Tag Archives: Video Games

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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Creative Exchange (and Video Games)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Problem With Narrative Sidequests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Star Wars’ Newfound Dearth of White Guys

The Star Wars video game Battlefront 2, the follow-up to 2015’s Battlefront, was revealed a couple weeks ago, and the sequel seems to be righting a lot of the mistakes of the first game. It boasts more interesting combat, the return of classes, multiple eras in which you can play, and Jedi Rey as a playable character (which, right there makes me wanna preorder it). Unlike the first, which was basically online multiplayer only, there’s also going to be a proper narrative single-player mode, that follows an Imperial special forces commander from the destruction of the Second Death Star through the rise of the First Order – which sounds cool!

What’s interesting both as a shooter game and as part of the Star Wars franchise is that the protagonist is a woman named Iden Versio, as was revealed in the trailer when the commander removes her helmet, thus continuing Lucasfilm’s new trend of creating a character who isn’t a white guy every time they need a new protagonist.

We know this from the two new films that relaunched the series, with Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Awakens and Jyn and Cassian in Rogue One. But this new emphasis on diversity extends to a lot of the other Star Wars stories in the new canon. The first comic with a protagonist created for the new comics is this year’s Doctor Aphra, where the titular woman Indiana Jones-es around the galaxy. The tv show Rebels, which has been around since 2014, might star the vaguely-caucasian Ezra, but the other humans in the crew are the decidedly Asian-looking Mandalorian Sabine, and Kanan, whose ethnicity is open to interpretation but is played by part-hispanic actor Freddie Prinze, Jr. Point is, over the past couple years, Star Wars has been getting a lot less exclusively white and male.

So now we have Iden Versio, commander of Inferno Squadron, the protagonist of the New Big Star Wars Game and a character voiced by – and resembling – an Indian woman. Iden marks the extension of the trend towards diversity from other areas of the franchise into video games. Throughout the dozens of Star Wars video games released throughout the years, the protagonist has, with a handful of exceptions, always been a white guy. Even games like KoToR and Jedi Academy where you can customize character’s gender and skin tone; later books would canonize the protagonist as being a white guy (KOTOR II’s Jedi Exile is the exception to this). So we see Iden as a shift away from this precedent. Furthermore, it’s not only her appearance which sets her apart, but also her role as a military commander, not a Jedi – Star Wars is taking what’s usually seen as a male role (commando) and giving it to a woman. It’s a subversion of expectations, one that also says “Hey, women can be military leaders too!”

Like I said, Lucasfilm has clearly taken a really strong line on diversity, promoting women and people of color in just about everything they’ve put out over the past couple years. The trade off is that white guys are being put on the back burner.

But if we want more representation in the Star Wars galaxy, that’s the way it has to be. Look, there are forty years of Star Wars stories, especially if you include the old Expanded Universe (I do), and for the vast majority of them, the central main character’s a white guy. Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, Corran Horn, Kyle Katarn, the list goes on. The spotlight is now being shifted in another direction in what appears to be an attempt on the part of Lucasfilm to even the tally by mandating that all new protagonists not have to be white guys and insisting that other people get featured It means that Rey gets to be the chosen one now. It means that the badass Imperial commander’s an Indian woman. It means, that the people making Star Wars are looking at characters, asking why not, and putting minorities in the lead. It’s a drastic departure from most of the franchise’s history to be sure, but it’s a strong step forward to bridging the gap — and has clearly not hurt the quality of the stories.

‘cuz look, making room at the table sometimes means having to give up a chair. If we want to see a more diverse world in media, it means having to actively curate that world, it means having to have stories that aren’t about white guys for a bit. And at the end of the day those forty years of stories are still there. Making Iden Versio the protagonist of Battlefront II doesn’t undo all those Kyle Katarn stories, Rey doesn’t invalidate Luke. It’s a big, big galaxy a long time ago far far away; there’s room for stories about all sorts of people. Just means that white guys might not be the main characters for a while.

Now, there is that Han Solo movie coming out next year. After that, though, I’m game for Star Wars not having a white guy in the lead for another thirty-six years.

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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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