Category Archives: Concepts

Hacknet and Games as Software

Video games are pieces of software. They are executables that you run on your computer, just like Google Chrome or Spotify or LibreOffice. For such an obvious fact of the medium, not many games do much with this idea. I previously cited Uplink as a game that did acknowledge this idea by treating the game as a program the player runs to connect to a fantasy hacking world. I briefly mentioned in that piece that Hacknet, a game inspired by Uplink, didn’t try to evoke this aesthetic, but after recently playing their excellent Labyrinths DLC, I was happily proven wrong. When I launched the game after installing the DLC, I found it interesting that, instead of opening the game’s executable directly, it opened a Windows command prompt, which then ran the game’s executable. This seemed like a trivial chain of events that I initially wrote off as bad design, but later, I discovered why it was implemented: to force the player to think of the game itself as a piece of software in order to further the hacker fantasy the game was trying to create. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time I have seen a game directly force this acknowledgment, and how it builds up to this event and executes on it is nothing short of masterful.


Hacknet, like Uplink, styles itself after real-world hacking just enough to give a tech-savvy player a loose sense of verisimilitude. At the game’s lowest level, the player is typing text instructions into a UNIX command line. If the player is familiar with these commands, such as cd, ls, rm, scp, they will enter the game with a wealth of knowledge for navigating its systems already at their disposal. Tricks I learned from using the terminal on my Mac, such as hitting tab to autocomplete a word I was typing, transferred over to the game with a surprisingly consistency. Uplink used a similar trick, but offered additional UI elements that had to be operated outside the command line. Hacknet offers similar, time-saving UI elements, but each one is a shortcut for text commands the player could type out if they wanted. This results in the UI feeling less like, well, a game, and more like an actual UNIX terminal that the player is using. Now, this won’t mean much to someone who doesn’t already know some of the jargon the game is throwing at the player, and a lot of my respect for this game comes from frustration with how poorly films and games usually represent hacking. However, I think it still holds value, even to non-technical players, because it teaches them, at least slightly, real-world computer skills, and doesn’t break the player’s immersion the more they learn about the subject. Additionally, the genuine effort put into making the game feel accurate adds a great deal to its ability to blur the lines between the game and reality, allowing the player to slip into believing its fiction more easily. The base game uses these elements to great effect as the player joins various hacker groups, completes contracts, and improves their hacking arsenal. The player builds up a skillset over the course of the game, and that skillset is put to the test during a beautifully-executed moment where a rival hacker breaks into the player’s system and nearly destroys it, removing all of their acquired graphical aids. The player is forced to revert to only typing text commands to recover their system and take revenge on this rival hacker. This sequence relies entirely on the player’s skill at command line, creating a high-tension moment that similar to the common action game trope of taking away all of the player’s weapons before a climactic encounter (ex. Half-Life 2, Dragon Age: Origins). This is easily the game’s most effective moment, and, like the safe rooms in Resident Evil, serve as a culmination point for all of the game’s systemic and thematic elements. If the rest of Hacknet wasn’t set up to support it, this moment wouldn’t work, but the game’s systems naturally lead to this exact cocktail of emotions.

So, when I picked up Hacknet’s latest DLC, I wasn’t expecting them to be able to top this sequence. It was everything Hacknet was trying to be, how could that be improved upon? The answer the dev team settled on was to take an existing thematic element, namely, the blurry line between reality and the game, and forcefully acknowledge the game’s role as software on the player’s computer. Mid-way through the DLC, the player is hacked by another anonymous hacker, who, again, wipes out the player’s system, forcing a reboot. However, this hacker is more experienced than the one from the main game, and installs a virus that prevents the player’s system from rebooting. So, a friend from the player’s hacking group sends them text instructions on how to remove the virus, which seem fairly straight forward…until the game crashes. Hacknet.exe quits, leaving the player with an actual Windows command prompt, cmd.exe, opened to the folder where the Hacknet game is installed. Everything I have described up until this point was happening fictionally, within Hacknet.exe, but for the next few minutes, the player isn’t engaged with Hacknet.exe at all. These events happen entirely on the player’s operating system, using the same applications they would use outside of the game. Using cmd.exe, and the commands they learned in the game, the player opens the text file sent to them by a fictional character in Hacknet. This opened in Sublime Text, my default text editor, appearing as a text file sent from a real-world friend might. It tells the player to search 2773556-hacknet_screenshot6.pngfor a .dll file hidden inside the Hacknet directory and run a few commands on it. Until they do this, Hacknet.exe will not start; it will only re-open that command prompt. The player has to engage with the game as a piece of software with .txt, .dll and .exe files, and until they can do that, they cannot continue the game. This raises a myriad of metatextual questions about if the player is technically still “playing” Hacknet, as they are carrying out instructions that the game is giving to them, but the game itself is not running. But these feelings are taken even further by how the game contextualizes this hack.

My understanding of real-world hacking is severely limited, but from what I have read, the majority of them don’t do their hacking directly from their local machine. Instead, they run a virtual machine of an OS dedicated specifically to hacking, so that all their illicit activities are separated from their physical computer. The developers of Hacknet seemed aware of this, and explain Hacknet.exe as a hacking dedicated VM, so that the player can imagine themselves running it like a real hacker would. Thus, when the rival hacker attacks their system, the player poking around in their actual OS doesn’t feel like a dissonant removal from the game’s fiction, it feels like someone broke their hacking VM and they need to fix it. With all of the attention the game is drawing to this recontextualization, it should break the player’s immersion by forcing them to examine the game-software distinction that is so often unexamined. But because of the efforts to contextualize each action in the mechanics of real-world hacking, the game’s illusion is maintained. I’m hesitant to bring up the “games can do this but other media can’t!” argument, since it usually doesn’t provide any interesting conclusions, but in this case, the game forces the player to understand it as a piece of software before they continue. Other media cannot make sure its audience understands a thematic point before proceeding, but games can require it. Hacknet does this by expanding the boundaries of its fictional world, and in doing so, bumps into a concept that is decades older than the medium of video games itself.

The concept, called the magic circle, was coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in his book, Homo Ludens. He described the circle as the dividing line between the world of the game and the world of reality. Inside it, concepts like points, teams, winning and losing are all given a value that, outside of the game, is entirely worthless. Points don’t actually mean anything in the real world, but inside the magic circle, they become the keys to magiccircle01.jpgvictory. Good game designers are consistently using each element of their game to reinforce the magic circle, to avoid breaking the player’s belief in it, the same way writers and filmmakers try to avoid breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief in other media. In Hacknet, I have no earthly idea where the magic circle ends and the real world begins, but I somehow still fully believe in it. Acknowledging that games are pieces of software should completely shatter the magic circle, and I can think of dozens of games where this happened due to graphical glitches, game crashes, or mis-firing quest triggers. Hacknet, by positioning itself so close to reality, preserves its magic circle, while simultaneously calling attention to it. I don’t know if the possibility space of acknowledging games as software is vast, yet unexplored, or small, and Hacknet is using one of its limited applications. Regardless, it is something unique that the medium is capable of, and I’ve found exploring it to be fascinating as both a player and critic.

Horror, Not Terror: Resident Evil 7 and REmake

Much like the rest of its franchise, Resident Evil 7 is an incredibly inconsistent experience.  It’s first few hours are barely interactive walking sections that morph into jump scare and terror-filled stealth reminiscent of Amnesia and Outlast.  The middle sections reach their peak during wonderfully paced exploration moments that emulate the first three entries in its series.  And the final hours slowly fall apart, ending with a climax so shamelessly indulgent that it wouldn’t have felt out of place in the over-the-top, cringe-filled bombast of Resident Evil 6.  But, the loss of focus and awkward plot indulgences of the game’s final section aren’t as interesting to me as the careful design of the game’s core, and, despite containing many fiercely contemporary design choices, that core is surprisingly similar to what makes Resident Evil 1: Remake (REmake) such a definitive piece of design.  Because, even though REmake literally invented survival horror (both the genre and the term), its enduring legacy, now that its attempts at genuine scares have aged so poorly, is the brilliance of its level design mixed with its commanding mastery over a tone that stayed strictly in the realm of psychological horror, instead of terror.

Despite it being over twenty years old and thus barely qualifying as 3D, REmake remains one of the most intricate and finely-crafted pieces of 3D level design in the medium.  The voice acting and scripted story events are hilariously terrible to the point of cringe worthiness, which makes it unsurprising to learn that the designers had actively protested against including them at all.  Still, the core of REmake is much easier to reach and understand than Resident Evil 7 (RE7), and that core is a mansion-sized Escape Room with zombies.  The player slowly unlocks more rooms in a puzzle box mansion, solving light, adventure game-style puzzles and finding keys that unlock different sections of the house.  They search for hidden items, find new maps and upgrades, and generally try to explore the entirety of the mansion.  Along the way, they will fight their way past zombies with combat that isn’t particularly deep or complex, but is incredibly effective at ratcheting up the tension and putting some pressure on resource management.  Like I mentioned earlier, REmake’s most effective sequences weren’t trying to terrify the player with jump scares or gross them out with body horror, though there are a few moments of 2749718-residentevil_1204_01that scattered throughout.  Instead, the game wants to create a thick atmosphere that unsettles the player.  When playing REmake, the player is rarely scared in the same way they might be when watching a haunted house horror film.  This makes the totality of REmake’s experience much more consistent than RE7’s, and since the player isn’t expecting jump scares around every corner, they feel free to explore each new area.

Despite these strengths, REmake isn’t quite as beloved or replayed as other games that came out around the same time, and that is largely because of two elements that make it relatively inaccessible to modern audiences: fixed camera angles and tank controls.  This isn’t actually as frustrating as it seems at first, but it definitely is a barrier for entry to players who didn’t grow up using that control scheme.  The controller’s analog stick turns the character based on their position to the camera, so, pressing forward on the stick makes the character run away from the camera, not forward in the direction they are facing.  Coupled with an inability to turn and move at the same time, this will feel foreign and confusing to audiences playing the game today.  Additionally, because the game used pre-rendered 2D backgrounds instead of fully modeled 3D environments, the camera is locked in a specific position for every screen, making sure movement never feels elegant.  However, the awkwardness and unreliability of the controls adds a great deal of tension to the combat, in a way that the intuitive design of contemporary control schemes really couldn’t.  Thus, REmake seemed to provide ample possibilities for a graphically superior successor, using the advantages of full 3D to let the player more completely engage with the environments.  However, later Resident Evil games never explored this possibility, and instead switched genres from the survival horror it created to a grindhouse-inspired action focus.  And as publishers moved further away from survival horror, the prospect of a sequel that would use REmake’s design as a foundation and expanded upon it seemed incredibly unlikely.

Then Resident Evil 7 came out.  The demo might give the impression that it was attempting to be another AAA appropriation of the jump-scare-fueled indie horror boom of the late 2000s, like Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, and RE7’s opening doesn’t do much to subvert this expectation.  It begins with beautifully animated characters acting believably terrified inside a lavishly detailed haunted house, filled with jump scares and body horror that is legitimately unnerving.  However, a trip to the map screen will show players that RE7 is not simply “Amnesia, but it’s RE and with better graphics,” but actually a successor to REmake.  RE7’s haunted house isn’t just packed with jump scares, but also puzzles and items that require a healthy amount of backtracking as you learn the levels.  It’s core gameplay loops follow REmake’s Metroidvania-style level design, encouraging player-created paths through the levels that are regularly interrupted by a wandering AI that will dynamically hunt the player.  The game regularly uses elements from contemporary gaming to enhance the classic experience of REmake, never quite giving in to the design trappings of contemporary releases.  Take the psychostimulants, res7_hallwhich perform the increasingly common function of highlighting all hidden items in the environment like the Arkham series’ detective vision.  Instead of feeling like a gimmick that ruined organic exploration, it created an engaging second pass through an already-explored area, making quick bursts of progress that would have taken minutes of searching earlier.  Each area feels unique, and unlocking them brings a rush of excitement as you wonder what items, monsters, or areas could be waiting inside them.

For as much as RE7 pulls from its predecessor, it also expands upon its design in a way that the original simply could not: gorgeous environmental design.  The areas in RE7 are incredibly impressive on a technical and artistic level, with highly-detailed textures and beautiful lighting tech that makes just being in the space both exciting and unnerving.  Saying, “this is the best-looking game I’ve ever seen” means very little when graphics advance substantially every year, but Resident Evil 7 is nonetheless the best-looking game I’ve ever seen.  Kojima Productions’ PT worked as horror partially because of how the hyperreality of the environment meshed with the surreality of the horror, and Resident Evil 7, as it borrows a great deal from PT, also borrows this approach to horror through environmental design.  While it regularly uses its realism to enhance gross-out body horror, it often uses it to instill a sense of the uncanny.  On the surface, the mansion is just an old, broken down house, with trash littering the environments and collapsed walls and staircases making navigation difficult.  This makes the descent into the main house’s basement, which is filled with black tar creatures and twisted experiments, feel more basementdoorunsettling by comparison, and the dramatically-lit entrance feel more like crossing a threshold.  The result is a game that uses realism in a way that enhances the experience thematically and ludically, instead of chasing photorealism for the sake of marketing alone.

In addition to that added fidelity, the game also uses the first-person perspective to expand upon some of the core tenants of REmake.  In REmake, the player spent a lot of time poking around maps, looking for hidden items in rooms that were marked as having items remaining.  In RE7, the player pokes around individual rooms, without that map marker saying the room was empty, so the scale of the exploration is smaller.  Instead of checking the room as a whole, the player is looking behind environmental clutter to find new items.  Additionally, the first-person perspective is used to great effect to enhance the game’s horror.  Yes, it has the aforementioned Outlast-inspired stealth sections, which are great in their own right (especially with how well the player comes to know the environments), but just the eerie resident_evil_7bpresence of being in this haunted house is enhanced.  In REmake, there wasn’t much of a sense of presence as the character, and the tank controls and fixed camera angles, while good for the time, weren’t entirely effective at accomplishing these goals.  RE7 manages to use the first-person perspective to enhance immersion, while keeping the gunplay awkward enough to feel unpredictable and clunky.  But perhaps the greatest success of RE7’s use of the first-person perspective is how it affects REmake’s emotional peaks: the safe rooms.

REmake’s safe rooms are a culmination of nearly every system in the game and the tension they build up.  Resource management and combat were both incredibly stressful, but the game’s save system is what really retched up the tension.  Instead of automatically saving the game at periodic intervals for the player, or giving them specific spaces to infinitely save their game, REmake would let the player find typewriter rolls which were used as save tokens at the typewriters scattered throughout the game.  This meant that every save cost the player a precious resource, and choosing to save was betting the worth of that token against the progress the player had made.  If the player had just made an hour of progress, and decided not to save because they were running low on save tokens, they could die in an unlucky zombie encounter and lose that hour of progress.  This, almost single-handedly, took REmake from feeling like an awkward experience to a nail-bitingly tense one.  The result of this save system alone would have made the player feel relieved when reaching a safe room, but it also provided an opportunity for the developer to expand upon this feeling created by the systems.  Fortunately, they expanded upon it wonderfully.  The rooms are cut off from any enemies, making this one of the only moments in the game where the player knows that they are safe.  The rooms are softly lit, evoking the atmosphere of a cozy sanctuary, an unusual choice in a horror game.  The rooms contain a save station, and an item chest that syncs its contents with all other chests in the game, so the player has a chance to save the game, pick the items they want

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to carry, save the ones they want banked, and decide where on the map they want to explore next.  This is finished off with a beautiful bit of calming music that is just slightly uneasy, never letting the player get completely comfortable, but giving them a moment to breathe.  The safe rooms, in my opinion, are REmake’s greatest achievement, both from the mastery in the construction of the rooms themselves, and from the culmination of the game’s other systems creating this experience.

Later RE games didn’t have this same effect, as they did away with the limited save tokens and safe rooms in favor of a more bombastic, action-focused approach.  But, like how it approaches the rest of the REmake formula, RE7 replicates and enhances the original.  Safe rooms follow the same rules: a location where enemies will never show up, with an item chest and a save station, soft lighting, and eerily calming music.  The first-person perspective makes this feeling of safety even more powerful, as, instead of watching Jill or Chris stand in the room, you are standing in the room, feeling the unease and security in equal measure.  The game even copies the limited save system in its unlockable Madhouse difficulty, further enhancing the tension, but it works well enough even with the autosaving of Normal mode.  The emotional experience of REmakes safe rooms served as the culmination of all its systems and artistic flourishes, and RE7’s successful evocation of those emotions cements its role as a successor that takes the potential that the first game suggested and fulfills it.  While I still wholeheartedly recommend that any horror game fan play REmake, I think they can gain a reasonable understanding of its design aesthetic if they play RE7 instead.  Just, skip the game’s last few hours.

Thumper, Language, and One Hell of a VR Trip

I’ve actually written a weird amount about rhythm games this year, considering I’ve played like three of them in my entire life.  I talked about how Guitar Hero’s incredibly simple mechanics let the player fantasize about being a rock star, and how Runner2 used multiple, reactive audio tracks to create a sense of flow in gameplay.  But recently, I picked up a virtual reality headset, the HTC Vive, and among a litany of legitimately innovating experiments and half-assed Steam games, I found Thumper, a rhythm game that’s mechanically traditional, but incredibly unique in exactly how it executes on those simpler ideas.  Those details and simple aesthetic choices make an enormous difference in the player’s experience, despite, on a superficial level, resembling Runner2 or Guitar Hero, but when I tried to put those differences into words, I found myself struggling to do so.  Runner2 and Guitar Hero can be wickedly difficult on higher settings, but the average player experience is much more relaxed.  Those games are less about pixel-perfect technical execution and more about creating a musical experience.  Thumper, by contrast, requires hyperawareness…pretty much constantly.  In Guitar Hero, you can make a lot of mistakes and still finish the song with a respectable score.  In fact, hitting every note in a song is a fairly impressive achievement if the player is on an appropriate difficulty level.  In Thumper, if you make two mistakes, it’s game over.  That rule alone is responsible for perhaps the majority of the game’s tension, since the player always feels like they are a split-second away from crashing in an explosive display of lights and distorted audio tracks.  This feeling is further intensified after the player has made their first mistake, but the game does give the player a chance to recover their armor (that absorbs the first hit) if they correctly execute a sequence of obstacles.  Thus, the player doesn’t feel like they’re irreparably damaged an individual run if they just mess up once.  Other attributes of the game contribute to this hostile tone, from the sinister feel of the music to the cosmic horror of the unexplained creatures, shapes, and environments the player faces.  The world of Thumper feels like a perilous journey into a twisted, Lovecraftian hell, and the player is shown that from the game’s highest level to its lowest.

This brings me to what I’ve found the most interesting about Thumper: it’s complete separation from language.  The game has little in the way of on-screen tutorial prompts, so the player develops their own internal lexicon for the game’s features.  This dovetails nicely with the game’s complete focus on the improvise stage of what Extra Credits calls the “plan, practice improvise” types of play.  The game doesn’t ask you to build any high-level strategies at all, in fact, each moment is almost entirely disconnected from the previous one.  All that matters is if you have missed a note.  The game has combo meters and score counters, but the player isn’t forming high-level strategies about how to engage with the scoring system, as the correct response to any given situation is always obvious.  Each obstacle in the game world has exactly one correct response, and the player is given points based on if they perform that correctly or not.  Every one of these moments is almost entirely self-contained, and demands a level of quick reaction that prevents much in the way of planning.  This creates an experience where the player’s focus is entirely on the immediate present; they aren’t even expected to look at the obstacles ahead of them.  Any form of hesitation, of removal of thought from the present, can lead to instant death, training the player quickly to reach a state of laser-focus.  This prevents the player from reaching any sort of linguistic grounding.  Other games might give the player time to plan a strategy cognitively, for example, a player of Rainbow Six Siege might think, “Okay, I’m going to beach this wall, then run around to the other side and shoot the enemies while they are focused on the wall I just breached.”  This extra time for planning gives the player a space to repeatedly think about the game abstractly, coming up with words for specific game pieces or inventing them on their own.  Thumper, by contrast, prevents the player from planning or thinking about the game abstractly and thus prevents them from having the time to develop terms or concepts independent of each individual moment of play.  If you want to think about Thumper at a high level, you need to do it when you’re not playing the game, which makes it very difficult to talk about, because so much of it happens at the lowest possible level.  There are times where I execute moves in the game and do not have any conscious memory of doing so; it’s pure, muscular reaction.  Games rarely get me to think about my physical actions at such a low level, and Thumper does this by asking me to barely think at all.  This is enhanced by the game’s virtual reality support, which removes the player’s peripheral vision and any other stimuli except the game in front of them.  Despite being such a physiological experience, this makes Thumper a strangely immerse one, leading to the player feeling like they are this strange beetle ship, flying down a twisted path at a million miles an hour.  A decent amount has been written about zen in games, most prominently by designer Ian Bogost, and Thumper does approach this, but it feels more similar to the sense of “oneness with the game” that high level players describe when talking about more physiological arcade titles.  Jazz pianist and sociologist David Sudnow perhaps described this best when explaining why he found the early Atari title, Breakout, so addicting: “Thirty seconds of play, and I’m on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing.”  If Thumper could be reduced to a single sentence, this would be it, and while I’ve struggled with reaching this state with other games, I achieve it effortlessly within seconds of firing up Thumper.  The player isn’t asked to understand the game in any way but the physiological, leaving language behind with the rest of their conscious thoughts.  The final result is the player becoming consciously aware of their sense of self slipping away, replaced by a sensory deprivation VR trip that messily projects them onto an abstract game world.  I am nowhere near good enough to complete Thumper’s final levels, but I can fire up the game, put on my headset, and, within seconds, feel that “whole new plane of being”.  As a designer, that is incredibly difficult to pull off.


The Fantasy Simulation: How Skyrim’s Open World Creates Moments of Discovery

A while back, I realized that Ubisoft had pretty much killed open world games for me.  Their open world model, pioneered by the Assassin’s Creed series and then copied to death by the majority of AAA open world games released in the years since, was initially appealing, but after playing dozens of games that used its template, its limitations became clear.  Open world games were designed to liberate players from the aggressively linear corridor shooters of the mid-to-late 2000s.  However, with the model that Grand Theft Auto 3 pioneered, and Ubisoft iterated on, it seems that designers traded one form of confinement for another.  Traditionally linear games, such as Half-Life (1998), used a “content muncher” approach to design, that put the player on a narrow path from point A to point B.  Good ones would give the player more options on their way there, as Half-Life itself did, but still stuck to a fixed order of content.  This had its advantages, such as a tight control over pacing and variety, and it by no means was the only philosophy of game design alive at the time, but for a solid few years, it was the default model of AAA games.  Ubisoft seems to have done to open worlds what Call of Duty’s single-player campaigns did to Half-Life: distil its foundations so greatly that much of the nuance that made it great in the first place was lost in the process.  With Ubisoft, that distilled product took the form of checklists, giving the player a list of goals to accomplish, with every possible activity documented from the moment they begin a new game.  This places every decision the player makes in the context of how much of those checklists they want to complete, and in what order they want to do so.  The player is technically given freedom, they are not doing things in the order the developer wants them to, but the feeling of artificiality that comes from reducing the entirety of a digital space to a simple completion percentage can all but ruin W5ZsBDf.pngany sense of freedom the player would have had.  They are not exploring an organic world, they are picking which way they want to increase the completion percentage.  That has lead to a fatigue with open world games, where, despite examples that I’ve found personally compelling for a time (such as Dying Light or Ubisoft’s own Far Cry 3), they eventually reduce to that completion percentage.  Even the newest Grand Theft Auto, with all the artistry and skill put into its world construction, eventually reduced to instanced, scripted missions executed with the same aggressive linearity that its predecessors were created to avoid.  Open worlds promised a digital landscape in which the designer did not always feel present, where the player could have experiences not explicitly designed, delivered, and focus tested by the game’s creators, but Ubisoft and its contemporaries seem to create worlds where the designer feels just as present, only giving the player more tasks to complete and evaluating them as they complete them.

But then there’s Skyrim.  Of course, Skyrim isn’t alone in its design philosophies.  It’s the product of fifteen years of iteration by a single studio, arguably brought to perfection by Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas.  But despite believing that New Vegas is the better game, I have spent more time in Skyrim than any other open world game except perhaps World of WarCraft.  And I’ll be the first to admit that Skyrim is not without its flaws: the writing is frequently terrible, the dialogue is delivered with barely any direction by the same six voice actors, the combat is shallow enough to be mindless, and far too many quests can be summed up with “kill everything in this dungeon and grab the McGuffin at the end”.  But despite these qualities, Skyrim is, without a doubt, my favorite open world in the medium, and I believe that it works so well because it rejects the design philosophies of the Ubisoft open world so thoroughly.  It doesn’t create a reactive fantasy world, in fact its narrative and characters barely respond to player input on a larger scale the way New Vegas does.  Instead, its use of the open world itself, engaged with mechanically, and creates a play aesthetic that better captures the feelings of exploration and discovery than any other game I have played.  The later Assassin’s Creed titles direct you towards every piece of treasure on the map and tell you exactly how to solve its various, instanced activities, but in Skyrim, the designer feels absent.  The player directs their experience through the world independent of abstract game concerns like completion percentage, instead indulging their curiosity as they poke and prod at one of the most effective and (here comes the buzzword) immersive fantasy simulations in the entire medium.

At its highest level, Skyrim, at first, does not seem very different from a Ubisoft game.  The player will begin their session in one of the game’s major cities, open their quest log, look at their huge list of objectives, and figure out which to do next.  This seems fairly similar to a Ubisoft title, where the player does much the same thing: check list, pick objective, go to objective, complete objective, repeat.  However, in addition to breaking the end of the loop later on, Skyrim also breaks the beginning.  This might seem like a minor Quests_(Skyrim)_Interface.pngdifference, but these quest objectives are not given to player from the beginning, they must be discovered by talking to NPCs or triggering scripted events.  In, say, Far Cry 4, the player has barely left the tutorial when the game is slathering notifications all over their screen ordering them to collect twenty deer hides or complete all bomb disarm missions.  This adds to the sense of discovery that the player feels before they’ve even left the city, as these objectives organically emerged from the setting, rather than being non-diegetic, game layer objectives.  Additionally, when the player opens their map to look around the world, it begins as fairly empty, and is filled in gradually as the player either discovered them or is sent there directly.  Contrast this with Ubisoft titles, which start the player with a map filled with objectives.  This makes selecting the mission the player wants easier, but Skyrim’s approach makes the world feel more unexplored, and temps the player with large, empty spaces of the map.  Skyrim does have a fast travel system that could allow the player to jump from point to point, just completing objectives, but a great deal of the time the player spends in Skyrim’s early game is hiking to their next objective.  An NPC might give them a quest halfway across the map, and the player will have to spend half an hour hiking there.  The frequency of these experiences decrease by the late game, when the player has explored most of the world, but this ups the pace for the game’s last few hours, so that by the time the player is tired of half-hour hikes between each objective, they can simply fast travel there.  It’s worth noting that the game does offer an in-game travel system through its carriage system, a version of fast travel that only moves between major cities.  I usually play with fast travel disabled, using only this system, and the simple inclusion of an internally consistent travel system helps the world maintain its sense of scale while still providing that convenience.

After picking an objective and setting out, the player gets into the real meat of the game: exploring the overworld.  While its dungeons are not brilliantly designed and the combat is fairly sloppy, the process of moving between the various dungeons, caves, forts and buildings of the world is the game’s greatest achievement.  The player begins walking in the direction of their objective, often with a great deal of land to cover if they are early in the game.  They could just tape down the analog stick on their controller and go do something else, so to speak, but Skyrim nudges you away from that behavior in a way that many other open world games simply do not.  Along the way to their objective, the player will encounter random wildlife, run across herbs and ore veins to harvest, and even occasionally encounter NPCs in the world who will offer them simple quests.  This is engaging enough, and works for an experience that provides more variety than simply walking, but doesn’t take away from one of the core reasons Skyrim’s world traversal is so enjoyable: it’s a relaxing walk in the woods.  I’m pretty sure that the single most Elemental.pngimportant factor in if I am going to enjoy an open world game or not is if the game makes moving from place to place enjoyable.  This is why I can enjoy the completely Ubisoft-inspired Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, because movement through the world is the core mechanic set of the game.  Skyrim does not have any interesting movement mechanics, but instead puts a great deal of effort into making the player feel like they’re on a relaxing hike, not just moving their character from point A to point B.  The overworld’s sound design is nothing short of masterful, with a brilliant combination of ambient music with rustling trees, softly blowing wind, and idle insects and animals.  That soundscape blends perfectly with the often gorgeous fantasy landscape the player is moving to, regularly creating moments where the player can stop and gawk at the environment.  Skyrim is a screenshot factory for this very reason: the developers wanted to create a world that the player was okay just walking through.  In many ways, these sections remind me of playing Campo Santo’s Firewatch, which took these simple hiking mechanics and made an entire game out of it.  That kind of idle relaxation is a perfect method of mediating the pacing of Skyrim’s long dungeon crawls.  But those dungeon crawls still blend beautifully into the hiking part of Skyrim’s experience.  I thoroughly respect Skyrim’s commitment to avoid instanced activities, and the dungeons just barely skirt the line in this regard, mostly for technical reasons.  For example, in Burnout Paradise (a brilliantly designed open world in other capacities), you drive around the game world until you reach a stoplight, then get teleported to an instanced race starting at that location.  That race plays out just like it would in a traditional racing game, then ends, and returns the player backed to the overworld.  While this has its advantages (many of which Burnout Paradise uses), it creates a very modal game experience, where there is a clear distinction between two stages of play: racing and exploration.  Most open worlds treat their content this way, most famously, Grand Theft Auto with its complex open world but simplistic, removed missions.  The tradeoff, however, is that it makes the game world feel separate from its activities, and makes the activities themselves feel artificially gamey by comparison.  Skyrim, on the other hand, doesn’t distinguish between these modes at all.  There are a few load screens in the way, but the player can start in a city, walk outside into the world (even removing a loading screen if they have the right mods), wander until they find a dungeon or cave, enter that, complete it, and find their way back without changing the state of play.  Skyrim doesn’t distinguish between game activities and open world exploration, in blends the two in a way that creates surprising moments.  While walking to a quest objective, the player can stumble onto a bandit camp or find a dungeon, explore them, then get back on the path to their objective.

That core loop of moving towards an objective, getting distracted, then returning to the path to your objective is another of Skyrim’s greatest strengths.  That direct path to the objective is interrupted by the player’s curiosity more often than not, and, surprisingly, this is done partially by the in-game compass.  I usually believe that games should remove as many non-diegetic UI elements as possible, which is why I always play Skyrim with mods that disable or at least tone down the HUD as much as possible, or replace the in-game map with a parchment one.  Skyrim’s exploration loop invites the player to immerse themselves deeper in a way that a standard “click an objective on your map and follow the dotted line to get there” loop really doesn’t.  Skyrim’s designers put a lot of care into that stage of gameplay, and it really shows.  I mentioned earlier that Skyrim doesn’t scatter objective markers across your map, but rather reveals them as you discover them.  The compass slightly breaks this rule, but in a way that I think encourages exploration.  While walking to your objective, the compass might show a grayed-out icon of a nearby cave, dungeon, house or outpost.  It doesn’t show you its location on the map, just says that one of these locations is nearby and in a certain direction.  This helps keep the player from becoming bored on some of the longer walks, as they might see a dungeon marker along the way and decide to take a break to explore it.  This is incredibly helpful for exploration later in the game, but also breaks up the direct, point a to point b line into a zig-zaggy path between different locations.  This reinforces one of the core design philosophies I believe the game’s designers were aiming for: one of exploration, but exploration with surprising discoveries.  Telling the player where every location on the map is from the get-go removes that sense of discovery, but Skyrim’s travel loop bakes it right into one of the player’s most common activities.  This lets the world feel mysterious, like there are hidden treasures to discover, but not so much that it takes away from the game’s state of flow.  The game won’t tell you that you’ve collected 100% of the treasure in a dungeon, but it will tell you if you’ve completed its primary objective.  The game won’t show you the exact position of every location on the map, but it will show you the general direction if you’re AeXXKky.pngnearby.  In this regard, Skyrim feels like much more of a console or ARPG than a CRPG, for lack of better genre terminology.  It doesn’t want the player to be figuring out written directions and hand-drawn maps like in Morrowind (though it does occasionally offer those as side objectives), it wants the player to be in a state of flow that also incorporates discovery to keep it interesting.  Walking across large distances in digital space can often kill any sense of flow that other parts of the game had built up, but with the balancing act of making the game flow but not flow so much that it’s mindless, the designers create an experience where you never feel completely lost.  The end result is a system that enables and encourages hours of exploration, and doesn’t create moments of frustration where the player might quit the game.  And this experience is topped off with the game’s approach to dungeon design.

Skyrim’s dungeons are certainly not the best designed in the business.  They’re not complex labyrinths with interweaving paths, they don’t have complex puzzles or perfectly managed difficulty curves.  They don’t brilliantly tell a story through environmental design, the way New Vegas’ vaults do.  And they don’t offer a great degree of variety in enemy design like the Souls series.  But Skyrim’s dungeons work incredibly well for what they are trying to be: slight variations on a dungeon diving experience that aren’t meant to last more than twenty minutes.  Mystery is perhaps the dungeons’ greatest asset, as the game doesn’t tell the player what boss or treasure to expect at the end.  Sometimes, with scattered journals and light environmental storytelling, the game will hint at an end boss or magical artifact, but that is the exception.  Each dungeon provides just enough variety for a quick experience that doesn’t distract the player too much, with a guaranteed boss fight and boss chest at the end.  In a similar loop to Diablo (a comparison that Fallout 4 would go on to strengthen), Skyrim gives the player a few distinct stages to each encounter, which it does break from time to time for variety.  There’s the initial discovery, where the player is getting a sense of the environment and enemies of a dungeon.  If the dungeon is going to provide a narrative hook or a side quest, they will usually do it here.  Then, the player starts to explore the dungeon proper, fighting enemies, solving light puzzles, and getting their first taste of some treasure.  The game will often split the dungeons into two sections here, with a loading screen in between.  The second room usually has higher stakes, tougher enemies, and better treasure, building up to the door to the boss room.  These will often be tougher draugr enemies, but will sometimes be dragon priests, powerful necromancers, or other varied NPCs.  Then, the player finds their word wall and boss chest, and leaves with a new ability and some good loot through a hidden door back to the first area.  This loop is quick, not distracting, and still satisfying for the amount of time it takes up, and the repetition actually works fairly well for letting the player know each stage so the designers can break it when they need to.  And when it is broken, if often leaves the player with a sense of excitement that sticking to formula and revealing all the dungeon’s secrets from the beginning never could have.

One of my favorite experiences playing Skyrim since the remaster was released was discovering the Redwater Den, a quest area from the Dawnguard expansion.  I wasn’t on the Dawnguard quest at the time, so my experience was entirely organic, a generated story that felt uniquely personal.  While exploring near Riften, I stumbled across a broken down house, so I went to check it out, expecting to find a bit of loot and then move on.  Instead, I found an NPC who directed me to a Skooma den in the basement.  I had never been to a skooma den, so, curious, I found a nearby trapdoor and checked it out, and what do you know, it’s an underground skooma den!  The area featured a vendor table with a protective cage, attendants selling skooma, and passed-out customers.  I poked around the place, found a few bits of loot, and was about to leave…when I noticed a locked door.  Now, I had no reason to expect that there was anything beyond that door, but the designers had left it there to pique my curiosity, to bait me into exploring.  They didn’t do it with a quest marker, they did it with a simple locked door.  So, I picked the lock, snuck into the backDegeg.jpg area, and, what do you know, there’s an entire system of caverns, traps, and skooma manufacturing machines being run by a cabal of vampires using the skooma den to harvest their victims (Redwater.  Get it?).  I fought my way through the facility and got a ton of loot, ending in a dramatic showdown with the master vampire.  Apparently the area is used for a quest later, but I didn’t care, because I had found these layers on my own, and I hadn’t expected a single one.  It was a ruined house on top of a skooma den on top of a vampire den, and the discovery of each layer lead to more excitement.  I was directed through these layers not by an artificial game system, but by my own curiosity and some subtle design tricks.

Bethesda’s approach to open world design has radically shifted since Morrowind, from an more organic, if clunky-feeling world with a heavy emphasis on narrative complexity, to, as Errant Signal’s Campster described it, their own blend of walking simulator and ARPG.  Yet despite the studio’s contemporary lack of narrative ambition and setting reactivity, I find two things about their design ethos that keep me hopeful for the future of the format, even if Fallout 4 was largely a disappointing iteration.  The first, is that New Vegas proved that their format could work beautifully if the right team with the right narrative focus takes a stab at it, as New Vegas is one of the most fascinating and reactive 3D open worlds in the entire medium.  The second is that Bethesda has only continued to refine the core loop of their quest structure, finding a way to push it closer to the rhythmic flow of Diablo-inspired ARPGs, but keeping a feeling of player-driven, designer-absent play.  Skyrim’s designers push their audience towards a specific playstyle just as much as the designers at Ubisoft and their contemporaries, but they do it with a subtlety and a respect for the diegesis of the simulation that it feels much more natural.  This is a very careful balancing act, as the failures of Skyrim and Fallout 4’s radiant quest system proves.  Despite the increasing emphasis on procedurally generated missions, Bethesda has still proven that they have the raw design talent to create open worlds that beg to be explored, with a mastery of their craft that seemingly almost no one else in the industry can pull off.  For all my dislike of contemporary open world games, the fact that developers like Bethesda and Obsidian can create games that are so consistently engaging gives me hope that designers outside of these companies can shift away from creating abstract game spaces and into creating simulated worlds.

Skyrim Landscape-3.jpg

Musical Platforming: Dustforce, Runner2, and Game Feel

I’ve never really been into platformers, so the fact that I’ve been playing two of them this week is pretty unusual.  Mostly for lack of other games to play, I’ve been messing around in Bit.Trip Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (I’m just going to call it “Runner”, if that’s okay) and Dustforce, and while my lack of experience with any platformer other than Super Mario Bros is pretty difficult to overcome, I’ve managed to really enjoy these two games.  Despite my inexperience with the genre, I’ve found that these two games feel wildly different, and exactly how those differences emerged from a top-down design philosophy is something I want to explore, because, coincidentally, both games have a very interesting relationship with their respective soundtracks.  Music usually serves as background to gameplay, designed to enhance emotions, but rarely taking center stage.  In both of these games, music has a unique effect on their game feel, and, given that I wrote about a rhythm game last week, this seems like a great time to dig into just how each game uses music to more effectively communicate its specific design philosophy.

Dustforce is a very strange game for me because it has one of my favorite soundtracks in all of gaming, but I hadn’t played more than ten minutes of it before this week.  The soundtrack was created by electronica artist Lifeformed, and while I’m not knowledgeable enough in music genres to be able to more accurately explain his music, it’s generally a very calm and dreamy take on electronica, with some woodwinds tossed in for good measure and heavy use of echo effects.  I bought the soundtrack when I first picked up the game, and even though I gave up on the game itself, I listen to the soundtrack pretty regularly.  A soundtrack this relaxing would seem to clash with a platformer that ramps up the difficulty as quickly as Dustforce does, but strangely enough, it fits it perfectly.  Every aspect of the game is designed to assist the player in reaching a sense of flow, from the fluidity of the animations to the smoothness of the visuals, and this music fits in perfectly.  With a game as difficult as Dustforce, that leads to as many retries as its levels screenshot8.pngdemand, keeping the player from crushing their controller and rage quitting is a persistent task for any developer, and Hitbox Team helped address this in a few clever ways, many of which overlap with this design aesthetic of flow.  The game’s restarts are incredibly quick, absent of any load times, and don’t linger on your character’s death in the same way a game like Dark Souls does.  You’re right back in the action in a few seconds.  The music itself doesn’t even stop or react in any way, with an indifference to the player’s performance that stands in stark contrast to Runner2, or really most games out there.  The game wants to keep the player calm so they are okay with trying over and over to perfect their runs of a level without turning into a rage-consumed troglodyte.  This doesn’t mean the music takes a secondary role in the player’s experience, however, it means that the music creates a rhythm where a slip up and retry isn’t a jarring experience like it is in most games.  You still fail – the game certainly isn’t pulling any punches – but the music keeps going even when you do.  In addition to making restarts less frustrating, it also makes successful runs feel even better, as the player feels like they are matching the tone and mood of the music with an effortless-looking run.  The jumps the player is making may, in actuality, be pixel-perfect, but the music, animation and game feel make it look natural.  The combination of all of these elements, from visuals, to music, to game feel, to level design, create an experience that encourages to player to enter a focused, zen-like state of calm persistence as they slowly perfect their runs of a level and increase their mastery of the mechanics.  The game wants to keep the player’s focus in the specific moment of the moves they are trying to pull off, and uses the music to narrow the player’s focus more effectively.  For example, the game’s scoring system is designed to distract the player as little as possible, with the player being graded on two, easily and quickly identifiably variables: completion and combo.  Completion is obvious to the player without requiring much additional mental effort, they just need to see if they have cleared the entire map.  The combo meter is also straightforward, and simply requires the player to move quickly between objectives.  With how easy both of these variables are to keep track of, the player can focus on the one variable that really matters: time.  As a result, the player is always focused on their immediate concerns of moving as quickly as possible, because they do not need to spend time thinking about how to max out their combo meter or how to juggle other abstract systems.  Without a focus on complex systems, the game can tell the player to focus on the immediate flow of the level, making the music match the tone perfectly.

Runner2 takes a different approach to the platformer as a genre, and implements its music in a different way as well.  In contrast to the precision jumps and mid-air reversals of Dustforce, Runner has more in common with the endless runner games that grew up on smartphones.  The player character is moving to the right by default, independent of any player input, and nothing the player can do can stop or slow him.  This creates a sense of momentum in the gameplay that Dustforce requires mechanical mastery and map knowledge to reach.  However, Runner iterates on this momentum by making nearly all its game pieces momentum-stopping obstacles that the player must avoid in some way.  However, this doesn’t just maintain the default momentum, which would create a monotonous experience.  Instead, each action contributes both to the momentum and the soundscape of the game.  The game plays some sort of fun-filled animation (a consistent aesthetic choice throughout the game) to make the obstacle avoidance look good, but then plays a sound effect in sequence with the music.  While Dustforce’s music was defined by a non-reactive indifference to the player’s performance, Runner’s music is so synced up with the player’s actions that it’s practically a rhythm game.  This makes sense given that previous Bit.Trip games were actually rhythm games themselves, a genealogy that is clearly evident in Runner2.  The music starts with a melody-heavy foundation inspired by chiptines, in fact, many of the game’s contributing artists got their start working in this retro-themed genre.  Runner2 continues that genre’s strong emphasis on catchy melodies, brought on by the technical limitations of early NES music that could only runner2-ss1support three tones at a time.  However, the game builds on this with multiple musical layers, at first with only a background instrument or two on top of the melody, but eventually growing in complexity as the player picks up four power ups in the level.  Each one plays a sound effect, displays a colorful notification on the screen, and adds another layer to the music, making the final few seconds of a level feel like a busting musical landscape.  In addition to these power-ups, the level is also filled with thirty to fifty gold bars for the player to collect, all of which play a note or two when collected, also in sync with the music.  Avoiding obstacles in the environment plays a different sound as well, each one placed at a point in the music that it feels natural.  This is iterated on further in the boss fight for World 4, which uses a call and response structure as the foundation for the level’s music.  The boss readies obstacles to throw at the player while playing a series of notes to let them know what obstacles to prepare for, then the player jumps over/ducks under/destroys these obstacles as the response is played.  All of these aspects lead to a final audio track for each run of a level that is unique to that player, based on what collectibles and power-ups the player grabbed, and if they hit them at the correct time.  This results in an aural experience that is much more reactive than even most rhythm games, where the player is expected to perform the audio the game wants rather than dynamically create their own.  The end result is a more reactive take on flow, that feels just as elegant as Dustforce, but while Dustforce wants you to feel a detachment between the music and the gameplay, Runner2 wants you to feel like you are helping create it.  Both takes are incredibly effective for each game’s specific design goals, but when compared, I think they provide interesting examples on how music can be used creatively with regards to game feel.

Monolith’s 2005 Halloween: FEAR and Condemned’s Approaches to Action Horror

FEAR 1 and Condemned: Criminal Origins were released just over a month apart from each other, by the same studio, in the same engine, with the same first-person perspective, and the same light focus on horror elements.  I played these games a year apart without knowing about these similarities, and had an incredibly similar experience with both: I played them non-stop for almost an entire day, but never ended up beating them.  The two titles feel incredibly similar in their design sensibilities, and, while I can’t find out if both were developed by the same team within Monolith, I am almost certain that they were sharing ideas.  FEAR was published by Sierra, while Condemned was published by Sega, but both of these publishers ended up getting tonally similar products with slightly different focuses.  

FEAR is your standard, big-budget, action horror game.  In its aesthetics, it pulls from westernizations of Japanese horror classics, like The Ring (adapted from the Japanese novel Ring) and The Grudge (adapted from Ju-On: The Grudge), and these are easily the least effective moments of the game.  I can’t speak to how they felt at release, but in 2015, they fear-20060802011341726were obviously scripted and mostly cheesy.  The more common mechanics of FEAR, however, created quite the opposite feeling.  In addition to being a horror game, FEAR is also a first-person shooter, and it doesn’t seek to innovate too dramatically in that department, but it does execute on those mechanics wonderfully.  From a design doc level overview of the game, it doesn’t have much to offer: samey enemies with guns, normal first person shooting, and a slow-motion mechanic to spice things up.  But the game does so well with all three of these features that it elevates the game to an incredibly well-polished version of an oversaturated genre.  First, the enemies use an incredibly clever AI system that sees them flanking, falling back, and responding to player actions, in a way that makes every gunfight feel delightfully dynamic.  The first-person shooting feels punchy and kinetic in a way even games today still have trouble getting right.  And the slow-motion, despite how overused it is in shooters, elevates the entire experience to a tactical, visceral experience.  FEAR’s combat is not its only strength though, it’s environment and atmosphere do a much better job of evoking discomfort than its scripted sequences do to evoke horror.  After a tough gunfight, the incredibly reactive environments will be covered in rubble and broken glass, leaving the previously sterile environments a mess.  As the player walks from objective to objective, or explores an area for additional supplies, the tone is uncomfortably quiet, occasionally broken up by quiet, low-quality radio conversations that further the player’s sense of isolation.  FEAR’s environments post-combat feel tense, and even though that tension is usually broken by a cheap jump scare, that tension is one of my favorite parts of the game.

Condemned, in many ways, feels like a riskier version of FEAR.  It relies on grimey environments to build tension, just like many areas in FEAR, uses those same, quiet radio conversations to evoke loneliness, and its own experimentations with AI.  Condemned’s core combat mechanics, however, are an inventive take on first-person melee combat, a style that has rarely, if ever, been done well.  Combat sequences feel systemically dynamic in a very similar way to FEAR as a result.  The player will often enter a room only to be ambushed by an AI that has hidden behind a nearby corner, and, startled, yank a piece of piping off a nearby wall to block the attack.  With the enemy knocked back, they might hit them with their tazer to move in for the kill, or grab the enemy’s weapon and use it against them.  While FEAR executes near-flawlessly on a very well-established idea, Condemned tries to experiment with an entirely different one.  As a result of the newness of the style and the lack of good examples from elsewhere in the industry to pull from, Condemned often is very interesting on a high level, like the encounter I just described, but less satisfying on a low-level.  It seems like the developers wanted the combat to feel ss_49e024a8cfc2a25b0fbe6da1a0628dde7dd855d5-600x338frantic and confusing, but often it comes across as clunky and unpolished.  This is a completely acceptable aesthetic to shoot for, but it diminishes the feeling that the game will respond to a player’s low-level skill instead of their higher-level skill.  For example, aiming a gun in an FPS is a low level skill, it’s directly about using the controls to perform an action and the game reacts based on how well you do that.  Deciding to flank an enemy and shoot him first instead of charging him head-on would be a higher-level skill, making tactical decisions that, while dependent on your low-level interaction with the controls, aren’t as immediately involved with them.  This makes combat in Condemned more fun to think about than to actually play, as action games tend to rely more on low-level skill and the satisfaction gained from mastering them.  In an opposition to FEAR, what it lacks in its low-level mechanics are made up for at a higher level.  Condemned completely nails the atmosphere that FEAR only gets right some of the time.  The discomfort of FEAR’s environment is ratcheted up for Condemned, making the player go from uncomfortable to always on the edge of their seat.  Levels feel labyrinthine, requiring backtracking into rooms that will often be filled with new enemies performing unscripted actions.  The game is fond of the same unmotivated cuts to confusing, horrific images and scenes that FEAR is, but it does them with more subtlety and effectiveness.  While FEAR’s art style is largely forgettable, Condemned takes place in Metro City, but is obviously a grimey version of 1980s/90s New York, taking visual influence from films like Seven and Silence of the Lambs.  Neither game seems to care too much about its story, but Condemned’s works a bit better as a frame narrative.  Where Condemned does fall apart, however, is in its level design.  FEAR uses similar environmental progress blockers, but FEAR also has a reason for the player to explore: ammo, health packs, stat boosters, etc.  Condemned, meanwhile has…collectible dead birds?  And that’s about it.  You can find additional weapons, but no one is really better than any other, and it mostly comes down to personal preference.  This means, coupled with the complex mazes the game dumps you into, that the player will spend a lot of their time lost, and won’t be finding any extra goodies to make it worth their while.  Like in FEAR, it does help mediate the game’s pacing, but mostly by grinding it to a screeching halt.  This leaves the totality of Condemned’s experienced as a much more conflicted one.  FEAR feels like it’s a consistently effective experience 90% of the time, and a dated, ineffective one for the 10% while it’s trying to directly scare the player.  Condemned fluctuates throughout, never really putting the player in a situation that is completely bad, but also never putting them in one that is completely good.  Both games feel like they were made with very similar sensibilities by a team that wanted to create a first-person horror game with a lovingly-crafted combat systems, and Condemned certainly takes more risks than FEAR in that regard, but simply does not fit together as well.  When deciding which of the two to play, the player is left with the choice of playing something interesting but messy, or something they’ve played before but done very, very well.

Hacking & Jamming: Uplink, Guitar Hero, and Fantasy Through Abstraction

Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek’s essay on the Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics framework cites fantasy, or games as make believe, as one of the core aesthetics a game can appeal to.  Fantasy, in their definition, isn’t specifically tied to the genre that also bears its name, but instead the idea of games enabling the player to do something that they otherwise could not in their regular life.  They list Quake, The Sims, and Final Fantasy as examples of this aesthetic, but in my experience, the two games that most embody it are Guitar Hero and Uplink.  These are radically different games with radically different focuses, but their embodiment of fantasy despite these differences highlights just how diverse the aesthetic is.  Uplink emphasizes mastery of complex systems, while Guitar Hero, for most players at least, focuses on using its incredibly simple, arcade-styled mechanics to create a way to engage with its many licensed music tracks.  Despite being such wildly different games, the two embody the aesthetic of fantasy with a purity that few other games are able to.  Skyrim, for example, focuses heavily on fantasy as well, but the player interacts with the game’s systems in a mostly abstract way.  Skyrim isn’t alone in this – vast majority of games are engaged with through multiple layers of abstraction – but this starts with controls.  This practice is so common for most people who play games that we rarely even think about it, but, for example, moving around a game world by pressing WASD or moving an analog stick feels vastly different from actually walking.  It’s an abstraction by necessity, because accurately simulating moving through a simulated world is prohibitively expensive, but both Uplink and Guitar Hero find ways around these abstractions to create an experience that feels incredibly authentic.

Uplink is the most obvious example, because the game has very few low-level abstractions.  The game is based on cinema’s representation of hacking as it appeared in the mid-90s, giving the game a strong stylistic grounding that keeps it from showing its over fifteen years of age.  Hacking games are a tragically underexplored mechanic set in gaming outside of a few abstract minigames, so Uplink’s commitment to exploring the genre already gives it the bonus of novelty.  It basks in its cyberpunk genre, with a narrative that emphasizes paranoia at every turn, and mechanics that match the narrative’s tension.  Uplink-3.pngAny botched hack or unscanned system could lead to a game over, which the game wonderfully contextualizes as the player’s in-game account being deleted, making retries a canonical part of the story.  The player types commands into a DOS-like terminal, going through a process that, while not actually resembling real-world hacking, makes enough sense in-world that it limits necessary suspension of disbelief, even for players who do know a decent amount about cybersecurity.  Most of the in-game programs have real-world analogs, like the brute force and dictionary password crackers, which are real world methods of breaking passwords.  These programs are necessarily abstracted, represented visually by the inaccurate movie cliche of a program solving a password one letter at a time. Nonetheless, this closeness to actual hacking grounds Uplink in reality, not by actually simulating the real world, but by simulating something that feels just plausible enough.  Like many of the good conspiracy stories the game’s narrative draws influence from, it gets just close enough to reality to pique the player’s curiosity, then lets their imagination fill in the gaps.

With this tone set, and the player’s suspension of disbelief expertly sidestepped, the game can allow them to more fully indulge in its aesthetic of fantasy.  Because the player already believes in the world, they can embrace the fantasy the game is trying to sell of being an on-the-run hacker breaking into the most secure systems on the planet with only their wits and their rig to keep them going.  In his review of the game, YouTube video essayist Matthewmatosis talked about how easy it was the let his mind slip into thinking that Uplink was real, like it was just a program he was running on his computer to connect to the Uplink network.  The game includes features to further this idea, such as a working IRC client that the player can use to chat with their real world friends.  IRC certainly isn’t as popular now as it was at the game’s release, but the module lead me to set up an IRC server of my own and connect to it through the game’s built-in client.  This is the only in-game mechanic that directly blurs the line between the game and the real world, but Uplink iterates on this mechanic by adding in-game chats with NPCs that take place through a similar interface.  This caused me to play Uplink differently than a very similar game, Hacknet, which is brilliant in its own right, but doesn’t use the reality-blurring techniques of Uplink.  While playing Uplink, I found myself intentionally taking more difficult jobs for the thrill of a challenging system, even though those jobs rewarded me less per minute than the easier ones.  I wasn’t playing the game for its numerical rewards, I was playing it because I felt like a hacker who wanted to break the toughest systems on the planet.  One of my metrics for measuring how engaged I am with a game’s core mechanics over its reward structure is to see how often I ignore systemic rewards in order to do things I find personally satisfying.  Progression and systemic rewards make up a lot of how and why I play games, so when a game can get me to ignore them, I know that something about it is fundamentally engaging to me.  In Uplink, I almost never pay attention to the game’s progression and reward structure.  I spend thirty minutes saving up credits to buy the equipment to break into a LAN system, which will take me another half hour, even though the rewards for those jobs are miniscule, because the satisfaction of such a complex job is worth far more than any reward might be.  Uplink helps the player to cultivate the mindset of a hacker, and goes through so much effort to let them believe in that fantasy.  For anyone who has ever idly daydreamed of being a hacker, of shouting, “I’m in!” after breaking into a complicated system, Uplink lets you indulge.

Guitar Hero, meanwhile, exists on the opposite end of the abstraction spectrum.  While Uplink strives to reduce abstraction as much as possible to enable fantasy, Guitar Hero seems to do nothing but abstract.  From a purely mechanical perspective, the player only performs three actions: press the correct buttons displayed on screen while strumming (or not, depending on the note), turn the guitar to activate star power, and use the whammy bar to distort the audio.  The core mechanics are closer to a quick-time event than a deep set of systems.  The simplicity of the game’s mechanics becomes shockingly obvious when you make one simple change: hit the mute button.  Suddenly, the game goes from an engaging party game to a boring, simplistic exercise in timed button presses.  Of course, every game could technically be abstracted to this level if you want to be pedantic.  Technically, Dark Souls is just an exercise in pressing the attack and dodge buttons at the right time, and Counter Strike is just about pointing and clicking on objects on your screen.  But all of those reductions have to be preceded with a “technically”, because the games encourage us not to think about our actions as “I am clicking my mouse button,” but instead, “I am firing my gun.”  Uplink didn’t need to bother with this abstraction because the non-abstract, actual actions that the player was performing were the same actions that the player character was performing: typing commands into a terminal.  Guitar Hero is on the opposite end of the spectrum where, despite its controls being so shallow, it barely asks the player to abstract at all.  The difference between clicking a mouse and firing a gun is pretty obvious (though, I suppose, with drones, that distinction is only getting smaller), but the distinction between pressing the right button on your guitar controller and playing the notes on an actual guitar, while significant, is nowhere near as significant as the gap between mouse-click and gunfire.  This lack of substantive difference is further highlighted by how well Ubisoft’s Rocksmith med_1505Guitar Hero Warriors of Rock  - Judy Nails.jpggames work, which function just like Guitar Hero, but with the player plugging an actual guitar into their PC or console.  So, Guitar Hero isn’t really asking the player to abstract their low-level actions, they’re asking them to abstract the context in which those actions are taking place.  The music is the most obvious change in context the game wants you to imagine, and it does a decent job of emphasizing this through minor interactions such as the whammy bar and star power that give the player at least some degree of personal expression.  The tracks also respond to player failure in an interesting way.  Guitar Hero stores their songs in multiple different music tracks, including an instrumental track that only plays audio from the guitar, which will cut out whenever the player misses a note.  Guitar Hero’s modding community will occasionally port custom songs over without this guitar track, removing the aural response to failure.  Songs played without this feature feel substantially less responsive, and break the game’s careful balance of contextual abstractions.  The expertly evoked game feel that Guitar Hero relies on suffers greatly from this lack of responsiveness, breaking the illusion that your actions are producing the audio coming from your speakers.  Many of games are greatly elevated by their audio – would Bioshock’s Rapture have felt anywhere near as atmospheric without the game’s incredible ambient sound design? – but Guitar Hero is almost completely defined by it.  If you remove all sound from Bioshock, you still have the game’s immersive sim-inspired systems, its competent combat mechanics, and its mostly stellar writing.  It is an undeniably lesser product, but it is still Bioshock in some sense.  If you remove the audio from Guitar Hero, the entire experience falls apart.  It exists for the sake of its audio.

With all of these mechanical and stylistic choices designed to prop up the audio, the game can let the player fully indulge in what feels like an unabstracted fantasy.  Practically everyone has dreamed of being a rock star, and Guitar Hero was created from the ground up to support that fantasy.  It’s why most of their budget is spent on licensing music tracks instead of creating their own for much cheaper.  It’s why they put a decent amount of effort into creating stylized 3D environments and models with complex lip-syncing and animations to match each part of a song, even though the player does not interact with these environments in any way whatsoever.  The mechanics and game feel of the series do the work of making you feel like you’re playing guitar, and the visuals and style make you feel like you’re playing that guitar in an actual rock band.  The game’s story mode has a loose frame narrative, and while it fits thematically with the rest of the game, it is structured like a conventional video game narrative, making it much more abstract and forgettable than the tightness of the rest of the game’s design.  Guitar Hero simply isn’t about the story, it is about creating a laser-focused experience of a rock concert, and little else.  Now, that experience is enhanced by the game’s fairly intricate character customization based on rock music caricatures, allowing the player to better express their presence in the world of that concert.  The game could have been bogged down by systems such as managing the band’s finances or working out the details and design for specific shows, or had a narrative about band drama with memorable characters.  The game does not do this, and, especially for a AAA game series in the late-2000s, Guitar Hero is surprisingly feature-light.  It has many of these elements shallowly implemented, such as the aforementioned unlockable costumes and guitars, but also gives you an easy cheat code to unlock all of it.  Guitar Hero is designed as an arcade experience, not a progression-based one, a quality highlighted by how little they had to change to port the game to arcade machines.  It has its fantasy, and that’s about it.  The result is a title that is begging you to ignore the mechanical simplicity of its systems and imagine yourself as a rock star.  Fantasy is an aesthetic games try to evoke incredibly often – escapism is the dominant aesthetic of gaming, after all – but so few games evoke it as expertly as Guitar Hero and Uplink.  Through their complex reexaminations of how to use abstraction, either completely or not at all, they allow for a novel engagement with the concept, intentionally cultivating the aesthetic in a way that most other games do not even attempt.

By Will and Wits Alone – Near Death & Survival-Themed Games

This week, I was playing through Near Death, a 2016 game about surviving and escaping a decommissioned arctic base.  While I was relishing the discovery of its little idiosyncrasies, I couldn’t escape the strong desire to finish the game and rewatch John Carpenter’s The Thing.  The comparison isn’t very far off, both have the arctic setting, an overwhelmingly hostile view of the landscape, and a claustrophobic setting of metal corridors and failing machinery.  Soon after finishing the game I felt an equally strong urge to rewatch the 1979 Alien film, one of my all-time favorite pieces of science fiction.  After watching both, I even reinstalled Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, a game I should have loved, but somehow was mostly bored with.  Basically, Near Death sent me on a kick for a very specific type of media.  I don’t know what that genre is called – as far as I know, it doesn’t have a name – but I can see its tropes and structures recreated across games and films. I have not played or watched a single one that I didn’t get at least some value of.  The fact that I loved this genre so much but had so much trouble describing it made me curious, and what follows is my attempt to explore and define its inner workings and core appeal.  It has helped me to narrow down the genre to two distinct and necessary qualities in the protagonist, which I have used to name the genre simply for the sake of having something to call it: will and wits.

The first aspect, the will of the protagonist, is put to the test by danger, or more specifically, the type of danger, that they are in.  Survival is at the genre’s core, usually placing the character in a situation where the environment itself is hostile.  This is why the structure is so similar regardless of if it is set on a dilapidated space ship (Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), Dead Space (2008)(AKA Event Horizon – The Game), Sunshine (2007)), an underwater facility (Soma (2016), Sphere (1998)) or an arctic research station (Near Death (2016), The Thing (1982)).  Each one is a cramped, human-created space where leaving is either impossible or very, very dangerous.  This already limits the options of the protagonists, and answers the question of why they can’t just walk away from the danger they will be facing.  Some stories add extra plot elements tying the characters to the location, like the threat of The Thing in, well, The Thing, or Isaac needing to find his dead (spoilers) girlfriend in Dead Space.  The characters need to be trapped for this kind of story to work, otherwise all of the remaining trouble they go through could be avoided if they just walked away.  This setting creates tension on its own, and plays on fears of claustrophobia, but this is further heightened by setting almost never being working the way it was intended to.  Sometimes the base, ship, or station is broken down to begin with, and everything failing is just expected.  Other times, the setting starts as a high-tech marvel of humanity’s technological prowess, only to be revealed as a monument to our own hubris as it falls apart, destroying the idea that we could possibly conquer the vast indifference of nature.  This further limits the characters’ options, preventing them from just using the setting to their advantage, even though it was created by humans.  Oh, a fire broke out on the lower decks?  Well, just use the built in fire suppression system and boom, you’re done, movie over, narrative tension alleviated.  Obviously, this never happens.  In fact, in these stories, it is significantly more likely that a system won’t work as intended than that it will just go off without a hitch.  At the very least, something will go wrong first, and need to be fixed before it can work again.  Everything about the setting oozes hostility, which makes the few moments of safety, such as getting the power turned on and catching your breath in a room in Near Death, even more rewarding.  

In the closing sequence of Near Death, the game changes the rules of its environment in a way that perfectly highlights how important the hostile setting is to the tension of the genre.  The previously ferocious storm clears, and the base becomes peaceful and quiet.  Where before you struggled to see more than five feet in front of you, the game now gives you a clear vantage point of the entire area.  You can casually walk through areas that before you struggled to survive in, and see the light poles and rope trails you left in the snow to guide your way from one station to the other.  Strangely enough, this creates a sense of mastery and comfort in this environment you struggled with for so long. Near Death creates a moment that isn’t often created in this genre, a moment of conquering.  Once the hostility is removed, and all the tension has evaporated, the experience of walking through the world is fundamentally different.  Before I completed the game, I had to solve a simple puzzle to unlock the final achievement, and without the storms, the tone of the game had shifted to that of a slow-paced adventure game like Myst.  I didn’t feel like I had finally lucked into this situation.  I didn’t just survive, I felt like I had earned this.  And that feeling is what makes up the second core part of this genre.

The qualities of dedication and will in a protagonist could easily apply to a great deal of other works that don’t fall into this genre.  Home invasion horror films, for example, also have an environment that feels hostile, where everything seems to go wrong for the protagonist.  But a core difference between this genre and works about raw survival is how the characters go about surviving.  The Revenant, for example, shares many of these qualities, but I think is distinct, because the way Hugh Glass goes on surviving is largely through sheer force of will.  This genre has its share of sheer force of will, but the core reason the characters survive is something far more mundane: they’re good at solving engineering problems.  Yes, the characters have limited options, but those options aren’t “do the easy thing and die” or “do the super difficult but obvious thing and live”, they’re “do the easy thing and die” or “push your brain to its limits to figure out a way out of here”.  This genre emphasizes the agency of the protagonists, even as they are showing how futile so many of their actions are.  This genre isn’t hopeless, it simply says that survival requires a great deal of will AND a great deal of engineering smarts.  Ripley doesn’t survive Alien because she’s incredibly good at fighting aliens, she survives it because she’s smart and resourceful and never stops looking for creative, difficult options.  Her limited options make us wonder what she’ll do next, how she’ll find a way to use the crumbling Nostromo to her advantage.  Those two qualities, determination AND resourcefulness, are what makes the protagonist of this type of story survive.  YouTuber exurb1a did a great video on scarcity as an ingredient of storytelling, and how the character’s lack of options make us root for a character because, well, we like rooting for underdogs.  But we love rooting for underdogs who are alive because they’re being smart about it.

Fortunately, this formula adapts itself to games wonderfully.  So many of the character’s interactions with the world are easy to simulate and systemize, and, despite the stress of the situation, is traditionally fun to do.  You move to a new area, search for materials, patch things together, and move on.  But these rhythms of play are also easily adaptable to the gaming convention of subquests.  So you need to get to this one building?  Well the controls to active a bridge to get there are in this other building, and oh you need to turn on the power in another building to get to that building, but the door to the power station is frozen so need to get a blowtorch to melt the ice off it and the blowtorch is on the other side of the map and…it can go on forever.  This might seem like it would get frustrating, and, if done without careful attention to pacing, it can, but when balanced, it can be an incredibly engaging loop of challenge and reward.  After a dozen subquests preventing you from getting to your goal, finally getting there is going to be incredibly rewarding in the way that well-executed delayed gratification almost always is.  It is an easy way to build tension, and it fits into gameplay in a way that feels purely mechanical.  This is most of what you do in Near Death, with plot elements only taking up a small amount of your time.  You are on the ground, getting your hands dirty with the environment you are stuck in, and that can get pretty addicting.

The additional engagement and shift of tone that this emphasis on subquesting adds can be strongly felt when it is absent, as exemplified by Frictional Games’ 2010 and 2015 games Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Soma.  Both are first-person survival horror games made in the same engine by the same team, use fairly similar controls and even have similar minute-to-minute gameplay.  The difference, however, is that Soma fits into this mysterious illusive genre, while Amnesia does not.  In Soma, the horror is mostly at the narrative level, as you consider the horrible implications of the plot while you’re solving engineering problems.  It doesn’t have too much of the systemized horror of Amnesia, and while it has a few monster encounters, they are rarely as mechanically engaging as Amnesia’s much more consistent monster encounters were.  In Amnesia, you were managing health, sanity, and resources, all of which actively needed to be considered during monster encounters.  In Soma, you basically just need to run and hide.  Your sanity, light source, and health are almost entirely automated, so you don’t need to worry about them in the long-term, and without an inventory, the complexity of the puzzles had to be significantly reduced.  But I felt more engaged in Soma’s puzzles, despite their simplicity, because they felt like the focus of the title.  You were mostly worrying about getting from place to place, and about what you needed to do to get there.  Technically, you were solving puzzles that were just as self-contained as Amnesia, but without the inventory aspect of that game, it felt more like you were trying to get the damn station to do what you wanted instead of trying to find which items in your inventory could be slapped together to form a key to open a door.  The narrative emphasis Soma placed on the puzzle solving, which Amnesia lacked, changed the tone of the experience.  I love both games, and I’m not sure which one I prefer, but by slight narrative and gameplay changes, Frictional nearly fundamentally changed the tone of the game.  That alone highlights to me how delicate the balance of the genre is.

I’ve been thinking and reading about this subject for about a week now and I still don’t have a solid answer for what this genre is, but I think I have a general idea how it works.  You mix a hostile, cramped environment with a protagonist who is both determined and smart, make a fairly simple narrative that focuses on low-level engagements with the environment, and congratulations, you have a work of whatever this genre is.  Survival horror?  Siege movie?  Just straight-up survival?  High-stakes building maintenance?  I’m not sure.  The genre has a very narrow narrative structure even as it encompasses so many different settings.  But its core loop of problem solving makes for works across multiple mediums that I find incredibly engaging, and despite having spent hours of my life trying to hack my way out of places that are trying to kill me, I’m still eager to go back for more.

Massive Effect 2: Mass Appeal


If Mass Effect 1 was the game that got me to fall in love with the series, Mass Effect 2 was the one that made me annoying about it.  If Mass Effect 1 was the raw, proof of concept, then Mass Effect 2 was the refined work they wanted to make, but with a bit of the personality lost in the process.  Mass Effect 1 had to be loved despite (and sometimes because of) its flaws, but it is much easier to love Mass Effect 2.  That’s reflected in the amount of hours I’ve sunk into the games too, as I’ve played Mass Effect 1 maybe four times, but I’ve played the second one close to ten.  By late 2011 I was playing it over and over again, with my New Game Plus runs getting faster and faster.  At a fundamental level, the sequel fixed a core problem that the first game had, that no matter how much I loved it, the fact was that most of my time was spent on the activities of combat, inventory management and exploration that just did not feel all that good.  They were functional, and rarely were any of them actually bad, but whenever I went to replay Mass Effect 1, those bits would definitely slow me down.  Mass Effect 2 has the exact opposite sensibilities, and puts most of its effort into improving the aspects that the player will be spending most of their time on.  As a result, it is a much more enjoyable game to play overall.  Mass Effect 1 is a game of ups and downs: this bit of exposition is great, this bit of combat is a slog; this vocal performance is great, this ten-minute drive in the mako is borderline unplayable.  Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, holds a consistent level of quality throughout, which means that while some of the highs of the first game aren’t quite as high in the second, the lows are evened out much more.

The combat in Mass Effect 1 was tolerable at best; the combat in Mass Effect 2 is slick enough that I play it for its own sake.  The world in Mass Effect 1 was brimming was exposition, depth and interesting answers to interesting questions; Mass Effect 2 actually stuck you in the middle of it.  The characters in Mass Effect 1 were charming and lovable, the characters in Mass Effect 2 are so goddamn charismatic I don’t have enough hyperbole to express it.  That consistency of high but not highest quality makes it easy to get lost in Mass Effect 2, to play it over and over again because there are barely any of the moments that you would run into in the first game where, when faced with an hour-long sequence of combat and mako exploration, you just dreaded moving forward.  Everything feels like an incremental improvement, like the team finally got the budget they wanted and could bring their universe to life.  The game set the standard for how a modern RPG would work, and still finds its way into top ten lists six years after its release.  And while I genuinely love the first one more on a personal level, I know that that added consistency of quality makes going back to the original often very difficult.  I have multiple friends who started on the second game, loved it, but could never go back to play the original; the gap in quality is simply too big.  So many parts that work so well in the second game feel like they’re missing from the first.  But so too are there aspects in the original that feel missing in the sequel, and while this problem would only deepen in the third game, the makings of this redefinition of Mass Effect can be clearly seen in this game.  Mass Effect 1 was niche art; Mass Effect 2 needed mass appeal.  The difference between the two approaches, while it can be subtle at first, is one of the most fascinating things about the series.  Let’s dig into it.


When Mass Effect 2 came out, I hadn’t played Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, or any of the other myriad of cover shooters that were flooding the market, so cover shooting seemed like a cool idea at the time.  While the genre has almost completely lost its luster in the six years since, I still enjoy Mass Effect 2’s combat system, and I was freaking ecstatic about it at release.  Compared to the clunky, buggy combat of the first game, this felt fluid and slick.  I could move from cover to cover, pop off a few shots and activate a few biotic powers all without forgetting which button got you into cover and which one snapped your aiming to your eye line.  While the basic shooting is taken straight out of Gears, Mass Effect adds some fun twists to the formula that make it fun on a second-to-second level, but also have a bit of strategic depth.  In the first game, I rarely gave orders to my companions (despite beating the game on Insanity multiple times), and I rarely switched between guns.  In my last hour of playing Mass Effect 2 (running through the Overlord DLC), I was giving orders to my squadmates every time their powers came off cooldown, switching weapons based on the current defense type of enemies, and even ordering positions as enemies moved around the combat arena.  Simply put, the combat requires you to make more interesting decisions than its predecessor.  Even on my most recent playthrough (number 11, I think), I was learning new parts of the combat.  On Insanity difficulty, pretty much any improvement to your fighting style matters, so I finally selected a couple guns that worked better against each defense type.  Enemies in the game have four types of defense, and usually have two, while some of the tougher enemies have three.  Those layers are shields or biotic barriers, armor, and health.  Different weapons and damage types work better against each one, and certain powers are designed just to take down specific defense types.  This means that, while building my squad, I want to select members that have powers that react to the potentially most common damage type of the enemies I will be fighting.  Am I going up against geth enemies?  I should probably take Kasumi, Tali, or Garrus, since they have abilities that counter shields well.  Lots of weak humanoid enemies or husks?  Probably Jack, because her abilities only work on unshielded targets.  Collectors or highly-equipped humanoids?  Better keep my squad diverse so I can react to multiple types of defenses.  These are types of decisions you just didn’t have to make in Mass Effect 1, and squad choice was mostly based on who you liked the most.

A common criticism that has been leveled against the game, however, is its removal of traditional RPG elements from the combat.  In the first game, you had an inventory filled with different levels of armor, weapons, and amps.  You would get these items as loot from random enemies in the world, the same way you do in most RPGs.  However, you never really had to make any choices with these.  It was basically a matter of finding which thing had the highest numbers and using that.  It took time, and rewarded exploration, but you weren’t making interesting decisions that payed off in combat.  A YouTuber I really like, Noah Gervais, framed it really well in his video on the Mass Effect series, where he asked, “Which assault rifle was your favorite in Mass Effect 1?  How about Mass Effect 2?” and my answers to those two questions, respectively are “I don’t care, whichever one is the best” and “The Mattock, screw the Avenger, I’ll take the added precision and scope over higher damage and rate of fire any day.”  Those two questions and my subsequent answers were enough alone to convince me that I liked the inventory management system of the second game significantly more than the first, because even if there was less stuff to do, the decisions you were making mattered, and stuck with you.  I think it might have been a bit excessive to remove the inventory system completely, and I think the third game’s system of weapon customization over looting is probably the best option.

But, the second game did have a few unique ideas to replace the upgrade system of the previous game, in the form of the game’s most hated addition: planet scanning.  See, the game would let you find upgrades in the world or buy them from vendors that would do things like boost your shield capacity or increase biotic damage, and you would need to research them with resources harvested from planets.  You would get these resources from going to planets in the galaxy map and scanning them for resources, in a tedious process that involved moving your cursor over every square inch of the planet and clicking when the resources you want showed up in a great enough capacity.  The process took forever, especially before the speed upgrade, offered no real choices or really anything interesting to do other than move your mouse up and down, and was subsequently removed in the third game, so I think the developers learned their lesson.  Independent of the way you got resources, however, I like Mass Effect 2’s upgrade system.  It gives you unlocks and progress that rewards exploration and does require some decision making on which upgrades you will buy, without the clunky mess of the previous game’s inventory.  It got better in the sequel, but it’s pretty solid in this one as well.


            However while the game’s changes in combat made it overall more replayable, what makes it truly great is the game’s characters.  They are the undeniably the meat of the game, the real reason people come to the series and remember this particular game so fondly.  Mass Effect 1’s characters definitely had their interesting moments, but most of that was in concept, not so much in execution.  The structure of the second game fundamentally changes to accommodate these characters, from the mostly linear plot of the first game that is structured more like a film, to the more open-ended, disconnected set of missions of Mass Effect 2, that play out more like a season of a TV show.  The majority of these missions are focused exclusively on the characters themselves, but are clustered together to give the game some semblance of progression.  Each act will begin with a plot-mission, related to the Collectors, the main antagonists of the game, and then is followed by three to four character recruitment missions, where the player involves themselves in the personal struggles of the person they are trying to recruit.  Then, each squad member is given a loyalty mission, further following their personal struggles in a way that is almost wholly disconnected from the main plot of “stop The Collectors”.  This means the the vast majority of the game isn’t focused on this main plot, but is instead an episodic bit of character development.  With this shift in focus, the game can really define itself as a character-focused work, not a plot one.

With that added freedom comes a more complex and focused look at each character.  Firefly creator Joss Whedon originally pitched the show as being about “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”, the Mass Effect 2 is a focused exploration of that same approach to sci-fi.  For many of these characters, we get to see how their experience with Shepard in the first game changed them, and how each one of them tried to interpret what made Shepard such a powerful force in the galaxy.  We get to see how each one of them tries to be Shepard.  Many of them have gone from the encyclopedia entries on their species to having a complex relationship with it.  Garrus calls himself, “A bad turian”, Tali is tried for treason, Grunt struggles to be accepted by his own species, Mordin is celebrated by his people but for the wrong reasons, and Liara is becoming uncomfortable more like the mother she killed in the first game.  These characters are much messier than they were in Mass Effect 1, they don’t embody their respective cultures, they struggle with them.  They become political leaders, begin their own projects and try to shape the galaxy in their own way with the absurd amount of influence they’ve gained.  Wrex is trying to unite his race and bring them into a renaissance, Liara is a busy information broker, and Ashley/Kaiden just go back to being a soldier in the alliance.   In a game that deifies the player character and places an almost masturbatory importance on the player’s own agency in the galaxy, telling the player “Sorry, I don’t have time to go adventuring with you” is both a brilliant piece of world-building, and a subtle rejection of the player’s omnipotence.  These characters shape the game’s world, and their relationship to Shepard defines both them and the player.  Any exploration of the game has to dig deep into those characters, since that is clearly what the game cares about.  So I’m going to devote a section to each (err, most) of them, and see what they have to teach us about the character, the game, and the world.


People loved Garrus before, but Mass Effect 2 was what got him to meme status.  After spending just a few minutes with Garrus, it becomes very clear that the game is trying to cultivate this reaction.  When you find Garrus, he is on the space station Omega, the seedy underbelly of the galaxy that serves as an easy foil for The Citadel (and later Illium), and he is single-handedly taking on every gang on the station.  His identity isn’t revealed at first, but when you fight your way to him, and see, oh hey, it’s Garrus, the game plays it up, and does everything it can to give you the feeling of seeing a long-lost friend again.  And this becomes the perfect lens to explore Omega with.

Omega is, as previously mentioned, the darker side of the galaxy.  Shepard is working outside of counsel space, he’s exploring areas that aren’t as cleanly under government control, so there is a lot more in-your-face crime and injustice for Shepard to play the superhero to.  This marks a pretty heavy tonal shift from the first to the second game, because while ME1 had a sort of golden age, idealistic take on sci-fi, ME2 takes on an aesthetic that is closer to cyberpunk.  High tech, low life is an apt description of how the game’s world works, Omega especially.  This gives your character a sense of being isolated from the rest of the game’s formal authority structures, as you spend most of your time on morally neutral actions.  Yeah, the overall frame narrative is pushing you towards saving people, but most of the time you’re just trying to find and recruit people.  As a result, renegade Shepards really come into their own here, because instead of playing the galactic space cop, you’re working for a shady organization recruiting the baddest of the bad so that you can eventually save the galaxy, but it’s going to take a lot of work before that.  Omega is perhaps the best example of this new theme.  It’s a criminal-run space station, dark and grimy, filled with the most dangerous types of people.  And this is where Garrus shows up after Shepard’s death at the beginning of the game (long story, she died for two years.  She got better.)  In the years of Shepard’s absence, Garrus tried to be her.  He put together a team to take down the gangs and mercenary groups on Omega, basically forming a Suicide Squad meets Avengers Superhero group.  I’m not going to go into too much detail about this and Garrus’ loyalty missions, but while Garrus serves as a big part of the game’s love of “the old days”, his story on Omega, of betrayal and murder, of crushed idealism on a corrupt space station, is a great summation of the game’s approach to tone.


            Also on Omega, the player meets the salarian doctor Mordin, one of the most beloved new character additions.  Mordin hides away in a corner of Omega, running a clinic with next to no resources while trying to cure a plague released on the station.  He is a brilliant scientist, and spent a great deal of his life in government work, working on the Krogan genophage, which I will expand on shortly.  Omega is the perfect setting to let Mordin shine, as it has both a great deal of people who need help, and a morally reprehensible criminal infrastructure that would come up against Mordin.  As a result, Mordin’s later-revealed role as “The Doctor Who Killed Millions” doesn’t feel out of place.  Mordin works tirelessly to save those infected by the plague, then kills the mercs who attack him without hesitation, leaving their bodies outside of his clinic as a warning sign to others.

Mordin is also a wonderfully charismatic bit of writing, though the person himself is much less so.  Mordin is socially clueless, talks in curt, efficient sentences designed to communicate quickly but not elegantly.  He tackles problems with brute force speed and efficiency, but most players can’t help but love him.  He is adorably awkward (especially later on when he starts singing), unintentionally funny, and refreshingly idealistic.  Conversations with Mordin run the gambit from genuinely unsettling, to intellectually fascinating, to laugh-out-loud hilarious, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mordin’s core conflict, though, centers around the previously mentioned genophage.  The genophage was released several hundred years before the events of the games as a response to the Krogan’s attempts to take over the galaxy soon after being given spaceflight technology by the salarians.  It limited their birth rate to somewhere around one in a thousand, crippling their population and crushing their dreams of an empire.  When the player visits Tuchanka, their homeworld, they find it in ruins not because of the results of the genophage, but because of centuries of war, nuclear and otherwise, between the various clans of the species.  The krogan seem inherently warlike, with a culture that has violence at its very core.  This, coupled with how bloody the Krogan rebellions were described to be, makes the release of the genophage seem less like the war crime it definitionally was, and more like a desperate last hope.  Still, even hundreds of years after its initial release, krogan civilization is crippled, disorganized, and just as warlike as it was before.  While a player can feel sympathy for the loss of krogan culture, it doesn’t seem like that culture was or ever will be anything other than warmongering.  However, if the player saved Wrex in the first game, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope.  Wrex, fresh from his work with Shepard, is working to unite the clans under one banner, slowly forming a unified krogan government based more on something akin to what we would call the social contract than a mite-makes-right approach that is so ingrained in their culture it isn’t even really questioned.  But the ruined state of their world and their civilization makes this difficult.  When the player first sees Wrex, he is sitting on a throne made from the rubble of buildings destroyed in countless wars, you get the symbolism pretty quickly.  And it is into this incredibly messy and complicated situation that Mordin enters.

Mordin was part of a team that noticed that the effects of the genophage were lessening.  The krogan birth rate was rising, not rapidly, but enough that it fell outside of the salarian projections.  So, Mordin and his team corrected that.  Despite the moral complexity of the genophage’s original release, they altered the plague to account for this, and the birth rate normalized.  These adjustments to the genophage probably border on a war crime, just as the original release did, and it’s implied that this isn’t the first time the salarians have done this.  Mordin is now partially culpable for this plague that wreaked havoc across krogan culture, and he doesn’t seem the least bit conflicted about it at first.  When the player confronts him about this, we start to see the first bit of what becomes Mordin’s tragic flaw, in the traditional literary sense: he is a classic example of not being able to see the little picture in the face of the big picture.  When you talk to Mordin about the geophage, he talks about high-level models and simulations they had run, testing the likelihood of more krogan rebellions, of the number of casualties that war with the rest of the galaxy would cost, and with your experience with the krogan, you might believe him at first.  But then comes Mordin’s loyalty mission, where you hunt down an allegedly kidnapped member of his team who, it turns out, was not kidnapped at all, but rather joined the krogan willingly to help them cure the genophage out of guilt for his actions.  Along the way, Mordin is forced to look at the smaller picture of his actions, seeing the death and cultural stagnation that his actions helped reinforce.  Throughout the mission, Mordin is thoroughly uncomfortable, and you see his composure slowly start to break with a subtlety that is far too uncommon in most game narratives.  Mordin leaves the mission undecided, considering that perhaps his actions were a mistake, and that he might revise them in the future.  It isn’t a dramatic change of heart, but it is the beginnings of one, and it is one that the series will expertly continue with and conclude in its final entry.


I have a whole lot to say about Jack, but not too much of it has a place in a piece (ostensibly) about the big-budget updating of the series.  But I’ll touch on a few points.  Yeah, Jack’s character design looks like they targeted marketing first, and actual character design second.  Yeah, her arc can be summed up as “broken woman needs a man in her life to fix her problems”.  But I actually like what they ended up doing with Jack’s character, even if I still agree with a lot of the criticism.  Importantly to this essay, though, Jack is a perfect example of the seedier side of the Mass Effect universe.  She’s got the fairly classic story of being kidnapped as a child and experimented on for her biotic abilities (classic in genre fiction, anyways), and as a result, hates everyone and everything.  The Alliance couldn’t help her, the Counsel and its influence couldn’t help her, no one even tried, so Jack serves as a perfect example of how, in a galaxy as big as this one, it is very easy to slip through the cracks.  Seeing a person so explicitly broken yet also so incredibly powerful helps the player see parts of the universe the normally wouldn’t. The series, especially the second game, sees the player interacting with the best of the best, the most competent, focused and driven individuals in the galaxy.  Having Jack on the team, however, lets the player see a bit of just how a completely but sympathetically broken person might live in the Mass Effect universe.  And even just for that, I am grateful that Jack is in the series.

Kasumi’s Heist

Before we move on to Act II of the game, there are two DLC packs that add characters that we can discuss.  The day-one DLC for the game added Zaeed to the franchise, a badass mercenary that I was so thoroughly bored with, I never talked to him after his recruitment and loyalty mission.  Not too much to say there.  Kasumi is mostly the same, since the DLC didn’t add many conversations for either of them, but that pack does have one of my favorite parts of the series: a heist mission.  Now, I love heists.  I love them in games, books, films, stage plays, interpretive dance, whatever, heists are freaking great. And despite how goddamn engaging every single heist bit I’ve played in a game has been, there are unforgivably few heist games.  Off the top of my head I can think of Payday 1 and 2, this mission in Mass Effect 2, a few 2D indie titles, and those few missions in GTA V.  Payday and GTA V are the closest we’ve gotten to actual heists in video games, and those were depressingly shallow.  Payday probably had the most potential, since it does have systems for stealth play, messing with security systems, and interaction with NPCs in ways other than killing, but it so quickly dissolves into an all-out gunfight that it is barely worth playing (hasn’t stopped me from putting over 20 hours into it, but still).  Basically, I love heists, and I need more of them in games.  Payday might have touched on the thrill of planning a heist with your friends and suddenly having it all go wrong at the last minute, but Mass Effect 2 tries to make that more narrative-focused by having you run a heist with a fictional friend instead.  There isn’t much mechanical depth to it, it plays mostly like one of the newer Telltale games, but the theming alone and my unquenchable thirst for more heist games has kept this mission as one that I look forward to on every playthrough.


I kick off Act II by playing Tali’s recruitment mission first, though the game does give you multiple reasons to go to Illium as well.  But just like Virmire in the first game, I always save Illium for last.  Tali, fortunately, has evolved into a fascinating character in the time between the games.  Tali was basically a teenager when you met her in ME1; a wide-eyed girl seeing the outside world for the first time.  By the time you see her in ME2, she has changed from a caricature of an encyclopedia dump on quarians to a fully fleshed out person.  Tali is competent and confident, a science nerd, but with a bit of experience under her belt.  You find her leading a classified mission on a geth world, one hand on her gun and the other on a keyboard.  She is fiercely loyal to her people, but often at odds with her government.  You later hear her talk about how seeing the outside world radically shifted her feelings about her home, how it gave her more perspective to see what she loved and didn’t about the Flotilla.  And when she is charged with treason during her loyalty mission, that conflict is brought to the forefront.

In what is easily one of the best-written sections of the series, Tali is caught in the middle of a feud between two factions of her people, which she is only slightly involved in.  The issue is mired in the politics and history of the fleet, which requires a bit more explanation before I can go further.  The Quarians started out on their homeworld of Rannoch, but as they progressed as a species, the started developing AI.  This isn’t unusual for spacefaring species in the Mass Effect universe, but the Quarians pushed the technology far enough to create an entire species of sorts, the synthetic Geth.  The Geth slowly became self-aware, and when some Quarian scientists realized this, they tried to shut it down, to which the Geth responded by killing their Quarian masters to defend themselves.  This escalated from a single lab to the entire planet, leading to a full-scale war that forced the Quarians off the planet and into a migrant fleet.  The Geth eventually conquered all of the Quarian’s colonies, leaving the entire species confined to what would eventually become the largest fleet in the galaxy.  Because of the centuries they spent in space, their immune systems grew so weak that they were forced to wear environmental suits at all times, as even the slightest infection could kill them.  This lets the writers pull from all kinds of real-world history, and gives the Quarians a longing for a home that they most likely would never see again.  But, some of them still want to fight to return, chief among them, Tali’s father.  Promising to build his family a house on the homeworld, he worked tirelessly to create a weapon that might defeat the geth.  In the process, he accidentally activated a powerful network of geth on a Quarian ship, who quickly took it over and slaughtered every Quarian on board.  Because Tali had been sending him Geth parts, she had been implicated, and changed with treason.  Shepard and Tali clear the Geth from the ship to clear Tali’s name, and the conflict is resolved with Tali in high standing among her people, but the lingering conflict between the Quarians remain.  In an incredibly adept move of graying up the morality of the game, the person hell-bent on seeing Tali charged and exiled is actually against fighting to retake the homeworld.  He believes that war with the Geth would cost millions of Quarian lives and would have little return.  Meanwhile, Tali and Shepard mostly work with Quarians who support war with the Geth.  This leaves the player in a constant state of unease, working against the anti-war Quarians just because one of their friends got in their way.  I always leave that mission slightly uncomfortable, never really sure where I stand with the various factions and leaders of the species.  That plotline, fortunately, is also resolved brilliantly in the third game, making this mission easily one of my favorite in the series.


This jumps around in the game’s timeline a bit, but I think it’s important to talk about Legion at this point, partially because he’s a Geth, but also because of how his presence in the story contributes to the continued moral grayness of the series.  The Geth were basically cannon fodder in the first game.  Yeah, they were interesting from a lore perspective, but they were never ethically complex or interesting as characters.  Legion’s presence, and the lore he brings with him pulls off the brilliant move of turning a simple enemy into a complex one, continuing one of my favorite trends in this game.  In a strongly unique move for the series, the player first encounters Legion in a combat sequence, where he helps Shepard from a distance with sniper fire.  Starting out with a mechanical (heh) connection with Legion helps the player to quickly bond with him, which is necessary as Legion is usually the last new companion the player meets in the game.  Once out of combat, the player can talk to Legion, and he is thoroughly interesting from the get-go.  He explains how there are multiple, warring factions of geth, how Legion’s geth are at war with the geth the player has fought, and how the previously homogenous race of evil robots that they player had seen before was actually a fascinating exploration of science fiction genre tropes.  Coupled with the player learning about how Geth were created during their adventures with the quarians, the player is immediately predisposed to be sympathetic to them, and I know I personally wanted to learn every scrap of lore Legion had to offer.  My favorite moment with Legion is when the player realized that Legion is wearing a piece of Shepard’s armor, used to patch up a bullet hole.  When the player presses Legion on why he did this, he eventually ends with a pause and, “…No data available.”  The geth appear mechanical and alien, and they most certainly are, but there is a messy core of emotion underneath, and Mass Effect 2 loves exploring it.  This is something games centered around combat have a very difficult time doing, because they need hordes of endless enemies for the player to shoot without seeming like a monster.  For a lot of the series, the geth are that monster, simple and easy, but, even while fighting against the mechanical necessities of its genre and its medium, Mass Effect 2 managed to pull of making them complex and interesting.


Illium is always the last planet I go to when playing Mass Effect 2.  You get the option to go there about half-way through the game, but I love saving it for last.  When you first land on the planet, it seems as stark a contrast as possible from Omega, or the other grimy reaches of space you have spent the game exploring.  It invokes more traditional sci-fi than cyberpunk, with a hint of Star Wars’ Coruscant thrown in for good measure.  Illium is one of the asari’s most prosperous colonies, and gets the player a bit closer to understanding just how vast the asari’s influence and wealth truly is.  However, Illium sits right on the border of the Terminus Systems, serving as a connecting point between the lawless outer reaches of the galaxy and the orderly domain of asari space.  It is the perfect blend of the wealthy and high-class with the dangerous and low-class, and as such, it is the perfect capstone to the themes of Mass Effect 2.  The player has spent almost all of their time exploring planets where there SPECTER status barely has any meaning, and now the contrast of that world overlapping with the more respectable one is a perfect time for the themes the game has been building up to culminate.  A few hours into their time on Illium, the player will hear the line, “Illium is just Omega with expensive shoes”, and I think there is no greater summary of the planet.  This is where we find Liara.

Liara went through a very similar arc to Tali, changing from a wide-eyed, awkward, and nerdy character without too much of a defined personality into a cold, calculating information broker.  The first line the player hears her say is a threatening, “Have you ever faced an asari commando unit before? Few humans have” to a potential client, immediately showing her shift away from the socially clueless archeologist of the first game.  However, this line was also spoken by her mother, Benezia, during their fight with Shepard in the first game.  The implication that Liara is becoming more and more like her mother is not exactly a subtle one.  But, moral grayness aside, Liara is still a deeply good person, and willing to help Shepard to the best of her very considerable abilities.  Despite this, Liara is one of the first characters to tell Shepard, “No, I can’t go adventuring with you, I have a goddamn job.”  This stings particularly hard if you, say, romanced Liara in the first game and were hoping to go on a grand planet-hopping adventure with your space girlfriend (not naming any names).  And the game doesn’t back away from this.  An easy way to react to Liara not being present in much of Shepard’s affairs in the second game would be to just not make the content for her.  Cheap, easy, and narratively consistent.  But the writers committed to this, and have a cutscene specifically tailored for the player having romance Liara in the first game, but not romancing anyone else in the second.  It’s a quiet, brief bit of Shepard pacing around her quarters, frustrated, taking a longing glance at a picture of Liara that she keeps on her desk, then going back to work.  That is one of the moments where I see Shepard characterize most strongly, as she rarely is.  The player doesn’t really control the scene, though they are likely feeling similar emotions, and we see a bit of the pressure that Shepard is under, independent of the player.  I like that Liara can bring out these moments in Shepard, and while her absence is important, Bioware wasn’t going to leave us hanging.

Liara gets her own DLC pack, Lair of the Shadow Broker, and it is one of my favorite bits of DLC ever made.  Expanding on the small side quest and brief cutscene in the main game, Lair of the Shadow Broker takes the player on a hunt across Illium and later to one of the most beautifully designed areas in the game, with Liara taking center stage.  The mission starts with the eponymous Shadow Broker trying to assassinate Liara, and her escaping but leaving clues for Shepard to find her.  The game briefly turns into a goddamn police procedural (a full year before LA Noire!), with Shepard searching for clues, piecing together information, and figuring out where to go next.  Later sequences in the DLC include a flying car chase that mimics Star Wars Episode II’s take on that idea, a fight with a corrupt SPECTER, and a fight up the side of a spaceship that hovers right on a planet’s horizon.  Along the way, we see that Liara is just as complicated as the rest of the game’s characters, dealing with the power that her information broker status gets her, her genuine affection for her friends, and the past legacy of her mother.  Liara’s complexity is so refreshing given her starting point in the first game, and it feels like something the main game just couldn’t have done.  In retrospect, this DLC is probably what made me so positive about DLC as a concept, despite the horrendous business practices it has inspired in the industry.  It lets you get a big-budget focused mission that can experiment in a way the main game might not.

But my favorite sequence in the DLC remains Shepard and Liara’s date, which is even more surprising when you consider that it is entirely optional, and only applies to a subset of players.  Liara opens the sequence with, “I’m not sure people like us have dates, but I’m looking forward to it”.  I think the writing in this sequence conveys a really interesting take on romance as a subplot when your main plot is about saving the world or whatever.  Shepard and Liara are not exactly stable people, they’re going all over the galaxy righting wrong and altering intergalactic politics.  They’re as romantically inclined as the next all-powerful space superhero, but they don’t exactly have the lifestyle for moving in together and focusing on their relationship.  Shepard and Liara’s date gives them a brief chance to stop saving the world and focus on each other, and they both treat it like a treat, something temporary.  They are people with lives, friends, adventures and plans wholly separate from each other, and while they can get together from some hardcore romance every once in awhile, it’s not their default; not their normal.  Being motivated people trying to get shit done is their full-time job, and the game respects that.  Liara does not quit her job to become your space consort.  She’s a person with her own plans, and the player is not at the center of all of those.


Thane is one of the most explicitly tragic characters in Mass Effect 2’s lineup, and also probably my favorite. His character description of, “assassin with terminal disease” is loaded with enough irony to give the writers a strong base to work with, but they go much farther than that.  Thane tells you stories of a whole planet of tragedies that the player will never see, and weaves a narrative of a people dealing with an exodus that is every bit as tragic as the Quarians.  Thane’s people, the drell, were saved by the hanar moments before their world died.  Very few of them made it off the planet, leaving them with a handful of refugees on the hanar homeworld.  Unlike the Quarians, who have a unified government and home of sorts in the migrant fleet, the drell live with the hanar in a sort of gratitude-driven servitude, though they wouldn’t call it that.  The hanar resemble floating jellyfish, and while they are intellectually brilliant, aren’t the best assassins in the galaxy, so Thane was one of the drell chosen to take that role.  Thane, like all characters in Shepard’s squad, was one of the best at what he does, and when the player encounters him, he has just completed what he hopes to be his last job, an assassination of a prominent crime lord of Illium.  Thane quickly tells Shepard of his condition, an incurable, terminal disease that affects many members of his species.  He says that he will survive until the end of the mission, and that it won’t affect his performance, so for many characters, that is all the depth Thane has.  However, talk to him more, and you’ll learn a great deal more about the tragedy, in the literary sense, of his disease.  The drell lived in incredibly arid environments, and the Hanar homeworld on which so many of them are refugees is comparatively humid.  Over time, the drell developed this disease because of the conflict of environments.  Thane tells the player that it gets worse the longer her spends in human environments, where most of his jobs take place.  In a very real sense, his job is killing him, and little hints of his condition are scattered throughout the writing related to him, such as him staying in the life support area of the ship.  Talking to Thane is usually a somber experience, as he shows you bits and pieces of his life through his species ability for perfect recall.  He relives past moments of his life in perfect detail, an ability that he warns many drell can be consumed by.  Yet, from this tragic character, comes some of the most life-affirming moments of the game.

Thane’s loyalty mission deals with him reconciling himself with his son, with whom Thane has grown apart from since his wife’s death. The actual reconnection between the two isn’t given much screentime; this isn’t about the player and they’re not really involved beyond helping Thane find him.  But in addition to the mission’s more literary strengths, it also lets you be a space cop again, which is always one of Mass Effect’s greatest strengths.  You are trying to stop Thane’s son from assassinating a politician, so you tail the politician from the rafters, give status updates to Thane, all good stuff.  But you also get the interrogation sequence earlier, which literally gives you the option of Good Cop or Bad Cop, with a decent amount of dialogue written out for each one based on your paragon/renegade score.  On my most recent playthrough, I had maxed out my paragon bar by this point, so I was going renegade as hell, and played bad cop without a second thought.  The guy left the interrogation room bloody and beaten, and, yeah, it was a little evil, but he sold kids into slavery or something so it was totally justified.


There’s one last character before we close this section out, and that’s Samara, one of the stranger character’s in the game’s lineup.  Samara is an asari justicar, an ancient religious order that acts in a similar fashion to the SPECTERs.  They can freely, though not entirely, disregard the law, the asari people respect them and fear them, they are both a product of an older version of asari society, and while they struggle for relevance as their numbers dwindle, are still important.  Some of the asari you talk to say they dreamed of growing up to be one when they were young, and they take on a mythic quality. All of this is a brilliant bit of world building that shows a role in an alien society that said aliens struggle to explain to humans because it doesn’t really have a perfect comparison.  It’s messy and complicated, mired in pages of societal wiki pages, and that complexity alone makes them feel distinctly alien.  Samara is largely defined by her justicar status, but that is not the whole of her character.  The core of the justicar’s role in society is their very strict code, which outlines how to act in every kind of situations so that they justicars can act without question.  Samara comments on this, saying, “In this age, people see many shades of gray.  The code of the justicars is black and white.  I might seem a hero to many, but I would kill all of them if I had to.”  Samara is a unique take on the moral grayness that has found its way into Mass Effect 2, responding to the uncertainty of an amoral galaxy with a code that provides absolute certainty.  Samara never visibly struggles with an ethical decision.  She is cold, calculating and, on the surface, little else.  The is the textbook definition of the D&D Lawful Neutral type.

When the player talks to Samara to gain more detail, this lawful neutral surface is not removed to reveal some amoral core, Samara sticks to how she presents herself, but further discussion does show that she chose that lifestyle for a reason, and also reveals a mountain not of uncertainties, but of regret and insecurities.  Samara firmly believes in the justicar code, but she chose to follow it out of the guilt of three of her daughters becoming ardat yakshi, a complicated asari genetic mutation that instantly kills anyone they “mate” with (asari sexuality is a really complicated topic, basically they mind meld) and a burning hunger to kill as many as they can.  Her loyalty mission involves hunting down her most dangerous daughter, Morinth, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but this adds a lot of depth to Samara’s character.  She didn’t just decide one that day a crazy-strict code was the way she wanted to live her life, she chose it to deal with the insecurities, guilt and messiness of giving birth to a monster.  Samara spends most of her time hunting down Morinth, and has been doing so for centuries.  During that time, her view of the galaxy has shifted to one that demands absolute certainty, because anything less would involve her facing the mountain of doubt that Morinth’s existence brings with it.  She’s hiding behind it.

The mission to actually bring Morinth to justice (lol), however, doesn’t involve Samara that much.  That’s frustrating, but it’s still a great mission regardless.  Samara tracks Morinth to Omega (because of course she’s on Omega), and Shepard begins a hunt to lure her out and take her down.  Part of the mission involves Shepard entering the VIP section of the Afterlife club and trying to lure Morinth out by seeming as edgy and cool as possible.  And goddamn is that fun.  Punch a dude in the face for pressuring an asari who clearly was not into him, buy everyone a round of drinks, dance awkwardly with another patron, have a staring contest with a krogan; I’m having the time of my life here.  And then Morinth finally calls you over and you have to out-edgy-hipster her by saying that your music is to obscure for her and boom, you’re back at her place awkwardly flirting before Samara bursts in.  Helping a guilty mother kill her monster of a daughter should not be described as fun, but goddamn if it isn’t one of the funniest sequences in the entire game.  Oh, and if you’re a goddamn idiot you can choose to save Morinth and kill Samara and Morinth joins your squad instead.  You can even romance her in a sex scene that literally is a fade to black with a goddamn Game Over screen.  Because she kills people that she has sex with.  Never change, Mass Effect.  Never change.

The Suicide Mission

            The characters of Mass Effect take center stage in this game, and, regardless of the final mission, they would have been great. But, for me, the game’s final mission is its crowning achievement, because it takes the character focus the game had been building up and uses it to build The Suicide Mission into something that few games have ever managed to do.  You walk into the suicide mission feeling the progression that RPGs so often focus on; you have the best gear, the best team, the best ship, the best tech.  You have the best of the best ready to go on this mission, and it emphasizes that feeling of growing power in a way few few other RPGs do. When I played my first few BioWare games, I never liked only having to pick two or three companions at a time, I was always hoping that the final mission would allow me to play with all of them.  The Suicide Mission finally did that.  You spend most of it coordinating different teams, picking different members for different jobs, and making life-or-death decisions about how the mission will play out.  And these are life-or-death choices; actual ones.  If you didn’t make the right decisions along the way, didn’t complete loyalty missions or upgrade your ship, send the wrong teammate to the wrong place, they will die, and that will carry over into the sequel.  Even Shepard can die at the game’s ending if the player loses enough teammates.  The fact that so much work was put into making the decisions you make feel meaningful is frankly astounding, especially considering how expensive that content is to produce.  The Suicide Mission feels like your best ironman run of XCOM, but with characters you are invested in both because of how they help you on a gameplay level, and because of how much you like them as people.  I can’t think of a single other mission in gaming that evokes this feeling so strongly, and through that feeling, you love the characters even more.  The game has been building up to this for twenty hours, and damn, does it pay off.

The first bit of real interaction the player has during the Suicide Mission is a planning sequence.  You made it to your enemy’s base, crashed on the surface, and are planning what looks like a one-way trip.  The song, suicide mission, plays in the background as you make your decisions, and the music adapts to the stage of the planning you’re currently at.  It adds to the brilliantly building tension that the narrative and gameplay decisions have created, making you focus on something that exists in other games, but is never as emphasized.  You pick your primary and secondary teams, a specialist for hacking into the base’s systems, and get ready to kick some Collector ass.  You feel like you are finally planning your own mission, not letting the game tell you what to do.  Even though the sequence is still fairly scripted, the decisions you make create an illusion of choice that is stronger than any of the game’s other missions.  At specific stages in the mission, you have to shuffle your team around, pick different specialists, and react to changes in the mission objectives.  On repeat playthroughs, I was worried it would lose its luster, since I knew each beat of the mission by heart, but nope, on my most recent playthrough, I was giddy as all hell, tabbing to my notes on the game to quickly type out some notes before tabbing back somehow getting even more excited.  The buildup and payoff is sublime, and each bit of game before the mission feels like it pays off during the mission.  The final boss fight is infamously lackluster, but by that point, I didn’t care.  I had pulled off the Suicide Mission, with an actual, game-recognized possibility of failure.  I felt like a goddamn space hero.

And that’s how Mass Effect 2 closes.  You get a quick moral choice about keeping or destroying your enemy’s base (which ends up not mattering at all), you blast out of there before the place blows up, and you get a quick cutscene of your team looking all badass while an army of reapers descend on the galaxy.  You can play some DLC or extra missions afterwards, but that’s how the game officially closes.  There are few games I have played that can hit that high of an ending note. 


I came into this playthrough of the game and accompanying essay expecting to write something very different.  I was going to write about how it watered down the world and strengths of the first game to create something with more mass appeal, how it toned down the literary influences in favor of a cinematic one.  But honest, now that I’ve finished it, I think I found more depth in it than I have in the first.  I still love Mass Effect 1, and I think it does have some strengths in world building that the second one does lose a bit, but the game’s greater commitment to showing you the parts of that world, to making it a bit messier, and somehow pulling this off while looking great, is enough to easily make it one of my favorite games ever made.  While Mass Effect 1 feels like a rough take on something brilliant, and Mass Effect 3 feels like a polished but ultimately less expansive entry, Mass Effect 2 feels the most complete of the trilogy.  It knows what it wants to do, and it executes it to near perfection.  It doesn’t feel confused about what it wants to do, and there are very few parts of it that feel incomplete.  It cares about a few things, it’s characters, building a complex world, and having fun while doing it, and it does all three of those things really damn well.  The first two games in this series had an enormous impact on how I looked at games (a massive effect, if you will), and Mass Effect 2 comes the closest to realizing the perfect version of that idea that affected me so profoundly.  During his final conversation, Grunt tell Shepard, “I have everything.  Clan, kin, and enemies to fight”.  I couldn’t think of a better summary.