Muffled: Ubisoft’s Cold Shoulder to Video Game Heroines

*** Be forewarned: this is an impassioned piece you’re about to divest 7 minutes in. The word “Chickensh*t” pops up at least once. It should’ve a few more… ***

Risk turned reward: Ubi doing it right.

Ubisoft has a lot going for it: a plethora of virile franchises, development teams strewn across the globe, direct lines to the Hollywood money-making machine, and an audience of hungry gamers anxiously awaiting the next big title off the celebrated corporation’s roster. And yet, for a company reaping so many rewards, Ubisoft has also become the definitive industry poster-child for marginalizing and casting away “risky” ventures.

CASTING GENIUS!

Yesterday, feminist sound-offers, Bitch Media, put out a thoughtful and really thought-provoking piece about the VG-industry’s continued reluctance to incorporate fully-developed women protagonists into their games (props, Lucy V.!). Setting their specs on Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry franchises in particular, BM blasted the conglomerate’s consistent side-lining and objectification of female characters, pointing out how even “badass” fem-roles are usually narrowed down to two categories: eye-candy damsels and under-written love-interests. Notice the dashes punctuating those roles… they even sound more like fractured artifices than actual designations of personality or substance.

“Under-developed female leads, you say? Funny, I’ve never heard such a thing…”

Considering how BM notes that a whopping (and coming from the dude who hears soprano chatter over Xbox Live, like, every time I’m on the thing] believable) 40% of gamers are women, it’s frankly chickensh*t for a powerhouse publisher to leave female gamers grasping at air when it comes to offering up relatable player characters. And as rant-prone as I am, you’ve gotta admit, mah suit-wearin’-brahs, marginalizing half your audience is the equivalent of cutting your balls off and hoping the shaft alone will do the trick when come time to unzip (I’m looking at you, Watch Dogs 2).

25 Years of Properly Rep-ing for Target Demographics!

Speaking of which…

LOOK, 2 WIMMINS! Two have masks, so MAYBE FORE!

Easily one of the most promising, profitable, and understandably divisive games released this year, Watch Dogs takes the cup as the best example of how to take a fantastically risky concept and absolutely drown it in equal parts vanilla-flavored machoism and Batman-growls (as ‘Lego Movie’ Batman might say…). Sure, the flat-out stunning E3 2012 premiere left just about every gamer with a peen or a vagine this side of the moon with pants as soaked as Chicago’s fictitiously hackable streets, but, alas, hype can be just as much a killer as the game’s prospective dark knight.

Early on, there were whispers of multiple, branching protagonists other than Aiden Pearce’s overly familiar tough-tech-savvy-bro-in-trench-coat persona thought to be playable throughout the game. Ubisoft, (I admit, bro) logically, put a bullet squarely in that particular direction’s temple: development for a game that sprawling on transitional hardware (2012-13 being next-gen’s pre-epoch) would’ve pushed back release dates (and, effectively, cash-drawer ‘cha-chings’) years beyond even the two it took to turn the demo into a fully-packaged product 23 months later. Instead, they stuck to what they knew would work: keeping the typical hero the hero, and hyping the game as their newly-minted flagship franchise.

No, Aiden. That baton does not set you apart from other heroes in the Ubiverse…

And regardless, Dogs is great game. The mechanics are there, even if the graphics won’t get your juices flowing. But storywise, it’s a wash. Aiden Pearce is, indeed, as blasé and contrived a testosterone-pumped male-protag as there ever was, is, or will be. Citing critical, peer, and personal impressions of our narrative driving force, he is simply the shade of an anti-hero, propelled by lackluster and impersonal tragedy to commit inhuman (and, therefore, VG-typical) acts of selflessness and diabolism, punctuated by sweet parkour moves and cell-phone finger-swiping. In other words, he’s a stinker and better left the way of Altaïr in the original Assassin’s Creed (aka, earning nods in a sequel and otherwise just drifting off into the perpetual haze of whogivesaflyingf*ck).

His niece died. He’s out for revenge. What a good uncle.

But wait: I’m not all rant, guys. I have a solution here. Hell, I even have a money-making, brand-saving, demographic-pleasing solution ya’ll can drop and kiss my pearly white, dude-bro pancake-@$$ for.

“Don’t hate me jus’ cuz I’m cliché.”

Make the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2… wait for it…

Danny Brown?

… wait for it…

Mark Dacascos?

… wait a couple years more for it (get it? Just kidding: of course you do) …

Dead Mao Five (super-hip celebrity inclusions abound!)?

A woman.

Pretty much the reaction I anticipated.

OH SHI-. I did it now.

Moar relevent? (THANKS BARCO????????)

Yeah, bitch. Make the next hero of your “ground-breaking franchise” a woman, and earn yourselves a big ole pat on your own backs for actually bolstering your hype with some socially-conscious and inventive narrative re-imagining. Watch Dogs‘ greatest asset ends up being its open conclusion which grants more than enough room for a fresh protagonist. So step up to the plate boys: you’ve thrown yourselves a home-run here.

Spoiler Alert

Offering a fresh locale that alludes to the original’s fictitiously wired Chicago while adding consequential ‘umph’ to the conspiracy-laden experience will open the doors for gaming-gold. I’ve got two words for you-… okay, more like one word with a couple characters that signify a couple more words for you: Washington D.C. What better place to wreak some high-tech-hyper-havoc than the streets of our fair nation’s capitol? And who better to shake things up than a female hacker at the center of it all?

The Girl with the Journey Tattoo?

Sure, we had Clara Lille this past outing. *Yawn* The Lisbeth Salander-lite hardly figured into the action, quintessentially regulated to the time-tested video game role of sexy voice in our hero’s earpiece before predictably getting offed. Even in the ONE mission where she actually makes it into the gameplay as a non-playable character, she is deemed practically useless in a combat scenario. Given, she’s a hacker, not a killer. BUT FOR REALZ?

RUNAWAY!

Having the new female protagonist also inhabit the role of a hacker will be a must, but that doesn’t mean she can’t evolve into the baddy-popping Vigilante of the the first game (or, even better, how about ‘The Liberator’… DC-relevant, right there. Ubisoft, you guys can totally send me the check whenever you’re ready). I’m thinking you start her off something along the lines of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider reboot Square Enix put out a couple years ago (minus the whole torture porn-lite vibe, and the sex sounds Lara seems to make every time she does anything remotely physical in that game… as my girlfriend pointed out, those sounds are hella suspicious late at night when she’s reading in the next room). Have her struggling to reload the first time she empties a clip from specific type of gun. Have her earliest takedown move be a swift kick to some crony’s balls when she’s forced into a melee. Have her feel fragile in a human sense, not in a ‘girly’-sense. Immerse us. Make her grow as a character and our attachment to her development grow in tandem.

Looks like we’ve made a little progress…

I know this ideal is achievable because, hey, Ubisoft’s done it before.

He’s a RELUCTANT mass annihilator of pirates and mercenaries, okay?

In the aforementioned Far Cry series’ magnum-opus, Far Cry 3, players start out as a pitifully under-skilled, vulnerable, and, therefore, believable protagonist, Jason Brody. He’s neither hardened, nor particularly brave at the beginning of the game, and yet he turns into (for better, or… well, actually, definitely for worse) a veritable killing machine worthy of John Rambo via his descent into a contemporary version of Heart of Darkness. In Watch Dogs, we’re led to believe that our hero is already engrossed in some form of vague darkness, thus, who cares why he sounds like a really angry Christian Bale with hay fever? Who cares how he learned to beat the crap out of every hardened street thug in the Midwest with a police baton? Who cares how he got that police baton? He’s a dude. And a badass one at that. That’s all the information we need. And according to Ubisoft, that’s just about all we deserve.

^Hero of Watch Dogs, laying down the h8ers.

But what we really deserve… and by we, I mean gamers (men, women, and even those 11 year olds who yelling at their moms over the mic that, yes, they will come down to eat once they hit that ever-looming XP-cap), is a willingness from publishers to offer creative and fiscal support to the risk takers. Narrative ground-breaking doesn’t happen on reflections of the tried-and-true-and-tried-and-dried: it happens on the damp banks of unexplored content, the tides of yesteryear’s strengths and merits gently rasping the shores. After all, we’d be better off soaking up the rays of critical and commercial success on the beach than stuck in the undertow, swept under retreating waves of macho misgivings.

Special Review: Max Payne 3

Eight years after his “Fall” and twelve after his bullet-riddled introduction, tragic video game hero Max Payne returns for a third outing in Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3. Trading the noir-tinged New York winters for the overstimulated intensity of São Paulo’s urban sprawl, does this vacation from hell carry the same heat its lauded precursors did or does it land itself in a body-bag?

Few games hold the sort of narrative and stylistic gravitas the iconic Max Payne franchise built its reputation on. Back in 2001, developer Remedy Games’ first series outing broke industry standards with clever implementation of the now somewhat overused “bullet-time” effect in its innovative gameplay, offering a uniquely cinematic experience gamers had drooled over in the wake of basement-dweller opuses like The Matrix. Paired with a staple film-noir atmosphere and an engaging, character-driven revenge-yarn, Max Payne rightfully found its way into the pantheon of highly celebrated video games. Likewise, its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, found equal (if not even more abundant) praise two years later, deepening the narrative experience, bolstering player’s attachment to the tragic title character, and doubling out the amount of digital destruction and bloodshed to boot. Then, with Remedy’s sights locked on Alan Wake and publisher Rockstar Games focused on their numerous open-world titles, it seemed the days of Payne were numbered. However, eight years after the release of his “Fall”, Max is stepping back out of the snowy New York twilight and into the hazy, electronic simmer of sunny São Paulo circa 2012 in Max Payne 3.

Everybody’s favorite self-loathing, pill-popping anti-hero’s back!

With publisher Rockstar now in the developer’s seat, Max Payne 3 promises the same slow-mo bullet-ballet gameplay of its predecessors with the signature style and auteurism Rockstar is famous for thanks to big name franchises like the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series. It is important to note, however, that while Rockstar’s track record with the open-world market is celebrated and practically spotless, its forays into the more linear action-genre have been notably less successful. Games like Red Dead Revolver and the more recent LA Noire boasted high quality production values and exceptional narrative construction, but sacrificed a honed focus on innovative gameplay for the sake of a cinematic experience. Where LA Noire gave players the option to explore the entirety of a meticulously detailed 1940’s Los Angeles, for example, it also barred its audience from interacting with it in meaningful ways outside the context of heavily linear investigations and the occasional 911 response encounter. As cherished a developer as they are with certain games that boast gameplay freedom, Rockstar has also earned a reputation for shackling experiences when it comes to more linear franchises, a rep that furrowed a number of eyebrows back when it was announced Max Payne 3 was getting developed in-house at the game studio.

Looks familiar enough.

For those of you who held your breath, however, its time to come back up for air: Max Payne 3 is easily the most rewarding action-game experience Rockstar has offered up outside its open-world titles and it’s every bit a worthy successor to the franchise that birthed it. Picking up nearly a decade after Mona Sax died in his arms, Max exists at the bottom of a bottle, drinking himself half to death in New Jersey as a washed up cop and a self-made mess. Lucky for us, the pity party takes a backseat to explosive gunplay quickly enough as Max is approached with a proposition to bodyguard a wealthy Brazilian businessman and his trophy wife. After a little more moping and absentmindedly shooting the son of a mob-boss, Max accepts the deal with entire New Jersey mob at his heel. Of course, trading the snow-tipped streets of Hoboken for the over-saturated glare of São Paulo proves less of a picnic when Max’s new hire becomes the target of drug-running kidnappers, ruthless paramilitaries, and favela-clearing death squad cops. Needless to say, conspiracies, plot-twists, and cleverly written narration quips mount with the body count as Max kills his way up the underworld food chain once again, offering a uniquely cinematic and wholly entertaining single-player experience that proves as engaging as it does brutal.

New look, same Payne.

Aside from the satisfyingly explosive story, Max Payne 3 does a fantastic job capturing the mechanics of the original game’s “bullet-ballets” while integrating new gameplay innovations (such as the now seemingly inescapable cover-system pre-requesite) to fit current-gen standards. For the most part, Rockstar deserves ample cred for introducing some truly unforgettable action centerpieces here, particularly in close quarters situations that ask the player to utilize space strategically with well-timed slow-mo jumps and aiming precision (free-aim is the way to go). Rockstar has proven no slouch on the presentation side of things, either: the visuals pack quite the punch, with stunning character animation, destructible environments, and visceral particle effects bolstering the experience. The appropriately vibrant and detailed environments are pure eye-candy. The percussive, atmosphere-soaked score from LA-noise rockers HEALTH adds a lot to the game’s unsettling, dark vibes, offering an abrasively endearing marriage between the look and sound Rockstar aims for. “Tears”, the closest thing the band gets to pop-structure, particularly highlights the outfit’s musical strengths, but is sadly underplayed as a whole. It was kind of a bummer.

He may be slumming, but Max’s adventure is far from poor.

For everything Max Payne 3 has going for it, though, certain issues do shine through the immaculate presentation and relentlessly intense firefights. As polished and well written as the story-line is, Rockstar’s decision to trade loading-screens for fully-rendered in-game cutscenes ends up feeling like a cheap diversionary tactic in subsequent play-throughs. This becomes all the more apparent once players realize how much the first half of the game’s cutscenes are spent observing Max drinking alone in his cruddy apartment (the first three are great for setting up how far Max has fallen, but after a while it becomes pointless filler). The initially novel neon flash-effects used to highlight the super-stimulated feel of São Paulo’s electric-tinged metropolis quickly become a tired motif, and, paired with the screwy design choice to have random bits of internal monologue litter the screen during cutscenes, the look and feel of what could’ve otherwise been a totally tasteful traditional approach is diminished by Rockstar’s attempts to take narrative-design integration to annoying new heights (jeez, what a mouthful…). Rockstar’s decision to occasionally offer players wide open shooting-ranges in certain outdoor levels also downplays the game’s strengths when it comes to contained and elaborate combat maneuvering. Often times these moments are still very playable, but lack the same strength and memorable character of intense corridor-to-corridor shoot-outs.

Looks pretty cool… till it invades your screen every 3 minutes…

On the plus-side, though, Max Payne 3 offers a surprisingly robust and rewarding multiplayer experience for players looking to stray from the sometimes constricting single-player experience. Taking hints from Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV‘s multiplayer, game-types run the gamut (sans the unnecessary open-world aspects of those titles) and an XP-system that earns players new tools for destructive goodness. Perhaps the most impressive gameplay innovation Rockstar brings to the table, however, is the newly implemented bullet-time system that allows certain players to go head-to-head with one another at crucial moments, dueling mid-air in a deadly dance of digital death. It’s a crowning moment for Rockstar, who’ve managed to offer something once thought impossible to do on the multiplayer side of things.

Don’t tell me you don’t want to play this dude…

So, while it’s not a perfect experience, Max Payne 3 rises to meet its predecessors as a worthy followup to a franchise built on pixelated blood, sweat, and countless tears. A harrowing tragedy and raucous revenge-ride, Max’s third outing offers ample playability, unabashedly cinematic presentation, and all the carnage you’d expect out of a Rockstar package while retaining the signature feel of the franchise it came from. Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks?