Sunday, August 2, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: How Not to Make a Horror Game!

As I creep through an abandoned research installation on a foreign planet I am surrounded by a strange silence, highlighted by the carnage spattered across the walls of what appears to have once been a space where scientists worked and lived.  I move through old labs, through mess halls and bunks, waiting for something, anything, to leap out at me.  Suddenly, a sound blares from a nearby computer monitor, where a pair of green eyes gaze back at me.  I jump a little in my seat.  Much spooky!  Very scare!  I brace myself for an attack, hunkering down behind some nearby cover, but no such attack comes.  Curious, I interact with the computer again.  It makes the same blaring noise, still fairly creepy, though I now feel confident no attack will come.  I tap the computer once more for good measure.  This time, the sound is just annoying: a blaring noise that seems intended to alarm me which grows grating upon sustained use: the horror/suspense equivalent to a smoke alarm.

By the end of Mass Effect 2's "Overlord" expansion, which I finally got around to playing recently, I encountered a more than sufficient amount of spook to warrant its labeling as a horror or suspense oriented expansion.  However, most of that aforementioned spook came from drawn out periods of exploration and quiet moments of exposition, where I came to understand how characters with reasonable motives went about justifying some pretty terrible actions.  The more lived in the world felt, the more I felt like I was picking through the ruins of a real place, rather than moving through one of Mass Effect 2's many interactive shooting galleries.  But the jump scares, the blaring noises and attempts at ambush that the various enemies of Mass Effect 2 staged against me, didn't really contribute to that overriding sense of dread that the expansion clearly aimed to impress upon me.  The spooky-sound trick, a nice trick when you use it once or twice, lost its effect fast.  The frightening, when imbued with a sense of normalcy and stripped of menace, quickly transforms into the irritating.

This was far from the most disappointing horror-suspense video game experience I've had recently.  At my girlfriend's insistence I sat down and, with her at my side, played through the generously qualified "Adventure Game" Serena.  While horror games are best experienced alone, any horror game worth its salt can put the dread into two players just as easily as it can put it into one: the act of spectating a fellow player as they creep through an environment under constant threat, piecing together narrative in an effort to survive, can be nearly as viscerally satisfying as inhabiting that character yourself.  But in Serena, an initially "spooky" game with some interesting concepts rapidly shifted from an interesting experiment in minimalism to a frustrating "figure out my thought process" clickfest.

See, Serena locks players into a limited number of possible vantage points, forcing players to engage with scenes through a series of imposed visual planes.  Click on a location and you'll walk there.  After that, you'll hear your narrator say something about the space you just walked to.  It's a venerable convention of exploratory games, emerging from the feature sets of classic adventure games like Myst, but it's an effective way to promote exploration, and ask players to carefully investigate an area that you can fill with intriguing details, red herrings, and fun, fulfilling places to explore.  The trick is making the spaces that you're examining feel genuine, like real spaces where the details are holdovers from real habitation, and not artifacts of design, and giving players plenty of freedom to establish context and meaning within those spaces themselves.

Serena fails miserably at both these goals.  The end result of its efforts is a set of systems that call attention to their own existence, a set of seams that appear around the edges of the game which make playing it less an exercise in inhabiting the skin of a man picking through the ruins of his life, and more an exercise in the tedium of trying to figure out what the goal of a development team was at any given moment.  Serena is a piece of freeware, so I didn't have high expectations when I started playing it, and I don't mean for this to be a mean spirited screed.  It just serves so well as a counterpoint to strong horror game development that I've just got to point out its failings.  After all, they illustrate how to do horror wrong so well that, through that dubious achievement, they've created a sort of blueprint for crafting good horror games.

See, horror games play on two countervailing forces: the drive to explore, and the fear that exploration will either harm your character, or present a disruptive or discordant experience for a player.  There are a number of ways to generate an incentive structure for exploration.  Thief, for example, encouraged players to explore for the dangerous world they created for the promise of material gain which, in turn, would give players more options for how they'd approach new problems at the start of the next level, since they'd be able to spend the money they found while exploring for new supplies.  Removed from progression or score oriented mechanics, developers sometimes have to be a little trickier, incentivizing play by making players feel attached or connected to the world they're in, instilling a curiosity in players to uncover more about the world around them.  Many contemporary horror games rely entirely on this mechanic, and some games that utilize progression oriented incentive frameworks will reinforce their incentive structure by making their players want to explore for exploration's own sake.  I've been having that sort of experience with Alien: Isolation of late, where I find myself creeping around the world not for additional resources (though those are nice) but to discover more information about what life is (and was) like on Sevastopol Station.

The latter approach requires that developers create a space that feels "lived in."  That doesn't mean you cover it in blood smears and litter it with corpses: it means you fill it with set pieces that make a space feel homey or real.  Mass Effect 2's "Overlord" DLC, for all its ungainliness, actually did a great job of making me feel like the various bases that I was picking through had, at one point, been a place where people lived and worked.  Alien: Isolation is a minimalist love letter to this art form, making even its sparsely decorated initial spaces feel like actual habitats.  Serena, however, which takes place in a single enclosed space, and plays entirely on a player's careful surveillance of specific details, never manages to make its spaces feel real.  From a book shelf filled with fake books to a shifting quote on the wall intended to imbue the game with meaning, Serena's cabin feels less like a space where people lived, and more like a first pass at an asset list for a subsection of another game, wherein interactions are all carefully curated, and objects are painstakingly placed, rather than left behind to be discovered.  The manner in which objects co-exist in the world makes them feel like placed clues, not bits of exploratory ephemera we're permitted to imbue with meaning.

Serena also wholly undercuts the capacity of players to infer meaning in their environment, or imbue the objects they find with meaning, thanks to its persistent monotone descriptive dialogue, which ploddingly (in some of the worst video game writing I've encountered in recent memory) details everything that a player is supposed to think about a given object in woefully overwrought prose.  The end result is a kind of exploration-as-object-oriented-storytelling approach, which can work, in theory, if the storytelling is strong enough.  But in Serena, it simply isn't.  Between arbitrary plot twists, lackluster writing, and stolid voice acting, there just isn't enough to hang on to.  And, removed from any potential threat (the other countervailing force in horror games, according to my aforementioned arbitrary rules) there's no real counterpoint to the description that you're forced to listen to each time you examine a clue, which has the strange effect of disincentivizing exploration by making each act of "successful" exploration unpleasant to deal with.

I'm coming off as mean now, and I don't mean to tear down Serena completely: it seems like a genuine effort by people who love the genre in which their working.  But it also feels like a student project, one that failed in a number of fascinating ways that permit examination and, through their distinct constellation of failure, illustrate something important about how to craft a functional horror game.  That's commendable, and I don't mean that in a passive-aggressive way: I teach writing for a living, and it's often easier to illustrate rules for writing by demonstrating their violation, all the more so if many rules are violated in a single space.  A poorly written essay can highlight mistakes that students might overlook in their own work, mistakes that can cripple their writing, mistakes that they're conditioned to gloss over when they're contained in a frame of reference that is, otherwise, pretty much okay.

I would find it quite difficult to articulate just what makes a good horror game apropos of nothing, but while examining Serena's failures, I believe it becomes apparent: immersion, the presence of threat or menace, and incentive all need to be in place to make players feel uncomfortable in their surroundings, but still want to keep playing and seeing more of the world.  Serena exhausted my patience in a mere 15 minutes, and when I completed it in 45 minutes, I felt like I'd given it too much credit, and too much of my time besides, but the seams that make its artifice so clear paint a picture, through omission, of what a strong game in this genre is supposed to look like.  It's important to note that Serena isn't alone in this regard: Alone in the Dark's reboot a few years back did something quite similar, with an array of original game mechanics that worked unreliably and a weak story frame that made me feel like I should be doing better things with my time. Dead Effect, a mobile-based zombie shooter that employs the elemental formula at work in Killing Floor to surprisingly little effect, thanks to some weak overarching progression systems, some poorly developed core game mechanics, and a sloppy aiming system, falls into this category as well.  There are plenty of other games that I won't touch on here.  Spectacular failures like these illustrate what's missing and, in doing so, they remind us of what makes for a great game.  That is, in and of itself, a sort of service, and a dialogue with games as a medium, and art in general.  That horror games are simultaneously so popular, and so marginalized, simply makes the tiny microcosm of genre riper for examination.  Each attempt could be the development that resurrects the genre to the heights it experienced in the early 90s, or the nail in its coffin. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Broken Age and Playing Against Gender Type!

After over a year of waiting, pussyfooting, lollygagging, and managing some incredibly troubling technical issues that I would not have foreseen a year ago, I finally finished the second act of Broken Age last week.  It's great for all the reasons that people are saying it's great: it's a call back to the best elements of a genre long past, it's visually charming, marvelously acted, and superlatively written.  These are all true statements.  But what makes Broken Age revolutionary, the element of Broken Age that I'd like to discuss herein, actually has to do with its construction of gender.

I'm on a bit of a bender on the topics of race and gender, and while the importance of an active discourse on the subjects is certainly highlighted at present, gamers as a culture often seclude themselves from those discourses, conceptualizing the "global community" as a sort of collectivized entity represented by a singular, myopic, overweight white man.  This stereotype has become observably inaccurate in the modern era (in fact, I'm typing this as I look at the monitor of my girlfriend's new gaming rig, which we're in the process of shaking down at present) but many developers, big and small, still hold to it.  There are noteworthy interruptions in this pattern, and many of them introduce important discussions to the community, and force gamers to confront notions of privilege and presumption in some pretty amazing ways.

Broken Age is not so forthright with its engagement.  It's not that Broken Age isn't subversive - it's that it's beyond the point where it's interested in discussion.  Broken Age engages in the kind of somewhat problematic post-racialism that the best works of Samuel Delaney turn on: the world of Broken Age consists largely of people, many of whom have different colors of skin.  In the world of Broken Age, that fact is absolutely meaningless and, as such, it simply highlights the absurdity of the weight with which many individuals still imbue those superficial qualities with.  That's a laudable gesture, but it doesn't really establish grounds for a dialogue.  That's not a bad thing, necessarily.  Tim Schafer sets up lots of amazing dialogues in Broken Age (in fact, it's tough to ignore them all here, and I might have to write about it again come next week) and an active dialogue about race doesn't have to be one of them.  It's not Schafer's job to have that conversation, and, frankly, he's probably not the best person to introduce it.  But he does very explicitly introduce inversions of gender type.  And while Schafer, again, might not be "the revolutionary" we asked for, his colorful, subversive world presents the revolutionary ideas that video games, as a genre, need.

To those who haven't played Broken Age yet, the game turns on the intertwined adventures of two characters: the pugnacious young woman, Vella, and the sensitive young man, Shay.  Shay is raised to be a leader, to fight and solve problems ably, but throughout most of his adventures there's a certain softness to his interactions with the world: his training programs are literally swaddling him for his own safety.  As such, he emerges from the world a leader, of sorts, but one whose attempts at self-definition are often truncated by his own ill-preparation and an utter lack of capacity for physical action.  Shay represents a kind of inverted male authority figure, subverted by the more physically ably, and highly violent, Vella.

Vella comes from a long line of warriors, and the second item she acquires in the game (after a cupcake) is a knife.  The knife motif endures, as Vella's adventure hinges on her ability to acquire and use edged weapons to solve puzzles, defeat foes, and navigate obstacles using her physical capacity and strength.  Vella is the though, the heavy, bringing hard-core masculine energy to an explicitly female role that she's already busting out of.  Weaving her way into beauty pageants through guile so she can assassinate a giant monster, literally bringing down corrupt authority figures in her wake, Vella is a bad-ass.  She's so given to fighting and hurting her foes that upon meeting Shay, inside the beast she's been hunting, her first thought is to beat the snot out of him, a threat that Shay responds to with very real fear.

This empowerment saturates every layer of the game, from the quality of the puzzles that each character engages with to the overarching qualities that define each character.  Vella takes risks, and her fearless tendency to do so defines her as a character and determines how she engages with the world around her.  The inverse is true as well: if Vella is the badass, given to beating down her foes to achieve her goals, then Shay is the long suffering, enduring female archetype: swaddled by yarn pals, capable of enduring even the strongest of hugs, and cloyed by the protective environment forced upon him by the circumstances of life.

This subversion of gender type served two roles for me: it called attention to preconceived notions of the roles that men and women occupy, both in society and in games at large, and it forced male and female players to observe their own stereotyped behavior from a new perspective, and a character of their sex engaged in non-stereotyped behavior at length.  By delivering his message with this one-two punch, Schafer forced me to consider the nature of gender-identity formation, and the manner in which I act as a gendered actor in my own life.

This wasn't a revolutionary moment for me, not by a long shot.  But the thoroughness with which the motif of gender inversion presents itself throughout Broken Age's systems, paired with the total ubiquity of that inversion, generated a kind of approach to examining gender in video games that I'd never seen before, one that was simultaneously heavy handed and subtly.  The experiential nature of games in general, and Broken Age in particular, encourages players to invest themselves in the mindset of a given character, and many of the puzzles in Broken Age require discerning the thought process or pattern governing another character's behavior, or intuiting facts about that character's history based on what you know about them already.  That pushes players into a kind of engagement that they usually don't have to deal with, pressing them not just to understand the world around them, but to understand how other people, people who will often not be like them, see the world, and to consider how these different perspectives translate across various boundaries.  The gender binary of Broken Age has a fluidity to it, even as it presents its stereotypes in neon, using symbolic language to construct generations of mamma's boys and daddy's girls.  That kind of forthright storytelling, paired with such an invested and tongue in cheek examination of our expectations of gendered behavior, is commendable. 

A young girl saves the world with weapons.  A young man saves the world by giving and receiving hugs.  These plays against gender might seem heavy handed when defined in such a light, but the way they unfold, the way that flower cake-dresses and yes-sir leadership skills mesh with their various behavioral counterpoints for each character establish a complex and individual picture of gender that, while still rooted in measures of stereotype, permits audience members to defy them, even as it forces them into an existent set of definitions.  Well done, Tim Schafer.  Well done.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Wherein I Am Joyously Abused!

I've referenced Blizzard's strange feedback loops a few times before, specifically with regard to how their free-to-play structures constitute effective time sinks.  But there's something especially curious about how these structures are formed, and how they engage with their players.  Normally free-to-play currencies exist in a kind of equilibrium, allowing players to invest time or money, and letting them engage with the game accordingly.  Some "premium" content can only be acquired using real world money, sure, but that content is usually cosmetic.  The end result is a game structure that rewards players for consistent engagement, constituting a player base, while allowing players of a broader engagement base to invest money as they see fit.  Some players will spend oodles of time playing a hero and, as such, might see value in buying a cool new skin for said hero.  Heroes of the Swarm does this, and actually joins a long, proud lineage of free-to-play MOBAs with economies built around this structure.

There's another structure that free-to-play games use as well, a conversion oriented structure.  This structure, instead of giving players an opportunity to invest their resources differently, forces them to invest money at a certain point in order to continue playing, or expand their play experience beyond the "entry level" tiers of play that free-to-play structures usually present their players with.  Mechwarrior: Online is a great example of this model.  MWO will let players grind for nearly everything in the game, and grind they must to get the C-Bills they need to get those god damn mechs.  But if a player wants to buy a virtual space to park their virtual mech in, well, that player is going to have to buy some in-game currency with real-world money.  Players who are unwilling to do so are capped at playing four mechs, which is especially rough since "top tier" abilities for each chassis require at least three variants to unlock.  That means a player who refuses to "convert" to paying-to-play can only level up one chassis at a time, and can only store one of their "completed" chassis if they want to continue to be able to unlock abilities on new chassis.  In a game primarily oriented around letting players experiment with a variety of death robots, that's a pretty brutal model.  All the cosmetic stuff is in there too (though MWO does have a conversion oriented mechanical layer which is a bit rough as well, oriented specifically around letting players who spend money use unique toys) but what makes MWO's system effective at forcing players to, at a certain point, pony up the dough is the way the game makes you pay to keep playing after a certain point.  They don't do so through sub-fees, they do so by forcing players into a corner.  If they want to keep playing, they need to decide to pay.

Blizzard doesn't use this approach.  What it does is, in a sense, more insidious.

Let's take a step back for a moment.

Multiplayer games rely on large user bases in order to work.  In the case of a game like, say, Heroes of the Storm, a large player base allows Blizzard to gather more data more quickly about player habits, engagement, hero usage, and lets them match players for games more quickly, encouraging players to actually stick around and play more by letting them conveniently play in the first place.  The trick, then, is getting players in the door and keeping them in there over time.  This problem is key in MOBAs, where large scale player bases are a requirement, but toxic social meta-game interactions increase with community size and, at times, can really turn players off from various titles.  I essentially stopped playing HoN and LoL because of the myriad of mouth breathing shitfucks who I had to deal with, categorically more interested in smack talking their randomly selected teammates choices from the word "go" because their decisions didn't match whatever fever dream "meta" these quasi-literate asshats conceived of in their pensive dreamspace than in working together to win a fucking match.

There's no way to get around this problem, and it really does push people away.  Listen to Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik talk about their League of Legends experiences, and you'll see that even internet celebrities have trouble with this shit.  The royalty of the internet, playing with friends, still has to deal with anti-social mouth-breathers who play a game solely to be able to tell others how to play it and, when a disagreement emerges, explode with all the measured maturity of a pubescent volcano.  The problem is endemic to the genre.  Even Dawngate, which used a "karma" system to encourage player civility, still had its fair share of dickheads, and if it had stuck around, it probably would've had a lot of them as it grew.  So the question isn't "how to get players to be nicer to one another."  Incentivizing good behavior just allows dickheads to technically work around whatever framework has emerged to enforce civility.  To retain players, to beat back the tide of inhumanity that the internet brings, developers need to go the other way.  They need to encourage players to wade through that shit-tide, and to keep on wading for a good long while.

Blizzard has found a masterful way to do this through their "daily quests."

Now, "daily quests" aren't a new concept.  Blizzard came up with them quite a while back in World of Warcraft, where they stood as end-game content that players could cyclically engage in for iterative reward.  The end-game content of nearly every MMO on the market today reflects this development, because it's actually really effective: it concretizes the objectives that players are given, and gives them a reason to stick around after they've finished "the fun part" of MMOs, the part where you build up a character and a related legend in the world.  But "daily quests" as a non-MMO development are fairly new, and Blizzard's answer to anti-social divisions within their player base is, unsurprisingly, the employ of these daily incentive structures in a new context.

See, I'm not a tremendously big fan of HotS.  It's fine, and I play it to try to sharpen my skills and improve a little so as to embarrass my friends a little less, but I don't think it's as enjoyable as other MOBAs past, and I see in it the echoes of a world I left behind long ago, a world of explosive, dramatic social interactions and old consumptive patterns that left me largely sealed away from the people around me, attempting to eke out a name for myself in the dark spaces of the internet.

But here's the other thing: I play HotS a lot.

I don't play it for the game, although, as I said, the game is fine.  It's polished, well developed, and engages all of the right MOBA portions with enough new stuff on offer to keep things interesting.  No, I play HotS for the daily quests.  See, in HotS, nearly everything but cosmetic changes can be purchased using currency earned in-game.  That's not a bad thing.  Dawngate did the same thing, and both games kind of did something great by doing so: they encouraged players to play their game a lot.  But whereas Dawngate just let players grind cash ad-infini, treating weekend binges in much the same fashion they might treat daily binges, Blizzard asks players to check in every day for a new game-chore.

All of these chores are simple: play a certain number of games with a certain kind of hero, for example, or win a few games for a god damn change.  But if you don't finish them, they start to stack up, which means you can't get new chores.  This is no big deal, in a mechanical sense, but these chores are actually how you'll end up earning the vast majority of your in-game currency.  Playing three games as a warrior hero will net you as much as winning ten games of ranked play.  Winning three games rewards you with the equivalent of twenty victories worth of currency.  Whereas Dawngate let players iterate currency based on how nice they were, Blizzard makes players do their chores if they want to get paid.

A similar system persists in Hearthstone: daily quests are pretty much the only way to earn gold in that game, and buying cards without gold can get expensive fast.  And in Hearthstone, grinding for cash really does move painfully slowly.  Players who win a game might earn one stack towards potentially earning 10 gold later, after they win another two games.  That means players will need to win 45 games to earn a single arena play without daily quests.  Given that I win matches in Hearthstone less than half the time (I'm terrible at it, to be fair) that means I'd spend an eternity trying to get the cash together for the most basic purchase if I'm left to my own devices.

These quest systems let me earn my keep, but keep me looped in to the game.  This is Blizzard's solution: not just rewarding me for continuing to play, but orienting their reward structure around keeping me tangentially engaged, without encouraging me to get too into the process of playing itself.  If I dig too deep, I'll find myself being tugged away by other forces, but if I play the way Blizzard wants me to, I end up playing for a few hours a week, casual-style, and then feel very comfortable walking away from a structure that I am simultaneously drawn to and a little bit upset at.

And this is where it gets a little irritating: now that I'm playing Hero League games in Heroes of the Storm and figuring out which classes I like in Hearthstone, I'm beginning to take umbrage at quests that ask me to specifically shape my gameplay to earn gold.  I still want to do it.  Gold is how I earn new characters, after all.  But if I spend too much time playing "the game" and not playing "the quest game," then I won't earn gold, and I'll thoroughly tucker myself out from playing Heroes of the Storm, which is just as exhausting at most other MOBAs thanks to its extra-dysfunctional community.  These structures, aimed at getting me to play the game that Blizzard wants me to play in a way that sustains growth and permits their "whale" customers to have other people to play with, keeps me from feeling like I want to play their game in earnest, as a fucking game.

I'm not sure how to really define this kind of structural engagement, especially since I'm still playing these games as I articulate it.  I suppose I see it, in a sense, as parallel to my adult masturbation habits.  I see the value of what I'm doing, and I enjoy doing it, to an extent, but the reality, all too often, is that I'm just trying to finish this up, get the outcome that the powers that be want from me, and then get on with my day, so I can get back to being a person, working on writing things and reading books and playing other games, games with stories, or reward structures that I invest myself in for the simple joy that they provide.  I'm compelled to engage in this repetitive activity, and if I don't do it I'll get the sense that something is missing from my day, but the joy is tarnished by the mechanical nature of the surrounding apparatus and the compulsion to do this, lest I lose an opportunity that, divorced from this structure, I doubt I'd care about.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Assassin's Creed Liberation: Wherein I Acquire the Prettiest of Dresses!

After completing Assassin's Creed: Freedom Cry I decided to dive in to Assassin's Creed: Liberation.  It was, at least in part, influenced by my drive to remove the last vestiges of Assassin's Creed 3 and Assassin's Creed: Black Flag from my hard drive.  Those games, while amazing, have been taking up space on my disk for almost two years.  There was another less silly motive at work, however: still stinging from Freedom Cry's ham-fisted Africanization of all people of color, I wanted to see if Liberation, with its tight focus from the ground up on a mixed-race female protagonist living in colonial North America during the time of the revolution, might do better.

I was not disappointed.

Part of what I found so irksome about Freedom Cry was the tacked on feel of the whole affair, the way it felt less like an attempt to tell a story the developers found important, and more a mercenary attempt to tap an underserved market.  Freedom Cry felt half baked, as if someone in the office pointed out that it was conspicuous that characters of color were so frequently absent from video games and, in a rush to make up the difference, Ubisoft Montreal threw together a game after reading a Wikipedia entry on the slave trade.  The story was light, the mechanics nearly carried over from Assassin's Creed: Black Flag wholesale, with a slight dumbing down for the sake of streamlining progression.  The only real new edition, the slave economy, seemed to function as a sort of background noise.  Whenever the slave trade or the issue of slavery entered the plot, it was haphazardly engaged with at best.  A mission objective here, a cutscene there, an aside in a conversation in the other place.  With the exception of one mission, in the midst of the plot, there was little mechanical relationship between Adewale's history as a slave and the gameplay I engaged in through him.

Liberation takes the opposite approach.  Sure, it prominently features the running, jumping, and stabbing mechanics that players have come to know and love the Assassin's Creed series for, but those mechanics are overlaid with a "social visibility and context" mechanic that relies heavily on protagonist Aveline's position in society as a woman of mixed racial heritage.  See, Aveline has three outfits to choose from.  Depending on her style of dress, she becomes more or less noticeable in certain context, and acquires and loses certain abilities.  If Aveline dresses as an Assassin, she can run across rooftops and dish out hurt like nobody's business, sure, but she kind of stands out in a crowd.  A leather-clad woman covered in knives and pistols with the world's most fabulous braid will tend to do that.  If she wants to blend in and still move she can choose the slave outfit, which grants her a sort of invisibility when she's engaged in menial labor (varying, in this case, from just standing next to other people dressed like slaves or carrying boxes from place to place randomly) and lets her keep some of her combat abilities and, most importantly, retain her ability to navigate the world vertically by free-running.  If she wants to be treated like the lady of privilege she was born as, Aveline will need to choose to wear one of her many fine dresses.  Those let her walk through any areas that are not explicitly guarded, seduce men, fire darts from her pretty pretty parasol, and pick pockets and loot corpses while attracting little, if any, attention.  The downside: Aveline must behave in a "ladylike" fashion while dressed this way: no running up buildings, flashing her business to the world, no brandishing machetes or swords.  If you want to move at more than a brisk trot and fight with more at your disposal than a parasol and a pair of hidden blades, you'll have to abandon long skirts and the privilege they bring.

This "persona" mechanic both grants the game an explicitly (arguably offensively) feminine tone by asking players to engage in a layer of "dress up," a traditionally feminine play-construct, and engages with the idea of "passing" directly in its play structures.  To those who grew up in homogenous communities, here's how it works: when you're of mixed heritage, most people look at you and use cultural context clues to try and figure out "where you belong."  They assign a set of values and expectations to you based on your style of dress, since they have trouble sorting out what your expected social position might be based on the somewhat obfuscated context clue of skin color.  It's the tragic outcome of a tableau of racist habits, but it's a reality, one that black and mixed race identified people have been living with for their entire lives, and one that many people can spend their lives conveniently removed from.  Unfortunately, this fundamental aspect of personal identity is relatively rarely explored for how effusively it presents in our society.  Even "high art" forms rarely grappled with directly.  Nella Larsen, Walter Mosley and, to a lesser extent, Chester Hines are all authors who have touched on it to some extent, and I'm positive there are other literary examples that I'm not thinking of, but in "low art" forms, forms like video games and television, explicit discussion, or even subtextual discussion, is hard to come by.  Assassin's Creed: Liberation went so far as to make this a mechanic: if people see Aveline in slave garb, they'll assume she's black, the child of a slave perhaps and, as such, beneath notice so long as she attends to her duties.  If people see her in fancy clothes, they'll assume she's white, the child of a plantation owner, perhaps, and, as such, to be given every allowance so as to avoid any particular social conflicts that might come up.  Liberation's choice to engage with this dichotomy directly forces players to recognize the fluid nature of identity, and presses them into inhabiting a number of roles they might otherwise be unfamiliar with.

In my twelve hours of play, I spent a great deal of time in nearly every guise and, for many purposes, the relative invisibility of the slave persona was the most useful.  Aveline, still able to run around and capable of blending ubiquitously into a dehumanized labor force, was perfectly suited to infiltrating enemy compounds and emerging with sensitive materials in a hurry.  Likewise, if a mission called for me to avoid conflict or kill an isolated, easily seduced man, the lady persona would come out.  The underlying issues of identity politics and prejudice behind these mechanics were addressed only occasionally, but they were actually addressed, quite directly at times in the form of micro-aggressions directed at Aveline by members of high society while she was dressed as a lady, and in the form of the jeers of overseers and the oppressive "ticking clock" of detection that they present to her when she is dressed as a slave.  And even while not being directly addressed through play, the presence of these mechanics constitutes a compelling subtext upon which the game builds itself.  Players are forced to engage with the world as a woman, a member of a group of people already considered less than in Colonial society (and arguably still seen as such today), little more than property waiting to be claimed, or as a slave, a member of a group of people reduced to property freely traded in Colonial society, and examine the manner in which they can manipulate these circumstances to their benefit.

That's quite ambitious for a game originally produced for the PSP, but that Liberation is even willing to make the attempt is compelling.  Sure, it's not without its problems: Aveline's agency still relies on a number of sympathetic white men which, while realistic for the setting, is a bit disheartening to consider.  What's more, her privilege insulates her against some of the more terrible treatment that might have otherwise been visited upon her, treatment hinted at in the game's first mission, where Aveline is called upon to investigate the disappearance of slaves from various farms, and in another mission, later in the game, where she is mugged and held hostage by criminals.

But that begs the question: does Aveline's journey need to be about confronting the darkness of early America?  She does so at times, and in doing so acts as something of a role model.  She embraces the duality of her identity, finding strength in her ability to code shift at will and transcend the limitations of other's perceptions.  Aveline is her own person, more than the mere sum of her parts.  It is figures who see her and know her best through her Assassin persona, the one most thoroughly removed from cultural markers, who know her best: Gerard and Élise, her closest friends, see her as a capable young woman dedicated to improving the lot of others and generally cleaving to Enlightenment principles of freedom (indeed, her French heritage is no mistake in this regard).  There are exceptions to this rule: Agaté, her mentor turned foe, composes his perception of her in a highly racialized light, and is something of an abusive figure, especially in his final appearance, though this is mollified somewhat by Agaté's irrational turn later in the game wherein he begins to lash out at everyone around him for working against him while simultaneously withholding crucial information from those he works with.  Aveline, in the end, acts as something of a post-racial feminist superhero: she takes the qualities that people might criticize her for, the qualities that make her something of a misfit in society in general, and turns them into her greatest strengths.  She breaks every mold and takes every advantage that her status as a woman of color could grant her, while abandoning the parts that could hold her back.

While these mechanics do gloss over the underlying privilege that permits them, it's a sight better than Freedom Cry's construction of a character of color as an "also-ran."  Aveline's is that rarest of video game unicorns, a female protagonist of color who passes the Bechdel test in the game's opening bars.  Liberation's very existence as a game gives me hope.  Sure, I'm coming to it three years late, but it's still there, and its presence means that other, similar titles can and will emerge again.