Monday, January 31, 2011

How Chick Lit Supports Queer Theory (and a bonus trip to Fallen London)

I've just finished reading Chasing Harry Winston, by the author of The Devil Wears Prada, and I have this to say:

If women are as insidious and insipid as portrayed in this book, it's no wonder so many of us have problems.

I'm not going to launch into a critique of the book's literary faults, because you're either the kind of person who will read it and love it, or ignore it and hate it, so my opinion is neither here or there. What troubled me the most was that the three main characters, who are supposed to be BFFS4L(!!!!11!!!!!1) spend a lot of their time bitching about one another in their internal monologues. Do we really do that? Or is this another social commentary by the woman best known for her candid portrayal of the Manhattan fashion scene?

All it really left me with was a vague sense of unease, and a feeling that I should be making more bitchy comments at waitresses. This book was partially the reason for my rant about not wasting time on things you aren't enjoying - I should have taken my own advice, but I was already 200 pages in, dammit. There was that little voice, egging me on to find out what happened, which then turned around and questioned me why I bothered when I did. What a jerk.

Queer Theory, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the idea that we should get to know people as people foremost, and not concern ourselves with silly things like gender and sexuality. We are all human, you see. What better grounds on which to begin a relationship? If we were in a post-apocalyptic space dystopia no one would blink at befriending the nearest human as a symbol of our long-lost Mother Earth. Sometimes I think those chaps on the Enterprise have got it pretty good.

Star Trek, of course, being one of the big proponents of Queer Theory in the 1960s, is commonly cited as the first TV show to include interracial kissing, and Deep Space Nine included a lesbian kiss in the early 1990s. Just as the recent adaptation of Gulliver's Travels failed because it lacked the social commentary of the Swiftian original, so too have I never felt quite as removed from my gender as when reading Chick Lit. All women want the same things, right? We all struggle with having a fulfilling job while finding a supportive partner and also desperately wishing we had tonnes of babies?

Perhaps I've only been recommended books that don't suit my taste. Given that my taste generally includes epic quests and horrible things happening to characters I care deeply about - I'm looking at you, Robin Hobb and Joe Abercrombie - this is probably a given. But it would be nice, so nice, to be interested in people and not care what gender they were interested in themselves. To read a romance novel that goes through the same insecurities that each person has, regardless of their gender. Unless you're supremely confident, you will always wonder what that other person thinks of you, at least until you know for sure. Men suffer from it too, guys. Women just complain more. Do we really need an entire genre based on that one fact?

Enough. I doubt my impassioned appeal is going to turn back the wheels of the money-making printing press, so it's all just really a request for something that's targeted at my gender that actually makes me feel good about being female. Like Castle, for example. There, that's a happy place, where women are respected based on their merits. Ah, much better.

In the meantime, I also stumbled into Fallen London, due to an Extra Credits video. Like many others, I blindly follow James Portnow's trends (he's lovely - I met him at AGDC and he was an absolute gentleman) so I clicked through to Echo Bazaar to give it a try. Half a day later, I'm still not sure what I've wandered into, but it seems to be holding my attention nonetheless.

As part of an article I read earlier today stated, however, I do wonder why they've gone with the somewhat archaic use of an energy bar, and limited actions. I can only undertake so many actions a day. On top of that, I can only do ten at a time, with one energy refilling every seven minutes. I assume this is to add proper pacing to the ongoing narrative, but it feels a little bit too much like a game, if that can be a complaint. I'm horribly interested in the world they've introduced me to, and just want to get out and explore. Since exploration (e.g. gaining information) takes the form of completing quests and quest chains, this means my hunger for story is barely fulfilled.

The fact that I also have to undertake repeated tasks to level up a certain skill in order to unlock the next (invisible) tier of jobs/tasks is also something I find a little odd. I didn't enjoy it in Mafia Wars. I'm not sure why it's in here. Possibly to make it more of a game and less of an interactive narrative, but I really am wondering if that's a good decision or not.

Whatever the case, my interest is piqued for now. Further to the Extra Credits video about non-combat interaction, I'd say it's because you don't have to sit through the dinner or the chess game that Echo Bazaar works without necessarily initiating combat. Even the Sims 3 allows you to speed to the end of the chess game, rather than waiting for it to finish. Moments that require refined dignity and a keen interest in the other party are difficult to fake. I'm not saying it isn't possible, just that if a game developer somewhere can convince me to enjoy a virtual dinner with someone inside my computer as much as I would enjoy a real dinner with a charming stranger, the world is suddenly going to be a very weird place.

Castle: Bringing Sexy Back in a Button Down

It's not often that I'm able to look at something in mainstream media and be pleased by the portrayal of my gender. Sure, there are sexy women around - many of them - but in terms of personality, conduct, and self-respect, I tend to come away feeling disgruntled. My most recent favourite has been DI Drake from Ashes to Ashes, the somewhat-sequel to Life on Mars. Even she, however, leaves me feeling a little seedy for watching her on-and-off-again not-quite romance with Gene Hunt, in the same way that you feel embarrassed watching a particularly pretty friend with low self-esteem get drunk and crack onto a mutual acquaintance. Sure, DI Drake is going through a lot, but I still have to go make a cup of tea every time she starts asserting her independent, modern-woman ways.

Enter, then, Kate Beckett from Castle, who manages to be witty, job-oriented and forceful, while maintaining her allure. I've only seen the pilot, but that second-to-last shot of her walking away, having just made a very confident statement about her sexuality, and managing to be sexy a) because she doesn't look back, b) with short hair and minimal makeup and c) in an untucked, untailored light blue button down shirt with rolled-up sleeves and black trousers, gives me hope that maybe a show has got it right.

What is it about games that means we can't have women in this kind of situation? The closest I can imagine is Alice from Alan Wake, and then the most frequent shot of her is in her underwear - granted, not sexy underwear, and it does make it feel as if she's in greater peril than she would be if she were fully clothed, but even she suffers her husband's frequent temper tantrums. She's more complex than that; I'm not denying it. But at the same time, she isn't sexy. I feel something for her, sure, and I want to save her, but she's not attractive in the same way as Detective Beckett.

A lot of this comes from the Male Gaze which, arguably, should now be re-branded the Female Gaze, but that's another post entirely, and one I'm not qualified to cover. Basically, what it comes down to is this: we want what people we respect or like want. That means that if your friend, who you greatly admire for their job, house or family, decides to buy a certain painting or brand of clothing or makeup, you're more likely to gravitate toward that brand in order to attain whatever success your friend has that you want. It's the whole fake-it-'til-you-make-it scenario, and it works. We become better people by modelling positive behaviour.

So the reason that Detective Beckett is attractive, and this is where the Male Gaze comes in, is that Rick Castle (a.k.a. Mal from Firefly) wants her. As a woman, perhaps we'd like Nathan Fillion to look at us that way. As a male, we'd like to be a spaceship captain cowboy. What's not to want? This desire taps into both genders, but more importantly, it also empowers women.

Castle doesn't want Beckett because she's easy, he wants her because she's not. I realise this is giving a contrasting message to men - chase what you can't get - but the reason that Beckett is sexy and not sexual, from a woman's point of view, is because she's the one in control. She dresses conservatively, doesn't seem to care about her appearance, and certainly doesn't care about Castle's opinion, which makes her attractive to both him and us - it's her confidence that does the trick. I'd write another post about how women can never look too good if they want to be taken seriously, and if she does ever wear makeup it's either going to have to be 'undercover', or else change her character entirely, but I don't think that would be much fun to read. Suffice to say I'm happy a reasonably well-groomed, well-dressed, well-situated female detective as the sexy to Castle's smarmy. That's really it.

Can we do that in games, do you think? Stuff gender differentiation - power armour should make everyone look like a man. Unless the women in the army have some seriously amazing genes, they can't be athletic and stacked enough to require an entire extra plating cavity in their armour just to show they have breasts. Shouldn't all soldiers be treated equally in the future, anyway? Should you prioritise saving your comrade, who is wearing a helmet, because of a little extra chest bulge? No way, otherwise men are going to start wearing women's armour, too, and that will just be unfortunate, least of all because that extra little air pocket will work great with incendiary ammo.

Can we have a female character who is not at all interested in the player apart from in a professional capacity, who is sexy without showing more than her neck and her arms, is good at her job, and doesn't suddenly fall apart or need to be rescued? Do you think we can do that, games industry?

I'm willing to try if you are.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Makes Writing Worth Living?

Every time we open a book, load a game or start a movie, we're opting in for some kind of writing. Even if you're playing Tetris, it once was an idea, that would have been written down at some point. For those of us in the Western, first-world countries, writing is something we take entirely for granted. This isn't a post about illiteracy, however; it's a post about making the most of what time you have.

Not every game is going to be your Heavy Rain or Alan Wake. Not every movie is going to be Casablanca or The Princess Bride. In an attempt to save you more time so you can spend it doing things you enjoy, here is a simple check-box list you can take a look at to determine whether you're really enjoying the story you're living :

1) Do you relate to the main character?

Can you understand where the main character is coming from and, more importantly, are you interested in where they're going? If not, put the media down and walk away. You're essentially living with the Hated Ex.

2) Do you feel like you understand enough of what's going on in the story?

Do you feel like you're being drawn into a mystery, or are the character motivations clear enough to keep you engaged in the storyline? No one wants to take tea with Master Yoda, especially if he's not going to teach you to be a Jedi. Chances are, whatever you're reading/watching/playing ain't gonna, so move on.

3) Is it frustrating you?

Now, some games use frustration as a technique. I don't mean vague I-need-to-beat-this-level-or-get-a-better-score frustration. I mean killing you over and over, having a protagonist who never learns anything or just plain not going anywhere anytime soon. If you like that kind of thing, go ahead, but I like my stories to have a direction other than 'standing still'.

4) Do you laugh in a pitying way?

If you giggle inadvertently when the space captain says, in all seriousness, "They want war, we'll give 'em war," chances are it's either out of character, out of context, or just generally poorly chosen. Voice acting or animation may come into it in a game, but, generally, if you're laughing at things that aren't meant to be funny, you're either watching a B-Grade horror movie or wasting your time.

5) Did you lose track of time?

If yes, keep going, within reason. If no, that's not a bad thing, necessarily. If you ticked off every five minutes of the intervening hours, quit it. You have better things to do with your time.

6) Are you also playing Facebook/texting/reading webcomics?

If you're multitasking, it's not gripping you. Move on.

7) Did your friend like it?

If yes, accept that you may not. Move on.

8) No, they really, really, really, really, REALLY liked it!

Is this someone you're trying to impress? If yes, cut it out. Have the guts to tell the truth. If no, why are you bothering? The nature of any form of expression, games in particular, means you will never have an identical experience to someone else. Just because my friend loves Descent doesn't mean I will, and he will still hate the Sims 3 no matter how exciting I tell him interior decorating is. We're different people. That's okay.

9) Do you feel empowered by reading/watching/playing your whatever?

If you don't feel good after your jaunt into imagination, then I would argue it wasn't worthwhile. Feeling good comes in many flavours - not just the warm 'n' fuzzies, but feeling whatever you want to feel, such as feeling sad at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or angry at the end of BioShock. If you come away from a story-based interaction feeling awful - or worse, feeling nothing - then that's a sign to spend your time elsewhere in future.

10) Did it change your life?

I mean this. Has reading/watching/playing this book/movie/game made you rethink some aspect of your existence? Surely not all recreation needs to be for self-improvement... right? Considering you take in information from so many sources at so many times during all of your waking hours, yes, everything should be helping you determine either who you are or who you want to be. Planescape: Torment changed my life, but not in the same way as Confessions of a Shopaholic. Planescape set me on my current career path; Confessions made me want to go shopping, while showing me the dangers of doing just that. I learned from both of them, so if you're not learning, what are you doing?

There are arguments for experiences. I agree. You may just want to be someone else for a while. That's okay too. What's not okay is wasting your precious free time on bad or mediocre writing, just because you don't know any better. Now you do. Go forth and be joyful.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Life in pre-apocalyptia

As many of you are no doubt aware, most of Queensland is currently flooded.  Over the next couple of days, that will include a nearby town, Ipswich, and the state capital, Brisbane, where I live.  The floods are set to be as bad as or worse than the floods in 1974 that left the Brisbane CBD looking like this:


There have been heartbreaking stories all over the news since yesterday, when an 'instant inland tsunami' descended on the nearby town of Toowoomba.  Luckily, we Brisbanites know what's coming.  It's weird.

I had to go to Coles this afternoon for kitty litter, and made a decision before I arrived to only buy items that I normally would, in an attempt to distract the rising fear in my local area.  After all, that Coles will be underwater in less than 18 hours.  A little last-minute shopping may be called for.  When I arrived, I was a little surprised to find rows and rows of shelves like this:

Eggs.

Bread.

Longlife milk.

Paper towels and toilet paper.

Vegetables.

Fruit (there are only pomegranates left).

Wow.  Okay.  This was 3pm on a weekday.  Bottled water was completely gone, many soups were disappearing, instant noodles were all but extinct and quite a few people were buying chocolate.  I was the only one to buy fresh flowers.

I've been playing Fallout: New Vegas recently, and watching The Walking Dead, and while I love post-apocalyptia, pre-apocalyptia is something I've never really thought about.  Well, a little, because I'm afraid of zombies.  But while I would like to see the world crumbled in the way of Fallout, highways shattered across the landscape and people working together to rebuild their lives, it's pretty incomprehensible to imagine the actual event that leads to such a society.

Don't get me wrong.  Obviously, floods are nothing compared to a nuclear holocaust.  My house isn't even in danger.  We'll probably be isolated for a couple of days, but I have food, and the internet, and my cat.  If the roads remain open for just that little bit longer tomorrow morning, my partner might even manage to make it home before everything turns brown-coloured.  I'm in a pretty good position.

But the frenzy at the supermarket, coupled with the weary resignation of the people waiting for sandbags a couple of blocks away, certainly made it feel like the end of the world.  People were buying similar things to what I imagine they would buy in the event of a nuclear war.  Canned food.  Bread.  Longlife products.  Meat.  Water.  It's only reasonable, and a good idea.  Maybe that's what's so scary.

Queues of people, standing with their groceries, silently watching the pelting rain outside, clutching loaves of bread, worry on their faces, as their children held onto single bottles of water and tried not to put them down. The diminishing pile of sandbags as the line grows longer.  A tightness around people's eyes as they smile, searching the supermarket for anything that may have been left behind.

Luxury items were.  Blueberries were cheap, and the table was full.  Fresh flowers were all on sale.  I bought a beautiful bunch of pink roses and carnations for five dollars.  Juice was apparently not high on the list, either.  I had a fine time, choosing the foods I would normally choose, most of which were on sale.  Toward the end, however, even I became a bit spooked.  I bought two jugs to fill with filtered water, since all of the bottled stuff was gone.  I considered batteries, then realised my torch is kinetic.  I wondered how long it would be before I would taste fresh apricots again.

For us, there's an end.  The uncomfortable silence lies in the waiting, in the inexorable march of a wide brown wall of water, bearing down on our city.  But it will be over.  Life will return to normal, hopefully not too much for the worse, or too slowly.  We'll get bread again.  I don't want to imagine circumstances otherwise.

And that wall of water keeps getting closer.  I'm one of the lucky ones, not having to fear waking up with my books floating across my bed, or my loved ones trying to escape and needing to be rescued.  I want to help others, if I can.  Would I feel the same if the circumstances were more permanent?  Probably not.  Would I have fought harder to get bread?  Yes.  Would I survive?  I doubt it.

Lucky for me it's not the apocalypse just yet.  It only feels like it.

Please donate to the flood relief appeal if you can.  It doesn't take the best of us, only each of us, to make a difference.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Most Relaxing Game of the Decade

I've been wondering what would prompt me to begin my blog anew.  There are many fantastic titles looking set to rear their heads this coming year, but nothing I have lately seen gave me inspiration to write about it.  Really, I need to convert the things I've seen and played into general writing-related posts to preserve the dignity of those so afflicted, but that's for another post, and another time.

I have so far found my game of 2011, and it's a surprise to me, by far.  An old game with new modes, and a Christmas gift to boot, I find myself particularly entranced by Bejeweled 3.

Given the heads-up by an avid fan, I headed immediately to Zen Mode upon installation, to find a genuine surprise.  There are options to be used here, many of them - Zen Mode offers a breathing timer (inhale, exhale) with variable speeds, white noise (in many forms from ocean waves to rain on tree leaves) and positive affirmations to help you with anything from weight loss to general positive thinking.

While I quite like meditation, I doubted anything so frenetic as Bejeweled could lull me into such a relaxed state of mind, but I was pleasantly surprised.  After I turned off the explosions and creepy voices that were intruding on my calm, I found myself actually entering a state of flow.  That in itself is scary enough, but to find that the breathing rhythm set by the game is continued in the transition between levels, so you don't have to miss a breath is... well, impressive.

After playing Zen mode for a while - and actually feeling more calm in relation to things other than Bejeweled, as well - I unlocked Butterflies, which was my original goal.  I was simply told that I had to unlock it and play, so play I did.

Goodness, but Bejeweled has come a long way.


The butterflies are squashed versions of the gems, with wings, that flutter up the board each time you make a move.  You have to keep them from being eaten by the spider.  When they get within two spaces, they start to shake, as if they're afraid.  I don't think I've ever cared so much about those little gems.  I don't know what will happen in the event that I'm unable to save one of those dear anthropomorphic matchables, but I imagine it will be a 'New Game' moment.

Which all brings me to really, the point of this - I support Gameful, the secret game HQ for making games that make the world a better place, and I know a lot of educators who are creating things like World Without Oil, along with games like One Chance, Every Day the Same Dream, and other make-you-think art games that manage to make your life that little bit better.  My question is this: how did Pop Cap, one of the recent giants of the casual games market, manage to get it so right?

If you can get into Zen Mode, it will calm you down.  With the correct breathing speed, it can't fail to do so.  Butterflies has a delightful soundtrack that makes the whole somewhat distressing affair still enjoyable and relaxing.  I mocked the spider out loud the first time I thwarted him of a kill.  That's odd, even by my standards.  I haven't tried the other modes yet, but I have this to say:

Any game that can calm its players down through conscious choice and aim is making the world a better place as far as I'm concerned.

My hat goes off to you, Pop Cap.  You're doing en masse what the rest of us can only dream.