All Dressed Up And Nothing To Do?

This article was making the rounds for a while on Facebook: We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.  Several people I respect shared it, so I read it, and it seemed like a reasonable critique of contemporary film-making and the subtle evolution of sexism.  It’s probably worth reading, if you haven’t already, before going on.

In many respects, I took the argument at face value.  I believe that sexism is still prevalent in mainstream media; I believe that as we correct some of the more explicit and overt forms of discrimination (whether gender, race, sexual orientation, or other) that cultural force mutates, changing shape but still maintaining that energy; I get that Trinity is cool and strong and interesting in some ways, but then morphs into a supporting, traditional girlfriend.  The concept that strong, female characters still get pushed into the background behind the male protagonists rings true to me at a gut level.

The problem is, I actually saw How To Train Your Dragon 2 and The Lego Movie this weekend, and having done that, this critique seems misplaced.  It may be true in general, or in some cases, but the ways this article characterizes those movies is heavily distorted, consciously or unconsciously.  If you haven’t seen those movies, thar be spoilers below.

Starting with the character of Valka, to claim that the movie includes her as a token strong, female character is to miss the entire arc of the story.  Hiccup is missing at the beginning of the movie because he’s searching for something, his own identity and place in the world; at the end of the movie, he has arrived at both, as the chief and the standard-bearer for peace and cooperation.  What Valka represents, in this figure, is not just half of who he is; it’s the dominant half.  Yes, the competition of alpha-male supremacy is still at the heart of the film, but instead of the resolution being a chest-thumping triumph of masculine energy, what Hiccup achieves in the end is a synthesis of the masculine and the feminine – traditional leadership, true, but leadership that not only embraces  traditionally feminine values but elevates them above the traditionally masculine ones.  The conflict between war-mongering masculinity and empathic relationship-building is decisively won by the latter.

Valka is the pivotal figure in this journey.  The film signals in various ways that it is her influence that leads to Hiccup’s ability to bond with his dragon – a relationship of companionship rather than utility.  Rather than her knowledge of dragons being incidental to the battle, she is the one who unlocks Toothless’ ability to maneuver, and possibly his emergence as a higher version of himself (if Toothless is even a he, something I’m not sure is ever established), saving Hiccup, the battle, and the day.  When she was married, she did not feel bound to that institution, just as she rebelled against the common knowledge of the islanders, and when her husband appears, she does not automatically fall back into the role of wife.  Even once they are reconciled, Stoick turns to her for the deciding moment before engaging in battle.  She is neither useless nor peripheral, and reading her that way requires erasing both the specific events of the film and its larger treatment of traditional gender identity.

Granted, Hiccup is still the hero.  While Astrid breaks various gender conventions on her own, she is still secondary to him, able to lead the group only in his absence.  Valka does not become chief.  There are still plenty of conventional structures and positions used throughout the film, but the dominant theme of the film is about a shift from an older, traditional generation of leadership as masculine power to a new, younger generation of enlightened synthesis of the masculine and the feminine, with the feminine value system being the dominant one.  It’s not Andrea Dworkin, but it’s far from the “rote” depictions that Robinson accuses the film of using.

Similarly, Wildstyle/Lucy in The Lego Movie plays a much more significant role than Robinson gives her credit for.  “Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly, and to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner.”  When Emmet sacrifices himself by jumping out of the think tank, Wildstyle takes control of the entire group of master-builders, organizing them around a plan of her own devising; then, she does the same for the population in general, seizing control of the means of production of media to put out a counter-message of individuality and resistance to top-down, hierarchical social control.  While one could argue that the adherence to serial monogamy is repressive at some level, Lucy breaking up with Batman before starting an official relationship with Emmet is hardly “turn[ing] to her current boyfriend for permission to dump him“.  She neither needs nor asks for permission.  She’s telling Batman how it’s going to be; he interrupts in order to protect his own, fragile ego.  Reading this moment as anything less than Wildstyle determining her own fate and destiny rewrites the event.

Again, while The Lego Movie is traditional in its heteronormativity, it disrupts the notion of heroism as masculinity in any number of ways.  The prophecy is made up; Emmet is no more destined to become the king because of his privileged male-ness than any other character is; instead, the film repeatedly emphasizes that everyone is the Special.  The feminine characters are just as capable of kicking butt as their masculine counterparts, if not more so; in fact, when Unikitty stops repressing her own feelings and embraces them, she kicks all kinds of butt, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to map that repression into cultural expectations of girls and women to be polite, conventional, etc.  And just as HTTYD2 represents a generational shift in gendered values around power and identity, The Lego Movie ultimately shows the dissolving of an older (white, male) model of power and opening up to a more diverse one.

While these movies may well trigger concerns about gender identity and the way it’s being presented in popular media (especially to children), and that experience of anxiety around these films may be entirely justifiable, to characterize these particular texts as lacking in meaningful roles for their strong, female characters requires a significant distortion of the texts themselves.  Yes, these are both movies about masculine heroes – and there are any number of bases to criticize Hollywood for its lack of opportunity and range for feminine leads – but they also both embrace diversity, self-definition, and the importance of historically feminine values.  Both of these movies are celebrating the opportunity to leave behind archaic, hierarchical power systems and doing so with characters that disrupt traditional gender identity in various ways, not just feminine characters embracing masculine roles and values, but the reverse as well.

We still have a long way to go, but to criticize these movies for not being progressive enough requires erasing the progress that has been made, and I fail to see how that helps move us forward.  If you have greater insight than I do, feel free to educate me in the comments.


RPG Dynamics and the Freemium Revolution

Josh Bycer just said publicly on Gamasutra something that I’ve been thinking for a while: RPG dynamics are spreading to all kinds of other games.  While I disagree with a number of his arguments about the specifics of this trend, it’s clear that it is happening.  RPG elements and dynamics are making their way into everything these days, from shooters (randomized loot in Borderlands, character progression in Call of Duty), to puzzle games (quests are now ubiquitous in online casual games), to action games (skill trees as a core character development dynamic), and even builders (quests, randomized loot, and stat progression).  The question is, “Why?”

[Aside:  I noticed a similar trend recently with AAA action games now including stealth: Assassin’s Creed always had some stealth in its DNA, but The Last of Us, and even GTA V had significant stealth components.  Stealth is not easy; to do it right takes a lot of polish on the AI, character controls, animations, and UI.  The reason why developers/publishers are making this investment?  My guess is that needing larger sales numbers, they’re trying to broaden their appeal by giving players multiple play-styles through which to experience their content.]

Oddly enough, I would argue that the rise of always-online gameplay goes hand-in-hand with the proliferation of RPG elements into other genres.  Sure, there are outliers (Puzzle Quest had a minimal online component and was arguably one of the first to really hybridize RPG dynamics with radically different gameplay), but most of this has happened in the server-driven world of the last few years.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  As games shifted from shelf-filler to online hobby, they needed to extend the experiences that were available.  PvP has always done this for online shooters and strategy games (other players are endless content), so why did they start dipping into the RPG well?

In part, they needed to incentivize players to create accounts and use accounts that were tied to the always-online world.  Not only could you not reliably make RPG dynamics part of a sometimes-online, sometimes-offline experience (infinitely hackable) and maintain the competitiveness of your online world, it turns out that giving players carrots is a great way to get them to do things.  Again, shooters already had some tools here, with leaderboards and clans, but as games became services, every available way to hook the player and to wrap them up for as long as possible became a key element of competition.  Progressions in general, skill trees more specifically, and especially experience grinds serve the purpose of keeping that carrot dangling in front of the player’s nose – easy to see, but hard to reach.

The advantage of online communities for players is that endless PvP content; the advantage for developers and publishers is that in a server-secured world, every player has to pay.  When we published Titan Quest, we could look at our online usage statistics and spot that out of every 100 players (online only, single-player sessions didn’t get captured), 95 of them were playing with a pirated copy.  When I wrote about that online, it created a minor stir (mostly because someone mis-identified me as the CEO of THQ), but I also got confirmation from a number of other developers and publishers that they were seeing about the same rates.  I don’t think it’s random that the percentage of paying players in the free-to-play, freemium model is quite similar, at around 3-6%.

In fact, there’s very little that’s getting published anymore that isn’t in that server-secured model, and of those models available, freemium is definitely accounting for the greatest mass.  So, when you’ve got players online and you want to keep them engaged for as long as possible, where do you turn?  Why, MMORPG’s have been doing this for years!  RPG systems can be cheap and effective ways to extend content: give players the same gear, but with better stats.  Stick a new color on it, or a different particle effect, and it’s a whole new asset!  Scale up an enemy, give them a new name, and now you have a new enemy!  Give players an endless grind that nets them a 2% competitive advantage, and they’ll do it.  Particularly with freemium, games-as-a-service, if you can maximize player lifetime while minimizing production costs, you’re more likely to break even.

It’s a little more complex than that, of course.  It’s not all about cynical manipulation to extract as much money as possible.  The reality is that all designers are beggars and thieves.  We take things that work from other games and re-deploy them, re-shape them, and hope that they work in our games.  Game developers have been ripping off RPG’s for as long as there have been RPG’s.  If you think System Shock isn’t a shooter/RPG hybrid, you’re fooling yourself.  Let’s not forget that Doom (the granddaddy of all shooters) came from an RPG campaign.

The ubiquity, though, has definitely increased.  Even as we get fewer and fewer actual RPG’s (or even Action RPG’s) – because those things are really hard and expensive to make – we’re getting more and more RPG dynamics in other genres.  Tencent made a version of NBA2K for China that wrapped all kinds of MMORPG dynamics around basketball, of all things.  In fact, the core components of RPG grinding (experience, quests, resources, slot-machine loot, repetition) have become staples of most freemium games out there.  At some level, this is because those dynamics encapsulate the things we want out of a game: we want a goal (quest); we want to be rewarded for accomplishing that goal (loot); we want to get better (stats); and then, we want to do it again so that we can see how much better we are.

What RPG’s do that other genres (action games, particularly, but also shooters and other genres) used to not do is to reward time investment without regard to skill.  Sure, certain levels of skill require time investment, and sure, RPG’s can require skill, but what RPG dynamics offer the freemium space is a way to map time into power.  It’s reliable, testable, and proven.  It can be done (relatively) simply with spreadsheets and graphs.  And, once you monetize time, you’ve got a business.  This is what is at the heart of this spread: RPG dynamics extend play time through simple, procedural progression.  Whether your’e competing in the freemium space or the AAA space, that’s a win, but in the freemium space, it’s essential.