For the past several months, being a gamer has been rather a fraught experience.

Whether you’re one of the many who became suddenly Very Concerned about perceived ethics violations in the realm of game journalism right about the same time that feminist commentary about video games started gaining momentum, or whether you’re one of the women who braved the inevitable backlash and spoke her mind about feminism as it relates to video games and then weathered a storm of having your personal information broadcast online, your public speaking events cancelled due to terroristic threats, and having to leave  your own  home due to threats of rape and murder, or whether you have no idea what I’m talking about and clicking all of the links in this run-on sentence has been a fresh slice of dismay pie for you … it’s been tough lately.

It’s all a bit brain-bendy, though, right? I mean, when did we start looking to video games for depth of meaning and progressive gender representation?

It's a-me(taphor)!
It’s a-metaphor!

Thing is, gaming isn’t just for kids and geeks any more. Hasn’t been for a long time. If you’re reading this, then it’s safe to assume that you, oh person with access to the internet machine, know at least one perfectly normal adult human who plays video games. It’s a billion-dollar industry that has integrated itself quite cozily into our first-world culture. The technology, and the population of creative people with the expertise to wield it, has grown to the point that games have achieved a production value so high that many of them are basically 40+-hour-long interactive movies. Seriously.

So yeah, it matters what games depict. They’re every bit as much a reflection of our society as Hollywood movies are, now, so we’re starting to care about what we see in that mirror.

Nastiness of the Gamergate response aside, the game industry itself barely seemed to twitch an eyebrow at the whole mess. One little example: when it was pointed out to Ubisoft that the vast majority of video game protagonists are male and could they maybe please try to change that with their upcoming new super mega game, they explained the lack by saying that providing both male and female protagonist player-character options was too hard and cost too much money. Drawing chicks is hard, y’all.

The whole time this was going on, while virtual battle lines were being drawn, while women’s actual lives were being threatened to prevent a discussion about the very real gender imbalance in video games, one company was quietly making it all better.

Bioware. I get the feeling that they could foresee that video games would soon be held to a higher standard, so they did their level best to set the bar sky-frickin’-high.

They’ve already earned a reputation for representing equality with their Mass Effect series that only the most nitpicky folks can find fault with (and they do, because people). In those games, the player could choose between a male or female hero to save the galaxy. Both choices had talented voice actors performing the exact same script, and the only impact that gender selection had on the story was in the romance department. This is key. It did not matter if you were a chick or a dude, you were Commander Shepard and you were gonna go kick evil alien ass till there was no more evil alien ass to kick. And by the third game in the series, they had introduced the option to have your character get involved in not just the usual hetero-normative romance, but also a homosexual relationship. Not just for sexy shock value, either; nope, this was some loving, supportive, nuanced, sexy stuff.

But that was years ago. Fast-forward to 2014, when Gamergate is chewing sour holes in the geek community and the world of gaming is awash in fear and despair, and Bioware releases Dragon Age: Inquisition.

The game is madly popular for all the right reasons. IGN named it their 2014 Game of the Year, and you can check out their video in that link that neatly encapsulates everything that makes the game part of the game fantastic. Holy wow.

As for me … I dunno, maybe it was the oppressive environment of Gamergate and all of its associated crap, but what really impressed me was how thoroughly Bioware trumped their own reputation for equality. Once again the game offers a choice between male and female protagonists. They’re voiced by not two but four voice actors who are all performing the same script, so as to give the player options. So much for voice actors being too expensive, eh Ubisoft?

During character creation, I  noticed a few little details. There were options, such as adding an Adam’s apple or facial hair to a female character, or makeup to a male character, that hinted at a more fluid definition of what representing gender might mean.

Then I dove into the game itself, and found a magnificent cast of characters awaiting me. Let’s start with the core group, your character’s War Council. These are the folks who are moving all kinds of revolutionary mountains, running networks of spies and influence, leading armies and confronting ancient institutions on your behalf. Notice anything about them?

Aside from the fact that they're so PRETTY, that is.
Aside from how PRETTY they all are, that is.

Why yes, three out of the four major central characters to your story are women. Powerful, fully-dressed women. And it’s not a thing. See that handsome fellow on the end? Not once does he mutter about being henpecked or suggest that his compatriots disagree with him because it’s That Time Of The Month. And never is he talked down to for being a silly ol’ man. Everyone has an equal stake and pulls their own weight in the story. They’re all flawed and brave, glorious and petty, smart and remarkably dumb about certain things.

You know, like people.

And really, that applies to every character you encounter throughout the game. All kinds of layers and nuance, no walking stereotypes here. The dashing knights have moments of weakness and raw emotion, the damsels are in distress but they’re handling it just fine thankyouverymuch.

I didn’t think I could be any more impressed, basking in the glow of all this mature storytelling. But then I met this guy, and talking to him wrapped my beleaguerd ladygamer brain in soothing clouds of joy and hope:

The Krem de la creme.
Also pretty. Okay, fine, so maybe Bioware dolls up their characters a bit. You won’t hear me complaining.

That right there is Cremisius Aclassi, the second-in-command of a group of badass mercenaries, as tough and effective a warrior as you’d ever like to meet. He’s also voiced by the lovely and talented Jennifer Hale. Because darling Krem there? He was born a woman.

Bioware has taken on the task of representing the trans community in a video game, and they have done it with grace and style and respect. Krem is accepted for who he is, and while your protagonist may have a few fumbles trying to discuss the issue with him, not once in all the hundreds of conversation options does Bioware give you a chance to choose to be hateful or disrespectful towards him. If you play this game, please do yourself a favor and chat Krem up. His backstory is sweet and sad and hopeful all at once, and absolutely worth hearing.

You don’t have to talk to him, of course. Bioware might not let a player be nasty about gender identity or sexuality, but neither will they force a player to interact with it. There are no Must Do To Win Game choices that involve having to really deal with any of the out and openly trans, gay, bi, hetero, etc characters who populate the game. You could run through the whole saga from beginning to end without once challenging your perspectives or expanding your mental horizons if you wanted to. But you’d be missing out an awful lot of really excellent characters if you did.

Kinda like in real life.

I could get into the rest of the stuff that Bioware got right with this game – like the female characters who are as fully dressed or not as they want to be and nobody objectifies them for it; or the way that a particularly virile male character makes an overt sexual pass at a female character, and then when she asks him to stop he does so instantly, and with respectful apologies; or the infinitely classy way that they handle BDSM; or how the game explicitly states that homosexuality is officially not a big deal and everyone can just be chill – but I’ve fangirled enough for one post.

Suffice it to say, in a world full of clashing voices clamoring to screech their rightness over the din, Bioware has come in with the kind of quiet confidence that silences the room … said their piece … challenged all other game developers to get on their human-rights-equality-in-video-game-representation level, and …

Lo, these many weeks ago, at the urging of the only soul brave enough to call herself my best friend, I went to a book signing. I can’t say that I was super thrilled about attending (writing my novel had become a soul-sucking slog up the side of an infinitely tall mountain made of tar and crushed dreams; what once had been fun had become daunting, which is the new opposite of fun; if my novel was a boy I’d’ve long since broken up with him, probably via text just before blocking his number because we were being JUST THAT KIND OF ASSHOLE to each other), but I figured it might do me some good to hear what someone who had actually completed a writing project of any kind had to say.

Also, there would be an abundance of books and other adults to not quite talk to, combined with a distinct lack of my children to supervise. Powerless to resist, that’s me.

It would be my second such event ever (last time it was for a recipe book signing; let me tell you, if you haven’t fangirled all over a housewife from Oklahoma, then you have not LIVED), so I didn’t really know what to expect. There would be an author, sure. One who had written a book that had been enjoyed by everyone in attendance, presumably. Author would speak, folks would queue up with books to be signed, author would sign books. Easy peasy. Ho hum.

I neglected to take into account the author himself.

A twelfth-level dwarven cleric. Obviously.
A twelfth-level dwarven wizard. Obviously.

Patrick Rothfuss. If you hadn’t heard from him before, you have now. And thus, I have shaped a tiny piece of reality. I am like unto a god. Or something.

Ahem.

By the state of his beard, I could see that this was not a man to be trifled with. No mere hipster affectation, this, no meticulously-groomed mansplosion of masculinity carefully contained within fashionable parameters and thus nullified (much like all but a very precious few hipster men, themselves), NO. This was simply the unchecked facial hair growth of a man with no fucks to give.

Or, as I discovered over the course of the evening, a man who is simply very choosy about to what and whom he gives his fucks. Personal grooming gets far fewer than, say, writing a bestseller or raising a family or championing a charity. Just enough to meet the social hygiene standards of a first world country.

He stepped to the microphone and offered us, the waiting crowd, two options. We could either …

A) keep our phones out, take pictures, record video, and receive only much-censored, watered-down, publicly-acceptable, and other-hyphenates-as-well versions of the answers he would like to give because, hey, INTERNET

or

B) put our phones away and have a moment in time together, just the hundreds of us, in which honesty would be served with unselfconscious dashes of personal anecdotes and profanity

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody voted for option A.

Shockingly, everyone complied with the terms of option B. It was weird, paying extended attention to something that doesn’t glow and/or fit in our pockets, but somehow we muscled through it.

Over the course of the next hour or so, there happened in that place a polite and open discussion between author and crowd-of-hundreds. Questions were asked and answered, flowing freely in both directions. It was the most remarkable thing, really – just a bunch of book geeks geeking out about books together in a book store. We laughed, we cried, it was better than Cats.

One exchange stuck with me long after lines had been waited in, books had been signed, and we had all wandered home through the rainy summer night. It didn’t stick with me verbatim, though – I’ve slept since then – so you’ll have to forgive my paraphrasing and flourishes. Or don’t. Carry a grudge if that’s your kink. I ain’t the boss of you.

Crowd Person: You rather famously spent fourteen years writing your first book before getting published. Do you have any advice for other writers on how to persevere through the Satan’s own endless roller coaster ride that is writing a novel until the ultimate goal of getting published is achieved?

Rothfuss: (distinctly uncomfortable) Eeeeeh, I don’t … look, I’m not some kind of literary endurance guru. All I did was write, and keep writing. Let me ask you this: how many of you have a garden?

(hands pop up across the room like alarmed meerkats, including my own)

Rothfuss: Okay, so when you’re gardening, you’re out there pulling weeds or whatever, are you thinking to yourself ‘Gee, if only I can grow the most perfect vegetables, and make the most beautiful garden ever, then someday Better Homes & Gardens will come and photograph my glorious garden and THEN my life will be complete and I will be rich beyond my wildest dreams’?

(a pause while this is mulled over in a few hundred minds; mine, specifically, swam with images of my own riotously overgrown tomato vines and defiantly flowering basil)

(a collective “No” issues forth)

Other Crowd Person: I just like to grow mint for my tea.

Rothfuss: Right. You garden for yourself, so you can have fresh vegetables and mint in your tea. It’s the same thing with writing. You have to be doing it for you. That’s when it’s easy, and it’s fun, and it’ll flow out of you on its own momentum. The second you start doing it for anything else, for critics or publishers or – god forbid! – financial gain, that’s when it gets too heavy. Too hard to do. … So, my advice?

(susurration of hundreds of heads nodding)

Rothfuss: … Grow your own mint.

If there is a word in the english language for a simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking revelation of something that had once been known but had been forgotten until that moment, I don’t know it. I bet the Germans have  a word for it. Or the evangelicals. Regardless, whatever this nameless feeling was, it turned its attention on me in that moment. Luckily, it did me the kindness of waiting until I was out of the building and sitting in the darkened privacy of my own car to shoulder-check me to the floorboards and sit on my chest until I frantically tapped out, which it ignored.

I don’t do big emotions in public, y’all.

He was right. With the loss of my job and the advancement of my medical condition to the point of being unable to gain and keep other employment, the list of ways in which I could contribute to my family’s stability got narrowed down to just a handful of personal skills. Top of that list: writing. It was the creative delight of my spare time, the free and merry frolic about the magical meadows of my imagination, and I fancied myself somewhat good at it. But  now, quite suddenly, getting my novel written and published became a bloody, desperate imperative. Which is precisely when I began to fail.

Every word was an agony of effort, the entire project loomed large and impossible, and I began to indulge in some melodramatic despair. I wasn’t quite at the black lipstick stage when I walked in to this book signing, but I was close.

It’s different now. Better. Thanks to a happenstance meeting with a magnificent beard and the guy behind it, I’m finding my fun again. Growing my own mint.

He’s a good guy, that Rothfuss. I owe him some thanks, which I chose to repay by donating to Heifer International. Some family in some part of the world that needs help is gonna get some chickens.

I don’t have any pictures of our brief meeting because at the time I didn’t think the event would mean much. Probably I was being a jackass (hello, title of my autobiography), digging in my hooves and flopping my long, furry ears over my eyes so as not to see the lesson that was being offered by an unexpectedly generous universe.

Here is the only photographic proof that Patrick Rothfuss and I once met. If you look closely, you can see where he inscribed, as per my dictation, “I don’t know it yet, but you are the wind beneath my wings. – Uncle Pat”.

Very closely.
Very closely.

Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein, is my favorite book. Second to none since the early 90’s.

(Which isn’t to say that Heinlein is my favorite author. Dude’s got flaws. He went some weird places. I love him like a badass bachelor great-uncle who sometimes gets a little creepy at the family picnic when he’s had too much of Cousin Spider‘s special sweet tea that’s just for grown-ups.)

There are many books that I adore, that I read once and enjoyed, that I recommend to friends, but that I would never pick up again. With a few Pratchett-y exceptions, I’m just not a big re-reader. How can I be, when my waking hours are finite and the world of written words is not?

And yet, I’ll go back to Heinlein’s little scifi novel once a year-ish. It’s like curling up with an old lover who knows how to satisfy whatever appetite moves me at the time. Maybe I’m in the mood to argue politics and societal ethics with the opinionated voice that first spoke its ideas 75 years ago. Perhaps I need a snarkily crafted tale of an asshole rich kid getting shoved into the crucible of war until all of his faults are burned away and all that remains is the steady hero’s heart that he never even knew he had. Or maybe I’ll just skim those bits and get right to the strapping young men in powered armor suits fighting giant space bugs in an all-or-nothing war for humanity’s survival. My pick, I can take it.

When the movie came out in 1997, Teenage Me sat in that theatre and stared, mute in my 130-minute-long metamorphosis from starry-eyed novel fangirl to hearsickened bitter old crone. That movie aged my soul about a thousand years. Not even Doogie and the Kurgan could save it. It was fucking terrible. I felt unclean aftwards, like I had to do scifi penance. Watch the first two Alien movies and recite the Bene Gesserit litany against fear ten times lest I be forever haunted by the emotional void that is the gaze of Denise Richards (who I have just realized is the Megan Fox of the 90’s and OMG Y’ALL TIME IS A FLAT CIRCLE).

I tell you all of this so that you can properly imagine my trepidation, my creeping dread, my sneering cynicism born of crushed nerd dreams, when I heard that Tom Cruise would be starring in a scifi summer blockbuster involving aliens and powered armor.

Then I saw the trailer and something akin to hope sputtered to feeble life in  my unwilling heart.

Then I went to go see the movie, and …

Look, I can’t say that Edge of Tomorrow is the best scifi movie ever made. I haven’t seen all of the scifi movies ever made. Yet.

What I can say is, and I mean this in all sincerity and without hyperbole …

Edge of Tomorrow is the best scifi movie that I have ever seen.

 It’s like everything that I ever wanted the Starship Troopers movie to be got thrown into a blender with a healthy pinch of Groundhog Day and a sprinkle of Mass Effect. Throw in a handful of bloody sand and bullets, hit puree. The result is a dirty, sweaty, hilarious gutpunch of a damn near flawless story.

As spoiler-free as I can tell it, the top of the movie drops us smack in the middle of a not-too-distant-and-therefore-uncomfortably-plausible future in which aliens have invaded Earth and everybody on the planet is just plain screwed. We are going to lose. The war is desperate on a global scale and the military has got to attract every single able-bodied soldier they can get. What they need is a propaganda posterchild. A steel-jawed killing machine who slaughters aliens by the score and then poses majestically.

And oy, did they ever find their super soldier.

And if the poster looks a little familiar, well that's a bit of meta fun. Like the world of the movie has ad guys who are willing to steal from old video game imagery if it'll get recruits.
If the poster looks a little familiar, well that’s a bit of meta fun. Like the military’s recruiting guys aren’t above appealing to gamer nostalgia to fill the ranks.

That’s right. The biggest badass of this movie is not Tom Cruise. Not the career action star. Nope. It’s Emily Blunt, who has never been in an action movie before and whose previous work is all stuff I’ve never paid to see because I can take naps at home for free. And my gawd …

She
is
GLORIOUS

 

I’m not sure who set the bar for whom in this film, whether it was Emily Blunt inspiring everyone with her transformation from waify pale English miss to Full Metal Bitch (that’s what her fellow soldiers actually call her, to my delight) or if it was action movie veteran Tom Cruise grabbing the ensemble by the scruff and hauling them up to his level, but the entire cast for this flick just works.

(Can we talk about Tom Cruise for a sec? I love him in movies. THERE, I said it. He has never turned in a performance that I haven’t enjoyed, which is saying something for a guy who’s basically made a movie a year since 1981. Every other moment of the film could be like a thousand fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul [cough-Eyes Wide Shut-cough] but Cruise himself always delivers. Sure, he did some crazypants cradle-robby Scientologist couch-jumpy take-himself-too-seriously crap once upon a time, but that was damn near a decade ago. Seems to me that he may have loosened up a bit since then.)

Anybody you meet who has a name is significant to the story. Somehow, in a cast teeming with military extras in full-scale assault situations, there are no extraneous characters. No token minorities or two-dimensional pop-ups. Everyone’s got depth and growth. Everyone moves the story forward, from Brendan Gleeson in all his bullish authority to Bill Paxton doing the best work he’s ever done. The supporting cast live up to their name and truly support the film as a whole.

And that shit ain’t easy for actors to pull off when 75% of their scenes are the same scene over and over. Bra-frackin’-VO.

Oh yeah, there’s a time loop. A magnificent one. I had my doubts, because I’m painfully persnickety about time futzing in movies, but this loop is played out by a very deft hand. The repetition of the intial wake-up-confused moment is done just enough times for most of the audience to get it (no pandering to the lowest end of the bell curve) and then we all move on to trying to solve the puzzle. There are benefits to living the same day over and over, unlimited training and scenario memorization, but the horrible weight of endless repetition takes a toll that we watch subtly grow on Cruise’s character in layer after layer of sweat and blood. Just like the movie’s posters say: Live. Die. Repeat. Most of the deaths are hilarious, but not all of them. Oh no, not all of them. I may or may not have lingering feels about a few.

But enough about that artsy-fartsy film student crap. None of that matters if the aliens and the powered armor aren’t worth a damn. Amirite? Iamrite.

Luckily for us all, those things are worth ALL the DAMNS.

The alien menace are … well, they’re alien. This is the first time I’ve seen extraterrestrials designed in a way that makes it clear that they are like nothing that ever came from Earth. They move like a nightmare, all incomprehensible tentacle-like maybe-limbs and horrific noise. If you took a timelapse video of mold growing, made it out of mercury and neon, then gave it a glee for murder and a scream like metal grinding in a furnace, you’d come close to what our heroes are fighting. Close, but not quite. These are the  monsters that humans are supposed to fight, and it’s practically impossible to even tell what the hell to shoot at. Just watching these creatures move across a battlefield is enough to make even the most grim-faced hardass a little panicky with the trigger finger.

Also, there’s a horrible intelligence guiding them. Ain’t nothing worse than monsters with strategy. How the hell do you fight something like that?

Why, with powered armor of course! This stuff is spectacular, yet believable; a rugged piece of military materiel that does little to protect a soldier but does much to amplify his or her battlefield nastiness. No shiny, smooth Star Trek edges, here. It’s all grease spots and chipped paint and BFGs. The rig itself was a real thing, not a weightless CG creation. In interviews, Cruise and Blunt have said their suits weighed 80-100 lbs. They basically had to run, jump, spin, flip around, and be badass while wearing a whole ‘nother person strapped to their entire body. Because the actors aren’t having to pretend the armor is there, neither are we. It’s a reality for them, so it’s a reality for us. A reality full of five-foot-long machetes, backmounted smartguns auto-targetting with the handheld weapon, semi-automated reload from thigh ammo chambers, and ‘splosions.

I want one. Like, bad.

I think everyone should go see this movie. And everyone who does should get their own set of powered armor. I bet if you asked Tom Cruise, he’d agree with me.

DIET COKE!