IF Comp ’10 – Matt Wigdahl’s Aotearoa!

November 15, 2010

I’m very slightly dreading posting this one, because it contains an opinion on political correctness.  Therefore, because I never ever learn, I’m sharing the contentiousness with the RSS buffer.

See, I’m torn.  On the one hand, I absolutely hate the mindset, so prevalent on the internet, that if you are offended by anything you are a whiny pussy bitch with sand in your vagina, particularly if the thing you are offended by is the casual misogyny inherent in the phrase “whiny pussy bitch with sand in your vagina.”  It leads to an atmosphere where genuine hatred and intolerance are allowed to quietly coexist among people who are being ironic, people who are being funny, people who use the word “ghey” (may they burn in some special hell), and God forbid you stand up for yourself, or for someone else, or for civil rights.

On the other hand, sometimes I read things like this, and think “Wow, what manner of drugs got mixed into the sand in your vagina?”  Are any interactions that an Asian person has with the color yellow inherently racist?  Is it homophobic to have a gay character gathering firewood, because fagot once meant a bundle of sticks?  When looking at something that might be construed as offensive, depending on interpretation, are we obligated to be offended every time or never offended at all?

What does framing things in terms of being offended and stopping there do for anybody anyway?  It’s only the reaction you get on the surface when you feel things are wrong and unfair on a fundamental level.  Instead of “I’m offended,” how about “Everyone is a human being deserving of, at the very least, basic human rights, and I’m going to try every way I can think of to communicate this to you and everyone else, on the off chance that I can convince just one more person of this, because my carbon footprint is huge, I don’t pay enough attention to where my clothes are made, and this is the only way I know of to maybe make the world a slightly better place.”

…well, that was a thing that just happened.  Why am I standing on this soapbox?  Where are my clothes?

[spoilers begin here]

Oooh!  Dinosaurs!

Gosh!  Tutorial and color keyword options!  I think I will have both those things on, to see what the game looks like for IF newcomers, of course, not because I am a pussy.  It will be so difficult, forgoing the thrill of setting the game to its highest difficulty and reducing it to ash with a single touch of my mighty phallic cerebrum, but you know me, always thinking of those IF newcomers.  (Well, whenever I’m not thinking about smut.)

Oh, man, this is reminding me of books I used to read as a kid.  (No, not smut.)  The ones where a plucky young lad (girls could maybe be sidekicks, if they didn’t cry too much or flip out over insects — unfairly enough, the male comic relief character could flip out over any goddamn thing he wanted, fuck the patriarchy) got to go on Crazy Wild Science-Time Adventures.  Those books were great.

The cliffs appear to be made of dark rock — probably volcanic, considering where you are. They look very sheer — you’re sure someone could climb them, but it probably takes all sorts of rock-climbing gear and training.
I bet my character from Blue Lacuna could do it.

Oh, man, shit hit the fan!

[You’ve encountered an animal that may figure significantly in the story! This story gives you the ability to name such animals with the command NAME FEMALE OVIRAPTOR BOOPSIE (or any other name of your choice). When you do this, the game will use your new name for the animal in descriptions, and you can use that name in your commands as well. Try it!]
Eeeeeeeeeeee!  I’m going to name this one after Georgette Baxter.  Why?  Because hush your mouth.

Poachers?  Those bastards!  I’m not letting them take Georgette.

So naming this nanakia Maru.  Hey, remember when, when you wanted to watch someone else’s cat do funny cat things, you had to go over to the home of your friend who owned a cat?

A large boulder stands out from the rest of the mixed rock and debris. It’s remarkable for being particularly round.
As is Maru.

One of the crevices is particularly large, and slopes down gently into the mass of cooled lava.
There are pumas in those crevices, you know.  They used to give the railroad men such a hard time.
You can’t tell for sure, but there appears to be something wedged down inside it. You peer closer — it’s an egg!
Egg layin’ season, for them pumas.  Ayup.  Reckon.

There seems to be a “where did I last see that thing” feature!  This game is super snazzy!

The failure messages and hinting are really well-done.  I can imagine many games in which I did not just solve this getting-an-egg-out-of-a-crevice puzzle by myself.  Let’s see how getting a battery away from a female oviraptor goes!

Ah.  I’d been wondering how to get Ted to trail me back to Georgette’s place, but it looks like he really wants my GPS.  Don’t rely on a GPS, Ted, or you’ll never learn where anything is!

I wish Eruera served as more of a hint function than he does, because I love when metagame stuff is handled in-world like that, but I feel like this is Tim’s chance to become more self-reliant and learn some important lessons, and being constantly talked through everything would take away from that.  This game is excellent, by the way.

Man, these poachers are dicks.

As you continue, you hear a shout of rage, and then a horrible, high-pitched squeal of pain. Despite your desperation, you slow for a second and risk a quick glance behind you. No sign of Maru.
If you fuckers hurt Maru I will rip your balls off and shove them where your eyes used to be, unless I come up with something even more unpleasant.  I am just saying.


See, here is something to bear in mind when you’re writing a game:  what sort of expectations are you setting up?  The player is going to regard many things in your game as little tiny promises, whether you meant to make them or not.  If you give them a rope, you have promised them something to tie it to.  If you go on about a monster, they will expect at least a glimpse.  If your game takes place in a world where there are giant mecha and they fight each other, the player had damn well better get to pilot a mecha and fight another mecha, preferably one piloted by someone despicable. This, right here, riding on a dinosaur, is how you deliver on a promise.

That being said, how the fuck do I drive this thing?  Wilma!

Oh, sweet, epilogue!

Man.  That was just a really good game.  No complaints.  I believe we’ve got a ten.

Edited to add:  I was thinking a little, in passing, about what Yoon Ha Lee refers to, awesomely enough, as the “what these people need is a honky” stereotype.  Usually this makes me roll my eyes so hard (most recently in that Avatar movie; if you want me to be almost completely unable to identify with a character, the best thing you can do is make him an athletic straight male Marine), but I’m absolutely fine with this game’s protagonist being an American.  Without the outsider perspective — if the protagonist had grown up around and was used to dinosaurs — this would have been an entirely different game.  Personally, I don’t know how I would have felt if I were sitting there going “Whoa!  Cool!  Dinosaurs!” while the PC went “Yeah, yeah, dinosaurs, whatever.  What’s your take on Cassavetes?”

The game doesn’t even fit the stereotype all that well, really.  The poachers are Maori, not Evil White Men.  Tim doesn’t learn a valuable lesson from the Wise Primitive Tribals about Respecting the Land and Our Animal Brethren, he’s respectful before he even gets there.  He doesn’t particularly save them from anything, either… well, he takes out a single poacher camp, but it’s an adventure story, and he’s the hero.  He’s supposed to do shit like that!  Actually, come to think of it, the Wise Primitive Tribals don’t even exist in the game.  These people have speedboats!  Speedboats!  Those pollute!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is a story about a kid who makes some new friends, overcomes some old fears, and goes on a fantastic adventure with freaking dinosaurs.  No, he didn’t need to be American.  This would have been the same story if he were from Iceland, or the Phillipines, or Hastings, or where the fuck ever. Yes, it would be awesome if not everybody had to be American all the time, or a dude, or, hey, heterosexual, for that matter.  I just feel like it’s reactionary to penalize this particular game over the nationality of the PC, when that detail didn’t matter in the slightest.

Also, where does it say he’s white, you big racists?  Black kids can’t ride dinosaurs?  I bet you voted for Hitler. 

Edited again to add:  Man, I spent like ten minutes reading quotes from When Harry Met Sally, and I totally forgot to make the joke about how a male oviraptor and a female oviraptor can never be just friends, because the sex always gets in the way.  Oh well.  Maybe I’ll be able to work the days of the week underpants bit into something later.


  1. I think you’re right that (from what I’ve heard, I didn’t actually play this one) this game doesn’t quite fit the “what these people need is a honky” stereotype, but the premise did make me a little bit uncomfortable, because it did (arguably) reduce a real-world culture to a place for a white kid to have adventures in (and no, it doesn’t say the kid is white in the text, but then the Potter books don’t say that Dumbledore is white, and Lord of the Rings doesn’t say that Aragorn is white, it’s kind of a safe assumption anyway). I don’t think it helps that the game’s literary roots seem to be in classic adventure stories, a genre not noted for its overwhelming cultural sensitivity.

    I’m also not sure the outsider’s perspective is necessary to recreate the “woohoo dinosaurs” vibe. I know quite a lot of people who are really into cars and computers despite the fact that they live in a world where cars and computers are commonplace.

    I don’t think any of this makes Aoteroa a bad game, and I don’t think anybody is obliged to mark it down or even to be particularly bothered by it, but I personally wasn’t entirely comfortable playing it.

  2. I dunno. I think if you read a story where a guy dicks around the Mediterranean in a ship, bangs a minor goddess or two, fights monsters with a bronze spear, incurs the wrath of a god, drinks a lot of wine and listens to a lot of prophecies, it’s kind of disingenuous to say “It never actually says he’s an aristocratic Greek! He could be Phoenician or something” unless there’s something to support that. Because we’re familiar with that kind of story.

    Aotearoa draws heavily on its genre. It’s rather less racist than the baseline for that genre — the setting refuses the usual colonialist frame, and while Chosen By The Gods isn’t exactly unproblematic, it’s a damn sight better than Solves Problems (That The Natives Can’t) Through Nordic Square Jaw And Two-Fisted Protestant Work Ethic, which is what you’d expect of Willard Price or whatever. But the genre still comes with baggage, and not all of that baggage is eliminated.

    And I don’t really think “it’s just a fun game about a kid and some dinosaurs” changes much. (I’ve been reading The Water Babies. It’s light-hearted and charming and clever, but every now and then there’ll be an off-handed comment about how the Irish are all liars and the Welsh thieves. Totally doesn’t intend to be malicious, wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow at the time, but it still registers like a punch in the snoot.)

    Also, apologies for jumping in on only the fightiest topic.

    • And I don’t really think “it’s just a fun game about a kid and some dinosaurs” changes much.

      I think this is one of those things where people’s mileage varies massively. Pretty much any text from more than thirty or forty years ago is likely to have undercurrents which are distasteful to a modern audience, and what you can look past varies strongly from individual to individual. For example, I’ve got a friend who’s a big fan of the Conan stories despite their occasional racist and sexist undertones, because he appreciates them as heroic fantasy. On the other hand he can’t deal with the Solomon Kane series, because that strayed too much into “Righteous White Man Kills Evil Africans Who By The Way Are Totally Inferior.”

      Similarly I know a lot of people who like Lovecraft despite the fact that, again, a lot of his work is deeply racist (the entire Innsmouth saga is basically about the evils of miscegenation).

      Aotearoa is in an even more difficult place, because it’s aping a historical genre (and, as you say, is significantly less racist than its source material – although that honestly wouldn’t be that hard) so it’s hard to tell whether you should look at it with a modern or a 1950s sensibility.

      • Okay, yeah, the Chosen By the Gods business is definitely eyeroll-worthy. I am woefully undereducated regarding the Maori, so I have no idea how well he handled the recounting of the legends, etc. There could be many farts in that particular elevator, and I just never learned what a fart smells like. So there’s that.

        Still, though, I’m wondering what percentage of the flack this game is getting is for the sins of its predecessors. I’ve never read any of the authors people are referencing, but I did read Danny Dunn Science Boy Adventures by the fuckton. If I remember correctly, this is how those would go down, racism-wise:

        Professor Bulfinch was talking earnestly with a short, bespectacled Samoan man in a bright floral-print shirt and labcoat. “Ah, Danny,” he said, “let me introduce you to our host. This is Dr. Mailo. See? People from other countries can be scientists too.”
        “It’s nice to meet you, Danny,” said Dr. Mailo. “I hope that our two nations can continue to do science together until we’ve eliminated the Red Menace once and for all.”
        “Why don’t we take Danny down into the lab and show him the device?” suggested the Professor. “He must be anxious to quote unquote accidentally turn it on.”

        Still very much a product of its time, sure, but I’ve always found Gosh We Have So Much To Learn From Each Other Don’t We to be a gentle, well-meaning trope, if nothing else, and this was my frame of reference for playing Aotearoa.

        As far as reducing a real-world culture to a place for a white kid to have adventures in — I can’t read that sentence, by the way, without imagining a bunch of Maori dudes lying on the ground being used as a bounce castle — it’s a wilderness adventure. The only inhabited place Tim goes to is a poacher camp, where he is extremely respectful of their guns.

        Oh, and discussion question: who gets to decide unspecified facts about a character, the author or the reader? Because sure, Tim was probably written white — Wigdahl sounds to me like a honky name, and boy, we honkies sure do love to write about other honkies, don’t we? I definitely do it all the time, without really thinking about it — but you can play him as, say, the child of an ex-Black Panther and a Korean beauty queen, and have exactly the same experience.

        In any case, the circular reasoning of “It’s been established that PCs in this trope are white, therefore this PC is white. How dare this author perpetrate this racist trope about a white PC” makes me want to, I don’t know, think unkind thoughts about a puppy or something.

        Look, I am not particularly well-equipped to, nor do I want to, defend this game generally on its lack of racism. I definitely don’t want to tell anyone who played it and was bothered by it that they should not have been. It just made me sad to see it docked three points by someone who enjoyed the hell out of it while playing it for fitting into a trope that I personally don’t think it fits.

        Can we talk about The Blind House now?

  3. Oh, and discussion question: who gets to decide unspecified facts about a character, the author or the reader?

    This question is misleading, and (although I am sure this is not your intent) a classic derailing strategy. The logical extension of this argument is: “This game is only racist if you assume the main character is white, but if you assume that then aren’t YOU being racist?”

    It is entirely up to the reader to interpret the text, but that is not the same as saying that they “get to decide” things about the text.

    If you play Aotaeroa and come away with the impression that it was a story about a white kid that does not mean that you have “decided” that the protagonist is white, it means that you have *interpreted* the protagonist as white. An interpretation which is supported by the game.

    I don’t want to throw around terms like “white privilege” too much on somebody else’s IF-blog, but I think it’s easy to forget that just because I can safely assume that a fictional character is the same race as me (even if they probably aren’t – like most white people I read anime characters as white when they’re frequently, y’know, japanese) that not everybody has the same luxury.

    Yoon Ha Lee (who I assume is the reviewer whose reaction to the game saddened you so much) clearly didn’t read the protagonist as Korean-American, despite being Korean-American herself. This isn’t a failure of her imagination, or evidence that she’s somehow racist against herself, it’s just evidence that she’s read enough books and played enough games to expect protagonists to be white unless stated otherwise.

    I also think you’re over-focusing on whether the game matches the “technical” definition of a particular trope. What some people found offensive about the game was (a) the exoticisation and othering of polynesian religion (the Polynesian gods were not dinosaurs) and (b) the implication that these polynesian dinosaur gods needed a non-Polynesian, or American or if you don’t mind using the shorthand “white” kid to solve their problems for them.

    • I agree with Jenni on this, actually. I don’t really see how Tim’s race has anything to do with it at all.

      As Jenni points out, there is no issue of “needing a foreignor to solve our problems for us” here. Tim does not solve their problems. He wreaks havoc on ONE poacher camp. He does not bring them to justice, nor does he eliminate them as a threat to the local wildlife. He does not even set out at any time to do so: what he does, he does to survive.

      As for the “chosen by the gods” issue, I never read the visions of Maui that way at all. I interpreted those from the beginning as an indication of Tim’s awakening affinity for the local culture. All it did for me was to show how much Tim had fallen in love with what he’d read about Aotearoa.

      Perhaps there’s a bit of an appropriation issue with regard to the author’s use of Polynesian culture. One of the comments in Yoon Ha Lee’s review points out, rightly perhaps, that the author could have spared a little more sensitivity and/or research when picking out a local word for the dinosaurs. That’s about all I can see against the game, really.

      • I absolutely don’t have a problem with anybody who *isn’t* bothered by the game. I just think it’s important to recognise that people’s concerns are legitimate.

        Nobody is saying “this game is racist and you are a bad person for liking it”, they’re just saying “this game feels, to me, like it has racist undertones, and therefore I do not feel comfortable rating it as highly as I otherwise might have”.

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