Tag Archives: mass effect 3

We who are about to die salute you

2014-04-09_00002

I just suffered my first real ‘bad end’ in X-COM: Enemy Unknown/Within. Brainwashed comm operators sabotaged my base and, having just come off a string of terror missions leaving most of my top-ranked soldiers KIA and my high-end MECs in for repairs, I didn’t stand much of a chance against the ensuing alien horde. So it goes.

Starting off on a fresh file with the Enemy Within expansion appears to have been a big mistake, as there are a lot of balance issues and weird staggering of events that make it difficult to proceed conservatively, even if I felt like it. As it is, I’m playing chiefly to have something to play. There are few enough games that can be played one-handed (my dominant hand is still, unfortunately, too injured to do much more than press Enter occasionally), and fewer still that don’t seem to fall into the trough of either puzzle games or sims, and better the devil that you know, I guess.

Still, something’s been rolling around in my head since I read Michael Lutz’s piece on First-Person Scholar about “replay value” as a quality of performance art. In it, Lutz suggests that the reason Spelunky expresses (that ol’ canard) “replayability” for him is not just the emergent dungeon design, but the particulars of its interlocking parts.

A scholar specializing in drama and performance art, [Peggy] Phelan has influentially argued that “performance becomes itself through disappearance”. According to Phelan, performance’s chief attribute is its ephemerality, its execution in a particular way, by particular actors, in a present moment that can never be reproduced [...]

I replay Spelunky not simply because it has varied or hidden content, but because the experience of losing unexpectedly and then restarting is so fundamental to the play experience. Now in addition to the first encounter with the ghost, the ghosts of many, many dead Spelunkers figuratively crowd the peripheries of my gameplay. The satisfaction of a successful run is nonexistent without the memory of the myriad failures that precede it, and even the smallest achievement is followed, inevitably, by another parade of deaths -– but the specter of future accomplishment has already been conjured.

I’d like to dispense with the idea of “future accomplishment” here — I only include the end of the quote so as not to change Lutz’s meaning — and focus, really, on the performance of loss. Because I like the idea of playing through doomed scenarios, not in anticipation of some 11th hour Hollywood cliche, but to see it all crumble as well it must.

Too dark? I don’t know. I remain convinced that a major issue many people had with the original Mass Effect 3 ending was that you couldn’t really save the day. Not how you wanted. Not how the series had set you up to believe you could. And I actually rather liked that the game pulled the rug out from underneath you like that. It changed the rules and made every win state horribly unacceptable. Love it. Give me more.

Another game I managed to play recently was Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight. It’s a damned triggering game and I needed a lot of self-care afterwards because — spoiler — the protagonist almost surely kills himself at the end, no matter what you do. But I suppose I’m glad I played it because that’s the point of the game, to reveal in the harshest terms the raw brutality of this man’s depression. Or, as someone suggested to me when I discussed it with them afterwards:

I feel like [Actual Sunlight] is a game about using the hopelessness of the worst case scenario to make the possibility of hope more apparent.

You can’t “win” Actual Sunlight. You can only participate in a doomed situation. If I replayed the base defense mission in Enemy Within a hundred times I’d probably get no closer to completing it, simply by virtue of how poorly equipped my remaining units are (the same way Evan, we might say, was not adequately equipped to combat his suicidality). No, it’s not about the “specter of future accomplishment” here, not within the context of these units or these representations. It’s more about that certain poetic catharsis gained from bringing something to the only end available to us.

Put another way, my Enemy Within squad, my Commander Shepard, and Actual Sunlight‘s protagonist are each headed toward death (unless you take the interpretation that Evan doesn’t die at the end — not a reading I hold to, personally), but the particulars of getting there make up the actual performance. The real disappearing act, you could say.

(See also: Lee’s demise in The Walking Dead; most samurai films; nearly any classic arcade game; Super Hexagon except for a few skilled individuals.)

Because if you can’t save yourself, how in the hell are you gonna save somebody else?

I’ve never been a big fan of male Commander Shepard for various reasons. He’s just not pretty enough! But if RuPaul’s Drag Race and Drag U have taught me anything, it’s there is no such thing as a face so homely a bit of contouring couldn’t help. You know what RuPaul would say to Mass Effect‘s character editor?

anigif_enhanced-buzz-16333-1362420759-17

And thus RuPaul Charles Shepard was born.

12710677733672222720_screenshots_2013-03-03_00046

MassEffect3 2012-03-11 23-01-20-39

MassEffect3 2012-03-11 23-13-35-93

12710677733672222720_screenshots_2013-03-02_00013

12710677733672222720_screenshots_2013-03-04_00017

12710677733672222720_screenshots_2013-03-04_00029

12710677733672222720_screenshots_2013-03-04_00004

Covergirl! Put that bass in your walk.

Covergirl! Put that bass in your walk.

If you want a RuPaul Shepard of your very own, here’s the Mass Effect 3 character ID: 111.17F.GGE.151.IHN.WBE.5H1.841.WH8.G98.223.6

I’m a big fan of your private tragedy

2013-02-23_00001

Anyone can tell you that ambient dialogue is often a high point of exploring some of these big RPGs out there nowadays. BioWare is habitually the go-to for this, although I find some of the conversations you can listen in on in Obsidian and Bethesda games just as pleasurable. If my finances ever do a 180 and I find myself in a position to pick up Dishonored, I’ll likely say the same about it as well.

But (arguably) stealth games like Dishonored, Alpha Protocol and the like take a rather explicit and perverse pleasure in voyeurism. Listening in on people’s unguarded moments is just what those games are for, inasmuch as they are ‘for’ anything. It’s not quite the case in something like a Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls, where supposedly some manner of upholding social norms ought to be honored. Unless I’m playing as a thief in, say, Skyrim, or I’m going through one of the rare missions in among the whole Dragon Effect pantheon which accommodates and rewards stealth (the “Arrival” DLC for Mass Effect 2 for example, though the chapter’s resolution is otherwise so frustrating I usually just don’t bother installing it), being an eavesdropper tends to make me feel even more morally transgressive than if I just walked right up and knifed the poor chatty bastards.

Yet I can’t help it.

Lately I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3, my first time in doing so since putting the franchise to bed after the whole tedious ending controversy last year. I’m revisiting it now so that I can be up to speed for the upcoming “Citadel” DLC, which sounds like a gigantic BioWare fanwank if ever it existed, and damned but I’m still a sucker for that anyway. What I’m noticing are principally two things:

1) They foreground the “unacceptable” original downer ending more than I ever remembered. Characters are constantly reminding you that you need to reevaluate what a “positive resolution” looks like. My favorite illustration of this came from an exchange on the Normandy right after you pick up (ahem) Garrus. Lightly paraphrased:

“When turians go to war, if even a single soldier survives, we say that it was worth it. But humans want to save everyone.”

But everyone and their mom has written about the game’s ending at this point, so I won’t launch into another essay on that. I just find it perfectly encapsulates what I’ve felt about the game from the start.

2) The Citadel is like a sandbox of tragedy porn.

Now, this is nothing new for the franchise either: Mass Effect 2 flirted heavily with representations of a post-9/11 security-obsessed society, and also memorably poked fun at its incompetence. But the Citadel of Mass Effect 3 is a bottomless pit of anxiety, grief, and diasporic despair. The relatively privileged folks of the Presidium worry about the ethics of war profiteering, but the refugees of Dock E24 walk around in a daze, huddle around photo-filled walls of the dead and missing, languish on the stretchers of emergency triages.

In some ways it feels like Mass Effect did its 9/11 motif in reverse order: first it described the security theater in a “war on terror” world, then it scaled back to the imagery of tragedy we collectively recall as inspiring all that rhetoric.

Dock E24 is my favorite location on the Citadel. It’s depressing. It’s raw. It feels hopeless. But then you wander around for a bit. You see a batarian wrapping his arm around a sobbing human companion, where just a couple years ago these two species were (and to a large extent still are) at each other’s throats. You find Garrus arranging for supplies for his people’s wounded. And you see a lost human girl who’s wandered up to a C-Sec information desk because she doesn’t know where else to go.

2013-02-23_00002

This is my favorite set of ambient interactions in the entire game. I found out yesterday they were written by Ann Lemay, which figures, because she’s brilliant. Here you have a turian C-Sec officer, every grizzled cop archetype in the book, finding himself at a loss trying to help a recently orphaned, and fairly naive, human teenager who has crawled her way into his heart (whether he appreciates it or not).

It’s so tender and sweet, and perfectly sums up what I love about the Citadel writing for Mass Effect 3: even these relationships which exist in the backdrop of this entire cataclysmic event are still developing, precious things. It reminds me how little Shepard actually matters. Oh sure, she’s the one who’s asked to pull the switch at the end, but she’s hardly the only one with a life going on. If anything, I find it tremendously reassuring that other people’s lives in this big squishy sci-fi universe don’t begin and end where the player’s path intersects theirs.

(This is something I adore about Jacob too, by the way. He has adventures of his own; he doesn’t need Shepard to start and stop him like an automaton. But I’ve grown to accept that virtually no one in the universe likes Jacob except me. Siiiigh.)

The inverse of this all is, well, why am I so enthusiastic to discover other characters have their own arcs, the bulk of which I will never get to see? Why should I cheer for the C-Sec officer and the lost girl, instead of feeling ashamed that I’m continually racing my Shepard back and forth behind them to hear more snippets of their conversation? The poor girl lost her parents, and my heart can only swell for the beautiful friendship I’m seeing (rather, hearing) develop. If these talking heads were cognizant of their surroundings they’d start yelling at Shepard for being some kind of a weird pervert.

But that’s the particular cognitive dissonance of these games, I suppose. (Not ludonarrative dissonance, I should add, which is a term so many critics get so desperately wrong I’ve all but banned its inclusion in TWIVGB– but more on that in another post.) These are games where engaging in social systems (dialogue, diplomacy, compromise) are at least as significant a series feature as all the runny-shooty stuff, but transgressing some of those unspoken systems –namely, what not to ask, and where not to listen in– largely gets a free pass. These are games about interacting with people, but we’re never exactly punished if our interactions are more in line with those of a sociopath. (See also: Kim Moss’s post on BioWare’s romantic Nice Guy syndrome.)

So I feel left in this awkward moral limbo, as a consumer who eats up the private melodramas these incidental dialogues shoot forth into the ether, but also as someone interested in seeing how games can reflect or deconstruct real-world systems. It didn’t take me more than a half-second to lavish some excited praise for Ann’s work over Twitter, and I do not believe this praise is anything but well-deserved –these little moments can often be what really sells a fan on a game, and rightly so, I think– but it strikes me as a little funny that I should latch onto this set of ambient dialogue, of everything in Ann’s considerable portfolio. Thank you for writing a great moment of private loss and desperation! I loved eavesdropping on it!

2013-02-23_00003

Yeah. Well, it could be argued this is what a lot entertainment boils down to: looking in on the lives of others. But games are unique in the way they make us an active participant in that process. Or another way of putting it is: linear media assumes our curiosity, while interactive media invites it, and (generally, but not always) rewards it. The interesting thing is when you map that invitation to curiosity onto social structures that are designed to discourage too much interest– like what we learn or don’t learn about other people.

It’s definitely not a situation unique to BioWare’s games in any way –hell, this probably goes back to Night Trap, if not much, much earlier– but certainly something that’s been turning around in my head recently, what with replaying ME3 as well as Dragon Age: Origins earlier this month. It’s also something I’ve been thinking about with respect to the game I’ve been writing, Stargazer Pavilion… but more on that another time.

Anyway, it should be said I am definitely looking forward to the “Citadel” DLC on March 5th, and inasmuch as I don’t believe AAA games are the be-all and end-all of what games can be or are, I adore the richness of Mass Effect‘s world, and I admire all the work that has gone into making it that rich. Especially the little things. I daresay it’s always been about them.

Best Emergent Trends (and Other Things) of 2012

MassEffect3 2012-03-10 05-58-46-15

Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to narrow this list down to anything that is in anyway manageable. It’s been a great year for games- especially indies. At this point I think it’s more useful to look back at certain movements in this year’s releases rather than specific titles.

Naturally, in the course of that, we’re going to be discussing plenty of titles. I started out creating this “game of the year” list believing I didn’t have much to say about this year’s offerings. The more I looked, the more I found was there. This has been a great year for the single-author game; for grassroots and fan-driven projects; for outsiders; and especially for animated discussions about the medium. In this I’m very much in agreement with Michael Abbott– I believe we’re going to look back on 2012 as another important watershed year for games and criticism. The only lingering question I have remaining is– did it sneak up on you too? Or did you already pick up on it months before?

Continue reading

In Defense of Boring

Poor Jacob Taylor.

It boggles my mind when game critics whose opinions I otherwise find to be deep and insightful write off a character like Jacob as “boring.” It’s not that I don’t understand where they’re coming from. I’ve heard it explained to me: he is average, he is unremarkable, his backstory and his problems are all mundane in contrast to a crew filled with scaly raptor men, genetically perfect smarmy assholes, chatty AI, and creepy unblinking blue paladin ladies out to kill their vampire daughters. Compared to all that, yeah, Jacob is practically a blank slate. Kind of like… Shepard.

Here is the thing I don’t think anyone keeps in mind when they write off Jacob Taylor. Of the entire cast of the Mass Effect franchise, he is the only character besides Shepard to bear the distinction of full on player character. Not temporary PC, ala Joker. He has an entire game to himself, Mass Effect Galaxy. I haven’t played it (and I don’t know anyone who has) but I was personally thrilled to come face to face with the only character who might qualify as Shepard’s counterpart. Because that’s exactly who he is, and I’m sure that’s what the developers intended him to symbolize, whether or not that significance got across to the average player.

Granted, depending on your tailoring of Shepard’s backstory, it’s true she can have more interesting origins than most. But over the normal progression of gameplay, she is pretty much flat as a board when it comes to her own personal depth. You barely hear mention of her past exploits, nor do the details ever matter because whichever path you choose never influences the proceedings. That’s precisely why the game surrounds Shepard with the most colorful characters with the most outrageous daddy issues in the galaxy. She’s a freaking Jacob. The only significant difference are the number of opportunities she’s offered to do big and exciting things. Without three epics under her belt, she and Jacob are exactly the same kind of vanilla, utterly malleable stock character.

It’s not that I have no issues with Jacob. Making his loyalty mission yet another tale of black paternal abandonment is lazy in the least and excruciatingly problematic the deeper down into the issue you go. But I refuse to dismiss the entire character out of hand for that. To me, he’s an image of what Shepard would be if the narrative abandoned her before Eden Prime. Mishandled, tertiary, and as an unfortunate consequence: boring.

In which Squaresoft wrote a Bioware game. (Spoilers.)

“500 years later…”

For years, this was basically all we had to go on for the ending to Final Fantasy VII. It frustrated and captivated my 11-year-old self in ways I can barely describe. What happened? Did they relocate? Did the Planet wipe out humanity in self-preservation, like Bugenhagen suggested?

That is still my personal interpretation of that ending, Square Enix’s subsequent milking of the FF7 cash cow be damned. It is short, sweet, and seems to tell us everything and nothing all at once. I haven’t seen an RPG pull off quite that same trick ever since. At least, not until Bioware’s latest title came bolting out the stable a few weeks ago.

Which is why, I suppose, I’m greeting this current air of entitled frustration and negativity from these generalized “ME3 players” (contented ones obviously don’t count!) with exasperation more than anything else. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt (and the action figures and keychains and wallscrolls). The only real difference between player reaction to this game here, and the ones of yesteryear is that now a lot more people have Internet access. Which is neither a good nor bad thing, just noisier.

Continue reading

The most evocative image I’ve found from Mass Effect 3 so far.

Continue reading

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,837 other followers