Tag: Mass Effect (page 1 of 5)

From the Vault: The Video Game Singularity

I’m on my way to Boston for PAX East this morning. While I make my way through several states on what are certain to be lovely roads, have a look at my thoughts on the lines between video game developers and video game players, and what might happen if they get blurred.


X-Box Kitten

I feel we are rapidly approaching what I’ve chosen to dub “the Video Game Singularity”. It’s the point at which the lines between developers and players of video games blurs to the degree that the storytelling experience these games convey is one truly shared between both camps. We’re on our way with RPGs with user mod tools like Skyrim, massively multiplayer experiences and yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tales like the Mass Effect trilogy. Now, things like marketing departments, stratospheric fanatical expectations, and the limitations of current technology will hinder this advent, but it’s sooner than we think.

The Internet’s instant communication and dissemination of information is accelerating the process as we, as gamers, find and refine our voices. While we’ll never be able to excise every single idiot or douchebag from the community, we can minimize their impact while maximizing what matters: our investment in our entertainment. We are patrons, and video games are the art for which we pay.

Games are unquestionably art. Moreover, they a new form of art all their own, with their own traditions, their own classical periods, their own auteurs, their own mavericks. So I pose the question: why do we judge them as works of art extant in other forms when they clearly do not belong there?

Think about it. A movie critic, with little to no exposure to gaming in general, has no basis by which to judge the merits and flaws of BioShock or Killer7 in comparison to Kane and Lynch. By comparison, many gamers who only see a handful of movies may not recognize the reasons why film aficionados praise Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two mediums are completely different, and the biggest difference is in the controller held by the player.

From the moment we put our fingers on buttons, sticks, or mice at the start of a game, we have a measure of control over our experience. A well-designed game lets the player feel like they are truly a part of the world they’re being shown, that their choices will help shape the events to come. In a movie or a book, there’s no interaction between the observer and the observed. We experience the narrative the authors want us to experience regardless of whatever decisions we might have made differently. Video games, on the other hand, invite us to make our choices and experience the consequences for better or for worse.

Since players are a part of the building process for the narrative, it could be argued that they have just as much ownership of the story as the developers do. That isn’t to say they should get a cut of the game’s profits, as not everyone can render the iron sights of a gun or the glowing eyes of a dimensional horror-beast as well as a professional, who has to pay for things like training and food. A game done right, however, makes the player feel like a part of its world, and with that comes a certain feeling of entitlement.

That word’s been bandied about quite a bit lately, and to be honest I don’t think gamer entitlement is entirely a bad thing. The problem arises when gamers act like theirs is the only opinion that matters. Gaming is, at its best, a collaborative storytelling experience. Bad games shoulder players out of their narratives with non-interactive cutscenes or features that ruin immersion. Bad gamers scream their heads off whenever things don’t go exactly the way they expect in a given story. “This sucks and so do you” is not as helpful as “I think this sucks and here’s why.”

Not to belabor the point, but you can tell an author or director how much a book or movie sucks in your opinion, and the most you might get is a “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Game developers, however, know their medium is mutable. It can be changed. And if mistakes are made in the process of creating a game that slipped by them or weren’t obvious, they can go back and fix them. Now, the ending of a narrative is not the same as a major clipping issue, games crashing entirely, or an encounter being unreasonably difficult, and not every complaint from the player base is legitimate. And in some cases, the costs in time and money required to make changes to adjust a story even slightly can be entirely too prohibitive. But when there’s truth found in the midst of an outcry, some merit to be discerned from a cavalcade of bitching and moaning, game developers have power other creators of narrative simply don’t have.

The question is: should they exercise it?

Let me put it another way:

Should finished games be considered immutable things like films or novels, set in stone by their creators? Does listening to players and altering the experience after much debate ruin the artistic merit of a given game?

I think the answer to both questions is “no.”

Changing the ending of a novel or film because fans didn’t like it is one thing. Most directors and authors would cite artistic integrity in keeping their tales as they are. There are those who feel game developers should maintain the same standards. That doesn’t seem right to me, though. For one thing, a writer may change an ending if a test reader can cite issues with it, and a director can re-cut their film if focus groups find it difficult to watch without any benefit. Moreover, gaming is so different from every other art form, so involving of the end user of the content, that sooner or later a different set of standards should be observed.

As we approach the Video Game Singularity, it becomes more and more apparent that the old ways of judging those who create the stories we enjoy no longer apply. We are just as responsible for the stories being told through games as the developers are, and while games empower and encourage us to make decisions to alter the outcome, we must realize that our power in that regard is shared with the developers, and is not exclusively our own. By the same token, the onus of integrity does not solely fall on the developers. We, as participants in the story, must also hold ourselves to a standard, in providing constructive criticism, frank examination, and willingness to adapt or compromise when it comes to the narratives we come to love. Only by doing this can we blur that line between gamers and developers. Only by showing this desire to address these stories as living things in which we have a say and for the benefit of which we will work with their original creators will gamers stop coming across as spoiled brats and start to be considered a vital part of the game creation process.

We can stop being seen as mere end-user consumers, and start participating actively in the perpetuation of this art form. To me, that’s exciting and powerful.

I mean, we still have people using racist and homophobic language in the community, but hey, baby steps.

When Storylines End

Courtesy Konami

Endings to stories are every bit as important as their beginnings. I’ve heard, on at least one occasion, someone tell me to write the ending of a story first. I rarely do that, but I can often picture the ending in my head, or at least the climax. It should be an emotionally satisfying experience, even if it isn’t a happy one. The ending of The Dark Knight, for example, is far from happy – many important characters are dead, Batman’s on the run from the law, and the Joker did, in fact, get away, or at least lived. But it’s emotionally satisfying. Our hero did, in fact, triumph, even if it was a Pyrrhic victory, and will keep fighting the best way he knows how. Not happy, but one can set their teeth and nod in agreement with it.

I bring this up because I recently went through two ending experiences in video games. I finished Silent Hill 2 for the first time, and I downloaded the Extended Edition DLC for Mass Effect 3. Both games have multiple endings, determined by player choice, and the experience of reaching those endings says a lot about storytelling in general, and its connection to gameplay in particular.

For the record, I now understand why people love Silent Hill 2 so much. The game is steeped in a tense, foreboding atmosphere that draws you into its dark, bleak world and refuses to let go of you. The sound design is excellent and the visuals sufficiently creepifying, even if the capacities of the PlayStation 2 were somewhat limited. The HD Collection doesn’t do a whole lot with the graphics, from what I understand, but the important thing is that James Sunderland is still wonderfully neurotic, incredibly determined, and deeply sympathetic, quickly becoming one of my favorite video game protagonists. I felt invested in seeing his journey through to the end.

Silent Hill 2, like many games, has multiple endings, and the three available to the player at the conclusion of the first run all make sense, based on the choices the player makes. The game examines how you behave, how you treat the NPCs around you, and what you do with the things you find. It makes sense of the seemingly random things you may do as a player, and produces the ending you think you deserve. It’s an impressive feat for a game from the previous generation, and a great example of an ending to a story being emotionally satisfying while not necessarily being happy.

Courtesy BioWare

As for Mass Effect, well… I went off on a bit of a rant on the endings of the final game of the trilogy before. I won’t go into detail as to how the new endings made me feel, emotionally, especially since Susan Arendt has already done just that. Swap a couple names in the very last sequence and you have my feelings on it. In light of Silent Hill 2, though, I can tell you why the “Extended” endings work where the originals don’t.

First of all, while some of the dialog still feels a bit stretched, better explanations of the Reapers, the Crucible, and our choices are given. None of it feels too stilted, and Shepard, bless his or her heart, often asks questions in the very same way we do. There’s also the fact that we are given the option to straight-up refuse to be involved in the final decision. If you think the Starchild is a pile of bullshit, you can say so. Granted, it comes off a bit as Shepard being a petulant child, but that’s totally not a reflection on the attitude of entitled gamers, right?

On closer examination and with these better explanations, it becomes more clear to me that the endings of Mass Effect 3 are, in fact, the culmination of our choices rather than the death of them. It was difficult to realize this when the explanation was so truncated previously; now, as there is back-and-forth, there’s more time to think, to reflect, and to choose. As the Starkid explained synthesis and the evolution of life, conveniently leaving out how magically rewriting DNA was supposed to work, it occurred to me that this was what Shepard had been striving for all along. In my play-through, time and again, Shepard chose the way of peace: sparing the Rachni queen, convincing Garrus not to shoot Sidonis, trying to warn the Batarians in Arrival, getting the Geth and Quarians to lay down arms… The final sequence is now a conversation, rather than a glorified menu of choices, in which Shepard reflects on all that’s come before, and when the battered soldier starts to move, it’s for good reason rather than just to end things.

In addition to making the final choices feel like they matter, the Extended Edition also makes the endings more personal, more accessible. To quote Susan, “Saving the universe is great and all, but it’s too huge a concept to really feel particularly connected to.” My favorite moments in Mass Effect 3 were deeply personal ones, from the fates of Mordin and Thane to the back-and-forth between Shepard and Tali on Rannoch. Making the endings grand and sweeping but ambiguous and impersonal was a misstep, one which has now been corrected. From the look on Kaiden’s face when Shepard tells him “I want to be sure someone survives this,” to that last moment at the memorial wall, we feel more invested in what’s happened. We see characters we’ve come to care about dealing with the monumental decision we’ve made. And, perhaps most importantly, we get the chance to say good-bye.

Courtesy Konami

A similar moment comes in Silent Hill 2, as we hear Mary read her letter to James. Be it uplifting or tragic, the end result is an understanding of the choices made and an opportunity to bid the characters farewell. As in Mass Effect, the conclusion should and does feel personal. I hesitate to use the word “logical” when we’re talking about a psychological survival horror piece and a work of space opera that works on what boils down to magic, but the choices made and the endings that result from those choices do have make logical sense, and that goes a long way in giving them weight and making them complete.

A writer should never underestimate an audience. Allowing an audience to speculate on the unknown and draw their own conclusions is all well and good. It’s one thing to leave an ending open to interpretation; it’s quite another to simply cut things short. We can imagine all sorts of endings and fill in blanks any way we like, and while there’s great freedom in that, too many blanks can give the impression that the creators simply didn’t care enough, or didn’t know themselves. Seeing how the creators end things can be interpreted as spoon-feeding information to the audience, but it also allows for permutations we may not have anticipated. While you should never underestimate your audience, you should also never be afraid to definitively end your story where it should logically end. You don’t necessarily have to tie up all your loose ends in neat little bows (I’m looking at you, Legend of Korra) and you don’t have to chop up the ending into quick cuts to make a statement of some kind (*cough* 2001 *cough*). Let the characters make their choices. Let the audience understand those choices. Make that connection between the two, and the ending of your story will be far more satisfying.

You may now deposit your hate mail telling me how horrible I am for daring to compare Mass Effect 3 to Silent Hill 2.

Writer Report: Decisions, Decisions

The Thinker

Since I’m now done with rewriting, and will hopefully just be editing, it didn’t seem right to continue to call this “Rewrite Report.” I’ve started getting feedback on Cold Iron and it’s nominally positive. I know I need to always be writing, and as much as I look forward to starting a new project, some thoughts I’ve had give me pause.

I worry about Cities of Light being too stereotypically fantastical in some elements. I worry about Cold Iron‘s take on the modern supernatural. I worry about tackling sci-fi in a way that’s too soft, too camp. I find myself longing to see, cheer for, and write more pulpy, adventure-flavored, generally optimistic sci-fi, but the question I’ve been asking myself is “Why?” and I can’t seem to nail down the answer.

I guess I’m a little pissed at Star Wars and Mass Effect and other such tales that present a very interesting and in-depth universe with all sorts of story potential and hamstring themselves in one way or another. I think my motivation comes from wanting to do that sort of story “right”, but I’m wondering if there’s a broader reason why those stories consistently fail. I want to see John Carter to find out if the majority of critics are right in their rather negative assessment of it. I need to refine the universe I’m creating and, more importantly, ensure I have interesting characters and a good story to tell in it. I guess I could work on a sequel to Cities of Light or Cold Iron instead, but I’m leery to do that since I don’t know how the originals will do yet.

Summer is proving to be a busy time, and I can’t do everything I want. A family reunion is on the horizon, requiring a certain investment, and I plan on moving before September. In order to save money, I won’t be attending the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference this year. I was really looking forward to it, but practical matters need to come before others. I remain in the unfortunate position of needing to balance my need to write with my responsibilities as a nominal adult.

I’ll get there, but I’ll need to keep making decisions like these along the way.

Trendy Hate

Bandwagon

It’s always interesting to get different perspectives on things. I follow quite a few people on Twitter, and some of them have viewpoints on entertainment or politics that diverge from mine to various degrees. But even when I disagree with them, I don’t unfollow them. My personal feelings towards their opinion does not invalidate it; they are perfectly allowed to have it.

That said, I’m having trouble understanding when or how it became so “cool” to hate things.

I’m not talking about despicable things like race hatred or slut shaming, here. I’m more referring to the sort of talk you’d hear out of people that goes something like “Well, I used to like X, but then they did Y, and now I hate them and everything they’ve ever done” or “I don’t like X about this particular game/movie/tv show/book so the rest of it sucks.” The wording may change from conversation to conversation, but the sentiment is always the same: I am correct, this is irredeemably horrible, end of discussion. Most people are intelligent and courteous enough that you can engage them in conversation over these things, but more often than not, such discussions still end with, “Yeah, well, I still hate it.”

And that’s fine. I’m not putting this up in an attempt to invalidate anybody’s opinion. The great thing about individuality is having your own opinion of things, and it’s even better when freedom of speech allows you to give that opinion a voice. It’s when you start shouting to make your voice the most influential one in the room that things can get a little dicey. Now, there are times when it may be necessary to shout and even be caustic when something is truly objective, such as “No, going outside is not better than staying inside when a zombie apocalypse is happening”. But since we are, for the most part, discussing art in this particular post, I think it’s safe to say that most of the opinions to be bandied about are subjective.

The real problem with such trendy hate is that it fosters a bandwagon mentality. It encourages or sometimes even pushes people into conforming to a particular point of view. When someone tells you how much they hate something, with a voice full of bitterness and narrowed eyes that brook no dissension, it’s hard not to feel like some form of persecution is taking place. You don’t want to end up on the receiving end of it, so you go along with it. And if said opinion is being put out there by someone with social standing, even if little to know specific bitterness is being conveyed, people will hop on board without prompting in an attempt to either be part of that person’s circle or prove themselves to be more clever and refined by crapping all over what that person says.

Again, not to invalidate anybody’s opinion, but take a moment to think for yourselves, folks.

Case in point? (Yes, here we go again) Bioware.

I stand by my opinion that the ending of Mass Effect 3, as it stands at the time of this writing, is terribly executed and undercuts the entire trilogy of games. I also think Dragon Age 2 was one of the most lackluster RPGs I’ve ever played. But do I think they’ve never gotten it right? Is BioWare incapable of telling a good story? I think the answer to both questions is “no”.

As trendy as it may be for me to say “BioWare’s never ‘stuck the landing’ on a game” or “BioWare is ruining the game artform if they cave to fan demands”, I have no evidence to substantiate either claim. I do, however, have evidence from their previous games that good threads of storytelling exist. The characters in all three Mass Effect games, the overall experience of Dragon Age: Origins, and the nature of the reveal in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic spring instantly to mind. Sometimes the combat in their games has hit a logjam or particular story points have seemed missing or never clicked for audiences. This doesn’t mean BioWare hasn’t told a good story, or that they’re incapable of doing it.

Just like getting off the Halo hatred bandwagon, I never hopped onto the one hating on BioWare. I may be in a minority and I might not have the opinion that prevails, but I maintain that BioWare has the potential for better storytelling than we’ve seen recently. I also maintain that this downward trend in their games does not mean everything they’ve ever done is suddenly shit. I’m allowed to think this way and I’m going to choose to continue doing so, no matter how trendy it is to hate.

The Video Game Singularity

X-Box Kitten

I feel we are rapidly approaching what I’ve chosen to dub “the Video Game Singularity”. It’s the point at which the lines between developers and players of video games blurs to the degree that the storytelling experience these games convey is one truly shared between both camps. We’re on our way with RPGs with user mod tools like Skyrim, massively multiplayer experiences and yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure tales like the Mass Effect trilogy. Now, things like marketing departments, stratospheric fanatical expectations, and the limitations of current technology will hinder this advent, but it’s sooner than we think.

The Internet’s instant communication and dissemination of information is accelerating the process as we, as gamers, find and refine our voices. While we’ll never be able to excise every single idiot or douchebag from the community, we can minimize their impact while maximizing what matters: our investment in our entertainment. We are patrons, and video games are the art for which we pay.

Games are unquestionably art. Moreover, they a new form of art all their own, with their own traditions, their own classical periods, their own auteurs, their own mavericks. So I pose the question: why do we judge them as works of art extant in other forms when they clearly do not belong there?

Think about it. A movie critic, with little to no exposure to gaming in general, has no basis by which to judge the merits and flaws of BioShock or Killer7 in comparison to Kane and Lynch. By comparison, many gamers who only see a handful of movies may not recognize the reasons why film aficionados praise Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two mediums are completely different, and the biggest difference is in the controller held by the player.

From the moment we put our fingers on buttons, sticks, or mice at the start of a game, we have a measure of control over our experience. A well-designed game lets the player feel like they are truly a part of the world they’re being shown, that their choices will help shape the events to come. In a movie or a book, there’s no interaction between the observer and the observed. We experience the narrative the authors want us to experience regardless of whatever decisions we might have made differently. Video games, on the other hand, invite us to make our choices and experience the consequences for better or for worse.

Since players are a part of the building process for the narrative, it could be argued that they have just as much ownership of the story as the developers do. That isn’t to say they should get a cut of the game’s profits, as not everyone can render the iron sights of a gun or the glowing eyes of a dimensional horror-beast as well as a professional, who has to pay for things like training and food. A game done right, however, makes the player feel like a part of its world, and with that comes a certain feeling of entitlement.

That word’s been bandied about quite a bit lately, and to be honest I don’t think gamer entitlement is entirely a bad thing. The problem arises when gamers act like theirs is the only opinion that matters. Gaming is, at its best, a collaborative storytelling experience. Bad games shoulder players out of their narratives with non-interactive cutscenes or features that ruin immersion. Bad gamers scream their heads off whenever things don’t go exactly the way they expect in a given story. “This sucks and so do you” is not as helpful as “I think this sucks and here’s why.”

Not to belabor the point, but you can tell an author or director how much a book or movie sucks in your opinion, and the most you might get is a “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Game developers, however, know their medium is mutable. It can be changed. And if mistakes are made in the process of creating a game that slipped by them or weren’t obvious, they can go back and fix them. Now, the ending of a narrative is not the same as a major clipping issue, games crashing entirely, or an encounter being unreasonably difficult, and not every complaint from the player base is legitimate. And in some cases, the costs in time and money required to make changes to adjust a story even slightly can be entirely too prohibitive. But when there’s truth found in the midst of an outcry, some merit to be discerned from a cavalcade of bitching and moaning, game developers have power other creators of narrative simply don’t have.

The question is: should they exercise it?

Let me put it another way:

Should finished games be considered immutable things like films or novels, set in stone by their creators? Does listening to players and altering the experience after much debate ruin the artistic merit of a given game?

I think the answer to both questions is “no.”

Changing the ending of a novel or film because fans didn’t like it is one thing. Most directors and authors would cite artistic integrity in keeping their tales as they are. There are those who feel game developers should maintain the same standards. That doesn’t seem right to me, though. For one thing, a writer may change an ending if a test reader can cite issues with it, and a director can re-cut their film if focus groups find it difficult to watch without any benefit. Moreover, gaming is so different from every other art form, so involving of the end user of the content, that sooner or later a different set of standards should be observed.

As we approach the Video Game Singularity, it becomes more and more apparent that the old ways of judging those who create the stories we enjoy no longer apply. We are just as responsible for the stories being told through games as the developers are, and while games empower and encourage us to make decisions to alter the outcome, we must realize that our power in that regard is shared with the developers, and is not exclusively our own. By the same token, the onus of integrity does not solely fall on the developers. We, as participants in the story, must also hold ourselves to a standard, in providing constructive criticism, frank examination, and willingness to adapt or compromise when it comes to the narratives we come to love. Only by doing this can we blur that line between gamers and developers. Only by showing this desire to address these stories as living things in which we have a say and for the benefit of which we will work with their original creators will gamers stop coming across as spoiled brats and start to be considered a vital part of the game creation process.

We can stop being seen as mere end-user consumers, and start participating actively in the perpetuation of this art form. To me, that’s exciting and powerful.

I mean, we still have people using racist and homophobic language in the community, but hey, baby steps.

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