Revisiting The X-Files – Pilot

With the recent announcement that Scully and Mulder will be returning for a 6 episode stint in the 10th season of the X-Files, it seems like a great time to  rewatch the series. The show has had an important place in my life, with it becoming somewhat of an obsession of mine at the end of grade school when it was first on. It spawned many all night watching marathons, inspired me to draw its stylized X on pretty much anything from school desks to my jeans with magic marker, caused me to dye my hair red for the first time, and may have influenced me into sneaking around industrial parks once or twice, in search of government conspiracies.

So grab a cup of coffee, maybe some sunflower seeds or a mushroom pizza, and let’s revisit The X-Files together.


The opening shot is dark. Fade into the lush British Colombia woods, a sight we’ll become quite familiar with over the next 5 seasons. A young woman scrambles through the forest, afraid. Running from something. The wind picks up and an unnaturally bright light appears over the horizon, framing the shape of a man approaching her. She looks up at him as the light overtakes the shot. The next morning the woman is found dead with two marks on her back and identified as one of the members of the class of ’89. It’s happening again.

Dana Scully with the Cigarette Smoking Man in the background

Cut to Washington and we see the first star of the show, Gillian Anderson as Agent Dana Scully, here to lay down some science and set hearts aflutter. I even love her in shoulder pads. Scully’s first scene tells us a lot. She’s eager, informed, well-spoken, proud. She’s not afraid to crack some jokes in front of her stuffed suit superiors, including CSM (Cigarette Smoking Man) who lurks silently on the sidelines, smoking as always. At her first meeting with David Duchovny’s Mulder the chemistry is instantaneous. Though I find the scripted dialogue of their first encounter a bit stilted, there’s a wonderful tension between the two actors which only approves throughout the episode. Once the nature of each of the agents is established – Scully is a skeptic, Mulder an enthusiastic believer in the paranormal – they’re off to the very plausible state of Oregon to investigate a death and possible alien abduction.

The actual story of this episode isn’t what most appeals to me. As is common with network television, the pilot is usually one of the weaker episodes of the series because it has to spend so much time setting up what’s to come. There’s unexplained phenomena, possible alien abduction, lost time, and hints of conspiracy at both local and very high levels.

Dana Scully and Fox Mulder talking in a motel room

The best thing about the episode is how quickly yet naturally it develops the relationship between Scully and Mulder that will drive the entire series. There’s a point midway through the episode where Scully goes to Mulder’s room, concerned that she has marks on her back similar to those found on the dead girl. Though the decision to show Scully in her bra during the pilot episode was gratuitous, it leads to a delightful moment between her and Mulder. After Scully’s brief moment of vulnerability and the trust she places in her new partner, Mulder offers some vulnerability of his own and opens up about why the x-files mean so much to him. When he was a child his younger sister was abducted, unassumingly by aliens and he’s been chasing the truth ever since. It’s a great way to both deliver some exposition and show how quickly the two agents begin to trust either other despite their different perspectives on the job at hand. It’s a great relationship, and one which will remain platonic for quite a while, much to the chagrin of shippers everywhere. Though honestly I was always more likely to ship Scully and Skinner. Or Scully and me. Or Mulder and me.

Once the case is wrapped up, the only physical evidence of abduction (or of anything) that remains is an implant of unknown origins found in the sinus cavity of one of the victims. The last shot shows CSM storing it among thousands of hidden evidence boxes deep within the Pentagon. Likely beside the Ark of the Covenant. It seems this conspiracy rabbit hole runs deep.

Under the Covers

I’ve been playing the remaster of Saints Row 4 on XBox One and thoroughly enjoying it. Besides engaging gameplay, zany antics, and ridiculously juvenile yet hilarious jokes, Saints Row boasts one of the best character creators I’ve seen in a game. When you create The Boss you have a ton of options. Aside from choosing your sex, you can choose your race and your skin colour. You can choose from multiple different voice actors with different accents to voice your character, and further customize the pitch of your voice. You can make your character appear young or old, and choose a body build that you like. Then there are a thousand different clothing options. And if you ever want to change things up, you can do so at any point in the game.

My character is what I’d like to look like in a video game. She has purple hair, some meat on her bones, and some major eyeliner and brow game. She’s voiced by the wonderful Laura Bailey who I wish I sounded like. But every time I load up the game, I’m greeted with this guy.

Saints Row 4 cover and loading screen art

Who the fuck is this guy?

He’s certainly not me. He’s not in my crew. I’ve never seen him in my game.

I love playing the game but every time I’m met with this image, which is also the art on the game box, there’s a moment of cognitive dissonance. The canon protagonist (at least in marketing materials) has nothing to do with my experience of playing the game. It seems so incongruous to offer up this great character creator that lets people create the kind of protagonist they want to play, but then show us a design that’s likely completely different anytime there’s a chance.

Saints Row is obviously not the only game that has done this.

Covers for Dragon Age 2, Fable 3, Sunset Overdrive all showing a white male main character

Dragon Age 2, Fable 3, and Sunset Overdrive also all portray the protagonist as a white male despite offering other options to the player.

The Mass Effect series boasts a decent character creator (though it’s not as robust as Saints Row’s), but all of the artwork around the first 2 games still features a default white male Shepard. Incidentally, he kind of looks like the guy from the Saints Row cover with a buzz cut.

Mass Effect 1 and 2 cover art

For Mass Effect 3 Bioware’s marketing department realized some people had recognized the superiority of Jennifer Hale’s Shepard (I refuse to use the term femShep, because she. is. Shepard.) In a puzzling move (or not so puzzling if you want to absolve yourself of all responsibility), Bioware put the decision on how she would look to a fan vote. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired, Caucasian Shepard won the popular vote in what could be boiled down to a beauty contest. Then there was a second vote to decide her hair colour. Yep, hard-ass, space Commander, first human Spectre Shepard had her skin colour, features, and hair style voted on by the public. Now that there was a canon design for both the male and female Shepard, Mass Effect 3 had a reversible box cover (of which maleShep was still the default).

Mass Effect 3 covers

I’m afraid that marketing departments just can’t win with me. Though I can (and have) flipped the cover of my Mass Effect 3 box for 360 to show the version of Shepard that’s closer to my own, it’s still not my Shepard. My Shepard is an N7 Marine and she sure as hell would never have a haircut that allowed bangs to obstruct her eyes. That’s really not safe for combat. While having an option for female box art is something, it still doesn’t take into account how people have created their own version of Shepard. Why does she have to be white? Why does she need to have delicate, conventionally attractive features? Why does she have a design that you can’t really even replicate in-game while box art maleShep and in-game maleShep can look pretty much identical? These are the great mysteries of the Mass Effect world.

I think the best way to market games that allow you to customize your character is to not show the protagonist in the artwork. It’s the only way to avoid that sense of dissonance and the feeling that if you’re not playing as scruffy white male #42, you’re not playing the character as it was designed. A number of games have done this, and I don’t think any have suffered from not putting a face on the box art.

Dragon Age Inquisition box art

The box art for Dragon Age: Inquisition has an enticing design that shows something of the story, without committing to a specific character design. This should work for most characters. Unless you play a dwarf, then you’re out of luck.

Dragon Age Origins box cover

Dragon Age: Origins has artwork that doesn’t give any indication of a canon Warden, while still being quite effective.

Fallout 3 and New Vegas box art

The newer Fallout games both feature heavily armored figures which don’t give away sex, race, or appearance, but tell you a lot about the game world. Though I’m sad to admit I always assumed the figure on the cover of New Vegas was male just because of lack of sculpted boob plate. But when I force that stereotype out of my head, it could really be a man or a woman.

Why spend so much time and effort giving players robust character customization only to default to the standard scruffy white male protagonist in all the marketing materials?

 

Too Much Time to Blog

It’s been a bit quiet here of late. The reason is that I’m currently out of a job. I tend to do most of my writing (and reading of other blogs) at work while I’m strapped to a computer and have downtime. When I’m at home I tend to avoid the computer outside of using it to play games. So I’m not particularly up on the news at the moment or inspired to write anything.

On the bright side, I’ve had a lot of time to play games and I’ve been making videos a bit more frequently. I’m still working on finding my voice and getting comfortable with editing and talking to a camera, but I think I’ve improved since my first one. Lately I’ve been doing recommendations for great short games that can be completed in a couple of hours and also replaying and reviewing my favorite games from a long, long time ago. If you’re into videos and haven’t already, please check them out. Subscribes, likes, comments, and constructive criticism are always appreciated.

Also, the first episode of the new Contains Moderate Peril podcast that I’m now a co-host on went up this week. I think it went well and will only get better as we all get more used to working together. On this episode we talked about cheating in video games, spoilers, celebrity voice acting, and dlc & microtransactions. I really enjoy that the podcast features voices from both sides of the Atlantic (and it also makes our voices all really easy to tell apart), and I had a lot of fun recording the first episode. You can grab the podcast from the CMP website, iTunes, or Stitcher.

In terms of what I’ve been playing, there’s a lot! I’m really into Saints Row IV right now. Sometimes I forget how great it is when I spend a lot of time on mini-games, then I do a loyalty or story quest and am reminded about what a ridiculously fun and funny game it is. Highlight so far (other than the killer opening) – singing Opposites Attract with Pierce.

I’ve also been replaying Mass Effect 3. Unfortunately I lost my save from a few months ago, so I had to load up my original game and I’ve been doing all the DLC for the first time. I finally did The Citadel which was a blatant and wonderful bit of fan service. Unfortunately, though I was looking forward to the Vega romance this DLC introduced, they did it in the most creepy and inappropriate way possible and made my Shepard feel like a sexual predator. So I’m just going to block that out of my memory of the DLC.

I played through Dungeons of Dredmor, an amusing dungeon crawler. It was fun for a bit though it got old pretty quickly. It’s a roguelike, which I’m really not into, but I was able to turn off permadeath so I at least got some enjoyment out of it.

I’ve been slowly making my way through Grim Fandango. I issued a challenge to myself a while back that I’d go through adventure games without walkthroughs. That went okay in the first year of the game, but I got stuck pretty soon after and had to give up on that challenge. Adventure games were always one of my favourite genres, by oh my god, the puzzle solutions are so stupid and out of left field. I think with most of my favourites I only still enjoy playing them now because I remember all the solutions so I never feel like an idiot, because playing Grim Fandango for the first time sure makes me feel dumb. I think the game has a lot of things going for it – the concept is great, the writing and characters are funny – but those puzzles. Also, for the remaster I really wish they had highlighted objects that could be picked up and hidden entrances to new screens a bit more.

Fantasia: Music Evolved is a rhythm game that uses the Kinect on the XBoxOne. I played this for the first time with KaleriSara, and a number of alcoholic beverages and it was hilarious. The game has you waving your arms around like a conductor to create and remix music, and though going through menus and such with the Kinect can be a bit janky, doing the songs is great fun. I’ve been slowly making my way through the single player game when I feel like doing some more active gaming.

I also played through Bionic Heart, which is a visual novel dating sim thing, and it was really not for me.

That’s it for now. Hopefully I’ll figure out a way to be more active here (or get a job) soon.

Liebster Award Questionnaire

Today I was nominated by Mystical Mesmer to complete the Liebster Award questionnaire, a blogging meme that aims to help people discover new blogs and discover new things about the people who write them. I need to share 11 random facts about myself, answer 11 questions from Mystical Mesmer, and ask 11 questions of 5 other bloggers.

Without further ado…

11 random facts about Pam
My favourite colour is purple. When I was 3 I would only answer to the name Scarlett. I miss my dog while I’m at work. I can’t play any instruments and have no artistic ability. I would rather spend a paycheck on a ridiculously extravagant dinner than on material goods. I once stole a monkey. I’m allergic to walnuts and pecans. I have no piercings. I used to ride horses and I miss it. My dream job is to work for a video game studio and tell them when they’re making stupid decisions. I like animals more than humans.

And now the questions from The Mystical Mesmer:

1. What are the three major elements of your ideal video game?
Story, intuitive controls, great characters.

2. Big city, suburb, or countryside?
Right now I’d have to say city. It’s where I live now, though I can’t say I make the most of it. At some point I’d like to live in the country though, and have lots of animals.

3. What’s the origin of your blogging name?
I started as a WoW blogger, and at the time I was playing both as a resto Druid and a Hunter. There was an ongoing joke about how hunters should be able to tame Druids.

4. Aeris lives and you’re hired to retell Final Fantasy 7. What role does she play?
Aeris realizes that Cloud and Tifa are supposed to be together, so she stops pursuing him and puts all of her efforts into healing the planet. She turns out to be a chocobo whisperer and allows the party to access the Weapons without all that awful breeding and racing. In the final encounter with Sephiroth she whispers something in his ear that sends him running off, crying, never to be seen again. After this she returns to Cosmo Canyon with Red to continue healing the planet and teaching others.

5. What’s your favorite biome?
Desert.

6. Write a haiku love poem to this morning’s breakfast.
Sweet golden goddess
Espresso, milk, sugar, foam
Divine latte love.

7. What’s your preferred device for reading blogs?
I like to read blogs on my computer. I use Feedly to compile everything, but tend to click through to the blogs themselves if a topic interests me.

8. If you were to start up a video game company, what would you name it?
I was going to say Bad Doggie, after my pup, but that sounds a lot like Naughty Dog! Umm… Play This.

9. Which of the Seven Dwarves would you be and why?
Sleepy, this describes me most of the time. Though I think I’d make a great Grumpy at times.

10. What form of exercise do you find to be the most effective?
I’d say weight training, with a trainer who will make you keep going and not be lazy. It’s been a while since I’ve done this though. The most effective workout that I actually do right now is playing Just Dance on xbox or chasing my dog around.

11. How long is a piece of string?
1.61619926 × 10-35 meters


 

I nominate the following people to answer my questions:
Kal from Power Word: What (or Spinning Tales)
Dahakha from Star-Fired Beef
Rades from Orcish Army Knife
Murf from Murf Versus
Arolaide from Dragonsworn

And the questions to answer:
1. What’s the last song you listened to?
2. When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
3. If you could live in any fictional world (from a game, book, movie, whatever) which would it be?
4. Stark, Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, or Baelish?
5. Sci-fi or fantasy?
6. Do you finish most video games you play (if they have endings)?
7. If you had a superpower what would it be?
8. What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
9. What food could you eat every day and never get sick of?
10. What video game character do you most identify with?
11. In order to complete a quest would you rather use might, cunning, or magic?

Game.Stop, a short fiction

“Did you know you can trade in your old games for credit towards your purchases?”

My eyes glance around the store. A 5-foot tall poster tells me to Go Green Save Money by trading in my old games for someone else’s old games. Empty game cases line the walls, each one’s cover art marred with a bright green Trade Me sticker. I look down to my left, then right. On each side of me is a bin that shouts Recycled and is filled with more games, more green stickers. Finally I look down at the counter, covered in flyers promising me the best value if I trade in the most wanted titles. I could get up to $30 if I trade in The Order, a game I paid $70 for when it came out 9 days ago.

“Yes” I say flatly.

She continues, undeterred. “Right now we’re having a promotion where if you bring in 5 of your old games that are worth $8 or more we’ll give you $100 towards…”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard her go through this speech. In fact, I had just heard her recite it to the two customers in front of me. The glint in her eyes seems to dim with each repetition. While the words fall out of her mouth in the way only things so rehearsed and meaningless can do, I wonder what she’s really thinking.

“…we’re also currently taking pre-orders on the new Amiibos that are coming out…”

I imagine she was initially really excited to get this job. The money probably sucks and I doubt customer service was her first choice, but the love of games made up for it. Who could complain about getting paid to be around and talk about games all day? I bet it was fun for a while. Thumbing through the shelves each day she probably discovered all kinds of new games she wanted to play. Her first few paychecks likely went right back to into the store. The employee discount was small, but at least it was something.

“…there’s still a bonus if you trade in your old 3DS for the New 3DS, which is compatible with the Amiibos…”

I wonder how quickly it started going downhill. When was the first time her manager took her aside and admonished her for chatting about games too much and touting the amazing trade-in deals too little? Told her it was mandatory to recite at least 5 of the current offers to any customer she cashed out or spoke to on the phone. Reinforced that she should always ALWAYS sell used copies of the games over new.

“Would you like to guarantee your game for only $2?”

How many times has she been told to get those guarantee sales up? How often is she compared to her obnoxiously overeager coworker who always has a smile plastered onto his face and is unphased by the dirty looks he gets as he goes on, and on, and on.

“No thank you.” I smile in a vague attempt to offer my sympathy for having to ask this question..

“Are you sure? In case of any damage or scratching we’d replace the disc…”

As much as this overly long sales pitch makes me want to scream, I stay quiet. It’s not her fault this is what her job requires of her. She knows this is a racket, that her place of employment is basically picking the pockets of the game companies, a number of whom make games she loves (and some of whom she couldn’t care less about). That fact is probably easy enough to put at the back of her mind though, while me telling her what I really think of her sales pitch would not be so easy to ignore.

I shake my head.

“Do you have an Edge card?”

I’m sure she’s seen her fair share of customers who are less concerned with being polite. Seeing people’s eyes glaze over as she begins the checkout process is probably the best she has to look forward to. Outright verbal abuse hopefully doesn’t happen often but she’s a sales associate, so I’m sure it does happen.

As I hand her my loyalty card and payment I hear her coworker haranguing a couple browsing through the XBox One games behind me.

“Did you know you can trade in your old games for credit towards this purchase?” he asks eagerly.

“We don’t have any games to trade with us.”

“That’s okay, if you bring them in with your receipt later on I can reimburse you for the value of the games.” I glance over my shoulder and see that he’s standing very close to the couple, nodding as he talks.

“Well, I’m not sure our son has anything he’d be willing to part with,” the woman responds, glancing at her husband.

It’s not hard to tell that the couple is uncomfortable and just want to pick out a game.

“Well, you can bring in anything, even if the discs are scratched…” he just keeps going.

I think back to when I was a teenager and I used to like visiting Electronics Boutique. The walls were lined with shiny new copies of Playstation, Nintendo, and big box computer games. Now the PC games are all but gone. If there was ever a valid argument for the merits of PC gaming it’s that game stores don’t harass you about recycling them.

I quickly take back my cards and the bag the woman at the cash hands me and start rushing out of the store.

“Don’t forget to bring your games back to us when you’re done with them.”

I promise myself I won’t go back there. Again.

Dragon Age 2 is a Better Game than Dragon Age: Origins

After playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, I had the urge to replay through the Dragon Age series. I started with Dragon Age: Origins and I have to admit, it was a little rough going. I think part of the problem was my choice of class. 2H warrior combat consists of pressing an ability button about 3x per minute, it’s really dull. Then I started Dragon Age 2 and I have to say, it’s a much better game.

Oddly, many people don’t agree with this. From a critical perspective (at least a metacritic perspective), DA:O has an average review score that’s a bit higher (8-9% depending on platform) than DA2. As far as user reviews go though, DA2 received a deluge of really bad review scores and has an average score of 44% compared to DA:O’s 86%. Because gamers are spiteful creatures, a little like Hurlocks.

That’s not to say DA:O is bad. It’s a good game and I like it but DA2 does almost everything better. Like…

Dialogue is better

  • Going back to DAO’s voiceless protagonist is very strange. The Warden doesn’t feel like an actual character, she’s an empty vessel. This is a huge downside to DAO.
  • The dialogue wheel is much more interesting and effective than static response options.
  • In DAO the mean/negative/renegade? conversation options just make your character sound like an asshole, while in DA2 the conversation options are more snarky or direct. Playing through the Dwarf Noble origin story, most of the “bad” dialogue options basically amounted to “Get away from me you lowly peasant.”
  • In DAO, despite women being present in all the major battles, and in positions of power and leadership throughout Thedas, female Wardens are still subjected to “What? You’re a woman? How shocking!” reactions all the time.

Relationships with your party members are better

  • No trading random gifts for sex or acceptance.
  • Each of your party members has their own life, it’s not 100% about the player character. You can visit them in their homes, they can visit you at yours. They can have relationships with other party members or NPCs which can grow over time.
  • Other characters can disagree with you, but still stick around.
  • In DAO it’s really easy to miss or even kill possible party members. If you didn’t know Zevran was supposed to be a party member, all you need to do is make one choice and you kill him and miss a lot. Likewise with Wynne – agree with Cullen in the Tower? She attacks you, you kill her, no healer for you this playthrough.

Combat is 700x better (I did the math)

  • From an animation standpoint, everything is faster and slicker.
  • You can move around the battlefield much quicker, rather than feeling like you’re wading through quicksand.
  • Talent trees are bigger, more interesting, and allow you to customize your character much more.
  • By the end of DAO you pretty much have every talent you can use so your choices meant very little.
  • Your companions get enough tactic slots for all of their abilities.
  • You can take your dog into fights with you without having them take a spot in your party.
  • When you tell a character to take a potion, they take the damn potion.

Story is better

  • I enjoyed the story from DAO, especially the first time around, but it’s a fairly generic fantasy.
  • DA2 has a lot more depth. There are more politics, there’s more nuance. Elements from other parts of Thedas get incorporated into quests or character back-stories rather than just referred to in one of the 7 billion codex entries.
  • Since the story takes place over a number of years, you can see how Hawke is making a difference in Kirkwall and in the lives of its people. The scope of the location is small, but the scope of the story and timeline is much bigger.

UI, inventory and controls are better

  • Having your party members have a single set of armor that can be upgraded, makes inventory management much less tedious. You can still customize their weapons and accessories but don’t need to worry about armor, boots, helms, and gloves. It’s also easier to tell when something is an upgrade.
  • Besides gear, there’s less junk to manage. At once point in DAO I had 20 gift items taking up space in my inventory, there’s none of that anymore. Also, quest items you pick up can’t be accidentally junked or sold.
  • Runes are much simpler to manage. Their effectiveness depends on the level of gear you’re adding them to so you don’t have to worry about different rune levels like journeyman, master, etc.
  • It’s much easier to tell your other party members to stay put, or move as a group. They get in your way a lot less often.
  • There’s more useful stuff to find, like items that start side-quests, recipes, or armor upgrades. This makes looting everything much more useful – you have a chance to pick up something other than yet another damn Darkspawn Dagger.

So that’s that. I know the big complaint is that DA2 recycled dungeon areas which, I’ll admit, isn’t good but in the grand scheme of things is rather minor.

Never Enough

This is an odd, rather uncomfortable post to be writing.

It’s caused by Patricia Arquette’s comments during her Oscar acceptance speech last night, where she called for wage equality and equal rights for women in America. I thought it was nice that she advocated for this during her time on stage. However, after reading through my Twitter feed for an hour, the point was driven home that her speech was trite, noninclusive, and shitty for not bringing up the fact that women of colour have it even worse than white women when it comes to wage gaps (and pretty much everything else). Also, I’m shitty for liking that she said something at all.

This also happened after Emma Watson’s speech to the UN. While I did find her talk lacking in an actual call to action, I thought it was a rousing speech that invited people to feminism in a friendly 101-level way. Then the Internet told me all the problems with what she said. It focused too much on men. It didn’t take into account the more serious issues faced by women around the world. It came from a rich white girl.

I’m trying to educate myself more about social issues, but the community is not always a friendly one.

If you’re not in the most oppressed group, you should not complain. Don’t bring up some transgression that’s occurred because of your sex or race or economic status, unless you also bring up the transgressions against the people who have it even worse than you. Maybe I’m misunderstanding tone, but I often feel like the message being sent is “if you can’t advocate for everyone at once, you’re terrible and you should shut up.”

I often feel for others who try to get into social issues, or feminism specifically. I’ve seen a lot of backlash against “daddy feminists,” men who have daughters and realize that women should be treated equally and with respect because that’s what they want for their kid. No, it shouldn’t take having a daughter for men to realize that women are people, but I also wouldn’t tell a man he’s terrible because having a daughter is what made him care about women’s issues. There’s this weird, almost gatekeep-y vibe that if you don’t care about everything, if you don’t have the right reasons for starting to care, if you can’t eloquently show support for every issue at all times, you should just stay quiet.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people care the most about issues which affect them personally. Does this make them terrible? No, I think it just makes them human. There are people out there who have the energy and fortitude to care equally about everything at once but it’s not easy. I try to be aware of social issues but I only have my own experiences to go on so issues that affect me personally are the ones that are at the forefront in my mind.

Intersectionality is the goal, the thing that we should be striving for, but it’s not something everyone can just magically understand and perfectly represent overnight. It’s difficult to continue to try when you’re constantly given the message that you’re not doing enough.