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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Broken Age: Mog Chothra

In Tim Schafer’s Broken Age, Mog Chothra is a large, nearly indestructible, man eating Lovercraftian monster. It is the latest in the long line of monsters that have been terrorizing the game’s universe for untold centuries. Mogs live and breed in some far-away, uninhabited region of the planet, but every decade or so one of them returns demanding a tribute. Locals name these returning creatures the way we name hurricanes, and they appease them via human sacrifice. Each village selects a handful of young girls whose virtues best exemplify the values of their society, and feed them to the monster. Over the years this custom has been so enshrined in tradition and ritual that few dare to question it.

Mog Chothra

Mog Chothra

I find the Mogs fascinating because it they are a condensation of several prominent cultural and storytelling tropes. Mog Chotrha it’s partly a menace (like a rampaging dragon) and partly an lovercraftian styled elder deity which gets treated more like a force of nature that a threat. It’s concept and design ties into many common monster and religious tropes and thus brings a lot of cultural baggage and symbolism into what otherwise is a light, fun and somewhat charmingly cute point and click adventure.

I wish Broken Age spent more time exploring it, but unfortunately it is present only in half of the very short first episode. By the time credits roll, the monster is defeated and the future episodes are unlikely to bring it back in it’s original form. If anything, the future episodes will deal with ramifications’ of Vella’s choice to kill the monster and the subsequent revelations about it’s nature. Personally, I think there is at least a full length game’s worth of content and discussion to be had just based around the concept of Mogs. For example, I would appreciate a more frank, mature and nuanced discussion of how it is to live in a modern society practicing live human sacrifice: what are the different ways it is rationalized and normalized and how that impacts the society and it’s moral values?

In an absence of such exploratory discussion however, we can still view Mog Chotrha as a metaphor that tells us something about our own society.

Transhumanist Interpretation

On some level the Mog Chothra story reminds me of Nick Bostrom’s Fable of the Dragon Tyrant. Both Bostrom’s dragon and Schafer’s Mog are nearly indestructible creatures of immense power which in the past could not be fought directly. They both require sacrifice: they insist we freely give up something our society values the most (human life) or have it taken from us by force. Both monsters are defeated by science and experimentation.

Bostrom’s fable is a transhumanist allegory which points out that acceptance of aging and death is not only morally wrong but also hypocritical. If our society holds human life as something intrinsically valuable, and considers preservation of human life to be the most noble cause there is, then simply letting people expire due to old age should be considered unethical and evil. Unfortunately in the past we did not know how to prolong human life and counteract aging and so we had to learn to accept it as something “natural”. Now that we do have technology that could help us live longer, if not forever, this acceptance of death is counter productive. It became so ingrained in our consciousness that immortality is considered unnatural (or an affront to the natural order) despite the fact there exist examples of functional biological immortality in the animal kingdom. We make all kinds of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that death is actually a good thing: that it prevents overpopulation, keeps the societies dynamic and etc.. In many ways it is a survival tactic – it is mental self care that helps us deal with the inevitability of death. But, death does not have to be inevitable. Treating it as such blocks a lot meaningful research that could be done in the area by making it appear silly, or immoral where it should be the most rational and most noble of pursuits.

Similarly in Broken Age the Maiden Feast is considered something normal. The arrival of the next Mog is inevitable, and the locals have no means of defeating them. They come to terms with the need to sacrifice some of their members to preserve their civilization – but they go beyond that. They normalize it and turn it into a festive occasion. Being chosen as a maiden is considered a great honor and privilege.

Looking from the outside in, we the players, can of course see that the practice is clearly reprehensible and that the world-view of the in-game societies has been warped by the exposure to the terror of the Mog monsters. Vella can be seen as a transhumanist hero because she does against this established evil. She seeks to rescue the other maidens even though they have resigned themselves, and accepted their fate.

Atheist Interpretation

The Maiden’s Feast celebration during which young girls are fed to the Mog feels very much like a religious ritual. The practice of human sacrifice to appease a temperamental deity is nothing new and there have been many societies in our history which practiced it. However, it is commonly associated with “primitive” societies. We assume that most societies will eventually “grow out” of that phase mainly due to the increased understanding of nature through science. Once people realize that floods, plagues and droughts are natural events which cannot be bargained with they move to less bloody forms of worship… But on Vella’s planet the evil deity is a factual, living beast. The worship is not a matter of faith, but a matter of fact. And so the human sacrifice practice gets normalized well into post-agricultural age.

Coming to terms with the brutality of Maiden’s Feast is actually seen as a form of enlightenment. Near the beginning of the game we learn that Vella’s home village of Sugar Bunts used to be a tribe of warriors who resisted, fought and hid from the Mogs in the past. But in the last few decades the attitudes have changed and the towns-folk warmed up to the Mog worship. They decided that practicing occasional human sacrifice results in a hundred-fold net decrease of the human casualties caused by the monster menace. And so they put down their weapons and became a village of bakers.

But can that ever justify human sacrifice? Is creating peaceful and harmonious society a valid excuse to indulge in ritualized murder? This is more or less the basis for half of failed utopia stories: a superficially perfect society with a dark secret. But the inhabitant’s of Vella’s planet don’t even hide it – they practice their sacrifices openly and are proud of them.

This is a very interesting example in how an organized religion can potentially normalize behaviors which would otherwise be morally unacceptably by re-framing them as acts of virtue that benefit the entire society. Sacrificing maidens is no longer viewed as a lesser of two evils, or a necessary brutality. It becomes something inherently good and wholesome. A monster devouring innocent young women becomes a symbol of pacifism and civilized harmony. The ritual of human sacrifice becomes a happy and festive, family friendly celebration. This is the real power of organized religion: the ability to skew perception and not only justify but sanctify vile acts by turning them into wholesome acts of devotion.

Maidens Feast celebration in Sugar Bunts

Maidens Feast celebration in Sugar Bunts

The worst part is that this is not a sinister thing. There isn’t some evil cult leader hidden behind the curtain brain washing the flowers. This warped worldview has evolved naturally over many decades. The townspeople are neither evil, nor particularly gullible – they are just misguided. They are mostly portrayed as sympathetic, well meaning and sometimes tragic characters. There is a great scene in there where Vella talks to a “rejected” maiden in the town of Meriloft. The girl was chosen by the community to be one of the sacrificial victims, but not devoured by Mog Chotrha which is a deep sense of personal shame to her. By failing to be devoured she has not only shamed herself, but also her entire family.

The Rejected Maiden of Meriloft

The Rejected Maiden of Meriloft

So Mog Chotrha can be a metaphorical jab at modern religions, which typically do not practice human sacrifice but often do preach morally questionable truths. For example, some religions proscribe female circumcision because it aligns with their dogma, and is perceived to be socially beneficial to the entire community. Even Christian denominations are not immune from this, as they often preach intolerance toward LGBTQ+ folk and prop up outdated, harmful power structures as models to be followed. Vella can therefore be interpreted as an atheist hero because she dares to go against the dogma. She recognizes her religion is wrong, and that the rituals are morally reprehensible and rejects them. For that she is labeled as a pariah. To to those who fully internalized Mog worship, Vella’s rebellion is and ultimate act of selfishness – a refusal of a holy, righteous sacrifice on behalf of the community. This is very similar to the way in which the critics of organized religions tend to be treated: they are labeled as sinners or heretics and shunned or expelled from their communities and their families are shamed for allowing this to happen.

Feminist Interpretation

Finally, it is probably worthwhile to ask why do Mogs prefer “maidens”? Granted, the second chapter of the game may shed more light on this, since the end of Vella’s story reveals that Mogs are more than just mindless monsters. So perhaps there is a logic to their selection. As it stands right now however, the game does not comment on this. It presents the ritual of sacrifice as is. The fact that there isn’t even a dialog option which would question why an eldritch monster would care about the gender of it’s food is rather telling. Neither game designers nor most players probably even think about this when playing the game, because maiden/virgin sacrifice is a long standing trope within our literature.

More often than not, sacrificial victims in fiction tend to be women. There is a myriad of reasons for this, but this trope is closely tied to the perceived disposability of women in fiction. This is something Anita Sarkesian talked about at length in her latest video Women as Background Decoration – part 2:

As per Sakesian, it is common to see narratives in fiction (and especially in video games) to use victimization and brutalization of women for the sole purpose of fleshing out male protagonists or antagonists. For example a villain may be shown torturing or executing defenseless women to establish him as the bad guy. The same victims may also play a role of a Damsel in Distress to give the protagonist a compelling motivation. However the humanity or personal experience of said victims is mostly ignored.

Broken Age subverts this trope by putting the player character in the position of a victimized maiden who is to be sacrificed to an evil monster. The game does not feature a heroic male protagonist sweeping in to save the day, but instead the players see the experience through Vella’s eyes and rebel against the injustice with her. The maidens in Broken Age are neither damsels nor background decoration – they are people with agency and power to change their own fate.

During her short adventure Vella talks to several other chosen maidens, and they all are proud and happy to be participating in the ceremony. They are ecstatic that they won the popularity contest to earn this position and bicker about who will get eaten first. The order in which they are devoured will reaffirm their status and self worth. In a way this illustrates the way our society indoctrinates young women to accept and internalize deeply sexist beliefs even when they are obviously harmful. Their self-destructive behaviors are not only approved by rewarded by the community and held as an example to the younger generations. It is heart-breaking to hear Vella’s younger complain about her rotten luck: when she comes of age, it will be in the period between Mog incursions, and therefore she will never have a chance to become a maiden.

Concusions

As I said at the beginning of this post, I kinda wish that Double Fine recognized the potency of Mog Chothra as a metaphor and focused on exploring all the themes and tropes that naturally feed into it. As it is right now, it plays a semi-important part in what seems to be a much larger narrative. The game as a whole ties to juxtapose two coming of age stories. That of Vella who is part of a community that expects her to make an ultimate sacrifice on their behalf, and Shay whose overprotective parents keep in a protective bubble, preventing him from ever taking any risks or making any sacrifices on anyone’s behalf. Unfortunately we may need to wait until Act 2 of the game to find out how this juxtaposition is going to pay off. In the meantime however we can discuss the existing themes in the game. Mog Chothra is definitely one of the more interesting aspects of the game.

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