Tag Archives: Video Games

This Is You In This Story

There’s this thing with good stories where you have this gut response of “I wanna do that!” Video games thrive on immersion, by letting you enact what these characters do; meanwhile movies, tv, books, comics, etc let you vicariously experience events.

But what if you do get to be that character? Metal Gears Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both explore that, by making the protagonist of each story very much a surrogate for the audience, but beyond just being a lens through which the audience can view the world, Raiden and Rey both exist in narratives where they very much are the embodiment of an audience member.

Raiden in MGS2 was very much deliberately envisioned as a pastiche of the player. Where the player played the first Metal Gear Solid, Raiden trained in VR simulations of the first game’s Shadow Moses Incident. This isn’t just backstory, it’s pointed out several times by Raiden’s support team – and outright criticized by Snake (MGS1’s protagonist) as being insufficient training. Raiden has no combat experience, he just assumes he’s gonna be awesome because he’s so good at his VR training. Over the course of the game, MGS2 proceeds to remind the player that they – and Raiden – are not Solid Snake, but rather someone playacting as him.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the relationship between player and game, one that criticizes the power fantasy many games employ by showing how futile it is to try and be a character you’ve played as in a video game. MGS2 deconstructs the relationship between player and game; you get to be the protagonist (or more the protagonist has many similarities to you as a gamer) but as it turns out, it kinda sucks. It’s only when Raiden stops trying to be Solid Snake that he’s able to strike out on his own path. That’s also right about where the game ends.

Similarly but not, The Force Awakens gives Rey a mindset like that of a viewer. Well, maybe a viewer closer to my age. Like me, Rey has grown up with the stories about the Rebel Alliance and the exploits of Luke Skywalker. She knows the same stories we do. Rey, however, exists on the fringe of all that; she puts on an X-Wing pilot’s helmet and dreams of flying, but doesn’t leave Jakku until her adventure begins. Again, that’s like a kid who grew up with Star Wars. Rey is, essentially, a fangirl. Like the viewer, like me.

But Rey meets BB-8 and Finn, borrows the Millennium Falcon, and gets swept up in a grand adventure. Basically, Rey gets to live out the Star Wars fantasy: she gets to meet the heroes of the Rebellion and become a Jedi. Now, this is all heightened through Rey’s similar point of view to that of the viewer makes it that much more visceral. Rey is, essentially, us.

In MGS2, the narrative uses Raiden and the player’s commonality to savage the escapist fantasy of video games, steadily dressing down Raiden (and the player) until Raiden stops trying to be Snake and does his own thing. The game is able to talk directly to the player because Raiden is effectively a placeholder for the player. Meanwhile, The Force Awakens uses Rey to drive the series romanticism to new heights. Luke was the farmboy on Tatooine who dreamed of more; Rey’s that, but she’s also someone who idolizes Luke Skywalker and his adventures and now gets to take part in them.

Immersion is a part of good stories and it’s something that can be accomplished by a variety of means – just look at the effect of good prose. Stories can also leverage a protagonist who embodies the same point of view as the audience to add new facets to a narrative. It’s not just to immerse the audience more, though, sometimes they’re actually there to do stuff.

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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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Stuff From 2016 I Wanna Talk About

Every year I do a thing on this blog where I list my top nine movies. Thing is, movies aren’t the only things that come out in a year. So here’s a list of a bunch of stuff in a bunch of different mediums that came out last year that I really liked that I wanna talk about. They may not be the best thing to come out of the year, but it’s stuff I want to talk about.

Book: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I talked about this book when I first finished it, and I’d like to bring it up again to talk about how magnificent it is. It’s a concept album made book, where each chapter/short story stands wholly alone, yet is enriched and inseparable from what comes before it. Plus, it’s a novel about the African Diaspora which, really, isn’t a thing that gets explored nearly enough in fiction, especially at this scale and yet so intimately.

Album: Colors Run, by House of Heroes

…while on the topic of concept albums, I’ve gotta mention House of Heroes’ Colors Run. I haven’t listened to it enough yet, I don’t think, but it’s an interesting album that crafts its narrative through implication. It mayn’t be my favorite album this year (Run River North’s Drinking From A Salt Pond and Barcelona’s Basic Man are two strong contenders there), but it’s one that’s really been sticking with me.

Video Game: One Night Stand, by Kinmoku

I’m a sucker for a video game that goes somewhere most games don’t. One Night Stand has you waking up in a stranger’s bed and piecing together how you got there. It’s essentially a point-and-click by way of a choose-your-own-adventure game, but it’s set apart by how warmly and sweetly it handles its subject matter. Plus, the rotoscoped graphics make the game feel like a sketchbook come to life.

Comic: Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al.

I mean, duh. But so we’re clear: wonderfully funny comic with a savage feminist streak that has a lot of fun in a comic book world. It’s too seldom we get to see women as fully-fleshed out characters in comics, and Bobbi Morse is so winning its hard not to love it. Also, major props for being one of the first Marvel comics with an all-women creative team. Man, I really wish this comic was still going.

Television Show: Stranger Things, by the Duffer Brothers

I’m a sucker for 80s movies. I’m also a sucker for movies like Easy A and Super 8 that have their own takes on the aesthetics of those movies. Super 8 marches brazenly into that field with a dose of horror. So yes, there’s D&D and 80s movies references galore, but what really makes Stranger Things better than being just an ersatz Spielberg film is its characters. Be it the boys and the new friend Eleven, Hopper and Joyce, or Nancy and Jonathan; the show is filled with those quiet relationship moments that made 80s films so wonderful. That it tells a delightful science fiction story in the process is just the icing on the cake.

Play: Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen

Look, theatre’s really white. Sure, you’ve got Hamilton flipping things around, but, that’s the exception that proves the rule. So along comes Vietgone, which features a mostly-Asian cast that tells a love story set against refugees immigrating to the US after the Vietnam War. Besides its fantastic use of language to invert the typical understanding of the other, it tells a damn sweet story in its own right – that features people who don’t look like your usual romantic leads from a unique background. It’s plain wonderful, and also the only play I’ve paid to see more than once.

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Experiencing Life

I really really liked 2013’s Tomb Raider. I wasn’t much of a Tomb Raider fan prior; Lara tended to be a little too sexualized for my tastes. Too much like if Indiana Jones had T&A than, well, an adventure story. The reboot, though, was more interested in Lara as a character than her figure. Plus, y’know, I’m a sucker for survivalist story on an island with crazy fanatics. Gameplay was a lotta fun too. So yeah, I really liked the game.

Hence my disappointment when it was announced that the follow up, Rise of The Tomb Raider (…with a questionable name), was going to be exclusive to the Xbox One for its first year of release. A PlayStation man myself, this meant I couldn’t play it until, well, recently.

All this to say, I’m finally playing Rise of The Tomb Raider.

And I am short.

Okay, so, in real life, as someone who hovers somewhere between 6’1 and 6’2, I’m considered tall. Over the years since reaching this height, I’ve gotten used to being tall. I’m the same height as Nolan North, who plays Nathan Drake in Uncharted, so there’s nothing unusual to me as I see me-as-Drake standing next to other people. It’s, y’know, normal.

But when me-as-Lara stands next to someone, sometimes I’m a head shorter. Which is unusual for me. Now, sure, I may be projecting a bit here – but that’s what fiction is, it’s a two-way street; you get what you put in. So me, I suddenly felt a little vulnerable, out there in the Siberian wilderness with the only people not shooting at me these probably-friendly men a bunch taller than me. Sure, I’m Lara Croft, a badass with a bow and guns, but, well, I’m smaller. And maybe this guy underestimates me? Which in turn makes me wonder how much height affects how we perceive and are perceived. Like I said, new experience.

It’s a small thing, and something I didn’t dwell on since there were deer to hunt and tombs to raid, but that’s a thing about video games, isn’t it? You get to live lives you normally don’t.

In video games, I’ve carved a path of vengeance to reclaim my throne (Dishonored 2), been the customs agent for an ersatz Soviet nation (Papers Please), defended Earth from genocidal aliens (Mass Effect and/or Halo), and woken up from a one night stand trying to put together what happened last night and figure out who I woke up next to (One Night Stand). Sure, the main characters of these games may have been people not named Josh, but I was the one doing the things. They are my experiences. It’s me doing all that.

Tom Bissel, in Extra Lives, declares that the big thing video games have given him are experiences, “not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as real memories” (182). For Bissel, he references Grand Theft Auto IV and all the weird crap he got up to between missions (eg: causing a traffic jam and then tossing a grenade into the gridlock). For me, I have memories – real memories – of saving the world a few times over, pulling of a sick getaway after assassinating one of my usurpers, and, yes, feeling short and vulnerable. Video games, like a good book, let you live another life (or an extra life). I get to experience a whole new life. It’s why I love those weird indie games; games like This War of Mine where I scrounged for survival in a war zone as part of a band of survivors or Passage where I walked through a life from birth to death.

And so that’s the thing about fiction; particularly novels and video games which require you to be an active participant in the narrative. You step into a new life and experience it from a point of view unlike your own; be it a little girl in Maycomb, Alabama or a treasure hunter gallivanting across the world. Read a book. Play a video game. Learn about being someone other than yourself.

Live another life.

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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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