Decadent

Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix and Tomb Raider

Sex Symbols (Or Not): Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix and Tomb Raider (2013)

The evolution of a “sex sells” mentality shows a step forward in social responsibility and a step backward in playability.

By Anthony John Agnello • June 3, 2013

In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.

I didn’t think it would be that bad. Time makes the most outlandish things seem quaint, almost innocent, once their edges have been smoothed out by the years. That’s how I approached Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix when I revisited it for this column. I expected the Barbarella effect. The once-bawdy slice of exploitation would become playfully campy under modern scrutiny.

The promise of historically delightful camp isn’t all that drew me to the game. Fear Effect 2 was the culmination of the “sex sells” years for the game publisher Eidos, an era that began with the ’90s ascent of Tomb Raider and its curvy star, Lara Croft. In the present day, Raider has been re-imagined with the specific goal of wash away its sex-object roots what does Fear Effect 2 look like? Far worse than I imagined. Like, really bad. But as much as it highlights the Tomb Raider reboot as work of narrative maturation, it also demonstrates how much less fun the modern game is to play.

Fear Effect 2 ad

When it came out in 2001, Fear Effect 2 looked like the worst byproduct of video games’ adolescence. The lead characters aren’t just scantily clad girls, fellas! These are scantily clad LESBIANS! They shoot people and touch each other’s boobs. The advertisements said so. It was the fever pitch that Eidos had been building toward since the summer of ’97, by which time Tomb Raider had become a phenomenon and video games had their first bona fide sex symbol. “Bigger than Pammy, wiser than Yoda,” declared Britain’s The Face magazine. (Those were, I promise, topical comparison points in 1997.)

Eidos, sensing the profitability of breasts, made a full-court press. The publisher was pumping out a new Raider every year, with Lara showing more skin each time out—compare and contrast. At the same time, Eidos applied mammary enhancement to other popular genre fare. Raider had guns and adventure covered. For swords and sorcery, Eidos backed Deathtrap Dungeon, a game whose lack of subtlety remains impressive. Fear Effect followed in 2000, a sci-fi horror game that would capture the booming Resident Evil audience by placing a prostitute-turned-superspy in the lead role. The game sold well, and Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix hit a year later.

The ads for Retro Helix are tame compared to what’s waiting in the game. One of the first images you see, with little setup or context, is a man throwing a huge handful of money on top of a sleeping, nude woman. That’s not inherently bad on its own, per se. Perhaps this is pertinent to the tale of espionage and sinister supernatural dealings that follow! It’s certainly a blunt but effective way to establish that guy as a bad person.

Nope! He actually doesn’t show up for hours. The scene’s just there for ambience, to set the tone for how the lead characters, two lovers named Hana and Rain, are treated as the story goes forward. There are plenty of gratuitous shots of the two undressing throughout, and enough pun-filled dialogue to fill an omnibus of Penthouse Forum letters. This Maxim-level stuff is the tone of the whole game, punctuated by some truly ugly shit now and again.

Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix

For example: The first chapter of the game sees the pair sneaking through sewers beneath a corporate research facility, and it culminates with Rain being kidnapped by a mutated freak, and then bound up in her underwear. When you find her, playing as Hana, there’s an enormous, penis-shaped insect writhing on her groin. (The game never offers an explanation for the giant bug.) After Rain is freed, she and Hana discuss infiltrating a party in the building above. Hana tells Rain to back her up while she sneaks in as a guest, and Rain complains that Hana always gets all the fun. “You just had your fun on that pony ride back there,” says Hana.

Yeah.

Now, at first blush, Tomb Raider 2013 (published by Square Enix, which acquired Eidos in 2009) doesn’t look like it has evolved much from the days of Retro Helix. Barely five minutes of the game go by without the neophyte Lara Croft being thrown into some grisly predicament. In just the first few hours, Lara is impaled on an iron spike, groped by some greasy thug, and dragged by her ankles through a cave. She pretty much falls off of every cliff on the island she’s stuck on.

None of these moments involve much interaction on the part of the player. They’re color, tone for the story. These are the same sort of torture porn maneuvers used in movies like Hostel Part 2 and The Descent to make the eventual violent empowerment of their heroines so affecting. A seemingly fragile woman endures constant physical hardship and becomes a warrior as a result.

It’s a formula that works, and for the most part it’s one that works in Tomb Raider. Lara Croft isn’t just treated as a sex object in Crystal Dynamics’ game. She’s not a prop like Hana and Rain are in Retro Helix. At the beginning of the expedition, Lara is an intelligent student living in the shadow of her father’s career as an explorer. By the end, she’s an adventurer in her own right. She overcomes fear, danger, and even an angry god to save herself and her friend. In the closing moments of the game, she doesn’t say that it’s time to go home and rest. She heads right back out for another quest. “I’m not going home,” she says, staring out at the horizon. It’s a badass moment for a character who used to be just about bust size. Not subtle, but moving all the same.

For the person playing, though, it’s not much of a badass moment at all. Tomb Raider has a strong story but not a whole hell of a lot to do. Lara jumps up mountains and crumbling ruins just like she did back in 1996, but there’s no mystery of how to get from point A to B since nearly every useful ledge is highlighted in some way. Fall off one, and you’re back where you started in seconds. There are only seven puzzles to solve in the game’s optional tombs, and these are about as conceptually challenging as the word search on a box of Captain Crunch.

Tomb Raider

For the most part, what you do in Tomb Raider is shoot people, over and over again, and surviving is as easy as hiding behind a metal wall while your health comes back. It’s hard to feel powerful when the hurdles in your way are barely ankle high. Lara changes, but you don’t.

Which makes Retro Helix a conundrum. These heroines are treated like dirt by the writers for the sake of titillating the player—far worse treatment than Lara gets—but it’s fun and rewarding to play around in their world. For starters, bullets are actually dangerous. Every confrontation in Retro Helix is tense since you can be killed almost instantly.

Combat isn’t really the game’s primary activity, though. Most of your time is spent exploring its cramped settings, figuring out how to move forward, and solving some excellent spatial and logic puzzles. There are no dialogue prompts telling you what to do, either. Stumble into a hall filled with super-heated steam? Better find the plumbing controls. Don’t know how to use them? A safety diagram on the wall half-explains it, but you still need to do heavy mental lifting to reach the solution. Retro Helix is difficult, obscure, infuriating, and deeply satisfying when you make progress.

Video games are trudging out of their adolescence these days, and it’s slow going. The content of game stories is, by and large, improving. Lara Croft is no longer the star just because she’s stacked. It’s still a factor, naturally. People like stories about good-looking people. Tomb Raider 2013 feels like a big step forward from the first empire built by Lara Croft. But it also feels like two steps have been taken back. “Don’t bother thinking, just look at this body,” said the old games. “Don’t both thinking, just press forward on the controller,” says the new. The stupid misogyny of Retro Helix isn’t missed at all, but it’s hard not to long for a game where it feels like the player matters.

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  • The_Helmaroc_King

    I’ve heard rumors that Fear Effect 2 actually has four playable characters, two of which aren’t lesbians, and aren’t even women at all! It’s hard to confirm, though, as there doesn’t seem to be photographic evidence of any characters other than Hana and Rain, but I swear it’s true!

    • Chris Hansen

      Oh, probably. I remember the first game having three endings, one of which was the “good ending” that kept everyone alive. One was a surly mustachioed man.

    • doyourealize

      One of them is Deke. The other is someone else.

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    I wonder if the narrowing in game play depth and variety as a consequence of the homogenization and cost of game production is inverse to the sophistication of the medium as it ages.  Feel free to add dismissive air-quote gesticulations around sophistication if it matches your temperament on the state of video game writing.
       Games have seemingly less maneuverability in what can be delivered by a given title.  Any deviation would either be prohibitively costly to implement or perceived as too great a liability from the publishing side that is reluctant to deliver a product that does anything more or less than it advertises.
       So game writing grudgingly evolves while the medium it is suspended in coagulates.
       And I know video games -already questionable in their dramatizations of any aspect of humanity- approach the fabled lesbian with all the anthropological studiousness of a rum-sopped mariner recounting a manatee sighting upon return from a maiden voyage to the new world, but lord, Fear Effect 2 sounds awful.
       Having worked in a feminist sex toy store, I can say actual lesbian sexual banter would make for a more interesting game.

    • ProfFarnsworth

      I get the feeling that many games that are trying to increase profit and are also trying to have a large audience do as much as possible to make puzzles as manageable as possible.  Many incredibly successful games of the past 5 years have not included challenging puzzles or difficulties to allow for people (in my opinion) to complete them.  I remember playing a game from 10 years ago, and then playing a game from last year in the same day and thinking the more recent game was “dumbed down” just for a broader audience.

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

      We’ve talked before about how clumsy use of cutscenes has led to more linear game design. You don’t get games like Doom anymore, with labyrinth-like levels and secret areas.

      And these days, achievements allow publishers to track how their game is being played. How many people are beating the game? How many people are discovering secret levels/characters/weapons? When it comes time to make the sequel, they’re not going add content that they know 90% of their players will never see. Such Easter eggs are fine in a more economical game, but not with today’s AAA budgets. 

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Ellie’s dissection of the t-rex scenes from both the original and remade Tomb Raider do a good job of illustrating the kind of slippage going on. I think it’s less a question of increased sophistication of any type (apart from graphical sophistication w/r/t representing realism), and more a shifting of priorities toward cinematic storytelling. Whether it’s a result of commercial-types trying to appeal to a broad audience, or David Cage-style creatives who have a hard-on for cinema despite working in the games industry, I’m not sure.

      But AAA games seem to increasingly model themselves on films, providing a fairly linear experience that is visually realistic, where writing and dialogue are approached as they would be in a film (though typically by writers who are not very good at film-writing, if the quality of most game writing is any indication), and where quicktime events afford a trivial amount of interaction that cedes control of the camera and the on-screen events to the director, rather than the player.

      The original Tomb Raider was less about Lara’s ‘story arc’ and more about creating a series of spaces (‘tombs’) to navigate (‘raid’). Because of this, the character could be pretty thinly drawn, but due to the unfortunate tenor of much of the game industry, a thinly drawn female character is likely to become an adolescent sex object, which was problematic.

      • The_Misanthrope

        I think there’s probably more to it than just the desire to be like film.  I think there’s been a shift in game design as well; Contemporary game designers are loathe to leave a player wanting for direction at any moment in the game.  So they reduce player interaction and offer text prompts whenever the player stalls for a minute.  Sure, there is merit in that idea, as we’ve all been stuck in a game to the point where it was no longer fun.  However, there are ways to teach/lead the player without overtly stringing them along, without reducing their agency.  Granted, it is probably a little more difficult in 3D spaces, but not impossible.

         In fact, if they must borrow from film, they could look to the notion of mise en scene:  the use of framing, spatial relations, and sightlines to draw attention to certain objects or people.  It doesn’t work exactly the same way as it does in film, but the concept can work.  Off the top of my head, I remember the Mojave Outpost in Fallout:  New Vegas.  There were no quests leading me there, but I could see the giant statue of the two rangers–representing two factions that came together under the NCR–from far away and I was curious to see what was there.  It took a couple tries–I wasn’t quite the match of the few giant radscorpions that roam the area–but I got there.  From there, I got the quest that led me to encounter Ceaser’s Legion in the flesh, a major faction in the game.  And I got there not by the game explicitly telling me, but rather because of a point of interest on the horizon.

        I also suspect another part of it is a desire to show off top-of-the-line graphics engines.  So the game has to lead you by the nose to make sure you see it all.  I liken those kinds of game to blockbusters, where you are supposed to be so dazzled by the spectacle that you really don’t think about the game until after it’s over.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          I would posit that that desire for an unbroken experience where you don’t have to stop and think about what to do next is an aesthetic choice that is indebted to film, especially since that lead-by-the-nose design is generally predicated on a narrative/set-piece based game design that needs to funnel you effortlessly to the next narrative node.

    • Kyle O’Reilly

       This is probably the saddest reality of modern game development.  The 4 months put into rendering perfectly the reflections in every puddle of a corridor underneath the jail you just broke out of is 4 months that might’ve been put into creating different ways for your character to break out of said jail.

      I’ve been playing Metro Last Light lately because my brother finished it in two days then handed it to me.  There’s a section where you sneak through a very linear spider’s nest with webs, and carcasses and all kinds of intricate details and all I can think is,

      “Some poor Ukrainian code monkey, making barely living wage, spent thousands of hours perfecting this tunnel and it took me under 15 minutes to sprint through the whole thing, skipping numerous enemies along the way.”

      But that’s why Indie gems like Capsized give us hope right? Right!?!?

    • Effigy_Power

      They didn’t even give them unicorn horns. Game devs know nothing about lesbians, pshaw.

      “Having worked in a feminist sex toy store, I can say actual lesbian sexual banter would make for a much different game.”

      He’s right. A lot of it is talking about digestion and clothes.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        All I know is if you’re currently out of stock on the leather harnesses and you suggest the vegan version as an alternative, prepare to be scoffed at.

        • Effigy_Power

          Plastic strapons just won’t do. Sex only gets better when the death of some cow is built right into the gear.

      • PaganPoet

        How often do you have sleepovers with your best lesbian pals and have dainty pillow fights in your sexiest lacy lingerie?

        • Effigy_Power

          What? How often do some of my lesbian couple friends come over for a night of heavy eating and drinking and I wish I had more than one bathroom? Was that the question? Cuz it should be.

        • Citric

          @Effigy_Power:disqus Well there’s your problem, bathrooms are a terrible place for naked pillow fights.

    • George_Liquor

      I think it’s indicative of the same problem facing the film industry. Since there are so many alternate forms of entertainment available, the amount of time blockbuster movies and expensive AAA game titles have to earn a profit has shortened considerably. Both aim for the lowest common denominator in an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. In the same way that today’s Hollywood blockbusters are becoming more about the “experience” of movie-watching than the actual plot, modern big-budget games are becoming more about holding the player’s interest (and keeping him excited for endless sequels) than challenging him.

      I’ve bitched about Bioshock Infinite’s narrow, shooter-heavy focus as being a missed opportunity, and I know other people here have too. But let’s face it: We’re the minority. The majority of BI’s audience were quite content to just shoot their way through Columbia.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        Well, I’m one of the Philistine’s who enjoyed shooting my way through Bioshock Infinite, but yeah, I agree with you.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

        BI is a fun core game, but the overall story (save for a admittedly awesome end sequence) is kind of a mess.

        As for handholding… I don’t mind tutorial sequences as much as everyone else. We’re a long way away from simple controls, and there’s all these advanced controls and techniques and moves that a tutorial section is understandable (it’s always SOMEONE’S first game, after all). It does get silly when it gets out of hand – BI is a perfect example. If you crouch for too long, for example, it prompts you to press the button to uncrouch. That’s unforgivable. A player should KNOW if they’re fucking crouching. Also, it makes them a smaller target, so why the hell are you prompting me to stand up? IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIGHT!?

        It also prompts the use of vigors, which is odd – if a player is making substantive progress sans Vigors, don’t goad him/her to!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

      While I definitely get what you’re saying, let’s be a wee bit careful when we get into “how lesbians talk,” whether it’s sex or any topic. People, regardless of sexual orientation, can talk however they’d like. (Of course in this context it’s more about the game devs having lesbians talk for the sake of being sexy to the player, not inherent in how THESE characters would talk – although… in the context of the FE series, I think I buy it.)

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

           I hope it’s pretty obvious that I wasn’t actually trying to parlay my year in retail experience as an actual referendum on the innuendo and banter of an entire group of people.
           I certainly wouldn’t claim to do so for straight white guys, and I’ve been one of those my entire life.
           It was a bit of evocative narrative fluff, and I’d like to think at this point the community here can tell whether or not I’m being presumptuous enough to ascribe acceptable forms of interactions for gay women.

  • Citric

    That pull quote from IGN is the worst thing.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      It reads like a particularly idiotic comment on a video game website. It’s like back before sites had comment sections, they just had would-be commenters write the articles themselves.

      • Kyle O’Reilly

         Do you remember game magazines before the internet age?  Playstation Magazine held a swimsuit issue for video game characters.  What more do you need to know?

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          Seriously. In another post, I mentioned the proclivity of PSM magazine to commission comic book cheesecake artists to make T&A images for their covers and interior art. In Google image searching for examples, I found a few covers advertising those “swimsuit images” and was instantly transported back to the extreme adolescent douche-chills those issues gave me when I found them embarrassingly placed in our mailbox.

        • Effigy_Power

          I remember my brother buying a gaming mag and unfolding the promised poster on the kitchen table. My mom was less than impressed at the pretty much nude Battle Arena Toshinden 2 character rolling around on a huge fold-out.

          (It was this vectory nightmare of anti-grav boobs: http://www.mobygames.com/images/shots/l/15522-battle-arena-toshinden-2-playstation-screenshot-you-ve-been.jpg )

          Many early game-magazines were basically the entry-drug to crap like FHM or Penthouse. Get’em while they’re young.

    • Effigy_Power

      I don’t know whether it was written specifically as an advert for this game, to sound “cool and edgy to the kids”, you know, Daikatana-ad style or whether this is a real article written by someone with the mental capacities of a syphilitic weasel.

      None of those three choices are particularly great, but while I prefer cold, calculated deception in order to sell games, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s probably just some moron writing without a filter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

    I really really love the Tomb Raider reboot.

    It just lacks a stronger story and stronger characters.

    *SPOILER*

    I mean, the game went downhill the moment Roth and the Scot are gone. I thought the game could have redeemed with a stronger emphasis on Lara and Sam’s relationship, but it didn’t. And i wanted the Maori to do something badass in action, and we didn’t.

    Hopefully the sequel can have a much grander and better story with better characters. More locations and more tombs basically.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tomstone Thomas Stone

      Yeah, it’s a different game from the other Tomb Raiders, but those games were mostly not very good- instead of blindly wandering around until you find a surface you can attach to, it’s fun Far Cry 3 style sniping combat and exploration. The QTEs are annoying, but the heart of the gameplay is pretty fun.

      Sounds like the writer here disliked the genre hop, as much as anything- I enjoyed the combat a lot, and while it’s not super difficult, it’s possible to play in a way that’s pretty challenging. And I like shooting a bunch of dudes in the head, which this game lets me do.

    • The Guilty Party

      Yeah, I felt they could have done a bit more with the story, but on the whole it was a fun game that I enjoyed and actually finished, and that’s rare these days.

    • Effigy_Power

      All social issues to the side, the game suffers from the same misnomer Assassins Creed suffers from.
      Lara doesn’t have a lot of Tombs to raid, just as Desmond’s ancestors are increasingly lacking actual assassination contracts.
      I hear Need for Speed Superchase is going to be a knitting simulator.

    • http://www.facebook.com/JamesMauriceAlexander James Alexander

      I’m with you there they killed all the supporting characters that were actually worth a damn, which makes no sense when you know there will be a direct sequel at some point.

      Eh, maybe there will be a rebooted Zip/Alistair/Winston?

  • King_Ghidorah7

    I have to admit, my burgeoning puberty years coincided with this phase of video game titillation. Because of this, as soon as I saw that screenshot I started feeling a little bit randy. The other one that does it to me is the shot of one of the girls from Dead or Alive lying on her back, it was a full centerfold in a lot of videogame magazines. No surprise that this eventually crossed over into hentai in my later teen year. No regrets!

    • Citric

      2000 was kind of the year of the mammaries, wasn’t it? Parasite Eve II was around then too, and it went with the totally gratuitous shower scene to sell copies (and every magazine had to make mention of Aya Brea being in the shower, though I guess the game was kind of awful so they had to do something).

      • King_Ghidorah7

        To this day I’ve never played the original Parasite Eve, but I remember watching the trailer for it over and over when it was included as part of this Playsation demo disc. Don’t know if the game is any good, but that was one hell of a trailer for it’s time.

        • Citric

          Original Parasite Eve is downright excellent, though it is a PS1 game and some people find it difficult to go back. Parasite Eve II is not very good, story takes a hit and the controls are atrocious. 

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        That generation was the medium of games “growing up!”

        By which I mean, “entering a state of adolescence at which its development would remain arrested for the foreseeable future!”

        I remember PSM Magazine was the perfect intersection of adolescent boy cultures, as they’d typically hire cheesecake artists from the comic industry to do their cover and interior art. So you’d end up with J. Scott Campbell doing Dead or Alive (which kind of makes sense, I guess) or AdamWarren doing Wipeout (which barely has anything to do with the game in question).

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          Oh man, I used to read Wizard (Comics mag) even though I never read comics and that J Scott Campbell dude is fucking awful at making pictures happen. Holy hell.

        • yo_dude_sup

          Holy shit, I remember that Dead or Alive cover. Definitely earned a rental for the game, which is funny in retrospect because apparently my research about the game ended with that cover. I even remember being surprised it was a fighting game when I popped it into the Playstation for the first time.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

        The first Parasite Eve is pretty special. There was a time where Square was genuinely creative and created a wild but impressive RPG based in modern NYC. That’s practically an anomaly, and it helps that the game was surprisingly fun.

        The second one was shit. Shower scene aside, the game was unbalanced and spiked in difficulty for no reason. It, for some reason, forgot to level YOU out as the game increased in difficulty. It’s like they just… forgot about you towards the end. It’s bizarre.

        • Citric

          The second one also had awful controls.

          I remember loving the first one and getting excited when I heard it was getting a sequel, and then everything I heard about the sequel was just bad. I did play it eventually, I got stuck at the entrance of some mine, decided I didn’t care anymore.

  • Ghost_of_Computers_Past

    “In the present day, Raider has been re-imagined with the specific goal of wash away its sex-object roots what does Fear Effect 2 look like?”

    Edit FAIL. 

    • Electric Dragon

       Polite correction request FAIL.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Since we’re talking about polite correction requests, the “compare” and “contrast” links currently both lead to the same image.

        EDIT: I see that Chris Hansen has already pointed that out downthread. My bad.

  • Chris Hansen

    That Tomb Raider II ad actually seems to give Lara more clothes than she normally has.  Catsuit covers more than the shorts and tanktop.

    The two compare/contrast links lead to the same photo.

    Fear Effect was actually kind of a cool game. I liked what it did with Chinese mythology with the burning of paper bullets for ammo. Shame the game is only ever remembered for the ribald parts.

    • Destroy Him My Robots

      Speaking of Tomb Raider II ads:
      http://www.kultboy.com/pic/1522/

      “Your dream will come true
      Showering with Lara Croft”

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        Some very stupid part of my brain greatly enjoys reading it as ”Your dream will come true…Douchin’ with Lara Croft.”

        Also, how ‘duschgel’ is so phonetically similar to ‘douchechill,’ which is what that ad induces.

        • Fluka

          Man, even several years studying French didn’t manage to turn off that stupid part of my brain.

          Heh heh.  Douche.

    • PugsMalone

      Being covered up more doesn’t make you less objectified. I mean, just look at Taki’s costume from Soul Calibur 2 on.

    • George_Liquor

      That reminds me of the ice levels in Tomb Raider 2 wherein the developers were kind enough to give Lara a cutoff parka. ’cause, you know, practicality. 

    • MalleableMalcontent

      I’ll

      • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

        SPOILER

        The good ending has both players putting their guns away and then I think you choose which one fights the last boss.

        • MalleableMalcontent

          Yeah, but I was never good enough to get that ending, and thus will stick with the technically ‘worse’ – but more dramatically resonant – ending in my mind :) 

  • rpenm

    The decline in sexism and the decline in gameplay have both been driven by the transformation of computer games into a truly popular mass media.  Today’s developers take greater heed of social norms to avoid alienating a large and increasingly diverse customer base.  And developers focus on cheap-but-satisfying gameplay mechanics that it can market to a broad audience.  Mass market customers are easily bored, so gameplay that challenges or fails to reward the gamer for more than half a second is rare.

    This is all quite analogous to cinema.  Fortunately some low budget developers can still afford to challenge their customers (hurray for the long tail). 

    • mnorth700

      Hard to disagree with this. Where are the games with interesting if somewhat off-putting gameplay mechanics now found? Indie games or the Japanese market. These are a group of games which can afford to push their games towards a niche demographic either because they have an established fan-base or because their games are low enough risk not to need to accommodate the needs of a potential player. It’s so typical to even make this comment but the problem is one of mainstream Western games because, as you’ve said, their demographic is now much broader. The stakes are higher too because of the financial costs and they have an inherent need to play it safer. I feel like I’m making a really obvious comment.

  • Eco1970

    I’ve been saying it since it came out: Tomb Raider 2013 is a SHIT game.

    • fieldafar

      Yeah… nah.

      • Eco1970

        No, you! :)

  • Joel Rasdall

    I don’t really see the reduction in sexism and the simplification of gameplay as a connected thing.  Yes, the sexism was rampant back then, and it hardly started in the 2000′s.  But level design isn’t “trudging out of its adolescence these days” at all; it’s regressing back to kindergarten, quite apart from any movements made towards or away from gender equality.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I think as focus is being placed more on narrative, there’s more of an onus on (relatively) well-rounded characters and more linear experiences, which would connect the phenomenon of simplified gameplay to the phenomenon of (marginally) less stereotyped characters, including less sexist ones.

      In a game that’s mostly about mechanics, the characters are typically not as important, which leads to paper-thin ciphers like Mario, or, unfortunately with female characters, paper-thin sex objects like Lara.

  • doyourealize

    I would argue, though, that Tomb Raider isn’t indicative of games as a whole. Comparing the two, it certainly seems games have lost some sense of “fun”, but what if you compared Fear Effect 2 and Catherine? You could draw a very different conclusion. Catherine certainly didn’t shy away from sexuality in it’s marketing or its gameplay, but still kept a focus on the player, throwing some brutal puzzles at you throughout the game. Sure, there’s an easy mode, but there’s also a hard mode and Babel, and Rapunzel. And about having a sense of fun? You play a man wearing boxers and sporting a pair of goat horns who regularly has discussions about strategy with other sheep. All this with more explanation than FE2 had for its gratuitousness. Looking for a game in which you actually play as a female? Maybe you could have compared Fear Effect 2 to Lollipop Chainsaw? While I think Suda probably overplayed his hand here, it’s a game about a blonde high school chick in a cheerleader’s outfit, chopping off zombie heads with a chainsaw!

    I’d argue not that games have lost their sense of fun, just that games aren’t exactly sure what they’re supposed to be doing at this point. They’re torn between appealing to a larger audience and those who have been playing since The Legend of Zelda. I liked Tomb Raider 2013 (I liked all the games mentioned in my post, actually, though Lollipop Chainsaw not as much), but it certainly could have used an option to turn off the hints. Although who knows? Tomb Raider probably sold way more than Catherine, and who am I to argue with that? That may be the way games are headed, but right now, the fun’s still there.

    • Fluka

      Yeah, throughout this page, I keep seeing people saying that sexism has declined and gameplay has simplified as games try to reach out to a wider audience.  That kind of runs counter at least to my own perception of AAA gaming, which is that it’s still chasing that coveted 18-34 male demographic, just more thoroughly.  It’s simply targeting a wider slice of that specific demographic, which may not all be interested in deep gameplay and interesting puzzles.

      As was brought up in a conversation last week, Tomb Raider is maybe one of 2-3 AAA games this year which has a female protagonist.  I haven’t looked in depth at non-white protagonists, but it’s probably a similar number.  The vast majority of games still employ violence as their primary mechanism, and keep returning to the same military, sci-fi marine, and chainmail-bikini fantasy themes.  It’s been a while since Fear Effect, but it has *not* been a while since the Hitman Absolution latex nuns.  We’re still awash in “edgy” sexual violence, bouncing breast sorceresses, and narrow demographic focus.  The plotting and characterization in *some* games has gotten a lot better and more mature.  But I think it’s unfair to juxtapose Lara’s improved writing with gaming’s movement towards “accessible”/”dumbed-down” mechanics.  Hand-holding gameplay and embarrassing, pandering stuff still go hand-in-hand most of the time.

      • Effigy_Power

        I was about to make a post about how advertising and design may have moved away from the painfully overt phase, but selling with sex certainly hasn’t declined in any medium… and usually (though not exclusively) in gaming that’s done with scantily clad women. Which would be fine, if it wasn’t so gratuitous. Pretty sure Lara would be better served wearing a sweater and a stab-proof vest.

        “Hand-holding gameplay and embarrassing, pandering stuff still go hand-in-hand most of the time.”

        That sentence cuts right to the core if it. Games, for many people, are about fulfilling sexual wishes and power-fantasies, usually at the same time. It’s no wonder that the type of gamer who loves being surrounded by bouncing boobs and short skirts also loves feeling invulnerable and brilliant. Tons of gratuitous nudity crowbared into places where it makes no sense cover the prior, linear level design and hand-holding hints cover the latter.

        These games service a certain stereotype, that of the “e-thug, whimpy closet-gamer douche-bro”, by which they not only demean the women used to bait these people, but also the players themselves.

        -fist-bumps @Fluka:disqus-

        PS: We have to be careful in announcing that sexism and exploitation of men and women in gaming is declining, lest we sound like the out-of-touch weirdos who claim that racism is all but defeated.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          this is good. All of these comments talking about sexism declining have me utterly baffled. Thank you @Fluka:disqus and eff for being awesome as usual. 

          Look at the Dead Island Flesh Husk for advertising that wouldn’t have looked out of place among those videogame mags from the early 2000s. And “gamer culture” is as misogynistic as ever, and even more visible thanks to the internet and playing games online and all that jazz.

          “t’s no wonder that the type of gamer who loves being surrounded by bouncing boobs and short skirts also loves feeling invulnerable and brilliant.” This is something I don’t think I had really considered before and now I feel like a fucking idiot for not realizing it. It all makes so much sense now.

    • http://www.facebook.com/JamesMauriceAlexander James Alexander

      Sexual imagery in Catherine plays a clear purpose OTHER than titillation. And is basically fixed into the premise of the game as it is fundamentally about a guy who is cheating on his girlfriend. How would you tell that story without getting people naked?

      • doyourealize

        I’m confused. You seem to be arguing a claim I didn’t make.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=767343655 William Burr

      There was a good reason to compare Fear Effect 2 to Tomb Raider instead of the other titles. They are both Eidos. Keeping a constant was good way to demonstrate a compare/contrast without spinning of into some Sarkeesian-esque mess where you end up addressing the entire game market and its whole history.

      • doyourealize

        I was careful the author wasn’t just making a statement about one company before I posted this. In the final paragraph, he states that “video games are trudging out their adolescence these days,” showing a wider focus than just Eidos. I wasn’t disagreeing, just offering a counterpoint.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=767343655 William Burr

          Is there maybe something else interesting to offer in Eidos? Maybe this is a personal feeling, but I’d feel more comfortable with all these good discussions of things tending inward than outward, for the sake of context. 

          I mean otherwise what’s to stop every conversation from stopping at Dragon Warrior I and endless repetitions of “But thou must!” Or hey, maybe an across-time view of another game company that’s been around awhile. The guys who did Dishonored maybe. 

  • CrabNaga

    It’s worth noting that PSM did an April Fool’s joke preview for some game called Valkyrie Wilde. It was practically a Tomb Raider clone, but the eponymous main character was nude at all times, except for her holster belt. They just reskinned Lara Croft in a Tomb Raider game and took some screenshots, blurred out the naughty bits, and wrote some fake prose about the game and threw it in with their normal previews.

    Apparently some news stations caught wind of this and ran stories about it like it was a real game, and you can imagine the outrage that ensued. I don’t think PSM was trying to make an overt message about the trend of hypersexualizing female game characters, but since it was around the same time as Fear Effect it’s kind of amusing (and telling) that people thought it was real.

    • George_Liquor

      Ahh yes, the Onion effect: A ever-reliable font of hilarious media histrionics.

  • doyourealize

    I played through most of Fear Effect 2, but I got stuck at the same part twice. Deke was wandering through some sort dream world or something, and something kept killing me. Anyway, I just wanted to say that while I remember Rain and Hana, I don’t remember them being lesbians. I remember them pretending to be lesbians in an elevator to throw off the security guards, but I didn’t think they were actually lesbians. Is that ignorance or forgetfulness on my part, or just an assumption made by others based on the ads?

  • duwease

    Ugh, so much of the advertising culture around games back then was so warping to impressionable kids.  I remember when Phantasmagoria came out, there was a rape scene involved, but the advertising and various reviewers made it sound like it was totally edgy and made the story mature like a real movie.  Writing a review in my school newspaper as a 15-year old who wanted everyone to know how sophisticated and mature I was, I parroted those exact sentiments to my entire school.

    You know those memories that, when you recall them, you physically cringe every time?  That’s one of mine.

  • SamPlays

    What a weird article. It gives the impression that sexism in video games is somehow related to the trend of “hand-holding” in modern games. I can only imagine this is not really anyone’s hypothesis but it makes the entire article somewhat confusing. Really, the evolution of “sex sells” doesn’t seem to have any relationship with the playability of recent games (further to @Fluka:disqus , I’m pretty sure sex is still being sold wholesale to a target demo of young males).

    The topic of gender representation is sufficient on its own – who cares if Tomb Raider is an easy game? Well, I’m sure the topic of trends in gameplay is well worth the attention but I’m personally more interested in the relationship between sex in game narratives, the rationale behind those creative decision, and the perceptions of people who experience those narratives during and between gameplay. More of that, please. 

    And for the record, Beyond Good and Evil got the balance better than any other game I can think of.

    • aklab

      Yep. There’s a definite trend toward making games easier, or at least with more hand-holding, and there’s also…. well, I wouldn’t say “trend,” but at least an occasional effort to sometimes avoid egregious sexism. The article does a fine job examining both of those. 

      But, the headline and opening paragraph come dangerously close to sounding like “modern games are less sexy therefore less fun.” 

      • Fluka

        I think the reason that it rankles is that there are plenty of “hardcore gamers” out there who are willing to say that “political correctness” is part of the “dumbing down” of modern games.  I agree that there are two separate trends here, although one’s been a *lot* more thorough than the other.  But the juxtaposition still feels uncomfortably familiar from some less thoughtful places on the internet.

        • aklab

          I actually tried to write a sentence about how even this hint of a correlation was too close for comfort to the complaints about “PC thought police” and whatnot on other gaming sites. But I had trouble with the logistics of air quotes nested within air quotes and gave up. :P 

        • Effigy_Power

          Interesting that the same demographic of gamers, the so-called “hardcore” (that title makes me cringe every time) blames political correctness for this, considering they also blame it for less sex and less swearing in games.
          From their standpoint at least, the correlation almost seems tangible.
          Then again, I firmly believe that anyone who resorts to blaming things on political correctness is just bitter that they’re not allowed to use racial and sexist slurs anymore. Which once again correlates with the general tone on portals like XBL.
          Clearly game-studios know precisely who to cater to, which is why I laugh almost every time someone declares that their particular studio is against that type of behavior. It’s a bit like Exxon Mobile worrying about the rain forest.

          I appear to have lost track of my point. Something about “PC and the reality of hardcore gamers”. In hindsight I should have done what disquss:aklab said and left it at that. ^_^

        • aklab

          Is there any surer sign that someone’s opinion can be disregarded than the mention of “political correctness”? :P 
          I have literally never heard the term used apart from people decrying it and saying they’re not it. 

        • doyourealize

          Dawkins talks about “herstory”, rather than “history”, and how, while the term itself is ridiculous (the “his” in “history” having nothing to do with “male”) it makes someone aware of history, in our case video games history, told exclusively through the eyes of men. These days, most people are conscious, when they write, to say either “he or she” or “s/he” or pluralize with “they”. Even the people who don’t do this are making a statement by refusing to “bow down” to the will of the politically correct masses. In other words, if you use the male pronoun in writing to mean a generic person, you’re just as aware of the movement towards gender-inclusive pronouns as everyone else, you’re just being reactionary about it. The “hardcore”, it seems, are those reactionaries. Aware of the trend but resistant to it for no other reason than it’s not how things used to be.

        • kthejoker

          I’m not even a “hardcore” gamer, but the math seems pretty simple:

          FE2 = new Tomb Raider – annoying “dumbing down”/narrative/QTE bits + 5% (10?) more misogyny.

          And FE2 is a far superior game when it comes to gameplay. 

          I’m not clamoring for misogyny, but it seems like the design-by-committee-for-a-wider-audience approach isn’t helping enough in the social consciousness bit to justify the tradeoff in gameplay and engagement.

          But I’m also content to know that this isn’t the fate of the whole game industry, and as long as games like Syphon Filter and Portal and Infamous and Uncharted and Dishonored are being made (games with FE2′s playability and none of its dubious “charm”), then I’ll remain a happy gamer.

      • SamPlays

        To put it another way: “Sexy games are more fun”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

    I SWEAR I have an article ready to be posted on another (read: my own) site about Fear Effect 2. In some ways, I agree and disagree with the take on this game.

    Does the game double down on the sexuality of the characters? Absolutely. Titillation at its most explicit. But I do think, at some level, Eidos did try to do something progressive, if the final result wasn’t exactly what they wanted (this is more apparent if you played the first Fear Effect).

    For starters, this may be the first game ever where you play a main gay character. Sure, it’s LESBIANS and they’re SUPER HOT, but Hana’s relationship to Rain feels genuine (or, as genuine as video games characters can be.) She’s protective of her lover and they flirt and tease each other, which is definitely part of the whole male gaze problem, but I think the rapport works on the character level as well. Hana herself is from the tough-as-nails bad girl trope, but I feel as if her character comes from a decent place, being part of a crazy conspiracy that spans alternate dimensions and other weird Chinese cultural mysticisms.

    I totally GET the argument, but I do feel we need to give SOME props to Eidos for indulging in a gay protagonist that has agency, since in the first game Hana has ALOT more going for her than the sex appeal, and the sketchy but burgeoning relationships with the other two playable characters really work as well (again, in video game terms).

    I feel like its one of those “double-edged swords” kind of things. Like how we praise stronger female characters even when they usually are also created more sexually explicit (Lollipop Chainsaw). I think its the same here – YAY for a gay protagonist, BOO for the sexualizing of her.

    • Effigy_Power

      It is definitely hard to rightfully point out this exploitative crap on one side, but avoid sounding like a puritan on the other.
      Sex is fine. Nudity is fine. Big tits and big muscles are also fine.
      The question is why and for who, and in this specific case, it’s basically “Look at girls kissing, neat, huh?”. That’s not saying that Eidos should be chided for making characters that are lesbian and sexy, but it should be chided for making this pretty much the central gimmick about them. (I am judging this according to this article, some adds and a few other articles about the game, I have never played it and might be wrong of course).
      The difference here is sex appeal because it’s valid and sex appeal because it sells. If you make a female protagonist with large breasts, that’s totally fine. People have breasts. If you call her “Titty LaPoof” and the game consists of mostly cleavage shots, it’s not fine.
      It’s a definite tight-rope to walk. I just haven’t seen much reason to assume that anyone in the gaming industry has an (inner) ear for it.

      I made a pun.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

        Yeah, I think I’m coming at it from a person who played through both games and enjoyed them at the time. The games definitely had a distinct style to them at the time, and they get just… so weird as you play through them, which is both a blessing and a curse.

        It’s odd, because while Hana is, by definition, a titillating sexpot character type, her first outing was arguably much more defined and developed than Lara’s first (and even second) outing. Hana worked with two other people and they hardly liked each other; Hana could hold her own (against badguys and demons, etc.); Hana saves their lives (sort of) – and so on.

        It’s in Retro Helix that everything sexual is turned up to 11 for obvious marketing reasons. But at the same time, it fleshes her out more, character wise, by giving her a gay lover, but not defining her solely as a HOT LESBIAN WHO KICKS ASS. It’s a character decision that surprisingly follows from the first game, despite how explicit they make the models/activities within it. All the explicit stuff happens in the first 1/3 of the game, then it gets back to the nitty-gritty of its characters and bizarre story.

        I fast-tracked publishing my article on it here, at the risk of self-promotion, but just in case people want to read more.

        • PaganPoet

          Ah, read this after responding to your above comment. You’ve played the game, I haven’t. I’ll have to concede that I’m wrong on this point if the character really does have depth beyond HOT LESBIAN.

    • PaganPoet

      I don’t know. I somewhat agree with your point-that it was ballsy to have a gay person be the main character-and I’ll admit, I haven’t actually played this game, so I’m definitely not the best person to judge, but the characters don’t seem like genuine people to me. They are “gay,” sure, but gay in the same way porn stars are “gay,” i.e. to titillate straight males. It’s telling that the gay main characters here are sexy women and not sexy men, isn’t it?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

         Oh, there’s definitely the chance that they totally pulled a Heroes – ie, making the character a LESBIAN OUT OF NOWHERE to increase sales/attention.

        That being said, in reference to the series as a whole, I do think that the developer, I don’t know, tried to add more to it? Like, in the first game, if I remember correctly, Hana uses her sexuality to seduce some marks – typical conman stuff  – but by the middle of the game, that all takes a backseat to the crazy mystical stuff that develops. Her, Deke, and the other dude come together after pretty much hating each other, and the sexual stuff is nil. Hana doesn’t have -any- sexual rapport with any other characters. It’s always platonic at best.

        Which then follows into the prequel, revealing she was gay, and if anything, it kinda has a stereotypical “butch gay” vibe. All in all, I would say that it’s progress in the same way that Amos and Andy was progress – it gave a minority a “presence,” albeit an EXTREMELY stereotypical and oppressive one.

        • Effigy_Power

          I can’t remember where I read it today, but someone somewhere argued that “presence” alone isn’t valid.
          Al Jolson singing “Mammy” was presence for African-American culture, but the most insulting and demeaning minstrel version of it. I feel like that’s what women, gay or straight, and gay men as well are getting a lot of. People saying that we should be happy that it’s okay now to talk about us and game-developers clapping themselves on the shoulder for being so progressive, but then putting on a display that is quite honestly shameful.
          Even Bioware, who is arguably leading the fray there, didn’t have actual gay characters until ME3. All same-sex romance options before were also open to opposite sex players, whereas the staunchly hetero NPCs remained so.

          To make it clear, I am not arguing with your point, I just thought this was something to add.

  • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

    I miss the days whens games could have sexuality without the feminists whining, a game with scantily clad females? HOOOOOOOW DAAAAAAAAARE THEEEEEEEEEEEEY!!!!

    look, I’m a very anti-censorship guy, if something offends you, then fucking deal with it, you do not have a right to not be offended, if a game offends you, don’t fucking play it

    I have NO problem with games that want to have non-sexualized female characters, none whatsoever, it’s when the feminists want to pressure game makers into never having having anything but that I start to get a little pissed off, freedom of speech is about protecting the stuff that offends you, not the stuff that doesn’t

    and, I’m a very sex positive guy, I HATE this feminist attitude of sex=demeaning to women, it’s the left’s version of wanting to censor sexuality, versus the right’s wanting to censor it because the Bible says so, both are fucking bullshit

    I remember when Hot Coffee happened and we had the moral watchdogs yelling “WOOOONT SOMEONE THINK OF THINK OF THE CHIIIIIIILDREN!!!!???” while gamers just laughed at them and said “what’s the big fucking deal?”. but if Hot Coffee happened today, would it also get gamers themselves offended and accusing Rockstar of “exploiting women”? probably and that’s a fucking sad state of affairs 

    • PaganPoet

      I’m not sure I get your sentiment. So…you miss the days when a problem existed that didn’t affect you and now you’re annoyed that the people it did affect are calling it out? Hmm.

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody on this website say that there is no room for sex in video games. Sex, sexy women, skin, cleavage, bikini bulges, coyish giggles, exploitation, skimpy outfits, etc. Sure, why not? The problem is that until recently, it’s the end-all and be-all of female characters, and it gets boring fast. I think the point of discussions like this is that, hey, there are adults who still buy and play video games and, yes, we like sexy things (I personally prefer Chris Redfield’s new sailor outfit; he looks like he’s on the way to the Fire Island White Party; Capcom needs to announce the dude is gay already), but most of the time we want characters that have some real depth to them. 

      Don’t invoke freedom of speech, all that does is stifle real conversation. Nobody is calling for anybody’s imprisonment over shitty female characters. They have the right to create stupid characters and we have the right to discuss, analyze, and criticize them for it.

      • Fluka

        In addition to general agreement with the above…

        *Quick google of “Chris Redfield sailor* Oh my god!  I didn’t know Shore Leave was in Resident Evil!

        • PaganPoet

          I too just googled “chris redfield sailor” and it only took three rows of images until the porn started. Guess I’m not the only one who likes the outfit.

      • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

        it just seems to me like people like Anita Sarkeesian are demanding that every game should fit their worldview, every time a game does have a sexy character we have to listen to people moan about it (see: Dragon’s Crown), it’s just tiresome, don’t gamers have enough shit to complain about already?

        • George_Liquor

          I ain’t exactly her biggest fan either, but to her credit, she hasn’t gone full-Lieberman and demanded anything from anybody.

          As for Dragon’s Crown, when  this happens to be one of the top hits in Google, then I can’t help but think that maybe she’s got a point after all.

    • Citric

      I’m largely with PaganPoet here, aside from the Chris Redfield sailor thing. The problem isn’t that sex exists, it’s that we get some watermelons on a plank instead of interesting characters who we care about. We get tits and ass instead of professionals who are dressed appropriate for their job. I want characters instead of a breast delivery system, and that’s generally my problem with the more gratuitous aspects of the industry. Treating characters as people doesn’t mean discarding sex, on the contrary if we have well rounded characters who we care about, that sex gets way better because we get an emotional investment. If I just want sex between people I don’t care about, that is why pornography exists. 

      As a straight-ish guy, I can’t help but think it’s demeaning to me as well. Really, do you think that I’m such a horn dog that the suggestion of a nipple is all that you need to do? I mean, look at that Fear Effect ad, the entire premise is “boobs!” Since I’m being marketed towards, are they saying that boobs are the only thing I need want to give them a healthy chunk of money? That’s pretty insulting. I want a game that is fun and gives me a new experience. Sometimes that experience involves boobs, but hopefully those boobs are attached to someone who is a compelling character in her own right, and exists for reasons far beyond selling boobs to horny teenagers who somehow haven’t figured out the internet.

  • ChicaneryTheYounger

    I do not like this comparison between Hostel 2: Hostel Territory and The Descent, because The Descent is a bloody great horror film. I will not hear otherwise.