When “It’s Just A Joke” Doesn’t Come Close

Before I begin, I just want to apologise for the extended absence and lack of new posts. I was out of the country on holiday for three weeks, during which I spent copious amounts of time at the beach, enjoyed copious tanning sessions and drank copious amounts of alcohol. All in all…I did a lot of stuff, including working as a volunteer for the 2013 Caribserve Video X Games. Then when I returned, I was stuck in that post-vacation rut that causes one to neglect work and all things fun because after all, you were just sipping an ice hold Heineken on a white sand beach. I’ve finally pulled myself out of that deep, dark place, and even so, this post is going to be shorter than most. I mean, come on…it’s Saturday night! Anyway, I thought I’d take this moment to weigh in on something that’s been bugging me and that some have dismissed as just harmless trash talk.

Earlier this week, Jennifer Hepler, a BioWare writer attached to the Dragon Age IP resigned, citing a desire to expand her horizons and be closer to family, which I completely understand. But she also discussed her experience with harassment from “fans” of Dragon Age on the BioWare forums and, shockingly enough, in her personal Inbox and via the phone. The month before, it was poor David Vonderhaar with the literally unnoticeable changes to two bloody guns in BLOPS II, and of course, Phil Fish and Fez 2. Look, I have taken a crack or two at Anita Sarkeesian because I think she finds sexism and misogyny in places where it doesn’t actually exist, but what I do agree with her and several others on is the harassment people, whether male or female, gamer or developer, encounter on forums, XBox Live etc. Obviously, I am a woman and gamer, and I am guilty of muting my mic so people won’t know I’m a woman or won’t engage me in conversation. Though I have had more positive encounters than negative, the bad ones always left me with a bad taste in my mouth for days afterwards.

To learn that Hepler faced death threats against her children, of all people, was very shocking, at least to me. I was raised to voice displeasure at things that I did not like, but in a respectful manner. It’s no surprise that this doesn’t exist on the Internet, but I suppose I never imagined it would go so far as to threaten someone’s child. There is no stronger word for it than reprehensible, and this is something that has been thoroughly discussed and dissected both in online forums and games journalism sites. I am more inclined to talk about the silent majority that continue to just brush this kind of harassment off as harmless trash-talk. There needs to be more pride in calling yourself a gamer and I don’t particularly feel anything but shame when witnessing or experiencing that level of cruel. Additionally, this type of behaviour stopped being harmless when people gained the ability to discover not only personal phone numbers and emails, but home addresses as well, all with a few well-clicked buttons and search terms. Damn you Google algorithms!

Whenever something negative pops up anywhere and in any context, sweeping generalisations are made about the group to which the perpetrator(s) belong. It happened to Germans (for obvious reasons), Muslims (also obvious), blacks, Asians, gays and lesbians, and even some whites (but rarely). So it should be no surprise that the actions of a few special and possibly psychotic gamers darken the landscape we all stand on. But as I say when any group is placed in the same Crazy Town slot as their less-than-stable peers, the silent majority fails by staying mum on what is happening. In no world is it right that Phil Fish chucks it all in the bin because he’s tired of the never-ending stream of criticism. If there’s anything to be learned from the corporate world, it’s that constant stress and nonconstructive criticism only leads to one of two things and one of them involves a semi-automatic weapon and a CNN special focusing on “where it all went wrong.”

I know it can seem hopeless. The voices of the ignorant are sometimes much louder than those of sense, but that shouldn’t mean the sensible let it slide. All in all, instead of relying on Microsoft et al, who seem to have no clue how to fix this problem, start speaking out a bit more. I was being bugged in a Halo match and at one point a member of the opposing team told his buddies to shut up and stop being bitter because a girl was owning them. And no, Anita, this doesn’t mean a man had to rescue a woman again. It means that a member of the larger, more sensible majority chomped back at the dimwitted minority. No change ever happens unless that takes place first, and we’ll be better for it. That’s all.

I might have some pretty cool news to share in the next two weeks or so, but in the meantime, I’m going to figure out how one goes about selling a kidney on the black market, because the Fall release schedule is looming and it is PRICEY. If you’ve any tips, send them along. Seriously.

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XBox One Announced, Rejoice!

My people…the next generation XBox has come forth, and tomorrow shall dawn a brighter day, for it is grand and it is…black! Behold: XBox One.

Better Than A Little Black Dress.

Better Than A Little Black Dress.

For anyone raising an eyebrow at the enthusiastic announcement of the pretty basic name, the logic behind the simplistic moniker became glaringly clear as the fast-paced presentation went on. And fast-paced it was. We literally blitzed through this event, which had a significantly more upbeat tempo than Sony’s early-2013 event announcing the PlayStation 4. XBox One is aiming to be just that: your one-stop shop for gaming, social connectivity, and audio-visual entertainment. I could hardly live-tweet as fast as they kept throwing stuff at us, and I know that this is due to the fact that Microsoft is holding back the bulk of its “OMG WOW” factors for E3. And since that’s going to be a tweetin’ bloggin’ extravaganza, I’ll try to keep this post short, focusing on the points that both excited and depressed me:

THRILLS

The Future Is Now: Voice Control

When Yusef Mehdi, Senior VP of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business line, said “XBox On” and the screen behind him came to life, I could but utter one word: Finally. Sometimes I stare at my Kinect in disgust because I can’t just turn on my XBox with a simple voice command. I know it’s not Kinect’s fault, but I have issues with misplaced frustration. XBox One aims to alleviate the stress I direct at Kinect by making it possible to turn the console on with just an utterance of “XBox On.” Laziness Level: Expert.

Fifteen Exclusives, Eight New IPs

I don’t even have to go into how great this is, especially with the promise of eight new franchises delivered for XBox One. I’m particularly excited about Remedy’s preview of Quantum Break. Fresh new content is the injection the industry needs, and after the usual suspects being rolled out at Sony’s press-con, I’m happy XBox has locked up some original product for their next-gen offering.

A scene from Remedy's Quantum Break.

A scene from Remedy’s Quantum Break.

Live-Action Halo Series With Steven Spielberg

The only two words that matter in that headline are Steven and Spielberg. I was kind of confused as to Nancy Tellum’s presence, but started to piece it together when she introduced 343 Industries’ Bonnie Ross. Anyone who followed the Halo 4 hype juggernaut watched at least one episode of the web series ‘Forward Unto Dawn.’ I appreciated the way that the story of FUD wove into the actual Halo 4 plot, and so I thought they might be announcing another web series to prep us for an upcoming Halo title. I did not even contemplate the possibility of a live-action series, much less think about the involvement of someone like Steven Spielberg. Needless to say, I’m excited to see what they can create. Forward Unto Dawn was really the best marketing tool I’d seen a game employ in a long time, and the Halo universe stretches beyond just the games, as Ross correctly stated at the beginning of her presentation. Now if only BioWare and EA would take note for Mass Effect…

EA: FIFA, NBA, Madden and…UFC

Far be it for me to say that UFC has no place among the likes of FIFA, Madden and the NBA, but I say, bravo to EA for diversifying their offering. To even be marketed alongside those three heavy-hitters is an accomplishment, and I’m looking forward to seeing the real star of those games, the new EA Sports Ignite engine, shine through on the new XBox One hardware.

Better Hardware, Better Kinect…Better You

One of my gripes, and that of many others, regarding Sony’s PlayStation 4 announcement was the complete and utter lack of hardware present. The only tangible item available was the controller, which was nicely innovative in its own right, but not enough to really sate the blood-thirsty masses. Then yesterday, Sony does what any good marketing department would do, and “blindsides” Microsoft’s event today with a sneak peek of their console…which really just amounted to a strobe-light effect while various bits of it flashed across the screen. I put blindsides in quotation marks because it seemed as though Microsoft (and anyone with a brain, really) had anticipated Sony’s sucker punch, as all through their event today, every presenter seemed to walk with an added spring in their step, as if to say “We got this, ya’ll.”

The XBox One is sleek and, for lack of  a better word, sexy. I really hate using that word and I dislike when marketing professionals use it, but there really is no other word I could use to describe the console, the new controller and the new Kinect unit. The improvements made to the Kinect, which were necessary considering the level of multitasking the XBox One boasts, are a blessing. Also: Skype group calling. Thank you.

CHILLS

Live TV, ESPN Sports connectivity

Of course, any launch event has one or two moments where you cringe a bit and shake your head, as if to say “why would you wear that to a cocktail reception?” I only had two of these moments with the XBox One launch; this is one of them. The industry had already speculated that this console, much like Sony’s PS4, would focus on the entertainment factor as being more integral to the device’s abilities than the gaming factor. I wasn’t surprised to see Microsoft bust out the live TV functionality, and the ESPN Sports connectivity possibilities. The integration of fantasy play had my US friends chomping at the bit.

But for myself, and those gamers who do not live in North America, all that you heard from us was a collective groan. While my brother-from-another-mother in Brooklyn is enjoying switching between a Skype call with me and a live NFL match on his XBox One, I’ll be once again lamenting the fact that European XBox Live subscribers pay the same amount of money as North American subscribers for maybe 30% of the functionality that our American and Canadian counterparts receive. I understand completely the reasoning behind the lack of TV content, and truthfully, Pathe Thuis (movie-streaming service from the theater chain here) is now available on XBox 360, but there is still plenty that we do not have access to, while still paying the same price.

No Price Point

Okay, so I’m nitpicking. But I was really hoping to have a ballpark figure around which to build my plan to give up food, social interaction and possibly electricity. Twitter blew up when they didn’t mention a release date and I really have to say, this argument is getting old. We should all know by now how “the game” is played. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a release date before E3, unless of course your name is Nintendo. So let’s stop that little bit of nitpicking. A price point, however, is something I think you should be able to hint at…simply to give everyone a chance to prepare their wallets for the Special Victims Unit case its about to become.

THE BOTTOM LINE

XBox One’s spec-sheet reads like this:

– an 8-core CPU.

– 8 GB of RAM.

– 500 GB hard drive.

– USB 3.0.

– Blu-ray drive (Finally! Am I right?).

– Integrated 802.11n Wi-Fi (also finally).

– Thousands more servers to handle online play, and dedicated DVR capabilities for game-capture.

– A new 1080p Kinect camera that detects the slightest movement of your wrist, as well as your heartbeat. Hopefully if you overdo it on Nike Training With Kinect, it will also call 911 for you.

– After the event, Microsoft confirmed that XBox One was NOT going to feature always-online DRM, and everywhere, gamers and retailers sighed in collective relief.

Throughout the entire event, a die-hard PlayStation fan friend of mine kept freaking out as they threw out feature after feature. We followed it live with other gamer friends on Facebook; my notifications are now broken. People didn’t even care that the only games really shown were Forza Motorsport, Quantum Break and the world premiere of Call of Duty: Ghosts. The sheer power of the machine outshone whatever actual gameplay may have debuted. It’s safe to say that this event succeeded where Sony’s faltered: the previously non-XBox fans are frothing at the mouth.

E3 is going to be a hell of a lot more interesting this year, my friends.

Replay Values: Mass Effect 1 & 2

It’s been a good minute since my last post and I’ve a good reason for it: Life.

Yes, between the flu, a four-day migraine, a console issue, and work, I had zero time to dedicate to writing. However, health issues are now non-existent, the console issue is worked out and work…is still work. In any event, while I was hacking up a lung, I did manage to run through Mass Effect 1 and 2 again, this time helping my poor sister up her gamerscore by dropping some games she’d never touched before onto her account. I know right…how could my sister, basically an extension of my own awesomeness, not have played Mass Effect? I honestly don’t know what to tell you.

Too right.

Too right.

So I set about creating her very own FemShep, complete with icy blue eyes and regulation bun. I’d only played Mass Effect as a biotic once, so I decided that my sister’s Shepard would go through the entire series as a Vanguard. Needless to say, it’s a ton of fun, though I love my guns and soldier Shep forever. Since the only relationship that ever actually made sense and had some actual chemistry to me was Liara, my sister’s Shepard would also be romancing the feminine asari, despite the fact that she (my sister) is in fact straight. I couldn’t stand Kaidan, and I just didn’t want to ruin the awesome bromance that FemShep has with Garrus. Anyway, without further adieu, let’s get to this Replay Values.

I received Mass Effect as a very belated birthday gift (or an early Christmas gift, depending on how you look at it). The individual who gave me the game knew that I loved to write and that I appreciated a great story in any form. At the time, my personal life was pretty crazy so Mass Effect sat on my TV stand for a few weeks before I actually got around to playing it…oddly enough, I picked it up when I had the flu. Bioware knows what it’s doing, folks. I knew that they were the makers of KOTOR, and I loved that game like no other, so I was excited to see what they had to offer with Mass Effect, especially since your character now had a voice. The muteness of your character/Revan in KOTOR was disconcerting to me, since I’m an auditory and visual person, so I work better with sounds. If you didn’t know by now, I ended up falling in love with Mass Effect. I ran two profiles at the time, MShep and FemShep. You might wonder why I did that. Well, I like hearing what each voice actor does with the words they’re given. I’m a dynamic reader; when I read aloud, I go all out, I change my voice, my tone, everything, just to reflect what the character on the page is feeling. Bedtime stories with me are epic. Nothing grates on my nerves more than when someone is a static reader, just monotonous and making it sound like a chore or job. When this happens in a video game, it’s even more irritating, and so if there is an option for a different main character, I’ll tend to play both until I decide to stick with the one that’s most engaging and draws me into the story. As I started my sister’s game, it made me think back to hearing Male Shepard for the first time and practically falling asleep. Male Commander Shepard was voiced by Mark Meer; no offense, Mr. Meer, but your Shisk and vorcha voices in Mass Effect 2 were actually better than your Shepard in…all of them. I stopped playing that profile after finding Tali and switched over to start FemShep. And Jennifer Hale. And what a freaking difference. Anyway, on this play-through for my sister, Jennifer Hale’s passionate and intense Commander Shepard was as great as she was the first time around, but there were so many things that made me laugh…and made me curse.

Many people had complaints about the complete erasure of the inventory system for Mass Effect 3, something I never quite cared about until this replay of ME 1. Now I think they’re completely justified. I think my crazy hyper excitement levels for ME 3 blocked out all the wrong (besides the ending…nothing could block that out) and so I didn’t pay attention to the missing inventory system until now. It’s funny to admit that when, while playing Mass Effect for the first time all those years ago, I distinctly remember yelling “I have too much stuff!” at my XBox, as if it was the reason I couldn’t cycle through my ammo upgrades fast enough. For the record, I’m a bulk seller, in that I will accumulate the maximum amount of stuff before unloading it all on some unsuspecting salarian merchant. As I said before, I’d decided to romance Liara while playing my sister’s character. Everyone remembers the fuss made about the love scene in Mass Effect; it almost broke the Internet, after all. And really, for what? Because two feminine characters were doing the horizontal polka. Now, two games later, we have male Commander Shepard romancing Esteban and unless I was living under a rock, there was little to no outcry. You see? It really does get better. That’s the power of visibility and some serious growth, not just as a company (on the part of Bioware) but as a community (on the part of gamers). There are still the usual trolls who don’t seem to realize that it’s not a forced romance option, but it’s easy to ignore them when there’s more positive than negative swirling around. This is what it’s all about.

For real.

For real.

So my sister’s Mass Effect legacy reads like this:

  1. Made sure Wrex survived Virmire.
  2. Left Kaidan behind because really, that guy’s annoying.
  3. Romanced Liara, because love is love, ya’ll.
  4. Saved the council, because sometimes diplomacy rules above all.
  5. Convinced Saren to shoot himself, and then disposed of his resurrected form

Now it was onto Mass Effect 2, or as I affectionately refer to it: Mass Instances of Skantily Clad Women Surviving Uncountable Injuries. There were some great strides made in Mass Effect 2, functionality being one of them. Shepard stopped doing this odd tick where one of her eyes looked to be closed half the time, a buggy little twitch that I’m glad got sorted out. The doors actually opened when I wanted to and hallelujah, elevator rides did not go on forever like those awkward ones in a hotel where you’re not quite sure what you smelled. We don’t even have to discuss the aesthetics of the characters themselves; I’m lookin’ at you, Miranda Lawson.

G'day indeed.

G’day indeed.

You know how usually, the second movie in a trilogy is just this weird trip to Awkwardland, where you know it was made just to bridge the gap between the WTF moments in the first one and the WTF moments in the last? This works pretty much the same way with games. Like, I remember one vivid moment from say, Gears of War 2, but beyond that I can’t quite wax philosophical about it. Gears of War 3 now, well…I don’t think anything beyond “WTF” actually left my mouth. For me at least, Mass Effect 2 was the exception to that rule. Even though it was a continuation of Shepard’s story with the Reapers, it felt brand new when I first played it and that in essence is what drew me in, starting with the first 8 minutes of the damn game. The Collectors, Cerberus, Liara’s transformation from sweet and innocent archaeologist to flat-out sadistic information broker..everything combined to drive a new story that was really the continuation of the old story, thus making it feel like an almost completely new story. Playing it with a completely new character this time around made it seem even more refreshing and engaging, and so not like a sequel.

So you can understand what I mean when I say that playing these two games back to back on my sister’s account just made me even angrier at Mass Effect 3’s ending. -_-