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Odd Thoughts: Optimism in Gaming

I miss when video games were fun.

Oh not the games themselves – they still are fun as heck – but more so everything surrounding them.  In recent years, gaming has been something of a ‘problematic fave’ to borrow a term.  You can enjoy the product but damn if the dubious ethics of the publishers, the foaming rage of the fandoms, and the all out tug-of-war over artistic merit doesn’t sour the whole experience a little bit.  When its gotten back to the point where people are backing away from being labeled “gamer” again (albeit for wholly different reasons) you know things have gotten bad.

I don’t get it.  I really don’t.  I don’t know if its something about my experiences or upbringing or when I got into gaming or anything but a lot of this stuff doesn’t seem that complicated to me.  Enjoy games.  Treat other people with respect. Don’t assume your view is the only valid one.  Sesame Street taught me this stuff.  But even I’ll admit that there were periods in my life where I let them slip.  I suppose none of us are without flaws.

Still it’s weird to be an outsider because of things like ‘giving the benefit of the doubt’ and ‘being optimistic about games’.  For instance, I really liked the original ending to Mass Effect 3.  I may have mentioned that on this blog a few (dozen) times.  But I really did.  It felt like a solid science fiction open ended ending that you would find in like an old Heinlein novel or something.  I never got the whole ‘your choices didn’t matter’ thing because really, the entire game was a culmination of your choices.  I bumped into faces that I did a side mission for back in ME1 and helped out or let live.  Not everything got a big dramatic cutscene but if you read all the things (Note: This was before Final Fantasy XIII taught me that gamers don’t like to read apparently.  Put down your torch, that was a joke.) your previous choices DO have an affect on things.  Like the Rachni.  If you take the Rachni back with you in ME3, the outcome is dependent on whether you saved them in ME1.  If you did, then these Rachni will remember you and benefit the war effort.  If you killed them, these are artificial Reaper controlled rachni and they will go nuts in your labs and you’ll lose precious resources from the war effort.  Yes. That’s in the game.

So how is all that the benefit of the doubt?  Well, generally I don’t just discount something because it’s obtuse or doesn’t make sense right away.  I was a fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion after all.  I suppose it got drilled into me back in film school.  There’s meaning and purpose behind things we create.  You just might not see them right away.  Take the previously mentioned Final Fantasy XIII trilogy.  Is it flawed?  Very.  Is it difficult to understand? Can be.  But if you take the time, savor it, and take in everything that it offers to you – I found it to be a magnificent game with a wonderfully fascinating story.

Even outside of game plots, there are things like DLC.  Downloadable content has been viewed almost universally as a blight on the gaming landscape.  Assumed to be lazy cash grabs or content ripped out from the finalized game in order to sell later to make additional cash.  While I can’t argue that those things have never occurred and certainly can point to a few examples where they most definitely have, there are some positives to DLC that I don’t ever think get given the time of day.  Take that “content ripped from the final game” concept.  I see that one a lot.  Especially with games like RPGs.  People argue that they should have just included it in the final game and not sold it separately, that in ‘ye olden days’ of gaming that you would get the full product at a single price.  Which isn’t really true.  A lot of the stuff that ends up being DLC is stuff that is planned for the game, but can’t be finished by date they need to go gold by (the date the game needs to be finished so they can send it to be mass produced and packaged for the actual release day).  A lot of times, studios will keep working on polishing the game after that point and push those updates out as a big ‘day one patch’.  But a lot of times content that was planned like that would just be cut or dummied out.  That happened A LOT in the old days.  Heck, there’s entire plotlines to the original Knights of the Old Republic that got dummied out, and a romance plot too.  Games can have massive unexplorable areas that were going to be used for something but there was no time to finish it.  Going back to Mass Effect, a lot of the complaints about the DLC being “on the disc” were only partially right because yes, these planned for expansions were planned for and thus their bare bones were already in place but incomplete.  All the dialogue and scenes where Kasumi Goto in Mass Effect 2 interacting with the existing missions/story were on the disc, but her model was a generic placeholder and her recruitment mission and loyalty mission where absent.

DLC is something that can – and often is – used as a second chance to save ideas from the scrap pile without having to sacrifice a release date window.  But people often assume the worst, greediest, and most scummy practices imaginable.  Again, I can’t say those horrible views are based somewhat on fact.  There have been cases of that happening.  I just think that its awfully pessimistic to paint the whole concept of post-launch content with such a negative brush based on those incidents.  Now whether you don’t think the price is worth it is a whole other debate, and really that always comes down to personal taste.  No different than ‘Is this game worth X dollars?’.  Sometimes it isn’t.  No I don’t want to spend $1.50 on a swimsuit I personally won’t ever use in Final Fantasy XIII-2 (I do have the swimsuit outfits, but that’s because they came as part of a bundle.)

I suppose a lot of this can be viewed as the ‘gaming fandom’ going through its cynical teenage years of being a long term fanbase.  But there’s always those who buck the flow, and Indy gaming being embraced so wholeheartedly is just one sign of that.  The fact that games made by small teams that don’t just become best sellers, but spawn entire fan followings solely around their games can just so that people can find something positive to enjoy in gaming still.  It’s not just a bunch of grumps spouting witty cynicisms like a bunch of jaded critics.  Gaming is something that should be enjoyable.  Be that conquering the hardest difficulty if that’s your thing, or playing on ‘Story’ difficulty because you’re interested in the story and lore.  You should play what you enjoy and how you enjoy.  Be it Braid or Boy and His Blob, Tetris or Tekken – just enjoy your games.

Of course, that’s not that there isn’t anything to be concerned about with gaming in general.  I mean, from the online threats to the unethical pressures publishers have pushed on developers, gaming as an industry and as a medium has a long way to go.  And yes, there are plenty of valid criticisms that can be discussed about games.  But if there was one thing I learned back in art school, it was that criticism is healthy for growth, and not everyone is going to like everything.  Heck, my own writing was often berating for having ‘no substance beyond being entertaining.’  I personally believe that the important thing is to keep looking forward at how games can improve, how we can enjoy our entertainment to the fullest, and be considerate of other viewpoints that will help gaming grow into a vast and diverse community where we can all enjoy things.

Then again that’s all just me.  I said I didn’t want to preach and I meant it. I’m not going to demand that my view is the right one, or the only valid one.  It’s just mine.  I just miss when games were fun.

Mass Effect: A Funeral For a Friend

So I was not even halfway done with my ‘I finished Mass Effect Andromeda’ post (Not the final title, I assure you) when Electronic Arts announced that the Mass Effect property was pretty much dead.  Oh they didn’t use those words.  That would be dumb.  No, they said that Mass Effect – the entire franchise – is being put ‘On Hiatus’.  Which in all honesty means that they’re going to stick it on a shelf until there’s nostalgia dollars to be made from it.  Along with this news, we learned that Bioware Montreal was being gutted and the remaining staff would be support developers for other EA titles such as Battlefront or Project Dylan (the currently unnamed Bioware action game that rumors say is EA’s contender to go head-to-head with Activision’s Destiny series and The Division.)  The only development for Mass Effect: Andromeda moving forward will be bug fixes and multiplayer support.

How did we get here?  I mean, it’s not even been 3 months since the game came out.  Now there will be no DLC, no sequel for the cliffhanger ending, and pretty much an end to the entire Mass Effect idea and setting for the foreseeable future.

Well, I’m sure some people have a very good idea of how this happened.  I mean, the internet backlash was hitting this game before we even got to the release date because of the whole 10 hour preview that some people had.  Mixed that with streaming media so everyone could share in the initial reaction and boom! Great recipe for an instant flame war.  And I’m not going to sit here and hold those people solely responsible.  The game had problems at launch.  I’m not going to argue with that.  The animations could be goofy, there were issues with bugs and the inventory system was just screwy.  I mean, most of this didn’t bother me personally.  Nor did it bother a lot of people I knew personally.  But then again, I was raised on RPGs where “Facial Animation” was changing the position of an eyebrow on a 20×20 pixel head.  I remember it being a big deal when “mouths moving when they have lines” was a big advancement.  So maybe I’m a bit more forgiving of some silly animations.  Ultimately, the game was playable.  It was downright fun.  Right from launch.  The patches fixed issues as they rolled out and the fun got even better.  That’s the way I viewed it all at least.

There’s also the issue of the broken fan base over to make the game more open-world.  Right now “Open World” games are kind of a thing and its started to get some backlash against it.  That isn’t Andromeda’s fault, but it did release right as the genre’s popularity has started to decline instead of at its peak.  Really, I don’t think open world was much of a goal for the game as it was the side effect of the questionable overall design choice: An updated Mass Effect 1.  Everything from the open format of upgrading abilities, to the inventory system and ranked equipment (Ranks I-X just like ME1), and the big open worlds to drive around and explore were all pretty much just yanked from Mass Effect 1 and then peppered with some of the sensibilities of ME2 & 3.  Instead of moving forward from ME3’s gameplay, they went back and tried to revive the stuff that the second and third installments tried to push away from.  And for that reason, I imagine there was a lot of push-back from fans.  While there are some in the Bioware fandom that hold on to the classic Mass Effect as the last time the games were “RPGs” (a sentiment I disagree with. I view RPG as more of a choice of how one approaches and interacts with the game rather than a specific set of mechanics that must be followed) most of the folks I’ve spoken to over the years hold Mass Effect 2 as the pinnacle of the trilogy and many of them cite the choices to move away from things like the Mako sequences on worlds or the painful inventory system.  Going back may have made sense to the developers, especially in light of the emphasis on exploration, but I don’t think it was what a lot of fans wanted.

Speaking of the exploration, I am still gathering that there in lies the big disconnect with expectations vs reality.  Andromeda was set up to be a break off of the original Mass Effect trilogy.  The same setting but a different story, hence why it was never labeled – and Bioware heavily emphasized that it was NOT – Mass Effect 4.  Andromeda was about exploration.  Going to a new place never before seen and trying to establish a home.  This wasn’t the tale of a super-soldier trying to save the Galaxy.  This was just a random team of people who volunteered to travel nearly a millennium away from home and try to set up camp in a barely charted galaxy.  So it was a big step down in the important-ness scale.  Just as epic, but more in a scale way instead of a heroic way.  Because face it, Ryder isn’t a hero.  They’re the kid of an ostracized scientist who had greatness thrust upon them compared to Shepard who was a damn legend before the opening title dropped hence why Shepard was being considered for Spectre Status.  Ryder’s job before having the Pathfinder title dropped on their lap was Recon Specialist.  No rank, no record of glory, no nothing.  Andromeda was about new beginnings.  A theme that runs through out the game and is handled really well.  I just don’t think everybody was on board with a new beginning.

It’s one of those tough calls that you have to deal with as an artist in an entertainment industry.  Especially if your a AAA developer or working with a big movie studio.  You can make great art, but even then if no one is buying what your selling then you are just shooting yourself in the foot.  It’s the cruel reality, and not one that I personally like or support.  Electronic Arts supposedly dropped $40 million on Andromeda (That’s half of CD Projekt Red’s budget for The Witcher 3) to a brand new division of Bioware set up in Montreal to try and win back the fans that Bioware HQ in Edmonton put at risk with Mass Effect 3’s ending backlash.  They decided to dive back into the well and play it safe by retreading ground established by Mass Effect 1.  They developed a story that was easy for new comers and series veterans to get into with a brilliantly handled themes of exploring the unknown and establishing a new beginning.  They crafted a story that wrapped up both the ‘new beginning’ as well solved the primary conflict without giving everything away so fans could theorize and have something to look forward to in the future.  It created a villain with an interesting motivation (The Kett) and a mystery to ponder on without concrete answers (The Remnant). It ended the game with solving the issue of finding a home but gave a cliffhanger as to what will come next.

Mass Effect Andromeda was a good game overall.  A good game that stumbled at the starting line and it cost them big.  I honestly worry about Bioware moving forward.  After this, ME3’s ending, and The Old Republic, I imagine EA’s patience may be wearing thin.  Consumers on the other hand have higher expectations of Bioware than ever.  Things could be rough going forward for the Canadian RPG powerhouse.

Mass In-Effect-Ive

I’ve been watching a Twitch streamer play through the Mass Effect Trilogy for the first time, and it’s been bringing a whole bunch of new discussion out of it.  Some old topics, such as the ending of Mass Effect 3 – an ending I still whole heartedly enjoyed and supported but could understand why other people were unsatisfied (Granted, not to the level of rioting and threats across the internet that we got.) But also some new ones, like nature of choice and consequence in the games.

I’ve heard some say that Mass Effect 2 is the last time in the series that choice had any real meaningful impact in the series, and I really don’t agree with that at all.  There are exactly 5 choices that make any significant difference: Who leads secondary teams 1 & 2, who opens doors, who does the biotic shield, and do you I make them loyal?  Some could say I’m cheating with that last one because you have to decide who is loyal out of 12 team members, but really it’s the same choice 12 times, not 12 separate choices.  Loyalty is a boolean switch, there’s no sliding scale of loyalty like there is in the Dragon Age games.  And really, let’s be honest, everyone is going to do a play-through where they make everyone loyal regardless of Paragon/Renegade or role playing, just so we can ‘beat’ the game.  And those choices simply decide if anyone dies.  “But Vry,” you say, “You can possible lose enough people that Shepard dies! That’s an impactful choice.”  Yes it is, voice in my head.  Because you actively have to choose to do that.  You know how many people have to die to get that ending?  No more than one squad member can survive the suicide mission.  Two lived? Bam. Shepard lives.  You have to actively sabotage yourself to get that impact.  You have to work to level up without making people loyal, you have to make all the wrong decisions, and you have to really want that ending to get it.

The only time in my opinion that your choices had any significant impact in the overall sense of the trilogy was in the third and final game. Because throughout the third game, you see the results of your decisions throughout the series.  That one NPC you lent a hand to in ME1 that did nothing?  Well, he’s on the Citadel and he remembers you. Missions take on a very different tone based on whether someone lived or died in previous games.  In ME2, if someone died, you couldn’t use them in the suicide mission. That’s it.  That’s the impact.  And EVERY role had at least 3 people who could do the job.  In ME3, if those people didn’t live, things tend to go badly.  The entire third game was a massive denouement that shows you the outcome of your play-through of the trilogy.

Of course that raises the question, since them living or dying is the result of a choice in ME2, doesn’t that make ME2 more meaningful? Well, that’s debatable. Since it wasn’t till ME3 that made those deaths meaningful.  If ME3 made them meaningful, and you replay ME2 with that in mind, isn’t ME3 that makes the choice significant and not ME2?  Regardless of where the choice comes from, it’s the third game that gives the choice weight.  So I’d say that it deserves the credit for it.

Now, granted I’m not gonna stand here and say that was executed perfectly.  The choice of destroy or keep the Reaper base didn’t do much but shift some numbers around, and change the scenery for one scene.  But the other games are just as guilty of null and voiding your final decisions.  While the weight of saving or destroying the Destiny Ascension will loom over interactions, your choices in terms of the council afterwards are either nullified in ME2 or completely tossed out the window by ME3.  My all human council didn’t even last two years while I was dead!

Ultimately, choice is a nebulous thing in the Mass Effect series and always was.  The best you could usually hope for is a cosmetic nod or a brief conversation.  If there was any game that took in all your choices and gave them more oompf I’d still say it was the last one. Not at the part everyone was expecting but throughout that entire experience.  And I’ll say this for the infamous RGB choice:  It had a hell of a lot more impact on the narrative than ‘Do I save/destroy the Collector Ship’ or ‘Who do I put on the Council’.

5 Endings I Hate More Than ME3

For the record, I don’t have a single issue with the Mass Effect 3 ending.  I really liked it.  Maybe it was because I was really to please.  Maybe it was because I was expected something truly god awful based on what people were saying on Twitter. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen much MUCH worse.  Here’s a handful of endings that pissed me off in ways that Mass Effect 3 never could.

Battlestar Galactica: If there is way one to quickly push my buttons it’s a cheap cop-out ending.  It was all a dream? Bite me.  But one that gets going even more so?  God did it.  And that’s what we get at the end of the new BSG re-imagining.  No real explanation.  Just ‘God did it and that’s why it all works.’  You have got to be kidding me.  No.  You don’t just get to wave that wand around because you have some pseudo-religious themes in your show.  You have to EARN ‘God did it’.  There has to be reasons.  There has to be motives.  God doesn’t get a free pass because it’s God.  It doesn’t work that way.  

So unless you can actual give me an explanation as to why ‘God’ decides to wipe out the Cylons, sends them to a mysterious planet that they dub new ‘Earth’, destroy all their technology and jump start humanity.  Cause as it stands there is NO REASON for them to do most of that other than to cram in a stupid message that technology is bad and God is good and they are somehow mutually exclusive.

Ranma 1/2: What’s worse than a bad ending?  Well, how about a non-ending?  Ranma 1/2 wrapped up after hundreds of pages of manga with a complete and utter non-event.  The two closest things we have to main characters in a cast of dozens seem to be about to be married – something that was a LOOOONG time coming, and then POW! The whole wedding gets ruined by the baker’s dozen of other potential suitors and the massive series ends with a still shot of the two NOT married teens running off to school like they always do.  No real conclusion.  The end message is: put the last few volumes on a loop and read until the end of time. Thanks.  Fabulous.

Teen Titans: Things. F-ing. Change.  The biggest middle finger to the fans I can possible think off.  Let’s bring back a very important character that was thought gone for good a few seasons back, make it super ambigous about whether its a look alike/clone/etc by giving them amnesia and a bunch of other weird hints, and then don’t resolve it giving one of the main cast a nice heaping helping of woobie angst in the process. Oh, and by the way: SERIES FINALE.  This episode never existed as far as I’m concerned.

Neon Genesis EvangelionOkay, so you spend 24 episodes of a 26 episode series building up some horrific apocalyptic ‘Third Impact’ event that will wipe out everything.  So how do you start episode 25?  Oh, with a text screen that proudly announces that the apocalypse already happened and the following two episodes take place AFTER that.

Beyond the fact that the last two episodes are entirely philosophical debates that take place within the main character’s head, there is never any explanation as to how or what the apocalypse was.  You actually get the feeling at the end of Episode 24 that they just stopped the last risk that could have triggered it!

Luckily, we get a movie that explains what happened.  Or maybe it’s a ‘what if’ alternate universe thing.  No one is really sure if they are supposed to be in the same continuity.  I always assumed they did.  But the movie is just as whack-a-doo as the show or more so in some cases.  And as a giant middle finger to the audience they made an even MORE non-sensical ending.  Complete with utterly irrelevant imagery, vague dialogue and little to no context crammed in for the last minute.

Chrono CrossSo you’ve spent dozens of hours hacking your way through a plot more dense than Akira meets the Kingdom Hearts franchsie, and defeated the final boss.  Finally we have a chance for some clarity as that last piece slides into place and puts all of this in some kind of conte-  Who is that?  Why is there some random live action girl wandering around live action Tokyo? Why does she have the magic pendant?

The ending of Chrono Cross requires more work in trying to decipher what it is supposed to be than the entirety of the rest of the game.  And in a game that involves alternate universes, time travel, body swapping, conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies…  that is saying A LOT.  To be honest, I have no clue how anyone figured out what’s going on here without some kind of supplemental material.  Which considering Square Enix’s fondness for companion books may have been the case.  Anyway, it confused the heck out of me in an already confusing game.

Killing All the Things in Mass Effect 2

So with Mass Effect 3 coming out in… *looks at Xbox 360 screen*  T-3 days?  Whatever. Tuesday. I’ve decided to do one last play through of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.  I’ve heard through the inter-web-o-sphere grapevine that the Normandy in ME3 will feature a memorial wall for all the people who have died in the trilogy, also the fact that almost everyone you’ve ever teamed up with will be showing up at some point in the game. Well, what happens if those people aren’t there to team up?  Who replaces them?  In every single save game of ME2 I’ve got, I have saved Wrex, I have kept my entire crew alive through the suicide mission, and everything is set for war with the reapers.  But what if you fill up that memorial wall and kill everyone? Well, mostly everyone.  My end goal of this last play through is to leave just enough people alive to ensure that the save imports into Mass Effect 3.  That means killing everyone you can except for 2 crew members.  Easy, right? Wrong.

Oh sure, in the first Mass Effect it’s really easy.  There’s a maximum of two crew members that can be permanently killed off.  The fun comes in finding ways to kill off NPCs as well.  Captain Kirrahe on Virmire?  Yea. Skip all the side missions, and send more guards his way and you can guarantee that the good captain won’t be able to hold the line. The Council? Oh you betcha. The Rachni? Dead as door nails.  The Zhu’s Hope colonists?  Well, let’s just say my Shepard is the Butcher of Torfan AND Feros now.  It makes things so much easier not bothering to save people.  I actually made it through the game, even with a large chunk of the side quests complete, in record time.

Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, is where things get tricky. It does still shorten the game to not have to worry about loyalty missions or having a good paragon or renegade score to settle disputes, but the real task is making sure that you kill the most people and still surviving to the end. The general idea is to have all but two crew members die in the final suicide mission.  That means not rescuing the Normandy crew, and killing off the majority of your team mates. However you MUST have at least two team members survive or else Commander Shepard himself will die and you won’t be able to import the game into Mass Effect 3. Considering the nature of the suicide mission, and how many factors and decisions can lead to death or survival, this requires a careful hand and a lot of planning.  I’ve hunted down charts, checklists, and made countless sticky notes to plot the course of who should die and when.  Thankfully, the internet has provided ample resources of how things like not researching improved armor will affect the final mission, including a list of who will die and in what in what priority.  I can only imagine the research that went into figuring out how each of these events can shakedown.

I haven’t finished the play through yet.  I’m about 3/4ths done at the moment.  But I’ve been getting this weird sort of mix of glee and dread in the fact that I am purposefully doing something so counter intuitive.  This isn’t like the Ironman Challenge where it’s about restricting yourself to increase the challenge.  At least, not that I am aware of yet. That opinion may change once ME3 comes out and I see the results of all of this.  But to actively plot the demise of your own team and to be crossing your fingers to hope that they all perish in the flames of battle is something you don’t do in video games too often.  I know I’m crazy, but there’s crazy and then there’s crazy.  You know what I mean?

So have you ever worked to do something in a game that is the complete antithesis of what you should be doing?

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