Thursday, December 8, 2011

Arkham City's Social Implications: the Bad, the Good, and the Lazy.

So, Shieldhaven is on the New Game Plus of Arkham City, which is, really, a good enough game to go ahead and play through a second time on, "OH FUCK WE'RE ALL GOING TO BE MURDERED OVER AND OVER BY MOOKS DEAR GOD WHY!?" difficulty. I mean it. It's everything good about, say, Prototype and everything good about Arkham Asylum rockin' it together in a bad-ass package where you even get to play Catwoman!

Which doesn't mean that Well-deserved criticism is not well-deserved.

But I don't really want to talk about the details of how the egregiously gross attitudes of the thugs in Arkham City are wrong, though I'm going to. What I want is to talk about one of the defenses that I keep seeing pop up for this kind of thing. Basically:

"It's not sexism, it's just lazy writing. Which means it's disappointing, but not really malicious."

I also want to talk about the social issues deal that Arkham City does do right, but we'll see if I have enough brain for that.

The Bad: Whut Up, Bitches?

So, "Laziness" is the design equivalent of someone who says, "I didn't mean to hurt anyone!" You may have heard this phrase before in your personal life, or said it yourself. And what probably followed was some version of, "You Still Should Have Known better." Because this phrase, like the tag of "laziness" (usually surrounding a social issue) is generally used right after doing or saying something really, bone-headedly hurtful.

When you have a bunch of random dudes wander around talking about how nearly every woman is a "Crazy Bitch," (I think Oracle is exempted here. Maybe Talia Al'Ghul, but I have other issues with her. WORST. DIALOGUE. IN. THE. GAME) talking about how they'd like to, "Jump on that Harley," (meaning Quinn), and fantasizing about Poison Ivy and Catwoman getting it on, and you think, "well, I don't want to spend much time on NPC dialogue, so I guess this is okay!" Maybe you want to step back and think about what you're saying, and how it's horribly insulting not only to the women involved, but also to the men.

Now, one might point out that these are horrible criminals in a horrible prison. Funfact-- not everyone in prison is a rapist. Or even a murderer. Now, part of the point of a game like this is that everyone has got to be the kind of person that Batman and Catwoman feel good about beating to a pulp. At the same time that the game wants us to feel bad about the fact that they're stuck in freezing conditions without food, surrounded by homicidal maniacs between which they've got to choose in order to survive. But I'll get to that later. My point is that the commission of one crime does not imply the commission of all crimes, so it's actually kind of insulting to assume that the kind of guy who would join the joker's gang and be a general violent bastard would also be a rapist, with nothing better to do than warble about the sexual orientation of various super-villanesses.

To which one might say, "but they're just designers! And these guys are supposed to be despicable! It's too much to ask them to actually think about how people will hear and react to the things they're writing here! You can't expect them to take everyone's little thought and feeling into what they do, Miss PC! And I'm not offended, so no one should be!"

To which I will reply, as a writer and a tester, "actually no, no it isn't too much to ask. And for one reason-- you're selling a product. If you want to sell filth, you're pandering to the purient interest-- there is no purpose to this kind of randomly tossed out stuff _but_ tittilation and rise-getting. And I'm going to go a step beyond, 'there should be a warning, because there's a wide audience that's going to jump on this game because it's an amazing game who will maybe be not so thrilled with this aspect of it,' and say that the writers? Shouldn't have written it this way. If I were their editor, I'd have said, "yeah, cute, change it."

Why? Because it's narratively bad, it sucks out the tension, it kicks me out of the story (in a way that never happened in the first one) to complain about it, and otherwise weakens what would, without it, be the hands-down best game that has come out for the next-gen console (at the very least, tied with Portal and Portal 2).

But also because succumbing to that argument means that the game designer flat-out DOES NOT CARE about me, and people like me, as a demographic who are interested in buying and playing their games. It means that they only care about a scrubbed down and stereotypical myth about who is interested in Batman-- the ol' "Target Demographic" line, where the target demographic is youngish boys who don't really like having girlfriends, or at least, don't really care about treating their girlfriends like people. Because yes, this kind of thing also alienates the youngish boys who like action games, but also care about people not objectifying the women in their lives at best, and leads to fights and not actually being able to play the game around women friends and relations who are of the sort unlikely to appreciate the sheer artistry and brilliance of the game play itself. And that's a really, really dumb reason to lose audience for a masterpiece.

Oh wait, that wasn't the intention, Game-Writer? Maybe you should have thought of that before you approved the dialogue. As it is, kinda too late. Although you could have done worse.

You could have made Call of Juarez: Cartel.

Oh man, Look, Not Thinkin'. And we know thinking about other people's feelings is HAAAAAARD*, but suck it up, do some research, and try not to assume that gamers are all degenerate idiots who suck up the lowest common denominator without flinching. And if you wanted the flinch, there's better ways to do it.

The Good: The Overall Message of the Story

Batman: Arkham City is one of the best and most subtle propaganda pieces for the abolition of prisons that I have ever seen. Not only is it a scathing indictment of the death penalty, kind of in the way that Batman has always been a walking anti-death penalty advert-- and a completely badass one!-- it's a really very good indictment of mass imprisonment on the whole. Certain bits of dialogue, which I mentioned above, have the hardened criminals reminding us that they're freezing, starving, and forced to fight for their survival in this place. And the real villains of the piece are the ones who think that rounding people up and doing this to them is a good idea. It highlights how useless and worthless imprisoning people is, and how they just get up, and go do more of the same, if not worse, without actual rehabilitation. And you know, I appreciated that a lot, and felt that it was a worthwhile message, and pretty cool.

Now, this is almost certainly just something that I have gotten out of this, as opposed to anything intentional, but it's something I felt was worth mentioning, either way.

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