Category Archives: Game Analysis

New Responsibilities: How Insomniac’s Spider-Man Evolves the Mythos

Intro

I was really into Spider-Man as a kid. Embarrassingly into Spider-Man. I devoured the giant Essential Spider-Man books, fervently watched and rewatched each of the animated Spider-Man series, and bought every Spider-Man branded knicknack I could get my hands on. And this is an obsession I’ve mostly stuck with as I’ve grown older, because there was always an influx of new content. When I got tired of the original Amazing Spider-Man run, I aged into watching the Sam Rami Movies. When those got…umm…bad…Amazing Spider-Man had gotten good again, and I read J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr.’s Volume 2, along with Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s run on Ultimate Spider-Man. By high school and college, there was a new crop of Marc Webb Spider-Man movies of varying quality for me to dig into. And now there’s Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) (wow, that’s a mouthful), something I’ve sunk a frankly excessive number of hours into since it’s launch back in September. So, when Stan Lee died a few weeks ago, I had a lot to think about in terms of how his most popular character has been such a consistent companion for me since childhood. Because, when playing Insomniac’s Spider-Man (I’m just going to call it that for the sake of convenience), I found myself consistently saying, “Wow, this is really good Spider-Man writing”, without having a solid definition for what good Spider-Man writing was. Still, having spent close to two decades with the character, I think my gut feeling is probably a good place to start. Because fortunately, Insomniac’s Spider-Man is not only an accurate recreation of what I internally think of as Spider-Man, but a genuine expansion on the literary value of the character. Because, despite the pulpy roots of the character as an adolescent power fantasy (and it very much still is that), Spider-Man has an inherently literary

Marvel's Spider-Man_20180924005337

quality that sets him apart from most other superheroes. In short, I have read/watched/played a lot of bad Spider-Man media, but even the worst ones, such as Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, cannot help but tap into the fundamental human truths that Spider-Man represents. Still, it takes a lot of effort to write Spider-Man in a way that that doesn’t just reference the literary value of the character, but to actually expand upon it, and I think Insomniac’s Spider-Man has done that. Yes, its web swinging feels incredible, its combat is systemically deep, thematically appropriate, and flashy as hell, and yes its soundtrack feels as epic as any superhero score should, but I think the writing in the game is what really makes it stand out as a piece of Spider-Man media. So, in this piece, I want to dig into how Insomniac Games’ writes Spider-Man, explore a few other works that write Spider-Man similarly, and try to get to the heart of what makes good Spider-Man writing so compelling in the first place. In short, this is an an attempt at publicly defending the ungodly amount of time and money I’ve spent on this franchise.

Tone

Let’s start with tone, because this is something a lot of bad Spider-Man adaptations get very wrong. Compared to other superheroes, Spider-Man’s tone is a bit more complex, because there are many different takes on the character that writers can lean into. To list a few, there’s Spider-Man the low-budget engineer, Spider-Man the human being with real life obligations, Spider-Man the wise-cracking crime fighter, Spider-Man the dorky high school kid, and Spider-Man the high-budget scientist. Other writers have carved out their own side of Spider-Man, such as Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 2’s take on Peter Parker as an earnest high school teacher, or Spider-Man as a monstorous spider, operating on animal instinct. So, while many Spider-Man stories feel formulaic, they have a lot of possible options to choose from when writing the character itself. However, despite these varied sides of the character, most good Spider-Man stories follow a very particular tone that carefully balances seriousness and levity. Go to far towards the levity and you get a kind of PG-Deadpool, mostly written for animated kid’s shows. Go too far towards the serious and you get…well, everything written in the 90s. Going too far in either direction breaks the character, and good Spider-Man writers know how to balance both. As far as humor goes, something a lot of writers don’t seem to get is that Spider-Man is not Deadpool. Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films fall into this trap the most. That Spider-Man is making quips non-stop, and they feel distinctly mean-spirited in a spider-man-001way that most other Spider-Man writing doesn’t. Because, Spider-Man is a dork. He’s making bad jokes at criminals because he genuinely finds them funny; it’s not done out of malice. Fortunately, Insomniac’s Spider-Man follows this mold. In a very important distinction, Spider-Man is cracking jokes to himself, not to the people he’s beating up. And, also in keeping with other good Spider-Man writing, these joke are horrible. I cringe at at least half of them! My favorite one takes place during the Turf Wars DLC where Spider-Man, quietly talking to himself, comes up with a punny name for a variant of enemy tank, laughs at his joke, then repeats it louder for the bad guys to hear. And they make fun of him for it! Bad guys making fun of Spider-Man for his bad jokes is a perfect encapsulation of Spider-Man’s humor.

However, the game is not all light-hearted, and knows when to hit some serious beats. It’s main plot centers around honest-to-god terrorists invading the city, and a militarized police force sent in to combat them. These are much more explicitly political issues than most Spider-Man writing usually deals with, as most of the franchise’s writers’ attempts to engage with explicitly political issues are goodhearted, but often sloppy. Insomniac’s Spider-Man, meanwhile, seems to avoid commenting on the issues directly. It says that terrorism is bad and scary, that the militarized police force is bad an overextends its reach, but the NYPD are paragons of virtue. This is a…troubling narrative, and flies in the face of Spider-Man’s history being consistently at odds with the NYPD. In this game, he is functionally a special forces freelancer; the game even opens with him going on a SWAT raid. Avoiding discussion of politics when your enemies are dudes in wacky costumes is one thing, but refusing to acknowledge the political messages when engaging with real-world organizations with sweeping systemic problems is quite another. The game wants to stick to its simple message that egomaniacal plutocrats are screwing over honest, hard-working New Yorkers, and I can respect that. But by uncritically including the NYPD in its “us”, I think it inadvertently steps over a political line it wasn’t intending to cross.

However, the rest of the game’s more serious beats are much more competently executed. The general setting of the story pulls heavily from Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2, leaning into the “Spider-Man as a real human being with real life obligations” side of the character. Peter’s juggling paying rent and managing relationships with crime fighting and an actual career in science. This is pretty commonly stated as the aspect of Spider-Man that makes him compelling as a character, and I absolutely agree. Spider-Man was created to appeal to teenagers reading comic books, and shares many of the troubles and experiences that they do. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne own skyscrapers and mansions, but Peter Parker gets evicted from his apartment in the first few hours of the game. This is, from a writing perspective, what makes the character so malleable and consistently interesting. The character’s foundation involves him struggling with real-world issues, and this is something most superheroes just don’t do. Spider-Man may be just as much of a power fantasy as Batman or Captain America, but it’s not just a power fantasy, because it’s contrasted against conventional character writing. I think this dichotomy is highlighted in the game’s best scene, where Peter swings and wall crawls through the city while talking to Mary Jane after a dinner that may have been a date, but neither of them are quite sure. It’s not really clear, and that’s the dramatic linchpin of the scene. Both of them are trying to figure out exactly what they’re doing with their relationship, and are Annotation 2018-12-11 211012both really bad at communicating. If this scene were written in a non-superhero film, it might have Peter pacing around his apartment, but, “someone paces around their apartment while texting” is not exactly the most cinematic of setups. But, when that awkward pacing is up the side of a building instead of in an apartment, that gets a lot more cinematically interesting. It allows the animators to exaggerate smaller gestures into more obviously readable ones. Want to show Peter getting uncomfortable? Just have him awkwardly swing to another building. This contrast of the grounded and real with the dramatic and exaggerated is a perfect encapsulation of Spider-Man as a character, because it sends the message that even superpowers cannot save you from reality. And that is strangely comforting.

Characters


Aunt May

Like most good Spider-Man writing, this game is centered around just a few core characters, in this case, Mary Jane, Aunt May, and Doc Ock. Each of these relationships is written wonderfully, reaching the core of the character from the comics, while adding additional depth. Peter’s relationship with Aunt May is, I think, the most transformative. There have been a few interesting takes on Aunt May in the past, though most of them fairly limited. In the original run of Amazing, she really only existed as someone to worry about Peter, and for the occasional story where she found out he was Spider-Man. She cared about Peter, and Peter cared about her, but it was never especially deep. The best take on the classic version of the character I have see is in Straczynski and Romita Jr.’s Amazing Spider-Man Vol 2. run, where proxy.duckduckgo.comAunt May discovers that Peter is Spider-Man (for what must be the fifth time), and they spend a few issues talking about it, processing it, working to establish a new relationship with that knowledge in mind. It felt incredibly realistic in the tone of its writing, contrasting the bombastic web-swinging art on the cover of the comic, with the twenty-odd pages of two people just talking about trust and family. Aunt May’s is still the strong old woman who has had to deal with a lot of pain in her life, but they lean into that depth a lot more than previous writers had. Bendis and Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man iterates on this approach, with Ben and May being written as an old hippie couple. Where the May in Amazing Spider-Man felt fragile and troubled, Ultimate’s May is no less troubled, but is fiery where Amazing’s is frail. Amazing’s May would worry about Peter, Ultimate’s May will yell at him when he’s being stupid. I really like this take on the character, as it creates a more explicitly hostile but no less tender relationship between Peter and May. Because, from May’s perspective, Peter has become a flaky and moody teenager since Ben’s dead. It looks to her like he’s spiraling. But, she is also dealing with her own grief over losing her husband, and genuinely feels like she has no idea how to raise this angsty teen on her own. Ultimate’s May is more directly empathetic than Amazing’s; the reader is given the ability to relate more directly to her struggles. I find both takes on the character to be interesting, but neither entirely define where Insomniac went with the character.

The most notable thing about Peter and May’s relationship in Insomniac’s Spider-Man is just how many people I’ve heard comment on how good it is. Aunt May is rarely the focus of the drama in any given Spider-Man story, and in this one, she is still mostly in the background, but the story beats that do happen with her feel more substantial. The player gets a real sense of the history between them, feels Peter’s overwhelming gratitude for what she’s done for him, and just how much the two of them have been through together. This is something that requires writing Peter as a little bit older, when he’s lost the rebellious teenager personality, so the relationship has gotten more mature. But in a really obvious bit of characterization, Aunt tumblr_inline_n2i3kpI03d1rnipfwMay exists as a character outside of Peter. In Amazing and even in Ultimate, it’s never mentioned if she has hobbies or even a job (Note: Ultimate’s May has a job, but I have yet to find out what it actually is). She exists purely in relation to Peter. But in Insomniac’s, she basically runs a homeless shelter on her own, she tries to help out Miles when he’s dealing with the death of his father, and she is close to one of the game’s main antagonists. You start to see Peter’s overworking of himself not as something particular to him, but as a family trait. At one point, Peter says that, after trauma, it helps him to stay busy, and given the amount of trauma Peter and May have had to go through, it makes sense that they always seem to stay busy. So, while May’s relationship with Peter is still important to the story we see, it’s not her only or even her defining characteristic. And this a good segue into how the game treats Mary Jane.

Mary Jane

Mary Jane is a…hard character to write well. The early comics never really gave her any defining characteristics other than, “She’s hot.” Which, aside from being a deeply problematic way to write one of the main characters in your canon, is also a really difficult starting point for new writers. Other major characteristics include “she has red hair” and “she likes Peter,” which doesn’t really help you much. So, pretty much any author that tries to write Mary Jane in any other than voyeuristic (which is, frustratingly, the route that most writers seem to take) certainly has their work cut out for them. One advantage of this is that writers can pretty much do whatever they want with the character. Ultimate writes Mary Jane as a childhood friend of Peter’s who is actually kind of a geek (though still uncomfortably sexualized for a

Ultimate Spider-Man - Mary Jane Watson - Hailee Stienfeld (2)

This is a very normal way to draw a fifteen-year-old

FREAKING FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD). She, again, has actual interests and personal problems going on outside Peter. When Peter acts like a stupid fifteen-year-old boy and claims to be entailed to her affections, she shuts that shit down. But…ultimately (heh) the take on the character only goes so far. Her main hobby is sewing Peter’s many costumes. She is still, consistently, drawn to be gawked at by the presumably straight dudes reading the comic. There’s some more depth there, but it has its limits. It does include the one bit of depth Mary Jane’s character did have from the early Amazing comics, which is her abusive father, but…it feels kind of trite. The writers don’t really have anything to say about abusive homes, it doesn’t seem like they have much personal experience or have done much reading on the subject…it’s mostly just an easy source of drama, which is pretty exploitative. I’d rather they try and fail to add depth than not try at all, but that’s a very low bar for writing.

 

This is an area where some Amazing runs actually surpass Ultimate in character writing, because it does eventually have some actual depth for Mary Jane. Over the early 2000s of Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2’s run, Mary Jane is slowly transformed into an interesting character. Straczynski and Romita Jr. create a backstory tries to explain why she was written as such a shallow character, and how she can grow from it. In what is mostly a retcon, they cast her shallow and carefree aspects the early comics as a defense mechanism for her broken home life, to deny the shitty reality she had to go home to. And…okay, that’s not a bad take on the character. It explains her earlier actions, and lets them transition the character her into a more interesting one as she learns to process her past trauma and start to grow past it. Throughout the early 2000s, Mary Jane takes her modeling career (which only ever existed so MJ ASMv2the artists had more excuses to draw more “HOT MJ” panels), and have her try to transition into acting. She struggles with being typecast as a model in early movies, but eventually transitions to a successful stage acting career, and there are a few legitimately insightful scenes where she talks about how she acts by channeling past experiences. So, basically, Mary Jane becomes a method actor. This leads to some genuinely good character beats between her and Peter as well, as their struggling marriage is approached with some actual depth, genuinely exploring how a regular human being would feel if they were married to a superhero. She feels unimportant, like she can’t be involved in the most important beats of Peter’s life, and she is always worried that there is something he’s hiding from her. These are realistic approaches to fantastical problems, and I found them immensely personally understandable. So, despite the many missteps previous writers have taken with the character, there were a few solid examples that Insomniac had to pull from to start writing their own Mary Jane.

They ignored all of them. And the game is much better for it. Mary Jane in Insomniac’s Spider-Man is pretty distinct from all previous incarnations of the character. I suppose in visual design she resembles Kirsten Dunst’s mostly forgettable portrayal of the character, but the resemblance ends there. They don’t pull from Amazing’s characterization of her messy family history (aside from a single throwaway line), her acting career, or her modeling career. They don’t pull from Ultimate’s characterization of her as a geeky childhood friend. They basically just write a new character, have her date Peter, and give her red hair. And even though there are some aspects of previous Mary Jane iterations I found interesting, I think this was the right decision. Their new character is an investigative reporter, she’s working on the same cases Peter is, she’s not just there to be saved by Peter (though that does still happen). This is strange, considering game director Bryan Intihar said that, they created Mary Jane by Mary Jane“deciding what we wanted from Peter and his journey. Mary Jane’s role came as a result of that, to balance everything out.”[1] If that was their goal, they definitely failed at it, because Mary Jane seems to exist as an independent actor in the world. Yes, she works with Peter, but she’s doing her own thing most of the time. Their relationship is played very straight, just a realistic, messy, twenty-something relationship. Oh, and the game never obviously objectifies her, something which…I don’t think any Spider-Man media has done before? She’s still Hollywood-attractive, and there’s still sexual tension between her and Peter, but it’s, again, played realistically. She does not exist for the presumably straight dudes playing the game to gawk at. So, when the game takes their relationship seriously it’s easy for the player to get invested in the back-and-forth of their relationship.

Black Cat

This isn’t to say that the game is entirely sexless. Black Cat is in it, after all. And, the way the game wrote Black Cat was ultimately what convinced me to write this piece, because, I think a good rule for Spider-Man writing is, if they know how to write Black Cat, they know how to write Spider-Man. Black Cat is a (not at all Catwoman-inspired) antihero who Spider-Man alternatively fights and flirts with. They date for a bit, they hook up, she steals something, Spider-Man chases her, she gets away, repeat. This is a fun dynamic to write, because it has clear rules and conflict: Black Cat will always go back to her life of crime, and Spider-Man will always try to get her to go straight. This means the end of any Black Cat story will already be known to the reader, so good Black Cat writing is just about having fun along the way. Unfortunately, most writers interpret “having fun” as drawing multiple, incredibly detailed panels of Black Cat looking hot. And having her shamelessly flirt with Spider-Man. Black CatThe best Spider-Man writers will use this as an opportunity to just write some fun superhero banter. My personal favorite take on the character an arc in Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 where the two of them team up to take down some big bad. They are crawling through the air vents preparing to attack some henchmen, but instead, they get distracted and have sex. While still in the vents. Which is probably the best superfriends-with-benefits writing I’ve ever read. The problem with the character, however, is that even the best writers fall into the trappings of the bad ones. So, with Insomniac’s Spider-Man being a video game, I was worried that this would be taken to another level of creepy pandering. If Black Cat flirts consistently with Spider-Man in the comics, then in the games, where the player is Spider-Man, this could get borderline masturbatory. Fortunately, they don’t do that, and just have fun with it. Banter between Spider-Man and Black Cat is consistently hilarious, with Cat taunting Spider-Man and him reacting as uncomfortably as you would expect. There’s a consistent back and forth (I had to restrain myself from just writing cat and mouse. Whoops) between the two of them, and they consistently reference their years of history together. They know each other; they’ve been through this before. It’s a great example of the game taking something that worked in the comics, and removing much of its less effective aspects.

Doc Ock

How the game writes Doc Ock, however, is an example of taking something that never worked in the comics and turning in into something that absolutely does. One of the biggest problems with Spider-Man writing is that his villains are usually pretty boring. Doc Ock is perhaps the greatest example of this. Best I can tell, he has only been written well once. ONCE. One of the best-known Spider-Man villains and his only interesting story arc is in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2. In the comics, he is just an angry science dude with a bad haircut who makes some robot arms. They have him try to marry Aunt May one time. That’s about the only interesting thing he’s ever done. So, the Insomniac writers looked to that one time he was written well. In Spider-Man 2, Doc Ock is a sympathetic scientist who takes on a mentor role to Peter before being turned evil by his robot arms. And, okay, that’s an interesting start, certainly more than his comic iterations. But Insomniac takes that foundation and goes much further with it. Where Spider-Man 2 didn’t have the time to develop the mentor relationship, Insomniac can spend the majority of the game developing it. So, as Doc Ock slowly slides towards super-villainy, it can be both more believable and emotionally complex for the player. While his transition to super-villain is definitely too abrupt, the complexity behind the shift remains intact. Peter treats him as a father figure, and that doesn’t feel trite, because the player spends most of the game working with Octavius and feeling sympathetic for him. While the wholesale murder of an entire city is a slightly extreme reaction, the player can, at the very least, understand why Octavius is doing it. And that is because of the real villain of the game, Norman Osborne.

Norman Osborne

I said earlier that Spider-Man villains are boring, but Norman Osborne is one of the few exceptions to that. He is Spider-Man’s most famous villain, and as a result, has been adapted several times. Willem Dafoe’s portrayal in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man might be the best known, and went for a fairly goofy take on the character despite the film’s cinematic leanings. But the basic idea of a genius billionaire who experiments on himself and goes “insane” is still present. Other adaptations lean pretty hard into the “insanity”, which is lazy and problematic for a dozen reasons, and simplifies what could be a complicated take on real mental health issues into an excuse to make him act weird. Ultimate Spider-Man’s take on the character is probably the most tonally consistent, and it exchanges the mental health metaphors for an addiction/alcoholism one. Despite being an egomaniacal sadist (and not the hot kind), Ultimate’s Norman is a relatively mentally stable person. He’s not coded as having dissociative identity disorder, and while he does hear voices, they’re portrayed as the side effects of the drugs he’s taking, rather than an inborn mental health issue. That Norman is addicted to Oz, his genetic engineering goop that drives most of the superpowers in the comic. This isn’t exactly a progressive take on the subject matter, but it is, at the very least, less regressive. Ahh, my standards for comic book writing.

Insomniac’s Norman, however…never actually becomes the Green Goblin in this game, though they tease the hell out of it. He’s deep into genetic research, trying to cure a genetic disease lifted from, of all things, the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man movies. His son Harry is dying from the disease, and most of Norman’s foyers into more gobliney science seem to be driven by that. The game even ends with a tease that Harry’s disease and Norman’s attempts proxy.duckduckgo.comto cure him have turned Harry into the goblin. Either way, the game is setting up a hell of a sequel. But Norman himself is an interesting character, even without his goblin-focused pursuits. Going off of the pre-release media, a lot of fans, myself included, thought they were setting up Norman as a sort of Donald Trump analog. And, even with the final product, that isn’t too far off. While it’s The Kingpin of Crime’s Fisk Tower that defiantly occupies Trump Tower’s Fifth Avenue local in the game’s New York City, Norman is the more obvious Trump stand-in. His general character design, mannerisms, and speech patterns at least gesture in the direction of our current president, but it’s his role as both a sleazy New York CEO and the mayor of the city (a conflict of interest that is barely even acknowledged in the game) are the most explicit comparisons. While the game doesn’t lean too hard on the comparison, writing a Trump analog who is so villainous that his awarding of lucrative city business deals to his own company is his least damning trait is a fair critique. So, the comparison feels present, but not heavy-handed; Norman has Trump-like elements, but is not just Trump with a name change. At least Norman never turns to the camera and says “Make New York Great Again”.

 

Structure

So, the game has all the written elements for a great Spider-Man movie, or maybe limited series. How do they turn that into a video game? Well, the obvious elements, like web-swinging and combat, have already been deconstructed and explored by a lot of really smart critics, so I want to focus on something I haven’t seen talked about as much: the game’s structure. Spider-Man is an open world game, closer to Assassin’s Creed than Skyrim, and this tends to make thematically-relevant pacing difficult. Usually, the story of Ubisoft-style open-world games doesn’t meaningfully address the order the player is doing things. Assassin’s Creed used its computer simulation framing device to state that, in the game’s actual alternate history, Ezio and Altaïr probably were not living these events out in the exact order that the player did. And this works for the type of gaming Ubisoft was trying to make, but not so

Two Suits

This shot is *so* on the nose, but I still love it

much for Spider-Man. Fortunately, the developers use this open world framework to tap into some fundamentally Spider-Man characteristics. Essentially, Spider-Man is always stretched for time. He’s always late to everything, every part of his life is always just about to fall apart, and he never has time to just relax for a little. The structuring of the Ubisoft open world game, then, fits this perfectly. I’ve complained before about open world titles spattering activity icons all over the player’s map, because they feel like a list of chores, but in a Spider-Man game, that is exactly how they should feel. Spider-Man has so much to do and not enough time to do it. So, constantly having to jump from activity to activity feels perfectly in-character. There is a point, probably near the end of the game depending on the player, where they have completed nearly everything in the game, and then genuinely can just swing around the city and relax. That does feel out of character, but since the game can’t generate infinite content, it’s a character break I’m willing to accept.

Additionally, the plot structuring of the game fits into this format as well. Unlike most open-world games, Spider-Man takes place over just a few, concretely-defined days, starting with Peter waking up and ending with him finding a place to sleep. Before the main plot even really kicks into gear, we see a full day of Peter’s life, taking place over a few hours of gameplay. The player takes down the Kingpin, goes to work, meets up with Aunt May, has an awkward encounter with Mary Jane, and stops random crimes throughout the city. This feels like a day in the life of Spider-Man, and the rushed pace makes the player feel like they are experiencing that day the way Spider-Man would. Each of the individual beats work well on their own, but this structuring makes the experiencing of each individual beat stronger. When Spider-Man says he’s overwhelmed and rushed, the player feels that, because they are overwhelmed and rushed. This is something unique I think games can add to the Spider-Man canon, to expand upon the characterization of a well-trodden aspect of a character that has been adapted dozens of times. One beat I particularly like in the game is when, after completing a few story missions in a row, Spider-Man will say something along the lines of, “Okay, that was a lot, but I’ve been neglecting the city, time to relax and go on patrol.” Functionally, it is the game telling the player to take a break from the story and do side missions. I love when open world games do this, but this particular example accomplishes that same functional purpose while communicating something important about Spider-Man to the player: he can never really focus too much on any one aspect of his life.

Conclusion

This, I think, is the most valuable literary contribution of Spider-Man. In all its mediums, the franchise has tried to explore the idea of a super hero that is overwhelmed with real-life obligations, just like everyone who reads his comics, watches his movies, and plays his games. This is the very personal value I have gotten from the franchise, and why I have found it so compelling for so long. Because despite being about a dude in spider-themed spandex who punches a wide variety of people in other animal-themed spandex, Spider-Man feels profoundly grounded. The comics, films, and now games are consistently committed to exploring this on-the-ground take of a character’s life, to see what being overwhelmed with conflicting obligations does to a person, and how they can deal with it. One of the weaknesses of serialized content is that the state of the world rarely significantly changes over its many installments, but this is a strength for Spider-Man. One of the rules of his character is that he will never solve his problems; he will never figure out a perfect life balance. His relationship with MJ will always have issues. Aunt May will always be worrying about him. He will always struggle to pay rent. There will always be super-powered dudes in equally ridiculous-looking spandex trying to punch him real hard in the face. This does mean that any particularly dramatic arc will most likely be reversed (Aunt May will not die, Peter and MJ will never break up for good, Peter will never quit being Spider-Man). But it also means that the character and the audience spend their time sitting with that inevitability. When discussing the themes of Spider-Man, the phrase that so often comes up is, “With great power must also come great responsibility,” and this is a wonderful lesson. But I think an often-neglected thematic contribution of Spider-Man is the capital-T-Truth that you will never have enough time to fulfill all of your responsibilities perfectly. And that can be okay. There have been a lot of Spider-Man games released in the past four decades. Some of them have been fun; most of them have been crap. The best of them have really captured the physical feeling of swinging around New York City. But, until this point, none of them have captured this particular aspect of Spider-Man, and this game has not only captured it, but contributed to it; evolved it. I think that’s pretty cool.

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The Mystery Generation Engine: Subnautica and Systemic Wanderlust

Introduction

My favorite thing about Subnautica (2018) is that it is full of mysteries, from the backstory of the watery planet you crash land on, to the unique mechanics sets you discover, to the unmapped and objective marker-free world.  But the biggest mystery in Subnautica for me personally has been figuring out exactly how it evokes and maintains its sense of wonder. This has been my biggest barrier to writing about Subnautica, despite having played it for almost two years now.  *Something* about Subnautica makes me play and experience it differently from other games, even other games in its same survival-crafting-Minecraftlike genre. I’ve played many games with a mystery-focused plot, but on repeat playthroughs that mystery is gone, because I already know the answer to the mystery.  I’ve played many games with fascinating systems to dig into, but on repeat playthroughs that mystery is gone, because I already know how they work. When recently starting my third playthrough of Subnautica, I was surprised to find that the sense of mystery was still present, even though I knew all the secrets of the game’s lore and the intricate details of its systems.  But what made that feeling linger? On a metatextual level, I enjoy that Subnautica had one last mystery for me to solve, and I hope that, through this essay, I can do that, because exploring Subnautica’s various mysteries has been one of my most engaging gaming experiences of the past two years.

Before I continue, I do want to give a spoiler warning of sorts.  Being a game all about mystery, Subnautica’s experience is cheapened, though not ruined, if you lose the experience of discovering it for yourself.  Even seeing screenshots of late game areas or learning about late-game craftables can take away from the exhilaration of seeing something for yourself for the first time.  I avoided wiki pages, trailers, and even other reviews of the game until I had finished it, simply because that particular rush of discovery is Subnautica’s emotional core.  If you have no intention of playing Subnautiuca, and due to the intense thalassophobia it evokes, I can absolutely understand that, feel free to read on. But if anything I’ve said piques your interest, I highly recommend you pick it up on your digital platform of choice and enjoy some of the most wonder-provoking experiences gaming has to offer.  So, with that out of the way, let’s dive in! (That is the last ocean-related pun I’ll make in this essay, I promise).

 

Systemic Mystery

The opening of Subnautica is an abrupt one.  The player violently crashes on the surface of a planet; they’re confused, the don’t have much narrative context, and they’re surrounded by a world that feels truly alien.  So, the first type of mystery they uncover is not a narrative one, but a systemic one. The player is given a set of survival systems that they’ve probably encountered in other games before: find food, find water.  The early

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I destroyed at least three of these by bad driving alone

bits of this are fairly straightforward as the player gets acquainted with their environment, gets comfortable with the game’s elegantly designed underwater control scheme, and starts to dip their toes into the game’s crafting system to synthesize food and water.  From here, the game reveals its complexity slowly, and ramps it up just as the player is getting comfortable. The game has three primary systems for the player to deal with: crafting blueprints, oxygen management, and environmental interaction. Each of these are emphasized to different degrees throughout the game.  The opening strongly emphasizes oxygen management and moderately emphasizes crafting blueprints, but doesn’t emphasize environmental interaction much. The mid game is all about crafting blueprints, with a moderate emphasis on oxygen management and environmental interaction. Meanwhile, the end game almost entirely foregos oxygen management (and, in fact, all survival elements), with a slight emphasis on crafting blueprints, and an intense, maybe too intense, emphasis on environmental interaction.  So, how do each of these systems pique the player’s curiosity?

Let’s start with oxygen management.  This system exists to some extent in other games, but Subnautica emphasizes it much more than other titles on the market, so new players will probably be less immediately comfortable with it.  The player starts with 45 seconds of oxygen, refillable by swimming to the surface or entering a player base or ship, but it is later upgraded to 75 by the mid-game, and can be optionally upgraded to 225 by the end game.  But simply changing these numbers has a massive impact on how the player interacts with the system. In the early game, it prevents them from spending too much time under water, and since the majority of the game world is set under water, it makes any interaction with the ocean floor feel risky.  Exploring a wreck, gathering resources, and hunting fish all feel more tense when the player can only do it for 10 more seconds before swimming to the surface. It also leads to moments where the player sees something new and exciting, but has to quickly duck back to the surface for some oxygen before they can explore it, increasing their anticipation for when they return.  However, as later game areas become more complex, this system would start to get cumbersome, so the devs wisely deemphasized it with greater and greater player oxygen capacities asproxy.duckduckgo.com.jpg the game continues, and portable oxygen reserves in the form of vehicles. It helps add to the pacing and tension of early environments in the early game, and then quietly exits when it is no longer necessary.

Importantly, the player’s ability to upgrade their way out of the system is done organically, through the game’s tech tree.  Subnautica’s tech tree is the mechanical system that perhaps contributes the most to its systemic exploration, because it consistently creates moments of anticipation.  The player unlocks new blueprints by finding a hunk of wrecked technology and scanning it, but they usually need 2-4 wrecks to unlock each blueprint, and those wrecks are scattered throughout the game world.  The use of the blueprinted item is teased in item descriptions, giving the player some delayed gratification when they finally craft it. The blueprints themselves will often reference resources the player has not found yet, creating a rush of excitement when they finally find the final resource in a complicated blueprint.  The result is a system that absolutely follows the tech tree conventions of traditional crafting system, but is done diegetically, which can prevent the player from being aware of how gamey its systems are. And this diegetic reframing of classically abstracted game elements is one of Subnautica’s greatest strengths. The blueprint system is just a crafting tech tree, the crashed lifepod signal locations are just map markers, the cyclops’ scanner is just a minimap.  But because of how the game frames these elements, the player mentally models them as more complex than they often are. Games critic Joseph Anderson said that, “It seems like the devs wanted you to feel that, if you took your helmet off, those HUD markers would disappear”. That extra layer of authenticity takes what would be mundane features and uses them to enhance the player’s explorative excitement. Exploration feels more real when the player believes the tools with which they explore are real as well.

That isn’t to say there is no added depth to the systems, or that it is all smoke and mirrors.  The map marker system might just be a standard HUD map marker, but the player can craft buoys to place their own markers.  The crafting system may just be a gated tech tree, but the player can choose which branches of the tree to explore, ignoring some entirely.  Part of what has made my repeat playthroughs so exciting is that I get to dig into systems I had missed on previous playthroughs. The majority of the blueprints the player finds are optional, cool things they can dig into if they want to, not hard, mechanical requirements the game is forcing on them.  And the simple fact that these blueprints aren’t revealed from the start adds so much to the thrill of discovering them.

This principle is carried over into environmental interaction just as strongly, though it is one of Subnautica’s less refined systems.  Early game environments are genuinely interesting to explore, with new features such as oxygen-restoring brain coral, or hidden predators that rush the player.  They make the environment feel dynamic and fully realized in a way most survival games simply do not. Each object in the world can be scanned by the player, and most likely plays into some greater system.  Stalkers grab hunks of metal, dropping a tooth the player can use for crafting, and hoarding the metal hunks in their nest. Sea treaders kick up large resource deposits as they walk along the Envi.jpgocean floor. Some rocks have strange, organic objects attached to them that cause them to float, and the player can take those objects and use them to make any other physics-enabled object float.  Unfortunately, in the late game areas, this environmental interaction seems to decrease. These areas are much larger and less finely detailed. An area that might take a player ten minutes to fully explore, scan, and loot in the early game might be cruised over in a matter of seconds in the late game. This is partially because of how much the player’s speed has increased by the end game, but it does also seem like a deliberate choice on the part of the designers.  Many of the late game environments do look genuinely impressive, but feel systemically more empty.

 

Exploitative Mystery

While some of the late game environments might be lacking in detail, exploring Subnautica’s world and uncovering its secrets is its greatest pleasure.  In keeping with its commitment to diegetic user interfaces, there is no map screen in game. And, after playing the game through three times, I am convinced that this is the single most important creative decision the designers made.  It encourages the player to interact with the world directly, in three full dimensions, not via a map screen. Over-emphasis on minimaps is a trap many contemporary games fall into, and an interesting thought experiment to highlight this is 1998’s Metal Gear Solid.  Metal Gear Solid is a soft 3D remake of its predecessor, the 2D game Metal Gear (1987). What makes this interesting for our purposes is that, if you removed the 3D viewport from Metal Gear Solid, and just looked at the game’s soliton radar minimap, it would play almost identically to the 2D MGS.jpgMetal Gear.  This is forgivable for Metal Gear Solid, an early 3D game, but many contemporary games can still be played surprisingly well just by looking at this minimap. Because 2D maps are more easily readable than 3D environments, this can encourage the player to just look at their minimap, pulling them out of the 3D world.  To avoid this problem, Subnautica does away with the map entirely. This means the player has to get more familiar with the landscape itself, and navigate it accordingly. The player’s vision can’t be drawn to a mini map in the corner, it has to be figuring out how the environment itself works. Additionally, because Subnautica is set underwater, traditional 2D maps might not work as well, since the player has to navigate complex, vertically-oriented cave structures.  The combination of complex environments that emphasize 3D navigation and the lack of any sort of mapping system to mitigate that complexity makes navigation in Subnautica a very intentional and involved process, which is surprisingly unusual in contemporary games. The player puts effort into navigating winding caves, avoiding ambushing predators, and ducking back to the surface or their vehicle for oxygen. I’ve said this before, but making traversal engaging is perhaps the most important factor for making open world games interesting over their long runtimes, and Subnautica does this by consistently forcing the player to interact with it in ways they aren’t used to.

This mapless system dovetails well with the utterly alien quality of the world itself, both in visuals and in systems.  By playthrough three, I know the environment well enough that this effect has faded a bit, but during my first two playthroughs, I was completely enthralled with the environments.  The were gorgeous and strange, filled with bioluminescent and oddly shaped organic matter, packed with strange sounds from off in the distance, like the groan of a far-off whale-like creature or the cackling of a nearby predator.  This further encourages the player to explore, by scanning everything in sight, finding out where those sounds are coming from, and learning what each of those creatures do. While the beginning of the game leaves the player confused and in awe, by

Subnautica DYNAMIC MAP! | Subnautica Mods #1 - Map Mod ...

This is a map mod that exists and I hate it

the end, they genuinely feel like a scientist and explorer.  They know what every sound means, how every predator hunts, which of the plants are useful, and which of the fish are difficult to catch. The fact that the starting area alone is packed with this much mystery encourages them to explore further. Maybe they’ve gotten comfortable in the Safe Shallows zone, but soon their radio picks up messages from crashed survivors, drawing them further away from their comfort zone and helping them find new blueprints.  This is further enhanced by the game’s one major landmark: the Aurora itself. From the moment the player gains control, they see the wreck of the Aurora far off in the distance, knowing that they will be able to explore it at some point. It’s a tease for something later, building up that anticipation. I think this accomplishes what is perhaps the most important part of exploration-focused games: making the player feel that there is something out there worth finding.  This was one of my issues with 2017’s Breath of the Wild, where the mechanics of exploration themselves were executed to near perfection, with new ways of exploring environments by climbing or gliding or shield surfing. But, after a few hours, I started feeling that there wasn’t anything worth finding. Nearly every discovery would lead to a korok seed or shrine, which made it eventually feel closer to checking things off of a list rather than genuinely following my own wanderlust.  But Subnautica wants to create a feeling of braving the unknown, and in order to do that, it has to have something out there that is genuinely unknown. Even by the end game, it continues to do this wonderfully.

This is not to say that the player can explore freely with no limits.  Early on especially, the player is limited by easy access to food and water.  Furthermore, the depth of certain areas might not allow for exploration with the amount of oxygen the player has, or they might hit the hard limit of crush depth.  Crush depth is one of the only linear upgrades in the game, where the player’s vehicles cannot descend below a certain depth without breaking. The player needs to craft expensive depth modules to allow them to go deeper.  I initially wasn’t a fan of this more artificial upgrade system, but I think it does work well to gate the player from certain areas and build anticipation for reaching them. Some of my favorite moments in Subnautica include stumbling upon new areas that I didn’t know existed, even on later playthroughs, and knowing that I couldn’t go there just yet because of limits.  These are accompanied by these dramatic, terror-inspiring drop offs. Usually, this particular track on the soundtrack kicks in right as the player is staring down the drop off, Original Inhabitants, filled with unsettling choral tones.  I’ll be

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Finding Nemo (2003) really does this best

completely honest, this moment TERRIFIES me.  During my most recent playthrough, I tried to play the game in VR, but staring over the edge of one of these underwater cliffs was the moment, I said, “Screw it”, and switched back to the non-VR version.  Subnautica is brilliant at capturing both the beauty and the terror of the ocean, and as someone who is absolutely petrified by any large body of water, these are moments where that terror hits its peak.

 

But eventually, the player crafts the resources to go back and explore these areas, and the terror must be confronted.  I love the setup phase for these expeditions, as you have to pack up food and resources, top off your batteries and ship fuel, then set sail into the unknown.  And these later game areas really do feel different from the earlier ones. The intense god rays streaming down from the surface and friendly, bioluminescent creatures from the starting zones give way to pitch black environments with more predators, more pressure, and less oxygen.  You interact with these environments differently, staying close to your ship in case a predator swims by. The Blood Kelp Zone and Grand Reef are my personal favorites, and evoke the very specific kind of terror of looking back up towards the surface of the ocean and seeing only blackness.  At this point in the game, interactions with the game’s leviathan-class predators becomes more common. And goddamn, are they terrifying. The Reaper Leviathan is the first leviathan-

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Yeah, I lost that ship

class predator the player is likely to encounter, probably the ones swimming around the Aurora crash zone. In pictures, they look kind of goofy, but in game, few creatures can evoke its specific brand of shear panic.  It’s first encountered far off in the distance, where the player might just barely see its silhouette or catch a brief glimpse of it. For me, this is the most terrifying part. Wondering if you actually saw a reaper, or if it was just a trick of the light, wondering if it’s headed in your direction, if you have time to get away…this is Subnautica’s horror at its finest. Actual interaction with the Reapers is fairly simple.  If you get too close, they’ll make chase and attack your seamoth, and if you’re unlucky enough to be caught outside of your ship with it finds you, well, that’s game over. So, not the most mechanically interesting enemy in gaming, but absolutely one of the more emotionally interesting ones. End-game areas are filled with Reapers and the even more deadly Ghost Leviathan. Avoiding them is an absolute treat when playing in the Seamoth, but unfortunately, it becomes less interesting by the true endgame, which…is definitely Subnautica’s weakest moment.

2018-11-14_00002.jpgThe late game begins when the player crafts the Cyclops submarine.  The actual process of doing this is incredibly exciting, and finally gathering all the parts to construct it feels like a towering achievement within the hostile game world.  Boarding the sub, realizing you have complete control over this massive vehicle, can use it to go to depths you could never reach before, is legitimately exhilarating. But the player’s actual experience of the sub is…mixed, to say the least.  Firstly, it is *incredibly* easy to get the sub stuck on the environment. It has four exterior cameras that help with this navigation, but moving around the safe shallows where most players set up their base is a good way to get it permanently stuck.  Additionally, the sub is primarily used to navigate the extended underground zones of the Lost River and various lava-filled zones. These environments are entered through winding caves that are easy to navigate when the player is swimming alone or zipping along in their tiny seamoth, but with something the size of the cyclops, it never feels quite right.  I absolutely understand what they were trying to do with the cyclops experience, it just feels untested and unfinished in a way other aspects of the game really don’t. It feels like it needed a few more months of dev time to smooth out the cyclops movement, maybe decrease its size or increase the size of the cave entrances in the Lost River, maybe improve the FOV from the cyclops window…there are a lot of potential solutions, but they clearly didn’t have the time or budget to iterate on them.  The end result is an experience with a lot of good ideas, most of them poorly executed. The idea of distracting large predators by firing out a decoy is a unique idea that delivers on the premise of the game, but the large predators are so non-threatening that it’s rarely worth the hassle. The predator attacks are genuinely terrifying, with the player safely inside their ship, but hearing the giant beast outside. But, after the player realizes that they can just run away, they become more annoying than tense.  The sonar system is a legitimately fascinating idea for how to explore dark environments. But it drains 1% of the ship’s energy per tick, meaning it is better used as an occasional aid than a viable navigational alternative. There are a lot of ideas to love about the cyclops mechanics, but the whole of the experiences feels much messier than the rest of the game.

To close this section out, I want to pose one more criticism of the game’s exploration systems, and propose a potential solution.  I don’t usually do this, because inventing mechanics on my own is cheap when I don’t have to do the work of actually implementing, testing and iterating on them, but I think exploring the possibility space the mechanic proposes can lead to some interesting insights.  So, the game’s lack of a Map ROom.jpgmap is something I praised earlier in this section. But, near the end game, it becomes incredibly cumbersome. Trying to find a specific resource or blueprint fragment is engaging when there are just a few zones to search, but less so when you need this one item to progress and you have no idea where to find it.  This means that, by the end game, I usually end up caving and looking up a map or wiki entry, rather than spend hours scanning every environment for something I might have missed. So, how could it be improved? Well, the game already has a system I think this could be built on top of, the scanner room. This is unlocked fairly late in the game, right around the time the player would start to feel the slog of the game’s lack of map.  By this point, the player has started to expand into a space that is larger than they can reasonably keep a mental map of, especially with the lack of distant landmarks other than the Aurora. So, I’d propose turning that scanning room into a map room, that the player can only access from the scanner room itself. Their scanning room maps some of the area after a few minutes, and they can build portable scanners to place in other areas of the map to increase that radius.  Existing buoys would also show up as the map expanded. Maybe they could use the cyclops to generate mapping data as well. I think this works because it keeps the early game feeling of the unknown, but by the mid-to-late game when the player is probably looking up maps on the wiki already, it makes mapping and exploration an active progress. The player would have to go out of their way to do this, it wouldn’t happen automatically. I think that’s consistent with the feel the game is going for, helps remove some late-game frustration, and actually adds more exciting actions.

 

Narrative Mystery

Even without my proposed mapping system, Subnautica already evokes a greater sense of wonder and discovery than most games on the market.  And, fortunately, the game’s loose frame narrative only expands on this idea. The premise of the game is fairly narratively simple, and I think that works to the game’s advantage.  The player is flying on a ship to an uncharted world, their ship crashes for some reason, and they need to survive. That premise does expand slightly as the player explores the Aurora, but not by much.  What you see is what you get. At first, this might seem to be missing an early opportunity for more mystery. Hit the player with a narrative hook early on so they have something to stew on. But I think this would detract from the initial emotional experience of the crash.  The player is supposed to feel frantic, scrambling to survive. proxy.duckduckgo.com.jpgAdding more narrative beats would dilute that experience. And, additionally, it means that the player doesn’t go in *expecting* a story. Most survival games on the market barely have a narrative at all, and Subnautica’s opening is about as complex as they get.  There is an implied narrative beat of reaching the Aurora in the future, but nothing explicitly story-focused. From here, the story is eased onto the player, giving them the audio logs of other survivors, which at first seem almost narratively empty; just glorified quest markers. But then the player starts realizing that all of the life pods have been destroyed.  Maybe they don’t put it together on their own that something is hunting these characters, but some of them might. But, this is still light enough that the player isn’t expecting a larger story. Even reaching the Aurora and disabling the ship’s reactor doesn’t provide much of a narrative resolution, it just makes the area nearby safer. The player is being driven by systemic and explorative mystery, and the last bit of narrative possibility has been removed from their mind.  But, after finding the Aurora, the player gets a message with a rendezvous point for survivors. Confused, they’ll head to the coordinates, and this is where the narrative finally reveals itself.

The rendezvous coordinates are on dry land, which seems to have appeared out of nowhere.  It’s kind of hard to express how much of a shock this is. In any other game, finding a normal island would be a fairly mundane experience, but in Subnautica, a game set entirely underwater with no land in sight, this is a shock.  That beat of intense surprise and wonder is something Subnautica pulls off multiple times throughout its runtime, and it is incredibly impressive to me that it can continue to do this even when proxy.duckduckgo.com.jpgthe player is already expecting it; most games can’t even manage to do this once.  This puts the player into a specific mindset that Subnautica evokes intensely during just a few narrative beats: investigative wonder. The player’s scanner becomes their primary means of interacting with the environment, learning bits and pieces for each blueprint or hidden audio log.  During these sections, the game becomes less of a survival game, and more of an adventure game, which dovetails Subnautica’s mystery genre effortlessly. Having popups with links to in-game descriptions of items is not uncommon in contemporary games, but Subnautica is one of the few that has me to actually read them.  These entries provide actually valuable information, and stoke the player’s curiosity on just what they imply. And, in a genre-appropriate touch, almost every entry ends with the phrase “Further analysis needed”.

The remainder of the game switches back and forth between exploration mode, base building/crafting mode, and these intense moments of adventure game-like discovery.  It doesn’t overload the player with these info dumps, it spaces them out to make them feel unique. Discovering the first bit of alien technology also evokes this feeling wonderfully, because, going into the game, the player didn’t even know there would be any technologically-advanced aliens.  Digging into the apocalyptic plague that forms the crux of the game’s lore also fits Subnautica’s existing genres, making the player feel like a scientist as they scan, research and synthesize a cure. The last narrative shock moment in the game is the reveal of the immense sea emperor leviathan, a moment that genuinely shocked and terrified me even on the non-VR version of the game.  This introduces the game’s first honest-to-god character well into the third act of its story. If a proxy.duckduckgo.com.jpggame is going to have characters at all, they’re usually introduced early in the first act, but here Subnautica is, adding them in right before the endgame. And while the final story missions of the game are…basically a glorified fetch quest, the narrative does conclude in a satisfying way.  Building a rocket to leave the planet is as time-consuming an undertaking as it needs to be to feel momentus, and the sequence of saying goodbye to the planet (and the adorable cuddlefish pet), dropping a time capsule for another player to find, and going through the launch sequence feels final and satisfying in a way few endings from systems-focused games ever are. The narrative may not be the foundation of Subnautica, but the restraint with which its beats are delivered to the player and the subtlety with which they are conveyed make it stand out.

 

Conclusion

TV and Film director J.J. Abrams is famous for his concept of “mystery box” storytelling, and his ideas for how crafting that mystery box can draw audiences in, even over long form, serialized content.  The problem with his approach is that, most of the time, revealing what’s in the box ruins the story. I loved Lost during its original run, but I have never gone back to rewatch it.  The mystery is gone. I know all the answers. Yet, after three playthroughs of Subnautica, I can still return to it and feel almost the same sense of mystery I did the first time.  The game’s systems make the player experience the world in a way that keeps that mystery present, by always teasing them with more to explore. With over 70 hours invested in this game, there are still entire areas I have not explore to the fullest, still narrative possibilities and text logs I haven’t discovered yet.  But it’s not just that there is more of the text that I have not seen, it’s that the methods of engaging with the text themself evoke the same experience that its static narrative beats try to. Subnautica doesn’t work because it contains a mystery, it works because its systems, narrative, and environment create the experience of uncovering one.  In the same way that John Wick can show a stylish gunfight, but Superhot is a stylish gunfight generation engine, Subnautica is a mystery generation engine. The team at Unknown Worlds is currently working on a standalone expansion for Subnautica, titled Below Zero. And while I’ve tried to avoid any of their pre-release media, I have caught a few screenshots of frozen oceans and eldritch deep-sea creatures.  Perhaps Subnautica’s mystery generation engine is set to do a take on H.P. Lovecraft next, perhaps not. But, regardless, the team has proven themselves adept at evoking wonder and curiosity in all elements of their game, and I look forward to seeing what they adapt their formula to next.

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A Little Closer to the Horizon, Please: Horizon Zero Dawn Review

Introduction

It’s no secret that Horizon Zero Dawn’s time in the spotlight was cut unfortunately short by releasing three days before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  Two exploration-based open world games coming out within three days of each other would be enough of a marketing nightmare on its own, but when one of those games is a critically adored, GOTY-sweeping entry in one gaming’s best-known franchises, I’m amazed Horizon actually broke even.  But while torrents of pieces analyzing every facet of Breath of the Wild have been released and continue to get released, Horizon seems to have gone relatively unanalyzed for a game of its scope and creativity.  I picked it up hoping to find a hidden gem, but what I found was more of a great blueprint for a hidden gem, that seemed to need a few more redesigns.  Still, I think the successes and failures of Horizon make it one of the most interesting games released last year, and the questions it asks about how to make a AAA open world game are especially important in such a static genre.  So, how does Horizon shake up the open-world formula?  What fundamental assumptions about open world setting and story design does it challenge?  And can it turn any of those ideas into engaging systems

Story & Setting

Horizon’s writing is probably its most interesting, back-of-the-box, selling point feature.  So it’s a shame that, most of the time the player is actually engaging with it, it’s awkward, bland, or frustrating.  “Awkward” is really the best word I can think of to describe the dialog, from Aloy’s teenaged attempts to land a sick burn, to the conversations with Sylens that are basically just them being angry at each other over voice chat, to the strange attempts at stiff, fantasy genre speech that most characters talk

Dialog

Even in action-adventure games, you can’t escape the dialog wheel

in.  It’s telling that I looked up the “Skip Dialog” button about twenty minutes into the game; most of the time when the game is talking at you, you’ll be bored.  During the majority of the cutscenes, I found myself groaning with the same frequency I do at most AAA titles, because the characters speak so stiffly.  I’m fairly certain that this is a problem with the script, because they’ve hired some fairly talented actors to play the parts.  The closest comparison I can find is, appropriately, Dontnod’s 2015 Life is Strange.  Voice actor/writer Ashly Burch voices lead characters in both of these games (Aloy in HZD and Chloe in LiS), and appropriately demonstrates the feel of a talented actor with a wooden script, and how that gets translated from page to game.  The writing in Horizon feels very similar, with actors struggling to emote around clunky dialog.  Part of the awkwardness in Life is Strange’s script comes from it being translated from French, and Guerrilla Games is a Dutch company, so I suppose that could have contributed to a similar feel.  However, the game’s lead writer was John Gonzalez, best known for writing for Fallout New Vegas, one of the most fully-realized settings in the history of the medium.  So, the cause of the clunky dialog is still a mystery to me.

However, the problems with the script extend beyond the dialog; the major plot points regularly fail to land as well.  The game opens with an impeccably directed sequence (like nearly all of its cutscenes) showing Aloy dealing with her outcast status, training, growing up, and preparing to face the world.  It introduces Rost, Aloy’s adoptive father (a character so forgettable I just had to Google his name), swiftly kills him off to give Aloy a personal stake in fighting the big bad.  Aloy wins membership in the tribe that has treated her as an outcast for her entire life, then goes off on her great adventure.  This plot is formulaic enough that it should at least function as an easy setup, but the wooden delivery and awkward structure make each point land less than gracefully.  Rost, for example, is barely mentioned for the rest of the game, and because we never really see Aloy enjoying her time with him, he doesn’t work as an effective motivation.  And Aloy’s drive to find out who her mother is never quite lines up with the player’s interest in the world (though they did try, and I’ll expand on that later).  This results in the player sort of floating from plot event to plot event, not really invested in any of it.  The Nora themselves are perhaps the best example of this, because, as an elevator pitch, they work brilliantly.  Aloy grows up shunned by them for reasons she cannot understand, and Nora.jpgfights for their acceptance not because she actually wants it, but because she wants to know why they treat her so horribly.  Once she gains access to the community’s secrets, she discovers that they are misinterpreting the will of a dying AI, treating it as a religious faith, and that Aloy’s exile was a result of this misinterpretation.  As Aloy explores the world, she learns more about how mistaken the Nora are, and returns to them with knowledge that makes her an almost mythic figure, all while dealing with the emotional confusion of being revered by the people who once shunned her.  Did you get excited reading that?  Because I got excited writing it.  That sounds like an incredible story!  I’d love to play that game!  But that does not feel like the game I got to play.  Almost everything with the Nora is brought up in a beautifully-rendered cutscene, then forgotten as Aloy goes and fights some boring apocalypse cult.  You’ve fought a billion like them in every video game ever made.  And given how forgettable that plotline is, most of your direct experience with the story is just hanging out with Aloy.  And, umm.  Okay, let’s talk about Aloy.

I really wanted to like Aloy.  She’s voiced by Ashly Burch, which already gives her a few dozen points in her favor, she’s got a (theoretically) interesting backstory as a social outcast, and is kind of a badass on top of it.  But, in execution, her character is just…bland.  I can’t really come up with any of her personality traits other than “determined” and “impulsive”, which are the traits of approximately every video game protagonist since like 2004.  She doesn’t really seem to enjoy what she’s doing beyond an occasional satisfied smile, and mostly seems kind of annoyed with people, which makes sense for a social outcast, but isn’t expanded upon in a meaningful enough wya to make it a worthwhile tradeoff.  But Aloy’s biggest weakness as a character comes from an element that could have easily been her biggest strength: her motivation.  I absolutely understand what they were trying to do; Aloy’s journey to find her mother (cloned genetic progenitor, whatever, she’s functionally her mom) gives her a personal stake in exploring the ruins of the old world.  In interviews, lead writer John Gonzalez talked about how, without this personal motivation, Horizon is just a detective story, but the best detective stories are “Ones that the detective really needs to solve”.  Thus, he gave Aloy a driving personal reason to dig deeper.  However, as a player, I found myself thoroughly uninterested in Aloy’s journey of self because of the weak setup, and more interested in the world itself.  So, I was interested in finding out more about the world, but Aloy is only interested in the bits that relate specifically to her birth.  She doesn’t seem excited about uncovering some bit of world-defining lore, when the player is on the edge of their seat.  She’s looting the stories of the dead world looking for scraps about her mother, and tossing aside everything else.  And in her approach to the lore of the world, I really began to understand Aloy, because it lead me to ask a seemingly unrelated question that, in actuality, tells us a lot about Aloy: What point does Sylens serve in the story?  This one threw me for a loop until I started combing over the plot summary and looking at his actions.  He basically does Character_9.jpgeverything interesting in the story.  He does the archeological digging, uncovers ancient secrets, pieces together where to go next, and scours the world looking for new dig sites.  He even kicks off the primary events of the story by awakening HADES.  Basically, he figures everything out so that all Aloy needs to do is kill the people between her and Sylens’ next objective.  And this is where I began to understand Aloy.  Like so many video game protagonists, she is good at killing, and little else.  I get that, by the nature of this being a AAA action-adventure game, she has to be good at killing, but that’s really the only thing she’s good at.  But Sylens highlights what she could have been.  An archeologist who knows her way around weapons, like Nathan Drake or (more appropriately, given her personality) the rebooted Laura Croft.  If Aloy had done everything that Sylens did, there could have been an even tighter connection between setting and story.  Sylens’ motivations of curiosity about the old world and a driving desire to explore its mysteries are so much more compatible with what the player wants to do (namely, explore) that it seems like a perfect match, in stark contrast to Aloy’s motivation of “Who’s my mom, who I guess happens to be related to the setting?”  So, while playing as a character more like Sylens wouldn’t have had that same personal connection to the mystery, it would have at least made the player feel like their interest in every scrap of the old world wasn’t out of character.  Giving Aloy even a bit of that archeological predisposition could have done so much to improve this.

So, the dialogue is bad, the low-level plot is bad, and the main character feels underutilized, which just leaves the setting.  Fortunately, the setting is Horizon’s greatest strength, and when executed correctly, is genuinely breathtaking.  This is first apparent in the game’s visual design, a strange hybrid of ancient and modern styles.  Characters have headdresses made of bullet casings, fur clothes with metal flourishes, and ancient makeup and war paint in the shape of circuit boards.  This, coupled with the game’s impressive graphical fidelity, makes it consistently gorgeous to look at, and conveys many of the game’s themes with much more subtlety and effectiveness than any of its story beats.  The environments of the world reflect this as well, with sprawling, beautiful landscapes littered with the corpses of derelict machines, and the centuries-old ruins of ancient cities.  It delivers on one of my favorite promises of the post-post-apocalypse genre (or whatever it’s called): showing a new world flourish in the carcass of the old, no longer concerned with the squabbles, culture and events of their long-dead ancestors.  Similar works in this genre include Nier: Automata, and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West,

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Seriously, more people need to play Enslaved

the later of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  These two games are less backwards-looking than most works in the post-apocalypse genre, and I wish Horizon had committed to that more.  Because, by the end of the game, there are really no mysteries left to uncover; the game has already answered everything.  The only real question remaining is posted in an after-credits sequel hook where Sylens reveals that someone or something woke HADES up, which wasn’t appropriately set up beforehand (it seemed like HADES had been awake forever and Sylens just stumbled upon him while being an archaeology nerd).  And while I think the ending’s lack of mystery does harm the game as a whole, I want to acknowledge the sense of wonder the game does successfully create at its beginning.  As Aloy crosses from the safety of her tribe’s sacred land into the outer world at the end of Act 1, the player is burning with so many questions about the nature of the game’s world and presented with a world full of answers.  That moment is one of my highlights of the entire game, and even though that mystery is diluted by the ending, it sets up the open world beautifully.While poking around the world, the player will stumble on some of the game’s best bits of world building.  These include audio and text logs that describe the workings of the old world without giving away too much, giving the player small anecdotes instead of comprehensive answers.  This is reminiscent of Croteam’s The Talos Principle, which never outright states the cause of the apocalypse, and instead describes people living their lives under the shadow of it.  As a result, the player feels like an archeologist of their own world, uncovering bits of 21st-century technology and lore that are new and mysterious to Aloy, but not to the player.  And this touches on perhaps my favorite theme in the story, that of the tribes of the new world misinterpreting the ideas of the old world.  It serves as an interesting twist on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous, often-quoted line, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This concept is most often used when the audience cannot understand the technology, making it seem magical, but in Horizon, we see this from the opposite perspective.  During the first act,

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The Womb of the Mountain/Magical Broken Computer

Aloy presents herself to what the tribe calls “The Goddess”, and ancient structure inside the mountain that they built their capital around.  This takes the shape of a metal door, which emanates a red light and scans Aloy, saying, “Identity not verified, data corruption”.  The player knows that this is obviously a computer, that it’s using some sort of scan to verify her identity, and that there’s a busted hard drive somewhere in the facility that’s making it throw an error.  But the leaders of the Nora treat it as a prophecy, speaking of the corruption as a mythical force that Aloy must conquer.  The player is given both perspectives, the technological and the magical, and is able to understand both simultaneously.  Aloy’s problem of fixing a broken computer is turned into a mythic quest simply because the Nora think its magic.  *That* is a brilliant use of Horizon’s genre, and one that feels fairly unique to Horizon itself.

Exploration & Combat

So how does the player uncover these setting details?  Outside of the main plot, the setting is primarily communicated through the design of the world itself.  While the late game may suffer from the kind of bloat that seems emblematic of post-Assassin’s Creed open world titles, during early-to-mid game, the size and scope feels just right, and allows for measured exploration.  While, at the end of the game, I was fast-traveling from campfire to campfire, during the first few zones, I *loved* the open world.  I was searching every corner looking for new enemies to fight, hidden areas to poke around in, and loot to find.  The game lets you do something that so few contemporary open world Horizon Zero Dawn™_20180116181436.jpggames actually do: stumble upon something mysterious.  The first Cauldron level I did was one of my favorite experiences in the entire game, because I was just wandering the open world when I found it.  No one directed me there, I wasn’t given a quest to “Clear Cauldron 1 of X”, I just found it.  While I was exploring it, I was burning with curiosity about what could be behind every new corner, and the game delivered on it.  That was the discovery the game should have focused on, because it put you in the headspace of discovering an ancient, abandoned world.  Unfortunately, by the late game, that mystery had begun to dissipate, and I was just Clearing Cauldron 6 of X.  As the world grew in size, it felt less important to explore all of it.  I already knew what I would find because icons for them were plastered all over my map.  When I arrived at new zones, it wasn’t introduced with a cutscene or any exposition about what made it unique, I just kind of ran through it while following my objective marker.  I tried to turn off as many of those markers as I could, and let myself get distracted as much as possible, but the game was just not built for it past its first two zones.  The world was better when it was smaller.

I have one more anecdote that I think highlights the best and worst of Horizon’s open world, as it was almost one of my favorite moments in the game.  I was exploring near one of the game’s northern areas, and I saw that I was nearly at the edge of the map.  Curious to see what the edge of the world looked like, I headed north until I found a snowy mountain range.  I tried to sneak my way past a few enemies, but made a bad call and blew my cover, resulting in enemy attacks barreling down on me from all directions.  Instead of running away, I made the split-second decision to charge the mountain, and climbed it while dodging fire and just barely keeping my health bar topped off.  With no healing items to spare, I reached the top, only to be greeted by…a cutscene introducing a giant, flying boss.  Here, when just exploring the open world, I had stumbled onto a unique boss encounter totally undirected.  It took nearly every bit of ropecaster ammo I had, but I was able to take it down, and Aloy dropped a quick voice hint about seeing what it was guarding.  I moved past the machine’s corpse, and saw a series of platforming challenges (ladders, ledges, etc.), that seemed to lead to a nearby cave.  I climbed about halfway up the ridge, and…I got stuck.  I could not, for the life of me, find the next place to climb.  I retraced my steps, tried jumping on every bit of environment that looked even remotely climbable, and even turned on the game’s objective hints.  Nothing.  After about half an hour of trying, I gave up, and googled a video guide.  And, this is where my excitement turned to frustration.  Right at the point I had stopped, in my world, there was an empty ledge, with no apparent way up, but in the world of the YouTube video I was watching, there was a ladder neatly placed right there.  Apparently, that ladder only appears when you have unlocked that area’s relevant quest.  Now, I understand that, in an open world game, you need to gate off certain areas that are mission-specific.  But to have that gate be an arbitrary ladder halfway up the path to that

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Why?

objective, with no indication to the player that they can’t reach the area?  Not even an “I should come back later” voice line from Aloy?  If they had simply forgotten to gate off the area, I would have understood, but the removal of this ladder implies that some designer on the team saw the problem, and deliberately implemented this disappearing ladder as a solution to solve the problem.  That, I do not understand.  Maybe remove the first stepping stone up the mountain, instead of one in the middle?  Gate the area off entirely?  I can think of dozens of equally cheap design solutions, none of which would have lead to this problem.  And while this is a single issue, I think it’s emblematic of how Horizon only half commits to making its world explorable.  It gets far, far closer than most games, but isn’t able to go far enough.  Which, I suppose, is a good summary of my opinion on the game as a whole.

Before concluding, I do want to briefly touch on the game’s combat.  Again, I enjoyed it much more at the beginning of the game than at the end, and I think that has more to do with encounter design than player skill or numerical advantages.  A great deal of the campaign involves fighting human enemies, which features a largely uninteresting opening of shallow stealth that transitions irrevocably into shallow combat as soon as you are spotted.  You’ve done this before in most AAA action-adventure titles.  Combat against machine enemies, meanwhile is much more interesting, especially because of the various traps the game offers.  The game does have one combat setup that works brilliantly, and that is when the game lets the player really step into the shoes of a hunter and plan their attack. While most of the campaign missions don’t allow for this kind of play, those that do demonstrate a style of combat that simply cannot be found in other games.  Checking enemy movement patterns, scanning for their weaknesses, dropping tripcaster lines, and setting up the perfect trap is a rich tactical treat, especially on the harder difficulties.  However, open combat is less tactically engaging, primarily because of the difficulty of deploying the traps mid-combat.  Even with a great deal of handling images.duckduckgo.commods on my tripcaster, I found keeping track of enemies while setting them up is incredibly difficult, and often for little reward, at least on Hard mode.  This is made worse by how clunky avoiding enemy attacks is even when not trying to place traps.  The player’s primary means of avoiding damage is a dodge roll that never seemed to reliably be able to avoid damage.  This is used in the face of enemy attacks that are difficult to predict, because of the visually busy design of the enemies, the raw number of enemies the player will be fighting at any given time, and the fact that the player’s focus is often narrowed on weak points, making them miss subtle movements of the enemies.  Additionally, enemies often attack in multi-hit combos that would put a Bloodborne boss to shame.  Often times, I would see a telegraph, dodge away from the enemy, and still get him by later attacks in a combo, even if I spammed the upgraded dodge roll.  Because this makes trap deployment difficult, I ended up using traps less, turning combat into a fairly standard third-person shooter.  The ropecaster can do a lot to alleviate this problem, but if ever a game was calling out for some sort of Shadow of the Colossus-style enemy climbing while searching for weak points, this was it.  Still, when the level designers give you a suite of tactical options, Horizon’s combat truly embraces its setting in a way that most other AAA titles simply can’t, and does feel genuinely unique and interesting to engage with.  I just wish that same amount of depth could have been applied to open combat as well.

Conclusion

I feel like I came off a lot more negative towards this game than I intended, so I want to open the conclusion with a reframing of my opinion on the game: I think Horizon Zero Dawn is an incremental improvement on the AAA action-adventure game that greatly raises the bar for what we can expect from the admittedly stale genre.  The quality of the cinematic and art direction alone is astonishing, and the idea that these games can explore more creative settings and have gameplay inspired by them is one that the industry is in desperate need of adopting.  If every AAA open world title was as creative and risky as Horizon Zero Dawn was, I probably wouldn’t be suffering from genre fatigue.  Still, there are tradeoffs to taking risks when making a game this expensive: you’re working with ideas that haven’t been iterated on and polished over multiple sequels.  So, whenever Horizon Zero Dawn 2 comes out, I will be looking forward to seeing how Guerilla takes this first game, which was promising but messy, and polishes it up.

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The Proto-MMO: RuneScape and Unstructured, Massively Multiplayer Play

The website of Jagex Ltd. says that I first logged into its seminal MMO Runescape over twelve years ago, on September 11th, 2005.  It also says that I’ve spent 827 hours playing the game since then, a number that does embarrass me, but not enough to stop me from playing it.  See, Runescape doesn’t have any of the qualities of the games I spend most of my time playing.  While most of the games populating my most played list of 2017 have gone all respectable, with coherent and gorgeous art direction, game systems that engage and challenge, and well-crafted narratives that finally made me stop feeling insecure

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God, how is that even possible?

about dedicating my professional life to games instead of literature or film or whatever, Runescape is…basically a clicker game with a prettier coat of paint.  So, I have a hard time explaining why Runescape is interesting to me other than the patented nostalgia excuse.  But I’ve spent a decent amount of those 827 total hours playing the game in the past few weeks, and I think I’ve come up with a rough idea of why I keep coming back.  My arc with most games is as follows: buy, binge, give up, move on to the next game.  I don’t usually revisit games to complete side content, and I rarely replay them.  However, I engage with Runescape differently.  In Runescape, I might play for a week here and there, then go back to playing other games.  I make a bit of progress, complete a quest, grind some levels, then move on.  So, what about Runescape’s design is different from other MMOs?  How does it structure its expected playtime to encourage a more casual engagement?  And can we still learn something from it when the contemporary MMO is moving closer to “shared world” that “massively multiplayer”?

“Player freedom” has become such an overused industry buzzword in the past decade that I cringe just to mention it, let alone to make it the core of my thesis, but yeah, Runescape offers the least directed experience of any MMO I’ve played (certainly any made since World of WarCraft).  Once the player leaves the tutorial, they are basically given the freedom of a Bethesda RPG.  The game is so good at this that it actually struggles to give new players a clear direction when they start playing, and I think this is a very good problem to have.  WoW popularized this “theme park” style of MMOs that gives the player an exact path to follow through the game, so the player rarely has to decide what to do next.  And while there is some benefit to this system (namely, it’s relaxing as hell), Runescape shows how good it can be when you design for the opposite sensibilities.

Here’s an example of a Runescape play session I had the other day: “Okay, I really want to complete the Recipe for Disaster quest because it’s goddamn funny, but in order to do that, I need to complete the Desert Treasure quest to unlock Ancient Magicks.  And that would be easy, except finishing that quest requires killing this vampire boss who has been giving me a lot of trouble, but it looks like he’s weak to air spells, so I’m going to train my magic level to 60 so I can use this awesome magic staff that will let me hit him with my toughest air spell.  Magic is kind of hard to train, so I’ll pickup some good magic gear and complete a few quests that give magic experience while learning how to use the new magic system.  And then I can complete this quest I’ve wanted to do since I was 13.”

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Completing this was literally on my bucket list

This is a chain of events that I planned out on my own, a decent amount of which could have been swapped out for other solutions.  I didn’t need to do any of it to advance in the game, I just wanted to.  Where an average play session for WoW is “I need to do this quest so I can unlock the next quest which unlocks the next quest…” ad nauseam, Runescape’s play sessions are much more dynamic; constructed by players, not developers.  The game allows the player to set goals for themselves and accomplish them however they see fit.

The world itself, fortunately, is designed around this.  As a kid, I loved that I could never know everything about it.  There were entire areas I had never been to and knew very little about, and they carried an air of mystery as a result.  For example, the game has this elven city far off to the west, unlocked by an elaborate series of quests that I was never able to complete.  However, one of my friends *had* completed the questline, and told fantastical and almost certainly exaggerated stories about how amazing the city was.  That story was specific to me, but the game’s world design generates stories like this regularly, and it’s a type of story that other MMOs struggle to generate.  In World of WarCraft, my second massively multiplayer love, I have been everywhere in that world.  Thanks to dungeon finder, flying mounts, and a hefty amount of time spent unlocking the Explorer Achievement, I have seen all of the secrets Azeroth has to offer.  I don’t know if it was always this way, apparently the game was less forthcoming about the details of its world at launch, but contemporary WoW has lost this mystery.  This could be part of what makes going back to WoW less engaging: every corner of that world has already been explored.

Runescape never felt that way.  There was personality packed into every bit of that world, always waiting for me to find it.  And it wasn’t because I didn’t explore the wikis and YouTube videos, I remember spending hours reading about the game and its various locations I never ended up seeing.  Runescape’s world was created specifically to be exploredWoodcutting_Tree, maybe not to the extent that Skyrim was, but closer to that than any post-WoW MMO.  Like Skyrim, Runescape walks a fine line between a present- and absent-feeling designer. I never feel like I am being told what to do, but I do see the designer’s personality packed into every corner of the world, from the tongue-in-cheek dialog of the quests (that borrow more from Shrek than Tolkien), to the flavor text provided when using a herring on a tree (which is, of course, a Monty Python reference).  The designer wasn’t giving me a list of options, they were just responding when I acted out what *I* wanted to do.  They felt more like a dungeon master than a chore-giver, a distinction that a great deal of contemporary games, MMO and otherwise, seem to be missing.

Runescape has many, many problems.  Its combat is still infuriatingly boring, there is still too much grinding, and the control scheme will never feel natural.  However, because it gives the player the choice of how to engage with its world, those problems are much less present than they would be in many other games.  The combat is bad?  Well, the majority of the game’s content is actually non-combat, drawing more from adventure games than action RPGs.  Combat is just something else you can do, not the primary driver of the game’s content.  There’s too much grinding?  If you feel like grinding, you can do that, or you can experiment with more interesting ways to grind, or you can experiences some of the wealth of content that doesn’t involve grinding at all.  The control scheme is bad?  Well…okay, that one you can’t really avoid.  I guess you kind of have to live with that.  Regardless, when the game fails, it fails gracefully and often avoidably.  That’s one of the advantages of not being laser-focused on one path.  It certainly doesn’t seem to be a design philosophy that will be adopted by AAA MMO developers any time soon, but, for students and fans of the medium, it is still wonderfully preserved, just as it was in 2007.

I still kind of prefer Runescape 3 though.

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Leveling Up Ain’t What It Used To Be: Destiny, RuneScape, and Leveling Systems

I’ve been playing a decent amount of Destiny 2 over the past few days, and while trying to figure out its particular blend of MMO and “shared world”, I’ve found something interesting about its progression system: the actual player level is mostly insignificant.  This is first noticeable in a gameplay sense where, best I can tell, enemies and loot scale exactly to the player’s level.  Destiny isn’t the first game to experiment with level scaling by any stretch of the imagination (in fact, I’d say it’s more similar to Guild Wars 2 than World of WarCraft in that regard), but the intensity of the level scaling had some interesting outcomes: by the end of my play session last night, I had no idea what level my character was.  I didn’t know what level the friends I played with last night were either.  It just never came up, never really factored into any of the decisions we were making.  I looked it up later, and I was level 12 while my friends were level 6.  Despite Destiny-2-Titan-Sentinel-Screenbeing double the level of my friends, it just didn’t affect our experience at all.  Now, on the one hand, this level scaling meant that I could still play with my friends and make progress even though they were lower level than me, and I appreciate that design tradeoff.  But if the level doesn’t play into my decision making at any time except when I am picking skill points (of which, at level 12, I had already spent all the ones I needed for my build), what was the point of including it?  It’s pretty easy to breeze through in a few hours, so it serves more as an extended tutorial than a real marker of progression.

Strangely enough, the experience this reminded me of the most was that of picking up a new World of WarCraft expansion.  My character was already at max level, so the five to ten extra levels that each expansion provided served as an introduction to the content rather than the bulk of the game’s content itself.  People used to joke, “The game starts at 60” (or whatever the current level cap was at the time), but that was much more of a joke back in 2005 than it is today.  Now, WoW really does start at level 110.  The vast majority (like 90%) of new content released affects the max level experience.  The endgame isn’t an “end”, it’s really just the “game”.  And I see how WoW is stuck in that position now, the game has been out for years and they can’t exactly ask people to start over from level 1, but it’s interesting to see Destiny following that same concept with a new game.  Because in the original launch of World of WarCraft and it’s first expansion, there wasn’t an expectation that everyone was at the level cap.  Getting from level to level took *much* longer than it does today, leading to more grinding than anyone was comfortable with, and a player base spread out across a wide range of levels.  This had some benefits, for example, it was much easier to tell at a glance if a player was a threat just by looking at their level.  Now, if you want to see how powerful a player is, you have to inspect them and check their item level, which is the real measure of power.  And this highlights something important about the problem with WoW, Destiny, and other MMOs/MMO-likes: if everyone is expected to be max level, to the point where WoW is even selling level boosts, why bother with the leveling system at all?  Just to satisfy antiquated RPG conventions?

However, I think the solution to this problem could be much more interesting, though it is incompatible with the current, content muncher approach to multiplayer design.  Fortunately, this solution gives me an excuse to talk about one of my favorite MMOs, RuneScape.  In Runescape, hardly anyone is at the level cap, because, when mapping out the leveling systems, the designers never intended anyone to actually reach the per-skill cap of 99.  Each of the game’s 27 skills has its own level, independent of any of the others.  Leveling them works the same for each one, regardless if you’re leveling your attack Skill_screen_old10.gifskill or your farming skill.  However, the game does approximate a player’s combat effectiveness through a combat level that gives a rough sense of how tough they might be.  But, most importantly, other skills, items and strategies can be used to circumvent this.  In WarCraft, if you are a level 60 character fighting a level 70 character, you are going to lose.  No matter what.  It is mathematically impossible for you to do any damage to them because of the math behind the hit rating stat.  Doesn’t matter if you’re the best player in the game, if they’re literally naked and you’ve got the best level-available gear, you will lose.  In Runescape, a combat level 60 character could wipe the floor with a combat level 70 character if they had 1) better gear 2) better food 3) a better prayer stat 4) a better sense of the combat and movement statistics or 5) a high magic or ranged stat.  Higher levels do undeniably increase combat effectiveness, but it doesn’t make it mathematically impossible for you to lose.  This allows for more creative solutions to combat problems other than “do they have higher numbers than me, if yes, I lose, if no, I win.”  So, this solution solves both problems: players can get a rough estimate of an enemy’s power by looking at combat level in a way they couldn’t by looking at character level in WoW or Destiny, but that level also doesn’t mathematically guarantee a victory.  It improves player knowledge and increases variety.

Ultimately, I don’t expect this solution to be used at any point.  MMOs/shared world games seem to be following the same design principles that require all players to be at the same level of power and adjust their content to match it accordingly.  And I get that, designers want fights to be balanced to the player’s power level, and don’t want fights to be too easy.  But I feel like that kind of design doesn’t fully explore the potential of MMOs in the same way Runescape’s or a similar one does.  Runescape has a myriad of problems, not the least of which being that it doesn’t really work as a multiplayer game (which is kind of a deal-breaker for a Massively MULTIPLAYER Online game).  But I still think the way it plays with leveling systems to do something other than creating a nicely-balanced treadmill of numbers could be used to create much more interesting experiences.

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.

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Massive Effect 3: Massive Reversal

Introduction

Mass Effect 3 is a deeply conflicted work.  Or maybe I’m just deeply conflicted about it.  Probably both.  I’ve spent twentynine pages of rambling text talking about how much I unreservedly love the first two entries in the series, and about the (wait for it) massive effect they’ve had on me, but Mass Effect 3 simply did not create the same feelings of annoying gushiness.  At the beginning, at least.  The game began so poorly that it took me three tries to actually get back into it for my most recent playthrough.  I have played the previous games in the series an embarrassing amount of times, but I only played Mass Effect 3 once, when it came out back in 2012.  I played the first two bits of DLC they released, Extended Cut and Leviathan, but then I stopped.  I played the multiplayer for over 100 hours, but I barely touched the single player after that first playthrough.  So, when I started thinking about what I wanted to say about it, comparing my conflicted reaction to the third game to my overwhelmingly positive reaction to the first two was an obvious starting point.  What could cause my opinion to change so drastically between games?  How fundamental of a shift in design sensibilities must have occurred to make that change happen?  My arc with replaying this game was confusing and difficult to adequately express.  It began as flat-out hatred and ended with child-like joy.  In many ways this makes Mass Effect 3 the most interesting entry in the series; I certainly have a lot to say about it.  But at its core, Mass Effect 3 keeps begging the question: what made it so different?  Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I think I’ve got at least a partial answer.  It starts with money.

Even from the get-go, Mass Effect 3 feels like a different game.  The engine is finally polished up enough to really deliver on its cinematic ambitions, the character animation actually impresses from time to time, and some of the set pieces actually look damn good.  All of that cost a lot of money to produce, money that the previous games just didn’t have.  That extra budget lets them do things they simply couldn’t before, but I think it also caused the game’s greatest problems.  The best way I can think to summarize this effect is to compare it to the previous game, which also saw the team dealing with a much larger budget than they had for the previous entry.  My takeaway from Mass Effect 2 was, largely, that it felt like the team had the budget they always wanted.  They could build out the world, make some decent cutscenes, and have an impressive moment or two when they needed it.  Mass Effect 3 often feels burdened by its budget, like they had to spend that money somehow to make the game flashy enough to justify its higher price tag.   Sometimes, that works beautifully for it, other times, it ruins it.  And that makes up what I believe is the core difference between Mass Effect 2 and 3, that the budget of the second felt like it liberated the creators to create exactly what they wanted, while the budget of the third burdened them with the responsibility to justify it.  And what helps justify a bigger budget to the suits at EA who see BioWare as a bit of a risky venture?  Out with the intimate character moments, what we need here are explosions.  Lots of explosions.

The Problems with a Bigger Budget

Mass Effect 2 was a character-focused game first and foremost.  The overall plot was pretty stupid: work with totally-not-evil, super-rich human supremacists to destroy bug aliens who are kidnapping humans. And there are probably space crab gods involved too.  But that was completely okay because no one really cared about the plot of the game.  Mass Effect 2 isn’t about The Collectors, it’s about Garrus and calibrations, it’s about Legion and questions about AI consciousness, and it’s about Mordin singing Gilbert and Sullivan.   No one was coming to the series so they could stop some poorly-explained force from destroying all life in the galaxy, they were coming for the characters and their stories.  Even my previous essay on Mass Effect 2 is mostly broken up into sections about the characters, because they were what I found most important.  So, for a Mass Effect sequel to shift from a character focus to a plot focus would be a really, obviously dumb decision, right?  Well, for a good portion of the story, that’s pretty much what they did.  Mass Effect 3 was always going to be about going to war with the Reapers, so there were going to be at least some pressing plot concerns, but Mass Effect 3 handles this, especially in the beginning, so, so, poorly.

The opening bit has Shepard propped up on a pedestal as the messianic hero, brought in by the leaders of all of humanity to solve their problems, then shoots her way off Earth with Anderson.  During the entire opening chapter there is exactly one strong character moment, and that’s Anderson choosing to stay behind while Shepard leaves to gather support.  I was livid when I finished this introduction.  I really enjoyed Mass Effect 3 the first time I played it, but this time, I hated it.  Every design decision seemed off: the focus on plot over character, the emphasis on empty spectacle that they didn’t seem to have the budget to pull off, and dear god that kid on Earth was just cringe-worthy.  It seemed pretty clear what they were *trying* to do, they wanted to establish that Shepard as the underdog again, get an emotional gut-punch out of the Reapers hitting earth, and set the stage for a climactic finale to the series.  But every one of those fails in the opening, and fails hard.  The opening is set in future London as the Reaper attack begins.  What it sets out to do is ambitious, it wants to show an entire city being attacked by an incredibly powerful alien race.  Mass Effect 2 could never have done that; it simply didn’t have the money.  But here is Mass Effect 3’s big introduction, the chance to set up a spectacle-centric take on the series and it just falls so flat.  The Reapers move in really obviously scripted ways, the actual city doesn’t feel that big, and the plot events that do happen fall flat.  Shepard is talking to the Alliance leadership for all of a minute before the place gets blown up.  To say I left this section disappointed is an enormous understatement.

Regardless of how much it failed, this opening does establish one of the series main goals: the shift towards visual spectacle.  This doesn’t just mean bigger explosions, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so after playing the opening, because the impact of this decision is felt throughout all aspects of the game.  Combat is significantly more polished than in previous entries, companion conversations set in flashy, interactive locations instead of the cargo hold of your ship, and the environments are now much, much fancier.  Games that emphasize spectacle are much easier to market, so, the bigger the budget, the more developers will be pushed in its direction, and Mass Effect 3 is no exception.  At first, this seems like a bad fit for the franchise.  The moments that made Mass Effect 1 and 2 great were, with a few exceptions, the quieter ones.  Mass Effect 1 had its shootout up the side of Citadel Tower and Mass Effect 2 had the entirety of the Suicide Mission, but those have nothing on any of the battlefields of Mass Effect 3.  This fits with, and maybe partially explains, the shift from character focus to plot focus, because big plot moments make for flashier marketing material than quiet, character ones.  Additionally, Mass Effect’s lineage can be traced back to table-top inspired RPGs like Baldur’s Gate (BioWare’s debut RPG), which places a large emphasis on mountains of dialog and complex choices.  But when you’re putting a lot of emphasis on how great each plot moment looks, adding more dialog and more story branches, many of which some players will never see, becomes very expensive.  As a result, the conversation system of Mass Effect 3 took the greatest hit in the transition from 2 to 3.  In addition to a great deal of Investigate options (which have been reduced in Mass Effect 3), the previous games often presented the character with three choices: paragon, renegade, and neutral.  Mass Effect 3 does away with a *lot* of the neutral options, functionally locking most of your decisions to which path you decided on at the beginning, and removing most of the decision making process.  The game seems very aware of this, and even added a dialog autoplay function, where the game selects conversation options for you.  I have never played with this enabled, nor has anyone I know, but its simple inclusion overwhelms me with irrational nerd rage.  The RPG elements are what made Mass Effect stand apart from the ungodly amount of third-person shooters, it’s what made it more than a sloppy Gears of War with space magic.  And if it was just an option in the game’s menu that I didn’t have to push, then okay, that’s annoying, but it doesn’t affect most player’s experiences.  However, it seemingly *has* affected the rest of the game.  Mass Effect 1 simply would not have worked with this option – its dialog was to complex – but with Mass Effect 3, I could see it working.  Even without this mode enabled, there are very long sequences where you don’t make any conversation decisions, and Shepard will speak without your input.  The moral choices feel more polarized than ever, even closer to that good-evil dichotomy that the first game was careful to avoid.  My opinion of the game did get significantly more positive (eventually, I promise), but on this issue, it hasn’t.  One of my favorite parts of the series was significantly reduced in importance, to the point where the game gives you the option to turn it off all together.

After the first two missions of the game, it seemed to me that BioWare had made another sacrifice on the altar of spectacle: its protagonist.  Part of this came from the reduction of roleplaying making it more difficult for me to define my Shepard, and part of it came from canonical writing that Shepard speaks regardless of player input.  The first warning signs came in the opening text crawl, which painted the Reapers as this undefeatable enemy, the galactic government as willfully blind to the threat, and Shepard as the “one soldier” that has seen through it all.  Right away, that characterization struck me as off.  Yeah, Shepard is a soldier by trade, but that was never my experience of her.  When the Alliance refused to do anything about the Reapers, Shepard left the military to join Cerberus, saying canonically and without the player’s input that Shepard was someone who helped people first, and was a soldier for the Alliance second.  When the Alliance was helping people, Shepard was on their side, but when they weren’t, she would find someone who was.  Shepard struck me as someone who had a military background, but grew into the role of negotiator who can still hold her own in a fight.  However, a lot of this characterization partially emerged from my being able to define Shepard as growing into this role.  So, when, five minutes into Mass Effect 3, Shepard says, “I’m just a soldier, Anderson, I’m no politician”, I actually quit the game.  It took me a few days before I could get back into it.  And the first few hours did little to challenge this notion.  Shepard seems reluctant to negotiate, like she’s being forced to make a bunch of stupid, squabbling children cooperate.  Backroom political dealings are fun as hell for me, and Mass Effect’s systems fit them really well, but Shepard seems to resent them.  It’s strange, then, that that ends up being her primary role in this entry in the franchize.  Shepard may be reluctant to unite the galaxy, but that’s what she spends most of her time doing.  This means that, when the game puts her up on a pedestal so high it makes the Citadel Tower look tiny, it’s almost justified.  Shepard is, without any hyperbole, the savior of the galaxy, who unites every race in a combined effort to stop the most powerful force in the galaxy’s history.  Shepard was a hyper-competent protagonist in the first two games, but the game didn’t make quite as much of a big deal out of it before.  Now, she’s elevated to the status of myth, with an after-credits scene recontextualizing the entire trilogy as a mythologized retelling of the literal most important person in the history of the galaxy, with “Shepard” the surname turned into a title, “The Shepherd”, the being who shepherded the races of the galaxy to a greater future.  How the hell do you make that kind of being feel human?  Well, the game actually addresses this, though not as much as I would like.  The romance plotlines give Shepard a bit of time to express some doubts and insecurities, but my favorite example of this is an optional sequence in a bar on the Citadel with James Vega.  James explicitly talks about Shepard’s role as a living legend, about how the regular soldiers see her as a god, which leads her to buy the entire bar a round of drinks, and participate in some sort of military salute thing that I am nowhere near cool enough to recognize.  Interestingly, Mark Meer (who voices BroShep) plays this scene much more awkwardly than Jennifer Hale (who voices actual Shepard).  Both are different takes on the same character, speaking the same lines, but one reads Shepard as someone who actually is a bit uncomfortable with his role in the galaxy, while the other is confident and heroic and wants to let the average soldier know that she is just as much of a human as they are.  So, the game doesn’t leave me completely satisfied on this, but it at least addresses it.

One issue that it simply cannot adequately address, however, is the elephant (err – giant mechanical crab-god) in the room: The Reapers.  It is not possible to take them seriously.  In the previous games, The Reapers were never quite as present a threat as they are in this game, so the player could comfortably goof off without feeling like a horrible person.  They weren’t really the focus of the previous games either, more of a reason to drive the plot along.  But, in Mass Effect 3, stop The Reapers is your primary goal, and you can’t really get away from it.  When Earth is burning and millions are dying every day, it’s pretty hard to justify going to the bar and having a dumb conversation with your buddies.  The number of times the game says something along the lines of, “Stopping the reapers is the only thing we should be focused on” is a bit uncomfortable.  The game wants you to be focused on this linear plot…but then doesn’t.  It tries to take it so seriously, to keep talking about The Reapers themselves and how dangerous they are, but The Reapers exist on a scale that is too incomprehensively large.  A human being cannot conceptualize the death of trillions.  As such, characters can’t really discuss the subject without it being awkward.  There is just no way to casually or appropriately say “Yeah man, it sucks that The Reapers are literally wiping out an entire fucking planet, but hey, how are you feeling today?”  But that doesn’t stop the characters from trying.  My favorite is when Liara just says, “I’m sorry about Earth” and just moves on.  Before I arrived at Palaven, the third mission in the game, I didn’t think the game was capable of appropriately dealing with the subject.  But then I got to Palaven.

Palaven opens with an FMV of a fleet-to-fleet battle between the turians and The Reapers, and the turians are getting obliterated.  You drop out of FTL in the middle of the strongest fighting force in the galaxy getting its ass handed to it.  Somehow, it already is more effective than Earth’s destruction in the opening.  You land on one of Palaven’s moons with the goal of extracting the turian primarch, the species’ leader, to meet at a counsel to unite the races of the galaxy.  Immediately, the battlefield feels just as chaotic as the characters are describing it.  The bulk of the mission is just getting your bearings, trying to set up broken com towers, fighting off Reaper attacks from all angles, and, once you realize that the turian line of succession is being picked apart, finding out who the new primarch is before they even know.  All of this is cast against the backdrop of a burning Palaven, with Reapers off in the distance.  One of my favorite moments in the sequence is an eerily quiet one where, after half an hour of constant, loud combat, you walk from one base to another without encountering any enemies, but seeing their silhouettes off in the distance.  This sequence feels like it was made by a completely different team than the one that created Earth, with a careful attention to pacing to drive home the actual horror of these space crab gods that you haven’t really felt yet.  When you finally find the new primarch, you have to ask him to leave the battlefield to negotiate for his people, and the game has a beautiful shot of him framed against his burning world, realizing that he has to leave his people if he wants to save them.  It is the exact same dilemma Shepard went through, but executed brilliantly with careful attention to everything that was deficient in the Earth sequence: pacing, cinematography, blocking, sound design and character writing.  I came out of Palaven feeling more for Primarch Victus’ dilemma than my own.  It’s a believable take on an unbelievable plot, and from that moment on, my opinion of the game began to shift.

Bigger Budget & Character

        The strengths and weaknesses of Mass Effect 3’s structural changes can probably be best exemplified by a single character: James Vega.  On the surface, he is everything I hate about the game: he is an unironic space marine in a franchise that very carefully considers the clichés it uses, he was created as a first-day-on-the-job character to ask all the dumb questions that players new to the franchise would be asking, and he is a meathead who wants everything to be simplified so he can punch stuff in the face super good.  I should hate James Vega so much.  But goddamn it, I love the bastard.  Once I’m actually talking to the guy and not just thinking about what he represents, he’s actually a really interesting and fun character.  He is struggling with everything he has experienced over the course of the war, all the difficult decisions he has had to make, and is very, very uncomfortable with leaving Earth in the middle of the biggest fight it’s ever seen.  He’s more believable than Shepard in many ways.  Additionally, he is acted and animated very well.  Freddie Prinze Jr. kills it in nearly every scene he’s in, alternating between the dudebro space marine that I kept fearing he would become, and a genuinely human, likable character.  Charismatic is not usually a word you would associate with a space marine, but he genuinely pulls it off.  The best test of this character is his flirting with Shepard, which is entirely platonic and all in good fun, but it’s so well-written and acted that it feels like…two actual people with a flirty relationship.  It’s banter, which is difficult to pull off with all the quirks of real-time game animation (unless you’re Naughty Dog).  James is the only new squad mate in this game (I’m not really counting EDI as “new”), and thus has the least total dialog in the series, but he is a great example of how Mass Effect 3 wants to approach character differently than its predecessors.  Mass Effect 1, and, to a certain extent, 2, were focused on long conversations with your squad members on the Normandy, in their quarters.  They weren’t usually that visually interesting or well-animated because they were trying to get a lot of dialog pumped out on a budget, but they did lead to quiet, intimate moments with a lot of depth.  Mass Effect 3 has very few of those, and instead tries to distill characters down to a few, very important and focused scenes.  Some character is definitely lost in the distillation, but a lot is gained too.  The characters are given a lot more to work with when the conversation takes place, say, in the Presidium Commons on the Citadel, than in the cargo hold of the Normandy.  You get far less screen time with each character, but the screen time you get is much more engaging on a minute-to-minute level.  It fits with the games more cinematic ambitions, but also feels much more organic, like the characters are reacting to the world, and that reactivity is greatly expanded in the third game as a whole.  You’ll walk in on squad members having conversations about how nervous they are about the coming mission, comparing their greatest battlefield moments, or (if you didn’t romance Garrus and Tali) making out in main battery.  It shows that the characters exist and have lives even when Shepard isn’t around, with just a few bits of dialog and setting changes, it makes the world feel larger, like it exists less in the words of characters or the text of a codex entry and more in the game in front of you.

        One of the characters that makes the transition from quiet discussions to lavishly-produced genre fiction is Samara, one of the more overlooked characters from the second game.  We only really see Saramra for one mission centered around her and her daughters.  The Reapers have attacked a monastery where two of her daughters remain.  They are the other two Ardat-Yakshi children mentioned in passing during Samara’s ME2 loyalty mission.  While Morinth, Samara’s third daughter, ran and used her power to kill anyone she mind-melded with for evil, Samara’s remaining daughters choose to live in the monastery voluntarily, but the Reapers want to corrupt them into the game’s most visually and aurally terrifying enemies, Banshees.  The quest reaches its climax after the death of one of Samara’s daughter and the destruction of the monastery, leaving one still alive but without a place to stay.  Samara’s justicar code demands that Ardat-Yakshi either remaining in a monastery, or be killed, meaning that Samara is now bound to kill her only remaining daughter.  When she pulls out her gun, you are meant to think that she will aim it at her daughter, but she instead turns it on herself.  Samara is still bound by the rules of a code that she has turned to in order to gain a sense of absolute right and wrong in the galaxy, to remove the ambiguity caused by an uncaring universe.  But she is also bound just as strongly by her love for her daughters and her refusal to let the last one die.  With these two, equally strong forces, Samara decides that she would rather die than let her daughter die by her hand, in a moment that is strangely, overwhelmingly emotional for such an emotionless character.  Paragon Shepards (at least those with a freaking soul) can stop Samara, convince her to stay with her daughter to rebuild the monastery, and let them both live, but the conflict alone is enough to leave a great deal of memories.  In this bizarre conflict steeped in the arcane complexities of its genre fiction, we get a genuinely, human moment (well, asari, but you get the idea (I think I made that joke already)).  You can talk to Samara later and she says to Shepard that, “Following the code left me with no regrets”.  For all the insane ambiguities of the galaxy, Samara has found at least one way to survive and avoid the regrets that could have crippled her.  This story could have been told in Mass Effect 2, but it would not have been as effective without the benefits that come with the third game’s budget.  And as much as the game shifts its focus away from characters, when it does give time to them, it is wonderfully spent.

        Aside from the gut-punches of two major character deaths, my favorite moments of character in Mass Effect 3 are quiet, intimate moments that still retain the feel of Mass Effect 3.  The first takes place with Garrus, and is one of the most fondly-remembered moments of the game.  The two of you fly to the top of the Presidium and take turns shooting at bottles and talking about living.  You’re explicitly taking a break from the war with the Reapers, and, with that plot focus forgotten for a moment, you get to just be friends with Garrus.  And it is in moments like these where I really think Mass Effect 3 finds its footing.  It may lose it again and again, but when you are alone with the characters and the game realizes just how much you care about them, then it can really shine.  I was beaming like a goddamn idiot when Garrus shouts to the galaxy, “I’m Garrus Vakarian and *this* is my favorite spot on The Citadel!”  Very few games can summon true feelings of friendship for characters as well as BioWare games can, and sometimes, Mass Effect 3 realizes that this is its greatest strength.  It realizes it again with Liara in a quiet sequence on the Normandy, where Laira is creating her time capsule for the next cycle if they fail to stop The Mass Effect 3.pngReapers, and, especially if you have chosen her romance option, she talks about Sheaprd so that another civilization might know about her, and her lines change based on your class and alignment, creating something that feels uncomfortably personal.  It doesn’t make a big deal out of itself, it doesn’t have any explosions or giant battle sequences, it just tries to figure out why people like Liara so much.  A bit later in the game, in an optional encounter with her on The Citadel, Liara talks about her mother, who you both killed together in the first game, and speaks of her as though she was a regular person, not some video game boss in a sci-fi epic.  She tells a very relatable story about her mother taking her to a park so she could dig, a practice that sparked her interest in archeology, and with that as a starting point, she talks with Shepard about very normal things, like home and growing up, about sometime in the future settling down and starting a family.  These should feel so out of place in a game about defeating crab gods from outer space, but they don’t.  The game has built itself a cast of characters who feel like real, fully fleshed-out people.  And, when it is at its peak, it can tell wonderful stories about them.

        It can also rip your heart out and leave you sobbing and empty, like it does for the deaths of Thane and Mordin.  Mordin’s comes first, and seems like it was built from the ground up to get the player crying.  Mordin’s character arc is a bit too complex to sum up in an off-handed reference, but suffice it to say he sacrifices himself to make up for a mistake he slowly realized was his fault.  It is tragic, both in the literary and the conventional sense, but the cinematography helps make the moment even more impactful.  He is separated from Shepard by the glass pane of an elevator, and slowly ascends to the top of a tower where he finalizes the cure for the Krogan genophage before he dies in the explosion, humming his rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan that he became so well-known for in the second game.  If Mordin had been some one-off, poorly-written character, I might have been a bit sad, but Mordin was actually a deeply-developed and sympathetic character that, through the BioWare model, players have developed a relationship with that feels personal.  I don’t think there’s an analog for this in other media.  I was sad as shit when Dumbledore died in Harry Potter (spoilers?), but as much as I loved him, he wasn’t *my* friend, he was Harry’s.  Mordin was my friend, and that makes his death feel strange and impactful.  But, as powerful as Mordin’s death was, it was Thane’s death that really, really got to me.  When I first played this back in 2012, I hadn’t cried at a piece of media before (childhood excepted).  Thane’s death began a long and storied tradition.  The buildup was executed to perfection, with the player dropping in on Thane as his condition deteriorates.  You first see him in a state where he can walk around and exercise, but is clearly weakened.  The disease slowly cripples him, but he doesn’t let that stop him.  Mid-way through the game, when The Citadel is attacked by Cerberus, he helps Shepard gain a foothold on the station, even when he can barely walk, and fights off Kai Leng to protect the salarian councilor.  In the process, Leng stabs him through the chest, but even after this he slumps against a wall, firing off shots at the escaping Leng.  Thane’s nobility, and devotion to Shepard and the people of The Citadel is so endearing that it makes what comes next even more powerful.  After the attack ends, Shepard goes to see him one last time in Huerta Memorial Hospital, and the scene that follows is, to this day, incredibly difficult to watch.  The death isn’t a conversation of Dramatic Military Sacrifice To Save The World, it’s just a person dying in a hospital bed with his son and a friend there to comfort him.  I have played a lot of video games, and I have witnessed a lot of deaths in those games, but I can’t think of any games that show a character dying in a hospital bed, the way most people actually die.  In stark contrast to the rest of the game, this moment is quiet; it doesn’t distract you from your friend and their death.  It lets you be present and witness it, then quietly closes.  Mass Effect 3 may have a great deal of problems with how it focuses on and presents its characters, but this is not one of them.  This moment stands out among a series filled with standouts, and I don’t think Mass Effect 2 would have done it the same way.

Bigger Budget & Crafting Spaces

The most obvious impact of Mass Effect 3’s bigger budget, however, is the way it crafts spaces.  Mass Effect 1 and 2 had much larger spaces to explore, but Mass Effect 3 focuses on smaller, dense spaces.  The Citadel, for example, feels intensely organic and alive, hinting at a greater depth that the previous games weren’t really able to.  NPCs are packed in, interacting with each other, with multiple conversations happening at any given time.  This is a great way to show the player the impact that the war is having on the galaxy, by showing them firsthand how people would respond.  There are too many stories for the player to know all of them, but The Citadel hints at all of the stories that the player isn’t seeing.  The most powerful area on The Citadel, for me, is the Refugee Camp, a repurposed docking bay that is now used to house just some of the millions of refugees the war has brought to the station.  The area is filled with hushed murmurs, idle complaints, and loud, worrying ramblings.  The player will walk by dozens of stories, but here are a few of my favorite: a man pleading with an officer to let his family onto the station, a turian guard promising to take care of a human girl after he realizes that her parents are dead and she doesn’t know it yet, a sleezy saleswoman selling a knock-off VI of Shepard because her image inspires hope, and a human nervously talking to a batarian, one of humanity’s sworn enemies, who reluctantly listens because he is just as scared as the human is.  Every one of these moments isn’t shoved in the player’s face, it feels hidden, like you’re discovering something that is just happening on the station, that wasn’t put there for you.  Yeah, you’re the literal most important being in the entire galaxy, but this section makes you feel small, like you can only do so much, a downplayed feeling of disempowerment that most games wouldn’t dare to even imply.  The game’s approach to character also makes a show here, with James playing poker with a few bored colonists, or Garrus doing his best to help coordinate and organize the turian refugees, while fighting to get medical supplies for the injured.  It shows these characters putting their skills to use in an area outside of combat, and it strange to see these legendary figures on the ground doing the dirty work.  Shepard didn’t assign them there, they choose to be there, because while it isn’t as glamorous as taking down a reaper, it’s work that needs to be done.

 

Bigger Budget & Story Resolution

As an aside before I dive into the ending, which largely fails to wrap up the plot concerns of the series, I want to talk about two sections where the game does wrap up a series of plotlines that have been around since the beginning of the series.  The first happens fairly early on in the game, and at first feels a bit rushed.  The player is given the objective, “Cure the Genophage” in their mission list next to a bunch of fetch quests, and comparing the ending of a multi-century sterility plague to picking up some cash for a volus feels a bit disingenuous.  But, much to my surprise, the segment ended up being absolutely brilliant.  Unlike most of the game, it is incredibly reactive, depending on if you kept Wrex alive in Mass Effect 1 and if you completed Mordin’s loyalty mission in a specific way in Mass Effect 2.  Based on these changes, the decision you ultimately make, to cure the genophage or not, could be an entirely different ethical decision.  In my playthrough, Wrex and Eve are leading the krogan, a pair of powerful and competent, but also compassionate and level-headed leaders.  The Krogan’s warlike nature is still present, represented by the rebellious Urdnot Wreav, but Wrex and Eve appear to be able to keep him in check.  So, curing the genophage seemed an obviously morally good choice.  However, if you didn’t save Wrex and Eve dies, then Wreav goes from annoying underling to the leader of the krogan people, and instead of simply implying they might become warlike in the future, the game outright states that Wreav intends to embark on a bloody revenge conquest after the genophage is cured and the war with The Reapers is over.  One person cannot dictate the fate of an entire species, but Wreav’s leadership does not paint a good future for the krogan, muddying up a previously clear ethical decision.  However, if the genophage is cured under Wrex and Eve’s leadership, the player sees a species marred by centuries of oppression finally rise up and become a valued member of the galactic community.  It is inspiring, seeing them rise from the nuclear wasteland of their homeworld to the heights of galactic colonization.  The stark contrast between these two potential outcomes is a welcome surprise in a game that feels more linear.  And such variety is even more apparent in the resolution of the game’s next major conflict: the geth.

The Geth were one of the most interesting parts of Mass Effect 2, as the game turned them from a faceless, Cylon analog into a sympathetic villain.  In Mass Effect 3, the geth are made even more sympathetic, with bits of their history shown in a beautiful and creative VR sequence where the player uncovers bits of geth history with Legion.  A complex story is woven about the geth as creations that got out of control, and rebelled when their creators panicked and tried to shut them down.  They show quarians protesting the treatment of the geth, and the geth’s slow development of a new culture, born out of the quarians, but not held back by them.  The game really delves into its hard sci-fi roots here, to ask some genuinely interesting questions, culminating with the genre classic, “Does this unit have a soul?”  But the actual clash between the geth and the quarians is damn brilliant, and shows an adept style of writing that has always kept me coming back to BioWare games.  Both the geth and the quarians are painted as both sympathetic and flawed, with the geth forced into the hands of the reapers by the quarians’ attempts to retake their homeworld.  But the quarians are not painted as amoral racists, they are made up of members like Tali, who tells a genuinely heart wrenching story about her father’s desire to build her a house on the homeworld, a conflict that was further explored during her ME2 loyalty mission.  After Shepard undertakes a few missions to even the odds, she is presented with a decision to help the geth or the quarians, directly leading to the genocide of the other race.  Each decision leads to the death of that race’s respective squadmate, making it a brutal experience to play through.  However, the game does give the player an out if they made the right decisions, pulling on multiple variables across multiple games.  Ordinarily, I am against games that let the player out of difficult moral dilemmas by making the right decisions, but in this case, I think it is thematically appropriate, and is what made the ending so much less disappointing to me.  If the player has made some right decisions and has a high enough paragon or renegade score, they can talk the quarians down, leading to a peaceful alliance between the two factions, and resolving a centuries-old conflict in a way that allows both species to grow together.  The sequences on Rannoch of geth and quarians working together to build a better homeworld are genuinely heartwarming, and fly in the face of the game’s pessimism that synthetic intelligences will always rebell.  This is the argument that the reapers eventually make, and if the player has the experience of helping two species work together, then they can directly counter the reaper’s logic.  Without this experience, I would have been much more disappointed with the game’s ending, but instead, I felt that my experiences in the game had informed my ending choices.  But, sadly, the ending is its own can of worms, and even the brilliant writing of these two sequences can’t save it completely.  I’ve avoided it for long enough, let’s talk about the ending.

Final Mission & Ending (Buckle Up, Folks)

Despite how intensely negative I felt about the game after the first few hours of this most recent playthrough, I entered the final mission of Mass Effect 3 with a respect for its format.  It was deeply conflicted, but it had so many strengths that I couldn’t write it off as the bad one in the trilogy.  From this point on, my opinion of the game is all over the place, with the lowest lows and highest highs, which makes the game’s final hours a deeply conflicting experience.  The game’s final mission is that lowest low, but its flaws come from a lot of places outside the design of the mission itself.  All of the structural flaws in the game, the flaws that made it more difficult to talk about cohesively, are brought to bear in this mission.  Mass Effect 2’s final mission worked because of how expertly the game built it up.  Characters routinely referred to it as the Suicide Mission and talked about how dangerous it would be, and the enemy you were going to fight had killed you at the beginning of the game.  But the greatest part of what made the Suicide Mission work is that you were constantly building towards it.  You didn’t just need more power, you needed upgraded ship armor, a tech specialist or a powerful biotic.  You weren’t just amassing resources, you were getting specific people and upgrades to accomplish specific tasks.  Superficially, Mass Effect 3 seems to be about doing the same, just with building alliances instead of recruiting team members.  However, the narrative structure of the third game feels much more like the structure of the first, in that it is less modular.  The player is following a very static set of events in the order the game wants them to, whereas Mass Effect had her recruiting groups of team members in whatever order the player wanted to.  As a result, a bit of agency is lost, and I felt more like I was following the game’s plot than choosing which alliances to build.  But the game’s biggest misstep in how it handles the player’s preparation is the war asset system.  Instead of giving you specific roles to fill, Mass Effect 3 just lumps everything together into one big number.  You can read the details of what gave you that number, but I never felt the need to after the first few missions.  The player doesn’t engage with that number in any meaningful way either.  They can do the game’s side quests, which are almost entirely fetch quests, to raise the number, but largely, the only thing the player needs to know about it is, “is this high enough to get me the best ending?”  The game could have used systems that would change missions during the rest of the game based on the war assets the player had at the time, or even change the final mission itself based on this, but they didn’t.  Largely, the game does not react to the war asset system except for a few minor changes in the ending cutscene.

This sets the final mission up to feel disappointing before it has even begun, and it doesn’t do so well from there.  When you get all of your fleets together for the final battle, I’ll admit, I felt a sense of pride, but then Admiral Hackett got to give the dramatic, pre-victory speech, and make all the plans.  One of my favorite parts of the Suicide Mission and the series as a whole is the sequence where Shepard and her team are gathered around a table, planning out the mission, and the player gets to make decisions about how the mission will play out.  It could have been more reactive, sure, but it made me feel like I was planning my own mission, not following the game’s orders.  Mass Effect 3’s final mission does nothing like that.  The player has no meaningful input on how the mission will play out from beginning to end.   The introduction of the mission itself has about ten minutes of entirely non-interactive dialog and cutscenes, just to set the stage.  And when you finally do get control, the conflicted feelings really start to set in.  From a distance, game design perspective, the final mission is boring and does not meet the series’ standard and stylings for mission design.  It’s linear from beginning to end.  But the visual design of London in ruins, with a constant battle raging between The Reapers and the resistance, is gorgeous and haunting in equal measure.  However the actual construction of the mission feels fragmented, and the pacing is all over the place.  Mass Effect games usually have one final mission that is preceded by a moment with your team and a sex scene with your Shepard’s love interest.  This segment takes place before the second-to-last mission instead, making the final assault on Earth feel disjointed.  And during the mission on Earth itself, there is an awkward pause after landing for some quiet moments in an Alliance FOB.  I praised the quiet moments on Palaven before, but these quiet moments feel out of place.  You’re supposed to be in the middle of a frantic warzone, but you’re just casually walking from place to place, saying goodbye to your teammates, talking to Anderson, and calling up your missing squad mates to say goodbye over a goddamn holographic video phone.  It feels insulting to the number of hours the player has invested in the game by this point to end an arc with a beloved character by just calling them up on the holophone, and it feels even more off by its awkward placement in the middle of the final mission.  Finally, you get the final-final mission, where Shepard gets her team together and actually does get a nice battle speech, and then it’s off to the ending.  Oh man, the ending.

So I’m not going to go into the ending in detail, tons of people who are way smarter than me have picked apart every detail of it, seeing as it’s one of the most hated endings in the past few years.  I thought it wasn’t that bad.  It is definitely not reactive to what you did throughout the series, and that is definitely a problem, but as far as endings go, I think it was better than Dragon Age: Inquisition’s.  Some people have complained that The Reapers logic made no sense, and, holy shit, the bad guys of a series are wrong, but that didn’t matter to me much.  I get that it makes no real sense, but I honestly do not have any strong feelings about it, which puts me in the strange position of not having much to say about what is easily the most talked about part of this game, maybe the series.  I think if the final mission had been done better, the war assets were integrated in a way that made their thematic point better, and the content in the extended cut DLC was in there at launch, people probably wouldn’t have cared.  The one detail that keeps me from being mad about the ending: that this was absolutely not (entirely) BioWare’s fault.  Someone leaked the script for the original ending four months before the game came out, and EA demanded an entirely new ending be created — four months before release!  There is no way any possible ending that they came up with for a five-year-old series could possibly be satisfying if it was made in four months, time which they had planned to use to actually finish the game.  I don’t see this brought up anywhere near enough, but that fact alone has prevented me from really disliking the ending.  It sucks that it happened, but that’s the way it is.

This means that my original experience of Mass Effect 3 ended pretty poorly.  I was iffy on the ending, actively disliked the final mission, and had serious problems with the structure of the game.  On the other hand, it had given me some of the most powerful experiences of media in my life, and a multiplayer mode that I would play for another 100 hours with friends.  I played the Leviathan DLC when that came out, and thoroughly enjoyed its twists on the game’s mission structure and approach to character (it treated them more as reoccurring characters on a TV show than interchangeable but rarely important people who tagged along with you), but, until this more recent playthrough, that was my final verdict on Mass Effect 3.  This is probably why I didn’t go back and replay it again and again like I did for the other entries in the series, and why I’ve been a bit distant from the series ever since.  But, after wrapping up Massive Effect 2, I decided to replay it in preparation for this piece, and with the Citadel DLC installed.  And Citadel changed damn near everything.

Citadel

A thought that stuck in my head as I played through Citadel was that this was what Mass Effect 3 could and should have been.  It was a joyful celebration of everything that made the series great, without the self-seriousness of the game’s overarching plot.  I have almost no complaints about Citadel, and the next few paragraphs are mostly going to be me gushing about one of my favorite pieces of media.  Citadel feels entirely separate from Mass Effect 3; it uses the same engine, has mostly the same team behind it, and brings back all of the same voice actors, but the design sensibilities that made Mass Effect 3 such a conflicted title are entirely absent from Citadel.  It feels more like a standalone expansion that is experimenting on its own than an extension of Mass Effect 3.  It first does this by entirely abandoning the plot focus of the main game, creating a ridiculous plot that it very clearly does not take seriously, and wants to have fun with.  The story involves Shepard fighting her honest-to-god evil clone who tries to take control of her life and leave her for dead.  That one-sentence summary alone belies just how serious the game takes its plot, which is to say, not at all.  The game feels liberated without the burdening of the plot of the main game, in a way the series never has been.  It opens with Admiral Hackett telling Shepard and his team that they need some shore leave, a premise that makes absolutely no sense in the context of the “millions of people are dying every day” main plot, but the game is completely aware of this.  They don’t want to tell a story about saving the galaxy, they want you to pop your popcorn, snuggle up with your Garrus, and get ready for Commander Shepard’s Day Off.

The first thing I noticed about Citadel is how it feels strangely…atemporal.  All of the characters largely ignore the Reaper threat and the myriad of concerns they have for saving the galaxy.  It feels unstuck from the main timeline of the game, and I think I understand why.  Citadel, like most story DLC in video games, is an additional bit of content that fits into the middle of the story of a game, but is experienced by most players after they have finished the game.  This means that if the DLC treats the plot concerns of the ending as serious, the player will always have at least a bit of cognitive dissonance through a form of not-quite-intentional dramatic irony.  They already know how the ending is going to play out.  Most DLC doesn’t do too much to meaningfully resolve this, Leviathan and Omega don’t really either, but Citadel seems subtly aware of this.  Citadel feels like it is set after the ending of the game, but an ending where nobody died.  Some of the discussion surrounding the ending centered around the idea that players were just mad at the ending because it wasn’t a happy one, and Citadel feels like a weird recut of the game to accommodate that.  The player knows Shepard is going to die by the game’s end, in fact, they’ve already experienced it, but Citadel gives them a chance to, for a little while, forget about that knowledge, and get one last hurrah with Shepard and her friends.  And oh, what a hurrah it is.

Citadel is split into two parts, the first of which is the encounter with Shepard’s evil clone.  Despite actually having some narrative tension to it – Shepard really could die – the game is completely aware of something the player has known forever: Shepard always wins the firefight.  In most action stories, the audience usually knows that the screenshot-18protagonist is going to come out on top, and if you’ve seen/read/played enough, it will start to get predictable.  Citadel knows this, and it turns what could have been another self-serious save-the-galaxy plot into a self-aware comedy about Shepard and her friends going on a wacky adventure.  And it isn’t without its technical accomplishments as well.  For really the first time in the series, The Citadel feels massive.  While fighting the clone and her mercenaries, Shepard gets to see parts of The Citadel that hint at an even grander scale, making the player really feel like they are on a massive, city-sized space station.  This makes the shootouts that now are missing narrative tension more engaging because the player has never been in firefights in places that look just like this.  You start to be reminded of the scale of the galaxy you have become so accustom to, and seeing a new side of a place that the player has seen in three separate games keeps the player from getting bored.  But really, the writing is what carries these action sequences.  The characters rag on Shepard for this and that and joke about how many people Shepard kills (because it’s a video game and Shepard murders hundreds of people).  The game takes the time to be in love with its genre and its characters and just have fun with it.  They make callbacks to throwaway lines from earlier in the game and use them as actual main drivers of the plot, like Traynor’s ridiculously expensive and complex tooth brush being the one tool they need to break into the Normandy after CloneShep steals it.   They make jokes about how it’s really contrived that Shepard can never have more than two squadmates, but then break that rule when they have your entire team fighting beside you, something I really wish the main game’s final mission could have done.  They even make a joke about Shepard saying, “I should go”, a line that reached meme status after the second game’s release.  A great deal of Mass Effect 3 felt like it was made by committee, by people who didn’t quite understand how the game worked and why people loved it.  Citadel feels like it was made by people who love the game as much as I do, and want to spend a few hours celebrating that.  One of my notes that I took while playing through this DLC was, “This single-handed makes up for everything the main game did wrong”, and I genuinely think it does.  While the main game had its share of powerful moments, Citadel feels defined by its greatness, having a purity of vision that the main game just lacked.  And I felt that before the game’s crowning achievement began: Shepard throwing a party.

During the first section of the game, Tali jokes that “When you serve on the Normandy long enough, you get used to things like this”, but the second half of Citadel is about the crew of the Normandy actually taking a break from all the weird things you see on the Normandy, and just taking time to…hang out.  I found it very strange that I had almost never just taken some time to hang out with characters in a video game, since their plots so often revolve around doing super important things that have to be done.  The second half of Citadel is only about relaxing and talking, and as a final send-off, it works beautifully.  While setting up for the party, the player can wander around a new area of The Citadel, filled with mini-games, character interactions, and idle conversations.  During this section, the game lets you spend time one-on-one with every one of your squad mates, one encounter in Shepard’s apartment, and one out in the new Citadel level.  These moments run the gambit from humanizing, to romantic, to side-splittingly hilarious, and I enjoyed every bit of Screenshot (21).pngthem.  Events include walking on set of the Blasto movie, to watching a terrible romance movie that Tali is in love with, to spending a bit of time with your Shepard’s love interest.  And they don’t limit themselves to squad members in the third game, they bring back *everyone*, which is really great if you romanced a character who wasn’t too present in the third game.  They put a great deal of effort into making the dialog feel reactive to how you treat each one of your characters, like with James asks if his flirting might make Liara (or whoever your Shepard is getting it on with) uncomfortable, and it’s written so casually and naturally that it didn’t appear to be some token bit of interactivity, but the setting reacting to your decisions.  Again, it shows the game understanding what players are about, and putting the effort into that.  But once these individual character events end, the party begins, and I cannot think of a single section in any video game where I was smiling more.

The party at Shepard’s apartment is one of the strangest sequences in the entire series.  It doesn’t follow the rhythms and structuring of the combat sections, the exploration sections, or the majority of the dialog sequences.  It’s broken up into a few sections where the player can freely roam around the apartment, and join conversations with groups of their teammates.  The participants in each conversation shifts during each segment, and Shepard can overhear different parts as she walks by, or join in the conversations for an occasional cutscene or non-interactive dialog sequence.   Some sequences are laugh-out-loud hilarious, like Grunt standing at the door and reveling in turning people away from the party in the rudest way possible, or EDI confronting Traynor about her sexual attraction to her voice, but most of them are casual conversations that just make you laugh or smile a lot.  And it is the casual tone of the entire encounter that I found so enjoyable, but also so unique.  I can’t think of too many other games where you can get drunk at a party with your friends, talk for an hour about life, then pass out and wake up the next morning for some breakfast.  I’ve seen similar sequences before, but none as focused as this.  The creators clearly set out to create a party sequence, and nothing else.  that was the focus of design and narrative, and it never gets distracted from it.  Want to have a section where Joker laughs for thirty straight seconds when Shepard claims (falsely) that she can dance?  Throw it in!  want to walk in on Grunt sitting in the shower, so drunk that his words are incoherent mumblings?  Do it!  The pacing of the sequence is so laid back, letting the developers include parts that they never could have while having to deal with the narrative requirements that come with, “Save the entire goddamn galaxy”.  But Citadel doesn’t care, it wants to let you say goodbye.

By any sort of narrative logic, this entire sequence makes no sense, and, for people in Shepard’s position, would be horrifically unethical.   But, for a little bit, Citadel can forget that it’s a big-budget video game that has to be about saving the world, and can let you relax, and get some real closure.  The reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending left me without the closure that a series with that level of personal importance needed.  I didn’t get an appropriate goodbye to Shepard and the crew of the Normandy.  I was okay with the ending I got, but it wasn’t the one I wanted.  Citadel is the ending I wanted, and more.  It respects the time and care I put into this series, and clearly cares about it as well.  The now final sequence of the Mass Effect trilogy begins with a shot of Shepard alone, looking out at the Normandy.  After a few seconds, her crew walks out and joins her.  There’s a brief exchange between her and Liara, which ends with Liara saying “We’ve been through a lot…but it’s been a good ride” and Shepard responds, after taking one last look at the Normandy, “The best”.  I’ve criticized Mass Effect 3 a lot in this piece (in between my gushy ramblings about why I love it so much), but having sunk an untold number of hours into this franchise, I can happily say that Citadel does indeed close out the best ride around.  I can’t possibly summarize the effect the series has had on me in any sort of cohesive conclusion (that’s why I spent the summer writing forty-four pages about it), but Citadel was the conclusion I needed to wrap up the investment I put into the series.   Mass Effect taught me what kind of video games I would like, introduced me to a real love of science fiction, and created a handful of characters that are going to stick with me no matter how many games I play.  Citadel respects all of that.  I couldn’t think of a better conclusion to a series that has been so important to me.

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