Children in Video Games

To begin, the Article.

Go read it. I’ll wait.

All done? First and foremost – I abhor violence against children. I think people who hurt children should be subjected to all the pain, violence, and abuses they subject on children. I pray for swift retaliatory karma against these people and hope the rest of their lives are miserable, equal to, if not greater than, the pain the child felt during the abuse.

Now, violence against children in video games is a wildly controversial thing. So why does it show up at all?

1. More and more game designers are parents.

Just look at Heavy Rain, Nintendogs, and Mario Galaxy. More game designers that started in this industry as young adults in their 20s are now reaching the age where they have children. Anyone with children will readily admit that it is a radically life changing experience. So logically it makes sense that as these designers have this experience it will reflect in their work. 10 years ago an RPG wouldn’t have considered including having children as something the player can do. Children aren’t adventurous and heroic. But now, as in games like Fable 3, children are becoming a part of the game. Because the game designer parents are able to say “This is an adventure. This is a compelling reason to radically change the way a player plays the game.”

2. The social mores against things in video games are falling, just as they did for other mediums.

Do you remember the brouhaha over Fred and Wilma being shown on TV in bed? It was a huge deal that a cartoon would depict people in a bed together, thus implying sex. Now, it is common to see women in their underwear, sex, and violence on TV. Sex is coming to video game mainstream. So will all the other things like drug use and children. These are the things that define our humanity. Our successes and our failings. That is why they create drama and evoke emotion. Video Games will continue to attempt to elicit emotion from players and drama is a part of that.

3. Why even have kids in the game?

Ask any parent what their worst nightmare is. I am willing to bet most of the answers involve something with their children. The Sims allowed me the joy of having a house full of children, something I will never do in real life (I mean like 6 kids, seriously). The terror that I feel at the idea of having a game where I can gain a child, then possibly lose them… *shudder* The article brings up Bioshock as a violence against children example. However it is notable that in Bioshock they are always Little Sisters, in-human. The NPCs in the game even back this up, saying “Those aren’t little girls anymore.” But when given the option it is always Save vs Harvest. That is an intentional distinction. Despite the fact that the player knows that Harvest will kill the Little Sister, it doesn’t say Kill, it says Harvest. The interesting point is that this is a moral choice presented to the player. And at the end of the game it is revealed that the player is rewarded for choosing the “correct” path of saving the Little Sisters.

In Dead Space 2 (I haven’t played it, I am going off the article) it sounds like the designers needed a small fearsome enemy that was hard to hit, could move fast, and needed to scare the player. As a secondary effect of their story choice they even created the feeling that the player *shouldn’t* be shooting this enemy. Despite the fact that you should. That moment of hesitation can lead to the players death.

It is also worth noting all of the games mentioned are arguably Horror games. The designer’s job is to elicit horror from the player. What could possibly be more horrific and want you to bring down the whole thing than something that harms children? It never occurred to me that Andrew Ryan in Bioshock wasn’t a bad guy. Despite what the designers tried to twist into the story, here is a man willing to exploit children to further his own ends. Once that is made clear, the player no longer feels bad for tearing through this ruined city and destroying it’s people. They allowed their ideals and beliefs to lead them away from the inherent compassion and sense of right. At this point, I no longer wanted to just escape Rapture, I wanted to punch a hole in the wall and allow it to flood. To destroy it completely for the failure to retain it’s humanity.

4. But why have violence against kids in the game?

To evoke the parental emotion and all the messy feelings that come with it. In Heavy Rain I WILLINGLY took a vial of poison, knowing that the probability of it killing my character was high, knowing it was likely a trick by the designer to set me back. But I could chose no other option. I had to save my kid and if this was the hoop the serial killer wanted me to jump through, then by God, I was going to jump through it. My life for my child’s? In a heartbeat. The designers were exceptionally clever with their choices of trials. How far could they push the player to save a child? And push the player they did. It even sparks the thought that while yes, this is a game, would you really do such a thing? If this were real, what would you give up? The designer held up a mirror to the player’s soul and that is definitely going to make people uncomfortable.

5. Games are all about fantasy and being the hero.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band did so well because they MADE THE PLAYER A ROCK STAR. World of Warcraft makes me feel like this powerful and amazing hero that literally saves the world over and over again. Games are about fantasy and being the hero, and what is more heroic than saving a child? The catharsis of saving the child in Heavy Rain is sufficient to have made it a critically acclaimed game despite iffy controls, ambiguous choices, and uncanny valley.

I will admit as a designer, I am uncomfortable with the idea of putting children in harms way in my own games. But that doesn’t mean the question shouldn’t be asked or the situation explored. I am wildly uncomfortable with rape and yet I accept it’s inclusion in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a required event to bring me closer to the protagonist, despite her alien responses and behavior. Did Dead Island create the trailer with the express purpose of sparking the discussion to get press? Of course they did. Should they be vilified for doing so? No more than any other game like Call of Duty that does such things to spark discourse and free publicity. After all, movies have been doing this for years already.

Now, take a moment to imagine the Dead Island trailer, which I will admit is marketing at it’s finest. Everyone has a strong emotion about it, despite the fact it doesn’t show one second of gameplay. But imagine if the story the player is stepping into is this family’s story. The player assumes the role of the parents or even the child at various points in the game. The goal of the game is to get them out alive, as all survival horror zombie games are. Through a single short trailer they have given the player all the motive and drive to not only play the game, but play it at their best. To seek, to strive to save this little girl. The trailer shows the worst possible outcome, one the player should stop at nothing to change. That is a powerful emotional response. That is a powerful story over a standard and common game type. Much like movies set themselves up for Oscars, this game appears to be setting itself up for the art and story telling in video games debate. Will it succeed? I can’t wait to find out.



As it turns out, the trailer was in fact, pure marketing hype. It’s a shame, to use something so artistic that could have been the stepping off point for a truly spectacular story. Ah well, back to hacking zombies to bits.


Valkyria Chronicles!

*raises her fist in triumph*

Last night I buckled down and completed Valkyria Chronicles. I spent about an hour grinding through the same skirmish to get my characters to level 19 to complete the last two missions.

Now that I have fully completed this game, I would like to look at it with a Game Design eye.

To begin I would like to make one thing very clear. I love this game. It plays wonderfully, is quite fun, and really embraces it’s genre. All of the problems I have with the game are by no means insurmountable and should not be used for reasons not to play the game. In fact, if you have a PS3, I would say this game is in fact the ONE game you should own.

1. Do What I Say Not What I Do:
One early thing I learned in Game Design is to reinforce behavior you WANT the player to do. If you want them to take time to break open every single crate and barrel, you make the break animation and effect look awesome, you make crates and barrels drop items, and you make it very easy to break them.
Many games use this to great effect. Positive reinforcement is the basis for most child rearing techniques and most Religions as well. Reward the player for doing the things you tell them to do and punish them for not doing the things you want them to do.
VC pretty much ignores this idea in favor of blatantly leading the player astray. There are multiple missions where if you listen to the game’s advice you will not only do very poorly at the map, but if you listen too well, you will fail the map.
To give a specific example (Warning Minor Mission Spoilers Ahead) in Chapter 7 you must lead your squad against a huge tank. As always you are promoted to position your units and deploy them. There are 8 slots to place characters, two within a base and behind walls. Up until this point in the game every position within a base and behind a wall is quite safe and is where you place support characters like engineers or snipers. Also despite being up against a tank, logical tells you to have a wide range of units. (I usually shoot for 2 scouts, 2 troopers, one lancer, one sniper, and one engineer then fill in the other slots with snipers and lancers as needed.) Once you begin the map however you discover two things in the first turn. You don’t have enough CP to move the two guys you just placed in the base and still take out the cannons on the tank that will chew your three guys placed on the side of it and the guys that are rushing down the hill. And if you leave those two guys in the base, they will die. So by filling every slot on the field with logical choices you have screwed yourself. So you begin again. This time with better placement and more Lancers. (You can only take out the tank guns with Lancers, thus you need much more than normal.) So you go on your merry way for the first few turns and the game gives you some great advice : Shoot these large brick walls to knock them down and it will slow the Tank’s progress. Unfortunately if you do this when they tell you to, as one would assume that is why they are telling you, you will block the Edelweiss in and get your tank killed. Oh did I mention getting the tank killed is ALWAYS an instant loss condition?

After trying this map approx 4 times on my own (and wasting a whole afternoon) I finally looked up a walkthrough that explained how to win this mission. Turns out you ignore the game for the most part. Yeah you still shoot the walls, but several turns after you are told to do so, and you call in reserves as opposed to placing a full contingent to begin with.

2. Wait no, it’s do what I do, not what I say…
To confuse the goals of the game further, and compound the distrust you have of the game already, you are trained to play the game a certain way. They teach you very early: stick together, move carefully, always end a movement crouched or hidden, take your time, bring everyone home alive. They teach strategy and tactics quite well and all of the levels are built with tactics in mind. You get bonuses for sneaking up behind enemies, bonuses for killing all the enemies, and even some potentials that trigger when doing these things. However, as it turns out the true goal of every map is the Rank given at the end. Yes, you get small bonuses to xp and ducats for killing enemies, but nothing compared to the xp and ducats you get for completing a mission with an A Rank. So what determines your Rank? The number of turns it takes you to complete the mission.
For this example, there is a mission called Windmill Plaza. It later becomes a Skirmish as well (for the first play through you cannot replay maps, just skirmishes). If you play this map the way you are intended to play it, scouting ahead, sniping their snipers, taking out the tank, picking up mines, capturing the mid-field base, etc, you will end with a D rank. Even with perfect movement, no one dying, potentials going off like mad, you will get a D rank after taking 8 turns. You are given 20 turns for each mission, but using less than half and you still receive a poor rank. Now after reading the walkthrough I discovered you could complete this map on the first turn. How can such a feat be pulled off? Simple, run a mortar carrying lancer up, to blow up the two guys right in front of your base, then run your scout around, kill the last scout in your way, and stop right next to the tank. Now give your scout a command that makes her resistant to cross fire and run her straight up the side to the enemy base. Take out the sniper and AT Gun there and bam capture the base, usually with two CP to spare. Congratulations, you just did something that if you tried in a real war would get you slaughtered. Oh and ignored tactics and safety (you still have a pretty good chance of screwing up this crazy plan that would lead to your whole team getting wiped out.)
Making something a primary goal of the training and then reinforcing it in the text, communication, mission briefs means it should always ever be the primary goal. Not figuring out how to game the map to reach the goal quickest to get a higher rank. Reward the player for doing what you ask them to, not for doing what you tell them not to.

3. I’m bored. You Bored? I KNOW! Let’s make a gimmick fight that ignores the kind of game we made.
Strategy and tactics is all about fighting smart and playing well. Balancing the need to be speedy with the need to be safe. Balancing movement and ammo. Strategy is not about figuring out the gimmick that makes this map so easy my cat could lay on the controller and pull it off. Strategy is not a random number generator that determined that three of these towers will be randomly selected to require destruction but if you are unlucky enough to get all three towers that are very difficult to take out it is now mathematically impossible to succeed at the mission. The advice of the guides? Save before the towers get selected and reload until you get a good set. !!! How is that strategy?!?
In addition to this, at what point did it become a practice to always have the last battle in a game completely break with the gameplay previously set up until that point? It is a turn based strategy game with third person action elements. Wouldn’t it be much cooler to have the last battle be that, a battle! Wide scale, with extra members of your squad on the field, and extra CP, and those ragnite tanks that explode so well. Instead we get a gimmicky boss battle that is over in 3 turns and completely ignores the gameplay that makes the game so good up to this point. They could have had a huge epic battle that called out all the stops. A huge battlefield where my Sniper’s 1800 range rifles would actually be useful. Maybe even allow you to field your entire squad. That would be epic!

4. Once More WITH FEELING!
I have to admit. I love playing games over and over again. I have played Legend of Dragoon 6 times. Ocarina of Time 8 or 9. I do this with books and movies too. I have re-read Wheel of Time at least 6 times, Harry Potter about 8 times… God himself only knows how many time I have seen Star Wars or Lion King. So when I see a game that has New Game + as part of it’s bullet points, I always get excited. VC was no exception. I stayed up to 12:30am to find out what was kept when you started a new game +. Turns out nearly everything. I was quite surprised. It meant that all the xp and ducats I earned from this point on were practically worthless. I already had all the upgrades and my guys were all level 19 or 20. (20 being the max level). Well at least I got stats and could replay the levels now as much as I wanted, which is awesome. The only thin was, when I went to form up my squad again I discovered… All those characters that get added over time are re-randomized. Oh you get the few you had to jump through hoops to unlock, but the ones like Vyse and Aika are back in the void and you have to keep playing through the missions hoping they get picked by the randomizer to be added back into the squad roster… Which means I am now forced to play with characters that say things in the worst sort of valley girl voice “Oh! Like, there’s an Enemy!” I feel stupider for having listened to her.
If you are going to retain things, do not retain things that make your reward system worthless (or at least add another tier of things to purchase) and retain things that the player is obviously a fan of if it doesn’t break the first rule. Oh you played with these two characters EVERY SINGLE MISSION? Maybe we should make sure you still have those.

I loved VC. I think it is far and away on of the best strategy titles I have played. I wish more people I knew owned PS3s and could play it. It has a few minor flaws, but for the most part is a wonderful game. Some may complain at the number of cutscenes, but I felt they were engaging and interesting and definitely filled out the character of the world much better than most. Some may complain that the story was too contrived, but to be honest, what story isn’t these days? At least this one throws a few bumps in the road and you really feel for the characters.

This game definitely makes it onto my Top Ten Games of All Time list. 🙂