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On the Importance of GAME_JAM

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Last week, Jared Rosen, writing for Indie Statik, broke the story of GAME_JAM, a $400,000 reality show production about indie game development that crashed and burned. I wasn't there. My knowledge of the events comes entirely from what I've read in Jared's report and the extraordinary personal testimonies of participants Robin Arnott, Adriel Wallick, and Zoe Quinn. I'm not writing this because I have any personal insight to share. I'm just writing this because I think that the story of GAME_JAM is an important one, and that it has lessons for all of us about where games are, and where they're going.

To sum up the events that occurred: the project that eventually became the "reality show" known as GAME_JAM started out with the concept of a documentary-style production meant to show people the process of game creation that happens at game jams, which are gatherings where people collaborate to produce games very quickly. Some seasoned indie developers were motivated to participate by the prospect of sharing that creation process with an audience, some of whom might have then been inspired to try their own hands at game development. It could have been wonderful.

But the production changed as sponsors got involved, and as attempts were made to artificially ratchet up the drama, "reality show" style, to attract bigger numbers. This shifted the production away from the spirit of camaraderie and creativity that it had initially been meant to celebrate, and in a more competitive and corporate direction. Beverages other than Mountain Dew were banned on the set. And a brand consultant for Pepsi named Matti Leshem pushed too hard in his attempts to create artificial drama between the participants, asking questions of participants like "Do you think the teams with women on them are at a disadvantage?" That's when the developers walked and the production crumbled. And more power to them.

To participate in a piece of entertainment that treats the question of whether are not women are a liability in the field of game development as a legitimate question worth asking is to reinforce the notion that women are, at best, secondary, that gaming is not really a space where we belong. For a long, long time, games were overwhelmingly seen purely as products, and, what's more, products that were intended primarily for men. Now, the industry is experiencing some growing pains as creators emerge who believe that games can be more than just products, that they can be made on a multi-million-dollar budget or no budget at all, that they can be an avenue for explorations of all kinds of topics, and that they can be for all kinds of people. There are those consumers of games who feel threatened by this, even though such indie games typically represent no more of a threat to AAA games than art house foreign films represent to the next Michael Bay blockbuster.

And there are those who cling to outdated ideas of a monolithic, male-dominated gamer culture, as evidenced by Matti Leshem's sexist questions to the GAME_JAM participants. But while it makes sense for some movies--those that are unabashedly mainstream consumer products--to have tie-ins with sodas or Happy Meals, it would be absurd to expect those films that are more interested in telling human stories to have a line of action figures. Everybody understands that cinema is a multifaceted medium and that different films can have wildly different aims, and are no less films for it. But in gaming, some are still holding tightly--too tightly--to certain ideas: that games are always consumer products and never art, that games need to be about fun, that games are primarily for men.

GAME_JAM could have been a very good thing, giving people a look at the process of game design and creation. There's a chance that it could have inspired some people--including women--who have previously thought of game design as a field that was off-limits to them to give it a closer look. But it collapsed when one man (who was hired by other people) completely failed to grasp the spirit of the endeavor, and tried to treat this process of game development the way that people have so often treated it: purely about the creation of product, a place where men belong and women might be a liability simply because they're women.

Games are at a cultural crossroads. We can honor and celebrate games by acknowledging that they can take all kinds of forms and can be made by all kinds of people. Or we can hold them back by trying to pigeonhole them into certain formats, or by suggesting that they should only be made by certain kinds of people. It's time that we all accepted that games are multifaceted, that there's room for all kinds of games, and all kinds of people under the umbrella of "gamers." Reinforcing the idea that games are a place where women don't belong holds all of us back, and it holds games back from being everything they can be. I hope this is something of a wake-up call. We should all be as brave as the participants of GAME_JAM were, to take a stand against these ideas, and fight for a more diverse and inclusive gaming industry.

On the Greatness and Importance of The Last of Us: Left Behind

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This post includes spoilers for The Last of Us: Left Behind.

Much has already been made of The Last of Us: Left Behind, an add-on chapter to one of last year's biggest blockbusters. Our own Tom Mc Shea has written a review and an excellent analysis of the DLC's strengths as a piece of interactive storytelling. And today in Wired, Laura Hudson posted a great piece about what playing Left Behind meant to her, entitled The Videogame That Finally Made Me Feel Like a Human Being. I just felt the need to add my voice to the chorus of voices proclaiming that The Last of Us: Left Behind is both outstanding and vitally important.

Some might be inclined to think that I feel this way simply because it's a story about women. Well, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. It's a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless, that games about women that treat those women as actual, complicated, three-dimensional human beings are exceedingly rare, so when games tell stories about women, they are still noteworthy for that reason and that reason alone. I think about how many women who play games, myself included, once latched on to characters like Princess Zelda, characters whose few moments of seeming strength and agency made them appear strong and admirable within the landscape of video game women, but who, by any reasonable standard, are terrible. (In last year's great The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Zelda is still a damsel, more a plot device than a character.) Because it is so rare, when games do give us stories about women who aren't sex objects but people, it is something worthy of being acknowledged and celebrated. I look forward to the day when this isn't a big deal anymore, when such portrayals of women in games are commonplace, but for now, it's still a huge deal.

But the thing about Left Behind is that it doesn't need me to fall back on that argument because, gender of the characters aside, it also depicts one of the most real relationships between two of the most human characters ever portrayed in a game. And while I positively love well-designed action, rewarding gameplay systems, and all the other mechanical things that go into making games fun, I don't think there's anything more important or exciting happening in games right now than these little glimpses of the potential for games to actually tell stories about people. Left Behind does this masterfully. Within its very brief running time are so many moments between Ellie and Riley that feel more alive and true than such moments in just about any other game I've ever played. Some of those moments are funny. Some of them are sad. Some of them are sweet. We're only with Ellie and Riley for a short time, but that time gives us a glimpse of a fully realized, complex relationship.

I can't stress enough how believable these characters are. When Ellie asks a fortune-telling skull, "Am I ever gonna get boobs or what?" I thought, yes, this is it, this is exactly the kind of humanity that you never, ever see in games. That's the sort of thing that a girl her age would actually think and feel. When Ellie reads Riley jokes from a book, their reactions to the jokes don't even feel scripted. They feel real.

When I started playing, Left Behind asked me if I wanted to allow it to post to Facebook. It would only post one thing. In general, I don't let games post to Facebook or Twitter for me. But I had a good feeling about this. And I'm glad I did. What wound up being shared to my Facebook was a strip of photo booth snapshots, taken as Ellie and Riley do one more normal thing people their age might do; they live in a devastated world, but as Left Behind repeatedly reminds us, they're still just teenagers. If the relationship between the characters weren't believable, this strip of photos would have been meaningless, a reminder of a time I pushed some buttons and made some polygonal figures take on different poses and expressions. But instead, because I was there with Ellie and Riley when they rode the carousel, and when they hunted each other with water guns, and when they threw bricks at cars, and when they tried on old Halloween masks, and when they listened to music, and when they kissed, those pictures mean something.

And as Tom has written about, it's wonderful, the way this relationship isn't just formed through noninteractive cutscenes but through gameplay. Left Behind is brilliant in the way that it takes mechanics that we've previously associated with fear and violence and makes them the stuff of play, things that Ellie and Riley (and you) share. It's beautiful. Left Behind exists within the limitations of AAA action adventure games, and like Tom, I lament the chapter's need to fall back on the conventions of these games and end with a climactic section in which you have to kill a bunch of dudes. But I also appreciate how Left Behind so often takes its own mechanics and presents them to us in contexts that completely change how we feel about them.

Does every game need to tell a meaningful human story? No, of course not. But the issue is that almost no games do. This, more than anything else, is what I feel like games need more of in the years to come. Left Behind is an extraordinary demonstration of how it can be done.

Facial Feminization Surgery Follow-up

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Hello, dear readers!

In my previous post, I mentioned that I'm currently in Thailand recovering from surgery. I've since posted a short follow-up sharing some of my feelings at this still relatively early point in the recovery process on my personal Tumblr. It's not game-related at all so I didn't feel like it made sense to post it here, but I also figured that a few of you might be curious to know how I'm feeling (and maybe how I'm looking). If you're interested, you can find that post here. Thanks!

Bangkok Dispatch: Spelunking Our Way Through Life

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I no longer know how many times I'd gotten within sight of my goal, only to see it slip out of my grasp. Having carried that key—that blasted key!--all the way from the mines to the final stage of the ice caves, my head would fill with visions of the happy moment in which I'd finally hand it over to the Tunnel Man and earn my reward of a shortcut to the temple, when suddenly, misfortune would befall me yet again. I'd be frozen solid by the icy breath of a mammoth, or get trampled by a yeti, or plummet forever into the bottomless abyss.

Misfortune comes in so many wonderful flavors in Spelunky, and you're left with nothing to show for your almost-victories except the knowledge you take with you. You can choose to feel bitter about coming so close and then losing everything you'd worked so hard for. Or you can choose to take encouragement from it, to recognize that if you got this close this time, next time, you might get a little bit closer still. Next time, you might even succeed.

I started the key run many, many times. Last Friday, I finally finished it.

When I finally completed the key run, it was the night of Friday, January 10th here in Bangkok, and I was less than 12 hours away from doing one of the scariest, most personally momentous things I've ever done. I thought about the lessons that video games have taught me that I've taken with me on my journey through life. The games I grew up with were hard as hell. They were cold and unforgiving, and overcoming their challenges demanded grit and determination. It's often said that games today don't demand as much of us, and by and large, I'd say that's true, but there are still those rare, exceptional games like Spelunky and Dark Souls that teach us that nothing worth having comes easily. They push us to earn each and every little victory, and in doing so, they make each little victory meaningful. As it should be.

Part of the reason I love these games so much is because of the way they mirror our lives. Our lives are full of struggles large and small. Victories and setbacks and failures. And although, if we're lucky, we can take comfort and support from family and friends, in the end, there are some things we just need to face on our own.

We all have our battles and challenges in this life. In my life, many of those challenges have been rooted in the fact that I'm transgender, and my ongoing quest to deal with this is what brought me to Thailand. I'm here to have what's referred to as facial feminization surgery. This was something I decided was an important part of my transition as a transgender woman. One of the biggest triggers of my own feelings of gender dysphoria (the deeply unpleasant sense of disconnection between my internal identity and the gender I was assigned at birth) is my face, specifically those particular aspects of my face that lead people to read it as male. Facial feminization surgery aims to reduce or eliminate those aspects.

Link's adventures have been making me feel like a hero since the 80s.

In Spelunky, where the world is made anew each time you play, every game is an adventure into the unknown. Life itself is often a journey into the unknown, too, and so it is with me and FFS. Of course, there are before-and-after photos of other women who have undergone these procedures, so I have some idea of what the results might be like. But at the same time, every face is different, and there are limitations. How significant will the changes be for me? When this is over, will strangers consistently see me correctly as a woman, or will my jawline still lead people to put me in the boy box? Only time will tell. I spent the first two days of my time here in Thailand sightseeing, visiting sacred places, meditating, looking for a tranquil place inside myself that could accept whatever the next steps of my journey bring or don't bring.

Right now, I'm recovering from the surgery in my hotel room, my face swollen up like a puffer fish. I'm passing the time with books, and movies, and, of course, games. Heroic quests, mainly: Spelunky, and Final Fantasy VI (Thank you, Vita!), and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. All games that speak to us on some level because, like these games, our own lives are quests. Sometimes we know where those quests will take us and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we know what we're looking for, and sometimes we don't. But we have to keep looking anyway.

On Friday night, when I'd finally completed the key run, I texted a friend to share the news of my long-awaited, hard-earned triumph with him. “What's next? Hell?” he asked, referring to Spelunky's true final stage, a tremendous challenge merely to reach, let alone conquer.

“Next is Olmec!” I replied, referring to the boss of the temple. “Then, eventually, maybe hell. One step at a time, in Spelunky as in life.”

Late Title Card.

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I saw Pacific Rim today.

When, several minutes into the film, its title finally appeared across the screen, I thought with delight, "Late title card!"

Then I thought of Ryan Davis.

For the past week, I've been unsure of just what the impact of this person I'd admired so much for so long on my life had been. And I think that was when it hit me. I take joy in certain things now that I didn't before, because he took joy in them, and because his joy in them was so unfettered, so pure, that I couldn't be exposed to it and not feel it, too. The dramatic audacity of a great late title card. The pleasure of pronouncing robot "row-bit." If you followed his work at all, I imagine you have your own things that you can't help but appreciate because he appreciated them and because that kind of joy, whether found in things great or absurd, is just contagious.

More importantly, Ryan really knew how to love people. If you've listened to the hilarious and painful and wonderful Bombcast in which his friends pay tribute to him, you know this. The people he loved, he loved profoundly and expressively and fearlessly. And though I think he would have gagged at Hallmark Card-like platitudes about living and loving this way, I also really believe that there are lessons to be taken from this, that most of us could stand to love more expressively and fearlessly.

And that's why, even though I hardly knew him as a person, the world feels emptier without him to me, and each time that I remember he's gone, I still find it hard to accept. I think that's why that goofy and sad and sweet Star Wars tribute works so damn well. So vibrant and effusive was his life force that it's almost as if we can still feel it around us, even in his absence.

Persona 4 and LGBT characters: A response to Lucky_Krystal's response

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This is a response to Lucky_Krystal's blog post, which is itself a response to this feature I wrote regarding the characters of Naoto and Kanji in Persona 4.

First of all, I want to thank Krystal for the respectful response to my piece, and for not tolerating comments in the blog from those who are more interested in directing personal attacks my way than in having a civil, open-minded conversation about this.

As for the nitty-gritty of my response, I want to start with something Krystal says at the end of her blog. "In no way would I ever defend it if I shared Carolyn's sentiments and thought that the game was even remotely disrespectful and offensive." That sounds like a reasonable position, but it's not really one I feel like I can afford to take if I want to be able to enjoy most video games, or even lots of movies and television. If I demanded moral perfection of the games I play, well, that would have prevented me from playing a great many of the games I love. Generally speaking, I think games could be so, so much better with regard to their treatment of women, cultural minorities, and LGBT people. But because I love games as much as I do, I'd much rather engage with games in these areas, thinking about and writing about the ways they could be better, than just throw my arms up in frustration and walk away. This is certainly the case with Persona 4. If you look through the comments on my feature, I think you'll see that a lot of people were clearly upset simply because I was criticizing Persona 4, a game that they hold dear. But here's the thing: I love it, too. I mean, I really love this game. I think it's one of the best games I've ever played. Even so, I'm not going to give it a free pass. I don't know if you've watched the first part of Feminist Frequency's Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, but as the great Alyssa Rosenberg writes here:

"At the beginning of the video, Sarkeesian, explaining that This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, says something that everyone who loves a piece of culture ought to be required to recite five times every morning while looking in the mirror: Remember that its both possible and even necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects. If that ability to hold two ideas in your head at the same time, to enjoy something while recognizing that it might have problems, is what the people who tried to harass Sarkeesian into silence are so afraid of, it only reinforces how intellectually cowardly and inept they are. The need for something to be immune from criticism isnt a sign that its perfect and everyone else is wrong: its a sign you cant defend the things you love. Thats a position any self-aware person ought to be embarrassed to defend."

I agree with this, that we need to be able to look at the things we admire and enjoy and accept that not all of them are  entirely above reproach. I can simultaneously adore Persona 4 (and I do) and feel that in certain ways, it could have been better. Krystal also states near the end of her response, "I don't think it was Atlus' intention to mock or shame homosexuals and transgender people." Well, maybe they did and maybe they didn't. This is beside the point. A work--be it a game, novel, film or what have you--can have meanings and messages that its creators did not intend it to have. Many feel that Kathryn Bigelow's film Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture. (This is not a view I share, but it works here as an example.) People who see this message in the film see it there regardless of Bigelow's assertions that the film does not endorse torture. Once a work of art is completed and is sent out into the world for the public to view and to contemplate, the artist(s) relinquish control over it. They cannot control how it will be interpreted by others, what meanings or values those who experience it might find within it.

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Nothing makes you a better person quite like taking on the Aiya Rainy Day Mega Beef Bowl Challenge!

Similarly, I don't think it's especially relevant that, as Krystal says, "Japan's views of gender identity and sexuality are probably much different than they are in the US." That's certainly true, but I don't give what I see as problematic aspects of a game a pass simply because they come from another culture. If I feel a game or movie or TV show is sexist, for instance, I think that sexism is worth criticizing, regardless of where it comes from. "That's just how it is over there" is not, in my view, an excuse. Krystal goes on to say, "Couple that with the fact that video game stories still have a lot of growing to do as a whole." I certainly agree with that. It's because I feel so strongly that they can be better and because I want them to be better that I write things like this in the first place.

So, okay, let's talk about Kanji. With regard to my criticisms of Kanji's storyline, Krystal brings up the dungeons of other characters, saying, "the characters' personalities and actions do not PERFECTLY match with the personalities of their shadow selves." She gives a few examples to support this. 

"It's actually said in the game that the shadows are only one facet of the characters personality. Also, the shadows and the dungeons are very extreme manifestations of the characters' deepest troubles and fears. 

For example, Rise's strip club dungeon was the result of people not seeing the real her. Rise constantly had to be everyone's charming, cute, and most of all, perfect idol for the camera. Fed up with this fake personality she was forced to show, she left show business and went to live a normal life. But of course everyone still approached her, wanting to meet Rise the media darling, not the real her. Therefore, the whole "I'm going to strip and bare it all" was a very extreme way of saying she wanted to shed her generic idol shell and show the world the real her.

Yukiko's dungeon was a castle; her shadow wore princess' clothing, and constantly spoke of "scoring a hot stud." Her shadow, once provoked, manifested as a bird in a cage who summoned a prince to fight for her. This represented Yukiko's feelings of being trapped in a life she didn't want to pursue."

Krystal provides additional examples. too, before saying, "these are extreme and exaggerated manifestations." My feeling is that, yes, most characters' shadow worlds and shadow selves represent exaggerations of one aspect of the character's inner life, but that in Kanji's case, what we get is not an exaggeration, but a contradiction. I did not want or expect the real Kanji to be an uncontrollably lustful gay man like his repressed shadow self. Instead, I hoped that the dungeon would resolve itself with him facing his sexuality and folding it into his larger personality in a way that was healthy and socially acceptable, as others did with the aspects of their personalities embodied by their shadow selves.


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We sure made a lot of happy memories together.

And now, Naoto. Krystal says that, In the west, we refer to (people like Naoto) as tomboys. But this isn't true. Naoto isn't a tomboy. Naoto has lived most of his life as a boy. Not only does he not correct others when they refer to him with male pronouns; he clearly has gone to a great deal of effort to encourage and support this perception. If Naoto were a real person at a real high school, this would mean doing things like using the boys' restroom, for instance. For someone like Naoto to be accepted as male for years and years of life would take tremendous effort and carry with it a certain amount of danger; this is not something that tomboys engage in.

Krystal says, "Also, Naoto's reason for wanting to craft herself as the hard-boiled detective did not only stem from her attachment to fictional characters. She is descended from a line of famous detectives and she intends to continue the tradition." As I said in my original feature, the idea of someone living in a gender other than the one they are assigned at birth because they hope to pursue a particular profession does not ring psychologically true. I have never heard of a young girl living as a boy for many years of her life, for instance, not because she truly identified as a boy but because she wanted to be a police officer when she grew up and thought that the male gender was more fitting for being a cop. Nor have I ever heard of a boy who lived as a girl not because he didn't identify as a boy but simply because he wanted to be a nurse when he grew up and all of his nursing role models were women. 

Some may say, "So what if it's unrealistic? You're talking about a game in which a bunch of high school students pass through television sets and save the world by fighting monsters on the other side." Well, I'd say that the one area in which Persona 4 does need to be believable is in the psychology of its characters. What really makes the game special, ultimately, isn't its battle system or its dungeons or any of those traditional RPG trappings. It's the richness and complexity of its characters and the ways in which they connect and relate to each other. If those characters start behaving in ways that we find inconsistent or false, it takes us out of our investment in their relationships with each other.

So, yes, I UNDERSTAND that, within the game, we're meant to buy that Naoto is a tomboy, that, as Krystal said, his "true intentions were to become a splendid and ideal detective, not a man." I'm simply saying that, given Naoto's behavior in life up to the point where he becomes involved in the story, living as a boy, being known as the detective prince, and so on, and given what we see in his shadow world, I don't personally buy the idea of Naoto as a tomboy. To me, it would have been much more believable and consistent with these things if Naoto were transgender.

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The quaint and lovely town of Inaba. If you haven't visited it yet, you really should.

Finally, a word on why this matters so much to me. A thought experiment, if you will, and one that I hope you will take seriously and participate in with an open mind. 

Imagine that you live in a world where a group that you identify with is frequently marginalized and discriminated against. Let's call this group straight people. Now, straight people have made some progress in recent years. In some states, they have the right to get married, and there are an increasing number of straight role models in the media; famous writers, TV hosts, and so on. But in your beloved video games, straight people are all but nonexistent. Never the heroes. Only very rarely do straight people like you even show up as supporting characters. It's practically unheard of. 

Then, along comes this amazing role-playing game called Persona 4, with a rich cast of psychologically complex characters. You venture into a land that reflects one character's mind, and what you find there is a facet of that character expressing heterosexual desire. Wow! Understandably he has repressed it, you think, because straight people are often not treated very well in society, but there it is, a true part of him, yearning to get out. 

When you finally complete his dungeon, though, the game tells a different tale; he doesn't actually like girls, you see. It's just that he was so afraid of boys, because they'd been mean to him in the past. You thought you were finally about to see a well-developed straight character in a game, but alas, no. The game veers away from that possibility, and goes down a different road. 

Ultimately, the game does this not just once, but twice! 

In a world with so few straight characters in games, it's hard not to see Persona 4 twice come near the brink of giving us a straight character, and both times backing away, as really, really disappointing, especially since so many things about the game are so wonderful. To have a game come close to giving us straight characters and then in both cases run away from that, especially in a world where there are almost no straight characters in other games, sends a message about straight identities, whether the developers intended it to or not.

Maybe you can put yourself in that position via your imagination and maybe you can't. I've received a number of kind messages from LGBT readers telling me that they felt similarly about the message the game was sending and thanking me for the piece, though, and that is good enough for me.

Anyway, I'm gonna give the last word here to Yosuke. This is an idea that's at the heart of the game, and I think it's something that all of us, women and men, gay and straight, trans and cis, should strive to do.


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Sounds good to me, Yosuke. Thanks for all the good times.

Reflections Upon Seeing Cloud Atlas

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"If I had remained invisible, the truth would stay hidden, and I couldn't allow that." --Somni 451, Cloud Atlas

It is a pattern that, sadly, has repeated again and again throughout human history. Society adopts as true notions that are deeply false, allowing one segment of society to maintain power over another. To question these notions is often to draw the wrath of the oppressor, to face imprisonment or exile, torture or death.

It didn't occur to me when I fell in love with the novel some years ago that it might be my experiences as a transgender woman that made Cloud Atlas resonate so deeply with me, but now that a film based on the book is out, directed by, among others, Lana Wachowski, I'm forced to consider that perhaps this is no small part of it.

The film, by using actors again and again in each of the its interwoven stories that take place over a period of hundreds of years, drives home the notion of reincarnation, of souls resurfacing, the notion that, as one character puts it, "we do not stay dead long." This notion, handled so poetically by author David Mitchell in the novel, was a stirring and vital aspect of the book's power, though I don't happen to believe in it. I do believe, however, that our actions can have a kind of immortality, that the effects of our choices can ripple out through time. As a transgender woman, I'm the beneficiary of such actions by people I've never met, people who have risked everything and often paid dearly in pursuit of the freedom to live an honest life as respected, equal participants in our society. Tragically, the struggle is far from over. Some, like myself, can feel relatively safe, though I often dress androgynously out of a fear of attracting hostile attention on the street. (Idiots and bigots in online comments are one thing. Idiots and bigots in your face are something else entirely.) But still, I have it very, very good. Many trans women--particularly trans women of color--are attacked and killed throughout the United States (and even here in the supposedly LGBT-friendly Bay Area) with staggering, shattering frequency.

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The novel remains, for me, the definitive version of Cloud Atlas, and I hope that people seek it out and read it before seeing the film. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, joint directors of the film, create such powerful imagery, and the faces of actors like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are so familiar to us, that I doubt any viewing of the film can leave any subsequent reading of the novel unaffected. Some pleasures of the novel cannot be translated into film, such as the way in which the narrative voice and the structure of each segment of the story are so different from every other that it's hard to believe that it is all the work of the same author. Mitchell's use of language is nothing short of musical at times, and nothing in the film can duplicate the power of hearing Zachry's voice in my head as clearly as if I were sitting at a fire with him listening to him tell his tale. And though the motif is still present in the movie, I also missed one of the novel's most memorable explorations, removed from the film, of how the power of stories can be used for good or evil.

Although anyone who has seen even a trailer for the film knows far more about the story than I did when I went into the novel, I still think that the story's surprises are best discovered in the pages of Mitchell's novel. The film seems to be baffling some viewers who haven't read the book, but for me, it was quite easy to follow, and I felt that the huge changes made by the screenwriters to the story's structure were sensible ones that helped emphasize the similarities between the societal struggles each central character finds herself or himself facing. Which in turn are the same societal struggles that many of us face to greater or lesser degrees.

In a reaction I wrote to the novel upon finishing it some five years ago or so, I wrote, "I had this bizarre, unshakable feeling of being more connected than I was before I'd read it, not just to the people around me, but to those who'd gone before me, and those who will come after me as well." The film gave me goosebumps. It broke and repaired my heart. It reignited in me this sense of awareness that everyone I saw on the street was the result of choices dating back for centuries, and might through their own actions impact, in ways minuscule yet meaningful, the state of the world centuries from now.

"Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future." Yes, this notion may seem like a no-brainer, so evident as to not even be worth stating. Some may find the novel's or the film's exploration of this theme pointless, or the way its repeatedly presented in such momentous contexts pretentious. But for me, as written in Mitchell's novel and presented in the new film, it takes on a spiritual power, one that I, as an adherent of no faith, find much truth and comfort in.

I am not a Somni. I am not a revolutionary, risking everything to change the world. But my actions matter, and so do yours. You may feel insignificant at times, like just one drop in an immeasurable ocean. Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops? I am riding the waves created by those who came before, and I can have some small part in shaping the waves for those who come after. And so can you.

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Cloud Atlas Co-Director Lana Wachowski gave a wonderful speech recently upon accepting the HRC's Visibility Award. You can watch it here.

In Anticipation and Trepidation of Cloud Atlas

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Many years ago, I read David Mitchell's singular novel Cloud Atlas. I felt changed by the experience. Wherever I walked, I felt as if I could see the phantoms of people who had walked there before, whose lives and experiences were no less vibrant and immediate and real to them in their times than mine is to me now. I could see how their choices and actions had, in ways large and small, shaped the moment in which I existed. I also felt that I could see how my choices and actions and those of the people around me were shaping the future that will be the present for those yet to come. Actions rippling out, like pebbles hitting the surface of the water. It was then that I made the banner you see above. Long retired, it now graces my blog again.

lana.jpgAs you've probably heard by now, a film adaptation is almost upon us. When I first heard that a movie of Cloud Atlas was in the works, I was a bit incredulous. To even attempt to adapt Cloud Atlas into a feature film seemed like such a massive, almost foolhardy undertaking. But it's hard to imagine any collaboration of filmmakers being better suited to such an ambitious task than a dream-team pairing of the Wachowskis and Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer. And in recent weeks, I've been increasingly fascinated with the story of Lana Wachowski, and how her journey toward accepting herself and transitioning has been intellectually and emotionally intertwined with the Cloud Atlas undertaking, as indicated in this great New Yorker story. As a transgender woman myself, naturally I'm intrigued by Lana Wachowski as a filmmaker, and reading the New Yorker story, I found I could relate to many of the experiences she described. Her involvement in the project has also made me think about Cloud Atlas in a new way. The novel is widely acclaimed and of course you don't need to be transgender for it to resonate with you--that would be silly--but I wondered if there was something about our similar experiences that made both Lana and I be particularly taken with it.

berry.jpgI'm tremendously eager to see the Wachowskis' and Tom Tykwer's vision of Cloud Atlas. At the same time, my love for the novel is so great that the potential for disappointment is bigger than it is with a typical film. The novel is about so many things. About how our choices, about how the things we create and the things we destroy, shape the world. About all the different kinds of narratives we create about ourselves--in letters, journals, novels, films, and oral storytelling. About how the things we imbue with power and authority, be they religious figures, corporate mascots, or what have you, can be used for good or ill, to aid or to manipulate. And how patterns repeat, again and again, throughout human history. The film weaves all of this elegantly and beautifully into its tapestry of stories, which switches effortlessly from one voice to another to another, each one captivating and each one utterly distinct from the others.

berryhanks.jpgMitchell is magical as he shifts from one voice to another, but it's not just to dazzle the reader. It's not just a gimmick. It's essential to the story's scope and its thematic power. There's nothing subtle about the novel Cloud Atlas--it's a big, tremendously ambitious book filled with moments of intense emotion and monumental importance--but I never felt that the book was being heavy-handed about its themes. Massive though they are, they arise naturally out of the story. From what I've seen in trailers, I worry that the choice to have actors play multiple roles--having Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and others showing up in multiple story strands--will make the connections that were deliciously implicit in the novel seem clumsy and explicit. And I'm concerned that a film, even a long one, may not be able to develop the characters in any one story enough for us to connect with them.

But these concerns, if anything, only make me more eager to see the film. Even if it leaves me frustrated or disappointed, I expect that I will be fascinated by whatever choices it makes. It will give me a great deal to think about, and I'm sure that I will come away admiring the sheer ambition of the undertaking.

A Game of You and Me: Reflections on Love and Friendship in Game Design

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This past week, the annual Game Developers Conference was held in San Francisco. I chose to attend a few panels that focused on a topic that's of particular interest to me: designing games that are concerned largely with concepts of friendship, love, and connection between players. The games discussed include the new, much-loved new PSN game Journey, as well as Portal 2, Final Fantasy XI, and a number of indie games that you've probably never heard of, but can check out online for free if you're interested.

If you have any interest in these topics, I hope you'll take some time to give my article a read. Thanks very much.

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No maps for those territories...

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For those of you who frequent the blogs more than the feature pages, I just wanted to let you know that a piece I wrote went up today, inspired by my recent experiences with some games on the 3DS Virtual Console that took me back to the days of vast games like Metroid and Goonies II that didn't provide maps to help you find your way. You can check out the feature here. :)

Now here's a Goonies II screenshot!