Sunday, May 31, 2009

Comics: Mature Themes

What are mature themes?
Have you ever heard of the "three subjects never to be discussed at the dinner table"?
They were: Religion, Politics, and Sex
(Which some say are actually good things to discuss with the family.)
Anyway, these three things are generally the subjects people feel very personal about and very passionately. It is sure to get a reaction when posted for public viewing. And usually that's what the artist/writer intends.

Mature Themes used in media
Including these topics in your story is guarantee to bring eyes to your work. Sex Sells is a phrase often thrown around, but it's true. Controversy also sells, particularly political or religious controversy. To me at least, it seems like Mature Themes are used as an advertising ploy to get the most attention. Because attention means money.

Similarly, the idea applies to Indie media too! Web-comics are the medium I'll focus on in this blog. Sex is certainly a seller if you want people to read your comic. Looking at the top comics on TWC, most of the top comics are rated PG-13 or R. (While self-rated comics should be taken with a grain of salt, some of the PG-13 I would actually rate as PG. Although the top comic is properly rated.) Point is that they're rated "R" because of sexual content.

Using them in Comics
As I've repeated the major on the surface reason for including mature content is to get more attention on your comic. Which is not bad. However, keeping those eyes requires you to fulfill expectations. And usually for "mature" comics, the only mature content is sex and usually not politics or religion. So since the biology states that sexual cues for men are visual, pleasing this target audience is as easy as drawing a naked woman...an attractive one at that. Hey scantily clad is all right too, but boobies guarantee more viewers.

I'd like to say I'm joking. But, I won't repeat myself. (sex sells...I lied.)
However, again looking at the top web comics list, the actual content of the mature comics are different.

In the top 10 (for today) there are 4 comics that are "fan-service" with their sexual content, Cru the Dwarf, TwoKinds, Once and Future (formerly Twisted Kaiju Theatre), and Flipside.
For Cru, the advertising is blatant in their animated banner and description. Once and Future when it was TKT had visual fanservice on the banner as well (now it only has reputation). Flipside adds it in the description and shows appealing art. Two Kinds has a fanservice image.
These all deliver what they promise for the most part, some better than others.

TKT and The Meek (which advertised a naked girl in the description) both used this mature content as a mere hook. While TKT does have galleries of explicit images, the comic itself is a photo manipulated comic that uses satire to poke fun at religion and politics as well as using the sex sells method.
The Meek on the other hand fools you. It used "sex sells" in a more base sense that even suggesting there will be nudity and having some nice quality art on the banner would attract attention. In reality, the nudity in the comic is probably not what is expected. The art is styled in such a way that makes the nudity not sexy. While proportions and such are exaggerated (very well), the character's assets are not given special attention such as enlarged size, small waist and wide hips. Nor are her facial features giving any sexual cues. (Big lips, heavy eye lids, blushing, etc.)

Be that as it may, I would hardly consider "The Meek" a work-safe comic. It goes over very mature topics in the course of the story.

-Religion and Politics
Well, I've pretty much covered how sex is used in "mature" comics, for the most part. Religion and Politics probably won't grab as much attention out of a crowd. But there are such things as Political Cartoons right?

There are a couple of ways these subjects are portrayed in comics (that I've commonly seen): Humor , Satire , and Pamphlet.

Humor usually just pokes fun at religion or politics in general. Sometimes it can be considered offensive. Usually if you agree with the view, it's funny but if you disagree it's not. If you are really good at humor, whether you agree or disagree doesn't matter. It's like when a famous political figure makes an appearance on Futurama. (Lame example).
On the flipside, humor comics can be at extreme ends and try to offend to get attention. Usually by singling out a specific denomination's beliefs. For example, the South Park's history of Mormon is probably offensive to Mormons.

Satire I'd like to think as a more sophisticate humor about a subject. Political Cartoons often do this type. Usually Satire is considered a non-offensive way to critique an aspect of culture or human life.

Pamphlet is when the subject of your comic tries to advocate or defend a belief or political view. It can be done subtly or overtly depending on the talent of the story teller. Online, there's lots of Christian themed comics defending an aspect of the faith.

Suggestions for Comic Artists/Authors
Handling a mature theme in your own work is something you have to figure out for yourself based on your moral upbringing and intention for the comic. In my day, I've come across some seriously weird stuff and ridiculous content that's been considered "mature".

  • Be Mature Yourself - What this means is be of proper age to view the content you intend to make. 18 up seems fair enough. I've seen "porn" comics that must have been drawn by a very disturbed 7 year old. (At least the art style suggested so. The characters looked like fetuses and they used "censor bars" for the male characters. Meaning clearly they didn't know their anatomy).

  • Shock-value vs. Meaningful Story-telling - I've seen some terrible comics that degrade women to pass it off as humor. (Which was really poor taste). Clearly it was done for shock value which is usually just a cry for attention. Meaningful story-telling means you validate having this content within the context of a story or setting.

  • Satire and Humor - I've gone over some of the differences. Try to make yourself seem educated though. Don't just copy South Park.

  • Prepare the Audience - Obviously, the comic, if displayed on the web should have the proper "warning labels". Depending on how explicit your content is should be balanced with how much of a warning you put on it. Again, mostly due to laws (I think) and as a general courtesy for those who connect to the internet in public places, school or work. (Although, It's bad to read comics at work. >=( LOL. I kid.)

  • Learn to draw and write well - if your writing is bad you lose credibility. If your art is bad, you lose viewers. Like I mentioned before I came to a "mature" comic that had a warning pop-up and everything only to find this crudely drawn abomination. It was not sexy or mature at ALL. Actually, this is probably true for ANY style of comic. If you draw and write well, your comic will do well. The top 10 webcomics all have good art OR use a photo/machinima style and have mostly good writing.
Conclusion
There are other themes that would be considered mature such as rape, death, violence and gore. But these follow most of the same generalizations. It could offend certain groups or be insensitive. (Then again, this is the internet...I say no excuse!) I have seen rape taken so lightly in comics and stories that I find it both disgusting and disturbing. Hate crimes, racism and other hot topics are themes that are expected to be handled with sensitivity (if to be shown to general public).

My Relations with the Elves

It's no secret that one of my favorite fantasy creatures to draw and write (besides unicorns) is elves and fairies. Even when I was in middle school I enjoyed the fantasy of fairies being like the creatures in Disney's Fantasia or the cute little dolls I had. And as I matured and read more fiction and watched more fiction, I grew to like the idea more and more. Now I still like elves as a fantasy creature but it's a very shall I say "popular" version that I prefer over the "traditional".
Yep. This blog post is going to be similar to my post about unicorns I made awhile ago.

Traditions, Traditions
Most folktales about the fair folk come from the British Isles (although I'm well aware that the rest of Europe had these stories too!). But the ones most familiar I think are the ones from Ireland. In general, they're miserable little buggers. (Bugger is such a naughty British term. :)) Fairies would steal children, cause back luck, and make mischief. There are also courts, some good and some bad.

Elves...man I can't think of their traditional stories beyond the Elves and the Shoemaker and Santa Claus. Maybe they're the nice ones. Ah wells. Sometimes they're lumped together as the "Fair Folk".

It was when Tolkein and D&D became popular that newer notions of "elf" came about.

The Modern Day Elf/Fae
I'm sure the true origins of the modern day elf or fae can be completely traced to visual media like Hollywood and comics. (Thank you ElfQuest...I think).
The Elf is often beautiful and wise, fully of grace and somehow "better" than the human counterpart.
The Fae is more exotic, intoxicating, tricky but still somehow better than humans. (Not always prettier as it turns out).

The "Fair Folk" in the old tales were often described as cruel, but beautiful.

Of course then there are the children's version of the creatures which are always wholesome and cute. (Seriously though, I love the Disney Fairies.)

There is certainly nothing "wrong" about modern versions over the traditional. They do tell different stories now. And in ways have made the creatures very different things.

The Stories They Tell
When you read a fantasy about elves or fae, they're no longer a creature (usually) but a "race" of sentient beings. There are new expectations about what the elves are and how they act. It's quite normal now for an elf to be tall instead of short, arrogant instead of generous enough to make shoes, and often in some sort of conflict based on racism between another race in the world.

The origins of these creatures vary as either children of stars or trees or demi-gods or a cross between an angel and a human (my least favorite origin story).

In the folktales the stories were...well folky I suppose not a very drawn out engineered story about resolving conflicts or having superpowers. And that's another thing that's new. Sometimes elves have superpowers...thanks to anime and video games.

Point of this is that Fairytales have certainly changed into something else. Elves are now more visually interesting and exciting.

Getting to my Point
Old versus the new, I have to say that visually I prefer the new and think I like their role in stories better. Now that it's become a trope and general folktale of our age (I suppose), I feel it's just as acceptable. Granted most people would "blame" Tolkein for his establishments in fantasy the genre, I think that many would agree that the idea was there somehow but just not always called "elf" or "fae".

However, I do enjoy the old traditions of the fair folk for what they are. It is interesting that this is where the modern elf came from. But there are some things about the modern fair folk I don't care for. And I feel many agree with me. So here we go.
-Elves-
  • Constant descriptions of their beauty, perfection, or awesomeness.
  • Long hair
  • Arrogance and general aloofness as if they're SO much better
  • Half-Elves that are somehow better than elves
  • Immortality (immortal creatures are boring. Long-lived is fine.)
  • Forbidden romance between elf and human
  • Obsession with being tree hugging/worshipping hippies OR being used as an advocate for nature vs. technology
  • A general tension between elf and dwarves
-Fairies-
  • Very sexual creatures (which I guess is in their nature)
  • Again with the "I'm so pretty descriptions".
  • Basically being human but with bug wings
  • Actually I really don't have much to complain about Fairies. They're not nearly as over-used as elves...or I just haven't been reading the right books.
My own personal Elf/Fae Characters
So I have a few...it's no secret. My deal though is that they're really NOT elves. Nope, they're aliens from another planet. People just called them elves because that's what they looked like. The aliens just went with it. Their "powers" are just natural abilities and technology.
(And technically that IS my backstory for my elves, but it's never apparent in any of my stories so it can't be called cannon I guess.)

In general, I go with the anime stereotype, visually. But I try to write them differently and avoiding all the things I don't like about modern elves. In my current work, Song of the Brinds, Elves and Fae are a race. They don't have magic. They're not very nature based, in fact quite the opposite they're very into science and technology and rather un-religious. I guess you could say they're still arrogant but it's the type of arrogance that the Imperialists had about developing nations. That's different than say arrogance towards humans because humans are like little children incapable of learning in their short years of life.

In another story I'm doing about fairies, because it's more of a children's tale I take the Disney Fairy Tale route.

And I've taken up enough of your time. This was very much a fluff post.
But in short, movies and video games and comics have changed fantasy forever. Deal.

Game Review Magazines

Last year for a research project, I did an analysis of the content of game review magazines. For the project the purpose was to provide a competitive analysis for our proposed project. My project was a family oriented game review magazine. There really aren't many. In fact, I could only find one online magazine.

The Big Players
For my analysis I chose what I considered the most popular game magazines in print. They were:
Game Informer
GamePro
Nintendo Power

By far, game informer had the most previews and reviews of all the magazines. Consequently it also had the most ads. Nintendo Power is the oldest of the three and was pretty exclusive to Nintendo brand games so naturally the list of reviews and previews were less.

For awhile I had a subscription to Game Informer and I got some free issues of Nintendo Power as a bonus for some pre-order. Personally I preferred NP because I really only had Nintendo systems so it made sense. When I signed up for a member's card at Gamestop they signed me up for a year's subscription. I thought, "Hey, why not. I'm sure this poor cashier has a quota to fill or something."

At first, it wasn't so bad. I must have gotten lucky on that first issue but as I looked at more games and read their reviews the angrier I got. Until I basically just stored the magazines to be used as fly swatters. (Which did come in handy as it turns out.)

When doing my analysis I already had my opinion about Game Informer as a clearly frat-boy style magazine. Just like all the others! GamePro I had expected to be maybe a little less so, but it had the same macho man talk and boob jokes as GI, if not as many. The fact that I could learn about new games coming out was just not enough to make me want to keep my subscription. Why would I read something I felt insulting?

The Online Reality
Most Game magazines also have their online counter-part or are solely based online. If you want to find some of the most hostile looking websites, try looking at a gamer's site. It's always grundgy with yellow and metal and yuck. Now I'm not asking for pink ponies and rainbows but a more pleasing aestetic. IGN and GameFAQ have some decent designs, but Gamasutra is my favorite. Mostly because it's not gamer-focused per se but developer focused.

What bugs me the most about online magazines is what annoys me most about the internet in general. It's a breeding ground for trolls and general idiocy. Communities around always felt hostile to me and I would be too intimidated to make any posts without being shot down. I know I would not really be taken all that seriously. There's just far too much immaturity.

It turns out that I'm not the only one bothered by these things. One bit of research I read on older gamers is their desire for mature conversation about their games.

Why Most Game Magazines SUCK
Why do people buy game magazines or go to these sites? To make plans for future purchases right? So the job of the magazine is to make the games seem appealing to their demographic. It also has the job of entertaining or informing the demographic about what's going on around the industry.

To me it feels like all game magazines only care about a narrow demographic: college frat boy and immature high school kid. So naturally the content is catered towards this. Why do the guys at gamestop think that a MOTHER would want this magazine for her 10 year old son? The images and humor and writing are not very age appropriate and very unfriendly towards the female demographic. In fact, GamePro and GI had special "sections" called Ask a Girl Gamer as if it was some kind of circus side-show.

However, I know they won't change anytime soon because these magazines have been in print for over a decade so they're doing all right. What I would ask for is some more diversity in their writing staff.

Conclusion
When I was a kid, it was so cool when a magazine came for me. (Like Highlights or American Girl). This was something meant for me. Now as a gamer, I want a magazine for me. There are a few online options like Women Gamers and Gamasutra, but I really don't have any options in print, except Nintendo Power.

Of the three major magazines, NP was the most gender neutral and generally children friendly. However, it was limited mostly to its own products. I have a Sony Playstation 2 and a PC.

In the end though, I actually get most of my product reviews off of Amazon.com where I can buy it once I read about it. :) Amazon is great at recommending me games that are coming out based on what I've bought before. Very handy and very friendly. The user reviews are super great and really help with purchasing decisions.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Japanese Games

I had promised to speak a bit about this in another post. First, I should start with a disclaimer. In no way do I claim to be any sort of expert of Japanese culture. My resources are from friends who have visited the country, movies, anime, and some game research. Any claims I make is pure speculation and if I am making any blatantly incorrect statements I ask any readers to please point them out so I can correct them.

But luckily this should have very little to do on Japanese culture expertise and only reflected in their games. (An expression of culture like any art form.)

Some Literature
I have with me a very lovely book my friend, professor, adviser gave to me (that she help write) called "Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat". (Shameless plug?) In it there is a chapter written by Mizuko Ito called "Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix". It outlines the way Japanese media (including video games) have time and again created something that crossed gender boundaries. And more importantly how various forms of media are catered to female consumers in Japan and elsewhere. (Mentioning of course the diversity of the manga genre and appeal of yaoi. Which is boy on boy love for those who don't already know.)

It's plain to see that several of the games that have come over from Japan have been popular despite gender implications. What sorts of things and games? Well, this particular chapter highlights the Pokémon craze. I remember that time. We had gameboy color, the cards, the N64 game. It was the "thing" to have and play regardless if you were a boy or girl. Why? Well, the chapter attributes some of it to the "cute" factor. There are several designs of pokémon that are considered girly and cute while others are cool and boyish. And perhaps some of the media surrounding it (like the cartoon) showcased that both boys and girls competed.

Then there's also the factor of game play (of course). The idea of collecting is something very appealing to many people. (I think it may be evolution at work here.) The "battling"/competing may be more appealing to male players but there are other aspects to the game. There are also options to "trade" or share Pokémon with friends, making it a social game which again appeals to people in general.

Winning Ideas From Japan
I have to give kudos to Japanese game companies for producing a wide range of games and particularly Nintendo for taking risks and playing with the formula. I'm not going to expound much on the success of the "Wii" experiment. Most everyone is already aware of it and I don't feel like being redundant. However, I also like to look at their general game features.

-Going for Cute: More often than not, a game features "cute" characters. Often with disproportionate features, big heads, googly eyes and very simplistic. The Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh success point this out as well as Animal Crossing. A non-threatening character appeals to a wide audience including children (usually of both gender), females in general, and parents who feel that these characters are "safe".

-Story-mode: This can be a positive feature or a negative. But there is a lot of "reading" involved and story-moded games. RPGs, Interactive Novels, and Life Simulators are all samples of genres that rely heavily on story. And why is this important? Well, easily because stories are a very basic human pleasure. Everyone likes to tell and hear stories. Whether you like playing the story or prefer that stories stay in movies and books, in the end a story adds appeal.

-Beyond D&D: Settings and themes are important to games. Many Japanese games have a fantasy setting, but it's not the same as a D&D based or Lord of the Rings style fantasy. Dark, gritty and "realistic" seem to be very appealing which in contrast to the bright colors of many Japanese RPG games. Also many of the games have you take the role of a younger character.

-Experimenting: This can either be good or bad but some of the coolest game designs, accessories and so on came from Japanese games. For example, Okami's "drawing" battle system was a pretty neat trick. Or DDR was a pretty big hit.

And some of the Weird Stuff
There is a darker side to some of the stuff that comes over and some that have not.

-Failed Experiments: Well, you get good eggs and bad eggs. Not all accessories worked well or even practically.

-Too Weird?: While some games are just too hilarious to be taken seriously, some are just too alienating. Such as games that appeal more to Japanese pop culture which hasn't really reached a level of appeal here.

-Too illegal?: The laws on pornography I believe differ between the two countries. One game I know got a lot of heat was a supposed "Rape Simulator".

-Too Anime: The style does not appeal to everyone. The androygny, silly hair cuts, and simplistic cartoon shapes is not everyone's piece of pie. Also many of the themes seem to annoy people by being too simplistic or very "Buddist". Some of the philosophy can get a bit weird.

Closing Thoughts
Personally I find Japanese games much more appealing to my interest in games. The design of the characters, the themes of the stories and the brighter colors all appeal to me. (I have to admit something about me and colors...I need them BRIGHT...or at least CLEAR. That's why I LOVE 2D animation so much.)

Also I feel that Japanese companies are really PROGRESSING much more than Western companies who seem to be satisfied making Sport Games, WW2 games, FPS and gritty RPGs. I just find much more variety from Japanese companies. I really wonder if current companies will ever "get it". Sometimes graphics don't matter as much as gameplay. Stop blowing funds on epic cinematics. We get it. You created a monster console with tons of processing power.

Lots of Indie games are taking the hint and producing lots of awesome and interesting games. Like Diner Dash, World of Goo, and Winds of Orbis. When I was at the Indie showcase at GDC, there was a lot of innovation. And I feel it's the market system we have that is hindering larger companies from taking risks and making something innovative. Why fix something that's not broke right?

All things aside...Sims 3 is looking pretty cool. :3

Friday, May 15, 2009

Nostalgia Game Design: RPGs

Today I'm going to type up my reflections on Role-Play Games (RPGs). There are many games that can sit under the umbrella term "Role Play Game", thus creating sub-genres of RPG.
Currently I'm part of a community called Rpg Rpg Revolution (RRR) which is dedicated to the creation of 16-bit style RPG games using the program RPG-Maker. What is considered a Pure-blood RPG is a topic of debate. So I'm going to go back and retrace what I know.

The Roots
RPGs evolved in a way from both text-based story games and table-top role play games such as Dungeons and Dragons. There are some basic elements associated with these games. These things are: Characters with statistics, items, and abilities.
A world map to explore.
A system of movement and battle.
Monsters to fight.

In most table top sessions, the goal of the session is to make it out of a dungeon alive. This requires a combat focused plot to validate player actions. The system of movement and battle are based on rolls of dice. Similarly, text-based computer systems used random numbers to reveal outcomes of actions. (Granted it's not Perfect Random numbers, it's weighted. Because perfect random numbers would make for an awful, unfair game.)

To this day, RPGs share all these traits with their fore-fathers. How they differ depends on the sub-genre. I'll briefly touch on some of the major sub-genres.

Classic RPG
This is literally a visual translation of the D&D system. The game has the same basic system as the D&D universe but the difference lies in the fact that the computer takes the role of the Dungeon Master (DM). It can not be argued with.

An example of a Classic RPG would be a game like Neverwinter Nights. While playing the game and fighting opponents, text comes up mentioning your "rolls" and therefor the success or failure of a given action.

Japanese RPG/J-RPG
To be honest this is one of my more favorite genre. Unlike the Classic example, the battle system is usually turn-based. Which means your character picks an attack and will take a turn then the enemy will take its turn. It is often very story based and chuck full of cut-scenes.

Examples of this are the Final Fantasy Series and the Pokemon series.

Tactical/Strategy RPG
This is something that is a blend of two genres: Real Time Strategy and Role Play Games. The battle system usually is played on a grid like board meaning that the player has to plan the movements and attacks of their characters. Again it is usually a turn based system.

A few examples of this would be Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics.

Action RPG
For this the battle system is not turn-based but real time. Victory depends on how you perform. You have to control your characters movement and attacks.

Games under this genre include the Tales Series (like Tales of Symphonia), Kingdom Hearts and more of the 3D action games.

Action/Adventure
This sub-genre is very loosely fitted under the RPG genre. The battle "system" is seamless with the normal movement in the game. For most RPG games, the game has explore mode and battle mode where battle mode takes you to a new screen. In Action Adventure there are no modes, it's all seamless. Because of this some don't consider them RPGs. However they still have dungeons, items and character stats.

Games in this sub-genre include Legend of Zelda and World of Warcraft.

Conclusion
There really isn't much to discuss. The current trend for RPGs seems to be heavily rooted in Action-based or Tactical based over the classic turn based model. Which only makes sense since for a 3D game it's more interesting to look at and utilizes the system more fully.

My personal gripes are the constant switching between modes, I prefer things to be more seamless. There's just a slight sense of frustration when you are exploring in an RPG and randomly you are forced to stop, enter battle mode, finish a battle before going back to what you are doing. It's just such a stop and go process even if you just run out of a battle you still have to wait to return to "map mode".

At the same time, I don't mind turn based battle systems. I don't like to feel pressured to rush in a game. Granted action games are more fun and interesting, but sometime I just don't feel like putting in the effort.

I really did not have too much to whine about this genre. It's one of my favorites. The genre always has some interesting games with fun stories.