Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What's the Deal with Witcher 3?

I was playing a game, Witcher 3, over the last couple weeks. I only sort of liked it, but I was bored and it fit the bill in that regard. Aside from the less than crisp fighting mechanics, a leveling system that feels unnaturally unimportant for an RPG, and some heavy handed misogynistic handling (sometimes literal) of female prop characters, there was something even more disturbing about the game that I couldn't put my finger on... and so I kept playing. I think I logged somewhere between 40-60 hours before it struck me.

Before I reveal what I'm sure you're all waiting to read with baited breath, it should be noted that this title may likely end up with several Game of the Year awards and sits high on the hog with a 93 rating on Metacritic, which is highly impressive. I understand why people would like the game, and aside from my revelation, I already had a lot of complaints about the game that seem to be going unchecked, but this one really left a funky taste in my mouth.

When I started the game, I was only peripherally aware of the series, which is based on a collection of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. After playing, I was immediately drawn in by the rich history that comes with having your game set in a world that has been painstakingly created by a writer. Often times in games, story is shoehorned in to ascribe a narrative to a game mechanic that's enjoyable, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is wrong of video game developers, it is refreshing to me (perhaps as a writer) when a game's story is obviously at the heart of the project. 

What kept me away from the series' previous iterations was the lack of a feature that has become almost synonymous with Role Playing Games. Because the game is based on a series of books, the lead character is chosen for you and you have little to no control over how you customize his appearance and limited control over the direction of the story- aside from the ability to bang your way from continent to continent leap frog style, leaving a trail of dejected elven hookers with only their magical vials of smack to keep them warm at night, dreaming and waiting patiently for the titular "Witcher" to return to their beds so that they might live again, if only for a few cut scene moments, in pixelated bliss. 

I mean, I assume that's what happens, surely I didn't visit one of the game's many brothels... okay, that's exactly what happens- with less liberty taken than you might think. In fact, no liberty at all, really, other than assuming what's going on behind the prostitute's dead eyes after taking a hit of Fisstech (the game's mystical cocaine replacement). It was all very disturbing, but at least that scene ended without fanfare, instead leaving in awkward silence that may have made some people pause and think about what the fuck just happened to their TV screen. Personally, I felt like I needed to give mine a Windex bath and hold it tight until the police could show up to take a statement.

And no, my beef with the Witcher wasn't in the fact that the name itself is a grammatical Pandora's Box. I mean, can you "witch" something? I suspect that you can BE witched, I know that you can be A witch and I've heard of hours being described as "witching," but one who witches? Let's just say, I have my doubts.

I knew the lead character was a white male going in, with almost no customization available. Like I said, that kept me from previous installments. Not that I have anything against white guys, some of my favorite people happen to be white guys (no seriously, I have white guy friends! I'll show you pictures if you don't believe me!), but several years back I made a choice as a writer when I realized that all of my leading characters were assumed first to be white males and deviating from that selection took a certain intentional mental shift. 

Like my hero Joss Whedon before me, I started asking myself what would happen if I switched the gender and/or race of my characters and I immediately loved what started to happen. They instantly became much more interesting to me. For as long as I can remember, when playing a video game where you get to create your own character, I would always create a female character because it felt like they stood out so much better. White dude is kind of the vanilla choice in games for me. In almost every single game I can think of that DOESN'T give you a choice of character, you play a white male. So when given the choice, I tend to want to shake it up and deviate as much as possible from the tropes that I am typically being force fed. When I realized I'd been limiting myself in the same capacity as a writer, it opened up some pretty fun  doors. 

I actually liked a lot of my characters more, some that I'd been developing for years even. It effectively put sprinkles on my doughnuts. The hard part now is that the only thing the public seems to want to lynch faster than someone who does a poor job of creating equality in their work is someone who tries to create a strong female character or a person of color in their work and makes a mistake in representing them as they'd like to be portrayed, but in the end I would rather defend my inclusion with imperfections than leave out flavors all together because I'm afraid of mishandling them.

The point being that I knew going into the game that you were playing a white dude and I even knew that the internet was buzzing with people demonizing their handling of female characters, but what I didn't realize, and did not pick up on until 40+ hours of game play is that there is not another human character of color in the entire game. Not one. That's weird, right?

Apparently, the guy who wrote the books based the culture of the world on the Viking Era, which seems to be the defense for leaving out all of the people of color. I have two major problems with that argument:

1) We're talking about a fantasy game "based" on a culture that is predominantly white... but also allows for dragons, imps, trolls, phantoms and wraiths to exist. To exclude all other races on the premise that you are trying to stay true to a time piece in a fantasy game is absurd. I don't think that the developers of the game, nor the author himself, executed the exclusion with malice. I think that it wasn't ever thought of or brought up, which is scarier. After all, I'm ashamed to say, but even though my spider senses were tingling, it took me a ridiculous amount of time to figure out what was off. If there were a race bending opposite version of the Witcher where everyone portrayed was of another color and white was the only hue missing, how quickly would I have noticed? After the realization struck me, I went back to the internet and did some searching to see if I was just late to the party. It turned out that at the time there was only one article on the entirety of the internet that dealt with the lack of diversity. A few days later and I can now find two (and three more articles opposing the original article, defending the game's right to be as white as it wants to be). To be clear, even though it kind of makes me feel like a stranger in a strange land, I'm not saying that we should string up anyone who makes a game that isn't racially diverse, but I get the feeling that the game wasn't even considering racial representation and the gigantic landscape is less interesting and poorer because of it. It isn't like the rest of the market is anywhere near equal in gender and racial equality, so as much as Witcher 3's absolute lack of color astonishes me, I'm not just talking about this one game either- more a symptom of neglect that spans all media, if we're being honest. 

2) My second issue with the argument that a game trying to represent the true "Viking Era Feel" in their fictional game is that all evidence suggests that there were actually people of color present during the Viking Era (even intermarriage on cordial terms between the Vikings and other friendly races was completely acceptable), and though people of color were the minority, to exclude them entirely is to stray from an accurate representation of the time that these works are trying to represent. The reason that people are drawn to the Viking Era (in my opinion) is that it happens to be a time steeped heavily in adventure. They were explorers and pioneers. They established cities and trade routes with China along the Silk Road and even had settlements in North America before Europeans arrived! By all accounts, and supported by the facts that they openly traded with other races, commingled in their territories and were opposed to the idea of slavery (racially motivated or otherwise), Vikings may have had some of the best interracial relations in history. I don't claim to know what the true picture of history is, I don't think anyone can possibly know beyond doubt how race played out back then, but certain evidence suggests that what we are commonly taught to believe about the period is inaccurate at best and intentionally misleading at worst. 

As with all media or history, there is a selection process to determine which information gets conveyed and what is deemed unimportant, and whether this is done consciously or unaware to the one presenting the facts, the attached narrative often says more about the time period the author lives in than the historical period being represented. The majority of the Viking's archaeological discoveries for example (and where the term "vikingatid" or Viking Period originated), were made in late nineteenth century Sweden where society was evolving rapidly and the people needed a strong sense of history and heritage to bind their people. Many myths of the Viking Era were born in this time and have been carried into the present because the stories were stronger than the evidence.

But I digress. What makes me the most uncomfortable about the exclusion of other races from this game (and others) has more to do with a gut feeling. I can't prove it, but I suspect that because playing as a white dude is the norm, women and people of color will play these games and concede to being underrepresented whereas if the tables were turned and white men were forced to play as another gender or race, many of them would lose their shit or just casually dismiss the title as "not for them." So from a marketing stand point, it is the wise financial move to continue catering to the group in which many if not a majority will only play if they have a white male option and to not consider the other side of the pool because they're so used to playing with whatever choices they are given anyways.

Of course, that's a gut feeling and I can't prove that white people would lose their shit if they were forced to play as anything but a white male... or can I?

While I was writing this, I remembered another racial powder keg that erupted in recent history. Rust is a game where you wake up naked in a forest as a person in a wide open world with lots of other people and your goal is, more or less, survival. It's an MMO, which means you are playing in a world populated with millions of other characters all being controlled by other real life players. When the game first released as an early access title, everyone started their in game experience as a bald white male in the middle of nowhere and then you just kind of had to make your way through finding food and shelter and supplies and what have you, and as in any real survival, post apocalyptic world, coming across other people is usually as dangerous and tense an experience as it gets. 

Because the game was considered "Early Access," people knew they were buying a work in progress with features being added and updated, the world being expanded and feedback being taken into consideration as the game approached finalized status. However, one such feature sent the previously supportive gaming community into a fucking nutball frenzy. The developers decided that when your character spawned, instead of the default white guy, your race and facial features would be randomly selected and then registered to your account as your in game race. The developers believed that, just like in life, you can't choose what skin and face you are born into and it fit with their idea of just popping into the world with no choices and figuring out how to survive from there. They were not prepared for the backlash. One such player remarked on the Rust message board, "I was going to buy Rust today, but I am a white guy and don't want to have to take the chance of playing a black character!" People scare me. The fact that someone is so afraid that there's a chance they might have to play as someone of a different skin color wrenches my gut. It should also be noted that this game is played in a first person view, which means that you normally don't even see your character- meaning that the only real significance that race provides is how you are seen to other characters in the game.

Others proclaimed, "It's about freedom of choice!" while neglecting to acknowledge that previous to the game's change in automated race, you were only ever spawned as a white male. Everyone who wanted to play the game who was either female or not white was being forced to play the game against their natural gender or race from the start, this only introduced a blind raffle system. 

Another popular argument is that by making this move, they are forcing political discussions about race, which may be a valid point, but not exactly an argument. Basically, the argument becomes that if you are white and forced to play outside of your race and gender, it's forced politics. If you are a minority, it's business as usual. The double standard is real and as best as I can tell, it's that sense of white entitlement to have your own race represented almost exclusively without a willingness to ride in the skin of another sex or race that is holding back the development of higher quality equality entertainment products.

The internet is lousy with chatter and debates about issues like this and while I don't expect that adding one more voice to the cavalcade of people shouting to be heard is likely to be the source of change, I think that what you're doing now is the greatest benefit to the equality movement that can be made: read. It's not so much the writing, but the reading that matters. You can find a thousand voices arguing both sides and more than anything, I encourage readers to seek out reputable sources that argue their points fairly and to read each side with an open mind. One of the most liberating and rewarding feelings in my life has been to have my mind changed. To know that I could be wrong (and likely am) about anything I believe makes life so much more interesting and opens the door to possibilities that I'd likely never consider if I was overly resolute in my opinions of how the world is or ought to be. Like Walt Whitman said before me, "Be curious, not judgmental."

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