The cake is a lie and other true things

I’m trying to develop some better blogging habits so the next seven days will – I say with the best of intentions – be A Blog A Day. Yes. Optimism! Today, my love of Portal 2:

When life gives you lemons, don’t make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons, what am I supposed to do with these? Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am? I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down! With the lemons! I’m gonna get my engineers to invent a combustible lemon that burns your house down!
―Cave Johnson, Portal 2 dude
My sister, normally a woman of excellent taste, called Portal 2 boring. I responded with the sort of flaily indignation I reserve for when people suggest that I, Claudius isn’t one of the great triumphs of television. On one level, course, yes, it’s an opinion about a computer game, but on another, much more valid level, one substantially closer to The Real World, she’s wrong. Very, very, horribly wrong. Portal 2 is bloody marvellous.

It took me a wee bit to work out exactly why I love it so much. (Beyond the obvious, I mean – a ridiculous amount of the dialogue makes me want to type it up on poster size pngs, print them out, frame them and hang them all over the house…I’m not going to do that, obviously, that would be silly, but I’ve thought about it.) Eventually, I got it: it gives that same sense of satisfaction, of really having earned that next piece of the plot that I used to get from playing point and click adventure games. Portal 2 isn’t a matter of putting in the hours or button mashing with suitably manic enthusiasm or building up a giant army or giant gun to take down some bad guy; it wants you to relax in its post-apocalyptic sitting, sit back and enjoy giving careful consideration to the puzzle that the homicidal and sarcastic AI (who’s seriously grudgey just cause you killed her that one time) has put in front of you. Sure, there’s the odd bit of running for your life, one or two bottomless bits and giant mashing metal things, and you do have a gun. But it’s gun that makes doors, a gun that makes you think about how exactly you’re going to use it to take advantage of the curious physics of this world in order to fling yourself across rooms at an angle that will allow you to rescue AIs who’ve gone and got themselves turned into potatoes.

There’re an absurd number of things to love about Portal: the endearingly dark-edged humour, the eccentric characters, the marvellous voice acting and innovative setting, the fact that Chell – the player character – is a woman, and that it’s intelligence and not overwhelming force that’s needed to win the day. But it’s the puzzles that are at the heart of it, puzzles that can frustrate and anger and irritate and cause you to address your computer in some very unkind terms when you’ve accidently fallen down seven floors and can’t remember quite how you managed to get up there in the first place, but in the end they reward you with a smashing sense of triumph when you’ve finally overcome them, one that I’ve never had clearing out any dungeon, no matter how good the loot. When it all comes together and you race through the exit, you’re left with the feeling that, yeah, it was totally worth it. You’ve worked it out with your thoughts and cleverness! You’ve really, properly earned that next incremental step forward in the plot, before you’re faced with another, greater challenge.

And you get to shoot the moon. Which is awesome. More games should let you shoot the moon.



Sensible Armour Matters

Computer games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve loved them from when, under parental supervision,  I stuck a cassette in my much mourned C64 and then had to find something else to do for an hour while it loaded up (with the ever present fear that the load would fail and I’d have to start All Over Again – an hour was a very, very long time in Toddler Days), to my latest purchase: the fabulous Portal 2 that I was told by virtually everyone I know who plays games that I’m a terrible, terrible excuse for a gamer for not having played it yet. (Yes, they were right, it’s bloody fantastic.)

One thing I managed to avoid with games for a pretty long time was the sexism, the overt sexism anyway. The gaming shelves of my childhood were filled with RTS and turn-based games, and point and click adventures. Sure, I remember getting annoying in the original Civilization that the only female leader of a civ was Elizabeth Tudor, and I didn’t want to play the English (partly due to my youthful Scottish nationalism, mostly because I loved playing on the world map and getting to Alpha Centauri first wasn’t easy if you started on a teeny tiny island); and Age of Empires made me role my eyes with all the villagers being male. Still there tended to be some pretty decent female representation in the games I played.

Instead of Mario, I had Jill of the Jungle, a fantastic trilogy of platformers about the eponymous Jill saving said Jungle from vague threats of menace (the fact that the jungle’s saviour was a white, blonde woman went over my head for years). She could throw daggers and shurikens, take down giant ants and devils and, um, frogs. She transformed into a teeny wee whale that shot bullets, a firebird that shot…fire, and a frog that shot nothing at all, but it did jump a lot. For many years it was The Best Game Ever, and I spent a worrying number of hours exploring every nook and cranny of each level, searching for their Easter eggs. At the end, she rescues The Prince; her response to his marriage proposal?  “…Okay.”

Another much beloved game was The Secret of Monkey Island, which I blame entirely for my desire to become a pirate, or governor of a pirate island. While you play Guybrush Threepwood, wannabe pirate, and go through a tremendous amount of puzzle-solving and smashing humour in order to save Governor Elaine Marley from the ghost pirate LeChuck, Elaine has already rescued herself. The idea of this Whole Other Game going on at the same time as mine, where Elaine was the hero, fascinated me. And, okay you didn’t get to see it or play it, but the implication of what had been going on elsewhere during Guybrush’s adventures was enough to cement my very fictional, very romantic notions of piracy and Elaine as one of my favourite computer game characters.

In the second iterations of Age of EmpiresAge of Kings – and Civilization II, things got better. Age of Kings had female villagers, hurrah! No more worrying about how, exactly, my precious civilisation was procreating, and in Civ II there was an aesthetic difference to the game that delighted me: for all the civilisations, you could now choose to be a female leader. It made no difference to the gameplay, except that you were represented by a picture of that woman and referred to as “she”; it doesn’t sound like much, but it mattered.  Sadly, this was lost with the more recent Civs, where there are far more male than female leaders available. (“But in reality, there were lots more male leaders then female, blah, blah…” Yeah, cause more female leaders is unthinkable in a game where I’m discovering spaceflight in the twelfth century.)

Now, course, I have to buy my own games. And finding games that suit my taste is tricky, dammit. These days I like RPGs, a genre where even my favourite company makes headdesk-worthy choices on occasion: after the joy of Mass Effect, it was disappointing and infuriating to see where they’d decided to go with the main female NPCs in Mass Effect 2. If I didn’t love fem!Shep so much, and the first game hadn’t hooked me in, I’d’ve switched it off thanks to the killer combination of absurd clothing and embarrassing female character back-stories.

In an RPG, I don’t care if it’s got the best storyline and most compelling characters ever rendered onscreen, if I can’t play as a woman, I’m not playing. If all the women are ridiculously dressed, I’m not playing; if there are only token women in the cast, I’m not playing. If, in short, the game designers made no effort to remember that women play computer games too, I don’t bother. There’re a lot of games out there, and I’ve still not finished my female City-elf playthrough of Dragon Age.

So the representation of women in computer games matters to me. It should be better. I want it to be better. I want more games that appeal to me and I don’t want to roll my eyes so much at sexist bullshit.

And I’m far from the only one. After a bout of bloody awful harassment, Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project  Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games has received a fantastic amount of support and raised over $150 000 when she was originally looking for only $6 000 to create a series of videos critiquing women’s representation in video games. The video on her Kickstarter page explains why this sort of thing matters, but briefly: computer games are a part of popular culture and whether we like it or not that influences what our society considers right and proper and good. So when women’s roles in games are restricted to a handful of tropes – and those tropes often come with a lot of sexist, even misogynistic, baggage – there’s clearly a problem. It accustoms us to those limited roles, the gender stereotypes, the sexism; it normalises them and makes them seem just fine when, no, they really aren’t.

I want to play games with female characters that are interesting and fun, inspirational and complicated, that are lawful good through chaotic evil, and that when in an armour-wearing situation, said armour is of the sensible, protective variety.

Secret Underground Volcano Bases

I’ve always wanted a secret underground volcano base.

Okay, that’s not quite true: I’ve always loved the idea of having a secret underground volcano base. The problem is, if I was to ever get one, I suspect I’d spend most of my time flailing around demanding to know what the magma’s doing and living in constant fear of being burned alive.

So really what I need is a secret underground extinct volcano base, but that doesn’t sound nearly so cool. I want the rivers of lava… just for them to be rivers of nice, friendly, non-fatal lava.

Or I could just ditch the whole volcano idea altogether because, bizarrely, there aren’t any secret volcano layers for sale, but you can buy a secret under-mountain submarine base!

Isn’t it just fantastic?

There are a couple of flaws. I mean, look at those big empty spaces: you’re going to need a lot of Stuff to fill them up. Some really cool supervillain equipment and lots of supervillain minions and some pretty epic supervillain plans if you’re going to live up to your base. Also, it’d be a bit rubbish to have a whacking great submarine base and no submarine. I don’t have a submarine. I don’t even want a submarine. They go *underwater*. Really, really far underwater. You could drown in one of those things. Also, as I’ve learned from movies, sometimes they’re haunted by angry ghosts. A ghost in a castle is one thing, but being stuck at the bottom of the ocean with one is just silly.

Thinking about it, if I was a supervillain, which I’m not, and if I was I’d be the sort of supervillain who had the sense not to tell the Internet, what I’d really want is an asteroid base. I don’t think NASA knows how to make those yet. I guess that’s another one of those things that’s absolutely, definitely going to happen in The Future, when I’ll also get my jetpack and domed cities on Mars.

…anyone want to lend me 17.5 million dollars? I promise I will let you have first pick of the submarine base office space and you can totally get to be one of the really good minions who doesn’t get offed by the hero until the last act.