Saturday, May 14, 2016

Two Worlds: Epic Edition - 8/20 hours

Playing Two Worlds has got me thinking - what makes a game "good?" It should go without saying that there is a certain subjectivity to art. One of my all-time favorite movies, Six String Samurai has only a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And while I can see why some people might not like it, to me the audacity and passion that obviously went into getting it made trump any petty concerns like "plot coherence" or "deep characterization." So, if I were to get into a discussion about the films merits with one of its critics, there would be a deep disconnect between our essential values. With that in mind, assigning a simple label like "good" or "bad" seems pointless.

This is not my roundabout way of saying that I like Two Worlds, despite its flaws. However, if I'm being perfectly honest, most of the things I don't like about it are its surface details. The fundamental structure of the game is sound (barring the poor balance for early combat). It's a genre that I generally enjoy and it doesn't screw up the basics. You're in a large open world, you go around with a dangling main plot, poking your nose into caves and doing random favors for strangers. It's a form I've praised effusively in the past.

And yet . . . those irritating surface details are still present. For example, it's staggeringly sexist. Ride to Hell: Redemption was worse, but just barely. Last week, I joked about some kind of plague that struck the land and wiped out all the women, but of course there are female characters. The main guy is on a quest to recover his kidnapped sister after all.

And about four hours in, I finally got in contact with her (thanks to magical shenanigans), the first woman to appear on screen in this lushly detailed fantasy world. I don't know what I was expecting.

All right, that's not exactly true. I do know what I was expecting. I just didn't think that they'd actually do it. Here's Kira:

Far be it from me to criticize a woman's appearance. So keep in mind that when I say this, I'm criticizing the artists who designed her - but why, exactly does the only female character of note in your entire game look like the goth-themed henchwoman that James Bond sleeps with halfway through the movie?

Granted, I've given a pass to even more ridiculously designed characters in the past. Borderlands had Mad Moxxie and I love both her and the game as a whole. But then, Borderlands also had Helena Pierce, Angel, and Athena, so it wasn't quite as jarring. Here, Kira is the main character's sister, so why is she sexualized to hell and back? Was she kidnapped on her way home from a cocktail party?

But look, this isn't really about my video game avatar's sexy, sexy sister. I'm jaded enough that it would take more than that to earn a condemnation of "sexist" from me. No, the reason I call Two Worlds sexist is that it took me another couple of hours after encountering Kira to finally see a female villager. So far, out of four towns I've visited, only one has had any and even in that one the percentage of the population was something like 15-20%. I would be more precise, but doing an exact census is problematic due to the fact that they all use the same exact character model.

And while the men may not be the most diverse lot ever conceived, at least they have several outfits to choose from.

From a worldbuilding standpoint, this is an unforgivable blunder. Granted, it's a persistent problem with media as a whole that women are underepresented (I went back and did a similar survey of Skyrim and of the first 25 people I saw 17 were men and 8 were women), but Two Worlds' use of the convention was particularly notable because in many of the smaller areas, there were no women at all.

Don't get the impression that I'm not wagging my finger at Skyrim's dismal 33%-66% gender balance (and I'm embarrassed that it took Two Worlds taking this to the extreme for me to even notice), but it could more plausibly get away with it because it went through the trouble of making its women a part of the world. You walk into Riverwood, the first town in the game, and you're greeted by an old-woman shouting about (the very definitely real) dragon she saw flying overhead. If you sided with the Stormcloaks, you're taken to Girdur's sawmill, where you learn that she's a bit of a local leader and she asks you to deliver the news to her liege. The sister of the shopkeeper is involved in a love triangle and completely unrelated to that, she gives you a quest to track down some thieves. The owner of the local inn is a lady (and it later turns out, a secret agent working with the Blades), etc.

There's none of that in Two Worlds. None of the rare, interchangeable women even give you a tedious fetch quest to do. It's practically unprecedented.

And I just don't get what's so hard about this. It's a basic biological observation - out of any population of mammals, 50% are going to be male and 50% are going to be female. It is literally a coinflip. And unless there some great selection pressure going on that's killing off one gender or another (and given the game's backstory of a huge war that's draining the kingdom's coffers so much that the people of the local province are rebelling against unsustainable taxes, if any gender is going to be underpopulated, it's going to be men), there is absolutely no logical or artistic reason not to have half of your random npcs be female. It is simply inexcusable.

However, because I tend to be in the habit of finding excuses, I have a theory about what must have happened. I think the game was programmed by a bunch of oblivious guys who never even gave a thought about the demographic balance of their cities, and then, close to the last moment, someone must have pointed out that Kira was the only woman in their entire open world, so they hastily developed their first female villager, but then they ran out of money so they had to stop and ship as is.

My primary evidence for this is the voice acting. I recognize some of the voice actors, not by name, but by the fact that they've done work on other games in the past, good work, even. But here, they're clearly off their form. And my reaction to this was "why the hell is the director using that take, surely they can do better than that?" And because I'm playing with the subtitles on, I can clearly see where the actors flub the script (a particularly notable example is an npc who asks you to retrieve an heirloom, but pronounces it "hair-loom," which as far as I know is not standard in any English dialect). So why not let them take a second swing at it and really do things right?

And then I realized that I have no idea how much it costs to run a recording session. I get the impression that they did not have the budget to do it right and thus they probably did it last, because most of the rest of the game is functional, if not inspiring.

Which brings me back to the subjectivity of art. What is the purpose of a game? If you look at a game as just an engine for bashing monsters over the head with swords, then all of this stuff with narrative and population demographics doesn't matter. It's just decorative. If I were test-driving a car, I wouldn't mark it down just because I didn't like the color.

Except that I don't think that these surface details are quite as alienable from the work as a whole as a car's coat of paint. I don't agree that games are or should be a great narrative art form, but at the same time, narrative is inextricably bound with what video games are, and if it should not be the entire point of the form, neither should or can it be banished to obsolescence. Video games need narrative the way music needs lyrics. Which is to say that there are many towering classics that dispense with it entirely, but the form as a whole would be poorer if it was gone.

It's this necessity for narrative that makes dwelling on the surface details of a mechanically sound game important. It's not like criticizing a car for being painted the wrong color. It's more like disliking a catchy pop-song because its lyrics are creepy, inane, or offensive (I was going to pick on Taylor Swift here, but I realized "Every Breath You Take" is actually the iconic example).

To sum up - I dislike Two Worlds for entirely superficial reasons, but those reasons cannot easily be dismissed as "subjective." I'm not the one who took 1 divided by 2 and came up with an answer of 15%.

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