Thursday, 6 April 2017

Playing like a girl

The first fifteen to twenty minutes of a new video game are vital. In it, you've got to set the scene, establish the protagonist, and give the player a feel for the controls. Of course, most of the keys are standardized across games, but things like the range of a jump or the size of the hitbox need some getting used to. There's the story, as well, the sequence of events that set the narrative in motion.
The easiest way to do this is with the "attack on the homebase" trope, of course, where the homebase may be anything from a spacecraft  to a village. (Halo 1, Knights of the Old Republic,Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2, Dragon Age:Origins - the Human Noble origin, atleast, Dragon Age 2, many others). The other, of course, is the ever popular "Player as prisoner" opening (Every Elder Scrolls game ever, KOTOR 2, Shadows of Amn, even the original Prince of Persia).
Horizon Zero Dawn begins with a birth, an adoption, and a little girl coming to terms with the fact that she is an outcast and that "normal" people will not even speak to her. Oh, and that this is a world in the far future, while steel dinosaurs prowl the land, but humans are still making do with spears and bows.

Image result for horizon zero dawn art book
That's a Thunderjaw, a metal T-Rex armed with missile launchers, machine guns and a laser cannon
I've only played one set of games as a woman character, and that was the Mass Effect series, and that, only for Jennifer Hale's performance as FemShep. But that was to "check it out", and the character I identified with was Sheploo(the male default character, modeled on Mark Vanderloo ), and Mark Meer was always my def Shepard. And wherever the player character's gender is a choice, I always chose male.
Horizon Zero Dawn was the first game that I played in its entirety as a girl.

I loved it.

There are different levels of engagement when you start playing a game. The first couple of hours tend to drag a little, especially in RPGs. There's exposition, of course, and there's the getting used to things like inventory screens, maps and quest objective tracking, getting the basic economics of buying and selling stuff. There are also the questions of skills and weapon upgrades as you gain your first levels. Does this skill work as well as it sounds? Will I be using melee or range? How important is crafting going to be?

Then, there's the period of increasing engagement, as you begin to find out what tactics work for you, and which weapons. You've faced the first boss, and managed to come through. This is when you get hooked, and you consume the game, like popcorn or a bowl of paneer maggi. You can't stop yourself, and you want more - the next level, the next skill points, the next weapon or weapon upgrade.

All this, obviously, is gender neutral. And Horizon Zero Dawn does an excellent job of this. But it also gives you a likable protagonist - not one of your run-of-the-mill hardasses like Master Chief or Marcus Fenix or John MacTavish or Nick Reyes or Nico Bellic or even Darth Revan (I exclude Shepard, simply because he's introduced staring pensively out of a window at the earth and the fact that he can quote Machiavelli and Beccaria), a protagonist who you can empathize with, who is both a woman and a pariah, but who handles those loads without making the story about Aesops and morals, one who manages to be a teen without being aggravating.

Games give you agency, in a way that books or movies or any other artform can never do. And that agency allows you to identify so much more with the character you play. When I played Baldur's Gate, I would dream of the further adventures of its protagonist. I would compose mental fan fiction on the undocumented exploits of Revan and the Jedi Exile. For the past fortnight, I've gone to sleep thinking I was Aloy, with my tearblast arrows and Sharpshot Bow and spear, dreaming of ways to take down stormbirds.

Yep, that's a stormbird

A very good friend of mine presented me a T-Shirt, with the names or the titles of every video game character that I loved playing. The Nephelim. The Nerevarine. The vault dwellers and couriers and sole survivors from Fallout. The Nameless One. The Grey Warden. Nathan Drake. Geralt of Rivia (One of these days I'm going to post a Witcher related question on a Facebook quizzing board and reply to the person who posts the correct answer with the comment "You're a real Geralt of Trivia, aren't you?"). The Dovahkiin.
But if I had the T-Shirt remade, right on top would be the name of Aloy of the Nora.

It's 4:10 am in the morning. I'm running a temperature and I've just finished playing Horizon Zero Dawn. I'm feeling high and awake and so...satisfied.

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