Thursday, October 24, 2013

On the Overuse of Zombies

Just in time for Halloween, as part of the Pop Justice Blog Carnival, I present to you: a post about zombies.

It seems that we may finally, finally be coming to the end of the years-long zombies craze. I’m hoping the ‘World War Z’ movie was the last major gasp of it, but the fact that a tongue-in-cheek semi-satire like ‘Warm Bodies’ came out recently is a pretty good sign that people are becoming self-aware about how overused this monster has become.

I mean, I don’t know if you guys noticed, but there was a LOT of zombie-based media there for a while. And I don’t just mean movies; games suffered a HUGE zombie trend for a substantial period of time; pretty much since ‘Left 4 Dead’ came out. For a while it seemed like every shooter and its mother had to have a zombie mod version full of headshot upon undead headshot. Even TV got into it with ‘The Walking Dead.’ (‘Community’ had a zombie halloween episode too, which was actually rather excellent.)

I really hate zombies. I don’t have a particularly good reason for this, mind you; mostly I just think they’re gross, and they just don’t interest me. I like a little meaty emotional conflict in my villains, and zombies are nothing if not inherently simple. So I sat down with some friends of mine, and we tried to work out what it was, exactly that made zombies so dang popular. I mean, surely it couldn’t just be a case of everyone copying each other to be successful, right? If so, this trend would have died out (so to speak) MUCH earlier. So there has to be some kind of hook to the zombie, something to make it worth exploring. So, I present to you, the four reasons we came up with why content creators just looove them some zombie mayhem.

Zombies as Representation of Other Fears
Zombies make a great representation of some other powerful subliminal human fears, namely: plague and overpopulation. The latter is the fear of the unstoppable press of bodies, of being one of a horde so numerous that no one can any longer be an individual. The fear that, even if you are an individual, you will be swarmed over and stepped on and wiped out by the sheer teeming mass of humanity that you have to compete against. I feel like maybe this zombie theme could have been explored more than it was. Rarely do you see zombies competing with humans for the same resources, other than sheer space. But still, it does make an apt metaphor!

The other metaphorical resonance of zombies is plague, and plenty of zombie media deals with this, whether directly or indirectly. Usually it’s some kind of sickness or disease that triggers the zombie apocalypse in the first place, but the spread of zombification itself is usually the more compelling trigger. Fear of being infected, fear of not knowing who’s been exposed, fear of losing yourself or control of your body to disease, fear of uncontainable spread, fear of military intervention for crowd control of the sick, all of these are elements of the plague and the zombie apocalypse both.

In the commentary for the ‘Left 4 Dead’ games, the designers talk about how they did a great deal of research about historical plagues to inform the tone and world-building of their game. They dug into the psychological and social effects of living in a plague-ridden society, and extracted the more interesting and gruesome details to give realism to their zombie experience. Which is part of the reason why I think ‘Left 4 Dead’ stands out as a really well-built example of zombies in media. They really grabbed the metaphor by the horns and ran with it.

Zombies are the New Nazis
Zombies are great villains if you need a humanoid, hateable individual that you don’t have to feel sympathy for. In the past, many games (and other stories, but forgive me that games are my area of most expertise) turned to nazis to fill this need. After all - everyone hates nazis! They’re practically designed to be hateable! They exist to be vessels of hatred and evil that support discrimination and violence and a complete lack of empathy and occasionally the Dark Arts. But as we get further and further away from the harsh realities of the second world war, modern audiences find it more and more difficult to viscerally connect with what is so hateable about the nazi.

Enter: the zombie. Humanoid - in fact, once a living breathing human - but completely devoid of any remaining personality. They’ve become a mindless shell, incapable of redemption and existing solely for the destruction of living humans. What’s not to hate? Finally, another guilt-free humanoid that you can headshot with no feeling of remorse. And, like nazis, there’s always more where that came from! Sure, they lack the complexity of evil that comes from having a motivation (not having the ability to think, zombies are really more like animals than people in some respects) but then, nazi motivation is rarely that well-fleshed-out either in these kinds of things. Other than, you know, “They’re evil because... uh... they’re evil!”

(Bonus: plenty of games also have nazi zombies in them. Because why have one hate-able trait when you can have two? I wonder how long before the latest Call of Duty games start having terrorist zombies.)

Anyone Can Be Turned
One of the cool things about zombies is that they can be anybody. They don’t have the cool, romantic backstories of vampires or the pedigrees of werewolves. Yes, those monsters can technically be anybody, but zombies can be EVERYBODY. Literally. And usually are. Like, generally speaking, although Average Farmer could be turned into a vampire, he’s probably not going to be. He maybe has a bit of a better chance to be wolfed, but even that’s a little far-fetched. But zombie? You betcha.

What about Average Office Lady? Zombie. Construction Worker? Zombie. Grocery Clerk? Zombie. Nerdy Twenty-Something Blogger? Zombie. We’re all zombies, if the situation calls for it. And that means, if you’re writing a character in a story, any of her loved ones could be zombies. Anyone she knows, anyone she meets, could get turned. She could get turned! No one is safe, because anyone can become a part of the horde. Vampires will just kill you if you’re beneath turning, but no one’s beneath zombification.

Zombies As A Force of Nature vs. The Everyperson
When you meet your garden-variety vampires or werewolves, they’re generally characters. They’re individuals with personalities and alliances and foibles that can maybe be used against them. You get the impression that if you met the Vampire Lestat, you might be able to talk him out of killing you if you were witty or amusing enough. Or managed to pique his interest in some other way. Or managed to pit him against a different enemy. Or distracted him with something shiny, since, you know, Lestat.

Zombies are not individuals. Zombies are a mass. Zombies are a tidal wave of danger and gross. In fact, zombies have more in common in many ways with natural disasters than they do with other monsters. They are a slow-moving (usually) but unstoppable force of nature that consumes everything and anything in its path.

Which is why anyone and everyone can fight zombies. To encounter a vampire makes you a special sort of person. Not everyone gets to run with werewolves. As with the previous section, encounters with the characters that are other monsters tend to be unique and personal, and usually indicate that the still-human person in the encounter is special in some way.

Not so zombies. Just as pretty much anyone and everyone can become a zombie, anyone and everyone fights zombies. It’s a great way to illustrate a common, otherwise uninteresting person put into an extraordinary position. This is the basic premise of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Left 4 Dead’ and, indeed, most serious character-driven zombie narratives. The zombie horde comes for everyone sooner or later. You might’ve just been an average joe before but now - as in natural disaster apocalypses - you have to tangle with a new, more dangerous world, and make your way as best you can.

So I guess, in conclusion, I get why zombies are overused. I see the draw, I understand why they make such effective narrative tools. And now, so do we all. So, is it okay if we lay off them for a while? I mean, just until they come around back into fashion again. Meanwhile, I’ve been hoping to see mer-people make a comeback...

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Girliest Show on Earth

(Note: cross-posted to my friend Debbi's excellent blog, Kiss My Wonder Woman)

Allow me to begin with a grand, sweeping declaration: 'Supernatural' is the most feminine show on television right now.* Yes, the gory supernatural horror show starring two male characters and an almost entirely male supporting cast, that Supernatural. This may seem to you like a non-obvious statement, given the nature of the show, but allow me to explain. It's all in the definition of feminine.

Let's take a moment to look at two media landscapes side by side: the pop-culture mainstream media (fictional media only, for the purposes of this discussion), primarily produced by and for males, and the fan-media landscape of fanfiction, fanvids, etc., produced primarily by and for females.** 

Shows in the standard pop-mediascape tend to center around things happening. They can be dramatic things or wacky things depending on the type of show, but we are nevertheless expected to understand the characters based on the things they do - the actions they take in specific circumstances and in response to events in their lives. Characters tend to be defined by what they do. 

Take, for instance, the show 'Community.' We know Jeff is narcissistic and arrogant, but ultimately tends to come through for his friends. We know this because he can and does make grand speeches at the drop of a hat, because he used to be a lawyer and often still acts like one, because despite what he says and however reluctantly he does them, his actions are usually those of a reliable friend, at least by the end of the episode.

Take Britta - we know her as a somewhat hypocritical feminist who latches onto any nearby cause that seems even vaguely political, and has a tendency to be unaware of her own flaws. We know this because we see her fickle attraction to men who don't treat her well, we see her jumping onto convenient bandwagons, and we see her constantly screw up things around her, often from lack of self-awareness. Her actions speak for her. If you were to give a breakdown of the sequence of actions of an episode of one of these shows, it would tell you most, if not all that you need to know about the nature of the characters involved.

Here, by way of a for instance, is a detailed summary of the actions in one episode of Community: The biology professor assigns everyone in class random lab partners. The members of the study group request that they be allowed to pair with each other instead. This is allowed, but the group has an odd number of people so they pick up a random person from the class, Todd. After attempting to work together in the first set of pairs, most of the group members discover that they are incompatible with each other one-on-one; Troy and Abed because of over-exposure to each other, Britta because she doesn't want to hear Shirley talk about her baby, and Annie because Jeff doesn't want to do the work. They return to the study room and demand a partner change, relying on Abed's impartiality to create an algorithm to choose partners. When Abed's algorithm is revealed to be based on popularity, the group devolves into more bickering about their relative popularity. The rift is finally healed by the group coming together to gang up on Todd, who was sick of the in-fighting and just wanted to do the assignment.

This summary gives us a pretty good indication of the insular but tension-frought nature of the study group, and how the characters love and hate each other at the same time. But we get it entirely through the actions of the characters, the plot of the episode. The episode isn't really about the nature of the study group so much as the nature of the study group is something that can be inferred from a set of wacky circumstances.

Compare this to the fan-mediascape. Fan-media tends to center around characters feeling things, and we are asked to understand the characters based on those feelings and on the inter-character relationships. There are plenty of fanfics and even more fanvids in which nothing or almost nothing actually happens, but our understand of the characters is significantly deepened or changed based on their introspection or their emotional reactions to events. When things do happen in fanfics, these events are almost always catalysts for the author and reader to explore how the character feels about them and what the character's emotional reaction is. 

Even the character's actions in response to this catalyst are shown as an organic growth from the character's emotions, or are shown specifically to indicate to the reader the nature of the character's emotional response. Obviously this can be and is presented with varying degrees of class and subtlety - a poor writer will just outright tell us what the character is feeling, while more experienced writers can more subtly examine the tension and emotionality through things like tone, inner dialogue, and strategic emotionally-motivated actions.

Take, for instance, this fic: Play It All Night Long ( This is a Supernatural AU where Dean is a radio DJ and Cas is one of his listeners who calls in. If you were to describe the central action in this fic, it would go like this: Dean hosts a radio show, and Cas calls in repeatedly. Then, when Cas gets kicked out of his apartment, Dean offers to help him out by taking him in, since he himself experienced similar issues in the past. Dean's brother and Cas's brother show up, and everyone meets each other. Dean and Cas hook up. The end. But of course that doesn't come even close to describing what is interesting or memorable about this fic.

The fic is about the way Dean feels about his past and his present, the way Cas feels about the same. It's about the connection that their similar emotional landscapes allow them to make with each other. It's about the way they both feel about their respective families, and the way that who they are as characters makes them interact with those close to them. It's about navigating the treacherous waters of loneliness, guilt, expectations, and companionship. It's about the emotionality of the characters, and how they interact with each other.

Now, I'm not saying that no mainstream media contains any feelings, just like I'm not saying that fanfiction never has a plot. I'm talking about what drives the two mediascapes, the underlying causes behind why these media are made the way they are, and the elements that determine who most enjoys consuming them. These things don't make up the entirety of either mediascape, but I believe that this is at their respective cores; you couldn't easily get away with having a TV episode where nothing happens other than people talking about their feelings, but you see this in fanfiction all the time. 

I also believe that this trend towards emotionality in fan-media is at least in part a female-driven response to a lack of strong emotionality in the mainstream pop-media. I think the contrast between the two is very telling, and in fact that the general lack of emotionality in the mainstream pop-mediascape is actually a symptom of the relatively small proportion of women involved in its creation. 

But what does all this have to do with Supernatural? Well, let's take a look.

What, at it's core, is Supernatural about? It's about the relationship between two brothers who hunt monsters. It's about the way that Sam fights against the darker aspects of himself, and his ability to cope with the shit that life throws at him. It's about Dean's low self-esteem and his self-hatred, his broken soul and his complete inability to cope with the shit that life throws at him. It's about Dean wanting to reach out and make connections with people and being afraid to do so. It's about Sam wanting to reach out and make connections with people but getting slapped in the face every time he tries. Oh, and also monsters and blood and gore and stuff happen.

More and more (as the writers catch on to the nature of their fanbase and how best to cater to them, one assumes), Supernatural has become a show in which the actions are little more than an excuse to show us something about the emotionality of the characters, or the relationships between the characters. Heck, one of the major storylines in the end of the last season was Dean coming to grips with Cas's betrayal and coming to forgive him for it. Again, it was about Dean reaching out to try and make a connection with someone.

Yes, things happen in Supernatural, I'm not saying they don't. But more and more it's becoming apparent what the fans really crave: it's the conversations the characters are having. It's the way Dean's been carrying around Cas's coat the whole season, presumably in the hope that Cas might yet come back to them, despite the complicated state of their relationship. It's about why we care about these characters, and who they are. We long ago established what it is that they actually do, and that hasn't really changed in ages; who they are is given to us in how they behave with those they care about, and how the things they do affect them emotionally. That's the core of emotionality, and the core of female-centric media.

So when I say that Supernatural is the most feminine show on television, what I mean is that more than any other show I've see, it's the most correctly-targeted towards a female viewing audience, and the most ripe to appeal to female viewers (the hot male leads certainly don't hurt). Unlike most shows that the media says are targeted towards women ('New Girl' and similar sitcoms, etc.), Supernatural - dark and bloody though it is - is the one that actually shows women what they want to see, to the point where the emotional exploitation of the male characters might almost begin to be on par with some of the less egregious physical exploitation of female characters in main-stream male-targeted media.

And I, for one, say: bring on more shows just like it.

* Or one of the most feminine, at least. I don't watch nearly as much television as Debbi does, so there might be other shows that also fit my particular definition of feminine on the air right now that even do so to the same or greater degree that Supernatural does. But if so, I've never seen them. I leave it to others therefore, after reading this, to argue whether certain other shows fit this definition better or worse than Supernatural does.

** There is a corresponding male fan-media landscape as well, but it's somewhat different in nature and not what I'm discussing here. If you want some good breakdowns of the differences between these fan-media landscapes, go look up some essays and/or books on fan culture by Henry Jenkins. Seriously though, that guy is awesome.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Uke As Guilt-Free Anti-Feminist Female

When I was just starting the fifth grade, I had a friend. We'll call her Mary. Mary was four years older than I was, and when I first met her we bonded over our mutual love of anime - specifically Sailor Moon. She was the one who leant me her untranslated volumes of the manga Kusatta Kyouhei no Houteishiki - describing the story to me as she had half learned from assiduous internet research and half deduced from following the illustrations - and, in doing so, gave me my first introduction to shounen ai.

Shounen ai, literally "boy love" in Japanese, is a genre of Japanese manga and anime (comics and cartoons if we want to be boorish and ignore the subtle cultural differences) that focuses specifically on gay romance between men or boys. This genre is much more popular in Japan than any similar equivalent in the states, and is targeted not at a gay male audience but primarily at straight females. In fact shounen ai is generally written and illustrated by women as well, occasionally to the point of radical inaccuracies about male physiology.

A typical shounen ai story focuses around two characters - the "seme" and the "uke" (pronounced "sehmeh" and "ookeh"). In a literal sense, the seme is the top and the uke is the bottom in the gay relationship. But much more than in any Western story, the characters in shounen ai manga are defined by these labels. The seme is generally gruff, stoic, and often pushy often to the point of being almost rapey. When he is not tough and stoic he is cheerful and puppy-like, overbearing in his eagerness, and still the more aggressive of the two. The uke, by contrast, is usually smaller, more feminine, easily confused, easily brought to tears, overthinks things, is highly emotional, and in most cases, is either reluctant to accept the seme's advances or secretly pines for him without realizing that his feelings are reciprocated. There are a number of stories that can be told with these two archetypes, and for the most part these same stories are told over and over and over again with different set dressing across various manga.

It may sound like these stereotypes lack nuance, but that's a problem endemic to manga and anime as a whole and not unique to shounen ai. Most anime characters fall into broad archetypes - the "tough guy," the "shy girl," the "nerdy character," etc. Much more so than Western media, Japanese media is oriented around comfortable stereotypes that the audience recognizes. I won't spend a lot of time belaboring this point, but if you're interested in the idea, there's a very good book called "Otaku: Japan's Database Animals," by Hiroki Azuma that explains this trend in great and fascinating depth.

When I was in middle school and receiving my first shounen ai education from Mary, these stories were fascinating to me. I was too young to read critically and pick out the fact that all the stories were basically the same - all I knew was that they appealed to a very visceral and newly-formed notion of the romantic (a childish one, yes, but I was a child). To this day I still find myself enjoying some shounen ai here and there, provided it doesn't adhere too faithfully to the basic stereotypes and devices of the genre. There was and still is something appealing about the sheer, unapologetic emotionality of them - the longing, the heartbreak, the misunderstandings, and so forth - that is enjoyable in a very onanistic sort of way.

I had given up more traditional shounen ai for several years when I recently stumbled upon an anime that encompasses all the worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) of shounen ai cliches. (The series, pictured right, is called "World's Greatest First Love" and is available on, for anyone who is interested.) Looking over it again with a much older and more critical eye, I tried to pinpoint what about it was so pleasing to me back when I first discovered it, why it sparked an interest in me that I have to this day not really lost.
I started to think about the uke character - I have long believed that the uke is basically a wish-fulfillment stand-in for the author/reader, but in male form. At any rate, the character is almost always written in an unbelievably feminine way, either intentionally or from lack of writing skill. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the uke embodies a very specific subset of characteristics.

The uke is everything that we as young women growing up are taught is supposed to be romantic, but which we are simultaneously taught is a sign of weakness in women (or, less charitably, the weakness OF women). Confusion, being too quick to mope and overindulge in negative emotion, sighing crushes from afar that the character is too shy to act upon - all of these are characteristics that are rather Victorian in their notions of how women should behave in a romantic situations, and all of these are traits which modern feminist women abhor in female characters.

If you don't believe me, take Bella Swan. Bella is the main character in the Twilight Series (for the two people who aren't already familiar). She is universally defined by her love for her man, she accepts his stalker-like behavior as a sign of the trueness of his love, and when he breaks up with her she literally spends four months locked in her room staring at the wall and moping. She's that kind of protagonist. Bella Swan is a non-character created to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy for author Stephanie Meyers and her twelve-year-old female audience. A very specific demographic absolutely adores these books, while most of the rest of the reading public basically despises them.

We despise these books because Bella is weak. As more mature women, we don't want to be anything like Bella. We've learned to cope with our emotions, to not let men rule our lives. We hate her for being the sort of character that flies in the face of the equality and respect that women strive for in the modern world. And yet, Twilight DOES have a huge fan following - which indicates that these situations and these behaviors have found some appeal somewhere. How is it that these things can be simultaneously romantic and detestably anti-feminist?

Well, for most readers of Twilight, they can't. You're either in the pro or anti Twilight camp, and there's not a lot of room for compromise. But with shounen ai, there is room for compromise. With shounen ai, you neatly side-step the problem of "is it okay for a girl to be like this?" by making the character a boy. Many of the uke characters in shounen ai manga are just as bad as Bella Swan, but much better received by many of the same women who would scoff at Twilight.

So I suppose the question is, is this okay? Does the fact that the character is male make these behaviors acceptable? Are the actions of the uke scornful, or are they actually romantic in the absence of feminist baggage? It's not a question I feel comfortable answering on my own. Am I a bad feminist because I found (and occasionally still find) these subservient, melodramatic characters compelling, even though they're male? Is shounen ai somehow groundbreaking, or is it just the opposite? And why are these plots compelling at all in the first place - what is the cultural construction that causes us to find these things romantic at all? And if I DO find these things romantic, does that make me a hypocrite for disliking Twilight?

More and more questions pile up, and I feel inadequate to answering any of them. Perhaps it is because I know that the answers will lead to some heavy self-evaluation, always a daunting prospect. But regardless, I hope some of the questions will lead you to thought as well, and encourage you to examine your own preconceptions. Are female stereotypes universally detestable, even when applied to men?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Slash Fiction as Feminist Activity

It's no secret that I'm a pretty big fan of slash fanfiction; writer of much, reader of much more. There are many and varied reasons to enjoy slash, from the most basic counterpart to male interest in lesbianism (one man is hot, so two men are hotter) to more nuanced narrative concerns like the interesting conflicts inherent in social taboos and so on. If you ask me why I'm into slash, I'm likely to give you a different answer on any given day of the week; there are just so many angles to the subject. It's something I think about an awful lot, but one possible explanation did not occur to me until just recently, and it seems to explain a lot.

A friend recently said to me that he thought that any gay material at all in a given piece of work was both "necessary and sufficient" to keep me interested. Which isn't true, but it got me thinking about counterexamples. When do I not need gay characters or gay undertones to enjoy something? When do I dislike something if it doesn't have those qualities? For the most part, there's one common thread that binds these distinctions: the presence or lack of interesting female characters.

I've only recently started to notice how very few interesting female characters there are in media, particularly in the games industry. I mean, I've always been aware of the problem, at least peripherally - but somehow recently it has come into much sharper focus for me. It might have something to do with this rather interesting article I read, linked by a friend: To my someday daughter. But everywhere I turn, I feel like I'm seeing new examples of stupid, vapid, shallow presentations of the feminine.

Case in point: my boyfriend and I just bought an indie game called "Dungeon Defender." It's a good game - a hybrid of action RPG and tower defense that is better than any other attempt at the genre mix that I've seen. The narrative isn't anything particularly novel, but it's cute enough to be less tired than it by rights should be. There are four character classes you can play as, all of which have predefined genders. They are: the squire/knight character (male, human), the sorcerer's apprentice (also male... presumably human? Hard to tell under the robe and hat), the monk (male, human), and the huntress (female, elf).

When you are on the character select screen, choosing which hero you would like to customize to play as, each character has a little animation upon selection. For the three male characters, this is basically a battle animation. They hold up their sword or staff, or in the case of the monk, go into a meditation pose. Know what the elf girl does? She turns around and wiggles her butt at you. That's right - she's even wearing a low-slung belt so you can see the small of her back and the very top of her butt when she does it. And this is the indie scene - don't even get me started on the triple-A atrocities.

Little things like this didn't used to bother me, but the older I get, the more they do. Maybe it's just that as I grow up, I expect the people around me and the things I'm consuming to also grow up and be more mature as well, and it seems like they're falling behind. Or, as I'm sadly realizing, they fell behind long ago. Most big game studios aren't even pretending anymore.

So what does all this have to do with slash? Well, consider the average romance featuring one of these women. Who am I supposed to identify with? The shallow save-me damsel that exists solely to be captured and to be the reward for the hero upon completing his quest? The bad-ass leather-boot-clad action dominatrix whose sole qualities are "is hot" and "can blow shit up"? Why would I want to identify with these women? They're not real people. They're cardboard cutouts. Not only do I not feel kinship with them, I feel abhorrence towards them.

So if I'm going to identify with someone, I'm much more likely to pick the character that matches me emotionally - or at least has emotions I can empathize with - than I am to pick the character that has boobs. And because I like men, I want the character I identify with or care about to like men. It seems the natural extension or progression of my empathy. It's not that simple, of course, but it proves to be surprisingly true across a very broad variety of cases. The characters I slash are most often the characters I feel empathy for. I hardly ever feel empathy for female characters in anything these days. Because they're barely characters.

Going through the media that I've been consuming lately, I started asking myself - who do I slash, and why?

Avatar: the Last Airbender
I don't slash anyone. Katara is an awesome, complex female character, as are support character females like Toph and Suki.

I slash Dean and Castiel. There are interesting female characters in the series, but they're only ever bit characters; one-or-two-episode players. Mostly there are just NO female characters on the show.

I'm interested in the canon gay couple, but I don't slash anyone non-canon. I find Rachel and Quinn, while stereotypes, to still be somewhat interesting - at least enough that I care about their emotions and what they're going through. And the shallowness of their characters is balanced out by the fact that the gay couple is actually canon.

Kingdom Hearts
I slash the hell out of this series - Sora and Riku particularly (although one-sided), and Axel and Roxas as a close second. Female characters? Basically one - Kairi (and Namine, who is also Kairi). Know what she does in the game? Mostly get captured. And sometimes wait longingly on an island for her man to return. At least Riku and Axel are somewhat interesting.

No slash pairings, despite the tempting target of Troy and Abed. Annie, Britta, and Shirley are at least as complex as any of the male characters. (They are still fairly simple as characters in these sorts of comedies are, but they can at least be described with actual personality monikers - Naive, Uptight Activist, Religious, etc., rather than as "the girl.")

Sherlock (BBC)/Sherlock Holmes
Very slashy, in both cases. In Sherlock (the slashier of the two, in my opinion), essentially no female characters, barring one bit character who is the female counterpart to an identical male character and a bland love interest non-character who's in about three scenes total. In Sherlock Holmes, two female characters whose personalities are, respectively: "love interest" and "feisty love interest."

I'm not saying this is a hard and fast rule - like, if there is a good female character, I 100% won't slash, and if there isn't I 100% will. I'm just saying, I'm most likely to take an interest in the emotional states and emotional underpinnings of characters that actually have emotions. Most of the time those characters are male. Asking me to care about the doings of a shallow piece of eye-candy is not only ridiculous, it's frankly insulting.

So there you have it - yet another reason to like slash; it's the feminist thing to do.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

GDC 2011: Unexpected Adventures in Classism

PART 1: The City of San Francisco

I am what my boyfriend likes to refer to as a “Country Mouse.” (From the Aesop fable. Look it up.) I’m not comfortable in cities at the best of times; I’m nervous around strangers on the street, particularly if I’m walking by myself, even if it’s in broad daylight. Part of it is because I grew up in rural Middle-of-Nowhere and attended undergraduate school at Slightly-North-of-Nowhere, and part of it is undoubtedly the numerous warnings I received before I came out to LA: don’t walk by yourself at night, make sure you’re always aware of your surroundings, cross the street if you see someone who makes you uncomfortable, etc. It certainly doesn’t help that I’m all of five feet tall and barely over a hundred pounds, not to mention the fact that I’m a young woman.

So when I came to LA for the first time to attend graduate school, I was nervous. My feelings were slightly mollified by the numerous enormous old trees on and around the USC campus – trees never fail to cheer me up and make me feel at ease – and the laid-back air of the city. Gradually I got used to life out here, and though I’m still far more nervous just walking the streets than I want to be, I’ve begun to feel more comfortable here than I ever expected.

This was my first year at GDC, and my first time ever visiting San Francisco. My very first impression of the city was that it felt far more like a city than LA did. It reminded me much more of being in Manhattan – tall buildings, people in a hurry to get somewhere, and a general air of tension and busyness. LA feels like someone took a city and placed it in Southern California, where everything from the city’s geography and the attitudes of the people within it melted in the heat, spreading out and slowing down and dripping across the map. San Francisco feels like a place where hip things are happening, where you have to keep on your toes and stay alert and grab hold of life as it swings and twirls around you. It’s got the beat and rhythm of a city, rather than the strange desert patience of LA. (Which is not to say that nothing happens in LA; very important things happen all the time – they just happen in air-conditioned office rooms. And they usually involve lawyers, which means they take at least three times as long as usual.)

After spending a little more time in San Francisco, my impression extended to include, most notably, the homeless. The homeless in San Francisco are not like the homeless in LA. For one thing, I’ve never seen a homeless person in LA with a sign saying “Need Money to Buy Weed.” The idea of giving someone change for having a sign that’s clever or something you want to read somewhat baffles me, but the signs – and the assumption that they would work – was everywhere we looked. Furthermore, it was the first time I’ve been approached by an obvious pan-handler trying to sell me a story. My own experience involved a woman who claimed to be diabetic, but I have a friend who experienced a full-on con – someone tried to get him to help pay for parking for a car that was about to be impounded with his family inside. Aside from these more notable eccentricities, the homeless were also just more aggressive and far more numerous than I’ve seen in LA. In the ten blocks that my friend and I walked home one evening, we were approached by perhaps five different people asking us for change – and saw several others that were asleep or didn’t come up to us.

I don’t want to preach or turn this into some kind of moralistic diatribe. This is obviously a problem in San Francisco, and the bizarrely entitled attitude that we seemed to get from some of the pan-handlers is probably a part of it. I just know that it brought to the forefront my urban paranoia – only in feeling it fresh again did I realize how much it had faded over my time in LA. This isn’t a reason to not go to San Francisco by any means – but it’s something I was acutely aware of while I was there. I wonder if the residents are aware of how large the problem is, or if they’ve simply become used to it.

PART 2: The Problem of Passes

As most people know, GDC is incredibly expensive. I was able to go only because I received a free Expo Pass as part of a raffle. The value of my pass – even if you pre-ordered it early – was roughly $200. This is basically out of my price range barring exceptional circumstances, and it’s actually the second-cheapest pass at the convention. The cheapest is the student pass for $75, which gives you access to almost nothing, and in order to receive the full, heaping-platter, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink pass, you’d need to pay $1500. The next price bracket above mine – the summits and tutorials pass – was $600, a significant price jump.

The Expo Pass gives you access to the main awards ceremonies and to the show floor. I figured that would be enough – especially since I’d only be there for two and a half days or so – and that the floor would keep me occupied with interesting content. I came to GDC looking forward to learning interesting new things about game design and being inspired to create something new.

The reality I soon discovered was that my pass essentially ranked me as a second-class citizen. I was astounded by how ostracized I felt at the conference. It began on Wednesday morning, when I traveled to the conference at 8 AM in order to accompany my friends (with summit passes) who were planning to attend the Keynote at 9 AM. Now, my pass did not entitle me to attend the Keynote, which I knew, but I figured that I could at least take advantage of having a mere Expo Pass to check out the floor early, when all the higher-level attendees were busy elsewhere.

However, upon reaching the expo hall, I discovered that the doors didn’t open until 10 AM, when the Keynote let out. I was barred from entering, and had to sit twiddling my thumbs in the lobby, waiting for the important people to get out of their meeting so we could start the show. A few other Expo Pass holders waited nearby, while exhibitors hurried into the hall to complete their last-minute preparations.

When I finally did step onto the floor, I was indeed wowed by the display of technology that I saw. Everything new and cutting-edge in the industry was on parade, although with notably fewer flashing lights and booth babes than E3, for which I was thankful. I had a great time just strolling around the floor, checking things out.

The thing is, the GDC floor does not match E3 for size, and touring the floor doesn’t take more than a few hours. Additionally, most of the vendors are (understandably) there for business; if you’re not handing out resumes, attending a pre-scheduled business meeting, or purchasing several dozen Maya licenses for your school, then the vendors are generally polite to you but ultimately disinterested. The only exception was the IGF corner, where all the IGF games were available for demo. This was certainly the highlight of the floor for me, and I spent a great deal of my time there playing the games and at the IGDA booth playing ninja.

When I met my friends at mealtime, I was subjected to the frankly tortuous experience of listening to them talk about how amazing the summits and lectures they’d attended had been. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t resent them for it, and I wanted to hear what I was missing as much as possible. But the knowledge that I had wandered around mostly bored after the third or fourth hour while they’d been hearing from some of the most fascinating people in the industry on topics I really cared about was crushing. I went to GDC as an academic, but I only had access to the sales pitches.

The evening of the first day was the awards ceremony, and finally I felt like part of the community once more – despite the roped-off section of VIP tables in the center of the awards hall with guards at every entrance. But given the caliber of some of the people in that area who were nominated for the awards, that felt almost reasonable. The awards ceremony even made me feel strangely elitist – being familiar with so many of the games nominated for the IGF awards made me feel like someone who’s seen all the short films nominated at the Oscars; it’s not exactly general knowledge for the general public.

The next day I spent almost exclusively at the IGF games booth, having nothing really better to do. I went to one of the IGDA Special Interest Groups, but was unimpressed (although the second such that I went to was a bit better). The games were fun and interesting, and it was great to get a chance to play them. I saw a lot of stuff I doubt I would have seen otherwise. It was a great mini-vacation from my classwork, if nothing else.

On Friday I had brunch with my friends and then headed for home. Overall I have to say that I’m glad I went – I would encourage people to go if they can, and particularly if they want to network or hand around resumes or similar. I did have a free pass, which was excellent, although travel and living expenses were still significant. But if I go next year, it will only be if I can get a higher-level pass – even if it’s free. (And it will probably have to be – if $200 was out of my price range this year, I doubt $600 will be in my budget for next year.) The Expo Pass experience was fine to do once, but if I attend again, I’m going to some of those lectures. I don’t think I could stand going again if I didn’t.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

E3 Impressions

Before it gets far away enough to be irrelevant, I thought I'd write out my impressions of everything I played while at E3. I played a little over a dozen demos, and had a blast. ^_^ Here's what I thought of each, in no particular order.


Unfortunately, the demo for this was (understandably) only of the gameplay elements, and it seems most of the innovation on this game between versions 1 and 2 was on the content creation side. Still, I liked what I saw - it looks like there are a huge number of new tools, both for use in levels and in creating levels, and you can apparently make mini-games now, to play inside the standard levels! I'm really excited about that; making things is always at least half the fun of games like that.

As to the gameplay itself, I have to say I was rather disappointed with the multi-player they provided as a demo. It controls the same as a standard LBP game from the first one, with the added twist of a grapnel-gun in the level that was available for demo, but the camera following for multiple players was really weird. The moment one player got even slightly ahead of the others, the other players would find themselves off-screen, with nothing to do but wait until player 1 hit the next save point, causing them to re-spawn. So as co-operative play, it seems like it would involve a lot of waiting around for other players to catch up, and as competitive play, it seems like an initial lead would completely determine the game's outcome.

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood
Here's another multiplayer game, but this was one that's way different from what I'm used to. This game was surprisingly similar to real-life games like assassins, red-light green-light, and so on - and it was definitely a good twist on your standard shooter death-match, which have been pretty much done to death (no pun intended) at this point.

The whole idea with this game is subtlety. You're one of six characters in a crowded city made up of clones of the six characters. One of each character is the real assassin, controlled by one of your opponents, while the rest are all mindless NPCs that wander around the map. You are assigned one of the other assassins as a target, but you can't be certain which member of the crowd is your specific target unless you see them move in an unusual way - running, climbing walls, shanking someone, etc.: all things that the NPCs can't do.

Behaving like an NPC isn't necessarily a failsafe; everyone has a sort of radar that allows them to home in on their target gradually. But you're also warned when an assassin targeting you is approaching, so you can break into a run and then hide in order to save yourself. So it's a balance between stealthily stalking your target, and making sure someone doesn't sneak up behind you and shank you while you're ambling along.

I have to say, I was pretty bad at this game. (I came in second-to-last in the first round, and dead last in the second round.) But I still really enjoyed playing it, which I think is a sign of a really good game. I also felt like I could perhaps become good at it with time - another good sign. I had never played any assassin's creed games before this, but this demo really made me want to start.

Super Scribblenauts
When the first Scribblenauts game came out, I played a friend's copy and was rather enamored with it. I'm sure the novelty wears off after a while, but there's something really great about being able to summon Cthulu at will if you get frustrated with a level.

What Super Scribblenauts has going for it is adjectives. And with that simple addition, the playful, childish novelty increases exponentially. If you're trying to have fun being silly in the game, you're probably not going to summon a paintbrush or guitar unless you really have to for a level; they're not really particularly fun or clever objects. But a ludicrous paintbrush? An eclectic guitar? Suddenly any object can be made interesting via simple juxtaposition.

I have to say, probably my absolute favorite item that came out of my demo play was the "suspicious envelope," which ended up being an envelope that was, itself, suspicious of things. When it popped into existence, it had a little purple suspicion mood bubble, and immediately tried to make for the corner of the game screen. I also got quite a kick out of our "lively sentient chair," which immediately picked up the "happy angry sad cat" that we'd left around earlier, and then proceeded to bounce up and down. This worked out fairly well, until the happy angry sad cat decided that it was in an angry mood at the moment and injured one of the innocent bystanders, which unfortunately lost us the level.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
This was an 8-bit Castlevania game in hi-def. I know what you're thinking: WHY? Turns out, not a completely useless combination. The fine detail means that the player can zoom out far enough that they can see the entire castle - every single room - on one screen, before zooming back in to themselves so they can navigate. This allows you to plan out your route from a distance, and then execute it.

Supposedly this game is multiplayer, although I demoed it playing by myself. The castle seemed to have a lot of elements that interacted with other rooms far away from your location, so I can easily see how it could be a lot of fun to zoom out, note where your friends are going, and then take the quickest path to help or hinder them. As a single-player venture, I wasn't particularly moved, however. An adequate 2-D 8-bit platformer, with a little bit of oddball-ness thrown in. I suppose you can't ask for more, given the nature of the game.

This is, of course, not to be confused with the full 3-D Castlevania by Hideo Kojima that was also there. I didn't play that one myself, although my friend Mike did and said it was about what you'd imagine of a Castlevania game from the creator of Metal Gear Solid.

Invizimals is an AR (Augmented Reality) game for the PSP, using the PSP camera. I say game, but from what we saw, it really seemed more like a tech demo for AR. (Or else, something that might be whipped up in one of the advanced game classes here at USC.) Basically it's an AR Pokemon. (Man, did the demo guy get offended when I said that.) You use the camera to focus in on brightly-colored objects, and find the creatures hiding there. Once you find them, you use a little AR trap to isolate them (put the little piece of paper down in physical space over the creature within view on the camera), and then you have to play a mini-game to capture them. Once captured, monsters can be evolved and battled, thus completing the Pokemon/Digimon/Monster Rancher/etc. parallel.

It was cute, and apparently has a story mode as well, but the controls were not exactly seamless, and overall it didn't seem particularly deep to me. There's an argument that it doesn't have to be, if the new technology is interesting enough, but we'll see if that argument pans out for the Kinect, and then re-evaluate from there.

Epic Mickey
If you'd told me a decade back that someone would make a dark, scary game featuring Mickey Mouse, I would've laughed. But since then we've had Kingdom Hearts, where Mickey is a badass, black-cloaked, keyblade-wielding king of a planet, and so times have changed. My actual reaction to the demo was that it wasn't dark enough.

The game was marketed as super edgy and unexpected, particularly in the amazing concept art. But I'm guessing the dark and edgy images didn't get past certain family-friendly higher-ups at the smile-like-you-mean-it monolith that is Disney. Instead the game looks like a fairly generic adventure game, complete with fetch-quests and collectible items hidden in bushes. The game's central mechanic - drawing things in with paint versus erasing them with thinner - flirts dangerously close with being your standard black-and-white moral choice system where angelic good and satanic evil are your only two options.

There's been some nod to the idea that, as designer Warren Spector put it, "play style matters," in that there are multiple ways to solve various quests and/or puzzles, and which choice you make effects the game characters and game world. Okay, fine. I appreciate the effort, I guess. But I would've gladly sacrificed that element of choice if the game had instead delivered on the darker aesthetic that was promised in these amazing pictures.

Fable 3
Speaking of black and white moral choice systems, I also played the Fable 3 demo at E3. I ended up playing side-by-side with a friend who was at the neighboring console, where he got a mission that involved beating up giant mechanical vulture statues and shadow monsters from dripping pillars of darkness, and I got a mission that involved dressing up in a giant chicken suit to round up some missing hens.


I don't really know what to say about Fable. I never played the second one, so my only point of comparison is the first game, which isn't really a comparison at all. I can't tell you if this game is trying to be a Sims-like life simulator in a fantasy setting with more direct control, or a gritty fantasy action game a la God of War, or something else entirely. The two demos were so disparate, it felt like they came from different games. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I'd say I didn't like it, per se. I guess I was too confused to really get a full impression. Mostly it seemed kind of funny and interesting, but I'm not sure it'd be enough to hold my interest for the full game length.

Lost in Shadow
This was one of the few games I played at E3 that I had never heard of before, as I imagine most others haven't either. The idea was that you play as a shadow of a person, navigating across the shadows of a physical world. The environments reminded me strongly of Ico, which endeared me to it immediately, and the puzzles were just bordering between intuitively easy and clever (but then, I only played the very beginning; I'd imagine they get harder). As a shadow person, you run across the shadow platforms created by railings, walls, and so forth, while avoiding sunlit drops and the spiky shadows cast by the tops of gates and things. You have some limited control over what happens in the physical world, which allows you to change the way shadows are cast, and therefore how you can move. As a mechanic it has a lot of potential, although I didn't really get to play enough to see if the makers capitalized on that potential.

What this game really reminded me of was a more polished version of many indie games, which tend towards side-scrolling action-platformers; essentially what this game is. It reminded me of something like Closure, say, or Shift (both games that I loved and highly recommend - they're free online flash games, and the latter has a number of equally interesting sequels) where you have one central mechanic that's exploited in a variety of interesting ways. The relative interesting-ness of Lost in Shadow's puzzles and mechanical exploits remains to be seen. I'm considering picking this one up when it comes out largely from pure curiosity, and a desire to encourage the game industry to try more interesting things.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
I went into E3 HUGELY looking forward to this game, so it's almost not even fair for me to comment on it. I played a little bit of Deep Space, which is apparently Stitch's level, as well as an unknown generic Disney area, and all I can really say is that I saw nothing that would make me hesitate to buy the game.

What I saw of the (slightly) new combat mechanics (rechargeable special moves) seems interesting, and I've heard bizarrely fascinating things about the leveling up system (a board-game based mini-game?!), but the bottom line is that I'm in this for the story and the world-building, and for that you need to play the full game to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I trust Squeenix, and I trust the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Every time I've been skeptical so far (a card-based battle system? A third girl who looks EXACTLY like Kairi and Namine?) they've managed to allay my fears and provide me with a solid, fun gaming experience, and so I'm willing to just take their word on this one and get it. The real question is, can I justify getting another PSP enough to buy the super special bundle pack when it comes out?

It's Okami but with baby animals on the DS. Enough said. I'm sold.

Avatar: The Last Airbender
This is a tough one for me, as I'm a huge fan of the animated series, and am feeling some serious trepidation about seeing the movie. Even if you're not a fan, though, I have a hard time seeing how this game could excite you. Looked at independent from its IP, the demo seemed like a fairly generic Wii game, where you press A repeatedly to attack, and then give a directional swing of the wiimote when the pop-up command indicates that you should do so. It might as well be God of War with exercise for your wrist instead of your thumb.

As an example of the Airbender IP, I really couldn't tell you. The character you play in the demo is the Blue Spirit, a character who doesn't use any form of bending - only physical combat. Which makes me wonder why they made that decision for the demo, since bending is the central mechanic of the series, and the action that the players will be most eager to perform in the game. It should be the most interesting part of the game, and the one that would be best suited to the Wii motion controls. So why didn't they demo that? Are they ashamed of how generic it is? If it's the same as the combat that was in the demo, then they should be. The A:tLA brand presents amazing opportunities for a motion control system, and unfortunately, I think this game is going to be just another lame movie-tie-in brand extension. I'd love to be proved wrong on this one, but somehow I doubt it.

Ghost Trick
Apparently this game is from the same developers as the Phoenix Wright series, and it shows. In this DS title, you play as a ghost that can posses items in the world and cause them to perform actions, or "tricks." You've lost your memory, and so the game is about trying to figure out who you were and why you died. The mechanic is simple, and I can't imagine all that much you could do with it past a certain point, but the demo was adorable and really quite funny (and broke the fourth wall in some very refreshing ways), and so I may have to pick this one up just for the sheer novelty. I think it's worth playing a game just for the sake of silliness every now and again.

Kirby: Epic Yarn
What you can say for this game, aside from "it's a Kirby game," is that it has quite the interesting aesthetic. I'm not sure I've ever seen "yarn-punk" before, but this would probably fit that description, if anything would. (Or, perhaps, "yarn-core"?) The game takes place in a fabric world, where you and everyone else are made of yarn. That's right, yarn. You're a little yarn outline, fighting other yarn outlines. You jump on stitches, hide between layers of fabric, and swing from buttons. Altogether, the aesthetic is fairly seamless (no pun intended), and affords some interesting mechanics and visuals.

The game is co-op for the Wii, and I played with a friend of mine that I was touring around with. The co-op reminded me a little bit of playing Four Swords, and also of the LittleBigPlanet 2 demo, in that there was a lot of, "Hey! Put me down!" and "Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to grab you!" and "Throw me over the ledge! Throw me over the ledge!" But I'm of the opinion that we should have more games like that, so count it as a positive aspect coming from me.

Other than that, not much to say about this game. Playful, adorable adventures. Kirby. From those key words, I think you should know what you need to know about whether you'll like it or not. Oh, and the two playable characters combined to form a giant tank made of yarn at one point. I guess that bears mentioning.

Overall Impressions
E3 was loud, it was glittery, it was full of shine far past the point of substance, but I think there was still enough meat buried under there that I feel confident about what's coming up in the industry and in the market. I could care less about generic shooters 1, 2, and 3, but there was a surprisingly high amount of content at the convention that wasn't generic, and even many of the sequels seemed like they were trying to push themselves and do something new. Overall, I think we're going to be okay. (And also, I'm seriously looking forward to more news on 'El Shaddai.' That trailer has some really darn pretty sequences. And also also, OMFG Portal 2 trailer. Seriously.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Games That Don't Think You're Stupid (OR, Why I Like Final Fantasy Games)

It's been a while since I've had the pleasure of starting a completely new Final Fantasy game, and FFXIII is making me remember why that sensation is so special. There's something about Final Fantasy games that's kind of amazing, even when it's the exact same formula. It starts with a fly-over of the game world, stunning graphics and amazing, unique details for the player to gorge their eyeballs and curiosity on. Then - something's happening! Then suddenly there you are, in the middle of gameplay, with little to no explanation and, if you're lucky, a bare tutorial. (In FFX there was no tutorial at all for the first combat, mimicking the confusion and unpreparedness of the main character.)

Maybe it's the early hinted depth of the world, maybe it's the continuously unique atmosphere, maybe it's the ease of slipping into the menu-based combat, even though it can change drastically from game to game, or maybe it's just the trust I have in Final Fantasy, but there's something about this state that makes me go, "Alright! Yeah! I have NO IDEA what's going on, but let's do this, Bitches!" And from there on, it's straight into adventure.

One of the things I like the most about the Final Fantasy series is the way it doesn't hold your hand narratively. Characters bandy about unfamiliar terms as though you're supposed to know what they mean (in FFXII we already have Fal'Cie, L'Cie, Cocoon, and Pulse, to name a few, and I'm only a few hours in...), and the game just lets you soak it in and try to keep up. And yet inevitably, by the time I'm fully immersed in an FF game, I feel in total control of the game world, narrative and all. I bandy the terminology about myself, as though I've been using it all my life. Zanarkand and the Aeons? Of course. What would that highly religious land be without its slumbering guardian spirits? Now, who's up for a game of blitzball?

FFXIII is new in that it has a file of reference sheets about the world. I've been reading them, but honestly, I don't think I need to. It's nice to have the extra reference, but I got immediately that the "Focus" was the task that the Fal'Cie order their L'Cie to do. It makes total sense. Or else they turn into those crazy zombie monsters (Cie'eth, I believe, although I haven't been playing that long yet, and it's possible I got that wrong). I get it. Cool. Awesome. I'm totally with you on this one. Let's rock this, FFXIII.

This kind of reminds me of one thing that I really like about the Kingdom Hearts series. Invariably, whenever I saw an ad for a Kingdom Hearts game, I would have two reactions: the first would be a general, overall impression of "That looks AWESOME. I must try it." The second would be a more detail-oriented look at the hints about what they were doing with the thought, "How the hell are they going to make that work? That doesn't make any sense at all. That's gonna be so stupid." And ALWAYS I have been proven wrong. Examples:

Game 1, Kingdom Hearts
Initial Thoughts: A Square game with Disney characters? This is going to be so lame. They're all completely separate universes. You can't just throw Donald Duck into a party and hope it works.
But: It did. They explained the separate universes, they justified the Disney characters as RPG material, and they connected it all in a well-thought out and internally consistent plot.

Game 2, Chain of Memories
Initial Thoughts: A card-based battle system? Are you kidding me?
But: They actually bothered to justify it narratively. And it was a real-time combat system, despite the cards, that actually worked quite well and was incredibly fun to play.

Game 3, Kingdom Hearts II
Initial Thoughts: Really. Two characters that look just like Sora and Kairi? How does that work? And are they really going to try and justify a whole new enemy type just to have some combat variety? And the guy in the hood is obviously Riku. Why are you even bothering to hide his face?
But: The Nobodies were not there for variety, but for the expansion of the world's internal logic. The two characters that looked like Sora and Kairi were integral to the plot and its unfolding. And beneath the hood was Riku, but- OH MY GOD ARE YOU KIDDING?

Game 4, 358/2 Days
Initial Thoughts: Oh. Great. ANOTHER girl who looks like Kairi. How original. They're just doing that to complete the aesthetic set of three. There's no way they're going to be able to justify that.
But: In fact her presence made total internal sense with the game logic so far, and culminated in an actually quite creepy and heart-rending ending.

I haven't played "Birth By Sleep" yet, but I'm already wondering how they're going to justify a character that's identical to Roxas (who never really existed in the first place anyway), but some 10 years in the past. It doesn't seem possible, but they've proved me wrong every other time, so I'm heartily looking forward to them doing it again when the game comes out in English this summer.

I like these games because they don't think the audience is dumb. They don't think we have to be coddled or talked down to, and they acknowledge that we'll notice if they don't have internal consistency. They tell the stories they want to tell, no-holds-barred, and I respect that. Even when using familiar tropes, even bound as Final Fantasy is to Chocobos and Moogles and Cactuars and Cids, they never stop re-imagining themselves, never let the player rest and get so familiar as to become complacent. Every game is an adventure into a new world, even if it's one where, the moment I get there, I already feel at home.