Goin’ Ahead and Making My Day: Playing ‘Westerado’ by Ostrich Banditos

I didn’t intend to play it. I didn’t even know I COULD play it, or that it existed. I certainly didn’t anticipate losing an hour (or two) avidly engrossed and enjoying every minute of it. Damn, Westerado. I’m so glad you tumbleweed-ed into my life.

It all began during my daily devotional over at the Yogscast yesterday as I watched as smooth-croonin’ Sips (the best guy) introduce Westerado in a new edition of the endlessly entertaining series An Evening With SipsNot endowed with an attention span for most free online games, or cognizance to remind myself to check out free game sites, I freely admit: I’m a lady who misses out on a fair few good things in life. But not this time, brothers and sisters! In the chilly New England witching hours, I found myself standing vigil as an animate girlfriend alarm clock (my manfriend sleeps deep with purpose and had to wake up at 2:30 AM for work; proof that not all aspects of IT jobs are glamorous.) Having exhausted my normal internet haunts, I futzed over to adultswim.com to give Westerado a go.

Westerado Saloon Ostrich Banditos free game on adultswim.com

Revenge? Pfft. Ain’t nobody got time for that: there’s a poker game afoot at the saloon!

Westerado, delightfully designed, rendered and presented by Dutch team Ostrich Banditos is just tops. Best described as an adventure RPG, the game is pretty prodigious for being both 1) a flash game and 2) free to play. The main story line is all beer and skittles for your protagonist who seeks retribution, (never not compelling!) complete with side-quests and clue finagling (often by pulling your six-shooter on folks mid-conversation.) You gather info about the ruthless cur who done you wrong (and the clues are different in every game; another great touch.)  Haberdasheries are serious business in this western expanse as your health wholly relies on hats.

The map is riddled with unlockable locations and bandits a-plenty. Once you discover somewhere new, feel free to wander there screen-by-screen (though I found it easy to get lost and ambushed this way, just putting that out there) or fast-travel on an ever-nearby horse. *Be well warned from the get-go: the game will save any map and fast-travel information you unlocked during your play, but if for whatever reason you have to start over, the game does not save progress that you make.*

From the graphics and music to the slick controls and response/interaction, Westerado is plain,  entertaining fun. The Ostrich Banditos bob friendly nods to the legends of the Wild West (try examining the statue to the right of the Clintville saloon. ) Interacting with all the NPC folks is genuinely engaging. Your protagonist is a man of precious few words, but choosing responses with appropriate tact or intimidation noticeably impacts the story. And who doesn’t like a good old-fashioned shootout in an abandoned mine town every once in a while, eh? Don’t even get me started on the poker. I don’t know exactly what is so intoxicating about virtual poker–or blackjack, or the rare euchre–in a seedy saloon setting, but honestly, it’s a wonder I was able to pry myself away from the round-table and beat Red Dead Redemption.

Sure, this game has some pillbugs. I encountered two with a habit for repeating themselves:
1) When I bit the dust saving buffalo on a side-scrolling ride, the screen dimmed but kept scrolling instead of bringing up the menu.
2) Every time I crossed over to the second screen of the mines, I either wandered onto a rock and got stuck  (see screenshot below!) or simply got locked in a screen that wouldn’t load but from which I couldn’t escape.
As you can guess, these were a bit of a pisser since progress isn’t saved. The upshot is that, even when I had to start all over, my fast-travel locations were all available and with a “run like hell!” locomotion control, picking up all the quest prompts again is far from arduous. And hey, even if you die right away, you can now forever hence skip the tutorial and hop right back on your horse. The ‘Banditos don’t seem shy about reaching out on forums to eagerly gather data on any bugs/issues to fix them right away, and you can’t dream up a better developer attitude than that.

Westerado Ostrich Banditos stuck in Mine

Stuck on a rock in the mine. Now all I can do is do the button-mash boogie! (Map: Mine, 1st screen to right of entryway, halfway up the room in this one spot that is absurdly easy to ‘dash’ into by accident.

*Good-news for the hapless: If/when you foolishly get shot clean outta hats and die, up comes a menu screen tallying your score for a number of silly doings. This menu also offers options to “Submit” a score, “Restart” a new game, or “Continue”. Choosing “Continue” prompts a pop-up that says it’s A-OK to continue, but you can’t submit your score again. (My scores were laughably small beans so I chose to continue, and was right back at home base with all the dinero and quests that I had before wading in half-cocked like a banty rooster.) Just FYI: Two times I died and this screen did not appear; the page just refreshed. Don’t know if it was the host site or the game, just putting it out there. Totally worth it to continue this kickin’ game, but my chance to do so did go missing once or twice.

Overall, Westerado has a lot going for it and not only did I enjoy the hell out of it yesterday, I plan to play it again soon. This isn’t the first title from the Ostrich Banditos and I’m genuinely excited to see where they take their indie designs in the future. If you’ve got some free time on a PC with internet connection and literally nothing else, then you’ve got what it takes to enjoy this game, too. Happy trails!

(Click here to go play!)

Tomb Raider Controversy [Part 2 of 3]

Lara Croft & Rape Culture: Some Thoughts

Even limited to this scope, it’s hard to find a place to worm into this subject. It’s worth noting that there is a pervasive and widely (but not entirely) undisputed belief that game companies create and market to a perceived majority of males, all of whom are engaged with nothing but violence and carnality. It’s under that stereotype that debates over Tomb Raider‘s “rape scene” operated: staggering comments in the forums from male gamers openly anticipating the chance to watch Lara Croft be raped vs. wild criticism from feminist activists denouncing any inclusion of sexual assault or rape in story line as solely a vehicle of female degradation.

I am beyond disgusted with the former sentiments (in a perfect world, their shame would be vast,) but I don’t think I need to speak to them because the latter views are the ones that hit home to me as missing a huge point to be made by someone within their own ranks.

The Actual Gameplay?

Since the game is still in pre-order stages, most of us haven’t actually been able to play it. But let it be known that there is NOT an on-screen rape heading our way, regardless of whether or not we play through the quoted quick time event to turn the tables on the scuzzbag who abducts Lara after she is stranded. This IS important to mention, not because brief sexual assault is any less abhorrent than rape, but because the fact refutes anyone arguing that the instance isn’t about Lara’s growth at all and instead is a “fanservice” by the developers to enhance Lara’s sex-objectification. Beyond this, I can say no more on the game until I play it. I intend to revisit once I get the chance.

 

Sexual Violence & a Larger Scope I. Language

As I read through articles and comments then and re-read them now it becomes clear to me that there’s a serious (but curable!) issue underneath the controversy that no one is talking about. That issue is that our society has not yet developed common language about sexual violence. This is especially true for rape, and for continuity/length I am going to use “rape” going forth. 

If you find yourself in a conversation about rape, maybe with a friend or in a class, am I wrong to say that there are only two pockets of language for you to call on? There is the medical language of rape: anatomy, physiology, PTSD, therapy. Then there is a jar of power words, over-charged to the point of existentialism because they are used as a tool of argument: dehumanize, misogyny, control, gender, hate, civil liberty, etc. But no matter the words, rape is a subject that polarizes the majority of conversationalists and fills the room with giant emotions. It is a topic on par with racism; so personal and so multi-faceted that talking about it thoughtfully or with progress in mind is already a minefield of triggers. [Only as far as the facilitation of public talks] racism has become an easier topic to discuss; it has been a societal change in action for a long time, a struggle that reaches every part of our nation not to be ignored. But at some point, talking about racism had its own limited, lurching vocabulary.

Women’s rights have absolutely been at the forefront of public discussion but rape has NOT. The ongoing work of right’s groups to define rape culture is just an example: instead of debating semantics, we are still striving to study our environment. Any actual discourse I have experienced–text or in person–usually leaves me feeling like nothing is getting done because so many voices are missing; because a bulk of the conversation isn’t made up of words or ideas but is dominated by tension, anger, blame, frustration, cringes, and dismissal. Not only is discussion about rape stunted by the inability to emotionally connect, but (on BOTH sides) “valid” participants are still being redefined. Like those who say men have less right to weigh in because they “aren’t the victims” or those who think actual victims “skew the reality of the danger” with their big old emotions. Until everyone can accept that everyone else is invited to the table on a subject that–in so many ways–effects us all, then the language of rape is in its infancy.

2012 in America has been the year of outlandish, hurtful, and inciting public statements regarding sexual violence (noticeably regarding women, not men.) If you followed the infamous senators and governors who made pointed statements about rape alongside the campaign for presidency, then you either know your own reaction, public reaction, or even engaged in the aftermath. (Here comes the tie-in…!) 

After my initial outrage, I got to thinking: how is it that in this day and age, freaking political leaders and executive producers of mega-software entertainment companies can talk about rape so callously? Dismissively? Awkwardly? My hypothesis goes back to language: for every douchehat that really believes awful things about rape, there are ten normal folks who use the term “rape” and try to talk about it without the progressive boundaries of evolved language. Simply put…we want to have a conversation across the  trenches about rape, but we have neither the words or the safety of an arena to do so right now. So some people are going to say really stupid shit; it is up to us to re-evaluate how to react so that we can make some actual damn progress.

That is what we should be focusing on. Dividing our minds, expending emotional energy by recoiling in anger and retaliating with a salvo so fiercely overreaching that intent and perspective of the “inciting” statement is totally lost. What good does it do to take to our blogs ranting and adding Ron Rosenberg’s name to the lexicon of “rape culture”? It’s like putting up one more mugshot on the notice board: alright, we see him…shoot, there are more all the time! Arghhlebarglerage! That’s a dud trip to building up paranoid anger that has nowhere to go.

Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to allow him–like every other human being who brings up hot-button issues–the context of our current knee-jerk obstacles around this subject? It may not be easier, but wouldn’t it be healthier to the cause of actually eradicating rape to NOT make his words stand for the whole of the gaming industry (then visual entertainment industry then entire social culture?!) I am not excusing what are clearly his personal beliefs on rape and how that fits into his gender views, though I have to admit that “wanting to take care of her” is a better reaction than “she fucking deserved it”.

I am trying to offer this perspective (and so, a summary about rape language): Ron Rosenberg is ONE person; he spoke candidly about HIS perception of Lara Croft’s new “vulnerable” character and he gave a summary of the game’s character development motivation. The term “rape” was mentioned once and was almost immediately corrected by the company, but if it wasn’t clear that we need to focus on facilitating a social communication structure where people don’t go from 0-to-60 when they see the word “rape”, I hope I’ve helped use my opinion to make it at least something to consider. 

 [Coming Soon: Final Tomb Raider post, Part 3 of 3]

 

Late To The Party: What I Think About The Tomb Raider Controversy [Part 1 of 3]

*Obviously this post won’t be about any horror film. There’s a video game involved–something I want to write more about–but it’s really my two cents about the controversy clouding that game. I wouldn’t say that “horror” doesn’t fit the bill, though: the theme of the controversy and the rabid frenzy of anger and hatred that stem from it are frightening to me. So much so that I only feel safe posting my opinions on it within the semi-shelter of this backwater blog*

The Game : Tomb Raider (Square Enix) – The “gritty reboot” origin story slated for 2013

The Main Controversy

 When it was first being marketed, executive producer Ron Rosenberg got all stupid and stated that “you’ll want to protect” the rebooted Lara Croft, and that during the game she will have to deal with “rape”. This vulnerability was all allegedly to make Lara–a leading female icon in the gaming universe–“feel more human” and to give her a reason to become the bad-ass we all know and love.

Tomb Raider, Lara Croft, Flickr

A variation on Flickr Psycho Al’s screen grab.

The Backlash

 (If you missed it) was enormous and spanned not only the gaming sites but feminist blogs, pop-culture critics, and so on. It came on the heels of the hellstorm of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and the rash of gamers screaming “feminazi”, “misogyny”, “misandry,” and more colorful epithets. (*I want to avoid touching on that scene if I can help it; just going to stick to TR. The important thing to note about the gaming community as a whole is that there is a pervasive theme of hyper-sexualizing female characters without giving them any meaningful personality or clothing.*)

The two rage arguments that fell down on the side of feminism (I’m not even going to bother with the more extreme opposition, it’s barbaric,) are such: Why do game creators think women are so weak that they need “protecting”? and Rape/Sexual Assault as a story telling vehicle is just as misogynistic as giving them no back story because it perpetuates Rape Culture!  (Okay, a third: I want to address the equally offensive backtracking from Crystal Dynamics PR, too.)

Little Ol’ Me

 Now, I don’t want to talk about my identity as a “feminist”–if this has taught me nothing else, it’s that I am out of touch with the term–but can safely say this: I am a woman, I believe in equality for all peoples, I actively fight against domestic/sexual abuse, and I play loads of video games. Lara Croft has been one of my virtual alter-egos since I got my grubby paws on a PS1. I have also had the unfortunate…luck? fate? I don’t know…to experience domestic and sexual abuse first-hand. So by my own understandings of op-ed writing, I figure this controversy is as close to home as it gets for me.

And frankly, I am pretty disheartened by what that the loudest voices in the arena had to say.

Projection vs. Protection: Getting Into the Game

Let’s tackle the less inflammatory of the two arguments (although, it will be a main theme when discussing the second.) Looks first: the “new” Lara is less voluptuous than her past iconic be-boobed incarnations. Folks brought this up as an “a-HA!” moment in debate as if it is a concession on Square Enix’s part that Lara’s physical form has been purely sex-objectifying all along; I think it’s probably more that this reboot Lara is actually supposed to be adolescent Lara. On this point I don’t really care.

Game progression next: check out this game trailer and you’ll see a lot of Lara’s action is her vs. the environment. Attempting to give her back story and motivation, the game uses moments in time to illustrate the origins of this critter-blasting, person-shooting lady: her emotional turmoil in having to shoot a deer to survive, extensive attention to her physical limitations due to injuries, and being driven to kill a person by way of sexual assault. (File away that last one, there.)

Rosenberg states that this will make the gamer more apt to feel like a protector. “They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.”  He goes on:”The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear,” he said. “She literally goes from zero to hero… we’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again.” [Kotaku]

Some critics are upset at the idea that they won’t be enjoying the action-packed adventure/puzzle/kill play that they are used to. I think the gameplay looks phenomenal but I am a putz about change and also worry that the elements of Tomb Raider that I most enjoy will be lost. But the loudest zealots in the shouting match are furious about the scripted need to “white knight” Lara; that instead of a bad-ass sex object, she will become a symbol for the misogynistic idea that women are “weaker, delicate” creatures who need “to be protected.”

To those folks, I would first say calm the shit down. Let’s not yell anymore. Look, there is absolutely no denying that female characters across mediums are written so sparsely and so derogatorily that they ooze weakness and the only cure is a strong man to fend for them. But those characters are so insulting because they never have any personal growth or develop inner strength to end up standing on equal footing with men. The whole alleged point of this game is to give gamers a look at that personal growth (and let’s be real–to keep us buying Tomb Raider games, right?)

want to say “MAKE UP YOUR MIND!” to everyone who spent so long denouncing objectification of females in games who are now shrieking that portraying a vulnerable woman is just as bad because men just think that women are weakling suck-bags. But I know the core point is well-intentioned: let’s not just go from one sexist trope to another. However…this one dude is the only one who used the word “protect”. Otherwise, we’d just have been met with a demo starring a girl down on her luck, surviving against the odds with a nod to realistic obstacles and setbacks. She doesn’t look weak to me outside of Rosenberg’s ill-worded preview. There is a point where the argument against well-defined sexist tropes/themes has become so ingrained that it overshadows our ability to dig into something and explore its quality.

Additionally–sexual assault ASIDE–developers had to choose turning-point scenarios to symbolize complex, life-altering, emotional experiences. It’s no different than any other visual media story-line. Things have to be condensed and heightened. When they are, the possibilities for negative personal interpretation skyrocket. The chance that we see a glaring archetype instead of bond with the character in a personal way is a risk that has to be taken in order to make the game exciting, cohesive, and fresh. Overall, before we get angry about what this one fool [Rosenberg] blurted out during one interview when he was mistakenly given the role as PR, let’s forget about this “to protect or not to protect!” b.s. and reconnoiter after we’ve had a play through.     [CONT’D in Part 2!]

*Interesting tidbits (that mean nothing, really): wordpress “feedback” tells me that the term “lady” is considered bias and that using “females” instead of “women” is too complex. …what?