choice texas

Loaded Questions Vol. 4

Loaded Questions is a new weekly feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Daniel Cánovas: The “gaming is art” topic is becoming less interesting to me each day. Maybe only the act of creating them is art, but that’s not the question I want to ask you. Have you ever heard the expression “To read is to live twice”? With this expression in mind, I decided to compare playing to reading, and I ended up developing a short text that made me reappreciate visual novels. Do you think it’s valid at all to say, “To play a video game is to live twice”?

Jed Pressgrove: It’s possible I have heard someone say “To read is to live twice,” but my memory gets worse every year. Regardless, I am familiar with the sentiment behind that expression. There is a feeling among many readers that literature, more so than any other art form, allows one to tap deeply into the human condition and spirit. I don’t feel this way, mainly because a lot of literature is poorly executed.

That aside, my answer is straightforward: sometimes to play a video game is to live twice. I think of Vaida’s Talks With My Mom. Playing that game was like living in two ways that I’ve never lived. I’ve never had to experience the pressure of fitting into a heterosexual feminine category like the girl protagonist; I’ve also never felt the concern of a mother who just wants life to be traditional and simple for her daughter (and herself). In Nier: Automata, I got a strong sense of the hate, fear, and willful ignorance that can drive one to genocide, especially during the segments where I watched the bodies of robots explode due to the lethal combinations and hacks I performed as 9S.

On a final note, as great as “living twice” can be, I don’t think it has to be the ultimate goal of any game. People who expect games to be just like literature or movies or whatever are unrealistic and shortsighted. Games can be many things. They can be living twice, they can be sports, they can be puzzles. I try to appreciate and criticize them for what they are.

Question 2

Álvaro Rico: What do you think is the most important factor for you personally at the time of writing a good review?

Jed Pressgrove: Conviction. I have to believe in what I’m saying, even if no one shares my opinion. I have to be willing to put my thoughts and feelings out there. Style and technique are important, but if I didn’t have conviction, I wouldn’t bother writing reviews.

Question 3

Serge Soucy: After watching some footage of Detroit: Become Human, I began to think about choice in video games. I’m not talking about how a player would approach a situation (for example, “Should I attack a monster from afar or up close?”), I’m thinking more about games with morality systems that are designed to challenge players’ minds. What are some great examples of games where choices made have real implications that arouse emotions, and what’s the worse case of a game that tries to cash in on this idea but fails to do so?

Jed Pressgrove: To address your first question, the first game that comes to mind is Choice: Texas. In my review, I talked at length about the story of Leah and how the game’s presentation of choice emotionally transcended the dialogue that the United States was having about rape and abortion.

Another game that fits your description is the original Fallout. There are few games with Fallout’s level of freedom. During one game of Fallout, I decided to kill everyone, whether I would deem them bad or good. Just kill every last person I could find. What started out as an amusing diversion for a kid (I was in my teens at the time) ended up giving me an incredibly hollow feeling. It wasn’t just that I had made a complex game one-dimensional; the experience suggested that exterminating life can never satisfy a person.

You might also be interested in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. A pivotal decision in its first chapter has an undeniably large effect on the game’s second chapter and how you perceive the different factions and individuals in the story.

As for your second question, I’d have to go with Telltale’s Game of Thrones. It is by far the best example of a game whose only purpose is to cash in on the idea of emotionally charged choices. Telltale’s work (and its influence) is largely a disgrace to storytelling and game design, and Game of Thrones’ mindless imitation of the HBO television show cannot be excused in any way.

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Pregnancy Review — A Game That Should Have Been Aborted

by Jed Pressgrove

“Who the fuck are you?”

Lilla, Pregnancy’s 14-year-old protagonist, directs this question to the player early on, but she should have posed it to her developer, Locomotivah. Lilla has become pregnant after being raped, and you are her guide of sorts, clicking away at dialogue options. After she asks the above question, you can choose to tell her you’re an adviser, a friend, or her conscience. It doesn’t matter. Locomotivah’s goal is profoundly banal, the latest attempt to one-up Telltale Games (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us) on player choice/agency. Whereas Life Is Strange tries to top Telltale by maxing out the latter’s methods like an amateur, Pregnancy has a more savage ploy: using in-detail rape to hook you into a shallow lecture on abortion debate.

You have to wonder whether Locomotivah or Kotaku’s Mike Fahey, who laughably said Pregnancy “is a harrowing journey that countless women go through every year,” ever played or heard of Choice: Texas, which expresses the life politics of abortion though the dreams, strengths, and insecurities of different women. Pregnancy just goes for the gut. Background pictures accompany the game’s text, and you soon see two big hands wrapped around a girl’s throat, the image static but with a haze effect. Locomotivah draws out the scene with choppy descriptions like “A lot of pain. Inside.” and “A cry. Mine. He laughs.” This scene might trigger people who have been been sexually assaulted or make others uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s meaningful communication. The sexual violence horror merely sets up the pins for Locomotivah’s focus on player ego and, later, lukewarm political bowling.

The fourth wall is shattered as you talk to Lilla, who even prompts you to type your name — anything to reinforce an illusion of player importance. Eventually you respond to Lilla’s pro-life and pro-choice suggestions. Based on how you guide her, Pregnancy flips the script at the end when Lilla announces that she can make her own choice. As if this conversation with a conscience couldn’t be any faker, Lilla adds “I feel plenitude” when making the decision that is the very opposite of your supposed advice. Locomotivah wants to let you down gently with this closing text:

“Note: Hey, please don’t get mad at Lilla … In this game Lilla’s final decision will always be the opposite of what the player allegedly wants. There are valuable arguments on both sides of the discussion.”

Pregnancy then goes full Telltale with post-game statistics on the decisions of players. The final cherry on top is a list of links to pro-life and pro-choice websites. Locomotivah tells us what we already know: an abortion debate exists.

Nothing valuable precedes that stupid ending. At best, everything about Pregnancy amounts to bland acknowledgement of reality. Like Pregnancy, Choice: Texas illustrates a pregnancy due to rape with the character of Leah. Choice: Texas emphasizes how social institutions play out in rape’s aftermath, as Leah seeks guidance from her pastor while facing judgment from certain church members. Pregnancy merely pushes spiritual tokenism when Lilla asks you if you believe in God before dismissing her own belief about providence with as much attention as she gives The Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence. This approach favors a perspective based on secularism and an all-powerful consumerist identity. While Leah in Choice: Texas implicitly faces spiritual hardships based on her interactions in society, Locomotivah has Lilla mention God and hypocrisy for an appearance of depth.

Immature “hardcore” gamers will mock Pregnancy for all the wrong reasons. The cursive pink title font, the mawkish piano, and the impersonality of player advice are only symptoms resulting from a more significant problem. Indie trash like The Walking Dead, Gone Home, and Always Sometimes Monsters want to drive discussion on human nature in specious terms. Pregnancy’s mockery of personal experience and player choice is a response to this miserable canon. Shock and trickery are the new empathy.

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2014

by Jed Pressgrove

There is no critical value in hyping any conception of “video game,” traditional or otherwise. The following works simply accomplish their goals, modest or not, better than the numerous other 2014 games that I played.

Note: You can check out my 10 worst video games of 2014 here.

1. Jazzpunk

Jazzpunk’s emphasis on derailing plot, a cue from the Marx Brothers, turns video game campaigns and side missions into farce. (People who pontificate about “narrative” or “gameplay” might be too jaded to laugh, though.) Developer Necrophone Games’ dedication to irreverence outplays Obsidian Entertainment’s adolescent marketing and genre triteness in South Park: The Stick of Truth. Jazzpunk never gets haughty about the artificiality of games and takes joy in the absurd possibilities of the form.

(See full review of Jazzpunk here.)

2. Choice: Texas

Some say “every game is political” and others say “keep politics out of games,” but I often get the sense people are talking more about how game content either massages or insults their partisan egos. The life politics in Choice: Texas reject partisanship to explore practical, emotional, and spiritual concerns. Text-based second guessing conveys how policy, family, religion, school, and work can lead pregnant women to visit and revisit decisions that are as sociological as they are personal.

(See full review of Choice: Texas here.)

3. Talks With My Mom

Unlike Mountain, Talks With My Mom is a masterpiece of minimalism. The game’s focus on mother and daughter confronts the anxiety of raising children and growing up gay, trumping the lack of sociology and dignity in Gone Home’s horror cliches. Even if someone says “not a game” in regard to Talk With My Mom’s ultra-simplistic clicking (which allows the player to punctuate mood and control pacing), developer Vaida’s statement on identity and gender is undeniably mature, non-judgmental (the mother isn’t presented as a mere bigot), and clear.

(See full review of Talks With My Mom here.)

4. The Talos Principle

If it were only a collection of puzzles, The Talos Principle would be impressive and worthwhile. The puzzler further distinguishes itself by addressing the voice of God and the voice of reason. Avoiding propaganda, The Talos Principle magnifies the human vulnerability and intellectual conflict within the Garden of Eden story, an account that is usually analyzed from one-dimensional viewpoints. The smattering of philosophical texts might be tedious, yet this bombardment captures the challenges of thinking in the (Mis)Information Age. The game achieves the most clarity in connecting deity and human as players. The urge to solve puzzles, to be a creator of order, explains more than The Stanley Parable’s smug and obvious design lesson.

(See full review of The Talos Principle here.)

5. Beeswing

One can almost see the human hands that crafted the art and music in Beeswing, but the result still seems magical, particularly during the best video game song of 2014 that dares to express the alienation of the elderly in nursing homes. Beeswing’s checklist of activities represents what a person hopes to accomplish going back home rather than the common attempt in games to glorify content. Even among provocative work like Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History and Will You Ever Return? 2, this is Jack King-Spooner’s masterpiece.

Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter for Beeswing, but only at the level that allowed me to download the game. Moreover, I do not plan on backing another Kickstarter for a video game. The whole process annoys me.

6. Amazing Princess Sarah

Just ignore how developer Haruneko advertises this game as yet another breast-obsessed adventure on Xbox Live Indie Games. Not satisfied with retro sentimentality like Shovel Knight, Amazing Princess Sarah expands the strategic possibilities and challenges of Super Mario Bros. 2’s enemy throwing. This platformer also gives the “new game plus” concept memorable purpose, outdoing the beat-it-twice legend of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. The rule changes in each version of Amazing Princess Sarah can make difficult sections easy and easy sections difficult, inspiring new appreciation of the game’s five levels.

(See full review of Amazing Princess Sarah here.)

7. Shutshimi

The direction of Shutshimi borders on the avant-garde. The alternating 10-second bursts of shooting and power-up selection defy conventions, especially when you’re forced to choose from power-ups that are almost certain to lead to your death. The narrative of a fish defending his home is punctuated by constant human bicep flexing that recalls the homoerotic overtones of Cho Aniki. Neon Deity Games has created the wildest shooter of our time: a high-score exhibition that celebrates and parodies masculinity.

8. Broken Age Act 1

Tim Schafer’s direction in Broken Age Act 1 is virtuosic. The two stories tie together brilliantly in terms of theme and plot. The voice acting blows away the amateurish efforts of countless bigger-budget games. Although some puzzles might require backtracking, Broken Age is designed to allow a much faster pace than most point-and-click adventures. Broken Age always seems one step ahead with its punchlines, inviting the player to goof off as much as advance.

9. Replay Racer

Mario Kart 8 might have helped make 2014 a banner year for Nintendo banality, but that latest entry of an overrated franchise can’t match the innovative fun and challenge of Replay Racer. Developer Chris Johnson turns every completed lap into a juggernaut that you have to avoid and outrace. By the sixth and final lap, you’re competing against five of your own Frankensteins. If arcades were still respected, Replay Racer would be a hit.

(See full review of Replay Racer here.)

10. Temporality/Snot City/The World The Children Made

Cheat Code: Allow Three Choices for One Spot. Down, Up, Down, Up, Enter.

These three games from James Earl Cox III weren’t released as a trio, but they stand out together in 2014. Temporality gives a more respectful and thoughtful tribute to what is lost in war than Ubisoft’s Looney Tunes/Pokemon treatment of World War I in Valiant Hearts. Snot City exposes formulaic item collection as juvenile horror. Finally, The World The Children Made is a timely adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story, warning millennials and their offspring of the potential dehumanization of technological convenience and privilege.

Female Protagonists: How An Indie Revolution May Never Happen

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: “AAA” is in quotation marks throughout this piece because of its presumption of high quality.

I have no great expectations for Ubisoft — or any other “AAA” company, for that matter. Don’t get me wrong: I want big-budget games to be good, especially the ones that I spend money on. But I have zero faith that a “AAA” game will inspire a revolution in regard to any worthwhile or interesting idea.

Anyone who keeps up with game writing knows that “AAA” female protagonists is a highly discussed topic. This discussion often comes in three forms:

1. Some people say a “AAA” game should have a female protagonist for purposes of representation and/or a new approach to a series. In response, some people say the company/developers/artists should have the freedom to do what they want with protagonists, while others dismiss the concern about female protagonists as something not worth thinking about, sometimes via insults and generally immature attitudes. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which was announced by Ubisoft at E3 (which has gone from a necessary informative event that excited me as a youngster to the most annoying game-related thing of the year that clogs up my Twitter feed, generally rendering any attempt to talk about games outside of a marketing context as futile, unwanted, and irrelevant). Even Time featured an article about the lack of playable female characters in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

2. Some people say a “AAA” game needs to handle its female protagonist in a different way. In response, some people do the exact same thing I described above. Others argue that perhaps the female protagonist in question is a good thing. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Rise of the Tomb Raider — another E3 announcement. Leigh Alexander wrote the most interesting piece on this subject.

3. Some people point out a “AAA” game will or might feature a female protagonist. This discussion doesn’t typically result in as much heated debate. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is the Zelda Wii U game announced by Nintendo at E3.

At this point in the year, it’s fairly obvious that if you’re talking about female protagonists, you’re talking about “AAA” female protagonists. While I don’t begrudge people for having these discussions … OK, that’s dishonest. Frankly, the “AAA” focus is a disservice to any current discussion about female protagonists. At the same time, it’s not impossible to understand why these discussions occur. Ubisoft is the reigning king of moronic PR. Male protagonists do tend to dominate “AAA” games. Leigh Alexander makes several fair points about how male and female “AAA” heroes are treated. And even I, the guy who hates E3, am intrigued by the idea that the new Zelda could star, well, Zelda.

Meanwhile, I highly doubt an indie revolution in regard to female protagonists can occur if the misleading “AAA” bias continues. When the most reassuring article about female protagonists focuses on “AAA” games featured at E3, we have a problem. In a world where we can read about indie games more than ever, it seems counterintuitive to say indies don’t receive the credit they deserve, but it’s true. Braid, Journey, and company have accomplished virtually nothing for indie games from a critical standpoint. Sure, people write and read about indies a lot. Yet discussions overwhelmingly lean toward what’s happening in the “AAA” sphere. The discussion about female protagonists is prime evidence of this trend.

Nevermind the question of whether it’s even a good idea for an immoral game series like Grand Theft Auto to include female protagonists. How about the fact that indies are doing things with female protagonists that critics rarely reference? When Rise of the Tomb Raider comes out, many will discuss Lara Croft’s therapy sessions for post-traumatic stress disorder, but will many bother to mention that The Cat Lady featured a female protagonist talking about her life and depression in therapy sessions? What if the new Zelda stars Zelda? Will anyone mention Shipwreck, the Zelda-inspired indie game starring a female protagonist? Indies even have trouble getting attention for doing completely different things with female protagonists. Last year, writers were happy to talk about Choice: Texas, a then-unreleased indie game about abortion featuring multiple female protagonists, when they could deem it a potentially controversial game. However, since going live on May 14, Choice: Texas can’t seem to get much attention from anyone. So much for controversy in regard to indie female protagonists, right?

Indeed, going by the current dialogue, readers will be lucky if they learn anything other than what big game companies announce, or fail to announce, at E3 in regard to female protagonists. The impression I get from many commentaries is that “AAA” games must function, at all costs, as the vanguard for female protagonists in gaming. Sounds like a nice prophecy to me: if “AAA” games do somehow spark a fantastic new trend in female protagonists, many can be happy that they, in a small way, contributed to the cause. An indie revolution is truly impossible when people look to the big studios for every answer to their critical concerns about female characters.