Persona 4 and LGBT Characters in Videogames

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How many gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender characters can you think of from videogames? I’m willing to bet that you could count them on one hand. Issues of gender and sexuality aren’t often addressed in games and when LGBT characters are included they’re often played for laughs or reinforce stereotypes; Erica Anderson, the trans waitress from Catherine, springs to mind. There are some notable exceptions however and the inimitable JRPG/Social sim Persona 4 prominently features characters who struggle with their gender and sexuality.

In the course of investigating some mysterious disappearances from the sleepy town of Inaba, you discover an alternate, fog-shrouded world filled with monsters called ‘Shadows’ that can only be accessed through TV sets. When people are taken into this parallel dimension, the elements of their psyche that they are repressing manifest themselves in the form of dungeons, monsters, and a shadow version of themselves whom they must accept in order to overcome their fear and escape the TV world. When Kanji Tatsumi disappears, the version of the TV world that presents itself is a seedy bathhouse and his Shadow appears in the form of an obscenely flamboyant and stereotypical version of himself complete with lisp, scanty attire, and homoerotic quips.

This is, obviously, an absurd caricature of a gay man but that is how the game’s shadow worlds present themselves; as perversions of reality created by the characters as a result of the disconnect between their ‘true’ selves, whom they are repressing, and the way that they feel they should be based on societal norms. After Shadow Kanji is defeated by the party, Kanji accepts that this alter ego is a part of himself but he doesn’t make any clear outward declaration that he is gay or bisexual and there has been a great deal of debate over his sexuality.

Many players don’t accept this interpretation of Kanji and believe, instead, that he is not conflicted over his sexuality as much as his masculinity. Kanji likes embroidery and dolls and other ‘unmanly’ pursuits that lead him to overcompensate with machismo. It’s also worth remembering that, as a Japanese game, Persona 4 is the product of a culture that thinks about issues of sexuality in a wholly different way to our own. Regardless of whether or not Kanji is attracted to men, the fact that this ambiguity exists is in and of itself a step in the right direction. There aren’t many games that earnestly try to address the inner turmoil that many teenagers face over the way that they are and the way that they ‘should be’.

Persona 4 doesn’t always get it right however. Kanji’s sexuality and masculinity are often made the butt of the joke by other characters and his attraction to another boy at school – Naoto Shirogane – is made more ‘acceptable’ when it’s discovered that Naoto is actually female. Like Kanji, Naoto struggles with her identity. Dubbed the ‘Detective Prince’ by the media, Naoto is introduced to the player as a freelance detective working with the police to solve the mystery of the recent disappearances and she is introduced as male.

As the game goes on, you discover that Naoto is actually biologically female but living her life as a man and, much like Kanji, the game is mostly earnest in its portrayal of Naoto as a trans man and her inner struggle with her gender identity. Unfortunately, this portrayal falls slightly flat when it’s revealed that Naoto chooses to live as a man to better fit her preconceived notion of what a ‘hard-boiled’ detective should be. Much like Kanji, Naoto’s motivations and character are left open to interpretation but, again, there aren’t many games that deal with non-binary gender identities in a meaningful and sincere way; Persona 4 should be praised for that.

While Persona 4 doesn’t always get it right, so to speak, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction and, with Persona 5 due out later this year, I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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Unreal Engine 4 Tech Demo Displays Ultra-Realistic Graphics

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You could be forgiven for thinking that this is a real photograph of a real flat but you would be wrong. It is, in fact, a screenshot taken from a recent Unreal Engine 4 tech demo by 3D artist and level designer Benoît Dereau. Since it’s unveiling at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2013, scores of demos have emerged that display the graphical power offered by the latest iteration of the Unreal Engine but none have been as shockingly realistic as this piece of fairly mundane scenery.

The textures, reflections, and lighting on display in this demo – available for download at Dereau’s website – are all incredibly lifelike and, when brought together, are more than the sum of their parts. The walls and ceilings are covered in lush patterns, there’s dynamic sunlight flooding in through the windows, and the textures all have incredibly fine detail; it’s almost as if you could reach out and touch it. In short, it’s impressive. Even when the subject matter is as ordinary as a Parisian flat – or perhaps because it’s such an everyday scene – it’s hard not to be wowed by this demo and the potential for high fidelity graphics in games going forward.

It is just a tech demo however and it’s always hard to tell how representative these showpieces will be of the games of the future. With that in mind, it’s also worth noting that this was the work of a single person, not the legions of artists that work on most big-budget games, and this is a very exciting notion indeed. It means that visuals like these could be replicated by small teams of adventurous indie developers, not just by massive AAA studios backed by huge publishers and staffed by an army of professional developers.

The Unreal Engine 4 has also caused something of a stir over its pricing model. For nineteen U.S. dollars per month and five percent of the gross revenue of any games made using the engine, anyone can have access to it. In comparison, a license for Unity Pro will set you back seventy-five dollars per month and you can’t even get a price for CryEngine Pro without signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). This does mean, however, that the company that own and develop the Unreal Engine, Epic Games, stand to gain much more money from those games that do sell well. For example, were I to make a game that grossed one million dollars, I would then owe Epic fifty thousand of those hard earned bucks as opposed to paying only a few thousand for a license up front. The flip side of this deal is that the bar to entry has never been lower. With a little talent and some technical expertise, even someone as skint as I am could scrape together nineteen dollars a month (less than thirteen pounds at the current exchange rate) and start making a game using this powerful software. The potential is astounding.

The featured image is the property of Benoît Dereau and was taken from http://www.benoitdereau.com.

Virtual Reality and the Future of Videogames

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It’s official; we’re living in the future. In Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly and Doc Brown piloted their tricked-out DeLorean time machine from the year 1985 to the distant future; the year 2015. While the film didn’t get everything right about the tech of our time, its depiction of virtual reality gaming might not be too far off the mark.

On Wednesday, Microsoft announced their ‘HoloLens’ device during a Windows 10 keynote at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and it looks promising. Unlike the Oculus Rift and other virtual reality devices, the HoloLens creates augmented reality through the creation of holographic illusions – virtual objects – for users to interact with in their real-world surroundings. It’s all very sci-fi and the prospect of immersing yourself in a virtual world is exciting, but haven’t we seen this before?

In 1995, Nintendo gave virtual reality a try with the Virtual Boy headset and after roughly one year it was quickly and quietly taken off the market due to low sales figures. Its failures were myriad and complex but, in short, several design oversights led to hardware that was uncomfortable and impractical to use for any length of time. The jarring red monochromatic graphics that the Virtual Boy presented also caused problems for users. It was harsh on the eyes and many complained of headaches and eye strain. The final nail in the Virtual Boy’s coffin was the lack of worthwhile games that utilised the hardware effectively. With a couple of exceptions – I still think that Mario Tennis looks pretty cool today – the Virtual Boy’s line-up failed to deliver on its promise of heightened immersion; of feeling as though you have actually stepped in to a virtual world.

Given the financial failure of Nintendo’s headset, it’s not particularly surprising that we didn’t hear much about virtual reality in the years that followed. It looks as if that’s all beginning to change however. Virtual reality re-entered the headlines in 2012 when a company called Oculus VR hit Kickstarter to raise funds for the development of their Oculus Rift headset. Almost three years later, it still isn’t readily available to consumers but it shows a great deal of promise. The Oculus has been generally well-received by the press and is often praised for its immersive 3D effect and relative comfort. Additionally, the Oculus promises to utilise original games as well as popular hits and, crucially, many developers seem to have taken to the device. A recent tech demo let players sample last year’s Alien: Isolation and it proved to be an immersive, if terrifying, experience for those that tried it. Having been bought by Facebook for $2 billion last year, Oculus VR also has some pretty heavy financial backing.

Not to be outdone, Sony started showing off their own virtual reality tech at GDC 2014. Sony’s headset – Project Morpheus – also shows promise and first impressions have been largely positive. With global sales of the PlayStation 4 reportedly reaching over 18 million units as of January, there is certainly a large install base for Project Morpheus and many gamers are keen to find out more.

The high level of graphical fidelity that games can offer now and the smart tech behind these new devices means that if they are marketed well and appropriately priced we could well be on the verge of a VR renaissance. Given the failures of the past and the fickle nature of consumers, however, I remain sceptical of – but hopeful for – the future of virtual reality gaming.

Things I’d Like to See From Games in 2015

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It’s unlikely that 2014 will be remembered as one of gaming’s best years; it probably won’t even go down in history as being a particularly good one. It wasn’t all bad but- between the online culture wars, the games that were delayed, and those that simply didn’t work at launch – 2014 proved to be, at best, a mixed bag for gamers. The good news is that it’s 2015 now so all of that nastiness is practically ancient history and, since it’s a new year, I’ve been thinking about the gaming trends that I’d like to see emerge (or continue to grow) over the next twelve months.

Top of the list would have to be games that actually work at launch. Last year was undoubtedly, at least in my mind, the Year of the Glitch. From Halo: The Master Chief Collection requiring a seemingly endless stream of patches to have working multiplayer to Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s nightmarish glitching, a lot of broken games have been released over the past year and it has to stop. A certain amount of bugs rearing their ugly heads is unavoidable and making a fully-functioning game on the scale of many blockbuster titles is extremely difficult but it can be done. Destiny and Call of Duty both managed to launch with very few issues and, at £40-£50 a pop, we need more games that are playable from the minute they officially launch; not weeks or months down the line.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – a game that actually did work at launch – proved to be one of the year’s biggest sleeper hits. While it could, perhaps, be criticised for being derivative of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham franchises, it largely succeeded because the mechanics that it did lift from other games were extremely well-implemented. It all felt remarkably slick and satisfying and, most importantly of all, Shadow of Mordor featured the Nemesis system; an innovative new mechanic that created an army of randomly generated enemies that would learn and grow the more you fought them. There’s no end to the innovation that can be found on the indie scene but big budget games desperately need more originality. In the current era of annualised sequels where the same thing is repackaged, remarketed, and rereleased year after year, developers and publishers need to start taking risks or their big franchises are going to crater. Sales of the Call of Duty series are beginning to decline – despite this year’s entry being a vast improvement over its predecessor – and Shadow of Mordor was referred to by many as “the best Assassin’s Creed game of the year” which, given that there were two actual Assassin’s Creed games released in 2014, illustrates just how stale that particular franchise has become.

Speaking of originality, too many games feature the prototypical white-dude-with-a-big-gun (or some variation thereof) as their protagonist but games have been getting better at representing other groups of people in recent years. Last year, we got to play as an eleven-year-old girl in season two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, as pretty much whoever we wanted in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and even as a piece of bread in I Am Toast. There’s nothing wrong with playing as a white dude with a big gun but, as is the case with gameplay mechanics, many big budget games run the risk of becoming stale and boring if they don’t start innovating in the storytelling department. Creating diverse and interesting characters that appeal to broad swathes of the population is, by no means, an easy task but it’s worth the effort.

So, those are the things I’d like to see from games in 2015 (or the top three at any rate) and I think that this year has a lot of potential. With a bit of luck, my optimism won’t turn out to have been misplaced. 2014 could have been so great, here’s hoping that 2015 truly is something special.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity review – Vive la révolution?

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PC/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox One

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Revolutionary Paris provides the perfect backdrop for the parkour-packed action of Assassin’s Creed but, unfortunately, the franchise’s first full leap into next-gen gaming fails to deliver in some key areas.

Unity sees French developer Ubisoft return the series to its roots. The naval exploration and combat of last year’s offering, Black Flag, is gone and so too are many of the convoluted mechanics that the series has picked up in its various incarnations. In their place is an effort to refine the core mechanics of Assassin’s Creed and, in some ways, this is a welcome change in direction.

Fans of the series will find Unity’s mechanics instantly familiar. Inhabiting the cowl of the roguish Arno Dorian, you run, jump, and climb your way around the rooftops and back alleys of Paris evading guards while trying to locate and assassinate your enemies. In some respects, these core mechanics have been tweaked for the better.

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If you’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game before, you know what to expect.

The parkour is significantly slicker due to improved animations and the addition of a controlled descent button that allows you to smoothly go from the rooftops to the streets in a satisfying series of hurdles. It still isn’t as fluid as it should be however and Arno has a frustrating tendency to get stuck on bits of scenery, stubbornly refusing to vault over them.

The stealth mechanics have also been refined a little through the inclusion of a crouch button and wider, more open, assassination missions in which you can approach your target from multiple directions and in different ways. Arno can, occasionally, manipulate his surroundings to draw out his mark or to create a new point of entry for infiltration.

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Revolutionary Paris can be a dangerous place; especially with Arno on the prowl.

These help to freshen things up a little but they still prove to be somewhat linear and the frustrating missions where you have to tail a target without being spotted are still present. Unity also features an impressive number of side missions ranging from small-scale assassinations to murder mysteries that require you to gather evidence and interview suspects before making an accusation.

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For fuck’s sake…

The biggest gameplay innovation is the new co-op mode which allows up to four players to experience Paris together in free roam or take on assassination and heist missions as a team. These are generally pretty fun and, when you and a friend work together to stealthily take down a room full of enemies, it feels great.

The game has, like its predecessors, an obscene amount of collectibles and, for obsessive completionists like me, this is welcome but, for others, it’s mostly empty padding. Ubisoft have also bogged the game down in content locked behind companion apps and microtransactions which is, frankly, despicable given the cost of the game at purchase.

Unity’s saving grace is its setting. Paris feels like a living, breathing city and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The streets are packed with citizens who shop, argue, and steal amongst themselves and the art design can be breathtaking. Climbing around Notre Dame Cathedral, it’s hard not to be impressed. The ability to enter so many of the cities buildings also helps to make Paris feel dense as well as detailed.

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Gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

Enormous crowds take to the streets and, while these do provide a certain level of spectacle, they cause the game to run terribly. Unity is riddled with bugs and glitches that cause serious problems. The frame rate frequently drops, NPCs clip through each other, and Arno can fall through the ground causing the game to crash.

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Massive crowds of NPCs provide spectacle at the cost of performance.

Unity is a flawed, but beautiful, game. There are poor design decisions, questionable business practices, and technical issues here and yet there are also sumptuous visuals, a remarkable setting, and exciting co-op missions. It was the best of Assassin’s Creed, it was the worst of Assassin’s Creed.

The Representation of War in Videogames

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Many games use war as a backdrop but few treat the subject with much sensitivity. It’s understandable really. War provides the perfect setting for action-oriented shooters or strategy games because it offers a straightforward conflict and goal that you can build a game around: kill the enemy. Besides, nobody wants to dwell on the realities of war when they’re having fun shooting people in the head, right?

WWII-based shooters were ubiquitous for a time before making way for those that were built around more modern conflicts, often set in the Middle East, and these quasi-historical action games have always left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Call of Duty: World at War, released in 2008, was a great game. It was fast, it was exciting, it was visceral; it was everything a first-person shooter should be. It was also brutally violent. As gaming hardware has developed, becoming more powerful, graphical fidelity has increased and so too has the ability of developers to depict the horrors of war on the battlefield.

Generally speaking, I’m not troubled by violent videogames. I grew up with them and, besides, I can hardly complain about the level of violence in games here and then go back to stabbing guards in the face in Assassin’s Creed, can I? Nevertheless, there’s something about shooters based so closely on real conflicts that leaves me cold.

While they do depict the brutality of war, they tend to do so for the purpose of cheap thrills. Usually, war is used as a plot device to push the action along, little more than window dressing, and most games that feature it focus on the influence the player character exerts on the war rather than on the impact of the war on the game’s characters.

Accurately depicting the way that war devastates communities and tears apart families is difficult in any medium, but some games are attempting to do just that. Ubisoft Montpellier’s puzzle adventure game Valiant Hearts is a good example.

The game tells the story of World War I through the eyes of four people and one dog. It’s about a group of ordinary people struggling through extraordinarily bleak circumstances and how one family is torn asunder by events completely out of their control. It has a truly stunning aesthetic and, while it stays light on the gore, the hand-drawn 2D artwork does a better job than most of depicting the horrors of industrialised warfare.

This War of Mine, from 11 Bit Studios, comes out on Friday and looks set to tackle the realities of war from a different angle. The game focuses on civilians caught in the crossfire of a large-scale conflict and trying to survive as best they can. It’s another example of a game in which you play not as a gun-toting super-soldier but as a group of ordinary people fighting for survival in dire conditions.

This War of Mine looks bleak...really bleak

This War of Mine looks bleak…really bleak

It’s about the desperate choices that ordinary people have to make when forced into situations like this to survive. Will you try to protect everyone in the shelter or will you sacrifice some of them to conserve supplies? Will you steal from other survivors to endure the hardships or will your conscience get the better of you?

I hope that I haven’t been too disparaging towards high-octane shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played countless historical shooters and will continue to do so but it’s great to see videogames representing war in more nuanced and interesting ways and, as the medium continues to mature, hopefully this is just the beginning.

Silent Hill 2 and the Future of Psychological Horror

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Having apparently forgotten the recurrent nightmares it gave me the first time around, I recently decided to fire up my battered old laptop and play through Silent Hill 2 again. Turns out, it’s still scary.

Silent Hill 2 was first released in 2001 (I try not to dwell on the fact that it was almost fourteen years ago that I played this on the PlayStation 2) and while it is certainly dated in many respects – the unwieldy ‘tank’ controls that won’t let you turn and move at the same time stick out as does the combat which feels clumsy and stilted – it remains terrifying.

As you travel through the fog-shrouded town of Silent Hill, it starts to get under your skin. Slowly – but surely – a sense of creeping unease and disquiet will start to play on your mind and it sticks with you long after you’ve turned it off.

This is largely due to the design of the game’s enemies: horrific Jungian archetypes that are directly connected to the psychological workings of the protagonist James Sunderland and, by extension, the player. The hideous, twitching ‘Bubble Head Nurses’ and the screaming ‘Mannequins’ (creatures consisting of only two pairs of female legs) were designed to be sexually suggestive and representative of James’ subconscious sexual desires during his wife’s hospitalisation while the iconic ‘Pyramid Head’ reflects his guilt and desire to be punished.

The town itself feels as if it’s out to get you. The thick fog, low lighting, and narrow corridors make Silent Hill feel heavy and claustrophobic. With such a limited field of vision, it’s easy to lose direction and get lost in the mist; it’s a confusing place when you’re calm, when you panic it becomes almost labyrinthine.

Everything in Silent Hill 2 has a somewhat dreamlike quality and it’s never explicitly clear what – or who – is and isn’t real. The dialogue – and its delivery – can be toe-curlingly cheesy but this, somehow, feeds into the surreal, otherworldly ambiance and makes the whole thing even more unsettling.

These are some of the features that make Silent Hill 2 stand out as the pinnacle of psychological horror in gaming and, unfortunately, the horror genre has fallen out of favour in the last ten years.

With the notable exception of Dead Space in 2007, very few noteworthy big-budget horror games have been produced in the last decade. After Resident Evil 4, most entries in that series have been fairly lacklustre and tend to be more action-oriented while more recent – Western-made – entries in the Silent Hill series have retained the setting and the Cronenberg-esque body horror of Silent Hill 2 but they lack the subtle touches that truly get under your skin.

While there have been some excellent indie horror titles (Amnesia: The Dark Descent being a prominent example) and even some substantial AAA releases in recent weeks (Alien: Isolation for one), there haven’t been many satisfyingly scary games and certainly none with the subtlety and overall weirdness of Silent Hill 2. It looks like that might be about to change however.

P.T. (or ‘Playable Teaser’) has players – in the first-person – walking through a fairly innocuous hallway in a family home but, after walking through the door at the end of the corridor, you realise that you’re back at the start of that same corridor. Although, this time, something’s wrong.

With each pass of the hallway, things start to get unhinged. The radio will turn itself on to tell you a story about a deranged father who killed his family, a baby will start crying unrelentingly, and you’ll start to hear footsteps behind you but turning around could prove fatal as it soon becomes apparent that a ghostly visage of the lady of the house is following you; and she’s never too far away.

At the end of the demo – if you have the nerves to make it that far – it is revealed to be a playable announcement for the next entry in the Silent Hill series with auteur developer Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear Solid fame) at the helm. P.T. certainly captures some of what made Silent Hill 2 great and, as far as I’m concerned, it looks like the series might, finally, be getting back on track.