Colonialism is Colonialism Even on Mars – Comment Port

This is an adaptation of a comment I left for the Cane and Rinse podcast.

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I have a lot of problems with the plot and setting of Jamestown: The Legend of the Lost Colony(2011). The basic plot revolves around a man who goes to “Mars” as a means to atone for crimes committed back on Earth. It’s basically a story of how colonialism can redeem and purify past transgressions. Complete with happy ending where everyone comes together when the “bad guys” are defeated to plant a tree, stare into a sunset and create a new home on an inhabited place. Except that’s an archaic understanding of colonialism, one that ignores the horrors brought to the locals by the colonizers.

Jamestown isn’t set on Mars, it tries to be but it invokes so much imagery from the colonization of North America. It’s obviously an allegory for the creation of the British Empire on the new world. That brings baggage that calling it steampunk Mars can’t get rid of. They gloss over atrocities, and create others where they didn’t happen to portray the colonization of New World as a noble endeavor in ways it never was. This is especially true when Jamestown deals with First Nations imagery.

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The most egregious example is how Jamestown paints the martians as the aggressive antagonists. There is one level where the action pauses so the player can see the remnants of the Roanoke colony destroyed by a Martian attack. That moment serves to tell the player, “these are the bad guys and you need to take revenge”. Except that absolutly is not what happened. While it’s possible that the actual Roanoke settlers we’re massacred by First Nations, all the evidence is that they left their settlement fort on their own accord. The idea that they were mercilessly slaughtered in their homes is perpetuating the false idea of the real First Nations as ruthless savages that deserved the genocide they ended up receiving.

EDIT: After writing this comment originally, an interview with Final Form Games revealed that the attackers of the Jamestown colony in fiction was animated swamp life. I think this is a shaky defense as the player has no idea that it’s not native martians. Despite Final Form Games claims that there is no revenge motivations for the characters it doesn’t change the fact that you slaughter Martians, their allies, destroy their ecosystems and sack their religious temples.

I could brush that aside as an unfortunate oversight, but after that story beat the game the game twists history in a way I find even more troubling. The characters Victoria Dare and Joachim are introduced. These characters are given the visual identifiers of being First Nations. Victoria is dressed in leather skins, and Joachim sports a Mohawk (both largely Hollywood anachronisms of First Nations dress). They are presented as the established settlers who have integrated into the new land. Both Victoria Dare and Joachim Gans are real people that existed in the history of the european takeover, except they were a white Christian and Jew respectively. Their fictional versions here exist solely to have some First Nation looking characters on the side of “the good guys” excusing the fact that you’re shooting up the native martians. The only point the game acknowledges the Martians as sentient beings is in the farce variant of one of the cutscenes. So Jamestown ends up being a game where the player is tasked with eradicating all the native presence that doesn’t fit into what the British saw as “proper”. While white-adapting natives get to live, they were the good guys.

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Maybe I’m over analyzing a shmup plot, but in a place where native people are still pressured to become more white this bothers me a whole lot. The idea of First Nations people needed to become more “white-like” has harmed those people for centuries. Whole groups of peoples were genocided on this continent. In no way should Jamestown be presenting those racist ideals as something good, something purifying for the settler.

Don’t think I am stretching to make this reading of the game. Jamestown, Roanoke, John Smith, Walter Raleigh, Victoria Dare, Joachim Gans are all real places, events and people that participated in the actual colonization process. I didn’t put this reading on the game, Final Form games did by drawing so much attention to the imagery of American history present in Jonestown.

I am not opposed to playing a game where I am a bad guy, but it needs to be aware of it. Telling stories about awful people can be a great tool, but not when it comes out as shallow propaganda for something so destructive of so many lives. They can make the martians look as alien as they like, but in this game they take the specific place of Native Americans, and Jamestown has us shoot them like dogs.

None of this makes the shooting of Jamestown any worse, the “how” of Jamestown if you will. But it sure does make the “why” of it different for me, to the point where I won’t be picking this back up. It’ll be interesting to see how any of this reads for you Brits across the pond. So much of our understanding of this stuff relies on how we know our own history, and I imagine you’ve all got very different understandings than us over here in the “new” world.

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How Plants vs. Zombies Brought Literacy to the Tower Defence – Comment Port

This is an adaptation of a comment I left for the Cane and Rinse podcast.

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Plants vs. Zombies (2009) is very likely the most widely adored Tower Defence game of all time, at the very least it is certainly the most decorated. The game was a surprising phenomenon for a genre that had typically been viewed as web browser fodder. Yes, the game is mechanically simple when compared to similar titles released before and after it. But it’s unfair to assume that Plants vs. Zombies is only well liked because it’s approachable by the mainstream. Plants vs. Zombies actually fixes one of the major flaws in almost all tower defence games by being explicitly simple in how it relays information to the player.

For comparison sake think of any traditional Tower Defence game, games like Desktop Tower Defense (2007) or PixelJunk Monsters(2007). So many of these games have a terrible time relaying to the player what exact gameplay choices were correct/beneficial and which were mistakes. These games have many mechanical systems twisted together very tightly and it’s very hard for the player to isolate them in their mind. A level can be failed through poor economy management, poor time management, poor unit placement or poor unit choice just to name a few. As these systems are tied so tightly it’s often impossible to figure out where the player went wrong. Too often a player will misidentify where they failed and mistake which specific choice failed them. The player is almost always taking away the wrong lessons from a specific round of a tower defence game, they merely progress through the early game based on its ease. This will inevitably lead to an eventual challenge the player can’t overcome, and they won’t have the tools to evaluate what they should be doing differently. Most players won’t want to blindly experiment and it’s here they’ll bounce off the game. Too many mechanics wound too tightly.

Plants vs. Zombies on the other hand makes it abundantly clear to the player what works and what doesn’t. As the game space is split into five very segmented lanes the player is almost playing 5 entirely separate games at once. If the player’s top lane consisting of chompers is overrun while the lane of snow peas is not, the player instantly understands what kind of mistake they made. Plus the game usually chooses not to hide information like time remaining until the next big wave, or even which zombies will constitute that wave. The game provides the player the information they need to make strategic decisions, which makes the decisions rewarding even if they were easy.

Plants vs. Zombies sequesters its game space and its mechanics to make a game that is legible, and thus enjoyable. Sure this makes Plants vs. Zombies significantly easier than other tower defence games. But this trade-off totally sheds the obtuseness typical of its peers, and makes a game that is never unfair. Popcap is smart to offer so many side modes, game types, puzzles and mutators to keep the game from getting stale, as it does essentially tell you how to beat it.