Objectivity vs. Dragon's Crown: ++Editorial [UPDATED]

For the review, go HERE.

(This is not an accusatory piece. I do take recent events into account, and so it might seem like I’m pointing fingers, or getting uppity and angry with a very narrow set of industry professionals, but I assure you, the application of my statements is very broad, and not meant to condemn, but to highlight.

To Danielle Riendeau and Jim Sterling, my goal is to directly encourage discussion, and as such, I use your comments and criticisms to make several points. I am not trying to call your journalistic chops into question, nor am I directly accusing you of anything other than opposing my point of view. – JB)

UPDATE: In an effort at transparency, and to demonstrate that I do, in fact, have terribly off base opinions at times, I took this feature to Facebook in an effort to discuss what I’ve said, herein. A good friend of mine, Corey Cottone, read the article, and then had this to say (statement reproduced in its entirety, with his consent):

I pretty much agree with Jim Sterling. You can make references to the high-brow artistic influences of the game as much as you want, but when those influences are turned to the production of characters that I could really only describe as grotesquely exaggerated, appeals to sophistication kind of fall on their faces. I could write sonnets in iambic pentameter, but if the content of those sonnets was exploitative and juvenile pornography, the competency of meter or rhyme wouldn’t elevate the content.

I can sort of understand wanting people to keep professional review and op-ed separate; and as someone who has nothing to do with the games industry or the review process, that’s esoterica that I don’t really have any place commenting on. But in my opinion, Dragon’s Crown renders itself completely absurd through its representation of women. If Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite had been proportioned like the sorceress or amazon, it would have cheapened the entire experience. Granted, there is a wholly different sort of narrative going on in these two games, but the blatant objectification of a female character on the part of the artist isn’t going to add to it. 

I do have a couple issues when you get into comparisons with depictions of racism in Bioshock. Firstly, while I agree that everyone should be concerned with all sorts of dehumanization, I would be careful in trying to use that as an argument against complaints about misogyny. I don’t think people need to qualify their objections to one sort of prejudice with objections to every other sort, and this sort of argument is actually used by *real* misogynists to attempt to discredit genuine complaints about the treatment of women in the real world.

Secondly, I think it’s important to distinguish the difference between portrayals of prejudice as a part of the narrative of the game, and portrayals of prejudice as a part of the structure of the game, or a seemingly un-ironic aesthetic choice. In Bioshock, Booker is fighting his way through a society that is clearly racist – and within the narrative of the game, it is plainly understood that that society is wrong. The racism in Bioshock isn’t an aesthetic choice on the part of the game’s creators, it’s an aspect of a fictional society within the story. Just imagine how offensive the game would have been if Daisy Fitzroy had been portrayed as a mammy doll, or something equally as horrible. Everyone would be right to attack 2K games, and I’m willing to bet you that MANY more people would have.

You’re right to point out that things like this are symptoms of larger cultural problems – they are. With culture in general and more specifically with “gamer” culture. I tend to think that they also contribute to the survival of those problems, but, (and this is anecdotal) it seems as though every time a game is criticized for things like this, the common call is to leave the poor game designers alone and to instead attack culture as a whole. While I understand the sympathy or loyalty to gaming culture that engenders this response, it also ensures that they very real problems that gaming culture and gamers have with misogyny are never actually addressed.

ORIGINAL POST BEGINS…

Strap yourselves in. This one’s a doozey.

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1922, when so-called ‘modesty laws’ were in full swing in the United States. Submitted without comment.

Video games need objectivism, and it is wrong to think otherwise.

Much like cinematography and film direction, video games have elements wherein an opinion can shine; however, there is objectivism in understanding the structure, style, and composition of the elements that converge to make a single scene, an act, an entire film or game. This framework exists fluidly. It allows for the differing opinions that critics might espouse, and are encouraged to by Roger Ebert, who said, “A […] critic should be subjective in their review of a [piece of media], not just factual;” but this framework must be rigid enough to keep every opinion within relevant context, without meaningless adjectives and pejoratives. To mock a period drama for its ‘dryness’ is as out of context as condemning a side scrolling beat’em up for being ‘repetitive.’ Both are opinions, but both make the mistake of stepping outside the objective framework to state their clearly misinformed ideas.

No matter who told you what, opinions can be, and are often, wrong. Your misinformed opinion is NOT, and never will be, as good as an informed opinion. A film critic who is known for their experience with watching, and interpreting the conventions of period dramas is superior to the opinions of a critic who is less informed, or worse, has a blatant dislike for the genre.

This doesn’t mean that reviewers are not entitled to their opinions… but in a case that seems nothing more than a grandstand effort at dragging a game through sociopolitical issues in order to turn it into a Cause (capital C), that opinion you’re entitled to isn’t, much to your chagrin, beyond reproach.

DragonsCrownHeroines

The three female player characters of Dragon’s Crown.

I am, of course, addressing the kerfuffle surrounding the recent Polygon review of Dragon’s Crown, but more than that, certain broad, sweeping notions held by, disconcertingly, the vast majority of video games journalists. My comments focus on the Polygon review, simply because it’s the most recent example, but they stretch across the entire profession.

In the review, Danielle blanketly uses the term ‘art style’ to mean ‘depiction of females.’ This is a misnomer. The Art Style of Dragon’s Crown is akin to the artwork of Pierre Auguste Cot and Peter Paul Rubens (two artists who Neal called to my attention). The animation is a clear homage to Disney. Other imagery pays tribute to Ray Harryhausen, and a bevy of other classical artists and art styles. Saying you disapprove of the art style – the form, shape, brushwork, and excellence in craft (what the phrase ‘art style’ actually means) – isn’t only ridiculous (it’s like saying “Water-color isn’t cool,” or “charcoal and chalk suck;” you might not like the way charcoal looks, but you not liking something, and that thing being objective ‘bad’ are vastly different), but it betrays an ignorance regarding the subject matter, and proves you unfit for proper commentary. Exchanging the terms is a misrepresentation, as well as ignobly ignorant. The article opens, and then quickly jumps to: ‘But the game’s repetitive structure and a troublesome presentation of women prevent Dragon’s Crown from transcending its juvenile influences.’

Juvenile Influences…

Disney, Harryhausen, Cot, Rubens, Jesus Christ… juvenile?

Moving on, I have always held the belief, much like the vast majority of video game journalists, that the depiction of violence in video games, even when the player is participating in the violence, doesn’t cause violent behavior in real life. Similarly, I believe Dragon’s Crown’s depiction of women is as likely to cause someone to become misogynistic. There exists, in both cases, no evidence to support it. Calling out misogyny in video games, then, becomes a Cause (capital C) based on unsupported belief. Couple this with the fact that the countries with advanced enough technology to play these games, or watch these films, have the highest levels of male/female equality, and it becomes unnecessary. The misogyny in video games, then, could very well be a symptom of already present social blights. I believe this is definitely the case, and I’ll touch on this piece a bit later, but even this isn’t a reason to mire a review in unnecessary sociopolitical issues. That isn’t what reviews are for. Write an op-ed piece, like this one. If you find yourself incapable of this omission for a review, recuse yourself. Likewise, if you aren’t an experienced fan of a particular genre, recuse yourself. I don’t write reviews for JRPGs for a reason – I dislike them, and thereby find myself incapable of sharing an accurate review, as my thoughts do not occupy the same head-space as the typical JRPG fan. It’s unfair to everyone involved.

Killer is Dead

Gigolo Mode, from the upcoming Killer is Dead, involves the player in actively objectifying women in order to get items. Where’s the outrage for this, then?

But let’s discuss Killer is Dead, for a moment. A game where you are not a bystander in the misogynistic goings on, but a participant through ‘Gigolo Mode.’ You actively objectify women through gameplay in order to win sex and items for your character. I am by no means an all-seeing-eye when it comes to the internet, but I dare say I’ve seen but a single video condemning it. Whether or not it’s a satire, forcing us to participate in a damsel-in-distress situation that’s been extrapolated to the point of grotesquery in order to force us to examine video game conveniences, or a genuine expression of misogyny; there should be some outrage. More than a single video, surely. This is an interactive medium, and we are now interacting with misogyny. Lollipop Chainsaw received far more criticism, and it’s far more mild in its presentation than Killer is Dead, and Dragon’s Crown. Dragon’s Crown’s depiction of females is an aesthetic. It’s a part of the setting, not the gameplay. You have no active hand in actually mistreating women, and again, there is no evidence that video games engender real life action.

What about the racism in Bioshock Infinite? A game I, myself, reviewed while completely omitting the discomfort the overt racism caused me – racism which had zero bearing on the plot and was, thus, completely unnecessary to the game (SPOILER: Fitzroy doesn’t even start a race war, she starts a class war, and siding with her are the very European, very white Irish). The greatest argument I’ve seen in favor of the racism in Bioshock is ‘historical relevance in the setting.’ But, as the vast majority of fantasy tropes and idioms reference medieval Europe for content… If you claim historical relevance for Bioshock Infinite, you must claim it with Dragon’s Crown.

The other argument I often see bandied about regarding sexism is the “male power fantasy” argument, wherein males claim objectification in these games, as well, setting an unrealistic standard to live up to. It simply doesn’t wash. The struggles and honest-to-goodness, real life historical barriers women have been subject to, and the eking out of the very fragile ‘equality’ they’ve earned for themselves in this modern age is incomparable to the preferential treatment most males receive. This is made painfully apparent through societies that haven’t caught up to the more civilized world who continue to treat their females as possessions, or conduct ritual genital mutilations exclusively on women, or whose social consciousness dictate they leave their newborn daughters in the trash because the state sponsors male births. The fact that there is no color, race, or culture you can point to in specificity is the tip-off that not only is this a global issue, but it’s an urgent one; rendering the “male power fantasy” argument completely impotent, and without teeth. In either case, you must either revile the presence of both sexism, and racism (as portrayed by Bioshock Infinite) in video games, or neither. You are either a humanitarian, or you are not.

Or you recognize that, possibly, this is not the best forum to voice your humanitarian concerns, as the audience itself renders your words ineffective. They come to you for information regarding games, not as a paragon of human ideology.

For the record, I do not subscribe to either the ‘historical accuracy,’ nor the ‘male power fantasy’ arguments.

bioshock-infinite-racism

In the case of Bioshock Infinite, it’s historical accuracy… I don’t buy it.

I’m not saying you can’t offer your opinion in your reviews. What I’m saying is that it can’t influence the score in any real way, nor should it be allowed to influence the presentation of other, more objective subject matters. To do so is, quite simply, unprofessional. Present your opinions within the text of the piece, but we are not entitled to score a game based on an uninformed opinion, nor are we entitled to score a game as some sort of sociopolitical statement, or a statement of any sort for that matter. What the video games journalism crowd doesn’t seem to get is that opinion, since pliable and completely subjective, is not a platform from which you can offer an honest quantified criticism, unless it is a learned one.

Jim Sterling defends the Polygon review and its writer, Danielle, in his most recent Jimquisition piece. Historically, Jim has criticized Cliffy B for making statements along the lines of “this industry is a busness” any time anti-consumerism rears its ugly head. He makes these statements, as Jim points out time and time again, as though that’s all the explanation required to justify greedy, anti-consumer and often exploitative behaviors by publishers. Jim takes Cliff to task repeatedly, decrying this defense as not good enough (which it isn’t). Simply stating the obvious isn’t at all a good defense against destructive policies that could potentially damage the consumer base; but, in his new video, he offers his own brand of ‘it’s a business’ by saying reviews are ‘just an opinion,’ and effectively establishing that they should be beyond reproach, themselves. I’m calling bullshit for reasons I’ve gone over in the very first section of this article, namely: opinions can be wrong; and not all opinions are as good as others. Jim, himself, is also guilty of abusing his journalistic position by using his score of Deadly Premonition, wherein he uses his journalistic clout to, rather than properly review a game as expected, make a statement, going so far as to score the obviously – and often terribly – flawed game at a perfect ten out of ten. Reviews are not for these things. Reviews are for objective evaluation, sprinkled with opinions. Op-ed pieces are for unashamed subjectivism. As an aside, I’d like to mention that Jim’s video is generally very fair, and the major take-away, with which I agree, is that focusing on Polygon and their review takes attention away from Dragon’s Crown and ATLUS, and just drives Polygon’s revenue with more click-through.

bioshock-racism

There it is, again…

Video game journalists have to be able to take as good as they give. I completely expect to be bashed for one reason or another after publishing this piece, but that’s the way it is. If one of my opinions is uninformed (and I’m sure there are many), or if I make an erroneous statement (juvenile influences… really?!), I expect to be bulldozed by the internet… then again, I expect to get bulldozed by the internet for the tiniest of infractions, so… bad example. But you get what I’m saying. If I’m going to put my opinions out there, I have to be prepared for what might happen, and I don’t expect Jim, or anyone else, to swoop in and save me.

One final point: Liking a game you know is bad, and calling a good game objectively ‘bad’ are completely different things. I like a TON of bad games. In fact, I’d bet money that, once quantified, the amount of good games I like pales in comparison to the amount of rancid trash I have fun with. Fun isn’t something you can objectively assess… and so you can’t review someone else’s idea of fun, unless you share the sentiment. Danielle didn’t enjoy Dragon’s Crown. It made her feel uncomfortable. I have no problem with that whatsoever. In fact, given the subject matter, I expected some people to take umbrage. Is Dragon’s Crown at the mercy of her opinion? No sir. Not at all. But we would all be well advised to recognize that the next time we write a review. You can love a terrible game or film, and likewise, you can hate an excellent game or film. I do it all the time, but I have foresight and knowledge enough to know which is which, differentiate, and make sure my numeric scores do not suffer.

People who dislike certain genres, people who, out of context, claim a 2D beat’em up is ‘repetitive’ or pretend that the plot should tell you a story rather than simply hurry you into the action like it should… well, they shouldn’t be reviewing beat’em ups. Harsh? Possibly, but unlike film, where one critic can successfully and objectively criticize a film that resides within a genre that lies outside their particular tastes due to the objective staples it sticks strictly to; video games cannot be reviewed by a single ‘reviewer’ with particular dis/tastes, because of the interactive element. As a bit of an overstatement in ridiculous examples, someone who dislikes beat’em ups attempting to review a game in said genre is not unlike someone who hates exercising relating a story to a body builder about his experience in ditch digging. The reviewer doesn’t care, and the audience isn’t being properly served.

Featured image concept provided by Jon Ashmore.

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