Monthly Archives: October 2017

The Illusion of Choice

When not raiding Soviet bases to 80s hits in Metal Gear Solid V, I’ve been playing Until Dawn with my roommate. Now, I don’t really do horror, like, at all. But Until Dawn features a supposedly robust choices and consequences system, which I am, of course, a sucker for.

We’ve finished the game and there’s been a good deal of payoff to some of the choices we’ve made. The big thing we’re looking forward to, though, is playing it again and making different choices to see what would happen.

Because right now a lot of what happened feels like a direct result of the choices we’ve made and I wanna know how much of that is really because of what we did. Every little plot turn can’t be the result of our decisions, even though it can feel like it.

A lot of the time, when we play a game with multiple choices, we want everything we do to be impactful and for it to create a tailored set of consequence that are entirely dependent on what we did.

290 Choices-A

Look at all those endings!

Doesn’t that sound cool? Every choice you make has consequences! Siding with Miranda or Jack when they argue aboard the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 could spell disaster down the line! If Walker doesn’t spare that guy in Spec Ops: The Line what will it mean for the future?

The problem is, games are a finite medium. What’s done, is done, and has to have been doable. There’s a limit to your free will, a limit set by the game developers and their bother and/or budget. It turns out that choosing Kaiden or Ashley has no real choice on the rest of Mass Effect, as the survivor fulfills basically the same role in the sequels. Picking Udina or Anderson doesn’t have much bearing on Citadel politics, because Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have much of it, and by the time 3 rolls around, Anderson (if you chose him) has stepped down so that Udina represents the humans and the intrigue on the Citadel proceeds accordingly.

ChoicesB

Those choices could be Red, Blue, or Green

Now, I am kinda picking and choosing some examples, Mass Effect does have some brilliant moments of consequence (whether or not you saved Mealon’s research in the second game has a massive impact on the third – it’s that it’s one of the few choices of that nature that make it stand out so), but a few different playthroughs, the cracks in the game’s design start to show. No matter what, Udina will end up on the council. The Rachni will return whether or not you kill their Queen. Whether or not you sacrifice the Council in the Battle of The Citadel doesn’t mean much ultimately. To quote Eloise Hawking in LOST: the universe has a way of course correcting.

Which is a bummer, because what if, to beat a dead horse, picking Anderson or Udina made for totally different plot lines in Mass Effect 3. Maybe Anderson as Councilor meant that Cerberus never managed to attack the Citadel, but in exchange made the mission to Earth that much harder without him in your corner. It does mean a lot of resources, but it also means a more personalized experience.

I think that might be why I’m hesitant to jump back into Until Dawn. Right now everything happened as a result of my choices. Little tweaks to the game’s horror were because of my answers to questions posed to me (Snake-Clowns with Needles, though the snakes never showed up). Playing the game again (which I absolutely want to do to, why else, see what would happen) will probably show where the seams are and reveal how little impact my decisions had. That it doesn’t on the first play through speaks to good writing.

Because choice in games are an illusion, and will continue to be until you have an infinite number of monkeys typing up an infinite number of outcomes to an infinite number of players’ decisions. But until then, players can be tricked into thinking we have a decision. If the game’s narrative makes the causality feel like it had to happen, like that your choice led you here no matter what, then the illusion isn’t broken. Just spackle those cracks with good writing and we’re onboard.


For the first playthrough or two, anyway. After that it boils down to just gaming the system as much as you can (how can I make sure everyone died in the most gruesome way in Until Dawn?).

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Giant Robots

It is no secret that I absolutely adore Pacific Rim. Granted, and watching giant mechs and giant mechs beat the crap outta each other is only a part of it. See, there’s the pure childish glee to it, the great speech, and, of course, its youthful and hopeful worldview. Pacific Rim is a movie about giant mechs and giant monsters, but it’s because it’s so much more than the battle between Jaegers and Kaiju that the movie made the impression it did, it’s why it matters more than you’d expect.

A sequel was up in the air for a while, and, eventually, Guillermo del Toro stepped aside from directing again and Steven S. DeKnight filled in as writer/director and the project officially went into production. There were rumors online about the studio ousting del Toro, but given that he still has a producing credit and DeKnight was in touch with him, it’s safe to say his vision is still there.

So naturally, I watched the trailer for the sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising as soon as I could. And man, it delivers on more giant mechs fighting giant monsters. And a multinational team, which is something very important to me, obvious. And it’s a glorious trailer, with new robots fighting new monsters in a city and stuff getting destroyed and swords slashing and all that cool stuff.

But all the same, it seems to me that there’s a bit that’s being lost.

Let me preface the following with this: It looks awesome. Mecha action is something near and dear to my heart, and getting to see a glimpse of those behemoths fighting is, of course, a joy. I’m here for it.

But.

Guillermo del Toro’s a self-described pacifist. He deliberately avoids making movies about war, and Pacific Rim was no different. The leader of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps isn’t a general, but rather a Marshal (named Stacker Pentecost, but the ridiculous awesomeness of that name is unimportant here). The Jaeger pilots aren’t Captains or Lieutenants, but rather Rangers. Pacific Rim avoids much militaristic imagery, and there’s no room for jingoism in a movie about an international team fighting monsters. This is all deliberate, as del Toro “…wanted was for kids to see a movie where they don’t need to aspire to be in an army to aspire for an adventure.”[*]

Even the action in the movie follows this trend. Sure, there’s epic destruction, but the operating protocol for the Jaeger pilots is to keep the Kaiju away from the city. When a kaiju attacks Sydney, it’s because it breached the wall that was supposed to keep them out. The fight in Hong Kong is after the defenders have been overwhelmed, and much ado (and a subplot) is made out of making sure civilians evacuate to shelters. When the punching and hitting starts, it’s a lot of punching and outlandish weapons. Gipsy Danger has an energy blaster and a sword, Striker Eureka rockets and knives, Cherno Alpha is really good at punching stuff. It’s fantastical, it’s fun.

There’s a shot in the Uprising trailer that looks like one out of the matrix, with empty bullet shells falling to the ground behind a Jaeger. It’s cool — because of course it’s cool — but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it gave me a measure of concern. Part of what made Pacific Rim so wonderful was it being removed from reality; once the Jaegers started going there wasn’t much in the ways of actual guns. All the violence was out there, fantastical, giant robots punching and giant swords and rockets.

I love Pacific Rim. And I wanna love Uprising too. But lightning in a bottle was caught once, and I’m wary of a followup. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe DeKnight’s got more going on than the trailer lets on. Maybe it’ll be as hopeful and idealistic as the first one. But as we get set to enjoy more mecha versus kaiju action, I want to remember how damn special Pacific Rim is, and how much a sequel has to live up to not only in quality but also in theming. Maybe Uprising won’t have the special sauce that made Pacific Rim so good.

But.

It’s still gonna be giant mechs beating up giant monsters.

And I’ll take it. 

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