Hatred for an easy Target

I’m a bit late to the draw on this one. It’s been a funky couple of months for me and damn it, after TWO whole posts I think I deserved some kind of break…

For reasons justified or otherwise, the ugly topic of ‘Censorship’ has once again graced the vernacular of the everyday internet going ‘gamer’, thanks to some controversial bear prodding from the likes of Target Australia and Valve. Two similar and uncannily timed business decisions have left a lot of people in a bit of a huff.

For those unawares; Australian sex workers filed a change.org petition urging retail chain Target AU to remove Grand Theft Auto V from shelves, because they claim the game to be inherently misogynistic. You can find it here. Among many would-be-funny-if-not-so-successful accusations, the party claims the game gives incentive “to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ point”, and that “This misogynistic GTA 5 literally makes a game of bashing, killing and horrific violence against women. It also links sexual arousal and violence.” But my absolute favourite has to be, “Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women.” Target and Sister Company K mart have since obliged the demands of petitioners, and have pulled the game from shelves


Similarly, a few weeks later, Valve was caught in the firing line for removing a successfully up voted indie title by the name of Hatred from their publishing platform, Greenlight. Judging from the trailer (because its pre-alpha and there’s fuck all else to go on), the game entails a lone un-named ‘protagonist’ armed to the teeth, on a spree killing vendetta, racking up kills via an assortment of pre scripted death animations. Valves Doug Lombardi only stated that “Based on what we’ve seen on Greenlight we would not publish Hatred on Steam,” and “As such we’ll be taking it down.” After a mass of consumer backlash, Gabe Newell made the follow up statement; “Yesterday I heard that we were taking Hatred down from Greenlight. Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that. It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up…Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers.” So this case was the good one right? Either way, on both occasions the internet understandably exploded with barks of censorship and anti-consumerism.

Now before we continue, let’s get this straight. GTAV is not inherently misogynistic and doesn’t ENCOURAGE violence against women, it ALLOWS violence against everyone. There has also never been an accurate or conclusive study linking violence in videogames to real world crime. Furthermore, Neither GTAV nor Hatred were censored by the very definition of the word. Nothing was banned and no change to the product was forced upon them by a governing body. But here’s the thing; though Target removing GTAV due to social justice bullying may strike closer to the bone and seem like the biggest injustice, I can guarantee you the hatred debacle is something potentially far more dangerous to worry about.

Target Australia, independent of its American counterpart, identifies as a forward thinking, family friendly company. Receiving a 45,000 person strong petition urging you to remove a product from your shelves because of a hot topic buzzword being flown in your face, like in this case, ‘Misogyny’, could only provide positive PR for your company if you oblige. Even better for Target, they got to sell the game for over a year before humbly accepting their white knighthood for removing it post profit. Furthermore, the reason GTAV was targeted was not because it was the worst offender, but because it’s a popular game in everyday mainstream consciousness. It’s one of the few games to burst into mainstream news media, and has only ever done so due to its surrounding controversy. A similar situation happened not too long ago with Toys ‘R’ Us, whereby angry parents started a petition that strongly encouraged the chain to remove figurines of Breaking Bad characters, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman from sale, because of a tiny gun and bag of blue meth included as accessories. As game critic Jim Sterling pointed out, you can still walk into a Toys ‘R’ Us and buy a figurine of CHILD MURDERER Freddy Krueger, because nobody’s talking about Freddy Krueger anymore. Toys ‘R’ Us took the obvious PR positive decision, and so has Target. They weren’t going to stand by a product because this isn’t a company with a lot of power in the gaming industry, bowing to social justice/injustice to the detriment of the freedom of gamers everywhere. This is simply yet another display of wolfish cynicism hiding under an earnest sheep’s clothing.

And then we have Valve.

Though never explicitly stated, the exclusion of hated from Steam was obviously down to the mature content of the game. Though the Jack Thompson crisis feels like a long distant dream by today, examples like the one above prove that gaming as a form of media is still very much in the firing line of accusations of encouraging or conditioning certain violent or sexual behaviours in consumers, regardless of how little evidence there is to back up the assertion. Maybe Valve thought that by removing a potential PR train wreck from their platform, they could dodge a bullet. But of course there was the backlash, with every games journo and their Nan reporting the ‘censorship’ of the little unknown indie title by mega corporation Valve. Once the fight was in the games favour, of course the good lord Gaben would descend from his throne to bless us all with his shiny, pro-consumer golden cock of glory. He had already provided all the free marketing for the game, so might as well cash in on the profits!

So why do I think this one is bad news?

Like I said, Target is a family friendly company. It’s the place to go to buy your Transformers figures and Skylanders. Anybody who was going to buy the last gen version of GTAV would have done so already. Target aren’t a major player in the games retail market, and even if they were, a store choosing not to stock physical copies of a game is well within their right, no different form you or I choosing not to buy a game for ourselves.  Regardless of the mindlessly harmful accusations that were levelled at the game, Target no longer stocking the game is nowhere near censorship. It just means you’re going to have to go to a different store to buy a copy, or join the rest of us in the 21st century and download it. Bear in mind that it was only as of January last year that the Australian government actually allowed an R-18 rating to even exist. Prior to that, games like Postal and Manhunt were either heavily censored or refused classification, essentially banning the game from the country. See the Australian versions of South Park: the stick of truth for a hilarious example. If you bear in mind that every instalment of GTA up to this point was originally banned or censored until years after release, then this incident is a fairly small bump in the road for a country finally on its way to progress.

Valve on the other hand, is a slightly different story. Not unlike Target, Valve have demonstrated the breaking bad figurine double standard I talked about earlier. For example, you can still buy the postal games and manhunt on Steam. The difference here is that you couldn’t even officially SUPPORT hatred after Valve deleted the game from the service, let alone buy it. And yes, although Valve has the same right as Target to stock whatever they want, it’s not really ‘stocking’ a game when referring to digital media. They don’t have to order copies in with expected sales projections over launch week for example. This wouldn’t really be an issue, but when Valve have a monopoly of the digital games space, an indie team not having their game on Steam is a dead in the water before it’s even released. Unless it’s Minecraft. Why hatred and not postal? Why care so much about curating the store when so much of the front page is taken up by YouTube-fodder Pewdie-bait? Despite the game being back on the service, the issue is now centre stage, and I get this horrible feeling that if Valve are willing to pull a game from Steam unprovoked…

… What’s going to happen when there’s a petition obliging them to do so?


OPINION: Ubisoft, HAH! More like Poobisoft…

“A good name is more desirable than great riches;
to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”
– Proverbs 22:1 – the Bible – Jesus, probably

So Assassin’s Creed Unity is finally out, and it would seem the game runs like a snail; sluggish, but with a pretty shell. But when any game’s review embargo lasts until after launch, what is to be expected? Alongside the dismal performance, the PC port has especially suffered from a myriad of bugs including a multitude of AI issues, falling through the floor, and my personal favourite, disappearing faces. Oh dear. But performance and graphical issues aside, I’m interested in what has actually changed in this year’s time travels. It would seems Ubiquitous software’s software is more ubiquitous than ever.

Full disclosure: I haven’t yet played the game, because my rig cannot run it (along with the rest of the world it would seem.) So take this all with a pinch of salt. I only have an internet’s worth of information to go by.

“Gizza kish!”

Last year we saw a great departure from the Assassin’s Creed formula with AC4: Black flag, a fantastic game and a possible new IP for Ubisoft if they’re smart enough to use it. The game made use of a vibrant setting, improved the ship mechanics made popular by AC3, and captained those ships with a player character who, this time around, miraculously has more personality than a codfish. Yes, this time we had the fortune of playing as Coddor Kenway’s Grandaddy, Edward Kenway! A swashbuckling scallywag, breaking as many bones as he does hearts. As weak as this argument is, I think Edward as a character actually justifies the overpowered, easy kill combat system now inherent to the series. For years we’ve assumed the roles of mass murderers hiding under the veil (or hoods) of silent, shadowy assassins. At least this time you were a mass murder happily mass murdering fools because that’s kind of what pirates do. Who needs a poxy hood? You have 2 cutlasses and 4 fucking flintlocks, son! (Though you somehow have all the parkour skills of the assassinsSSSHHH!). Anyway, Black flag was a long awaited change of pace to break the mould, even if only slightly, and even if only to justify the sorry departure of any real stealth elements from the series.

But alas, Unity has launched and it seems we’re back in the city, playing a lead character who’s basically a knock-off Ezio with manic fashion awareness, murderously fuelled by all his vengeance and stuff. Get in line Arno, mate, the queue’s about 20 years long. Sadly, it would seem the “return to the series’ roots” that all gamers should be sick of hearing by now, was a little heavily buttered, and is little more than an excuse to take a few steps backwards, right back into the comfort zone. Here’s a rough list of the ‘important’ changes made to the series with Unity.

• A co-op campaign,
• A ‘parkour down’ mechanic
• The removal of ship combat
• Traversable building interiors
• ‘New’ types of side missions
• An increase in difficulty
• And finally, a dedicated stealth mode

Doesn’t this seem a little sad? Apart from an upgrade in graphical fidelity, only a handful of new features have been added to this year’s instalment, most of which are flaky as fuck. The co-op campaign seems fun, but it comes with the price of no multiplayer, and no women apparently. (They weren’t invented until the 19th century, you see.) The new types of side missions pretty much boil down to murder investigations and ‘dynamic street events’. The increase in difficulty is achieved through removing the overpowered counter kill and slowing combat to a crawl and to be honest, as interested as I am in the parkour down and stealth mode mechanics, they’re about 6 Assassin’s Creed games late in my opinion. And there’s one thing in particular that struck a nerve in the way these features were marketed.

I remember watching an interview with a Ubisoft employee (sorry, couldn’t find the original source. I tried real hard, promise) explaining the company’s approach to game design, specifically the ‘innovation’ of the series with the inclusion of the ‘last known position’ mechanic made popular by Splinter Cell: Conviction. For those unaware, when the player is detected, a ghostly silhouette of yourself sticks around, indicating where the enemy thinks your last known position was. What grinded at me was this guy’s advertisement of Ubisoft’s habit of recycling content. Positively detailing how each of the company’s development teams work together to add multiple gameplay features to multiple ongoing projects. This is bullshit. Recycling a mechanic from another of your own IP’s is not innovation by the very definition. And don’t get me wrong; iteration is fine. Stand on the shoulders of giants and all that. But when the only significantly fresh aspects to your sequel are either long overdue or ripped from another of your own games entirely, a 4 YEAR OLD game might I add, then I think there’s a problem.  But then this is hardly something new. If you’ve played any of Ubisoft’s open world games, you know how to play them all. Unlock a new area of the map, climb the tower to make the map less blurry, travel to the newly revealed objectives, probably via the fast travel system. Rinse, repeat. End credits. But then, hey, if it aint broke, don’t fix it, right?

Now I know I’m picking on one mechanic and acting like some sort of victim of the marketing machine. I actually think ‘last known position’ would work well for Assassin’s Creed. But that’s not the point. Lest we forget Watch_Dogs, a much more extreme example of a Ubisoft title that pandered to its console-centric demographic so grotesquely, that the majority of its marketing material was footage from a far better looking game, one incapable of running on the next gen machines. Then Ubi earned double conspiracy points when one avid gamer discovered an XML file already in the games directory that, once edited, restored the game to near E3 demo graphical quality and ran fine on most high end machines, contrary to Ubisoft’s claims. This wasn’t even a mod. The settings were still in the game, just removed from the in-game options. At its best, the whole situation was an incredibly shady business practice. At its worse, it was false advertisement, plain and simple.

I suppose the real issue I have is with the heavy condescension publishers like Ubisoft bestow towards their buyers, covering up the incompetence of the next gen consoles, and double dipping game mechanics and labelling it as ‘innovation’, because they can get away with it. But then I suppose that’s the point. They get away with it. Marketing issues aside, I feel the precedent for AAA game design is set. Even critical darlings like Shadow of Mordor, a game acclaimed for its genuinely innovative ‘Orc hierarchy system’ but is still founded on a bland recycled revenge plot, Arkham style combat and Assassin’s Creed style parkour. The bigger the budget of the game, the less risks a publisher is willing to let the developer take. It’s safe, which means it’s safe for investors.

Speaking of which, Ubisoft’s stock price fell 9% over the course of  launch, caused undoubtedly by the abhorrent critical backlash against the games myriad of bugs and performance issues, as well as the shady review embargo. The company is taking the dip seriously it would seem, as they are now re-evaluating their approach to their relationship with reviewers and customers, a rare decision only losing money could encourage. But I’m going to go ahead and assume the chances of this changing Ubi’s marketing or design practises is probably unlikely; just more PR fluff.

So the moral of the story; stop buying into the hype, stop pre-ordering games for exclusive day one DLC, and stop gushing over marketing material. Anyone who bought Unity is now in possession of a half broken game, with only a handful of new features to make up for it. Publishers are not on your side, and this is still a buyer’s market. Ubisoft won’t listen to you, but they will listen to your money! Vote with your wallet! Unite and revolt my friends! For Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!

– Gigadibs