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A few days ago I was browsing a video game forum when I came across a thread about this article suggesting that more video games should have female protagonists. It’s a rather well thought-out piece that addresses many of the common arguments that crop up when this discussion comes up, and as anybody who has spent any amount of time reading about “feminist issues” in games could have predicted, the response was immediate and highly polarized, though to their credit, the commentators did manage to keep it civil.

This back and forth got me thinking about many of the games that I’ve played over the years, and I began to consider, if one were to flip the gender of the protagonist, would it actually make any functional difference to the game? Would the story be dramatically impacted? Would the gameplay have had to be altered in a significant fashion? And in the majority of the cases I could think of, the answer was, “well…not really, no.” Some of the more story-intensive titles would require more substantial changes to the point where it might alter the creators’ original intent, but those were few and far in between.

In fact, in a lot of more open-ended titles today, the player is able to create their own character. They are freely able to choose whether said character is male or female, set their appearance to match whatever ethnicity they desire, and pretty much make any changes they want, since those factors are of no consequence to the story (at most, they might affect some very minor optional elements of the plot).

Many of today’s most popular titles take this approach; Bioware’s extremely popular Mass Effect and Dragon Age games all allow for character customization, as do Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles. Even Grand Theft Auto ripoff-turned-competitor Saints Row allows for custom characters, something GTA still has yet to do.

When I thought about these character creation screens, I had an epiphany. Even though these games allow you to create whatever character you want, almost all of them default to a setting that you then have to adjust. And that default setting is that of a man who is white. Meaning that, even in the minds of the people who design these arguably progressive systems, their idea of the “default person” is that of a white male. Anything else is a change that the player has to opt to make.

And that seems to be the prevailing mentality, not only among game designers, but filmmakers, comic creators, and to a certain degree, even prose writers. Unless a writer has a particular agenda in mind, the default practice is to make their protagonist a straight, white male. Anything else is viewed as a change from this “norm.”

The reasons for this are convoluted and run very, very deep. It’s not accurate to assume that this is a result of straight white guys dominating writing in all of these fields and simply writing from their own perspective; there are plenty of very talented female writers who write about male protagonists more often than they write about women.

You can’t argue that it’s because fiction that deviates from this “norm” doesn’t sell. The Hunger Games and (shudder) Twilight have both topped the best-seller charts at various points. The Resident Evil movies, despite mixed critical reviews, have consistently performed well at the box office. The Tomb Raider game series has consistently sold millions of copies per installment. And, as I discussed earlier, it’s certainly not because these stories could only be told with a male character in the lead.

Now, understand that I’m not trying to stifle anyone’s creativity, or promote tokenism. We shouldn’t expect writers to plead their case to feature a straight white male as a protagonist, lest they have to choose their protagonist’s identity by blindly throwing a dart at a venn diagram of gender, orientation, ethnicity and religion.

But I think it is important to get writers to recognize that they need to make a choice–that there is no “norm” for characters, and that audiences can appreciate and relate to protagonist that doesn’t fit into a narrow mold.

The issue of representation in fiction is one that is complex and difficult to unravel–I certainly don’t propose to do so in the span of a single blog post. But I think that if writers will stop and consider, as I did, the implications of this assumption of the “default” nature of characters, that would make for a good start.

Fashionably Late: Ecco the Dolphin

Like many people who play video games as a hobby, I have a rather substantial backlog of titles I’ve purchased but haven’t yet finished for various reasons. And each year I resolve to play through every title in my backlog, but I have yet to succeed. So, in an effort to motivate me to get through these titles, and to entertain you, I’m going to start a new blog series on my website, where I review games as I complete them. Since most of the games I play through will be more than a year past their release date, I’m calling this series “Fashionably Late,” and it’ll be updated as I finish these titles.

The first game I’m going to review is late, indeed; more than 20 years late. I first played this title at a friend’s house in grade school, and it immediately captured my interest with its strange but compelling premise, unique gameplay and colorful, detailed visuals. It kept that interest by being so hard that for years I couldn’t even get past the second level. That game is Ecco the Dolphin, and recently, motivated by hubris and bravado brought on by the copious amounts of cold medicine (I was sick, not recreationally using decongestants) I was on at the time, I played it until I won.

Ecco is a difficult game to explain to somebody else. In the version of the game I played, contained within the PS3 compilation Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, each of the games is labeled by its genre, with such categories as RPG, Brawler and Puzzle. Ecco is one of only four games labeled as “Other,” the second being its sequel, Ecco: The Tides of Time. So it’s hard to summarize this game when even Sega doesn’t know how!

Ecco is certainly one of the more unique games released on the Genesis…hell, it’s one of the most unique games that’s ever been released, period. It’s part action-adventure game, part puzzle game and part dolphin simulator. You play as the title character, a dolphin named Ecco, whose pod is sucked up out of the ocean to parts unknown by a freak storm. Ecco’s goal is to find his pod and save them, and in order to do so, he must travel through underwater caves, the Arctic circle, the lost city of Atlantis and even time itself.

Despite the game’s strange premise, Ecco is a pretty normal dolphin. He swims and moves exactly as you’d expect from a dolphin. His primary means of offense is charging at enemies and ramming them with his snout, and he can interact with any friendly creatures and many objects by “singing” at them; said song can also be used to echolocate and view a map of Ecco’s surroundings. And like any other dolphin, Ecco has to breathe air to survive; stay underwater for too long, he’ll drown.

The gameplay mostly consists of moving Ecco from his starting point in a level to its exit, but this is more complicated than it sounds. Unlike many games of the time, where the exit is always to the right of the starting point, most of Ecco’s levels are mazes of one kind or another. In order to pass through these mazes, typically Ecco will have to solve puzzles to get through obstacles that block his progress. Some of these obstacles come in the form of “glyphs,” Atlantean crystals that form a key-door pairing, meaning Ecco will have to find the key glyph elsewhere in the level, then navigate to the barrier glyph to remove it and advance. Others require destroying walls of stone with objects in the environment, like other rocks, seashells or even rings of starfish that “eat” the stone (don’t ask me; Ecco has a shaky grasp of marine biology).

This may not sound too difficult, but make no mistake, there’s a reason it took me twenty years to beat this game. Ecco is one of the most difficult titles ever released on a home console. It may not have the pop culture cachet of some other infamously hard titles like Battletoads, Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden or Ghosts and Goblins, but it’s definitely earned a place in that hall of obscenely difficult titles and broken childhood dreams.

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, game developers had a problem. They couldn’t make their games very long due to the limits of the technology of the time (with the exception of a few RPGs, which relied on level grinding to extend their length), so there were concerns that kids would be able to rent these titles and play through them in the course of a weekend…which would mean that those kids would never buy a copy of the game. Many developers came to the realization that they could prevent this by making the games so difficult that they couldn’t be beaten over the course of a single rental…or possibly ever. And by the admission of Ecco’s director, Ed Annunziata, Ecco followed suit.

However, while most titles of the era accomplished this by being arcade-hard and only providing players with limited lives and continues, Ecco doesn’t have lives at all, and has infinite continues and a password system. The player can retry a level as many times as he needs to in order to clear it…but the catch is that there are no checkpoints, meaning that the player must clear the level without dying.

Therein lies the challenge, because virtually everything in the ocean is out to kill poor Ecco, including sharks, jellyfish, pufferfish, crabs, octopi, trilobites, dunkleosteus, ammonites and giant seahorses (that shoot their young at Ecco like buckshot). On top of that, the game’s puzzles are over-the-top difficult and either don’t tell you what you need to do in order to solve them (who would guess that you can dissolve rocks by singing at starfish?), require great precision and timing to maneuver through them, or both. And in between all of this, you have to make sure Ecco doesn’t drown, get impaled on coral spikes, or crushed by floating shells or ice cubes.

Additionally, there is no after-hit invincibility, meaning that some of the nastier obstacles and enemies can swarm Ecco and drain his health in only a few seconds. Ecco also doesn’t turn instantly; he has several frames of animation as he moves from one orientation to another, which makes it difficult to recover if you flub an attack on one of the aforementioned nasty enemies. The lengthy turn animations also make it easy to get trapped and crushed to death by certain moving obstacles, especially in the final levels. Ecco is simultaneously the best and worst kind of hard game; it allows you to fail without penalty, but it demands perfection before it will allow you to advance.

Now, those of you who aren’t masochistic old-school gamers like myself are probably wondering why in the hell anybody would subject themselves to the kind of game I’ve described. The short answer is that, even after all this time, Ecco the Dolphin is still an amazing, unique title, and in many ways it’s a landmark game that offers features that wouldn’t commonly be seen in games for years to come.

Again, the premise and design of Ecco is really like nothing else out there. There are very few games in existence that put the player in the role of an animal that, for the most part, behaves like a realistic animal. Putting the player in the role of a dolphin, with a dolphin’s abilities and weaknesses, sets Ecco apart from pretty much any other video game (except for the other Ecco titles). In a medium that has always been full of copycats and clones, it’s refreshing to play something that’s never been attempted before, and Ecco certainly fits that bill.

The setting also adds a lot of value for me, personally; I was a huge marine biology dork as a kid, and anything to do with ocean life is absolutely fascinating to me. Of course, as I mentioned, Ecco takes quite a few liberties with the actual science, putting creatures where they would never be and making them behave in unrealistic ways, but some concessions have to be made for the purpose of game design and aesthetic, and I think Ecco’s developers generally made smart choices in that regard.

The game is also one of the earliest titles I can recall that has a story that is advanced in-game, through the player’s actions, and it’s far from a simple one, with some impressive (for the time) plot twists and subtle implications that are left to the player to uncover. Ecco is also the earliest game I’ve encountered that features side-quests; two levels have optional missions where you can rescue other dolphins lost in an underwater maze, in exchange for upgrades that weaponize your sonar (these upgrades are optional, but I can’t imagine playing the rest of the game without them).

The graphics hold up surprisingly well, even twenty years later. Ecco himself is impressively animated, and the other creature sprites are very detailed and colorful…though they generally have few frames of animation, which sometimes makes it look like Ecco is being assaulted by clip-art. Still, the art design shines, and some of the levels are breathtakingly beautiful. The music, rather than the catchy, melodic tunes common to games of the time, is haunting, atmospheric New Age stuff that makes great use of the Genesis sound chip.

And really, “atmosphere” is the key word here, because Ecco’s design, its difficulty, and its aesthetic all combine to create a powerful atmosphere of isolation. Ecco is a dolphin isolated from his pod, alone in a hostile environment where everything is out to kill him, and he barely has the skills he needs to survive. He’s forced to go places no dolphin should ever go, and do things no dolphin could ever be reasonably expected to do. More than any other game I’ve played, Ecco captures the feeling of being isolated and alone in a hostile world where death is never more than a few seconds away. It’s not pleasant, but it is amazingly powerful, and that’s something worth experiencing.

Well, I tried to continue my attack on my backlog with Ecco: The Tides of Time, but believe it or not, Tides is even harder than its predecessor; I wound up quitting in frustration after trying and failing a starfish-pushing puzzle for twenty minutes straight. So, I think I’ve had enough 16-bit era ball-busting to last me for a while. For my next game, I’m going to tackle something a little more modern. Something…legendary.

‘Til next time!

The Love Story

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! In honor of this, the most romantic holiday ever created by greeting card companies, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the romantic side of writing: the love story.

Now, I’m a sucker for a good love story. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to understand just how few truly good love stories there are. My wife and I have been together for nearly eight years now–we’ve been married for two of those years, and in that time, I’ve really come to understand how much more there is to love and relationships than we’re shown in romances. There’s zoo dates, eating messy foods together (ribs are not a first-date meal), and staying in to take care of sick fur-babies…

The vast majority of romance stories just focus on the beginning phases of a relationship, or even just the pre-relationship phases going into the beginning of a relationship (I call these “Will-they-won’t they” stories). And I can understand why some of these stories would focus on that point of a romantic relationship; everything is new and exciting, a writer can explore the obstacles that a couple has to overcome to get together (if there are any), and there is a real sense of exhilaration and excitement.

But that’s just the beginning; if you look at long, ongoing romantic relationships in real life the infatuation phase is a tiny fraction of the overall experience. And yet, if you were an alien or a robot or some other foreign being trying to understand this emotion that the “hu-mans” call love, and you decided to look at our popular entertainment to figure out what it is, you’d probably come away thinking that the entirety of a romantic relationship ends with marriage, or the first kiss or the first act of lovemaking. Anybody who’s been with a partner for more than a few years knows that this is far from the truth.

Yet, most popular love stories focus on this period of infatuation. If a piece deals with an ongoing relationship and the particulars of that situation, it’s usually a sub-plot to a work that’s primarily focused on another non-romantic story, and frequently the relationship dynamic is played for laughs. That’s why, when I stop to think about some of my favorite love stories, typically they aren’t actually romances, but rather subplots to larger pieces. I can count on one hand the number of actual, dedicated romances that I consider truly great love stories.

Still, these infatuation stories dominate our fiction across all mediums. And while anybody who’s been in a healthy, long-term relationship knows that there’s more to love than that, people who haven’t probably don’t. And since discussion of those later phases of the relationship isn’t really a part of our cultural dialogue (beyond “get married” and “have kids”), that limited construction of a relationship is being implicitly taught to the young and inexperienced as what they should expect from their own relationships.

When you stop to think about some of the actions that get passed off as charming or romantic in these love stories…that’s kind of scary. Really, when you look at some of the famous “romantic” gestures in a lot of these stories, like the boombox scene in Say Anything or the ferris wheel scene in The Notebook will earn you a restraining order or jail time before they’ll earn someone’s affections. I understand that the writers of these tales are trying to keep things interesting and differentiate their work from the hundreds of other tales of infatuation out there…but maybe that’s a sign that it’s time to adopt a different approach to telling your story, rather than a sign that your characters need to commit felonies.

Perhaps more insidiously, what happens to these relationships when the period of infatuation ends, and the participants don’t really know that’s not supposed to happen? What are they supposed to think, when their entire lives they’ve been told, explicitly and implicitly, that that’s all there is to love? The divorce rate in America has been hovering at about 50% for a good while now, and most of those divorces occur within the first three years of the marriage. I can’t help but wonder how many of those failed marriages are the result of inaccurate expectations, or the belief that when the breathless infatuation is over, the love is gone?

I think it’s high time that writers in all mediums started celebrating love in all its stages and varieties. It would help some of us gain a little perspective…and at the very least, it might make going on a Valentine’s Day movie date a little less tiresome.

The Writer’s Urge to “Fix”

Earlier this week in an interview, J.K. Rowling, author of the world-renowned Harry Potter series, said that she had made a mistake in romantically pairing the characters of Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, stating that she should have paired Hermione up with the series’ titular protagonist, Harry Potter, instead.

Now, anybody who’s been on the Internet for any length of time knows what a devoted (some go so far as to say “rabid”) fanbase the Harry Potter series has, and their response to this bombshell was both voluminous and predictable. While I have read all the books and seen most of the movies (I kind of lost interest in the films after Order of the Phoenix; I probably should finish the movies out), I wouldn’t consider myself a Potter die-hard, so I won’t go into my opinion on this proposed change at length; suffice to say that I agree with pretty much everything every professional writer and fan has said online about the subject.

In short, character-wise, Ron is the yin to Hermione’s yang, which is the kind of balance a good romantic pairing requires. Harry and Hermione are far too much alike, and pairing them romantically not only would have been a mistake from a storytelling standpoint, but it also would have denied us a rarity in popular fiction; a leading hero and heroine who have no romantic interest in one another, but are genuinely just good friends.

What I will talk about is what this seems to say about Rowling as a writer. Now, what I’m going to say may seem a bit presumptuous of me; after all, Rowling has a multi-million selling seven-book series (with an equally-successful series of film adaptations) under her belt. I only have one digital novel to my name that doesn’t yet have print run available. But, I have been writing for long enough to recognize certain realities of the craft, and one such reality is that, writers are always evolving and moving forward. And while this often means that every work after your first is going to be successively better, it also means that it’s difficult to look back on what you’ve done and be satisfied with it.

The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship is not the first novel I’ve written. My first novel was a science fiction/fantasy story that I started when I was fifteen years old, and frankly, it reads like it was written when I was fifteen. The characters are, for the most part, fairly stock and not terribly deep or complex, the setting and plot are a pastiche of a number of works by other writers that I was enamored of at the time, and overall it just speaks to my inexperience as a writer at the time.

While I did try to get it published for a number of years, as of right now I wouldn’t submit it to anyone in its current state. In fact, one project I want to tackle down the road, possibly once I’m done with the Bobcat series, is to completely re-write that book from scratch, completely revamping everything from the ground up, and make something that’s altogether more my own. So I can fully understand the desire to revisit and improve your own work with experience gained in later years.

But here’s the difference; that novel was never published. Barely anybody outside of my immediate family and a handful of friends has read it. It hasn’t been read and accepted by a large readership that would be baffled if I put out a new version several years later. That’s not the case for Rowling. For better or worse, the story of Harry Potter is in print now. It has millions of copies in existence. It has a fanbase that has accepted it and claimed it as their own. It’s as close to set in stone as a work of fiction can ever be. Whether Rowling is now satisfied with her work or not, and whether or not her new ideas have merit in comparison to her older ones, there’s no going back.

And yes, while other writers and creators have gone back and revisited older works that have been out in public for years to “improve” them, the results are rarely good. The best-case scenario I can think of is Stephen King’s second edition of The Stand, which includes a lot of material that was cut from the version that was originally published, as well as a few tweaks and updates to the text. For the most part, all of King’s additions to that book work very well.

But examples like The Stand are rare; more often, when a creator tries to revisit old material, the result is a mess that does nothing but piss off long-time fans of the original work. You get things like the infamous “Greedo shoots first” scene in the re-released Star Wars trilogy, or the Star Wars prequels that ret-con explained story elements from the original films and make them worse. You get things like Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which completely misunderstand character motivations, established rules and mechanics, and retroactively re-interpret characters, or you get pointless alterations like replacing the Federal agents’ guns with walkie-talkies in E.T.

Bottom line, Rowling, for the good of her work and of her own sanity, needs to accept that done is done and stop trying to retroactively change Harry Potter. This isn’t the first time she’s done something like this, and she really needs to not make a habit of it. Instead, she should focus on what she’s working on now, on promoting her current books and making them the best they can be.

And if she does feel the urge to go back to the well, she could easily write more books in the Harry Potter universe. She’s already laid the groundwork for a new generation of characters in that world, so why not tell those stories instead of revisiting what’s already written to pick at it like an old wound?

A writer who constantly looks back at his or her older work is never going to be satisfied. It’s best to continually move forward, and accept that what’s past is past. Celebrate the final draft, evolve, and let the chips fall where they may.