was also controlled. There, though, if you cast a spell outdoors in the city, mages would portal in and, if I recall correctly, give you one warning; if you did it again, they'd portal in and attack you. The way around it was to buy them off, buy some sort of license allowing you to practice magic in the city. That made sense. This templar in Kirkwall thing makes somewhat less sense. I guess you're just good at convincing people your gnarled staff is actually a quarterstaff, and my tempest in the chantry was a really quiet one.

-BioWare knows I'm a sucker for the tortured men with good hearts--and now we have two of them?!!! Oh dear, how am I ever supposed to choose?

-Speaking of the romances, I had a funny, could-have-been-awkward moment: The Housemate (aka my boyfriend) was napping on the bed behind me while I "cheated" on him in game--with two different men (not at the same time)! I tried hard to block the screen from his view in case he happened to open his eyes. Luckily he didn't. He doesn't need to know about them.

-Interesting further note about DA2 romances: DA2 is actually an all inclusive game in terms of romances; two men, two women are available to romance (not including DLC), and they swing one way or another depending on your character gender. You could take this to mean that all of those party members are bisexual, or that playing through with the opposite gender just spawns an alternate reality with an alternate orientation, but it doesn't really matter. There was a bit of a fuss about it on the forums, when a straight male player complained about being discriminated against (or really, not being catered to as much as he felt entitled to), with the side of the writers well defended. You can find a fair summary of the issue here, though the title of the article is more provocative than necessary (the two main forum posts were fairly civil).

-Characters from DAO who make an appearance (hopefully there are more to come):
  • Merrill! Keeper Marethari! The Dalish elves in DA2 are not the ones from the main DAO quest, but they are the ones from the Dalish Elf origin story. I didn't make the connection until I went back and played a bit of the Dalish Elf origin story for my Dead Tutorial Buddy post, though I'm sure I would have figured it out by the time Merrill showed me her broken Eluvian mirror. I wonder if your Grey Warden hero of Ferelden was a Dalish Elf whether you get references to that fact when talking with Merrill or Keeper Marethari. That would be cool.
  • Alistair cameo! For me he made a brief appearance, giving my character an amulet he said was from "an old friend". I took the implication to be that it was from the hero of Ferelden, though my hero of Ferelden was a mage and wouldn't have had use for the combat-enhancing amulet. Oh well. But with at least four possible endings for Alistair in DAO, I wonder what happens for the other cases.
  • Oh, Cullen. What happened to that cute shy templar boy who had a crush on my mage in the Circle of Magi? He isn't so bad for a Kirkwall templar (at least not yet...there's still Act 3), but it would have been nice if he'd acknowledged the fact that the hero of Ferelden was one of the mages that the Kirkwall templar are so worried about.
  • Bodahn and Sandal, of course. Enchantment?
  • Isabela, pirate captain who lost her ship and wears a lot of eyeliner. She plays a much larger role here than she did in the first game.
-Joss Whedon reference!!!!!!!1
I wish I remembered the exact exchange, but at one point, Isabela tells Anders how you can always hear abominations (i.e. people possessed by demons in a rather grotesque way) coming, since "Abominations go 'Grr, argh'." Anders informs her that "Abominations do not go 'Grr, argh'." Isabela is disappointed. It's very silly, but delightful.

-After seeing a quest titled "Alone", I free associated and started singing the song "No one is alone" from Into the Woods. As I sang, I realized how well that song fits Dragon Age 2--all the way down to the line "Mages can be right. Qunari can be good. You decide what's right. You decide what's good." Okay, okay, it's "witches" and "giants", but those are fair terms for the same things, right? If Dragon Age 2 were a musical (perish the thought), it would definitely have that song in it (not sure who would sing it, though...Fenris?). Seriously, though, if you don't know the song, check it out here (I couldn't find the original Broadway cast, but this is good, too).

Here's a screen shot of my Hawke, planning with Aveline (apologies if the color balance looks weird--it looked great on the computer that I play the game on, but oddly saturated on my other computer):

Whew! That's all for now. The game is really fun so far. I can't wait to see where it goes in Act 3, and I'm already looking forward to my next play through. I'll probably choose a dual-wielding rogue. But tomorrow I'm back in school, and I've been putting off a lot of work I should have done this past week to play DA2, so I have some catching up to do. Hopefully I'll find time to play soon, though, since I don't want to lose my momentum. Even though I didn't get to finish DA2 this week, I still had a fun, exciting spring break in Kirkwall.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Death of the tutorial buddy

As I played the beginning of Dragon Age 2 and watched one of my virtual siblings die for no reason other than because his/her abilities were somewhat redundant with mine (if you play a mage, your mage sister dies, if you play a rogue or warrior, your warrior brother dies), I had a feeling of déjà vu. It was because I had seen it before: The start of a game, setting out accompanied by one or two companions, so naive and unseasoned. Suddenly a cutscene, my companion falls--was it a heroic sacrifice, or just a foolish mistake? It doesn't matter, the companion is dead. There was nothing I could do. Maybe it's just the games that I play (BioWare??), but there seem to be a lot of games in which a non-player companion, whether in a true tutorial section or merely in an introductory part of the game, inevitably dies, regardless of what the player does. I wrote out a list of all the games that I've played in which the player character has non-player companions, and I realized that about half of them use this "Dead Tutorial Buddy" (DTB) trope.

In some cases the DTB is an old friend or family member. Their death is tragic, devastating the player character, destroying the world as she knew and loved it. Of course, since you the player only just met the DTB, it never feels quite so sad. In other cases, the DTB is just a random, completely inconsequential person who happened to team up with you long enough to get killed (you must be bad luck). The DTB may be mentioned later in the game depending on how close he or she was to you and your surviving companions, but in most cases, the DTB will soon be forgotten. I had trouble recalling some of the DTBs' names--even ones that I'd seen nearly a dozen times (I always start a lot more characters than I end up playing).

I have compiled this list to commemorate the DTBs, those budding heroes who are never given the chance to bloom, who briefly ally themselves with the player character who will one day become a renowned hero, who sacrifice themselves nobly, if sometimes foolishly, so that others might live. They need a bit of commemoration because, in most cases, they are already long forgotten.

Minor spoilers: These records of the deaths of certain characters may be considered spoilers, but since these events all happen at the very beginning of the game, I don't think it should be a problem.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
DTB: Trask Ulgo
Relation to player character: You two are bunk-mates on the Endar Spire, but you have opposite shifts so you've never really met each other.
Team up: The ship is under attack, and somehow you're the only one who's still sleeping. Trask comes in to wake you up, and together you try to make your way first to the bridge, then to the escape pods.
Manner of death: Trask heroically sacrifices himself by confronting a dangerous Sith (against whom neither of you stand a chance) while allowing the player character to escape.
Significance: It was either you or him, so this was, in a way, a necessary sacrifice. It worked out for the best.
Recurrence: I think later in the game you encounter (and get to kill) the Sith who killed Trask. But I might be totally misremembering that. The fact that I don't remember just shows that really, poor Trask is quickly forgotten.

Neverwinter Nights 2: Original Campaign
DTB: Amie, a wizard apprentice
Relation to player character: She's a slightly younger peer and childhood friend.
Team up: The night after the High Harvest Fair, your village is attacked. Amie and Bevil come to fetch you from your bedroom. You are sent to rally the town militia, and battle attackers along the way.
Manner of death: While battling your way through the village, you come across Amie's wizard mentor trading spells with a githyanki. She rushes in to throw some puny apprentice spells, but the githyanki just laughs before pwning her.
Significance: Her spells did nothing and her mentor turned out just fine, so this was just a tragic, senseless death.
Recurrence: Everyone in the village is sad for the rest of the scene (poor Amie!), but she's quickly forgotten once you leave West Harbor.

Mass Effect
DTB: Corporal Richard Jenkins
Relation to player character: He's a soldier under your command on the Normandy, but you're new to the ship so you've only just met him.
Team up: Captain Anderson picks Jenkins along with Lieutenant Alenko to accompany you on a mission on Eden Prime.
Manner of death: Poor Jenkins gets shot down by some robots. He must have had faulty shields, since you and Alenko do just fine against the robots.
Significance: He walks out of cover and gets torn up. There's no purpose. It's just sad.
Recurrence: Doctor Chakwas takes it hard when someone gets injured that she can't save. She brings his name up once in a while; even in Mass Effect 2, you may find yourself raising a toast to Jenkins.

Dragon Age: Origins
DTB: Daveth and Ser Jory, and various*
Relation to player character: Daveth and Ser Jory are your fellow Grey Warden recruits, whom you've only just met in Ostagar.
Team up: Grey Warden leader Duncan sends the three recruits accompanied by Grey Warden Alistair into the Korcari Wilds as a necessary quest for your Joining (initiation into the Grey Wardens).
Manner of death: Becoming a Grey Warden requires drinking darkspawn blood, which will either be fatal or will make you immune to their taint and give you nightmares about archdemons, among other things. Unfortunately for Daveth, he gets the former effect. After witnessing this, Ser Jory chickens out and tries to flee, then attacks Duncan when Duncan tries to stop him. This was a very bad idea.
Significance: Daveth bravely drank the poisonous blood in the hopes that he might make a difference as a Grey Warden. It was not to be, but there was no other way to find out. The Ser Jory situation still bothers me; if I had actually been there, I would have given Duncan a piece of my mind and demanded to know why exactly we couldn't let Jory run home to his family.
Recurrence: Both are quickly forgotten.

*The true "tutorials" in Dragon Age: Origins are the six different origin stories. Two of them have DTBs. I won't write out full profiles of each one, but here are some quick descriptions.
Dalish Elf DTB: Old friend and peer Tamlen drags you along to investigate a mysterious underground ruin. He is killed by being too curious, and he nearly gets you killed, too.
Human Noble DTB: When your estate is attacked by the traitorous Arl Howe, your capable mother Eleanor joins the fight to escape along with you. But while you flee the castle, she stays behind to make a last stand against the invaders. A noble end.

Mass Effect 2
DTB: Wilson
Relation to player character: You've only just met him, but he spent the last two years of his life performing miraculous science to bring you back from what most would have considered death. And then he nearly gets you killed. Hmmm.
Team up: The robots on station are going on a killing spree. In your attempt to escape the space station, you first team up with Jacob and then rescue and team up with Wilson. Strength in numbers.
Manner of death: Turns out the killer robots were Wilson's fault. He can't fool Miranda, who, when you find her, quickly puts a bullet in his head.
Significance: It would be easy to dismiss Wilson as deserving of his fate, but remember, you owe Wilson your (second) life. It's just a shame he had to double-cross everyone on the station.
Recurrence: He may not be forgotten, but since no one mourns him, he's not really discussed again.

Dragon Age 2
DTB: Bethany/Carver (one or the other dies, depending on the class of the player character)
Relation to player character: Sister/little brother
Team up: Your family is fleeing Lothering together amidst the darkspawn horde making its way north from Ostagar.
Manner of death: A giant ogre comes barreling through, knocking you to the side. Shielding your mother, Bethany/Carver makes a heroic attack on the ogre. The ogre brushes off the attack, grabs your sibling, and kills her/him.
Significance: Maybe the ogre would have killed Mother if your sibling hadn't attacked it then and drawn its attention. Maybe it would have killed both of them. Who's to say? But everyone else survived the attack, so it's sad that there was nothing you could do to save your other sibling.
Recurrence: I can't comment fully on the matter because I haven't finished the game, but the deceased sibling has been mentioned a few times. I still see the rest of my family frequently, so the deceased sibling is still on our minds.

Bethany, RIP.

Please join with me for a moment of silence for Bethany/Carver, Wilson, Daveth, Ser Jory, Eleanor, Tamlen, Jenkins, Amie, and Trask Ulgo. If there are any other deceased companions that you would like to remember, feel free to pay tribute to them in the comments below.

A note: One might categorize this as a Death By Origin Story trope, but that trope would include characters such as Gorion in Baldur's Gate. I see the DTB as a specific case that seems to be more common in video games than in movies or TV shows (if we broaden "tutorial" to mean simply "beginning", and imagine which characters the player would control if the movie/show were a game). It's not just anyone who dies, but someone who fought/quested/traveled alongside the main character as a peer, as if they would become an important supporting character in the story, before dying abruptly. It would be like if Charlie had died in the first episode of "Lost" when he trekked out to the cockpit with Jack and Kate. Or if Chin Ho were killed off in the first episode of "Hawaii Five-O". Both of these pilot episodes did feature notable deaths, but they were not of people that you expected to be a supporting companion. Furthermore, the DTB is often inconsequential, not serving as significant motivation for the main character. Dale Maddox on "V" or Jesse from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" might fit the DTB trope. A full examination of this trope's presence in other media would merit its own post. Some other time, perhaps.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mathematical Monday: Video Game Riddles - Solutions

Here are the solutions to my favorite math riddles I've encountered in video games, which I shared last week. If you missed them, give them a try before you look at the solutions!

1. Circus tent genie in Waukeen's Promenade, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
The princess is as old as the prince will be when the princess is twice as old as the prince was when the princess's age was half the sum of their present ages. How old are the prince and princess? My addition: Given that the princess is a teenager, and assuming only whole number ages.
The hard part of this riddle is parsing it, but if you look at it carefully, it gives information about the prince and princess's ages at three different times--past, present, and future--which I've color-coded. Let's call the current age of the princess X and that of the prince Y. Their ages at the past time described are simply X and Y minus a certain number of years (which we'll call P), and their ages at the future time described are simply X and Y plus a different number of years (which we'll call F). For example, the prince's age at the future time described is Y+F. So we can make equations describing the relationships in the riddle.
The princess is as old as the prince will be:
(1) X=Y+F
when the princess is twice as old as the prince was:
(2) X+F = 2*(Y-P)
when the princess's age was half the sum of their present ages:
(3) X-P = 0.5*(X+Y)
This gives us three equations with four unknowns, so we won't be able to solve for exact numbers. But we can find out the relationship between X and Y. Choose your favorite method for solving the system of equations, and you should eventually find that 3X/4 = Y. So the prince's age is three quarters of the princess's age. Given my addition to the problem--that the princess is a teenager and we're considering whole number ages only--not only must the princess be a "teen" but her age must evenly divide by four. This means the princess is 16, and the prince is 12.

2. Yuan-Ti in Mutamin's Challenge, Neverwinter Nights
After slaying a dragon, a group of knights gave some of the trinkets from its treasure stash to a group of fewer than ten girls to divide. While the trinkets could have been divided equally amongst the girls, they argued over how to divide it. One suggested that they divide it by family instead of by individual. In the group there were two groups of two sisters, the rest unrelated. This division would mean that the trinkets per family were five more than the trinkets per girl. Before a decision was made, one girl said she desired nothing. So her share was divided amongst the others. The shares were equal again. The suggestion of dividing the trinkets per family was withdrawn, as all were satisfied. How many girls shared in the division and how many did each get?
Assuming that all of the relevant numbers in this problem are integers greater than zero--which I will refer to as "counting numbers"--so there are no negative trinkets or half girls, there is actually only one solution to the problem regardless of whether or not it is specified that there are fewer than ten girls. Consider it a bonus hint to help solve the problem. Here is my method:
The number of trinkets (T) divides evenly by the number of girls (G) and the number of families, which is G-2 (because there are two pairs of sisters, essentially eliminating two girls from the count). Since T is a multiple of G, let's say that T = k*G, where k is some counting number. The number of trinkets per family (T/[G-2]) is five more than the number of trinkets per girl (T/G). In other words,
T/G + 5 = T/(G-2)
Substituting in T = kG and solving for G gives
G = 2 + 2k/5
Since k must be a multiple of 5 to keep G an integer, we can try out a few values of k and see what happens. Setting k equal to 5, 10, 15, and 20 give G values of 4, 6, 8, and 10, respectively. G must be less than 10 but also greater than 4, since there have to be more than just the two pairs of sisters. So are there 6 or 8 girls? The number of trinkets must also be evenly divisible by G-1, corresponding to the final division of trinkets when the one girl opts out. If G=8 and k=15, then T=120, but that's not divisible by 7. If G=6 and k=10, then T=60 which is divisible by 5: 60/5 = 12. And there's our answer: 5 girls split the 60 trinkets, getting 12 each.

I promised that this was the only solution even if the problem didn't give us the hint that there are fewer than 10 girls. So here's a more explicit way to complete the problem. It's actually much harder this way, so consider yourself warned.
We know that T divides evenly by G, G-1, and G-2. How can we use that to define T? T could be a multiple of G*(G-1)*(G-2), of course, as that would guarantee that it is divisible by all three values. But if there is an overlap in the factors of those three values, T could be G*(G-1)*(G-2) divided by those factors and still be a multiple of all three values (Example: 2*3*8 = 48, but since 8 and 2 both have 2 as a factor, the smallest multiple of all three of those is 48/2 = 24). Still with me? Since our three values are consecutive integers, the only number they can possibly share as a factor is 2--that is, if G and G-2 are both even numbers. Right? This all comes down to allowing us to define
T = d*G(G-1)(G-2)/2
where d is a counting number. From before, we have that T = kG and G = 2+2k/5, but since we know that k has to be a multiple of 5, I'm going to define yet another counting number b such that k = 5*b. This means T = 5bG and G = 2 + 2b, which get substituted into the T = d*... equation. Solve for b to find
b = 5/(2d) - 1/2
The only way both d and b can be counting numbers is if d = 1! d = 2, 3, and 4 give non-integer b values, d = 5 makes b zero, and d>5 makes b negative. It all falls into place from there.
d = 1
b = 5/2 - 1/2 = 2
G = 2+2b = 6
T = 5bG = 60
G-1 = 5
T/(G-1) = 12
We have a unique answer! 5 girls get 12 trinkets each.

3. Battle droids on Tattooine, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
What are the next two entries in the sequence?
14 * 11-14 * 31-14 * 13-21-14 * _____ * _____
The math in this one is so simple, it's kind of infuriating how long I spent trying to solve it. Read the individual digits of each entry out loud:
one four * one one, one four * three one, one four * one three, two one, one four
Get it? Each entry describes the digits in the entry before it, in order of the digits' first appearance. The first entry has one one, and one four, so the second entry is 11-14. So, since the last entry has three ones, one three, one two, and one four, the next entry is
and the entry after that is
Sweet and simple, with math that a kindergartener would understand, but it can stump even advanced math users. Always fun.

A few other great video game math puzzles come to mind, but they're not riddles so much as puzzles that involve manipulation of objects, so they're harder to share here. Then there are mini-games like Pazaak in KotOR that involve math (but chance as well, so there's less to solve). In any case, I love math and I love computer RPGs, so when the two cross over I am always delighted. I hope you enjoyed these, too!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mathematical Monday: Video Game Riddles

Happy Pi Day! If you're a person who finds math puzzles fun, then this post is for you. Otherwise, you'll probably just want to move along.

I feel like it's been a while since one of my computer games made me solve a math puzzle. The RPGs that I love most--the ones that make the player do more than just hack and slash--sometimes throw in riddles or other puzzles for the player to solve: Answer this riddle to pass through the door, navigate these floor tiles in the right pattern so you don't get shocked, etc. They may seem artificial sometimes (really?? killing me is your only hope of escaping this eternal prison, yet you'll let me go if I can solve your riddle?), but that doesn't mean they aren't fun. Occasionally these puzzles will involve math. Usually the math can be avoided by the fact that responses are multiple choice in these games, so you can always take a guess and reload if you were wrong. It's probably quicker that way in some cases. But where's the fun in that?

Here are three of my favorite math puzzles I encountered playing computer RPGs. Feel free to post your answers in the comments. I'll share the (exhaustive) solutions next week. Who says that you don't learn anything from video games?

Circus tent genie in Waukeen's Promenade, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
The princess is as old as the prince will be when the princess is twice as old as the prince was when the princess's age was half the sum of their present ages. How old are the prince and princess?
This is probably my favorite, due to just how confusing it sounds. If you work this one out, then you'll find that there are multiple pairs of numbers that solve it; it was only solvable in the game because it was multiple choice question. For our purposes here, I'll add that the princess is a teenager, and to clarify we're looking at whole number ages only.

Yuan-Ti in Mutamin's Challenge, Neverwinter Nights
After slaying a dragon, a group of knights gave some of the trinkets from its treasure stash to a group of fewer than ten girls to divide. While the trinkets could have been divided equally amongst the girls, they argued over how to divide it. One suggested that they divide it by family instead of by individual. In the group there were two groups of two sisters, the rest unrelated. This division would mean that the trinkets per family were five more than the trinkets per girl. Before a decision was made, one girl said she desired nothing. So her share was divided amongst the others. The shares were equal again. The suggestion of dividing the trinkets per family was withdrawn, as all were satisfied. How many girls shared in the division and how many did each get?

Battle droids on Tattooine, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
What are the next two entries in the sequence?
14 * 11-14 * 31-14 * 13-21-14 * _____ * _____
This one stumped me more than any other video game math puzzle, and the friends that I've shared it with have mostly been pretty stumped themselves. It's great.

An observation: These three puzzles are all from BioWare games. I suppose they are a large proportion of the games I play, but still, I think this reflects positively on BioWare's support of math education. I wonder if Dragon Age 2 will have any math puzzles that I can look forward to.

Solutions are up here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My new addiction: True Blood

I finally started watching True Blood a few weeks ago. It had been on my list for a while, as various friends had recommended it, but I got my hands on seasons 1-3 and the Housemate and I were looking for a new series neither of us had seen because he's behind on everything ever since he spent 3 months in Antarctica. So True Blood it was. And I am totally addicted to it.

The seasons are relatively short (12 episodes), but we've already devoured the first two seasons. There's no downtime in the story, and the episodes always end with a cliffhanger, so it's hard to stop watching. The characters are flawed but appealing and endearing, and there are multiple mysteries going on at a time. It's exciting and frustrating and touching and sexy and fun. A true guilty pleasure.

There are a lot of vampire stories out there, but each has its own take on vampires, and I find this one very interesting. The main premise is that with the invention of Tru Blood, a synthetic beverage that vampires can drink in place of human blood, vampires decided to "come out of the closet"--reveal their existence and integrate themselves into society. This is a recent event, however, and tensions are high between the human and vampire communities. Many humans are understandably afraid of vampires; some go as far as to believe they are evil devils who need to be eradicated. Few vampires, it seems, have switched completely to a Tru Blood diet (the stuff is kinda yucky), most preferring to snack on human blood (if you only take a little at a time, it doesn't kill the human, after all). The show also explores what it's like to be a vampire and become a vampire. And vampires aren't the only supernatural creatures around.

True Blood has snappy dialogue with some great one-liners. I wish I'd kept a list as I went along, because it's easy to forget, but here are a few highlights that come to mind.

Lafayette (after a customer rejected a burger he made because it had "AIDS"; Lafayette is gay): 'Scuse me. Who ordered the hamburger...with AIDS? ...In this restaurant, a hamburger deluxe comes with french fries, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and AIDS! Do anybody got a problem with that?
I could reproduce the whole scene here, but it wouldn't do it justice. The scene has to be watched to be appreciated.

Jason (after his girlfriend says something he deems brilliant): Jesus Christ, I want to lick your brain.

Eric (about children): They're like humans, but miniature. Teacup humans.
Now when I see children, this is what I think of. Teacup humans.

Jason: I reckon I've already been to heaven. It was inside your wife.

Sookie: I'm a waitress. What the f*** are you?

There's a lot of violence, blood, and sex in this show, but I got used to it easily enough (though occasionally I'll be eating something while watching and have to put it down for a couple minutes). I highly recommend the show if you're looking for something absorbing and entertaining. I'm definitely looking forward to Season 3.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy Dragon Age 2 Day!

BioWare's hotly anticipated Dragon Age 2 hits stores today. It's been a year and a half since Dragon Age: Origins came out, so I consider this a relatively quick turnover rate for the sequel. But that's a good thing, because even the relatively short wait has seemed tortuous. I can only play through the demo so many times.

BioWare released the DA2 demo on February 22--two weeks ago. It's awesome. A little buggy, sure, but hopefully the actual game will have sorted those things out. I think the combat is the biggest improvement over DAO. It feels faster, more varied, more involved, more exciting, and just more fun. I was a mage enthusiast in DAO because I just didn't find melee or bow-and-arrow combat as engaging as casting spells, placing their area of effect just so to get the best result. But after playing the demo, I'm not sure what I want my first character to be. I love the warrior with the huge two-handed sword, sweeping it in an arc to cut all the surrounding darkspawn in half. I love the dual-wielding rogue who leaps into battle and has the backstab ability that teleports the character right behind the target to land the brutal hit. The demo introduced enough powerful-feeling combat skills for both classes that I'm sure I'd be fully entertained playing through with them.

That's not to discount the mage, which I also had fun playing. The mage's normal attack is itself more exciting than the mage's one-note attack in DAO, now featuring a series of several quick movements, whipping the mage staff around and sending out elemental attacks. It's not a casual toss of a spell, but feels like real combat. Plus, mages no longer miss out on finishing moves against major opponents. The spells that I loved in DAO may be a bit nerfed; cone of cold and crushing prison require upgrades to make them freeze or possibly paralyze targets, respectively, and it remains to be seen whether enemies can still be shattered by using the two in combination. But I'm sure I'll adapt quickly enough. I'm looking forward to playing a mage who is not from the Circle. I enjoyed that origin but always felt too guilty to try out blood magic--it just didn't fit my character, given her background. As an apostate from the start, however, I probably wouldn't feel bad about dabbling a bit.

It is interesting that after Dragon Age: Origins placed so much emphasis on being able to choose your character's origin (from six very different stories, and three different races--humans, dwarves, and elves) that Dragon Age 2 would do away with that and completely set your background: your race, your upbringing, and your name (though you can still choose your completely inconsequential first name, as in Mass Effect). But as long as the one story is interesting enough, I'm willing to go along with it.

The player character is now completely voiced, with lines of dialogue selected from vague descriptions on a wheel, much like in Mass Effect. I didn't mind imagining my own voice speaking the lines I selected, but it does give the game a more cinematic quality and the PC a more definite--or at least defined--personality. I'll have to get used to hearing a voice other than Jennifer Hale's coming out of my character's mouth, though.

I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what characters we can recruit to our party. We met a few in the demo. Hawke starts out with a brother and a sister, whose appearances will be tailored to match Hawke's so they're believable as siblings, but one inevitably dies near the beginning, depending on Hawke's class (the mage sibling dies if Hawke is a mage, the warrior sibling dies if Hawke is a warrior or rogue). Since BioWare games tend to have side quests related to each of the companion characters, I wonder if the side quests and stories will be notably different for the two siblings. We also got to meet Aveline, Varric, and Isabela (who crossed paths with the Warden in DAO). A cool new feature that I approve of is that rather than have companions like or dislike you (approve or disapprove) according to how nice you are to them and how much they agree with your actions and words, your differences in opinion will instead lead you towards a "friendship" or "rivalry". While my instinct is always to try to please everyone, my understanding is that we should not be afraid of nurturing a rivalry with some of our companions. Romance with a rival could be...interesting.

Hawke prepares to hurl a fireball in Dragon Age 2's demo.

In short, this game can't come in the mail fast enough. Actually, I have a big deadline on Thursday, but once I've slayed that ogre I'll be looking to blow off some steam, so it is welcome to arrive as early as Thursday afternoon. After last year's spring break in Illium (among other Mass Effect 2 locales), I'm very much looking forward to this year's spring break in Kirkwall, and beyond.