Saturday, May 18, 2013

Notes on Badland

1. Think: the dark humour of Lemmings meets the aesthetics of Limbo meets the controls of Jetpack Joyride.

2. Badland is a simple creation. Your creator is on the lefthand side of the screen. It's like a hairless doll's head (like the spider thing in Toy Story) with little bat wings that are far too weak to carry it competently. Holding to fly upwards; release to fall downwards. Forward momentum is automatic. Your only goal is to get to the end of the level before the auto-scrolling screen leaves you behind.

3. Holding the screen to fly up feels counterintuitive when the action you are performing is flapping wings. It feels like you should be tapping repetitively. I'm clearly not the only person who feels like this. After struggling with the first few levels, I went to the in-game help where it explicitly tells you that you shouldn't be tapping—like the creators knew that is what the player would naturally do. Which begs the question: why didn't they just do what feels natural?

4. There are puzzles, in a sense, but hardly any. There are 'points', in a sense, but they don't really matter in any meaningful way. Badland is one of those precious few iPhone games which simply exists to be experienced, to just get to the end, to just see it happen. Forget high scores or challenging puzzles.

5. As you move through each world there are pickups. Some make you faster, some slower. Some make your doll-head-bat character grow in size; some make it shrink. Some, significantly, create clones of your character. Some create a lot of clones. The closest the game has to points is the number of clones that make it safely to the end of the level.

6. The thing is, you can't control the clones. Or, rather, you can, but they are all controlled by the same input, but they are not all in the same space. So safely guiding this creature around boulders means those other ten are going to fly directly into a buzzsaw. You can't save everyone.

7. Sometimes the sheer number of clones are their own downfall. A scene: there are five clones flapping flaccid across the screen. You accidentally pick up a series of powerups that make each of them grow as the passageway narrows. Suddenly, you have five oversized dollheads all jammed into a small tunnel, and none of them can move. You tap and they just flap and their eyes open wide and then they are eaten by the side of the screen.

8. In Badland, your character is pathetic. They are so pathetic. They flap and fall and rise because their wings are too small. They bang into pipes and thud into boulders. The splat themselves on buzzsaws and squish themselves in tunnels. They are stupid, like lemmings. It's a dark, sadistic game, where most of the satisfaction of playing is just in trying to move this bloated, pathetic little creature through this bad land that hates him.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Notes on Tomb Raider

1. Just like Uncharted did a good job of riffing off Tomb Raider without just copying Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider does a good job of riffing off Uncharted without just copying Uncharted. It is very much inspired by that character-driven, action/platforming model, but it feels like its own game with its own vibe, not just a reskin.

2. I love how Lara moves. I love watching her even as I enact her. I love feeling like I am acting. I love the way the animations change to shift the tones of my inputs. The way she will run when we are alone but then cower and creep with the same weight put on the thumbstick when enemies are around. She is a tremendously well animated model and it is such a pleasure to just be her.

3. I am a big fan of sticky-cover shooters, but after playing Tomb Raider I am left wondering why I ever had to push a button to stick to cover. The way Lara just naturally hides behind a wall, just organically sticks to it, is so fluid and intuitive.

4. Is it a problem that Tomb Raider is, first and foremost, a cover shooter? Two answers: yes; no. I enjoyed the cover shooting. It felt gritty. The guns felt messy. The enemies felt as amateur and confused and unprofessional as Lara. As far as a cover shooter trying to portray a sense of gritty survival, I think it did that well.

5. But, there was certainly too much cover shooting for the story it was trying to tell and the scene it was trying to set. Excuse me while I go armchair developer for a moment, but I found myself at multiple times wishing the game had taken a Splinter Cell: Conviction approach. That is: pseudo-messy-stealth until you inevitably screw up and then have to use loud guns. A few scenes do embrace that, where Lara sneaks around and uses silent arrows for a few kills before she is spotted. It creates this great, Far Cry 2-esque in control/out of control seesaw. But too often Tomb Raider just has waves of men running right at you from the start. I don't mind that I spent most of Tomb Raider killing dudes, but I wish I had spent that time killing less dudes with more consideration.

6. On the dudes: the game made some interesting attempts to make them clearly not elite soldiers, but just stranded survivors who actually have a disadvantage to Lara (they are not 'Crofts'). Most of them had bows because they are not an army decked out with unlimited firearms. A lot of them were as scared of Lara as they were angry. A few overheard conversations later in the game really humanise them. You heard them talk about how they are grouped into squads on the island based on which ship they were on that crashed. One group jokes and teases another group in some kind of tribal rivalry. For the most part, it didn't feel 'unbelievable' (which is different from unrealistic) that Lara was holding her own against these men, because these men were not elite soldiers. I liked that. The only problem was the game did not commit to this. It made allusions to the amateur status of your enemies, but never really committed to it long-term over the entire game. So, too often, it just became 'shooting bros' again and again. Fun 'just shooting bros', but 'just shooting bros' all the same.

7. Tomb Raider's biggest improvement over Uncharted is that the act-three enemies did not break the game.

8. The limit of weaponry was excellent. When I got the machine gun and the game went all Modern Warfare Slow Motion so I could use it to wipe out a room of dudes, I distinctly remember saying, "URGH." Then I vowed I would play the entire game just the pistol and bow. But then I got the shotgun and that was enjoyably messy and loud. So I only used those three weapons (and the machine gun when I really had to). I like having a character with a quantifiable, knowable amount of gear. I like knowing exactly what is on my character's body. It adds to the survival sense the game is going for. I liked that I wasn't just picking up new guns every thirty seconds. Though, that worked for Uncharted. Uncharted gave me a sense of desperation, of clawing for a new gun frantically. Tomb Raider gives me a sense of possessive aggression, of refusing to let go of any of my gear. Both work in their own way.

9. The game has an unhealthy obsession with gore. I think it wanted to shock me, with the mass graves of random messy meaty bits. But it was equal parts terrible and laughable. It was beyond believable that this many corpses could possibly be on this island. Several small countries would have to have been depopulated to make this many corpses. Unless the game was trying to make me laugh, it utterly failed to do whatever it was trying to do with all those corpses.

10. One of my favourite things is characters wearing permanent scars throughout a game. Martin Walker. Max Payne. John McClane (not a game, but same deal). I'm not sure if I mentioned in my Bioshock Infinite notes how much I liked that Booker's hand stayed bandaged for the entire game after it was stabbed. The permanence of experience inscribed on the body is a nice touch. For the most part, Tomb Raider did this well. It's a risky thing, mutilating a woman's body for the camera. There is a lot of ways that can go wrong, can seem like exploitation, can actually be exploitation. It very much was exploitation in the marketing material leading up to Tomb Raider's release: here is a girl panting and sighing as she is injured. The opening scenes of Tomb Raider are pretty bad, too. She takes a pretty dramatic, unnecessary beating before I have even done anything. I guess they wanted to throw her in the deep end and see if she could swim. It made me uncomfortable at the start of the game, but as the blood and mud from those opening cut scenes faded and were replaced with scars and injuries from Lara's and my joint experiences, it was better. It didn't feel like (to me, at least) that they were just mutilating some woman's body for no reason. It felt like she was earning scars to be proud of in a way usually only allowed of male bodies.

Edit 10b. Lara's overly gory deaths were terrible and exploitative and cringe-worthy for totally the wrong reasons. Watching her get punctured by tree branches or smashed agains the same aquatic rock no matter where abouts on the island she falls into the water was super gross. It didn't add anything. It was just, "Hey, watch this woman get beat up before you get back to the action."

11. With the exception of Lara's girlfriend, Sam, I have no idea who any of the other 'good guy' characters were meant to be. Apparently Roth meant a whole heap to Lara, but I have no idea who he actually was. For the first part of the game where everyone was separated, names were appearing in the subtitles and over the radio and I had no faces to connect them to. I did not care for any of these characters the way Lara seemed to. Also, they were all terrible. White geek dude who looks like Harry Potter (and who gets to sacrifice himself to save Lara in a weirdly symbolic way). Tribal islander who Lara turns to for support whenever she just 'feels' something in a spiritual way (he is Tribal so he will totally get her, you know?). Angry Irish man who is from Glasgow, in case you missed him telling you five times. I cared about Sam. The rest of the characters were just filler for plot points.

12. Apparently these characters are fleshed out by the diary entries they left scattered all over the island before they crashed onto the island (yep). I wouldn't know because I didn't pay attention to any of these. How to do a good in-game diary: record the character speaking it so I can listen to it even as I continue to play the game. How to do a tolerable in-game diary: have a paragraph of text for me to quickly read before I return to play the game. How to do a totally frustrating in-game diary: force me to look at the wall of text while the character reads it. If the character has recorded voice over of this text, why am I being forced to look at it while they read it?

13. So Tomb Raider's story is ridiculous, prevented from falling in on itself only by the strength of Lara's character (I really liked Lara as a character). But it was so much more enjoyable than Bioshock Infinite. Why? I've been thinking about this for some time. I think, ultimately, Tomb Raider never tried to be anything it wasn't. It never tried to not be a game about shooting a bunch of dudes to get off an island. It was honest. Bioshock: Infinite pretended to be about racism and nationalism and parallel universes when it was actually just about shooting dudes. It was dishonesty. Tomb Raider set up my expectations adequately for the game I was going to play; Bioshock: Infinite did not. I spend a lot of time comparing different games and my reactions to them.

14. Lots of little things made Tomb Raider's platforming really nice. Just a few extra button presses demanded of the player to couple you to whatever flimsy structure Lara is hanging onto just that bit more intimately. When Lara makes a wide jump and only manages to grab with one hand, you have to tap X to get the other hand to grab. When you jump at a wall that Lara needs to use her pick to hold onto, you have to tap X as you sail past it to latch on. To scamper up high walls, you need to tap A a second time for Lara to kind of wall-jump and get a bit extra height. It helped make the platforming feel a bit more intimiate than just finding the path for Lara to stick to. It felt more perilous.

15. My god. The split-second insta-fail quick time events. How are these actually still appearing in games?

16. At the very end of the game, just before the credits, the screen goes white and the line "A SURVIVOR IS BORN" splashes across the screen. It is pretty terrible. It would be like if at the end of Romeo & Juliet someone just yelled out: "TWO LOVERS JUST DIED." It served no purpose other than to turn the entire game into a ten-hour trailer for the inevitable sequel. It also just totally belittles all of Lara's later achievements in the previous games. Lara is much more than a survivor. We know that. We've seen what she goes on to do. By labelling her as just a survivor makes her too reactionary, too much on the back foot. That isn't Lara. Lara is headstrong and determined. She doesn't go on to just survive. She goes on to live.

17. The camera work is exceptional. Someone went through this game with a fine comb, tweaking the exact placement of the camera in every scene to be in an optimal, cinematic position. I don't think it ever crossed the line, as far as I recall, and always felt organic even as it was clearly staged. Throughout the game, you often perform the same action, like climbing a wall, but with the camera positioned differently, and it breathes new life into the same old actions.

18. 50 Shades of Brown.

19. It is really, really refreshing to just be a woman in a game. Or, perhaps more accurately, to not be some well-built white dude yet again. It's not for me to say if Lara is or isn't sexist, but I felt like the game walked a fine line where she was very much a woman (not just a man with breasts) without being reduced to an object. It was just really nice to be a woman for once.

20. Tomb Raider is the kind of disposable genre game I would play again just because it feels good to play and it is fun to watch myself play.

Monday, May 6, 2013

March and April Writing

With GDC at the end of March, I never got around to writing a summary of that month's writing, and then as I tried to catch up on all my GDC writing in April, I never got around to writing a summary of that month's writing! So here is a summary of the things I did write in March and April.

My "You Know What I Love?" column is still going strong at Games On Net. I wrote about unreliable narrators, first-person bodies, audio-diaries, simulated physics, and acting.

At GDC, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Walt Williams, the lead writer of Spec Ops: The Line. He is a great guy! I was hoping to turn the interview into a 'People' column for Edge, but they had done a studio profile of Yager just a month before so that wasn't going to happen. Instead, Stu at Unwinnable gave me the opportunity to post the entire, sprawling discussion as one long essay. That right there is pretty much why I love Unwinnable so much.

Early in March I wrote for Bit Creature for the first time. I wrote two essays that are kind of meant as companions to each other about Dark Souls. The first is about how the game's level design and layout and ambience communicates a sense of passive-aggressiveness to the player, a sense that you're not suppose to be here. But then, both thanks to and in spite of this design, the game encourages a far closer sense of camaraderie between players than nearly any other game. I'm really happy with both these essays, and I really like how they work together.

Australian NGO Right Now asked me late last year if I would write something for them about videogame violence and human rights. I wrote an essay that tries to strike the middle road of the whole debate between calls for censorship and calls for utterly uncritical engagements with videogame violence.

And just on this blog, I wrote out some notes about Bioshock: Infinite after I finished playing it, and also some further thoughts about how the game is incredibly, accidentally racist. And my partner, Helen Berents, wrote a guess essay about how Ni No Kuni depicts childhood.

I think that is actually all I have written over the past two months! I do have some very exciting, massive features all written up and forthcoming, but more on them when they are actually published! I've also been working on a few different academic articles/chapters, which I'll be sure to share when they're available, but they might not be interesting to too many people. Other exciting projects are starting to gain momentum, too! But that is all on the down low for now. But they are exciting, I promise!

I did also appear on a few podcasts over the last couple of months. Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer podcast is probably my favourite podcast ever, and the only podcast whose episodes I will lap up as soon as they come out. So I was incredibly humbled to appear on it back in March alongside Leigh Alexander. I can think of few people writing about videogames that respect more than Michael and Leigh, so that was a little bit intimidating, but also a lot of fun. I also recommend listening to the other three parts of that podcast where Michael talks to a wide range of intelligent people.

Also, during GDC, Giant Bomb's Patrick Klepek spoke to me about Killing is Harmless, and why and how I went about writing it.

And speaking of Killing is Harmless, if you are yet to buy it (or even if you have!), you might be interested in the Story Bundle, which is selling a bunch of books about videogames for super cheap, including Killing is Harmless. The bundle has already more than doubled the number of copies of Killing is Harmless that have been sold, so that is incredibly exciting!

As for May's writing. Well, this happened:

Friday, May 3, 2013

Unsettled childhood of Ni No Kuni

[My girlfriend, Helen Berents, is a Peace Studies academic whose research is all about how young people affected by conflict are engaged with. Recently, she finished playing Ni No Kuni and had all sorts of opinions about how it depicts and treats children. I invited her to write out her thoughts in a proper post, and she did! So here it is. If you find the things she says interesting, she also has her own blog for her own academic musings here. There will be spoilers.]

Childhood in Ni No Kuni is a contradiction. On one hand, 13-year-old Oliver is a complex, compelling protagonist with real depth and nuance, a noble child-hero. On the other hand, other representations of children in the game are so fraught with stereotypes and problematic encounters that I’m left wondering if their presence contributes anything to the game at all or if it ultimately harms it.

The notion of childhood in Ni No Kuni is unsettled, and it unsettles me. Conceived, as it is, within a frame of a child’s quest to save his mother in a magical land only he can access with the help of his fairy friend (Oliver’s sidekick Drippy (so-called Lord of the Fairies)), the game immediately poses questions about the stability of the land of Ni No Kuni (quite literally ‘Another World’). With a Studio Ghibli aesthetic (more on Studio Ghibli in a moment), the player is already asked to suspend belief, to have an adventure. The narrative is a classic: boy saves mother, saves world, with help from magical friends and a few fetch quests to get magical items that are requisite for success.

Yet once Oliver is in the land of Ni No Kuni, his childhood is rarely invoked. Characters question his preparedness to fight Shadar the Dark Djinn, and offer him all sorts of assistance from spells to advice to items. However, particularly once he is out of his ‘ordinary’ clothes (pants and a shirt with braces) and into his cape, he becomes a children-hero. Oliver sits uneasily between his own desires as a child to have his mother back, and the desires of an entire world that see him as the saving hero.  

The danger of hero narratives about children is that it presents a decontextualised image of young people affected by conflict. It’s an issue that many academics who study children and conflict have raised[1]. This is less of a problem in a videogame in which you expect there to be a protagonist, and you expect the narrative to be tidy. As the player, you take on a heroic role, and in this case it is a young boy you are journeying with.  In fact, the very fact that Oliver is 13 would be almost entirely unremarkable (even to someone attuned to these things) if it wasn’t for several questionable occurrences involving young people through the game. But first, where I think the game succeeds in negotiating representations of children.

An Active Imagination and Kids with Agency

The potential pitfalls of a child protagonist are eased by Ni No Kuni’s connection to Studio Ghibli. The joys of Studio Ghibli films are their ability to take seriously the adventures, experiences, emotions and beliefs of their (usually) young protagonists. The perils children face in Ghibli films are real and not superficial—the threat of a mother’s death, the loss of parents, growing up—and moreover they don’t infantilise the children, but rather highlight a resilience or strength which can just as easily come from imagination and belief as real world encounters. The tendency of Studio Ghibli to feature female protagonists with feminist convictions has also always endeared me to the films.

Indeed, Oliver isn’t the only young person in the party. Relatively early in the game you meet Esther (in Al Mamoon), whose father is Rashaad, one of the Great Sages (who previously failed to defear Shadar). With her father’s permission—which is worth noting in a discussion of children’s agency—and once cured of a broken-heart by Oliver, she joins Oliver and Drippy on their quest[2].

I recognise that Miyazaki did not have anything to do with the creation of Ni No Kuni, but the art style is pure Ghibli, and music comes from Joe Hisaishi who has scored many of Ghibli’s films over recent decades. These evocations ask the player to accept the conventions we have come to accept from Ghibli films, as we step into another world and embark on a grand adventure. Moreover, they reassure us that the heroic young person we are traveling with is intelligent, caring, imaginative and valuable.

“I’m not a child!”

While Oliver is the ‘heroic figure’, from the moment you meet Pea the game wants you to believe she is some kind of mystical, yet innocent, idealized child. You meet Pea very early in the game, before you’ve even left Motorville for the other world for the first time, and she is a puzzle and a mystery only Oliver can see throughout most of the game. She is a very young looking girl with bright green hair, a propensity to giggle, to disappear mid-conversation and to reappear with new worries. It is once you’ve defeated Shadar and your gang catches on that there is something bigger going on in the world of Ni No Kuni in relation to the White Witch, the Council, and some disaster from times long past, that Pea becomes more important to the story.

Essentially Pea is the pure and goodhearted aspect of the imaginings of Casseopeia, the White Witch (of the title), similar in existence, but diametrically opposed to the Council who seems to be the negative and harmful aspect of Casseopeia’s imagination. These real-but-not-real imaginings are a result of the lonliness Casseopeia has endured for milenia. So Pea is part of Casseopeia, but this isn’t revealed until the end of the game. For most of the game she is just a mysterious young girl with conveniently ridiculous powers. This leads several of the older members of the gang to question her inclusion and usefulness:

“…the three kingdoms are rife with horrors. We cannot send her into their midst. She is only a child Macassin declares at one point. Pea responds “I’m not a child!”, which is largely ignored by the others, as Swaine notes “…have you seen who you’re traveling with? This lot aren’t exactly grown-ups”.

Tied up neatly in this exchange (and exemplified again later when Pea again restates her objection to being called a child) are many of the tropes associated with children, both broadly, and within the game. Pea is seen to be innocent, young, a potential victim and consequently unable to act. Yet Pea is quick to negate that reading and demonstrate that they cannot succeed without her. While Macassin remains dubious of her ability, and of the others’ abilities to apparently protect her, Oliver claims his place as the child-hero when he names her friend and declares he will defend her. 

Take Heart: Consent, respect and the failure of Ni No Kuni and childhood

With the aesthetic granted by Studio Ghibli’s art, and an easy to follow story, I enjoyed playing through the game, exploring new areas (particularly once you meet the sky pirates and Tengri the dragon, who will fly you almost anywhere on the map), setting out on side quests and meeting new characters.

Part of the premise, and progression, of the game is that Shadar the Dark Djinn has been stealing people’s hearts. As you move through the game one subset of side quests consist of meeting people who are broken-hearted and restoring their heart to them—missing ‘heart’ includes a range of virtues from ‘enthusiasm’ to ‘courage’ or ‘kindness’. This includes, at one point for example restoring enthusiasm to a wife who just wants to go home and sleep rather than working:

You restore heart through two spells. Once you’ve received the quest, you find someone who has an abundance of that kind of virtue, you speak with them, and you cast the spell Take Heart. The precious virtue is popped into a magical locket Oliver wears around his neck and you run it back to the poor, broken-hearted soul where you cast Give Heart, and, wonder-of-wonders, the person is restored and ready to dive headfirst back into whatever task they were unmotivated to do.

Now, and this is really important, the spell Take Heart is described in the Wizard’s Companion (the magical guide book with details on every aspect of the game and world) in the following way:

This spell allows you to take some virtue from a person who has it in abundance, and store it in the Locket. Just be sure to ask for permission before you proceed. Remember: a heart belongs to one person, and one person alone.

Let me just emphasise something before moving on: Just be sure to ask for permission before you proceed.

This is an example of how most of the exchanges go when you ask someone if you can have the excess of the virtue they possess via Take Heart:

Similarly to this pieceby Ana Mardoll, I was surprised and enthused that the game was emphasizing consent. Particularly for a core activity that was so bound up with people’s emotions. As Ana said:

…to see [Ni No Kuni] unexpectedly and unabashedly assert to the gamer community that Consent Matters -- that, indeed, it matters so much that it's literally the difference between a Good magician and a Bad magician -- is amazing to me. And very much appreciated.

As someone interested in and invested in more complex portrayals of young people, and in recognizing their contribution and participation in society, I was pretty excited to discover that the young people in Ni No Kuni often have quests for Oliver and his team to complete, and they also sometimes have the virtues needed for other quests. How fabulous, I thought, that children would get to be an active part of this process which recognizes consent, which is built on moral choices and a benevolent aim of, at the most basic, making people happy!

Sadly, no.

Instead where Oliver needs to obtain a virtue from a child he acts with deceit, condescension and a worrying disregard for the child concerned. In this first example the young girl in Perdida says she’d be glad to help with a favor. Oliver responds “Swell! Would be mind closing your eyes for just a couple of seconds”… I’m sorry. What? If anything Oliver should spend more time explaining what will happen to a child than to an adult. As someone who has had to fill in (piles of) ethics forms for research with children, this exchange violates about every premise. Trust me. If Oliver doesn’t think the girl understands what he wants to do, he should either try and explain another way or find an adult guardian to speak to about progressing the activity. And yes, I understand complex ethics procedures probably don’t have to be written into a JRPG, but why the infantalising and almost creepy exchanges between children and Oliver (who, if you remember is also only 13)? If the game wants to include children but isn’t sure what to do in conversations, just treat them like adults! I could even cope with some awkward ‘tee hee’-ing from the children NPCs, if only they were treated with any kind of respect. 

The exchange Oliver has with a young boy in Castaway Cove is even more bizarre. After a reasonably witty (for the game at least) and adorable exchange about the young boy wanting to be a pirate when he is older—a ‘Future Pirate King of Justice’ no less, Oliver notes he is clearly full of ambition. The young boy asks “Ambition? What do you mean?”. Does Oliver explain? No. Oliver stumbles like a creepy uncle and responds “Oh! Uh…It’s nothing. Don’t worry”. After some more banter in which Oliver makes nothing any clearer for the young boy, Oliver casts Take Heart. Contrasted with Oliver’s heartlessness (oh yes, pun), the young boy still invites Oliver to be part of his crew.

Shame on you Ni No Kuni! You were doing so well with your practicing consent, and your dodgy humour, a complex young protagonist hero, and even some feminist undertones. But then you willfully threw it away at the expense of these young people and missed a fantastic opportunity to extend the nuanced, interesting exploration of childhood via Oliver’s story into other parts of the game. Instead Ni No Kuni seems to freak out, not understanding how to interact with young people. 

As an aside, I can't speak about childhood in Ni No Kuni and not speak about the truly bizarre, neo-colonial, weirdly-sexualised quest, "An Artist's Muse", where an artist in Al Mamoon decides he needs one of the forest dwellers, a young girl "as wild as the hills", with a necklace for his painting. Around the world are hidden 'forest dwellings' within collections of trees whose inhabitants are caricatures of indigenous people; wearing skins, with face paint, and unable to speak in complete sentences. So you head off to collect her, she comes back with you and the artist is grateful. To me, the undertones of that exercise are problematic enough (noble savage anyone?), but then they young girl starts striking a series of sexualised poses 

 She's still there winking and posing if you leave and come back later. I felt protective of her like I hadn't with any of the other children in the game; if this is how Ni No Kuni would treat children as-if they were adults, as I hoped for above, then I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to how I'd prefer children to be represented (more like Oliver and Esther, perhaps?).

So, How Then Should We Think About Children in Videogames?

Games have a complex relationship with children. I understand this. I understand why. It would not only be deeply unsettling to shoot children in an FPS, it probably wouldn’t pass a classification board. And I’m a peace studies academic for goodness sake! I don’t really want to shoot anyone, particularly not children! So often game worlds, which are otherwise richly developed, beautifully looking, and complex places either have no children in them at all, or treat them essentially as part of the wallpaper, where your crosshair/cursor refuses to recognizes them as something to be interacted with.

Lest I be misunderstood, I don’t want children that can be shot at added to my videogames!  But if your game is going to include children as members of the world you are moving through, can we at least treat them with the same ethical and moral consideration as the adults? Why do adults receive the courtesy of an explanation before they have a spell cast upon them, while children are either asked just to close their eyes or not even asked at all?

It has a lot to do with how we think of children and young people. “Don’t act so childishly”, “grow up”, “you were behaving like a child”; common place comments which reinforce a view of children as incomplete, as passive, as unable to participate in a ‘proper’ adult world. In academic work these kinds of assumptions are said to operate in frameworks that are ‘adultist’, which privilege adult competency and re-inscribe incompetence and incompleteness upon children. This growing critique of these views, argues instead that children can make sense of their world, they can and do participate and contribute to family life, to communities, to their everyday lives[3].

Of course, Pea both is and isn’t a child. And in many ways the better parts of Ni No Kuni’s engagement with the themes and issues of childhood are encapsulated in that statement. On one hand the game gives a lot of credit to children and their practical and imaginative capabilities, their resiliency, and their capacity to respond to the world around them. It is just a shame that at particular points the game seems entirely unable to sensitively engage with children and reduces them to the equivalent of a magical chests in which Oliver and his friends find convenient aids scattered throughout the land.

The game gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we speak about children, both in gameworlds and in real life, how we engage with them, how we perceive them. Yet it continues to rely on harmful and dehumanizing narratives about who or what children are.  Ni No Kuni is a fantasy, an escape; both as a videogame, and as Another World for Oliver to conquer his fear and sadness. I loved the sensitivity with which the main story is told, and the wonder and sense of exploration Oliver has. I’m only sad it had to come at the expense of more nuanced understandings of other children in his ‘other world’.

[1] In an excellent academic study of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Myriam Denov argues that children in conflict are frequently constructed through “the logics of extremes”: “extreme victims, extreme perpetrators or extreme heroes”, or in another way “dangerous and disorderly, the hapless victim and the heroic figure”. The critique of these neat (and flat) representations here is that the messy, difficult aspects of living amongst conflict (or even day-to-day in relatively peaceful societies) as a young person is erased by a logic that speaks before the reality of life can be explored.

[2] As an aside, it is worth commenting on the gendered implications of Esther, both within the game, and more broadly in a discussion of children and conflict. Esther (like so many other women in JRPGs before her) is the healer of the party, with low defenses and limited attack potential. In academic discussions girls’ invisibility has been increasingly recognized. While girls are actively involved in combat roles in many armed groups (Colombia, CAR, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Nepal…) frequently they are seen only as silent victims, particularly as ‘wives’ of commanders, as victims of sexual slavery, and in support roles (cooks, cleaners). While this gendered portrayal speaks to the experiences of some girls, it comes to characterize all girls in this way, and highlights their victimization rather than their agency.

[3] In the field of peace and conflict studies there are some fabulous works on this topic including the volume edited by Siobahn McEvoy-Levy “Troublemakers orPeacemakers” and Lesley Pruitt’s recently released “Youth Peacebuilding: Music,Gender and Change”. Ethnographic/anthropological work by Alcinda Honwana, Myriam Denov, and Carolyn Nordstrom are also making fascinating contributions to this field.