Race in Horizon: Zero Dawn

Content note: This will contain minor spoilers only.  No guarantees about the comment section.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a 2017 video game that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where robotic beasts roam the earth. The protagonist, Aloy, is an exile from the Nora, a tribe of hunter-gatherers. Aloy’s mission in life is to end her own exile, but as soon as she succeeds, she receives her call to adventure, and must venture out of Nora lands into Carja territory.

HZD has some genuinely interesting things to say about race, far surpassing my expectations for a big-budget video game. Here I will discuss how the game hits the mark on several issues. Then I’ll discuss how the game has been criticized for cultural appropriation of Native Americans. Finally, I will discuss my own criticism: Where the main game succeeds, the DLC pack The Frozen Wilds falls flat on its face.

Where Horizon: Zero Dawn succeeds

The first thing that stands out about HZD is its racially diverse cast. Behold:

A bunch of minor HZD characters

Credit: AbyssOfUnknowing. These are all minor characters, because the image was challenging people to name as many characters as they could remember.

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Beyond Character representation

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015, with a few edits for clarity. I chose this post because the paper I just discussed makes a mention of QGCon, and I was reminiscing about the event.

I’m lucky that the Queerness and Games Conference is right by where I live, and has many fascinating talks on the subjects of queer theory, games studies, and game design.

The QGCon logo

A major theme at the conference is the idea of going beyond mere character representation. That is, a queer game doesn’t just mean having a character who is queer, or giving the player the choice of who to romance. It could be about having queer themes, such as the theme of rebelling against the status quo.

Of course, me being me, I have a rather different style of thinking from most people at QGCon. At QGCon, no one ever voices disagreement, and everyone is happy and constructive. Who would ever want to discourage all these awesome but anxious creators by saying anything even mildly critical? But personally, I don’t feel like I have properly engaged in any subject until I have cast a critical eye upon it, and listed its disadvantages. So this is the critical discussion of non-character representation that I wish I heard.

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The sexual recession: an ace perspective

“Why are young people having so little sex?” asks the title of a new article in The Atlantic. The article is also summarized in video form. The article reports that the number of high-schoolers who have had intercourse declined from 54% to 40% in the period from 1991 to 2017. The author writes,

But now some observers are beginning to wonder whether an unambiguously good thing might have roots in less salubrious developments.

The author says the decline in sex is not just among teenagers, but among young adults too. Among people in their early 20s, 15% say they haven’t had sex since becoming adults, as compared to 6% among Gen-Xers. The author calls this a “sexual recession”. What follows is a long list of speculations about what could be causing it–be it porn, dating apps, helicopter parents, bad sex, or inhibition.

I will offer an unsympathetic, perhaps callous perspective–this being largely a straight people problem, and me being a gay ace guy. Yeah, I really don’t think this is as much of a problem as the article makes it out to be.

Flipping scripts

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I tried microtonal music and liked it

The pitch of a note is determined by its frequency, and frequency can vary within a continuous spectrum. And yet, in the western music tradition, we only use frequencies with discrete values. That’s not a bad thing, but it implies a whole world of possibilities not explored. Microtonal music, also known as xenharmonic music, sets out to make use of the unused frequencies.

I recently tried listening to a lot of microtonal music, because I discovered that you can find lots of it through the microtonal tag on Bandcamp. Sure, a lot of it isn’t very good because anyone can put music on Bandcamp, but there were enough gems that I continued to peruse the tag. I’ll share just two examples. First, I selected Brendan Byrnes, because I think his music has the most pop appeal, while also being unapologetically microtonal.

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Video game censorship and feminist criticism

Last week, the white house held a meeting to talk about violence in video games, and their potential connection to gun violence. This has many gamers worried that the government will do something to censor video games, or pressure the games industry to self-regulate.  My opinions on the matter: 1) this is an obvious ploy to “address” gun violence without addressing gun violence, 2) I defer to the research that says video games do not cause gun violence, and 3) the second amendment shouldn’t exist. If you disagree with any of these propositions, you are welcome to yell at me in the comments, as one does.

But I’m not really here to talk about gun violence, I’m here to talk about feminism. See, I did a forbidden thing, I read some internet comments. And I found that some people think that Trump’s talk of censoring video games is similar or analogous to feminists/SJWs talking about problematic or sexist aspects of video games. As a feminist/SJW myself, my reaction is, “uh no.”

But it also raises the interesting question, what do I want?

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Difficulty in Dark Souls 3

Last year when I talked a bit about difficulty in video games, I mentioned the Dark Souls as an exemplar of difficult video game design. More recently, I had opportunity to play Dark Souls 3. I finished it too. So here are my thoughts.

Like other adventure games, Dark Souls 3 is essentially a power fantasy. It gives the player a sense of increasing power over time. It begins by disempowering the player, beating them down over and over. But the player is empowered to eventually succeed. And what makes this experience so effective, is that the success depends almost entirely on the player’s skill and cleverness, instead of their character’s level. After completing the game for the first time, you can start over from the beginning and find it significantly easier.

Something that this game makes me think about, what even is difficulty? Does it mean it’s mentally taxing? Does it mean it’s frustrating? Does it mean very few people can succeed?

In the context of Dark Souls, people seem to think difficulty means “You die a lot,” but I’m not sure this is the right way to think about it. New players die a lot, but instead of thinking of it as failure, you could think of it as a necessary part of the learning process. One of the Dark Souls taglines is “Prepare to die”, which is literally telling players that dying is a necessary part of the game. Dying is even a essential component of the narrative–you’re a cursed undead who comes back to life each time you die. It’s not like other games where if you die, the universe rewinds and the game says “let’s pretend that never happened”.  In other words, dying in Dark Souls is diagetic.

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The joys of not being a music critic

What are the qualities that are desirable in a music critic (or a movie critic, or video games reviewer, or book reviewer)?

Generally, the very first thing we want is that they review music that we have a chance of listening to. Maybe we’re considering whether to buy some music, and need some help to make a decision. Or we’re looking around to discover new music that we might like. Or we’re already listening to the music and want to reflect on the qualities of that music.

That means that we want music critics who like some of the same music we like. And since music critics usually wish to reach a sizeable audience, that means music critics have to like a lot of different things. Their tastes should be eclectic. Or, if a critic’s tastes are more particular, there needs to be an easy way to match them up with an audience with similar tastes. Music genres usually fulfill this purpose. For instance, if a reviewer only really likes post-rock, they can advertise themselves as a critic of post-rock.

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