Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In Reluctant Defense of Ubisoft

I really don't want to write this blog post.

I don't like Ubisoft all that much. uPlay annoys me. The last Assassin's Creed game I played was III, and I didn't finish it. Didn't finish Far Cry 3, either, though that was solely because my wife and I spawned a tiny Overlord and I dawdled on side quests. I'm not likely to play anything they put out in the next few years unless they make a massive push on the 3DS.

And Ubisoft fucked up. No question there. But my day job is developing software and, God help me, I'm sympathetic by nature to a coder on a deadline getting yelled at for leaving out That One Feature. So brace yourselves, here we go...

In case you're not familiar, it came out during E3 that Ubisoft had left playable women out of the multiplayer modes for both of their upcoming big franchise games, Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. They wanted to include women in the games - Scout's honor! - but didn't have the resources to pull it off in time. This excuse has understandably pissed a lot of people off, much moreso with Assassin's Creed because the last few games have included multiplayer modes that did have multiple female characters.

And I get it, and I'd jump on the bandwagon except I see a lot of people saying that the developers are being "lazy", or that they just don't care about female gamers. Which is not, I think, the reason to be pissed off.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 is apparently a reason to be pissed off.
 Let's be clear right off the bat: both multiplayer features at issue here are cooperative, meaning they're part of the single player experience. (Assassin's Creed's earlier, female-friendly multiplayer deathmatches got dropped entirely.) A friend, or three, can jump into your game, or you can jump into their game, and help out with single player missions that tie directly into the main storyline of the game. And all the avatars involved are, at this moment, male, and Ubisoft is being raked over the coals for not letting players play a female.

I'm seeing a lot of angry comments in the form of "This is bullshit, it's super easy to turn a male model into a female model, Ubisoft are fucking liars." And that would be true if all the new model had to do was run around killing people. But in a properly implemented coop game that's not the case anymore, because Bioshock Infinite is a thing that happened.

You can't top this!
Your buddy has to support you, has to be able to team-kill with you, has to hand off items and witty repartee as you mow down the enemy A.I.s. If Plot happens, your buddy is no longer allowed to vanish, they have to contribute to the Plot, have to have lines, make a meaningful impact on events, or at least not fuck up verisimilitude by disappearing into the Aether.

And if you want your buddy to be male or female, that really does double the workload. You have to hire an extra voice actor, you have to write and record new dialogue, you have to animate new body language, new facial expressions. And all of that shit has to be added to the test cases, along with what happens if maybe you have two different buddies at different times who want to play different genders. How many ways, at how many different points, can that completely break the million-dollar title that's due out in a few months? Because they add up.

Oh God, take off the turban! Take off the turban!
"Bioware does this all the time", you say. Yes, they do, with blank-slate characters that represent the player and her choices. They don't do it with characters that have distinct personalities that make their own impact on the plot. Ask Bioware if you can pick the genders of every member of your supporting cast as well, and see how long it takes them to descent into apoplexy.

I am ready to be corrected on this point, but I cannot think of a game that implements a plot-relevant gender-swappable coop character with a distinct personality. The closest I can come to what people are demanding is Gears of War 3, and that isn't close at all - you could only choose a female character when the plot made them available, and if everyone wanted to play a woman, tough shit. Or there's the latest Resident Evil games, where you choose between a well-developed male or female character, but your buddy had to be the other gender and nobody got to customize anything.

Not an option, sadly.
And yes, I'm crediting Ubisoft that they're implementing cooperative gameplay that's closely tied into the story. That's because these are next-generation games adding cooperative gameplay to game storylines that are traditionally strongly character-focused: no blank slates. If Ubisoft is just doing another implementation of the Amazing Disappearing Coop Buddy who fucks off whenever anything storyline relevant happens, then the resource excuse really does not hold up at all.

See, I'm not trying to exonerate Ubisoft as a company here, because if they delayed the game or management had made gender diversity a priority from day one they could have gotten this done. I just don't like seeing people blaming the dev team for this fuckup. They're coders and artists under the deadline gun for a multimillion dollar title running on a brand new engine on brand new hardware and working in an industry where employees are routinely getting laid off en masse. For Assassin's Creed, you just have to look at the Clone Quadruplet Assassins they did put in to see that something went badly wrong during development that limited them to one playable character model for the entire game. And on top of all that, every interview I've seen with the developers suggests that they loved the idea and they're genuinely disappointed they couldn't get the job done.

Which is another thing: Ubisoft hasn't been great at having female protagonists, but they've been pretty consistent in including strong female characters in their games. Compared to Call of Duty's complete lack of women, or characters like Quiet and whoever the hell this Zelda villain is, Assassin's Creed has been downright progressive for years. So I'm a bit disappointed that Ubisoft's catching more hell for trying to do the right thing and failing than companies that didn't bother to try and address the issue at all.

You know what you did, Team Ninja.
With all that said... I'm not going to say lay off Ubisoft. At a minimum they've mis-prioritized a feature gamers obviously wanted (and not just female gamers, I like playing as a woman sometimes myself), shitcanned it rather than delay the game just long enough to get it right, and committed a massive P.R. fuckup all around. Even if they're telling the absolute truth, it's moronic to say that you were five minutes away from putting in a feature and just didn't quite make it. Jim Sterling skewers them heavily here, to the point where I can't believe Ubisoft is lying about what happened - they'd have been far better off just saying nothing at all.

So please, scream and yell and tweet and write letters demanding playable women, because it's a thing that should happen and if it's not in the next Assassin's Creed and Far Cry games then Ubisoft deserves everything it has coming.

Just give the devs in the trenches a bit of a break, mmkay? Or at least the benefit of the doubt.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Religion

I'm having a lot of trouble with this Hobby Lobby thing. Maybe someone can help me out:

- Using contraception is a sin. Okay. I can accept that as a sincerely held belief, even if I don't agree with it.

- Paying for someone else's contraception is a sin. This one's harder, since you're not actually fornicating, but I suppose encouraging someone else to sin is sinful itself - it's like giving a drunk vodka. So I can understand not wanting to, say, buy condoms for a horny hobo. But then...

- Paying for an insurance plan that might pay for someone else's contraception is a sin. Um... sorry? You're buying insurance. That's not a sin. That's actually a good Christian act. And, like it or not, there are legitimate reasons that an insurance plan would cover contraception, beyond a legal mandate. For example, some birth control pills help prevent women's ovaries from exploding. True story! And you have to pay a lot for those pills because the pharmaceutical companies know when they've got you over a barrel.

Seriously, who's checked the theology on Hobby Lobby's Supreme Court case? Has any Catholic provided an explanation for how buying insurance is sinful? Because I'm pretty sure Obamacare is not going to send Steve Green to Hell.

* * *

I was raised Roman Catholic. Catholic school and church every Sunday until my parents got divorced and I moved away from our church and went to public school. (Actually I think my sister and I complained enough that we dropped Mass before the divorce. Memories are hazy.) I took Communion but was never confirmed.

Through grade school I was pretty much a casual-to-lapsed Catholic: not going to church except very occasionally, but broadly in line with the Ten Commandments. Then in college I started going to our campus church. They served pizza afterward and it felt good to stop being a heathen. Eventually though I stopped going. It started with a Mass by a priest who talked about "this Catholic thing", which I thought was intolerably disrespectful to faith; and who confessed during the initial wave of the big child sex scandals that he'd felt so scared he'd had to hide his collar when he went out in public. I'm lapsed, but I'm pretty sure my faith preaches courage under adversity. And more to the point, the church had clearly fucked up big time. So how dare any priest hide from that and continue being a priest?

I stopped going to Mass for a few months, but eventually went back, and the first Mass featured a lengthy condemnation of abortion - and it was an election year, so there was an unspoken hint that good Catholics should be voting a certain way. That was the end for me. I think abortion is horrible, but I'm not going to dare tell anyone with reason to seriously consider it what they should do, and I'm certainly not in favor of throwing them in jail. And I was going to church to practice my faith, not to hear a priest condemn people.

Since then it's all been downhill.

* * *

My son is eight months old. I haven't had him baptized yet. I'm scared to.

I still consider myself Catholic, but I'm very far from the Church and I'm scared to subject my son to a religion I don't recognize anymore, preached by priests who might very well be whack jobs or even sex offenders. On the other hand, Catholic teachings were a huge part of my youth and influenced the person I am today - I like to think in a good way. I don't want to rob my son of that experience, but I don't want to expose him to some demented monster on the pulpit either.

And I hear about a diocese lawyer saying that a priest who molested children was not a priest when he molested children, because he was molesting children. And I hear about an Archbishop lying and saying that he didn't know sexual abuse was a crime, at the same time he was sending out emails discussing how long the statute of limitations on child abuse are. I hear about eight hundred dead children in Ireland.

And I am scared of my church.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Five Writing Lessons From Edge of Tomorrow

The wife and I went to see Edge of Tomorrow today. It's pretty damn good military science fiction, and one of the best movies I've seen this year. (I'd probably rate it a shade above Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) The movie is based on a Japanese novel, All You Need Is Kill, and features Tom Cruise as a soldier living a Groudhog Day time loop that resets every time he dies. It's grim, sometimes funny and definitely action-packed.

It's also got a few good writing lessons to teach us. Brace yourselves for some spoilers, folks.

Listen up if you don't want to die again, privates!
1. Throw the jerk to the wolves.

Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, a smarmy P.R. officer who tries to get out of combat duty by blackmailing a superior officer. He's oily, has no discernible morals and is a blatant coward, so we're not exactly sympathetic when he's arrested and tossed into a front-line squad of grunts. Then we see him running through a combat zone, aliens butchering everyone around him, in a suit he's not trained to use (with the safety on!), and we're on his side. We want him to live, even if he is a dick.

He probably threw up in his helmet at some point.
If you're writing an asshole protagonist, putting him through undeserved hell is a good way to generate a bit of sympathy from the audience. Deserved hell is an entirely different thing, and should be reserved for the villain of your work. To generate sympathy you want extreme, disproportionate retribution befalling someone you otherwise wouldn't care for. (Beauty and the Beast is a solid example.)

2. Keep your pseudoscience simple.

The science behind how Cage keeps coming back to life is hideously complicated, if it has any validity at all, and is almost entirely not discussed. But the rules are told to us, and they're simple: When Cage dies he wakes up the morning before he dies. He remembers everything that happened. If he bleeds out too much and survives, he stops coming back to life, so if he gets injured he has to make sure he dies.

Death 587: Alcohol poisoning.
If you're writing hard science fiction detailed explanations of the weirdness are almost mandatory. But if you're writing what some term "science fantasy", or treating science like futuristic magic, going into too many details risks overcomplicating your story, contradicting yourself, and confusing the hell out of the audience. Be clear about how your science magic works, insofar as it concerns the story, and leave out the unimportant parts. Your audience will enjoy using guesswork to fill in the blanks and your story will be stronger for it.

3. Remember that your mentor did things.

Major Cage is guided through his efforts to save the day by Rita Vertaski, a veteran soldier who had the same talent Cage has and lost it. Throughout the movie we get references to her time as the Angel of Verdun, to people she loved and lost, to adventures she had and the horrors she's been through. It takes a badass woman with a big sword and makes her into a complex figure, someone the audience gets to know in some ways more closely than Cage himself.

But still a badass. Don't call her Full Metal Bitch to her face.
If you're going to write a mentor figure into your story, try to remember that they had a ton of their own adventures before they ever met the hero. Wisdom doesn't come from nothing. Take into account the experiences your mentor has had, and if they turn out to be plot relevant so much the better!

4. Take away your hero's cool thing.

Edge of Tomorrow gets a lot of mileage out of Cage's reset button, including a long sequence where Cage just dies in humorous ways for my sadistic amusement. I got used to him being able to survive whatever's thrown at him. So when the enemy started trying to kill him in a way he can't come back from, I got nervous. And when Cage lost his resurrection trick and had to save the world with no way to come back, I was on the edge of my seat. Because I no longer knew that Cage was going to survive. The movie got me used to what Cage could do and then took that away from him. By removing the primary advantage Cage had, it raised the stakes immeasurably. Cage was in more danger than ever before and nothing was certain.


Waitohshit
If something makes your hero special, force him to get by without it, either temporarily or permanently. Let Clark Kent save the day instead of Superman. Send King Arthur into battle without Excalibur. Or give your furry-footed protagonist a magic ring that lets him sneak by anything and don't let him use it once he actually gets into enemy territory.

5. Deus ex machina is a maid service.

Edge of Tomorrow ends with Cage and Vertaski sacrificing themselves to end the war. That would be satisfying ending on its own, but also a real downer. Fortunately an alien deus ex machina crops up that lets Cage launch one final reset and give us a happy ending. And believe it or not, it works! Doesn't feel like a cop out at all. The reason is because the day has already been saved without assistance - the heroes won on their own, playing entirely by the rules. All the deus did was patch the "Pyrrhic" out of a Pyrrhic victory.

To be fair, Europe is still dead.
Most authorities would say you shouldn't use the deus ex machina. I say you're allowed to use it, but don't use it to win the day for your heroes; that's guaranteed to piss off your audience and make your ending feel cheap. Let the heroes win their own victories, then have the deus descend and clean up a bit, maybe throw your heroes a bone. They've had it pretty rough up until now, the audience will understand that they've earned a moment's consideration and appreciate it. But just this once!

And finally, bonus lesson number six:

6. Weird-ass aliens are awesome and we need more of them.

Seriously, I don't know what the Mimics are but just look at the damn things:


WHAT THE FUCK

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Slenderman Problem

In Wisconsin two girls stabbed their friend nearly to death so that they could run off to live in the woods with Slenderman.

Okay.

Let me be clear up front that I have no idea if the girls are lying or to what degree, if any. I know only what is stated in the article behind that link. It's quite possible the girls are selling bullshit to try and cop an insanity plea or some damn thing.

But what if they aren't?

In case you aren't familiar, Slenderman is an urban legend that got its start online. Slenderman is a tall man in a suit with no face who appears most often in the background of old photos and apparently abducts, terrorizes or kills children. Also Slenderman is not real. He or it was created by a Something Awful forum poster named "Victor Surge". This is known Khaleesi.

And yet somehow, two children decided that Slenderman was real enough to try and kill for. Which begs the question: How do you convince someone he's not real?

One of the original Slenderman photos. He's over there.

More and more we live in a world where The Truth is a subjective thing. The Internet, if anything, is exacerbating the problem. For every fact online you can find a document stating the fact is bullshit, and offering a competing view of the world. Not all of these views are valid. Some of them are insane. But on the Internet facts and bullshit are treated the same. It's up to the reader to discern one from the other. And not everyone has the tools to do that.

Children believe. They believe in Santa Claus, in the Tooth Fairy, in Bloody Mary. As they grow older we expect them to develop enough critical reasoning skills to tell fact from fiction, but that's not guaranteed. And it's made a lot harder when facts and bullshit are commingling in the same places, with authorities or "authorities" sticking up for both alternatives.

And once you've accepted something as fact, it's hard to change your mind. Confirmation bias is the tendency to put more weight on information that supports an existing belief. It's a hard-wired component of humanity. Even if the "fact" is total crap, you'll look for information that "proves" it is right. And on the Internet, you'll probably find some.

The sum of all human knowledge no longer trends toward increasing accuracy. Falsehoods and propaganda are entering the electronic hive mind and while they are being challenged, we have no way to eject them from the collective consciousness. As our species moves to a global shared knowledge base, that knowledge is becoming delusional. It's a problem we're going to have to cope with before we start killing each other over bullshit. Yet again.

Creepypasta, the "home" of Slenderman, was obliged to release a statement that Slenderman is not real. That's something. But inevitably there's still someone out there who thinks "maybe he is". Or thinks "of course he is". Or is out in the woods hunting for Slenderman right now.

Hopefully that's the only point where this person loses touch with reality.