Andromeda: After The Fact

I finally finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda and dutifully started my second (this time as Sara instead of Scott). Ramping up the difficulty to Insanity makes combat much more frantic (and thereby makes the brilliant combat systems that much more fun), but we’ll see how far I get through it before I decide to finally replay Uncharted 4 because a) it’s a better game, 2) I haven’t replayed it, and iii) my god I want to play a game that was actually finished.

Because there’s no doubt that Andromeda was rushed in some places. Its combat may be incredibly fluid, but a much of its mission design is outright boring. Some of the character models look great, but the animation in some parts is glitchy at best and magnificently awful at worst. And the writing. In parts, its great; in other parts it reads like a hasty first draft. And all this is not getting into the wonky pacing and exploitable systems that plague the game. But Andromeda is still a stupid amount of fun – it wrapped up well enough that I started a New Game+ after finishing it the first time. In fact, I’d say that most of its issues are emblematic of the central tensions in many AAA video games.

So let’s start with its look, something that’s gotten a lot of crap on the internet. And rightfully so; it’s very weird to talk to someone who’s mouth is moving, but eyes are lifeless. There’s a fairly important cutscene where a character model just didn’t show up. Heck, even some of the romance scenes, which developer BioWare is famous for, are halting and glitchy. It’s a mess, heightened all the more since the character models and general graphics are pretty good. The animation issues, at times, overshadow everything else that’s going on. Sure, you have pretty worlds and characters and a sometimes-well written and often well-voiced script, but it’s easy to forget all that when the character’s acting is wooden. So maybe BioWare and publisher EA should have pushed the release back a couple months to work out the kinks.

But why is there such a reliance on a game looking ‘good?’ We’re reaching a point ‘good graphics’ has become standard, with some, like Kojima Production’s FOX Engine, verging on literally lifelike. Thing is, when everything looks good, that’s no longer enough to stand out, and if your animation is shoddy – as in Andromeda – it becomes glaringly obvious. Other games find ways to complement their graphics: Uncharted 4’s animation is unparalleled, and games like Borderlands and Dishonored stylize their characters and locations. Then there are smaller, indie games like Sportsfriends or Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime which have simple, even retro, graphics, but ones that work with the gameplay.

Which is where Andromeda’s pretty good. Gameplay is solid, the addition of the jetpack and different AI making it much more dynamic that prior Mass Effects’ waiting-and-shooting. And with difficulty on Insanity, it’s got me using the new Profiles feature as much as I can. Andromeda is fun. But some of its missions are terribly repetitive: you go down a lot of corridors and clear out a lot of cookie-cutter bases. Sometimes there are moments of genius, like getting to dash through a battlefield in your space car or the narrative gives mystery to exploring an ancient alien superstructure, but when the vast majority of side missions are fetch quest after fetch quest, it gets really dull. Andromeda is a long game – I logged over 90 hours by the time I beat the game – but its myriad of fetch quests make it out to be padding out the length. Not to mention they distract from the central narrative (which, once it gets going, is actually not half bad). So is quantity or quality better? Uncharted 4 is a fifteen-odd hour game, but its narrative is incredibly tight and doesn’t fall into repetitiveness. It would take a lotta work to fill four full days worth of gameplay with Interesting Stuff, so maybe Andromeda could have used some tight cuts?

I will complain about Andromeda a lot. But I also really liked the game – again, I’ve started a second playthrough. I think that AAA games like Andromeda are reaching a tipping point where the old rubric of what made a game exciting (graphics! gameplay! big budget!) are no longer enough to make a game stand out. I do wish Andromeda was better than it is, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad game. Rather, its flaws are ones we see in a lot of other AAA games – look at Destiny. Maybe there’s a shift coming in the way games are made, maybe the next Mass Effect, whenever it comes out, will get things right. In any case, it’s a perfect adequate game. But we’re reaching a point where that’s not enough anymore.

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Mixed Results

I really liked the movie Balto as a kid. And for a kid, it makes sense. It’s about a talking dog, and there’s a goose and a couple polar bears in it too. Plus it’s a story about the outsider getting a chance to prove they belong by doing an Epic Heroic Thing and earning their place.’

Also, it’s a story about being mixed.

Like me.

I’m mixed, biracial, half-Asian; whatever the term du jour is. Which is something I mention every now and then on this blog, because it’s part of who I am and thus how I interpret the world around me and, with it, the narratives that the world creates. In other worlds: I tell you this because it directly impact the way I see stories.

And this is important, because Balto is half-dog, half-wolf, which is a major part of his identity in the story. He doesn’t fit in with the dogs because of his wolfness, but he can’t exactly run out and join a pack of wolves. He doesn’t belong to either group. Over the course of the movie he (spoiler) proves himself to his peers and, more importantly, realizes that his being half-wolf is a good thing, not a drawback. The plot progresses and he gets to save the day.

We don’t see a lot of mixed-race narratives, period. TV Tropes has precious few examples, and many of them are either informed traits or their entire story.. Sure, we’ll see interracial relationships play out (Hello, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!), but anytime the product of one of those shows up, if the question of identity is addressed, chances are it becomes their whole thing. Growing up, Balto was the only story I knew that had a character who was explicitly mixed and dealt with that. As a bonus, it also wasn’t the only thing he had going on; he still got to do the hero thing.

It’s quite unfortunate, then, that I didn’t see much of Star Trek until I was eighteen, but even then just the Abrams film. But that’s a movie about Spock’s journey as a character, one that’s inherently related to his own status as being half-Vulcan, half-Human. Again, the importance here is that though the story deals with Spock’s identity, it is not the extent of his arc. He still has a story of learning humility and teamwork and saving the day and all that, one aspect of which is, of course, struggling with his identity.

I wanna stress just how rare this is. When stories come up with biracial characters that touch on their identity, that’s usually the be all and end all of their story. Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life has Sarah Jane, a half-white, half-black girl who passes white and so uses that to her advantage. Her story is one of someone rejecting one identity in favor of another and thus all but abandoning her mother in pursuit of hedonism. Yes, it’s a story about someone who’s mixed, but it’s about being mixed. Most of the time, when someone who’s mixed shows up in fiction and has a role, that’s their story. It’s about coming to terms with their identity, or realizing that they should embrace both halves and what have you. There’s no conjunction; they don’t come to terms with their identity and save the world, they don’t get to embrace both halves and make the big jump to fund their step-dad’s conveniently priced surgery.

This is why Balto mattered to me so damn much as a kid. I got to see someone in a movie dealing with some of the crap I dealt with. I got to see someone do all that and still save the day. It’s about being different, but still getting the normal treatment. Differently normal, if you will. I do think stories about mixed people being mixed are important, but equally important are stories where  they – we – get to deal with the stuff and still be the hero. I want stories about mixed people that aren’t just about being mixed; I’m more than just someone who’s half-white, half-Asian.

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But What About The Men??? 2: Sexy Lamps

Back at a con panel in 2013, Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer of Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet, etc) coined the Sexy Lamp Test. Its rubric is that if you can take a female character out of a story and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still works, then “you’re a [beeping] hack.” Like all tests used to judge stories (ie: Bechdel), it’s not perfect – mostly because it’s a little too vague. But it still provides a good starting point to examine fiction.

Like I love The Dark Knight, but Rachel in the movie is very much a sexy lamp. She doesn’t do anything that affects the plot in a major way. She’s there for Bruce and Harvey to pine over and then to be ‘fridged and give Batman some angst. Still a great movie, but there are issues with how the film handles women.

Conversely, Star Wars aces it. You can’t replace Leia with a lamp that goes along for the ride, she does way too much – her first appearance is giving the Death Star plans to Artoo and setting the movie’s plot in motion. Throughout the film she does stuff, she has agency, she makes things happen.

You with me so far? Because here’s where we’re gonna talk about Wonder Woman. And dudes.

Steve Trevor is The Male Character in Wonder Woman. Sure, we’ve the villain and the other soldiers, but Steve Trevor is The Guy. He buddies up with Diana early on in the film and they go out and Do Things. Given that Diana is the protagonist of this movie, Steve becomes, quite naturally, the deuteragonist of the film and fulfills what in any other movie would be the ‘girlfriend role.’

This is one of Wonder Woman’s acts of brilliance: the film flips the roles. Steve is the one who buoys Diana’s force of character, he’s her tie to the real world, and he’s the one whose main role is to support her and her arc. Like I said, he’s the girlfriend.

Consider Peggy Carter in the first Captain America. Though this was later remedied in her tv show, she doesn’t really affect the plot much in the movie. She supports Steve Rogers and helps out here and there, but at the end of the day doesn’t really change the plot much more than a talking sexy lamp would. Oh, she’s still a really great character, but the plot doesn’t position her in such a way that she does stuff. This is one thing the Sexy Lamp Test exposes: cool characters who don’t actually have much agency or effect on the plot. Like Boba Fett, who outside of going to Cloud City offscreen, has no more narrative impact than a lamp in dope armor. Except Peggy is actually one of the main characters of The First Avenger.

Steve Trevor of Wonder Woman, however, does quite a bit in the movie; considerably more than your typical ‘superhero girlfriend.’ Without spoiling too much of the film, it’s his actions – particularly one he does of his own volition and not under orders – that set most of the plot in action, and in the final act he gets to make a Big Choice that changes the course of the climax.

A sexy lamp Steve Trevor is not. And maybe that can be chalked up to good writing, but I’m gonna blame it on Steve being a guy. Imagine this; it’s the climax of the film and the main male character does nothing. Maybe he drives a car so the main female character can go save the day, but elsewise he watches. It’s basically unheard of, and uncommon at best (look at how much Peeta and Gale get to do in the climaxes of The Hunger Games movies). But it happens all the time for female characters. It’s what Peggy does in The First Avenger. It’s what Pepper does in Iron Man 2. Sexy lamp or not, it’s easy to cast aside the supporting female character, the ‘girlfriend role,’ at the climax. But Steve Trevor still gets to Do Stuff, and Important Stuff Of His Own Accord at that.

For all its subversions of norms, Wonder Woman doesn’t neuter the agency of its male lead. Which, woo, equality! But at the same time, it shows how unfair the treatment of women in blockbusters – especially superhero films – is. We’ve got the first female-led superhero in over a decade and we still have a dude who goes around saving some of the day. Oh, it’s still Diana’s movie; but Steve gets an arc just about any other female character would kill for in just about any other film. Even in a movie about Wonder Woman, the dude still gets special treatment.

Which in this case means fair treatment.

And therein lies the problem.

 

For the first But What About The Men???, go here.

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Fast Car

I really like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and I realize I’m saying this as someone who’s around thirty years late to the party. Beyond its great musicality, there’s the poetry to it. It speaks to a wanting for a life that’s more than you have, one beyond your circumstances; but also to the dashing of that dream when reality ensues. All in all, it’s a beautiful, melancholic song.

Which I don’t really relate. Or more, can’t. See, I’ve lived a privileged life. I come from a home with functional parents in a healthy relationship; I never had to work to support my family or put my education on hold to care for my parents. The “I” of the song and I have little to nothing in common.

“Fast Car” speaks to something deeper than the surface it transcends circumstances. It’s not hard to relate to wanting something more than you have, to wanting to drive away from your lot in life. But Chapman doesn’t just try to paint the picture of those emotions; instead she describes the circumstances that create the feelings. Instead of telling us how to feel she crafts a narrative that elicits it. Specificity lends it empathy; by describing the events in such detail, Chapman is able to really dig into that wanting. It’s so vivid, it’s real. The fast car drives from metaphor into reality.

But it’s still a very particular narrative, that of a poor, black woman. It’s a story about her and her experiences. So what business do I, a half-white half-Asian man who’s not living in poverty, have listening to it?

Now there’s the universality of art. You don’t have to have lived on a boat to appreciate John Masefield’s poetry. Homegoing is still a brilliant piece of literature whether or not you have any relation to the African diaspora. Good works bring you into a world and state of mind, often through specifics. It’s how you make an unknown world known, how you spark a feeling that you can’t describe.

The stumbling block here, especially with something like “Fast Car,” is adopting a narrative or set of experiences as your own. “Fast Car” isn’t my story and it would be disingenuous of me to suggest otherwise. I love the song and I love singing along, but fundamentally I know it’s not my song. It’s the difference between appreciation and appropriation. If you were to make a video adaption of “Fast Car” and make the leads middle-class and white, you’d be completely missing the point.

This is something I’m thinking through, and a lot of this rant essay is me spitballing. I was introduced to “Fast Car” (and Tracy Chapman proper) when an indie band I love covered the song four-odd years ago. Now, they didn’t change the pronouns or the lyrics at all, but it’s still a white guy singing. Does that fundamentally affect the song? What about me and a friend singing it a karaoke? Am I thinking about this way too much?

In all honesty: I probably am. When Barcelona sings “Fast Car” they aren’t making any claims to the narrative. It’s a thirty year old song and a really good one at that; maybe a cover of it costs some of its subtext, but I don’t think there’s anything, well wrong with it. Maybe it’s like reading a good book, where you get to experience another life as your own for a bit. I don’t have a point to all this, more I’m curious about the way I interact with art, especially with narratives that aren’t about me.

In any case, “Fast Car” is a great song, and I do really like both Barcelona’s cover and Tracy Chapman’s original.

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So My Apartment Building Caught Fire

My apartment building caught fire yesterday.

Which is a helluva way to start a morning. I’m fine and, by virtue of being in the back on the sixth floor, my unit was somehow untouched.

But it did mean I was outside on the New York sidewalk at 5:30 in the morning watching firemen fight a fire from the pizza place I live over under control.

Then it started to rain. A cold, early morning rain. The sort that makes you wish you’d grabbed another jacket, never mind the smoke.

Just when we were wondering how long we’d have to stand in the rain waiting for news, a woman from the YM-YWHA a few doors down told us all we could wait inside there, warm up, use their bathrooms, and drink their water. Even though most of us weren’t members. The firefighters and police said they’d keep those inside updated.

Thus, with some of Maslow’s hierarchy taken care of, we continued to wait. But what I really wanted was some coffee.

In walked two people carrying boxes of donuts and coffee. They brought fiber bars and bananas. They brought cellphone chargers. They’d gotten them for us. They weren’t affiliated with the Y, not did they know any of us. They were just, as they said, doing what any good neighbors would do. They stayed and talked with us too, just mingling and hanging out.

The morning wore on. News broke that several units were inhospitable. The Red Cross came through with blankets and to help get people to temporary housing. The director of the Y and the leader of the synagogue next door stopped by to let us know that if we needed anything, they would help; if anyone needed clothing, housing, or food, they would reach out to their community to be taken care of.

There are reasons I believe that humanity, deep down, always wants to do good. And New York is a place that reaffirms it. During the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, people with generators sat outside their buildings with power strips so people could charge their phones. People showed up to work at a pizza place and a supermarket so locals could buy food and supplies. Food carts offered free food. My friends and I were waved down by a worker from a ramen joint to be given free food (I still go to that place to this day).

I’ve seen strangers comfort sobbing people on the subway, I’ve seen an old woman yell at a cabby who ignored a pedestrian crossing sign and almost hit a guy. Half-a-dozen friends of mine showed up, when asked last minute, to help me and my brother move out of our unit a day early.

This is why I don’t believe those stories, those movies and books and tv shows, that declare all of humanity to be depraved and hurtful monsters. It’s why I don’t believe critics who call superheroes unrealistic.  Because when something awful happens, when someone evil crops up, there are always those who step up, who protect, who help. For every Awful in this world, there are a dozen heroes.

It’s one of the reasons I love New York. It’s a city that doesn’t give a damn about who you are, but it will always have your back when things go wrong.

Or, as Fred Rogers put it:

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

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Creative Exchange (and Video Games)

Video games borrow a lot from movies. Snake, on the original box art for Metal Gear, is played by Michael Biehn. Or at least someone who looks just like him. Contra’s box makes it look like you’ll be playing John Matrix and John Rambo taking on the Xenomorph from Alien.

But then there’s Halo, which drew much of its aesthetic wholesale from Aliens. Look at their portrayal of marines in space: the video game’s UNSC Marines sport body armor and helmets almost identical to the Marines in James Cameron’s sequel. Even Halo’s venerable Sergeant Johnson is very much inspired by a sergeant from Aliens. Both forces are fighting against a creepy, parasitic alien that starts out as a small thing that attaches itself to a host.

As much as Halo uses elements of Aliens, however, it never feels like its copying it for lack of better ideas. The game’s plot adds concepts like the genocidal Covenant trying to wipe out humanity, Cortana the glowing blue AI who helps you along your journey, and the mysterious titular Halo ring. Halo also wears its inspiration on its sleeve, making no attempt to cover it up. There’s an affection to its homages and you can tell that Bungie really liked the movie.

Which is kinda how it goes with video games. Gameplay-wise, Halo introduced and popularized several mechanics we now take for granted. In Halo, damage taken isn’t permanent pending a health pickup, rather you have shields that recharge over time. This encouraged players to experiment more, to take more risks – if you got shot too much you could just run off and wait for your shields to recharge before trying again. It changed the way shooters were played, because now almost every shooter has rechargeable health. Halo justified it through your character’s shields, but later games like Uncharted or Call of Duty make no effort to give a narrative explanation. It’s just become the way games are.

I like to talk a lot about how games are a nascent art form, what with Tennis for Two coming out a hair under sixty years ago, and Pong is barely forty-five years old. Since then we’ve seen games grow from basic pixel-ly lines to real-time rendered games that give CGI films a run for their money. Mechanics, too, keep changing. Consider the idea of a cover system, which allows for the player to hide behind something while still shooting. Wikipedia tells me Kill.Switch was the first to implement it, but games like Gears of War and Uncharted really brought it into popular consciousness. There’s an exchange of ideas in video games, one to an extent you don’t really see in other, more established, mediums.

We know what a movie is; there’s fiction, documentaries, and variations thereof. We know what a book is, what a comic is. But what exactly a video game constitutes is kinda left in the air. We’ve Halo, a sci-fi shooter, but That Dragon, Cancer is a game by two parents whose son had terminal cancer. You play a Call of Duty game by running around shooting people, the Sims is pointing and clicking at people and objects, meanwhile Johan Sebastian Joust is played by holding the controller and pushing each other around in real life. The special thing here is that games borrow ideas from each other no matter the genre. An action movie borrowing techniques from an arthouse piece is seen as being daring and cultured, but an early chapter in Uncharted 4’, “A Normal Life,” clearly draws on the exploratory narrative games like Gone Home. This isn’t just happy coincidence; Neil Druckmann, who wrote and directed Uncharted 4, tweeted about the game back when it came out. People who make games play games, like games. Even though there’s a massive variety of types of video games, there’s a cross-pollination amongst them that gives games influences from all over the place.

Look, I like video games a lot. I grew up playing them and find their evolution to be absolutely fascinating, in no small part to taking influences from all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘wrong’ place to get inspiration. There’s no one correct way to tell stories, so there’s something to be learnt no matter where you look. If video games continue this anything works mindset, I can’t wait to see where we are in ten, twenty, thirty years.

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The Problem With Narrative Sidequests

One of the most striking features of the planet Elaaden is a huge derelict Remnant ship. Sticking out broken over the desert planet, the ship could hold answers for the mystery of the old killer robots that populate Mass Effect: Andromeda. The latest game in the Mass Effect video game series has a strong focus one exploration, namely that titular distant galaxy. There’s so much to see, so much to find out.

But I still haven’t gone to the ship, despite having done basically every other sideqeust available on the planet. This isn’t so much a case of saving the best for last, as much as it is putting off what I expect will be a fun-if-pointless mission.

Because the Remnant Derelict is not a Priority Mission (that is, a story mission), it’s highly unlikely that any Major Plot Twisting Details will happen. If there is some massive revelation about the Remnant waiting in the wings, whatever’s aboard that ship will either tease it or corroborate it, depending on when I play it in relation to that story mission.

Andromeda is an open world RPG. There are Priority Missions I play one after another, these make up the main plot. I complete Mission A, then I can do Mission B, and so on until the game ends. Meanwhile, there are these sidequests, things I can do around the galaxy be it earning my squad’s loyalty or blowing up a Kett tower. Those sidequests can be done in any order and at any point after you’ve unlocked them (usually by completing another sidequest, or progressing to a certain point along the Priority Mission chain). This means that I could have explored that Remnant Derelict when I first found it a couple Priority Missions ago, or I could wait and only explore it after I’ve finished the main story – and the central plot played out. Thus, the mission has to accommodate either timeline. This in turn limits the developments that the sidequest can have, nothing can happen here that would affect a Priority Mission in a big way.

Consider, if you will, a hypothetical game based on Firefly and Serenity. Midway through the movie, we find out that the Reavers, a savage group of spacefaring barbarians, were in fact accidentally  created by the Alliance (spoiler). In the hypothetical game, you wouldn’t find this out in a sidequest, it’d be a  paradigm-shifting story quest that would affect the crew through any major plot developments. Thus if there was a sidequest where you could explore an old Reaver ship or an Alliance Databank, this twist wouldn’t be there. Anything you found would be cool, but self-contained.

This is the hurdle that open games have to deal with. Something more linear, like Uncharted or Halo, progress in one direction like a movie, scene 1 into scene 2; there’s no scene 1.5. Every level/chapter/scene will affect the plot in some way. Giving the player a choice means the game’s writers and programmers have to have planned whichever path the player takes.

In Kingdom Hearts the player can visit a variety of worlds in whatever order they want. They’ll pal around with Aladdin, Alice, and Ariel, then have to go to a specific world where More Story happens. This isn’t too pressing most of the time, but as the plot picks up, visiting Halloween Town or Monstro’s belly feels like a filler episode in the larger narrative of Sora and Mickey’s adventure. They can’t impact the plot too much because the player may have another world to complete before the next Big Story Moment.

There are game critics, Ian Bogost and Johnathan Blow among them, who argue that games and stories don’t mesh well. And in some ways they do have a point. Either you have a linear game (like Uncharted) where the player is given no narrative agency (and so is a glorified interactive movie) or you have the case of Andromeda or Kingdom Hearts where the extent of then player’s agency affects the distribution of the game’s narrative.  Either the narrative ignores you or you strain against it. Digital gaming can’t seem to catch up with good old tabletop rpg’s, where the game master is making stories on the fly in response to their players’ decisions.

But video games are still a young genre. The amount of player agency in Andromeda would have been unheard of twenty years ago. It’s a bummer that it can’t anticipate and account for everything, but who’s to say games won’t in the future? Exploring a virtual world in Andromeda is a great experience, even if it exposes some of the issues with open world games. Yes, the narrative failings are frustrating, but it’s a step forward towards what games could be. Risks propel the medium forward; who knows where we’ll be in twenty years.

Of course, I could be totally wrong and that derelict ship may have a crapload of secrets about the Remnant and it turns out Andromeda has untold variations of its Priority Missions prepared in its code with each one voiced and animated ready to go. But the point stands; for all the issues with open ended video games, the potential remains. And that’s exciting. Bring on the AI game masters!

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