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.


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?


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.

Motion Pictures Reviewed: Elysium

Following his hugely successful Apartheid-with-aliens film debut, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp sets his sights on more dystopic science-fiction social commentary with the gorgeous Elysium. Does this tale of futuristic class warfare prove a blockbusting game-changer or another video game-esque blockbuster?

Totally original marketing.

It’s good to be rich in 2154. As the privileged elite took to orbit in their giant, outer-space Mercedes Benz logo, totally inconspicuously dubbed Elysium (FORESHADOWING ALERT!), they took all their fancy cancer and deformity curing technology with them. Left behind were the 99%, now living in a collection of literal shanty-towns that all curiously look like the eponymous South African ghetto full of aliens in District 9. Needless to say, the destitute state of the world the wealthy have all but abandoned leaves the masses looking to the glittering station in the sky for salvation: a salvation the occupants of Elysium are keen on keeping to themselves. That is, until Matt Damon, replete with power armor and a handful of really cool guns, comes knocking.

Introducing the 2154 Model Mercedes-Benz Elysium series…

Within the first fifteen minutes of Elysium, it becomes wholly apparent that Neill Blomkamp has come to embrace Hollywood, as well as its age-old philosophy that successful followup features are built on bigger SFX budgets and rapidly depleting sets of neurons. One needless, goopy origin-story and a couple of eye-popping establishing shots of our respectively glittering and dirt-caked settings later, it’s easy to get the sense that Blomkamp is far more interested in treating his audience to a visual feast rather than a full-spectrum epic. After all, an epic in the truest sense usually entails a smidgen of depth behind its setup, and here all we get is a shiny new matte on a Pinto: sure, it looks like a brand-new, gorgeous, compact vehicle, but it’s really an outdated model practically begging to explode the moment you put the keys in.

Looking classy, Los Angeles: I’m guessing the movie industry tanked around 2050…

Given the wizardry at work in Elysium, however, the Pinto-metaphor is, admittedly, an ill-suited comparison on a technical level. From the dilapidated sprawl of the LA-wasteland to the sterilized office-park paradise of Elysium itself, the film does a fantastic job drawing its audience into the dystopic future setting. Robotic police units patrol seemingly endless barrios with inhuman coldness, while the city’s hapless denizens are forced to take dangerous factory-floor jobs, usually building the various hi-tech treasure-troves that are shipped off world to the wealthy in wait. Design work for everything from cars to spaceships to robocops to Blomkamp’s typically over-the-top weapons of mass destruction are (literally) beautifully realized and believable.

“RIPPIN’ SOMEONE’S HEAD OFF”- Matt Damon does his best Fred Durst impression ( The movie and the song are intellectually made for each-other.

If only the narrative held the same engrossing promise as the film’s look, Blomkamp might make it into the same pantheon of ad-guys-turned-auteurs as Ridley Scott; Scott enthusiasts will undoubtedly draw parallels between Elysium and Blade Runner, as both are visually stunning but flawed story-wise. However, where Blade Runner still managed to tackle relatively fresh concepts using tested, noir-ish tropes, Elysium falls back on tested-tropes without offering the necessary freshness in concept. At its core, Elysium is a messiah story with an Occupy-movement latency: urbane social commentary plastered over a predictable and all-too familiar fable about a hero who’d give everything to even the score. While it makes for a brisk, exciting two hours, it won’t tickle your psyche over any of its ideas.

Spider digs that exosuit, bro!

Convenience becomes Blomkamp’s all-encompassing plot-device, as each circumstance our savior, car-thief on work parole, Max (Damon), finds himself stuck in leads him closer and closer to his childhood dream-turned-nightmare trip to the big Dubai in the sky. On his way to work one morning, he is promptly harassed and beaten by a couple of aforementioned law-enforcing tin men he may or may not have helped build on the factory-line he works during the day. After visiting his equally robotic parole officer in the film’s smartest scene, he just so happens to go to the hospital where his childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga) ever-so-selflessly works as a nurse and cares for her leukemia-stricken daughter. Long story short, Max gets blasted with enormous amounts of radiation following a work accident, is given a week to live, and, appropriately, a week to get his ass to space to cure his rampant case of multiple organ failure. Helping him out along the way is a crippled weapons-dealer named Spider (Wagner Moura), a handful of culturally diverse cannon-fodder characters, and a surgically grafted “exosuit” that gives Max the power to rip the heads off robots and deflect blows from a futuristic samurai sword.

Samurai swords are so future.

While Damon plays Max with an understated grace the character barely deserves, his foes bide far less promisingly in the acting and storyline department. William Fichtner’s steely industrialist is about as thinly drawn an antagonist as one can probably fathom, while Jodie Fosters’ inexplicably blood-thirsty Elysium Defense Secretary sports an accent as corny as her motivations are mind-numbingly simplistic. Doing a far better job being bad, Blomkamp’s perpetual partner in celluloid, Sharlto Copely, chews scenery left and right as mercenary Kruger. Holding no love for his two-dimensional employers above, this rampage-prone psychopath is a far cry from Copely’s meek government stooge, Wikus, in District 9. Letting Copely go off-hinge was a smart move on Blomkamp’s part, as Kruger quickly proves the most memorable villain of the film.

Yeah, so this happens… Sharlto throws a BBQ.

Despite it’s exhilarating chase-scenes, bullet-ballets, and inspired environments, Elysium‘s storytelling disappointingly takes a backseat to its displays of artistic carnage. Had Blomkamp and his writing team taken more time to flesh-out the denizens of this twisted, promisingly dark future, the film would have evoked its desired conversations about contemporary wealth-gaps rather than inevitable whining about its blunt narrative-shortcomings. A treat to watch, but a bust to analyze, Elysium plays it safe with its formula, yet triumphs with its aesthetic. While I can hardly wait to see what Blomkamp offers up next, I’m less stoked to eventually “engage” with it.


Moving Pictures Reviewed: Europa Report

In space, no one can hear your hype.

After a near year-long hiatus, I’m turning Sound/Off back on, bringing you some overdue insights into new and upcoming releases that may otherwise float under your radar.

Aptly labeled “hard science fiction” films are occupy an oft overlooked but beloved niche in a time of explosive blockbusters. Drawing from and yearning for a place in the pantheon of every-other-year smart space movies, Europa Report thrives on gritty believability in the face of otherworldly unknowns.

It’s rough not being Avatar. Hell, it’s rough not being Transformers. Trying to sell a science fiction film without the aid of 3D-enhanced explosions, Smurf-cat-people, or, for that matter, hundreds of millions of dollars, requires a certain tenacity and stringent adherence to understatement most movie studios and goers are quick to dismiss. That said, there have been some pretty stellar (HA! See what I did there???) exceptions to that rule over the past few years, particularly out of the independent sector: 2009’s Moon managed to merge space-based hard sci-fi with classic identity-thriller hallmarks, while, that same year, District 9 used a faux-documentary style to further the otherwise action-heavy alien apartheid film’s believability. Taking more than a few hints from both, Sebastian Cordero’s Europa Report blends hard sci-fi with found-footage and faux-doc structure to admirable and mostly successful results.

“Houston, we have a movie.”

Set in the not very distant future, the film follows an international team of intrepid explorers and scientists who set off to Jupiter’s moon of Europa in the hopes of discovering life underneath it’s frozen, jagged ice sheets. Predictably, things don’t really go as planned: after an early tragedy, as well as a communications blackout, the space-farers are left drifting towards their enigmatic destination without guidance or the certainty of returning home ever again. Built around the aforementioned framing of a found-footage documentary, Report takes recorded video feeds from the mission and tosses it together with interviews collected from the team’s coordinators back on Earth. It’s an intriguing model to frame the action around, but consistently feels forced to the point that the mission’s actual narrative feels a bit to jumbled at times.


Luckily, once the comm-towers go down and the astronauts are left to their own devices, the film takes a sharp turn toward the engaging. The faux-doc framework pops up only occasionally after the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and the rest of the story is basically told through crew logs. Surprisingly enough, the found-footage feel works pretty well here given the claustrophobic nature of the events at hand. Stuck in their proverbial tin-can and left without direction from their Earth-bound overwatch, the team is forced to move past their various personal differences in the name of science and human discovery to carry out their primary objective: to search for traces of alien life in Europa’s icy oceans. Of course, what they end up discovering is far more terrifying and dangerous than any of them bargained for.

Good to go?

The film boasts a pretty strong, under-the-radar cast: Michael Nyqvist (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Swedish], Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) aptly plays a veteran cosmonaut in the thralls of guilt over an early mission mishap, while Christian Camargo (Dexter‘s Brian Moser) and Karolina Wydra (House) are familiar and welcome faces. Lead billing goes to Sharlto Copely, coincidentally revisiting the faux-doc sci-fi niche he helped pioneer with the aforementioned District 9. Interestingly enough, Copely’s role in the film, while pivotal, is fairly confined, his screen-time cut down to the first-half of the adventure.

Copely isn’t in Johannesburg anymore…

While the actors all seem game, sadly, their characters are underwritten, basically boiling down to tropes like hopelessly inquisitive scientist, snarky skeptic guy, space janitor, and survivor chick with short haircut. Nyqvist breathes some life into the hardened yet vulnerable Andrei, though, given the filmmakers’ preoccupations with focusing on the science more than character development, any depth these personalities have are put on the back-burner. It’s a shame, considering the opportunity a claustrophobic environment like a space capsule can offer for inter-character conflicts and complex relationships.

Michael Nyqvist hates this mission.

Thankfully, the mechanical aspects of the film are tied together quite nicely. The special effects are admirably effective, from a lander’s slow descent onto an alien moon to a dramatic POV shot of an ever shrinking spacecraft in an endless blanket of black. It looks low-budget in a way that only adds to its plausible aesthetic. The editing is all over the place: structurally, the film crumbles under its jumbled and jumpy faux-doc narrative, though when the action stays within the confines of the mission, the cuts are done quite effectively. Flourishes of “radiation interference” cause color bursts and video noise and act as nice visual touches in contrast to the blue-tinged HD cams the mission logs are mostly comprised of. Every so often, a crew member picks up their own handheld cam, often leading to some of the most intimate and surprisingly touching moments in an otherwise strictly business outing.

On approach to awesome.

Without going into much detail (which, luckily the filmmakers don’t really, either), the extraterrestrial presence bolstering heart of the flick is tastefully and intriguingly presented. The nature of this outside force is kept a cleverly veiled, yet accessible, mystery that will keep you guessing till the last few frames of the movie. Without exaggeration, this is one of the finest portrayals of a third encounter I’ve ever seen. There’s no early reveal, no shadowy figures coming up behind our heroes and heroines, and really no explanation. And it’s cool, because we really don’t need one. Hats off to Cordero for holding back just enough to draw us in completely.

Brian Moser’s in spaaaace….

While it can be a bumpy ride, this trek to Europa is ultimately rewarding, offering not only a delicately reserved and believable look at a deep space search for alien life, but a fresh blending of sci-fi filmmaking styles that pay tribute to those that preceded it, while offering something fresh and understated to the pantheon. An impressive feat for an indie release, and for a genre that relies so heavily on inordinate amounts of money to draw in an audience. It may not pioneer the concept, but, despite its shortcomings, Europa Report boldly goes where few films have gone before and makes it feel like something exciting and new. Cheers to that.


Pitchfork and the Death of Telling It Like It Is…

Online indieculture mecca Pitchfork has decidedly expanded its focuses past mere music news and reviews, but with so much of it built around viewpoints of a jaded generation, is this turn really a good thing?

Like so many of the “hip” interweb-idlers of my *ahem* digital generation, Pitchfork (or Pitchfork Media for all you “cool dads [or moms]” present at its mid-2k heyday) has been my go-to site for all things cool this side of an Altamont-sponsored LA showplace since I was a 16 year old wannabe undergrounder. The reasons for my continued loyalty lie in their musical tastes: the glorification of the late 80’s noise rock scene, a soft-spot for D.I.Y punk, and general openness for anything willing to take sonic risks for an evolution in sound and style. For the past two or three years, however, it seems like Pitchfork’s original aims at serving niche audiences have shifted irritatingly toward (dare I even say it… I can practically hear the backlash) trend-setting.

Somewhere between 2009 and 2010, the site started focusing less on music and more on specified scenes, particularly those with mass appeal. One of the main draws, for me at least, had always been Pitchfork’s expansive tastes and relative blindness to music I heard blaring from the ear-buds of my popped-collar, polo-and-Timberland-clad New England high school peers. And yet, almost out of nowhere, Lil Wayne was earning high marks for “well-placed” nasally cackles and an affinity for copious amounts of dank. Vampire Weekend, as contrived a concept band as there’s ever effing been (worshiping Wes Anderson shouldn’t constitute inconceivable amounts of creativity), had the site gushing more ham than a Gap ad running between TRL segments on MTV. By the time Kanye earned his 10.0, I’d come to the overdue conclusion that Pitchfork had decided that the underground was not enough: the idea of the “niche” was slowly evaporating, and soon everything was encompassed by the mere labels of “cool” versus “rated under 6.0”.

Knowing the pop-hungry world (or at least those with their parents money ready to spend on American Apparel) was eating from its digital palm, the staff at Pitchfork set its sights increasingly less on music analyzation and more on scene-making and culture-defining. Pretty soon, everything earning marks higher than 7.0’s were regulated to all of about four places (NY, Chicago, LA, and France) and P4k hardly bothered with anyone who hadn’t made it onto Levi’s “Fader Fort” yet… for all intents and purposes, the site chiseled an “In Memorium” on the underground’s tombstone and became a TMZ for anyone with an avante-garde hairdo and a preoccupation with bleepy-bloops. It was only a matter of time before music as a whole took a backseat to an ever expanding number of “Features” and articles aimed at intellectualizing the growing cult of faux-Brooklyners lined up for the proverbial Cool-Aid (ironic pun intended, geniuses…).

So BLEEPING cool (Neon Indian and the advent of “chillwave”)

I guess I’ve failed to appreciate these brazen attempts at cultural analysis, if that’s what you can even call them. Reading through the “Kill Screen” (Pitchfork’s unwarranted exploration into the cultural connotations the video-gaming movement) is literally akin to having physics professors write about film-making: what results is completely affect-diluted bullsh*t aimed at breaking down meanings where, quite honestly, there’s NOTHING to break-down to begin with. Let’s take, for example, a review (if you can even call it that) of LA Noire they did a couple months back: where Kirk Hamilton could have focused (noticed my suggestive use of bold there, if you can) on the advantages of semi-linear storytelling as opposed to recent trends against narrative driven gameplay, he chose to dedicate his article to his in-game abandonment of the narrative all together. Considering that LA Noire is a game based entirely on contextual interactions within the confines of the storyline (as the player is literally unable to engage in the game-world in meaningful ways outside of mission-based objectives), his seven-paragraph description of literally running around the digital LA city-scape aimlessly seemed as pointless as his critiques of the constraints the game put upon him to begin with. Instead of summing up his frustrations with the game for refusing to offer him all the facets of real-life freedoms concisely, he chose to meanderingly critique artful direction and a dedication to storytelling simply because it failed to grace him with the option to play pool with the main character’s deadbeat cousin.

Story apparently isn’t equitable to free-roaming rampages with a Russian immigrant…

Pitchfork’s further “analytical” explorations into online sensationalism with its “Resonant Frequency”-series strikes me as blatantly hypocritical. In its most recent piece, “Taking Pictures of Taking Pictures“, the segment eludes to trends of pop-culture recycling on the internet leading to the creation of buzz-tastic acts like (one of my personal favs) Dirty Beaches and (*shudder*) Lara- I mean, Lana “Angelina Jolie-Wannabe” Del Rey. As writer Mark Richardson points fingers at the Tumblr-ization of popular culture as a regurgitation of faux-art forms (ala “the scene that celebrates itself”), he fails to note that Pitchfork itself has become a textbook example of such unabashed trend-setting. In case he forgot, the only reason why 12 year old Tumblr-addicts post the song “Video Games” on their “blogs” is because Pitchfork posted it on their “Best New Tracks” months ago. If everything works in cycles, isn’t Pitchfork just as guilty of pop-art vomming than these alt-tweens are? As far as I can tell, pop-culture in general seems to operate along the lines of constant recycling anyways: so if “cultural evolution” is a loop, call me crazy but I consider myself an entirely new species.

Rest in Peace, my peers.