Tag Archives: Mass Effect

Hanging Out

Upon having it recommended to me independently by two friends, I’ve finally started reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And the book’s delightful; it’s a space opera about people on a ship written by a writer who’s clearly seen the same movies, read the same books, and played the same video games as me. It’s one of those books I can’t stop reading but don’t want to end.

It’s a very episodic book; while there is a definite narrative throughline, thus far (I’m about halfway through) it’s been secondary to the misadventures the crew have been having along the way. And I’m totally fine with that.

Which is strange, because last week I harangued Crazy Rich Asians for spending too much time lollygagging and not enough time plotting. Asians is characterized by episodic misadventures until a whole lot of plot shows up in the final hundred-odd pages, but I found it frustrating.

And I think there’s a clear reason why.

And it’s not the spaceship thing.

It’s characters.

Like I said last week, the folks in Crazy Rich Asians are more cipher than characters, bodies with a trait or two slapped on them to say what’s needed for the scene. They’ve no inner life. The characters in Long Way, conversely, are sharply defined with a rich sense of history to them. They feel distinct, different; like you could hold a real conversation with them. And so, when placed in an episodic narrative, it’s fun to see them interact with each other, to watch them hang out.

It’s a benefit of long-form storytelling. The deft writing in The Avengers characterizes the heroes well enough that you wish there was more time to see them hanging out together. A book has plenty of space for that to happen.

As do video games. Arguably one of the strongest aspects of the original Mass Effect trilogy is how well Shepard and (most of) his/her crew is sketched out. You have someone like Mordin, a former black-ops scientist/commando turned doctor who also sings showtunes. Which is interesting enough, but it’s when he’s mixed in with Shepard that things get really good. Interacting with Mordin on his loyalty mission in 2 has you grappling with the morality of the Genophage (a virus that affects the reproduction rate of a martial species). Was it a necessary measure? Do the krogan deserve a second chance? Good characters enhance each other; iron sharpens iron and all that. Captain America and Iron Man each push each other on and force the other to be more stubborn. It’s around Inara that Malcolm Reynolds will let the holes in his armor show. Barney and Robin drink scotch and smoke cigars.

The final DLC for Mass Effect 3, Citadel, is essentially all hanging out with your crew. You get small side quests with each one and then throw a big party with these characters you’ve spent tens of hours over multiple games getting to know. It’s great fun and a fond farewell. It wouldn’t work near as well had these characters not been so well done. If the games didn’t give you the time to get to know them or made these characters worth knowing, it’d just be a drag of cutscenes while you waited to get back to shooting stuff.

I think that’s a hallmark of good characters; you feel like you know them. The characters of a tv show start to feel like your friends. When I talk about my crew in Mass Effect, they’re my crew, who I fought the Collectors and Reapers with. And with characters like that, I don’t mind watching them going on misadventures.

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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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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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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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