Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been a massive G1 Transformers fan. Not least because the TV series represented the absolute pinnacle of my Saturday morning cartoon viewing when I was young – and this at a time when terrestrial programming included classics such as He-Man, Thundercats, Battle of the Planets, Dungeons & Dragons, Ulysses 31 and The Mysterious Cities of Gold. It was a good time to be a kid in the 80’s – before the neutering effects of political correctness would result in cartoons becoming increasingly pussified. And now with a distinct lack of archetypal male role-models enjoying mainstream success, where their actions would inspire youth to step up and raise their game, Western society is seeing a greater prominence of effeminate social justice warriors who act like spoilt whiners and who bitch about their self-entitled first world lifestyles whilst Anita Sarkeesian pushes her gender-communist demasculinising agenda.
In this day and age therefore, and especially in an ever-connected globalised world, it’s almost a miracle then that Japan hasn’t had its otaku culture adversely affected. With respected auteurs such as Hideo Kojima and Suda 51 being widely lambasted by popular media for their portrayal of females in games like Metal Gear Solid V and Killer is Dead, their uncompromising attitudes are almost anachronistic to Western development practices, not least in terms of how their vision is communicated across multiple personnel in huge teams without necessarily having it be distorted or molded by committee.
In issue 283, Edge magazine’s editorial opined that developers might need to pay less heed to public opinion in order to craft the kind of games that they want to make. And whilst this singular approach to game design might sit at odds with the ideologies of certain focus groups, it almost certainly does enable game creators to assert themselves as artists and to ensure that the medium is taken seriously. However, with the dominant themes and messages of established franchises being subverted in order to appease a wider demographic, it’s worth noting that sometimes this approach of being more inclusive (so as to ensure that people aren’t offended) often robs the product of its very essence and what makes it so appealing in the first place. And with the encroaching effects of political correctness now seeing popular franchises enable gamers to play as female assassins (Assassin’s Creed) and female footballers (FIFA), it’ll be interesting to see as to what the logical conclusion of this all-inclusive approach of catering to audiences will be.
The problem with interest groups who want “equality” is that they often want all of the benefits, but don’t necessarily want to have to deal with any of the responsibilities that this implies. This is none more apparent than when females are allowed to take agency of their own bodies when it comes to issues of birth control etc, yet aren’t able to act as booth babes at conventions as this would empower their sexuality. This level of hypocrisy by social justice warriors is also exposed when females are allowed representation in popular franchises, yet aren’t allowed in Call of Duty as shooting female soldiers in the face would make them appear as victims of misogyny. This is without even taking into consideration the notion that male soldiers are often deemed as being expendable, and that violence wrought on to them is both acceptable and, in what is clearly a form of double standard misandry, is openly encouraged.
If videogames are to ever be considered as “art”, then the industry needs more people like Kojima, Suda 51, Kamiya, and Itagaki – developers who aren’t afraid to resist public pressure and who follow their own passions. Eriq La Salle once stated that “art should offend people because art should challenge people”, and to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, if all publishers were determined not to publish anything until they were sure that it would offend nobody, then there would be very little published. And with the goal of social justice warriors to ban and eliminate everything that is deemed offensive, their totalitarian assault on the free market economy is akin to an assault on the freedom of the human mind.
If the role of art is to challenge and encourage thought, it’s worth noting that people are often offended by art that makes them think and feel outside the realms of prevailing orthodoxies. And with political correctness advocating Orwellian levels of thought control, how long before publishers stop green-lighting games like Journey and Shadow of the Colossus in order to placate a more morally conservative market?
One of the paradoxes of the culture war is that the overwhelming strength of these political ideologies also carry within them the seeds of their own downfall. For if man is born free and yet everywhere else he is in chains, it’s only natural that the very first prison one will attempt to break from is the limitation borne from the spring-well of his own shackled mind. Nothing can conquer the human spirit, and with dogmatic thought carrying within it the seeds of intellectual revolution, is it any wonder that we are beginning to see games like Hatred as a reaction to political correctness and the status-quo – where the developer unashamedly espouses counter-cultural views of wanting “to create something contrary to prevailing standards of forcing games to be more polite or nice than they really are or even should be”.
Prior to its release, Hatred was the subject of moral outrage where people went so far as to call for its outright ban.
As the developer behind the hyper-sexualised protagonist of its Bayonetta series, Platinum Games is no stranger to courting controversy in the eyes of the fem-centric west, whose gaming critics have often tried to frame the character’s narrative and discourse as being tied to sexism and blatant misogyny. Vehemently disregarding the fact that the main character was designed by a woman who wanted the protagonist to have ownership and agency over her own sexuality, thereby tying into the feminist notion that women should be allowed to express themselves however they wish, reviewers like Arthur Gies still however participated in the slut-shaming by scoring the game 7.5 and arguing that “Bayonetta 2’s blatant over-sexualisation puts a big dent in an otherwise great game”.
Feminists often promote the ideology that the reason as to why there aren’t many females working in the games industry is because it’s inherently patriarchal in structure and because the games are skewed towards furthering male interests. However, when AAA games like Assassin’s Creed are created by females holding prominent positions at major publishers whereby a male is the main protagonist, it does seem as if the prevailing feminist dogma comes up short.
Karl Marx once argued that “the (armchair) philosophers have interpreted the world, in various ways. The point however is to change it”. And in an age when practically everyone has “the means of production”, and has access to inexpensive developer tools (like Game Maker and Unity) that facilitate the creation of high quality games and to allow their publishing on multiple formats, it does seem churlish to suggest that the industry is still macrocosmically patriarchal and hierarchical in nature, when in reality, many of the games that enjoy a place in the limelight come from small teams that operate according to flat organizational principles. Without even taking into account the PC (which has seen games like Hotline Miami, Gunpoint, Braid, and Papers Please be released on it), companies like Sony have actively promoted niche and left-field ideas by courting and publishing content from small developers on its PS4 and indie-centric Vita. In short, the democratizing (and equalizing) effects of the internet has shifted the nexus of power from major corporations to smaller teams (comprising as little as one or two people), thereby allowing people to carve out their own niche and to operate according to their own rules.
It can therefore be argued that those who have the time to complain about the portrayal of females in games like Bayonetta, as well as the inequalities that persist in society, have the time to learn games development and to create the kind of games that they truly want to play. And as opposed to dictating what is deemed acceptable in a free market economy, maybe SJW and feminists would be best served by following up on their soft talk with hard action, stop being self-entitled lazy whiners who espouse a victim mentality, and take agency in changing things and to improve their own station in life so as to add real value to a society that doesn’t owe them anything.
As the company behind the best-selling series Call of Duty, Activision has previously worked with Platinum Games on The Legend of Korra and is well aware of the developer’s pedigree when it comes to action games. But with Platinum employee Kenji Saito’s previous title – Metal Gear Rising – also becoming embroiled in accusations of sexism when it came to the portrayal of Mistral, it was interesting to see as to how the major publisher would ally itself with Platinum’s hot-shot director. Certainly, Activision isn’t unfamiliar with notions of controversy (as the “No Russian” level from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 proved), but with western attitudes towards sexism and violence being a lot less tolerant in comparison to those found in Japan, seeing a public company associate itself with a niche developer that constantly mocks mainstream gaming conventions (including when Platinum founder Hideki Kamiya is extremely forthright to fans on Twitter) must surely lend itself towards being a possible PR nightmare in the eyes of the public trading company.
After the public unveiling of Transformers: Devastation at this year’s E3, during which Activision formally announced its development partnership with Platinum Games, a lot of people were skeptical of the game’s quality and expected it be on par with the pairings previous effort. But with news that Kenji Saito (Director of Metal Gear Rising) was helming the project, together with the understanding that the game would enjoy a full retail release, a lot of Transformers fans (including David Jenkins from Metro) became eagerly excited at the possibilities of what Platinum might be able to achieve if the project were given sufficient resources.
Apart from the signing of Platinum, Activision’s resolve in hiring top talent has also extended to other celebrated figureheads associated with the famed robot franchise. And to ensure that Transformers: Devastation lives up to fan expectations, it has sought out the services of Andy Schmidt (writer for IDW’s Transformers comic series) to pen the script, and has also gotten the cast from the original TV series to lend their voices (including Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Dan Gilvezan). It’s hoped therefore that the videogame is be able to incorporate some of the ideological concepts that feature in the Transformers universe, and together with the player’s ability to pick different transformers (depending on their progress in the campaign), is able to explore some of the interpersonal relationships between the Autobots and Decepticons.
But despite assurances from Activision, there are still grave concerns regarding the title, not least due to the limited exposure that Transformers: Devastation has received prior to its release on 6 October 2015. And with the game only being announced (and unveiled) five months previously, one does wonder as to how seriously Activision are taking the project when the game’s incubating period appears to be so short – especially given that the game is coming out on current gen systems (PC, PS4 and XBox One).
Indeed, as an indicator of how Platinum Games projects have fared in the public eye on previous gen systems (ie PS3, XBox 360 and to a certain extent Wii U – systems that required sufficiently less development resources in terms of manpower and time), Bayonetta 2 was announced in September 2012 and came out two years later in September 2014, Metal Gear Rising was first unveiled in December 2011 and came out over a year later in February 2013, and Anarchy Reigns was first announced in January 2011 and came out over 1.5 years later in July 2012 (in Japan).
With High Moon Studios previous two Cybertron efforts setting the benchmark for Transformers games, not least in terms of when it came to the rather complex and extremely varied environmental locales that suggested that the developer had been able to secure a sizable budget for its releases, High Moon also received extensive assistance from Hasbro and publishing partner Activision in developing the games’ core design concepts. With all signs pointing to the development team as having sufficient autonomy in crafting the kind of game that Director Matt Tieger had been waiting 25 years to play, his vision finally came to blissful fruition when critics hailed Fall of Cybertron as being “a love-letter to a fictional universe created in 1984 that has… continued to this day”.
With High Moon Studios having not released a Transformers game since 2012, all eyes are now on Platinum Games. Can Director Kenji Saito and his development team craft the kind of game that lives up to fan expectation, or will Transformers: Devastation be a hastily reskinned Bayonetta with its martial arts and “witch time” dodge attacks? Certainly, some people have criticized Devastation‘s backgrounds as being rather basic, but with Kenji Saito admitting to being a massive Transformers fan, all is not lost. Sporting a gorgeous cel-shaded art aesthetic that rekindles fond memories of watching the G1 cartoon in the 80’s, Devastation certainly looks the part and runs at 1080p and 60fps on PS4 and XBox One. And with ‘The Transformers: The Movie’ setting an all-time precedent in terms of high-octane animated action, it’ll be interesting to see as to how Platinum follow suit in what is surely shaping up to be one of the year’s biggest surprise releases and a highly stylized homage and love letter to the TV show.
To find out more about the game, including what prompted Platinum to eschew its distinctive flair for individualised development in order to focus on the constraints imposed by a licensed product, I sat down with Kenji Saito (Platimun Games, Director) and Robert Conkey (Activision, Producer) at this year’s Gamescom and got to talk to them about what Peter Cullen (voice of Optimus Prime) is fondly referring to as “a trip down memory lane”. Enjoy the interview.
First of all, Activision are regarded as being the Call of Duty, Destiny and Skylanders publishing house. I know that you’ve done Transformers games before in the past, where you contracted the in-house High Moon Studios, but what made you decide to forego working with High Moon on this occasion and go with Platinum Games – in particular with Kenji Saito as being the visionary who would be responsible for translating the Activision vision from a Platinum perspective?
Robert Conkey – Well you know, in the past, we’ve done a lot of Transformers games that were very well received. High Moon has really rocked it. And you know they had a very gritty, very realistic style, and we love that. But at the same time, we kind of just wanted to try taking things to a new direction. We didn’t have a movie coming out or anything to tie in it with so we actually had a bit of freedom there and also, Hasbro’s latest toy line for Transformers is the Generations toy line which is inspired by the original Transformers, the classics, a modern take on the classic Transformers. And so you know, we knew that these guys
So I was just asking Kenji Saito about how he specifically got on to this project because I wasn’t sure myself. And so it turns out that he heard through the grapevine… he hadn’t even heard who the publisher was yet, but he heard through Atsushi Inaba – who is the Executive Producer on basically all of Platinum’s titles. So Inaba-san actually approached Saito-san himself and said “Hey, there’s been some talk about Transformers. Would you be interested”? And his answer was “Hell yes, I would!”. So from there, they did it.
Kenji Saito has loved Transformers ever since he was a kid. The Transformers TV show was huge in Japan, as well as everywhere else. Also, he played with the toys and everything. Major fan since childhood, and so when he heard there was a chance to work on Transformers, he leaped for it.
This is a question for Kenji Saito. I know that Activision has a fairly healthy relationship with Platinum because they subcontracted out The Legend of Korra to them. But the thing is that The Legend of Kora didn’t have a massive production pipeline or [huge] resources allocated to it. I understand that you [Kenji Saito] are a big fan of Transformers, but you have also worked on Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and I know… having played the game that because you have worked with a perfectionist, where Hideo Kojima literally just says “look, you have all the time in the world. Just make it.” That’s the kind of person that Kojima-san is, and based on rumours, is but one reason as to why he’s leaving Konami [because they’ve become more risk-averse and have stepped away from AAA development now]. Given the fact that I know that Activision are a AAA publishing company who have to answer to shareholders, and have their own deadlines to meet etc… given the fact that The Legend of Korra ultimately didn’t have the largest production schedule, in what way have you, bearing in mind that you’re a massive G1 Transformers fan, been able to realize your vision without necessarily having, although Activison is paying the bills… with deadlines, limits, with constraints… How much freedom have you had with regards to ensuring that Transformers: Devastation doesn’t suffer the same fate as The Legend of Korra?
Robert Conkey – That’s deep…
Kenji Saito – I don’t work with hard time-lines… working with a company that answers to shareholders, we need to work on specific time-lines, and there’s always room to do more. But at the same time, I feel with this title I achieved what I set out to do, and so I think that’s a success.
Kenji Saito… your previous game was Metal Gear Rising which focused on one character only, whereas Transformers: Devastation has five characters which you can choose from, depending on the campaign. How have you been able to bring your unique player-focused combat skills and ensure that… because ultimately, Raiden is a very memorable character where you played as this one character and you had all these crazy moves and combos. But in Transformers: Devastation, you have five distinct characters. Do you feel that maybe your fighting formula has been stretched too thin over five characters, and if that’s the case, how have you ensured that for fighting fans, the fighting system is deep enough, but at the same time ensure that the narrative is also something that would satisfy Transformers legacy fans?
Kenji Saito – The way I think about it with Transformers is that I consider it to be… it’s not necessarily just about one character, they’re really a group of characters, the Autobots themselves. And so I really didn’t feel I had a hard time designing combat for each one of them, like I couldn’t give them enough love. Because they all work as kind of a unit, developing one is also kind of like developing another. They all have their own individual personalities, individual quirks which we did a lot of thinking about how we could realise in the game. But I feel like just focusing on one doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re completely ignoring another and I feel like we managed to strike a really good balance there.
In terms of telling the story with all these characters, it feels like it wasn’t too big of a challenge because you’ve got the two classic groups. You’ve got the Autobots and Decepticons. You’ve got Optimus and Megatron and then you’ve got… they’re all kind of centered around Optimus on the Autobot side, centered around Megatron on the Decepticon side. Because there are so many characters, it didn’t really make it that much of a challenge since they’re all kind of in the same boat and all on the same side together. It’s more of a story of two sides rather than necessarily five individuals if that makes sense.
High Moon… how do you want to describe their Transformers vision? “Armada-vision”?
Robert Conkey – Oh, the other ones?
Yeah, the High Moon ones… Transformers: War for Cybertron and Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. What are they? Because this is G1 if you think about it…
Robert Conkey – This is technically not G1. Its Generations… it’s a mix of things, but yes I see what you’re saying.
High moon aren’t working on “this year’s” Transformers. I assume High Moon will be coming back with their own Transformers game in future. Is this maybe your [and Activision’s] way of somehow “Call of Duty-fying” Transformers and maybe having one studio work on one formal Transformers game and then maybe having another studio work on another formal Transformers game? And if that’s the case, where does this leave Kenji Saito with regards to his commitments for any of his other projects? Because he’s done Metal Gear Rising and I know that Konami have said “Hey, we want to make more Metal Gear games”. Obviously, they will be coming, I assume, back to Kenji Saito for more Metal Gear games so maybe there’s a conflict of interest there?
Robert Conkey – That’s a phenomenal question which unfortunately I cant answer, because it involves a lot of stuff that 1) either it has not been discussed yet or 2) I’m not supposed to be discussing, just in general. So we’re trying to focus on our current game, and I can’t really talk too much about the future at this point, but I love the question. I wish we could talk about it, but yeah…