Working through the backlog: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Evening folks and welcome to the first in a short but hopefully enjoyable series of reviews that don’t really matter but will hopefully kickstart a creative spark past the blockage formed by six-to-thirteen day work weeks and an absolutely fucked sleep cycle, since all the cocaine and hookers don’t seem to be doing the job anymore. Speaking of expensive hobbies: video games. Aren’t they great?

Yeah, I can still segue with the best of them.

As some of you might know, I spent a while in Canada. Away from a console for approaching two years I missed some of the biggest launches for some pretty huge franchises. I also missed the rather dismal launch of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which underperformed miserably compared to its brethren (but still made tonnes of money) and to many marked an ignominious shift in the famous franchise’s fortunes (sorry, I’ve been trying to increase my alliteration lately). And that’s a shame because it’s probably the most I’ve enjoyed a Call of Duty game in a long time.

Now, I’m talking solely about the single player. Haven’t sat down for a multiplayer session since Modern Warfare 2, what, seven years ago? Something like that. I like a bit of story behind my acts of virtual violence (alliteration) and better written dialogue then what a racist, homophobic thirteen year old (they’re all racist and homophobic) will scream through their overpriced headphones. Because that’s not an outdated joke at all.

So I sat down and played through the single-player campaign and the story was, honestly, not good. The narrative is riddled with ridiculous cliches and plot-holes, with an enemy so needlessly, impossibly evil that I simply cannot think up a good metaphor for how moronic Salem Kotch and the SDF are. The best I could come up with is that their delivery boys blow their own brains out if they don’t deliver the pizza in thirty minutes or less, and I fully acknowledge how lame that is. At one point Salem (stupid fucking name by the by) just demands that the player character and his mates surrender themselves for, I shit you not, “immediate execution!” I mean, c’mon, I get it. These guys have got the whole ‘death before dishonour’ thing going, but demanding that the opposing side literally just roll over and die is just stupid – and unrealistic – writing. I’d also really like it if we took the whole “villain shoots their own men to prove to the hero how much of a villain they are” trope out behind the shed and shot it, and having your antagonists openly and verbally declare their hatred of freedom is just a little bit too on the fucking nose. But hey, this is an American game.

Anyway, that’s just my issues with the villains. Don’t get me started on the casually telegraphed named character deaths, the obvious plot twists, the clunky dialogue, the main player character being given command (because of course the grizzled white American male is) despite the game itself pointing out what an incompetent leader he is, or the fact that the entire story (about two dozen missions all told – including side operations – across the solar system) apparently takes place in one fucking day. One. Fucking. Day.

And it’s tragic because between the stark design-by-committee cliches and abject paint-by-numbers bullshit you can see the seeds of a genuinely great story with some genuinely fantastic characters.

The actual idea of a heavily militarised former colony, with a culture that has diverged sharply not least due to the enormous distance from Earth and the hardships that entails, makes for a fascinating villain if done right (like in the books and Netflix series, The Expanse). Throw in the fact that the SDF military is full of robots (whereas we only ever see E3N on the UNSA’s side) and you could have had a really interesting difference of opinion. But instead of hardened and bitter frontiersman who’ve built a culture around the machines that have helped them survive in the cold regions of space, we got Space Nazi Jon Snow telling us how much freedom sucks.

Your wingman and best friend, Nora Salter, is a Lebanese woman (voiced by an American, but you can’t have everything). She’s smart, aggressive, opinionated and loyal to a fault. But instead of playing as this well-rounded foreign woman of colour we have to play as a generic grizzled American white guy.

And for all the awful dialogue and cliches, there are some beautiful moments. E3N’s sense of humour is delightful, and, to my shock, as telegraphed as their deaths were I found my heart-strings being tugged as named members of the crew began dropping. The underlying message, that good commanders need to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, and order those under their command to do the same if it means victory, starts off clunky but ultimately works out quite nicely with a solid emotional payoff.

This is a decent game, and with a bunch of little changes and a smarter story it could have been great. What a pity.

I actually enjoyed Ghost in the Shell… yeah, I know. Let me explain.

It was, of all things, a review by The Economist that finally convinced me to give the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell a chance. I mean, I make no secret of the fact that it’s one of my preferred sources of news and opinion (even when I disagree with them they always make a strong, considered and even-handed argument), but that’s generally of the political and economic nature rather than whether or not the latest sci fi blockbuster out of Hollywood is worth watching or not. I found the review refreshingly free of the moaning and biases that I usually see on the nerdier side of internet. It was the last paragraph that really got my attention though:

Not everyone is happy about the “rainbow casting”. When Ms Johansson was announced as the Major, the film was condemned online as another example of “white-washing”, that is, the Hollywood tendency to take Asian roles and hand them to white actors. You could argue, as Mr Oshii has, that the new “Ghost in the Shell” is separate from the old one, and that there is no pressing reason why an American film should be identical to a Japanese one, or why a cyborg should be Japanese in the first place. (In the manga comic that inspired the first film, Major is called Motoko Kusanagi, but has blue hair and pink eyes). And while that argument hasn’t won over the detractors, the fact is that its racial diversity is one of its most distinctive and laudable aspects. A mono-cultural city just doesn’t make sense in science fiction anymore. The “Ghost in the Shell” remake may not be as pioneering as the anime was, but its mix-and-match casting is the most truly futuristic thing about it.

Truth be told I was one of those detractors. And now that I’ve actually seen the film I can safely say that I still am. It’s hard not to cringe a little at the makeup and digital work meant to make Scarlett Johansson look more Asian, and a late movie reveal of the Major’s origins can be taken either as further evidence of white-washing or an ironic wink by a self-aware movie-maker (white male chief executive pushing his own views of physical perfection and racial identity) depending on how forgiving you’re willing to be. Probably it’s both.

There’s no denying that ScarJo does an amazing job with the role, playing the cyborg slowly reconnecting with her emotions, struggling to deal with the existential crisis and confusion that follows. I know this sounds odd, but she act like what I’d expect a cyborg to look like, small things that come off as intrinsically unnatural and veer towards the uncanny valley. Her walk most of all, a long and stiff stride without any of the sway and swagger you normally expect from movie heroines, but exactly what you’d expect from a robot. Am I saying that an Asian actress couldn’t have done just as good (maybe even better) a job? Of course I’m bloody not. Am I saying that they were right to pick Scarlett Johansson for one of the few lead roles that could be made available for an Asian actress? Again, of course I’m bloody not. But I can recognise a good performance when I see one, and that walk impressed me.

The whole cast impressed me, quite frankly. I was worried at first about Pilou Asbaek as Batou, mostly ’cause he didn’t sound like what I’m used to. His voice wasn’t deep enough and the accent was wrong. But I got over it quickly enough. In the anime Batou is this big, imposing dude who naturally fills any space he’s in, but not because he’s trying; because he just is a big, imposing dude. And Asbaek nailed it. Michael Pitt stomps about doing a fantastic cybernetic Frankenstein’s Monster, furious with the creators that rejected and left him to die (also big props to the sound editors who had him sounding like a glitching computer). I would have liked to have seen more of the rest of Public Security Section 9’s team (Ishikawa and Saito were always favourites of mine), but I liked their inclusion of new character Ladriya (played by Polish-Kurdish Danusia Samal). And then they had motherfuckin’ ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano playing Aramaki (with a perfect haircut), and that’s all I need to say about that casting choice.

The visuals are stunning, drifting over enormous concrete blocks and shining skyscrapers equally plastered with garish neon advertisements. Body modifications are common and usually gruesome, practicality regularly winning out over aesthetics. The fight scenes are violent (without being bloody, thankyou M-Rating) and range from graceful slow-motion gravity-defying shootouts, to quick, grim, gritty and frenetic room-clearing, all of it artfully shot. The special effects are a stunning mix of practical effects and CG.

And the complaints I’ve seen are often minor and ridiculous, the efforts of folk looking for something to complain about. One reviewer was annoyed that all of Aramaki’s lines are delivered in Japanese yet everyone understands him just fine, without any explanation given to the audience as to how this is possible. Mate, it’s a fucking sci fi film where people talk telepathically and you can download an entire language straight into your brain, they don’t need to explain every little goddamned detail. Another complained about the mid-movie twist being too predictable. Mate, this film is not going for subtlety (they telegraph who the real villain is in the first bloody scene). Sometimes it’s not about the audience learning the big secret, it’s about the characters learning what we already know. That’s what made Columbo so great. And anyone who reckons that this film isn’t philosophical enough, does not ask what it means to be human often enough, quite frankly doesn’t remember the original anime film. By the time we met the original Major Motoko Kusanagi she’d been going through an existential crisis so long it had gotten boring (it was the sequel that got heavy with the philosophical discussions).

This is the kind of solid scifi that delivers a message not by directly asking a question but by creating a world in which asking that question is necessary and inevitable.

I really enjoyed this film. But I can’t recommend it. The Economist is right the diverse cast was one of the cleverest parts of the world we see in the film, but the fact remains that all the characters with the most lines, except for Takeshi’s Aramaki, are played by white actors. They might have been good performances, but they were where the diversity was needed most. So I cannot recommend this film.

That’s the great tragedy of this film. It’s a good movie brought down by the poor choice of a good cast. What a shame.

Tracer might be gay but everyone wants to f*** Mercy (Part Three)

The ongoing success of a game, franchise or IP is reliant on its fan base, this much should be obvious. But is a fan base reliant on the fanart and fanfiction it produces and shares? That is a more difficult question to answer. In my (as always, admittedly uneducated and inexperienced) opinion the short answer is “no”. The longer answer is still “no,” only with a “but it’s still important to a great many fan communities, and clever developers and publishers recognise that fact” attached. But we’ll come back to this in a minute.

In Part One of this series I explained how the decision by Blizzard to put Tracer in a canonical same-sex relationship – thereby making her the first canon LGBTQI character in Overwatch – was the safe choice when considering the less-than-LGBTQI-friendly portion of the Overwatch community, since it didn’t affect their power-fantasies. Part Two I explained the “everyone wants to fuck Mercy” thing, how she is both the most conventionally physically attractive character on the roster (by current societal standards and stereotypes of beauty) and also fulfils the broadest range of character archetypes, making her the most appealing (fuckable) character on the roster. In this final post we’re gonna tie those two things together, and we’re gonna do that by talking about fanfiction. Buckle up kids, it’s gonna be a wild ride!

No. It isn’t. It’s actually pretty tame. I’m sorry for lying to you like that.

The easiest way to claim that Mercy is more popular than Tracer in the fanfiction/fanart community is to punch their names into a search engine and look at the numbers that come up. When I typed “Tracer Overwatch fanfic” into Google.com.au it came up with 112,000 results. Typing “Mercy Overwatch fanfic” on the other hand achieved about 225,000 results. Problem is that if you swap “fanfic” for “fanart” then Tracer is the winner, with about 725,000 results compared to Mercy’s 672,000 results. Not exactly a two-to-one difference like the former, but evidence against my argument nonetheless. Change things a little though, specify, add “Tumblr” on the end and the numbers change back: Tracer gets 794,000 results against Mercy’s 846,000. Trade “Tumblr” for “Twitter” and Mercy wins again with 774,000 results while Tracer languishes with a mere 536,000 results. But these numbers are malleable and inconsistent with each other, not to mention ever-changing (what is correct as I type this will be incorrect tomorrow). Punching certain words into Google (AUS) is simply not scientific, not to mention I can’t be arsed dragging up the numbers for every single character on the roster.

But I don’t really feel that scientific evidence is necessary to the point I’m trying to make. To quote The Castle, “it’s the vibe of the thing” that I’m trying to get at, and that vibe is that Mercy is the most appealing and, therefore, the most shippable.

For you folk who’re new to internet fandom – which I imagine is actually fuck-all of those reading this, but whatever – to “ship” characters (or sometimes real people) is to imagine them in a (usually) romantic or platonic relationship. It’s one of the most common themes in fan communities and the art they create, and Overwatch is no different. At least one website I’ve visited marks the original ship as being between Widow and Tracer, mostly because they were amongst the first characters revealed, and because of the Alive short that saw the two trying to actively kill each other (nothing says “I love you” like attempted murder). Another popular ship is between Soldier 76 and Reaper, two former friends and comrades ripped apart by jealousy and betrayal (again, attempted murder). But the most frequently shipped character that I have seen, personally, is Mercy.

Before everyone’s favourite sniper granny, Ana, was introduced I saw her frequently shipped with older heroes like Reinhardt or Soldier 76, the perceived maturity I mentioned last week placing her in a maternal role (while whoever she was paired up with filled in as dad). I’ve seen her laugh at Tracer’s enthusiastically delivered jokes, get drunk with Mei at a college party while talking microbiology, blush at the sight of Zarya at the gym, gently chide Junkrat for not caring more about his own safety as she patched him up, and be protected by an opposing Widowmaker. Most commonly though it’s Pharah that seems to have won her heart. The Pharmercy ship might be the most famous and popular ship in the community, it’s hard to say. It’s the vibe I get, but maybe I just follow a lot more artists that ship them than anybody else. Going back to Google again, however, and comparing Pharmercy against Widowtracer (as I said, arguably the original Overwatch ship), the former got 482,000 hits against the latter’s 232,000 hits. Even people who don’t agree with the ship acknowledge its popularity and prevalence in the community.

So what does this have to do with Blizzard’s decision to make Tracer its first canonically queer character? Well, let’s go back to that question I asked in the first paragraph and extrapolate (love that word) a little more on the answer.

Simple fact is that, in order to thrive, fan communities rely on new and canonical content from the owners and creators of that property. They need it to exist in the first place so of course they need it to continue. Yes, a fandom can putter on long after a property has effectively died. They can even grow, as new people discover these games, shows and books that have long since ended. I still saw fanwork for Psychonauts well before the prequel/sequel things were crowdfunded, and I still see fanwork of shows from the eighties and nineties that I haven’t even been looked at – as far as we know – for a reboot (Swat Kats fan for life motherfcuker). Shit, there’s a reason nostalgia-driven crowdfunding has been so successful and every other toy commercial is being remade. But for a fandom to really thrive it needs canonical updates from the creators (or the current owners, if the original creators aren’t available). Notice the sharp uptick in the Legend of Korra fandom’s artwork when the first preview for the new comic came out, or the art the appears whenever J.K Rowling mentions anything to do with the Harry Potter universe (I imagine mine wasn’t the only Tumblr dash swamped with images of Professor McGonagall announcing her retirement after Rowling announced that it was one of Harry Potter’s sons’ first day of school).

This doesn’t mean that fan communities can’t self-perpetuate (fucking hell, a fair few modern reboots and at least one recent movie I can think of could very easily be called fanart or fanfiction), but even the eternal fandoms (Star TrekStar WarsDoctor Who, Studio Ghibli etc) keep on fighting the good fight waiting for new, official, canon material to be released.

But that doesn’t mean that fan art is unimportant. You dismiss it to your peril, and the peril of your bottom line. There’s a reason why most developer and publisher social media accounts will have days and competitions that highlight fanart (though rarely fanfiction). It’s creators connecting with creators. A very simple way to acknowledge and appreciate the people who love what you have made enough to make something of their own (and, let’s be honest, are providing a bit of free advertising as well), especially since these artists and writers – in my opinion – by their very nature tend to make up the loudest part of a fandom. So fucking be nice to them.

And that’s why Mercy couldn’t have gone down as the first canonical queer character. Because she’s the star of too much fanart and fanfiction.

Y’see, Blizzard had already announced plans to reveal characters as non-heteronormative well before the release of their Christmas-themed comic book (fuckin’ hell, this has taken me a long time to write) but there were only so many choices available to them in how the reveal would happen. A character simply announcing that they’re into the same gender would be considered half-arsed at best, awkward and shoehorned in the middle, and ignorable at worst. A bit of side-eye or flirting would amount to the same. So would, quite frankly, a character waking up from a one night stand. Yeah, I know, but a surprising number of people seem to think that sex doesn’t prove sexuality. You’d have more than a few blokes going, “yeah, Zarya woke up next to a strange woman she picked up at a bar in Vladivostok, but the rest of the time she’s all about the penises.” Well, maybe not in those exact words but you know what I mean. It comes from that same ridiculous and homophobic train of thought that produces lines like “how do they know they’re gay if they’ve never even fucked a [person of the opposite gender]” and “all that lesbian needs is for a man to give her a good fucking.” Additionally this would go against the character archetypes of quite a few Overwatch characters.

Now, that might all sound anecdotal (it is) and based on my own completely baseless opinions on the thought processes over at Blizzard (totally baseless), but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong (it probably does) and following this path (because it’s my blog and we’re gonna assume I’m right anyway) the best remaining choice for Blizzard was to put whichever character they chose into an actual long-term relationship (again though, totally baseless). Long term relationships – when they’re not being actively used to propel the conflict in a narrative – generally show a character happy, comfortable and content within their sexuality, whatever that may be, and make arguments by observers that “it’s just a phase” much more difficult (but fuckwits’ll do what fuckwits must anyway).

This raises a fresh question though: who do you put your character in a relationship with? Do you pair them up with another character from the roster, an already introduced character from the background lore or someone completely new?

Most likely it would be the former or the latter. Glancing through Blizzard’s released material there aren’t a whole lot of plausible candidates amongst its non-hero characters, but people love it when folk in the background are brought to the foreground. Again though, there’s not a tonne of options there so it would either be another hero or someone completely new.

The problem with putting two heroes together is that you’re revealing two characters are LGBTQI at the same time, and that is a risk I expect most developers (that don’t rhyme with “Mioware”) aren’t willing to take. People still got upset when they found out that Tracer was gay, and while Zarya might fit the cliche of the butch lesbian fuckwits would still have been annoyed to have it confirmed. Double the game characters coming out of the closet doubles the outrage from a single comic. Unless creators have a reputation for queer relationships (which Blizzard don’t) they just aren’t that brave. (How fucking sad is it that revealing characters as LGBTQI is still considered brave?) Creating a new character is the safest option, bringing outrage down to a minimum and giving the fans someone knew to draw or fit into their fanfictions. Thus we have ranga named Emily sharing an apartment with Tracer, officially and canonically pashing on the couch.

And everything ultimately comes back to that single word, with all its suffixes and synonyms. Canon. In order for them to reveal without any doubts that Tracer was gay (or Bi or Pan or whatever, labels suck) they had to put her into an official and canonical relationship with someone on the same end of the gender spectrum. And the simple fact was that Mercy was too popular to be put in a canon relationship.

Fandoms need canon material to thrive. Few things excite a fandom more than when a theory has been called correct or a favourite ship is made official (as the reactions to Bubbline and Korrasami’s official status amongst the Adventure Time and Legend of Korra fan communities, respectively, shows). But it de-legitimise fanart and fanfiction more often than it does the other way. How many fan theories have been brought down by a quick “nay” from an author, how many ships declared null and void when a favourite character hooks up with the wrong fucking person?

But thinking about fan reactions is important to a lot of creators, and Blizzard has a solid reputation for listening to and communicating with the fans of its game. And that’s why I don’t think we’ll ever see Mercy put in a canonical relationship. She’s just too bloody popular, and to put her in an official relationship would be to de-legitimise every single bit of fanart and fanfiction, every ship and theory, floating around the internet. Tracer was the safer option because her and Emily was less of a tragedy than what Mercy would have been.

Everyone wants to fuck Mercy, so no one can. At least that’s how I see things as having happened.

Sort of reminds me of how the Medieval church fetishised Mary (Jesus’ mum), but I wanna wrap this up so we might talk about the Virgin Mercy another time. Thanks for sticking with me. And seriously Blizzard, well done for putting your poster-girl in a same gender relationship. That took guts.

Tracer might be gay but everyone wants to f*** Mercy (part two)

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Guys, gals and preferred, I’m gonna be very blunt in my writing over the next few paragraphs, I’m a straight white male, I’m going to be assuming both knowledge and agreement over a few issues, and everything is going to be very anecdotal. That tends to make things a bit problematic, but I’m trying not to be. It’s just the way I tend to write things. I’ll also remind you that I don’t play Overwatch but am claiming peripheral awareness. Feel free to disagree with me, and please let me know why you disagree. Did I need another disclaimer after last week? Maybe. Fuck it, I felt like another disclaimer.

Alright, so last week I claimed Blizzard’s revelation that Overwatch poster-girl Tracer is not heteronormative (we discover in a Christmas comic that she’s in a romantic relationship with a ranga named Emily) was a laudable (seriously Blizzard, well done) but ultimately safe decision.

The first reason I gave for this is that, bluntly, making a character like Tracer gay (or however she identifies) is less likely to inspire the kind of hate or backlash that making any of the male characters would have. Tracer is a high speed manic pixie trickster and a joyful giggling optimist, so is already outside the brooding, hyper-masculine power fantasies of characters like Reaper and Soldier 76. Her being gay thereby doesn’t crush any fragile and probably homophobic masculine egos, thereby being the safe choice to put in a canonical same-sex relationship. At least to start with.

But today I want to talk about how Tracer is the safe choice when it comes to the ostensible pro-LGBTQI fandom as well, at least in the way Blizzard chose for her to “come out.” And for that we have to talk about how fuckable Mercy is in the eyes of the fandom. I’m not just talking aesthetically either, but that’s as good a place to start as any.

Let’s get it right out of the way, Mercy is the most conventionally attractive character in the Overwatch roster. She is the most objectively hot character in the game. Now, I know what you’re likely screaming impotently at your screens right now. That you can’t objectively judge a subjective topic like beauty and attractiveness, especially with regards to a fictional and stylised computer generated character. That my standards of beauty can’t be applied to others. You don’t think she’s all that hot. You prefer a woman with more curves or more angles or something. In fact, you don’t prefer a woman at all. You think I’m a fucking idiot and Bastion is the hottest character in the roster. Oh yeah, you want you some sweet, hot and oily robot lovin’. Well guess what? This is my article and my opinion is the only one that matters right now, and I say that Mercy is the most conventionally attractive lady on the roster.

In all seriousness, there are a number of attractive ladies (and lads… and robots) on the roster, but I’d argue that Mercy fills out more of the boxes than any of the others. White flawless porcelain skin, long-ish blonde hair, looks like she’s aged somewhere between 25 and 35, larger bust and hips but with a narrow waist. While other female characters are conventionally attractive, they don’t quite fill out a suit of flying armour like Mercy does. Pharah is muscular and aggressive looking, Zarya is just muscular, and Mei appears overweight. Symmetra and Sombra are dark-skinned and the Western culture that I am a part of has spent decades teaching the idea that brown is not beautiful and should quite frankly be ashamed of itself. D.Va is too young and Ana is too old. Even Widowmaker and Tracer, the femme fatale and the other petite-yet-curvy white girl, might be called too stylised (I’ve read more than one comment about Tracer’s “anime hair”). Now, while you can argue that none of the characters are unattractive and will appeal to a wide variety of tastes, fact is that institutionalised sexism and racism are – ironically – equal opportunity employers. So I stand by my remark. By current standards of beauty, Mercy is the most attractive female character on the roster.

Do I personally think she’s the hottest character on the roster? I don’t know man, Sombra looks fun and Reinhardt seems like he’d be a tender lover.

But it goes beyond looks. Honestly, how conventionally attractive a character is doesn’t really mean much when it comes to fanfiction and fanart. If you’ve ever perused a fanart board (I don’t use the word “peruse” nearly often enough) you’d know that what a character actually looks like matters very little. Fuck all. Changing weight, gender, body hair, race, disabilities and age are just par for the often unsettling and frequently prejudiced course. Good fanart, however, stands out when it maintains the personality of the character despite these changes. You might draw a punk rock Pocahontas, but she better have a garden and play her wooden electric guitar beneath a willow tree. Definitely have a mohawk. So yeah, it’s all about the personality, corny as that shit sounds, and it’s her personality that makes Mercy so fuckable. Corny as that sounds.

More accurately it’s the collection of tropes that she fills, tropes that other characters do not, which appeal to a wide variety of kinks, fetishes and interests. Taking a walk through TV Tropes (as you might have noticed, one of my favourite sites to take a walk through) it’s not hard to find that she fills a number of archetypes. Her height alone (she’s 200cm according to the game’s website, about six foot six) makes her a Statuesque Stunner, while her place in an arena shooter makes her an Action Girl by default. But her position as healer, her apparent pacifism, and her choice of aesthetic makes her a White Magician (and her place in the party makes her a Combat Medic). It being a fairly feminine aesthetic (not quite tit-armour but it’s more than a little form-fitting, and very clean) makes her a Girly Bruiser.

I could go on. And I will, in a moment. The point I’m making here is that she falls within a broad range of archetypes, possibly even the broadest of all the characters on the roster. Just looking at the lady characters Pharah is a Hot Amazon (as is, arguably, Zarya); Widowmaker is not, despite the accent, a Femme Fatale, but she is a Manchurian Candidate, arguably a Lady of War and the falls under the broad Ice Queen umbrella; D.Va is an Ace; Tracer is a rather Nice Tomboy and Genki Girl. Now I’m not saying they don’t themselves slot into other archetypes than the one’s I’ve mentioned, just not as attractively as the broad range that Mercy does. And then there’s the archetypes that the fans have put her into, in the art and fiction not put out by Blizzard. The ‘fanart’ and ‘fanfiction’ if you will. Crazy, right?

What I mean is that there are certain roles that the fandom has applied to her that they haven’t really applied to the others. A lot of this is because of relatively unconscious assumptions based on stereotypes drawn from the official character background. In a little plainer English, we draw automatic conclusions about a personality from what we know about a person’s background, and that goes doubly for fictional characters. Mercy is Swiss, so we expect her to be efficient and punctual. Mercy wears flying, angelic ‘Valkyrie’ armour, so we expect her to be partial to the odd bit of Wagner. She’s a doctor and so we bloody assume. We assume she’s educated, because doctors are educated by default. We assume she’s disciplined because getting that education requires discipline. Because Mercy is a female doctor, we assume kindliness and good bedside manner (because only male doctors in pop-culture are arseholes). Most of all we assume that she is mature. Paternal. She becomes an Action Mum, a Substitute Parent, the Team Mum, or at the very least a Big Sister character, at least in the fanfiction and fanart.

And that’s what we’re gonna finish on next week. Swear to God it won’t take me another month and half. Pinky promise.

Tracer might be gay but everyone wants to f*** Mercy (Part one)

Let me put it right out there, I don’t play Overwatch. Two main reasons for that. One, I didn’t have access to a computer or console capable of playing the game when it came out, and I’ve never had a great experience joining a dedicated multiplayer community months after a game’s release. Two, I don’t play multiplayer games anymore. Haven’t for years, they’re just not for me. But in this day and age with a property as big and pervasive as Overwatch that doesn’t really mean a bloody thing. Sort of like how you don’t have to have ever seen an episode of Doctor Who to know what a Dalek’s favourite word is. More importantly for this particular conversation, the community and fandom that’s grown around the game since its release is a vocal one, as is to be expected from a Blizzard property. Being such a major property means that news is covered by the mainstream gaming press, since what happens with the game, surrounding media and community can have long-reaching repercussions for the medium. So if you care about gaming culture at all you care about what’s happening around Overwatch, and keeping an eye on the what’s what is as simple as visiting a few sites regularly, following a few mates’ social media and signing up for a Tumblr account. What I’m saying is that while I don’t play the game and am not a member of the fandom and community, I feel like I know enough to have an opinion on the matter. If you disagree let me know and I’ll happily tell you why your opinion doesn’t matter. Well, this has been a very long and possibly unnecessary paragraph. Fuck it, I felt the need for a disclaimer.

tracer-mercy

Alright, so, the other day Blizzard came out (heh) and released a Reflections comic centred around the character Tracer as she searched for the perfect gift for her romantic partner, a woman named Emily. Now once you get over the shock that a badass, time-hopping, cockney test-pilot is attracted to gingers, you might also note that Emily is in fact a lady, making Tracer the first canonically LGBTQI character in Overwatch‘s roster of playable heroes. As best I can tell she’s the first canonically LGBTQI major character in any of Blizzard’s properties (Blizzard fanboys feel free to correct me if this is wrong), and she’s not a small character either, having been included to some extent in several different videos (alongside Reaper and Widow), and is the face on the bloody packaging. She’s quite literally the poster girl for the game, so writing her as LGBTQI is no small thing. Blizzard deserves some respect for that, even if they also wrote her as being keen on rangas. Good for them. And yet I can’t also help but feel like Tracer was the safe choice to give a girlfriend.

Why is that? Well, let’s start with the lack of backlash. Now, I’m not denying that there was backlash from the less-than-stellar members of the Overwatch fandom, there definitely was. Demands for refunds on the Overwatch community boards and the like (with at least one great reply that it was too late, their money was gay now) popped up almost instantly. Upset lads declared that Tracer was no longer their “waifu.” There was anger that once again a game company was shoving their SJW/PC agenda down the white male consumer’s throat.

Usual homophobic shit that I imagine by this point most companies and developers just ignore, that being the easiest option and their opinion meaning about as much to Blizzard as my opinion does to the French (the champagne-guzzling poncy socialist bastards). But these are the kind of folk who’d throw a hissy if the comic had merely revealed that Tracer’s unseen third cousin Terry had brought his ‘special friend’ to the family dinner a couple nights back (and gran was not impressed). Any sexual inclusiveness at all was gonna receive some hate. Because some people are just arseholes.

Thing is though, Tracer being gay (or bi or however she identifies) doesn’t  effect the fantasy for a lot of other arseholes. Bloody hell, I suspect a few would reckon adding Emily into the mix an improvement on their fantasies. Which is gross, but arseholes generally are. But could you imagine the kind of backlash that might occur if Blizzard released a comic revealing Reaper or Soldier 76 – the characters meant to appeal most to teenage boys afraid of bright colours and the CoD crowd respectively – in a same-sex relationship? Mate, mate, mate, now that would ruin a few angsty adolescent empowerment fantasies right there. If you don’t think that would spark the kind of massed nerd-boy outrage that even monoliths like Blizzard and Activision would not be able to ignore, then you’re either part of the problem or are completely oblivious to it (in which case, welcome to the internet!)

I’d say this can be applied to any of the male characters, from Mcree to Genji to Reinhardt (with the possible exception of Junkrat and Roadhog, who are obviously a couple), but Reaper and Soldier 76 are the most obvious examples of the male empowerment fantasy that come to mind, with their gravelly voices, jaded anger and cynical worldviews. Tracer on the other hand, the cheerful laughing manic-pixie speedster, already falls well outside this fantasy of stoic masculine power. So making her gay is not as big a deal. She’s a safe option in that respect, one of the least likely to crack those fragile male egos and cause the shedding of bitter male tears.

Y’know what? I honestly doubt that Blizzard would have even dared thinking about announcing a canon LGBTQI male-identifying character first. A lesbian is far more acceptable (’cause lesbians are hawt) and a good way to measure the response to differing sexual orientations in your audience, even if in most mediums they have a pretty low survival rate. Especially recently.

Here’s the funny thing though, she was also the safest bet when considering the pro-LGBTQI Overwatch fandom as well. The artists, the identifiers and the shippers. Because, as I mentioned in the title, everyone wants to fuck Mercy.

Come back next week to find out what I’m talking about.

On DA:I, Varric Tethras and Cassandra Pentaghast.

It’s been about a month since I got back to Australia and I’ve been busy. Ish. Busy-ish. Usual stuff, meeting people I haven’t seen in nearly two years, drinking, looking for work (’cause as I’ve established before, cocaine and hookers are expensive), and replaying Dragon Age: Inquisition. One of my favourite games from one of my favourite developers (as I’ve established before, I am a raging Bioware fanboy), I figured that before I settled into a long slog with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Rise of the Tomb Raider I’d start a new playthrough and play through the DLC I’ve missed.

So I’ve immersed myself in the world of Thedas once again, and I gotta say it is great. It’s great to once again explore the expansive universe – the lore, the gossip, the politics – and dive into the intricacies of the main plot and smaller side quests. And of course, it’s great to be back amongst old companions. It’s funny how attached you grow to fictional characters, how invested you get into their interpersonal relationships, and I’ve been loving listening to my party members’ banter with each other as we stab our way across Thedas. But as my elf rogue murdered yet another group of heavily armed strangers (who may or may not have been bandits) and the game decided it had been long enough since the last time any party members had spoken to each other, I came to a startling conclusion. Namely that Varric Tethras is a massive dick towards Cassandra Pentaghast. No, really.

Cassandra was apologising, y’see, about nearly decking Varric earlier that morning after discovering that he had in fact known the whereabouts of Hawke all along. That might count as a spoiler for DA:I (and probably DA2) but honestly you’re probably not reading this if you don’t know the exact moment I’m talking about already, and it’s otherwise not a big enough spoiler to worry about (even the characters point out how telegraphed it is). Anyway, Cassandra tries to apologise (quite sincerely, I might add) for letting her temper get the better of her and almost punching him, and Varric sarcastically remarks that “I’ll mark this on my calendar! Cassandra had a feeling!” I mean, c’mon man, she knows she did wrong and she’s trying to say sorry. Maybe you can cut her a little slack?

This was just the point that I noticed how one-sided much of the animosity was. Earlier in their conversation cycle Varric makes a point of insinuating that Cassandra doesn’t have any friends, and that the only way she was capable of recruiting people for the Inquisition was through kidnapping and threats. While Cassandra is somewhat deserving of these remarks – she certainly comes off as guarded and prickly through most conversations, obviously doesn’t have a whole lot of friends, and did actually ‘arrest’ and threaten both Varric and the player’s Inquisitor – it still feels uncalled for, partly because of all the attempts that Cassandra makes to reach out to Varric; partly because she’s a professional; and partly because she’s a massive fan of his.

On the first point, as I’ve already mentioned, Cassandra makes the point of apologising when she does wrong. She also makes the point of trying to start a conversation about the rebuilding efforts in Kirkwall, a conversation that Varric shuts down pretty harshly. And while admittedly Cassandra doesn’t show a great deal of gratitude to Varric for sticking around to help the Inquisition out shanking demons, it’s not all that surprising that she might be a touch suspicious of Varric’s motivations (he is a somewhat notorious liar and opportunist, even if he is a sentimental one).

The third point, that Cassandra is a massive fan of Varric’s work, I find his behaviour to be most unusual. Varric is protective of much of his work (when the Inquisitor asks questions about his Tale of the Champion, saying the wrong thing can lead to disapproval) even if he feigns nonchalance (I’ve really gotta use that word in more of my writing, sounds so sexy). An entire set of War Table operations is devoted to tracking down some arsehole who wrote an unnofficial and terrible sequel to Varric’s most successful work, Hard in Hightown. And Cassandra is a massive fan of his, reading Tale of the Champion twice, making a comment on the difference in writing style between Hard in Hightown and its atrocious sequel, and reading and rereading her copies of his Swords and Shields romance serial, going giddy with relief and excitement when he presents her with the next issue after a cliffhanger. She even asks him for advice writing, to make her reports more interesting. Quite frankly, while it seems that everyone has read Varric’s work, Cassandra is his only open fan in the Inquisition. Yet it just becomes another point of mockery in his arsenal against her. Writing the next issue to Swords and Shields is just another joke to him and her request for advice is met with a half dozen synonyms calling her boring. I mean, it just feels like a really shitty way to treat someone who respects your abilities and loves the work you produce.

But it’s on the second point, that Cassandra is a professional, that I really want to focus on. Because Varric generally respects professionals, but he tends to hold grudges and perhaps doesn’t fully understand Cassandra or her motivations. Cassandra is a fairly typical strong woman archetype, but not nearly so two-dimensional as to fit any single stereotype. She’s a character defined by a determination forged through faith. She has a job and wants to see it done as best she is able, is an idealist and an optimist, but never strays across that line from professionalism towards fanaticism. Because fuck fanaticism. Seriously that is probably the moral of the whole game, comparing the “at-all-costs” and “any-means-to-an-end” attitudes of the (spoiler alert) Venatori, Templars, Mages and Grey Wardens who at various points oppose the player, with the cool professionalism of the Inquisitor’s advisers and companions. The good guys fight for a cause without sacrificing the world, and are able to distance themselves (with varying levels of success) from the bloody work that needs to be done saving it. Fanatics are the evil bastards who’ll sacrifice everything to get what they think they want, and they need to be stopped.

That’s not to say that there aren’t members of the Inquisition who aren’t fanatics, and that your companions aren’t sociopaths. They absolutely are. There’s a good chance your Inquisitor is as well. But all of them, the ones you see at least, from The Iron Bull to Sera to Cassandra to Cullen, are professionals about it. Maybe not Solas. But fuck Solas. Guy’s a racist arsehole.

So Cassandra is a professional. Just doing her job. Her job is either stabbing people or threatening to stab people. She’s pretty good at it. So why doesn’t Varric respect that? He respects other people for it, as we see time and again. When the Inquisitor asks why Varric isn’t the spymaster instead of Leliana he flat out tells you that it’s because she’s better at the job, because of her ability to distance herself from her agents and informants. She’s more professional about it. Varric’s language about Cullen and Josephine follows a similar bend, with him remarking about how effective at their jobs they are. He talks about his editor – who once murdered someone over incorrect punctuation – quite highly, and while he disparages the Dwarven Merchant’s Guild, Carta and Coterie regularly he still shows genuine respect to their members who know what they’re doing and do it well. I can’t even be bothered to go into the examples from DA2 beyond just pointing at Aveline and Isabela, on opposite ends of the legal spectrum, who Varric simply accepts and befriends, completely understanding and forgiving threats of arrest or the occasional betrayal.

What I’m getting at is that Varric is supposed to be the sort of guy who would accept an excuse of “nothing personal, it’s just business.” So why doesn’t he accept that about Cassandra? She needed information about Hawke, and he was not forthcoming about that information until threats (and actual violence) were used. Well, the easy answer to that is to say that Varric holds grudges. We saw it with his brother, we see it with anyone else that directly harms him or those closest to him. But then why doesn’t he hold the same level of grudge against Leliana (who if not a direct participant, tacitly approved of Cassandra’s interrogation) or against other earlier members of the Inquisition, like Cullen?

My guess is that it’s because he thinks he understands the others’ motivations better than he understands Cassandra’s. By the time we get to DA:I Leliana has gotten dark and violent, ordering executions, assassinations and sacrifices without hesitation in the name of duty (thank god that duty includes saving the world) beyond making sure she’s shanking the right bloke, bird or miscellaneous. But she’s also an incredibly loyal person, and Varric can see that there was something more to her relationship with Divine Justinia, something unquantifiably deep, that was lost when Justinia was assassinated. Varric understands the desire for revenge and the mixed feelings it produces. Cullen is driven by his failures, as a commander and as a person, haunted by failing to prevent the spectacular destruction of the Fereldan and Kirkwall Circles of Magi and blaming perfectly innocent mages in between. Again, Varric understands feeling of failure, personal and professional (yes I know I’ve been using that word way too much in this essay, piss off, you’re not that perceptive… sorry, don’t piss off, I need you).

But Cassandra is driven in her duty not by vengeance and failure, but by her faith in the Maker, his plan and his institutions (even if she believes they needed to be changed). Varric doesn’t understand faith, quite understandably. He has issues with trust, let alone something even more indefinable and intangible like faith. It freaks him out. Cassandra isn’t the only one who suffers from Varric’s incomprehension. In DA2 Prince Sebastien, squeaky clean and fresh back from the priesthood to avenge his murdered family, is a similar subject of mockery for his virtue and righteousness despite never once stabbing a book in Varric’s lap. So because Varric is unable to understand her motivations, he is unable to brush off her actions as just “doing her job.” That makes it a personal attack, even when it shouldn’t, and Varric holds grudges. For most of the game, at least.

Towards the later game the banter between the two shifts, becoming less confrontational and even friendly. They develop a certain intimacy thanks, in no small part, to Cassandra’s own sense of fairness and genuine honesty. They appreciate each other, and become companions even they don’t necessarily become friends, joking about the book stabbing with each other instead of at each other. Attachment and sentimentality and all that. There’s even suggestion that they continue travelling together even after the Inquisition has completed its mission, something which both find crazy but not impossible.

So what’s the point to all this? Just wanted to point out some great writing, basically. I’d call this one of the most interesting and layered relationships in the game, and they do it with a couple pages of dialogue and some great voice acting. Not much more to it than that.

Halloween night in New Orleans

It’s going to be a long night.

That’s not hard to figure out. There’s a group of about eight or nine of us, all staying at the hostel or working there or both, and we hit Bourbon street not long before midnight. Late in some cities, early in others, and in New Orleans it’s right on time.

I’ve actually dressed up (to my great shock) and there’s fake blood liberally splattered beneath my mouth, through my beard, and strategically painted across my face. I’m going for a vampire look – the violent, brutal extensions of eastern European myths and metaphors for sexually transmitted diseases kind of vampire, not the sparkly kind – and I think I pull it off. I even bought some fangs, but the instructions were more complicated than I was expecting. After about ten seconds of consideration I said “fuck it” and just touched up the blood on my neck.

We don’t care much about Halloween in Australia. Truthfully I don’t think many countries do. From what I’ve seen of the world so far Canada cares a fair bit and that’s about it. Maybe Mexico does as well, what with the Day of the Dead happening at the same time, but I’d want to ask a Mexican about that before making any claims. For the rest of us it’s just another excuse to drink (as if we needed an excuse), maybe an excuse to drink in a shitty costume that we’ve applied the bare minimum of imagination to creating. Maybe.

But in New Orleans Halloween is an event, a party that stretches across the week and weekend before until all involved are exhausted and badly hung over. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Lights on, shirts off, knickers most decidedly in a twist as they creep up the bum of a rather sexy looking nun.

We hit the street, most of us having put some bit of effort into their costumes, one person running through the usual range of typically Aussie jokes that border on the dad-territory to laugh off not bothering (“I’m dressed as a bloody legend!” etc.) I laughed, so I guess it worked.

Bourbon Street is bedlam. Hundreds of people out and about, enjoying the last night (the actual night) Halloween. We spot a dozen Where’s Wallies (he’s usually much better at hiding) and at least two popes. Suicide Squad style Harley Quinn’s and Jokers are the most common, and that’s a little disappointing as a fan of the character. I feel better when I see a more traditional Harley roaming the streets with a Poison Ivy. Not even five minutes in there’s a drink in everyone’s hand (except one guy who doesn’t drink) and we’re crossing between bars, yelling in each others ears and watching the crowd. Up on the rafters people are screaming at random passers-by and hurling beads almost at random. A guy flashes his tits and gets a handful of beads as well. None of the female revellers are quite so bold, surprisingly enough. Or not surprising. It’s not fucking Mardi Gras. Still they get beads tossed at them by strangers, and I can’t help but feel people have a real misunderstanding of demand-side economics.

Someone swears creatively enough to get everyone’s attention and we turn to see three people in a group human centipede costume being led on a leash by a fourth. They’re bloody and wearing naught by bandages, noses near enough to each other’s arses that they’d know the exact moment the person in front of them last showered. The most frightening thing is that they’re on their hands and knees, crawling along the road. Crawling along fucking Bourbon Street, with its eternal puke and trash puddles, studded with broken glass and plastic. They’re gonna be sick tomorrow. But it’s a calculated risk, ‘cause they immediately draw a circle of admirers getting following along and trying to get that perfect shot. Good for them.

We get into a bar and there’s a band playing, a cowboy is singing and a ghoul is playing a mean guitar. One of the female singers is wearing a leather boob-tube and briefs. The cowboy remarks that he has no idea what she was dressed as, but it doesn’t matter. She still looks great. They play covers, play them well, and we pile onto the dance floor, bouncing in that way that people do when they’re trying to avoid spilling drinks. I’m on my second or third since hitting Bourbon Street, with a few before that.

It’s going to be a long night.

I fucking love New Orleans. It’s a filthy, dirty city with an incomparable life of its own. It’s a tourist town, most definitely, but one that people actually live in. There’s construction all over the place, honest industry and all that jazz (heh). More than that people are good in this city. They nod and smile as you walk past, are quick to shoot the shit and unafraid to help a stranger with a foreign accent.

And it is absolutely bonkers at the best of times, only growing more insane during its festivals and holidays and parades. The night after Halloween the local bicycle club rode past the hostel. Dozens of bikes lit up with neon and carrying blaring music from speakers on trailers or hitched to the seats. I mean, that just doesn’t happen in other cities, at least not in the same way because this, this is normal.

What’s also normal is drinking. We pass from one bar to another, hopping over puddles and picking our way through the crowd and debris of a city wide party. More bands, more music, more alcohol. Our group gradually dwindles, as is inevitable on any pub crawl. People get tired, people get too drunk and high, people need to go to work the next day (massive respect to the Brazilian who needed to attend a convention the next morning – and did – but still made it to three in the morning).

I’m on the rye and ginger ale, which I’ve got a taste for at the moment. Probably go back to scotch and cokes when I get back to Australia (can’t ever shake those bogan beginnings) but for now I’m enjoying the smooth sweetness. I flirt with people unsuccessfully. We keep drinking. It’s as easy as breathing, what with the ability to walk the streets legally with your grog in hand and the low, low prices (even in the tourist areas). I mean, it’s not always cheap, but you get a high alcoholic content for your buck (I nearly gagged on one drink that was mostly bad whiskey).

Eventually I get separated from the group. Long story that’s not very interesting. Time to make a decision. We’ve been making our way down Bourbon, with the intention to make our way to the party on Frenchman but we haven’t even made it halfway down. So that’s the way I head.

It’s not so much that the party’s winding down so much that it’s settling down. Folk have paired off or found the bar or event they want to end the night on. The crowd on the street is thinning, leaving a thicker layer of refuse than what I imagine is normal. More great costumes though, more to be seen and done.

It’s still going to be a long night.