Digital Changeling

May 29, 2010

Game Review: Puzzle Bots

Filed under: Feminism,Games,Reviews — Eva @ 12:43 am

I play a lot of adventure games. I’ve played the majority of the old Lucas Arts games and all of the new Telltale games. It’s not a very popular genre, so my husband and I are constantly on the lookout for for games by smaller studios that show promise.

Last year I ran across Wadjet Eye Games’ Emerald City Confidential. I took a chance on it and quite enjoyed it. My husband and I then played through the three Blackwell games and the Shivah. They varied a lot in quality, but were definitely worth playing overall.

Wadjet is a young (and very small) company and playing their older games gave me a feeling for how much they’ve learned and improved over the years. I’ve been looking forward to their newest game, Puzzle Bots, since I heard about it last year. I finally got a chance to play the game last week.

The main game play element that Puzzle Bots adds to the standard adventure game is the use of tiny robots who manipulate the environment in different ways. There are five robots that you get to play with throughout the game and each basically corresponds to a different verb. Every new bots is introduced with a set of training rooms, meant to give you an idea of what their unique talents will be able to handle. Together, several bots can take on more complex problems.

The individual puzzles were self contained, which was also a nice change from the crazy fetch quests which pervade most adventure games. The bots generally work on sets of puzzles in a “one room” setup and once they’ve solved the area they’ll move on to a different situation or location. There are often cut scenes between the puzzle rooms where the human characters go about advancing the main plot of the game. I generally found these cut scenes interesting to watch, but not super related to what my bots were doing. The scenes gave the impression of an unfolding mystery that the bots were somewhat aware of.

I had some issues with the themes of the human characters and some of their actions and plot elements. I was not amused to discover that both of the female members of the five person team were romantically interested in the forgetful and not terribly smart “American White Male” inventor. I understand when Hollywood goes all Reverse Jane Austin on stories, but this seems really unnecessary from a small studio. This is just a lazy way of writing characters and plots. I know they can do better.

Unfortunately, this was not the only thing about the human characters that constantly irritated me. One of the female inventors was Asian, and just happened to be from Japan. Good gravy, do people think every Asian woman comes from that island? I love Japan as much as the next woman, but has no one ever heard of Korea or China or Vietnam or Thailand or any of a half dozen other Asian countries? Anyhow, this Japanese inventor was naturally very smart, soft spoken, and shy. And spoke in perfect, unaccented English.

Despite all this ridiculousness she manages to be the most sympathetic person in the game… except when she’s whining about men. Then I wanted to hit her designer over the head with something heavy, perhaps a book on feminism.

The second woman on the team was “Sexy Punk Grrl,” complete with bright pink hair, a short skirt, and a penchant for exploding things. Since she was the “bad girl” she was also way louder, pushier, and sexually aggressive. I just about wanted to bang my head on the desk when she introduced her robot and it was zipping around on roller skates. I get that we’re building towards a theme here, but this was a bit much. You can love roller derby without being a ridiculous stereotype.

The other two members of the team consist of “Generic Black Dude” (he is generically amusing, but has very little part in the plot) and “Angry Russian Man who is trying to get fired” (he was also amusing and rarely important). I got the impression that these two were intended to be background color and excuses for their robot designs. I’d say four stars for multiethnic casting, one star for which roles actually went to the characters who didn’t sound or look like Midwestern Americans.

I would also like to take a brief moment to say, if you are only going to have one person in your cast who is significantly chubbier than average, please don’t make them the villain of your story. This is just a laughable level of prejudice. “Let’s assume ‘ugly’ people are evil and treat them like crap” wasn’t funny 10 years ago and it isn’t funny now.

I may sound like I’m being a bit particular about the characters and the romantic sub plots. This is partly because they were just so cartoonish that they grated on my nerves. I didn’t feel like a lot of these extremes were really necessary. It’s possible to make relatively light, shallow characters without falling back on these sorts of pastiche images that mainstream culture is always shoving in our faces. I felt like the casting, as well as parts of the plot, were lazy and ill-considered; it rubbed me the wrong way.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things to like about Puzzle Bots. The interface is clean, the art is beautiful, the puzzles are intuitive, and the hint system has just the right level of clue vs clue-bat. I enjoyed almost all of the puzzles and I think the idea of using the robots’ different talents in the place of traditional verbs is really cool. I do think the game was a bit short, based on the price, but I understand that as a small studio Wadjet’s economic model may not reflect my normal expectations.

I enjoyed the game and I would recommend it to others. It is a little bit expensive, not excessively so. I think it would make a good introductory adventure game, especially for slightly younger audiences. I wish that the creators had taken a different tactic when building their characters and plots, but I suspect that for most people these stereotypes are so deeply ingrained that they won’t really detract from the experience.

I’ll keep my eyes open and look forward to seeing what Wadjet has to offer in the future.

8 Comments »

  1. Interestingly, you are the second person I’ve heard complain about the stereotypes of the human characters in this game. I’d never heard of it before, but now I’ve twice come across people saying the game is fun but the humans drove them crazy. Not that this adds to the discussion, I just found it interesting. I wonder if Wadjet has gotten any actual complaints about it? It might be worth writing them a letter just to point it out (not a mean letter, just kind of a “hey, I liked your game, but found this kind of offensive and wanted to point it out” kind of letter). You can’t fix what you don’t realize you’re doing, and a lot of people don’t even realize they’re stereotyping until it’s pointed out (although that’s really bad, so you’d hope they realized it).

    And I really liked Emerald City Confidential too. It’s been one of my favorite adventure games (and not just because of the theme/world, I liked the gameplay and story too). I actually just played through it again this weekend!

    Comment by Rosepixie — May 31, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  2. [...] Changeling reviews Puzzle Bots: Short version: game is a bit short for the price, but the puzzles are fun and nicely made. [...]

    Pingback by Linkspam feels left out (2nd June, 2010) | Geek Feminism Blog — June 2, 2010 @ 1:31 am

  3. @rosiepixie

    I did notice before they released that there were signs of ick, and I blogged about the marketing about a month ago, about a week before the release. I wish I could say that they listened, but rather I got a not-insignificant amount of hostility; personally addressed emails, abusive comments that never made it past moderation, anti-feminist tweets etc. They did alter the marketing after I posted that quick-hit, but really only objectified Astrid’s character description even more.

    Comment by Melissa — June 2, 2010 @ 1:50 am

  4. Thanks for posting the link to your review, Melissa. I didn’t see the marketing describing the characters individually before the game came out (just the preview video and general description). It’s interesting to know that some of the things I had issues with were clearly foreshadowed.

    I’m sad to hear that you got such a negative reaction to your writing. My previous interactions with Wadjet have been very positive, so I’m still hopeful that things will turn out well in the long run.

    Some of your commenters asked about the Bechdel test. I wasn’t actively thinking about it while playing the game, but I can’t remember a single conversation between the two women (at the moment I can’t even remember them directly addressing each other in group conversations), so my guess is that it failed miserably. I would need to replay the game to be sure.

    Comment by Eva — June 2, 2010 @ 2:12 am

  5. @eva

    Given the marketing pits them essentially against each other, I’m really not surprised if it doesn’t pass.

    Also, looking around at other reviews (trying to find the one rosepixie refers to) I’m finding some interesting screenshots that people are choosing to put in their reviews.

    http://www.gamingdaily.co.uk/2010/puzzle-bots-review/ has some charming ones (“What? Girls can’t be robots” & “What? Um, sir, I’m pretty sure that’s not in my contract” while professor stares at boobs), and the last one at http://hardydev.com/2010/05/16/puzzle-bots-review/ (“You’re so cute I forgot my own birthday”) too. Neither article addresses the problematic nature of said scenes.

    “Girls can’t be” and boobwatching and pickup lines? What reinforcement? Nah, there can’t possibly be!

    Why yes, I do feel vindicated.

    Comment by Melissa — June 2, 2010 @ 2:51 am

  6. The boobwatching is not intentional, since the character models don’t really move their eyes to more than two directions, however the line “I’m pretty sure that’s not in my contract” is referring to a demand that she babysit his kids. Which he proceeds to blackmail her into doing by threatening her job security. That scene made me very uncomfortable.

    Comment by Eva — June 2, 2010 @ 11:13 am

  7. @eva well ok, it’s not the game but the person taking the screenshot (and captioning it) making out that there’s boobwatching, but if it were not a scene where she were already being disrespected/discriminated/harrassed then I kind of suspect that the boobwatching “joke” probably wouldn’t have occurred to the screenshot taker.

    Thanks for responding factually. I was offered a copy to change my mind and accepted saying I’d have a friend evaluate it, but the offer was never honored so I’m only now finding this stuff out.

    Comment by Melissa — June 3, 2010 @ 7:22 am

  8. [...] I first heard about Puzzle Bots from Melissa’s negative review of the character profiles, and Digital Changeling’s concerns about the stereotyping. So yes, she starts as an incredibly problematic shy, smart Japanese girl stereotype (and one [...]

    Pingback by Women in modern games: WoW Cataclysm has some pretty cool women in it. Let’s hope for a trend! | Geek Feminism Blog — January 20, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

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