What I lost in Rise of the Tomb Raider

Before I go any further let me make clear that Rise of the Tomb Raider, sequel to the 2013 reboot simply entitled Tomb Raider, is a really fun game. Whether you pick it up for one of your Xboxes or wait until it hits the PS4 in a year, you will undoubtedly enjoy your time with it. The crafting isn’t as significant as you want it to be and there’s not quite enough reward for gathering XP, but it’s gorgeous, well-paced, and the levels are so perfectly designed, so that everywhere you visit feels like an actual place, not a puzzle simply there to serve the game. Rise of the Tomb Raider is entertaining as heck. Ok, we good? Cool. Because I want to talk to you about why it makes me so sad.

The reboot of Tomb Raider starts at the beginning of Lara’s story and encompasses her journey from bookish university student with a fondness for ancient things to nascent adventurer burning to learn the great truths of the world. It’s a very personal story; we see Lara deal with the loss of her father figure, grapple with guilt over unwittingly putting her friends in dire peril, and come to terms with the fact that sometimes no-one is coming to rescue you. We don’t see many coming-of-age stories about women that don’t involve romance or marriage or something like that, so watching Lara discover her own agency was very meaningful to me, not least because I lost my father at a similar age and came to many of the same life-changing realizations she did when it happened. I was very much looking forward to continuing the journey with her in her next adventure.

The reveal trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider that ran during Microsoft’s E3 2014 press conference was everything I was hoping it would be. It showed Lara bouncing her foot with irritation as she listened to her psychiatrist, who seemed kind enough but who clearly just didn’t get it. It showed a Lara saddled with PTSD, a Lara profoundly impacted by the events on Yamatai. It showed that Lara wasn’t someone who couldn’t just shrug off the amount of violence and loss she’d been forced to endure, and instead was turning that loss into a drive to explore. A drive that was inspirational or desperately unhealthy – perhaps both.

Early descriptions of the game mentioned that part of Lara’s motivations in Rise was how difficult she’d found it to rejoin the normal world after making it off the island of Yamatai. Nobody believed her account of what had happened, to the point that she’d begun to question it herself. She was out there risking her life to prove that she wasn’t crazy, that she really had seen supernatural things, that she could trust her own memory. The idea of a Lara motivated not by the desire to find ancient shiny loot, but rather find peace within her own mind was, I thought, a very exciting and modern approach to the character.

Sadly, virtually none of that makes that into Rise in any significant way. It’s there, in a few lines of dialog and some comparisons to her actual father Richard Croft, but if you hadn’t seen the trailer or heard any of the pre-release interviews about her mental state, you’d simply have no idea any of that was going on. It’s easy to understand why that aspect of her character got downplayed. Many players who pick up Rise won’t have played the reboot, but even if they have, “I want to prove that my dad was right” is a perfectly solid motivation that’s totally in keeping with Lara’s character.

I, however, am not most players. I have PTSD, and was hoping that Rise would be as personal a story for me as Tomb Raider was. The worst thing about PTSD, among its many worst things, is that a lot people don’t believe you. That thing that happened to you wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, or it didn’t really happen that way, and maybe you’re just overreacting or exaggerating for attention. The people who are closest to you are telling you, repeatedly, that this awful thing that ruined your peace of mind, probably forever, was no big deal, because they simply can’t imagine that it is. If it had happened, surely they’d know.

Granted, in Lara’s case, it’s a bit tougher to swallow “these people wanted to sacrifice my best friend to raise the long-dead spirit of a princess”, but the core fear is the same. Are they right? Is it my fault I can’t just get over it? Did things really happen the way I think they did? It’s an awful nagging doubt that eats away at you and I was looking forward to someone, even a fictional someone, understanding that pain and coming out the other side. But that part of Lara’s story got left behind.

When I said I am not most players, what I should’ve said was most players aren’t me. The intersection of the Venn diagram of female video game players who lost their dads when they were about 20 and later suffered from PTSD is, I would think, pretty small. Most Tomb Raider fans just want to enjoy running around ancient ruins with Lady Croft, and that’s totally cool. Rise of the Tomb Raider is not a lesser game for not exploring Lara’s mental health in greater detail, it is merely a different game.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a “games need to explore more meaningful stories” complaint. Rise isn’t a particularly deep game, no, but so what? Nothing wrong with just exploring and shooting the odd exotic animal or two. I know that what I wanted it to be was very personal and I don’t feel slighted because it didn’t turn out that way. But I am sad.

The Season 6 premiere of The Walking Dead has the most terrifying scene in the series so far

Pop quiz, Walking Dead fan: What do you call a collection of zombies? You probably said “horde,” despite the fact that we’ve never actually gotten a horde of them on the show. A few dozen, yes, perhaps even a hundred, but never what you’d call a proper horde. That’s not a knock against the show at all, which has to date done an excellent job of conveying the threat of the undead without resorting to throwing masses of them at the survivors. But then last night changed all of that by opening with a proper, honest-to-god, you’ll pee a little just looking at it zombie horde. It was like all the zombies of the past five seasons had been collected in one spot to mill around and rot and it was easily the most terrifying thing The Walking Dead has ever done.

We’ve always had to meet The Walking Dead halfway when it came to its quantity of undead. There are an awful lot of people in the United States, yet Rick and crew never have to fend off all that many dead folk at a time. Even when the prison fences were at risk of buckling under the weight of walkers pressing on them, there were really only ever maybe twenty or thirty on screen at a time. It’s a purely practical consideration – creating that many highly detailed zombie makeups each week is both time consuming and expensive – so we the audience do a bit of imaginary multiplication, seeing hundreds when there are only dozens.

The show does a great job of making the most out of its walkers, framing shots so that the living always look a breath away from being overtaken, and to be fair, it doesn’t really take that many zombies to overwhelm a single person, so you don’t need more than a handful of zombies to create a legitimate threat. The Walking Dead has also slyly made use of constancy to imply that the world is truly full of rotters; no matter where you go, you are always, always at risk. You are never truly safe. The undead are always there, somewhere. If you can’t see them, that’s because you simply haven’t found them yet. It’s no small feat to make an enemy feel omnipresent without having them on screen.

After five seasons, though, we’re pretty comfortable with the zombie neighbors. Sure, we’re a little tense waiting to see who’ll get bitten next, but the larger worry is the living. Walkers are, if nothing else, at least predictable; the biggest threat to the survivors in Season 5 came from human naivety and fear. Fear got Noah killed. Arrogance is what let the zombies into Alexandria. A stubborn refusal to accept that the world had changed is why Reg is dead.  Season 5 taught us that it’s not enough to know how to shoot or build sturdy walls, you also have to know how to handle people, which maybe includes taking them out if they won’t see sense.

And then Season 6 said, oh, you’ve got things in hand, do you? You’re going to train everyone to fight zombies? That’s cute. Here. Let me remind you how the world really is.

The quarry full of zombies was gut punch of a visual, the kind of sight that makes you lie down and whimper because you are so very, very screwed. The enormity of the threat it presented was mind-breaking. If you were playing along at home, believing that you’d be just fine in the zombie apocalypse, that horde of milling, moaning death was a sobering reminder that humanity is totally, utterly fucked and you probably wouldn’t last four days after everyone in the world turned. Because, did I mention there are an awful lot of people in the United States and most of them want to eat your face. Ok, maybe you can fight off five, or even ten. But what about a hundred? Two hundred? A thousand? Yes, going fetal is a completely appropriate reaction to that. Go ahead and curl up. I won’t judge.

The dynamic that plays out after Rick and Morgan discover the quarry is a neat summary of the two kinds of people that will exist in the aftermath: those who choose to do something, and those who don’t. There’s a valid argument for both camps, of course, and an equally valid argument against. Is there a point in living if you lose your humanity in the process? Well, I dunno, but I’d rather not be zombie chow in the meantime, so how about you pick up that gun and help? As much as you, armchair walker hunter playing along at home, want to believe that you’d be Rick, coming up with a plan to save the town, are you sure you’re not Carter, quailing at the thought of being swept away in an ocean of death? Not even a little bit? Really?

The quarry wasn’t terrifying because it contained countless walkers, but because it was such a convincing argument to just give up. Even assuming you somehow manage to deal with that horde – and good luck with that, by the way – there’s always going to be something else. For the rest of your life, there will always be something else. Every day, forever. And maybe you’re not strong enough to deal with that. And maybe nobody would blame you if you just sort of…stopped trying. Which is far, far more frightening than a pit full of zomibes.

Should you bother? “The Inside”

The Movie: “The Inside”

Genre: Horror, found footage

Should you bother?: NOPE

The setup for Irish horror movie The Inside is actually a fairly intriguing twist on the typical “oh, hey, look what we found in this here video camera.” A guy goes into a pawnshop and comes out with a camera, upon which is the footage of a birthday evening gone terribly wrong, but once he’s finished viewing, he decides to use landmarks in the video to retrace the steps of the people on it to see what really happened. Clever idea, and literally the only good thing about this movie.

The camera is a birthday gift for one of the women, but her giddy friends tell her that she’ll only get it at the end of the evening, and it must stay on at all times. As excuses for keeping a camera rolling go, it’s pretty plausible, but the result is we get a about a half hour of hen party before the action of the movie begins in earnest. Five women swearing, laughing, and shouting over each other as they make their way to the warehouse where they’ll be drinking is, I can tell you from personal experience, incredibly accurate, but it’s not at all entertaining to watch. We learn nothing about these characters as they cackle their way through Dublin’s city centre, except that one of them is a bit of a killyjoy.

Once at the warehouse, which is not only filled with an odd mishmash of bric-a-brac like TVs and furniture but also seems to be laid out like a house, the ladies meet up with the birthday girl’s boyfriend, drink and have the kind of shouty, meandering conversations that happy, drunk people have. Again, accurate, but not fun to watch. Eventually we catch the boyfriend having sex with the killjoy (he feels really bad about it immediately afterwards) in a lazy attempt at character development. Killjoy is also Birthday Girl’s best friend, you see, but there she is seducing the Boyfriend, and oh, who even cares?

Three lowlifes show up – totally unclear if they were in the building to begin with or what – threaten the women with sexual assault, scream, and beat the boyfriend to death after he’s stupid enough to hand them the crowbar he was hefting as a weapon. The violence is largely out of shot and he ends up lying face down in, based on color and viscosity, what appears to be a pool of raspberry jam. And then back to the ruffians yelling, passing the camera back and forth and threatening the women with rape. And then we get to the actual rape. The thoroughly unnecessary assault goes on for way too long, up close to the camera. We’re forced to watch a woman crying as she’s violated – though in fairness, the amateurish staging makes it very clear that everyone’s clothes are in place and nothing’s actually happening. Still, it’s an utterly gross display, and again, an immensely lazy attempt at stirring emotion.

This is, however, the cue for the supernatural part of the movie to step in and start going bump in the night. The rapist is dragged out of frame by Who Knows What after the TVs in the background spontaneously start broadcasting static. The girl is also dragged off, with more of a look of surprise than terror. The remaining girls are split up through contrived means, and for a long time we follow two of them who are using the camera as a light source, trying to navigate their way out of the building. They’re crying. A lot. Realistic? Absolutely. And most definitely not something I want to listen to for twenty minutes. Snurfling and half yelps and “give me the camera, it’s ok it’s ok” does not make for great cinema. Or even watchable cinema.

The women try to find their way out (can’t), discover some kind of strange symbols painted on the wall (of course they do), and are followed by a strange, naked, misshapen man-creature that rips out their eyes and chomps on their neck and yet doesn’t seem to do much visible damage beyond leaving blood smears on their otherwise perfectly unharmed bodies. Yeah, that’s the lack of budget talking. It’s all immensely tedious, and then we move into the catacombs.

Look, I don’t know much about Dublin architecture; maybe it’s normal for buildings to be built on top of catacombs. But the last girl standing heads down there, stands still a lot, swinging the camera from side to side and mewling, steadfastly refuses to follow the powerlines that will almost certainly lead her out, also decides to not take the flashlight that she finds (because it doesn’t record, presumably) and does, indeed, finally make it out of the building, where she leaves the camera on the street.

Pawn Shop Guy does make it back to the building, finds some corpses, hides from the naked guy, tries to save the girl who cried the most and she bashes him in the head with a rock and runs away. The end.

There is absolutely nothing, NOTHING of value in The Inside, except perhaps as a class on how to get found footage completely wrong. It is overwhelming in its terribleness.

Pointless Pregnancy and Ten Little Indians

This started as a discussion on Twitter the other night, but given that medium’s limitations, I figured I’d move the conversation over here so that it can develop more fully.

Horror movies – many of them, anyway – are a collection of well-worn tropes, because there are really only so many ways to satisfyingly create a situation in which a number of people get slaughtered. What I refer to the “And Then There Were None” trope, where a group of typically young and pretty people find themselves being picked off one by one in a remote location, is a very common trope and one I personally happen to enjoy a lot. I always appreciate when a film makes the effort to provide a plausible reason for a group’s inability to go for help or get away, but even if that’s all just a handwave of “Meh, cell service sucks. Whatcha gonna do.”, give me a good series of murders and I’m happy to play along. There’s an odd trend of a trope within this trope, however, and its pointlessness really bothers me. Frequently, one of the girls in the about-to-be-bloodstains group has just discovered she’s pregnant and is trying to figure out how to tell her fella, if she even should. Once this plot point is brought up, however, it’s never addressed again. It’s a line or two of dialog and then utterly irrelevant for the rest of the movie.

That, my friends, is laziness masquerading as character development.

Now, it’s a fact that characters in most ATTWN-style movies are simply meant to be corpses in waiting, and we don’t really need to know anything about them. So long as we can visually distinguish them from one another, the dead-making can continue without being unduly unfettered by storyline. That’s not to say all ATTWN movies are like that, of course; The Descent is, at its heart, an ATTWN movie, but each one of its characters is a fully distinct woman. Even if you can’t remember their names, you know what their personality is, how they’re likely to respond to a crisis, who they are in relation to each other – they’re not just victims, they’re people. But many movies of this style provide the barest of backstories and just get on with the killing, and that’s perfectly fine by me.

Throwing in a pregnancy as a half-assed attempt at character development is just annoying. If a woman is visibly pregnant, then yes, her distress is more unsettling (sorry, men, but you get no extra points for being a dad-to-be), but if she’s not even showing yet? There’s no extra sympathy to be garnered. And even if there were, if she’s treated no differently from any of the other players, what’s the point? If her ticket gets punched with no more fanfare than the librarian or the exchange student, then what difference did it make that she was knocked up? None. It’s just an effort-free way to add detail to someone (and their significant other, assuming they’re along for the ride), that maybe, at best, panders to the audience segment who has a thing about murdering pregnant women. (Yes, they exist. Ew.)

So it’s lazy character development, but it’s equally lazy because nothing ever gets done with it. If the girl in question did something reckless to try and save the baby, (like sacrifice the dad, maybe) that would still be really weak storytelling, but at least it would be doing something with the pregnancy. Instead, it gets brought up and immediately forgotten, doing nothing but padding the screen time until the blood can start flowing. When it comes right down to it, pretty much everything in the first 20 minutes of a typical ATTWN movie is all just cinematic foot-tapping until the bodies start to stack up, but surely writers can start coming up with something other than “I’m just waiting for the right time to tell him.”

Objects of Hatred

To catch you up, there’s this game called Hatred in which you, as a man who hates everyone and everything, kill as many people as you can. Pretty straightforward, really. No pretense, no mission, just a sociopath looking to do as much damage as he possibly can while still forced to draw breath on this shitheap of a planet, or at least that’s how it appears in the trailer. Who knows? It might end up being a deep and insightful indictment of our modern society (probably not). It was announced that it was headed to Steam Greenlight, where it was for a short while before getting pulled, then the fact that it got pulled was announced, there was a lot of hueing and crying, and Gabe Newell supposedly put it back on Steam Greenlight. Then there was some cheering to go with the hueing and the crying.

Lots of people are offended by Hatred‘s attitude towards its violence. Me, I don’t so much care about that. What offends me is how manipulative and calculated it all is. It’s really hard for indie games to get noticed – I mean monstrously hard, even if they’re really fantastic – and the PR for Hatred was carefully designed to piss game journalists off and get them to write about this horribly offensive game. Which they did. In droves. Oh, the outrage! The anger! Whether that indignation was genuine or designed to attract the clicky clicky outrage of readers is neither here nor there, really, because the bottom line is that the press got used to promote this uninspired, cynical game. That offends me deeply.  Now, I don’t mind being manipulated – no fan of the Disney theme parks can claim to be above manipulation, because your experience and emotions are carefully guided from the moment you step through those gates to the moment you leave (having spent the GNP of a small island nation). I’m fine with being led by the nose as long as it’s done elegantly and for my entertainment. This was hamfisted and obvious. But, ok, most people aren’t actually part of the gaming press, so they’re not likely to have the same feelings about Hatred as I do. That’s fair.

I understand the reaction to Hatred. I don’t share it, but I understand it and I don’t think it’s an overreaction. It’s the market working the way it’s supposed to work. Artists have the right to make art that offends, and the audience has the right to be offended and not partake of the art. That’s how it works. Free will and choice and stuff.

I say all of this as preface to make it clear that I really don’t have a dog in the Hatred fight. Play it, don’t play it, I don’t really care. That’s your choice, and I don’t think you’re necessarily a bad or good person depending on which way you fall. But if you’re one of the people now calling for character models of Phil Fish, Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian to be added to the game, we need to have a talk.

If you visit Hatred‘s page in the Steam Community, you will find, amongst the general “woo hoo!”s and “tsk tsk”s a number of requests to put “SJW”s, “feminists” and the folks specifically mentioned above into the game as targets. Now, if you’re one of the folks asking for specific people to be put into a game so that you can digitally shoot them, I figure you fall into one of the following categories:

1. You’re a troll, just making the suggestion to rile people up. You might also just be trying to be funny. Either way, you’re a juvenile jackass, but you’re also pretty harmless. But seriously, grow up.

2. You actually, genuinely want to do these people harm, in which case you have issues that need to be addressed in a professional capacity. I personally doubt that anyone – or at least only a very small number – actually falls into this category, but must sadly acknowledge that it is a legitimate possibility.

3. You’ve decided that Phil, Zoe, and Anita are “ruining games” and think it’d be a laugh riot to shoot them over and over again. After all, they’re the whole reason SJWs got GTA V taken out of Target in Australia, and Anita is a fraud and Zoe “five guys” didn’t even make a real GAME and whatever other rhetoric you’ve been spouting for months. They are the Enemies of Gaming and so naturally you should be allowed to shoot them. Because that’s what gamers are about! Or something.

This is why we need to talk.

Yep, we kill a lot of folks in videogames. Thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands, even. Monsters and men and aliens and robots and pirates and marines and we kill them over and over and over. We shoot them, snap their necks, flick knives into their butts, garotte them, push them off cliffs, and put arrows in their guts. But there is a big difference between virtually killing grunt number 10 and virtually killing the representation of an actual, living, breathing person. One is a construct that exists solely to be destroyed by you, the player. The other is a human being who deserves more in life than to be your digital plaything and the object of your … hatred. No, killing virtual Anita Sarkeesian doesn’t physically harm the real woman, but if you don’t see why that doesn’t matter, you’re showing a shocking and disturbing lack of empathy for another person. A person.

No, you don’t know her, which makes it even more disturbing that you so gleefully want to splatter her virtual understudy all over the digital countryside. If she had personally done you wrong, then shooting her avatar perhaps wouldn’t be the healthiest way to work out your emotions, but it’d be more understandable. Anyone who’s ever burned or ripped up a picture of their ex understands the attempt to remove personal pain by destroying the representation of the person who caused it. But none of those people have wronged you personally. No, they haven’t. They’ve perhaps said things you don’t like or don’t agree with, but that hasn’t affected you as an individual one bit. They said or did something you found to be obnoxious or wrong? Ok, fair enough. And how has that impacted your daily life – I mean your actual, moment to moment, what am I making for dinner and did I pay the rent daily life. It hasn’t. Sure, it made you angry, and because they dared to make you angry, you think it’s reasonable to make them targets for death in a video game? Really? (And before you bring up the “Oh, but it’s ok to kill Hitler, HUH????” argument — are you really comparing someone who decided that genocide was a spiffy idea to someone who said gamers were whiny? Really? Those crimes are equivalent to you? I very much doubt you’re really that stupid, so stop arguing just to find justification for your pique.)

I think it’s quite possible that you’ve lost sight of the fact that there’s a basic amount of human decency that these people deserve and that you’re not giving it to them. Because they said things you didn’t like about something you like a lot. Strip away all of the arguing and shouting, and that’s all it boils down to. They said something you didn’t like about something you like a lot.

I’m not saying you don’t get to disagree with or dislike these folks. Of course you do. But asking to be able to shoot them in Hatred? That’s a step in the wrong direction. That’s not healthy, not productive, and not cool. Despite how you feel about them, these are still people. They’re not just names on a screen or characters in a drama, they’re actual people. That matters. That has to matter. If it doesn’t, then we’re all targets. Even you.

Robin Williams, suicide, and being a coward.

Robin Williams died yesterday at the age of 63, apparently taking his own life after dealing with long-term serious depression. This was heartbreaking news for many people, as Williams’ career was built on bringing happiness and laughter to audiences. He was Mork, he was the Genie, he was Mrs. Doubtfire, and he was loved. As could be expected, some folks were annoyed, if not flat-out disgusted, by the outpouring of grief, wondering why a celebrity’s passing was more worthy of mourning than some average Jane. Still others turned up their noses at Williams, sneering at his cowardice and selfishness, which is pretty typical when someone commits suicide.

Ok, yes, some people are absolutely more upset about Williams’ passing than they would be about someone who’d led a more ordinary life, but it wasn’t about him being famous, it was about the gifts he continually gave to the world. Laughter is a treasure, and Williams gave more than his fair share. His work made the world a more enjoyable place to be, and for that to be snuffed out is truly tragic. People were mourning not the man, per se, but rather what he created. I think we can agree that’s a bit different than obsessing over someone who’s known for being known.

Another reason why Williams’ death hits so hard is because of the apparent proof it provides that depression always wins. When you’re struggling with depression, it can be nearly impossible to believe things will ever not suck. Depression lies, and it knows exactly which lies to tell because it lives inside your head and knows every last thing you hate and fear, and it uses them to trick you. It makes hopelessness seem logical, and in that state, suicide can be a very seductive idea. Everything just stops. The fighting stops, the hurting stops, the pointlessness stops. What’s the point of living, after all, if every day is just this empty void? Depression can do many things – make you sad or angry, but I think what it does worst is make you feel nothing. You’re like a ghost in your own life, not really able to touch anything or anyone. So, yeah, not wanting to deal with that anymore can seem like a really fantastic idea, and sometimes you have to convince yourself that it’s not a good plan, whether you actually believe that or not. It’s hard. If you’ve never been there, you can’t really imagine how hard it can be to just agree to live another day.

And then you see someone like Robin Williams – successful, loved, wealthy, famous, talented – and he couldn’t do it. He had all the possible resources in the world at his disposal and everything to live for, and he couldn’t do it. He tried to come up with a reason to keep living and he couldn’t. And if he can’t do it, if a man like that can’t do it, well…what hope does an ordinary person have? These are the thoughts that someone coping with serious depression and suicidal thoughts can have when they see something like Williams’ suicide. 

So slinging around words like “cowardly” and “selfish” isn’t just not helping, it’s adding ammo to depression’s arsenal. Calling someone a coward isn’t going to make them snap out of their depression and suddenly never think about suicide again. Saying that suicide is selfish means little when you’re convinced that no-one would care if you suddenly winked out of existence. I understand if you find suicide abhorrent, but if you really want to stop people from doing it, then reach out with empathy and kindness. Don’t look down from your place of secure mental health at those who would consider taking their own lives, help raise them up so they can join you. Try to understand the struggles that people with mental health issues go through, and do what you can to increase awareness. If you don’t, if you’d rather just sneer and turn away and be smug in your certainty that you know what’s right, then I think it’s pretty clear that you’re the one who’s being cowardly and selfish. 

While we’re talking about Kim Kardashian…

The new mobile game starring Kim Kardashian is gaining attention for a lot of reasons – it’s going to make a fortune, people love to hate Kim Kardashian, and over at Polygon, because the game lets you be gay. While that’s certainly something to be lauded, it’s not really all that unusual in the casual game space. Here’s a quick post I wrote on my Facebook page back on June 26, 2013:

 

Casual games, as a rule, don’t get a lot of attention from the game industry. Sure, there are the crossover hits like Plants vs Zombies and the games so large they can’t be ignored like Angry Birds, but by and large, “real” gamers look down their noses at casual games because they’re for “soccer moms” and people who don’t really care if they can pull off a headshot or not.

There’s a game called Life Quest 2 that is very popular in the casual gaming scene. It’s a cute little time management game, in which the challenge is to find enough time in your busy schedule to fulfill your personal goals while also eating, sleeping, and commuting. You juggle school, work, family, recreation – even local politics, if that’s your jam.

You can also marry someone of the same sex and have kids with them, an event the game meets with the same fanfare as completing a degree at school or getting a promotion. In other words, within the scope of your life, it’s a big deal, but it’s not a Big Deal. You didn’t get a press release about the same-sex marriage in Life Quest 2. You didn’t read a news story about it. It’s just part of the game, not a statement about anything other than the fact that, hey, some people want to share their lives with someone who’s the same sex, so we should let them do that in the game.

I can’t help but wonder how this same game mechanic would be treated if it were in a triple-A game. You know, a “real” one. Oh, wait, I don’t have to wonder – we’ve seen the hullaballoo and shouting that happen whenever game aimed at the hardcore audience dares to suggest that anything other than heteronormative behavior is ok.

You can find Life Quest 2 on BigFishGames.com, if you’d like to see what the complete lack of fuss is about.

 

It’s not an in-depth examination of Life Quest 2’s casual handling of sexuality (I don’t even touch on the fact that you can adopt a child as a gay couple), just a brief commentary on the fact that casual games have been forward thinking for a very long time. For example, you want to play as a woman in a casual game? Take your pick. The majority of protagonists in casual games are realistic women, albeit women who are traveling through time, trying to break a curse, or rescue their true love. (Supernatural romance is a hot trend in the casual game space right now. Thanks a lot, Twilight. You’re da besssssss.)

Casual games offered on portals like Big Fish Games also have demos. All of them. You can try every single game for at least 30 minutes, if not an hour, before you decide whether or not to pony up the cash for the rest of it, something I certainly wish “real” games let you do. Oh, and in case you’re thinking that casual games don’t really matter in the industry, Big Fish gets about a billion downloads a year. Yes, with a b. Now, each download doesn’t turn into a sale, but you go right ahead and figure out what conversion rate you’d need on those before it started to Seriously Matter. And that’s before we get into subscription models that reward you for making frequent purchases with things like discounts and extra content. Yeah, casual games are a serious business, and have been for a while.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that casual games are something everyone will enjoy – they are, by definition, smaller experiences than something like Shovel Knight or Call of Duty or Dragon Age. Those with stories can usually be completed in six hours or less, and they’re not packed with an abundance of deep systems. They’re for players who like to play for a bit and get on with their lives, and they are, overwhelmingly, designed for women. (I’ll just let you simmer on how normal it is for games not designed with a male audience in mind to treat female characters with respect and consider it ordinary for you to be something other than straight.) The industry could learn a lot from the so-called casual space, though, if it would just deign to look.