The Ones Who Walk Away

At some point in my schooling–high school or college, I can’t recall anymore–I received an assignment to read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If you like thought-provoking short stories and don’t like spoilers, I suggest taking a moment aside to read it before proceeding further! (CW: child abuse.)

The story describes a utopian city. People there live in joyful leisure, their every need provided for, never suffering more than the slightest knocks of ill fortune. There is but one catch: to sustain this perfection, Omelas keeps an innocent child imprisoned in abject squalor, fed greasy gruel and sometimes kicked for good measure. Every citizen of Omelas knows that the prisoner is there, and that if they are ever released, Omelas’s prosperity will end. Some few members of the city decide that they can not live under such a cruel bargain, and depart for the unknown lands beyond the mountains: the titular ones who walk away.

In the class, we examined Le Guin’s story as a thought exercise about utilitarianism. Do you find Omelas’s arrangement acceptable, as a utilitarian calculation might suggest? Or would you leave the city, believing that no amount of bliss could justify brutalizing a child? Self-righteous as I was (am?), I wrote my little essay response saying of course I would walk away. I couldn’t bear participating in an injustice like that.

It was a thought experiment, a hypothetical, an abstract what-if. I didn’t apply it to my own life. I didn’t stop to think: this is Omelas. I’m living there right now.

Whatever my struggles with money or productivity or mental health, I have it pretty good. I have a house, and food, and the endless entertainments of the Internet. I live (for now?) in a representative democracy where I can freely choose my religion, my friends, my self-expression.

And every one of those privileges is built upon exploitation and injustice.

The land my house rests upon belonged to the First Nations before white settlers seized it. I own the house thanks to a system of city and suburb, mortgage and credit score, that segregates white from black and rich from poor. Beneath even that is the dollar itself, token in the grand lottery of circumstance that randomly decides some people should have more of the good things in life than others, while lying that they “earned” it. The Internet, for all that it was supposed to save us by making information available to all, thrives by turning people’s attention, dreams, and relationships into data to be mined for profit. Its algorithms will happily tell you the Holocaust never happened, and the creators of those algorithms are okay with this. Our ever-worshiped democracy deploys military force against unarmed people and has selected a xenophobic rapist for its highest office.

I’ve seen the prisoner in the cellar. And yet here I still am, enjoying the Festival of Summer.

From a very early age, when I was sharply punished for saying “bad words” I parroted from my parents, I have been a fastidious follower of rules. It was many years before I would so much as jaywalk. And yet I have also always had a churning transgressive streak. I grew up near the St. Louis Arena. For the years when it lay empty, I daydreamed of trespassing there, wandering its deserted corridors and locker rooms. In college I got to toy with this dream of urban exploration by hiking through a ruined brick factory and learning the basics of parkour. Later I became a proponent of free culture in defiance of copyright. Most recently, I have taken an interest in antifas and cop watchers who stand up to hatred and unjust power in ways that are not always polite, tidy, or legal.

It seems I’m more primed for this than I’d have realized. How, then, can I walk away?

Hardcore anarchism would counsel me to literally walk away–abandon my house, my job, my marriage, and live in free and open defiance of all systems of control. I don’t think that’s me either, though. I can’t embrace the kind of nihilistic relativism that would condone so viciously hurting the people I care most about, as a middle finger to systems they didn’t ask to be a part of any more than I did.

But there are other things I can walk away from. I think I’m done with voting as a means of social change; it’s useless when your vote will just be gerrymandered, machine-errored, and Electoral-Colleged into irrelevance. And even the best possible politicians, like beloved St. Bernard, are more than willing to bow to the incoming kleptocrat-in-chief if it might help get their pet projects accomplished. Better to clog the phone lines and block the streets to make one’s desires heard.

I’ve already observed that video games etc. conspire to dull the mind and keep us from reaching our full potential. What then if I walked away from that? I’m forming a plan to live 2017 free from social media (other than blogs like this) and video gaming. I spend hundreds of hours on those things; if I dedicated all that time to writing, design, and social action, what might I achieve? If my leisure were occupied with reading instead of matching sets of three colored gems, what might I learn?

Will you walk with me out of Omelas? How?

We Got Undertold

Following close on the heels of Steven UniverseToby Fox’s Undertale snared the part of my brain given to fannish obsession. Not surprisingly, bloggable thoughts followed! While I don’t intend to discuss any of the game’s specific plot points, I will talk about its themes and structures in some depth. So if you’re a deep purist for experiencing media “blind,” I suggest you go play the game first!

Undertale comments on video game violence via a focus on the player’s decisions to kill or spare the characters they face in fight scenes. The game only ends in an unmitigated success for the protagonist if they refrained from killing anyone for the duration. What’s more, the ending obtained by killing everything in sight has repercussions that sour even future playthroughs, no-kill or otherwise. The more violent the protagonist, the clearer it becomes that they are the villain, not the hero, of the piece; the other characters react with believable shock, grief, and anger to the deaths the main character causes. In other words, though the NPCs are “monsters,” Undertale declares that they are people, and holds unflinchingly to that assertion.

After playing through the game once, I read through a lengthy discussion thread about it, and noted with interest the criticisms of those who didn’t share in its nearly universal praise. Setting aside dislikes of a merely aesthetic nature, some of the more thought-provoking objections included (deeply paraphrased):

  • The game is too emotionally manipulative, trying to force the player to feel a certain way
  • If its goal was to demonstrate it’s possible to make a nonviolent video game RPG, it shouldn’t have included violent options at all
  • The implication that there’s something messed up about RPGs that reward you for massive killing is an insult to those games and the people who enjoy them1
  • The ethos depicted is too black-and-white; they should have included more situations where it was justified to fight back or kill

Others in the thread pointed out how most of these complaints miss the point of the game. If it’d been made in such a way as to satisfy those critiques, it would lack most of its uniqueness and artistic worth. What interests me, though, is the common ground upon which all those criticisms rest: people are deeply averse to being confronted with the idea that their choices of entertainment, or their choices within that entertainment, might bear an ugly moral character.

On its face, why shouldn’t people resist that? The implication that violent video gaming is something perverse sounds like the cultural warfare of Tipper Gore and Jack Thompson. From a justice- or consequence-based moral framework, choosing to “kill” a video game character is a morally neutral act: some non-sapient bits and bytes get reconfigured from one basically indistinguishable state to another.

But sometimes, the interesting part isn’t the moral calculus of the act itself. Rather, the decision raises the question, “What does this say about me?” What kind of person does this sort of thing?

Undertale employs every possible device to try to get us to ask that question of ourselves, playing to our empathy with means nothing short of brilliant. Our tendency to anthropomorphize unthinking, unfeeling entities like video game characters is a curious side effect of human compassion, but it provides a safe barometer for someone’s habits of mind (virtues, if you will) in consideration for others. The range of Undertale characters’ visible emotions, the depth of their characterization, and the complexity of their reactions to events in their world make it very easy to think of them as people rather than blocks of code.

I’m no psychologist, but knowing what I do about habit formation, aren’t all these things practice of sorts for the real world? As children, we ascribe thoughts and feelings and motivations to our cherished toys. When they’re lost or damaged, the ensuing heartache is a mix of “poor me, I have lost a thing I liked” and “poor Teddy, how he must suffer!” As our minds mature, those attitudes move outward from the the playroom microcosm to the broader circles of our family, friends, and the world. Our degree of success in that transition translates into adult life as a compassionate person or a detached and uncaring one, and everything in between.

So if we accept the phenomenon with an open heart, carefully avoiding any violence against the emotive blobs of pixels in front of us, that says something about our character. Likewise, if we pack those warm feelings away, maintaining emotional distance and the conviction that these digital entities aren’t real, so that we can freely indulge in their wholesale slaughter–that says something, too. And Undertale makes sure we know as much: it periodically breaks the fourth wall to address the player with exactly that challenge.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everyone who plays the genocidal-maniac route in Undertale is a sociopath.2 Nor am I saying that doing so, or playing a bunch of other games featuring similar mass murder, makes someone into a sociopath. Heck, I don’t even think Fox would venture one of those theses. The game richly rewards you with exclusive gameplay, writing, and music on the murder path even as it deconstructs your actions, which would be a strange design decision if utter disapproval were the point. What the game does do, however, is force us to take a hard look at our emotional skill set. Those synaptic paths that help us shut down our empathy for digital characters also enable us to do the same for real people. “It’s just a game” and “I want to see all the content,” in another context, become “I don’t care what they think” and “It’s cold, but this is best for both of us.” That’s an important skill to have, but how readily do we reach for it, when a response with more heart might still be possible and praiseworthy?

That kind of introspection can make a body squirm, and I suspect that discomfort drives some of the missing-the-point critiques aforementioned. It’s the same well of resistance that powers backlash against cultural commentary like Feminist Frequency, and that leads white people to think being called “racist” is somehow worse than racism itself. But self-examination is not an enemy. The best works of art get us to take a hard look at ourselves, to think about whether our habits of thought and action express the kind of person we want to be. Undertale reaches that level of incisive meaning, making it a rare gem among computer games.


1 From what sense I can make of the word soup in his news post, this is basically Jerry Holkins’ gripe over on Penny Arcade, if you’ve seen or heard of their comic strip about it. If you haven’t, never mind. Not going to link, because fuck those guys.

2 That would be silly of me, considering I’m playing a “No Mercy” run myself as of this writing.

Review: WTF Is Wrong With Video Games?

A couple of entries back I mentioned having my brain tickled by an excerpt from WTF Is Wrong With Video Games: How a multi-billion-dollar creative industry refuses to grow up, by Phil Owen. Curious how much further the author’s premise developed in the book, I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle.

The book’s been brigaded with 1-star reviews, because the excerpt drew the attention and ire of the Internet’s gamer manbaby population. Sigh. There’s enough worthy thought in there that it doesn’t deserve that treatment, but it doesn’t shine as a stellar example of games criticism, either. I rated it three stars of five.

WTF has nine chapters, but divides conceptually into three parts:

  1. That exasperated grumble about AAA video games’ failures as art;
  2. A mini-memoir of Owen’s time working as a games journalist, serving as a light exposé of the games industry as a whole;
  3. A retrospective on the Mass Effect trilogy, the closest anything has come to satisfying Owen’s AAA-art-game itch.

It’s a shame that part 1 has gotten so much attention via that excerpt, because part 2 is the strongest stretch of the book, with some eye-opening anecdotes about games development and the gaming press. I’ll go further to say that if I’d been Owen’s editor (did he have one?), I’d have urged him to scrap parts 1 and 3 and unfold part 2 as the whole of the work. It could have come together really well, interweaving stories of Owen’s life and career with the arc of a few case-study games from initial concept to critical reception. Owen appears to know enough about the development of Uncharted 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, to have spent much more time and word count on them. The book would still have been brigaded by Gators, because Owen rightly bears no love for GamerGate and that factors in his life story, but it would have made the book a better catch for those of us who don’t venerate hate mobs.

Part 3, a sort of extended Mass Effect 1-3 review occupying the longest chapter of the book, serves to show that Owen doesn’t hate video gaming universally. He praises the games’ storytelling and replayability, while continuing to highlight the design and writing choices he found incongruous, such as the seeming irrelevance of Mass Effect 2‘s plot to the trilogy’s overall arc. The chapter illustrates that Owen’s skillset remains in critique of individual works, and would have made a fine article on any of today’s big-name games writing sites.

That first part, though!

Owen’s premise, that AAA games don’t cohere as works of art, is a head-scratcher in that it’s trivially true. Of course they aren’t great art; they’re mass-market entertainment. You could as easily say that summer blockbuster popcorn action movies aren’t very good art–and in fact Owen goes there in one chapter, discussing the goofy disaster film San Andreas as a parallel example to his gripes about AAA gaming. Owen comes perilously close to recognizing that he’s barking up the wrong tree, mentioning in a couple of places that perhaps AAA games are designed to maximize addictive fun factor rather than to make thematic statements. If he’d recognized the merit of that and focused his attention there instead of on the art angle, he’d still have a strong critique to make: AAA games often suck at being fun, too! But he waves that away, taking the AAA industry’s occasional lip service to artistic aspiration at face value.

The paragraph that disappoints me the most with Owen’s approach, though, is this bit about indie games, from the introduction:

I’m also not going to delve too deeply into the realm of indies because there’s far too much variety there to make the sort of grand, sweeping statements I’ll be throwing down here. I can, however, confidently assert that the indie space has many of the same fundamental issues as the bigger budget projects (AAA), as that sphere is largely made up of the same kinds of people.

Owen’s dismissal of indie development makes me sad, because it’s in the avant garde of video gaming that he’s most likely to find what he’s looking for. Design the from top down, start to finish, with the purpose of delivering an artistic theme is exactly the sort of thing that altgames go for. Perhaps Owen’s experience with “indies” is limited to the likes of Braid, whose convoluted puzzles and collect-every-widget victory condition do no service whatsoever to its aim of deconstructing “save the damsel” storylines. In that case I can understand how his frustrations would be the same as with AAA games. It’s not a sufficient pool of experience to “confidently assert” anything, though, in that case, and assuming low-budget games have “the same fundamental issues” shakes out to be pretty nonsensical once he gets into discussion of AAA corporate structure and marketing.

I’d thus exhort Phil Owen: come over to the altgames side, we have what you’re looking for! Play some Twine games designed to enlighten cishet white dudes about the lived experiences of the marginalized, like Bloom or 12 Hours. Wade into some of the weird, political, artsy stuff that comes out of game jams. Widen your narrow focus, currently fixated on the $60+ shelf. You’ll wonder why you ever went looking for love in AAA places.

Tilt: Conversations with Randos

Trying to change someone’s mind is not the only purpose of engaging in argument. In fact, it’s often the least likely to be successful, especially if the argument in question takes place with a stranger on the Internet. I tend to get into back-and-forth with folks to attempt to grasp where their ideas come from, what basis they have–and if something I say brings about new understanding the other direction, that’s a bonus that gives me hope for the future.

The end point of these conversations, then, isn’t someone saying “you’re right.” Instead it’s a sort of impasse that I wish I had a specific word for (maybe academics among my readers know of a term?), where I discover a piece of thought so axiomatic and/or alien to my viewpoint that no further understanding is likely to occur.

I’ll call this moment a “tilt.” It’s a reference to pinball machines, which have mechanisms to detect when the player has rocked (tilted) the game beyond acceptable bounds, for which the penalty is usually being locked out of play for the rest of that ball. There’s also the expression “hit tilt,” which is to say, had enough or reached one’s breaking point, and “The Tilt” in the tabletop roleplaying game Fiasco, which is a randomized event injecting new chaos into the story so far. All of these things have the sort of connotation I’m after, of getting to a point where things come to a halt and/or get weird.

As an example, the last time I commented on Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik sticking his foot in his mouth, I talked with a friend who was frustrated that people were calling Krahulik out on it. The tilt occurred when I realized that said friend didn’t think Krahulik would ever change his ways: he felt that given the guy’s track record and personal history, criticism would never get through to him. My background in my own personal growth has me taking hope for betterment through hearing opposing views as given, so the fundamental difference in our opinions had been found. I could understand how the rest of his frustration followed from that different starting point, so we’d gotten as far as we could.

This week I posted a couple of Tweets under the #GamerGate hashtag. I’m not entirely sure of my own motives in doing so; they were criticisms of the movement that carries the tag as banner, but I didn’t necessarily intend to start a debate. I underestimated the tendency of folks to monitor a tag looking for fights to pick, though, so I did get some activity. What follows are the tilts that eventually occurred!

Gamer rage: One conversation didn’t last long because I blocked the other party. They were incensed that they’d been labelled misogynist, racist, etc. I’ve gotten past such defensive anger in my own life. If someone called me out as sexist, I’d be appalled, but my next reaction would be to figure out what I’d done wrong, apologize, and try to do better. I couldn’t possibly expect that of this stranger, so seeing that their attitude came from hurt and anger I didn’t share in was as much of a tilt as I could hope for.

Interaction is Corruption: A second brief conversation revolved around the concept of journalistic corruption. This person’s smoking gun was games writers who contributed to developer Patreon campaigns or had been roommates with developers. I wished I had a link to one of the several excellent “how journalism really works” articles opposing this extremely low bar for “corruption,” but hadn’t saved any off.

In any case, I figured out that our standards for games reporting were irreconcilably different. I don’t fetishize objectivity. I want the kinds of insights that come from people having connections, being close to the action, a personal stake. Game reviews where someone plays and shares their impressions in an otherwise featureless context are ubiquitous: I just need to pull up Steam recommendations, YouTube Let’s Play videos, or the like. Close relationships with creators, though, are less common and add value for me. To think that’s “corrupt”… tilt.

Censorship and the Use of Force: A third, more involved thread covered ground around the idea of censorship. I maintain it doesn’t make sense to cry censorship unless someone’s calling for a ban or other restrictive government action, or employing something like litigation, DMCA takedown, or physical aggression to suppress speech. This person, however, believed that “public shaming” constituted a use of force sufficient to qualify, and that changing “artistic vision” in response to criticism was capitulation to same.

Tilt! I don’t hold a creator’s ideas as sacrosanct: if they get critique, and choose to change course due to agreement with the basis for the critique, better business prospects for a tweaked work, etc., then that’s all part of the commerce of ideas, products, and art. Moreover, I don’t see shame as intrinsically problematic. It’s often a necessary emotion to go through in reaching a new, better outlook or habit. But to this gamer, anything causing shame is dirty pool. Therein lay the foundation of our differences!

Fictional Characters are Real. The last and most extensive conversation ranged over a number of topics, but the core of it discussed Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women” video series. This Twitterer professed to support feminism, but believed Sarkeesian’s work to be detrimental to the cause, driving young gamers into the welcoming arms of the radical right wing.

There was a bit of victim blaming (saying Sarkeesian was responsible for riling up 4chan and thus getting harassed), a lot of condescension (he seemed to think that being 37 years old made him an old sage, here to deliver wisdom to his youngers), and an assertion that Sarkeesian’s unwillingness to answer every possible question in real-time debate constituted a dodge of criticism. Delving into this last point hit the tilt. I held that Sarkeesian answers her critics in subsequent videos rather than in Twitter or YouTube exchanges, but this debater felt she’d never addressed her best counterpoints. I sought an example.

His best shot? Damsel in distress tropes aren’t disempowering, because when the hero rescues the damsel, he improves her situation, thus empowering her. Criticizing e.g. the sexualized attire used for many female game character designs amounted to slut shaming of women who have no voice.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Yes, sometimes a tilt is characterized by the “there’s so much wrong with that I don’t even know where to begin” feeling.

Interestingly, this bizarre tactic of acting like fictional characters are real people, and thus one should treat critique of their portrayals as if it were a condemnation levied against a flesh-and-blood woman, came up in the “Censorship and the Use of Force” discussion as well. It’s moon logic I can’t possibly adopt, therefore I hit tilt there, but the rest of it all does come together if you take it as given. Of course, if fictional characters are real people, then critics are being sexist to say they should wear different clothing. Of course if fictional characters are real people, then it makes sense to cry foul when those people’s situations and behaviors are lumped together in a trope analysis. It’s just that outside of Rando Land, people are criticizing choices made by game developers, character designers, marketers, etc., not choices made by the characters. Characters can’t make choices, because they’re fictional inventions, their actions and circumstances dictated by their creators!

Anyway, that’s a lot of gabble about what I was up to at midnight last night. I feel like I’ve learned a few things about the worldviews of folks who take the #GamerGate tag seriously. I still don’t agree with the arguments, because of these premises I can’t possibly grant… but I can at least grok how people arrive at some of the downstream hue and cry, given those starting points.

How #Gamergate Could Be Taken Seriously

EDIT: For context, check out this enormously helpful post from Gamasutra.

When I wrote my prior entry, I bemusedly wondered if I’d get dogpiled by the “hate mobs” I mentioned there. (That I could so idly wonder with nothing but an inward smile is a mark of my privilege as a little-known male gamer.) I didn’t, but somehow I did get a comment from one rando: James Desborough. I followed the guy briefly, early in my usage of Google+, as someone involved in the tabletop RPG scene–until I discovered he’s a raging sexism apologist, of the misogyny-doesn’t-exist variety*. However it was he stumbled across my post, he had this to say:

Wow, that’s a total and utter misrepresentation of what’s going on, buying into a false and deflection-oriented ‘misogyny’ trope that got us here in the first place.

It’s kind of a weird response, given that misogyny qua misogyny wasn’t the focus of the post, but it did get me thinking. I like to think of myself as open-minded; I signal-boost these conversations because I used to hold some ugly regressive views, but from exposure learned better. I’d rejected Desborough’s comment out of hand based on my past experience with the guy, but what would it take for me to listen, to think that he or other #Gamergate proponents had something worthwhile to say?

I don’t speak for other social-justice folks (surprise surprise, we’re not a monolithic conspiracy), but here’s what it’d take for me to hear someone out who professed to the anti-“SJW” side of things.

Unequivocal denunciation of doxxing, “leaking” private photos, and threats of violence. I realize that might sound unfair, like demanding of religious folks that they constantly profess their non-allegiance to terrorist groups. So yeah, it’s not fair, but I’d need to hear it. No exceptions, hedges, or dodges. If you believe that anybody deserves that kind of treatment, you’re part of the problem, and I’m not going to engage with you. If that’s a no-brainer, good; take it as a freebie.

Articulation of the “nightmare scenario.” As posed here by Scott Madin. So you’re up in arms; something is rotten in the state of Denmark; something must be done. How so? Why? If whatever it is you think Zoe Quinn did wrong went unnoticed, if Anita Sarkeesian got to make her video series without getting attacked for it, what’s the terrible thing that would have happened? If the people you’re crying “corruption” against got to keep doing their thing unhindered, what would go wrong? The answer would need to A. actually be bad, and B. be plausible, to fit the bill. So for instance “forced diversity in games” doesn’t work, because wider positive representation of gaming’s actual demographics would be awesome, and the idea that some government censor is going to mandate specific representations is laughable and not something anyone is calling for anyway.

Demonstrated understanding of how games journalism actually works. One of the major disconnects between the #Gamergate hue and cry and its targets is the nature of the games industry. There seems to be some belief that there’s an objective reality to game quality, misrepresented when someone reviews a game they have a personal connection to. But there is no such objective measure; different people like different things. Some people find Depression Quest a powerful work of interactive fiction; others find it boring and a poor representation of its titular illness; neither of these things is demonstrably true or false. The games press is by and large a marketing machine, with review sites in the unenviable position of reporting on games sold by the same companies that pay to keep the review sites up and running. If your best argument hinges on the idea that some games “deserve” good reviews and some don’t, or that the “bias” introduced by developers and games reporters being personally acquainted is aberrant, you won’t get far with me.

Acknowledgment of the ironies. Okay, this one isn’t a requirement, but it’d impress me! #Gamergate to date has been rife with irony. People harassing and attacking women (and people who speak up in defense of women) to demonstrate that gaming doesn’t have a sexism problem. People engaging in coordinated silencing campaigns because they think there’s a conspiracy to quash free speech. People campaigning for advertisers to exert control over content, because the content isn’t unbiased. Gamers, once adamant against the Jack Thompsons of the world in holding that they could distinguish fantasy from reality, buying into gonzo conspiracy theories. Gamers finding allies in the same neocon right wing that birthed Jack Thompson. And so on! If somebody from the #Gamergate crowd can grok how bizarre all that is, and try to address it, I’d listen.

*I was willing to excuse some old sexist publications of his (passed off as satire, a prime example of Sarkeesian’s recent point that mere reproduction is not satire) as the mistakes of someone who now knew better. But then he decided that the conversation about problematic depictions of rape in games needed an article “In Defense of Rape,” and went on about how the fighting game circuit isn’t sexist because it heaps abuse on dudes too. Uh huh.

Review: Rogue Legacy

Adulath II:

Gameplay: Rogue Legacy is an homage to two traditions of games at once: roguelikes, where levels are randomly generated and character death is permanent (no reloading saved games after a Game Over); and the brand of sidescrolling action-RPGs exemplified by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its successors. You jump, double-jump, dash, swing swords, and throw spells while exploring a procedurally generated castle full of traps and hostile critters, breaking furniture to find loot, and clinging to your meager reserve of health points as long as you can… for when you run out, you’re toast, and need to start the castle all over again.

It’s much more than a mashup, however. Rogue Legacy adopts the innovations of Roguelikes such as Shiren the Wanderer, where achievements managed on one run of the castle (such as unlocking new equipment or defeating a boss) carry through to your next attempt, even if the layout is reshuffled and the monsters respawned. The conceit is that each hero who dies assaulting the castle leaves behind successors, new generations of explorers sworn to take up the quest where others have failed.

As if that weren’t ingenious enough, the game keeps things fresh by letting you pick from three randomized children each generation, who sport character classes with strengths and weaknesses, as well as odd “traits” that may have aesthetic (like “nostalgic,” which turns the game sepia-toned) or game-mechanical (like “dextrocardia”, which switches the values of your health and magic pools) effects. Additional flourishes like an ever-growing hall of family portraits contribute to the feeling that you’re carrying on an actual, well, legacy, not rewinding time and trying again.

Aesthetics: The look and feel of Rogue Legacy are perhaps its least notable parts. It’s a pleasant 16-bit-like style, with pixely sprites, chiptune music, and palette-swapped enemies and equipment. “Retro” is a popular style right now, and RL follows the fad without any substantial missteps. Character classes are differentiated by minor but evocative embellishments: mages have beards (even the ladies, ha), spellswords’ blades don’t appear until they swing, and so forth. It does get rather samey after a while, though. I would particularly have liked to see some weapon other than a sword for my heroes at some point, for instance.

Difficulty FAQtor: I didn’t need any walkthroughs or YouTube trainers to finish the game in 22 hours, and that figure appears to be close to average based on the global Steam achievement stats: “play for 20 hours” is a slightly less common achievement than “beat the final boss”. The game is hard, but it’s one of the fairest difficult games I’ve played. Despite the randomness, it was extraordinarily rare for me to feel I died or took damage in a way that couldn’t have been avoided with better skill. And there’s an appreciable amount of strategy in how you spend the gold you amass each run, what equipment you use, and which classes and traits you select. Like Persona 3, it’s possible to grind your way to victory, but smart play makes grind less necessary and speeds up what grind you choose to do; unlike Persona 3, even if you do choose the grind route, the gameplay involved in doing so remains entertaining.

Ism Factor: Mixed. There’s actually quite a lot of interesting things to be said about RL, here, so I’m going to break it down a bit!

Gender and Orientation: RL does admirably on these. You almost always have the option of choosing either a male or a female character, and that choice in itself doesn’t have any gameplay effect. The female sprites have pretty traditional gender signifiers (a pink ribbon atop the helmet, and subtly rounded chest armor), but aren’t in any way sexualized or demeaned. And RL, unlike most games, at least acknowledges the existence of sexual orientations: “gay” is one of the random traits a character can have, and there’s no caricaturing or stereotyping involved in it.

Race: Here, however, RL falls utterly flat. Every single character is white. Heroes, NPCs, storyline characters in cutscenes, you name it. You could put forth the flimsy argument that, well, it’s a single family line we’re looking at, so of course they’ll have similar skin tones. But the history you build can easily last millennia: my own playthrough was 145 generations. Maintaining utter racial homogeneity for that length of time (or perhaps worse, disqualifying any dark-skinned child from taking up the quest) would take a ruthless white supremacy that’d make modern hate groups look integrationist by comparison.

Ableism: You could write a whole paper here. I’m not well-versed in this corner of intersectional feminism, so whatever I say is probably even more silly gum-flapping than usual; take that as you may. But… wow. First off, I have to give the game props for the fact that in it, not every hero is utterly able-bodied and neurotypical. Typically, a game hero is the designer’s Platonic ideal of an athlete, and almost every villain you see is “insane”. In RL, though, heroes typically quest while dealing with a handful of physical or mental afflictions, and the antagonists of the piece seem troubled, but not mentally ill or accused of being such. There’s something cool about playing a dyslexic hero, happening upon a page of a prior adventurer’s journal, and straining–both player and character–to understand the ensuing array of letter-jumbled words.

But there’s something uncomfortable about the way these disabilities are represented. My fiancee was unsettled when, looking over my shoulder, she saw I was playing a character with “Alzheimer’s.” She, rightly I think, dreads the day when she or someone she cares about starts to suffer from the disease; it’s a horrific way for a life to end, and it runs in both of our families. In game, it just makes your character unable to remember the castle layout, disabling your full-screen map. It’s a vast trivialization of the condition, and that doesn’t feel right. Conditions like dwarfism, in the real world, have an array of physical and social consequences to them, and people with those conditions bond over them to form support networks and entire subcultures. Is it right to appropriate that, with an inaccurate depiction no less, for our amusement at seeing a downscaled sprite leap around like a flea and squeeze into tiny passages? I don’t think so.

RL could have done this just a bit differently and been less problematic, I’d conjecture. “Forgetful” instead of “Alzheimer’s,” “Tiny” instead of “Dwarfism,” “Flatulent” instead of “IBS,” and so on. It would lose a tiny sliver of the humor factor (which is in any case a punching-down sort of humor, able folks chuckling at things they don’t have to deal with), for a substantial improvement in its Ism Factor.

Enjoyment Rating: 5/5. I played it, loved it, found it novel and entertaining at almost every moment. It took an effort of will to stop myself from playing and playing all the way to the finish of a New Game+. Highly recommended despite its handful of problematic elements!