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The Reward Mentality

The debate surrounding the solution to violence against women has lately shifted to a conflict between those who think the goal is increasing women’s safety and those who think the goal is raising children who aren’t going to commit these acts in the first place. Both are important considerations but the latter must be the desired endgame. And then I came across Colin Stokes’ TED Talk titled “How movies teach manhood”, which raises a series of interesting ideas even if its depth is somewhat limited, such as its passing reference to the Bechdel test.

The talk arose from seeing the impact that a brief glimpse of Star Wars immediately had upon his 3-year-old son. He felt that its themes of “courage, perseverance and loyalty” are good, but a universe that contains only two women cannot provide any useful context for navigating a “co-ed” world. This kind of failing, he suggested, is actually true of vast swathes of the media to which we subject children during their formative years.

The issue I find most interesting, however, is the use of the relationship as a reward in our fiction. The hero successfully defeats the villain and wins the girl by demonstrating his strength or skill in accomplishing the feat. The kiss or the relationship come right at the end of the story. This instils the notion that a relationship is less a choice by two people fuelled by a mutual desire, but rather it is a reward for performing an act or, perhaps, for living by a certain code. This can easily breed a misplaced sense of entitlement, which is arguably at the core of what others describe as the “nice guy” mentality, a belief that one deserves the object of one’s affections by virtue of one’s decent actions.

JackThe issue is starker in videogames in which, as a less mature medium, the writing generally requires more development. Even with the nuanced relationships between Shepherd and his crew in the Mass Effect series, with hours of dialogue as you learn about them and often help them through deeply personal issues, sex is ultimately reduced to a “reward” for having selected the right series of dialogue responses over the course of the game. The issue, in part, is reserving it until the end. Arguably one of the best written relationships is with Jack, a strong-willed tattooed girl with dangerously powerful psychic abilities who is not afraid to show off her body. Early on, Jack challenges Shepherd confrontationally by offering to sleep with him. Accept and she will follow through, but at the expense of any future relationship with her as the dynamic between you is permanently altered by this choice.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prime example of twisting the stereotypical approach comes from the pen of Neil Gaiman in Stardust. Yvaine, a fallen star, is literally a token gift, being recovered by Tristan in order to win Victoria, with whom he is infatuated, as a reward for this quest. Over the course of the story, the ridiculousness of this juvenile notion becomes increasingly apparent and a far more natural relationship develops between Yvaine and Tristan. In fact the relationship between them is ultimately the reason for their victory rather than the result of it, and that must be a better message for everyone.

Following The Assassin’s Creed

Assassin's CreedI hope the Americans among you had a wonderful day yesterday celebrating the mass genocide of the indigenous people or whatever it is one does on Thanksgiving. With Bioware’s new opus Mass Effect intent on drawing all my time, I had been hoping that Assassin’s Creed from Ubisoft Montreal would turn out to be terrible so I would not have to buy it. It looked like a collection of excellent ideas that could not possibly brought together to form a coherent whole. Unfortunately this was not to be. While Halo may grab the mainstream press for its sheer financial clout, this is one of those few experiences that instills gamers with a desire to talk to everyone about it, whether they are into games or not.

Assassin's CreedThe player takes on the role of Altair, an assassin in the Holy Land during the crusades, uncovering a conspiracy while taking out those profiting from the corruption surrounding the war. It is telling of the modern climate that the opening credits state that the developers come from a variety of backgrounds and faiths, given the obvious allusions to a Muslim-Christian war throughout. Altair is essentially a non-religious lone wolf, stalking through cities with an animalistic gait. The mood of the piece is best encapsulated in this trailer featuring UNKLE’s Lonely Soul.

AltairThe medieval world is brought to life in stunning detail with huge cities (Acre, Dasmascus and Jerusalem are all recreated) bustling with people going about their lives. Its best feature is the free running and climbing ability which lets Altair scale virtually any building, ascending high towers to survey the city below. The swordplay is simple but nuanced, adding new layers over time and feels surprisingly authentic for the time. Generally think Hitman meets Prince of Persia.

Reviewers are somewhat split with the complaint that too much of the experience is repetitious with bland identical gameplay in every city for the lightweight “investigation” before each major assassination. Gabe at Penny Arcade highlights that this is partly a symptom of the reviewers’ mentality, playing the game as a job so hurtling through to finish. Assassin’s Creed is very much the sort of game that requires a slower approach to soak in the atmosphere. While gazing at the ornate architectural detail of a Jerusalem temple I felt like a foreign businessman wishing I had more time for tourism. And then I remembered this was a game and I could do what I liked. While collecting randomly located flags seems a little tired, some of the best fun to be had is while climbing up and exploring the cities from the rooftops.

The chief criticism remains valid, however, that the developers have essentially created an incredible sandbox but forgotten to give the player quite enough toys with which to play. I am sure the space opera of Mass Effect will draw me away from Assassin’s Creed as soon as it arrives, but this is a game I will be happy to return to with such a beautiful historic world and a compelling conspiracy unfolding.

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

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