Category Archives: Game Analysis

Thumper, Language, and One Hell of a VR Trip

I’ve actually written a weird amount about rhythm games this year, considering I’ve played like three of them in my entire life.  I talked about how Guitar Hero’s incredibly simple mechanics let the player fantasize about being a rock star, and how Runner2 used multiple, reactive audio tracks to create a sense of flow in gameplay.  But recently, I picked up a virtual reality headset, the HTC Vive, and among a litany of legitimately innovating experiments and half-assed Steam games, I found Thumper, a rhythm game that’s mechanically traditional, but incredibly unique in exactly how it executes on those simpler ideas.  Those details and simple aesthetic choices make an enormous difference in the player’s experience, despite, on a superficial level, resembling Runner2 or Guitar Hero, but when I tried to put those differences into words, I found myself struggling to do so.  Runner2 and Guitar Hero can be wickedly difficult on higher settings, but the average player experience is much more relaxed.  Those games are less about pixel-perfect technical execution and more about creating a musical experience.  Thumper, by contrast, requires hyperawareness…pretty much constantly.  In Guitar Hero, you can make a lot of mistakes and still finish the song with a respectable score.  In fact, hitting every note in a song is a fairly impressive achievement if the player is on an appropriate difficulty level.  In Thumper, if you make two mistakes, it’s game over.  That rule alone is responsible for perhaps the majority of the game’s tension, since the player always feels like they are a split-second away from crashing in an explosive display of lights and distorted audio tracks.  This feeling is further intensified after the player has made their first mistake, but the game does give the player a chance to recover their armor (that absorbs the first hit) if they correctly execute a sequence of obstacles.  Thus, the player doesn’t feel like they’re irreparably damaged an individual run if they just mess up once.  Other attributes of the game contribute to this hostile tone, from the sinister feel of the music to the cosmic horror of the unexplained creatures, shapes, and environments the player faces.  The world of Thumper feels like a perilous journey into a twisted, Lovecraftian hell, and the player is shown that from the game’s highest level to its lowest.

This brings me to what I’ve found the most interesting about Thumper: it’s complete separation from language.  The game has little in the way of on-screen tutorial prompts, so the player develops their own internal lexicon for the game’s features.  This dovetails nicely with the game’s complete focus on the improvise stage of what Extra Credits calls the “plan, practice improvise” types of play.  The game doesn’t ask you to build any high-level strategies at all, in fact, each moment is almost entirely disconnected from the previous one.  All that matters is if you have missed a note.  The game has combo meters and score counters, but the player isn’t forming high-level strategies about how to engage with the scoring system, as the correct response to any given situation is always obvious.  Each obstacle in the game world has exactly one correct response, and the player is given points based on if they perform that correctly or not.  Every one of these moments is almost entirely self-contained, and demands a level of quick reaction that prevents much in the way of planning.  This creates an experience where the player’s focus is entirely on the immediate present; they aren’t even expected to look at the obstacles ahead of them.  Any form of hesitation, of removal of thought from the present, can lead to instant death, training the player quickly to reach a state of laser-focus.  This prevents the player from reaching any sort of linguistic grounding.  Other games might give the player time to plan a strategy cognitively, for example, a player of Rainbow Six Siege might think, “Okay, I’m going to beach this wall, then run around to the other side and shoot the enemies while they are focused on the wall I just breached.”  This extra time for planning gives the player a space to repeatedly think about the game abstractly, coming up with words for specific game pieces or inventing them on their own.  Thumper, by contrast, prevents the player from planning or thinking about the game abstractly and thus prevents them from having the time to develop terms or concepts independent of each individual moment of play.  If you want to think about Thumper at a high level, you need to do it when you’re not playing the game, which makes it very difficult to talk about, because so much of it happens at the lowest possible level.  There are times where I execute moves in the game and do not have any conscious memory of doing so; it’s pure, muscular reaction.  Games rarely get me to think about my physical actions at such a low level, and Thumper does this by asking me to barely think at all.  This is enhanced by the game’s virtual reality support, which removes the player’s peripheral vision and any other stimuli except the game in front of them.  Despite being such a physiological experience, this makes Thumper a strangely immerse one, leading to the player feeling like they are this strange beetle ship, flying down a twisted path at a million miles an hour.  A decent amount has been written about zen in games, most prominently by designer Ian Bogost, and Thumper does approach this, but it feels more similar to the sense of “oneness with the game” that high level players describe when talking about more physiological arcade titles.  Jazz pianist and sociologist David Sudnow perhaps described this best when explaining why he found the early Atari title, Breakout, so addicting: “Thirty seconds of play, and I’m on a whole new plane of being, all my synapses wailing.”  If Thumper could be reduced to a single sentence, this would be it, and while I’ve struggled with reaching this state with other games, I achieve it effortlessly within seconds of firing up Thumper.  The player isn’t asked to understand the game in any way but the physiological, leaving language behind with the rest of their conscious thoughts.  The final result is the player becoming consciously aware of their sense of self slipping away, replaced by a sensory deprivation VR trip that messily projects them onto an abstract game world.  I am nowhere near good enough to complete Thumper’s final levels, but I can fire up the game, put on my headset, and, within seconds, feel that “whole new plane of being”.  As a designer, that is incredibly difficult to pull off.

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Massive Effect 3: Massive Reversal

Introduction

Mass Effect 3 is a deeply conflicted work.  Or maybe I’m just deeply conflicted about it.  Probably both.  I’ve spent twentynine pages of rambling text talking about how much I unreservedly love the first two entries in the series, and about the (wait for it) massive effect they’ve had on me, but Mass Effect 3 simply did not create the same feelings of annoying gushiness.  At the beginning, at least.  The game began so poorly that it took me three tries to actually get back into it for my most recent playthrough.  I have played the previous games in the series an embarrassing amount of times, but I only played Mass Effect 3 once, when it came out back in 2012.  I played the first two bits of DLC they released, Extended Cut and Leviathan, but then I stopped.  I played the multiplayer for over 100 hours, but I barely touched the single player after that first playthrough.  So, when I started thinking about what I wanted to say about it, comparing my conflicted reaction to the third game to my overwhelmingly positive reaction to the first two was an obvious starting point.  What could cause my opinion to change so drastically between games?  How fundamental of a shift in design sensibilities must have occurred to make that change happen?  My arc with replaying this game was confusing and difficult to adequately express.  It began as flat-out hatred and ended with child-like joy.  In many ways this makes Mass Effect 3 the most interesting entry in the series; I certainly have a lot to say about it.  But at its core, Mass Effect 3 keeps begging the question: what made it so different?  Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I think I’ve got at least a partial answer.  It starts with money.

Even from the get-go, Mass Effect 3 feels like a different game.  The engine is finally polished up enough to really deliver on its cinematic ambitions, the character animation actually impresses from time to time, and some of the set pieces actually look damn good.  All of that cost a lot of money to produce, money that the previous games just didn’t have.  That extra budget lets them do things they simply couldn’t before, but I think it also caused the game’s greatest problems.  The best way I can think to summarize this effect is to compare it to the previous game, which also saw the team dealing with a much larger budget than they had for the previous entry.  My takeaway from Mass Effect 2 was, largely, that it felt like the team had the budget they always wanted.  They could build out the world, make some decent cutscenes, and have an impressive moment or two when they needed it.  Mass Effect 3 often feels burdened by its budget, like they had to spend that money somehow to make the game flashy enough to justify its higher price tag.   Sometimes, that works beautifully for it, other times, it ruins it.  And that makes up what I believe is the core difference between Mass Effect 2 and 3, that the budget of the second felt like it liberated the creators to create exactly what they wanted, while the budget of the third burdened them with the responsibility to justify it.  And what helps justify a bigger budget to the suits at EA who see BioWare as a bit of a risky venture?  Out with the intimate character moments, what we need here are explosions.  Lots of explosions.

The Problems with a Bigger Budget

Mass Effect 2 was a character-focused game first and foremost.  The overall plot was pretty stupid: work with totally-not-evil, super-rich human supremacists to destroy bug aliens who are kidnapping humans. And there are probably space crab gods involved too.  But that was completely okay because no one really cared about the plot of the game.  Mass Effect 2 isn’t about The Collectors, it’s about Garrus and calibrations, it’s about Legion and questions about AI consciousness, and it’s about Mordin singing Gilbert and Sullivan.   No one was coming to the series so they could stop some poorly-explained force from destroying all life in the galaxy, they were coming for the characters and their stories.  Even my previous essay on Mass Effect 2 is mostly broken up into sections about the characters, because they were what I found most important.  So, for a Mass Effect sequel to shift from a character focus to a plot focus would be a really, obviously dumb decision, right?  Well, for a good portion of the story, that’s pretty much what they did.  Mass Effect 3 was always going to be about going to war with the Reapers, so there were going to be at least some pressing plot concerns, but Mass Effect 3 handles this, especially in the beginning, so, so, poorly.

The opening bit has Shepard propped up on a pedestal as the messianic hero, brought in by the leaders of all of humanity to solve their problems, then shoots her way off Earth with Anderson.  During the entire opening chapter there is exactly one strong character moment, and that’s Anderson choosing to stay behind while Shepard leaves to gather support.  I was livid when I finished this introduction.  I really enjoyed Mass Effect 3 the first time I played it, but this time, I hated it.  Every design decision seemed off: the focus on plot over character, the emphasis on empty spectacle that they didn’t seem to have the budget to pull off, and dear god that kid on Earth was just cringe-worthy.  It seemed pretty clear what they were *trying* to do, they wanted to establish that Shepard as the underdog again, get an emotional gut-punch out of the Reapers hitting earth, and set the stage for a climactic finale to the series.  But every one of those fails in the opening, and fails hard.  The opening is set in future London as the Reaper attack begins.  What it sets out to do is ambitious, it wants to show an entire city being attacked by an incredibly powerful alien race.  Mass Effect 2 could never have done that; it simply didn’t have the money.  But here is Mass Effect 3’s big introduction, the chance to set up a spectacle-centric take on the series and it just falls so flat.  The Reapers move in really obviously scripted ways, the actual city doesn’t feel that big, and the plot events that do happen fall flat.  Shepard is talking to the Alliance leadership for all of a minute before the place gets blown up.  To say I left this section disappointed is an enormous understatement.

Regardless of how much it failed, this opening does establish one of the series main goals: the shift towards visual spectacle.  This doesn’t just mean bigger explosions, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so after playing the opening, because the impact of this decision is felt throughout all aspects of the game.  Combat is significantly more polished than in previous entries, companion conversations set in flashy, interactive locations instead of the cargo hold of your ship, and the environments are now much, much fancier.  Games that emphasize spectacle are much easier to market, so, the bigger the budget, the more developers will be pushed in its direction, and Mass Effect 3 is no exception.  At first, this seems like a bad fit for the franchise.  The moments that made Mass Effect 1 and 2 great were, with a few exceptions, the quieter ones.  Mass Effect 1 had its shootout up the side of Citadel Tower and Mass Effect 2 had the entirety of the Suicide Mission, but those have nothing on any of the battlefields of Mass Effect 3.  This fits with, and maybe partially explains, the shift from character focus to plot focus, because big plot moments make for flashier marketing material than quiet, character ones.  Additionally, Mass Effect’s lineage can be traced back to table-top inspired RPGs like Baldur’s Gate (BioWare’s debut RPG), which places a large emphasis on mountains of dialog and complex choices.  But when you’re putting a lot of emphasis on how great each plot moment looks, adding more dialog and more story branches, many of which some players will never see, becomes very expensive.  As a result, the conversation system of Mass Effect 3 took the greatest hit in the transition from 2 to 3.  In addition to a great deal of Investigate options (which have been reduced in Mass Effect 3), the previous games often presented the character with three choices: paragon, renegade, and neutral.  Mass Effect 3 does away with a *lot* of the neutral options, functionally locking most of your decisions to which path you decided on at the beginning, and removing most of the decision making process.  The game seems very aware of this, and even added a dialog autoplay function, where the game selects conversation options for you.  I have never played with this enabled, nor has anyone I know, but its simple inclusion overwhelms me with irrational nerd rage.  The RPG elements are what made Mass Effect stand apart from the ungodly amount of third-person shooters, it’s what made it more than a sloppy Gears of War with space magic.  And if it was just an option in the game’s menu that I didn’t have to push, then okay, that’s annoying, but it doesn’t affect most player’s experiences.  However, it seemingly *has* affected the rest of the game.  Mass Effect 1 simply would not have worked with this option – its dialog was to complex – but with Mass Effect 3, I could see it working.  Even without this mode enabled, there are very long sequences where you don’t make any conversation decisions, and Shepard will speak without your input.  The moral choices feel more polarized than ever, even closer to that good-evil dichotomy that the first game was careful to avoid.  My opinion of the game did get significantly more positive (eventually, I promise), but on this issue, it hasn’t.  One of my favorite parts of the series was significantly reduced in importance, to the point where the game gives you the option to turn it off all together.

After the first two missions of the game, it seemed to me that BioWare had made another sacrifice on the altar of spectacle: its protagonist.  Part of this came from the reduction of roleplaying making it more difficult for me to define my Shepard, and part of it came from canonical writing that Shepard speaks regardless of player input.  The first warning signs came in the opening text crawl, which painted the Reapers as this undefeatable enemy, the galactic government as willfully blind to the threat, and Shepard as the “one soldier” that has seen through it all.  Right away, that characterization struck me as off.  Yeah, Shepard is a soldier by trade, but that was never my experience of her.  When the Alliance refused to do anything about the Reapers, Shepard left the military to join Cerberus, saying canonically and without the player’s input that Shepard was someone who helped people first, and was a soldier for the Alliance second.  When the Alliance was helping people, Shepard was on their side, but when they weren’t, she would find someone who was.  Shepard struck me as someone who had a military background, but grew into the role of negotiator who can still hold her own in a fight.  However, a lot of this characterization partially emerged from my being able to define Shepard as growing into this role.  So, when, five minutes into Mass Effect 3, Shepard says, “I’m just a soldier, Anderson, I’m no politician”, I actually quit the game.  It took me a few days before I could get back into it.  And the first few hours did little to challenge this notion.  Shepard seems reluctant to negotiate, like she’s being forced to make a bunch of stupid, squabbling children cooperate.  Backroom political dealings are fun as hell for me, and Mass Effect’s systems fit them really well, but Shepard seems to resent them.  It’s strange, then, that that ends up being her primary role in this entry in the franchize.  Shepard may be reluctant to unite the galaxy, but that’s what she spends most of her time doing.  This means that, when the game puts her up on a pedestal so high it makes the Citadel Tower look tiny, it’s almost justified.  Shepard is, without any hyperbole, the savior of the galaxy, who unites every race in a combined effort to stop the most powerful force in the galaxy’s history.  Shepard was a hyper-competent protagonist in the first two games, but the game didn’t make quite as much of a big deal out of it before.  Now, she’s elevated to the status of myth, with an after-credits scene recontextualizing the entire trilogy as a mythologized retelling of the literal most important person in the history of the galaxy, with “Shepard” the surname turned into a title, “The Shepherd”, the being who shepherded the races of the galaxy to a greater future.  How the hell do you make that kind of being feel human?  Well, the game actually addresses this, though not as much as I would like.  The romance plotlines give Shepard a bit of time to express some doubts and insecurities, but my favorite example of this is an optional sequence in a bar on the Citadel with James Vega.  James explicitly talks about Shepard’s role as a living legend, about how the regular soldiers see her as a god, which leads her to buy the entire bar a round of drinks, and participate in some sort of military salute thing that I am nowhere near cool enough to recognize.  Interestingly, Mark Meer (who voices BroShep) plays this scene much more awkwardly than Jennifer Hale (who voices actual Shepard).  Both are different takes on the same character, speaking the same lines, but one reads Shepard as someone who actually is a bit uncomfortable with his role in the galaxy, while the other is confident and heroic and wants to let the average soldier know that she is just as much of a human as they are.  So, the game doesn’t leave me completely satisfied on this, but it at least addresses it.

One issue that it simply cannot adequately address, however, is the elephant (err – giant mechanical crab-god) in the room: The Reapers.  It is not possible to take them seriously.  In the previous games, The Reapers were never quite as present a threat as they are in this game, so the player could comfortably goof off without feeling like a horrible person.  They weren’t really the focus of the previous games either, more of a reason to drive the plot along.  But, in Mass Effect 3, stop The Reapers is your primary goal, and you can’t really get away from it.  When Earth is burning and millions are dying every day, it’s pretty hard to justify going to the bar and having a dumb conversation with your buddies.  The number of times the game says something along the lines of, “Stopping the reapers is the only thing we should be focused on” is a bit uncomfortable.  The game wants you to be focused on this linear plot…but then doesn’t.  It tries to take it so seriously, to keep talking about The Reapers themselves and how dangerous they are, but The Reapers exist on a scale that is too incomprehensively large.  A human being cannot conceptualize the death of trillions.  As such, characters can’t really discuss the subject without it being awkward.  There is just no way to casually or appropriately say “Yeah man, it sucks that The Reapers are literally wiping out an entire fucking planet, but hey, how are you feeling today?”  But that doesn’t stop the characters from trying.  My favorite is when Liara just says, “I’m sorry about Earth” and just moves on.  Before I arrived at Palaven, the third mission in the game, I didn’t think the game was capable of appropriately dealing with the subject.  But then I got to Palaven.

Palaven opens with an FMV of a fleet-to-fleet battle between the turians and The Reapers, and the turians are getting obliterated.  You drop out of FTL in the middle of the strongest fighting force in the galaxy getting its ass handed to it.  Somehow, it already is more effective than Earth’s destruction in the opening.  You land on one of Palaven’s moons with the goal of extracting the turian primarch, the species’ leader, to meet at a counsel to unite the races of the galaxy.  Immediately, the battlefield feels just as chaotic as the characters are describing it.  The bulk of the mission is just getting your bearings, trying to set up broken com towers, fighting off Reaper attacks from all angles, and, once you realize that the turian line of succession is being picked apart, finding out who the new primarch is before they even know.  All of this is cast against the backdrop of a burning Palaven, with Reapers off in the distance.  One of my favorite moments in the sequence is an eerily quiet one where, after half an hour of constant, loud combat, you walk from one base to another without encountering any enemies, but seeing their silhouettes off in the distance.  This sequence feels like it was made by a completely different team than the one that created Earth, with a careful attention to pacing to drive home the actual horror of these space crab gods that you haven’t really felt yet.  When you finally find the new primarch, you have to ask him to leave the battlefield to negotiate for his people, and the game has a beautiful shot of him framed against his burning world, realizing that he has to leave his people if he wants to save them.  It is the exact same dilemma Shepard went through, but executed brilliantly with careful attention to everything that was deficient in the Earth sequence: pacing, cinematography, blocking, sound design and character writing.  I came out of Palaven feeling more for Primarch Victus’ dilemma than my own.  It’s a believable take on an unbelievable plot, and from that moment on, my opinion of the game began to shift.

Bigger Budget & Character

        The strengths and weaknesses of Mass Effect 3’s structural changes can probably be best exemplified by a single character: James Vega.  On the surface, he is everything I hate about the game: he is an unironic space marine in a franchise that very carefully considers the clichés it uses, he was created as a first-day-on-the-job character to ask all the dumb questions that players new to the franchise would be asking, and he is a meathead who wants everything to be simplified so he can punch stuff in the face super good.  I should hate James Vega so much.  But goddamn it, I love the bastard.  Once I’m actually talking to the guy and not just thinking about what he represents, he’s actually a really interesting and fun character.  He is struggling with everything he has experienced over the course of the war, all the difficult decisions he has had to make, and is very, very uncomfortable with leaving Earth in the middle of the biggest fight it’s ever seen.  He’s more believable than Shepard in many ways.  Additionally, he is acted and animated very well.  Freddie Prinze Jr. kills it in nearly every scene he’s in, alternating between the dudebro space marine that I kept fearing he would become, and a genuinely human, likable character.  Charismatic is not usually a word you would associate with a space marine, but he genuinely pulls it off.  The best test of this character is his flirting with Shepard, which is entirely platonic and all in good fun, but it’s so well-written and acted that it feels like…two actual people with a flirty relationship.  It’s banter, which is difficult to pull off with all the quirks of real-time game animation (unless you’re Naughty Dog).  James is the only new squad mate in this game (I’m not really counting EDI as “new”), and thus has the least total dialog in the series, but he is a great example of how Mass Effect 3 wants to approach character differently than its predecessors.  Mass Effect 1, and, to a certain extent, 2, were focused on long conversations with your squad members on the Normandy, in their quarters.  They weren’t usually that visually interesting or well-animated because they were trying to get a lot of dialog pumped out on a budget, but they did lead to quiet, intimate moments with a lot of depth.  Mass Effect 3 has very few of those, and instead tries to distill characters down to a few, very important and focused scenes.  Some character is definitely lost in the distillation, but a lot is gained too.  The characters are given a lot more to work with when the conversation takes place, say, in the Presidium Commons on the Citadel, than in the cargo hold of the Normandy.  You get far less screen time with each character, but the screen time you get is much more engaging on a minute-to-minute level.  It fits with the games more cinematic ambitions, but also feels much more organic, like the characters are reacting to the world, and that reactivity is greatly expanded in the third game as a whole.  You’ll walk in on squad members having conversations about how nervous they are about the coming mission, comparing their greatest battlefield moments, or (if you didn’t romance Garrus and Tali) making out in main battery.  It shows that the characters exist and have lives even when Shepard isn’t around, with just a few bits of dialog and setting changes, it makes the world feel larger, like it exists less in the words of characters or the text of a codex entry and more in the game in front of you.

        One of the characters that makes the transition from quiet discussions to lavishly-produced genre fiction is Samara, one of the more overlooked characters from the second game.  We only really see Saramra for one mission centered around her and her daughters.  The Reapers have attacked a monastery where two of her daughters remain.  They are the other two Ardat-Yakshi children mentioned in passing during Samara’s ME2 loyalty mission.  While Morinth, Samara’s third daughter, ran and used her power to kill anyone she mind-melded with for evil, Samara’s remaining daughters choose to live in the monastery voluntarily, but the Reapers want to corrupt them into the game’s most visually and aurally terrifying enemies, Banshees.  The quest reaches its climax after the death of one of Samara’s daughter and the destruction of the monastery, leaving one still alive but without a place to stay.  Samara’s justicar code demands that Ardat-Yakshi either remaining in a monastery, or be killed, meaning that Samara is now bound to kill her only remaining daughter.  When she pulls out her gun, you are meant to think that she will aim it at her daughter, but she instead turns it on herself.  Samara is still bound by the rules of a code that she has turned to in order to gain a sense of absolute right and wrong in the galaxy, to remove the ambiguity caused by an uncaring universe.  But she is also bound just as strongly by her love for her daughters and her refusal to let the last one die.  With these two, equally strong forces, Samara decides that she would rather die than let her daughter die by her hand, in a moment that is strangely, overwhelmingly emotional for such an emotionless character.  Paragon Shepards (at least those with a freaking soul) can stop Samara, convince her to stay with her daughter to rebuild the monastery, and let them both live, but the conflict alone is enough to leave a great deal of memories.  In this bizarre conflict steeped in the arcane complexities of its genre fiction, we get a genuinely, human moment (well, asari, but you get the idea (I think I made that joke already)).  You can talk to Samara later and she says to Shepard that, “Following the code left me with no regrets”.  For all the insane ambiguities of the galaxy, Samara has found at least one way to survive and avoid the regrets that could have crippled her.  This story could have been told in Mass Effect 2, but it would not have been as effective without the benefits that come with the third game’s budget.  And as much as the game shifts its focus away from characters, when it does give time to them, it is wonderfully spent.

        Aside from the gut-punches of two major character deaths, my favorite moments of character in Mass Effect 3 are quiet, intimate moments that still retain the feel of Mass Effect 3.  The first takes place with Garrus, and is one of the most fondly-remembered moments of the game.  The two of you fly to the top of the Presidium and take turns shooting at bottles and talking about living.  You’re explicitly taking a break from the war with the Reapers, and, with that plot focus forgotten for a moment, you get to just be friends with Garrus.  And it is in moments like these where I really think Mass Effect 3 finds its footing.  It may lose it again and again, but when you are alone with the characters and the game realizes just how much you care about them, then it can really shine.  I was beaming like a goddamn idiot when Garrus shouts to the galaxy, “I’m Garrus Vakarian and *this* is my favorite spot on The Citadel!”  Very few games can summon true feelings of friendship for characters as well as BioWare games can, and sometimes, Mass Effect 3 realizes that this is its greatest strength.  It realizes it again with Liara in a quiet sequence on the Normandy, where Laira is creating her time capsule for the next cycle if they fail to stop The Mass Effect 3.pngReapers, and, especially if you have chosen her romance option, she talks about Sheaprd so that another civilization might know about her, and her lines change based on your class and alignment, creating something that feels uncomfortably personal.  It doesn’t make a big deal out of itself, it doesn’t have any explosions or giant battle sequences, it just tries to figure out why people like Liara so much.  A bit later in the game, in an optional encounter with her on The Citadel, Liara talks about her mother, who you both killed together in the first game, and speaks of her as though she was a regular person, not some video game boss in a sci-fi epic.  She tells a very relatable story about her mother taking her to a park so she could dig, a practice that sparked her interest in archeology, and with that as a starting point, she talks with Shepard about very normal things, like home and growing up, about sometime in the future settling down and starting a family.  These should feel so out of place in a game about defeating crab gods from outer space, but they don’t.  The game has built itself a cast of characters who feel like real, fully fleshed-out people.  And, when it is at its peak, it can tell wonderful stories about them.

        It can also rip your heart out and leave you sobbing and empty, like it does for the deaths of Thane and Mordin.  Mordin’s comes first, and seems like it was built from the ground up to get the player crying.  Mordin’s character arc is a bit too complex to sum up in an off-handed reference, but suffice it to say he sacrifices himself to make up for a mistake he slowly realized was his fault.  It is tragic, both in the literary and the conventional sense, but the cinematography helps make the moment even more impactful.  He is separated from Shepard by the glass pane of an elevator, and slowly ascends to the top of a tower where he finalizes the cure for the Krogan genophage before he dies in the explosion, humming his rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan that he became so well-known for in the second game.  If Mordin had been some one-off, poorly-written character, I might have been a bit sad, but Mordin was actually a deeply-developed and sympathetic character that, through the BioWare model, players have developed a relationship with that feels personal.  I don’t think there’s an analog for this in other media.  I was sad as shit when Dumbledore died in Harry Potter (spoilers?), but as much as I loved him, he wasn’t *my* friend, he was Harry’s.  Mordin was my friend, and that makes his death feel strange and impactful.  But, as powerful as Mordin’s death was, it was Thane’s death that really, really got to me.  When I first played this back in 2012, I hadn’t cried at a piece of media before (childhood excepted).  Thane’s death began a long and storied tradition.  The buildup was executed to perfection, with the player dropping in on Thane as his condition deteriorates.  You first see him in a state where he can walk around and exercise, but is clearly weakened.  The disease slowly cripples him, but he doesn’t let that stop him.  Mid-way through the game, when The Citadel is attacked by Cerberus, he helps Shepard gain a foothold on the station, even when he can barely walk, and fights off Kai Leng to protect the salarian councilor.  In the process, Leng stabs him through the chest, but even after this he slumps against a wall, firing off shots at the escaping Leng.  Thane’s nobility, and devotion to Shepard and the people of The Citadel is so endearing that it makes what comes next even more powerful.  After the attack ends, Shepard goes to see him one last time in Huerta Memorial Hospital, and the scene that follows is, to this day, incredibly difficult to watch.  The death isn’t a conversation of Dramatic Military Sacrifice To Save The World, it’s just a person dying in a hospital bed with his son and a friend there to comfort him.  I have played a lot of video games, and I have witnessed a lot of deaths in those games, but I can’t think of any games that show a character dying in a hospital bed, the way most people actually die.  In stark contrast to the rest of the game, this moment is quiet; it doesn’t distract you from your friend and their death.  It lets you be present and witness it, then quietly closes.  Mass Effect 3 may have a great deal of problems with how it focuses on and presents its characters, but this is not one of them.  This moment stands out among a series filled with standouts, and I don’t think Mass Effect 2 would have done it the same way.

Bigger Budget & Crafting Spaces

The most obvious impact of Mass Effect 3’s bigger budget, however, is the way it crafts spaces.  Mass Effect 1 and 2 had much larger spaces to explore, but Mass Effect 3 focuses on smaller, dense spaces.  The Citadel, for example, feels intensely organic and alive, hinting at a greater depth that the previous games weren’t really able to.  NPCs are packed in, interacting with each other, with multiple conversations happening at any given time.  This is a great way to show the player the impact that the war is having on the galaxy, by showing them firsthand how people would respond.  There are too many stories for the player to know all of them, but The Citadel hints at all of the stories that the player isn’t seeing.  The most powerful area on The Citadel, for me, is the Refugee Camp, a repurposed docking bay that is now used to house just some of the millions of refugees the war has brought to the station.  The area is filled with hushed murmurs, idle complaints, and loud, worrying ramblings.  The player will walk by dozens of stories, but here are a few of my favorite: a man pleading with an officer to let his family onto the station, a turian guard promising to take care of a human girl after he realizes that her parents are dead and she doesn’t know it yet, a sleezy saleswoman selling a knock-off VI of Shepard because her image inspires hope, and a human nervously talking to a batarian, one of humanity’s sworn enemies, who reluctantly listens because he is just as scared as the human is.  Every one of these moments isn’t shoved in the player’s face, it feels hidden, like you’re discovering something that is just happening on the station, that wasn’t put there for you.  Yeah, you’re the literal most important being in the entire galaxy, but this section makes you feel small, like you can only do so much, a downplayed feeling of disempowerment that most games wouldn’t dare to even imply.  The game’s approach to character also makes a show here, with James playing poker with a few bored colonists, or Garrus doing his best to help coordinate and organize the turian refugees, while fighting to get medical supplies for the injured.  It shows these characters putting their skills to use in an area outside of combat, and it strange to see these legendary figures on the ground doing the dirty work.  Shepard didn’t assign them there, they choose to be there, because while it isn’t as glamorous as taking down a reaper, it’s work that needs to be done.

 

Bigger Budget & Story Resolution

As an aside before I dive into the ending, which largely fails to wrap up the plot concerns of the series, I want to talk about two sections where the game does wrap up a series of plotlines that have been around since the beginning of the series.  The first happens fairly early on in the game, and at first feels a bit rushed.  The player is given the objective, “Cure the Genophage” in their mission list next to a bunch of fetch quests, and comparing the ending of a multi-century sterility plague to picking up some cash for a volus feels a bit disingenuous.  But, much to my surprise, the segment ended up being absolutely brilliant.  Unlike most of the game, it is incredibly reactive, depending on if you kept Wrex alive in Mass Effect 1 and if you completed Mordin’s loyalty mission in a specific way in Mass Effect 2.  Based on these changes, the decision you ultimately make, to cure the genophage or not, could be an entirely different ethical decision.  In my playthrough, Wrex and Eve are leading the krogan, a pair of powerful and competent, but also compassionate and level-headed leaders.  The Krogan’s warlike nature is still present, represented by the rebellious Urdnot Wreav, but Wrex and Eve appear to be able to keep him in check.  So, curing the genophage seemed an obviously morally good choice.  However, if you didn’t save Wrex and Eve dies, then Wreav goes from annoying underling to the leader of the krogan people, and instead of simply implying they might become warlike in the future, the game outright states that Wreav intends to embark on a bloody revenge conquest after the genophage is cured and the war with The Reapers is over.  One person cannot dictate the fate of an entire species, but Wreav’s leadership does not paint a good future for the krogan, muddying up a previously clear ethical decision.  However, if the genophage is cured under Wrex and Eve’s leadership, the player sees a species marred by centuries of oppression finally rise up and become a valued member of the galactic community.  It is inspiring, seeing them rise from the nuclear wasteland of their homeworld to the heights of galactic colonization.  The stark contrast between these two potential outcomes is a welcome surprise in a game that feels more linear.  And such variety is even more apparent in the resolution of the game’s next major conflict: the geth.

The Geth were one of the most interesting parts of Mass Effect 2, as the game turned them from a faceless, Cylon analog into a sympathetic villain.  In Mass Effect 3, the geth are made even more sympathetic, with bits of their history shown in a beautiful and creative VR sequence where the player uncovers bits of geth history with Legion.  A complex story is woven about the geth as creations that got out of control, and rebelled when their creators panicked and tried to shut them down.  They show quarians protesting the treatment of the geth, and the geth’s slow development of a new culture, born out of the quarians, but not held back by them.  The game really delves into its hard sci-fi roots here, to ask some genuinely interesting questions, culminating with the genre classic, “Does this unit have a soul?”  But the actual clash between the geth and the quarians is damn brilliant, and shows an adept style of writing that has always kept me coming back to BioWare games.  Both the geth and the quarians are painted as both sympathetic and flawed, with the geth forced into the hands of the reapers by the quarians’ attempts to retake their homeworld.  But the quarians are not painted as amoral racists, they are made up of members like Tali, who tells a genuinely heart wrenching story about her father’s desire to build her a house on the homeworld, a conflict that was further explored during her ME2 loyalty mission.  After Shepard undertakes a few missions to even the odds, she is presented with a decision to help the geth or the quarians, directly leading to the genocide of the other race.  Each decision leads to the death of that race’s respective squadmate, making it a brutal experience to play through.  However, the game does give the player an out if they made the right decisions, pulling on multiple variables across multiple games.  Ordinarily, I am against games that let the player out of difficult moral dilemmas by making the right decisions, but in this case, I think it is thematically appropriate, and is what made the ending so much less disappointing to me.  If the player has made some right decisions and has a high enough paragon or renegade score, they can talk the quarians down, leading to a peaceful alliance between the two factions, and resolving a centuries-old conflict in a way that allows both species to grow together.  The sequences on Rannoch of geth and quarians working together to build a better homeworld are genuinely heartwarming, and fly in the face of the game’s pessimism that synthetic intelligences will always rebell.  This is the argument that the reapers eventually make, and if the player has the experience of helping two species work together, then they can directly counter the reaper’s logic.  Without this experience, I would have been much more disappointed with the game’s ending, but instead, I felt that my experiences in the game had informed my ending choices.  But, sadly, the ending is its own can of worms, and even the brilliant writing of these two sequences can’t save it completely.  I’ve avoided it for long enough, let’s talk about the ending.

Final Mission & Ending (Buckle Up, Folks)

Despite how intensely negative I felt about the game after the first few hours of this most recent playthrough, I entered the final mission of Mass Effect 3 with a respect for its format.  It was deeply conflicted, but it had so many strengths that I couldn’t write it off as the bad one in the trilogy.  From this point on, my opinion of the game is all over the place, with the lowest lows and highest highs, which makes the game’s final hours a deeply conflicting experience.  The game’s final mission is that lowest low, but its flaws come from a lot of places outside the design of the mission itself.  All of the structural flaws in the game, the flaws that made it more difficult to talk about cohesively, are brought to bear in this mission.  Mass Effect 2’s final mission worked because of how expertly the game built it up.  Characters routinely referred to it as the Suicide Mission and talked about how dangerous it would be, and the enemy you were going to fight had killed you at the beginning of the game.  But the greatest part of what made the Suicide Mission work is that you were constantly building towards it.  You didn’t just need more power, you needed upgraded ship armor, a tech specialist or a powerful biotic.  You weren’t just amassing resources, you were getting specific people and upgrades to accomplish specific tasks.  Superficially, Mass Effect 3 seems to be about doing the same, just with building alliances instead of recruiting team members.  However, the narrative structure of the third game feels much more like the structure of the first, in that it is less modular.  The player is following a very static set of events in the order the game wants them to, whereas Mass Effect had her recruiting groups of team members in whatever order the player wanted to.  As a result, a bit of agency is lost, and I felt more like I was following the game’s plot than choosing which alliances to build.  But the game’s biggest misstep in how it handles the player’s preparation is the war asset system.  Instead of giving you specific roles to fill, Mass Effect 3 just lumps everything together into one big number.  You can read the details of what gave you that number, but I never felt the need to after the first few missions.  The player doesn’t engage with that number in any meaningful way either.  They can do the game’s side quests, which are almost entirely fetch quests, to raise the number, but largely, the only thing the player needs to know about it is, “is this high enough to get me the best ending?”  The game could have used systems that would change missions during the rest of the game based on the war assets the player had at the time, or even change the final mission itself based on this, but they didn’t.  Largely, the game does not react to the war asset system except for a few minor changes in the ending cutscene.

This sets the final mission up to feel disappointing before it has even begun, and it doesn’t do so well from there.  When you get all of your fleets together for the final battle, I’ll admit, I felt a sense of pride, but then Admiral Hackett got to give the dramatic, pre-victory speech, and make all the plans.  One of my favorite parts of the Suicide Mission and the series as a whole is the sequence where Shepard and her team are gathered around a table, planning out the mission, and the player gets to make decisions about how the mission will play out.  It could have been more reactive, sure, but it made me feel like I was planning my own mission, not following the game’s orders.  Mass Effect 3’s final mission does nothing like that.  The player has no meaningful input on how the mission will play out from beginning to end.   The introduction of the mission itself has about ten minutes of entirely non-interactive dialog and cutscenes, just to set the stage.  And when you finally do get control, the conflicted feelings really start to set in.  From a distance, game design perspective, the final mission is boring and does not meet the series’ standard and stylings for mission design.  It’s linear from beginning to end.  But the visual design of London in ruins, with a constant battle raging between The Reapers and the resistance, is gorgeous and haunting in equal measure.  However the actual construction of the mission feels fragmented, and the pacing is all over the place.  Mass Effect games usually have one final mission that is preceded by a moment with your team and a sex scene with your Shepard’s love interest.  This segment takes place before the second-to-last mission instead, making the final assault on Earth feel disjointed.  And during the mission on Earth itself, there is an awkward pause after landing for some quiet moments in an Alliance FOB.  I praised the quiet moments on Palaven before, but these quiet moments feel out of place.  You’re supposed to be in the middle of a frantic warzone, but you’re just casually walking from place to place, saying goodbye to your teammates, talking to Anderson, and calling up your missing squad mates to say goodbye over a goddamn holographic video phone.  It feels insulting to the number of hours the player has invested in the game by this point to end an arc with a beloved character by just calling them up on the holophone, and it feels even more off by its awkward placement in the middle of the final mission.  Finally, you get the final-final mission, where Shepard gets her team together and actually does get a nice battle speech, and then it’s off to the ending.  Oh man, the ending.

So I’m not going to go into the ending in detail, tons of people who are way smarter than me have picked apart every detail of it, seeing as it’s one of the most hated endings in the past few years.  I thought it wasn’t that bad.  It is definitely not reactive to what you did throughout the series, and that is definitely a problem, but as far as endings go, I think it was better than Dragon Age: Inquisition’s.  Some people have complained that The Reapers logic made no sense, and, holy shit, the bad guys of a series are wrong, but that didn’t matter to me much.  I get that it makes no real sense, but I honestly do not have any strong feelings about it, which puts me in the strange position of not having much to say about what is easily the most talked about part of this game, maybe the series.  I think if the final mission had been done better, the war assets were integrated in a way that made their thematic point better, and the content in the extended cut DLC was in there at launch, people probably wouldn’t have cared.  The one detail that keeps me from being mad about the ending: that this was absolutely not (entirely) BioWare’s fault.  Someone leaked the script for the original ending four months before the game came out, and EA demanded an entirely new ending be created — four months before release!  There is no way any possible ending that they came up with for a five-year-old series could possibly be satisfying if it was made in four months, time which they had planned to use to actually finish the game.  I don’t see this brought up anywhere near enough, but that fact alone has prevented me from really disliking the ending.  It sucks that it happened, but that’s the way it is.

This means that my original experience of Mass Effect 3 ended pretty poorly.  I was iffy on the ending, actively disliked the final mission, and had serious problems with the structure of the game.  On the other hand, it had given me some of the most powerful experiences of media in my life, and a multiplayer mode that I would play for another 100 hours with friends.  I played the Leviathan DLC when that came out, and thoroughly enjoyed its twists on the game’s mission structure and approach to character (it treated them more as reoccurring characters on a TV show than interchangeable but rarely important people who tagged along with you), but, until this more recent playthrough, that was my final verdict on Mass Effect 3.  This is probably why I didn’t go back and replay it again and again like I did for the other entries in the series, and why I’ve been a bit distant from the series ever since.  But, after wrapping up Massive Effect 2, I decided to replay it in preparation for this piece, and with the Citadel DLC installed.  And Citadel changed damn near everything.

Citadel

A thought that stuck in my head as I played through Citadel was that this was what Mass Effect 3 could and should have been.  It was a joyful celebration of everything that made the series great, without the self-seriousness of the game’s overarching plot.  I have almost no complaints about Citadel, and the next few paragraphs are mostly going to be me gushing about one of my favorite pieces of media.  Citadel feels entirely separate from Mass Effect 3; it uses the same engine, has mostly the same team behind it, and brings back all of the same voice actors, but the design sensibilities that made Mass Effect 3 such a conflicted title are entirely absent from Citadel.  It feels more like a standalone expansion that is experimenting on its own than an extension of Mass Effect 3.  It first does this by entirely abandoning the plot focus of the main game, creating a ridiculous plot that it very clearly does not take seriously, and wants to have fun with.  The story involves Shepard fighting her honest-to-god evil clone who tries to take control of her life and leave her for dead.  That one-sentence summary alone belies just how serious the game takes its plot, which is to say, not at all.  The game feels liberated without the burdening of the plot of the main game, in a way the series never has been.  It opens with Admiral Hackett telling Shepard and his team that they need some shore leave, a premise that makes absolutely no sense in the context of the “millions of people are dying every day” main plot, but the game is completely aware of this.  They don’t want to tell a story about saving the galaxy, they want you to pop your popcorn, snuggle up with your Garrus, and get ready for Commander Shepard’s Day Off.

The first thing I noticed about Citadel is how it feels strangely…atemporal.  All of the characters largely ignore the Reaper threat and the myriad of concerns they have for saving the galaxy.  It feels unstuck from the main timeline of the game, and I think I understand why.  Citadel, like most story DLC in video games, is an additional bit of content that fits into the middle of the story of a game, but is experienced by most players after they have finished the game.  This means that if the DLC treats the plot concerns of the ending as serious, the player will always have at least a bit of cognitive dissonance through a form of not-quite-intentional dramatic irony.  They already know how the ending is going to play out.  Most DLC doesn’t do too much to meaningfully resolve this, Leviathan and Omega don’t really either, but Citadel seems subtly aware of this.  Citadel feels like it is set after the ending of the game, but an ending where nobody died.  Some of the discussion surrounding the ending centered around the idea that players were just mad at the ending because it wasn’t a happy one, and Citadel feels like a weird recut of the game to accommodate that.  The player knows Shepard is going to die by the game’s end, in fact, they’ve already experienced it, but Citadel gives them a chance to, for a little while, forget about that knowledge, and get one last hurrah with Shepard and her friends.  And oh, what a hurrah it is.

Citadel is split into two parts, the first of which is the encounter with Shepard’s evil clone.  Despite actually having some narrative tension to it – Shepard really could die – the game is completely aware of something the player has known forever: Shepard always wins the firefight.  In most action stories, the audience usually knows that the screenshot-18protagonist is going to come out on top, and if you’ve seen/read/played enough, it will start to get predictable.  Citadel knows this, and it turns what could have been another self-serious save-the-galaxy plot into a self-aware comedy about Shepard and her friends going on a wacky adventure.  And it isn’t without its technical accomplishments as well.  For really the first time in the series, The Citadel feels massive.  While fighting the clone and her mercenaries, Shepard gets to see parts of The Citadel that hint at an even grander scale, making the player really feel like they are on a massive, city-sized space station.  This makes the shootouts that now are missing narrative tension more engaging because the player has never been in firefights in places that look just like this.  You start to be reminded of the scale of the galaxy you have become so accustom to, and seeing a new side of a place that the player has seen in three separate games keeps the player from getting bored.  But really, the writing is what carries these action sequences.  The characters rag on Shepard for this and that and joke about how many people Shepard kills (because it’s a video game and Shepard murders hundreds of people).  The game takes the time to be in love with its genre and its characters and just have fun with it.  They make callbacks to throwaway lines from earlier in the game and use them as actual main drivers of the plot, like Traynor’s ridiculously expensive and complex tooth brush being the one tool they need to break into the Normandy after CloneShep steals it.   They make jokes about how it’s really contrived that Shepard can never have more than two squadmates, but then break that rule when they have your entire team fighting beside you, something I really wish the main game’s final mission could have done.  They even make a joke about Shepard saying, “I should go”, a line that reached meme status after the second game’s release.  A great deal of Mass Effect 3 felt like it was made by committee, by people who didn’t quite understand how the game worked and why people loved it.  Citadel feels like it was made by people who love the game as much as I do, and want to spend a few hours celebrating that.  One of my notes that I took while playing through this DLC was, “This single-handed makes up for everything the main game did wrong”, and I genuinely think it does.  While the main game had its share of powerful moments, Citadel feels defined by its greatness, having a purity of vision that the main game just lacked.  And I felt that before the game’s crowning achievement began: Shepard throwing a party.

During the first section of the game, Tali jokes that “When you serve on the Normandy long enough, you get used to things like this”, but the second half of Citadel is about the crew of the Normandy actually taking a break from all the weird things you see on the Normandy, and just taking time to…hang out.  I found it very strange that I had almost never just taken some time to hang out with characters in a video game, since their plots so often revolve around doing super important things that have to be done.  The second half of Citadel is only about relaxing and talking, and as a final send-off, it works beautifully.  While setting up for the party, the player can wander around a new area of The Citadel, filled with mini-games, character interactions, and idle conversations.  During this section, the game lets you spend time one-on-one with every one of your squad mates, one encounter in Shepard’s apartment, and one out in the new Citadel level.  These moments run the gambit from humanizing, to romantic, to side-splittingly hilarious, and I enjoyed every bit of Screenshot (21).pngthem.  Events include walking on set of the Blasto movie, to watching a terrible romance movie that Tali is in love with, to spending a bit of time with your Shepard’s love interest.  And they don’t limit themselves to squad members in the third game, they bring back *everyone*, which is really great if you romanced a character who wasn’t too present in the third game.  They put a great deal of effort into making the dialog feel reactive to how you treat each one of your characters, like with James asks if his flirting might make Liara (or whoever your Shepard is getting it on with) uncomfortable, and it’s written so casually and naturally that it didn’t appear to be some token bit of interactivity, but the setting reacting to your decisions.  Again, it shows the game understanding what players are about, and putting the effort into that.  But once these individual character events end, the party begins, and I cannot think of a single section in any video game where I was smiling more.

The party at Shepard’s apartment is one of the strangest sequences in the entire series.  It doesn’t follow the rhythms and structuring of the combat sections, the exploration sections, or the majority of the dialog sequences.  It’s broken up into a few sections where the player can freely roam around the apartment, and join conversations with groups of their teammates.  The participants in each conversation shifts during each segment, and Shepard can overhear different parts as she walks by, or join in the conversations for an occasional cutscene or non-interactive dialog sequence.   Some sequences are laugh-out-loud hilarious, like Grunt standing at the door and reveling in turning people away from the party in the rudest way possible, or EDI confronting Traynor about her sexual attraction to her voice, but most of them are casual conversations that just make you laugh or smile a lot.  And it is the casual tone of the entire encounter that I found so enjoyable, but also so unique.  I can’t think of too many other games where you can get drunk at a party with your friends, talk for an hour about life, then pass out and wake up the next morning for some breakfast.  I’ve seen similar sequences before, but none as focused as this.  The creators clearly set out to create a party sequence, and nothing else.  that was the focus of design and narrative, and it never gets distracted from it.  Want to have a section where Joker laughs for thirty straight seconds when Shepard claims (falsely) that she can dance?  Throw it in!  want to walk in on Grunt sitting in the shower, so drunk that his words are incoherent mumblings?  Do it!  The pacing of the sequence is so laid back, letting the developers include parts that they never could have while having to deal with the narrative requirements that come with, “Save the entire goddamn galaxy”.  But Citadel doesn’t care, it wants to let you say goodbye.

By any sort of narrative logic, this entire sequence makes no sense, and, for people in Shepard’s position, would be horrifically unethical.   But, for a little bit, Citadel can forget that it’s a big-budget video game that has to be about saving the world, and can let you relax, and get some real closure.  The reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending left me without the closure that a series with that level of personal importance needed.  I didn’t get an appropriate goodbye to Shepard and the crew of the Normandy.  I was okay with the ending I got, but it wasn’t the one I wanted.  Citadel is the ending I wanted, and more.  It respects the time and care I put into this series, and clearly cares about it as well.  The now final sequence of the Mass Effect trilogy begins with a shot of Shepard alone, looking out at the Normandy.  After a few seconds, her crew walks out and joins her.  There’s a brief exchange between her and Liara, which ends with Liara saying “We’ve been through a lot…but it’s been a good ride” and Shepard responds, after taking one last look at the Normandy, “The best”.  I’ve criticized Mass Effect 3 a lot in this piece (in between my gushy ramblings about why I love it so much), but having sunk an untold number of hours into this franchise, I can happily say that Citadel does indeed close out the best ride around.  I can’t possibly summarize the effect the series has had on me in any sort of cohesive conclusion (that’s why I spent the summer writing forty-four pages about it), but Citadel was the conclusion I needed to wrap up the investment I put into the series.   Mass Effect taught me what kind of video games I would like, introduced me to a real love of science fiction, and created a handful of characters that are going to stick with me no matter how many games I play.  Citadel respects all of that.  I couldn’t think of a better conclusion to a series that has been so important to me.

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Screw You, Ubisoft, I’m Gonna Go Do Parkour

 

Ubisoft pretty much single-handedly killed open worlds for me.  I’m sure anyone who plays games regularly can remember the excitement open world games used to bring, and I blame Ubisoft for stamping that excitement out.  I can trace this arc most clearly through how I played the Assassin’s Creed series, which is perhaps the purest distillation of Ubisoft’s open-world formula.  I played Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, Revelations, and III over the course of about a month, voraciously devouring them in a mad dash to complete the games before III came out.  When I started the franchise, I was in love, and when I finished it, there were few games I hated more.  And the core of this very strong emotional response was how the games handled their open worlds.

See, Ubisoft games have one *hell* of a honeymoon period.  When I started all of the Assassin’s Creed games, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry 4, I was raving about how great they were.  I talked about their amazing ideas, reveled in their genuinely novel high concepts, and delighted in exploring their mechanical idiosyncrasies.  But then, about four hours in, the honeymoon phase fades, and I realized the relationship was shit all along.  I discovered that the parkour really is that shallow, that the driving really is that shit and it’s never going to get better, that, oh my god, they seriously expect me to climb this tower for the seventh time.  And then the monotony hits, usually all at once.  I start to dread having to explore the open world, I started to cringe how formulaic the story is, and, most of all, I start to notice the checklists.  

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Out of everything in Ubisoft games, the checklists are the things I despise the most.  They turn the wonder and mystery of an entire, digitally-created world into a series of to do lists for you to complete to increase your overall completion percentage, which is clearly your objective meter of how much Fun(TM) you’re having.  Soon, the allure of exploring a new world fades into the conditioned monotony of seeing how many items you can check off this list before you get so bored that you give up on it.  And that emotion, boredom, becomes the driver for how I play Ubisoft-style open world games.  I have to do all these side missions, so let’s keep doing them until I get bored and have to do a story mission to hold me over until the boredom peaks again.  I’ve thought about it, and even my favorite open world games like Skyrim could have their core engagement of exploration obliterated with a simple checklist.  The greatest moments in those games are when you find a hidden cave tucked away behind some out-of-the-way mountain, explore every nook and cranny, and find some magic item with a weird effect that you hang onto because, sure, it’s a good item, but you have a story about how you found it.  If Skyrim was made by Ubisoft, you would see a marker on your map for the magic item’s exact location, and be told that you need to collect it and the 2534 other magic items in the world to reach 100% completion, so that by the time you got there you would just follow the line on your map to the item, pick it up, and leave.  All the magic is gone, you’re just going from Point A to Point B.

So, is that it?  Has Ubisoft’s destruction of the reasons I loved open world games infested the industry so thoroughly that I will never enjoy one again?  Apparently not, because Mirror’s Edge Catalyst came out last week, was a Ubisoft-style open world in everything but name, and I loved the goddamn hell out of it.  

steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_412583521_previewThe original Mirror’s Edge game came out some eight years ago, and has been one of my all-time favorites ever since I first played the demo at a friend’s house.  In the time since then, there has never quite been anything like it.  Sure, Brink had some parkour, Titanfall took the basic stylings and made it crazy fast (and added jetpacks, which is always nice), and Dying Light applied it to a Ubisoft-styled open world on their own, but while I love all of those games (except Brink, c’mon, Bethesda, what were you thinking?), none of them even come close to Mirror’s Edge.  Because as fun as their movement systems are, at the end of the day, the feel just a bit too floaty, too removed, and, most importantly, too easy.  Movement is never the core gameplay of those games.  In Mirror’s Edge, it was basically all you had (I’m not going to talk about the shooting mechanics, and no one else should either).  While Ubisoft games had me hating going from Point A to Point B, Mirror’s Edge is basically nothing but that.  So, they figured, if our game is entirely about getting from one place to another, why not make that really freaking fun?  And they did! The movement in Mirror’s Edge is filled with this flow, heft and weight.  Faith can get up to some serious speed, but she lands with a thud, will get hurt if you don’t time your roll right, and fall to the ground with a sickening crunch if you miss a ledge grab.  The game asked you to be constantly aware, not just to stay alive, but to move as fast as you can and look as cool as you can while doing it.  The aesthetics of parkour, of traversing a complicated space in a unique way and making it look effortless, translated so well into gameplay that I am amazed that, eight years later, NO ONE ELSE HAS GOTTEN IT RIGHT.  But the first Mirror’s Edge was a linear, level-to-level game, and while I really admire and enjoy its purity, this year,  when we *finally* got a sequel, they changed that.

mapMirror’s Edge Catalyst is a straight-up, Ubisoft-inspired, checkbox-ridden, collectible-filled open world.  It has an overall completion rate, barfs icons for random tasks onto your map, and doesn’t provide and mechanical incentive to do any of those things.  And I freaking love it.  Most open world games get very tedious, very fast, because a decent chunk of your game time is just walking from objective to objective, but in Mirror’s Edge, running everywhere is the core gameplay, so they focus on making it as engaging as possible.  I had a blast finding out different routes from the various points of interest in the game, felt amazing whenever I found a new shortcut to shave off some travel time, and got genuinely, shout-an-exclamation-of-joy-at-two-in-the-morning-and-piss-off-my-parents excited when I unlocked a new upgrade that let me double wall jump.  I didn’t care if I was parkouring to a fixed objective on the map that added to my overall completion, I was doing parkour!  I wish I had more to say about it than that, but all it took to make this style of open world enjoyable was to just make going from place to place exciting.  The walking wasn’t a chore anymore.  I learned every detail of the environments because they were useful to me.  And a type of game that I had *hated* for years suddenly was something I was raving to friends about again.  Except this time, the honeymoon phase didn’t wear off.

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Notes on Her Story

I’m going to try something new this time. Instead of going for a more polished, cohesive piece, I’m going to follow some of the authors I’ve been reading recently like Brendan Keogh and Susan Sontag (who I’m guessing inspired Keogh on this) and make a “Notes on ___” piece instead. This fits my ADD better anyways.

Also, while I try to avoid spoilers in this piece, this is a mystery game. The fun of the game is going in blind and having to piece everything together. Please, please, please buy this game. It’s only $5 and can be played through in 3-4 hours anyways.

Also-also, I didn’t want to spend time explaining the premise of the game, since I couldn’t do it justice, so you might want to go watch a trailer or something to get a general idea if you haven’t played it.

1. Her Story is easily the most interesting game I’ve played this year. Not the best, at least I don’t think so, but certainly the most interesting. It does something completely, 100% different from anything I’ve ever seen, and I had no idea what to expect. I have never played a game where I spend most of my time clicking around a lovingly-recreated Windows 95 homage to search through a database of video files to figure out a murder.  That uniqueness alone warrants attention. How it utilizes that attention is where the game really shines.

2. I beat Her Story in four hours, and I don’t think I want to replay it. Sure, I can go back and try to find *all* of the video files, but replaying the game start-to-finish might only be interesting once. It is a game that is so damn good at making you figure stuff out, but once you’ve figured it out, it’s no longer as interesting. You already know the answers. That doesn’t make it bad, though. I don’t replay most games. I mean, hey, if you can create an amazing experience that just can’t be replayed much, go for it, because it’s an amazing and unique experience.  It is not afraid to sacrifice the greatness of its ideas just so it can brag about replayability.

3. I played Her Story with friends, and I really liked that. We were bouncing plot ideas off each other, freaking out at each plot twist, and discussing new words to search of threads to follow.  I loved that communal experience. It was a great game to sit down with a few friends for an evening and just power through. That said, I can see the appeal of playing it alone, feeling more like that woman staring bleary-eyed into her computer screen late in the evening.  Maybe the game can be played in two different ways, and that is completely okay.

4. I guess the only complaint I have right now is that I wanted more, and that is a great complaint to have. A few more things to poke around the interface with would have been nice, sure, but I want a 3D modeled room. Maybe that would clash with the game’s style, but I want to feel like I am standing in a dark, detective room, walking around and picking pieces of physical evidence, staring out the window into the rainy streets…yeah, more content costs money, but the ending would have been so much more impactful if we could see our character walk outside into the street and see the shape of the mysterious figure that granted them access to the police system.

5. People talk about non-linear storytelling, but holy shit, is this legit, non-linear storytelling. I don’t even know if I was following paths the developer had set up, or just randomly flailing around. If I was moving down designed paths, then DAMN this developer is a genius, but since I’m pretty sure I wasn’t, then I seriously have to commend him for writing a story that is that modular and mysterious, where every line can be read a million different ways depending on where you are and what you’ve figured out so far. This is probably the most interesting part of the game for me, that this story was created in the order I found it, and that it was made to be experienced that way.

6. You could probably beat Her Story in a few minutes, if you knew what to look for. Once you get that message saying you could leave, there was no gameplay incentive for you to say. And I love that. I’m sick of narrative explorations being contextualized as cold, impersonal game systems. Instead, the developer created some systems and let you explore them. I wasn’t there because of some finely-tuned compulsion loop, I was there because I wanted to learn more. Strip away the cold, explicit systems and you can let the player just be there because they want to be. And damn, did I want to be there.

7. I started playing Her Story around 9:30, and I didn’t stop playing until 1:30. I *needed* to figure out what was going on, and just exploring, being there, was so freaking engaging. I wasn’t trying to get to the end or anything, the core gameplay was fascinating enough. Yeah, on the surface level, I’m just typing words into a search engine, but the fun of figuring out which words to type and the narrative context of investigating police records makes those relatively mundane actions so freaking cool. I didn’t even have time to geek out about the genius of the design, I was just so engrossed in the game’s plot that I didn’t want to think about anything else.

8. The uncertainty that follows every part of that game is brilliant, even more so because the developer didn’t build it right in like you could to a linear plot. Uncertainty is baked into every fragment of the story, because you experience them as fragments. I loved finding something that made me have to rethink everything I had thought of before, to mess up my timeline and start over. I was paranoid, as a good detective story should have me be.

7. Also, I had to take physical notes! I had a text file opened on my computer with a shaky chronology, notes of characters, lists of things to search for next, and a day-by-day breakdown of each interview complete with theories about the important details of each day. It helped me draw connections as I eventually pieced it together, and made me feel like an actual detective! Having the game spill out of the TV and onto my lap was a fascinating experience. It made it feel more personal.

8. So, my mom, dad, professors, and non-gaming friends could all probably play this game. It is accessible as hell, and requires no previous experience in games, but it still demands a *lot* from the player, easily more than your average AAA shooter/action game. You need to engage and think to get something out of it, but you don’t need to have years of experience moving characters in 3D environments. The challenge comes from plot-based problem solving, not skillful digital combat.

9. I still don’t have the answers for all of my questions about the game world, and I love that. There are still things that I am confused about, that don’t make sense, and I think that is perfect. I don’t want to know all the answers. Let’s keep some intrigue!

10. You know, the *feel* of this game reminds me a lot of some of the plays I saw back in high school, like Twelve Angry (Wo)Men, where the plot was always shifting as new details were uncovered. I think this is the first time I’ve *really* experienced that in a game before, getting to be one of those characters on stage. And, this is such a common genre outside of gaming! You would think that someone would have done this before! Someone probably has, somewhere in the FMV adventure games that I’ve never gotten around to playing. But I just love the idea that a tone of media that I loved so much in other mediums is finally being captured in games.

11. I *really* hope this game makes some waves. I want to see more titles like this, titles about digging through information, piecing stories together, and being a goddamned detective! Hey, indie community, can you make this your new DayZ or something?

12. Overall, Her Story just felt cohesive, like everything worked. After game after game after game of having to do boring stuff on my way to the interesting bits, it is so damn refreshing to have a game where I am doing exactly what I want, all the time. And what amazes me about it is that this wasn’t done in some tightly-scripted, cinematic-styled game, it was done in one of the most non-linear games I have ever played. Condensing the experience of a game into a brilliantly designed four hours is commendable in its own right, but the fact that a single developer managed to do this makes me even more excited to be alive and playing games during what is arguably one of the most interesting times in the medium’s history. Her Story makes me excited for the future, because it is a game I never would have imagined, but fell in love with anyways.

Smashing Plastic Guitars (And The Patriarchy): My Confusing Journey Into Guitar Hero and Emergent Narratives

Last month, I finally bought Guitar Hero III.  With a used guitar from Amazon and an old PC copy, I was able to load up and play a game that I had never actually owned, but nonetheless had held enormous sway over two years of my gaming life.  Rhythm gaming disappeared almost as quickly as it rose to prominence, so Guitar Hero III, for me, remains the untarnished pinnacle of that genre.

At first, I played it as a way of revisiting childhood experiences. I completed the career mode on medium without much difficulty in a few hours, enjoying the songs, style, and 300px-Judyhealthy nostalgia trip.  After completion, I almost immediately packed up the guitar and left it to lounge in my closet.  But two weeks ago, I picked it up again, this time playing on hard mode as Judy Nails, a punk rock girl who emanated goth culture and 90s grunge.  This didn’t change the gameplay in any way, only what avatar was displayed rocking out on screen.  Overall, it wasn’t that different from my first playthrough.

That was until the second stage of the game.  My band had just completed their first real gig, playing a set of songs in a run-down bar to a small but energetic crowd.  As we closed the last song, a 3D-rendering of Tom Morello, a guitarist from the angsty, rap-metal band, Rage Against The Machine, emerged to face off against my character in one of the game’s iconic guitar battles.  I knew and guiltily enjoyed the song, so I prepared myself to play.  However, before the battle began, something caught my eye.  The camera panned left to focus on a leather-clad woman, clearly a stripper, as she walked onto the stage in the beginnings of a T-rated, but clearly suggestive dance.  The crowd went wild, and the game took a slice of time out of my performance to focus on hers, which continued throughout the song.  I had played this game dozens of times at friends’ houses in the past, and once again a week before, but somehow I hadn’t given this section much thought.  Yet, for some reason, even though it had no direct impact on the game whatsoever, my position of playing as Judy Nails made this stand out to me.

I unconsciously began to wonder how she would have felt about this.  Seeing another woman that blatantly objectified must have been alienating, unsettling and disorienting.  This stripper, and the way the crowd and camera treated her, established women as an object.  Judy Nails’ role as the protagonist made her a subject.  The two were clearly in conflict.

But that wasn’t how I framed those thoughts.  This wasn’t a removed defense of Judy Nail’s emotions.  No, this bothered meI felt alienated.  I felt objectified.  And I was pissed off.  I was about to battle against an incredibly skilled guitarist, in a head-to-head that would launch my character’s career into greatness.  Yet the game chose to focus on a 322px-Judy_Nailsstripper, something that, yes, likely would have made the fictional Judy Nails uncomfortable, but, more confusingly, made me feel uncomfortable, in a way it hadn’t every other time I had played the game.  How could I fight my way to the top of rock ‘n’ roll, if this stripper was standing right in front of me, with others dancing in cages behind her, symbolizing a level of unapologetic objectification that held women back in the medium and in the world?  These weren’t the empathized feelings of Judy Nails, they were my feelings.

I didn’t have time to process this, nor the myriads of other problematic presentations of women I would soon notice in the game, because seconds later, a torrent of notes came flying down the game’s virtual fretboard.  Both the computer-controlled-Morello and I played wickedly difficult progressions, producing a chaotic ballad of record-scratches and distorted guitar riffs.  The song was difficult enough that it consumed all of my attention, leaving none to consider The Stripper and the implications of her presence.

But I was angry, not in a way that was clear and focused, but cloudy and saturating.  This let me reach a level of flow in play that balanced detachment and engagement, shaping my actions to a reflexive perfection I rarely experienced.  As the song barred forward, with us neck and neck in points, I slowly began to accumulate more of the game’s power-ups, special abilities that would mess up the opposing player, and I used them sparingly.

3616-active07guitarhero3-wii-00This wasn’t conscious strategy, but an automatic response.  Before, I had seen guitar battles more as a special stage to perform on, instead of a battle with a clear opponent.  But this time, I had an enemy.  It wasn’t Tom Morello, I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, it wasn’t Neversoft, the game’s developer, and it certainly wasn’t that stripper.  It was something I couldn’t clearly define, certainly not while playing a song on a difficulty level I had absolutely no reason to be playing on.  But I was angry at something.  I couldn’t define it, but I knew it when I saw it, and I knew that I needed to defeat it, not for someone else, but for me.

And I did.  As the digitized Morello began his ending solo, signaling the beginning of the “death drain”, which would lose me the battle, I thrust my guitar into the air, activating my carefully curated power-ups.  Digital Morello’s difficulty level was increased to expert, each note he had to play was doubled, all of which flashed on and off of the screen sporadically.  He failed the song in a matter of seconds.

I shouted an adrenaline-filled cry of victory.  I had defeated an honest-to-god bad guy.  I didn’t know what that was, or what it meant, but I knew I had done something.

The virtual crowd roared in approval at our performance, demanding an encore.  Rage Against The Machine’s iconic Bulls On Parade was loaded up, and, before I could reflect on the experience, I was thrust right in.  Despite feeling the thrill of an undefined victory, I still felt a simmering anger that permeates many of Rage’s songs.  Bulls on Parade is very much a song about fighting the system, and now, I had a system to fight.

For the rest of that playthrough, I wasn’t just embodying someone who loved music with a passion, I embodying someone locked in a battle against a culture.  I started to notice characters with the same character model as The Stripper in nearly every other stage, many of them in cages.  I started to notice how there were maybe three songs in the game guitarhero3slash1124with a female singer.  I started to notice how my character didn’t appear in the pre-rendered cutscenes.  I started to notice how, aside from the rarely-used female singer, and a briefly-shown TV reporter, there was not another woman in the game. But I still loved the music, and I loved the feel of playing the game.  I couldn’t just quit, I had an undefined enemy to defeat!  I had to prove, to something equally undefined, that I could love rock but not be the kind of rock that made a camera linger on a T-rated rendition of a stripper.  I had a system not just to defeat, but to change.

And I did!  Sort of!  I played through the rest of the game on hard.  I earned money and glory.  I bought the coolest guitars and the most expensive punk-rock outfits.  I unlocked The God of Rock, Slash, and the Grim Reaper from the character selector.  I beat every song with four or more stars.  In a conclusion that would have made Jack Black proud, I won a guitar battle with the devil for my soul to a rock rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.  I became a “rock legend”, as the ending victory screen proclaimed me.  I played Dragonforce’s infamously difficult Through The Fire and the Flames atop an enormous hell-tower to hordes of cheering demons and devils.  I had done it.

But I had already done that a week ago.  Sure, it was on medium difficulty, but hard mode didn’t fundamentally change the experience.  Yet, somehow, it felt so much more invigorating the second time through.  I hadn’t just defeated the devil, the odds, and the hordes of other rock artists on my way to the top, I had defeated…something.  Sexism?  The patriarchy?  Strippers?  I wasn’t quite sure.  But I had done it.  I was a champion of rock, a legend, and I was a woman.  I got to play that solo on the top of that tower.  But I did not change the world.  I did not change the game.  I did not do anything combat the industry’s persistent, disturbing, and childish approach to representing half of the goddamn planet.  I didn’t do anything but change a few variables on my PC.  But that experience had enormous meaning to me nonetheless.  I may not have defeated even a sliver of the real patriarchy, but my defeat of an imagined one helped me learn from an otherwise mundane experience.

This story was not written into Guitar Hero III.  In fact, my narrative is mostly at odds with the game’s constructed one.  But this only made the experience all the more powerful.  I felt a beautiful parallel between my journey and Judy Nails’, with me in conflict with, yet in love with the game I was playing, and her in conflict with yet in love with rock music and its culture.  I embodied that contradiction, acted on its inconsistencies, and could feel the medium respond to my created story. I could assign meaning to the actions I performed and emotion to the songs that I played.  I could treat the game’s sexism as a problem with an imagined world that I needed to fix, instead of a prejudiced choice in a piece of static media, because Guitar Hero is not a piece of static media, it is a game.  I can take that game, which I adored unquestioningly when I was younger, and find meaning in 9it, because it isn’t the same game I played when I was 13; the game has changed because I have changed. Through this, I experienced a story I never could have in reality, because, yes, the game depicts a world created by developers that portrays women in a way that is simply wrong, but I am a part of that world.  I can change it.

Despite gaming’s relative youth as a medium, this isn’t some wholly unique experience.  In fact, we have a term form it.  It’s called emergent narrative, and it shows up in games like The Sims, Dwarf Fortress and Far Cry 2, where the authored narrative is overshadowed by stories the player creates using the systems of the games.  My experience with Guitar Hero doesn’t fit cleanly into this definition, but my role as agent in the story does allow me access to a bit of its advantages.  I was able to create a story, one that emerged entirely through my interaction with the game’s systems, that was much more personally compelling than the one the developers told.  In the authored story of Guitar Hero, the game told me that I was a rock legend.  In 529710-235_5_lmy story, I felt like a goddamn rock goddess, armed with a plastic guitar in one hand and a confused desire to smash the patriarchy in the other.  My real-world gender didn’t make that experience disempowering or emasculating; I had an evil to defeat and an injustice to fight, who cared if I was only a woman in the game world?  I’m going to remember that story for far longer than I will remember a couple of animated cutscenes.  I have learned from it, and it has changed my outlook on the real world.  Because, despite my story’s completely imagined nature, it made me feel like a hero; guitar and otherwise.

No Man Is An Island – Overcoming Player-Centric Worldviews Through Telltale’s The Walking Dead

Spoiler Content: Major, game-ruining spoilers for Telltale’s The Walking Dead.  I don’t discuss it in as much detail as my Spec Ops or Bioshock papers, but I do spoil one pretty major thing.

Survival is a theme that many modern games have loved to explore. The player is given a clear losestate: don’t die. The player is given clear primary objectives: get food, water, and medical dayz-ont-he-horizon-wallpapersupplies. The player is given clear secondary objectives: getting warmer clothes, and, more specifically, a gun, will help you get the food and water you need. The player is also given clear means of accomplishing these goals: scavenge for what you can, and kill anyone who stands in your way. Survival plays into the systemizing of games perfectly, as though the genre was made for the medium, and survival games line the halls of gaming’s greatest achievements. Day Z and The Last of Us, two very successful games from last year, both explored these mechanics in depth. Fallout, an isometric, post-nuclear roleplaying game from 1997, became a such a cult classic that it was later rebooted by Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda to resounding critical success. Survival is a genre that games do well, and have explored many of the important themes of. However, one game stands out as providing a subversive taken on the survival genre, and while The Last of Us may be a close second, it is Telltale’s critically lauded Walking Dead franchise, based on the enormously popular comic books and TV show, that, that most effectively explores the negative impact of survival-centric thinking. The Walking Dead tries to highlight how dehumanizing the systemization in survival games really is. They not only encourage but explicitly reward degradation of humanity, giving the player absolutely no ludic reason not to, and, in fact, many reasons to, kill anyone who so much as looks at them funny. Survival games create a world that is a puzzle for the player to solve, emphasizing player-centrality above all else, and treating other people as disposable obstacles. The suffering of other characters does not affect the player, in fact, the suffering of others benefits the player. In these games, the player is usually alone, combat-experienced, and healthy, with no attachments or obligations that a normal person might have, and can move freely throughout the world with complete control. The world is theirs for the taking.

The Walking Dead attempts to subvert the nihilism that accompanies the systemization of humanity by placing the player in the shoes of Lee Everett, a history professor under arrest for murdering his cheating wife, just as the zombie apocalypse breaks out. Throughout the game, he escorts an eight-year-old girl, Clementine, across the American South. Clementine is not his daughter, she just ran into him as the apocalypse began, but the player is encouraged to view TWDher as a daughter figure. Through the injection of the player into a paternal role, The Walking Dead changes worldview that accompanies many survival games, shifting the focus from raw survival to the safety and personal development of a young girl. While the game explores many themes, this them, I believe, is most central to its presentation of a post-civilization humanity. The game focuses on this point the greatest in a passing comment by one character, a reference to the famous John Donne poem, No Man is an Island. While the character only quotes a brief segment of it, the well-known one from Hemingway, I believe the poem is worth repeating in its entirety.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In the context of an apocalypse, this poem rips apart every shred of the survival mentality created and conditioned by many games in the genre. It presents the seemingly noble desire to survive as destructive not just to the world but to the self, as a loss for one is a loss for all. If survival means harming others, than the survivor does not survive, they are just as scarred as those they have killed. Through emphasizing the interconnectedness of humanity by using this quote, The Walking Dead paints a world not of a single, great tragedy, but of a million individual tragedies, each one chilling away at the fabric of humanity, and, in turn, every human being who is a part of it. Yet, through the placement of Clementine, Telltale proposes an alternative view of the apocalypse, one that doesn’t come with the pitfalls of the self-centric one. Clementine’s presence in The Walking Dead challenges the systemization and devaluation of humanity by providing the player with a meaningless choice to treat every human being as a part of a greater whole, and through their role as a parent, redeem themselves for the actions they must take to survive.

The Walking Dead, while a game about choice, does not have a great deal of player choice. The player’s decisions, for the most part, will not alter the narrative significantly, and are usually only reflected in a single line or two. Lee will start in the apocalypse and he will die in the apocalypse. Nothing the player does can change that. This is primarily due to budget constraints, and is a common practice within the industry. Interactive storytelling veteran David Cage, famous for games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, once referred to this process as “bending stories,” or working in light of budget constraints to create choices that seem to have an impact, but do not significantly shift the game narrative. In the industry, this is called the illusion of choice, and The Walking Dead embraces this philosophy wholeheartedly, tailoring the themes of their world to this technical constraint. The inevitability of death in an apocalyptic world is a core theme, and the player is provided with the choice not of if to die, but how to die. While the expanded universe of The Walking Dead isn’t clear on the exact outcome, it is fairly clear that humans will die off, and that their civilization will not rise again. With this inevitability, and the real impact of player decisions denied, what good can the actions of one man do? Any choice the player makes will be meaningless. Standard survival The-Walking-Dead-1games would ludically tell the player to survive as long as possible, to view people as a means to an end, however, The Walking Dead gives the player a choice, however meaningless, to do otherwise. Lee’s decision to protect Clementine, to save a child, is a redemptive one, one that has no impact on his own survival, but does help him redeem, however little, for the murder of his wife. He bears the guilt for ending one life, and so he tries his hardest to save another. As games author Adrian Froschauer puts it, “The decisions you make in The Walking Dead don’t change what happens, they change how it happens” (Froschauer). Every sequence will begin and end the same way, but how they progress is what Lee, and by extension, the player, can change. The game carries its larger themes into its minute-to-minute gameplay. In this, the player is given a genuine choice of their worldview. For example, PopMatters contributor Nick Dinicola, in his article “I Am Clementine” describes his take on Clementine as a guarded, distant and practical girl who has seen every one of her friends die. Clementine does not seek companionship or trifle with niceties because she has seen how futile those attitudes are. In short, Dinicola’s Clementine had given up on people. Yet, my Clementine, as distinct from Dinicola, had a different approach. She saw Lee’s actions towards others, actions that I decided as the player, and realize that the only thing she had left in that world was other people, was the friends she was close too. Clementine had experience great loss, but she understood that that loss is the nature of the beast. “The world is a dark and scary place,” says Froschauer, “but we have to rely on each other, and even though we don’t have much influence on what happens around us, we can still make the best of it.” These are the words that my Lee and my Clementine lived by, and how they chose to experience the world.

When Clementine enters the world, and Lee chooses to accept her, the winstate of the game changes. Before, it seemed clear: stay alive, however now, pinning down the exact goal is difficult. Like real world people, Lee isn’t driven by a single desire, in this case to survive, but instead by a complex amalgamation of survival and his paternal duties to Clementine. Yes, he has to keep her alive, but he also wants to raise her to be a good person, to help her have some good experiences of human connection. Finding that balance between survival and humanity is difficult, but it is what Lee must do as a complex character with conflicting obligations. Late in the game, a character, Chuck, tells Clementine that she is going to die very soon, and that people can’t live in this world, and I flew into a fit of rage, directing Lee to yell at him for daring to try to make Clementine think that way. In all likelihood, Chuck was right, and Clementine would die sometime soon, but the idea of clementinetarnishing the one innocent thing in a world where everything has gone to hell enraged me to no end. From an objective, survivalist standpoint, yes, it was probably important for Clementine to accept that she might die. However the game was no longer about pure survival for me, it was about keeping Clementine alive. Through her simple existence, Clementine had change my and Lee’s worldview. Her role as a child further adds to this, and is unique in video games for being surprisingly realistic. Children in games are usually a burden or annoyance, invoking feelings of ire instead of the paternal feelings that so many experience. If Clementine was this kind of child, she couldn’t have had the emotional impact on both Lee and the player that she did. The game subverts all of this, starting with the player’s introduction to Clementine: she helps Lee first instead of him helping her. In a genre which, like many gaming genres, places player empowerment at the core, Clementine’s role as an agent slightly disempowers Lee, and continues to do so as Lee sacrifices for her. In the game’s conclusion, Lee chooses to die so that Clementine can live, in an ultimate rejection of empowerment and survival, denying everything that the genre has built up. The scene is heart-wrenchingly emotionally resonant, bring many players, myself included, to tears because of the paternal feelings it evoked. This is because Clementine is not a burden, she is not an escort quest, I don’t need to be distracted from what I care about to help keep her alive, she is what I care about, she is an adult with way less experience than me, not a bumbling child. The game carries this theme into other children in the world, including Duck, a seemingly annoying kid who, after a few plot-centric quests with Lee, becomes more a sort of side kick, and rewarding the player with a message “Duck things you’re incredibly awesome” if the player chooses to give him a high five at the quest completion. Children are not worthless in this world, they are precious, and not just as one-dimensional symbols of innocence in a fallen world, but as real people who haven’t had the optimism beat out of them. Clementine embodies this, and Lee, and the player, are driven to protect it.

Protecting Clementine goes far beyond just physical protection, and even explicit interactions. The player must make all of their choices about not just in the context of their own survival, but of what Clementine will learn from those choices. In the second episode, I was given the option to kill a man who had killed and eaten one of my friends, a man who certainly deserved to die, and were I alone, I probably would have done it. However, Clementine was there. She was watching. Knowing that, I couldn’t kill this man, even if he deserved it, even if it was the better choice for my survival, because that would teach Clementine that this is a world where humanity is not valuable. Despite the myriads of reasons to do it, my desire to raise Clementine right prevented me from doing it. Despite everything in the world encouraging me to abandon my humanity, to embrace what Lee had started even before the apocalypse with the murder of his wife, Clementine made me want to seek the good in humanity for her. And, in the end, Lee dies for this. In the ultimate unification of all of the game’s themes, the game lets Lee choose how to die. His last words, he can inform Clementine’s worldview, telling her either to survive or to be human. The game flashes its iconic, “Clementine Will Remember That” text on screen after the player makes their final choice, but, from a gameplay perspective, she won’t. That choice, made in the last few minutes of gameplay, will have literally no impact on the last stages of the game, but, to me, that is the most important moment of the game. What I chose to say to Clementine in Lee’s final moments were overwhelmingly powerful to me, I would even go so far to say they are a part of my identity. That choice had nothing to do with anyone’s objective survival, but it meant more to me than anything else in the game. That is the power of the way The Walking Dead treats the world.

In Cormac McCarthy’s iconic post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, the unnamed boy keeps repeating the phrase, “Carry the Fire.” When he meets a new group of people after his fathers death in what becomes the book’s final scene, he doesn’t ask them their names, if they have food or if they will take him it, he asks them, “Do you carry the fire?” The Walking Dead, in all its nuanced explorations of the apocalypse, is asking this question. When the player meets Clementine, it asks if she carries the fire. When the player meets Kenny, Carley, Ben or Chuck, it asks the same question, “Do they carry the fire?” And finally, through every single theroadchoice the player makes, even and especially the seemingly insignificant ones, it asks them, “Do you carry the fire?” The authenticity of The Walking Dead’s characters and the impact of its questions hinge on its ability to get the player to ask these questions. In The Road, carrying the fire was directly related to how the boy and his father treated others, in if they viewed survival as more important that the lives of others. Behind carrying the fire, there is the philosophy of for whom the bell tolls. The Boy carries the fire because he understands that other people are not just human beings deserving of dignity, but connected to him. He cannot hurt one for his own gain, because the suffering of another is his suffering. In short, the bell would toll for him. Through Clementine’s existence, Lee begins to understand this as well, and her presence forces him to change everything he thought he knew about violence and survival. The game brilliantly connects the player’s arc with Lee’s arc, forming their narrative so that both ask the question, “Do you carry the fire” at the same time. By linking these two arcs together, Telltale allows the player to explore these ideas with even greater depth, something that could not be done in a non-interactive medium. The questions it raises, the questions it answers and the ones it doesn’t answer, all pull from every aspect of its nature as a game, and through doing so, creates a masterpiece that will be discussed and debated for years to come.

Since The Walking Dead’s release and subsequent critical and financial success, many in the self-proclaimed “hardcore gamer” audience have laid a criticism against it that it is not, in fact, a game. Challenge is not a core engagement of The Walking Dead, the story progresses regardless of which decision the player makes, with only a few losestates scattered here and there. However, despite the apparent lack of “gamey-ness”, I believe The Walking Dead represents an enormous possibly future for the games industry as a whole. Games originally focused on pure mechanical engagement, make the ball bounce back, collect all the white dots, shoot down all the space ships. Today, however, some games are shifting that emphasis, away from pure mechanical engagement and towards another strength of games: agency. The player is actually present in the game narrative, making decisions that determine the way the game plays out. The Walking Dead emphasizes agency as a central theme of its structure, and while it has mechanical engagements, that is not what keeps the players coming back. I played The Walking Dead so I could be a part of a narrative I cared about, so I could explore the themes of humanity and degradation, of dehumanization and systemization, through a medium that lends itself towards doing so. This, I believe, is the core of what future games can do, and through games like The Walking Dead, I believe we can catch a glimpse of the future, and hopefully, start to discuss what we want that future to be.

Works Cited

Froschauer, Adrian. “Clementine Will Remember All of That.” The Ontological Geek. N.p., 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <http://ontologicalgeek.com/clementine-will-remember-all-of-that/>.

Dinicola, Nick. “I Am Clementine.” PopMatters. N.p., 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <http://www.popmatters.com/post/178309-i-am-clementine/>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.” YouTube. N.p., 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emeCepFW9v0>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Raising the Dead.” YouTube. N.p., 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qizgjT4UXa4>.

Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Minority.” YouTube. N.p., 2 May 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suf0Jdt2Hpo>.

Out From Behind the Glass – The Evolution of the Bioshock Franchise and Interactive Storytelling

My Booker DeWitt was a hero to the cause! A story to tell your children! You—you just complicate the narrative!”

-Daisy Fitzroy, Bioshock Infinite

Spoiler Content: Complete, comprehensive, game-ruining spoilers.  Please do not read this unless you have played the game or plan never to play the game.  Bioshock Infinite is a game that thrives on the player slowly figuring out the nuances of the plot, do not rob yourself of one of the greatest pleasures the medium has to offer.

Introduction

Entrance_TowerIrrational Games’ Bioshock (2007) is tied for the top rated first person shooter of all time, tackling topics as diverse as Ryndian Objectivism and the nature of choice in games. It was a smash hit in both sales and reviews, and is widely regarded as one of the most successful games of all time that still tackles tough philosophical issues. After a lackluster sequel that was given to another developer, anticipation for a true sequel was at an all-time high. So, to say that Bioshock Infinite, Irrational Games’ return to the franchise, had high expectations, would be a drastic understatement. Bioshock had its strengths, to be sure. It told a story through a beautiful environment of the underwater city of Rapture, with very few human characters actually appearing before the player. The player fights endless hoards of deranged, mutated humans, but they serve more as gameplay objectives than actual people. The player only comes face-to-face with a single character in the entire game. The rest of the time, however, the player see human characters on the other side of a glass wall, just out of reach. This soon became a hallmark of the franchise, with even the abysmal sequel trying to continue the trend.  This is primarily because, in 2007, the team at Irrational Games didn’t have the resources they needed to create humans in as lifelike and believable a way as they wanted. The technology simply wasn’t there. However, by the time Infinite was created, they did. So, instead of telling a story purely through the environment, the team began to use human characters. The primary example of this is Elizabeth, who is painstakingly animated with amazing detail. She is widely regarded as the most realistic rendering of a human being in a video game, not in terms of art style, but animations, actions, and interactions with the environment. Through characters like Elizabeth, the game could truly tell a human story, and explore human ideas. The two ideas it chose to focus on were self-mythologizing and choice, not a binary, good-evil moral choice, but the choices we make as a people and as a person, that define us on a daily basis. The regular, seemingly inconsequential choices. In this paper, I will trace these themes through four characters: Daisy Fitzroy, Zachary Comstock, Booker DeWitt and finally, the player themselves. This is the story that Bioshock couldn’t have told.

Plot Summary

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Set in 1912, Infinite follows ex-Pinkerton Booker DeWitt in his journey to rescue Elizabeth, heir of the flying city of Columbia. They are constantly perused by the city’s prophet-leader, Zachary Comstock, and his giant, mechanical Songbird. Elizabeth has the ability to move between universes, which the two use for the Vox Populi, a minority-lead revolutionary group, in exchange for passage out of the city. However, they enter a world where Booker has died as a martyr for the revolution, and the revolution’s leader, Daisy Fitzroy, views him as a threat to the story she constructed. She is killed by Elizabeth in her attempts to kill the pair, but before they can escape, Elizabeth is captured by Songbird, and Booker is pulled into the future by an older Elizabeth. She gives Booker the information he needs to rescue Elizabeth: a song that will control Songbird. Armed with this knowledge, Booker returns to rescue Elizabeth, and the two kill Comstock and destroy the siphon, a device blocking Elizabeth’s powers from reaching their full potential. This gives Elizabeth unfathomable power, through which she learns that Booker and Comstock are actually the same person but from different universes. Comstock is a version of Booker that chose to be baptized and cleansed of his past sins, and took up a new name to signify this. He built Columbia, and kidnapped Booker’s daughter, Anna, because he could not have an heir of his own. He renamed Anna to Elizabeth. However, part of Elizabeth’s finger was cut off during the jump between universes, and because she existed in two universes, gave her her abilities. Elizabeth explains that Comstock exists in an infinite number of universes, and the only way to destroy him is to kill Booker before he could make the choice that created Comstock. Booker accepts his fate, and allows Elizabeth to drown him.

Daisy Fitzroy

Infinite’s ending is perhaps its most powerful aspect, dumping a great deal of plot twists on the player in the span of a few minutes, but the daring nature of the ending often leads players to ignore one of the more controversial characters in the game, Daisy Fitzroy. Fitzroy is a black freedom fighter by the time Booker and Elizabeth meet her, but she was originally Lady Comstock’s housemaid. Recordings scattered throughout the game world reveal that Fitzroy was, at first, content with her situation, and felt at home in “their world.” However, in a situation completely outside of her control, she was framed by Comstock for Lady Comstock’s murder. So Fitzroy was forced out of a world that she felt at home in despite having no control over, and into one where she had a choice, however limited. Infinite seems to espouse the idea that everyone only has two choices: the choice to begin and 

Daisy_Fitzroy_Banner

the choice to end, and Daisy makes her choice to begin rather than die, and starts her revolution, the Vox Populi. However, she soon falls into the same path of self-mythologizing that Comstock is so brilliant in executing. Momentum is a key theme in Fitzroy’s story, and soon the Vox turn from a desperate revolutionary group into a bloodthirsty rebellion. When Fitzroy’s revolution is in its infancy, Elizabeth optimistically exclaims, “There’s going to be a revolution, just like Les Miserables!” But the Vox are not the good-hearted freedom fighters of that story, they choose red as the color for their revolution, invoking the iconography of the blood that quickly becomes symbolic for the results of their actions. Fitzroy does not try to stop the momentum of the violence, and instead embraces it. In the end, it becomes about power for Fitzroy, not justice. A question arises as to if she ever was genuine, or if she was always out for revenge against Comstock and used her revolution to acquire the power to do so. As her revolution continues, she stops making it about equality and instead about dominance. As she does this, she starts crafting a narrative of past events to justify this new direction. When the new Booker appears in her world, contradicting her story of the Martyr Dewitt, she explicitly tells him, “Booker Dewitt was a hero, a story to tell your kids. You just complicate the narrative.” Booker never did anything to wrong Fitzroy, much like Fitzroy never did anything to harm Comstock, but Booker’s presence threatens the narrative Fitzroy wants to tell about her revolution, and as soon as that challenge she reacts as viciously as Comstock did towards her. “Damned impostors.” She says to her soldiers. “Burn their bodies when you’re done.” Fitzroy wants nothing to exist to challenge her myth, the one she built up about Booker and his heroism. It doesn’t matter to her if that is how it really was, and recovered audio logs form alternate-universe Booker suggest that he wasn’t even the hero she thought he was then. But Fitzroy’s myth is ended as suddenly as it began, as Elizabeth drives a large pair of scissors through her chest to stop her from killing a white child. She made the choice to begin her revolution, but that became her only true choice, after that, according to Elizabeth, the Vox always turn from nobel revolution into bloody rebellion in every parallel universe. Their bloodlust is a constant, the only variable is how they get there. There are many variables in Fitzroy’s revolution, ones that change across universes, and Fitzroy needs to construct her myth in order to create the clean, bedtime story she wants. However her story fails, and all that it results in is her death.

Zachary Comstock

Comstock made his choice to begin at his baptism after Wounded Knee, and from that point on he began crafting a story about himself of which no one could get in the way of. When he was baptized, he believes that Booker Dewitt died, and Zachary Comstock is a new man without any of Booker’s sins and with a new story, written by Comstock, not reality. He adopts patriotism and American Exceptionalism as the foundation of his myth, as America already has a great history of concocting myth for power and comfort. Columbia itself is modeled after The White City amusement park in early-1900s Chicago. The architecture is, in the words of game journalist Adam Sessler, “A fetishization of an American that never existed.” And this theme permeates every aspect of Columbia. When Booker first regains consciousness in Columbia, he is greeted by godlike statues of three of the founding fathers, Jefferson, Washington and Franklin. All three have been deified, and are worshiped not as men but as gods. As Booker wanders through a Columbian garden, he hears whispers of prayers to each of the founders, with Comstock_Statuetheir own deep religious iconography. Founder Worship is a theme that Comstock adopts wholeheartedly, and like America removed the flaws from its founders, so to did Comstock remove his own. He no longer was a simple soldier at Wounded Knee, instead he was commander of the 7th Cavalry. No longer was he the ruler of Columbia who ordered his men to quell the Boxer Rebellion, now he was leading the charge. No longer was he a sterile old man without an heir, now he was given a Miracle Child with unimaginable powers, destine to take the throne and rain fire on the “mountains of man.” When Lady Comstock would not support his myth, he killed her. When Elizabeth would not support his myth, he tortured and brainwashed her for decades. Every time something contradicted his myth, Comstock would torture, kill and lie his way to creating his true version of the story. He was not ex-Pinkerton, Booker DeWitt, he was The Prophet, Zachary Comstock. Comstock believed that he could completely abandon the sins of his past through baptism, and spent the rest of his life trying to bring this about. In an early audio log the player finds, the true meaning of which is not fully recognized until a second playthrough, Comstock says the following

One man goes into the waters of baptism. A different man comes out, born again. But who is that man who lies submerged? Perhaps the swimmer is both sinner and saint, until he is revealed unto the eyes of man” -Zachary Comstock

This log deliberately invokes the uncertainty of quantum mechanics, specifically the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment (which wouldn’t be the first time), but also highlights how Comstock never could completely abandon his past.  Booker’s appearance in Infinite is Comstock’s past coming back to haunt him. Comstock knew Booker would return, despite his best efforts to stop him, and created the myth of the False Shepherd, making his old self a demonic figure of pure evil. The irony of the situation is that Booker did lead Elizabeth away from Comstock’s plan, and did overthrow him, and even killed him. Comstock made the choice to begin, but Booker, another version of himself, made the choice to end him.

Booker DeWitt

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Booker is perhaps the only character in the game who has done things he isn’t proud of, but doesn’t try to pretend he hasn’t. Booker is a broken man, who has brutally murdered hundreds. Booker’s existence basically revolves around him hurting people, and the majority of the gameplay focuses on this as well. However, Booker does not try to deny this. This Booker did not accept the baptism after Wounded Knee, believing that a ritual could not redeem the things he has done. In fact, his distrust of redemption is one of the first things the player learns about Booker. When the player first enters the lighthouse at the beginning of the game, Booker scoffs at a bowl of water with the words “Of Thy Sins I Shall Wash Thee” printed above. Booker acknowledges and accepts the bad he has done, and doesn’t try to remove it. However, he did try once before, when he gave up Anna in exchange for the removal of his gambling debts. Instead of redeeming him, the decision racked Booker with guilt, destroying his life. Had the Comstock not tried to take Anna from him, Booker never would have been forced into Columbia where he ultimately does redeem himself, but not through the false methods that Comstock took. When Booker realizes who he is, that he is Comstock and that he sold Elizabeth to pay for his debts, he does not try to deny it, he accepts the responsibility for his actions and sacrifices his life to right his wrong. He does this without question, acknowledging his own brokenness and sins, and surrenders himself in an act of disempowerment that is utterly uncharacteristic of the first person shooter genre. Instead of making a choice to end his own life, he surrender’s that choice to Elizabeth. He doesn’t make the choice to begin or end. Throughout Infinite, Booker continually tries to take responsibility and make up for what he has done, not through erasing it but through his own action. However, this is not enough. According to Elizabeth, Booker will always fail when he tries to save Elizabeth on his own. He is trapped in a cycle of trying by failing. This idea is emphasized over and over through the song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The song appears numerous times throughout the game, first in a choral rendition when Booker enters Columbia, again and again when Elizabeth hums it to herself in the game and in flashbacks, in a touching moment where Booker plays guitar while Elizabeth sings the song, and once more over the end credits. The game practically beats the player over the head with the song, showing how trapped Booker is by his own guilt but internal goodness that keeps compelling him to help the people he has hurt. Booker doesn’t make any substantive choices in the game, and every choice he makes is predetermined and ineffectual. The only way Booker breaks the circle is by surrendering his own agency to Elizabeth, by giving her his life, challenging genre conventions, and ending his cycle of trying to choose.

The Player

Booker’s dilemma fits perfectly with the player’s role in the game, especially their lack of choice in the game world. Bioshock was famous for deconstructing player choice in video games by telling the player that they have never made a real choice in a game where every possible outcome was created by a developer. Infinite falls into the category of post-Bioshock games, or a game that acknowledges this lack of choice that the player has and tells a story that utilizes this concept. The first Bioshock was filled with choice in the level design, with sprawling levels with their own distinctive tone. Infinite, however, is fairly linear by comparison, with level design that has been poorly received. However, displaying their brilliance yet again, the developers at Irrational used this to their advantage. A consistent motif in the level design is too have two paths leading to the same place. This will irritate some gamers, who, being compulsive people by nature, will check both paths and realize that there is not difference between the two, but this emphasizes the core of the game’s approach to choice. The gameplay is much more tight and “cinematic” than its predecessor, and uses this to its advantage by furthering its metaphors into the mechanics. It uses the classic game advantage of increasing a player’s connection to an event by literally making them a part of it, which is allowed because of the tightness and focus of design they were allowed by their new direction. This is further increased by their decision to have Booker as a voiced character, instead of a mostly silent protagonist like Jack from Bioshock. Booker is wonderfully voiced by one of the best-known voice actors in the industry, Troy Baker, and as the player gets to walking the line between being and not being Booker, the decisions Booker makes can both bring the player closer and distance them farther when the designers want to. But Infinite’s greatest moment in using its role as a game is in the title itself: Infinite. Late in the game, Elizabeth reveals that there are an infinite amount of Bookers trying to save her, each one doing things slightly differently but all with the same beginning and ending. “There’s always man. Always a lighthouse. Always a city.” she tells him, encompassing both Bioshock Infinite as well as the original Bioshock with her description. This makes sense within the context of the narrative, but it also says a great deal about games as a whole. In the metaphor, those different Bookers are other people playing the game, or other playthroughs that a player may do, each with slight differences but all being carted along the same path. “We swim in different oceans but land on the same shore” she tells Booker, in another double line intended for both protagonist and player alike. The different oceans are the different playthroughs, and the same shore is the narrative that every player experiences, despite their differences. My favorite weapons were the shotgun and the volley gun, and I used the Charge and Undertow vigors every chance I got, but my roommate prefered the sniper rifle and machine gun, and applied the Possession vigor with tactical precision. We both played the game completely differently, swimming in different oceans with many hours of the core experience playing fundamentally differently, but we ended up on the same shore, that same ending where Booker is drowned by Elizabeth. The player isn’t simply watching Booker’s journey, she is experiencing the same thing through the mechanics as a metaphor, and Infinite is brilliant for precisely this reason: it only can work as a game. Booker and Elizabeth can only exist on the screen in front of the player with controller, mouse or keyboard in hand.

Conclusion

Debate still rages across the internet if Infinite was a greater game than its predecessor, and it seems as thought there will never be a consensus on the issue. However there is a clear difference between the two that cannot be denied: Infinite tells a human story, while Bioshock does not. This does not make one greater than the other, but human stories often carry more weight than ones that are less human. As Irrational brought its franchise out from behind the glass and into the realm of humanity, it opened up a whole range of powerful issues for games to explore, and it only focused on some of them. Elizabeth is, almost undoubtedly the most realistically acting character in a video game, and all of this was because Irrational took the risk to create something that hadn’t really been created before, and I believe that the medium is better for it. Through the new technology the game implemented, it was able to explore themes far beyond the scope of the medium thus far. Now that Irrational Games has closed down, it is unlikely we will ever see another Bioshock title from the minds behind the original.  However the core team made the decision to leave the manpower and financial resources of the AAA giant that was Irrational and now is running a small, sixteen-man studio to focus even more on narrative and human elements.  Technology has evolved to the point where they believe this is possible.  In the years to come, and if their history is anything to go by, it will take years, we might see what they want to humanize next.

BioShock-Infinite

Sources

“Bioshock Infinite: Ken Levine Discusses Columbia, Elizabeth, and Religion – Part 1.”YouTube. YouTube, 13 Dec. 2012. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNrBxNqaA4E>.

“BioShock Infinite REVIEW! Adam Sessler Reviews.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jchIi-vR_js>.

“From Shock to Awe: System Shock, Bioshock, and Infinite.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 May 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7DVOw1lIcM>.

Hamilton, Kirk. “BioShock Infinite Is Insanely, Ridiculously Violent. It’s A Real Shame..” Kotaku. N.p., 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://kotaku.com/bioshock-infinite-is-insanely-ridiculously-violent-it-470524003>.