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Body Politic

A recent article on the Border House blog discusses the issue of handling sexual dimorphism when designing new species for games. The article gives as its examples of process the Turians from Mass Effect, and the charr from Guild Wars 2. Only male Turians feature in the Mass Effect games, which has made the issue moot in that case, but turns out to be a revealing choice, exposing an issue in thinking on this topic. Art director Derek Watts puts it this way:

“They’re all males in the game. We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her?”

That comment reveals an extremely limited view of sexual dimorphism. Sadly, this is exactly what James Cameron did for the intelligent aliens in the film Avatar. In that film, which went to great lengths to feature biologically plausible aliens, the female aliens, called Na’vi, did in fact have breasts, a nonsensical decision in the context of that film. Our own Vince Keenan facetiously remarked “It’s because they’re lactating mammals.” What a bizarre conceit for an alien race!

James Cameron’s Avatar
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

Compare this with the take presented by Kristen Perry, responsible for the design of the female charr in Guild Wars 2:

“It really didn’t make any sense to have boobs on a charr female, particularly with all the effort we took to make her sleek and fierce. We thought they should have no breasts at all or at least hide them under some fluffy fur. Above all else, we needed to be true to the race, of course! […] I gave them a choice: either be subtle and downplay the breasts [...] or go full-on realistic. Yes, that’s right —none or six!!”

That the debate was between “none or six” demonstrates that critical thought about how to show sexual dimorphism in this race was given. In this case, the male of the species had already been designed for a previous game. Despite this limitation, when the time came to design the females, the artist did not just add female human secondary sex characteristics to the male charr. Because of this, a more unique, interesting, and sensical creature arose.

To arbitrarily make our invented species map to humans is to ignore the fascinating diversity of life on this planet, as well as our own creative potential. Penguins, blue whales, peacocks, hyenas; these animals all have wildy different degrees and expressions of sexual dimorphism, both from humans and from each other. Even working within the technical restraints of needing to match human rigging, as in the Mass Effect games, aliens could be made to map the sexual dimorphism of any of the above species, rather than implicitly following the pattern of homo sapiens.

The design of a species’ sexual dimorphism also tells players about the reproductive strategies of that species. The reproductive strategies of a species inform our understanding of its society. Male angler fish are dwarfed by their female mates, whom they fuse with, becoming reduced to little more than gamete factories. Male deer, who are polygynous, lock antlers with other males to compete for breeding access to females. Peacocks endanger their lives growing and grooming vast plumage to impress peahens. Female sperm whales live together in pods with their young, while mature males spend most of their time wandering the oceans alone. Male honeybees only have one set of chromosomes, and the queens are the only fertile female females, which, in a fictional intelligent species, would map very neatly onto a three gendered society.

Ours is a creative industry. We can imagine, manifest, and make plausible, fictional races bearing little or nothing in common with our own physical appearance. We can do the same with the genders of those races, and we miss a tremendous opportunity to explore new ideas by failing to do so.

The Year In Game

Down these mean streets you yourself must go …

First, allow me to wish you a belated happy new year on behalf of the entire Chromed team. We’ll have regular updates in this space as production commences on March 32nd.

2011 will go down as a critical year in my personal evolution as a video game player, in that I finally bought a console and played a video game. The title that compelled me to make the leap was L.A. Noire. I was squarely in the demographic sweet spot for this hugely ambitious project, spent dozens of hours lost in its textured recreation of mid-20th century Los Angeles, and ended up writing multiple articles on it, including a game review for the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine and a noir review for Continue, a brand new gaming magazine. (The latter piece is now available in preview form.) In short, I liked it a lot.

The game couldn’t possibly live up to the fanfare trumpeting its fidelity to historical detail and its advances in motion capture technology. Still, I was surprised by how quickly L.A. Noire seemed to fall off the radar. It merited only a passing, somewhat negative (if accurate) mention on The AV Club’s list of 2011’s best games, and didn’t factor into Slant’s roster of the 25 best at all. (Seriously, Slant? There were 25 games better than L.A. Noire this year? Would it have placed in the top three dozen, at least?)

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The Great and Powerful Oz

In The Wizard of Oz, the titular character is believed by the protagonist Dorothy and her companions to be a being of tremendous power, able to provide for each of them what they most desire if only they can gain an audience with him. Once they reach the “great and powerful” Oz – is a spoiler alert required after more than seventy years? – he is revealed not to be a mighty wizard but an ordinary man, his illusions created by an elaborate machine. Dorothy and her friends are forced to confront the truth: There is no wizard, only a man behind a curtain.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Creative Commons License photo credit: twm1340

Artist and designer Josh Foreman has argued in an article on Gamasutra that we as game developers lose something as our growing experience and expertise make us increasingly and irreversibly aware of the mechanics of games. We reach a point where we can no longer believe in Oz; after all, we are the men and women behind the curtain.

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If You’ve Had An A-Ha Moment, Press One

Not long after the Penny Arcade Expo ended I was winging my way to St. Louis for Bouchercon, the international crime fiction writers and readers convention. To think I once led a lanyard-less life. Attending the two cons so close together got me thinking about detective games, and an early one that remains a personal favorite.

The height of electronic entertainment circa 1980

As soon as I heard the name Electronic Detective, I knew I had to have it. It didn’t hurt that the “computerized who-done-it game” was endorsed, right there on the box and on TV, by Don Adams. (For the entire generation of gamers that has no idea who Don Adams is, he played secret agent Maxwell Smart before Steve Carell did.) Then there was the game itself, an elaborate plastic console that I coveted because it reminded me of the answering machine from the title sequence of The Rockford Files. (For the entire generation of gamers that has no idea what The Rockford Files is, it’s TV greatest private eye series, created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell. Last year there was an aborted attempt at a reboot produced by Steve Carell.)

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300+ Paths to the Sandwich

The times, they be exciting. The March 32nd site is up, we gathered plenty of footage at PAX, and episode one is camera ready. We’ve written, polished, and mapped out every possible route through the first episode. We know it backwards and forwards, sideways and widdershins. But one rather large thing we don’t know about it, however, is its length.

The general rule of screenwriting is that one page of script equals one minute of screen time. But there are multiple routes through our story, and the program we’re using to co-write and map this thing isn’t screenwriting software. The screenwriting programs out there aren’t built to handle the linking and cross-indexing necessary to keep all our playable options in some sense of order. Our program can. The only downside? The program doesn’t have a fixed window size; it adapts to whatever size rectangle you stretch the screen. What we need to get a sense of page length (and thus playthrough time) is the fanatically rigid, unreasonably inflexible page layout of the screenplay.

I volunteered to port a scene into Final Draft and see what came out the other side. I took one of the eight major sequences of the first episode and set about adapting it to the language of the screen. It was not an easy translation.

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