Month: August 2014

Why the Gaming World Is Lost

by Jed Pressgrove

Kotaku. Zoe Quinn. Gamers. Patreon. Kickstarter. Buying games. Conflicts of interest. Ethics. If you’re connected to the online game community, perhaps you’re sick of seeing some or all of these phrases. “Why can’t we just talk about games?” Depending on who you are, that question might appear selfish or distracting, or it might match your feelings. Regardless, the reality is that we can’t focus on games because the online gaming world is full of fear, hatred, and confusion.

A big source of the confusion is a refusal to engage with journalism history and practice. In response to concerns about a lack of transparency between game writers and game developers, Kotaku crafted a new ethical policy that bans its writers from supporting game developers via Patreon. Rightfully, many have pointed out how this policy singles out Patreon and ignores a potential conflict of interest in, for example, a writer supporting a game developer via Kickstarter. Indeed, why focus on Patreon?

The answer for Kotaku appears to be “Zoe Quinn.” Her ex-boyfriend told the game community that Quinn had been sleeping with different game journalists, including “Friggen Nathan Stupid-Red-Pants-Wearing Kotaku-Writing Grayson” (I’m convinced the ex needs better therapy). When Quinn was tied to Kotaku by her unstable ex, people started raising questions about journalism ethics (unfortunately, neanderthals who harass/threaten Quinn and other women muddy ethical concerns). Quinn happens to have a Patreon, so Kotaku banned its writers from supporting game developers via Patreon.

Kotaku looks dirty right now for more than one reason. First, Kotaku should have drafted an ethical statement in regard to supporting projects from developers a long time ago. Things like Patreon and Kickstarter raise new ethical concerns that journalists should have addressed at the start, not years after the fact. Second, the current ethical statement from Kotaku doesn’t say anything about writers supporting developers via Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Why ignore the real or perceived conflicts of interest that might arise with Kickstarter or Indiegogo? The third reason Kotaku looks dirty is much simpler: Kotaku has a longstanding “AAA” bias that results in unbalanced coverage and unthinking ethical statements, such as Stephen Totilo’s embarrassing lecture on anonymous sources (which I critiqued here).

Stephen Beirne recently wrote a succinct, intelligent response to Kotaku’s new Patreon policy. One part of Beirne’s piece needs further exploration:

However, Kotaku still allows its writers to directly purchase a game for reviewing, or to back projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, two other, more established platforms for people to crowdsource revenue, despite the fact that both of these transactions also involve the writer financially supporting the developer. Where Kickstarter and over-the-counter purchasing differ from Patreon, according to various writers and figureheads at Kotaku, is that through them you support the product, whereas through Patreon you support the person.

That is the logic they have outlined. To briefly recap: supporting via Kickstarter is ethical; supporting via Patreon is unethical.

In the first paragraph above, Beirne draws a comparison between supporting developers via Patreon, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo. More importantly, he also mentions direct purchases of a game. Even though his second paragraph makes the comparison more about Kickstarter and Patreon, Beirne’s first paragraph leaves some room for interpretation. Surely we could safely amend the first part of Beirne’s recap to “supporting via Kickstarter or Indiegogo is ethical.” The more provocative question is this: does directly purchasing games belong in this comparison?

The answer is no, and there’s a good reason for that: the history of journalism ethics. The question of whether a journalist should receive products or services for free in order to write a review was a concern before Patreon and Kickstarter even existed. One classic question involves food criticism: if a food critic receives a free lunch from a restaurant up for review, is that critic more likely to write a review that doesn’t reflect the critic’s honest opinion or address the potential concerns of readers? We can’t say for sure, but it’s a legitimate concern, whether the conflict is real or perceived. One way for a food critic to avoid this question is to pay for the meal. One might argue that paying for something might influence the critic to justify the purchase through positive thinking, but the important point is that when a critic pays for a product or service for review, the critic is more on the level of the reader rather than part of a privileged club that gets things for free. (One should note that Indie Gamer Chick is known as a trusted game critic for making it a point to pay for all her games. You might disagree or dislike Indie Gamer Chick, but I’ve never heard anyone reasonably question her integrity.)

To put this another way, ethical concerns involving Patreon or Kickstarter are relatively new; ethical concerns related to the review of purchased or free products are quite old. Additionally, from the standpoint of a reader/consumer, buying a completed product is much different than supporting the development of an uncompleted product. With that in mind, why should we pretend that these two things are the same for journalists, especially given the history of ethical concerns?

Overly sentimental, anti-intellectual junk like Brendan Keogh’s story refuses to acknowledge the real or perceived conflicts of interests that have driven the development of journalism before Keogh was born. Such junk also dismisses the newer ethical questions that Patreon and Kickstarter raise for journalists — questions that Kotaku can’t even formulate.

But this isn’t the real reason the gaming world is lost. Ethics, harassment, half-assed policies, and the dismissal of journalism history are big deals, yes, but they also distract us from the real problem with gaming: almost everyone’s in it solely for the money and popularity. Big studios want your money and attention, Kickstarter developers want your money and attention, Patreon developers want your money and attention, almost everybody wants your money and attention. And if you don’t give them your money and attention — your undying, unequivocal support — something must be wrong with you. Do not dissent or question! Nevermind that anybody from one of these groups could be full of shit at any given time. I live in a society that values money over integrity, money over honesty, money over intellectualism, money over history. The online gaming world just follows that lead.

What games are you talking about, what are you saying about them, and why are you not talking about other games? Are you really interested in fairness and perspective? Journalists need to ask themselves these questions. So should everyone else.

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Game Over Breasts — Amazing Princess Sarah

by Jed Pressgrove

The promotional art of Amazing Princess Sarah recalls the silly boob adventure games on Xbox Live Indie Games. The actual game has little in common with this vapid subgenre. Whether out of desperation, cynicism, or ignorance, developer Haruneko promotes his great platformer as something that values breasts over game, when in fact the opposite is true: Amazing Princess Sarah redefines “new game plus” — one of the most stagnant, masturbatory ideas in games — as a seven-part rite of passage for the protagonist, updating the “beat it twice” legend of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Amazing Princess Sarah isn’t for satisfying lust; it’s for the reward and fun of discovering and overcoming challenges.

In every game within Amazing Princess Sarah, the central idea is picking up dead enemies and throwing them as weapons. Initially, one might compare Amazing Princess Sarah to Super Mario Bros. 2, but this comparison doesn’t account for the new problems in the former. Super Mario Bros. 2 was far more straightforward: jump on top of an enemy, press a button to pick it up, then throw it as a weapon. In Amazing Princess Sarah, you first must kill the enemy with either your sword or a thrown enemy/item (each stage has a few items you can pick up). Then you must pick up the dead enemy, meaning that you have to kill enemies in such a way that you can get to them (e.g., you don’t want them falling on spikes). In many cases, you have to avoid other enemies as you pick up dead enemies since one hit from a live enemy will make you drop the dead one (not to mention that Sarah lets out an insufferable, morale-killing yelp when she gets hit).

Although enemies generally follow predictable patterns (for example, the biggest enemies rush you when they face you), Haruneko has designed the stages in such a way that the preset quirks of the enemies can drive you mad as you jump from platform to platform to pick up dead ones. Balancing out the treacherous one-two punch of the level design and enemy patterns is the fact that thrown enemies have different trajectories and effects. Learning the proper distances and heights from which to throw specific enemies can mean the difference between a breezy or frustrating section of a level. The plentiful enemies in each stage also enable different playing styles. Some players will prefer a fire effect over an arrow effect during a particular chain of attacks, as fire travels across floors while arrows go up a bit and then rain down through floors and walls.

Even though Amazing Princess Sarah has Super Nintendo looks, the game doesn’t play politics by appealing to retro sentimentality while conceding to modern notions about “fair” game design (though the game has checkpoints and leveling up, the latter hardly makes a difference between life and death). Rather, completing the game’s five stages with different rules becomes a mantra of tension and triumph. The “new game pluses,” such as Angry Princess Sarah and Cursed Princess Sarah, neither champion simple difficulty increases nor stroke power fantasies. What’s easy during one “new game plus” is difficult during another and vice versa, inspiring new appreciation of level design and perspective. For example, by the time you get to Bat Princess Sarah, you are very knowledgeable about the game, but your primary weapon, a sword, becomes ineffective against all enemies, with the exception of bats. Throwing dead bats thus becomes essential to killing stronger enemies, but the increase of bats throughout the stages also means you have more obstacles to avoid during tricky platforming.

As suggested by my comment about the cover art, the sex-centered marketing of Amazing Princess Sarah is misleading at best and distracting at worst. Moreover, the mindless achievement of reaching level 69 belongs in a Bill & Ted game. Interestingly, Haruneko makes wet dreams into more than a marketing ploy. In the penultimate “new game plus,” Sarah is naked and has no sword. Upon seeing you as a nude warrior, most enemies stop in their tracks, entranced by Sarah’s muscular physique. The lack of a sword creates an interesting dynamic: you’re no longer able to kill bats with one strike, and although you charm most enemies, you have more trouble killing them with your bare hands. It’s more of a unique challenge than a nude fantasy (the “nudity” is blurred).

OK, one could still say the game is juvenile. Yet the simple creativity of Haruneko’s stages and enemies cannot be denied, and the interplay between the different rules of the “new game pluses” is something to behold. In most games, “new game plus” is actually “old game plus.” In Amazing Princess Sarah, every new game is another part of a journey. Despite a disappointing end boss in the final stretch, the game of Amazing Princess Sarah deserves more credit than the body parts its creator uses for marketing.

A Conversation about Race in Video Games

by Sidney Fussell and Jed Pressgrove

Note: This conversation occurred via email and has been edited for clarity and grammar. Sidney Fussell’s writing on race, gender, and video games can be found here. Last but not least, a special thanks to Veerender Jubbal for providing the idea for this conversation.

BioShock Infinite, The Walking Dead, Post-Racial Climate

Jed Pressgrove: Video games tend to get off the hook a little easily when it comes to race. It’s difficult to compare the importance of race to that of gender since they are both connected to class, but it’s interesting that we tend to see more criticism of gender in games compared to criticism of race in games. Look at Grand Theft Auto V. It has a black protagonist, though I didn’t hear much at all about its handling of race. But GTA V not having a female protagonist made quite a few headlines and led to a lot of analysis about the game’s intentions.

Then again, many games don’t give people as much to examine when it comes to race. Just as a simple example, I could name several good or well-written female game characters off the top of my head because there are many female characters, good and bad, to consider. But I would have trouble naming good or well-written characters who aren’t white or Japanese — it wouldn’t take long to run out of potential examples. And the black character I created in Fallout 3 doesn’t seem much different than any other character I could create in the game. Games often come across to me as very post-racial and safe, which strikes me as a limitation.

Sidney Fussell: I think there’s a real fear in engaging with race/racism in games that leads to many developers either omitting them completely or hoping palette swap options will suffice. This is the bare minimum, post-racial climate we find ourselves in, and it’s one I wish more people questioned. In 2014, it’s absurd for racial awareness and a more evolved understanding of racism to be dismissed as “niche.”

Two big releases, BioShock Infinite and The Walking Dead, both had interesting takes on racism I’d like to explore. Jed and I may disagree about The Walking Dead (it’s excellent, he’s wrong), but a scene midway through “Starved for Help” winningly subverts the post-racial “safe zone” many games hide in. Protagonist Lee Everett, the rare Black everyman, and redneck Papa Bear Kenny attempt to break into a locked door in a barn. Kenny asks if Lee knows how to pick the lock because “You’re…you know…urban.” Lee responds with a frustrated “Come on, man!” before a guilty and embarrassed Kenny quickly apologizes and the two come up with a different plan for entering the room.

The brief exchange is played for laughs but does more to humanize the duo and characterize The Walking Dead’s world than the hours of hackneyed melodrama in BioShock Infinite. When I say I want a game that’s conscious or aware, I’m asking for a game where the characters are shown having a relationship with race and racism. Lee and Kenny like each other very much, but they still harbor assumptions about each other based on race. And that’s how it is in real life. We all have relationships with racism — we overcome it, capitulate to it, conceal it, etc. Kenny awkwardly tried to excuse and sanitize his own racism, but he’s no villain. He’s human — he makes mistakes and occasionally says stupid shit. The Walking Dead doesn’t trot out racism just to remind us that racism is bad; it uses racism to show how identities affect the dynamics of a relationship — identities that the game observes and engages and doesn’t colorblindly ignore.

I think The Walking Dead’s approach is a much better way of engaging with racism than BioShock Infinite’s. For all of Infinite’s allusions to miscegenation, lynching, genocide, eugenics, etc., Booker and Elizabeth have no relationship to the racism that surrounds them. Instead of exploring either character’s prejudices or privileges, Booker’s stoicism and Elizabeth’s naivety ensure they are never “colored” by racism. They recognize it as a moral wrong but have no relationship to it. Racism only touches the game’s villains, implying it as the unique attribute of the corrupt and monstrous, as opposed to something everyone deals with and has a relationship with their entire lives. It’s an archaic take on racism that privileges the isolationism the game reserves for Booker and Elizabeth. It’s especially frustrating since Booker begins mowing down black men Resident Evil 5 style in the game’s final act, (color)blindly deciding they were as bad as Comstock’s men.

A racially conscious game is one that recognizes relationships with race/racism aren’t voluntary and doesn’t use racism as a strawman to characterize the bad guys. That’s neither the identity of racists nor the function of racism. It’s a frankly pathetic way to mimic social evolution.  It’s time games stepped up and made the same commitment to narrative innovation and character exploration that they have to technical advancement.

Jed Pressgrove: You’re right about that scene between Lee and Kenny in The Walking Dead; it goes beyond humorous intentions and serves as a great example of commentary on race. But Telltale’s The Walking Dead could have gone further like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The black protagonist in Romero’s film ultimately struggles against the social construction of race. Lee Everett (and everyone else in The Walking Dead) is ultimately at odds with fictional zombies, not race. The majority of the game tries to manipulate our emotions about survival rather than compel us to consider social reality.

Dark Souls, Life vs. Death, Gamifying Personal Experiences

Jed Pressgrove: I think part of the reason games in general lack narrative innovation and character exploration in terms of race is that games are too concerned with death. A fixation on death tends to center on the self. How do I stay alive? What would I do in this life-or-death situation? These questions distract us from other questions, such as: how do different people live? This brings me to an interesting thing I recently saw in Dark Souls, a game obsessed with death. When you’re creating a character in Dark Souls, you can change the skin color/ethnicity of your character. While this option might satisfy some, I think the game leaves a lot to the imagination. For example, if you choose the Great Swamp color/ethnicity, the game tells you that the character faces prejudice — the character is darker than white. Yet there is another character with darker skin who comes with no such description of prejudice. All of this suggests that race is merely a play thing in Dark Souls. In the game’s eyes, all protagonists/players are made equal through death, but such a mentality distracts us from questions about life. I’m not trying to say that Dark Souls is irresponsible so much as illustrative of how games often encourage us to think of death as the main obstacle in life. Meanwhile, social constructions like race are simple background characteristics.

What’s interesting to me is that we do see many games breaking away from the “do or die” mold of classics like Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. Games like Actual Sunlight and Dys4ia clearly encourage us to consider the lives of different people. And we’re even seeing some games stay true to the old-school survival mentality while incorporating truths about social reality — Grand Titons’ combination of trans woman identity and shooting is a fascinating case. At some point I expect to see some very personal accounts about race in games. The question is when?

Sidney Fussell: “How do different people live?” is a great starting point for exploring identity in games. I think zombie media is an especially apt space for this question, because characters are stripped of the institutions that mask their prejudices. Kenny’s misconceptions about black criminality would’ve gone largely unquestioned in his native Florida, and Lee’s elitism is, if anything, encouraged among academics. Their partnership is great because it’s so implausible in the “real” world, where these institutions function to segregate us. But as much as I liked Walking Dead, it was only passingly concerned with how people live; the game is about how they die. Or un-die, I guess.

Dying is as ubiquitous a mechanic in games as pressing Start. It usually means failure — if the player avatar dies, it means you’ve screwed something up. I think a game like Dark Souls is interesting because dying isn’t the Ultimate Failure, it’s part of learning how to play the game.  It’s pointless to tell the player “don’t die” — it’s unavoidable. I think this is an acknowledgment of how similarly pointless it is to tell players “don’t fail.” Just make dying/failure part of the play process, and its meaning changes from “you’ve failed” to “you need to learn something.” It’s an interesting way to become comfortable with death/failing and is really the only aspect of Dark Souls (“Dark Soils” as I besmirch it on Twitter) I’d like to see more games adapt. If dying wasn’t the only way to communicate certain meanings to players, we might see life explored in more interesting ways.

I haven’t died yet, so if I wanted to make a game about some aspect of my life, I’d need some other way to convey failure/miscalculation/error.  I think indies exploring people’s lives are expanding our vocabulary of game mechanics, “breaking away from the ‘do or die’ mold” like you said and encouraging different ways of communicating success, failure, winning, etc. Speaking personally, my friends and I once joked about gamifying (that’s a thing, right?) a racial aspect of my job. I talk to people on the phone a lot, who then come into the office with some line akin to “Oh, I didn’t expect you to be Black!” which I’ve never managed to inure myself to. We imagined a Guitar Hero style quick-time event where the player inputs commands to alter my voice to sound more typically Black. On reflection, I realized “winning” meant I’m avoiding the awkwardness, but capitulating to a problematic definition of Black voices. And “losing” meant I’d have to endure the awkwardness but get to screw with (white) people’s ideas about what Black people sound like, talk like, etc.

I think exploring race and identity is a great way to complicate meanings and mechanics in games because life is complicated. I think translating that fluidity in gaming would make for more interesting, inclusive games. We all win and lose in various hazily defined ways that don’t involve rag-doll physics or torture gorn. I’d love to see games tackle messy notions of identity because I think it allows for new aspirations for the medium beyond simply being profitable.

Jed Pressgrove: Your idea about gamifying someone’s “racial” voice might also apply to certain white people. I only say this from my experience as a Mississippian, but there’s this idea of some poor Southern white people “trying to be black,” including the use of pronunciations and expressions that people associate with “blackness.” But are all of these poor whites really “trying” anything? I think the game idea you mentioned could tackle that tricky question that often gets overlooked in favor of simple stereotyping: why does anyone sound the way they do? It could be a learning experience about background and politics.

Preaching to the Choir, Racial Utopia, Progress?

Jed Pressgrove: Of course, there’s a fine line between a learning experience and something seemingly noble that confirms our expectations. Since our last exchange, I played through Always Sometimes Monsters, which touts the innovation of your racial/gender/orientation status affecting events in the game. I played as a black gay man. Interestingly, I felt the game reminded me that my character was gay more than anything else. There were only two instances where I felt the game commented on my character’s racial status in an honest way, and in both cases it was to show how uncaring a nonplayable character was. In the abstract, this game seems to say that race is an outmoded notion bought into by assholes, as opposed to a deeply ingrained idea that we should overcome as individuals and a society. I can say that Always Sometimes Monsters is a little more ambitious than fantasy games with elves, but its commentary amounts to a few “preaching to the choir” moments.

Then again, the appearance of racial harmony in a story isn’t necessarily indicative of a colorblind fantasy. I guess the question is whether the harmony feels odd or authentic.

Sidney Fussell: As a player, I’m not interested in either extreme. I don’t want a utopic Captain Planet kumbaya setting, nor do I want pure racial tribalism. I’m interested in empathy and exploration. I’m interested in game mechanics, settings, and characters designs that are diverse, insightful, and entertaining. I think one-off micro games — how speech affects racial perception, for example — that are specific experiences can handle this a bit better. I mostly play RPGs, and while fantasy epics routinely tackle racism through metaphor, I find it has a sanitizing effect.

I once wrote about the problematic racial attribute system in older Elder Scrolls games. Specifically, how Redguards (ostensibly Sub Saharan Africans) having bonuses to Strength and penalties to Intelligence is problematic. The popular counter was that Nords had a similar attribute dynamic, so it “wasn’t racist.” Of course, the difference is history — the expectation for people within the African diaspora to be athletic and unintelligent has been backed by everything from science to religion to academia to literature for centuries. I find players aren’t necessarily adept at translating these metaphors into concrete ways of understanding race or racism.

I also think the Grand Conversation on Race in Games needs to talk about the metric by which we measure progress. I’m certainly thrilled to see more brown folks on the covers of games as well as discussing and critiquing them, but with this new generation that I’m paying hundreds of dollars to be a part of, I think it’s critical that we set goals. Utopia isn’t anyone’s goal, but it’d be nice to at least start chipping away at the culture of contrasting backlashes we slip backwards into whenever something/someone is deemed racist, homophobic, etc.

If games can make players feel like they’re the world’s greatest heroes, strongest marines, most cunning thieves and secret agents, they’re more than capable of changing a few minds and making a few players go, “Huh. I don’t think that way, but I can see that.” I think it’s time developers aimed higher for themselves and for players and let go of the “oh no this is too political” fears that have stuck in the past hardware cycle. And contrary to popular belief, I think a Conversation may be what starts that process.

Betraying First-Person Action Norms

by Paul Schumann

A respect for history, faith, and humanity separates Betrayer from many of its peers. Like other first-person action games, Betrayer features a variety of ranged weapons — bows, flintlocks, and tomahawks — but the most important gameplay function doesn’t involve violence: a listening mechanic allows the player to seek out key sections of the map for audio clues. This mechanic makes Betrayer more aesthetically pleasing, as there is no minimap or obnoxious arrows leading from one objective to the next. Listening also adds to the atmosphere as cursed totems beckon the player in for a trap and lost souls weep into the ether. This design fulfills the purpose of Betrayer’s storytelling.

In the 17th century New World, you play as an anonymous settler/adventurer washed up on the shores of Virginia, the sole survivor of your vessel. You discover you are not alone: a mysterious girl stalks the woods warning you to avoid these lands, a shadow world of ghosts, demons, and skellingtons. You gradually discover how the lives of the former colonists demonstrate the foibles, passions, and potential for brutality of human nature.

From time immemorial, going back to the Garden of Eden, human beings have had the potential to do good or evil. To Betrayer’s credit, the lost souls aren’t presented as backward sods just because they lived centuries before us. They all have their own motivations, whether based in pride, lust, anger, fear, greed, patriotism, faith, or despair. There’s the Catholic who came to the New World for a new start away from the religious persecutions of England, yet he comes to find religious conflict inescapable. There’s the mother who is driven to despair after her son accidentally dies by his own hand. There’s interracial liaisons between settlers and natives. There’s the threat of conflict between marauding Spaniards, hostile natives, and English settlers. Very real human tragedies all.

The manner in which the stories are told further develops Betrayer’s approach to fallen human nature. The truth is only gradually revealed. The first wraiths you encounter can hardly remember more than their names. The ghosts tend to recall only the best parts of the people they were, but pieces of their lives return as you find clues.  One ghost insists his friend died by accident until you reveal evidence showing foul play. Another ghost reminisces about warning his son not to play with a firearm and his sickly wife going for a walk. Finding the graves of his wife and son leads the man to remember that his son had shot himself and that his wife committed suicide in her grief.

The poor souls in Betrayer are cursed to walk the earth until they’ve come to terms with their guilt. The theology is a bit iffy, sounding more like the legend of the Jack O’ Lantern — a soul stuck between heaven and hell — than traditional Catholic eschatology. In that sense, it’s almost fitting that the non-denominational Protestant colonists are cursed to such an obscure fate. The story also explores apparent demonic activity and the supposed presence of witchcraft. The natives regard the deep woods as a dangerous place, not merely for hostile tribes but for evil spirits. Moreover, an accused witch is executed by burning, but the game reveals that nothing supernatural is at play, just mere skulduggery. Betrayer’s handling of witch hunting has historical merit: most instances of witch burning took place under Protestant authority, in contrast to the various Catholic Inquisitions that took a more measured and lenient response to such accusations (see work by sociologist Rodney Stark).

Betrayer’s ideas about treatment of the dead can be traced back to ancient Greece. Daniel Mendelsohn writes in the New Yorker: “The souls of the dead were thought to be stranded, unable to reach the underworld without a proper burial.” From The Iliad and The Odyssey to Sophocles’ Antigone, the necessity of burial as a sacred rite is clear (the protagonist of Antigone states “Hades requires these rights.”). In Betrayer, some ghosts cannot rest because evil spirits have stolen their skulls from their graves.  The endgame of Betrayer begins when you discover the source of the darkness — the brutal double murder of a young woman and her unborn child. The woman’s sister Allison (the sole survivor of the settlement) informs the player that she had attempted to burn the corpse to set her sister’s soul at peace. Yet this was not enough. The sister’s spirit wandered the woods near the scene of her death exacting vengeance on the flora, fauna, and natives.

To resolve this predicament, the player is advised to set the souls of the other settlers at rest before dealing with the sister. What follows is not theologically orthodox but makes for a thought-provoking conclusion. You return to old sections of the map to conclude their stories once and for all. You give the spectres an ultimatum to realize what’s done is done, to leave their haunting grounds, and to face their judgment: “You cannot undo what was done. You must surrender your regrets and be at peace.” The protagonist may sound forgiving or pitiless but is clearly not deciding their fates. At the same time, Betrayer doesn’t show what happens to the souls condemned to torment (as opposed to the souls you release). Likewise, your fate is never revealed. Allison, however, finally buries her sister and releases her to meet her maker. In some respects, Allison resembles Antigone, who uttered these words in Sophocles’ play: “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living, for in that world I shall abide forever.” Allison will also remain among the dead in the woods, though she still walks in the land of the living.

Wrong-headed and clumsy use of religion in games is usually a point of annoyance for me, but faith and the supernatural in Betrayer are treated without undue scorn and with just enough accuracy to blend into a believable historical backdrop. The game succeeds not with its attempts at theology but in its humanistic insights to the passions driving our choices. Betrayer shows that the fantastical fails without human experience.