Tag Archives: Mass Effect

Emerging Exploration

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a magnificently glitchy game. I have seen a crewmate go through osmosis while talking to him, I’ve fought an alien dinosaur that suddenly stopped moving its body (but still glided along the jungle floor and attacked me), and, through cunning manipulation of my space-car’s six wheel drive and boost functions, have successfully driven up a vertical cliff face (though arguably that’s a feature, not a bug). Of course, there are weirder visual flaws, like most of a character’s face not moving while they speak or the world being so big that the game forgets to load the people I have to talk to to complete my quest. It’s frustrating sometimes – and downright baffling other times that a AAA game would ship like this.


But, my god, it’s fun. I’ve sunk way too many hours into exploring the Heleus cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy since the game came out and have no intention of slowing down; far as I can tell I’m 30 hours and maybe 25% in. I’m having a blast. And yes, a lot of the fun is through scripted missions, where I’m told to go to x planet and do y thing; but the world of Andromeda is so big that there are so many random adventures to get to.

Like the time on Eos where I woke the Architect, a colossal robot hellbent on killing me that I alternately shot at or hopped in the Nomad (the space-car of before) and chased so I could shoot it some more. Or going spelunking in ancient ruins looking for loot and coming face to face with my first Destroyer, a war machine that put up a heckuva fight. Or – so many ors – deciding to storm a Kett base on Eos with an offensive that started with me ramming the Nomad into a few bad guys and wedging on top of an automated turret. Bugginess be damned, there’s fun to be had! With some well-crafted quests and a vast and interesting world, Andromeda’s side quests make even fetch quests feel somewhat purposeful.

What really helps it out, though, is the emergent fun that comes from the game. Emergent gameplay, as opposed to structure, is an aspect of the game that is not hard-wired into the system, but emerges from it being played. To cite an example from Jesper Juul, there is no explicit rule in Monopoly that a player will go bankrupt, but it happens because of the rules. Emergences. Hence the name.

So Mass Effect: Andromeda and emergent gameplay. Let’s take driving the Nomad through a bunch of Kett and sending them flying. At no point in the game does it say you can use your space-car as a weapon, and yet, it works. Even the self-imposed challenge of climbing up rock faces isn’t hardcoded into the game, but it’s ridiculously fun. Andromeda gives you a playground where the missions are cool, but the fun you make for yourself is fantastic.

Which makes me think back to Destiny, a game with a barebones story and an amazingly fun gameplay. My fondest memory of the game is easily the Vault of Glass raid where me and five other players navigated a treacherous maze and took on – and defeated – Atheon. Sure, the level design and all is fantastic, but what makes it so great were the folks I teamed up with: our banter and teamwork. That’s something wonderfully special that was not intended by the game’s framework, but rather encouraged and permitted. 

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a single player game, so there’s less chances of impromptu dance parties (seriously: every multiplayer game needs dancing emotes). But it is still host to one of the best things about games: the freedom to explore a virtual space and, ignoring intended intentions, finding new ways to interact with the world.

Which in my case has been a fine-tuned assault strategy involving charging right in with my space-car and hoping for the best.

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On Visibility and Character Creators

I spent well over an hour creating my character in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Not stats and stuff, no, just the aesthetics of his/my face.

I love character creators. Maybe it’s an early exposure to The Sims, maybe it’s the simple joy of getting to play god and make people who look like whatever you want. In a game like Mass Effect where half the fun is making choices and carving your own narrative through the galaxy, I find that character customization adds another level of immersion. That Shepard or Ryder isn’t just someone off the box, it’s someone you made. And also, if you want, the character’s you. You get to see yourself as the protagonist.

As for making me?

I’m mixed. I don’t fit into ‘presets,’ and if I have to, I have to check one box. Pick the head that looks the most like me. Maybe in Knights of The Old Republic I’ll be white, but I’ll be Asian in Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Now, character creators as in Mass Effect, with sliders for adjusting eye height and nose size, allow you a lot more latitude for how your person looks (and games like The Sims is notorious for being able to create eerie doppelgängers).

But Mass Effect: Andromeda bases its customization on presets. So you can’t change eye shape, eyebrows, ears, and the general shape of the face, but can adjust skin tone, hair, and cheekbone placement. Naturally, a lot of those presets are based on races, here’s white guy a, white guy b, Asian dude a, Asian dude b, and so on. Which makes sense. But for me, it means playing around with either one trying to make them look more like the other. Y’know, trying to find that sweet spot on the sliding scale between Asian and white where I exist.

See, for most of my life I’ve been pegged for one or the other, in part because the idea of someone existing in the middle is, in some places, somewhat unheard of. Being a mixed-race, biracial kid isn’t something that comes up much at all if you’re not one, so you kinda ignore it and I’m left figuring out which box to check on a survey.

Which is why representation is so important. People like me don’t show up a lot in fiction. Well, white dudes do a lot, Asian guys much less often, and mixed actors playing mixed characters are basically non-existent. I wanna see myself in the media I consume, I wanna see a movie where someone who looks like me gets to be a hero.

Because it’d be nice to be told I exist by the stuff I watch and games I play. ‘cuz maybe then I wouldn’t be lumped in with one side or the other and now be allowed to exist in that middle space. This, I suppose, is the feeling of every under-represented group. We want to see ourselves in the stories we consume, and we want to see ourselves doing a buncha different things. This means not being pigeonholed into one accepted narrative or stereotype, this means letting different people be normal.

And yes, letting different people explore the Andromeda galaxy.

Whether or not my long-labored Ryder bears a resemblance to me is a matter up for debate, one that probably depends on what race you think I look more like. The preset I chose, however, was the one whose eyebrows looked most like mine.

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Spoiled Endings

I really liked Rise of The Tomb Raider up until the last thirty-odd minutes. Everything’s coming to a head, set ups are paying off, there’s a boss fight against a principal antagonist. You go to the next area and… There’s a cutscene, and in that cutscene the game ends, wrapping up most of the plot points with a tidy bow but still leaving a bunch frustratingly hanging for the inevitable sequel. You get another nice little plot button if you continue the game to find some more of the collectibles, but narratively, that’s pretty much it.

Which is a bit of a bummer. Everything has been rising to a crescendo, but the last playable moment is a boss fight that you’re pretty sure is just the prelude to that Epic Climax that, well doesn’t really happen (another tip: in video games that Epic Climax should be playable). In any case, it’s a fairly anti-climatic ending. Some of the more interesting plot points brought up (who/what is Trinity? Holy crap Ana is such a villain) don’t get much pay off within the game’s narrative (not with all that potential sequel money).

And the thing is, that bummer of an ending retroactively colors my entire perception of the game as a whole. I really liked it, but the lack of a return on my emotional/temporal investment leaves a poor taste in my mouth. I wanna go back and get all those collectibles and stuff, but right now I’m not sure I can be bothered.

It’s odd, the way a failure to stick the ending can affect your perception of a piece. Mass Effect 3 is really solid game, but it’s best known for its disappointing ending. Never mind some of the great highlights (and the brilliance of the Citadel DLC), Mass Effect 3 is known for reducing the game’s climax to a choice of color. I didn’t dislike it as much as some did, but it still took me a couple years to return to the game’s story mode and clear it with my other two characters.

This doesn’t just apply to video games; I loath the final half-hour-or-so of How I Met Your Mother, and that in turn makes it hard for me to revisit the show as a whole. I love how Lost ended, but some people hate the show just ‘cuz how it ended. And think about it, how many movies were ruined for you in the final act?

At first blush, this doesn’t make much sense. A really crappy middle doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie, not to the degree an ending does. But here’s the thing, the ending is how it ends. Duh. But it’s what the ending has to do: it brings together everything that comes before and provides that oh-so-important catharsis. Flub that and things feel unresolved; you don’t get the catharsis that lets you leave it behind and get on with your life.

I’m not really sure this blog post has much of a big point besides stressing the importance of an ending. Rise of The Tomb Raider is still an excellent game, exploring, hunting, gunplay, and everything else is so much fun – and nothing beats the aha! moment of solving a puzzle, but the disappointing ending took the wind out of my sails. In the case of this game it’s doubtless because of the developers’ want to provide a hook for the franchise, but there has to have been a better way to end the game than with its rushed climax. There’s a difference between leaving your audience wanting more and not giving them enough to feel complete.

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Gaming Morality

So here’s the basic concept of Dishonored 2: the empress has been deposed. You play as either said deposed empress (Emily) or her royal protector (Corvo) and carve a path of revenge against the usurper and her cabal of those who dishonored you (hence the title). Along the way you meet the Outsider who gives you a bunch of magical powers, ranging from teleporting and stopping time to linking enemies together (so if you kill one you kill ’em all!) to straight up stopping time.

Now, there are many ways to play Dishonored 2, something that’s hyped up both in the promotional materials and the game itself. You can sneak through each mission, unseen by anyone, or run in obvious as a strobe light. You can assassinate each target or find another way to eliminate them. You can kill every enemy you come across or choke them into unconsciousness.

Like I said: options! So many ways to play the game!

Which is where the game’s narrative gets in the way. Dishonored 2 has this thing called Chaos which is determined by how you dispatch targets and how many people you kill. Chaos determines your ending, and the way to get the good (or at least better) ending is through low Chaos. Essentially, the narrative encourages you to eschew violence (and some of those nifty powers). It makes sense, if you want the ending where Emily is a fair and just empress, wanton slaughter isn’t becoming. It’s this odd sort of ludonarrative dissonance where the game gives you these wonderful gameplay options the narrative then discourages you from using. Now, it does give replayability a boost which, given that I just finished my fourth playthrough(no powers, no stealth, high bodycount), does work.

BioShock is held up as a treatise exploring the relationship between player and game (rightfully so). The ending of the game you receive, however, is based on what you do about the Little Sisters. These creepy looking girls can be either saved or absorbed for ADAM, a resource you can use to improve your abilities. Now, saving the Little Sisters gets you some ADAM too, just at a different rate from absorption. When I played BioShock, I saved the first Little Sister, then, wanting to know what would happen and how much ADAM I’d receive, absorbed the next, then chose to save the rest. Upon finishing the game, my ending was noticeably downbeat – which confused me: I’d saved all those Little Sisters! Some research (googling) turned up that to get that good ending you had to save all of them, and absorbing even just one earned you a pretty harsh one (absorbing all garners you one more sorrowful). I was kinda pissed, I’d only absorbed one! But then, I had still chosen to absorb one, so I suppose that does still make me a bit of a villain. So it makes sense.

Still harsh, though.

At the least, Dishonored 2 and BioShock don’t  punish you gameplay-wise for your moral choices. Knights of The Old Republic allows you to make light side and dark side choices throughout the game because it’s Star Wars so Jedi and all that. In the late game there are armor and such that you can equip if you lean far enough in either direction. If you’ve been making decisions in both directions, though, tough. In the second KOTOR also has a whole section you can only access as a light or dark sider. Playing a more nuanced game gets you nothing. Which I suppose works in the Star Wars context, but, playing as an amnesiac former Sith Lord (oh, spoiler) and a Jedi exiled from the Order, I figure a level of permissiveness ought to color the KOTOR games.

Mass Effect 2 (also done by Bioware, who did the first KOTOR) had a similar issue, where not leaning too strongly in a Paragon (saves the day nicely) or Renegade (saves the day meanly) fashion prevents you from taking certain dialogue options and getting certain outcomes later on. It discourages you from mixing up how you respond (also, taking too many Paragon actions makes your badass scars disappear, boo). Mass Effect 3 rectifies it somewhat by letting the player accumulate Reputation from taking Paragon and/or Renegade options rather than a more lukewarm approach. So instead the game rewards you for taking a strong stance either way.

Perhaps the problem with video game morality is its binary nature. You, for the most part, are either good or bad and the narrative typically plays out accordingly – sometimes rendering judgment. I find that open ended narratives work better as in Mass Effect, where the decisions of your actions aren’t always so black and white: choosing to destroy the data earned by illegal vivisection means you won’t be able to save a character later down the line. Morality in video games – and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ endings – is an interesting and still developing facet of gaming that’s arguably limited by tech and designers’ patience. I’m undoubtedly curious to see how video games handle this going forward – especially Bioware’s upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda. The virtuality of gaming makes for a fun space to try things and see what happens, consequences are great, limiting gameplay less so.

Or maybe Dishonored 2 could use just a few more non-lethal power options.

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And Now For Something Old

I’m busy this weekend. I’m writing a rationale, essentially a jumbo-sized one of these blog posts about everything I’ve been studying since coming to college to prove that my studies have had a point (which is, currently, Narrative (Re)Construction). As I’m focusing an inane amount of brain power into writing this paper, I don’t have time for a proper post this week.

So let’s go back to before Essays, Not Rants! and find something old.

The year is 2012 and Josh is futzing around in unemployment and playing Mass Effect 3. Josh being Josh, he decides to write a thing about it. Which I’m representing below in all its three-year-old glory.

The close to the Mass Effect Trilogy came out a week ago and since then I’ve been playing through it. I’ve been meeting up with old friends, brokering alliances, and fighting evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things with the eventual goal of taking back Earth and saving the galaxy from said evil sentient advanced biomechanical starship things.

One of the things I love about Mass Effect is the immersion. Now, those of you who’ve heard me talk (rant) about video games will know that I highly value immersion in a video game (that and cinematic/plot). Mass Effect does this exceptionally.

The man saving the galaxy is named Joshua Shepard, he was raised on a (space)ship and, I like to think, bears a passing resemblance to me. It’s fun, I get to be the hero, saving lives, deciding what to do in circumstances, making big important decisions.

Then I watched one of my favorite characters die.

I was powerless to stop it, right? I mean, I had no choice in the matter, it was what the plot demanded, yeah?

But no, I did have the choice.

Instantly my mind backpedaled to a moment not to long area. I (as Shepard) chose to speak up about something.

I could have chosen not to. I could have lied and reneged on a deal but, in the long run, wouldn’t that have saved my crewmember’s life?

Guys, I could have saved him.

And then I realized that this is what makes Mass Effect so immersive, so real.

Choices.

Everything I do has consequences.

I could look ahead; crack open—who am I kidding—google up a strategy guide and see just where each choice I make will take me.

But really? Where’s the fun in that. Where’s the adventure in knowing where each step will take you?

Hang on. That’s like life, isn’t it?

Everything I do has consequences.

For example, staying up till 1 am writing a piece on a video game (and then proceeding to go investigate the supposed defection of some Cerberus scientists) will further mess with my sleep cycle and result in me waking up late tomorrow.

Sure, it’s not the same as having a imaginaryish friend dying, but, still.

Point remains.

I don’t know what my actions will cause tomorrow. I can guess, I can do the right thing. But, like in Mass Effect, something will happen. Sure, I tend to doubt my decisions are as grave as Shepard’s, but hey, they’re choices nonetheless.

Writer’s Note: I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3 lately (when not, y’know, writing this rationale or doing other homework) and the choices the games present you with are almost as interesting as the illusion of choice. The game wouldn’t work with too many variables because, well, how do you program that game? Every now and then its inner workings show through, but hey, I’m really looking forward to the next game in the series. If only because the plethora of video game criticism I’ve read since then makes me super curious about the future of open-ended virtual storytelling. That and I love the Mass Effect universe.

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Defying Conventions

I’m still not done spitballing this essay (which is problematic, seeing as it’s due on Monday) but I’ve narrowed in my focus to make it more relevant to the class. Rather than comparing Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us, I’m going to look at the latter game and how it does away with many of the accepted conventions of narrative video games.

Academically. Because I can.

See, for the most part narrative video games have taken on three very common tropes. Now, these aren’t bad. Phenomenal games like Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Halo 4 employ these to great effect. What The Last of Us does is dare to do away with these.

Take saving the world. We see it everywhere in games; just looking at my shelf we have Mass Effect and the Jak and Daxter trilogy, all about saving the world (or community or what have you) from some evil. Within these games a lot of the drama comes from the need to save the world. Look at Mass Effect 3, in it Commander Shepard has to save the galaxy from the apocalyptic Reapers. There is great tension in the game due to the ever-present threat of the reapers. Every action Shepard takes, particularly with diplomacy, is heavier because if he fails the galaxy then the galaxy is lost. Commander Shepard must save the day.

Joel, the protagonist of The Last of Us, does not have the world at stake. The story is not about Joel saving the world, it is about Joel bringing Ellie to a destination. It’s a video game about a journey where the goal is almost irrelevant. The tension in the story is steadily born not out of any grand importance but out of the relationship between the two main characters. The Last of Us goes smaller and far more personal and manages to pull it off. Here we have a video game with a comparatively small focus, one unlike many of its contemporaries.

So then what is the central tension of The Last of Us? In most video games (and even several books and movies) it boils down to the fundamental conflict of good versus evil. And why not? It’s a universal conflict. The central theme of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is such. Will Nathan Drake do the right thing? It’s handled with a deal of nuance better than other games (say, any Final Fantasy), going so far as to have each love interest in the game embody one side of Drake’s duality. Among Thieves is a stellar game about good and evil. Sure, there are a few shades of gray thrown in, but still; a story about good versus evil is not bad.

The Last of Us is built on shades of gray. Joel is not a good man. We hear hints throughout the narrative of what he’s spent the twenty years since the outbreak doing. He was a raider, he killed people, he’s been a thief. He is not a nice man, if anything, he’s a hollow man no better than the others in the wastes. So what then of Ellie, the fourteen-year-old you’re charged with protecting? In any other story, no matter the medium, she would be Joel’s morality pet. Instead, Ellie is a fallen character unto herself: she’s willing takes up arms to kill others and will fight to survive no matter what. She is by no means an objectively ‘good’ character in the way Nathan Drake or Shepard are. What we have in The Last of Us is a story that hinges not on any sort of morality. Instead it is a story about surviving at any cost.

Which brings us to the third trope. Video games are more than about survival, they are often power fantasies, whether it is mowing down terrorists or fighting off invading aliens. Again, this, along with the other two tropes, is not bad. Video games, like many other mediums, are a form of escapism. In Halo 4 you are the Master Chief, an incredible super soldier who can stop the Covenant and The Didact and his Prometheans. You singlehandedly take on entire armies, thereby defeating evil and saving the world. In Halo 4 you get to be the hero and you are capable of being a one man army.

In The Last of Us you are constantly on the run. You never have enough ammo (it’s the only game I’ve played where having seven bullets is considered a lot), you are frequently low on health, and any more than two enemies usually means you’re in trouble. Rather than making you feel powerful, The Last of Us makes you feel desperate. If you miss this shot you won’t have enough ammo to kill the other soldiers hunting you. Unlike many other contemporary games, your health in The Last of Us does not regenerate, meaning if you take damage you have no way to recover beyond expending a valuable medkit. You are not all powerful: you are vulnerable and doing what you can to survive.

Though it discards many of the accepted norms of its medium, The Last of Us does it with a finesse seldom seen. The game does not subvert these tropes just for the sake of them, but rather to drive home the theme. The comparatively small stakes, the lack of a grand morality, and the vulnerability all work together to create something unique. The Last of Us is a AAA-studio game unlike many others before it, due in no small part to it daring to do something different. Neil Druckmann, creative director of the game, wanted something to raise the bar for the industry as a whole. It’s arguable this game has helped elevate the medium.

Now then. Let’s write this essay.

 

What else do I do for school? Make movies. Watch my newest short, “The Mysterious Glowy Object” now!

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Projection and Empathy

Every now and then I repurpose this blog to spitball various ideas for papers I have to write. I’m doing it again.

For my class on Melodrama (yes, it’s a thing) I want to write about video games, because I can. Particularly Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us and the different ways each game immerses the player to build drama.

In Mass Effect 3 you are Commander Shepard. You choose your first name, you choose how you look, you choose your backstory. Beyond that the game allows you, the player, to choose what Shepard does throughout the game. Say you’re faced with someone refusing to let you past. Are you going to try to talk him into it; or will you hold a gun to his head until he listens to you? The game gives you that choice.

Of course, a lot of Mass Effect is far more subtle than that. Your attachment to your crew is based on your own actions. How much time you spend getting to know them and whether or not you help them out with their side stories is entirely up to you. You’re never obligated to spend to interact with them. But then, the fate of your crew is up to you.

Say you decide to cure the genophage in order to have the warlike krogan on your side in the fight against the Reapers, though also allowing the krogan to become a major contender in the galaxy (and threaten a war), To do so, the scientist (and friend) who delivers the cure will die. He doesn’t have to, of course. You can lie to the krogan Battlemaster (and friend) and say that you tried to cure it while the scientist goes into hiding. Or you can order him not to go and renege on your deal. Or you can tell him to go up anyway, knowing he will die. And if you do, you know it was your choice. So his death (or your betrayal) hits harder because you know you had the choice.

The Last of Us gives you no choices. The player is constantly ushered and ordered along, never given a say in the events. You live out the story that unfolds. Now, The Last of Us owes a great deal of its drama to its deft writing and exceptional acting, but playing as Joel —and allowing his goals to become yours — drives home much of the emotional weight of the game.

One of the strongest examples appears early on (and I’ve mentioned it before) During the game’s opening you play as Joel as he tries to escape with his daughter, Sarah. For a few minutes you’re running through town as Infected close in behind you, Joel’s daughter in your arms. Your goal mirrors Joel’s throughout the scene, get Sarah to safety, which makes her death all the more painful.

After all, you finished the ‘level,’ you got to the checkpoint without dying. By right you should be safe, you should be clear. You should be safe. There’s no going back, there’s no way you can prevent her from dying. Furthemore, the affect of her death is intensified because you, the player, failed too. Your goal was to get Sarah to safety and you failed.

Unlike in Mass Effect 3, The Last of Us, immerses the player through empathy (rather than projection). The player does not direct the flow of the game, thereby becoming the protagonist in the process, rather the player’s mindset is molded to that of Joel’s. They’re two different ways of creating drama that, when used as well in these two games, really work.

 

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