2013 Boston QUILTBAG Gamer Meetup Is A Go!

Just a quick note to let you all know that, yes, there WILL be a QUILTBAG (gay, lesbian, bi, trans, asexual, ally, etc. etc.) Gamer Meetup during PAX East this year! Sorry for the late notice, but I’ve been scrambling to pull this together in the last few weeks and I just got the details finalized. We’re doing something a little different this year and selling tickets for a little under $17.50 a pop — said tickets include an entree of your choice, soft drinks, and dessert. You can find more information on the FAQ page here on the blog or at the Eventbrite page. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, and I hope to see you all there!

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Fangirl Fridays: Tali’Zorah vas Normandy

After time adrift among open stars
Among tides of light and to shoals of dust
I will return to where I began.

The story of the quarians as presented in the original Mass Effect will likely be a familiar ones to fans of the Battlestar Galactica reboot: betrayed by their creations, the robotic geth, they were driven from their homeworld, forced to drift through the galaxy in a ragtag fleet. Oh, sure, there are some key differences – the geth aren’t actively pursuing the quarians, for one, and the Mass Effect galaxy is full of sentient life, so though most other species distrust and mistreat the quarians, there are still opportunities for trade and diplomatic relations. But you might be forgiven for thinking of the quarians as rather derivative, at least as first. As their story unfolds, however, particularly in the subsequent games, we see how complex their history truly is, particularly where the geth are concerned. We come to understand their complicity in truly heinous acts that ultimately led to their exile and near extinction. And, depending on how you play it, we see the quarians as a people step into a bold new future.

None of it would mean a thing if it wasn’t for Tali’Zorah vas Normandy. Though she is ultimately joined by other voices, we first hear the story of her people in her words. When new information comes to light, it is her perspective that illuminates the actions and reactions of the quarian race. And it is her presence on the crew of the SSV Normandy that makes us care. Because during her time with Shepard and the rest of the team, she becomes crew. If you put in the time and effort, she becomes more than that. She becomes family – a fact that both she and Shepard will readily acknowledge.

Quick, careful, and lucky.

When we first meet Tali’Zorah, she’s Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, a somewhat disreputable young woman (solely by virtue of being a quarian apart from the fleet) on her Pilgrimage – a rite of passage all young quarians must undertake in order to prove their worth to the Flotilla and attain adult status in their society. Her information is literally vital to unlocking the next chapters of the story. You can skip meeting Garrus or Wrex if you like, but if you fail to recruit Tali to your cause, that cause is lost.

She’s more than just a key to the rest of the story, though. You may not see that if you don’t put in the effort – you can find her in Main Engineering whenever you feel like talking, but if you don’t go down there, she won’t seek you out. Those conversations are honestly one of the best parts of the game. Through those long talks in Engineering, you begin to see Tali as a whole person: nervous, shy, geeky, unaccustomed to dealing with outsiders, but nevertheless brilliant and caring. Truly, profoundly dedicated to her people, but also devoted to the well-being of everyone in the galaxy, and increasingly loyal to Shepard personally. Occasionally sarcastic, sometimes even witty, with a sly, subtle sense of humor. Every time I play this game – no matter how I’m playing Shepard – I can’t help seeing her as a surrogate little sister, imagining Shep taking Tali under her wing. Maybe that’s just my overactive imagination talking, but I don’t think so. You instinctively want to protect Tali, and more than that, to help her thrive – to shepherd her (pun definitely intended) to her ultimate, glorious destiny.

Tali'Zorah vas Normandy in all her glory.

And what a destiny it is. When we see Tali again in Mass Effect 2, she has returned to the Flotilla, becoming Tali’Zorah vas Neema, a leader among her people. Her team roams the galaxy, ranging far from the rest of the fleet, chasing down missing quarians and elusive scientific data. In fact, to some extent, you might see her as the quarians’ answer to Commander Shepard. She’s an investigator, a troubleshooter, and a staunch defender of her people. Even so, when her immediate duties are fulfilled and the opportunity arises, she readily signs on with Shepard again, rejoining the crew of the Normandy on their mission to save the galaxy…again. This earns her a certain amount of scorn among her own people, some of whom are only too eager to brand her Tali’Zorah vas Normandy – a small but definite mark of shame tied in with fleet politics and the fallout from certain events on the Flotilla. Tali, however, refuses to treat the label as such. Instead, she embraces the name, keeping it even after her path leads her away from the Normandy again and wearing it with pride. Though she loves her people, and would literally lay down her life for them, it is clear that she loves Shepard and the rest of the Normandy crew as well, and looks back fondly on her time with them.

And yet, despite her increasing importance to her people, her evolving and expanding role in the Flotilla, and the confidence and grace that come to her with maturity, she remains humble, open-minded and, yes, occasionally awkward and geeky. One of the sweetest moments in the second game comes when she tells Shepard that she’d gladly join their suit environments if she could – a gesture of intimacy (not necessarily sexual intimacy, but simply the intimacy that comes with any close relationship) among the quarians, whose already-weak immune systems have degraded in exile to the point where they must wear isolation suits at all times – and, predictably, stammers and stumbles over the explanation as the implications occur to her, her blush nearly bright enough to be seen through her helmet. In the third game, she speaks openly with Shepard about her fears and doubts – above all else, her ability to live up to the trust her people have placed in her and to fulfill the duties that come with her role as a leader. And as new information comes to light regarding the quarians and the geth, she adapts to it. It’s not always easy for her, but she’s willing to change her mind. And in the end, depending on Shepard’s actions and the conversations she and Tali have had, Tali’s willingness to change her mind can potentially lead to a new and glorious destiny for all quarians. For all her doubts, for all her fears, for all her insecurity, her power and influence are undeniable, as is the responsibility she takes for her choices every time she exercises that power.

May 30th. Check your local comic book shop.

Idealistic, brilliant, nervous, geeky, sarcastic, funny, sweet, loyal, stubborn, kind and forgiving, Tali is one of the Mass Effect franchise’s most fully realized and sympathetic characters. It’s no wonder that she’s attracted a pretty huge following, and that the quarians in general are widely beloved among Mass Effect fans. It’s unsurprising that fans clamored for the opportunity to romance her (which they got in the second game – at least if they were playing a male Shepard) and that they’re still hungry for more. They’ll soon get it: Mass Effect: Homeworlds #2, out next month from Dark Horse Comics, will give us a glimpse into Tali’s adventures before she met Shepard. Hopefully there will be many more such stories to come, filling in the gaps between her meetings with Shepard in each game, and expanding on the vital work she performed for the Flotilla. I don’t think any of us are quite ready for her story to be over. There’s so much more to tell.

Keelah se’lai.

If you like what you’ve just read, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. If you can’t donate yourself, but you’d still like to help, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive itself. The more readers and potential supporters I pick up, the better.

Media Mondays: The PAX East Edition

I’m still recovering from PAX, and as I started a new job (yay!) and got some nasty financial surprises (boo!) all in the same day, well…this is going to be a quick one. So, rather than start the conversation I’ve been meaning to have about GCB, or go into depth on some other show or movie or book or what have you, I thought I’d offer up a few quick thoughts on some games I saw and loved at the show.

Let’s start with my absolute favorite game of the show. Go Home Dinosaurs! is the upcoming offering from Boston-based Fire Hose Games, and it is freaking adorable. The basic play reminds me a lot of Fieldrunners (a mobile game from another local company, Subatomic Studios), and, well…at its core, Dinosaurs is a tower defense game, so the basic mechanics are bound to resemble just about every other entry in the genre. You control a small crew of gophers attempting to protect their barbecue from a steadily advancing army of hungry dinosaurs. The dinos follow a specific path, and it’s up to you to deploy weapons along that route to slow, stop and finally destroy them. Along the way, you gather coconuts which you can use to pay for additional weapons.

Sounds simple, right? Well, there are some additional layers to it: first, each weapon covers a different area. It’s not all about size, either – the freeze ray you can get around the second round occupies an L-shaped space; the meteor magnet you get later on occupies a sort of fat-headed T…a 2 square by 3 square rectangle with one square sticking out of the longer side. In between rounds, you get coins (based upon your kills, the resources left on the board, the number of coconuts you still have in your bank, etc.) to spend on new devices and power-ups; this works very much like a trading card game, actually. You build a ‘deck’ of weapons which are then available to you in the quantities you have purchased – provided you have enough coconuts.

I’m making the game sound more complicated than it is. Honestly, it’s very intuitive and elegant in its simplicity. It’s very, very, very cute and a hell of a lot of fun. It should be hitting the Chrome Web Store this summer, and I’ll almost certainly be buying it.

Next we have Star Command, a Star Trek-inspired game for iOS and Android devices. I got to try it briefly in the Kickstarter Lounge, and it reminded me a great deal of the classic Dungeon Keeper, in a good way. You control a starship drifting through deep space, marshaling your crew to fend off invading aliens and other menaces. Your crew members have different powers depending on their divisions: the people in red shirts are tactical officers, skilled in offense but quick to die if you’re not careful; blue shirts are medical, able to heal their crewmates; gold shirts are engineering, able to repair and upgrade the ship itself. Sadly I only had a few minutes with the game before I had to head off with my friend Ross to practice for our second Omegathon round, but I can see how it could get quite addicted. I’m pleased to note that the game has been fully funded on Kickstarter and it should be hitting the market later this year.

Speaking of the Omegathon, while Zip-It was the harbinger of our destruction, it’s also an incredibly fun game that I cannot recommend highly enough. It’s quick, easy to learn, tricky to master, and an absolute blast – and it easily fits in a purse or messenger bag, so you can bust it out any time you have a few minutes to spare. It’s a worthy addition to Zombie Dice and Cthulhu Dice in my collection of line games.

Last but far from least, there were a couple of really fun additions to the Apples to Apples genre of subjective card-matching games. Cards Against Humanity scarcely needs an introduction at this point, but I hadn’t actually seen the game up close before visiting the Kickstarter Lounge at PAX East, so it was new to me. It’s probably best described as “Apples to Apples for horrible people,” and given my somewhat twisted sense of humor, it seems to be right up my alley. Sadly, they were sold out forever at the con, but you can download the game for free on their site and they should have more physical sets available for sale soon.

The Metagame was funded on Kickstarter a year ago, so it’s not exactly new either, but once again, it was new to me. I got to play it in line with Mattie Brice, Amanda Cosmos and a whole mess of others, and it was a lot of fun. Essentially, as with Apples to Apples, you have one set of ‘question’ cards and one set of ‘answer’ cards – except each of the ‘answer’ cards lists a different game, with basic details like the publisher and the year of release, and the ‘question’ cards ask things like ‘Which game feels more like first love?’ or ‘Which game is more culturally insensitive?’. While most of the cards list video games, there are exceptions to the rule…most notably, and amusingly, the Metagame itself gets a card, meaning that the game is a set that includes itself. (…the math nerds got that one.) It’s probably one of the geekiest games I’ve ever played, and you probably won’t fully appreciate it unless you’re a serious gamer or a game developer, but personally, I loved it.

Those were hardly the only games I saw at PAX, of course, but they’re the easiest to sum up and they were definitely favorites. I’ll probably have more complicated thoughts on the others at some future point – particularly Rock Band Blitz, once I’ve had a chance to play it outside of a demo environment. In the meantime, I definitely recommend checking out all of the above. They’re all pretty much winners.

Fangirl Fridays: Commander Shepard, SSV Normandy

If you follow basically anyone connected to Mass Effect on Twitter (by which I mean writers, developers, community managers, fans, voice actors…literally anyone), you probably already know that today is FemShep Friday. See, a while back, BioWare promised us a Mass Effect 3 trailer focused specifically on the female version of Commander Shepard, the protagonist of the series. This was pretty huge news, because despite the female Commander Shepard’s large and vocal fan base (most of whom affectionately refer to her as, you guessed it, FemShep), most of the promotional videos and images use the default male Shepard. But BioWare has finally started recognizing FemShep’s many ardent fans, and for the third and final entry in the Mass Effect trilogy, they’re giving her a little more of the spotlight. The Collector’s Edition of the game will feature both male and female Shepards on the box art, for example, and a prominent Facebook poll allowed the fans to select the female Shepard’s appearance in the game’s promo art (more on that later). The highly anticipated FemShep trailer was the latest piece of the puzzle, and it just went online today.

I’ve played a hell of a lot of Mass Effect over the past couple of years, and with one exception (a male Shepard I created to romance Ashley and later Tali), I’ve chosen the female Shepard every time. That’s probably not a huge surprise to anyone who knows me. Given the choice, I will almost always choose to play a female character. I empathize more readily with female characters and strongly prefer to take on that kind of role. But there’s something special about FemShep.

Commander Chloe Shepard, Renegade Spectre

Maybe it’s the fact that she’s a total badass, no matter how you play her. You expect that with the cold, ferocious, trigger-happy Renegade options, but even Paragon Shepard is courageous, uncompromising, and dedicated to her mission. Her compassion is a strength, not a weakness. (It is generally accepted among fans that anyone who doesn’t hug Tali during a certain sequence in Mass Effect 2 – you’ll know it when you see it – is an utter monster. I agree. It’s not a moment of emotional vulnerability, it’s a moment of strength for someone who truly needs it right then and there.) It certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s voiced by Jennifer Hale, a truly talented voice actress who goes above and beyond the call of duty to deliver a Shepard who feels vital, complex, and real. No offense to Mark Meer, who voices the male Shepard, but FemShep steals the show in any scene because Jennifer Hale is just that good. If I wasn’t already inclined to play female characters, I still would have rolled up a FemShep the first time I saw a single clip of her, because her work on this game is so incredibly amazing. Whenever I actually get around to playing Star Wars: The Old Republic for real, I think I’m going to have to roll up a female Republic Trooper just to hear her voice again. And I am not normally a tank at all – not by choice.

I call it "The Shepard Shuffle".

But enough about my massive crush on Jennifer Hale – let’s get back to FemShep. Because there’s a hell of a lot more to like. Like the fact that there is almost complete gender equality in the Mass Effect universe. I can think of one NPC in ME2 that even makes a gender-related crack, and you can shut him down HARD when he does. Ashley Williams? She’s a straight-up Marine who’s also a beautiful woman and first shows up in pink armor, and no one gives her crap about it. (And you can get that same pink armor for the male characters as well, by the way.) And FemShep? She does everything the male Shepard does, certain romance options aside. She can knock back ridiculous amounts of liquor. She can hurl bad guy after bad guy to the floor. She can headbutt a krogan. She even does the same dorky little shuffling dance at various nightclubs in the game, which I absolutely adore. In ME2, you can (with certain DLC) get a formal outfit for FemShep that consists of a black dress and heels – but she keeps walking like a soldier while wearing them. She’s clearly uncomfortable and it’s awesome. The BioWare team could have come up with a bunch of titillating animations full of booty-shaking and swinging hips and mincing around in heels, but they didn’t. They recognized that they were creating a soldier, first and foremost. Someone who has spent her adult life in the military, someone who isn’t always great with social niceties, someone who almost certainly did not put a lot of emphasis on her physical appearance or sexual body language. Oh, she can speak pretty smoothly, sure. She can even flirt. But she is the dorkiest dancer ever, and I love it. It’s adorable.

And that vision of Shepard’s personality bleeds into character creation as well. Sure, you can kind of overdo it with the makeup (and they did overdo the makeup in that trailer), but other than that, the player is offered a selection of short, efficient hairstyles that all make sense for an active soldier. No pigtails or Farrah Fawcett hair here. That might, admittedly, have more to do with the limitations of the graphics engine (and a desire on the part of the animators to avoid dealing with long, freely swinging hair) than anything, but it’s still a nice touch. There’s also a broad selection of facial scars, which you don’t tend to find on your average character creation screen.

Ohhh, Edward...I mean Thane...

The truth is that Shepard can’t help being a badass career soldier. Case in point: a while back, I rolled up a female Shepard just to romance Thane, the one male love interest I had any interest in. Since I tend to be more interested in lesbian romances (obviously) and didn’t really expect to enjoy this playthrough quite as much, I decided my poor, straight, throwaway Shepard would be named Bella and act like a total Paragon Mary Sue. (I think I owe Courtney Stanton the credit for that idea.) But I quickly found it was totally impossible to ignore or dismiss Shepard’s pure awesomeness. Even when she was playing nice, speaking diplomatically, choosing the goody-two-shoes option each and every time, she was brave and bright and occasionally sassy. She still faced her enemies without fear. Jennifer Hale’s voice still brought her to life, bringing depth and meaning to the most straightforward dialogue. I ended up playing well past the point where Bella consummated her relationship with Thane, finishing all the side missions and running through all the DLC. I’ll probably bring her back for ME3, just to see how her story ends.

This is not to say that FemShep is perfect. The level of customization available to the player certainly isn’t. The various options in character creation are pretty white-centric, for example – you can give Shepard darker skin tones, but there’s not a lot of variation in her facial structure. You can’t change her body at all; she’ll always be a fairly slender, fit young woman. Certainly an active soldier would be fit, but it would be nice if you could have a stockier Shepard, or a taller or shorter one. The makeup in that trailer up above is pretty ridiculous, and I don’t love how they’ve made Shepard look younger than before. She’s a grown woman and an experienced soldier who’s lived through the events of two fairly epic adventures – adventures that probably ate up at least a couple years of her life. She doesn’t need to look like a dewy-eyed twenty-something.

And, of course, I’m still annoyed at the lack of same-sex romance options. Unless you hack (and effectively break) the game, you have no same-sex romance options as a male Shepard, and you can only romance asari (who only have one biological sex and only seem to have female gender identities, though that hasn’t been explored in depth) or human or alien men as a female Shepard. We’ve been promised more same-sex romance options for both Shepards in ME3, but we’ve been promised those options before and they’ve been cut each time. Personally, I’m rooting for a Shepard/Tali romance – when Tali tells you in ME2 that she would happily share her suit environment with you (an intimate gesture among quarians), that’s not just subtext, that’s text. And Jennifer Hale reads more than a few lines in conversations with female crewmates and NPCs in a distinctively flirty way. It’s past time those potential flirtations got some follow-through.

This may seem slightly hypocritical – a couple paragraphs ago, I lauded Mass Effect for limiting player choices in certain ways, giving Shepard’s history and personality weight and meaning regardless of the player’s actions. Now I’m complaining that these options are too limited. But the fact of the matter is that the Mass Effect team’s decisions have, to some extent, ended up excluding people who already face exclusion and oppression in real life. A whole lot of us play games like Mass Effect to escape this grim reality – but the Mass Effect series has, thus far, failed to embrace everyone who wishes to escape.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still obsessed with the series, and I’m still psyched for the next installment. Bella, Chloe and Michael Shepard are all waiting in the wings, and I’ll be starting another runthrough soon to reconstruct my gay Paragon Shepard, Moira (who was sadly lost when my previous computer crashed and I was unable to recover the save files). I love Mass Effect, and I love FemShep. I just think there’s room for improvement – and I sincerely hope BioWare seizes the opportunity.

UPDATE: GLBTQA Gamer Meetup, April 6, 2012

57 days to go. 29 tickets left. Holy crap. This is quite possibly one of the biggest things I’ve ever done, and I’m amazed at how quickly it’s all coming together.

That said, I’m definitely going to need some help with this one. We’ll still need to borrow or buy some extra equipment – controllers, batteries, coolers, that kind of thing. And we’ll need a whole lot of snacks, soft drinks, plates, cups, utensils and napkins. We may need some other stuff as well. I’m trying to work out some sponsorship agreements but I can’t say anything for certain yet. If your company or organization would like to help sponsor the event, or if you’d like to donate to help defray the costs involved, please e-mail me at cassandra dot lease at gmail dot com.

In the interests of full disclosure and accountability, I’ve set up a public spreadsheet detailing the donations and expenditures connected with the meetup. I’ll be updating the sheet regularly, and anyone can view it whether they’re signed in to Google or not. If you’d like to donate, but would prefer to stay anonymous, please rest assured that you can – I’ll only put your name on the spreadsheet if I have your permission to do so. The main point of the sheet is not to keep track of the donors, but to give everyone an opportunity to review the figures involved.

While I can’t say for sure if we’ll have any excess funds after the event, I’ve been giving some thought to what I might do if there is any cash left. I’m giving serious thought to giving any excess to BAGLY, a wonderful local organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and allied youth. I was a regular fixture at their meetings in my younger days and I think their work is of vital importance. That said, I certainly welcome feedback on this issue. If you have suggestions for alternative charities, or reservations about giving any excess funds we have to BAGLY or to any other organization, please let me know. You can comment here or e-mail me privately as you prefer.

That’s all I have for the moment. I hope to have some more news for you all very soon. In the meantime, I would definitely urge you to register just as soon as you’re certain (or reasonably sure) that you’ll be attending the event. We might have room for some extra people at the door, but I can’t promise that. If your plans change suddenly and you realize you CAN’T come, please let me know so I can release some extra tickets to the pool.

See you all in April!

Local Scene: GLBTQA Gamer Meetup – 4/6/2012

Since this thing’s already started blowing up on Twitter (I have awesome friends), I suppose I’d better promote it here as well. This year, I’m organizing the second annual All-Ages GLBTQA Gamer Meetstravaganza (don’t worry I am not actually calling it that) in connection with PAX East. Note that this is in connection with the convention, and not actually a con event – there are plenty of awesome people who aren’t attending PAX, and I wanted to open this up to every gay, bi, trans, asexual, queer, questioning, or simply GLBTQA-friendly gamer and game developer in the area.

I’m still working out the details (and may have some exciting news as we get closer to the date), but for now, I can tell you that it will start at 6 pm on Friday, April 6th and go until about 9. Darius Kazemi has graciously volunteered some lovely space at Bocoup, just a short distance from both South Station and the BCEC and we plan to have food, non-alcoholic beverages, and Rock Band. I’m certainly looking for volunteers and sponsors, so feel free to e-mail me at cassandra dot lease at gmail dot com if you want to help in any way.

I’m capping this event at 80 people, as that’s pretty much the maximum comfortable capacity of the space, so please be sure to register ASAP. I’m also attaching the FAQ I posted on the PAX forums.

I am so frakking excited for this event. I am Kristen Bell faced with a sloth excited, which is pretty much going to be my yardstick for maximum excitement until it stops being hilarious. I really hope to see you all there.

How can I help?
Bless your heart. I’m going to need volunteers for setup and cleanup. This will probably mean arriving up to an hour before the event and staying up to an hour or two afterward. My budget is really, really limited, but I’ll see if I can do something special for our volunteers in return.

Aside from that? We’re going to need some stuff. A drum set for Rock Band. An extra guitar controller. A keyboard stand, with or without keyboard (I can supply the keyboard). Extra mikes for harmony parts. Soft drinks and/or juice. Veggie platters. Possibly other kind of platters. Maybe some sweet stuff, like a cake or cookies or a bowl of candy. Coolers. Ice. If you can volunteer these or other resources, please let me know.

No booze? Boo!
That’s not really a question. But yes, sadly, no booze. There will be people under 21 at this party, and I do not want to deal with the logistics of serving alcohol in that situation. The big gay party at the first PAX East was a 21+ affair, and while I didn’t attend and wasn’t involved in organizing it, I felt bad that there were attendees who were left out. When I organized the 2011 meetup, I was determined to open it to all ages. That determination hasn’t changed. That said, if anyone else wants to organize a 21+ GLBTQA affair at some other point in the weekend, go for it! I’m not saying you can’t drink, I’m just saying you can’t drink here.

What if I bring my own alcohol?
Please don’t. Again, sorry, but that opens up a can of worms that I don’t want to deal with. You are welcome to drink before the event (though…please don’t show up obviously drunk or high, as this may make other attendees uncomfortable) and certainly welcome to keep the party going at a bar afterwards, but I want to make this event a safe, comfortable space for everyone. By the way – that goes double for illicit drugs. Please don’t bring them. I don’t think anyone here would, but that would cause serious trouble.

I’m bisexual, can I still attend?
Yes!

I’m transgender, can I still attend?
Yep!

I’m still figuring out my sexuality, can I still attend?
Indeed!

I’m asexual, am I welcome?
Completely!

I’m straight but gay-friendly, can I still attend?
Indubitably!

I’m gay, can I still attend?
…I…uh…what? Yes.

I’m a honey badger, can I attend?
Are you a gay, trans, bi, asexual, questioning or GLBTQ-friendly honey badger? If so, yes. But please don’t maul anyone.

I’m not really into labels, can I still attend?
Look, seriously, as long as you’re down with the GLBTQ crowd, aren’t looking to troll us, and don’t harass anyone, you’re welcome. In the words of Wil Wheaton, just don’t be a dick.