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Massive Effect 3: Massive Reversal

Introduction

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

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

The Problems with a Bigger Budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bigger Budget & Character

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

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

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

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

Bigger Budget & Crafting Spaces

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

 

Bigger Budget & Story Resolution

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

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

Final Mission & Ending (Buckle Up, Folks)

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

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

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

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

Citadel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Screw You, Ubisoft, I’m Gonna Go Do Parkour

 

Ubisoft pretty much single-handedly killed open worlds for me.  I’m sure anyone who plays games regularly can remember the excitement open world games used to bring, and I blame Ubisoft for stamping that excitement out.  I can trace this arc most clearly through how I played the Assassin’s Creed series, which is perhaps the purest distillation of Ubisoft’s open-world formula.  I played Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, Revelations, and III over the course of about a month, voraciously devouring them in a mad dash to complete the games before III came out.  When I started the franchise, I was in love, and when I finished it, there were few games I hated more.  And the core of this very strong emotional response was how the games handled their open worlds.

See, Ubisoft games have one *hell* of a honeymoon period.  When I started all of the Assassin’s Creed games, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry 4, I was raving about how great they were.  I talked about their amazing ideas, reveled in their genuinely novel high concepts, and delighted in exploring their mechanical idiosyncrasies.  But then, about four hours in, the honeymoon phase fades, and I realized the relationship was shit all along.  I discovered that the parkour really is that shallow, that the driving really is that shit and it’s never going to get better, that, oh my god, they seriously expect me to climb this tower for the seventh time.  And then the monotony hits, usually all at once.  I start to dread having to explore the open world, I started to cringe how formulaic the story is, and, most of all, I start to notice the checklists.  

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Out of everything in Ubisoft games, the checklists are the things I despise the most.  They turn the wonder and mystery of an entire, digitally-created world into a series of to do lists for you to complete to increase your overall completion percentage, which is clearly your objective meter of how much Fun(TM) you’re having.  Soon, the allure of exploring a new world fades into the conditioned monotony of seeing how many items you can check off this list before you get so bored that you give up on it.  And that emotion, boredom, becomes the driver for how I play Ubisoft-style open world games.  I have to do all these side missions, so let’s keep doing them until I get bored and have to do a story mission to hold me over until the boredom peaks again.  I’ve thought about it, and even my favorite open world games like Skyrim could have their core engagement of exploration obliterated with a simple checklist.  The greatest moments in those games are when you find a hidden cave tucked away behind some out-of-the-way mountain, explore every nook and cranny, and find some magic item with a weird effect that you hang onto because, sure, it’s a good item, but you have a story about how you found it.  If Skyrim was made by Ubisoft, you would see a marker on your map for the magic item’s exact location, and be told that you need to collect it and the 2534 other magic items in the world to reach 100% completion, so that by the time you got there you would just follow the line on your map to the item, pick it up, and leave.  All the magic is gone, you’re just going from Point A to Point B.

So, is that it?  Has Ubisoft’s destruction of the reasons I loved open world games infested the industry so thoroughly that I will never enjoy one again?  Apparently not, because Mirror’s Edge Catalyst came out last week, was a Ubisoft-style open world in everything but name, and I loved the goddamn hell out of it.  

steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_412583521_previewThe original Mirror’s Edge game came out some eight years ago, and has been one of my all-time favorites ever since I first played the demo at a friend’s house.  In the time since then, there has never quite been anything like it.  Sure, Brink had some parkour, Titanfall took the basic stylings and made it crazy fast (and added jetpacks, which is always nice), and Dying Light applied it to a Ubisoft-styled open world on their own, but while I love all of those games (except Brink, c’mon, Bethesda, what were you thinking?), none of them even come close to Mirror’s Edge.  Because as fun as their movement systems are, at the end of the day, the feel just a bit too floaty, too removed, and, most importantly, too easy.  Movement is never the core gameplay of those games.  In Mirror’s Edge, it was basically all you had (I’m not going to talk about the shooting mechanics, and no one else should either).  While Ubisoft games had me hating going from Point A to Point B, Mirror’s Edge is basically nothing but that.  So, they figured, if our game is entirely about getting from one place to another, why not make that really freaking fun?  And they did! The movement in Mirror’s Edge is filled with this flow, heft and weight.  Faith can get up to some serious speed, but she lands with a thud, will get hurt if you don’t time your roll right, and fall to the ground with a sickening crunch if you miss a ledge grab.  The game asked you to be constantly aware, not just to stay alive, but to move as fast as you can and look as cool as you can while doing it.  The aesthetics of parkour, of traversing a complicated space in a unique way and making it look effortless, translated so well into gameplay that I am amazed that, eight years later, NO ONE ELSE HAS GOTTEN IT RIGHT.  But the first Mirror’s Edge was a linear, level-to-level game, and while I really admire and enjoy its purity, this year,  when we *finally* got a sequel, they changed that.

mapMirror’s Edge Catalyst is a straight-up, Ubisoft-inspired, checkbox-ridden, collectible-filled open world.  It has an overall completion rate, barfs icons for random tasks onto your map, and doesn’t provide and mechanical incentive to do any of those things.  And I freaking love it.  Most open world games get very tedious, very fast, because a decent chunk of your game time is just walking from objective to objective, but in Mirror’s Edge, running everywhere is the core gameplay, so they focus on making it as engaging as possible.  I had a blast finding out different routes from the various points of interest in the game, felt amazing whenever I found a new shortcut to shave off some travel time, and got genuinely, shout-an-exclamation-of-joy-at-two-in-the-morning-and-piss-off-my-parents excited when I unlocked a new upgrade that let me double wall jump.  I didn’t care if I was parkouring to a fixed objective on the map that added to my overall completion, I was doing parkour!  I wish I had more to say about it than that, but all it took to make this style of open world enjoyable was to just make going from place to place exciting.  The walking wasn’t a chore anymore.  I learned every detail of the environments because they were useful to me.  And a type of game that I had *hated* for years suddenly was something I was raving to friends about again.  Except this time, the honeymoon phase didn’t wear off.

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Overwatch & Support Classes

Playing a support class in a multiplayer game is a strangely contradictory decision.  Competitive multiplayer games are almost always about empowerment, about kicking as much ass as you possibly can and being named the Best Ass-Kicker That Ever Was.  Multiplayer games have score screens that praise the most skillful ass-kickers and lead to derision of the less-skilled ones.  They emphasize kill-death ratios, the ultimate measurement of a player’s skill, and, despite the team focus of these games, tend to hold personal kill performance above all else.  This makes playing a support class kind of go against the ethos of this style of gaming.  If multiplayer games are all about killing as many players as you can, then why would anyone want to play a class that, if they’re doing their job right, doesn’t get any kills?  Well, it seems that, despite the importance of support roles in games like League of Legends, Overwatch, World of WarCraft, etc., not to many people want to play them.  I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch since its release last month, and I’ve ended up playing primarily as Mercy and Lucio, two of the game’s primary healer classes, not because I find them more fun, but because no one else will.  One encounter that I have every three games like clockwork is a starting phase where no one has chosen support, and the one guy playing Reaper (it’s always Reaper) starts yelling at the team in chat for someone to play support.  When people suggest to this player that he, perhaps, play support, he suspiciously goes silent.  So, I end up playing Mercy or Lucio again.  So it would seem that not too many people want to play support classes, and most players will end up fighting over the few attack/damage roles.

If this is the case, and support really is antithetical to the ethos of multiplayer gaming, then why do I enjoy playing these support roles so much?  Yeah, I’m annoyed that I’m usually boxed in to playing them, but I’ve been having a blast playing healers.  The primary reason for this, I’ve found, is the type of rewards you get for playing support.  When you’re playing a damage-focused character like Reaper, Genji or Bastion, you get a lot of mechanical rewards, like high kill streaks, crazy plays of the game, and medals on the score screen.  But, when you’re playing support, you get something different: social rewards.  When I get an insane kill streak as Pharah, the other players on my team mostly ignore it unless it is particularly game-changing.  However, when I jump into the middle of four dead teammates as Mercy and resurrect all of them at just the right moment, I get compliments, thanks and praise for doing so.  This type of social reward is why I enjoy playing support so much.  It is not about doing the best I personally can, like getting 40 kills in a match, it’s about helping others do the best they can, and feeling a sense of vicarious accomplishment.  The role feels more like that of a parent or teacher, oddly enough.  Instead of kicking ass yourself, you’re helping other people do it instead.

But there is a serious tradeoff there.  Blizzard ranks Mercy as one of the easiest characters to play, and, I’ll admit, there’s not as much second-to-second mechanical depth to her.  You’re making decisions about who to fly to in order to heal and where to position yourself, but you don’t have the skill of twitch aiming or ability timing.  Mercy’s healing wave, afterall, isn’t a skill shot, you just hover over the player you want to heal and lock on.  So, whenever I play a healer, I always feel like I’m trading mechanical depth for social enjoyment.  This isn’t as true in games like World of WarCraft, healing there is much more complicated, but I do still feel that tradeoff.  Blizzard has tried to acknowledge this with tricks such as removing the kill-death focused scoreboard and replacing it with objective-based medals, but there is still a long way to go.

And this comes with another problem: what if your team is a bunch of insufferable assholes?  I’ve had this problem time and time again: I get grouped with players who are toxic as all hell, constantly ask me to heal them when the entire team is at half health, and spew slur-infused bile at me in chat when they die.  This makes games as a damage or tank character annoying, but it makes games a support near unbearable.  If most of your reward for playing the game is social, then when that social reward is removed, you have nothing to fall back on.  If you’re playing a game with a bad team as a damage character, you can still get kills from time to time, which at least give you something to enjoy, but a support, the game just becomes grueling.  Most of the time when I stop playing Overwatch, it is because of games like that.

In this model, support is a class that works fundamentally differently from damage or tank classes.  Supports have a much larger gulf in enjoyment from game-to-game, and much less minute-to-minute enjoyment.  Basically, if you have a good team, you’re probably going to have an experience that is consistently enjoyable, and if you have a bad team, the game will just suck.  Because I’m usually playing Overwatch with a group of friends, I can more easily avoid those bad games, and I’m not quite sure how Blizzard could fix that.  Maybe they can’t, maybe they just want you to play with friends instead of alone.  And, in a style of game focused around personal empowerment despite having all of this potential for team play, I think a bit of a tradeoff is acceptable.

“Basically, we are gods. We can create worlds. And all we are doing is recreating the harsh world that we live in. And the truth is our time is limited. Like, this is our one opportunity to make whatever we want and we are really, really comfortable just remaking our childhoods. That’s scary to me.”
-Walt Williams, in an interview with Brendan Keogh
http://www.unwinnable.com/2013/04/09/talking-is-harmful/

Smashing Plastic Guitars (And The Patriarchy): My Confusing Journey Into Guitar Hero and Emergent Narratives

Last month, I finally bought Guitar Hero III.  With a used guitar from Amazon and an old PC copy, I was able to load up and play a game that I had never actually owned, but nonetheless had held enormous sway over two years of my gaming life.  Rhythm gaming disappeared almost as quickly as it rose to prominence, so Guitar Hero III, for me, remains the untarnished pinnacle of that genre.

At first, I played it as a way of revisiting childhood experiences. I completed the career mode on medium without much difficulty in a few hours, enjoying the songs, style, and 300px-Judyhealthy nostalgia trip.  After completion, I almost immediately packed up the guitar and left it to lounge in my closet.  But two weeks ago, I picked it up again, this time playing on hard mode as Judy Nails, a punk rock girl who emanated goth culture and 90s grunge.  This didn’t change the gameplay in any way, only what avatar was displayed rocking out on screen.  Overall, it wasn’t that different from my first playthrough.

That was until the second stage of the game.  My band had just completed their first real gig, playing a set of songs in a run-down bar to a small but energetic crowd.  As we closed the last song, a 3D-rendering of Tom Morello, a guitarist from the angsty, rap-metal band, Rage Against The Machine, emerged to face off against my character in one of the game’s iconic guitar battles.  I knew and guiltily enjoyed the song, so I prepared myself to play.  However, before the battle began, something caught my eye.  The camera panned left to focus on a leather-clad woman, clearly a stripper, as she walked onto the stage in the beginnings of a T-rated, but clearly suggestive dance.  The crowd went wild, and the game took a slice of time out of my performance to focus on hers, which continued throughout the song.  I had played this game dozens of times at friends’ houses in the past, and once again a week before, but somehow I hadn’t given this section much thought.  Yet, for some reason, even though it had no direct impact on the game whatsoever, my position of playing as Judy Nails made this stand out to me.

I unconsciously began to wonder how she would have felt about this.  Seeing another woman that blatantly objectified must have been alienating, unsettling and disorienting.  This stripper, and the way the crowd and camera treated her, established women as an object.  Judy Nails’ role as the protagonist made her a subject.  The two were clearly in conflict.

But that wasn’t how I framed those thoughts.  This wasn’t a removed defense of Judy Nail’s emotions.  No, this bothered meI felt alienated.  I felt objectified.  And I was pissed off.  I was about to battle against an incredibly skilled guitarist, in a head-to-head that would launch my character’s career into greatness.  Yet the game chose to focus on a 322px-Judy_Nailsstripper, something that, yes, likely would have made the fictional Judy Nails uncomfortable, but, more confusingly, made me feel uncomfortable, in a way it hadn’t every other time I had played the game.  How could I fight my way to the top of rock ‘n’ roll, if this stripper was standing right in front of me, with others dancing in cages behind her, symbolizing a level of unapologetic objectification that held women back in the medium and in the world?  These weren’t the empathized feelings of Judy Nails, they were my feelings.

I didn’t have time to process this, nor the myriads of other problematic presentations of women I would soon notice in the game, because seconds later, a torrent of notes came flying down the game’s virtual fretboard.  Both the computer-controlled-Morello and I played wickedly difficult progressions, producing a chaotic ballad of record-scratches and distorted guitar riffs.  The song was difficult enough that it consumed all of my attention, leaving none to consider The Stripper and the implications of her presence.

But I was angry, not in a way that was clear and focused, but cloudy and saturating.  This let me reach a level of flow in play that balanced detachment and engagement, shaping my actions to a reflexive perfection I rarely experienced.  As the song barred forward, with us neck and neck in points, I slowly began to accumulate more of the game’s power-ups, special abilities that would mess up the opposing player, and I used them sparingly.

3616-active07guitarhero3-wii-00This wasn’t conscious strategy, but an automatic response.  Before, I had seen guitar battles more as a special stage to perform on, instead of a battle with a clear opponent.  But this time, I had an enemy.  It wasn’t Tom Morello, I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, it wasn’t Neversoft, the game’s developer, and it certainly wasn’t that stripper.  It was something I couldn’t clearly define, certainly not while playing a song on a difficulty level I had absolutely no reason to be playing on.  But I was angry at something.  I couldn’t define it, but I knew it when I saw it, and I knew that I needed to defeat it, not for someone else, but for me.

And I did.  As the digitized Morello began his ending solo, signaling the beginning of the “death drain”, which would lose me the battle, I thrust my guitar into the air, activating my carefully curated power-ups.  Digital Morello’s difficulty level was increased to expert, each note he had to play was doubled, all of which flashed on and off of the screen sporadically.  He failed the song in a matter of seconds.

I shouted an adrenaline-filled cry of victory.  I had defeated an honest-to-god bad guy.  I didn’t know what that was, or what it meant, but I knew I had done something.

The virtual crowd roared in approval at our performance, demanding an encore.  Rage Against The Machine’s iconic Bulls On Parade was loaded up, and, before I could reflect on the experience, I was thrust right in.  Despite feeling the thrill of an undefined victory, I still felt a simmering anger that permeates many of Rage’s songs.  Bulls on Parade is very much a song about fighting the system, and now, I had a system to fight.

For the rest of that playthrough, I wasn’t just embodying someone who loved music with a passion, I embodying someone locked in a battle against a culture.  I started to notice characters with the same character model as The Stripper in nearly every other stage, many of them in cages.  I started to notice how there were maybe three songs in the game guitarhero3slash1124with a female singer.  I started to notice how my character didn’t appear in the pre-rendered cutscenes.  I started to notice how, aside from the rarely-used female singer, and a briefly-shown TV reporter, there was not another woman in the game. But I still loved the music, and I loved the feel of playing the game.  I couldn’t just quit, I had an undefined enemy to defeat!  I had to prove, to something equally undefined, that I could love rock but not be the kind of rock that made a camera linger on a T-rated rendition of a stripper.  I had a system not just to defeat, but to change.

And I did!  Sort of!  I played through the rest of the game on hard.  I earned money and glory.  I bought the coolest guitars and the most expensive punk-rock outfits.  I unlocked The God of Rock, Slash, and the Grim Reaper from the character selector.  I beat every song with four or more stars.  In a conclusion that would have made Jack Black proud, I won a guitar battle with the devil for my soul to a rock rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.  I became a “rock legend”, as the ending victory screen proclaimed me.  I played Dragonforce’s infamously difficult Through The Fire and the Flames atop an enormous hell-tower to hordes of cheering demons and devils.  I had done it.

But I had already done that a week ago.  Sure, it was on medium difficulty, but hard mode didn’t fundamentally change the experience.  Yet, somehow, it felt so much more invigorating the second time through.  I hadn’t just defeated the devil, the odds, and the hordes of other rock artists on my way to the top, I had defeated…something.  Sexism?  The patriarchy?  Strippers?  I wasn’t quite sure.  But I had done it.  I was a champion of rock, a legend, and I was a woman.  I got to play that solo on the top of that tower.  But I did not change the world.  I did not change the game.  I did not do anything combat the industry’s persistent, disturbing, and childish approach to representing half of the goddamn planet.  I didn’t do anything but change a few variables on my PC.  But that experience had enormous meaning to me nonetheless.  I may not have defeated even a sliver of the real patriarchy, but my defeat of an imagined one helped me learn from an otherwise mundane experience.

This story was not written into Guitar Hero III.  In fact, my narrative is mostly at odds with the game’s constructed one.  But this only made the experience all the more powerful.  I felt a beautiful parallel between my journey and Judy Nails’, with me in conflict with, yet in love with the game I was playing, and her in conflict with yet in love with rock music and its culture.  I embodied that contradiction, acted on its inconsistencies, and could feel the medium respond to my created story. I could assign meaning to the actions I performed and emotion to the songs that I played.  I could treat the game’s sexism as a problem with an imagined world that I needed to fix, instead of a prejudiced choice in a piece of static media, because Guitar Hero is not a piece of static media, it is a game.  I can take that game, which I adored unquestioningly when I was younger, and find meaning in 9it, because it isn’t the same game I played when I was 13; the game has changed because I have changed. Through this, I experienced a story I never could have in reality, because, yes, the game depicts a world created by developers that portrays women in a way that is simply wrong, but I am a part of that world.  I can change it.

Despite gaming’s relative youth as a medium, this isn’t some wholly unique experience.  In fact, we have a term form it.  It’s called emergent narrative, and it shows up in games like The Sims, Dwarf Fortress and Far Cry 2, where the authored narrative is overshadowed by stories the player creates using the systems of the games.  My experience with Guitar Hero doesn’t fit cleanly into this definition, but my role as agent in the story does allow me access to a bit of its advantages.  I was able to create a story, one that emerged entirely through my interaction with the game’s systems, that was much more personally compelling than the one the developers told.  In the authored story of Guitar Hero, the game told me that I was a rock legend.  In 529710-235_5_lmy story, I felt like a goddamn rock goddess, armed with a plastic guitar in one hand and a confused desire to smash the patriarchy in the other.  My real-world gender didn’t make that experience disempowering or emasculating; I had an evil to defeat and an injustice to fight, who cared if I was only a woman in the game world?  I’m going to remember that story for far longer than I will remember a couple of animated cutscenes.  I have learned from it, and it has changed my outlook on the real world.  Because, despite my story’s completely imagined nature, it made me feel like a hero; guitar and otherwise.

You Are Needed – Gaming: The Successor To Film as a Modernist Medium

People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies.”

Virginia Woolf, The Movies and Reality

Spoiler Content: Large spoilers from Dear Esther, but due to the nature of that game, knowing some of the possible theories probably will not impact your experience.

Introduction

At the height of modernism at the turn of the 19th century, the world witnessed the birth of a new medium: cinema.  Lacking sound, film could not have the conversational emphasis, and the accompanying structure, that literature had depended on.  The medium instead used its new aspect, the visual, to explore new narrative styles and perspectives.  Film seemed the perfect companion for modernism emphasizing the novelty of the visual to sidestep the ever-present artifice of the written word.  Modernist authors and thinkers flocked to the medium, praising it as freedom from the constraints of the novel that they had been working to change, in order to better “make manifest the astronomy of the heart and mind” (Deren 228).  Film allowed for an exploration of ideas that were before impossible to explore through its creation of a “different reality from that which we perceive in daily life” (Woolf 1).  However, over a century after the birth of film, one could make a strong argument that film did not become the modernist ideal that its early proponents wished.  Film narratives today, certainly those out of Hollywood, are largely linear, and many are adaptations of books themselves.  Its visual aspects are not used to explore new narrative styles, but instead to contribute to an existing, literary story.  While modernists imagined a subjective, feeling-based medium, free of the quickly-solidifying narrative structure of the novel, present-day films are largely those same novels in visual form.  Film has not failed, in a practical sense, but it has failed to become the medium that modernists imagined.  However, another medium, now in its adolescence, is developing aspects that the modernists desired, a medium that explores subjectivity and audience involvement in a way the modernists never could have imagined.  This medium can tell stories through action, instead of presentation, through simple presence, instead of created worlds, through personal agency, instead of projected empathy.  This medium can be quiet, can let the audience experience the narrative at their own pace, can ignore the creator’s narrative and generate one for individual audience, or can let the audience simply stand and experience the beauty of the artist’s created world.  T.S. Elliot loved film because it was not “absorbed passively and noncommittally” (Chinitz p239), but in the medium of videogames, this is taken even further, as the audience isn’t just an audience but an actor, a participant in the narrative to the same degree as any character.  Modernist thinkers and writers would have loved the video game medium, because, while young, it has the potential to explore nonlinear and subjective stories through narratives that are both artist — and player — crafted, in a way that film did not.

Film: The First Attempt at New Modernist Medium

Film, as a commercial medium, is a success.  It has more mainstream acceptance than any other medium in human history.  Sadly, you can meet people today who do not like books or plays, very often you will meet people who have never and never intend to play a videogame, but you will almost never meet someone who has never liked a movie.  Movies make millions, some even make billions, of dollars.  They explore important cultural ideas and inspire national discussions.  They offer mountains of material for academics to critique and they provide families, friends, and couples with something to do on a Friday night.  They have big-budget, blockbuster successes like Avatar or The Avengers, but the same studios have independent wings that create unique, powerful films such as Juno or Slumdog Millionaire, something the games industry has yet to master.  Largely, film has succeeded, in a way that game players and creators wish their medium could.  However, films did not radically change the way we tell stories.  They offered new avenues of exploration through their visual or aural elements, but took a radically different path from the wishes of early modernist filmmakers.  This is odd, considering film had numerous advantages to help it take advantage of its potentially narrative-challenging visual focus.  Technical limitations prevented the use of any sound, which, coupled with the awkward pacing of on-screen word dumps, meant that early films could not be dialogue-heavy.  This limitation existed from the 1890s until The Jazz Singer in 1927, a length of time comparable to gaming’s entire existence.  During this period, modernist filmmakers thrived, and used the visual requirement to experiment with new, subjective narrative styles, because they did not have the technical capability to use novel-like ones.

However, this did not preclude film from the influence of literature.  Virginia Woolf in her essay, The Cinema, explained that, “while all the other arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully-clothed,” highlighting how film’s use of visuals meant the audience already had a language for understanding its narrative (Woolf 3).  This is a powerful sentiment, but it is worth noting that Woolf was, first and foremost, a writer, as were T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and other modernist lovers of cinema.  While they each tried to change literary narrative structure through their own work, their view of cinema was primarily in contrast to that of literature, because they were all titans of that very medium.  Woolf claimed that literature and film were separate, that “the alliance [was] unnatural…eye and brain [were] torn asunder ruthlessly as they [tried] vainly to work in couples,” but film largely developed as a companion medium to literature (Woolf 2).  That heavy influence is clearly apparent simply in the number of book adaptations, including half of The American Film Institute’s ten best films of all time.  Avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren once stated that “There is no literary story…cinema, being a visual medium should discover its own, visual integrity – in cinematic terms” (Deren), and while film brilliantly explores “what the fact is, and the character’s attitude towards it” (Eisenstein 151), it does so through modified literary methods of storytelling, not ones pioneered through its own visual style.

Games: The Unlikely Second Attempt

Video Games would certainly not be the first candidate for a new modernist medium.  The gaming culture has numerous, systemic issues: rampant sexism, racism, ageism, transphobia and a general resistance to criticism.  In addition, it had none of the early developmental advantages of cinema.  The state of criticism in the medium is so abhorrent that game developer John Carmack famously said, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important,” a crude statement that has not only been often quoted, but also proven partially right.  Thus, any presentation of gaming as the perfect, modernist ideal that cinema was not, would appear utterly ridiculous.  Early gaming history would certainly contribute to this view.  Just as film’s technical limitations forced it to emphasize it new visual characteristics, the technical limitations of games left it predisposed to exploring gameplay.  However, while early filmmakers could experiment with narrative structure, graphical limitations largely prevented game developers from using that interactivity to say anything meaningful.  Early games were entirely about system mastery; Pong,Spacewar!, and Pac-Man did not explore the depth of human corruption, the nuances of romance, or the empowering influence of community, they explored how to move the pixel from one side of the screen to another, or how to increase a score variable.  Interactivity wasn’t just emphasized, it was everything.  These were masterfully crafted games, but no one knew, much less cared, how to use them to convey meaning.  Early video games were not made and critiqued by great authors, like early films before them, but by computer programmers.  In short, film was created by artists, whereas gaming was created by engineers, engineers who were more concerned with system mastery than insightful artistry.  Because these games were commercially successful, they fed the demand for similar games, leading programmers to continue the trend unquestioningly for years.  Gaming thus began and evolved as a medium about technical mastery, not interactive storytelling or exploration of meaning.

Yet games are still not without influence of other mediums.  While its primary influence was computer programming itself, games slowly began to draw from cinema.  Game developers, like many modernists, strongly emphasized realist aesthetics, to the point where “realistic graphics” has incorrectly become synonymous with “a well-crafted visual aesthetic.”  Each year, games try to push the limits of their graphical fidelity, with drastic improvements over time as computing power has increased. There is a strong sentiment among game critics that this trend has lead game developers to make games more cinematic, that is, more like movies, at the cost of the unique advantages of the medium.  Film contributed a great deal of visual polish and nuance to gaming, as well as powerful methods for visually expressing character interactions.  However, in much the same way that literature lent powerful narrative aspects to film at the cost of visual strengths, film’s lending of visual aspects to games often comes at the cost of gaming’s new characteristic: interactivity.  Games are inherently opposed to the cinematic style, because, as film critic Roger Ebert famously claimed, “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control” (Ebert).  Ebert used this as a reason why video games could never be art, and while I strongly disagree with him on that point, he does capture why film cannot rsz_dab0e5e75f5c-xl_3943work as a companion medium to gaming: players actions, free of developer control, clash with cinematic polish.  The developer cannot make the player look at what they are supposed to, or do what they are supposed to as expertly or smoothly as a controller character would.  Woolf observed that, in early cinema, “All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters and their famous scenes, only asked to be put on the films” (Woolf 2), and games have followed a similar path, not adapting individual movies but the entire cinematic style.  Many present-day releases have safe and uninventive gameplay and mechanics, but multi-hour Hollywood-style movies as cutscenes between action sequences, entirely disconnected from the mechanics.  Some developers are experimenting with created interactive movies, most notably David Cage, creative director of blockbuster games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, the latter of which won awards at the Tribeca Film Festival.  As this cinematic style of game continues, it is worth asking the question: why a game?  What does the game add to the experience that could not be done better as a film?  Just as games have begun to come into their own, telling stories and exploring their new capabilities, they are locked down in an attempt to become a medium they are not.  Maya Deren believes films should have their own stories in cinematic terms, and many games critics believe that games need to have their own stories in ludic, or gameplay, terms.  “But what, then, are its devices” (Woolf 2)?

The Advantage of Subjectivity

From a modernist perspective, the most apparent advantage of games is their subjectivity.  Modernists loved subjective experiences, from the stream-of-conscious novels that explored everything a character thought to their idea of using film to control what the “audience sees, and therefore, control what the audience feels” (Deren 228).  While these novels and filmmaking techniques approached subjectivity, games truly embrace it, as they are, by their nature, subjective.  In his article on New Games Journalism, games critic Kieron Gillen wrote that “The worth of gaming lies in the gamer not the game,” and went on to emphasize the importance of the player in all interactive experiences.  The audience-centric approach that Gillien emphasizes is heavily present in modernist thinkers, most notably T.S. Elliot’s complaint that mass media is absorbed “absorbed passively and noncommunally,” as opposed to film’s liberating subjectivity (Chinitz 239).  Games can carry this active experience farther, because while films can “use the capacity of the camera to make [the scene] look like what the audience should feel about it,” (Deren 228) game developers can make the experience further their themes.  The player is not shown what a character feels, they are the character, those are their feelings.  Games’ closeness to reality, creating presence and agency for the player, allows the player to experience the media as experience, “[making] manifest the astronomy of the heart and mind” (Deren 228).  Game developers embrace this under the banner of Immersion, employing themes from the modernist-created minimalist school of thought.  These developers remove user interface elements that display data to the player, trying to let their game world speak for itself so as to emphasize the immersion of the player.  By emphasizing the purity of the game-player interaction, developers can create an experience that “can say everything before it has anything to say” (Woolf 3).  Developers want to strip away all else and let the player exist in another world, a world where change in perspective demands change in narrative structure.

New Worlds, New Narratives

Novelist Screenshot

A screenshot from The Novelist

One popular theory of modernism was that the previous world was outdated, and that it did not allow creators to fully express the human condition.  Modernists believed a new world needed to be created in order to explore these ideas fully, and many praised film for its ability “make even the most imaginative concept seem real” (Deren 228).  With a camera, actors, and a set, filmmakers “could create new realities” (Deren 228) to explore, entirely separate from our own.  Games fulfill this wish brilliantly, in a way that modernists couldn’t have imagined.  One of the earliest-created terms in gaming criticism was The Magic Circle, a set of concessions a player must make to look past the artifice of the game universe.  This allows to create a “different reality from that which we perceive in daily life” that Woolf described, but in a way she never could have imagined (Woolf 1).  To compliment these alternate worlds and the magic circles that accompanied them, developers created alternative narrative structures.  One of the strongest of these new devices is a concept called the possibility space.  Most linear stories, with a few notable exceptions, explore a possibility, a specific set of actions that show one possible outcome.  Games, however, not being limited to a single possibility, can explore a possibility space, or an entire range of possibilities, actions and outcomes.  One example of this is Stephen King’s The Shining – less so for its subsequent film adaptation – and the 2013 game The Novelist.  Both have fairly similar premises – an author takes his family on a vacation so he can focus on finishing his novel – but while The Shining looks at one possibility, namely the dangers of overwork and alcoholism, The Novelist explores the entire possibility space between spending too much time with work and too much with family.  The player can ignore their family entirely, and write a great novel at the cost of their marriage and the love of their son.  They can also ignore their work completely, having a happy family, but feeling largely unsatisfied with their unsuccessful attempts at creating something they are passionate about.  However, most players traverse the middle ground, trying to find a balance between the two, seeing the dangers of both but being encouraged to reconcile them.  It plays to the strengths of gaming to explore more than just a single outcome, but many.

Shandification”

These narrative shifts allows gaming to utilize its greatest value to Modernism: the complete overhaul of the linear structure.  Games lend themselves to a kind of narrative that YouTube creator MrBtongue calls “Shandification.”  Shandification is a reference to the 1759 Laurence Sterne novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which featured a fragmented narrative that explored events that were clearly nonessential to its vague semblance of a plot.  What made Sterne’s style so interesting is that it was realistic, not in an exciting style, but in an almost boring one.  Real world events don’t play out in a traditional narrative structure, they play out in a way that is “Shandified.”  This gives Shandified media the ability to explore aspects of the human experience that traditional narratives have not.  As a result, Sterne’s realist narrative style was still referenced and praised by modernists long after his death.  His work was highly influential on authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, with Woolf even writing the introduction to his novel, A Sentimental Journal (OUPblog).  However while his work was relevant in its time and in the modernist era, it is also relevant to gaming today.  Games work best when they possess “a narrative which is free enough to move in its own direction and at its own pace, in a setting well realised enough to allow for this freedom of movement” (MrBTongue), because games attempt to simulate a reality which is Shandified.  The modernist view of reality doesn’t follow a cohesive narrative, and is instead chaotic and tangential as a person crafts their own experience.  In both modernist reality and game worlds, the hand of the creator is not often felt, if it is felt at all.  What would be considered terrible pacing in a linear narrative becomes engaging and insightful because of how similar it feels to our real-world experience.

Dear Esther-12

A personal screenshot from Dear Esther

One game that exemplifies Shandification, the magic circle, subjectivity, and possibility spaces to great effect  is Dear Esther, an indie game released in 2012.  Dear Esther is the kind of game a modernist would create, as it is eerily reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, with its similar coastal setting, surrealist progression, and soliloquy-style exposition.  The narrative and plot are unknown to the player, and they remain unknown.  There are a multitude of theories for what the actual plot is, but each one contradicts the other.  It appears to be about a dying man wandering an uninhabited island in the British Isles, reflecting on the death of his wife at the hands of a drunk driver.  The player hears voiceovers from this man reading letters he wrote to his wife long after she had died.  The game has levels, taking the form of sections of the island, and a set beginning and end, but the voiceovers change on subsequent playthroughs, sometimes creating a cohesive narrative only to contradict themselves minutes later.  Whereas traditional linear stories are focused, Dear Esther is organic and explored, allowing the player to have a different experience each time as they learn more about the narrative and explore its possibility space.  The narrative seems linear, and has some sense of order to it, but is so effectively Shandified that the majority of the voiceovers can be heard at the beginning, middle or end of the game and feel just as relevant.  There is an arc to the story, but that arc changes every playthrough, and the player’s reading of the presented narrative can change it even further.  For example, I did one playthrough interpreting everything the narrator said as literal, and the island as a physical place, but on a subsequent playthrough, I interpreted everything as metaphor, and viewed the island as a metaphorical landscape.  The experiences were unique because both my perspective and the game itself had changed, which the developers used to lead me to different conclusions.  Some players even insistent that the player plays as Esther herself, trapped in a coma while her husband sits at her side, reading letters to her.  This reading is supported by player interaction in which the player can jump off cliffs on the island, only to have the screen go black, hear the narrators voice whisper, “Come back to me,” and be returned to the top of the cliff.  The game utilizes all of the potential modernist strengths to create a narrative that could only have been told through an interactive medium.

Conclusion

How all this is to be attempted, much less achieved, no one at the moment can tell us.” -Virginia Woolf

As mentioned earlier, gaming is a young medium with many, many flaws, and determining how to craft the medium into a modernist success is a daunting task.  However, its potential is already beginning to be recognized.  Games like The Novelist, Dear Esther and the critically acclaimed Papers, Please might give us some hint of where the medium is going, and I believe that if gaming is going to come into its own as a visual, aura, literary and, most importantly, ludic medium, examining games like these is vitally important.  Cinema was created as a medium to explore new ideas of subjectivity and non-verbal storytelling, and gaming can be the next medium to do this, not in a way that is objectively better, but one that can explore more of the concepts that modernists hoped for.  Maya Deren said, “We are moved by what we see, according to how we see it,” and I believe that, through games, we are moved by what we do, according to how we do it.  Through the careful use of interactivity, gaming can take new approaches to narrative and open avenues of exploration that were previously unavailable.  This is done not in a passive or noncommittal way, but through intricate interaction between the player and the game.  Games ask the player to enter their world, contribute to it, explore it, and even create art through it.  In the brilliant introduction to her piece on The Cinema, Woolf explained that the visual nature of cinema would demand a greater presence from the audience than other mediums have, that it would pull them in and make them feel what the story was about.  I want to close with a quote from that introduction, which games have helped me see in a new light:

What is its purpose, then, to be roused suddenly in the midst of [the eye’s] agreeable somnolence and asked for help? The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the king, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life.”

Dear Esther-05

 

Sources

Chinitz, David. T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.  P239

Deren, Maya, “Magic is New” p228

“Why did the chicken cross the genders? | Movie Answer Man | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.rogerebert.com/answer-man/why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-genders>.

Eisenstein, Sergei, “The Structure of the Film” p151

Gillen, Kieron. “The New Games Journalism.” Kieron Gillen’s Workblog. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014. <http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/assorted-essays/the-new-games-journalism/>.

“TUN: The Shandification of Fallout.” MrBtongue. YouTube, 24 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvwlt4FqmS0>.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Movies and Reality.” Authors on Film. Harry M. Geduld. Indianapolis: Indiana University, 1972. 86-91. Print.

“Virginia Woolf on Laurence Sterne – OUPblog.” OUPblog. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2014. <http://blog.oup.com/2013/03/virginia-woolf-on-laurence-sterne/>.

Slow Down The Violence

The other day, I was on Wikipedia reading some details about Alien: Isolation, a survival horror game in development by Creative Assembly.  This game comes after the colossal failure of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which will no doubt lower people’s expectations.  However, as I was reading through the description, I noticed a line in the overview: “…an Alien has already infested the station.”  Something about this line got me incredibly excited for the game, and I want to dig into why the possibility of a single enemy is so interesting for me.

In most games, the player kill hundreds, even thousands of people.  I have sunk an embarrassing 53 hours into Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall in the month since its launch, and in that time I have killed no less than 930 players.  Think about that.  How many people in human history have personally killed over 930 people?  How many have even come close?  I’m not going to say something stupid like
Titanfall_Gameplay_Thumbnail1virtual violence causes real violence, but the sheer amount of violence significantly damages the pacing of these games and devalues their narriatives.  Factoring in kills of computer-controlled enemies, and my atrocious 0.8 kill-death ratio, I found out that I have one encounter in Titanfall every thirty seconds.  These engagements are so simple and so quick that each individual duel is essentially meaningless, an instant test of twitch reflexes, positioning and impromptu strategies.  While I enjoy Titanfall, mostly because of the giant mechs and jetpacks, I think there is another way.

In the now-iconic Always Black essay, “Bow, Nigger”, the author describes a battle in Jedi Outcast which explores ideas of honor and good and evil in competitive games, but also touches on a style of combat we don’t often see.  Jedi Outcast‘s combat lends itself to the kind of epic duels we all see and love in the Star Wars movies, where two titans of skill and prowess go at it for a not-insignificant period of time.  You would never see a Titanfall-esque showdown between two opposing characters in a movie; it would be over in a matter of seconds.  Movies have a tense build, bursts of action, and a masterfully executed climax, but with games, it is over all too quickly.  Jedi Academy combat feels more movie-style than game-style, with highly developed low-level mechanics determining lightsaber swings, stance and position, and block timing.  In movie combat, the majority of attacks miss or are blocked, and it takes only two or three hits to kill a person.  Jedi Academy works in much the same way, with most attacks resulting in blocks, and only a few hits can bring an enemy down.  This, I believe, is a much more powerful approach to combat, emphasizing the skill of two opponents.  How many times have we fought giant bosses that are soak up ungodly amounts of damage?  How much more satisfying would it be to land a single, skillful hit or two to take down a ridiculously complicated boss?  What I’m saying is this: slow down the violence.  Emphasize the complexity and nuance of a single encounter and drastically reduce the number of encounters, so that each fight feels meaningful instead of routine and boring.  Games, because of their length, make the exhilaration of fighting multiple enemies disappear.  Killing ten enemies in a single encounter isn’t empowering, its expected.

I remember a mission in Mass Effect which began with a slow, well-paced murder investigation, but quickly transition into with me fighting weak, computer-controlled enemies for an hour and then finally fighting a boss.  Right before that boss fight, a cutscene played where my character chased the boss, tackled her out a window, then drew his pistol, dodged a magic attack, and took at least a dozen shots at his now-fleeing enemy.  Soon after, I took control and just kinda shot her for a while until she died.  This juxtaposition of the awesome and the mundane made me consider how the game could have been improved if the previous hour of fighting was removed, the investigation expanded, and the conclusion turned into a mechanically complex boss fight.  Instead of having a lot of passable combat, the game could benefit from a small amount of complex and engaging combat.  Violence can raise the stakes as high as they can go, can make the story literally a matter of life and death, but if overdone, it can have the opposite effect, making the artifice of the game world clearly apparent, and the meaning of the struggle evaporate.  What I am asking for is focus, for an emphasis on mechanics that are engaging in and of themselves, not because of their context.

One game that exemplifies this kind of strong mechanics set, despite its flaws, is From Software’s Dark Souls.  My most engaging battle in Dark Souls happened between me and a black knight, one of the toughest, non-boss monsters in the game.  I had just cleared out a courtyard full of skeletons and climbed to the top of a tower, when suddenly this knight appeared.  I ran for my life down the tower and back into the courtyard, with the knight close at my heels.  When I reached the center, I spun around, and he stopped in his tracks.  Hesitantly, I drew my shield, and the two of us began to circle one another, searching for an opening.  The knight lunged, I dodged to the side, I struck, he blocked the blow.  My character was slightly overburdened with all the loot I was carrying, so my movements were slower and more sluggish than they should have been, and I felt it.  I had fought two knights before, and I knew that, in all likelihood, I was going to die, and lose all the souls I had spent the past hour collecting.  The fear of death isn’t something I often experience in games, despite being in life-or-death situations so often, but Dark Souls had put it back into me.  The duel continued through the slow, tense trading of blows, blocks and parries.  Both of us were weak, but I was out of my healing Estus Flasks.  But then, the knight charged, and somehow, I managed to roll to the side not only in time to dodge the blow, but to position myself perfectly behind him.  Fueled by adrenaline, I slammed the right trigger on my controller with all my might, and plunged my katana into the knights back, achieving a rarely executed but brutally effective backstab.  The knight dropped to the ground, and as his souls poured into my character’s body, I jumped out of my chair and shouted in excitement.  I felt the weight of that victory, more than the dozens of trash mobs I had killed to reach the Mass Effect boss fight, or the thousands of faceless enemies I killed in Titanfall.  That was my victory.  That was true empowerment through combat.  This is what happened in a battle without any narrative context.  Imagine what that victory could have meant with a powerful story behind it.

[Edit 8/7/2016: I was an idiot, Dark Souls is now tied for my favorite game of all time, backstabs are easy as hell and pretty much break combat, and the game has an amazing story.  I was just dumb.]

This is why I am so excited for Alien: Isolation, because it focuses on a single, drawn out battle between the protagonist and one xenomorph alien.  Instead of padding the game out with hundreds of aliens until the carnage becomes meaningless, as Colonial Marines did, Isolation will focus on an extended encounter between the player and an enemy so terrifying and powerful that the player can barely fight back.  That is a kind of focus we do not see often Aliens Isolationenough, a kind of focus that makes games great.  When violence is extended and overused, it becomes filler, something to make the game long enough to justify the $60 price tag.  But violence doesn’t have to be that way.  Games like Dark Souls try to create combat systems that focus on deep, robust mechanics can successfully create longer-lasting, less frequent combat scenarios.  Alien: Isolation’s similar emphasis, especially in a horror setting, gives me great hope that not only will one of my favorite sci-fi movies will finally get the game it deserves, but that the medium can create games that use violence without losing themselves in the carnage.