Games history ezine
Issue two Gender and sexuality in games history June 2014
Gender and Issue two June 2014 sexuality in games history Volume two
Zoya Street The first gay NPC: Moonmist’s evil lesbian of Tresyllian castle
Michael Lyons Dream phone: Forbidden femininity and becoming camp
Anthony Easton ‘Eyes on Me’: Examining the romance of Final Fantasy VIII
Austin C Howe Private play: What your parents didn’t know
Zoya Street Pokemon choices: You can only buy jeans on Wednesdays
Edited by Zoya Street
Editorial Zoya Street
zoyastreet.com @rupazero Zoya Street is a game design historian and critic from Britain, currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When we do history, weâ€™re trying to retrace the constant processes of birth and death that produced us and the world we live in. Some possibilities come to fruition, and others are extinguished. Historians try to work out what caused some things to be and others to not be; where is the power, and how does it function? Most of the essays in this issue of Memory Insufficient focus on how games helped people to work out who they are, in terms of gender or in terms of sexual or romantic orientation. People tell personal stories about games from their childhood all the time on the internet. Why is this worth considering as a kind of history?
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There are stories about the past that aren’t often told. There are histories of games that people repeat blithely without thinking. “Games have always been for boys”, people say as if it were common sense. “That’s why they’re so violent. That’s what boys want.” All of the essays in this issue at least touch on the personal histories with games, how people were shaped by them and how their own self-knowledge affected their experiences of play. While this issue doesn’t go nearly far enough to address the troubling lack of diversity in who gets to participate in games writing — most of the contributors to this issue are white men — there is still an exciting examination of how heteronormativity and masculinity have shaped games history. Austin Howe’s analysis of the romance in Final Fantasy VIII pushes past the spectacle of heteronormativity. Beyond it, he argues, there is a critique of masculinity and a story about teenagers in love and in pain. We find early steps in queer representation through Michael Lyons’s account of text adventure Moonmist. We trace design change in games’ representations of femininity and girlhood, through Anthony Easton’s story about Dream Phone and Alex Cox’s reflections on the female protagonists in Pokemon games. A rough oral history uncovers the role of games in adolescent misbehaviour. There is much work to do in reclaiming ownership of games history from the heteronormative masculinity that dominates the mainstream. This issue is a modest contribution.
Memory Insufficient is published on a Creative Commons Attribution - Non-commercial NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. More information online
The first gay NPC
Moonmist’s evil lesbian of tresyllian castle Michael Lyons
Michael Lyons is a queer-identified journalist from Toronto, Canada. He is a columnist for Xtra Magazine, and is one half of the History Boys, a column on lesser-known LGBT history
I love a good bad guy. One of my all time favourite villains is Sander Cohen from BioShock (2007). I replay BioShock just to spend an evening with Sander Cohen, because he is so wonderfully unhinged, so indulgently amoral, and just so fun as the foppish tyrant of Rapture’s Fort Frolic. Cohen has a number of disciples who, it’s strongly hinted, he had various carnal relationships with, and is disappointed that he followed Andrew Ryan to Rapture, referring to him as “the man I once loved.” For better or worse, gay characters and villainy go hand-in-hand in video gaming narratives. Whether as a trope that introduces gender confusion as a
symptom of a character’s mental instability, like the effeminate, cross-dressing psychopath Alfred Ashford, first introduced in Resident Evil: Code Veronica (2000), or as sexual deviance and brutality used as a facet of a character’s evil, like I found when I was visiting home last summer and I began to play Far Cry 3 (2012). As it was their copy, I asked my younger brothers if there were any gay characters. They cited tertiary antagonist Bambi “Buck” Hughes, a mercenary psychopath, justified to be killed because he is raping your friend, and intends to keep the main character as another sex-slave, explaining when you threaten to fight him: “I’ll take you bloody, if you like. I like my meat rare.”
Maybe it’s not so surprising that video gaming’s earliest gay character is also video gaming’s earliest gay villain. However, plotting the first gay character (whethere they’re a villain or not) in video gaming is not as straightforward as checking off a box beside L,G,B or T. Like other kinds of media, queer or trans representation is often steeped in euphemism or stereotype. Instead of speaking to sexual or romantic desire, gay identity becomes a byproduct of mental instability, or a punchline in a joke that uses effeminacy, flamboyance or gender confusion. In his detailed video about homophobic tropes in video gaming, Matthew Patrick of YouTube channel The Game Theorist (incorrectly) dates the “first non-heterosexual character to ever appear in a video game” as protagonist Curtis in Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of the Flesh (1996). While the game has an openly gay character, Trevor, and Curtis even speaks to his desire both men and women, in one extended conversation with a therapist Curtis describes how his psychotic mother dressed him up like a girl as a child, his attraction to bondage,
and how he’s planning to cheat on his girlfriend with an S&M domme. The game is generally uncomfortable and again relies on a trope that mental instability goes hand-in-hand with sexual deviance and gender confusion.
In spite of all of this, gay villains are a guilty pleasure of mine; especially if they’re done well, if they have complexity, and if their evil is based on something more than sexual deviance. That’s why I find it interesting that the first gay character—or at least the absolute earliest I could find—in a video game is a villain in the text-based mystery Moonmist.
Sophisticated text adventure
Neil Randall, “Moonmist,” Compute!, Vol. 9, No. 7, July 1987, page 34
Created by text adventure company Infocom, famous for their Zork series—Dungeons & Dragons-inspired dungeon-crawlers—and an official text-adventure Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy game. Following the game’s release in 1986, a review of Moonmist in Compute! magazine described the company as “pioneers of the sophisticated text adventure.” The game was written by Stu Galley, a MIT Master of Science who described himself, in an interview for the documentary, Get Lamp, as “employee number six” at the then fledgling game company. Unlike their previous games, Moonmist was packaged with a number of required accompany materials, like a map of the castle the character would be explore. Compute! described how the “parser— the part of the program that interprets your typed commands,” was more sophisticated and specialized that previous games, and commended the immersion of the main character in the story. Below will be major spoilers. I played a free emulator of Moonmist on 4webgames, which worked
fairly well (except for the text being aligned to the extreme left of the screen). Even though it can be a bit trial and error—I guess that’s text adventures for you—and navigating the game map can be a little bit difficult to get used to (though the map and other materials are available online), it was really fun, and I ended up really wanting to solve the mystery! You play an American detective who is summoned to the aide of your friend at Tresyllian Castle in Cornwall, England. A fun game mechanic happens when you contact the house with the intercom. You are asked for your title (Lord, Lady, Mr. or Ms.) plus your first and last name, which are then all incorporated seamlessly into the game. Then you are asked what your favourite colour is. The intercom informs you the guest bedroom you’ll be staying in was, conveniently enough, recently redecorated in that exact colour! The colour you pick actually decides the plot your mystery will follow. For my purpose of meeting video gaming’s first gay character, I was set up in the “blue” room. Once on the castle grounds you meet Tamara, the aforementioned friend from the States. She has recently become engaged to Lord Jack, proprietor of Tresyllian. Once introduced the couple explains the mysterious events that led to your summons. A legendary ghost of the castle, the White Lady, has recently made appearances threatening Tamara, who now fears for her life.
They aren’t convinced the events are wholly supernatural, so you’ve been put on the case. Your arrival also happens to coincide with the birthday of Lord Jack’s (deceased) eccentric uncle, Lord Lionel, an adventurer who has left his legacy in a series of clues promising to lead whoever can decipher them to his treasure. This plot makes up half of the game’s mystery, which I won’t be focusing on.
Tamara leads you through the castle to your room, introducing you to the other guests, including antiques dealer Montague Hyde, British military man Sir Ian Fordyce, London socialite Lady Iris Vane, grizzled doctor Nicholas Wendish, and aloof artist Vivien Pentreath. >Examine Vivien She is a tall, tawny-haired woman of vintage beauty and uncertain age. “Vivien painted that portrait of Deirdre Hallam, the girl who drowned in the castle well,” says Tamara. She gestures to a framed picture hanging by the fireplace. When you ask Vivien about Deirdre: The artist shrugs with a sad, wistful smile. “What can I say? Deirdre was a most unusual girl… utterly unworldly… almost fey. She grew up in a cottage not far from here, you know. Her drowning was a terrible tragedy… and yet… sometimes I’m not sure she WANTED to go on living.” She turns her face away to hide a tear.
Conversations with the characters reveal their connections to Deirdre, their understanding of her death, and their sightings of the ghost. One character, a butler named Bilitho, claims that the ghost must have poor eyesight and be left-handed, as he saw her groping around on the floor of the new great hall with her left hand. Once Tamara has lead you to the blue room, and Bilotho has unpacked and advised you about the ghost, with little ceremony he offers you an aerosol device to use as a weapon, should the need arise. They leave you to change and wash up for dinner…
>Take off clothes Okay… My, what a fine figure of a man! >Look in wall mirror You look a trifle dirty in your birthday suit. (Aside: I always look dirty in my birthday suit.)
Vivien and deirdre If you go to the drawing room before dinner, you find Vivien sobbing quietly, in the same room as her portrait of Deirdre, the painting describe as: ... a lovely young woman with flowing blonde hair, standing on a grassy slope, gazing out to sea. It’s painted in pastel tones, which emphasize Deirdre’s violet eyes. There’s something ethereal and fairylike about her. Ironically, her silvery white, sleeveless gown is the very one she was wearing at the time of her accident. You attend dinner with the other guests, which sets into motion the Lord Lionel plot. You can chat a bit with characters: >Tell me about Tamara (said to Vivien) “I won’t say what I think of her, but it rhymes with ‘rich.’” Yikes. After retiring from dinner you’re left to explore the castle, searching for clues in Lord Lionel’s treasure hunt, and for the identity of the White Lady. Time counts down minute-by-minute and you have until 6 a.m. to solve the mysteries. You discover a lost contact lens on the floor of the new great hall, right where Bilitho said he saw the ghost.
You follow Vivien, who seems to be searching about the castle. You uncover the secret passageways that run through the walls of the castle. Eventually you end up in Vivien’s room where you discover a contacts lens case and her diary, and she walks in on your snooping. >Read diary Vivien’s diary falls open to a tear-stained page, and you read: “O Deirdre, sweet Deirdre! Jack will pay dearly for your cruel death by loosing his new sweetheart…” What’s this, “sweet Deirdre”? Threats to Tamara? Last of all you discover the White Lady costume, and you show Vivien the evidence against her. >Show diary to Vivien She flinches a little before answering “What can I say?” she shrugs. “It’s a fair cop. You’ve caught me with damning evidence. But there’s something you don’t know yet, Michael old chap, which may put the matter in a different light.” Still smiling, she puts her hand into the wooden box, and takes a blowgun and aims it at you! Luckily… >Spray Vivien with aerosol device She drops the blowgun and claps both hands over her mouth and nose. Her face takes on a greenish pallor, and strangled noises issue from her throat. Next moment she collapses on the floor!
Authored truths As Vivien comes to with a fresh attack Bilitho is on the scene, taking her into custody. And here’s one of the most interesting aspects of the game… you get to see the “author’s version of the crime”:
Vivien was intensely attached to Deirdre, and she jealously hated Lord Jack for coming between them. When Deirdre accidentally fell down the well, Vivien was convinced that she had committed suicide because she felt abandoned by Jack. So Vivien began her vengeful ghostly masquerade – to find proof that Jack was responsible for Deirdre’s death, to prick his guilty conscience and make him confess, and to terrorize Tamara, who replaced Deirdre in Jack’s affections. The devil is in the details with this one. Like so many gay characters before and after her, Vivien is never explicitly referred to as a lesbian. Her homosexuality is somewhat shrouded, but her character is the archetypal villainous lesbian. A cool, aloof, acid-tongued woman, independent, an artist, spiteful, vengeful, predatory. You can almost see the sleek, dark, shoulder-padded fashion, the smoky, condescending looks. Vivien immediately made me think of Ines from Sartre’s No Exit, who shares similar narrative and characteristics.
While Vivien’s the villain of Moonmist’s “blue” storyline, she’s still a complex, fairly sympathetic villain. The “tear-stained page” is a heartbreaking little detail. Her devotion to Deirdre is clear; the painting of Deirdre is described beautifully, and she
stuck around just to enact revenge for her beloved. In spite of being a villain, Vivien isn’t simply depicted as someone with a mental illness, or a stereotype.
The evil lesbian of Tresyllian Castle will forever haunt video gaming as the first gay character. This article was adapted from a previous blog post by the author. Play Moonmist online
Resources Matthew Patrick (2014) “Game Theory: Are Video Games Anti-LGBT?” The Game Theorists Watch on Youtube Neil Randall (1987) “Moonmist,” Compute! Vol. 9, No. 7, July 1987 Jason Scott (2010) Get Lamp Watch on Youtube
forbidden femininity and becoming camp Anthony Easton Anthony Easton is a curator, writer, theologian and artist. They are interested in country music, the problems of language, how to renew ritual, and fingerling potatoes. They grew up in Edmonton, lived in Toronto, and are now in Montreal.
Elaine Stritch sings, on Sondheim’s song ‘I’m Still Here’, the following line:
“First you're another sloe-eyed vamp, Then someone's mother, then you're camp” The song is about the nature of show-biz, and well games are as much show-biz as Broadway or movies, or anything else elucidated in that number-and it’s the line that I feel most closely resembles my relationship to the board game Mystery Date.
I never played the 1965 version, though I did appreciate the Simpson’s joke about it. The fear of being caught with the dud, the sluggish gameplay, the presence of bowling — nothing could hide the casual quality of wanting to date all those handsome boys. The ‘65 version was the original sloeeyed vamp. My mother never played Mystery Date either — but it became a game through which mothers taught their children the problems of femininity. This was the instinct that caused my cousins to receive an update of Mystery Date, Dream Phone, in the mid1990s. Growing up in semi- rural Alberta, with homophobic uncles, and a mother who had a reputation for being a bit too tolerant, Dream Phone was out of my reach. My girl cousins got it, and I wanted to play it desperately — the shiny pink phone, another kind of role playing (I was big into Dungeons and Dragons at the time), everyone laughing, the possibility that Carlos might actually love me. There are all sorts of large traumas that made me queer, that make me reconsider what gender meant, and not being able to call that 555 number seemed both tiny and significant. My absence from the game table upset me because I was a smart kid, and I understood symbolism. A few years ago, in Toronto, Snakes and Lattes opened up. It was a board game cafe, friendly and low key, with thousands of games, very new or ancient. They had a copy of the reissue of Mystery Date, and of course Dream Phone. I took a few friends. We played both.
They became Camp. But the funny thing about camp, is that it feels like victory. Sitting in public, playing the game, knowing the
politics (we called it heteronormative games night), I became the girl I always wanted to be. That said, Mystery Date is terribly boring, but Dream Phone is a fun little logic game, made more entertaining if you spent grad school reading Judith Butler..
Not only am I Still Here, so is Dream Phone.
Image of Dream Phone board game shared on a creative commons license by Steve Berry
‘Eyes on Me’
Examining the romance of Final Fantasy VIII Austin C Howe
Austin C. Howe is the writer of Haptic Feedback, a guitarist and lyricist for pop-punk band The Breadshots, and an undeclared English major. He lives in Maryland. He owns two bomber jackets that he wears casually.
Fantasy VIII is probably the game in the series most subject to mockery, both from fans and detractors alike. Reasons vary: from a protagonist intentionally written to be hard to like, to a radical change in aesthetic from the pseudo-industrial aesthetic that defined Final Fantasy VI and VII (and the series’ broader move away from “fantasy” visuals), to a poorly-executed redesign of character customization that makes the first few hours of the game an obnoxious grind. In particular, its depiction of an awkward, sometimes unhealthy, but deeply sincere teenage romance has become one the most divisive elements of an already divisive game. Personally? The depiction of adolescent romance between two emotion-
ally unhealthy people has always really strongly resonated with me both as someone struggling with depression, and as someone who has been through a fair amount of short-lived teenage romances myself. I also think that there’s a lot of interesting elements of the romance worth analyzing.
The romance is a strong element of FFVIII, even if you have a hard time relating to the characters. I’m going to start by doing short-form analyses of Squall and Rinoa’s personalities on their own, and then try and do the math on how the game makes these two people fit together.
Squall When people say they find Squall so deeply unlikable I can’t help but take it personally, especially since he’s been so broadly misrepresented. As a teenager especially I found the character deeply empathetic. At a young age, his sister was taken away from him leaving him grief-struck and alone. I was always glad there was someone in a game going through the same thing I was going through, since I lost my brother when I was 9 years old. Squall may have been able to reconnect with Ellone later, but in some sense the damage was done from the initial trauma: as a teenager, he retreats into a cynical shell and broadly rejects the possibility of making emotional connections with anyone. In his own words: “(Think what you want . . . Reality isn’t so kind. Everything doesn’t work out the way you want it to. That’s why . . .) As long as you don’t get your hopes up, you can take anything.”
But over the course of the game it simply becomes impossible to actually live alone like that.
Most of the story of FFVIII comes from Squall interacting with the surrounding cast, and the most important of those interactions are with Rinoa, but they happen with most of the main party members. We know he’s a jerk because he’s belligerent towards Zell in the car heading towards the SeeD field test. His worldview is shown to be shortsighted as early as the conversation he has with Quistis immediately after the first meeting with Rinoa. Even before the end of the first disc, Squall’s ability to be emotionally self-sufficient has come into question: when he learns that Seifer may have been executed, the possibility of it sinks in and he freaks out. Later in the game, when Rinoa goes into a coma and Squall faces the possibility of losing her as well, he again loses grasp of reason, taking it upon himself to carry her across a bridge alone, one that spans a length approximately the size of the Atlantic Ocean. (I am not interested in whether that’s realistically possible.) This is in stark contrast to the popular narrative of Squall as screamo-singer-circa-2004 that’s been prevalent in the Final Fantasy fandom for years now. Squall was never the outwardly expressive type.
He’s the one who keeps everything in until he’s full, and then spills. I relate to that. In those years after my brother’s death I often felt responsible for my parent’s emotional well-being, especially my mother’s, and I tried for years to be as unreliant on my parents or friends for emotional support as possible. But of course it doesn’t work that way. SQUALL [as a child] . . . Sis . . . [As a teenager]
I was always waiting for “sis” to come back. [As a child] I’m all alone. But I’m doing my best . . . I’ll be ok without you, Sis. I’ll be able to take care of myself. [As a teenager] (. . . I didn’t turn out ok at all.) I suffer from severe clinical depression. I wasn’t being properly treated until sophomore year, and I ended up graduating half a year late. Truth be told I still have a lot of the same unhealthy attitudes even though I’ve tried hard to grow out of them. I’m working on it. It’s getting better.
I don’t think it controversial that this idea that men are supposed to be reliant upon themselves and only themselves, that men do not cry, is a masculine construct. This is not to say that Final Fantasy VIII isn’t capable of misogyny. Squall at one point also says “Women . . . I don’t understand them.” Which is, admittedly, something I could’ve said a few years ago. The game also damselizes Rinoa a grand total of three times.
Danielle: long, blonde hair, lots of glitter. I tried to read her journal once and she saw me. She asked why and I said it was to find out if she liked me. She did. It didn’t last. I’ll never forget. My father was in the US Air Force for 23 years, and at the time we were stationed in Germany. Families stationed overseas have access to the American Forces Network (AFN), which rebroadcasts a small selection of what’s available to watch on American Television
I’ve always been thankful for FFVIII’s criticism of at least that part of masculinity as inhuman. So many men suffer because they adhere to this false stoicism, and it’s untrue to themselves. Or, at the very least, it’s untrue to me.
The Abstraction of Ludic Romance Let’s get this out of the way: Rinoa is the first crush I ever remember having, at the tender age of about 8 or 9 years old, followed shortly by Dagger from FFIX since I was playing them both at the same time. A little later, I realized I had a crush on a girl in real life because she reminded me of how I felt about Rinoa. Thanks to a hearty combination of hypersexualized mass media, matched with an aggressive set of pro-abstinence and safe-sex PSAs in rotation on AFN, I was pretty aware of human sexuality from a very young age, around 2nd grade. I went into pre-adolescence aware of the fact that, though I wasn’t crushing on girls yet, I would be
soon enough. And when you’re young and emotionally vulnerable, it’s a lot easier to admit to yourself that, yeah, that girl in the white dress who’s basically looking into the camera, right at you (the player) is pretty cute, than to admit the same about a girl you know in real life.
It’s dangerous territory to get into, but, to echo the old cliché, the things onscreen in a videogame cannot hurt you. While without a sense of self-control that can lead into unhealthy retreats from everyday life, if practiced with self-awareness I think the abstraction of videogames gives us a great way to deal with things we’re not necessarily ready to deal with in real life. In short: having a crush on someone in real life has real consequences, especially during the early, awkward years of teenage romance. By comparison, having a crush on a character in a videogame is not nearly as dangerous, giving us a controlled space where we can learn more about ourselves, interact with those embarrassing feelings of infatuation (and, yes, even sexual arousal) before we go out into the real world where those feelings can have wildly varying effects on how we interact with other people. But enough about abstraction, let’s talk about Rinoa.
Rinoa It’s simple. Rinoa is beautiful, courageous, flirty, well-read, and unendingly kind. She has a cute dog who helps her out in combat. The first time she meets Squall, she walks up to the guy with a fresh, nasty scar right across his face and says: You’re the best looking guy here. What’s not to like? In fact, her unending list of good traits might be her biggest problem: she’s been accused of being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl,
but she doesn’t act as the sole reason Squall’s character grows, which is one of the key characteristics of a MPDG. Rinoa, when we meet her, is the leader of the Timber resistance, and by all accounts she’s doing the best she can (she has the undying adoration of the townspeople and her fellow resistance members) but she falls into obvious traps. Going back to her first appearance, she sees Squall at a party, (looking sullen as is to be expected,) and immediately takes it upon herself to try and get the guy who says he can’t dance to get on the dance floor, and by sheer force of will makes it happen. In other words, Rinoa, for good or ill, is a character who loves sticking her nose in other people’s business.
What I find interesting is that Rinoa’s involvement in others’ lives is due to a forced lack of agency in her own. When the party goes to Deling City, we find she lives alone with her father who, playing to type as a General, is domineering and authoritarian, even going so far as to keeping her locked up in the mansion. This is obviously not a functional relationship: he’s General Caraway, and she’s Rinoa Heartilly, presumably her late mother’s maiden name. (Not that the game ever makes a point of bringing that up: subtext!) This recontextualizes her actions up to this point. Rinoa may genuinely believe in her causes, but her impulsive, teenage lust for adventure is kicked into hyper drive by her sheltered and failing home life. In this, and many other ways, she subverts the MPGD tag by, at least early on, failing in her attempts to break Squall’s cynical shell, and she definitely fails outright in her attempts to attain independence for Timber. Her manic pixie characteristics are as much something that makes her admirable as a flaw that emanates from the deepest recesses of her psyche. This serves to broadly
criticize the trope, and instead offers something like an investigation of the patriarchal nature of her relationship with her father that informs the rest of her nosey personality. When Rinoa starts to grow out of those MPDG characteristics that define her early on is when her approaches towards Squall start to break his shell a bit. Instead of forcing him to dance, she tries to connect with him in smaller, more meaningful ways. She wakes him up in the morning and asks for a tour of the Garden campus. When he gets promoted to SeeD Commander, she helps throw together a small celebration with the other members of the team. Later, she takes notice of a ring Squall wears that has a lion engraved into it, and asks about it, which is the first time he notices that Rinoa’s trying to get to him. RINOA So that’s what you call it. You know Zell said he’ll make me one exactly like it. Who knows, maybe I can become like a lion, too. That’d be crazy, huh?! I mean, everyone might, y’know, get the wrong idea about us. SQUALL (If it’s so crazy why do you sound so delighted? Everyone is trying to get us together. It’s so obvious even I can tell.) You sound like you want everyone to get the wrong idea. Perhaps that’s what bothers people: in this relationship, Squall’s big romantic, chivalrous gestures of life-saving and such are ones that he barely even perceives to be romantic for the most part. In reality, Rinoa is doing the “courting.”
Together Of all the questions that’s been asked about Final Fantasy VIII, one is both persistent and totally, totally nonsensical: “Why are these characters attracted to each other? They have nothing in common. She’s a lively socialite and he’s a sullen
recluse...” and on and on. And while that reading is fair, it’s also based on only a surface level of the two character’s interactions.
But really, why do they seem to work as a couple? Or rather, why does the game insist that they do? For readers unfamiliar with American history: O’Neill was the leader of a Democratic congress, and a vicious opponent of the Republican President Reagan’s domestic and foreign policies. They were both quoted as saying something along the lines that before 6PM was politics, and after 6PM they were friends.
To go with the most obvious one: these two people are constantly stuck together. I’m not sure if there’s science behind this, but the conventional wisdom that would inform the writing of this game would probably state that any two people who are stuck together for extended periods of time will eventually find something to connect over. Even Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan managed to be friends. The character models have aged poorly, but have you seen the FMVs of Final Fantasy VIII lately? Squall and Rinoa are good looking people. (They are video game characters after all.) He’s smolderingly handsome, broad-chested, preferring low cutshirts. She’s got the cutest face you could ask for, and long legs in short shorts to boot. Can I make it any more obvious? They’re teenagers, so we know they’re hormonal and impulsive, do the math. That’s the other thing: they’re teenagers. There’s not a really interesting way to say this: teenagers don’t make sense, and to insist that just because this is fiction that the teenagers in fiction have to make sense is asinine. Teenagers are half-defined people who are struggling to find a sense of identity, community, and self-worth, and you could trace any number of ills in society to the fact that we ask teenagers to be ready to be ready to define themselves when they are beyond ill-equipped to do so. I can say that, I just turned 20 in January. But there’s also plenty of subtext that, though it wouldn’t make a strong argument that these two people would be happy together, does make it pretty obvious why, at least in the game’s internal
logic, these two people might find themselves attracted to each other.
First of all: These characters are constantly facing threats to life and limb. They live and work in an incredibly high-stress environment, one that strains their half-formed psyches. If we’re still accepting the idea that people who are stuck together are going to eventually build emotional connections, it’d be hard to find an experience that would lead to deeper connections than going through the same life-threatening dangers together. These characters are very, very lonely. Squall has no family, (his mother having died during childbirth, and his father, Laguna, being the Worst Parent in the History of Videogames) which is why he ended up a SeeD in the first place, which the game indicates may simply just be something about his life he accepted rather than actively sought out. He was a difficult child and was thus never adopted, entering Balamb Garden as a SeeD candidate especially young.
At one point in the game, he contemplates quitting SeeD for about a split-second before he realizes not only would he be abandoning his responsibility, but also that he simply would have nowhere to go. Rinoa lost her mother at a young age, and struggles in adolescence, to connect with her suffocating father. Arguably, Squall’s closest relationship is with Seifer, and that’s the guy who cut his face open. Rinoa, meanwhile, is the type of person who, through a combination of both her own
stature (high-ranking military official’s daughter) and her own assumed position of power, has many followers but the game doesn’t show her having any close friends. We can see how this makes them lock together from an admittedly problematic (and kinda creepy) Freudian perspective that relies heavily on gender heteronormativity, but that would likely inform how the relationship was written. Squall has no mother, but Rinoa’s gentle probing and kindness are very motherly. Rinoa has difficulty connecting with her father, but Squall’s rank and strength put him in a position of similar power, and makes him the perfect candidate for someone to pour the affection into that she would be giving to her father.
They don’t bond over things they have in common, they bond over what’s missing in their lives. That, admittedly, is not healthy. But it is very adolescent and painfully real, at least in my experience. I think it’s reasonable to say that Squall, and probably Rinoa too, both suffer from what the game is unwilling to say is clinical depression. I can’t give a symptom-by-symptom analysis here, but suffice to say that as someone who is diagnosed clinically depressed, I have never related more to a character’s outlook and characteristics than I have with Squall. From that perspective, a lot of things start making sense. As of yet, I have only ever dated girls like me who suffer from clinical depression, (or bipolar disorder). I have been in very few dating relationships, but they have all become very intense in very brief periods of time because our passion was compounded by compassion. We loved together and suffered together. Squall and Rinoa may want each other, but more so than that, they need each other. They need the emotional support that they both represent
to each other, and that’s exactly how things have worked for me up until this point as well.
Future For the audience that’s invested in Squall and Rinoa’s romance, the game can be reticent to give us emotional satisfaction during key moments. During Squall’s biggest chivalrous gestures in the game (carrying her comatose body across the bridge, and saving her in space) there are obvious walls between the two that prevent them from showing their love for each other physically. In the game’s most romantic scene, with Squall and Rinoa on the bridge of the Ragnarok, the camera cuts away from them before we ever seem them even try to kiss. When they do finally kiss at the end of the game, the camera is focusing on them and then zooms out such that we don’t actually see the kiss that, in theory, we’ve been wanting to see the whole time. They don’t even ever say the word “love” to each other. Is that just genre-fiction ship-teasing? Is it self-censorship? It could be both, but it still plays as somewhat significant. The game doesn’t give us any sort of text or other materials that say they got married or anything either. Final Fantasy VIII may go out of its way to show us that these characters love each other, but it doesn’t give us “happily ever after.” It’s better that way. In truth, again, they’re teenagers: they likely won’t end up together forever. When I was younger I hated that, but the more I play the game, the older I get, the more I realize, that’s ok. People grow, people change. Sometimes, the love you feel for someone and the love they feel for you is just another phase of growth and change that you go through on the way to something else.
Nothing is permanent, much as our aching hearts may beg for things to be so. I look back on the romances I’ve been involved in,
and while sometimes I can’t help but miss one or the other, ultimately I always end up just being glad that we could be there for each other in times of need, and I hope that I left as positive an impact on their lives as they’ve left on mine. Maybe Squall and Rinoa weren’t even meant to be together. Maybe “meant to be together” is something we say to lend significance to a feeling that comes and goes as easily as anything else, much as we’re loath to admit it. What matters is the present. And in those times of need, I’m glad Squall and Rinoa were there for each other when they needed it. Originally posted on Ontological Geek
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Image from Final Fantasy VIII (1999) Square Enix
what your parents didn’t know Zoya Street
zoyastreet.com @rupazero Zoya Street is a game design historian and critic from Britain, currently living in Berkeley, CA. He self-published the book Dreamcast Worlds, and is a regular contributor at Hyper and CGMagazine.
If our secrets
have a digital equivalent of the cardboard box hidden under the bed, it will be found in a video game. This is particularly true when imaginary places are our only private space. In childhood, when our lives still belong to our parents in some way, video games often act as an outlet, a place we can explore on our own terms, or at least not on our parents’ or teachers’ terms. This is one of the roles that video games play in history: as an incubator for thoughts and actions that didn’t belong in wider society. Earlier this year, I asked people to answer an anonymous single-question survey:
“Tell me about the first time you did something in a video game that you didn’t want your parents to know about.” The survey was distributed through Twitter and Facebook, and got about twenty responses. Not a huge sample, but here is what people told me:
Sex “Play that Ganguro dating/sex sim off NewGrounds” “I went to a secret meeting with that hot girl in a Japanese dating sim” Most respondents’ first experiences hiding from their parents in games related to sexuality. Sometimes the games focused on sex, and at other times these discoveries came through subversive play, hacking or producing fan materials. “Lara Croft hauling herself up onto a ledge, making *that* sound” “I made a screenshot of “Wet - The Sexy Empire” and edited it in Paint to make the protagonist look naked.” “Installed a penis mod for The Sims 2”
Vibration One response charts a connection between digital games as a site of imaginative sexual exploration and the physicality of the vibrating controller: “I got my first orgasm from using the Vibration Test in the main menu of Metal Gear Solid for the PS1. I worked out that if you turned on the Analog switch and then wrapped a hair bobble around it so it was tilted to the left, it would constantly be on Strong vibration. I enjoyed this,
as well as the various Metal Gear-related fantasies I’d come up with in order to help the weak vibrations do their work, but not cleaning the controller up afterwards. As it was all new to me, these were special nights, almost ritualised. I’d go to bed early, turn on the PlayStation - I specifically used the PS1 for this because I liked the way the buttons on the console went click instead of how vague the PS2 hardware buttons were - turn off the sound, and in the dim green light of that Options menu like a romantic candle, I would embark upon my one-sided love affair with Solid Snake. My quest for Metal Gear Solid-related orgasm led to a memorable incident where, eager for new sensation, I put in the Metal Gear Solid 3 theatre mode on a cutscene that I hoped would have lots of explosions - the one where the Boss confronts Snake on the bridge and we’re introduced to the Cobra Unit. I started it up, then stuffed the controller down my pyjamas, turned off the television and crawled into bed. Unfortunately, at this point, my parents came up to wish me a good night, which turned to them expressing their worries about - things I don’t remember. I do remember that they commented on me looking distracted, because I was constantly juggling the controller on my thighs in order to prevent them hearing the vibrations. Eventually, Dad did turn on the television, revealing to him the End’s bulging eyeballs, and I got a pretty severe lecture for playing on the PlayStation after bedtime on a school night. At least they never figured out the purpose of it.
queerness The intimate privacy of video games allowed sexual exploration in a safe, imaginative setting. The ability to hide this play might have been particularly valuable for non-heteronormative people: “When a game had the option of a same-sex relationship, I quite often took it (actually, even
before I admitted to myself that I was gay). Now, I knew my mother wouldn’t care, so I don’t know if that counts. I sure as hell didn’t want her to know at the time - since I wasn’t out.” “I generally choose female characters in RPGs like Baldur’s Gate 2, because I find it much more emotionally satisfying to play as a character with options of romancing men (then as a man who could only romance women in game. Most games don’t really have LGB (not to mention T) options. I don’t think they would have cared or would care now but I felt as a teen that I wouldn’t want them to know.” Sexuality can be non-normative even for cisgender heterosexuals, because of wider cultural patterns of shame and secrecy: “I’m a straight cis guy and I grew up Catholic. Not super strict at home, but I attended Catholic school up until 6th grade or so. Sex was a topic my parents steered away from quite often. Whenever we’d be watching TV or a movie and a sex scene was about to happen, they’d either fast forward hastily or ask me to leave the room. Whenever I’d ask questions about it, they’d change the subject or tell me I shouldn’t be thinking about that, you’ll know when you’re older, etc. I always felt a deep, inherent sense of shame whenever I was curious or wanted to know more about sex. I played Duke Nukem 3D when I was maybe seven or eight. Being in the strip bar intrigued and mortified me, especially when I interacted with the dancers. It was the first time I’d seen a woman topless anywhere. My initial reaction was one of shock, then strong interest, then perpetual guilt. Often when I replayed it, I would rush through that section out of fear that my mom would walk
in and see it. I never worried about her seeing me shooting aliens that would explode, their guts and eyes flying everywhere. I was never really worried that she would take the game away or anything like that. I was just so afraid of upsetting her, of disappointing her. Of feeling like I’d gone against her wishes. So really when I think of Duke Nukem 3D, the strongest emotions I feel are guilt. And shame.”
Gore The physicality and shame of sexual exploration is mirrored in experiences hiding games from parents because of their violent content: “I remember playing zork nemesis and a sequence where I had to cut the head off a body to use later. The scene was graphic and I recall thinking my mother would think it wasn’t age appropriate. I was about 10 at the time.” “It was 1993. I was 6. I used the Mortal Kombat “blood code” to perform fatalities. Sub-zero’s skull rip and Scorpion’s fire breath seemed particularly gory. I wasn’t sure what my parents would think but they turned out to be fine with it.” Whether it’s finding an opportunity to imagine non-normative intimacy, learning about bodily pleasures, or fascination with the ways the body can be destroyed, video games form part of many people’s personal histories of understanding their own bodies, and how their bodies relate to other people through intimacy and violence. Image shared on a creative commons attribution license by Kevin Dooley
Pokemon choices You can only buy jeans on wednesdays Alex Cox
futurestarters.net @alexcox Alexandra Cox is a documentary film student in Chicago and runs futurestarters.net, a video games documentary project.
my first games console, though I don’t remember how or when I got it. It was a red Gameboy Pocket and it came with Pokémon Red Version. At that time, my eight year old self thought she knew three things for certain: this was the coolest toy in the world, Charmander was the only acceptable choice for a starter Pokémon, and I was supposed to be a boy. This last idea was mostly in my head because videogames were for boys. In fact, it felt like a lot of fun things were only for boys. Before I got my Gameboy, my older male cousins played hours of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the SNES at our family’s lake house. They told me that I would be
so bad at the game that I would break it. Instead, they insisted that I could be April: the reporter who watches Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael fight crime. My desire to play as a radioactive vigilante turtle was so strong that it led me to believe that I needed to be male to play games. When I got a Gameboy, I immediately became obsessed that it was mine. My Gameboy was my most prized possession, and the Pokémon universe my safest place. I played as Red, an up and coming Pokémon trainer taking the region by storm. However, I also had to prove myself to another boy, my rival, Blue, in order to beat the game. He never felt like a threat to me. He was just another cocky trainer to battle. Beating him was simply the final step to becoming a Pokémon Master. I got the same rush of adventure while playing the sequel, Pokémon Silver. (I opted for the silver version because I thought gold seemed too girly.) Soon after, Pokémon Crystal was released. At the very beginning of the game I was surpassed to be asked a new question by the Pokémon professor.
“Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?” I felt conflicted. I didn’t even realize that this was a question I wanted to be asked. For the first time in my life, someone other than myself and my parents were acknowledging that a girl might be playing a videogame. It wasn’t like in Pokémon Red, where I masqueraded as the male hero my cousins never told me I could be. I chose the “girl” choice and happily went about my adventure as usual. In order to complete this game, you had to defeat Red, the protagonist in the last generation of game. To me, it felt like I was fighting off the last bit of myself that doubted that I could be a girl who beat the boys. Over the years, the Pokémon series has continued to offer a “boy” and “girl” option at the start of each game. I continued to play as a girl, but I became more and more concerned with how the female trainers where portrayed. As the pixels increased,
Character concept art and sprite for Kris, female protagonist in Pokemon Crystal (2000)
so did my discomfort. The feminine features of each trainer were becoming more prominent. In Pokémon Crystal, your character looks basically the same whether you choose the boy or girl option. Even the far more detailed concept art shows characters with different genders but relatively similar outfits with similar functionality. For each following generation, the gendered trainers became more and more distinct, and the girl’s outfits became less and less functional. The girl’s shorts got shorter, and became skirts. Then, her backpack small purses. Before, the choice between “boy” and “girl” had felt simple. Now, I felt vaguely uncomfortable picking the “girl” option each time. In reality, I began to face the same clothing limitations I felt the female Pokémon trainers had. I hated my uniforms in private school. We had to wear jumpers, and later skirts. Even my clothes for sports were gendered. If you’ve ever played tennis, you know that they specifically make compartments where you can put balls up your skirt, as opposed to wearing shorts and having normal pockets.
I wondered how hard it would be to tuck and untuck Pokéballs from a skirt during a battle.
Artwork and ‘default’ icon for Serena, female protagonist in Pokemon XY (2013)
When the newest generation of Pokémon was announced, XY (2013), I was thrilled to find out that you could customize your character. I wasn’t expecting to be able to look like the queer girl I now identify as; I was just hoping for a pair of pants. My excitement waned as soon as I began to see the clothing options in each shop as I played the game. Your girl character cannot even buy a pair of pants until after she defeats the second gym. After that, shops only sell certain clothing items on specific days of the week. You could only buy jeans on Wednesdays. The clothes the game deemed male oriented felt like an easter egg you had to find. Even if you did manage to get a decent pair of pants, a
t-shirt, and a baseball cap, your only bag choices were an assortment of purses. Many folks can accuse me of being too picky of Pokémon’s previous generations’ gender designs. However, these options were set. Each felt like a character with a different personality.
In X/Y, you are asked to make the character your own. Something as silly as character customizations in a beloved franchise brought me right back to the childhood memories of not feeling like I was welcome playing amongst the boys. Videogames as a medium and as a culture are filled with toxic problems, especially for people who identify as queer and/or female. I recognize that addressing the gender representations in the Pokémon series may not do a lot to change that. To be honest, I just don’t want to stuff any more Pokéballs into my purse or up my skirt.
Image from Pokemon Crystal (2000, Nintendo)
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Memory Insufficient volume two issue two