Farewell, Toy Box – Six Reasons Disney Infinity Suffered From Slow Growth

You may have heard by now that Disney Infinity is shutting down, and the reason given was slow growth in the toys to life market coupled with relatively high production costs. As a fan of toys to life games, and Disney Infinity in particular, I wanted to take a moment to detail some of the reasons why I think this is so, based purely from personal experience with writing and doing videos about these sorts of games.

1 – Overly aggressive DMCA and a disconnect with the games press 

I stopped covering Disney Infinity on my YouTube channel because I couldn’t make any money doing so. The music would get flagged by DMCA claims, and I’d lose all the revenue. Disney isn’t the only company making this mistake: Nintendo still doesn’t have a YouTube partnership program in Canada, so I don’t do videos on Amiibo either. At the end of the day, I love video games, but my YouTube channel is a business, so I focus on companies willing to do business with content creators like me. If they don’t appreciate what I bring to the table, I don’t cover their stuff. Simple. Again, this is a symptom of a much larger disconnect between multimedia properties and the games press. These brand managers are so afraid of the noise and the bad news that they don’t realize how powerful our relationships are with our audiences. People like me do have influence because our engagement levels are high. It’s just not the sort of influence that’s easily measured

2 – Toys to Life is expensive

To complete each yearly Skylanders set, parents are shelling out $300 on an annual basis. It’s the number one complaint I get from people who got their kids into Toys to Life stuff on my advice. Now that there are three Toys to Life franchises even without Disney – Skylanders, Lego Dimensions, and Nintendo’s Amiibo – that’s nearly a thousand bucks a year for those fully engaged. I can see parents wanting to have one fight and saying no to it all, instead of having to weigh the merits of purchasing every figure. Overall, I think that Toys to Life is currently too focused on the Toys part of the equation, instead of creating add-on content that can be played with toys you already own. It’s an imbalanced business model that in part is because core gaming sites neglected coverage of Toys to Life products, but that’s not completely an excuse for creating a buying churn instead of products that provide ongoing value for money. It would have kept parents happier if more game content had been developed for existing toys, because kids are going to want the cool new figures and cars anyway.

3 – Toys to Life creates a lot of clutter

I have no idea where to put any more figures. There is a critical point involving real life stuff where I don’t want to add another Rubbermaid bin to store all those figures. I’d been saying since Skylanders Giants came out that storage needs to be something that’s meaningfully addressed, but I didn’t see it happen. Instead, another 40 figures come out each year per game, and I ran out of places to put them. The difference between enduring brands and fads is that kids form an attachment to brands that endure, and this attachment doesn’t happen when a product focuses on quantity over quality time with each figure.

4 – The rarer figures were too hard to get

I heard about fights breaking out between parents in stores over certain figures. My husband had to contact the Disney PR people because the Stitch figure was completely sold out. People can’t buy figures they can’t find, and it seems that Toys to Life, across the board, has sacrificed accessibility for collector fever. These are products for kids, guys. Make the toys available to anyone who wants them, even if it means running a second issue of them.  Parents getting into fist fights isn’t the kind of press that’s healthy long term.

5 – Disney Infinity neglected story in favour of the Toy Box

I get the reasons that the Toy Box was originally the central focus – Disney Infinity‘s playtesting indicated that kids didn’t want to be told how to play the game as much as they wanted to make their own fun. But with subsequent waves came a marketing challenge: it’s easier to sell a new product than it is to sell improvements. Therefore, “Skylanders, NOW WITH CARS!” is an easier sell than “Toy Box 3.0” — so each cycle had diminishing returns because it wasn’t easy to explain why people should buy the latest thing when the previous one worked just fine. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to review a building tool as a game. The actual game element of Disney Infinity were Playsets that provided short campaign stories, and I don’t know why there weren’t more of those that matched some of the fan favourite characters. Going back to Stitch, there were levels for him, but no actual campaign. There was no feeling of completion. So I got two hours of enjoyment out of that figure instead of six, because my attention is too divided to play something without a narrative.

6 – The brands are just too lucrative to produce games in house

Why should Disney bother making Star Wars games when EA will do it for them and pay them a license that’s pure profit? Why should they tie up those Marvel characters when they can license them to a third party and again take no risk? These franchises are just too big for the profit margins that in-house video games can offer, since Disney’s internal approvals process is a slow, bottle-neck heavy ordeal. Disney is now free to license Star Wars and Marvel characters to Lego Dimensions, who already did Star Wars Lego games, and have Batman all through Dimensions. It’s smart: create an ally out of a competitor and cut your costs in the process.

It’s ironic that Disney bean counters now have the reigns of the company, but the balance sheets don’t lie: Disney knows how to make Intellectual Properties, but it’s never quite understood video games, so it makes more sense to do licensing business with game makers instead of trying to paddle around making chump change in a business they don’t get, and perhaps don’t even like. To Disney, video games are no different than bags, t-shirts, stuffed toys, and kids’ costumes, because they aren’t interested in developing unique game IPs for consoles and PC. Because of this, it makes financial sense for Disney to get out of the video game business. Long term, as video games become a more native form of entertainment, suffer from less stigma, and become a driver of all ages entertainment beyond Nintendo, this may be short sighted. But when that day comes, Disney can just hire on a new bunch of game makers and open up their interactive division again. They’re closing this door, not bricking it over.

(Note: A reader mentioned on twitter that the heavy restrictions on which characters could be used in Play Sets hampered their enjoyment of the game.  I don’t think this would have been an issue if more all-character-friendly Play Sets were produced, hence my point about more game content overall.  However, it is a specific criticism of Disney Infinity,  so I thought I’d add that my understanding was that these restrictions were imposed on the developers by Disney higher-ups.  The developers wanted more freedom but Disney brass thought the integrity of the characters was more important.)

What The Good Wife Finale Tells Us About The Fault Lines in Modern Feminism

(This article contains spoilers for The Good Wife)

The Good Wife is over. Well, it’s ceased, at least. The final episode of the tawdry legal prime time ode to lying was as confused as it was unsatisfying, a baffling final installment in the story of Alicia Florrick, a stay-at-home mother turned high-powered lawyer in a marriage of convenience to the resoundingly corrupt politician Peter Florrick. For some reason, the creators of The Good Wife decided to end the story of a character who literally replaced God with Gloria Steinem by defining her by her relationships with three men, destroying her most prominent friendship with a woman, and leaving her with nothing.

It is, unintentionally, a perfect summary of the victim complex that has bogged down modern feminism.

The Good Wife was, on the whole, a sharp, cleverly-written, well-acted show, but it was a show about a woman who seems incapable of ever really owning her shit despite having a fairly financially comfortable life. Despite a massive gap in her resume and an apparent refusal to take any money from her cheating bastard husband, Alicia always lived in a posh, spacious Chicago apartment, wore fabulous designer clothes, and drank copious amounts of expensive red wine. Her kids went to private school. Her hair was always fabulous. And her biggest problem always seemed to be boys. That was a fine place for her character to start, based on her back story, but the fact that she never evolved beyond that belied the show’s undeniable tendency to leverage the current feminist fad for relevance.

Alicia’s solution to the problem of her corrupt, cheating husband was to sleep with her corrupt boss, Will Gardner. She’s rich, so that doesn’t have the “sleep your way to the middle” consequences it would have for a less wealthy woman. It does, however, make her corrupt cheating husband jealous, and drama ensues, like the Governor of Illinois and his wife are still in high school… because emotionally they are.

When her boss gets killed, she temporarily goes back to sleeping with her husband, only to stop that again when some dreamy boy toys started offering her other options again. She finally decides she likes one, Jason, only to have some adolescent-worthy meltdown because he bought her a gag gift of land on Mars.

What Alicia never does is take time to be alone, get her bearings, figure out who she is and what she wants, and then make conscious choices about her life based on those desired outcomes. Instead, she neglects her children, ruins her own life supporting her undeserving husband’s ambitions, possibly lets the one truly decent guy she’s ever met realize she’s emotionally immature and perhaps crazy, and continues to moon over a dead guy who was possibly the only non-sociopathic guy on the whole show who was a more selfish bastard than her husband. Oh and she drinks. A lot.

What Alicia Florrick never actually did was grow the hell up, and in not doing so, she fell short of the basic feminist principle that adult women are the equals of adult men. When you’re taking life advice from the memory of your on-again, off-again sex partner, you are not thinking for yourself and therefore not an adult. The show’s creators have said that Alicia’s arc is from “victim to victimizer”, which is not feminism. It’s a cycle of abuse with Gloria Steinem cameos.

The series ends with Alicia publicly humiliating her would-be partner, Diane, by exposing an apparent affair by Diane’s husband. Alicia justifies this by insisting it’s defending her client, but her client is her own husband, so there was a massive conflict of interest in Alicia’s decisions. Like so many of Alicia’s decisions, surface strength is undermined by deeper bad decisions.

I don’t buy that Alicia humiliated her former friend and mentor and embarrassed her gun expert husband on the witness stand just because she was defending her client. She did it because that client was the father of her children, and she was panicking because her daughter, Grace, was going to delay college if Peter went to jail. That was actually believable, because Grace ended up parenting her parents a lot; it’s the way of children of emotional train wrecks.

To me, Alicia didn’t stay with Peter because of his career or their kids. She stayed with him because she never learned to be accountable for her own choices, and he was easy to blame when it all went wrong.  She fell for Will because he was safely emotionally unavailable, just like her, and that only seemed to become love after he died.

It’s so very easy to love a dead man. Dead men will never disappoint you the way living ones will, because they stay frozen in time as a collection of your best memories of them. Will is play pretend, like most of Alicia’s dishonest life.

And that’s the problem with popular modern feminism: actual principles of equality are hard, and many women who self-identify as feminists take the easy way out when it’s time to do that hard work. They never get over being a victim, so they become victimizers. Activism is full of victimizers. This isn’t exclusive to feminism, but… let’s face it, it’s something we do have to address. Unfortunately, the media isn’t quite ready to shake off its love of weepy women brought low for drama. What we need to see more of is women who get knocked down and get back up, but is white Hollywood prepared to do that? Even Madam Secretary became more about the struggles of her husband as the first season progressed, so I’m not seeing much evidence of those “woman up off the mat” narratives outside of Empire. Cookie is pretty badass.

The problem with The Good Wife finale is that it ends on Alicia being knocked down, not with her getting back up. She is literally smacked in the face. By Diane.

For me, that smack rang out as a metaphor for women of the second wave telling the spoiled brats of the third-ish-going-on-fourth wave of feminism to stop squandering what they fought for. Yes, there is work to do. Yes, the system is still unfair. But if you’re rich, beautiful and healthy, and you’re still unhappy… sister, you have no one to blame for that but yourself. At the end of it, Alicia’s problem wasn’t Peter. It wasn’t Will. It wasn’t Jason. It was Alicia. Her idea of being “good” meant being dishonest, and she even lied to herself. Sure, everyone on The Good Wife lied. But what separated characters like Eli Gold from Peter and Alicia is that Eli was completely self aware that he was a liar. He was capable of telling the truth. Peter and Alicia lied so much, for so long, they forgot they were lying, so Alicia spent the time between Peter’s convictions in emotional suspended animation.

“Saint Alicia”, as her public persona was called on the show, was a televised embodiment of the virgin/whore dichotomy, but when Alicia got away from being a woman, she was a pretty smart lawyer. The courtroom was where Alicia stopped being “The Good Wife” or “The Bad Girl”. Court was where she was her best self, and that’s what makes her series’ end so tragic – her worlds collided and came crashing down when she played the role of Peter’s wife in the one place she’d previously been free of that. It’s not Alicia’s fault that Diane’s husband cheated. It is her fault that she had so little empathy for Diane, especially because she’d been through that public humiliation herself.

The fact that the contrasting slaps that began and ended the series were Alicia slapping Peter and Diane slapping Alicia indicate that the partnership that mattered the most to Diane was her plans for her female-led firm. Otherwise, she’d have slapped her husband, not her legal partner. Alicia didn’t understand that because she never learned to really care about anyone outside of the domestic paradigm… even if Alicia’s brand of domesticity involved trysts and booze. It’s probably an accident that Alicia’s two friends on the series – Kalinda and Lucca – were both women of color, but perhaps it’s an unintentional character point as well. What does that say about her? I’m still thinking about that.

More clear, however, is that Diane gets Alicia alone because Alicia had been literally chasing a boy – a man she thought was Jason but turned out wasn’t. I can’t say that Alicia had the wrong priorities chasing boys, because if she wanted to be a wife, first and foremost, that would be fine. The problem is that Alicia really had no firm priorities other than Peter, and Peter’s priority was also Peter, so Alicia was left with nothing.

A truly feminist show wouldn’t tie things up in a neat little bow at the end, but the only way The Good Wife can be viewed as feminist is as feminist cautionary tale of what happens when a woman doesn’t learn to stand on her own. The surprise on Alicia’s face when Diane smacked her told me that she’d not only learned little except how to lie better, but that she had, in fact, regressed into those lies. I mean, she was so deluded that her own self talk came in the form of her dead boyfriend. Even in her own head, a man was telling her what to do.

Delusion isn’t feminist. Delusion is nothing but delusion. If The Good Wife is, as the creators say, a show about lying where the victim becomes the victimizer, then what does that say about Alicia’s replacement of religion with feminism? Is feminism her atheist opiate? Or was even her feminism a lie? I think it’s the latter: feminism was methadone, because Peter was as bad for her as heroine. As long as she could lie to herself that being a career woman could make her happy, she could resist his sleazeball charms. But when it really came down to it, when he whistled, she always came running. The only thing that broke that spell was another man. For Alicia, Gloria Steinem was a false prophet: what Alicia really wanted was male approval, because she didn’t approve of herself. Feminism is supposed to empower women to stand on their own. Alicia’s didn’t give her that. How many self-described feminists fall into the same trap: the trappings of women’s liberation without the bravery to truly be free?

Uncharted 4 Single Player Review

 

Naughty Dog has been adamant that the story of Nathan Drake is coming to a close, and they decided to send him off in grand style. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a gigantic game, and its strengths and weaknesses are mostly connected to the sheer scope and grandeur of the game. At its best, it’s mind-blowingly awesome. At its weakest moments, it’s just trying to do too much in one game.

For me, Naughty Dog’s biggest achievement this go-round isn’t the astounding graphics, the masterful sound, or the awe-inspiring level designs. It’s the fact that the studio has finally overcome its traditional Achilles heel of a bug that let characters drift inside environmental objects. The game did freeze once, there was some minor frame rate lag from time to time, and I noticed a couple of object pop ins, but considering the size of the levels, the sheer amount of stuff going on in-game, and a general video game industry allowance for a level of sloppiness when games go beyond a certain scale, the profound absence of bugs in the single player campaign is a huge achievement for which Naughty Dog should be praised.

Now let’s dig into the stuff that most people care about more: gameplay and story. Drake is on the trail of Henry “the King of Pirates” Avery’s pirate loot. The focus on pirates feels a little stale after Assassin’s Creed put almost every pirate ever into their games, but the platforming puzzles are astoundingly good, with a nice flow that doesn’t sharply demarcate between puzzle portions, exploration portions, and combat elements. Gone are the days of one artificially-indicated path. Yes, those obvious ledges are still there, but there’s often more than one, with some dead ends. Exploration also pays off because of collectables, but there are also additional journal entries to find that give you a much better sense of the mystery that Drake is chasing this time around.

Uncharted games have traditionally been challenging – action adventure platformers tend to be more difficult and require you to think more than your average shooter. I think Uncharted 4 ups the ante a little, and there are a few downright frustrating moments. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but a “skip” option might have been nice for those playing just for the story.

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Though I wouldn’t recommend that. Uncharted plots have always been goofy in the spirit of the matinee serial films that inspire the series. The lighter tone has distinguished Uncharted’s obvious direct competitor: the Tomb Raider games. The plot of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End benefits by comparison to the garbage fire that was the story of Lara’s latest adventure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s great. The second half of the story is great. The first half is slow, scattered, humourless, and overly reliant on overlong cut scenes. Yes yes, it’s all very pretty, but I don’t want to watch a game. I want to play a game.

For some reason, Naughty Dog decided to sideline characters we know and love to introduce Sam Drake, Nate’s long lost brother. Sam is a pretty good character in his own right, but he hogs the screen time, and since this is perhaps the last we’re going to see of Elena and Sully, it’s frustrating that they’re not present for large portions of the game. At times, it feels like Naughty Dog is trying to recapture the bromance patter that made Uncharted 2 such a joy to play, but the game falls short, and of course it does: the loss of Amy Hennig’s light dialogue touch is profoundly felt, as is a seeming lack of understanding regarding what’s going on in the female characters’ heads. Many of Elena’s lines come across as products of “my wife said this to me once, so it must be profound” moments in the writers’ room. Accordingly, these lines come across as “perfect woman” platitudes that reminded me why I couldn’t stand Elena in the first game.

And Elena isn’t the only too-perfect female character in Uncharted 4. Nadine Ross is another “better than men at everything” character. The whole game just seems so self-conscious about having “positive” female representation that it doesn’t let these characters just be characters. None of them pop like Ellie does in The Last of Us, despite numerous other elements transferred over from that game.

After all, Nathan Drake is a great character precisely because he’s flawed. He screws up. He can’t always fix it. But some of his morally questionable actions this time around ring hollow. It left me with the distinct impression that Naughty Dog listened to their critics too much, and wanted very badly to explain why their charming rogue hero kills so many people. Who cares? Indiana Jones also shoots plenty of people. Shooting people in a video game is fun. Especially when they’re sociopathic mercenaries who are trying to kill my in-game avatar.

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The insecurity on display in the writing is a shame, because the characters who are just allowed to be characters are pretty awesome. Sully is very Sully when he makes his appearances, and this is good. Sam, as I mentioned, is good too. And the villain of the game is as legitimately scary as a guy without super powers other than ridiculous wealth can be. Every element of the guy made me want to punch him in the face in the very best of ways.

As I said, the second half of the game, once they cut through all the “serious emotional core” nonsense, is great. Once you’re exploring beautiful levels, experiencing the wonder of the glorious graphics and romantic scenarios, you forget about the cheeseball attempts at a “meaningful” story. The Madagascar level is one of the most glorious things I’ve experienced in a video game, and it’s one of many thoroughly gorgeous environments you’ll encounter. There’s so much eye candy, you’ll get retinal cavities. Lots of stuff blows up, lots of shooting happens, and what more do you really want from a video game?

I’ve hammered at Uncharted 4‘s flaws because I really do think the game is worth playing. Better, I think it’s worth paying full price, because technically, it’s a glimpse into the future of what video games can do. It’s not just graphics either. It’s everything: rope physics, driving mechanics, mud and gravel behaving realistically, weather effects being a subtle addition instead of LOOK THERE IS WEATHER! On top of this is sound design so artful there were times I stopped to appreciate the creaking of different types of flooring, the groan of a building, or a subtle environmental sound that just made the whole thing seem that much more magical. I still think the pause sound effect is one of the greatest game sounds ever. Is that enough sound nerding? I hope so.

Despite iffy writing, Uncharted 4 innovates. If you’ve got a PS4, give it a try.

Why Frank Cho’s Work is Feminist

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You may have noticed that there’s something of an ongoing brouhaha surrounding the work of comic book artist and writer Frank Cho. It seems every time he does something involving a woman these days, someone screams. It’s fashionable to label Frank a misogynist over some parody covers, but I know the guy, both personally and professionally, and the dude can be in a room full of naked women and keep his eyes on their faces unless there’s a punchline to be had.

I know this because I’ve actually been in a room with Frank involving multiple naked women. He was a guest on Ed and Red’s Night Party. We had him draw Dean, the pig character from Liberty Meadows, on a topless woman’s back. It was meta, get it? It’s also really damned hard to create art on a surface at isn’t flat, or even uniform.

Another funny, spur of the moment thing happened on that show. For the episode, I cosplayed Brandy from Liberty Meadows, and we got a “Beltsville” t-shirt screen printed from a place down the street. Unfortunately, said shirt was proportioned for a woman who was a B-cup, and when I put it on, the screen printed letters tore, leaving white marks wherever the shirt’s weave had caused a faultline. It looked like crap, so we turned it into content. We had Frank fill in the white parts of the letters with sharpie, because he was a “professional”.

This, it turned out, left black sharpie marks on the white bra I was wearing underneath the shirt, because the marker bled. Frank, being Frank, turned those spots into eyeballs, so that I could look back at guys staring at my chest.

That’s the Frank Cho I know: funny, clever, appreciative of other people’s work, and very much aware that women who look a certain way get treated like we don’t have faces.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to provide another side to the whole “Frank Cho is a misogynist” thing that isn’t just more angry shouting, but I just keep coming back to personal memories involving Frank and his work. I still remember the first time I saw a Liberty Meadows book, in Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles. I bought it because I’m a sucker for cartoon animals, but also because it was the story of a busty woman who had no idea how attractive she was, and the short nerdy vet who harboured a secret love for her.

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Brandy was like no other woman in comics I’d ever encountered. She wasn’t a superhero. She was goofy and klutzy. She was insecure about her weight. And she was in on the various zany jokes instead of being the typical killer of fun. Liberty Meadows was a combination of all the great parts of the Sunday funnies page without the horrible elements – the constant digs at Cathy in various Liberty Meadows strips showed that I wasn’t alone in my annoyance at that level of female neurosis.

Liberty Meadows was elegant, silly, smart, and fun. It was a comic strip that allowed its female lead to be beautiful, flawed, slapstick, smart and fun all at the same time, and that was something I desperately needed as a woman trying to find my place in television comedy. Throughout my career, I have run into various brick walls because most media properties don’t allow women to be all these things at once. In fact, it’s usually a paradigm of “Smart, glamorous, or funny. Pick two.” Call it the “Big Bang Triangle” if you will. Penny is funny and and object of desire, but she’s a waitress when everyone else is a scientist. Amy, on the other hand, is funny and smart, but dressed deliberately dumpy. Bernadette, similarly, has an affected voice and thick glasses so that she’s not TOO pretty, or TOO smart, because she plays up the funny. The media considers it unfeminine if a woman is TOO MUCH.

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Frank Cho doesn’t sacrifice a woman’s beauty or sexuality for intelligence or the ability to take part in comedy, and I love him for that. His parody covers are continuing his tradition in this regard, and people who claim they’re misogynist are just flat out wrong. If anything, they’re poking fun at how freaked out our society gets over boobs. Try living with a gigantic pair: you realize how absurd it is the first time you get smacked in the face with your own breast. Yes. This has happened to me more than once.

Feminism isn’t about protecting women from the big bad world or putting us on an unnatural pedestal.  Feminism is about equality between men and women.  So essentially, if Deadpool is allowed to do it, some female character should have license to do it too.

Men are allowed to be naked, loud and obscene for the sake of comedy. Look at South Park, Family Guy, and Seth Rogan’s stuff. Frank Cho is one of the few creators out there who dares to let women be the star in that kind of comedy, instead of the disapproving wife/mom or the object of sexual conquest. Frank draws women who laugh at themselves, and the ridiculousness of the current nerd paradigm, without making these women seem like the kind of women the world laughs at too. He gives us license to laugh at ourselves in a world that conspires to tear down our self esteem.

And if that isn’t progressive; if that isn’t FEMINIST; I don’t know what is.

(PS: if this article does well enough, I’ll tell the behind the scenes story of where those pics of Frank signing my butt came from.)

Text of my Canada’s Top 20 Countdown Segment on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

city_06This segment will air on Canada’s Top 20 Countdown syndicated radio show on Saturday.

IT’S ALMOST HERE! After numerous delays, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End finally gets released to the public on May 10th! But because I have special privileges… meaning a review code… I’ve already started playing it!

The graphics are, possibly, the best you’ve ever seen on a console, but more importantly, the game plays smoothly, thanks to subtle tweaks that make slippery surfaces and ropes move more realistically. And because it’s an exclusive, it’s optimized for the Playstation 4, but it also has a ton of audio and video customization options, as well as accessibility options, so everyone can get the experience they want.

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For those who haven’t played an Uncharted game before, it’s the story of globetrotting rogue Nathan Drake, and is an homage to classic adventure movies in the Indiana Jones type tradition. These games have always been technical showpieces for Playstation, and this one is no exception.

But what about the story? Playstation has sworn me – and pretty much every other journalist – to secrecy. But I’m sure plot spoilers will be all over the internet before launch, because a lot of games reviewers are angry jerks with no lives who live to spread their misery around like internet herpes whenever possible.

… oops, did I say that out loud?

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(I’ll have a full review up when I finish the game!)

The problem with the godless worship of fantasy traditions in Game of Thrones

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(Note: this article references sexual assault.)

(Another note: the reference to The Lord of The Rings in this article are about the BOOK, not the films.  The films portray characters radically differently.)

I just read an article about why Game of Thrones is now nearly unwatchable.  I never found the plots or writing terribly compelling.  The show hauled along based on fantastic acting and really great sets and wardrobe.  It’s nihilistic eye-candy masquerading as “smart” television.  Misery is too often substituted for good storytelling.

The thing is, fantasy stories tend to get hauled down into that muck, because they all loop back to a desire to keep replicating J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic dark medievalist fantasy setting in The Lord of the Rings.  The only “innovations” in this template are how many characters get killed, and now that women are involved, how many of them get raped.

The Lord of the Rings is far from a perfect book.  It’s slow, overly reliant on exposition, and a host to flat, wooden characters and a lot of ponderous Christian metaphor… that is to say that Christian metaphor is not inherently ponderous, but Aragorn prattling on about Kingsfoil is unnecessarily long.

The problem is that The Lord of the Rings is revered among fantasy writers, so few dare to disrupt its various core formulas to tell a better story.  Video games are much better at reassembling the component parts of Tolkien, but that’s thanks to Ed Greenwood’s detour through the Forgotten Realms.  Greenwood infused humour, colour, and a pantheon of gods into Tolkien’s staunchly monotheistic fantasy, and it was made more human in the process.

The Forgotten Realms also supported a gamified system that forced narrative cohesion.  In other words, because the entire idea is for a group of players to fight monsters together, it sidestepped the other major narrative pitfall that’s rooted in The Lord of the Rings — The “Shattering of the Fellowship” device.

The Fellowship of the Ring ends up splitting into two main groups: the group that stands with Aragorn to fight the war, and the smaller group that goes with Frodo to destroy the ring.  Tolkien’s status as the child of a Catholic convert is critical to understanding some of the content of The Lord of the Rings, because of the way Catholicism treats femininity as a passive, hidden power which is often treated as a vessel sacrificed to a male deity.

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There are no female members of the Fellowship, and the bearer of the feminine ring symbol is Frodo.  The Lord of the Rings is a story of a war won through the resurrection of a masculine symbol — the sword Narsil/Anduril — and the destruction of the feminine symbol, the One Ring.  The One Ring’s powers mimic the Western monotheistic view of the sacred feminine: a mysterious negative space which gains the ring bearer hidden knowledge at the expense of his rational faculties.  Exposure to the One Ring makes a person more emotional and dependent, which were both qualities associated with femininity in Tolkien’s time.  The One Ring is even associated with a hidden member of the Fellowship — Gollum — Gollum is the one who actually destroys the One Ring, sacrificing himself in the process, because Frodo can’t do it himself.  Frodo is a biblical passive hero in the tradition of Isaac and Moses.  These passive males transfer divinity through them to the people, but they don’t take active steps themselves.  Isaac is bound.  Moses is given the tablets with the Ten Commandments.  But Isaac is such a passive figure that his father’s slave needed to find him a wife, and Moses was such a poor speaker that his brother Aaron did his talking for him.  This is symbolized in The Lord of the Rings by Sam and Gollum doing the heavy lifting for Frodo, who, like Moses and Isaac, were weakened by the burden of inherent divinity, just as mothers are said to be.

The actual women of The Lord of The Rings are similarly passive figures gifted with innate power or wisdom… with the exception of one woman, Eowyn, who assumes the role of a man to fight in the war.  While many of us see Eowyn as pretty badass, Tolkien himself described Eowyn’s transformation as a tragedy.  In fact, he saw it as an inherent tragedy of war that women had to assume male roles.

So how does this impact Game of Thrones, but NOT the Forgotten Realms branch of fantasy that inspired video game RPGs?  While Ed Greenwood took the step of making the sacred feminine of Toril an active voice, George R. R. Martin stuck with the theme of war and the destruction of the feminine.  Accordingly, there’s a lot less rape in Faerun than there is in Westeros.

In both The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, Fire is associated with the masculine — men “run hot”, women are a cooler force.  The other name for Aragorn’s sword “Anduril” is “The Flame of the West”.  This is likely because the Seraphim and the Rider on the White Horse who leads the armies of God in the Bible are flame bearers.

There is no definitive ice queen in The Lord of the Rings, in part because the book is inherently sexless.  But in the Game of Thrones, we of course have the icy Cersei Lannister, who is also sexually dysfunctional and cunning — emotionally more “like a man” than the “purer” female characters.   She is, of course, eventually subject to her own “slut walk of shame” as a form of politicized “atonement theatre” for her sexual misdeeds.

That sort of thing isn’t normalized in Faerun, because Greenwood and Gary Gygax hard wired gender equality into the game system and game world.  Essentially, in Dungeon and Dragons, women are equal participants, not some embodiment of the sacred or profane feminine.  In The Lord of the Rings, there is no profane feminine, and in Game of Thrones, nothing is sacred and no woman is inviolate; women are rendered impure even by their own periods.  Both of these omissions are weaknesses that The Forgotten Realms do not share.

tyrionBecause relegating women to passive or perverse forces in fantasy creates weak points, Game of Thrones has fractured now that its characters are scattered.  Martin and the show’s writers fractured a Fellowship that never existed.  Without the Christian symbolism allowing the narrative to thin out without shattering, Game of Thrones has scattered into a collection of parts with little significance.  The Frodo of the show, Tyrion Lannister, isn’t feminized.  He’s a “half man”, but still a man — bearded, sexual, and capable of violence.  The feminine in Game of Thrones is symbolized by menstruation, manipulations, and rapes, not rings, leaves, light and shadow.

These are legitimate artistic choices on HBO’s part, but it’s left Game of Thrones without symbolism tying the narrative together the way Frodo’s ring and Aragorn’s sword stopped Tolkien’s epic from flying apart.  The lack of a yin and yang in Game of Thrones implies that George Martin borrowed the R. R. from J. R. R. Tolkien without really understanding what pulled the masterpiece out of Tolkien’s flaws.  Game of Thrones lacks the spark of the divine that allowed The Lord of the Rings to become greater than the sum of its parts.

Don’t freak out, atheists, I’m referring to divinity as a narrative device here, not a literal god.  Divinity in fiction is the theme or narrative glue that makes the plot points resonate, and Game of Thrones says little beyond “people, when given power, are terrible to each other”.  It’s fictionalized historical treatise, not an allegory of an idea.

Where The Forgotten Realms took Tolkien and added girls and jokes, A Song of Ice and Fire took Tolkien and removed the mythic and sacred.  Therefore, there’s nothing left when innocence and people die, because Game of Thrones fails its saving throw against fatalism.

(EDIT: I removed the marijuana joke because it offended some people and I determined it was an unnecessary distraction that had nothing to do with the main point.  Typos also corrected.)

The sorry state of gender in gaming in one photo from Destructoid

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Imagine if four female cosplayers were photographed in costumes that were essentially underwear at PAX East.  Jessica Nigri was wearing more when she was the subject of a scandal.

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Not only is Jessica more covered in both these images than the men in question, but she’s obviously put more time, more care, and more conscious thought into her costumes.  They fit better, and she’s better groomed.  But she’s considered lewd, while the guys are considered “fun” or “silly”.

This double standard — that men are allowed to be “harmlessly” nearly naked — and women aren’t?  THAT IS SEXISM IN THE VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY.

Note that the dude on the right is dangerously close to a testicular wardrobe malfunction.

I have no issue with the top photo on its own.  But I am bothered by the fact that female gamers can’t have this sort of fun without risking the wrath of the internet descending on them.

We need the same standards for men and women in all things in gaming.  Period.  PAX East just failed the He-Man and She-Ra test.

Weekly YouTube Recap!

This week’s YouTube videos, all in one place!

Monday: dealing with online bullies.  We DO KNOW what works, but it’s not what’s popular.

Tuesday: What the Feminine Mystique teaches us about campus rape myth.  I’m pretty sure there’s a HUGE “operation ignore” going on regarding this video because Outrage Warriors can’t argue it.  What does it say when the biggest bullies on the internet are afraid of me?

Wednesday and Thursday: An absolutely wonderful interview with Nelson Blake II, the artist on the upcoming comic book Romulus:

And Feedback Friday, the recap of some comments from the week, and a head’s up on what’s coming up.