Gamefail bluescreen

Apologies, ya’ll. I know you haven’t heard much from me lately. Partly it’s that I’ve been busy; this is the time of year when my day job ratchets up, and since I’m still plowing full speed ahead on the UMSP, I don’t have a ton of spare brain. What little I’ve got has mostly been channeled into stress relief — hanging out with local folks, long meditative walks on snowy evenings, and among other things, gaming. But lately the gaming has been… shall we say, less than fun?

Frex: I preordered DmC, the rebooted version of the not-exactly-venerable Devil May Cry series, because I’ve loved this series practically from jump. And even though I had some misgivings about the reboot, I got a chance to play a demo at San Diego Comic Con last year and thought it was awesome. Still, writergirl’s got a book to finish, so when I received my copy I set it aside — gotta have something to reward myself with when I’m done with the book.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve always loved about this series was that it was kind of equal-opportunity sexy. I don’t object to a sexual element in art or fiction or entertainment, if you haven’t guessed that from my writing. What I object to is the way that sexual element is usually women’s (often unrealistic) bodies or parts thereof, or women’s suffering, and that these pieces of women are so often present solely as men’s wank-material. I welcome sexy women when they’re presented as whole people in their own right who are uninterested in (or defiant of) the men gazing at them, or when they’re appealing to the female gaze instead of the male. There have been some scantily-clad women along the way in the DMCs, but that kind of worked because a) in a lot of cases those women acknowledged the oversexualization of their appearance in a tongue-in-cheek way, and b) the hero was often almost as scantily clad. And besides the fact that the DMC women had motivations and interesting stories of their own, there was a lot more sexual tension between the hero and his evil twin brother than there was with any of the ladies. (Yeah, I know, but it’s true.) And female gamers noticed.* I have no idea of the demographics of this series’s audience, but anecdotally I know a lot of ladies who love them some DMC. When a game like this is done right, nearly everyone gets to have fun.

And the first trailer for the game, with its strategically-placed slice of pizza, hinted that the “fun for all” paradigm of the series was still intact. The new Dante’s not as hot as he used to be, but the gameplay per the demo was just as fun as before, the level designs looked imaginative and almost baroque in their beauty, and the rebooted story sounded a bit silly — but it was silly before. The silly was part of the fun.

But then I saw this marketing poster for the game. And I’m like, are you shitting me?

It’s more than just the ridiculous butt-shots of the women in this image, complete with translucent boy shorts. It’s the contempt and humiliation in the way this is arranged — contempt on the part of Dante, a character who until lately has treated the women around him like people and not props; and humiliation on the part of the women. They’re groveling at his feet, clinging to him slavishly, even as he pantomimes shooting one of them in the face with his oh-so-phallic finger. Because women getting shot by their sexual partners is soooo hot and edgy, don’tcha know.

This poster means something’s changed about the series. I’m no longer sure if it’s going to be the “fun for all” actionfest it used to be, and which I was so anticipating. You don’t market a game this way when you want everyone to play it; you market it this way when you want men to play and women to stay the fuck away. I can see that the new development team is hoping to bring a newer, cooler aesthetic to the series… but misogyny isn’t new or cool, and seeing this is really making me regret having preordered the game. Now instead of booting it up in eager anticipation, I’ll be inwardly cringing as I play, braced for that first sexist slap in the face.

Well, I haven’t unwrapped it yet. I’ll wait ’til I see some feminist reviews before I do. If my fears turn out to be correct, maybe I can return it. If not, I guess I’ll find something else to do with it.

Cat looking disinterestedly at DmC.

Besame Mucho: I don’t care how much catnip you smear on that wrapper, I don’t want it.

Meanwhile I’ve been playing Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. When I first started playing a couple of months ago, it worked well as pleasant stress relief. Despite the dire warnings of other Skyrim fans, it didn’t become a time sink, mostly because it’s not my kind of game. I like RPGs, but I prefer those with an interesting plot and complex characterization — features that Skyrim lacks entirely. Skyrim is, however, an awesome sandbox game, with an absolutely enormous gameworld in which to wander freely and kill things or maybe just look at the scenery. I’ve mostly done the latter, and found it a great way to relax before bedtime. (Reminds me of another favorite game in this way: Shadow of the Colossus American style.)

But recently I decided to try engaging with the game’s very thin plot, despite its tiresome “chosen one” trope and the utter lack of relevant stakes for my character. I’ve been playing as a Redguard — that’s the black people, though they have straight hair** and pretty much the same morphological features as the other races — a foreigner in a land caught up in a civil war. All the NPCs are obsessed with the war and its two factions, but my character has no background, no family, no reason for even being in Skyrim other than plot convenience, so I haven’t bothered to side with either faction and for the most part don’t care what they do as long as they don’t get in my way. It doesn’t help that one side consists of paternalistic colonizers who’ve happily wiped out the indigenous culture and are trying to suppress the (subsequent) local religion, while the other side are ethnic supremacists. Also it turns out that my character is the embodiment of an ancient Nord legend — Nords being one of several flavors of white people in the game, this one clearly meant to reference ancient Scandinavian peoples — which, since my character’s not a Nord, apparently means she’s got “the heart of a Nord”. Yay, my black person gets to be an honorary white person. I’m all aflutter.

This is a minor irritation. It’s obvious the game developers didn’t think much about how the characters in their fantasy nation would logically react to having a dark-skinned foreigner and a woman — and this is definitely a patriarchial, nationalistic, xenophobic culture — as their much-lauded savior. I don’t think the developers thought much about the characterization for this game at all, let alone on a level that acknowledges the impacts of race and gender and other socioeconomic factors, and their intersections, on worldbuilding. But here’s what’s irritating: the game pays lip service to these issues, even though it doesn’t engage with them on a deeper level. NPCs definitely notice that my character is black. I got very, very sick of the guards in every town saying things like, “Stay out of trouble, Redguard” in passing — and WTF was up with the constant smirking comments about the “curved swords” of Redguard men? This doesn’t happen for characters of other races, as far as I can tell; when the NPCs speak to each other I don’t notice them addressing each other as “Imperial” or “Breton” or “Nord” (the three other human races, which are pale-skinned), or making veiled jokes about another group’s genitalia. NPCs also notice that my character is a woman: I have no idea if this happens for male player characters, but it feels like every other female NPC I meet immediately starts telling me how nice it is to meet a woman and what it’s like to be a woman in Skyrim. (Because what else do women talk about?) The game does make it clear that Skyrim’s perfectly fine with women as fighters and guards and lumber-millers and such, but it’s also clear that these women are exceptional, or perhaps forced into these roles by the fact that the men are off at war; most women in this world are homemakers. Yet no one bats an eyelash when their Nord ubermensch — and this is mensch in the non-Yiddish sense; every other “Dragonborn” mentioned in the game has been male — turns out to be a black woman.

So the game addresses race and gender on a superficial level, but there’s no acknowledgement of what these things mean in a race-obsessed, heavily gendered setting. It simply doesn’t make sense for them to mean nothing — unless you figure the developers just weren’t that interested in incorporating realistic sociology into their game. To a degree I don’t blame them for that; they probably didn’t have time to study both programming and social science in school. Also, I’m guessing they didn’t want their game to feel chock full o’ bigotry, because not many people think that’s fun.

But here’s the problem: beneath this airy, we-can-all-just-get-along surface are solidly bigoted bones. And the developers’ failure to address this stuff on the surface level just makes the deep-rooted ick that much more noticeable.

Because they really, really like their racial essentialism, in this game. In the world in which Skyrim takes place, all black people are really, really athletic. “Natural warriors,” even.*** This kind of blanket attribution gets done to the three white races too, note; Nords are also naturally good warriors, and further they’re naturally cold-tolerant. The latter trait actually makes a bit of microevolutionary sense given that they come from a tundra climate and probably wouldn’t live long if they couldn’t handle cold well, although that stops making sense when you realize the game is talking about magical-blast-of-ice-level cold, not climate tolerance. But what are we to make of the fact that all Redguards have a near-magical “Adrenaline Rush” ability that makes them turn Michael Jordan for a few minutes? And where’s the microevolutionary sense in their innate propensity to be good physical fighters and “quick of foot”? Do they come from a land where everyone from infants to adults fights at the drop of a hat, and sprints or plays basketball in between life-and-death struggles? What else could possibly make them biologically predisposed towards violence and being good at sports?

It used to be worse, I’m told — earlier iterations of the Elder Scrolls series framed the Redguards as good warriors but incapable of using magic or diplomacy. That’s because using magic relied on stats for Intelligence and Willpower, and diplomacy relied on Personality, in all of which Redguards automatically got a -10 penalty. So in other words, they were strong and fast, but too dumb and weak-willed and boorish to be anything but warriors. The developers only stopped doing this when fans basically begged them to stop being racist (and trigger warning for a bingo card’s worth of racism apology at that link from other fans). But Skyrim, the latest entry in the series, did in fact drop the Redguard intelligence penalty, so I guess they thought about it. Maybe.

Yeah, I get that all this comes from Dungeons & Dragons, which literally wrote the book on using racial essentialism as a game mechanic and is pretty much the father of all American RPGs. But there comes a point in every genre in which the people creating current material should see the flaws in What Came Before, and not replicate those flaws entire. Maybe the Skyrim developers did see it; the Nords got an intelligence penalty too, though this feels to me like a half-assed attempt to say “It’s not racist because look; white people too!” But the Nords are one of three white races; the others are the Romanesque Imperials and the Frenchified Bretons, the latter of whom are supposed to be the distant descendants of Nords raped by elves. (Because, in true essentialist fashion, one of the elven subgroups consists of innately eugenics-obsessed supremacist assholes. I’m not even going to touch on the essentialism applied to the non-humans in this game series.) So within the game world we can point to other white ethnic groups which aren’t inherently stupid, but we have no such luxury with the Redguards.

Oh! Also! The Redguards don’t derive from the same ancestral root as the other humans of this world. I guess they appeared via some kind of parallel evolution, maybe from a subhuman offshoot of the other three races. Like… some kind of missing link.

::sigh::

Yes, there are cultures in the real world that encourage certain behaviors and adaptive traits. Skyrim doesn’t frame these things as cultural or behavioral, though. The player is never introduced to the exceptions — because there aren’t any, as far as I can tell. The stereotypes are never challenged or shown to be false. There are no background stories to explain why the Bretons are biologically predisposed (-5!) to dislike Redguards on sight, or why even Khajit who’ve lived in Skyrim for all of their lives still speak with a faux “gypsy” accent. All of these things, in Skyrim, are inborn and incontrovertible. The core assumption of this game is that people aren’t people — that is, unique and individual and dynamic. In this game people are objects, absolutes, stereotypes, caricatures. Not real people at all.

I didn’t realize all this at first, note. I was just merrily playing along, not really thinking about the stats I’d seen during the character creation phase, offing dragons and buying real estate. But the more I interacted with the characters of this game, the more I caught hints of these built-in assumptions and essentials, and gradually that made me uncomfortable. So I started digging, and that’s when I realized what was so hinky about this game. The problem with Skyrim is that it purports to deliver only harmless fantastic bigotry, the kind of surface stuff that rarely offends anyone — but beneath that surface it’s teeming with unquestioned, deliberately-replicated, real-world stereotypes and contempt.

So I’m sending Skyrim back to GameFly, and I’m leaving DmC in Besame Mucho’s capable paws while I research it, and in the meantime I’m gonna go back to playing Dragon Age (which isn’t perfect either, but at least isn’t rage-inducingly bad). Or something else. Suggestions welcome — just please make sure it’s not something I’m going to want to throw across the room? My walls thank you.


Just a reminder to all — this blog is on permanent moderation. Frequent commenters’ replies will appear immediately, but newbies sit in queue until I can approve them. Since I tend to get more abusive flak when I talk about games than any other subject — seriously — it seems appropriate to mention this again now.

ETA: Realized a) how freaking huge that DmC marketing poster was, and b) that I might be sending undue amounts of traffic to somebody else’s server for that very large image; d’oh. Dl’ed and posted the image here myself. Also, minor edits for clarity.


* For this and other female-gaze-friendly eye candy, visit Virus AC74’s Deviantart page!

** Dear game developers: please program in some curly hair. It’s not that motherfucking hard; you’re just not trying. No love, Nora.

*** I am carefully restraining my eyeroll until the end of the paragraph, where I make my point.

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54 Responses »

  1. Stick with Dragon Age. Solidarity, sister! And when I get to DA2, you can play that along with me too :D I don’t anticipate wanting to play anything else for a while. In fact, I don’t anticipate wanting to play DA2 right away, as I’ll want to replay DA:O now that I know what I’m doing (and what a PBJ Alistair is). And then I’ll want to play it as a dude and romance Zevran.

    Seriously, there are so few games that I enjoy anymore. It may be part of what’s spurred the DA obsessyface -_- It feels like everything is either big-guns-and-big-boobs or some Lego variant on a theme 9_9

  2. Minecraft is a fun sandbox game. I’m not good with RPGs, last one I really loved was Legend of the Dragoon.

  3. I highly recommend The Walking Dead game (http://www.telltalegames.com/walkingdead). It’s just incredibly well-done, including the way they handled race. I don’t know if it was just my experience but it seemed like they really “got” the subtle racial dynamics of the group. And that’s on top of having a Black man and a young Black/biracial girl as the main characters in the first place.

    On the other hand, it’s very intense and not at all relaxing, so it might not necessarily fit what you’re looking for.

  4. “This poster means something’s changed about the series.”

    I would have expected you, as an author, to be able to divorce marketing from art. Something has arguably changed about how the series is being presented and promoted, but a poster that is not from any scene within the game is not indicative of the work the team put into that game.

  5. Why is it so hard for them to make non-faily games? WHY?

    [okay, okay, rhetorical question, sort of]

  6. Seconding Kate Elliott’s rhetorical question.

    I like DAO and Mass Effect. Although DA2 weirds me out with its treatment of the qunari. Skyrim… you’ve just put your finger on what’s been bothering me about Skyrim for a good long while without being able to actually *articulate* it in words.

  7. Katchan,

    Good, then I can catch up to you. :)

  8. Jen, Deep Seed, thanks for the recs!

  9. Zatty,

    I, as an author, am utterly depending on marketing for my livelihood, so it’s pretty silly of you to say that one has nothing to do with the other. And if the poster’s not indicative of the game, then the creators should probably say something about that. I certainly would (and have), if I didn’t like the way one of my books was being marketed.

  10. Liz,

    DA2 edges close to treating the Qunari as noble savages, yes (although I think DA:O was worse in that regard; at least in DA2 we saw many Qunari including dissenters and believers with different interpretations). Or did you mean something else?

  11. Boo! Hiss! in advance to all the cave-nerds who use the D&D “legacy” excuse to justify video game racism/sexism/etc in response to your column. The “realism” excuse is also annoying. May the universe steer them away from your inbox whenever possible.

  12. Kate, yeah. ::sigh:: I just wanna blow up shit and explore magical realms without getting slapped in the face. Is that so much to ask?

  13. I’m uncomfortable with the redesign elements and certain aspects of how the dominant qunari philosophy is/not integrated into what seems to be the social structure, although less so the latter.

    The more prominent horns discomfit me, for example. Sten in DAO was Large Green Person, not Strange Horned Person – it seems to add a needless element of fantasy exoticising to the one not-mapped-to-Europe powerful culture whose representatives we have a direct interaction with.

  14. I don’t have any other great suggestions right now. I picked up Ni No Kuni and played it this weekend, excited enough by a Studio Ghibli game to pay full price. But so far, 15-20 hours in, the only character of color to show up was infected with bad magic that turned him in to a wife abuser.

    Luckily, the protagonist, a young white boy, was able to fight off the bad magic and make the abuser kinder. Then his wife (who stuck this whole episode out with him and brought him sandwiches every day) hugged him and his daughter came out of hiding in his room and all was good in the world again. And I quit the game.

  15. Liz,

    Huh — yeah, I can see that, and I also would’ve liked to see more of a fantasy non-European presence in the game (I really want to know more about the Rivaini). But I kind of thought the Qunari were treated as more of an Exotic Other in the first game, because of Sten’s humanlike appearance. He looked so human that at first I thought his people were just some kind of made-up human ethnic group, instead of an actual different species. Then as it became clear that the Qunari were meant to evoke Muslims — this is a world in which the fantasy version of the Crusades is still in progress, and the Chantry is obviously the Christian analogue — I wondered if Sten’s appearance was supposed to be some kind of veiled racist insult. Didn’t help that he was the only Qunari we met, for one; automatic token. And he was literally incomprehensible, with frightening, bizarre alien beliefs; for awhile I thought his weird reaction to women and his comment about cutting out the tongues of mages was meant to be some kind of roundabout commentary on female genital circumcision.

    So I was glad they made the kossith less human because it established clearly that they weren’t some kind of Muslim caricature. Especially given that we learned enough about the Qun in the second game to realize it’s nothing like Islam.

    Also, I thought the kossith’s non-humanness (I don’t want to use “inhumanity”, too loaded) emphasized the real diversity of the Qun because we were shown Qunari who were kossith and elves and (briefly, ’til the Andrasteans killed him) human, all voluntarily joining up. It’s one of the things that made me more sympathetic toward the Arishok over the course of the game, because by contrast the all-human Chantry’s treatment of the non-humans in its midst (the elves) was even more revolting. Always pissed me off that “join the Qun” wasn’t an option in DA2. …Granted, that probably would’ve ended the game right there.

  16. If it turns out it’s a bad deal, there are always three options:

    1) Sell it online.
    2) Send it back.
    3) Find a friend with some form of medieval weaponry and use the disk for target practice.

  17. I’m rounding up supporters in Denerim. I suspect there’s not a *whole* lot left after the Landsmeet?

    I do dig on Sten; he’s got an awesome sense of humour, and he calls me “kadan”, which he affords no one else (then again, I’ve got him hepped up on sugar cakes, so who knows). I didn’t know the Qunari feature more in DA2. I look forward to that!!

  18. I’m hardly a gamer, having spent time with only two games over about 25 years, and I’ve been wondering for some time just who the gamers are and who the games are made for. The designers may think they’re made for (nearly) everyone, but judging from this report there’s still some bias toward whites and males. That happens to be what I am, but I hardly think the real world consists only of my type, nor do I really want a game world that’s monolithic in terms of character types, power structures, and attitudes.

    I’ve got a friend who has spent some time in Skyrim. I’m going to route this to him and see if he was aware of the dimensions that N.K. reports on. (Yes, he’s another white guy.)

    Thanks for this commentary. It was eye-opening. Next year, when the New York Times does a year-end wrap-up of games, maybe you should be one of the commentators. If you want to check the 2012 columns, see http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/category/game-theory/. One of the pieces, at http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/25/game-theory-making-room-for-the-women/, addresses women as gamers, but there’s little or nothing on race.

  19. Marcella,

    That’s… really disappointing. On the other hand, Studio Ghibli’s been going through some stuff lately. Ever since they let Miyazaki’s son mangle Le Guin’s Earthsea, I don’t know what to think of them anymore.

  20. I used to love to play the Tomb Raider games, which — despite the code that turned on ‘bouncing boob mode’ — never offended me. Lara Croft wasn’t perfect, but it was a puzzle game, not an RPG, and she pretty much shot everyone she met, so there wasn’t an opportunity for a lot of misogynistic interactions, despite the short-shorts. On the whole, I liked Lara.

    A friends tells me that the recent TR release is a _prequel_ to the previous games.

    a) prequels are a sketchy business to begin with — where’s the tension? I know who lived and died already.

    But also b) the game designers used the ‘prequel’ timeline to present a Lara who is new to the world of mercenary grave-robbing, and therefore not as good at it. She gets beat up in the cut scenes; she’s close to being incompetent. Additionally, the sound effects are… off. My friend’s wife once came into the room to find out what was going on, because the audio track of Lara getting beat up sounded just like porn.

    SO DISAPPOINTING.

  21. @John Branch – You might be interested in following this Kickstarter project (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/566429325/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games) by Anita Sarkeesian. It’s not just the project itself I think you should read up on but the reaction to the project. Make sure that you read all the project updates, particularly the first few. Let’s just say that there are a lot of people out there who are threatened by anyone pointing out the (unfortunately many) biases and -ism’s that exist in the gamer world.

  22. I play pencil and paper role-playing games and when playing WoD’s Old Werewolf game it was pretty ridiculous the number of times we had to say, ‘Wait, house rule, we’re not doing that because it’s racist’ or ‘Hang on, house rule, that mechanic’s going away because it’s really sexist’. We had to half make up a homebrew system to delete the most obviously problematic stuff from the game. I grew up playing AD&D 2nd Edn which is pretty much the worst for it, but you’re right, newer games should be fixing where D&D went wrong rather than just replicating it.

  23. Point. I still have trouble separating my trouble with various elements of DA2 from my overall disappointment with its endgame, so I may have to go back and think more and reconsider.

  24. Katchan,

    You’re not supposed to read these comments on DA2! You’ll spoil it. :)

    Yep, the Qunari are a huge plot element in the second game, and you get to meet the Arishok who sent Sten (or rather, the Sten you meet in DA1) to Ferelden.

    After the Landsmeet you still have to deal with the darkspawn. :)

  25. Unfortunately, I don’t have many gaming suggestions. The last game I played was Minecraft–I was annoyed that there are no female skins for the miner, but I do agree it’s a pretty fun sandbox game.

    Mostly, I wanted to second your call for curly hair!

  26. Hi,
    I don’t play games, I’ve never played an RPG, and I’m not even sure if it’s appropriate to point this out here, but I have to say that colors in Japanese anime or games shouldn’t be discussed in the same way as you do in America. I guess in the Ni No Kuni game, they look white, they *are* white, but at the same time they *aren’t*. I know it sounds crazy, but this is very complicated to explain. Though I hated the Earthsea film by Miyazaki junior!
    Sorry to interrupt!

  27. Video games with few race issues? I’d suggest Demons/Dark Souls. You can make your protagonist anything you want: male or female, old or young, any skin tone, facial features, weight – there are sliders for all of it. What’s more increasing the character’s size doesn’t just plump up a female character’s breasts and a male character’s muscles – you can actually play a knight/wizard/thief/etc. with large amounts of visible body fat who is also the hero who saves the world. I was thrilled.

    Also, they’re amazing games.

  28. I really like World of Warcraft and the fact that all the races have histories that play into the choices they make and the passive traits/resistances they’re granted, though I’m well aware of the many racial issues it has.

    Sometimes I wonder if their attempts to diversify – like making the Dranei to be the “black race” (and then downplaying it by making them glowey blue, and look! we put them on the Alliance side, that makes them Good Guys!) and the Taurens as some kind of American Indian-type race (complete with the bow to the bovine/buffalo god thing) – make it worse.

    Bottom line, though; really fun gameplay. Especially with a good guild. And I don’t care whether you’re Alliance or Horde (except, you know, FOR THE HORDE!), it doesn’t get cuter than baby murlocks.

  29. First I wanna say I love your books and that you’re a beautiful person. Second, I have to defend my fav game series Elder Scrolls as represented by skyrim. When I first played rpg games I wondered why some races had intelligence hits and str boosts that were additively unfair. +4 str for Orcs, -4 Charisma and -2 Intel, while Elves and Dwarfs had a much more balanced penalty system. This is because these characters are really good at something, and their really good at something justifies a harsher penalty because they will be tearing it up with much more easy and more reliably than any of their allies who have to rely on spells, rest, and preparation.

    When I first played Morrowind, Elder scrolls 3, i saw the penalties for Redguards but played them anyway. It turns out intelligence and willpower don’t mean the same thing they do in our world or even in the D&D world. An intelligence bonus doesnt make your character speak gibberish. Nor does it make your character cast stronger spells. It just means they have more maximum mana… which is okay, but not a great advantage. Redguards are probably the strongest race in EVERY Skyrim game. Best useful stats, best daily power, good from early to late game, which most of the other races can’t claim.

    Intelligence or Willpower is really just a loose association. If you read the backstory of the Redguard it turns out they were a way too powerful people. Their perfect blend of mind and body, physical and mental focus turned them into the perfect military people. They destroyed their rival elven brothers, and even managed to perfect their martial arts to the point that they destroyed their homeland. Its over the top, but that’s how Redguard roll,(sounds silly I know)we take names and cut off heads and we are so good at it we have no one to blame but ourselves when we end up sinking our home continent and destroying another indigenous people. In a way the Redguard are the ultimate form of the non-redguard humans and what happens after the elves purge the other races from their homeland. Terribly gifted and without any real competition.

    I’ve spent too much on this, but that’s because I like your writing and so it sort of translates into trusting your judgement, but I feel you are very wrong in this case. While its true the Redguard, Orcs and the beast races are kind of lumped together as other, also because they are powerful. Where the other human races except Bretons (they are mixed) get relatively useless gifts, and the elves have useless powers with one race having an extremely heavy penalty, the beast races have powerful abilities mixed with powerful passives and no weaknesses.

    As for racism Skyrim isn’t particularly racist against Redguard. Its more like- if you aren’t Nord, the Nords will comment on it. Thats it. I played as a Dunmer, who are arguably the strongest African representatives in the game, but even they don’t receive much criticism except from Nords. And yes, while Nords are the most populous race in the game, there was a game before where Dunmer were the most populous and they were very, very open about their hatred of Imperials and Nords, so in reality things could have been a lot worse, but they aren’t even close. The Nords are anti everyone else because they want Skyrim for the Nords… because they aren’t thinking clearly about the threat posed by the very powerful Elven Empire. Their leader was deliberately cultivated to foment disruption throughout the empire to make it an easier target for invasion.

    Yikes, what I’m saying is the race stuff is not a big deal. Red guard and Orcs are powerful. What meager penalties they receive don’t offset the fact that they level higher and hit hard, more often, and have powerful perks that make a slightly lower and poorly labeled intelligence stat negligible.

    But I will say you might have a point about the woman stuff. Playing as a male character people only comment on your status, your achievements, your prowess, but as a woman character, often NPCs will comment on your womaness as if it were an achievement too. I did not think of it before, but I did notice that no matter what your character looks like every NPC considers her spectacularly beautiful. Hmm, so I will concede the sexist qualifier, after all, in canon, every hero is a indeterminate raced male, and never a woman, but I find it hard to believe the Elder Scrolls are racist, and even where it appears to be racist, the truth is the benefit is actually the target of supposed racist idea. Redguards are badass, Orcs are badass, Argonians and Khajit, not as badass, but skills never get old. As for the nords? Boring… and not as good as redguard, Imperial? Boring, Breton? Too defensive and only shine as mage fighters… which are fewer than other types of enemies…

    Sigh… sorry for blowing up your wall, but Skyrim is a good game aside from its lack of story and yes, sexism. But the truth is the sexism isn’t a big part of the game. Its there because in a male dominated world, other women are pleased to see a powerful warrior. There is an in game song of a woman who kills a dude for making too much noise in her bar and being too full of himself. Women are powerful, but its rare in this world, but thats because its a world full of male criminals and crazy death cults. But if you get right down to it, the most powerful figures in the game are mostly women… the most important gods, the active guild faction leaders. The men hold office, but they get killed off. Women run the world, the Mirabelles, Ravencrones, the powerful Hagwitches, Azura, Nocturnal, the list goes on. The male faction leaders arent even distinguishable for the most part. Oh well… love your books, keep up the good work.

    And Dragon Age 2 was ok story wise, … but far more sexism pandering, and racist (qunari, elves vs humans), and culturally demeaning (why does blood magic make you bad? are people with swords automatically bad? Or people with cross bows? Nope… only magic… very confusing). Skyrim has its downs, but I think Dragon age is still an inferior product in terms of racism/sexism/cultural derision.

  30. Oh, also Redguard traditionally have curly hair, but for Skyrim they come from the desert. Every Elderscroll game they mod non-core peoples to another part of the continent. In ES 3 and ES 4 Redguard had curly hair. IN ES 5 the red guards come from a desert climate and they hair changed to be more like real world Arab peoples. The curved swords were added to strengthen that connection.

    The same game to game modification happens to Khajit. First ES game they looked like elves with hair. Then in two, they looked more like humanoid furries. In ES 3 like house cats, in ES 4 like lynxs and bobcats, and in ES 5 skyrim, more like lions and tigers. Strange huh? Lol… sigh. I need to take sleeping pills…

  31. Let me try to defend, in a very narrow scope, at least one small part of the skyrim equation. To be clear, there is no defense to be mounted against the racial essentialism; It’s a legacy in RPGs left over from DnD as you mentioned and it clearly needs to be put out of its misery, sooner rather than later. Rather, just wanted to make a few lore comments, simply because the way the Elder Scrolls series do info dumps about their setting is fairly unique in video games and one I quite like, despite the other flaws with the series.

    All the in-game books are, to a certain extent, real books, written from a (almost entirely) in-game perspective. This, combined with the books available in previous games (a large number of which are reprinted in each subsequent game so the in-game book totals climb each addition to the series), are your primary entry into the lore of the world. To learn more about why things are the way they are you’re best bet is to find a library, grab some books, sit down and read. And read. And read some more. You can see here a picture of the result of when someone printed out all the books on normal-sized pages from the previous game in the series, Oblivion (http://www.geekosystem.com/oblivion-books-bound-real-life/). Another person has released a kindle version containing all books available in Skyrim and it clocks in at something like 500 pages (Trying some rough math with the amount of locations in the file as compared to another book where I can see both the locations and know the number of pages…).

    This is done as a sort of self-selection for how much you care about the world around you. If you want to just go bash trolls with a hammer, you don’t have to listen to any dialogue telling you about events that don’t concern you. And if you are so filled with interest in the setting you would sit down and read books about it…well…you can sit down and read books about it. Though even that isn’t perfect because of how they are written in-world, so you will have authors whose versions of history contradict each other, and authors who write books specifically in response to other books that were written previously that you can find elsewhere. There are rarer books you can find that reveal great secrets and very common, mass-produced books that exclaim how great the great lord who obviously commissioned the book actually is. And there are some books that are just for entertainment, such as a book of riddles with the answers printed in that style where you have to hold the book up to the mirror to see it, fiction books, and excerpts of plays. Having all that in-game literature really is something quite unique. No game I have ever played has tried to convey the mass of literature available to those in the world like the elder scrolls series, probably for a very good reason: It’s easy to miss, adds a lot of work, and most people don’t care either way.

    Anyway, this ties back into one off-handed comment you made, about not being told why Bretons in game have a negative relationship with Redguards (and visa versa). The answer lies in the War of Betony, a small-ish conflict that happened roughly 230 years before the events in Skyrim. A there was a dispute between a Redguard kingdom and a Breton kingdom over an island thanks to competing claims, and after some battles, eventually the Redguard kingdom surrendered it’s claim and it passed into Breton hands. This was part of an earlier game, and unfortunately I don’t think any of the books describing it survive into Skyrim, but there were two books describing it available, one by a Breton author and one by a Redguard author, both of which claim to be a true account and that the other accounts are a pack of lies by those who want to control history!

    The point to ALL of this? There are some really cool things done in regards to the subjectivity of history, narratively, as well as some cool things done with the presentation of setting, meta-narratively. And it’s a darn shame that those were ruined for you by the developers being knuckleheads and being unable to overcome their privileged assumptions when crafting their world.

  32. Astronomenon,

    …Whoa. I’ll try to address some of your points, but not all of them, because I got a book to write.

    First, I want to point out that there’s no need for you to “defend” your favorite game. It’s obvious Skyrim isn’t hurting any for the opinions of people like me, not the least because I’ve only recently gotten around to playing the thing; but more importantly, the way that I choose to engage with my gaming (by analyzing it) is not the way that everyone games, I know. If it makes you more comfortable to simply ignore or rationalize the flaws I’ve been pointing out, then fine. Everybody copes with bigotry in their own way.

    For me, though — dude/ette, seriously? Intelligence doesn’t really mean intelligence? Willpower doesn’t really mean willpower? Then why did they use those words to name these stats? Words have meanings. If Intelligence really just means “ability to do magic”, then why didn’t they just name the stat “magic”? Other games have done so. When you use a word like “intelligence” it has specific baggage attached to it — especially with respect to race. Frankly if the developers didn’t intend for it to be taken that way, they’re not very smart — and since this game is brilliant in so many other ways, they’re obviously not stupid people. So I can only assume that their choice of a loaded word like “intelligence”, and their decision to apply it differently across races, was intentional, and motivated by some either unexamined or very conscious racist assumptions.

    I can’t tell whether the stuff you’re saying about the Redguards being historically “too powerful” and needing to be taken down (by whom? the gods? the elves? the developers, I assume) is something canonical or a rationalization on your part. In what game were they too powerful? I did read quite a bit of the in-game text — this is partly what made me gradually notice the racial essentialism — but I don’t recall seeing that. Or is that something the developers have said in response to player complaints about the Redguard stats? Regardless, if it’s canonical it’s still a problem, because it fits in with the history of women and people of color being depowered in speculative media.

    If they had curly hair in previous games, I don’t understand why that option was removed in this game, with its assumably improved graphics. Was there some problem with the curly hair? Or was that too part of their “depowering”, somehow? Shades of Samson.

    It’s nice that you’re willing to concede I might be right about “the woman stuff.” The things you’re talking about aren’t what I was talking about, but thanks for pointing them out.

    Re your comments about Dragon Age 2 — could you explain? I’ve talked elsewhere about those games and what I felt they did right and wrong. There are no intra-human racial statistics in that game (e.g., the Rivaini don’t have lower willpower than the Fereldans) and they don’t use loaded words like “intelligence” (it’s “magic”) for stats. There is a degree of racial essentialism in the game, but it’s offset by the fact that we’re given a close look at the exceptions to the “rules”. We’re told the Rivaini are very religious, for example, but the two Rivaini we actually meet include Duncan, who doesn’t appear to be any more religious than the average Andrastean, and Isabela, who’s very much not religious, and whose background makes it clear that the Rivaini are actually far more diverse than the game’s text implies. We’re told the Tevinters are decadent mage supremacists, but then we play Fenris, who — aside from a taste for good wine — definitely isn’t. The Qunari (who aren’t a race, but since you mentioned them) are framed as religious fanatics, but in the second game it’s the Andrasteans who commit terrorist acts; the Arishok is quite reasonable, all things considered. And we meet Tallis, who’s just as devout as the Arishok but expresses it in a completely different way.

    So I don’t see that game as being more racist than Skyrim, or even more than marginally racist in itself. I would like to have seen more variation amongst the humans — and fucking curly hair — but on the whole I was satisfied with the way race (and gender, actually) was handled in that series. So please explain.

  33. SineNomine,

    As I mentioned to Astronomenon, I did read quite a bit of the game’s text as I played — I earned the “Reader” Achievement fairly early on. And that is partly what helped me realize that the strange behaviors and depictions of the characters were part of an intentional campaign of racial essentialism. Beyond some initial WTF at the “natural warriors” crap re the Redguards I didn’t notice it at first. But then I read some of the in-game books that described Bretons, etc., as if each were a monolith, and I realized the game was actually trying to portray them that way. I’m okay with in-game text working the way real-world text does — I agree, historians often show their bias by subjectively characterizing and stereotyping entire groups of people. And those stereotypes usually turn out to be bullshit upon real-world examination. But that didn’t happen here. The stereotypes were real, and programmed in.

    ETA: Also, a -5 predisposition on the part of Bretons to hate Redguards is still racial essentialism; you can’t explain that with history. All Bretons know this history, from the uneducated to the most learned? All of them feel this hate, even if they’re the forgiving sort, or even if they were raised apart from other Bretons? That’s what that stat means — it’s not just a matter of culture and choice, but it’s something coded into the Breton identity, as genetic as their skill with magic. That’s the danger of essentialism; it treats people like they’re not normal human beings with free will and the ability to think critically; in this case they’re robots, biologically programmed to hate.

  34. yukimi,

    You’re right to point out that race in anime/manga/Japanese games definitely doesn’t work the way Americans tend to see it. I usually assume the characters are Japanese unless stated otherwise, or unless they’re clearly marked with “Western” names or something like that. I haven’t played Ni no Kuni yet, so I’ll check it out soon.

  35. Thanks.

    I went to their website and found out the main character was named something like Oliver. But I still think he’s Japanese and not Japanese at the same time. They are just “game” people. When half the characters are non-human, I (as a Japanese) don’t see much point in duscussing the race anyway.

  36. A comment on the dopey poster from DmC. I don’t think you’re taking into account the standing battle that exists in most businesses between “creative” and “marketing.” Generally, the creatives think the marketing people are a bunch of money-corrupted amoral sleazoids, while the marketers think the creatives are a bunch of coddled innocents who don’t understand that it’s all about the money and “sex sells.”

    I’m sure Zatty’s comment above comes from the fact that, like me, he has bought many SF/fantasy books in which the cover is either ludicrously sexed up or has little to do with the actual story. Sometimes even the title has nothing to do with the story (see Charles Stross’s Singularity Sky – apparently, at the time, the publisher believed “singularity sells.”)

    Anyway, I’d try playing the game (DmC) before making up your mind about it. Marketing of anything is almost always disgusting in one way or another.

  37. hector,

    If we continue to support the things that make us angry, or say nothing about why they make us angry, how can we reasonably expect those things to change?

  38. I suggest you try out some tabletop RPGs. They’re fun because as players you decide how things work and play out. Plus, the racism isn’t as bad in games like Pathfinder where they fixed the Drow. Race is literally, Elves, Orc, Dwarves etc, and skin color plays no part, for stuff like Pathfinder. Heck, one thin I love as a black queer woman, is that a signature character is a black lesbian paladin.

    Then you have games like WoD that do a lot of stuff right, and don’t do a lot of stuff wrong.

    Though my favorite, is Exalted. This is a secondary world sandbox tabletop RPG. The cultures range from Egyptian to Aztec. Is there a Europe, sort of, it’s a really small area of islands. The majority of characters are PoC. The past ruler of the world was a woman who. Never married, and the throne is being fought over by her daughters. Which are a. Highly skilled general b. A powerful sorceress and c. A daughter who rebelled and started her own legion. You have queer people being highly shown. In one setting, they mention a culture of gender queer/ trans people. In said comic before that section, they show a merchant from another city meet one of these women, and scream how they’re a freak for portending to be one. While her bodyguard takes out a huge ass sword and threatens the guy to disrespect his mistress one more time. Overall, the game’s world is amazing.

  39. MistressHattrix,

    Other people have rec’d the Pathfinder games to me, and I’m willing to try them, but I honestly don’t have the time to do tabletop RPGing anymore. And very few of my friends have time for it, either. :( Thanks, though!

  40. John Branch,

    Sorry for not replying sooner; needed some time to go off and read those links.

    Sure, I’d be happy to do something for the NYT, if you know someone there who’d let me do it. Though I don’t know how that would work with my propensity to play games a year or more after they come out and are actually popular. -_- That said, there are a number of female game bloggers and analysts out there already who do this stuff in a more timely fashion; maybe they’d be a better match for the Times. All things considered, I’m just Jane Random Gamer, no different from the other few million of us.

  41. @yukimi:

    I just wanted to ask you to expand on the „what looks like a white person to you is a POC in Japan“ but I’m not so sure after I read your second comment.

    The name Oliver (he lives in Motorville and his mother’s name is Allie) clearly links him to the real (and „western“) world (otherwise he could have gotten a name that does not exist in the real world like „Voradi“ or whatever). Saying that this is just a random name (and that he is(n’t) in fact Japanese?) is the same hollow logic as „Intelligence“ is not „inteligence“ a few comments up. And if there are no races in that game why are some people blonde but not so many are dark-skinned? Why isn’t Oliver dark-skinned? Or is he for Japanese eyes? I feel like this is just another movie, sorry, a game this time around set in Ghibli’s unrealistic European fantasy world where there are no POC whatsoever (and not even a female lead, sigh).

    And though I’d be really interested to learn that I’m wrong I still feel that Ghibli whitewashed Earthea (it’s taking place in the same Ghibli-Europe!). If a character’s skin is described as „brown“ or „bronce“ or whatever in the book and the skintone is clearly everything but this color in the movie what else could it be? Even if for a Japanese audience a little darker than white would seem much darker then it’ll look for a western audience it’s whitewashing.

    While watching Detective Dee (yes, not a Japanese movie, I know) a few weeks ago I realized that the evil, stupid, brutish baddies had a much darker skincolor then the radiant heros and I can’t help but feel that there’s the same old racism (blonde beauty, evil black guys) going on. What do I want to say with this? I forgot.

    Anyway, Dark Souls is an awesome Game though it’ll cause lots of stress it’s nothing for causual gaming. I also loved Telltales The Walkin Dead.

  42. I think it’s important to note that different people will see games (and any other media) in different ways, and not just in surface detail. If we think about it in terms of implicit assumptions, it’s entirely possible that the same game could, when taken in by someone who grew up in North America, play a role in maintaining implicit assumptions about persons of colour, while not playing any such role for someone who grew up in Japan. Even apart from skin tone, which body parts are considered sexual, what clothing is considered revealing, and what cues we use to assess wealth, status, or intelligence differ from culture to culture.

    None of this means that Japanese games (or Korean games, or Indian literature, or German movies, or…) are automatically free from racism or sexism, simply that the criteria for judging this may be different from culture to culture.

    At the end of the day, though, I have to make my own decisions about what media I consume, and what that is doing to my mental space. While knowing more about other cultures and their context can only help, ultimately I can only decide what will be positive for me based how *I* contextualize things.

  43. I hate to use somebody else’s place to say this, but since I don’t blog, or usually speak up online, I hope Ms. Jemisin would forgive me.
    Okay, I was very, very unclear when I said Oliver isn’t white. He is white, but the thing is, we don’t see him as you see white people. He is just a person with a Western name and a light hair color. And my guess is that the reason why there are many games with white-looking people here is that they are the people (other than yellow ones) that we see most often.
    Historically speaking, we didn’t see people of other colors (which here means white, black and everything in-between) often enough, and we still don’t, especially when you’re outside Tokyo or other bigger cities of Japan. Most of us don’t understand the very notion of “underrepresented,” at least when it comes to skin colors. Like Eric said, I wouldn’t say our media are free of racism or sexism (–sexism? definitely!), but when the ways we see life are so different, it’s just not fair to try to discuss one thing on the same ground.

  44. not to take this on a different track, but I’m so glad you mentioned skyrim’s complete lack of plot. i’ve given it like seventy hours and the whole time i’ve been completely frustrated by the lazy, lazy ‘story’. sorry to say this but i don’t think the future of gaming as an art form lies in this type of sandbox experience. though it is explicitly designed to please everyone through providing endless ‘choices’, it utterly failed to do so, and not just judging from the commentary here but also on a more basic level, in the game’s inability to provide any meaning in the game world or its refusal to encourage its players to question the basic assumptions of the story (why were we in chains in the opening scene? for example). and it makes sense, as lame as that is, because your character doesn’t believe in anything, and despite great effort spent on ‘random’ quests the game is completely on rails anyway. its so utterly NOT subversive in a sandbox way (me2 being a good counterexample?) that the whole world becomes so two-dimensional so you can only take pleasure in wandering around stealing stuff from drawers and picking flowers in the wilderness. as if the pleasure of a game world with ‘choices’ is solely a license to behave in a way you never would in real life. i consider good narrative an art of specificity. say what you want about the (at times) awful (and awfully convoluted) stories of square-enix (final fantasy, chrono trigger/cross) but at least those developers have the courage to actually attempt the depiction of characters with desires, problems etc. sorry for the rant; have to go boot up the xbox.

  45. I haven’t played any of the previous Elder Scrolls games,(except a short aborted stint in Morrowind) but have sunk some 500 hours in Skyrim over the past 14 months. (They cancelled my favourite MMO :( , so that freed up some time in the last months.).

    This is honestly the first time I’ve ever considered the town guards’ “curved swords” comment to be a penis joke. I always thought, and I still do, that it just refers to you know, their swords. Which are actually curved (scimitars). I really think you’re reading things that aren’t there here.

    Also each race does get a different response from various NPCs. Nords are referred to as “Kinsman” by other Nords. All other races get various degrees of distant and unfriendly greetings initially. Try an Argonian.

    Racial conflict is a major theme in the Elder Scrolls world. All races are stereotyped by other races in the game. From the greedy, decadent Imperials to the Proud, cold, barbarian Nords to the sneaky, thieving Kajiit. I honestly don’t see how Redguards being typecast as a proud warrior culture is anything different or worse than the same being done to the Nords. (I am glad however that the lesser intelligence nonsense has gone.)

    Also it’s not true that all Dragonborn have been men. The very first one Saint Alessia, who was granted the gift directly from Akatosh, was female. Also all of the line of Septim Emperors have been Dragonborn, there were several Empresses.

    Not really sure what my point is, since I don’t really disagree with any of your main issues. Maybe just that I don’t Skyrim is as bad as you think it is, or at least that it’s equal opportunities in its stereotyping.

    PS.: If you play Skyrim on the PC on Steam, get the Unofficial Skyrim Patch off the Steam Workshop (just search for it and click subscribe). As the name implies it’s a community created patch that fixes hundreds upon hundreds of issues, from major quest breaking bugs to graphic glitches to typos. (No, alterations to the game other than obvious bugs being fixed.) It still gets regular updates, adding more fixes every month or so. There are unofficial patches for the DLCs too.
    (One of the best parts is that it unlocks more guard dialogue that was stuck behind bad condition checks, so “the arrow to the knee” line doesn’t play as often anymore. :p )

  46. yukimi,

    Again, I haven’t played Ni no Kuni yet — but I do have to take issue with the idea that a character named Oliver wouldn’t be white, or seen as white. The one consistency with respect to race/ethnicity that I’ve seen in anime/manga/games over the 20+ years I’ve been a fan is that naming actually means something. If characters are given nonsense names then they’re usually in a secondary world. If characters are given obviously Japanese names, however, in a world in which there are other characters with obviously Western names, then I have never yet seen the Western-named characters not be Westerners. They might not be white Westerners, but it’s very clear that they’re not meant to be Japanese. (Or fully Japanese, in the case of multiracial characters.) Those Western names are not the same thing as a nonsense name; they’re not meaningless.

  47. Ethan,

    Skyrim’s lack of plot doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t interest me, either, but then this game is clearly not aimed at my kind of gamer. It’s clearly meant to replicate the tabletop RPG experience — and as such it replicates the flaws of games like that, which generally have only the thinnest plot (because the GM is more interested in creating a challenging dungeon — i.e., the worldbuilding) and no characterization to speak of because you’re playing yourself via a series of archetypes (e.g. stalwart warrior, crafty thief, whatever). There’s nothing wrong with that kind of game, especially for those who want to play it. And I knew what kind of game it was going into it. I’m honestly surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did, but I think that’s largely because I am as interested in worldbuilding as I am in plot and characterization. I can enjoy a detailed alternate world for quite awhile before I get bored, and Skyrim at least has that. It’s just that deeper engagement isn’t really a possibility for me, if worldbuilding’s all there is.

    I’m intrigued by “not subversive in a sandbox way”. What do you mean by this? What would a subversive sandbox look like? I haven’t been able to get into the ME games, so don’t know ME2. But I have played the DAs, which didn’t seem very sandboxy, if that’s a word — you could choose to skip some quests, and you could do them in any order, but you couldn’t exactly wander around a completely-created city, or the whole region that includes Sundermount. Can you explain?

  48. Kevin B,

    This is honestly the first time I’ve ever considered the town guards’ “curved swords” comment to be a penis joke. I always thought, and I still do, that it just refers to you know, their swords. Which are actually curved (scimitars). I really think you’re reading things that aren’t there here.

    Kevin, in addition to being a fantasy writer, I’m a psychologist with an interest in Freud. If you don’t want me to think “penis joke”, then don’t have game characters repeatedly make smirking comments about a phallic symbol where I can hear them. :)

    More seriously, just Google “curved swords penis”, and you’ll see plenty of other people who leapt to the same phallic conclusion that I did. It’s like any double entendre — the fact that you’ve chosen to notice only one meaning doesn’t mean the second one’s not there.

    Re how other races are addressed in the game — my focus was on the human races, since it seemed clear that the game emphasizes inter-species conflict over inter-racial as part of its attempt to do only “harmless fantasy racism”. But I’ve heard from enough other players to know that Breton characters, for example, don’t get to hear comments about Breton men (or women) that are even slightly sexual in their possible interpretations. (They do, however, hear the comment about Redguard men. All races get to hear that, apparently.) I had heard about the Nord “kinsman”, but that’s not exactly a negative or even neutral term of address.

    I haven’t seen a mention of female Septim Emperors thus far — I’ve actually been looking for that — but I do remember a mention of St Alessia. Didn’t realize she became a Dragonborn herself. But if that’s true then OK, most rather than all Dragonborn are male. Should that not, again, make my female character’s status remarkable? She’s the rarest of the rare.

    I’m not sure why you mentioned the patch. Does it allow modifications that address some of my issues with the game? (Ohplease curly hair.) In any case, I’ve sent the game back at this point; not interested in playing further. Also I play console, not PC.

  49. Argh so obviously I’m not making sense the way I want… (gritting teeth)
    Hope someday I’d come up with a better explanation…

  50. I can try to explain. I was sort of just mashing the keyboard at the end there but I think I can come with a decent ad hoc explanation. One thing I’ve learned from this is that ‘sandbox’ is not a word with a consensus definition as it applies to videogame narrative (or lack thereof). Or maybe I am just using it outside of any consensus definition. Anyway I was referring to a (seemingly) quite expansive sense of freedom of choice in the game world. Narrative isn’t forced on the player, but they’re allowed to discover it on their own— or invent it altogether. My complaint with Skyrim is that while it does allow you to explore your character via those archetypes like you were saying, I felt in my playthrough that they were only pasted on to what is essentially a hack and slash dungeon crawl. When I complain about ‘random’ quests and say the game is on rails, I’m reacting against the repetition of ‘clear the draugr from the cave that looks exactly like the last cave quest’ or the endless fetch quests. There’s no nuance to it. A better sandbox experience for me would more like: you could go obliterate the draugr OR you could convince the person who wants the cave cleared it’s best left alone OR you could speak to the draugr in your weird dragon voice and they’d become reasonable. I grant that it’s a lot to ask and typing it sounded weird/unreasonable but other Bioware games (DA, again ME2) do the appearance of freedom much better, even if as you said that they are obviously more linear. Maybe for me it comes down to the success of the conversation mechanic, which in both of those games, feels like you can screw up at any moment.

    That’s a super interesting point about its tabletop RPG pedigree. It puts the game’s blank canvas into perspective. Never hated so much on a game I genuinely like.

  51. If you read some of the in-game literature, the origin of the Redgaurd can basically be inferred from the fact that the current world is made up of the remnants of several destroyed proto-worlds, each of which had their own life that had nothing to do with the others. That would explain why Redgaurd aren’t related to the Nedic (white) people.

    The Redgaurd propensity for speed and violence could come from their home-continent in the game world, which was full of far more ferocious creatures and climates than Tamriel has to offer. This, coupled with the fact that they were fought by both the elven and humanoid races when the forcibly took a chunk of the continent as their own (and still regularly fight wars both amongst their city-states as well as with the outside world) could lead to a group of people that have socially evolved to be aggressive and favor their warrior children.

    While the game is quite sexist, there are still instances of women having power, whether it’s the current “queen” of Skyrim, the Dunmer Queen Barenziah (who was rumored to have had a tryst with another woman of one of the human races), or even the high ranks of several woman within the three(ish) war-machines of the games plot.

    While I see the validity of your arguments against the race and gender systems of the game, I felt that I had to provide some form of argument in response. I’ve been an ES player since Morrowind, and while they never give you a solid reason to get involved in the dynamics of the world as “the chosen one”, you have to put yourself into the shoes of this seemingly lost, or unable to return home, person and do what someone who is trying to carve a niche for themselves does, and react to the options the world gives you, even if the reaction is just “xenophobic bigots or bigoted xenophobes”.

    Sorry this went on so long.

  52. Jesse,

    Telling me the Redguards are literally aliens really isn’t helping.

    And you’re not successfully explaining the Redguards’ natural propensity to violence, sorry. As you say, it makes sense for them to have socially developed a violent culture. But that’s not genetics. Biology doesn’t work that way. And the +10 strength stat is a biological thing — every Redguard, whether a child or an old person, male or female, fit or infirm, being stronger than every Breton they meet, and having the “Adrenaline Rush” strength boost even if they’ve never been athletic in their lives. Again, biology doesn’t work that way. Only racist pseudoscience does.

    The queen of Skyrim who’s widely rumored to be a puppet of the Imperials’ general and her own steward (both male), and whose only real interaction with the player is concerning a man (her dead husband)? Riiiight, very empowering. And the Dunmer queen we never see/interact with and wouldn’t even know about if we didn’t read the hundreds of books scattered around the land? ::sigh:: Yes, there are a few prominent women in places in the plot. I commend the game’s developers for that pittance of consideration and realism. That really isn’t enough to excuse the game’s overall failings, however.

    The only reaction that allows the game to progress is going on to save this land of xenophobes that your character is inexplicably stuck in. There’s no option for my Redguard woman to “tell them fuck off, head back to her homeland, and rally the people there to defend against the dragon infestation that will probably spill out of Skyrim soon”. Understandably that option doesn’t exist since saving Skyrim is kind of the point of a game called Skyrim, but that need to center the gameplay on a single nation/people does rope you into a kind of ethical quandry and cultural-centrism that just doesn’t mesh with how real people would react in this situation. Granted, it’s roleplaying, but is it good roleplaying if your characters continually do things that just don’t make sense, or that no real person would ever do in that situation?

Dreamblood Book One:

The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon

Read Sample Chapter 1


January 2013
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