Sleeping Dogs: Real Gansters Wear Panama Straw Hats

First thing I noticed when I started playing Sleeping Dogs was that it isn’t Watch Dogs. It took me a little while to actually realize this because on the surface the games are nearly identical. You run around and open world city as a brown haired dude and you “hack” things with your cell phone. The main difference is that in Sleeping Dogs the steering wheel of the car is mounted on the passenger side because the game takes place in Hong Kong and not Chicago. Also, your brown haired dude is an American of Chinese descent which makes him marginally more interesting than the “epic signature hat” dude from the other game.

The second thing I noticed was that you could customize your outfit, and I immediately knew this game was going to be a blast. I spent about an hour ignoring gravely serious story missions visiting every clothing store in the game to put together a perfect look for my serious undercover policeman hero:

Stylish as Fuck

Stylish as Fuck

How did the game react to my strange attire that included a shitty straw Panama hat, gray sweat pants, converse sneakers and an ill-fitting pair of pink sun-glasses worn without a shirt? It didn’t. Because outfits in video games do not matter. And so, whenever they let you customize your clothing, and give you a few “silly” options it can lead to unintended hilarity. Like the scene where I took a girl on a romantic evening date looking like this:

Romantic Date

A Romantic Date

It is probably worth noting that I had to fist fight bunch of dudes on my way to the date, so my sweat pants and panama had some blood stains. But my date said nothing of it. Then there was that one time when I parked a car in the hotel lobby, half-way up the stairway. The NPC’s in the lobby were a little confused and they stared at the smoking wreck of my vehicle for a bit, but eventually they decided to just roll with it. The car stayed in the lobby for another three or four hours reminding me that I as the player character am the undisputed lord and master of this puny universe.

This is where I park my car

This is where I park my car

At this point, you may be wandering: “isn’t this type of shenanigans precisely what Saints Row games are all about?” and “Aren’t the Saint’s Row games better at player agency, freedom to do ridiculous stuff and character customization?” The answer would be yes to both questions. Sleeping Dogs is neither as customizable not as silly as those titles. It’s actually not trying to be either.

The game actually treats its story very seriously. You play an American-Chinese cop who goes back to the city of his birth for a super-dangerous undercover assignment that has him infiltrate the triads. You start as a street enforcer and slowly work your way up in the hierarchy. In the process you have to make many morally ambiguous choices. Your cop supervisors expect you to obey the law as much as possible, but your gangster buddies demand that you prove yourself to them by being ruthless and uncompromising criminal. It’s not supposed to be silly. But it is, when you’re wearing the right hat.

After being a grunt you start to spend spend a lot of time rubbing elbows with the rich, powerful and dangerous people. For example there is a scene where you are driving around an American “investor” around the town:

Not as cool as it should be

Not as cool as it should be

It is supposed to be really, really cool. The camera shows you exiting the car in slow motion, and you walk around the front and flip the keys to the valet without breaking a stride. But in my game I actually crashed the car a few times before I reached the destination, so it is a steaming wreck. The guy sitting on the ground behind the car is someone I ran over just before the cut-scene was triggered. He was literally thrown up in the air, and landed behind the car. Every bone in his body is probably shattered right now. But no one blinks. No one says a word. The scene plays out as if nothing happened. I couldn’t stop grinning at the ridiculousness of it.

At another point in the game you go to super important meeting that are supposed to be these quaint moments reminiscent of good mafia films, but… Well it doesn’t work when you dress the way my character, does it?

Meeting with one of the triad lieutenants.

Meeting with one of the triad lieutenants.

The problem I had with Saint’s Row was that the game was too self aware. The designers knew that the player is going to make a fat guy with a lizard tail, put him in a bunny costume and have him beat people with gigantic rubber dildo. Hell, they counted on it and they made mini-games and challenges for all that shit. They were in on the joke, and they built their setting to be inherently wacky. This approach was initially amusing, but it quickly lost appeal. I got bored of the silliness.

Sleeping Dogs does not know it is being silly. It is fantastically conservative as far as plot and story goes. It even includes a pre-fridged woman: the oldest and most popular video game character motivation plot device. I presume that the writers wanted it to be bloody, violent and heart-wrenching and only occasionally humorous. But because I was able to strut around in my sweat pants and panama hat I was giggling throughout most of the scenes. It allowed me to subvert itself. It allowed me to be this silly, off-kilter agent of pure chaos in an orderly and ordinary world. It allowed me to be the one genre savvy character in pulp Gun-fu action story. In a way it allowed me to make it’s story my own, in a very silly immature way.

Bloody, Violent and Heart Wrenching

Listen buddy, these stylish sweat pants cost me like $1 at Wallmart and you bleed all over them…

This is probably the sole reason why I spent over 30 hours with Sleeping Dogs but only around 6 with Saint’s Row 3. Because it was exploitable. Because it played the straight man to my wacky comic relief character. This is an important lesson about games and comedy: let the player be the clown of the setting. Being the bumbling, spastic buffoon is a natural state of the player character and working against it constrains player agency.

La Noire tried to do this by limiting your range of movement / interactions and giving NPC’s awesome car dodging skills so you couldn’t run them over… Unless you tried really really hard. In fact, tricking the game to let me to run over pedestrians with my car was probably more fun and more satisfying than “winning” the interrogations. Saints Row did the opposite: it tried to make the player to be the straight man and the hero by skewing the setting toward silliness so that player antics seem pale in comparison to the madness exhibited by the NPC’s. Personally, I did not enjoy that role at all. When all the NPC’s are in on the joke, and you (of all people) are the most reasonable person in the entire game world, the possibility of mischief and misbehavior is lost.

Just let me break your game and completely ruin your story on my own terms. No matter how funny you think you are, or how awesome your plot is, I can make it better by way of silly hats or ridiculously absurd behavior. As soon as I install the game on my computer it is my story, to be experienced my way. If you want your audience to experience the story “as is” without possibility of altering it, make a movie or a series instead.

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Ocean at the end of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

I have been a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing ever since I picked up some issues of Sandman. I thought that American Gods was brilliant and really established the author as an undisputed master of magical realism. Anansi Boys was funny as hell, which was an interesting spin on the formula and skewing it in a new interesting direction. His latest novel Ocean at the end of the Lane is more of the same type of magical realism, but with yet another spin.

Ocean at the end of the Lane

Ocean at the end of the Lane book cover.

After the silliness of following the misadventures of the sons of the trickster god, Gaiman’s latest novel brings things back around to a more serious, almost ominous tone. For all intents and purposes this short novel is a distillation of the modern fairy tale style that the author has been polishing for years. And as such it is almost perfect. While his previous works read as stories set in fantastic fairy tale like settings, this one reads like a genuine article. It is a modern folk tale for people with modern sensibilities, but as strange and fantastical as any old legend would be.

It follows a man who arrives at his home town for a funeral, and is instantly flooded by old childhood memories of certain event that happened when he was very young. He has forgotten all about it, or more likely discarded the memories as some feverish dream or trick of childhood imagination. But seeing the familiar surroundings brings those memories forward and he vividly recalls the time when he tangled with other-worldly forces.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because part of the fun of the novel is trying to figure out what is going on. Gaiman plays his cards close to the chest and only reveals what is absolutely necessary, allowing the reader’s imagination to run wild. Instead of using already established mythological creatures or entities he seems to invent his own but refuses to name them, instead always referring to them with mundane, earthly names or descriptive epithets. Despite that, these strange beings feel no less authentic and even more ancient than the gods and creatures from his past novels.

The novel is essentially a glimpse into the lives of some primordial Fae beings, older than the universe itself who choose to play humans and live simple, mundane and trivial lives here on Earth. And the more mundane and human they behave, the more mysterious and fascinating they seem because the readers know that there lies an ocean of unfathomable depth below that facade they put up when dealing with ordinary people.

The novel is shorter than the already compact Anansi Boys and this is partly due to the book’s narrow, almost laser like focus. Gaiman’s style is by no means minimalistic, but he describes and reveals just enough information to keep the plot flowing and make things interesting, but nothing beyond that. This storytelling style reminded me of City at the end of Time but with a much narrower, localized focus. He does not go on expository digressions or lengthy world-building dialogs. The rules of his universe are purposefully shrouded in secret and only revealed as the action progresses. This makes it a fast and almost effortless read. In fact the book is hard to put down once you start reading it. Gaiman draws you into his magical world right away, and starts increasing the tension and raising the stakes immediately afterwards.

If you are a Neil Gaiman fan, or would like to see how to masterfully merge a Fae folk legend with a modern setting, definitely pick this book up. I highly recommend it.

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Strong Female Protagonists

There was a comic floating around on reddit the other day which was attempting to “prove” that the complaints about gender diversity in video games are false by listing few dozen “strong female characters” in a rapid fire sequence of panels. Most reasonable people of course will agree that the aforementioned problem does exist. Most games throughout the history of the medium used white, brown haired males as protagonists, and the list of actual interesting, relatable female video game characters who are more than eye candy is rather short. But I sort of appreciated the effort the comic creators put into their research of the subject.

That said, I’m not going to embedd it here because is is extremely shitty. The whole purpose of it seemed to show that gaming is diverse and that gamers do not have a problem with women, but the author felt it was necessary to put in several rape jokes, ablist and transphobic slurs, and make the final punchline involve a woman lying about rape threats. Other than the list of characters it contained, it has literally zero worth (even from the artistic perspective since it is the same panel copied and pasted over and over again with different speech bubbles).

So instead of wasting space, and making you scroll through dozens of of panels which may or may not involve surprise bigotry or hate speech, I will simply reproduce the list in a compact and searchable HTML format for your convenience:

  1. Faith from Morror’s Edge
  2. Bayonetta
  3. Lignting from Final Fantasy
  4. Claire Redfield from Resident Evil
  5. Parasite Eve
  6. Chun Li from Street Fighter
  7. Samus from Metroid
  8. Miku Hinasaki from Fatal Fame
  9. April Ryan from Dreamfall
  10. Alice from American McGee’s Alice
  11. Jade from Beyond Good and Evil
  12. Zoe and Rochelle from Left 4 Dead
  13. Kaine from Neir
  14. Characters from Touhou
  15. Curly Brace from Cave Story
  16. Momohoime from Muramasa the Demon Blade
  17. Lilith and Maya from Borderlands
  18. Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark
  19. Recette from Reccetear
  20. Chelle from Portal
  21. Ayumi from X-Blades
  22. Lara Croft
  23. Femshep from Mass Effect
  24. Sofia Lamb from Bioshock 2

Keep in mind that this is a representative list that is supposed to showcase the best examples of strong female characters in video games as chosen by the Gamer Gater author of the comic. All twenty four of them! And after rattling off about dozen characters from major AAA titles or cult fan favorites they started scraping the bottom of the barrel including obscure indie games, fighting games and etc.. I don’t know about you but I have problems with more than half the characters included on this list.

For example, how is Bayonetta even there? Her special moves literally make her clothes disappear and she wears guns as her high heels so that she can strike better combat poses for the benefit of male gamers. Chun Li, Zoe and Rochelle are optional playable avatars from multiplayer games that are light on story and characterization. Samus is consistently problematic – the very fact that revealing her sex at the end of the game was considered a huge twist should be a clear indication that representation of women in gaming is a problem. And then the Other M took and destroyed everything that was cool and interesting about that character. Same goes for Lara Croft who started as a pinup doll designed to be ooggled by male players, and graduated to a heroine who is almost raped and tortured throughout the game to make male players want to defend her.

Then there are all the obscure Japanese console games that I, as a PC gamer, have not played (or in some cases have not even heard about). I can’t really comment on any of these but I question whether or not an average gamer is even familiar with these titles. Are those household names among the console gamers, or were the authors of the comic grasping at straws at this point?

Out of the characters I recognize, Faith is the only one I really don’t have any problems with. While I was not impressed with her game as a whole, I think she is a great example of a strong female protagonist. She is not a silent protagonist cipher like Chell, and she has both personality and motivation. She is never objectified like Bayonetta or tortured for sympathy like the new Lara Croft. As a player, you’re not supposed to fall in love with her, or worry about her, or try to save her – you are supposed to identify with her. When you play Mirror’s Edge you “become” Faith. I think this is exactly the hallmark of a good female characters in general.

I personally think that this is the one question writers need to ask themselves when they sit down to write a compelling female character: would I want to be her? Is she interesting enough for me to identify with? Because, despite of what many gamers and game designers (cough, Ron Rosenberg, cough) would have you believe, men can totally identify with female characters. If your character is not relatable, then you just end up with yet another “disposable female protagonist”:

Disposable Female Protagonist

Superfelous Female Protagonist via SMBC.

The saddest thing is that the even though the authors of the comic were completely clueless they still managed to list quite a few interesting named female video game characters who are not helpless damsels, vending machines or victims brutalized to further the story of a male protagonist. They actually identified more of them than I could think of on my own. And yet, the list seems very underwhelming…

Almost all the women on it are either NPC’s or secondary characters in games headlined by white, brown haired, gravely voiced, unshaven dudes. Only few of them are actually playable characters, and even fewer are sole protagonists of their own game.

How many strong female video game protagonists who are heroes of their own stories are there? What does it even mean to be a strong female protagonist? Lets try to define some minimum set of requirements that they would need to meet:

  • Should be a default protagonist – people always bring Femshep from Mass Effect as a good example of a strong female protagonist, but they seem to forget she is not really the cannon hero of the franchise. Yes, the female voice actor is better than the one voicing Dudeshep but he is still the default choice when you start the game, and his face is on all the promotional materials. Femshep did not even get a recognizable “default face” until the third installment of the series, and even then she only appeared in a few online ads.

    So yes, she is an option but you have to assume that most people don’t pick her, because most people tend to go with default settings. This is an actual thing we know about from focus testing all kinds of different types of software. So choosing the right defaults is very important.

  • Should not be a silent protagonist – similarly, gamers always put Chell on these lists. But who is Chell really? What is her story? As much as I love Portal, I don’t really know anything about it’s protagonist. Chell is a cipher with less personality than Gordon Freeman. We at least know that Freeman graduated from MIT and was a physicist working at Black Mesa. Chell’s past is a complete mystery. All we know about her is that she is a vaguely Hispanic looking woman. So for all intents and purposes she is barely a character.

    Ironically, the most fleshed out and interesting character of Portal 2 is neither Chell nor GLADOS, but Cave Johnson. So in a game with female protagonist and female villain, a man still manages to steal most of the spotlight for himself.

  • Should not be objectified – I already mentioned Bayonetta whose other qualities are seriously undermined because she was designed top to bottom to be a sex object. This is not to say that a character can’t be attractive or sexy. There is a clear difference between sexiness and objectification and it has everything to do with context. If your female protagonist wears a chain-mail bikini when most of the men in the game wear plate armor you are probably objectifying her. If your protagonist uses “sexy martial arts” when everyone else fights normally, it is probably done solely to titillate the male player.

    If every time your character enters the room, you frame the shot like this you are definitely doing it wrong:

    Male Gaze

    Male Gaze

    This goes back to the “would you want to be her” thing. If you are designing a character who is over-sexualized, wears revealing clothing and uses sexy combat moves you are not creating someone players can relate to. You are creating someone players can be attracted to and ooggle as they play.

  • Should not be infantilized – another trend you often see in video games is the tendency to make the female characters overly “cute” and child like. You see this a lot in Japanese games, and several names on the list we discussed fall into this category. Instead of being explicitly sexual, the characters are presented as overly naive and simple minded. The players are not expected to identify or empathize with infantilized female protagonists but instead feel protective of them.

    One particular method of infantalization in western games is “torture for sympathy” tactic. It allows an otherwise capable female character to be temporarily rendered helpless and completely vulnerable for the sole purpose of enticing protective feelings in the male player. Consider the new Tomb Rider reboot in which Lara is frequently beaten, hog-tied, wounded, mistreated, and has to fight off at least one rape attempt. The amount of punishment heaped up on her is unprecedented, and it is framed in explicit manner. There are whole cut scenes devoted to showing Lara shuddering uncontrollably, sobbing quietly by fire, fighting back tears, crying, groaning in extreme pain and etc. Games’ designers admitted this was done on purpose to evoke sympathy. Ron Rosenberg went on record saying he did not believe male players could identify with Lara, so they intentionally went overboard with the torture port to make men emotionally invested in protecting Lara from further harm.

  • Should have agency – how can you have a player character without agency? Well, it happens rather frequently. Agency can be taken away from the player during cut scenes, regardless of gender however but it tends to happen to female characters more often. It is not uncommon for games with more than one playable characters to suddenly damsel the female protagonists and have her rescued by her male companions.

    The lack of agency can also be imparted by making the protagonist subordinate to some authority figure. For example in Other M Samus must ask her supervisor to remotely enable combat subsystems in her armor which were disabled by default. While this was intended as an alternative game mechanic to replace in-game power-ups it established a highly problematic power imbalance between the two characters. Especially since not having access to all the upgrades from the start could prevent Samus from getting hurt or dying early on in the game.

Note that I didn’t pick these specifically to exclude specific characters. You could run character of any sex through that list and I would bet that all male protagonists would pass it with flying colors. And that’s really the problem. None of the items on my list is even specifically designed select for a
“strong” protagonist but rather strong character design choices that are already used for men, but almost never for women.

How many female characters from that initial list would still count if we run them through the above? I’d say Faith, April Ryan and maybe Alice. I’m not familiar with all the games on the list so there definitely may be more.

Who are your favorite female protagonists? Were they on the list? Would they pass my test and if not why?

Not that the test is definitive or authoritative – it was just my way of organizing some thoughts on problematic design choices when it comes to female character design in video games. If you want something more exhaustive, I recommend this Guide to Gender Design in Games.

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