The Trouble With Microtransactions

The Trouble With Microtransactions

As last week’s blog post might have implied, I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands lately. My past few nights have gone something like this: finish dinner, sit down in front of my PS4, and make my way through the side content of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, working tirelessly to clear out those last few side missions and free myself of my addiction.[1] Sitting beside me on the garish yet comfortable couch in my apartment is my partner. Normally, she would be at my side both in person and in the game, but given her distain for combat-heavy FPS titles, she is instead caught up in a different kind of grind: those of the free-to-play mobile games Neko Atsume and Candy Crush Saga. I look over at her and jest: “Free to play games, huh? You know those are just designed to suck your life away.” I then proceed to return to my umpteenth hour of scouring the same section of Pandora’s moon in search of rare loot.

The hypocrisy in my jab is clear: Borderlands is not altogether different in structure from a game like Neko Atsume. Just swap out guns for cats and you have the same gameplay of enticement (or ensnarement) through rare reward, an environment that encourages frequent returns to the game world in search of a new prize to transform the player experience and further the cycle of play. And yet I will gladly proclaim Borderlands to be a work of art, something that I am happy to probe in my critical analysis of the medium both despite and because of its many flaws. I will not, however, extend the same label to Neko Atsume or Candy Crush or virtually any game that falls under the “free to play” banner. My problem with refusing these games the label of art is not that such games often lack a narrative, nor is it with the fact that they are overwhelmingly games developed for mobile platforms rather than the PC or consoles.

Instead, my problem lies entirely with microtransactions.

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“Savage” Racism: Where Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt Goes Horribly Wrong

“Savage” Racism: Where Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt Goes Horribly Wrong

The following essay contains spoilers for Borderlands 2 and its expansions.

Here’s a thought exercise for you: if humanity successfully achieves the technological advancements necessary to travel to and inhabit other planets, will we find life on any of them? If we do, will that life be intelligent, able of communication with us? And regardless of the answer to that question, would we go ahead and enact the same acts of colonial oppression that have defined exploration of our own planet, all the while implementing the same destructive institutions of racism, classism, and hatred that feed into real-world political disarray?

Alternatively, a more optimistic Option B: would such achievements be characteristic only of an advanced society, the kind where egalitarianism thrives and we live peacefully with our fellow humans in a world of puppies, rainbows, and Starship Troopers-style communal showers?

Hint: it’s probably not Option B.

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The Borderlands series first emerged in 2009, a top-tier title from the otherwise mid-tier Gearbox Software. A slick fusion of first-person shooter and Diablo-esque role-playing game, the game was marked by its emphasis on co-op gameplay and its striking cell-shaded art style.[1] For these reasons, the series has become a tremendous success and one of the most iconic shooters in the modern video game canon. It’s a success that is largely deserved[2]: the world of Borderlands is a vividly realized portrait of an outer space madhouse. Its primary setting, the faraway planet of Pandora, is Mad Max through the lens of absurdist humor, populated by a frenetic cast of zany sociopaths from numerous walks of life. Borderlands 2, by far the most successful game in the series to date, is particularly standout. Its environments are sharp, colorful, and varied, from arctic tundras to volcanic outposts, and its script is punctuated by morbid wit, notably in the form of its antagonist, the megalomaniac Donald Trump/Patrick Bateman hybrid[3] Handsome Jack.

Beyond its sprawling main campaign, Borderlands 2 is host to some of the most creative and diverse expansions put forth in a video game. Want to take a break from the core story to go on a swashbuckling pirate adventure? Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty has you covered. A Valentine’s Day themed expansion based on Romeo and Juliet? Load up Mad Moxxi and the Wedding Day Massacre. Feeling like a stroll through a meta fantasy world where the protagonists take a break to play a tabletop role-playing game? There’s the hilarious and surprisingly touching Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dungeon Keep. Through a commitment to the explosive variety and lunacy of these expansions, Gearbox manages to make a hundred-plus hour game feel constantly new and engaging.

And then there’s Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt.

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Controller Trouble: Player Agency and Depictions of Gender in Catherine

Controller Trouble: Player Agency and Depictions of Gender in Catherine

The following essay contains spoilers for Catherine.

New advances in technology have led to a rapid advancement of the capabilities of video game consoles, and with it, an eruption of potential for narrative possibilities within interactive media. The heightened graphical strength of modern video game consoles coupled with the comparable advances in audio recording, such as the possibility for fully voiced narratives allows for the visual storytelling capabilities of current interactive media to theoretically be on par with non-interactive animation from the likes of Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Consequently, the scope of narrative within video games has expanded beyond merely rescuing the princess in Super Mario Bros. or shooting countless waves of demons in Doom. Modern video games tackle a wide variety of hot-button issues, ranging from mental illness to the moral quandaries surrounding the use of military aggression. Perhaps one of the most controversial topics to be tackled by interactive media is the representation of women and non-hegemonic identities. The history of the video game industry is sadly laden with examples of truly problematic representations of women, the poster child being the much-maligned handling of violence against women by the Grand Theft Auto series. In such games, women are not so much characters as they are interactive objects, used for scoring in-game bonuses or as a juvenile method of delivering eye candy. In this way, they have more in common with in-game cars and guns than with the male player character.

In light of these troubling representations, certain video game developers have begun to experiment not only with expanding the role of female characters in interactive media, but with actively engaging the topic of gender differences and conflict. One of the most prolific titles to engage these themes is Japanese developer Atlus Games’ Catherine, a 2011 title for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 consoles. Catherine, a self-labeled “romantic horror” title, is at its core a puzzle title that harkens back to arcade games of the 1980s. Wrapped around this gameplay, however, is the game’s main attraction and selling point: its narrative of infidelity and sexuality. In stark contrast to the brain-teasing segments of gameplay, Catherine’s narrative portion closely mimics the gameplay and layout of a dating simulator, a popular subgenre of Japanese adventure games that play like a “choose your own adventure” novel and ask the player to make decisions in order to pursue one or multiple women. The game uses the dating sim formula as a way to explore relations between the sexes (painted as largely binary and entirely heterosexual) and to balance the gender ratio of the game in a way that many traditional titles fail to do. Unfortunately, Catherine’s dating sim gameplay is also its undoing in terms of positive gender representation, for the nature of this gameplay forces its female characters into positions of objectification, where they are either trophies to be won by the player or simply unattainable and thus portrayed as undesirable.

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Knee Deep in the Dull: Building a Better Action Game

Knee Deep in the Dull: Building a Better Action Game

The year is 2058. Planet Earth has been rendered almost completely uninhabitable by a devastating nuclear war. The few who survive are anything but lucky, forced to take refuge in deep underground bomb shelters. As our protagonist, a man of grizzly proportions despite rampant malnutrition, ventures out from his bunker to save his captured wife, child, and/or MacGuffin, he will brave unspeakable horrors across a scarcely populated wasteland…

Which, despite its inhospitable nature, just so happens to be populated with more angry armed militiamen than the average rural Oregon town.

You wake up in an abandoned mental asylum, with no memory of how you got there. The smell of death lingers all around you. Your sanity threatens to flee at any moment, as your mind struggles to comprehend the terrors that lie around the next corner. Amidst the confusion and panic, a cryptic slogan gives you guidance: “Through the darkness lies salvation.” You push forward through the claustrophobic crypt…

And discover that you’re sharing the asylum with enough crazed inmates to exceed the population of Parma, Idaho – that’d be 1,983 inmates, in case you’re interested.

An esteemed treasure hunter has discovered the find of a lifetime: a buried relic stowed away in the harshest region of the Antarctic pole. Few have ever dared set foot there, and even fewer survive the desolate cold. More a scholar than a fighter, our intrepid protagonist nonetheless readies her warmest clothes and sets off to find the treasure that will cement her legacy…

Oh, and two hundred of the meanest dudes on the planet beat her to it. Better get to shooting them all.

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Die Hard

When compiling a list of the greatest action films of all time, one film in particular has a way of finding a spot firmly near the top: Die Hard, the hugely influential and spectacularly entertaining skyscraper heist thriller.[1] Bolstered by the superb pairing of Bruce Willis and the late Alan Rickman as the cowboy hero John McClane and German terrorist Hans Gruber, Die Hard succeeds through its intimate blending of space and narrative to create a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse. It’s McClane against Gruber and eleven of his most fearsome men, with the action confined entirely to a single building. The increasingly bruised and bloodied McClane must rely on his wits to pick off Gruber’s men, each deadlier and more imposing than the last, one by one before finally making his way to the big, bad, questionably accented man himself for one final, epic showdown.

It is, in essence, the perfect scenario for an action video game.

And yet, action games rarely adopt such a taught and thrilling structure. Instead, they are far more likely to follow the formula laid out by shooters such as id Software’s Doom, a game whose thirty-second first level features more antagonists than Die Hard has in the entirety of its two hours.[2] By and large, action games are all about quantity, whether it takes the form of Pandoran psychos in Borderlands or cyber-enhanced Nazi soldiers in Wolfenstein: The New Order. Even the kid friendly Super Mario Bros. has the player sending enough Goombas to an early grave that the Mushroom Kingdom undertaker’s grandchildren will never have to work a day in their lives.

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Ten Games to Look Forward to in 2016

As is the case with theatrical film releases, the month of January has typically been something of a dumping ground for video games, and while recent releases like Amplitude, The Witness, and That Dragon, Cancer are working to challenge that notion, February is still generally when the gaming industry starts to trot out its heavier hitters. With that in mind, here are ten games due for release in 2016 that look to be among the year’s most exciting and innovative titles:

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“It All Seems So Planned Out”: Emily is Away and the Troubling Politics of Playing as a Rapist

“It All Seems So Planned Out”: Emily is Away and the Troubling Politics of Playing as a Rapist

The following essay contains a discussion of rape and sexual assault, as well as spoilers for Emily is Away and Spec Ops: The Line.

Amidst the myriad first-person shooters, retro-styled indie games, and simulators of questionable quality to emerge on Steam last year, a game of an entirely different sort slipped through the cracks. Emily is Away, a free-to-download game from developer Kyle Seelay, is a choice-based experience that fuses the modern narrative mechanics of games like The Walking Dead and Life is Strange with an aesthetic that more closely hearkens to the rudimentary text-based adventure games of the 1980s.

The world of Emily is Away is constructed via a pixelated recreation of AOL Instant Messenger. The main character, whose name and AOL username are determined by the player (and will hereafter be referred to as M.C.), holds a series of text conversations with another user going by the alias of emerly35, real name Emily. Though ostensibly the sort of game where players are encouraged to project as much of themselves as possible onto the player character, Emily is Away quickly teaches the player a few inalienable facts about M.C.: M.C. is a high school (later college) student, M.C. is a straight male, and M.C. really likes Emily.

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“It Can’t Be for Nothing”: The Respective Failures and Successes of The Last of Us and Left Behind

“It Can’t Be for Nothing”: The Respective Failures and Successes of The Last of Us and Left Behind

The following essay contains spoilers for The Last of Us and its expansion, Left Behind.

I. Introduction

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is, in many ways, one of the greatest accomplishments in video game history to date. It is a technical marvel: a beautiful, fully realized vision of a nation in the throes of apocalyptic urban decay. Its score, composed by Brokeback Mountain’s Gustavo Santaolalla, masterfully utilizes somber acoustic tones to cast an aura of dread over the player. Its lead actors, Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, offer tremendous performances that bring emotion and nuance to the tale of Ellie, a teenage girl whose immunity to a parasitic infection holds the key to humanity’s survival, and Joel, a broken and frightening man tasked with escorting her to a hidden medical facility on the other side of the United States.

It is also a devastatingly dull slog through fifteen odd hours of punching and shooting burly men and grotesque zombie-like beings, wherein the player navigates a series of largely linear arenas (dubbed “encounters” by the game) and must rinse and repeat the routine of dispatching nameless generic bad guy stand-ins in a variety of graphic ways. The Last of Us takes an entire season of television’s time to unfold a narrative with barely enough depth to fill a standard two-hour film. In doing so, the game falls disappointingly short as a narrative artistic achievement and only succeeds as a video game if we accept the premise that video games are nothing more than diversions designed to occupy the player’s time for as long as possible, thus maximizing the value of their sixty dollar investment.

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