Sunday, September 21, 2014

Rygarfield Returns

I'm afraid that Rygarfield has not yet emerged as this century’s hottest new comic strip. At first I didn’t know what the problem might be. It has everything kids like: video games, webcomics based on video games, and ironic Garfield humor. Then I realized what was wrong. Rygarfield had only one panel instead of the multi-panel format used by every good comic that isn't The Far Side!

Now Rygarfield is the complete work that it should have been at the start. It also delivers biting commentary about cats and the marginal secrets of old NES games. It's like Howard and Nester meets Heathcliff!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Good Box Art: Advance Wars

Remember when I used to write about awful box art? Well, I actually updated the old gallery with an entry on Wing of Alnam. Lots of people discuss bizarre game cover illustrations these days, but as far as I can tell, nobody's taken a crack at this one just yet. Besides, I enjoy pretending that the last ten years haven’t happened.

I also want to highlight good box art—the stuff that sells a game better than any panting laudatory quotes or pre-order gadgetry ever could. I’ll start, in no way alphabetically, with Intelligent Systems and Nintendo’s original Advance Wars.

Advance Wars is a game of jovial strategy, a game where little rounded helicopters and puttering tanks and squat, rifle-toting troops clash in big colorful battlefields. And the cover illustration captures it perfectly. Three young heroes commandeer a tank and rush into battle with such energy that the treads lift off the churned concrete. Andy, an Orange Star officer, mans the controls with a maniacal cartoon grin. It’s all a good taste of what’s inside Advance Wars.

Yet Advance Wars, like many outwardly cute video games, is rather depressing when you think about it too hard. The most disposable pieces of any Advance army, as Andore Jr. eloquently points out, are the humble soldiers in your basic infantry units, and at least a few of them are guaranteed death every time they rise to attack or defend. Advance Wars may be precious and gleeful, but it’s still about wars.

This brings me to my favorite part of the cover. Andy may brim with gusto as he guns that tank toward victory, but his companions don’t. Max wears a look of grim caution, while Sami stares numbly before her. Because they know.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Darkstalkers Redirection

Sometimes I have to ask myself why I have a set of Darkstalkers novelty head-wings. The answer is complicated.

It’s exactly what it looks like: a promotional Darkstalkers Resurrection band that you can wrap around your head like a Burger King crown. The bat-wings imitate the headgear of Morrigan, as she’s the focus of the Resurrection art and the main character of the series. Darkstalkers is notable in that respect. Street Fighter and Guilty Gear and Tekken and most other major fighting games deem men their iconic leads, but Darkstalkers has Morrigan. I suspect that's because she usually looks ready to spill out of her demon-lady costume if someone so much as pats her on the back, but hey, small victories.

Capcom gave away these bat-crowns at conventions back in 2012. They had just announced Darkstalkers Resurrection, a collection of the two best games in Capcom’s monster-fighter series, and so they put together a large booth for the game. It was a fine time to like Darkstalkers, as I certainly do. Resurrection was a great repackaging of the series, and Capcom strongly implied that they’d make an all-new Darkstalkers if the reissue did well enough.

A little blot of dread grew in me. As excited as I was at the promise of a new Darkstalkers, I suspected that Resurrection wouldn’t do so well and that Capcom wouldn’t make much Darkstalkers merchandise beyond this little strip of paper that looks vaguely like a crab's maw if you view it from behind. So I resolved to save mine. I made sure I that I got it home in one piece, and I didn’t try wearing it at the convention, even though that would’ve given me a shot at winning a free download of Resurrection (I was content to buy the game twice, once on Xbox Live and again on the PlayStation Network). I would not tarnish so wonderful an artifact with my slovenly nerd-brow.

I was right. Horribly, horribly right. Resurrection didn't sell nearly well enough to begin a new golden age of Darkstalkers, and Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono, who for years claimed “Darkstalkers are not dead,” is now a shade more taciturn about the subject. Yet Capcom still keeps Darkstalkers alive with artbooks, this poster set, and suggestively posed Morrigan statues that I wouldn’t put on my shelf. So the series will survive as long as fans lurk in the wastelands of Resurrection’s online lobbies or needlessly remind people that Morrigan is a succubus and not a vampire. They’re keeping the faith, and so am I.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Drakengard 3: Four

Drakengard 3 arrived last month. It’s a very strange game, abusive and self-mocking and technically graceless. It’s a monster that won me over in ways I never expected. It’s a lot of things, but it’s most clearly a portrait of Zero, a goddess-like Intoner who goes around a twisted medieval Europe and murders her deified sisters with a mixture of vicious abandon and blasé cruelty. I’ve talked at length about just what Drakengard 3 did to me, and it’s time for an addendum about one of the game’s more interesting characters. She’s not who you might think.

Four is the least threatening among Zero’s numerically named sisters, all of whom decided to rule the world and rather rudely didn't invite Zero. We meet them when Zero attacks their city stronghold. One is the rational leader, Two is cheerful, Three is spookily distracted, and Five is hedonistic to no end. Four seems the most reluctant to fight; during an initial free-for-all with Zero, Four pleads for her sister to reconsider such violent rebellion. Later in the game, Four is the second victim in Zero’s conveniently numbered murder spree. En route to a mountain fortress, Zero tells her companions that Four is an uptight virgin and that “deep down, she’s evil.”

If Four’s evil, we don’t see it in the prime stretch of Drakengard 3. Upon confronting Zero, Four again begs her to stop and proclaims how highly she thinks of the murderous Intoner. So great is Four’s faith in her sister that she’s even willing to fall for a blatant and deadly ruse. Later, as the game’s timeline unravels into chaos and paradoxes, Four reappears as a lunatic, driven mad by the ominous floral entity that birthed all of the Intoners. She’s a piteous sacrifice, hiding in poorly concocted innocence and a mess of happy, Zero-centered memories that aren’t even real.

For a look into Four’s true depths, one must venture beyond the central game. The short stories available on the Drakengard 3 website introduce Four as a teetering stack of neuroses. Traveling with her sisters (minus Zero), Four worries about her sibling Intoners, mends their clothes, tries to keep a borrowed house clean…and then explodes into a room-wrecking fury and seethes with hate for her family. And herself most of all.

Among the Intoners, Four seems caught between the thoughtless cruelties of Three and Five and the orderly lives of One and Two. Simultaneously fretting over and jealously loathing her sisters (the lustful Five in particular), Four is a creature of bitterness, obliterated self-esteem, and thick sediments of repression, all bottled up behind her conscientious veneer and feigned moral superiority. She gets no help from her Disciple, a polite masochist named Decadus. Ruled by his fetish, he sees Four entirely as a means for punishment—even in her refusal to indulge it. This only frustrates her further, of course. Violence is Four’s sole release, but she couldn’t inflict any on Decadus. That’d be dirty and bad and a dead giveaway of her darker impulses.

All of this comes out in the playable Drakengard 3 bonus chapters, each of which focuses on a different Intoner. Four’s side-story sees her butchering enemy soldiers on her elder sister One’s orders, with Decadus and the dragon Gabriella tagging along. Sanctimonious as ever, Four laments all of the killing she carries out, and her tone nauseates Gabriella. Four excuses the bloodshed as necessary for One’s noble future, but she can’t pretend in the quest’s last act. Astride the dragon, Four chases down and incinerates a fleet of shakily defended elf pirates, who wail and plead for clemency in absurdly high-pitched voices (as though Four is massacring The Littl’ Bits). And Four? She laughs with all the racist glee of a Blackwater mercenary or an Einsatzkommando.

So Four is evil after all. Yet it’s not obvious as to why. In one of the side quest's cutesy storybook interludes, Gabriella gazes within Four’s heart and sees a gaping hole with only a frigid breeze to fill it. So the viewer may decide just what completes Four. She could be a pure sadist, masking her many little envies and criticisms under a prissy rectitude just so she can feel better than her sisters at something. And there's no redemptive fantasy fulfillment in her story, in contrast to the whole “moe” fixture that persistently paints women characters as just flawed enough to be rescued by some heroic male avatar.

Or perhaps Four is more pathetic than a mere joke. Her downloadable quest unlocks a string of her memories, and they’re all hateful diatribes spewed in the split second before her death. Four lashes out at her sisters, her Disciple, her public, and her creator with all the spite and sarcasm of a catty teenager, but her last little jab is aimed within.

Even Four’s vilest moments seem spawned by her self-loathing and those frequent reminders that no one really cares about her. In her side-quest, Decadus doesn’t listen when she shares how unappreciated she feels or lectures him that sex shouldn’t come before true love. There’s a barely disguised plea for him to treat her as an actual person, but Decadus sees Four’s words as deliberate and delightful sadistic denial of him, while Gabriella mocks her false piety. Four is that lost kid, the one who isn’t bullied or abused but rather just neglected to the point where something dies deep inside. So home she goes to burn some ants or rip apart some stuffed animals. Her one remaining hope is that her absent sister Zero will befriend her…but we see how that turns out.

Drakengard 3’s Intoners appropriate familiar women in fiction: the spooky amoralist, the shallow peacemaker, the bloodthirsty sociopath, the shameless hussy, and, in Four’s case, the priggish, virginal nutjob. Yet they often seem attacks on those same deadly-sin archetypes. They’re all incomplete in some way, forced into roles that they can’t escape. Four’s part defines her through sexuality even when she avoids it, and Decadus is there to remind her unintentionally with his constant eroticism of misery. Squashing back a tide of frustration, Four turns to thinly justified wartime brutality—the only way she can let out everything without cracking her good-girl façade. Because that façade is all she has.

It’s a shame that this sort of thing has to be tucked off to the side. Modern games have an unwelcome habit of hiding important details in easily overlooked audio logs, official websites, and places that aren't part of the initial tour. Drakengard 3’s ancillary tales add a lot, and they’d be more helpful if they actually were in the game from the start.

But that's not how this era works. In fact, the Intoner-specific vignettes probably wouldn't exist at all if Square Enix couldn’t sell them for six dollars apiece. At least the game should include the website's short stories in the same way it includes the characters’ memoirs and a lineup of weapon backgrounds. Without their sides of the story, Zero's Intoner sisters just seem incomplete. And not in any intriguing sense.

One other thing about Four. As shown in this artbook page scanned in by Something Awful forums user Pesky Splinter, Four’s original design differed a bit from the final incarnation.

The early illustration, presumably by character designer Kimihiko Fujisaka, envisioned Four as a vivacious corsair brandishing pistols with elaborate underbarrel blades. This gave way to the clawed gauntlets and reserved expression of the Four seen in the game. Handguns seem unknown in Drakengard 3 continuity despite the prevalence of cannons, and a cocky smile didn’t suit the prim-laced landmine that Four became.

But this early design need not go to waste. You can assume that it’s from yet another alternate version of Drakengard 3, one where Four confronts her horrible corrupting insecurities and strikes off as a pirate who may not need to murder a fleet of Happy Little Elves. The entire Drakengard series is a mess of multiple paths and parallel timelines, so feel free to imagine your own. It’s the only way to find any sort of happy ending.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Dark Matters

[The following article discusses rape and other forms of sexual assault as they are depicted in video games. Please avoid reading further if this subject upsets you.]

Video games seldom take a responsible tone when addressing rape. It’s rare to see a title acknowledge sexual assault as anything more than an exploitative dash, a cheap, nasty surprise for a vulnerable and usually female character. It’s a brilliant package deal for the careless writer beleaguered with demands for maturity. What better way to paint a villain as instantly loathsome, stoke the player’s righteous fury, and elevate your game above the childish superficialities of past eras! After all, trashy films, sleazy anime, and execrable comics with titles like Stormfang Saga do it, so why shouldn't video games?

The latest such attempt is in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It drops the elder of the saga’s two Snake operatives into a secret American military compound, from which he must rescue operatives Paz and Chico. Along the way, the player can uncover recordings of the game’s villain, Skullface, torturing the prisoners. Both Paz and Chico are raped. Chico is forced to rape Paz. The audio log concludes with Skullface and his surgeon planting two explosive devices in Paz—the second one apparently hidden in her vagina. Should you doubt this, the scene provides the squelching, visceral sounds of a bomb going somewhere it probably shouldn’t.

This may be the most horrifying of Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima’s uses of rape, but it sure isn’t the first. The original Metal Gear Solid strongly implies that Meryl is sexually assaulted during Revolver Ocelot’s torture sequence, the second game finds once-laughable nerd Otacon confessing that his stepmother raped him, the third has some disturbing notes about undercover agent Eva, and Metal Gear Solid 4 luridly mixes sexuality and trauma into The Beauty and the Beast Corps. The entire Metal Gear Solid web weaves together grim realities and goofy fourth-wall assaults, and Kojima’s infusion of radio-drama rape and vagina disploda is both, entwining the absurd and the horrific.

Kojima is no lone provocateur. Numerous other games trot out rape scenes with all the care of a backhandedly misogynistic romance novel, a torture-porn flick, or the Raveonettes’ “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed).” You can find it callously applied in Heavy Rain’s TV-movie interludes, F.E.A.R. 2’s finale, and just about any game where a female character’s backstory boils down to “she was raped” and little else.
Is that all video games can do? Do any of them treat the subject with a modicum of respect?

It’s hard to tell.

I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is a strange creation among the point-and-click adventure games of the 1990s. It’s based on the notorious Harlan Ellison’s equally notorious short story, in which five unfortunate humans are the playthings of a psychotic supercomputer called AM. Ellison worked with the developers (and voiced AM itself) to grant each character a backstory and a personal journey through a surreal, AM-concocted episode. Gorrister is tormented by thoughts of a suicide he cannot commit, Nimdok relives his days as a Nazi surgeon, and Ellen, a brilliant engineer, has to remember why she’s afraid of the color yellow.

Ellen’s vignette leads her through a simulacrum of an Egyptian temple and into an elevator. There she’s forced to confront something long buried: during one late night at the office, a man in janitorial garb cornered her in an elevator and violated her. AM summons up the rapist as a faceless shadow in a yellow jumpsuit, and he recounts “the blood, the screams,” and just how deeply the incident wrecked Ellen. It’s perhaps the most disturbing scene in a game that explores the Holocaust, mental illness, and an eternity in a fleshy, mute prison, and it’s hardly leavened when Ellen fights off the phantom and continues on her quest.

The scene is vintage Ellison: a vicious little dose of nightmare that holds nothing back. Yet for all of its nastiness, it’s not just a distasteful memory. As in the rest of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, there’s a psychological tension beneath the surface tremors. The game dwells less on the details of Ellen’s attack and more on the lingering effects she suffered. It’s abbreviated and perhaps sexist, but it’s concerned with something beyond provoking the player to loathing the villain just in time for some climactic boss battle. That’s Ellison’s modus operandi. Even when he pounds the reader’s sensibilities into paste or shapes misogyny into stories like a child manhandles Play-Doh (see “Broken Glass” in his Angry Candy anthology for an example), he at least does it for a reason.

The third chapter of Yasumi Matsuno's Final Fantasy Tactics introduces Rapha Galthena and her brother Marach, the adopted children of Grand Duke Barrington. When the game’s conflicted hero Ramza Beoulve meets them, Rapha’s trying to convince Marach that Barrington is using them, that he destroyed their village and killed their parents just to claim their arcane talents for his death squad. Rapha then mentions “the thing he did to me” and accuses Marach of knowing about it and still taking Barrington’s side. In one of the rare moments where the blunt, oft-incomprehensible original translation of Final Fantasy Tactics works better than its ornate PSP revision, Rapha simply shouts “I KNOW you know!” 

Rapha later confronts Barrington amid a chaotic slaughter at his castle, and the duke gloats at her hesitation in striking. In the PSP version, he remarks that “the flesh remembers, Rapha. It remembers fear, cold, and trembling.” The retranslation even reveals his additional lines about how her “fear will blossom into another flower—and I shall have that one as well.” Marach overhears this, and rushes in to catch a bullet from Barrington’s flintlock. Yet Rapha’s denied any revenge as some higher-up villains arrive and toss Barrington off the rooftop. This creates one of the tougher battles in the entire game, as the player scrambles to help Rapha while she furiously rushes to attack overpowered foes. After all of this, it’d be unrealistic if she didn’t.

The word “rape” never arises, and it hardly needs to—even in the murky exchanges of the original translation, the meaning is clear. There are no nauseating flashbacks or detailed testimonials. It disturbs by implication, both in its direct allusions and peripheral questions (if Barrington hadn’t abused Rapha, would she and Marach have stayed Ramza’s doomed, dutiful enemies?). Matsuno hides all sorts of brutality in the large-headed character sprites and pointy-hatted mages of Final Fantasy Tactics, and he often does it by knowing what not to say.

Yet the underlying idea is rooted in pulp substratum. Barrington is a vile goblin through and through—he manages to look greasy and bloated even in the cute, noseless art of Final Fantasy Tactics. Nor does the game really develop Rapha beyond her introductory trauma. Aside from a brief, admiring talk with Ramza, she serves primarily to progress the story, show the profligacy of nobles, and discover a new side to the Zodiac stones that Ramza seeks. That malady strikes every supporting character in the game. Once they join Ramza, they don’t stand out much.

The Fallout series explores all sorts of depravities amid civilization’s ruin. The issue of rape seldom arises in the player’s view, but Fallout: New Vegas approaches it in a side-quest. When talking with the New California Republic 1st Recon, the player learns about Betsy, a sniper who was ambushed and raped by a marauder named Cook-Cook. Betsy has since grown less stable, to the point where her commanding officer asks the player to talk her into seeing the camp’s resident therapist.

The player can enlist Betsy and other Recon members in killing Cook-Cook and the Fiends, but the solution to Betsy’s unraveling psyche lies in a separate task. It’s carried off in almost laughably terse fashion: talk with a few of Betsy’s comrades, and she’ll decide that she may as well get therapy. Yet the sentiment beneath is something rarely broached in video games or general pulp lit: the idea that a rape victim needs more than vengeance.

Then there’s the inescapable specter of Silent Hill 2. Driven to investigate a fog-shrouded town at the behest of his now-deceased wife, main character James Sunderland encounters many horrors—and among the most striking is a figure named Pyramid Head. The bizarrely helmeted creature is first encountered at an eerie standstill, but not long after he appears in a nearby room, sexually assaulting two malformed female mannequins until they flop lifelessly to the floor.

Pyramid Head serves many ends in Silent Hill 2’s psychological hellscape. He’s the embodiment of James’ sexual frustration, his regrets, his unspoken desire for punishment. And there’s more than one such abstraction in the game, just as James isn’t the only doomed visitor to the town. His fellow guests include a sexually abused runaway named Angela Orosco, whose affliction manifests in a creature called Abstract Daddy. Like Pyramid Head and the rest of the Silent Hill 2 foes, it’s an aberrant golem and a harbinger of self-destruction, as grotesque as its subliminal inspirations.

This makes it all the more unnerving when those grotesques turn cute. Pyramid Head is a favorite among fans, who invoke him in rape jokes, cosplay. and precious fanart. Konami even indulged this with New International Track and Field, where Pyramid Head appears in squat chibi form alongside similar big-headed versions of Solid Snake, Sparkster, and Simon Belmont. Maybe Skullface will make it into the next Konami Krazy Racers, tossing vaginal grenades as he putters around the track.

Despite the queasy mollifications of fans and publishers, Silent Hill 2 may be the most subtle of the above examples. The others are too heavy-handed, too abbreviated, or too melodramatic. Yet even they manage something beyond the usual careless appropriation.

Not that games are alone in this problem. It’s perpetually fashionable for game nerds to fuss and fume and hatch self-loathing catechisms over how backward our hobby is for falling short of J.M. Coetzee or Virginia Woolf, but it’s myopic to confine the issue to games. Comics, TV series, animation, and alleged classic science fiction and fantasy novels fall into the same ugly habits when they concoct power fantasies and use rape as some wretched accessory, as routine a plot gear as an alien invasion or the blood-streaked walls of a space station. Both Game of Thrones and True Detective recently drew fire for making such mistakes.

This brings us to the obvious: it’s difficult to tell a story that involves rape. Many prefer to leave it out of plots entirely, even those set it circumstances that would involve the threat of sexual assault in the real world. Perhaps that’s why many games decide to avoid it in grim and harrowing realms where no other debauchery is ignored. Our video games are still built for entertainment most of the time. And if they’re not going to handle a subject with the gravity it merits, it’s best they don’t touch it at all.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Introducing Rygarfield

You know what’s wrong with webcomics? They just don't have broad appeal. Name any webcomic, and you can find a great mass of people who hate it or, worse yet, ignore it.

Fortunately, I have devised a new project to scale magnificent heights in online comedy and profit. It is a webcomic that no one could shun, a webcomic that fuses the Internet’s boundless affection for old video games with the proven success of one of the past century’s most marketable characters. I call it Rygarfield.

Rygarfield is available for syndication, merchandising, and whatever funding you might care to send me. Feel free to make ROM hacks and memes about Rygarfield, so long as you credit me and pay me royalties. And if anyone points out that Rygarfield is a blatant arrogation of copyrighted material, tell them it’s OK under the doctrine of fair use. Just don’t tell them to look up what the doctrine of fair use actually means.

Be sure to check back for regular Rygarfield comics about sarcasm, dog abuse, and that weird, unreachable door in the water just above Dorago's lair!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Off-Kilter Instinct

I’d like to talk about Killer Instinct and B. Orchid. Really.

I admire Killer Instinct in a strange historical capacity. It’s not the reluctant fondness I have for the considerably trashier BloodStorm. It’s more of a distant appreciation for the way the original Killer Instinct summarizes all of the trends that video games toyed with in the mid-1990s. It’s a fighting game, of course, and it has plastic-looking computer-rendered graphics, profuse guitar licks, comical violence, preposterous sexism, an announcer squawking excitedly about BLASTER COMBOS, and a lineup of stereotypes exploiting everything from the Predator to Jurassic Park. And all of this came from Nintendo, who by then was sick and tired of Sega pretending to be the more daring game-industry titan.

If you want to experience a good game from 1995, play Chrono Trigger, Panzer Dragoon, or Metal Warriors. If you want to know what games were really like in 1995, play Killer Instinct.

B. Orchid is part of that, of course. Her design is an amalgamation of every unfortunate stereotype inflicted on women by that decade’s video games. She gallivants around in a skin-tight suit with “HOT” on the side, moans provocatively during her post-fight footage, and, for a “No Mercy” move, whips open her top and shocks her male opponents into cardiac arrest. Yet there was a time when people were hopeful about B. Orchid.

The above profile comes from a 1994 issue of Nintendo Power. I can sympathize with the writer who had to find good things to say about Orchid, looking as she does like some hideous 1960s Eastern European knockoff of a Barbie doll. In a bout of vague optimism, Nintendo Power suggests that Orchid will change the way female characters are portrayed in video games. In hindsight, the kindest view of Orchid is that she didn’t influence such depictions one way or the other, that she was a symptom and not a catalyst.

Orchid’s appearance in Killer Instinct 2 grew even more exaggerated. By that point neither she nor the series had the same cachet among violent fighting games, but she had fans. Strange fans.

Consider the above sample from a 1996 issue of GameFan, covering the imminent release of Killer Instinct Gold for the Nintendo 64. The caption pleads for “no more letters” requesting “that shot” of Orchid, and in smaller text implores the petitioners to “get a life.” This suggests some odd background. Did a fan or a number of fans write scads of insane letters about this picture? Did a cabal of worshipers gather in some dim chatroom on the nascent Internet and conspire to blanket publications for imagery of…B. Orchid?

Microsoft and Double Helix recently put together their own Killer Instinct and revived the more popular characters. Orchid is one of them, of course. Her design is no breakthrough among women characters in video games, but it’s probably the most dignified she’s ever looked. Yet I’ve seen some irate remarks over it, with one fan stating “I will never forgive the XBone for ruining B Orchid.”

There’s a lesson here. No matter how repellent and disposable you may find a character, rest assured that there’s at least one person who loves that same character enough to defend his, her, or its honor at vehement length. It doesn't matter if that character is Captain Choyear from Sonic Blast Man II, Ayumi from X Blades, Zana Keene from Arrow Flash, Maxwell Cougar from Bullet Witch, that fat little hobbit guy from Wardner, or even James Pond.

And there’s surely someone out there who can’t stand your favorite video-game character, you tasteless lackwit.