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Posts tagged “Mass Effect

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.


The End of Shepard

Courtesy BioWare
Using this picture again, because Garrus calms me down.

So now is when we discuss the ending to Mass Effect 3. I know it’s been discussed and being discussed all over the Internet as I type this. One of the best articles on the subject is over at GameFront and the Escapist podcast gives a good slice of opinions on the subject from people not frothing at the mouth in entitled rage.

Let me tackle that issue first to ensure I push spoiler material past most summary snippets.

I’m as flabbergasted by the endings to Mass Effect 3 as anyone. Moreover, I feel that at least a couple of the problems I have with them could be solved with some quick edits that leave the overall ‘message’ (if there is one) intact. But as much as I would like to see what I consider to be improvements applied to this conclusion to satisfy me personally, I know full well it may never happen. Just like we’ll never get a truly & universally satisfying end to the Star Wars prequels, or that “other” Indiana Jones movie, or Battlestar Galactica, or LOST, or the Transformers live-action films, we may never get one for Mass Effect.

Now, I’m not saying gamers shouldn’t try. I’m not saying we can’t be upset. The problem I have is in the way gamers are approaching it. Raising money for charity to make BioWare aware of this wide-spread disappointment is one thing, but to claim we want to “retake” it is preposterous. Mass Effect and its universe was never really ours, not entirely. It is a product of BioWare’s creative minds and programming chops, and to a lesser extent, it also belongs to EA’s marketing department just as much as Madden does. Yes, we add to the experience of the game by playing it, by making decisions, and by growing attached to its rich cast of deep characters. And as participants in the story, we can and should have something to say about how it ends. But we never owned it, outside of purchasing a copy of the game disc or downloading it onto our PC. There’s nothing to “retake”.

Now. Let’s talk about the actual endings. This is bound to get a bit long, so grab a drink. You may need a few, actually.

The Death Knell of Choice

Once Shepard talks The Illusive Man (hereafter referred to as TIM) into blowing his brains out in a nice if somewhat inexplicable call back to the first game, he’s conveyed via magic elevator into the Crucible. There the Starchild or whatever it actually is tells Shepard (and, by extension, us), that the Reapers do not in fact slaughter organic life as part of their reproductive cycle or just because they’re evil eldritch sci-fi horror-terrors. It is part of a “natural” cycle created to ultimately preserve organic life. The Reapers destroy sufficiently advanced civilizations so that they will not destroy themselves and all other life when they inevitably create synthetic life.

Courtesy BioWare
“It has been my plan all along to destroy organic life in the galaxy down to the last squirrel. Except for Jeff.
“… That is a joke.”

First of all, Shepard should be able to point outside the window at EDI. She’s spent the entire game exploring the aspects of organic living she doesn’t understand in an entirely peaceful way. And if you, like me, managed to broker peace between the Quarians and the Geth, then you have another huge example as to why the reasons for this cycle are monumentally flawed. While both races have work ahead of them to repair rifts left by racial hatred and near-genocide on both sides, the evidence exists that the peace will last, and synthetic and organic can work side by side without any sort of artificial reset button of face-melty death.

Just as perplexing is the notion that this sort of wholesale slaughter is necessary to preserve lesser species. It’s a given fact that organic life in general can get pretty wild. It does tend towards patterns of chaos rather than the rigid order of manufactured forms. However, imposing order on that chaos does not mean destroying it. When I want to prune a bonsai tree, I do it with tiny shears and patience, not a blowtorch. The Starchild is basically imposing SOPA on the universe with organic life taking the place of the Internet.

But Shepard, beaten and half-dead, just kind of rolls with it. The Starchild presents three options: Destroy the Reapers (and, he says, all other synthetic life in the galaxy), control them (because that was such a hot idea when TIM was ranting about it all Huskified just minutes before), or synthesize synthetic life with organic life. Let’s leave aside the two obvious ones and look at that last one. Instead of doing what we’ve been doing all game long, brokering peace and helping people overcome differences to work together towards a common goal, we are essentially forcing every individual being in the galaxy to forgo all differences to become a single, homogenized race. They are given no say in this. It all comes down to what Shepard wants. I mean, all three endings have this problem and the word choice of the kid in the stinger calling him “the Shepard” seems to indicate this messianic overtone carried over into whatever life survives this idiotic illusion of choice.

I say “illusion” of choice because they are all essentially the same. All three endings end the same way. The Reapers are dealt with, the mass relays are destroyed, and the Normandy struggles to outrun an explosion. I’ll deal with those last two later. Stepping back and looking at the endings from a broader perspective, we see that the only true difference is a swap of colors and a few different graphical assets. The original Mass Effect only swapped dialog lines, it’s true, but those lines and choices actually had an impact on the games the followed. The finality of these endings, however, precludes any sort of feeling that we made that big a difference. We see nothing of what our teammates after those last moments on Earth. There’s no way to know how the galaxy reacted to its fate. There’s no closure. It’s an ending instead of a conclusion, an abrupt and forced truncation of the story of Shepard that leaves the player empty and unsatisfied.

The Indoctrination Theory

If you take a closer look at this, carefully prying up the cow patties BioWare seems to have left all over their trilogy, evidence exists of something deeper going on. Several sources on the Internet have pieced together moments and snippets of lore throughout all three games to put together the following theory. To me, it’s a bit of a stretch, but not much.

Since the very first Mass Effect, we’ve known that one of the most insidious weapons in the arsenal of the Reapers is the process known as “indoctrination”. An individual of sufficient power or influenced exposed to the Reapers begins to come around to a way of thinking not necessarily their own. Their reasoning seems sound and logical to them, but to the outside observer it’s clearly flawed, even dangerous. This influence is pervasive, creeping into the thoughts and dreams of the target often without their knowledge. This is called indoctrination. It happened to Saren. It happened to TIM.

And some say it happens to Shepard.

Courtesy BioWare
After all, Harbinger’s thing has always been to assume direct control…

The VI taking the form of a little boy Shepard failed to save in the prologue doesn’t make much sense even in the rather dumb “a form you can understand” explanation given in things like Contact. At least Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation used human perceptions of him to make various points or play some pranks. The Starchild, though, isn’t just present at the end. Shepard sees the sprog in nightmares throughout the game. And the nightmares, while carrying the voices of lost comrades and the cries of the dying, also are possessed of an inky blackness that pervades them, just as inky black tendrils try to creep into Shepard’s perceptions during his showdown with TIM.

The evidence doesn’t stop there, according to this theory. Consider the “choices” offered. Two of the three of them end with Shepard dead and the Reapers alive. In synthesis they exist in a new form but they continue to exist. And in the control option, even if Shepard believes himself to be strong-willed enough to call them off, they still live. Only the destruction option matches up with Shepard’s goals, but two things happen that not only are meant to dissuade players from choosing them but give subtle hints that there’s more going on. First, the Starchild plays down the option, saying that destroying the Reapers is not enough, and the explosion will kill all synthetic life. For a weapon painstakingly designed to only kill Reapers, this seems incongruous. Second, the option and its explosion are colored red, the color of Renegades. It’s directly opposite the control option, colored Paragon blue, despite it being in line with TIM’s wishes, to which Paragons are staunchly opposed.

The cherry on this theory is that with enough readiness and war assets, when the destruction option is chosen and the result plays out, a hint is slipped into the end that Shepard survives the ordeal. This is probably the ‘best’ ending possible, very hard to attain, and yet it comes bundled with free genocide for the Geth? There’s something wrong, here. Either it’s yet another facet of the ending I simply cannot grok as a writer, or the Reapers are lying to you.

The Real Problems

Even if this theory proves true, or BioWare reveals some other greater agenda to explain away the aforementioned malarkey, the real problems of the endings still exist. We’re not just watching Shepard make some sort of sacrifice to deal with the Reapers once and for all. We’re watching the end of galactic civilization as we know it, and we’re watching perhaps the cruelest betrayal in all three games combined.

The mass relays are destroyed. And the Normandy abandons you.

Let’s tackle the bigger one first. The DLC Arrival had you destroying the Alpha relay, an act that wrecked the system so thoroughly that hundreds of thousands of innocent beings died. This was why Shepard was on Earth in the first place, facing down trial for that act. And then, at the end of Mass Effect 3, we apparently destroy every single relay in the galaxy. That’s going to be a LOT of dead people.

Let’s assume that this isn’t the case, and some sort of space magic preserves trillions of lives from the big booms. Civilization’s still pretty fucked up. While it’s an established fact that FTL drives do exist on all civilized spacecraft in the galaxy, they are a great deal slower than using the mass relays. Journeys that take hours or days would take years without them. So those aliens who lept to your aid at Earth now have to limp their way home. If you managed to assemble the largest force possible, this means the quarians who finally retook their home planet may never see it again. It means the krogan possibly freed from the genophage will never actually sire children on Tuchanka. I think you get the idea. I’m not entirely sure if galaxy-wide communications relied on the mass relays or not, but if they did, Shepard saved the galaxy only to plunge it into a dark age. Fierce fighting over fiefdoms and religious zealotry ahoy!

Courtesy Relic Entertainment
Pictured: James Vega twenty years after the ‘liberation’ of Earth.

But even beyond this issue there’s one even more personal. The Normandy has been our home for three games, moreso in the last two. The final game even makes an effort to put a more lived-in feel into the ship, with crew members wandering around and conversing freely with one another without our prompting. This ship and her crew have been there for Shepard through thick and thin. They flew through the Omega-4 relay in Mass Effect 2 knowing it was a suicide mission. In fact, at the start of Mass Effect 3, the ship was grounded. To get to Shepard as quickly as they did, the Normandy had to have already been airborne when the Reapers hit. They knew what was coming and they knew their commander needed them. And yet at the very end, when Earth is on the cusp of rescue and their leader making a dire and perhaps final choice, what do they do?

Apparently, according to BioWare, they tuck tail and run as fast as they can. It’s possible they didn’t know about the space magic that would keep the mass relay explosion from killing them all, and were trying to escape before what happened to Bahak happened to Sol. I still don’t get that, though. They’re not just abandoning Shepard but the entire planet they just helped liberate. And how would they know it was coming? Their motivations for running are unexplained and nebulous. You do see some of them living after the whole outrunning-the-explosion bit if you had enough war assets, but again, logic comes and bites whatever happiness you can get from this stupidity right in the ass. If Garrus or Tali survived, what happens when the humans run out of dextro-friendly food? If Liara survived, how do you think she’s going to like living out her long life on this planet while every other person she survived with dies around her? They’re stranded, and with the mass relays destroyed and given the distance Joker probably jumped, chances of rescue are slim to none.

To me it would make more sense if the Normandy was caught in the blast from the relay and Joker has to struggle to keep her aloft long enough to land safely on Earth. And when they do land, depending on the war assets, either they’re all killed, they survived but the battle wiped everybody else out, or they survived and are hailed as heroes… with the notable and palpable absence of Shepard.

But hey, what do I know, I don’t write for BioWare.

The Biggest Tragedy Of All

The worst part of the endings has nothing to do with the decisions themselves or the gaping holes in the plot through which one could fly the Normandy. The worst part is how the ending of Mass Effect 3 renders every decision you’ve made over the 150+ hours spent across the trilogy completely inconsequential. It doesn’t matter if you cured the genophage, brokered the peace that ends a centuries-long race war or even how many lives you save or change just by being Shepard. In the end it all comes down to different colored explosions that basically give you the same results.

Stories have done the “what you choose doesn’t matter” ending before, and it’s been effective. Brazil and 12 Monkeys spring to mind. But those were films. These are video games. Moreover, the Mass Effect series are video games that emphasize player choice, tolerance, examinations of individuality and life itself. We are told, and invited to exemplify through gameplay, that the choices we make matter, that the direction lives take are important, and that tolerance and peace are not only possible, they are preferable to the alternatives even in our current, modern day lives. A world where different species can form friendships and even romances without any serious social implications and a man can talk about his husband in a very real and moving way is one that is definitely worth dying for.

But Shepard’s death, just like our choices, really has no meaning. I mentioned before that there’s no sense of closure. There’s also no sense of gravity to our decisions. We have no idea if the alliances we’ve forged, the peace we’ve brokered, will last beyond the multi-colored explosions we create. And in the end, we’re given to understand that it really doesn’t matter. To make everything in all three games come down to a single choice could work, if the aftermath of that choice also reflects choices we’ve made since the beginning. As it stands, those decisions carry no weight. Even in the case of the ‘best’ ending, there’s no sense that what we did was ultimately worthwhile. The whole trilogy, from who to rescue on Virmire to the events on Thessia, feels like a waste of time, because no matter what we do, the completely interchangeable endings are waiting for us.

It’s one thing to botch the ending of a video game. It’s another to ruin its replay value as a result, and another still to also destroy the replay value of the games that came before it. As a writer and a gamer, I simply cannot grok this decision.

I’m fine with Shepard dying. Just as I was with Spock dying in Wrath of Khan. It’s all a question of the how and why behind that death. If BioWare do indeed heed the criticism of their fans, there’s no reason to simply push them into a “happy” ending. But the ending should mean something. It should have an effect on us other than anger. We should feel our time was well-spent, and worth spending again. Even if the end is bittersweet or downright tragic, if it’s satisfying enough it will be worthwhile, perhaps even to the point of repetition. People watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy and all of those Star Wars films multiple times, even if the ending isn’t entirely happy, because the world is still rich and full of life and meaning after the end. As it stands now, the Mass Effect universe is left empty. Shepard’s death is essentially meaningless. Shakespeare put it best:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

This post may be similar, in the end. I have no idea if BioWare is actually listening. But even if they aren’t, if you’ve gotten this far and are still reading, I thank you for your time. I welcome other thoughts on this matter. And I pray that I never, ever botch the ending of anything I write this badly.


Game Review: Mass Effect 3

Endings are tricky things. It can be difficult to tie up loose ends, wrap up character arcs, and bring the lines of the plot to a satisfying conclusion. It’s as true for romantic comedies as it is for war stories, though the latter tends to be more harrowing and bittersweet in the end result. And make no mistake. Mass Effect 3 is a war story.

As an aside, I will maintain my usual policy of avoiding spoilers in the review, which is difficult in this case because the controversial ending of Mass Effect 3 has an effect on the game as a whole, but I can’t discuss it without spoiling things. I will do my best.

Courtesy BioWare

In the 6 months since the events of Mass Effect 2‘s Arrival DLC, Commander Shepard has been under house arrest on Earth. Finally brought before Alliance Command, it turns out they suddenly believe Shepard’s story about the Reapers. That’s because the Reapers invade Earth. The race of sentient murderous machines have begun a unilateral campaign of annihilation across the galaxy, and as much as Shepard would like to stay on Earth to fight, the Normandy is instead sent out to get help. And with an enemy as numerous and implacable as the Reapers, they’ll need all the help they can get.

The theme of war and an impending sense of doom hang over Mass Effect 3 like a dark shroud. The Reapers are everywhere. Even in the galaxy map, you can see them descending on system after system. Shepard has to deal with them as well as just about every friend and foe that’s been made over the course of the trilogy. This being the last game in the story, anybody who’s survived thus far is pretty much obligated to make an appearance. Thankfully, Mass Effect 3 continues the tradition of maintaining a coherent narrative in its character moments right down to incidental things like individual rescued colonists and well-meaning but overenthusiastic fans. It also looks even more polished and expressive than the previous titles, even if the pervasive lens flares get a bit irritating.

Courtesy BioWare
Actually it’s pretty mild in this shot.

The inventory and combat systems have been tweaked a bit, making things feel like a hybrid of both previous games. Shepard’s loadout is now based on weight rather than class, allowing you to customize your experience to some degree. You can load up an Infiltrator with a shotgun or a Vanguard with a sniper rifle, with the only price being an increased recharge time for your powers. Returning from the first Mass Effect are weapon mods, this time handled in their own interface rather than being buried somewhere in the general inventory system. Procurement, upgrades, and customization are all done in one place, with separate interfaces for each, making these decisions easy and actually interesting instead of the tedious chore they were in the first game.

As for combat, we continue to handle our differences in opinion in a succession of corridors full of chest-high walls. The reintroduction of grenades, however, encourages us to move around the battlefield and keep the pace and tension high. Enemies will also employ special tactics against you, such as setting up turrets, siphoning health from nearby friendlies, and approaching cautiously behind riot shields. Your powers remain satisfying to use in response, for both you and your squadmates. It bears mentioning, though, that having one button for taking cover and picking up items and using environmental highlights and just about everything else can be frustrating when you meant to take cover but wind up trying to hack a terminal while angry enemy warriors use your N7 logo as a bulls-eye.

Courtesy BioWare
“My momma says I’m pretty.”

The scanning mechanic of the previous game also makes a return, but it’s not quite as crap. The removal of resource-gathering, the reduced time to find a particular item, and the chance of getting chased down by angry Reapers actually makes it a bit fun to search for war assets. The purpose of scanning this time around is not to buy fancy upgrades but to bolster the war effort. Discovered assets and forged alliances can be viewed in the Normandy‘s war room, along with a ‘readiness rating’ that reflects participation in the multiplayer, iOS interactions, and possibly other aspects as well. The goal is to gather as much support and firepower as possible in order to, in theory, get the best ending.

While it’s to be expected that a war story is going to have all sorts of tragedy and noble death, it must be said that Mass Effect 3 does a great deal of it quite well. Despite some of the forced tragedy of the opening, some of the character moments are absolutely amazing. We get the feeling that things we’ve done in the previous games do, in fact, have lasting meaning. Characters we’ve come to know and love come out guns blazing, defending their ideals to the death and showing just how much influence one individual can have. These moments, combined with the smooth combat, improved world-map hunting, and some above-average dialog even by BioWare standards, had me absolutely adoring the Mass Effect 3 experience…

Courtesy BioWare
Wouldn’t be a story about Shepard without Garrus.

…right up until the ending. Which I will discuss tomorrow.

Stuff I Liked: The variety of weapons and the ability to try them out on Shepard no matter what your class. The diversity of the enemies that required tactical thinking to overcome. The revamped Normandy and the way crew members walked around it naturally instead of being stuck in one place constantly.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The reduced number of conversation choices, while allowing things to move more quickly, felt a little off, as if choices were being made for me. The finicky use/cover button. So many lens flares. The occasional graphical glitch or clipping issue. And while I appreciated Kai Leng’s role as a villain, was it necessary to make him a space ninja?
Stuff I Loved: The tight focus on characters. The smartly-written dialog. The casual and progressive way in which the game handles same-sex relationships. The way every decision feels important, and the ways the game shows you the consequences of those decisions, until the ending begins.

Bottom Line: Mass Effect 3 is like going out to dinner with a bunch of old friends. You have some drinks, laugh about old times. The food is delicious and the company’s fantastic. It’s a deeply satisfying experience… and then, suddenly, your friends are gone, you’re stuck with the massive check, and something on your plate was undercooked and now you have food poisoning. The ending ruins what was otherwise a great gaming experience.


My Favorite Quarian

Courtesy BioWare

This has become something of a tradition. BioWare’s games tend to eat up a lot of my time, and the habit has become to dash out a post as I push myself towards the usually somewhat disappointing ending. I’m doing my best to keep my fingers in my ears to drown out all of the entitled whining, bitching, and moaning going on regarding Mass Effect 3, so before I reach the conclusion of an overall fascinating sci-fi trilogy, let me break up the crusty surface of cynicism that is current gaming-related writing and talk about something sweet.

Or rather, someone.

Back when I first played the original Mass Effect, I thought all of the characters had something going for them. Even if Ashley Williams was a horrible racist, she was interesting. Saren, despite being the villain, did what all good villains did and had nuances to explore and motivations that, while extreme and ultimately very wrong, one could understand from a certain point of view. But as much as I loved sniping with Garrus or headbutting with Wrex, over the appeal of a blue-skinned bisexual bookworm, I was taken by Tali’Zorah nar Rayya.

From the very start, Tali showed she was fully capable of taking care of herself in a galaxy poised to swallow up a young woman out on her own for the first time. Very smart, unflinching in combat, and with a wicked tongue adept at snark, Tali’s experience with machinery made her an invaluable asset in the fight against Saren and the geth. Indeed, her experiences not only helped her complete the Pilgrimage her people all took on the cusp of adulthood, but also allowed her to return to the Migrant Fleet with more information and confidence than she could have imagined at the start of it all.

My primary Shepard is male and is trained as an Infiltrator. This unfortunately meant that he and Tali shared some redundant skills, so the adventures they shared on that first outing were not as numerous as they would have been otherwise. I took the time to talk with her as much as I could on board the Normandy, at least, but there was no option to really get to know her better, not like there was with Liara or Ashley. And considering I wasn’t about to let Kaiden die if I could help it, that limited the infamous romance options to Mass Effect to exactly one.

And then BioWare announced the option to romance Tali would be in the sequel, Mass Effect 2.

Sing, choirs of angels.

Considering this was long before Lair of the Shadow Broker, it seemed that Liara would remain a distant figure throughout the second game. I was okay with this for two reasons. One, it added a lot of much-needed depth to her character and made a great deal of sense given her brilliant mind. The other one, of course, was that I could look into Tali’s feeling without feeling a great deal of guilt. That was my rationale for that play-through, at least, and it was worth it to hear Tali stammering a little when the subject came up. Seeing Tali grow between games into a full-fledged adult Quarian with responsibility and leadership skills was heartening. Tali’Zorah vas Neema (and, later, vas Normandy) continued to show exemplary skill in Mass Effect 2, and provided an emotionally charged loyalty mission that is still very much worth doing even if you’re not pursuing her romantically.

I know there are some out there who consider romancing Tali a somewhat creepy option. It’s possible to see her as just another video game damsel in distress, a fulfillment of some sort of juvenile male power fantasy involving a young and ineffectual girl unable to survive without the strong hand of a man behind her. When I look at Tali, though, I don’t get that. Setting personal bias aside, her first encounter on the Citadel has her brushing off unwanted attentions, easily evading capture through clever deception and explosives use, and immediate participation in the ensuing firefight. She can handle herself. She doesn’t need a man in her life. And being attracted to that capability, that bravery, and those smarts is creepy? Seriously, I do not get “cool” cynical hate-filled gamers sometimes. Making decisions in Mass Effect 2 specifically so she has no option but to stay with you, though, that is creepy, and a little sad.

Anyway, after a Hardcore play-through as a female Vanguard, I resurrected my Infiltrator to play through both games on Insanity. Revisiting the first game was fun, and also afforded me with an opportunity to make a few decisions differently, including deflecting advances from both female characters. Basically, I held out for Tali. And considering how things have turned out so far, now that I’ve completed events on the planet Rannoch in Mass Effect 3, I can tell you it was definitely worth it.

Games need more characters like Tali. Her presence is strong, a good mix of smarts and combat capability, with occasional touches of femininity and deep emotion that make her far more interesting than most obligatory video game love interests. To me, at least, she’s one of the best things about the Mass Effect trilogy in general, and this final game in particular. So far, at least. We’ll see how that bears out at the end.

Keelah se’lai.


Tension Is Good

Courtesy BioWare

If you have any connection whatsoever to video games in general, you know Mass Effect 3 got released yesterday. Reviews are up all over the place, including this great one at the Escapist, along with the requisite whining from entitled gamers about how the DLC issue should have prompted a boycott and conversations about leaked ending footage, blah blah blah. For me it’s off to a good start, even if the character of Jason Vega is a little ridiculous, but what has my attention, not just as a gamer but as a writer, is how tense everything feels.

In the previous game, there was a lack of urgency save for the very last mission. You could putter around the galaxy doing whatever you liked and there was no consequence for it. I highly doubt Mass Effect 3 will punish me for going after side-quests or taking time to chat people up, but now I have a feeling for the stakes right from the beginning. The threat is not imminent or implied – it’s here, and needs to be dealt with now.

This feeling of tension is bleeding into the dialog. BioWare’s always been decent at characterization through conversation, and so far this game is living up to their other best titles. There have already been moments within the scant few hours I’ve played where characters have left things unsaid, conveying emotion far more deeply in the spaces between words than in the words themselves. While some of these moments are open to interpretation based on how you personally want to play the game, the fact that this depth and complexity exists at all in a modern AAA shooting game earns early top marks from me.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution did this, too. Being a man of few words, Adam didn’t always say exactly what was on his mind. Especially after the attack that lead him to becoming an augmented one-man assault force, he plays things close to his ballistic vest. The nature of the dialog bosses and the moment when he reaches what he believes to be his ultimate goal make great use of tension. It’s clear evidence that the right word, spoken or unspoken, can have just as much power as a well-placed bullet.

In games it’s very easy to let the dialog fill in expository gaps to get the player from one shooting gallery to the next. It’s far more difficult to make the player care about the pixelated people involved in the action. By showing instead of telling, by keeping this tension high and filling conversations with hesitation and uncertainty, the writers give the action that follows more weight. We don’t just want to survive the firefight or earn the rewards or teabag the bag guys. We want to find out what happens after, what the next conversation holds, if the guy gets the girl (or guy) who clearly wants to their feelings to be noticed even if they don’t say anything about them, if an issue is going to be dealt with or avoided… It’s the tension, not the shooting, that keeps the narrative moving. This isn’t just a good thing. It’s a great thing.

You can, and should, do this as well in your writing. By keeping conversations tight and holding back on exposition and explanation, you make your reader want to know more. The promise of answers, not necessarily the delivery, is what will compel them to keep reading. While some stories may dangle the carrot of satisfying answers in front of you until the end before slapping you with the stick of deus ex machina or some other form of bait-and-switch, good ones leave things unanswered entirely so readers keep thinking about the story after it’s done. Did Richard and Pixel live after The Cat Who Walks Through Walls? What happened after the end of Serenity? Did Cobb actually make it home at the end of Inception? What’s Coburn’s next move after the end of Double Dead? So on and so forth. These stories raise questions at the beginning and answer them at the end, with plenty of tension in the middle and enough left at the end to leave us wanting more.

If Mass Effect 3 can pull this off, I’ll be quite pleased. And if it doesn’t, you’ll be damn sure I’ll tell you about it.


DLC: Decidedly Lavish Crap

TARDIS USB Hub

Behold, Whovians. My USB hub involves Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. I can connect to SO many devices. Some of them aren’t even of human manufacture! Muahahaha…

…okay, it’s a silly USB hub shaped like a TARDIS. I don’t need it. But it makes my life easier and it’s really cool-looking, in my humble opinion.

The TARDIS hub is, in a way, a lot like a video game’s downloadable content, colloquially called DLC.

I’m a consumer in general, of media in particular. Be it through conditioning or simple instinctual inclination, I like little optional extras. I like having a car charger for my iPhone that also has an FM transmitter. I enjoy samples of wine before a meal. And if there’s art or music above and beyond what’s included with media I really dig, you can bet I’ll be finding ways to check it out. Heck, as I type this supplemental material to the Internet narrative comic phenomenon Homestuck is winging its way to my door. Well, not winging so much as rolling, as it’s coming USPS, but you get the idea.

But I know none of these things are necessary. My life will not be diminished if they were absent. Plenty of people get by without things like this. I’m just in a position where I can enjoy such optional extras.

DLC is a lot like that.

In recent years it’s become the practice of certain big software publishers to bundle their new releases with DLC that is only available to those who pre-order or buy new. The DLC in question usually becomes available later for an additional fee. In Dragon Age: Origins, the character of Shale was only included in the initial release of the game if it was purchased new. If you got a copy second hand, you’d be deprived of the bird-stomping golem unless you paid $15 US. This was due to a launch date developers were struggling to reach, causing them to cut Shale from the project until the date was pushed back.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is another example. Pre-orders of the game from certain vendors featured the Explosive Mission Pack. This includes a bonus mission involving an important character that has appeared throughout the Deus Ex storyline in both previous games. The reward for completing it is an interesting bit of continuity and a wickedly powerful weapon. If you didn’t pre-order the game, you can download the pack (as I did) for $3 US. It’s cool to have for story buffs and the like, but it’s no more necessary to that game than Shale is to Dragon Age: Origins. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shale; I just acknowledge that she isn’t an essential part of that game.

Courtesy BioWare

The reason I’ve decided to bring this up is the imminent Reaper invasion contained in discs and downloads around the world. Mass Effect 3 is coming, and some goofball on the Internet leaked its Day One DLC. Called “From Ashes”, it is included only with Collector’s Editions of the game and has a few neat points, which are outlined here. The biggest one is an additional character, a member of the Prothean race that has been part of the Mass Effect universe from the very beginning. From what I understand, this character is like Shale in that his content and very presence is entirely optional, and if you weren’t fortunate enough to pre-order a collector’s edition of the game, you can buy the DLC separately for $10 US. BioWare contends that the game is complete and “huge” even without this DLC.

Nonetheless, there is a LOT of uproar over this. Folks threatening boycott and saying that it’s EA’s marketing doing stuff like this that’s killing the industry and exploiting the consumer. I can see where they’re coming from. I don’t like the mentality of big business publishers when it comes to things like this, and as much as a lot of the backlash to “From Ashes” sounds like a bunch of entitled whining, this sort of behavior is a major shift from their previous Mass Effect title, which included a character and other enhancements as Day One DLC for free as long as you bought the game new.

This doesn’t change the fact that DLC is optional. Provided BioWare is honest about the completeness of the game without “From Ashes”, it seems to me that this Prothean character and the module’s other content falls under “nice to have” instead of “must have”. I’ve considered not buying the game myself as I don’t want to support toxic policies like this, but on the other hand I’ve been wanting to see for myself if BioWare can come back from its recent failures. If Mass Effect 3 turns out to be as lackluster as Star Wars: The Old Republic or as aimless and repetitive as Dragon Age 2, it’ll be the last time I buy anything from the company, unless it’s a copy of an older game I no longer have a disc for like Baldur’s Gate or something.

After giving it some thought, I’ll still be buying Mass Effect 3 but I will not be picking up “From Ashes” initially. Maybe if the game delivers on all of its promises and makes me forget all about BioWare’s unfortunate EA entanglements I’ll come back to it. But this really is like all other DLC and optional extras for consumers in general. Nobody’s entitled to it. It’s never guaranteed and while it’s nice to have, we can live perfectly fine without it. It is, at the end of the day, decidedly lavish crap.


DLC Review: Overlord & Arrival

Courtesy BioWare

Like an interplanetary Paul Revere, Commander Shepard has been moving from system to system, race to race, all but screaming “The Reapers are coming, the Reapers are coming!” His warnings have largely gone unheeded. Giant intergalactic Lovecraftian space-horrors? Pshaw! here’s politics and racism to worry about. Even Cerberus puts the occasional science project gone wrong ahead of preparation for the Reaper’s invasion. But Shepard never really liked those guys anyway…

Two large, mission-oriented DLC packs had gone unplayed on my X-Box until recently. They couldn’t be more different. Overlord has almost nothing to do with the overarching plot of the three Mass Effect games, while Arrival is meant to bridge the second and third games together. I did play through both of them, and it’s worth noting that some points of truly challenging combat I encountered might have been due to me doing so with the difficulty set to Insanity.

Courtesy BioWare

Overlord seems to be set before the end of Mass Effect 2‘s campaign. One of Cerberus’ projects has gone awry, and the Illusive Man has tapped Commander Shepard and his team to get the science team back in communication and on schedule. All Shepard is told is that the scientists assigned to the project were pushing the boundaries of virtual intelligence (VI) technology. The remote facility is divided among several stations on the planet’s surface, requiring the use of an overland vehicle to reach them all. Thankfully, the Normandy is equipped with a cutting-edge hovertank well-designed to handle anything a hostile planet can throw at it: the Hammerhead.

If you didn’t bother getting the Firewalker DLC pack, or weren’t able to access it due to not being part of the Cerberus network, now’s your chance to see just how much BioWare improved in vehicle section handling since the first Mass Effect. That is to say, “a little.” The controls of the Hammerhead are still finicky, with the added third dimension of jumping making maneuvers slightly more complex. While using guided rockets instead of swapping between a big rail gun with a long cooldown and a coaxial machine gun simplifies combat, it’s a bit too simplified as there is no shield or hull strength indicators. The Hammerhead will flash an flicker as it takes damage and a warning siren will sound, but it’s hard to gauge just how much more punishment the vehicle can take before it pops, or when it’s safe to emerge from cover. The worst, however, is having to do precision platforming with the damn thing. I’ll say that again: precision platforming with a vehicle that handles like a flying redneck pickup full of Natty Ice kegs.

Courtesy teh internets

Outside of the vehicle, we have a decent, well-paced story with some intriguing and downright creepy moments made of equal parts Harlan Ellison and a carnival spookhouse. I don’t want to say too much more because it’s worth experiencing, even if it ends up feeling somewhat superfluous. By the time I got to Overlord, most of my problems with the Geth had been resolved, and Legion had become a trusted friend and fellow sniping buddy. But even without my personal inclinations, Overlord is an inconsequential yet oddly entertaining extension of Mass Effect 2‘s gameplay.

The other DLC is Arrival. Contacted by the somewhat enigmatic Admiral Hackett, Shepard is asked to personally liberate a friend of the Alliance flag officer’s, one Doctor Kenson, from a batarian prison. She has apparently uncovered evidence of an imminent Reaper invasion. As the lone voice in the dark certain the Reapers are coming, Shepard is happy to help. There are two catches, however. One, Shepard must go in alone. Two, the good doctor has plans of her own…

Courtesy BioWare

The early part of this DLC mission is something I really enjoyed. I’m a fan of stealth gameplay, and being able to circumvent, mitigate or barely avoid combat is an experience I can’t help but enjoy. So when I heard that at least part of this mission featured Shepard alone, slipping through the prison undetected to break Kenson out of the lockup, I was eager to play it. While there were no cardboard boxes or many clever guard-distracting tricks to speak of, avoiding sight lines and overhearing conversations still had me smiling.

After that it’s a string of familiar combat encounters, a wickedly poised decision Shepard has to make, and one of the biggest letdowns in Mass Effect history. Up until the very end of Arrival, the Reaper known as Harbinger was an aloof, implacable and cunning villain. As opposed to Sovereign’s blatant notion that Reapers are too unfathomable for puny, fleshy mortals to understand, Harbinger played its cards close to its metallic vest, working through intermediaries and seeking out Shepard directly through its Collector catspaws. That image was ruined by Arrival, when Harbinger appears to Shepard to dump an all-too-familiar “NOTHING CAN STOP US NOW” line of conversation on the long-suffering Commander. Somebody at BioWare needs to learn that villains only remain cool and interesting when they keep their big mouths shut. Only the arrival of Admiral Hackett himself in the epilogue, setting up the interesting circumstances for Mass Effect 3‘s opening, save this DLC from being a big letdown at the very end.

All in all, the DLC packs weren’t anything terrific, but each has its good points. Overlord’s creepiness and harrowing final boss fight coupled with Arrival’s stealth option made them worth the investment, and wet my whistle for Mass Effect 3.

Courtesy American Superman
Courtesy American Superman of DeviantArt

We’re waiting for you, Reapers. Bring it.


DLC Review: Lair of the Shadow Broker

Courtesy BioWare

The character of Liara T’soni in the original Mass Effect wasn’t an overall fan favorite. Aside from being a source of controversy and leading some phenomenally ignorant people to call the game “a sex simulator”, Liara’s tendency to be both loquacious and seemingly naive could get on people’s nerves, while others (like myself) found her desire to help and fascination with the Protheans to be endearing. And then, she turned up in the sequel, holding down a desk on Illium where she worked as an information trader and someone you really, really didn’t want to mess with. Just ask her secretary. The graphic novel Redemption expands on the role she played in the events following the opening of the second game, and the big question on the minds of most players was just how badass Liara had become, to say nothing of the resolution of the possible romance a player may have pursued or even abandoned over the course of Mass Effect 2. Those answers are questioned in Lair of the Shadow Broker.

The DLC begins when you deliver some information to Liara, courtesy of the Illusive Man. Following up on it, Liara is attacked at home. You and your squad show up in the aftermath, meeting the lead investigator and beginning to piece together what happened. By the time you find Liara again, it becomes clear that the Shadow Broker has classified the asari scientist as a threat and is moving to eliminate her. With the information she’s gained, however, Liara can beat him to the punch, a task for which she needs your help.

Courtesy BioWare
Just like old times.

This DLC is much, much larger than anything produced for the game to date, expanding on the location of Illium and adding new upgrades and achievements. You also get Liara as a temporary member of your team, and she’s a fantastic addition. While we did have adepts on the team in the form of Samara and Subject Zero, Liara brings the fantastic crowd-control combination of Singularity and Stasis to the field. She’s the only character besides Shepard (as an Adept) to have access to the miniature black hole, and you can add Stasis to your arsenal permanently if you make the right choices.

BioWare’s always shown decent character writing chops in their work, and this DLC is no exception. In fact, it’s pretty exemplary of everything that makes the Mass Effect games so playable. Not only do we get interesting events and character development from both the first game and the graphic novel, we get a great change of pace, similar to that in Kasumi’s Stolen Memory, in the form of a car chase.

Courtesy BioWare

The environment of Illium’s soaring towers is reminiscent of Blade Runner, and the chase takes place between and even through those towers. Environmental concerns, other vehicles and little surprises crop up to get in your way. And the entire time, Shepard and Liara are in the car bickering like an old married couple. It’s fast-paced action that has you rolling with laughter while you’re dodging other sky-cars. It’s one of the highlights of the DLC.

Between the unique setting of the eponymous Lair, the great dialog and the expansion of Liara’s character, this DLC has plenty to offer and is well worth the price. Even after the mission ends, you get plenty of use out of its content, from interesting video surveillance of some characters to dossiers of your team and some of the people who’ve crossed your path, for good or ill. Finally, it begins setting up the story for Mass Effect 3 even moreso than any of the sequel’s in-game content. I thoroughly enjoyed playing through it, and I actually look forward to doing so again. If that’s not praise, I don’t know what is.


Reinventing the Wheel

Courtesy Mark Fiore
via The San Francisco Chronicle

You’ve heard the turn of phrase before. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.” Basically it’s an argument that doesn’t necessarily invalidate innovation, but suggests that working within established constraints means less work and a lower investment of time and resources. At the same time, only going with what’s known leads to stagnation. If people doesn’t innovate, nothing grows or changes. Yes, people like what’s familiar and are uncertain of new things. It’s why this year’s Madden is going to outsell a game coming from the independent market. It’s why fans are eagerly awaiting the next novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series and overlook brand new titles in the fantasy genre. This isn’t a universal truth to be sure, as there will always be people willing to try something new, but it’s true enough to be noteworthy and, in my opinion, worth examination.

When you get right down to it, on a mechanical level, there’s little difference between Gears of War and Mass Effect, especially the second title. They’re both cover-based shooters using a third-person perspective. However, they’re as different as night and day. The former’s focus on multiplayer, brutality and grim protagonists in interchangeable suits of armor is worlds apart from the latter’s storytelling, character design and decision making. In other words, they’re both wheels, but one’s a big thick tire on a monster truck while the other’s a Pirelli on a Bugatti Veyron. BioWare didn’t reinvent the wheel to make the experience of playing Mass Effect 2 distinctive from that of playing Gears of War 2, they just built that wheel differently.

Another good example? The aforementioned Song of Ice and Fire. It’s a fantasy novel series, so it’ll sit in the same section as Lord of the Rings. But George RR Martin isn’t all about exotic races, magical powers and a clearly-defined evil villain. Instead, his focus is on sweeping political landscapes, lands and armies rooted very much in our history and lots (and boy, do I mean lots) of interesting, well-rounded characters. GRRM doesn’t reinvent the wheel to write his books or get his point across. Instead, he draws from both the universes of fantasy with which we’re already familiar, and also from the legends and accounts we either know from studying history or recognize as familiar due to our own experiences. It makes a story with an expansive scope feel deeply personal.

It’s entirely possible that in our own creative process, we head down a particular path. We want to try something new. We want to go places that haven’t been explored, approach an obstacle in a radical way. As we proceed down the path, more ideas occur to us. It’s tempting to pull those ideas into the work at hand, just to see if it works. And then, when it comes time to look over where we are and how we came to be there, the path behind us is at least a bit messy, if not damn near incoherent. We’ve wandered a bit too far. We’ve tried to reinvent the wheel.

This doesn’t mean the mess is without merit, however. A square wheel, after all, can be chiseled into a round one if you’re willing to clean up the debris when you’re done.


DLC Review: Kasumi’s Stolen Memory & More

Courtesy BioWare

There’s a glut of DLC available for Mass Effect 2. The biggest thing out there exists for the benefit of those who bought the game used, the Cerberus Network. It allows you access to DLC that would otherwise be free, like option party Zaeed Massani. Chances are, if you’re reading this and own Mass Effect 2, you’ve already grabbed the surly mercenary to your interplanetary quest to forge a team of “big Goddamn heroes” as the man himself would put it. I’ll go more in-depth should requests come in for it, and I’m not reviewing stuff like the appearance packs. I’d much rather talk about Kasumi instead.

Rounding out Shepard’s team to an even dozen, Kasumi Goto is an enigmatic master thief. She strikes a deal with the Illusive Man who’s behind your operation to take down the Collectors. If Shepard helps her with a heist to break into the vault of an amoral industrialist, she’ll help the former Spectre save humanity. She’s adept at sabotage, infiltration, agile combat and, ah, “property acquisition.”

Kasumi on the whole seems to be an entirely different kettle of chips from most of the other members of your team. She seems to have more in common with Yeoman Kelly Chambers than Garrus, Jack or Grunt. She’s upbeat, positive and even when you’re in the middle of a chaotic firefight, she’s having fun. Occasionally when she pops out of the shadow behind some unfortuante mook to crack them one across the head, she’ll let out a Simpsons-style “HAW HAW!” And if she’s having fun, we’ve got no excuse not to. I smile every time.

Courtesy BioWare
This girl has got some moves.

Speaking of her abilities, it’s nice to have a fully-fledged rogue on the team. Her signature move, Shadow Strike, is functionally similar to the Infiltrator’s Tactical Cloak, but she uses it to cross a great deal of distance and deliver a backstab-style sneak attack. While the thronging masses of gun-toting suckers line up for bullet sandwiches from you and whichever other team member you’ve chosen, she uses the chaos to sneak around behind and exploit their weak spots. I for one really like that. She also gains the Flashbang Grenade, which inflicts a little bit of damage within its area but also causes weapon overheats, messes with electronics and disrupts the concentration of biotics. It’s crowd control at its finest, and from what I understand it’s capable of locking down even the biggest bads you’ll face on foot.

Her loyalty mission, the aforemention heist, is also a lot of fun and starts with a really nice change of pace. Instead of opening with the typical fare of dropping into the target zone to murder everything in sight, Shepard and Kasumi have to slip into the dinner party of Donovan Hock, an arms dealer with a thick South African accent and a penchant for self-aggrandizing. While Kasumi stays invisible, Shepard must wear formal clothing instead of armor and chat people up for information, clues and the keys to the vault. There’s a really nice callback to the first game as well as nods to other BioWare games and even classic sci-fi films. Of course the mission switches about halfway in to the usual shooting, but taking on the bad guys with just you and Kasumi presents an interesting challenge in and of itself.

The only thing lacking from Kasumi’s DLC is more conversation with her. Like Zaeed, she’ll talk when you select her in the Normandy’s port observation deck, but it’s not a back-and-forth conversation. However, she does offer insight on the rest of the crew and her stories tend to be just as colorful as Zaeeds, though usually less violent. I’m sure there’ll be more lines as I add members to my crew in my current play-through, but I feel there could have been more done with the character. It’s hard to really consider that a major weak point when you get to keep your formal wear after the mission and Kasumi installs a bar in the Normandy. Nothing beats the fatigue of taking on the Collectors than science fiction booze!

Bottom line is, Kasumi’s Stolen Memory is definitely worth getting. She’s a great addition to the game.

Courtesy BioWare
The next best thing to my trusty sniper rifle.

At the same time I got Kasumi’s Stolen Memory I also picked up the Aegis Pack & the Firepower Pack. The Kestrel Armor is no better or worse than some of the other armor available, but the ability to mix and match bits of it instead of needing to wear the entire suit is a fantastic option. I’m also using the M5 Phalanx pistol quite a bit. The Colt Anaconda of the Mass Effect universe, this packs even more punch than the Carnifex hand cannon and comes equipped with a laser sight. It’s a bit more challenging than the default crosshairs, but accuracy is rewarded with increased damage the makes kills more frequent. That weapon and the nature of the Kestrel Armor justifies the price of these DLC for my money. I’m playing as an Inflitrator (again) so I can’t comment on the Mattock battle rifle or the Geth shotgun, but Garrus seems to be dropping folks left and right with the Mattock and I’ll see how Tali likes the shotgun.

I take care of my ladies, what can I say?


Horrific Thoughts

Courtesy New Line Cinema

Now that I’ve finally completed the last round of edits for Citizen in the Wilds short of anything that comes from test reads, I can turn my attention to other projects. I have a few on my plate but first and foremost is a deadline approaching with all of the inevitablity of a steam locomotive with a beard in place of its cow-catcher.

The Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge.

It needs to be horror and it needs to be set in or about a vacation. That’s about all we have to go on, other than the word count. So how do we begin. What sort of horror do we invoke?

I’ve done the horror thing before and met with moderate success. But I don’t want to rely as much as the supernatural I did in my previous work. Buckets of blood and disgusting monsters doesn’t necessarily make something a horror story. What does, then?

Once again, I direct your attention to the excellent and insightful Extra Credits:

Horror is about human psychology. It’s about understanding those primal fears that have tormented mankind since its early history. Horror is about the irrational and the breakdown of our modern faith in logic and the fundamental order of the world. Horror is about all those things that drive us towards our darker impulses and justify our most bestial actions. Horror is about hopelessness, and facing things so unimaginably greater than ourselves that, for all of our self-importance and assurance of our place in the world, we’re nothing before them.

To me, this is very nearly an outline of the major points a good horror story needs to touch upon to be a true member of that genre. If you rely on jump-out scares or grotesqueness, you’re missing the point. Shock is not the same as horror. Shock fades after a few moments. Horror fucks with your head.

Here’s an example. Villains do things for deeply personal reasons. Those reasons do not necessarily need to be explained to the audience. If you want to make your villain terrifying, regardless of what genre you’re in, keeping their motivations inscrutable even as we get to view their personality can introduce an element of horror into the story. Lay their motivations bare, however, or attempt to obfuscate their drives behind quirky logic or language and you’ll undermine the sentiment of dread you wish to convey. I’m lookin’ at you, Mass Effect.

Give me more examples of true horror as opposed to failures. When have you been shocked, compared to when you’ve been deeply disturbed? These are the sort of things I’ll be contemplating over the next week as I frame this story. I have an idea, and ways to make it interesting, but making sure it fits into the horror genre as a whole instead of just playing with the occasional scare will be the real challenge.


Cerberus Daily News

Courtesy BioWare

As much as I love BioWare, I can’t shake the notion they’ve gone in the wrong direction.

You see, they’re developing a Star Wars MMO. Granted, it’s set in the wildly popular and surprisingly rich universe of the Old Republic, the same as their previous RPGs and some of the best comics written in that universe (in my opinion). So while I’m cautiously optimistic and might try out the beta if I can, I don’t think I’ll be buying it.

If they had developed a different game, I think they’d be getting a lot more of my cash. And not just mine.

What I’m driving at is, BioWare should needs to develop a Mass Effect MMO.

I know there are arguments why this shouldn’t be done. A lot of people who play single-player games like Mass Effect despise MMOs. And I can understand their sentiment. I agree that I wouldn’t want a game that’s just World of Warcraft in space. I think that as the Mass Effect games continue to evolve, the combat system is becoming more refined, and porting that into an MMO would work as a nice change from the usual MMO method of point-and-clicking something to death.

Other people seem to think that having a massive amount of players in the universe will ruin the universe. Granted, you’ll definitely have people running around trying to be nothing more than Shepard 2.0, the latest and greatest Spectre who doesn’t play by the rules and is out looking for answers and is letting their assault rifle do the talking and their assault rifle speaks very loudly and rapidly. But there’s something out there that both gives me hope that this would be a minor problem and encourages for me the idea of an MMO in this universe working.

The Cerberus Daily News.

Established concurrently with Mass Effect 2, the CDN is an in-universe news bulletin board. They added a commentary box to it for visitors to use. Role-players were drawn to this like moths to a sci-fi lens flare. An official forum has become attached and the sheer amount of storytelling going on, for better or worse, is staggering.

I hope this community continues to thrive. To me, this is evidence that people want to play within the Mass Effect universe as somebody other than Shepard. Now, it may simply continue in this vein if Star Wars: The Old Republic fills the LucasArts/BioWare MMO niche, or they may expand into new territory with a Mass Effect MMO. I’m curious to see what happens.

Then again, maybe this is just my bitterness towards Lucas coloring my opinion. As I said, the Old Republic portion of the Star Wars universe has provided us with some great stories so far. Maybe an MMO set there will satisfy the sci-fi role-players unfulfilled by EVE Online and the lack of role-playing freedom in Mass Effect. It could very well be that, between the CDN and the folks who go into the Old Republic, a Mass Effect MMO would prove to be unnecessary.

I’d still rather play that than another Star Wars game, though. That’s just my opinion.

Until we know more for sure, I’ll continue checking out the CDN. It’s an interesting look at the sort of role-players drawn to the Mass Effect universe, if nothing else.


There Is No Sex

Schroedinger
Art courtesy Lucian

Once again I’ve provided a provocative title to try and get your attention. Is it working? Is it?

Yesterday’s post on females in fiction has generated some feedback, but thoughts from one of my friends got me thinking. He said, “Why not disregard gender entirely? Why not just write characters?” This is something worth consideration. Tyrande, the Baroness, Hit-Girl… they’re characters no more or less valid than Brann Bronzebeard, Destro or Kick-Ass. They all have interesting angles, they all exemplify parts of ourselves and they call can be used and abused at the hands of different writers. There are differences in character much deeper and more nuanced than their disparate gonads. So why do gonads come into it at all?

Is there, in fact, no sex? Or more to the point, no genders?

Proceeding with Lucian‘s intriguing line of thought, consider the following. While this is not a direct quotation from the conversation we had, it’s still thinking outside of myself, hence it gets the blockquote treatment.

The purpose of gender existing is to help us construct schema for social situations. A schema is a semi-conscious pre-evaluation of a situation based on how things are “meant” to work. Driving’s a good example. Driving has a tight schema: we expect people to drive on a certain side of the road, stop at red lights, etc.

Gender works like that for social situations. You see a person, evaluate male/female, and pre-judge how they will act based on gender stereotypes. The problem is, stereotypes hardly ever really hold true,
and they are usually reinforced into place by social expectation. Not to mention, they are harmful and insulting to “both” genders.

That is how gender works and why it exists.

And why it is very, very boring.

From the perspective of the writer, at least when it comes to fiction, the goal should be to write compelling characters, regardless of their gender. Now, this doesn’t mean that the newsboy on the corner should have as much depth or development as John Dillinger. But the characters we do spend time with should have some dimension to them, things for the audience to discover.

Say what you want about the stories in the Mass Effect universe, but many of the characters we encounter have depth and nuance divorced from their gender. Would Wrex be any less interesting if it turned out he was female? How about Tali’s fans – would they still exist in their large numbers (with me among them) if Tali was a male Quarian? I’d still want to hang with Tali if he were a guy, for the record. I’d also like to believe that Miranda would be just as smug and Jack just as caustic if they were men. Sure, their character models would undertake radical changes and Miranda probably wouldn’t be called Miranda, but that’s beside my point.

Under those layers with varying degrees of curvature and color that we call “bodies,” the characters we create that carry our stories should be interesting, thoughtful, compelling – human. “Human” means more than gender. It applies to our lives, and I think it should apply to our fiction as well.

How important is gender, when you get right down to it? When it comes to what’s really important about our characters – motivation, outlook, goals and fears – is there, in fact, no sex?


Checkered Flags Ahead

Checkered Flag

It’s important to have goals, in just about everything you do. The somewhat tricky part is that not everything will have defined goals laid out for you. The deadlines of a dayjob, the billing dates of utilities, the expiration on a gallon of milk – these give us tangible goals. Other goals aren’t usually as well defined.

Take gaming, for example. People are under no obligation to reach a particular level in World of Warcraft, Mass Effect or EVE Online. In fact, EVE has no “end-game” content to speak of. There’s no sprawling story structure of quests and rewards – just you, your starting vessel and the vast emptiness of space. To keep things interesting you have to set goals for yourself – get this skill to a certain level, earn enough money for that class of ship, be good enough to be invited to the Awesome Express corporation.

Mass Effect, being a single-player experience, has the goals of the story missions, side quests and DLC, but beyond that you really don’t have any obligation to play it more than once. Yet I find myself contemplating doing just that. I’ve beaten both games on standard difficulty (as an Inflitrator) and Hardcore (as a Vanguard). But the Insanity difficulty taunts me. I also never hit the maximum level in the first game. So at some point, I’ll be revisiting it, and maybe I can put together a review of ME2’s DLC while I’m at it.

As for World of Warcraft, my main character’s plunging into the final end-game raid of the last expansion. I’m also getting him geared up for the arenas, which are pretty much the pinnacle of player-versus-player skill. Meanwhile, I have two other characters I’m working on, one for the purposes of change-of-pace gameplay (tanking as opposed to DPSing) and one for role-playing purposes. It’s difficult to portray a charismatic, powerful villain when you’re only half as powerful as everybody else in terms of level, after all.

Outside of my various electronic distractions, other goals approach as well. I’ve been doing podcasts for IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! for almost a year, and in a few months I’ll have been getting blog posts up for over 365 days. The editing process of Citizen in the Wilds proceeds, I’m trying to get a hold of Polymancer again and in a few weeks I’ll know the end result of my efforts to place in the Blizzard fiction contest. Once these goals are met, however, I know I can’t stop – new ones will have to be set, otherwise I’ll just be puttering around in games all day.

I mean, more than I usually do.

What sort of goals do you/have you set for yourself? How do you reward yourself when you reach them?


Ribs Without A Spine

Dice

I’ve been inspired to write the following due to Alex Macris’ latest Check for Traps feature on the Escapist. You can read it here. The Cliff’s Notes is basically that a GM in a tabletop RPG should be less of a directive storyteller, and more of an emergent one. That’s a great concept in theory, but it’s possible for some GMs to consider this an excuse to do no story work whatsoever and that, my friends, is a mistake.

Characters with no story to bring them together or drive them forward is like ribs without a spine. Now, as a food, ribs without a spine are mostly what you’re looking for. Lather those ribs in a delicious sauce and cook them just right so that the meat’s nice and moist rather than tough and dry, and you have yourself a delicacy for a discerning omnivore such as myself. But even in those ideal conditions, the end result’s a bit messy.

A less food-based example of what I’m talking about is Mass Effect 2.

Courtesy BioWare

For most of the game, you go from one hot spot in the galaxy to another, either picking up a new member of your crew or helping them with a personal matter to earn their undying loyalty (for the most part). This series of mini-stories is bookended with the whole Reapers/Collectors business, but the nature of the game leads one to believe that they’re more of a backdrop against which the characters grow, rather than being any sort of impetus for change or tension. If the plot had been more coherent or the threat more credible, we might have had a more full-bodied experience rather than a plate of (albeit tasty) character ribs.

When you have strong characters, the story holding them together should also be strong. However, it shouldn’t overwhelm the characters. I think that’s what Alex has been driving at in his last few articles. The guy behind the screen, the man behind the curtain, the puppeteer above the stage pulling the strings – it shouldn’t be all about them and the story they want to tell to the exclusion of everything else. Role-playing games involving more than one player should be collaborative experiences, with players bringing interesting characters to the table while the GM weaves their plots together and gives them something against which to struggle. That is unless you’re running a demo at a convention or something and just want to show off how cool this dungeon is or how that class works in comparison to that other class. Then you go straight for the mechanics and rules, and leave most of your story-telling and world-building and atmosphere-creating tools at home. I learned that one the hard way.

See what I mean here? Are you catching my drift? Or am I completely off my rocker because I told those kids to get off my lawn a bit too violently? Share your thoughts, Intertubes.


Her Twenty-First

IHOP!

In honor of my wife‘s birthday today, here’s a bit from one of my favorite posts of hers. We’re taking care of some errands and going out at least for dinner tonight, thanks to a generous gift card to our favorite restaurant. Guess what it is. Go on, guess.

Enjoy this little taste of an opinionated game review peppered with swearing.

Good Game, Shitty Story: The Mass Effect Experience

Look at that title. I just summed up everything I’m about to say and I don’t even have to say it. I could stand back, look proud of myself and just let the title speak for itself.

However, I’m not. I suspect I will have hundreds of fanboys raging all over the place here if I were to, so I’ll qualify what I just said with some experiences.



For most of the fights worth a damn I used Liara and Alenko, actually.

As I said, the game itself was really good, but I feel I should qualify that too: it was really good when I was playing a Soldier. When I first started up the game, I figured I’d probably play a Soldier because I’m boring and like killing things, but after looking at the classes I figured I’d go for something I don’t usually play, and chose the mage Adept. The combat controls were confusing at first (the game arbitrarily has different movement controls for combat and non-combat), especially since you can’t zoom out, so despite it being third person I still got that “no peripheral vision” feeling that comes with first person shooters. Anyway, I quickly discovered that you can’t keybind more than one ability — despite never using the D-pad for anything the entire game — so if you want to play something that relies as much on abilities as it does on shooting things, and you’re not playing on the PC, you’d better like pausing combat. A lot.

After dealing with the flow-breaking pausing, or just ignoring it and shooting things for the entire first mission, I finally said “fuck this” and re-rolled. Maybe it’s because I could dump all my points in assault rifles since I knew I wasn’t going to use anything else, maybe it was because I’d gotten the hang of the way combat worked, but I immediately had much more fun with the Soldier and went on with the game. I did get a couple abilities throughout the game (well, “a couple” isn’t accurate, I had almost as many as Liara by the end) but most of the time I forgot they existed and just shot things till one of us died. The only ones I ever really took advantage of were my party resurrect and the one that reset all my abilities so I could use the resurrect again. These two got used a lot, too, because the entire party liked to huddle around me, and if I was behind cover, instead of going off to find their own cover nearby, they’d stand in the open near me and get killed. Despite this, the way the fights are set up I was grateful to have party members, especially later on when Kaidan and Liara both got Lift.



Lift is awesome.

As for the non-combat parts… Well. I often found it stupid that one charm speech would cause people to rethink their entire diabolical plan/career choice/life, but I guess it’s better than requiring five conversation trees of the exact same thing. There was also one thing that bothered me with the reporter coming to talk to you sidequest… I knew it was the Renegade option to tell her to fuck off, and I was going for a Paragon, but I chose it anyway because I’d previously promised Emily Wong, another reporter and recurring quest NPC, that she would be the first to get an exclusive interview. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to remember this promise because it never comes up again and everyone acts like you’re an ass for not doing the interview, and there’s no way to tell people I refused in order to keep my promise to Wong (thereby doing the right thing). Why make things like that a dialogue option at all if you’re going to assume the player will completely forget about them?

Other than hiccups like that, I really enjoyed the dialogue parts. I’m one of those OCD types who will get as much information out of an NPC as possible, which often led to spending ridiculous amounts of time chatting, though. Rarely in a game am I so eager to get back to the action after spending time in town as I was in Mass Effect.


Continue…


Further Thoughts on Mass Effect’s Combat

I mentioned I’m playing Mass Effect again. In addition to highlighting just how uninteresting my hobbies can be, the experience allows me to more finely compare and contrast certain aspects of both games. The combat is the first and most likely target for such a comparison, as it’s one of the biggest problems people have with the second game outside of the scanning mechanic and the lack of exposed skin during the “romantic interludes.”

Courtesy BioWare

Combat in the first Mass Effect is, like the inventory system, ripe territory for micromanagement. Every character has a variety of powers that are mostly on separate cooldown periods. To effectively survive combat encounters with minimal expenditure of medi-gel or grenades, especially on higher difficulty levels, using the radial menu to pause the game, look around and target party members’ powers on specific enemies is every bit as important as making sure your guns have the right load-out. It’s a combat system that rewards preparation and planning. If you know there will be a ton of geth in a particular hotspot, load up on anti-synthetic ammo and be sure to have at least one tech specialist in your party to ruin the geth’s day by destroying their shields. Areas of rachni, thorian creepers or other organic hazards will require different ammo and a wider array of powers. And if you want a real challenge, try fighting without biotics. The ability to take an assailant off the ground with your brain or slam them against the wall as a killing blow are things you’re likely to miss when a geth Destroyer is coming straight for you.

Courtesy BioWare

Mass Effect 2‘s combat is a bit more straight-forward and faster paced, as I’ve mentioned. Like other third-person shooters, most notably Gears of War, just about every where you go in the Terminus Systems you’ll find plenty of chest-high walls. You survived a lot longer in the first game when shooting from cover, but you were also spending half your time in the radial menu. The sequel seems to want to limit the amount of power-picking, so while you do have more places to map powers (a definite improvement), you have fewer powers from which to choose. Shepard can have up to six, seven if you count Unity, while members of your party won’t ever have more than three. Sure, there’s less to keep track of, meaning you’ll be moving through combat a bit more rapidly and it adds to the overall action-oriented feel of the game. But I can’t help but feel that something’s been lost.

I’m not saying one method of combat is superior to the other. They both work, they’re both fun and neither feels completely out of place. To be honest, the only major difference is that combat in the first feels more like an RPG while the second is more shooter-oriented. Yahtzee accurately points out that gameplay is still ‘flailing about’ trying to strike the right balance, and the first two games lean just a bit too much in one direction or another. Again, this is not a complaint, merely an observation. I hope that BioWare keeps trying to find that balance for Mass Effect 3 and doesn’t turn it into Gears of War: Spectre Edition.


Works Life in Progress

I’m taking a cue from Ye Olde Magick Speaking Beardface and just putting down some words about life in general at this point. I only have one real creative work in progress at the moment, which is more than enough considering everything that’s going on.

“Who’re you calling a program, program?”*

Code

Right, first things first. The day job is keeping the roof over our heads (until we move to a new one in a couple months) and food in the pantry. I’m moving positions, shifting away from phone-answering bug-squishing troubleshooting to code-chomping cart-rolling Flash-AAHHHH-“savior of the universe”ing programming. It’s not a promotion, mind you, more of a lateral, semi-upwards shift in responsibilities and protocol. Still, it’s in improvement. I have a few things to square away in my current workload before the move is official, but it’s forward motion. By focusing on PHP, SQL and my already pretty extensive Flash skills, and leaving the ever-shifting environments of up-front client relations behind, I think I’ll not only become far more valuable to the company, but also start enjoying work a bit more overall.

The Project Marches On

Bard

I’m trying to crack open the manuscript for the Project and drop a few words in every day. Sometimes it’s more than a thousand, or even two or three. Others I’m lucky to get a couple dozen in there. But any motion is forward motion, and I’m trying to keep my spirits up. I know where I’m going with this plot, and I’m aware that some places might be a bit slower than others. If my setting had ninjas, I’d have them attack any time I was in doubt about what to have happen next. Ninjas are always cool.

“Did we just threaten someone with zombie rape?”

Art by Stanley Lau

Tonight’s another session of the awesome Iron Kingdoms game being run by my wife. Our team (myself, David Hill and his lovely wife Filamena) have sort of become a steampunk version of Burn Notice. Dave’s noble never kills unless he has to, Mena’s gun mage is on the lookout for the next opportunity, and my rifleman sees violence as a direct solution to most enemy encounters. …Which pretty much makes me the Fiona.

Property of BioWare

Courtesy BioWare

I’m playing through Mass Effect again. Call me boring or easy to please if you like, but I have achievements to get, a whole other gender to experience (since Shepard can be either male or female) and situations to set up for future games. Once I get where I want in the first game, I’ll be playing the second again. And I also have things I want to do with Dragon Age, as well. Again, this probably points to me being dull, but in retrospect I feel this is a better way to spend my time than playing Star Trek Online for the time being. That and BioWare isn’t charging me $15 a month just to play their games.

And then there’s this stuff.

Taxes

Taxes, bills, finding a new apartment that doesn’t suck, getting cats to a vet sometime in the near future… being a grown up sure is fun, isn’t it?

*If you know this reference you officially rock my socks.


Game Review: Mass Effect 2

(NOTE: May contain minor spoilers. Readers be ye warned!)

Courtesy BioWare
Subtitled THIS TIME IT’S PERSONAL. (Right, Harbinger?)

Here we are, at last. I know quite a few people have already played and reviewed this game. Some are even playing it again. I actually went back to the original game to start a new playthrough to span both games, and while I know there will be some repetition in dialog and encounters, the story’s solid enough to withstand repeated playthroughs. That’s more than you can say for a lot of games out there today. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mass Effect 2 opens with a shocking curbstomp battle between Commander Shepard’s intrepid vessel, the Normandy, and a mysterious attacker that can see the plucky ship despite its stealth systems and blasts through its defense systems like they weren’t there. Shepard manages to get his crew to safety before he’s blown out to space and dies. The pro-human semi-terrorist “by-any-means-necessary” organization Cerberus scrapes Shepard off of the nearby planet’s surface and spends two years resurrecting him. The Reapers, extragalactic Big Bads introduced in the first Mass Effect, are still a major threat despite the government’s denial of their existence. They’re not helping humanity in the disappearance of their colonies, either, so Cerberus turns to the reconstructed Shepard to undertake a suicide mission through an unexplored mass relay to uncover the source of the abductions and send back more information on the Reapers. Because who better to send on a mission where everybody’s likely to die than someone who’s been dead already?

Stuff I Didn’t Like

Courtesy BioWare
We got this instead of a vehicle. I hope you’re all happy.

Wait. Shepard dies? He wasn’t in a coma or suspended animation and presumed dead by the galaxy at large? I found that to be a little far-fetched. Sure, technology in the future depicted by Mass Effect is pretty advanced, and being rebuilt by Cerberus explains why you can implement so many cybernetic upgrades to Shepard as the game goes on, but the whole resurrection angle pushes the limits of believability. Shepard doesn’t really seem that bothered by it, either – there’s no crisis of faith or any real rumination on what thoughts are evoked by the experience of coming back from the dead. Even the more spiritual team members don’t think to ask, which would have been a good opportunity for the player to do a little role-playing in choosing to start a deep theological conversation, or give a Renegade-oriented “None of your damn business” response.

Oh, and the story problems don’t end there. We do learn more about the Reapers, as to what motivates them and why they do what they do, but it still doesn’t explain why it wasn’t explained to us previously. Did Sovereign go for a stream of verbal crap in the style of Matrix: Reloaded‘s Architect just to mess with human heads, or was it embarrassed that the motivations of its supremely powerful machine-race were so basic and organic-like that it needed an extra layer of obfuscation? Or had the writers not figured it out yet themselves at that point? Maybe they had but they wanted to keep us guessing. Don’t get me wrong, the writing in this game isn’t bad, not by a long shot. More on that later.

The only other major insurmountable problem I had beyond the story issues was the scanning mini-game. I touched on it previously and it appears that my initial assessment was on the money. Here it is again to save you some time:

Some of the complaints about the Mako sections of the first game were their length and tedium. Scanning in the sequel takes just as long and… is just as tedious. Another Mako complaint is, obviously, it’s handling. So if scanning is meant to be an improvement over the Mako, the controls should handle smoothly and be a delightful diversion from ducking for cover like we’re playing Gears of War, right? Sorry, that’s not the case here. The reticle moves slowly over the surface of a world when you’re scanning, and unless you want to risk missing a particularly rich pocket of Element Zero, you need to drag it across every square mile of the planet’s surface.

Now one thing the scanning mini-game does well is convey the feeling that one is in space. And I don’t mean it hearkens to Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. No, it hearkens more to 2001: A Space Odyssey or video recordings of NASA operations. That is to say that it’s lengthy, quiet, procedural and really rather dull.

Stuff I Liked

Courtesy BioWare
“Gosh, I hope you weren’t fond of your face, buddy.” *ZAP*

Let’s move on to better news. The other major complaint about the first Mass Effect was the inventory system, which stuffed your interstellar backpack with a plethora of ultimately useless junk that you then needed to sell one at a time to the nearest vendor. BioWare tossed that stuff into the Mako when they shoved it out the airlock, and the system of managing equipment in the sequel is extremely streamlined. Rather than switching weapons, you upgrade the models available to your team members. While these upgrades must be purchased with resources gathered by the aforementioned scanning malarkey, you won’t be thinking about that tedious stuff as your new Normandy takes you from one gunfight to the next.

Speaking of fights, the combat system in Mass Effect 2 is also somewhat streamlined. You can map more powers for easy use, you don’t have quite as many to manage, squad commands are broken a bit more easily and fights are bit faster-paced. The measures of protection on your foes, as well as their scale, can vary from encounter to encounter which can lead to breaking up the monotony of the cover-based shooting. The multiple map buttons mean you can address a particular enemy’s defensive measure at a moment’s notice, provided you don’t just pound them into submission with a stream of mass-accelerated death or your favorite physics-altering biotic ability.

Like the previous game, this one is rendered very well, with the environments and technology providing a great sense of immersion. The voice-acting, for the most part, also draws the player into the experience, as they travel from one exotic locale to the next to recruit members for Shepard’s suicide mission. And being able to customize your armor’s look was a nice touch, along with the fish tank & Space Hamster you could add to your cabin on the Normandy.

Stuff I Loved

Courtesy BioWare
Thane: “Shepard, what is this ‘DeviantArt’ site you sent me?”
Shepard: *whistles innocently*

BioWare might be a little shaky in the story department, but one of their strengths is their characters. Mass Effect 2 gives us a diverse, interesting and well-written cast, from the penitent and quiet assassin Thane to Subject Zero, who uses aggression and profanity to conceal a deeply wounded soul. The conversations Shepard has with these individuals give the game a surprising amount of depth for what could easily have been a Gears of War clone with a few RPG elements. While this might come as no surprise to long-time fans of BioWare’s games, the purchase of the company by EA could have caused some concern. However, as much as EA might mess with other aspects of a game – DLC or DMA or some other acronyms – it appears they’re leaving the story alone, and thank the Enkindlers for that.

Being able to import your Shepard from the first game gives the experience a fantastic sense of cohesion and immersion as well. It’s surprising the amount of continuity exists between the two games, from the outcome of major events to minor encounters you frankly might have forgotten about in the intervening years. Returning characters are a welcome sight, even when they’re hated foes and especially when they’re beloved party members. There’s a real sense that time has passed since the end of the first game, and every life you touched then, even in passing, has been changed because of your influence for better or for worse.

The last thing that really made this game enjoyable for me was the changes to the conversation system. It’s been said that quick-time events should be an integral part of gameplay and not thrown in arbitrarily. The Paragon/Renegade interrupts are not mandatory for you to finish a conversation, but setting one off not only flows well with the conversation but often yields pretty spectacular results. On top of that, conversations in general flow more naturally, with characters moving as they speak, camera angles changing dynamically during conversations and subjects reaching far beyond the usual “What did you think of the last mission?” or “Do you think I look cute in this armor?” fare.

Show »

Courtesy BioWare
“I believe the organic saying is: ‘BOOM. Headshot.'”

Bottom Line: Are you a fan of the first Mass Effect? Buy this game. Do you like sci-fi shooting action? Buy this game. Looking for a relatively decent story with solid, well-rounded characters? Buy this game. Got a void in your life that only a Space Hamster can fill? Buy this game. Have I made it clear yet? No? Go buy Mass Effect 2. It’s well worth the money, the time and the frustration of the scanning mechanic. Hell, I plan on playing it again, not once, but at least twice. I mean, we’ve established previously that I’m pretty damn dull, but at least something like this is more exciting than Star Trek Online:


Missing the Mako

Jaysus Begorrah, there are a lot of Mass Effect 2 reviews out there. I suppose sooner or later I’ll post one of my own, once I’m able to play the damn thing, but going with my revamped “one at a time” policy, I need to finish Dragon Age and BioShock 2 first. Which hopefully means I’ll be able to get past the final final Archdemon boss despite having been a bit helter-skelter in my Arcane Warrior build. But I digress. We’re not here to talk about fantasies today, at least not the ones in a specific Tolkienesque setting – we’re here to get our space exploration on.

Mako

If you’ve played Mass Effect 2, you probably no longer look upon this vehicle with the usual quantity of rage reserved for its sections in the first game. I almost want to review the Mako as if it were a car on Top Gear:

The Mako has a fantastic range of armaments, able to turn a regiment of the Queen’s own armored warriors into a fine red mist in a matter of seconds. But if you actually want to close distance with your intended target, you’re in for a shock. Normally when driving an APC, you can expect a stiff, metal-cast suspension built to handle abuse. But the Mako’s suspension is apparently made from poured concrete, meaning it has a turning radius greater than some of the planets you’re about to explore.

The Mako’s not an entire loss, but it’s not exactly a joy to drive, either. However, BioWare seems to think that the Mako was an entire loss, and so gave us something new in Mass Effect 2.

Scanning

I still haven’t played the game myself, but having seen this part of it, I can see why it is one of the most universally loathed aspects of not just this game, but any game produced in recent memory. Some of the complaints about the Mako sections of the first game were their length and tedium. Scanning in the sequel takes just as long and, from what I understand, is just as tedious. Another Mako complaint is, obviously, it’s handling. So if scanning is meant to be an improvement over the Mako, the controls should handle smoothly and be a delightful diversion from ducking for cover like we’re playing Gears of War, right? Sorry, that’s not the case here. The reticle moves slowly over the surface of a world when you’re scanning, and unless you want to risk missing a particularly rich pocket of Element Zero, you need to drag it across every square mile of the planet’s surface.

Now one thing the scanning mini-game does well is convey the feeling that one is in space. And I don’t mean it hearkens to Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. No, it hearkens more to 2001: A Space Odyssey or video recordings of NASA operations. That is to say that it’s lengthy, quiet, procedural and really rather dull. When I sit down to play this game, I’m going to have my iPod handy, and once the Normandy establishes orbit around an unexplored world, I’m going to turn on some music that’ll keep me awake while I’m scanning.

Something like this, for example.