The Reader’s Choice Game of the Year event is back and better than ever!
And so, another week draws to a close, as Death idly sharpens his scythe, sighs (quite an achievement without any lungs) and goes back to watching the sands of time trickle away, one grain at a time. But don’t you worry yourself about all that. There’s a whole load of things to catch up on […]
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World doesn’t need defending. It has an 81% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has become a cult classic, attracting new fans to the original 6-part comic book source originally written by Bryan Lee O’Malley.
That’s why this is a response to a review of the film from YouTube’s Dango Duo, consisting of Max Kirin and Kitty Lynn. While not everyone is going to be a fan of the film – it does have a very unique style that can easily overwhelm certain members of the audience – I feel that their review was unfair. It criticised both its creator and fans as well as straying into revisionist identity politics not originally present. It’s a shame, because I’ve been a big fan of Kirin’s writing podcasts for a long time. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be offering up this rebuttal.
They begin by stating that Scott and Knives’ relationship is “gross”. It isn’t. She’s 17 and he’s 22 – that’s only a five year difference. Under the law of Toronto, Knives is of the legal age to consent. This is contrary to Lynn’s description of her as being “under age” – a description repeated throughout their review, despite it being factually inaccurate. There is also nothing gross about a five-year age gap in a relationship, it’s not uncommon.
Something that’s made quite clear is that Scott and Knives’ relationship doesn’t really exist because of how mono-directional it is. After Scott was dumped by Envy Adams, Scott started letting Knives be with him because he liked how obsessed she is. He says that they’ve never even so much as held hands. The whole point of their relationship is that it isn’t a real one.
That’s why he completely forgets about Knives as soon as he meets Ramona. The reason it was so easy for him for leave Knives so suddenly is because he was never really with her, he just let her be with him. At the beginning, Scott is in a fake relationship with someone he doesn’t really care about because he’s an inactive character. Thus, his character development is from someone living an inauthentic life that doesn’t satisfy him due to his own inactivity, to someone living a genuine life does satisfy him because he is now an active character. This journey is represented in different stages personified by Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes. It’s an analogy. That’s why I would disagree with their statement that Scott is given what he wants by the plot without having to do anything. The entire point of the film is that you do actually have to work for something you want and Scott is the embodiment of this. That’s why Scott does appeal as a character – because his situation is an easy trap for people of his/my age to fall into, despite us knowing the truth that he must learn. It’s not because he represents the #NotAllMen movement. That might not have happened if culture weren’t being reinterpreted revisionistically to create a new narrative of men being evil for what their ancestors did – the kind of reactionary identity politics that is being applied by that statement. If I might personally say, restrospectivey linking that hashtag with any men who identify with the protagonist of a film from 2010 could, in fact, justify its use.
Another problem that they have is with the Wallace Wells character for being a source of “gay jokes”. Except he isn’t – well, not completely. Yes, he makes jokes about his sexual orientation, but a lot of LGBT people do. Trust me, I spent two-and-a-half years studying the humanities – a lot of the LGBT students frequently made jokes about the fact that they’re LGBT. Also, Wallace makes jokes about his sexual orientation because he jokes about everything. Part of the appeal of the character is that he’s consistently uninterested by what’s happening around him and that he’ll always make an inappropriate comment if he has one. Does he make a lot of jokes about his sexual orientation? Yes, but that’s not necessarily unrealistic and it’s merely one form of his predominant character trait, which manifests itself in various ways. People make jokes about what they are because it helps us accept ourselves.
The way the LGBT characters are written continues to be a concern for them when they criticise the lesbian Roxy Richter character for being dismissed to the side of the story – and she is. But that’s because she’s one of Ramona’s Evil Exes. All of them are dismissed to the side of the story once Scott’s defeated them because they’re essentially just plot devices to get Scott to the next stage of his adventure – and that’s fine. It’s structured like a retro video game, and that’s how many retro video games told their stories.
Supposedly, these problems with the film identify it as a product of 2010. Society has changed significantly in the nine years since its release, but that’s mostly due to – here it comes again – revisionist identity politics that’s now applied to the media of the past. Thus, acknowledging that the film is a product of 2010 from an identitarian perspective, instead of just as a statement of fact, is symptomatic of why that statement has been made in the made first place.
I think their criticism of the tagline for its outdated overuse of the word “epic” sums this up best. Yes, the word epic is overused now and probably wouldn’t be used to advertise a film today. But it’s not advertising a film today. That tagline was written to promote a film released in 2010 and so is an example of the kind of slang used during its release.
The film is almost a decade old, yet they’re thinking about it through a contemporary lens, which is a terrible way to interact with culture and art because what makes art worth studying is that it can be a starting point for learning about the time in which it was produced.
Another reason they give for the film being a product of its time is Ramona’s return to Gideon, in which we learn that he implanted a mind control device on her – an analogy for an abusive power-based relationship. Their problem with this is that it’s never developed or explored. But the film is an action-adventure comedy. It would’ve been tonally inconsistent for it to suddenly become primarily about that. Instead, it inserts a plot device that’s clearly a representation of that and trusts the audience to understand it, and that is something we call subtext. It’s found a lot in science fiction, because the genre is a safe way to explore such subjects without doing it explicitly. So, actually, Ramona and Gideon’s relationship is explored, it’s just not done so blatantly.
Max also comments on the “double standard” between Scott and Ramona – that Scott has two simultaneous relationships without being expected to explain it while Ramona does explain the history between her and each of her Seven Evil Exes. I think the main flaw in this criticism is that the story is told from Scott’s perspective – he doesn’t need to explain himself if the writing has already made his motivations clear. For starters, there’s the way that his apparent relationship with Knives isn’t real, but also that when he starts dating Ramona, he’s unanimously criticised for it by the characters around him. On Ramona’s part, her flashbacks are exposition that often provide Scott with useful information that allows him to deduce each Exe’s weakness. The story isn’t told from Ramona’s point of view, so this would need explaining. It’s not the character being treated with any suspicion by the writing – if anything, the flashback scenes flesh out Ramona’s character as someone who’s come to be defined by a string of bad relationships. That happens to some people. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen.
After this is the point at which the video starts to go beyond merely being a review. I don’t like accusing people of having agendas unless I really believe it. But I do heavily infer from what follows a particular word: problematic. It’s not stated, but I do sense its presence.
The reference to Ramona as having “battlescars” is criticised for being the devaluing of a sexually experienced female character in a way inherent to male-centric storytelling. It’s neither of these things, and to suggest so is – frankly – ridiculous.
It’s not a reference to her sexual experience. At least, not in my interpretation – which is that it’s a reference to her having been in a power-based abusive relationship. Isn’t it? That makes more sense, doesn’t it? Are they not the two dots that were supposed to be connected? What exactly is the point of criticising the film for not exploring her character when a reference to it is dismissed for being misogynist? It didn’t come from Ramona herself, but is another character’s description of her not an effective writing technique? It seems pretty effective.
Then there’s the description of it as being symptomatic of male-centric media. This comment is completely unjustified, because it suggests that stories – or, at least, any gender-based aspects of them – are inherently flawed if written by, or about, a man. In other words, that men are incapable of writing female characters well and that stories about men will have poorly-written female characters. Ramona isn’t written in a misogynist way and if she were, it wouldn’t be because of it’s told from a male perspective. To hear Max say that was disappointing because, for a long time, I’ve both enjoyed and appreciated listening to and reading Max’s writing advice and general thoughts on writing. Only, now my writing of female characters is being called misogynistic because I’m male. At best, it’s confusing and at worst it’s insulting.
In my experience, people who accuse artists of being misogynistic are often the people who have checklists of what those artists “should” do instead. This review isn’t the exception to that. Max says that the story “should” have been about Ramona. Should is the worst word that can be used during a review because it betrays that you’re asking for something else, criticising a work for not being the thing you want it to be.
The reason given for this is that Scott’s character arc doesn’t make sense, supposedly. Scott isn’t able to defeat Gideon with the Power of Love and so must instead unlock the Power of Self Respect because self respect is what makes love meaningful. This is criticised for being untruthful and as perpetuating toxic masculinity. I don’t deny the existence of toxic masculinity, though I will say it’s not as prevalent as it’s purported to be. However, toxic masculinity is caused by an absence of self-respect, because that enables the insecurities that are behind it. That is Scott’s character arc – learning to respect himself. Not respecting himself before is what kept him in an unfulfilling relationship with Knives. Thus, Knives and Ramona are the two polar opposites of what Scott could be: Knives being a life that leaves him emotionally drained and Ramona being a life in which he’s capable of confronting his problems. Love is an outward emotion and self respect is an inward emotion, and Scott learns ultimately that his life can only be fixed if he transforms from within.
Scott does change and is better for it. That’s why it’s also inaccurate to say that the film is based on the idea that its target audience of male gamers don’t like personal development, when the personal development of a male gamer is what the film’s about. The heart of the story is the opposite of what it’s being accused of promoting.
I also find it a little hypocritical to condemn the film for perpetuating negative stereotypes of gamers and then immediately recommend anime. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World isn’t a perfect film. I totally get how it could be unappealing. But when I hear someone I respect criticising it for not being about the main female character, for not making its supporting LGBT characters prominent enough and for accusing it of being too male-centric, I’m really… disappointed. As I say, I’ve been a big fan of Max’s writing advice videos and blogs for a long time, so the inclusion of revisionist identity politics and generalisations about its audience and creators has made me lose a lot of that respect. Especially when it involves making jokes about how Michael Cera looks like Jesse Eisenberg and Jon Heder just because they’re all white.
“The real driving simulator”
The sign-ups are done, so let’s meet all the amazing bloggers involved in this year’s event!
This post was compiled from my contributions to the “1000 Games to Play Before Game Over” series at the Well-Red Mage.
Pac-Man proved that video games can have characters – arguably the most significant and influential innovation for the medium.
Elite expanded our understanding of what video games could be with its unprecedented non-linear open-ended world that is now common amongst AAA franchises.
The very phrase “first person shooter” originated as “Doom clone”. An entire genre of video games is based on a template originally created specifically for this one game.
Grand Theft Auto III
It set the standard for verisimilitude in a realistic setting and brought maturity to the gaming mainstream.
The first game with multiple lives and reactive bosses and to imagine new things rather than imitate reality. Space Invaders introduced imagination to gaming, demonstrating that they could be about absolutely anything.
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
It may be long forgotten by mainstream culture, but this was the first popular game to have a strategy guide. This established the game-player relationship based on dedicated and committed study that is now at the heart of online gaming culture.
Ultima III: Exodus
The use of helpful, informative NPCs was already a staple of role-playing games, but Ultima III: Exodus made them important to the story – now understood as a crucial detail in believable world building.
The birth of online gaming culture. Quake‘s in-game footage editor and online sharing features allowed players to use the game to tell stories of their own and share them with others. This is now a practice as common as playing games themselves.
Arguably the first “true” video game, though never widely distributed, Spacewar! is the reason there even are 1000 video games to play before game over.
With adventure games now being so prominent, the legacy of the first adventure game, Adventure, is worth understanding. It established the fundamentals that are expected of the format and introduced the first Easter egg with its special hidden room – can you find it?
At a time when all other adventure games were text-based, Mystery House dared to use graphics. It seems like a small change now, but it was a significant moment in the evolution of the video game.
Generally credited with the creation of the side-scrolling genre, Pitfall! also marked the beginning of video games becoming longer than their arcade port contemporaries and popularised the now-abundant jungle setting.
Unprecedented upon release, EverQuest was the first massively multiplayer online role-playing game to offer 3D graphics, creating the first truly immersive virtual gaming world. Modern multiplayer online gaming owes it all to this.
Defense of the Ancients
It’s the ultimate story of positivity within gaming: a mod for Warcraft III that became popular in its own right and was embraced by the original developers, rather than being shut down. It’s an example of something which ought to happen more often, especially in a time when game developers seem to be in contempt of gamers.
The game that showed other independent developers they could make games that were similar. If nothing else, there’s a reason so many throwback games see Rogue as the one most worth imitating.
At a time when games were understood to be about achieving a goal within a time limit, SimCity demonstrated that a game could be the complete opposite: perpetually ongoing and without a traditional objective. Domestic video game platforms were no longer just glorified arcade cabinets.
The objective is to discover the objective, with no cues or direct instruction. Myst is a precursor to casual games that have since opened up gaming to the softcore crowd.
The first tile-matching game to achieve popularity since Tetris. It might be a controversial pick, but its successors are what gaming now is to millions of people. Thus, it set a new template that has changed the way games are monetised and distributed.
A game which, as you become better at it, teaches you how to be better at being yourself. It puts your life in perspective: there’s only so much time to do what you want to do. Unfortunately, I’m often too busy looking after my Sims to pay any heed.
Dune II: Battle for Arrakis
The game which introduced the staples of the real-time strategy genre, Dune II: Battle for Arrakis established the mechanics which are now used by its successors regularly.
FarmVille transformed Facebook games from time-passing gimmicks into a legitimate industry and proved that the microtransaction was a valid – if controversial – future for gaming.
Unprecedented for its combination of graphic design, atmospheric soundtrack and cinematic tone, Tomb Raider combined the appeals of various other genres to create the first mass-market multifaceted game and introduced the first protagonist to be covered at large by the mainstream press.
Medal of Honor
The first person shooter which placed the player in real history. This is every aspect of video game development coming together to create realism in a highly ambitious and respectable way that matured the FPS out of its pulp gore roots.
The reason the term “survival horror” was coined. A game which creates an abundance of fear yet is subtle and carefully, precisely applies what goes into making an experience-based game.
For a genre infamous for its antisociality, Team Fortress encouraged cooperation amongst its players through assigned roles and mutual success. Gaming should be all about fun, and Team Fortress became popular by demonstrating as such in a multiplayer format that is often the least fun to play with others.
Blizzard Entertainment used Diablo to promote its new battle.net system. This ultimately led to online gaming becoming popular amongst the masses and created a legacy solidified by the modern saturation of player-versus-player online games.
The ultimate driving fantasy. Simple to learn but deceptively hard to master, Driver will keep you trying to succeed over and over again – but you won’t even care because it’s so blissful to play.
One of the reasons I spend so much time writing independent video game criticism is because of the general lack of integrity amongst the mainstream press and social media. As one backlash over a creative decision made for a particular game finally seems to have died down, another one is stirred up, bringing the expected stubbornness with it. Gamer culture is broken, but the developers aren’t innocent, either. Whenever a new “AAA” game is revealed, we often find ourselves comparing it to something similar due to its general lack of distinctiveness. It’s now easier than ever to know whether we want to play a certain game just from watching its reveal trailer – and can also probably predict what the story will be.
We know we’re in a difficult situation. We have been for a long time. The very term “AAA” originated as a descriptor of highly-budgeted games from a major publisher but has since evolved to become a word for grouping the same generic games as something distinct from the independent games – the ones that are actually creative, therefore worth playing. In other words, the major publishers have – for the most part – become less daring and are taking fewer risks. AAA games don’t have intellectual hooks or emotional cores and have unlikeable protagonists that don’t appeal.
Comparing the current state of affairs with gaming when I was growing up, they’re not special anymore. Everyone’s lists of the greatest games were likely the same because gaming greatness came along less often. Today, there’s an endless stream of content that’s become more accessible to everyone. That means there’s more market competition, which is being targeted toward people who don’t necessarily have the deep appreciation for the medium that we do. As the video game industry expanded and more people started playing video games, they became less niche – in other words, the more abundant something is, the less need there is to appreciate it. This is something that is reflected by the current lack of quality when it comes to the discourse regarding video games. Many of us don’t know – or have simply forgotten – how lucky we are. The way the video game industry has now overtaken the American film and recording industries is something I never could’ve imagined in the early 2000s. The idea that a video game could be “bad” is something that never occured to me back then, and even if I did know subconsciously, my reaction was always to think about the game in more detail and analyse it closely in order to at least discover more about the medium I love in the process.
It was joy. Gaming used to bring joy. The single character who represents the whole video game medium is Mario, a character who embodies joy. Since then, culture has shifted to the default mood being cynicism. Is this just because we’ve grown up and lost our sense of childlike wonder? Is it because most people are ultimately negative forces and project that onto what they consume? In some cases, of course it is. Human beings are imperfect and flawed; life is, fundamentally, a struggle against demons of our own making. It explains the endless social media backlashes, but even for the civilised amongst us, there still seems to be the general feeling of disenchantment about modern gaming in a way that didn’t previously exist. To understand why, you only need to look at how the industry has changed.
Video games are now more highly budgeted than ever before, and that puts more at stake for publishers. When more money has been invested, more needs to be made. So it makes sense that AAA games are becoming increasingly similar to other games in their genre and genres themselves are losing a sense of identity or depth. If publishers have a greater need than ever before to know that there’s an audience for what they make, of course they’re all going to copy each other and pander to the audience. As budgets have inflated, the products they fund have become more required to please more people, and this has made them more generic as a result. The popularity that the video games has attained has backfired on itself and created a situation in which the only solution is to double-down on what style already sells.
To make things worse, the amount of money laid down up-front also requires the corporations behind them to be more directly involved in every way. That’s how financiers become a part of planning stories from the beginning, which are often based around how it can be marketed in the same way as other games in its genre. That’s how we get an increased number of tropes being used.
Except that the primary appeal of video games is in the unlimited variety of what they can be for the player. Yet, for some reason, too many developers no longer understand this. Such lack of understanding has led to the industry now producing games for people it doesn’t understand, who therefore don’t want to play them, marketed for how unique they specifically aren’t. So is it really surprising that those people often feel so much antipathy toward those companies? The producer and consumer have drifted away from each other and the consumer has filled the gap with cynicism.
There is a very simple solution to this, of course. If “indie” has now become a byword for “actually interesting”, then the mainstream publishers should use the money and resources they have to their advantage. What makes indie games so appealing is their sense of identity and uniqueness. They remind us why we began playing video games to begin with. They also prove that doing something unique and creative isn’t just desired but embraced. Indie games disprove the self-fulfilling myth from AAA publishers that only the same, bland style can succeed. Surely, this should show the major developers that any desire they have to invest in a high-budget game that does its own thing and is still given the same marketing push is desired by many and would therefore make a profit. They may do the opposite due to paranoid overanalysis of their unprecedented industry growth, but the ironic thing is, they could grow even bigger if they simply put more love into their games.
It would certainly help the initial impression of their reveal trailers. Continuing down the repeating path they’re currently on of copying everything else has given a lot of us reason to doubt that they even care about what they make. If there’s any animosity on the players’ part, it’s, at least somewhat, because of that. If they really need to sell so many units to survive, the answer isn’t to remake the same game over and over again. The answer is to seal the gap between them and their consumers. Perhaps if they didn’t give their consumers so much reason to resent them, this wouldn’t be as big a problem. So what can they do? Well, the first thing they can do – in this gamer’s opinion, at least – is to start by putting a bit more creativity into their games and to trust that gamers will accept something they’ve not seen before.
Build it and they will come.
The complete list of every film in my collection:
It is 19th April 2000. Air Philippines Flight 541 crashes in Island Garden City of Samal, killing all 131 passengers. “Toca’s Miracle” by Fragma is the UK no. 1 single. Sony Computer Entertainment publishes Muppet RaceMania for the PlayStation in Europe.