A survey of my recent gaming

And by “recent” I mean “I played it recently”, not that these are recent games. ‘Cause I’m busy, and sometimes it takes me awhile to get around to things. Spoiler warning on all of these, so I’ll put them behind a cut, but these are all old games anyway, so my guess is that nobody really cares about spoilers anymore.

Mirror’s Edge: Yeah, yeah, it took me this long to get around to it. Shuddup.

I like this game a lot, and want to love it. In theory it’s got many of the things I want to see in a game: a woman of color as protagonist, multiple engaging characters who are women and/or PoC, really innovative gameplay. But the story’s weak, and that made me gradually lose interest in it. (I’ve stopped about halfway through. Might eventually resume, but I’m not feeling compelled.) I have no reason to care about our protagonist, or her sister, or these rebels-for-no-particular-reason against… I don’t know, society? It’s all a bit nebulous. And I need a reason to keep at this game, because it’s hard. Only so many times I can fall to my horrible, bone-crushing death before something more engaging, or at least more soothing, starts to look preferrable. So after an intial WHOA, this game ultimately rated a meh on the Nora Scale ™.

Bioshock Infinite: I initially resisted this game — though I’ve enjoyed the previous two Bioshocks — because of its premise: instead of the Randian underwater city of Rapture, we were due to visit the Klansian* airborne city of Columbia, where we would have no choice but to play a stalwart lantern-jawed white guy (featured prominently in the cover art holding his big, long gun) who would have to rescue an improbably-proportioned ingenue who for some reason would toss you guns but never bother to wield one herself. I just… for fuck’s sake. Why would I want to play a game like that for fun? It sounded like a bigass bucket of fail waiting to dump itself.

But friends insisted it was AWESOME!!1! and that it dealt with the racism and sexism in complex ways, so I finally gave B:I a try. Gah, I’m gonna have to go have some talks with those friends.

Here’s the thing. If you’re going to build a game world, or any story world, around the concept that Racism Is Bad… great. Glad to see it. Doesn’t get done enough. But in the process, you cannot play the false equivalency card — Racism is Bad but so is fighting back against it — and have a moral leg to stand on. The problem with the false equivalency in this situation is that you’re essentially arguing for maintaining the racist status quo… but being really, really sorry about doing so. Which is as useful as balls on a cow.

So our protagonist for this game is Mr. Booker DeWitt, a thug-for-hire who eventually turns out to be the same person as Comstock the Prophet, founder and ruler of Columbia, the aforementioned airborne city-state. In Columbia the racial hierarchy is post-Reconstruction Jim Crow with an extra helping of fascism; posters exhort (white) citizens to beware the brown hordes, non-white prisoners are funnelled up to the city from Georgia chain-gangs and New York slums in de facto slavery, and Abraham Lincoln is depicted everywhere as Satan. DeWitt, as Comstock, eventually plans to impose this racial hierarchy on the whole world by force. However, DeWitt/Comstock is apparently part Indian (nation is never mentioned) himself. He looks white enough to fool the good citizens of Columbia, but he feels the “deficit” of his non-whiteness enough that his whole life has been built around the effort of “proving himself white” through violent racism. These include slaughtering Lakota women and children at Wounded Knee, working for the Pinkerton agency and helping to beat down union organizers (many of whom in those days were black, Chinese, and Irish), and eventually, as Comstock, founding a genocidal apartheid state that will destroy the world. As DeWitt, he’s really, really sorry about all that he’s done… but he never stops doing it.

Remember, tho’, this is our hero. Meanwhile one of our antagonists is Daisy Fitzroy, a black woman leading the “Vox Populi” rebellion against Columbia’s revolting power hierarchy. Daisy and her folks have got plenty of reasons to be angry. However, the game pushes this a step further and makes her not just righteously angry but nonsensically so. At one point she grabs and threatens to shoot an unarmed white child in the head. Why? No clear reason. Prejudice against (non-Irish; note this is in the days when the Irish were not white) white people, the game implies. She’s not really fighting for freedom, it’s suggested, just to put her own people at the top of the same old problematic hierarchy.

Thus we have a game which vilifies racism… by making two characters of color** the biggest racists of all.

Granted — nobody comes out of a Bioshock game smelling like a rose. But these depictions represent choices the game’s developers made, and those choices send very clear messages about their beliefs. It’s clear they consider people of color at least partially to blame for the system of racism, and it’s clear they think getting angry about racism is just as bad as being racist. It’s also clear that they believe intention trumps action. We’re supposed to empathize with DeWitt’s regret, and maybe not notice that he spends the second half of the game slaughtering his way through faceless, gibbering, barely-human brown hordes.

My guess is that the developers’ intent was to be “fair”, and to introduce some kind of complexity to the story beyond the usual hero=good, antagonists=evil construction. They probably wanted to create some ethical nuance, leave room for moral debate.

About racism.

The gameplay’s amazing, though. If you don’t think deeply about it — ever — I suppose it could be fun, for some.

Mass Effect:

asdfjkl; This is the best game series EVAR that’s it that’s the review. What, you want more? ::sigh:: Fiiiine.

How do I love this trilogy; let me count the ways. Well, OK, I hated ME1, and could only bring myself to play it after skipping ahead to ME2 and falling in love with the universe. (What did I hate about ME1? Every Mako mission. The thin-as-paper characterization and the awful combat controls. That. Fucking. Mako.) But I loved the complex storyline, dead-end plots and all (dark energy? whut?). I loved the characters — yeah, all of them, though some could’ve used better writing. I loved the voice acting, though Jennifer Hale beats the pants off Mark Meer; sorry, mShep fans. I loved that the entire third game was basically an ending, as complexified and drawn-out as a book can never get; you could take as much time as you needed to say goodbye to the characters and universe, and you could do it as sorrowfully or joyfully as you needed to, especially via the Citadel DLC (highly recommended, BTW). I loved that there were women and people of color everywhere — in the background and foreground alike — and I loved that I could make my protagonist another one if I chose. I even loved the combat (by the second game), and I hate shooters.

There were of course some flaws. The worldbuilding has the usual SFF issues — e.g., for a global military, the Alliance sure seems awfully North American in its structure and culture. The asari could have been a brilliant idea, as a monogendered species capable of “mating” with anyone, but in actual practice they were just Blue Space Babes. And I hated that their presence apparently prevented the game’s designers from including a logical number of non-male members of every species. (My headcanon is that the volus, the batarians, the vorcha, and the hanar — none of whom even mentioned the existence of other genders IIRC — are also monogendered, presenting as male or agendered. That makes the asari more palatable to me.) I wasn’t fond of some of the character details — Jack and the magical healing cock, Kaidan’s latent sexism that appears only when he’s romanced by a female PC, Jacob’s utterly stereotypical backstory and romance (see previous link for that too). The “endings debate” is basically a nonissue for me; as I said, I consider the whole game to be the trilogy’s end, not merely the red/blue/green options that so many players get incomprehensibly upset about, and I thought the whole thing was brilliant. (Incidentally, I prefer blue.)

But these are tolerable flaws given that the game gets so much else right. Hell, part of my problem with Bioshock Infinite is probably that I started it right after finishing an ME3 playthrough. That made the limitations and glaring logic flaws of B:I stand out more.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to for stress relief, lately. Next on the menu: Dragon Age: Inquisition. Already got it reserved, of course. And I am so excited.

* That is totally a word. I’m a writer and I said so.

** It’s never clear whether DeWitt self-identifies as white, Indian, or something else. His heritage is known and discussed by other characters, however.

45 thoughts on “A survey of my recent gaming”

  1. I struggled a lot to get through Mirror’s Edge too. The story doesn’t really get any more interesting (there’s a pretty underwhelming twist betrayal and that’s about it) and the gameplay can get pretty frustrating at points, but the end scenes at least LOOK really cool. Of course you could always just watch them on YouTube.

    Totally with you on Bioshock Infinite. I’m curious about your thoughts on the way the whole Booker-is-Comstock thing was saved up for the end as a big twist. I feel like so many popular stories these days – not just in video games – are reliant on these last-act reveals, even when that kind of mystery structure isn’t a good fit for the story. If we had known Comstock was Booker earlier, it might have informed his character a lot more, and given Booker and Elizabeth something more interesting to talk (and perhaps fight) about. Instead we got fifteen minutes of baffling metaphysical exposition and an ending I still haven’t made sense of.

    I’d also love to see a game where you play Daisy Fitzroy instead.

  2. Have you played Assassin’s Creed: Liberation? Aveline is dreamy, lol. Protagonist’s an escaped slave who helps others escape, pretty much what B:I isn’t.

  3. Crap, I hadn’t meant for this to go live quite yet; I’m replaying B:I right now to make sure I hadn’t gotten DeWitt/Comstock’s backstory and the game’s implications wrong. I thought I’d scheduled it for tomorrow! Ah, well; now I don’t have to keep playing B:I anymore.

  4. Quinn, yes to a game from Fitzroy’s PoV. That was my initial problem with B:I — it was a game that purported to have a strong anti-racist message, but it seemed to be perpetuating the same old racism that’s endemic in the industry (yet another white guy protagonist, women and PoC treated as obstacles or props), so right there on the box art I could tell the game’s treatment of racism was going to be superficial. You just can’t do racist things and then talk anti-racism effectively! I don’t know why this concept is so hard for some people.

    But when it began to be revealed that DeWitt was part Indian passing as white, I thought the game was going somewhere much more subversive, and I started to hope it would be better than my (low) expectations. I thought DeWitt would get over his nihilism and internalized racism and realize he had something real to fight for at last — the oppressed of Columbia, including Elizabeth. A world where someone like him didn’t have to deny his own identity, or become a monster as he seemed to regret having become (even as he KEPT. DOING. IT.), in order to be happy. …Aaaand then the game went and jumped off a cliff.

    I don’t mind last-act reveals if they’re truly unpredictable. But I figured out DeWitt was Comstock right around the whole sequence with Slate; I was looking at a timeline of Comstock’s life in the Hall of Heroes, and the numbers didn’t make sense. Per that timeline Comstock would’ve been just 16 years old at the Wounded Knee massacre, yet he (and Slate) spoke of him having been in charge. No grown men are going to follow some pimply-faced kid into battle, especially when (as one of the recordings implies) they all knew he was part Indian himself. And the game takes place in 1912, which would’ve made Comstock somewhere in his 30s — yet he looks 70 or 80. Y’know who does look thirtysomething, tho’? Yeah. And since I already knew there were alternate worlds in play, it was easy enough to guess time travel/alternate worlds travel was happening, and why the Prophet seemed to know so much about DeWitt. I hoped they wouldn’t go with that plotline, because it was the obvious/cliche thing to do… but they did. ::sigh::

    It might’ve been more obvious to me, tho’, since I’m a SFF writer and time travel/alternate worlds are sort of common here. :)

  5. Gnu, I tried to get into AC1, and it was… really, really boring. But then I hated the first ME1 too, so I’m going to try the same trick — skipping ahead to AC2 to see if I can get into it, then going back to the first game if I do. I’m completist enough that skipping even one game annoys me, so I’d rather not just skip ahead to the later games just yet.

  6. I find it hard to believe that people can inhabit the world of ME for three games and be honestly surprised by the ending. But then I love the ME cosmology.

  7. I had similar thoughts about Bioshock Infinite when I watched it play through. I feel like it’s very much tailored to white people who can comfortably gasp in dismay at the blatant atrocities of Comstock’s Columbia and then nod along to the false equivalence between systematized violence with the full force of institutional backing on the one hand and violent uprising on the other. It’s not so much a critique of racism as a reassurance: YOU’RE not like that, dear white gamer! And keep an eye out for those reverse racists!

  8. Just FYI, the very cute fella who sold me AC1 was reluctant to do so – because, as he explained, it’s repetitive, and he didn’t want me to think the whole series was like that and then not play the other games (he was so sweet, gushing about the plots and the characters).

    He was right, of course; the first game is dull. But I understand the rest of the series is much more engaging :)

  9. Juliana, sorry, I had to Google that one; I’ve never heard of it. I’m not much into computer gaming, sorry — I’m strictly a console girl, namely XBox 360 and PS2.

  10. Yamainu, well, I was surprised simply because they’d been foreshadowing the dark energy thing since ME1, and they dropped it completely. But I don’t think that’s the root of the objection to the ME3 endings. Frankly I don’t understand the objections, though, so I’ll just leave it at “I liked them fine.”

  11. I knew there was something about Daisy’s portrayal I didn’t like. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about how she went batshit-crazy at the end just rubbed me the wrongest of wrong ways… Now I know why. Thank you for sharing your analysis.

    Yet again, more things about Mass Effect that keeps it on the “games to play” list… (This list is too damn long!) Dragon Age is another one on that list too. Exciting!

  12. Pingback: NK Jemisin Reviews Bioshock Infinite, Mass Effect | Gnu Reads

  13. ME is my all time favorite and well, I love the entire series of games. I love all of the characters and after completing the series, I literally had to take time off before playing anything else because nothing could match up. I actually *felt* like i left friends behind.
    I played Mirrors Edge up to the last mission which I COULD NOT complete. I couldn’t make the last damned jump. My kid, who has finished the game has begged me to let her make the jump for me, but that feels wrong. So… That’s where it ended. Sucks.
    I just finished a replay of The Walking Dead with the 400 Days DLC. Just waiting for TWD 2 to go on sale again and then its on! Although we just bought Beyond Two Souls. And I have AC Liberation which I haven’t played yet. There’s a lot out there. Time permitting…. Great post Nora.

  14. If you played BioShock Infinite and thought the message of the game is: “black people are more racist than white people”, you absolutely missed the point. By a mile. A freaking zip code.

  15. Dom,

    And if you read what I wrote and concluded that I said something completely different, you absolutely have a reading comprehension problem. But please, despite not understanding what I actually said, please feel free to tell me why you think what you think I said is wrong.

  16. Daisy had been victimized, and you sound like you were either A) offended that she would behave so unvirtuously, or B) didn’t see her, or the other Vox Populi rebels, behaving that way as a problem.

    But victimization doesn’t necessarily preclude virtue, not does it license brutality.

    The French Revolution, as an example of violent revolution, was ghastly and ugly and the rebels absolutely behaved in that manner. As did many American soldiers during our country’s revolution. Neither case either validates or invalidates the nature of the cause.

    To focus so myopically on the racial politics in Columbia is, I think, to miss the forest for the trees. Her motivations for trying to kill that child were not racial at all – he was a symbol of her resentment for everything.

    It was, to me, a statement about the ugliness of war and extremism – Comstock & Co. represented a sort of horrific exaggeration of conservative extremism, the Vox Populi one of leftist extremism. Conservatives could have been, and I’m sure many were, easily offended at the over-the-top portrayal of them, just as Libertarians could have been offended at their portrayal in the original BioShock. It’s very deliberately over-the-top, because it’s trying to portray extremism.

    In the end, I think the message that sequence attempted to communicate was that neither “side” can ultimately claim moral purity. (And, y’know… war is hell and all that).

  17. Not sure if you plan to get a next gen console but Infamous:Second Son has a MOC protaganist and is amazing. It’s handling of Native American issues seems to be good (from an outsider POV, anyway). It’s on PS4, and worth it I think if you have the system already.

    Also: AC series, just like ME …skip the first game. It’s like they were still working on it and got it right in AC II, going forward. I’ve got them all for Xbox if you ever want to try them.

  18. Dom,

    Daisy had been victimized, and you sound like you were either A) offended that she would behave so unvirtuously, or B) didn’t see her, or the other Vox Populi rebels, behaving that way as a problem.

    Nope, that’s not what I said, or what I think. As a general rule of thumb if you’re going to keep commenting here, don’t a) put words in my mouth, or b) go off half-cocked about words you’ve put in my mouth. If you don’t understand a point I’ve made, ask for clarification. I’m happy to re-explain if the first version wasn’t clear. But I’m not much interested in arguing with strawmen.

    That said, you’re confirming exactly what I did say — that the game attempted to draw a false equivalence between the two sides in the Columbian war. Since you don’t seem to understand what I was saying, let me explain again — I know full well that that’s the point the game was trying to make. My point is that the game did this wrong. The developers might well have intended to depict two sides that were equally wrong — “conservative extremism” and “leftist extremism” as you put it — but what they actually depicted was something entirely different. What they depicted instead was racist extremism and the reaction against it.

    What you’re calling “conservative extremism” was actual American social policy at the time. The game’s timescale plants it firmly in the post-Reconstruction-era, which is one of the most virulently racist periods in American history; I actually think the developers did an awesome job of depicting the scope of that racism in Columbia. This is the time when Jim Crow was created, when chain gangs and sharecropping were explicit attempts to reestablish de facto slavery to replace the de jure slavery that had been lost with the Civil War, when US immigration laws explicitly favored white-skin and European descent over everything else, when racial terrorists were hailed as heroes, when even suffragettes were preparing to throw women of color under the bus to get the vote just for themselves (white women). It wasn’t a conservative-and-leftist thing, it was a racist thing, because in those days America was essentially an authoritarian caste-based society that only called itself a democracy. Those castes had some gendered and class-based structure, but most overtly (and violently), the castes were racial. Only someone who knows squat-all about history — or someone who is willfully trying to misunderstand history — could deny this.

    And only someone who buys into the logical fallacy of false equivalency would insist that the two sides in Columbia were in any way equal on a moral level. One group — Comstock’s chosen people, the white* Columbians — enslaved the other. Disenfranchised them, starved them, confined them to substandard housing, saturated the whole country with propaganda describing them as inferior, made carnival games out of their deaths… quite literally built the nation on their backs, over many years. Even the handful who managed to cobble together enough money to rise to middle class, like Chen Lin, couldn’t get the protection of the law unless a white person (Chen’s white wife, in one of the alternate worlds) was willing to vouch for them. Columbia’s only real difference from America at the time is that it didn’t have a pro-democracy political movement among its white citizenry (e.g. abolitionists, universal suffrage proponents). Not a single white Columbian was shown — except Elizabeth, who for all practical purposes wasn’t really Columbian — who rejected their Comstock-given right to dominate and oppress other groups of people. Every white Columbian we saw was willing to kill to maintain their “superiority”.

    While the Vox Populi… what? Fought back. They had no doctrine of superiority motivating them; they weren’t trying to oppress; they simply wanted to stop being oppressed in the country they’d helped build. This is not remotely equivalent to what the white Columbians were doing, on a moral level.

    And the sad thing is, the game’s developers could have made the Vox equivalent, if they’d really wanted to make that point. They could’ve shown that most of the white citizens of Columbia were unarmed/noncombatants, which would’ve made the scenes of summary execution by the Vox seem extreme. But the white Columbians weren’t noncombatants; anytime your PC stole from them or was outed by the PA system as the “false shepherd”, everyone from shop owners to hot dog stand guys started shooting. Even their children were in military indoctrination “schools”, becoming the equivalent of Hitler Youth — ready to defend Columbia against the evil forces of equality. Pardon me if I feel little sympathy for them.

    And the game’s developers could’ve taken a hint from the French Revolution, since you mention that — although you seem to think the revolution itself was an example of extremism; no. The extremism happened after the oppressors had been overthrown, most notably via the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror. It would’ve been simple for Elizabeth to have taken Booker into a future Columbia where there were kangaroo-court show trials of white Columbians, or newly-invented execution machines a la the guillotine surrounded by cheering, picnicking crowds.

    But that didn’t happen. That’s not what was shown. What we saw was one group of people fighting to defend oppression, and another group fighting to escape it. (We saw more than that, actually; if the white Columbians aren’t overthrown, we learn they’ll go on to oppress the entire world. So actually we’ve got one group fighting for a racist New World Order, and another group essentially fighting for global freedom.) And if you think those two things are equivalent, then I seriously question your morality.

    *Note that in those days, the Irish were not considered white.

  19. Crap, wasn’t logged in to my own site, thus the lack of moderator color. Just to confirm, that was actually me. :)

  20. NK,

    I don’t think anyone playing B:I could walk away from that game thinking it was trying to draw them as equivalent. Comstock, etc., were absolutely, obviously, far worse – what the sequence with Daisy and the Vox did was not draw equivalence, but simply add depth and show that, while more justified, the Vox aren’t “clean”, either. It’s not black and white (pardon the term usage in an article about racism).

    I think that the entirety of Columbia wasn’t just about race – racism and the institutions around it were absolutely a large factor, but the game also tackled labor, religion, physics, redemption… I think you do the game a disservice to reducing the entirety of all that by reducing it all down to racism.

  21. Dom, ah, but I didn’t. I talked about the part of the game that most made me dislike it, which was its mishandling of racism. This post wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the games mentioned — which should’ve been obvious from the fact that I boiled down all of ME1 to “the Mako”. If this had been a comprehensive review, I’d have talked about B:I’s mishandling of gender, too. :) And I’d have talked more about the aspects of the game that I liked.

    Agreed that the developers tried to add complexity to the game’s various conflicts in multiple ways. But on some things, like racism, trying isn’t enough. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” said MLK — and while I suspect he didn’t mean for that to be applied to video games, he did mean for it to be applied to racism. And that quote encapsulates why B:I pissed me off so much. It was such a good game in so many other ways, but it was important to me that they get this part right, and they. just. didn’t.

    I don’t think anyone playing B:I could walk away from that game thinking it was trying to draw them as equivalent.

    Except that’s exactly what you did, in your previous comment: In the end, I think the message that sequence attempted to communicate was that neither “side” can ultimately claim moral purity.

    And this is why the game’s errors make me angry — because people like you walk away spouting crap like this and thinking it’s deep.

    No. Context matters. Race matters, in our society and in the fictional society depicted by the game. Any game which tackles racism — no matter what else they tackle in the process — has a moral obligation to acknowledge that context. This is not a “both sides are bad” situation. People fighting to attain basic human rights can claim a shit-ton more moral purity than people trying to take those rights away. And as I said in the post, to pretend otherwise is to suggest that people who’ve chosen to fight for their human rights should not do so. That it’s better to suffer slavery, dehumanization, slaughter, and so forth in silence than to upset the status quo. Here’s a basic truth of the world: non-violent resistance doesn’t always work. It worked in America during the Civil Rights era because the oppressed managed to get public pressure on their side; most white Americans believed in equality, at least in principle. But in South Africa, an autocratic apartheid society, most of whose white members were perfectly fine with the system as it was? Non-violence didn’t work; it took a combo of that and horrific violence to make the Afrikaaners budge. In earlier America, when white settlers wanted various Indian groups’ land? Some of the Indian nations tried non-violence; didn’t work. In Columbia, where every white person down to the smallest child was ready to fight to the death for white supremacy, the PoC of Columbia had two real choices: shut up and take it, or fight back. To label them “unclean” for fighting back means you think they should’ve just kept putting up with their treatment. It’s the Fox News “fair and balanced” approach, which completely ignores reality. An argument for neutrality in an unequal, oppressive situation means an argument for the unequal, oppressive status quo to continue.

    And the game made that argument. Over and over again it made it — Booker repeatedly says Fitzroy and Comstock are the same, Elizabeth echoes it, and the game’s script throws in a bunch of implausible situations in order to try and give that argument more credence. Clearly the argument worked on some people — and as a result, those people are now going to go off and probably apply that same reasoning to similar real-world situations. How many fools did this game help indoctrinate into thinking that fighting oppression is just as wrong as oppressing others? Real people get hurt by this kind of equivocation.

  22. I’ll make a couple points, and then I’ll retire this.

    “Also, I don’t think anyone playing B:I could walk away from that game thinking it was trying to draw them as equivalent.

    Except that’s exactly what you did, in your previous comment: In the end, I think the message that sequence attempted to communicate was that neither “side” can ultimately claim moral purity.”

    Those are not the same statement. The Vox don’t possess moral purity – in other words, they’re flawed – but that’s very different from saying that they’re equivalent to the Columbians.

    “How many fools did this game help indoctrinate into thinking that fighting oppression is just as wrong as oppressing others?”

    You’re confusing the means for the end. Fighting oppression is not the problem, and Booker & Elizabeth were fine with it (albeit, Booker was fine with it for pragmatic reasons) up until the point where they were confronted with the *means* the Vox were using – scalping victims and such. (And there was the whole plotline where the Vox turned against the player because they thought he was a false Booker, but that’s beside the point).

    I guess it’s like this: if you’re the victim of oppression, do you have a right to use any and all means necessary to extract revenge? In my mind, the answer is no.

    That answer does not mean, however, that you can’t fight.

    But the cold-blooded murder of children, I think, is a little outside the boundaries of good taste.

  23. Dom, no, you’re confusing your philosophical quandries, and trying to shift the goalposts of the discussion. You started this by trying to insist that the Vox and the white Columbians are both extremists, leftist and conservative respectively. That’s equating them. I pointed out that this is a false equivalence. Rather than acknowledge your initial point was wrong, you’re now trying to claim that’s what you meant all along — even though that’s not what you said — and move the discussion into one of moral purity/flaws. OK, let’s put that one down easy: No one is pure. Everyone is flawed, whether you want to contemplate that in the Christian sense of “sin” (which goes a step further and makes people flawed from birth, depending on which doctrine you follow), or simply in the practical sense of nobody being perfect once they’re capable of rational self-interest.

    The fact that all people are flawed, however, still doesn’t make them equivalent. So this purity argument isn’t working for you, as goalpost-shifts go.

    For example, you’re talking about “the cold-blooded murder of children” as if using rhetoric will make it true. That’s bullshit. Any kid coming out of Columbia schools knows how to handle a gun and views people of color as an enemy; that was made explicit in the “Duke and Dimwit” stuff. It’s highly likely that at least some of the white Columbian kids did take up arms; that’s what they’d been programmed to do, after all. In a society in which children are combatants, people are going to shoot them. That’s not cold-blooded, that’s self-defense. If you want to lament those children’s lost innocence, blame it on the people who turned them into weapons, not the people who shoot back when child soldiers try to kill them.

    But likewise, in a society in which children are used as labor, people are going to exploit them. Where’s your concern-rhetoric for the lives lost in Fink’s factories, construction sites, and Shantytown? If you want to label someone morally pure, it should be the kids who worked for 16 hours a day and still starved and had to live in roach-infested, disease-ridden shitholes. If you want to call someone cold-blooded, the white Columbians who experimented on those children in labs seem a more likely candidate to me. This too turned children into weapons, so I’m not surprised some of them joined the Vox Populi. Fitzroy probably didn’t even have to conscript them. (We don’t know if Fitzroy gave them guns. The only mention of a child on the Vox’s side says they were used as message-runners. But given that the white Columbian children had guns, it’s likely.)

    But again, the moral weight of that rests on whoever created the conditions that made children want, need, to kill. In both cases, the moral culpability rests on Columbia’s founders. Columbia’s founders made the Vox, right down to the kids. They made the whole war, right down to their own kids.

    And again, context matters. The scalps were those of Columbia’s founders, not some random innocent victims. The fact that scalping is all the founders suffered tells me that the Vox weren’t interested in revenge. If they were, they’d have gotten way more creative.

    So to answer your question, and rephrase it given that revenge isn’t the issue: do victims of oppression have the right to use any and all means necessary to end their oppression? No. But the examples you cite — killing the Columbian equivalent of Hitler Youth, scalping the men who made that whole flying nightmare of a city — don’t fall outside the lines of what I would consider “necessary”.

  24. “killing the Columbian equivalent of Hitler… [doesn’t] fall outside the lines of what I would consider ‘necessary’.”

    Seriously? Man, I wonder why the Allied Forces didn’t go around murdering the *actual* Hitler Youth. I mean, it’s not like any of them could grow up to be functioning, healthy, well-adjusted and successful people. They could never be, like, Pope material, am I right?

    Oh, right, I remember why we didn’t do that. Because murdering children is wrong. Always.

    I can’t believe you need someone to explain that to you.

    Y’know, this actually kinda breaks my heart here. I *love* your books. But I’m gonna have a hard time separating this conversation from them now.

  25. Dom, wow, you didn’t address a single other one of my points. That’s interesting.

    Uh, the Allies damn well did kill Hitler Youth when they encountered them on the battlefield. Wow, your knowledge of history is really disturbingly idealistic and rooted in false information; where did you get the idea that the Allies didn’t kill kids? Same place you got the idea that the French Revolution, rather than its aftermath, was extremist? You need to check your sources. Get some alternative perspectives.

    So, here, I did some Googling for you. Note the WWII paragraph in the Wikipedia article on the Hitler Youth; the Allies gunned down 12-year-olds. Because those 12-year-olds would’ve happily done the same to them. I suppose you would’ve thrown down your weapon and let these child soldiers, who were not just murderous but hell-bent on imposing a fascist regime upon the world, kill you? Since killing children is always wrong.

    Let’s hope neither of us ever faces this situation in real life.

    But like I said in my original post, my objection wasn’t to the idea of Fitzroy killing a child. My objection was to the contrived way the whole thing went down — no explanation for why she was going to kill this particular kid when she had reason to hate all white Columbians; no context to explain what happened between Fink’s death and the kid-threatening tableau; no foreshadowing; no rational behavior from a woman who’d previously shown herself to be brutally rational, even to the point of realizing DeWitt needed to be dead to be usable as a martyr. Like you said, this was the developers’ attempt to insert complexity into the narrative — but it was a weak attempt. Badly-written, and supportive of the false equivalence fallacy. It simply failed.

    And I’m told there’s an attempt to fix the plot hole of this in the “Buried At Sea” DLC. But after playing this game, I’m not interested in giving them any more of my money — especially when I have no reason to believe the developers actually understand what they did wrong in the main game. YMMV.

  26. Those 12 year-olds were armed combatants in the German defense. Killing and murdering are not the same thing. And I’d hardly call the child in Columbia a combatant.

  27. Dom,

    Oh, now you’re just splitting hairs. Murdering a child is always wrong but killing one is hunky dory? You object when I say “killing” but it’s fine for you to use? For fuck’s sake.

    I’m tired of talking about killing children, even in the fictional sense; the topic is grotesque enough without being mangled by your inability to argue in good faith. And I’ve blown too much time on this. Believe whatever you want to believe about the game and me.

  28. Dom
    “Ugh. I’ve had my competence insulted enough for one day.”

    Some of the pleasure I experience reading our hosts books and blog entries is the evident brilliance of her knowledge passion and reason. I LOVE that the internet makes the latter (blogs) available. Who couldn’t appreciate more of what draws us to her books?

    I don’t think your competence has been insulted, Dom. I think you have experienced the equivalent of entering a 100m sprint with an Olympian. It says something about character how losing that race is experienced.

  29. I have so many people tell me that Mass effect is amazing but I really just can’t get into it. I love love love Dragon Age and am stoked for it to come out in october tho!

  30. Thank you, NKJ, for encapsulating exactly why I felt unhappy about the plot of Bioshock: Infinite. That was well said. Also, I think I’m done with games where the only protagonist option is “white dude.” Been there, played that. For decades.

    I don’t know if The Walking Dead game is available on console, but if it is, I’d suggest checking it out. I’ve only “played” it vicariously (watching my teenaged daughter play through it), but it is pretty amazing. The main protagonist of the game (which has ongoing, serialized episodes) is Clementine, a preteen WoC. Warning, though, you’ll find yourself crying at some of the hard choices you have to make.

  31. Oh man, couldn’t get through that entire v serious back and forth but I think you guys are missing the point, B:I was offensive on a lot of levels—insultingly contrived story and just awful gameplay. Adding the shield, taking away the ammo scarcity and claustrophobic level design really brought the failure of the game mechanics into sharp relief. Never have I longed more for the stupid vita-chamber of the original than when I was killed by an enemy I couldn’t locate and then had to ‘open the door’ etc. Dunno why they decided to take a perfectly good horror game evocative of the original Resident Evil and make a period Halo clone.

    Agree that the game fails to address racism in a non-problemactic way, but expecting something better from a AAA title marketed to 18-24 yo males (whose last game was CoD) is probably a mistake. I have to admit I find it admirable that at least some attempt was made at depicting the conflict and dirtiness of an American era, even if it was super ham-handed. Fucking sequels. Can you imagine the pressure, particularly after the ‘deep’ themes of the first games?

    Ms. Jemisin, I’ve got to hear your take on The Walking Dead, sooner rather than later. Get the first episode of Season 1 which is free—then you’ll be addicted. When are you going to publish your videogame criticism? I mean SF is great and all, but I find myself enjoying your posts about gaming so much!

  32. I loved the Bioshock series and enjoyed Bioshock Infinite however the handling of Daisy Fitzroy pissed me off as well. The problem was by having her reduced to being a child killer with no context whatsoever (except alternate timelines); was not only jarring but she came across far worse than Comstock ever did. Better yet by creating a world similar to America but by not showing the sheer brutality of it’s racism in all of it’s hateful glory during that same era and refusal to use the N word, ironically made Columbia a more idyllic place to live for an African American than America itself of the post Reconstruction Jim Crow era.

    After Elizabeth kills Daisy when she’s about to murder the white child and Booker says “The only difference between Comstock and Fitzroy is how you spell the name” is when I rolled my eyes and said, this had to have been written by a white person due to these false equivalencies that I’ve seen historically being made such as the Black Panthers to the KKK for example.

    Although I know you said you no longer have any interest in giving them your money, I do recommend you play the Burial at Sea DLC which no longer has these racial problems by the sheer fact it’s in Rapture. Plus for the 2nd half you get the opportunity to play as the female protagonist Elizabeth and her gameplay stealth mechanics were more enjoyable IMO. The justification for Daisy’s actions in the DLC however felt forced and a response to the criticism made in Bioshock Infinite, rather than a planned plot point in the storyline. Another DLC I’d recommend is for Bioshock 2 called Minerva’s Den which stars a strong African American protagonist in a pretty simple but effective story. This DLC is also on 2-3 hours long but totally worth it.

  33. Ethan,

    I’m glad you like my gaming criticism, but a) there are other and better critics out there already, b) I don’t get paid for gaming crit, and c) I’m too slow of a player to make it in that business, so it’ll continue to be a side-thing for me. I also have limited interest in popular Western games; I tried The Walking Dead and found it boring, for example.

    As for this B:I crit — it wasn’t a comprehensive critique, or even trying to be one. I commented on the aspect of the game that interested/concerned me; if you want the kind of critique that focuses on what might interest/concern other players, well, that’s why you should go look for those other and better critics out there. :)

    That said, I do expect better of a AAA game. I expect that if a company’s going to drop that much money and effort on producing something, then they should’ve done some basic research and figured out that marketing to 18-25 yo males is stupid when, say, adult women make up a bigger share of the market. But if they still want to market to young males, they should probably use some basic logic and realize a goodly proportion of those males are either a) men of color, b) Milliennials, who tend to be more anti-racist than previous generations, or c) both, and therefore it behooves the company to get it right if they’re going to tackle racism. I mean, why would they want to insult a chunk of their audience by suggesting that their ancestors were monsters for fighting back against racism? I expect a company blowing millions on a game to be smarter, yes.

  34. I highly recommend the Assassin’s Creed series as well. Most of which have protagonists which would have traditionally been villains in western fiction.

    The first few games were not that spectacular, I agree. But the latest ones (Assassin’s Creed III and IV) are really quite spectacular. Play it for the story. Ignore the collectibles.

  35. As for Mass Effect, I still can’t get over the nonsensical red, blue, and green endings of ME3. But I agree, it was a great journey overall.

    And yep, can’t wait for Dragon Age: Inquisition! ^^ As a gay male gamer though, I hope the guy(s?) they set aside for male romance this installment are more reflective of the predominant types of guys *most* gay males actually go for.

    Zevran was simply TOO stereotypical. I mean, he was even an elf ferchrissakes. LOL I had to mod my game to get Alistair. :P

  36. Calvaluna,

    Is there a single definable type that most gay males go for? Most of the gay men I know are older black and Asian guys; I don’t think they’d be much interested in Alistair, frex. And most of the gay gamers I know weren’t happy with the narrow range of the gay men in the games — no racial diversity, no age diversity, very narrow range of body types. They wanted more non-white guys, more older guys, more guys with “cute potbellies” and such.

    (…And is there a stereotype of gay elves?? O.o Wow, you learn something new every day.)

    I think I’ll forego Assassin’s Creed until I see Ubisoft’s response to the E3 sexism debacle. The only reason I was interested in playing was because they seemed to be progressing the series toward something more inclusive, and now it’s been made clear that they’re only willing to be inclusive in side-stories and peripheral games, never in the main franchise. I’m not interested in deliberate tokenism and marginalization; gotta deal with that enough already.

  37. That’s so funny about The Walking Dead, every gamer I’ve talked to who played it thinks it’s super boring as well. I thought the slow pace made the zombie sequences seem way more exciting. That said, the amount of time in that game I spent looking for virtual batteries really made me question my life choices.

    I get that you’re not the most hardcore gamer ever, but god there are so few people out there (at least in the mainstream of videogame journalism) who can really think critically about their experiences, know tons about narrative/have professional experience crafting it, and also write.

    As for Infinite and market share, I suspect a large portion of those gains (which, woo I’m excited about, don’t get me wrong) come from mobile, but that’s a whole other conversation about the future of the medium. And you’re right, I should expect better from the industry.

  38. I’ve read plenty about Bioshock: Infinite, enough to know I don’t ever want to play it. I’d seen plenty of discussion of its dangerous “both sides are equally bad” portrayal of race relations.

    I had not previously been aware that Comstock/Booker is part-indigenous-American, so thank you for documenting that point. Yes, the whole “The racist is the thing they hate! Haha!” trope can take a running jump. It’s the racial equivalent of suggesting that a homophobe must be a homosexual person repressing their feelings. Both tropes are wrong, and harmful to real people.

    As for The Walking Dead series, it recent had exhibited a disturbing amount of ableism. Then the developers gave an interview where they grabbed a shovel and kept digging.

  39. I like Mass Effect for all the same reasons as you… plus a big cherry on top: everyone calls me by name.

  40. That is so true about Bioshock Infinite. I don’t know if you played any of the DLC packs but they did attempt to shoehorn, very poorly (hence my use of the word shoehorn), a noble reason into the story in regard to Daisy Fitzroy’s threatening that white child. It’s very clunky and it doesn’t work but perhaps they realized that they hadn’t made the enlightened, deeply thoughtful game that NPR reviewed them as. After playing the whole thing through I’m not sure whether the makers have ever met any human beings before. It was all very reductive and the on-rails gameplay got to be a little tedious after a while. Quite why it was praised as being philosophically and ethically complex, I am not sure. It did look very pretty though. Not as clever as it thinks it is. More racist than it’s willing to admit. So, in that regard, just like white people. I speak as a white male so hopefully this comment will not be trolled too much. :) Great reviews though.

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