Delayed Responsibility

I Shouldn't Be Gaming Right Now… But I Am!

Alpha Protocol: Play as a “Blank Canvas”

Posted by deckard47 on September 24, 2009

Interesting. You may or may not know of Alpha Protocol, Obsidian’s already (to some) controversial game starring the generic Michael Thornton, a video game version of Matt Damon (but without Damon’s hulking good looks, I might add). It’s Mass Effect meets a spy RPG, they tell us, and I’m pretty sure I’ll pick it up.

But please. Please, CVG, it’s a Thursday. I have one day left before I can collapse into a bucket in the back of my office, in my proper liquid state. I am so very close. Why do you have to go do me like this? Check it out, from this article:

You could accuse Alpha Protocol’s hero Michael Thornton of being bland. After all, he’s a spectacularly generic caucasian 20-something with short hair – the ‘go to’ character design for every action game in the world. But this is entirely intentional, because Michael Thornton is you. He’s been specifically designed as a blank canvas; a host for your own personality and playing style.

Emphasis mine, there. I like how the writer says you might think Michael was a boring, “average” white dude, but really, he’s just a “blank slate” for you, your “imagination,” and your personality. Really. Forgive me for asking, but if the malleability of this avatar is designed to create an optimal experience for players looking to inhabit Michael’s space in-game, why the hell is he white. Forget the fact that a pale skin color should be an option among many (unless the possibility that players might pick a different skin tone would be bad?). Why is it that people keep on creating these guys and calling them “relatable?” Because most gamers aren’t hulking he-men with deep voices. And even the gamers who are that guy? I bet they can negative capability their asses into a different body.

It’s apparent that Thornton’s masculinity is important to Alpha Protocol. Being a creepy dude sex machine and treating women like upgradable items or collectibles is a major part of the plot. If they made it possible to be a woman, they would have had to spend an extra half year making cutscenes where you got it on with hot women, because we really don’t want to see women as real people, or men as sexual beings who aren’t skull-numbingly heterosexual and mainstream masculine in every way create a spy game where one key method of interaction was not sex, or if it was, give all sexes all opportunities, and even then, try to portray sex as a thing that wasn’t about giving, taking, owning, or trading.

Really, if you aren’t going to provide equal-opportunity gender/sex plots/characters, fuck off. Cut that out of your game, because I can think of a billion other ways to make characters interesting and meaningful. Oh, and while we’re at it, yes, Mike Doolittle and supporters, this is something developers are responsible for maturely and equally portraying.

Alex was right (speaking of which, go read that article linked there, then come back). Alpha Protocol just happens to be the worst offender right now. Let me put it plainly: if you don’t  have a strong main character with a clearly defined story arc, you have no excuse to force players into playing as a certain gender/orientation/race/anything (forgetting that the well-defined characters we do have are pretty one-note, one-ethnicity, and one gender). Shit, if it is important that you make your hero a gruff ass-kicking space marine, let me tell you: a man with  a pretty simplistic concept of ethnicity, sexuality, and gendered representations made several kickass space marines who weren’t bald white dudes (you may be able to fault him on a lot of stuff, stuff in Aliens and in other films, but he’s ahead of most developers today. Sad). Maybe, video game developers, you remember those characters. Maybe.



Oh right. Them. Like I said before, you can have gruff ladies. You can have gruff ladies who are not white! You can have gruff people who prefer not to be called “men” and/or “ladies,” regardless of what you think. And all of them can kill those damn xenomorphs. Wow, shit just got liberated like it’s 1986 in here. I better open some windows.

So I may still buy Alpha Protocol. I’m weak, and I like Obsidian a lot. But I don’t need bad journalism telling me how games aren’t as shallow and offensive as they actually are. I really don’t.

PS [Obviously I owe Alex a ton of credit/debt/whatever you want to call it for the work laid out in those two articles up there. So thank you Alex]

PSS [ Oh, and I know you can change Michael’s skin tone. But I’ve only ever seen it “bro on the beach in Cancun” dark… Still white]


6 Responses to “Alpha Protocol: Play as a “Blank Canvas””

  1. The game I still rate as my favourite game of all time, Midwinter 2: Flames of Freedom, was released in 1991 and it provided players with the ability to create male or female characters from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Additionally the game allowed players to attempt to seduce non player characters with few (If I recall correctly) limits on whom this tactic could be try on. Seduction wouldn’t work on all characters; instead players could try Threats, Reason, Bribery or a number of other options. The point is that eighteen years ago games were offering players real options to define their character both in terms of appearance and action. It seems we’ve only moved backward since then.

    Alpha Protocol’s approach to women is a complicated one, yes there is an Achievement for “collecting” them all, but there is also one for consummating none of the relationships. Does the latter make up for the former? Probably not, but ultimate it is about choice, isn’t the option to play Mike Thorton as a complete chauvinist asshole a valid one? Isn’t part of providing choices providing ones that some people simply won’t like? I understand there’s much more to it than that, the fact that the “Ladies Man” Achievement is reinforcing the notion that all women are available being the huge elephant in the room. I just think a lot has been made of an Achievement in a game most people who have written about it have never played. For all we know the Achievement is presented in an ironic fashion and that there are some very explicit in game consequences for playing Thorton in such a fashion, consequences that leave the player in no doubt that they have been role playing a total asshole. Maybe..?

    Probably not though *Sigh*.

    • deckard47 said

      Hey, I of all people would be up for giving Alpha Protocol some slack, even if it doesn’t deserve it. I hope that in-game, the excellent Obsidian writing will kick in, and I’ll be able to enjoy myself. I actually had not heard of that achievement (the no sex one), although that “achievement” could easily be played badly (some kind of peculiar puritanical abstinence?). Regardless, I obviously haven’t played it. As you say, it’s been attacked be people who haven’t played/made the game. I’ll wait to completely write it off, but even so, it might remain one of those games that earns the title of guilty pleasure.

      Most of the anger in this post was (not very obviously) directed at the person who wrote the CVG article. We may have to swallow all of this crap about “blank slates,” but there is absolutely no reason to spit it back out to others.

      And now I really want to try Midwinter 2. Is it an RPG, and if so, in what vein? I assume something like Might and Magic, or a top down game?

      • Midwinter 2 is, well the best way I could describe it is an open-world action game. You play from a first person perspective and are tasked with completing several types of objectives in order to liberate a series of islands off the coast of Africa (It’s set after a new ice age, depicted in the original Midwinter, has thawed).

        I played in on an AtariST and I think ever since I’ve been looking for something that gives me that same sense of being an active element in a guge world. I can see elements of Midwinter 2 in dozens of games, from Deus Ex, to Far Cry 2 and STALKER, though I doubt many of them are intentional references.

        You can find some information, screenshots and some rather interesting scans of original reviews here:

    • deckard47 said

      That sounds quite cool. Those reviews are a bit wacky… It’s interesting to see how you wrote about that kind of game back then. I’m still bitter that parental foolishness cut me off from all video games until Descent on an old Mac. I was a deprived child.

  2. […] In relation to this issue, Delayed Responsibility’s Alpha Protocol –rooted response to Raymond’s article contained the following quip: “You can have gruff ladies who are not white! You can have gruff people who prefer not to be called ‘men’ and/or ‘ladies,’ regardless of what you think.”5 […]

  3. […] developers tell you that you can add your own personality to a video game character, watch out: Categories: Uncategorized Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment […]

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