Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Offence is in the Eye of the Beholder

Modern Warfare 2 is probably going to be in the news this week over a leaked scene from the upcoming Infinity Ward game's opening act that involves some things that may offend some viewers.  First off I don't want to spoil the game, for that you can read this article and watch the video and I've got to give credit to @rockbandaide for the link. Let's just say it is not any different from the violence already present in games, but who you are playing and who you are performing the violence on is the drama.

And there it is, the key to the whole puzzle behind why IW included the scene in the first place, drama.  In the comments following that article is a litany of complaints primarily focused on how offensive and morally objectionable it is to play that part of the game and not one of these people realizes what they are doing.  They are complaining that a wonderfully immersive story has pulled them so morally and totally into a scene as to make them feel actually guilty, bad, and abhorent for being the character they are playing.  I fail to see how that is a bad thing, given the role you are playing at the time!

This scenaro is akin to a game about WWII putting you in the shoes of an SS soldier tasked with throwing a swtich at a gas chamber or enforcing order at a concentration camp but in doing so crafting the experience in a way that is horrifying to play.  Do you see the power in that story-telling?  The complex moral issues that can be addressed in that space?  We could deride it for being offensive and horrifying but that's exactly what they are trying to do!

Bioshock received acclaims for many things, one of which was it's moral decision in the gameplay and how it vexxed the average gamer.  It made a strong case for the use of interactive fiction as a vehicle to make us experience a disturbing reality, not just watch it on CNN.  I agree that implementing these sorts of gameplay elements should be considered carefully and carry proper gravitas, but I'm afraid mainstream media and consumers may not be able to differentiate a successful implementation from the truly offensive implementation.

This latter would be a game where you are applauded and cheered for performing atrocities in cartoon fashion, making it instead a light-hearted romp.  Wait, that's called Carmageddon isn't it? 

Speaking of which, another deeper layer to this topic can be found by studying the list of banned games on wikipedia.  There you will find the reasons in different nations for banning various video games and the reasons are often enlightening.  Consider who you are specifically playing as in the MW2 leaked gameplay and assume you are an American consumer watching this sensationalised on FOX NEWS, and then compare it to this paraphrased summary of international censorship.

Several banned for "smearing the image of China and the Chinese army", and/or for portraying Tibet, Sinkiang, and Manchuria as independent countries and Taiwan as under Japanese control.
Multiple banned because of Nazi references
Banned (until altered) one game for having a weapon with the same title as the atomic bomb used on Japan near the end of WWII.
Banned one game for Mexican Rebels being antagonists and stereotyping the city of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez.
Saudi Arabia
Banned (Pokemon card game) for "promoting Zionism and gambling".
South Korea
Used to ban any game with a fictional North/South Korean war.
United Arab Emirates
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (MW2's precursor) is banned because in some cutscenes the player shoots Islamic soldiers.

Woah wait, what?  It turns out the first iteration of this game was banned from a middle eastern country for a reason shockingly close to the one that may incite American media.  Okay, I'll give you that there are some key differences beyond the nationality of the victims, but ultimately I contend that the main reason western media may renounce the scene is for the exact same sentiment as all these countries: an offence against a point of national tenderness.  For Germany and Japan it was WWII and for America it is 9/11.
I guess what I am driving at here is that Offence is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, but unlike beauty, we don't jump at the chance to experience it.  And rightly so, I just hope we don't miss out on the beauty of a rich, mature, interactive experience in the process.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Boy

The beasts attacked in pairs. Shamroth would always remember that. Like wolves they had descended upon the small camp where his family slept and where they now found their final rest. A piercing wail sounded from his left and right in unison and two of the creatures lunged at him from the ring of glinting eyes. His stomach dropped. Hungry paws tore the ground towards him and guttural huffing followed the bobbing eyes over the torn bodies of his family. He felt his young death approach.

His mind screamed, turning on itself and tearing in blind terror at every thought and instinct, looking for salvation.

Two lunging – too many - so big - nowhere to run – surrounded – everyone dead – no use – hide – hide – behind the shield – this shield – it was ...

“Averil, lend me your heart”, he whispered.

Seeming to hear them from outside himself, those words cut through the fear within him like a hot iron, searing away the confusion and doubt and pain, and leaving the burning of a new resolve. His gut leaped back up into a knot and his body surged with expectation as he braced his father's shield in his left hand, and the borrowed short-sword in his right began its arc up from the ground.


One beast slammed into his shield obliquely as Shamroth simultaneously lunged into it with all his might, while swinging the sword up and out through the head of the second attacker caught in mid stride.

Twisting his torso around with the motion of the swing he let the shield slide down and followed the sword through into the face of the first beast.

A pair of wails behind him. He pushed the first creature off his sword with his shield arm and spun to meet his new foes.

He would make his father proud, in the service of Averil, that much was decided.

Fours eyes streaked towards him. He dug his heals in and charged, shield first, screaming.

A shuddering double crunch seconds later rocked the shield on his arm as two mid-air bodies rebounded onto the packed earth.

Shamroth slid to a halt and looked over his shield, waiting for the next beast, “Who's next?”

Terrible seconds ticked past, the air thick with throat noises, and then pairs of wails pierced the flickering ring of light from all directions and the circle collapsed inward.

He caught the fastest one in the right side of the head with a wide slice and then swung his shield out like a door to catch the runner up flat in the nose. The short-sword's back-swing caught third place in what must have been it's shoulder and it crumpled to the floor. He dropped his shield back in place in time for it to be slammed into by another snout going for his soft guts. The sound of beasts crazy with hunger and hatred crowded in on his senses.

He spun a half-circle on his shield leg and slashed aside a leaping attacker. A sudden flash of fangs headed for his face and instead caught his improvised shield punch edge-on, redirecting the now wrecked muzzle towards the last recipient of his sword.

He looked up in time to see two massive bodies coming straight at him suddenly swoop out wide and swing back in viciously. A figure-eight slash darted out in front of him, over the shield, and the pair attempting to pincer him from the front skidded to the sides.

Something wet slapped his neck as a massive body slammed into his shoulders, sending him over his knees. He was aware his neck suddenly felt cold and distant as he sprawled forward. He tucked his right shoulder in and tried his best to spring with his left foot as it left the ground.

His right shoulder hit the ground too hard as the large body pushing it back-flipped across the dirt ahead of him. Momentum followed his tuck and he rolled along his shoulders, dirt gritting into his neck and head as it scraped the ground. A burning fire suddenly replaced the cold one as he rolled over awkwardly onto his feet.

At least he knew what happened to his neck now. He had a flash of clear thought as he teetered forward - he was damned if that thing was going to enjoy its snack. Shamroth led his remaining momentum through into a wild lunge with his short-sword, catching the thrashing body in the chest. With a shout he threw his weight and body fully into the lunge and drove the sword up to the hilt into the vaguely dog-like creatures chest, resting against it as it twitched. This one was bigger than the others.

All he could hear was the distant thunder of a coming storm.

How many had there been?

“They attacked in pairs.”, he said, the words stumbling out of his mind and into his hearing. His head was buzzing with pain from somewhere behind his brain.

That was when his eyes fell on the edge of the shadows directly in front of him. A pair of massive yellow-red eyes hung nearly 4 feet in the air as the ground in front of him darkened. It looked like the shadows themselves were growing out to swallow him with those massive eyes showing the way. What he had thought was distant thunder grew with the eyes and the creature let loose an angry wail that pealed out of the shadows and echoed off the hills around them.

This last one was no puppy and it looked like he had just killed its hunting buddy, or worse.

Perhaps worst, Shamroth had no doubt the alpha-beast's wail had awakened the dead. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but for now he was just glad it wasn't these dead. He pushed himself to his feet and stooped down, struggling to remove the short-sword from the neck-biters torso. His bloody fingers slipped off the undersized grip even as the buzzing - that had now moved into his brain - confounded their coordination. Why couldn't he figure this out, why was the sword so slippery?

The creature, now largely visible in the firelight before him, was roughly the size of bears he had seen back home. It wasn't a bear though and it wasn't a dog, but it was dog-like with massive fangs in it's muzzle and eyes that seemed to reflect the fires of the underworlds themselves. Sure, maybe this thing could be a dog if it wasn't for the complete lack of a tail or... skin. It's flesh seemed to boil on it's frame like an orgy of muscle and blood.

The beast tensed as their eyes locked and Shamroth knew he was fucked. That burning in his chest, forgotten but THERE ever since his whispered prayer, suddenly roiled and flared and burst through him, freeing his brain temporarily from that infernal buzzing and filling him with certainty. The beast tore into the earth, springing forward, its jaws opening as a second dead-raising wail rose from its maw, rending the air between them.

With unnatural grace Shamroth stood into a shield-lean, looking straight over it into the beasts meteoric eyes and shouted with a booming authority that sundered the wail in a shock-wave.


The shock-wave of the Command cracked outwards and ripped over the edge of his Father's paladin shield, catching the rim alight as it cascaded into a holy runic symbol that emblazoned on the surface then separated away as golden fire. The holy symbol slammed outwards straight into the alpha-beasts jaws. A burst of light lit the hills as the shield slam tore through the beasts frame and then evaporated into the night air, sending a spray of muscle and gore into the camp and campfire.

As the flames sputtered out, Shamroth fell forward to his knees, his Father's shield clattering in front of him.

“Dad”, he said with a strangled breath as he slumped forward onto the shield and slipped into blackness.

The shield glowed softly long into the night, drawing protective runes of sun-dapple onto the boys face, while the dead roamed.

The Ice Cream Assassin

I'm rather fond of most of the names I come up with for characters in RPG's and online personas.  I guess that's the nature of the game (pun) when creating a persona or even a fancy pronoun for yourself.  I am aware many of them are kind of lame without a rigorous backstory to beef them up.

My first nickname was Torsion, a simple and elegant word that I frankly picked because it sounded cool and I was about 15.  This was back in the days of, or before, 14.4k BBSs, and I picked it as my codename in The Third Courier.  Since the game was a SPY game and had a Wicked Cool Codewheel, how could I not pick a cool sounding codename?  It grew into my 'nick' in IRC and around the old ISP I worked at as a student. In those days one felt the need to rationalize your nickname and I evolved this charming backstory.

Def'n: the twisting of a body by two equal and opposite forces (torques).

In my teenage angst I took this to be a literal definition of the human soul and it's struggle to survive between the forces of good and evil.  Sounds snazzy huh?  The problem was this second possible defintion.

Def'n: the spermatic cord that provides the blood supply to a testicle is twisted

And believe it or not I was running into an alarming number of folks that had this predicament or knew of it.  This didn't totally dissuade me until years later and in the interim of Quake 1, Threewave CTF, TF, Quake 2, and on into Univeristy I continued to be Torsion or occasionally TorsionMaster to add some "Umph".

At University I went by all manner of names, whatever took my fancy in the hot game of the day Counter-Strike Beta X.  By 2002 I was ready to move on to a new persona and while reading the borrowed books for the Wheel of Time series I came across a passage refering to a group of folks as oathbreakers.  Shortly thereafter I saw the movie Ronin and my concept of Oathbreaker was born.

In my mind Oathbreaker was a man who had borken an oath to his lord and rebelled over a matter of deep honor and thus become a kind of ronin.  As a badge of his betrayal and his greater moral directives he self-titles himself Oathbreaker, embodening both shame and pride.

Nice eh?  Except for one, everyone called me Oath for short (sort of ironic no?) and the name was taken a surprising number of times!  Regardless, I ran with that tag in Counterstrike and beyond and occasionally still do to this day.  I had a subservient persona Commandant which served me well in all the WW2 games of the last few years.

Then came World of Warcraft.  Oh man, now I needed a half-dozen names.  Here is the short list:

Shamroth - My Paladin and first character, created on Beta WoW as a dwarf and reborn as a human (to be near my GF's human) after launch.  Name came out of thin air, turns out it is really some peoples name.
Unius - My Night Elf Druid. Name again came out of a combo of syllable sounds in my head, turns out there is a band named Unius.
Kleehv - My Dwarf Warrior, obvious play on Cleave
Sprox - My Gnome Mage
Veox - My Gnome Warlock - Twink but also Sprox's evil brother/twin.
Rethguals/Stabbajabba - Night Elf Warrior(Slaughter backward)/Gnome Rogue - Twinks
Undershot/Overshot - Dwarf Hunter killed to make a Dranei Hunter.

But as much as I loved these characters, they have little backstory.  This is a result of them existing solely for WoW and my letting WoW contribute their own backstories through the contexts of the quest lines I pursued.  That's not entirely true, I've always had a feeling of who they were but nothing concrete  Now I've started to use these names everywhere else and I feel the need again.  I've used them largely because while Oathbreaker is often taken, Kleehv never is.  Kleehv is now my XBOX360 Gamertag.

Then comes along DDO and now Shamroth the Oathbreaker is a slighlty different Human Paladin, and Kleehv Stoneshorn is a slightly different Dwarf Fighter, and Unius Brushwalker is an Elf Ranger, and they are joined by Conora Sunborne the Human Favoured Soul.  Now I want a backstory to keep their feeling intact.

And so I have the hairbrained scheme to write that backstory for each, within a neutral world of my own creation, and make a real story out of it.  I took a crack at the opening the other day, introducing a young Shamroth and his first experience with the Goddess Averil and a tragic event that proves to shape his life.

We'll see how that goes.

As for me, I'm still Oathbreaker, or Kleehv, or Shamroth, and I'm seriously considering changing them all to TheIceCreamAssassin.  Why?  That one needs no backstory, it's simply who I am.