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The Mirror’s Edge Legacy

Introduction

When Mirror’s Edge released in 2008, the term “first person platforming” was met with, to put it mildly, a great deal of skepticism. Many foundational first-person shooters featured bits of platforming, chief among them Quake and Half-Life, but those sections were almost universally reviled by the time of Mirror’s Edge’s release. It made sense at the time as a way of adding a bit of variety to improve the pacing of these largely linear, single-player experiences. But the awkward controls and janky physics of those titles made those sections incredibly tedious to complete, and are to this day brought up as the worst parts of both of those titles. 3D platforming had become almost exclusively the domain of third-person titles, with old series like Mario still reigning supreme. And as far as first-person games went, movement was incredibly standardized, nothing like the bunnyhopping days of Quake. 2007, the year before Mirror’s Edge’s, saw the release of three shooter classics that codified the rules of first-person games: Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, and Bioshock. These three games were each wildly innovative in their own way, helping define what many consider one of the greatest years in gaming history. But despite answering the question of “How do you make a first-person shooter” with their own, unique answers, each answered the question of “How do you move in a first-person game” in a fairly similar way. Halo 3 is perhaps the most unique among them, continuing the series’ emphasis on lower-gravity, longer jumps, and at least some strategic value to bunnyhopping. But, largely, each of the games asked the player to move around a 3D space slowly, with a sprint button to speed up the process, and maybe a “vault over object” button if you were lucky. Cut to a decade later Halo 5 has jetpacks, Call of Duty has wall running, and Titanfall 2 has jetpacks AND wall running. Even Destiny, perhaps the biggest FPS in the current market, has movement that encourages jumping and ups the speed and importance of movement as a defensive option. I wouldn’t call any of these games platformers, but they all answer that question of “how do you move in a first-person game” with much more variety and much more complexity. So, what changed in the decade since? Well, I would argue, Mirror’s Edge came out, and developers finally started learning from it.

Mirror’s Edge released in 2008 to relatively little fanfare. It sold poorly, reviewed just above alright, and didn’t get a sequel until eight years later. Mirror’s Edge, commercially, failed, but it is still talked about today despite this. I believe that this is largely because, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only dedicated first-person platformer ever released by a AAA studio. Since its release, a handful of indie games have tried similar experiments (Clustertruck, Deadcore, Refunct, Valley, A Story About My Uncle), and a smaller handful of AAA titles have been inspired by its movement system (Titanfall, Dying Light, Brink), but there has never been an attempt at first-person platforming as purely focused on the technical challenge of the platforming itself as Mirror’s Edge and its sequel. This makes it an incredibly useful reference point for developers experimenting with movement mechanics in first-person games. But, in all the borrowing, remixing and reinterpreting of Mirror’s Edge over the almost decade since its release, I believe that many developers have missed something core to the formula that made the game work, either intentionally to better fit its ideas to the game they were designing, or unintentionally as they simply failed to understand the game itself. And with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst both failing to recapture the strengths of the original and also doing poorly commercially, I doubt we’ll see another focused attempt at a first-person platformer for some time. With that in mind, I think it’s valuable to examine exactly what Mirror’s Edge did, why it worked, where it didn’t, and how other games have interpreted its bold and focused answer to a question that other developers are now answering with more regularity: “How do you move in a first-person game?”

Mirror’s Edge

One of the most commendable, and probably most damning, elements of Mirror’s Edge is its purity of design. In 2017, AAA games with purity of anything are nearly impossible to come by, so this alone makes it unique. Mirror’s Edge is a series of 10 chapters, each a continuous series of obstacle courses. It lasts about six hours on your first playthrough, though I recently completed it in three and I’m not even very good at the game. Its extra modes are a time trial mode that cuts up the 10 chapters into quick levels that can be replayed in 1-3 minutes, and a speedrun version of those 10 same chapters. It had one DLC pack that added a series of extra levels with a new visual aesthetic, and that’s about it. Mirror’s Edge does not have a sprawling open world filled with collectables, it has thirty runner bags hidden throughout the entire game. It doesn’t have a giant features list of multiplayer, single-player, and co-op, it has a linear, single-player campaign. It isn’t packed with new modes and options and torrents of DLC, expansions, and seasons passes, it just has one experimental pack. This dedication to its one, core idea is beyond refreshing in a year when even something as pure as demon killing in Doom comes with a multiplayer modes, a snapmap map creation feature, hundreds of collectables, optional challenges, and the list goes on and on and on. This isn’t to say that variety is bad, or that games shouldn’t try to experiment with their mechanics, but gaming in 2017 has gone far past that point. In contrast, Mirror’s Edge’s ability to know what the engaging core of its game is, and then focus on it, makes it so much easier to play and to think about. However, like I mentioned earlier, it means that you can beat the entire game in three hours. And must of the gaming community is not exactly receptive to a “quality over quantity” argument. Games with that short a runtime get crucified on forums and subreddits. So while I love that Mirror’s Edge is exactly as long as it needs to be and not a single hour longer, it contributed to why it didn’t sell well. And, it also lead to the inclusion of the game’s single worst feature: combat. Everything I’m about to gush about that makes the game flow and feel tight is completely broken during these stilted, awkward combat sections where the player spams an attack button to try to punch armed guards to unconsciousness. No one liked it, the developers didn’t even like it, they just included it because the game was too short without it, and it is the game’s greatest flaw. But, if you load up Mirror’s Edge today, set it to easy mode to make the combat as brief as you can, you’re in for an experience unlike any other. You’re going to experience Mirror’s Edge as a first-person platformer, and little else.

Mirror’s Edge is striking from the first moment you turn it on, welcoming the player with a bold visual aesthetic. Nothing before or since has really captured those same ideas, with its vision of a clean future symbolizing the control of an authoritarian government, contrasted against its grounded setting. Because the game uses almost entirely precomputed lighting and unmoving objects, it still looks gorgeous to this day. Couple 20170722133517_1.jpgthat fidelity with a strong visual aesthetic and accompanying political message and Mirror’s Edge feels fiercely contemporary. I’ll talk more about why Catalyst’s sci-fi aesthetic does not fit the design of the first game, but Mirror’s Edge did not feel like a fantasy, nor a stock reimagining of Orwell’s 1984, it feels like something that could happen today. It takes the idea of an authoritarian post-9/11 surveillance state and makes it real and uncomfortably plausible. Keeping the game locked to the first-person perspective made the player feel present in this world, and its commitment to keeping this perspective further enhanced its grounded feel, only cutting to third person in the beginning as the player assumes control of Faith, and the end as the player relinquishes it. The design of the parkour movement added even more to the feel that this was a game that interpreted realism as an actual imperative to design their game around, not a visual aesthetic that necessitated more grime, blood, and forced moral ambiguity. In Mirror’s Edge, huge falls will kill you. If you think you couldn’t make a jump in real life, you probably couldn’t make it in game. Faith isn’t a superhero, she’s just really good at parkour. The animations reinforce this, placing a great deal of emphasis on Faith’s limbs and body positioning as she moves through an environment. This realism lead to a level of mechanical transference that the other games I’m going to discuss simply didn’t. Playing Mirror’s Edge made me see real-world environments as spaces that I could parkour through, if only I had the skill. It encouraged me, in the real world, to try to climb or jump off of things, because Mirror’s Edge had conditioned me to look at spaces like that. Catalyst, Dying Light, Titanfall and Refunct, did not encourage that, because they weren’t as focused on realism as Mirror’s Edge. And it was through understanding this commitment to reality that I found what I believe to be the goal of Mirror’s Edge: to create a grounded, first-person platformer with tight levels that want you to traverse an environment quickly and stylishly, but also allowing you to slow down and think about environments as puzzle spaces. And from this foundational philosophy came the complexity of the game’s mechanics.

I know Dark Souls comparisons have long since passed the threshold of overuse, but while replaying Mirror’s Edge, I constantly found myself making comparisons. Mirror’s Edge requires a commitment to animations that no other game in this piece does. Jumps, rolls, landings and climbing cannot easily be canceled, and are required to play out animations before they allow the player to start their next move. This adds a strategic importance to every decision the player makes, discouraging sloppy play, but also adding a weight and heft to the animations. In general, movement in games isn’t supposed to be a challenge, it’s supposed to feel smooth and effortless. But in Mirror’s Edge, movement isn’t a way for the player to get from point A to point B, it is the core objective of the game itself. This means that conventional approaches to movement won’t often mix well with a game that emphasizes it in this way. For most games, the designer wants the 288236.jpgplayer to feel like they’ve mastered movement as soon as possible, but for Mirror’s Edge to match the arc of a traditional video game, it has to have a gradual sense of mastery, not an instant one. It does this, in part, through its animations. By preventing the player from easily canceling their moves, it requires the player to think more carefully about each move they make, making them engage with systems they might have otherwise ignored. And this is exactly how Dark Souls works, requiring commitment to every input, and punishing sloppy play (though Dark Souls is significantly more punishing than Mirror’s Edge). The result of applying this philosophy to movement, instead of combat, is that it turns movement into a technical challenge, not an easy means of traversal.

However, high-level play in Mirror’s Edge could hardly be described as cautious and stilted, if anything, it looks effortless and flowing. Flow is a concept and a term with a strong relationship to Mirror’s Edge; it’s even name-dropped in the opening cinematic. And I think it’s the only game I’ve looked at that fully commits to getting the player to the flow state. But it’s important to distinguish between flow, the mental state, and flow, the aesthetic. Flow the aesthetic, at least as far as movement is concerned, is a general, uninterrupted traversal. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is probably the best example on this list of that purely as an aesthetic, but the original commits to it as a mental state. That state is one when the challenge is high, but the player’s skill is just as high, and they match every challenge as they are presented with it, not effortlessly, but with focus. Mirror’s Edge commits to this by creating a robust set of mechanics that are constantly testing the player’s timing and coordination. Precise button inputs at the correct time are highly valued, and different moves are strung together to create a sequence of balanced challenges. This is where the level designers had to work carefully to chain different paths together, and balance the difficulty of each obstacle to avoid spikes. This must have taken a great deal of effort, but the result is a game that begs for speedrunning, because once it gets going, it makes the player not way to stop.

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However, sometimes it does stop. Be it for narrative pacing, trying to squeeze more hours of their limited amount of levels, or because the designers genuinely find it interesting, the game does have many sections where the player is asked to stop moving quickly. Combat is obviously one of those, but the more successful lulls in the pacing comes from the more puzzle-focused sections. Now, arguably the entire game is a puzzle of exactly which obstacles to travers and in what order, but some sections in the game feel much closer to a traditional puzzle game. In these, the player is asked to give up some of their momentum and really engage with the mechanics at a low level. This puts the player into a planning phase where they figure out a sequence of moves that might work, then try to execute them perfectly. The game wants the player to look for unique solutions, to think of how the mechanics might be used differently, or to see the space they are presented not as a real-world place, but as a series of game pieces. This seems completely out of sync with a game about flow the aesthetic and flow the mental state, but somehow, it works incredibly well. It does help even out the pacing, as previously mentioned, but it also expands the possibility space of the mechanics. If the player is always moving at top speed, they don’t have time to slow down and think about the implications of the mechanics. Giving them these slower sections helps them master more complicated ideas in the faster sections. That is part of the brilliance of these puzzles: once the player knows the solution, they can fly through them just as fast as any other section of the game. They’re almost like invisible tutorial sections, letting the player figure out a specific move or series of moves so that they can recognize sections later in the game that use the same idea. These sections, however, only work in a game that treats movement as something interesting in and of itself, not as a means to an end. And its sequel, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, largely does recreate these sections, but does so with much more compromises.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

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Catalyst is a sequel (prequel, reboot, whatever) that I never thought I’d get. Released eight years after the original, it makes me genuinely wonder how this game even got made. Sequels to poorly-selling eight-year-old IPs just do not happen in this industry. So, no matter how much I’m going to tear into Catalyst in the paragraphs to follow, I am still incredibly glad that it exists, and the majority of my complaints about it come from it being a sequel to Mirror’s Edge. Because, unfortunately, Catalyst fell victim to the same style of Ubisoft open world that claimed a sizable chunk of AAA titles in the past few years. In contrast to the original Mirror’s Edge,’s grounded, mechanically-focused approach with careful level design, Catalyst is a sci-fi open world game that treats its platforming more as a cool navigational gimmick to move quickly than a mechanic set in and of itself. And while there is a lot to unpack in the subtle differences between Catalyst and its predecessor, I think the genre change is a good representation of the misunderstandings Catalyst has about what Mirror’s Edge is. Because Mirror’s Edge is not sci-fi. It isn’t set in the future, it’s set in the near-future, and that may seem like a semantic distinction, but I think it’s core to what made Mirror’s Edge work. Catalyst is filled with gadgets, sleek, future buildings, and cyberpunk corporations conspiring to spy on every citizen. The original was thoroughly grounded in the realities of a post-9/11 surveillance state. It felt uncomfortably plausible, like you could see it happening in a city you knew. The city it was set in wasn’t even named, it was just referred to as “the city”, allowing the player to project any city the might be familiar with onto its clean-but-not-too-clean surface. Catalyst, however, is wildly creative with its setting, using vibrant sci-fi architecture where the strong blacks and whites of the original are filled with bold, primary colors. Mirror’s Edge had a very limited color palette, even famously so. But Catalyst is a bustling sci-fi metropolis, filled with strange and varied buildings. Part of it feels like the art team spent so long working on the Battlefield games that they used Catalyst to run wild. And, while I disagree with this particular choice for the Mirror’s Edge series, I want to stress that this is a gorgeous artistic decision. It makes navigating through the game exciting just to see what you can discover next. The overworld feels, in a word, slick. Everything is polished to a mirror (heh) sheen, guiding lines are smooth and flowing, and Faith’s feet make little squeaking noises as she sprints across various surfaces. And, in a similar way, the movement feels great to control. Animations that had long delays in the original now finish instantly, jumps feel tighter and are accompanied by beautifully polished animations and sound design. Out of all the games I’m going to talk about, Mirror’s Edge included, movement feels the best to control in Catalyst. But, to create a game that is outwardly more welcoming to the player, a great deal had to be sacrificed. And here is where Catalyst’s problems begin to emerge.

Perhaps the best example of what separates the tone, mechanics and setting of Mirror’s Edge and Catalyst are two moments I happened to play back-to-back while recently replaying them. The first happens in the original Mirror’s Edge, which begins in a sequence where Faith is being chased by a pack of cops, and is running out of escape routes. However, glancing up, the player sees two cranes, painted in a shade of red the

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The crane in Mirror’s Edge

game uses to highlight objects the player can run off of. Then it hits them. The game wants them to jump between those two cranes. That’s insane! The player has pulled off some crazy jumps before, but nothing like that! As the player climbs to the top of the first crane, dodging gunfire along the way, Merc, the player’s “man in the chair” over an earpiece, warns Faith not to do what he thinks she’s going to. But the player reaches the top of the first crane, holds their breath, then makes the leap. The barely make it, skidding down the side, as Merc shouts in disbelief over the earpiece. The player’s heart is thumping, and the charge towards the nearest rooftop, leaving the cops behind them in disbelief. I finished this sequence, switched over to Catalyst for a bit, and chained a leap over a giant chasm between buildings with a grappling hook ride up dozens of feet in the air, landing with an easy roll to continue moving. I can’t remember much more than that. If the crane jump happened in Catalyst, they wouldn’t even draw attention to it, since actions like it happen so often that it wouldn’t be memorable. Catalyst does draw attention to how crazy of a jump the player is making at one point, where they are walking a tightrope between two huge skyscrapers, gazing down at the vast expanse beneath them. It’s like something out of an action movie. The player could never imagine doing that in the real world.

So Catalyst has a problem with not being grounded. In the same way its sci-fi aesthetics extend wildly beyond the original’s near-future setting, its scope and scale is much more grand. Mirror’s Edge had, to put it charitably, a forgettable story, but it mostly took a backseat to the platforming challenges anyways. Catalyst has cutscenes. Well-animated, voiced and scored cutscenes. Yet the story is a totally forgettable hero’s journey where Faith needs to learn to accept that she’s really a superhero who needs to fight the evil corporations. The original wasn’t entirely realistic, it ends with Faith

Walking between buildings in Catalyst

kicking the big bad out of a helicopter on top of a skyscraper, but the story doesn’t end with her taking down the entire government, it ends with her saving her sister. And, well, Catalyst technically ends the same way, but it makes a much bigger deal out of its revolutionary aspirations. Now, this shift in genre and scope could still be true to the original and be a great game in its own right, but this lack of grounding unfortunately applies to two more areas: the level design, and, most disappointingly, the mechanics.

I mentioned earlier that Catalyst has the best feeling mechanics out of any of these games, and that definitely is valuable in its own right, but it sacrifices a lot to get that better feeling. I’ll be going into more detail about the level design shortly, but I think it might be where a lot of these changes stemmed from. Open worlds, specifically Ubisoft-style open worlds, aren’t a great fit for complex movement mechanics, because the player spends so much time just getting from objective to objective that additional complexity added to the movement system adds work and tedium. If new movement mechanics are included, they need to justify their existence by making traversal easier, not harder. The original Mirror’s Edge has traversal that is, by nature, more difficult than the majority of games, but that’s where it draws its depth from. Catalyst still does this to some extent, but that extent is much lesser than its predecessor. Perhaps the most noticeable change to the movement is that the windows for specific inputs to be entered is much more generous. Where the original might have given the player a one-second window to hit the roll button before hitting the ground, Catalyst would give the player two or three. This, on the surface, seems like it would make traversal easier all around, but I think it might end up making it more difficult. Because the window for input is more generous, the player doesn’t learn the exact timing through muscle memory, which often leads to them playing sloppily, because the game never trained them not to. This can result in the player missing a lot of jumps, rolls and wall runs, because they haven’t been trailed properly to use them. But in addition to occasionally making its systems more unreliable, this change also removes some of the depth and satisfaction from them. Some of the improvements are objectively better than the previous game, with more polish and responsiveness, and I don’t want to undersell that, but the added control sacrificed some of the depth. Now, it would be easy to equate inconvenience with challenge and call it a day, but I think the satisfaction that came uniquely from Mirror’s Edge was a sense of technical challenge that kept you grounded in the movements of Faith as a physical human being, not a video game avatar. When some of that difficulty is removed, the satisfaction inherent to the game’s mechanics is lessened. And, to enhance the problem, the game has an upgrade system that gives the player stat bonuses to running, and unlocks some of the most valuable skills. I’ll touch on this more in the Dying Light section, but, in an open world, if you give the player the option of upgrading to a better mechanic, then you have to design most of your world around the player decided not to unlock it. This means that, because, for example, the quickturn is not given to the player by default, that areas can’t be designed with it specifically in mind, and thus using it makes the environments feel too easy. The result is a mechanics set not suited for anywhere near the amount of depth of the original, and while it does feel better in parts, it overall feels less robust, less satisfying, and less carefully designed. Unfortunately, these mechanical failings are enhanced by the open world the game is set in, and for all the benefits of having an open world game where moving is satisfying on its own, the style and design of the open world does not quite live up to this promise.

The most noticeable impact of the open world in Mirror’s Edge’s design is the longer load times. This is a simple technical reality that will be completely obsolete when Catalyst is as old as its predecessor, but is incredibly frustrating now. Time trials, speed runs, and other trial-and-error sections of the original would often lead to the player falling to their death, causing the game to reload the level, but because the game was just reloading a single level, it didn’t take that long. On modern hardware, the delay is almost unnoticeable. But Catalyst has to reload a chunk of an open world every time the player dies and, even on an SSD with, still takes a decent amount of time to load. This makes every death and mistake even more frustrating, and drives the player away from retrying old levels. Ten years from now, advanced hardware will almost certainly remove this problem, and I really wonder what Catalyst will play like with the removal of those load times, but for now, it stands as a major reason I so often return to the original over Catalyst. And this feeling of compromise and frustration carries into other aspects of the design, namely, the tightness of the design. Mirror’s Edge was a very pure game about very specific challenges. It had exactly one thing it wanted the player to do (I suppose two, if you count the optional runner bag collectables), and that was it. Catalyst gives the player a world filled of instanced challenges, collectables, and story missions, and designs the world so you can more easily get between those objectives. Each of those individual activities is fun in its own right, but it feels hampered by the open world. Obstacle courses aren’t as tightly designed because they have to serve as both that instanced obstacle course, and an easily traversable section of an open world. This would be okay if the game encouraged you to find interesting routes between points, letting the player gain a slow sense of mastery over the world and use those paths more efficiently, but the the racing start and stop points all seem arbitrary, so that mastery never forms.

Additionally, two mechanics designed for ease of use in a traditional open world game kill any familiarity the player might gain with the world: objective pathing and fast travel. Much has been written about how fast travel can prevent the player from engaging with the world in open world games, and it’s doubly true for Catalyst. Fast travel skips the traversal so the player can go to other areas and solve traversal challenges. It’s skipping the core gameplay. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding about why people play a Mirror’s Edge game in the first place. If they want to skip moving from place to place, then they aren’t engaged enough with the mechanics as is. But it also creates a loop of play where the player is fast-traveling between different instanced objectives, so they never get a chance to just be in the world and explore it organically. With this approach, creating a pack of levels instead of an open world would have been much more valuable. And secondly, the game implements an objective pathing system similar to the Clairvoyance spell in Skyrim or the breadcrumbs in Dead Space, having a wispy red line show the player the exact path to take to their next objective. It prevents the player from figuring out where to go or how to navigate the environment. Sure, the player can figure out more interesting ways, but it is usually best to just follow the line. This can be disabled entirely, but without it, the environments are difficult to read and it is incredibly easy to get very, very lost (Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit did a video on this subject in more detail, and I’d highly recommend it if you’re interested in open world design). The world Catalyst creates is simply not designed for you to engage with it as a platforming game. Yes, the original let you press a button and be instantly pointed towards your next objective, but it only showed the player the direction, not how to get there. Finally, the last example of how Catalyst flirts with solid design but isn’t able to commit is how it handles collectables. These have, sadly, become a staple of open-world design, and Catalyst mostly implements them poorly. The most common collectable is an item that requires you to walk up to it, stop moving, press an interact key, watch a couple of seconds of an animation, then return to whatever you were doing. It is totally antithetical to the momentum of a Mirror’s Edge game, killing any sense of flow that the game usually works so hard to preserve. Most of their collectables are like this, but one of them, the gridleaks, actually work very well. Gridleaks are glowing orbs that appear in the world for some sci-fi reason, but are scattered so broadly that they end up serving as little challenges in their own right. Some of them, the player can just run right through on their path to the next objective, but others are tucked away on a seemingly unreachable surface, goading the player into figuring out how to get there. They don’t break the flow, they fit in with the running, and they encourage clever thinking about the mechanics. And it’s the fact that the game still manages to capture some of the puzzle solving of the original that keeps my opinion of it positive, despite all the criticism I’ve been levying against it. It has these wonderful gridNode challenges to unlock new fast travel points, which are basically puzzle sections from the original, but as soon as you finish them, there don’t seem to be any puzzles left except for a few collectables. Some of the designers at DICE clearly know how to make a good Mirror’s Edge level, and some of them clearly know how to create good Mirror’s Edge mechanics and animations, but the greatness in those aspects is so often trumped by an open world design that commits to convenience over challenge.

Dying Light

DyingLight

But what would happen if a team approach those mechanics solely as auxiliary to the main game, and designed its platforming with that in mind? Well, Dying Light is a great example, an open world game with so many features thrown in that “kitchen sink” barely covers it. It treats its platforming not as a challenge in its own right, but as a cool navigational gimmick for avoiding zombies. Loosening rules and easier movement felt like a compromise in Catalyst, but in Dying Light, they feel appropriate, because the player isn’t just focused on the movement. The movement in Dying Light just feels good to control, and a lot of that comes from the easier traversal. By the end of the game, the player can climb unrealistically high walls, jump from insane heights, and vault over a horde of zombies. I wouldn’t want to play the game just as a parkour game, but it works well as a fun way to get from place to place, so much so that I miss it in other open world games. When using the Ubisoft open world design philosophy, even a little bit of depth to the movement makes the hours of traversal so much more fun. It even turns the obligatory tower climbing sections in every one of those games fun! It doesn’t integrate perfectly into combat, which usually ends up with the player just spamming the attack button, but it doesn’t really have to. It does allow for some great moments of jump-kicking zombies in the face, but it doesn’t really deliver on the idea of the combat that Mirror’s Edge and Catalyst hinted at. Those games attempted to make a melee combat system about chaining combat moves into parkour moves, but never really delivered on it. The easiest strategy was to just run up and spam attack. Dying Light’s dropkick move at least tries to do this, but doesn’t get very close. The movement works as a way to manage the horde, not to be explored deeply. So, here is a game that is clearly inspired by Mirror’s Edge and benefited from including some if its ideas. The developers asked themselves how first-person platforming and parkour could improve their game, and they found out that including it as a side option worked fairly well. But what are the limits of taking the ideas from Mirror’s Edge and applying them to a game where platforming isn’t the focus?

At the start of the game, there aren’t many problems. The controls feel tight and grounded, the player character struggles and is overwhelmed by intimidating challenges, they even have a scene where he jumps off a crane and freaks out about it. But, while Mirror’s Edge takes about 6 hours to complete, and Catalyst takes 8-13, Dying Light can last anywhere from 16-40. And twenty hours of running around an open world with platforming not being the focus can start to get tedious. After a certain point, I just want to get to my next objective. So, the game offers stat upgrades, some of them interesting, some of them just pure numerical increases. On the interesting side, the game gives you c8tdcmxh96plgmkmg2yta roll move to let you jump from higher buildings, it even gives quickturns, a move that added a great deal of depth to Mirror’s Edge. This has a similar problem to Catalyst where, in an open world where you can unlock different abilities, the designers have to assume you haven’t unlocked them. However, they work well as ways to increase the skill ceiling on movement, while not breaking the system. But some of the upgrades are just raw stat boosts. Run faster, jump higher, survive higher falls. The problem with this is that it takes the system from a grounded and tight one and turns it into an unrealistic and floaty one. If I was designing Dying Light and absolutely had to include linear stat upgrades, I would start the player out with mechanics that were a significant amount clunkier than the starting state it shipped with, then have them reach that point at about the mid game, getting only a bit better by the end game. But the actual game starts out at about a Mirror’s Edge 1 level of control then jacks it up to a Catalyst level, then keeps going. By the end of the game you’re zipping across rooftops with a goddamn grappling hook, surviving every fall, flying over every obstacle. It feels great, but it also feels mind-numbingly easy. To their credit, the developers put a lot of work into making this system feel good, with extra bits of polish to animations and sounds, but at the end of the day the core mechanics themselves feel broken by this stat upgrade. At this point, the player feels less like a physical human being with limbs that have weight and and organic positioning, and feels more like a box that zips from place. It does create flow in the aesthetic sense, but never approaches flow, the mental state. It is firmly camped in the “control” mental state, with the player rarely being challenged. The game wants you to relax while moving, to feel good, but not really engaged. And that’s okay, as a design decision from their own open world game, but it does make me wish for a game that really did commit to skill-based movement, that took its AAA budget and applied it to a system as tightly- designed as the original Mirror’s Edge, and did tried to integrate combat well. Well, fortunately, that game exists.

Titanfall

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Titanfall and its sequel feels like the games Mirror’s Edge was destine to inspire. First-person shooters are no strangers to skill-based movement, with early examples going as far back as Quake. So, when a developer comes up with a new design for first-person movement, it’s only natural that a that an FPS would try to adapt it (I’m not talking about Brink). Titanfall does this wonderfully, succeeding in its attempts to create a first-person shooter that wants to emulate the crazy-fast movement of old FPS titles, with parkour and jetpacks to improve map versatility and for defensive movement. From the get-go, it is easily the fastest-moving game I’ve talked about so far, letting the player get up to a frankly ridiculous speeds if they chain enough wall runs together. Titanfall emphasises momentum in a way even Catalyst really doesn’t, with the player’s starting speed being the equivalent of a sprint in a normal FPS, and their top speed being the equivalent of maybe the original Doom? However, the player is hard pressed to stay at this top speed for long, so they’re encouraged to plot routes through the map to give them this high speed when they need it. However, because of this speed, mixed with affordances for aiming with a gamepad, aiming in Titanfall is incredibly difficult, and usually requires slowing down and aiming down sights to hit and target farther than a few feet away. This means that there is a constant back and forth between moving fast defensively, and slowing down to line up a few shots. A fast moving player may be able to avoid death for a decent chunk of time, but they won’t be racking up any kills while they’re doing it. However, this movement system isn’t perfect, and often times a player who is just better at aiming can take you down no matter how fast you’re going. Also, while gaining a lot of momentum is incredibly satisfying and strategically valuable, when the levels don’t give the player a clear path to their objective, they can spend the time awkwardly hopping around. Titanfall 2, fortunately, addresses this problem, with the addition of grappling hooks and slide jumps. The grappling hook is an optional ability for some reason, and with how much it adds to the game I am genuinely amazed it wasn’t made standard for all loadouts. It has a strategic depth that the grappling hook in Dying Light simply did not. While that game’s grappling hook mostly existed to skip over parkour segments, Titanfall 2’s exists to speed movement up even more. When used correctly, it becomes another way for the player to create paths through the level, letting them make up some lost momentum or quickly navigate open spaces. Slide jumping also greatly improves this, though is a bit more difficult to master. It requires the player to jump, press the crouch button right before they hit the ground, then jump again before their slide animation completes. I think. I haven’t quite gotten it down yet. Regardless, the process makes the player harder to hit and move faster while crossing open environments, raises the skill ceiling, and allows players good enough to reach it a constant boost to speed.

Unlike Dying Light, Titanfall feels a bit closer to the purity of the original Mirror’s Edge. The combat and the movement are designed around each other, and that really shows in the way it handles upgrade. While Dying Light and Catalyst had stat upgrades to their movement systems, Titanfall’s stays mostly the same, the only exception being an ability

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that lets the player shoot while sprinting. The designers at Respawn created a tight, skill-based and expansive movement system, then kept it the way it was, allowing for a purity of design that is admittedly rare in AAA circles. Of course, it has a cacophony of guns, gun upgrades, combat upgrades, titan upgrades, and cosmetics, but movement wise, it is fairly pure. It isn’t the core of the game, combat is still the most important part, but unlike Dying Light, it doesn’t feel tacked on. Titanfall could not exist without its parkour mechanics and still be identifiably Titanfall. Dying Light probably could.

Unfortunately, Titanfall got a great deal of bad press for being part of the 2014 anti-hype cycle, and its sequel sold poorly for a number of reasons, including being sandwiched right in between the launch of the annual Battlefields and Call of Duties. But its influence is still strongly felt. Halo, Destiny, and Call of Duty all have implemented some form of movement that borders on parkour, with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 even featuring a parkour obstacle course mode. This mode could not have existed in earlier Call of Duty games, and the fact that it does speaks volumes about how much movement in FPS games has changed since 2008. Titanfall is probably still the most visible inheritor of Mirror’s Edge’s ideas about first-person movement mechanics, but that influence has seeped into other games, and is now firmly established. Despite selling poorly, the game’s design philosophy has a foothold in AAA design. But what about the indie scene?

Refunct

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Refunct is a game that clearly would not exist without Mirror’s Edge, but also has a wildly different goal. Rather than being a skill-based parkour game, it’s a relaxing platformer about moving at a brisk pace from platform to platform. Its goal to be a relaxing game is apparent from the moment you open it, with chill electronica playing in the background and a hazy, abstract visual aesthetic. If anything, it feels like the developer is putting their own spin on the Pure Time Trials DLC maps that released for the original Mirror’s Edge. I’ve gone on and on about how Mirror’s Edge being grounded was so important to its design working, but the Pure Time Trials DLC shows that the formula is able to be bent a bit before it completely loses its punch. Refunct is an exploration of an abstract take on grounded mechanics, like the DLC, and uses its laser-focus to rebuild those mechanics around its goal to be relaxing. It does this by altering Mirror’s Edge’s low-level puzzle solving loop, one borrowed from more conventional platformers. Where that mode wanted you to carefully consider each moment, Refunct wants to to keep moving at a brisk but not blinding pace. This means that the fast parkour sections and the puzzle solving sections don’t feel like two separate modes like they did in Mirror’s Edge, it’s a single state of gameplay. The puzzles in Refunct are never complicated enough to have the player seriously considering the implications of the mechanics, they more exist to let the player have a quick moment to say, “Oh, that was interesting.” It lacks some of the more complex mechanics of Mirror’s Edge like the wall run or quickturn, which would have added more complexity than Refunct really needed. It does have a wall jump, but it’s used in situations that don’t require perfect timing. Where Mirror’s Edge wants the player to consider the exact timing of each move, Refunct simply wants the player to know what the correct move to enter is. And while this removes some of feelings of viscerality that Mirror’s Edge was so successful in implimenting, it, again, works with the goal of being calm. The player isn’t getting stuck, or trying the same jump over and over, they just keep moving from objective to objective. That’s not to say there are no pauses to the game, sometimes it’s not great at telegraphing its next objective and I’m left missing Mirror’s Edge “Press Alt to Look at Next Objective” button. However, it mostly keeps the pace at a comfortable level. Refunct’s only failing, if you can call it that, comes from its budget. It’s a $3 game made by a solo developer that can be easily beaten in twenty minutes your first time (the speedrunning achievements have you pushing four minutes). This means that it lacks the polish of the AAA games I’ve been discussing so far. While all other games on this list have emphasized the physical body of the player character, Refunct does not have one, removing a great deal of the physicality associated with this genre. Some mechanics feel very artificial, like you have entered a trigger box, the game stops your momentum, moves you up a few units, and deposits you at the precise location it was programmed to. Of course, all games work like this, but without the sound and animation polish that comes with being a AAA title, Refunct is unable to replicate this. Still, as a game to relax to with an interesting spin on movement, Refunct is an interesting and valuable experiment, and one that would not have existed without Mirror’s Edge.

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Conclusion

Despite its own series struggling to find a foothold in the industry, it’s clear that Mirror’s Edge has influenced designers from all different genres. From AAA FPS games to open worlds to indie passion projects, its emphasis on skill-based movement, physicality and flow have lead to what I believe is a much healthier market of first-person games. First-person games just have more complex movement than they did in 2008, be that a result of callbacks to the movement of early FPSes or a reinterpretation of Mirror’s Edge’s ideas. Movement is a part of every first-person game, and when designers are encouraged to experiment with the assumptions that define it, we get games with different focuses, different goals, and different possibility spaces than we would have when these actions were standardized. Mirror’s Edge, unfortunately, never got a true sequel or spiritual successor that carried the torch on its ideas of a more realistic approach to that movement. However, while I wish such a game had been made, I would much rather see a healthier market of games inspired by Mirror’s Edge, but not constrained to it, than a market flooded with Mirror’s Edge clones. I’m glad that developers can apply these ideas to entirely different genres and be confident enough to stray from the genre-defining work. 2007, the year before Mirror’s Edge’s release, saw the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a brilliant game in its own right that inspired an incredible amount of stagnation in FPS market, crippling innovation because of how wildly innovative it was. Designers emulating Modern Warfare rarely deviated substantially from its formula. It took a much longer time for Mirror’s Edge’s influence to be felt, but now that it has, it exists as a jumping off point, not a template to be copied. And, as a fan of first-person game across genres, this makes me hopeful for the future.

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Revisiting Soma: Another Kind of Adventure Game

Ten years ago, Frictional Games made their first foyer into the horror genre when they released Penumbra: Overture; they’ve been iterating and refining that formula ever since.  The Penumbra series didn’t break any sales records, but it carved out a comfortable niche for the company of first-person horror games heavily inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (their in-house engine, the HPL Engine, is even named after him).  But the company achieved widespread fame in 2010 after the release of the Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  Even though it was little more than a polished iteration on the Penumbra series, it was released at just the right time to become an internet sensation, leading to the creation of YouTube videos reacting to its many jump scare, and helping kickstart the Let’s Play genre.  But when I played Amnesia in 2010, and the Penumbra games soon after, the jump scares that had made them so popular weren’t what drew me to the series.  Instead, I was drawn in by, well, everything else.  The Amnesia and Penumbra games are dripping with originality, atmosphere and mastery of design.  Yes, their horror is effective and well-crafted, especially considering the budgets they were produced with, but they are packed with genuinely good writing coupled with carefully-considered puzzle design.  With the exception of Penumbra: Overture, their very first game, Frictional’s games do not have combat, which would ordinarily invite cries of having “not enough mechanics” from the self-proclaimed hardcore gamers who deem any game that doesn’t meet a minimum quota of murder a “walking simulator”.  But Frictional’s games avoid this criticism by basically being 3D adventure games.  With a precious few exceptions, I’ve never been able to get into adventure games, however, so it took Frictional’s meticulous design sensibilities to get me to even play the games.  I loved their approach to puzzle design in Penumbra and Amnesia, but in 2015, they released Soma, a game that championed their design philosophy with even greater confidence, even boldly rejecting the jump scare horror mechanics that made Amnesia a bestseller.  I genuinely loved the Amnesia and Penumbra games, but Soma has become one of my all-time favorites because of how it approaches the idea of an adventure game, seeing its puzzles not as arbitrary problems to be solved, but as extensions of the setting.

Soma’s basic plot is too deviously complicated to give a quick summary of, but, in short, the player spends most of the game navigating a decaying, underwater research station.  They restore power to different areas, reroute around cave-ins, fix electrical problems, and, of course, avoid being killed by the horrific creatures that roam the station.  Soma’s excellent writing and voice acting would normally make it the kind of game that I play for the story, and use guide to get through any of the trickier puzzles.  However, I found those puzzles to be some of the most engaging parts of the game, largely because of how they were framed.  I struggled to explain what distinguished Soma’s puzzles from that of other adventure games, which is largely what prevented me from writing about the game in the past, until Frictional posted an article about this exact design idea in an excellent blog post.  It doesn’t talk about puzzles directly, it instead talks about narrative choices, but I think the fact that they frame their gameplay decisions as such is part of what makes their approach to puzzles so much more engaging.  Narrative choices in most games, much like puzzles in classic adventure games, are very removed from the game’s core mechanics and verbs.  In Mass Effect, if the player is going to make a decision, they are pulled out of the game’s normal controls and into a conversation system, which gives them a list of options to pick from.  Given how difficult simulating conversation has proven, this is probably necessary, but it does make the choices feel very explicit and very, to borrow Frictional’s term, digital.  Analog choices, as they define them, are choices that use the game’s existing mechanics set instead.  They use the example of Spec Ops: The Line’s approach to choices, which eschew the menu-based choices of dialog trees in favor of using the game’s existing mechanics, namely, shooting.  Applying this philosophy to narrative choice is incredibly valuable, but Frictional also applies this philosophy to every mechanical and puzzle decision the player makes.  The puzzle equivalent of the “press button to make decision” narrative choice is something like the puzzle panels in The Witness, where the player clicks on a panel in the world, and their controls are rebound to those of the specific puzzle they are solving (though the game’s best puzzles subvert this).  Soma, however, never changes the player’s controls.  They are always given the same set of verbs and controls to solve every problem the game presents them with.  Frictional builds out these basic first-person controls with a physics and control system that feels fresh even when played today, despite being pioneered almost a decade ago in Penumbra.  If a player wants to turn a wheel, they click and hold on it, then rotate their mouse in a circle, mimicking the player character’s physical actions.  If they want to open a door, they click and pull back on the mouse.  Complex physics interactions aren’t treated as a novelty, they’re simply how the player interacts with the world.  Pulling out electrical cables, throwing switches, moving components around, all become a natural part of the player’s toolkit.  The result is a world that the player models complexly, where every item could be potentially useful and could interact with others in interesting ways.

This combination of dozens of small interactions lets the player engage with the world in a way that feels satisfying on a very low level.  The puzzles themselves are rarely complicated, which would ordinarily make the game feel rote and boring, but because of the physicality and complexity of every interaction, I found incredibly engaging.  Oddly enough, the activity it reminded me of most was building a desktop PC.  While PC construction occasionally requires nightmarish Google trips into arcane manuals and ancient forums, I usually know exactly what I need to do, and I just need to find out exactly how to do it.  Traditional adventure games go for an “Aha!” moment, where you figure out the solution with a great deal of work, and execute easily, but Soma, Amnesia and Penumbra rarely obscure the solution, and instead present the player with the mechanically satisfying task of executing it.  Difficulty and challenge aren’t really important to these games the same way they are to the vast majority of other video games.  In a previous piece, I grouped Soma under this genre of “will and wits” that I had invented, with an emphasis on a very procedural form of procedural problem solving in a poorly-maintained environment.  However, as I’ve been replaying both Soma and Near Death (another game I group in that genre), I’ve noticed that while both games have failstates, they don’t dictate the majority of the player’s actions.  Usually, the player is processing an environment, looking for objects to solve problems, and then solving them, with little in between.  This creates a satisfying loop of activity that the designer can subvert when necessary to keep the player on their toes, aware of their environment in a more detailed way than most games ask for.  Doom might ask you to be aware of the positions and projectiles of a dozen or so demons, but Near Death and Soma ask you to be aware of all the objects, switches, lights, and loose panels in a room.  It takes the awareness that games often demand and shrinks the scope.  Soma is probably one of the most influential games for me as a designer (hell, I even made a HTML pretty heavily based on it), because it shows how to encourage players to engage with spaces on a scale that feels both more manageable and more intricate.  Games still struggle with making systems other than combat interesting, complex and marketable, but I think Frictional Games and its contemporaries have carved out a design niche where we can engage with spaces more cerebrally, and create problems that require procedural, logical thinking, grounded in the setting, instead of arbitrary challenges for their own sake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skyrim Landscape-3.jpg

Musical Platforming: Dustforce, Runner2, and Game Feel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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