Good art in gaming

So recently (as in over a month ago – I moved recently, give me a break) Cary over at Recollections of Play (great blog, check it out) posted an answer to the question, “are video games art?” The short version being yes, and the long answer being maybe if video games can be considered more than their code, cartridges and consoles. She raised some excellent points about how we define art and how that affects our views of what is and is not considered art. Great post, MS DOS is brought up, check it out.

Thing is, however, I’m not a big fan of the question.

Are video games art?

I hear or read this and my first response generally falls along the lines of, “Fuck off son, we’re doing this again?”

I mean, it’s been eleven years since Roger Ebert declared that “Video games can never be art” and seven years since he wrote an extended article on that subject, in which time we as a community have written millions of words that amount to “what the fuck did Roger Ebert know about video games anyway?” (something that Ebert himself reflected on only a few months later). Art is an experiential thing. Without an audience, without emotional interaction, a painting is just paint, a sculpture is just broken rock and a video game is just code. If you’re not part of the audience then you have no right to judge it either way, and those of us who do experience it – those of us who make emotional connections and find our thinking being adjusted – have generally come to the conclusion that yes, video games are indeed art (at least as much as any other narrative media). Much like hardcore pornography, it’s hard to define but we generally know it when we see it.

So, are video games art?

Well, yeah. We’ve all pretty much agreed on that right?

Now, before I go on I want to make it abundantly clear that I don’t think there is anything wrong with having this discussion. Such weighty concepts as the definition of art should be constantly debated, lest our culture stagnates or some fuckwit compares Justin Bieber to Tennyson or Shakespeare or Kanye. Nor am I saying that the opinions of those who disagree – those who say, “no actually, video games are not art” – are wrong. To the contrary, that’s a perfectly valid thing to believe and I’d love to hear your arguments as to why. There can be no debate without respectful opposition. I mean, I’ll probably still end up telling you to fuck right off, but that’s just how I converse with everyone.

No, my problem is not that people keep trying to answer the question, it is that we as a community keep asking it. Over and over and over again. Even after all these years we seem unable to move past it, and that’s a problem because this is first year – first semester – Bachelor of Arts shit. Philosophy 101. The introductory chapter of that far-too-expensive textbook.

So what question should we be asking? Let’s start with “what makes a video game good art?” and go from there.

Let me put it this way: we don’t have a video game equivalent of the film Citizen Kane, often called the perfect movie, something that was pointed out by Roger Ebert himself. But then again, how the fuck would we know? Citizen Kane is considered a masterpiece because enough people – whose opinions we as a culture consider to be expert – tell us it is a masterpiece. They tell us that, according to the technological limits of the time, the direction and photography is perfect. They tell us that the acting is incredible. They tell us the script is superb. They tell us the story is incredible. They don’t tell you that you need to enjoy the movie to recognise it as a masterpiece (I personally think it is boring as fuck), but recognise it as a masterpiece you must. They have criteria, which the film in their subjective but educated opinions meets, so it is a perfect film.

We need our own. Narrative, gameplay, mechanics, style. What boxes need to be ticked, what weight should we place on the importance of each, and does a good game necessarily need to be good art? If we don’t figure this shit out then we won’t know when that perfect game comes along, or if it already has.

So yeah, video games are art. Now let’s start arguing about what video games are good art.

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Hopes, dreams and more than a few memories: On Age of Empires 4

I must have been ten years old when I was given the Age of Empires deluxe pack. I can’t remember if it was Christmas or my birthday, but I remember it was my Aunt who gave it to me. First game, second game and their respective expansions across four CD-Roms, an artbook and a manual. Goddamn, remember when there were manuals? Lotta kids don’t.

It’s what we had before wikis were a thing, children.

Anyway, I played hours and hours of those two games, especially the second. The first was and remains a classic, of course, but Age of Empires II: Age of Kings stands in my mind as the pinnacle of real time strategy games, something that I reckon a lot of people would agree with. And it wasn’t just me: my parents played almost as many hours as I did (mum, in particular, was fucking ruthless). I remember watching that opening cinematic for the first time, the excitement and joy, the exuberance at what I was going to be able to do. What I would build and what I would destroy. The theme became a key part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

After Age of Empires came Age of Mythology. Again I found myself disappearing into an epic world of Ensemble Studios’ creation for days at a time, leading armies of Centaurs, Valkyries and Anubites against the poor bloody infantry of my many, many enemies. The first time I watched a cyclops pick some unfortunate pixel bastard up and toss him across the map was pure magic. It was about this time that my brother started playing video games – too young to fight a campaign, he’d park himself on the scenario creator and put together epic battles of blue versus red. Christ, I wonder if he remembers that. He must do. I should ask him one of these days.

Finally came Age of Empires III. Fuck me dead, the base game came out in two-thousand-bloody-five. That’s twelve years ago. I’m getting old. Anyway, whereas the first three base games (and their expansions) from the franchise were instant classics, AoE III was not. Now I’m not denying a bias on my part, I was deeply disappointed by this game and its expansions, but it received mixed reviews across the board and hasn’t found its way onto any “best ever” or “most influential” lists that I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I played through the game. I built up my home city, burned my enemies’ colonies and bought all the expansions hoping that it would get better, but it never did.

For me, I think the most disappointing thing about it was the campaign, a fucking ridiculous tale about multiple generations of a family fighting an evil secret society that wants to obtain the fountain of youth. No, really, that was what the campaign was about. Compared with the simple yet stunning campaigns of AoE II, which allowed me to follow in the footsteps of William Wallace, Atilla the Hun, Joan of Arc, Frederic Barbarossa and Saladin, it was ridiculous and riddled with cliches. Even when AoE III‘s second expansion, The Asian Dynasties, brought the story campaign back to actual history, they failed to understand that a bit of solid voice over work, a decent script and a couple of sketches will create far more emotional investment than watching a tiny rendered figure, indistinguishable from all the other tiny rendered figures around him, committing seppuku ever could. Whereas Age of Kings cemented in me a love of history and will forever stand as one of my favourite examples of the possibility of interactive education, AoE III will forever stand as one of the games that left me the most disappointed.

Regardless, that last expansion was released in 2007. Microsoft would announce the closure of Ensemble Studios a year later, and one of the greatest franchises ever (despite a disappointing younger sibling) seemed to go out with a whimper.

Then 2013 came and an HD version of Age of Kings was released through Steam, to much fanfare. Not only that but two new expansion packs, The Forgotten and The African Kingdoms, have since been released. I can tell you right now, they hold up. But they weren’t a new game, and it didn’t seem like we were going to get one.

Until now.

Ye-heh-eah you gorgeous bastards! Ten years on and being developed by a different studio, but I haven’t been this excited about an announcement trailer in I don’t know how long.

Months. Years maybe. Man, I used to get so excited about new releases. I mean, I still do, but I’m not quite the rabid fanboy I used to be. Is that another sign of aging? Shite, it probably is.

Moving on, with Ensemble Studios no longer being a thing the reins have been passed over to Relic, famous for the Dawn of War and Company of Heroes franchises. Considering that this is really the only information we have so far, we really know fuck-all about the game. I mean, yeah, we don’t know the era or the art style, but we also don’t know much about the mechanics beyond that it will be an RTS. Of sorts. Whereas you know more or less what you’re going to get with other studios (you know roughly what a Firaxis turn-based game will look like, or how a Creative Assembly grand strategy game will work), Relic constantly shake up the formula, even within the same franchise as is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the profound difference between the first Dawn of War game (which had fairly standard RTS base-building and resource collecting mechanics) and the second (which played more like an isometric action RPG). In all likelihood Relic won’t shake up the classic AoE formula that much, but we can’t be certain.

I’m excited to learn more though. To find out how the mechanics will work, what era/s the game will be set in and how the campaign and single player will work. Who will I be able to play as and who will I be able to crush.

But as excited as I am, all this is tempered by the fact that I probably won’t be able to play it, at least not soon. I’m a Mac user, y’see, and this is a Microsoft game. There is every chance that this game will not be released on my platform of choice, at least not until well after the initial release. Yes, yes, I am aware that there are emulators and Bootcamp, but the former is generally pretty shit while my computer is getting too old and fat to adequately run the latter. It might be released on the X-Bone, but my experience with Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 on the 360 was not a positive one. So yeah, bit of a mood killer that. Almost as bad as how old I’m feeling as I write this.

Anyway, I’m still happy to see one of my favourite franchises, the series that more than any other got me into gaming, is returning; I’m glad to see it given to a studio with such a fantastic pedigree; and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to add another AoE game to the ‘Best of…’ lists. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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.

Rage wears out, or why I loved Logan

Well fuck me dead, that was intense.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Logan, now that I’ve seen it. Less, maybe. I think I was expecting less. Yeah, that sounds right. I mean, yeah, I thought this was gonna be bloodier than any of the Wolverine’s previous appearances on the big or small screen, but I wasn’t expecting quite so many limbs to go flying or quite so many people to get stabbed in the head. Certainly wasn’t expecting anyone to get shot with a harpoon gun.

I already knew the premise as well: Logan’s healing abilities are starting to fade. Injuries aren’t going away and his body is finally wearing out. He and Professor Xavier are the last members of the X-Men left. Bad shit, years of pain and trauma have left emotional scars if not actual ones. But mate, I wasn’t expecting the simple exhaustion that Logan seems to be feeling, the intense self-loathing and depression, the care he feels for the last person (and then people) he has left in the world.

There’s a compelling quietness to the film. Yes, the action is big and vicious and loud, but in between the violence is an outside view of normalcy. Laura, the young girl who shares Logan’s abilities and rage, is experiencing the world for the first time and she does so for most of the film utterly silent. Daphne Keen, the actress playing her, is spectacular, wearing a blank face devoid of expression (except when she’s gutting someone, of course) as she takes in the brave new sights. As a result every raised eyebrow or slightly wider-eyed stare stands out, becomes a vital clue in understanding her character’s development. Hugh Jackman is spectacular, old and tired and dying and drinking far too much. He looks old and tired and dying and like he drinks far too much, limping about in a bloody suit, hunched over and grey. He’s a man trying to isolate himself as much as possible from a world he very obviously no longer considers worth saving, waiting to die.

They’re two sides to the same coin. Or the same side to two different coins. One has seen too much of the world, the other not nearly enough. One is trying to enter the world and the other is trying to leave it. And then there’s Charles Xavier, wonderfully played by Sir Patrick Stewart, even older than Logan, his brain classified as a Weapon of Mass Destruction, haunted by events he cannot remember and Logan refuses to tell him about, but still so hopeful that Logan and Laura can find safety and family. He’s disappointed with Logan, and he’s disappointed with himself for not being able to help him. He sees in Laura that second chance, a final chance to help one Wolverine and perhaps prevent a second Wolverine from ever following that dark, bitter path.

Let’s be honest, I use the word deconstruction far too often when talking about films I like. I enjoy the word. More importantly I love tropes and archetypes, and enjoy any work of fiction that successfully pulls them apart and takes a deeper look. At first I thought that Logan was a deconstruction of the character. After all, throughout the X-Men movies it’s not the healing factor or the metal bones or the fucking romantic guilt-trips that define how his character acts (even my mum relieved there wasn’t any Jean Grey-stabbing nightmares like in every other fucking Wolverine film). No, what defined Logan was his constant primal rage, barely kept under control until it was needed and released. And here we see the results of a lifetime of rage and violence, how tired being angry all the time leaves you, and it ain’t pretty.

But he needs the rage, the anger, the violence. It’s as much part of him as his metal bones and claws, maybe in his genes. He needs it to fight and ultimately he needs it to win. He needs it to give Laura a chance to not need it herself. To be able to find peace and safety. Less a deconstruction, more of a confession and a trip through purgatory. This is who Logan is, this is the punishment for his sins, this is who Laura doesn’t have to be.

This isn’t the first time someone’s made a movie about a superhero worn down by battles and lost. The Dark Knight Rises tried it, Watchmen tried it, fucking The Wolverine tried it. Logan though, I think, is the first one to get right. A lifetime of rage is exhausting, but sometimes a person can’t go against their nature.

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.

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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.