Tag Archives: video games

Hacknet and Games as Software

Video games are pieces of software. They are executables that you run on your computer, just like Google Chrome or Spotify or LibreOffice. For such an obvious fact of the medium, not many games do much with this idea. I previously cited Uplink as a game that did acknowledge this idea by treating the game as a program the player runs to connect to a fantasy hacking world. I briefly mentioned in that piece that Hacknet, a game inspired by Uplink, didn’t try to evoke this aesthetic, but after recently playing their excellent Labyrinths DLC, I was happily proven wrong. When I launched the game after installing the DLC, I found it interesting that, instead of opening the game’s executable directly, it opened a Windows command prompt, which then ran the game’s executable. This seemed like a trivial chain of events that I initially wrote off as bad design, but later, I discovered why it was implemented: to force the player to think of the game itself as a piece of software in order to further the hacker fantasy the game was trying to create. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time I have seen a game directly force this acknowledgment, and how it builds up to this event and executes on it is nothing short of masterful.

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Hacknet, like Uplink, styles itself after real-world hacking just enough to give a tech-savvy player a loose sense of verisimilitude. At the game’s lowest level, the player is typing text instructions into a UNIX command line. If the player is familiar with these commands, such as cd, ls, rm, scp, they will enter the game with a wealth of knowledge for navigating its systems already at their disposal. Tricks I learned from using the terminal on my Mac, such as hitting tab to autocomplete a word I was typing, transferred over to the game with a surprisingly consistency. Uplink used a similar trick, but offered additional UI elements that had to be operated outside the command line. Hacknet offers similar, time-saving UI elements, but each one is a shortcut for text commands the player could type out if they wanted. This results in the UI feeling less like, well, a game, and more like an actual UNIX terminal that the player is using. Now, this won’t mean much to someone who doesn’t already know some of the jargon the game is throwing at the player, and a lot of my respect for this game comes from frustration with how poorly films and games usually represent hacking. However, I think it still holds value, even to non-technical players, because it teaches them, at least slightly, real-world computer skills, and doesn’t break the player’s immersion the more they learn about the subject. Additionally, the genuine effort put into making the game feel accurate adds a great deal to its ability to blur the lines between the game and reality, allowing the player to slip into believing its fiction more easily. The base game uses these elements to great effect as the player joins various hacker groups, completes contracts, and improves their hacking arsenal. The player builds up a skillset over the course of the game, and that skillset is put to the test during a beautifully-executed moment where a rival hacker breaks into the player’s system and nearly destroys it, removing all of their acquired graphical aids. The player is forced to revert to only typing text commands to recover their system and take revenge on this rival hacker. This sequence relies entirely on the player’s skill at command line, creating a high-tension moment that similar to the common action game trope of taking away all of the player’s weapons before a climactic encounter (ex. Half-Life 2, Dragon Age: Origins). This is easily the game’s most effective moment, and, like the safe rooms in Resident Evil, serve as a culmination point for all of the game’s systemic and thematic elements. If the rest of Hacknet wasn’t set up to support it, this moment wouldn’t work, but the game’s systems naturally lead to this exact cocktail of emotions.

So, when I picked up Hacknet’s latest DLC, I wasn’t expecting them to be able to top this sequence. It was everything Hacknet was trying to be, how could that be improved upon? The answer the dev team settled on was to take an existing thematic element, namely, the blurry line between reality and the game, and forcefully acknowledge the game’s role as software on the player’s computer. Mid-way through the DLC, the player is hacked by another anonymous hacker, who, again, wipes out the player’s system, forcing a reboot. However, this hacker is more experienced than the one from the main game, and installs a virus that prevents the player’s system from rebooting. So, a friend from the player’s hacking group sends them text instructions on how to remove the virus, which seem fairly straight forward…until the game crashes. Hacknet.exe quits, leaving the player with an actual Windows command prompt, cmd.exe, opened to the folder where the Hacknet game is installed. Everything I have described up until this point was happening fictionally, within Hacknet.exe, but for the next few minutes, the player isn’t engaged with Hacknet.exe at all. These events happen entirely on the player’s operating system, using the same applications they would use outside of the game. Using cmd.exe, and the commands they learned in the game, the player opens the text file sent to them by a fictional character in Hacknet. This opened in Sublime Text, my default text editor, appearing as a text file sent from a real-world friend might. It tells the player to search 2773556-hacknet_screenshot6.pngfor a .dll file hidden inside the Hacknet directory and run a few commands on it. Until they do this, Hacknet.exe will not start; it will only re-open that command prompt. The player has to engage with the game as a piece of software with .txt, .dll and .exe files, and until they can do that, they cannot continue the game. This raises a myriad of metatextual questions about if the player is technically still “playing” Hacknet, as they are carrying out instructions that the game is giving to them, but the game itself is not running. But these feelings are taken even further by how the game contextualizes this hack.

My understanding of real-world hacking is severely limited, but from what I have read, the majority of them don’t do their hacking directly from their local machine. Instead, they run a virtual machine of an OS dedicated specifically to hacking, so that all their illicit activities are separated from their physical computer. The developers of Hacknet seemed aware of this, and explain Hacknet.exe as a hacking dedicated VM, so that the player can imagine themselves running it like a real hacker would. Thus, when the rival hacker attacks their system, the player poking around in their actual OS doesn’t feel like a dissonant removal from the game’s fiction, it feels like someone broke their hacking VM and they need to fix it. With all of the attention the game is drawing to this recontextualization, it should break the player’s immersion by forcing them to examine the game-software distinction that is so often unexamined. But because of the efforts to contextualize each action in the mechanics of real-world hacking, the game’s illusion is maintained. I’m hesitant to bring up the “games can do this but other media can’t!” argument, since it usually doesn’t provide any interesting conclusions, but in this case, the game forces the player to understand it as a piece of software before they continue. Other media cannot make sure its audience understands a thematic point before proceeding, but games can require it. Hacknet does this by expanding the boundaries of its fictional world, and in doing so, bumps into a concept that is decades older than the medium of video games itself.

The concept, called the magic circle, was coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in his book, Homo Ludens. He described the circle as the dividing line between the world of the game and the world of reality. Inside it, concepts like points, teams, winning and losing are all given a value that, outside of the game, is entirely worthless. Points don’t actually mean anything in the real world, but inside the magic circle, they become the keys to magiccircle01.jpgvictory. Good game designers are consistently using each element of their game to reinforce the magic circle, to avoid breaking the player’s belief in it, the same way writers and filmmakers try to avoid breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief in other media. In Hacknet, I have no earthly idea where the magic circle ends and the real world begins, but I somehow still fully believe in it. Acknowledging that games are pieces of software should completely shatter the magic circle, and I can think of dozens of games where this happened due to graphical glitches, game crashes, or mis-firing quest triggers. Hacknet, by positioning itself so close to reality, preserves its magic circle, while simultaneously calling attention to it. I don’t know if the possibility space of acknowledging games as software is vast, yet unexplored, or small, and Hacknet is using one of its limited applications. Regardless, it is something unique that the medium is capable of, and I’ve found exploring it to be fascinating as both a player and critic.

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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The Fantasy Simulation: How Skyrim’s Open World Creates Moments of Discovery

A while back, I realized that Ubisoft had pretty much killed open world games for me.  Their open world model, pioneered by the Assassin’s Creed series and then copied to death by the majority of AAA open world games released in the years since, was initially appealing, but after playing dozens of games that used its template, its limitations became clear.  Open world games were designed to liberate players from the aggressively linear corridor shooters of the mid-to-late 2000s.  However, with the model that Grand Theft Auto 3 pioneered, and Ubisoft iterated on, it seems that designers traded one form of confinement for another.  Traditionally linear games, such as Half-Life (1998), used a “content muncher” approach to design, that put the player on a narrow path from point A to point B.  Good ones would give the player more options on their way there, as Half-Life itself did, but still stuck to a fixed order of content.  This had its advantages, such as a tight control over pacing and variety, and it by no means was the only philosophy of game design alive at the time, but for a solid few years, it was the default model of AAA games.  Ubisoft seems to have done to open worlds what Call of Duty’s single-player campaigns did to Half-Life: distil its foundations so greatly that much of the nuance that made it great in the first place was lost in the process.  With Ubisoft, that distilled product took the form of checklists, giving the player a list of goals to accomplish, with every possible activity documented from the moment they begin a new game.  This places every decision the player makes in the context of how much of those checklists they want to complete, and in what order they want to do so.  The player is technically given freedom, they are not doing things in the order the developer wants them to, but the feeling of artificiality that comes from reducing the entirety of a digital space to a simple completion percentage can all but ruin W5ZsBDf.pngany sense of freedom the player would have had.  They are not exploring an organic world, they are picking which way they want to increase the completion percentage.  That has lead to a fatigue with open world games, where, despite examples that I’ve found personally compelling for a time (such as Dying Light or Ubisoft’s own Far Cry 3), they eventually reduce to that completion percentage.  Even the newest Grand Theft Auto, with all the artistry and skill put into its world construction, eventually reduced to instanced, scripted missions executed with the same aggressive linearity that its predecessors were created to avoid.  Open worlds promised a digital landscape in which the designer did not always feel present, where the player could have experiences not explicitly designed, delivered, and focus tested by the game’s creators, but Ubisoft and its contemporaries seem to create worlds where the designer feels just as present, only giving the player more tasks to complete and evaluating them as they complete them.

But then there’s Skyrim.  Of course, Skyrim isn’t alone in its design philosophies.  It’s the product of fifteen years of iteration by a single studio, arguably brought to perfection by Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas.  But despite believing that New Vegas is the better game, I have spent more time in Skyrim than any other open world game except perhaps World of WarCraft.  And I’ll be the first to admit that Skyrim is not without its flaws: the writing is frequently terrible, the dialogue is delivered with barely any direction by the same six voice actors, the combat is shallow enough to be mindless, and far too many quests can be summed up with “kill everything in this dungeon and grab the McGuffin at the end”.  But despite these qualities, Skyrim is, without a doubt, my favorite open world in the medium, and I believe that it works so well because it rejects the design philosophies of the Ubisoft open world so thoroughly.  It doesn’t create a reactive fantasy world, in fact its narrative and characters barely respond to player input on a larger scale the way New Vegas does.  Instead, its use of the open world itself, engaged with mechanically, and creates a play aesthetic that better captures the feelings of exploration and discovery than any other game I have played.  The later Assassin’s Creed titles direct you towards every piece of treasure on the map and tell you exactly how to solve its various, instanced activities, but in Skyrim, the designer feels absent.  The player directs their experience through the world independent of abstract game concerns like completion percentage, instead indulging their curiosity as they poke and prod at one of the most effective and (here comes the buzzword) immersive fantasy simulations in the entire medium.

At its highest level, Skyrim, at first, does not seem very different from a Ubisoft game.  The player will begin their session in one of the game’s major cities, open their quest log, look at their huge list of objectives, and figure out which to do next.  This seems fairly similar to a Ubisoft title, where the player does much the same thing: check list, pick objective, go to objective, complete objective, repeat.  However, in addition to breaking the end of the loop later on, Skyrim also breaks the beginning.  This might seem like a minor Quests_(Skyrim)_Interface.pngdifference, but these quest objectives are not given to player from the beginning, they must be discovered by talking to NPCs or triggering scripted events.  In, say, Far Cry 4, the player has barely left the tutorial when the game is slathering notifications all over their screen ordering them to collect twenty deer hides or complete all bomb disarm missions.  This adds to the sense of discovery that the player feels before they’ve even left the city, as these objectives organically emerged from the setting, rather than being non-diegetic, game layer objectives.  Additionally, when the player opens their map to look around the world, it begins as fairly empty, and is filled in gradually as the player either discovered them or is sent there directly.  Contrast this with Ubisoft titles, which start the player with a map filled with objectives.  This makes selecting the mission the player wants easier, but Skyrim’s approach makes the world feel more unexplored, and temps the player with large, empty spaces of the map.  Skyrim does have a fast travel system that could allow the player to jump from point to point, just completing objectives, but a great deal of the time the player spends in Skyrim’s early game is hiking to their next objective.  An NPC might give them a quest halfway across the map, and the player will have to spend half an hour hiking there.  The frequency of these experiences decrease by the late game, when the player has explored most of the world, but this ups the pace for the game’s last few hours, so that by the time the player is tired of half-hour hikes between each objective, they can simply fast travel there.  It’s worth noting that the game does offer an in-game travel system through its carriage system, a version of fast travel that only moves between major cities.  I usually play with fast travel disabled, using only this system, and the simple inclusion of an internally consistent travel system helps the world maintain its sense of scale while still providing that convenience.

After picking an objective and setting out, the player gets into the real meat of the game: exploring the overworld.  While its dungeons are not brilliantly designed and the combat is fairly sloppy, the process of moving between the various dungeons, caves, forts and buildings of the world is the game’s greatest achievement.  The player begins walking in the direction of their objective, often with a great deal of land to cover if they are early in the game.  They could just tape down the analog stick on their controller and go do something else, so to speak, but Skyrim nudges you away from that behavior in a way that many other open world games simply do not.  Along the way to their objective, the player will encounter random wildlife, run across herbs and ore veins to harvest, and even occasionally encounter NPCs in the world who will offer them simple quests.  This is engaging enough, and works for an experience that provides more variety than simply walking, but doesn’t take away from one of the core reasons Skyrim’s world traversal is so enjoyable: it’s a relaxing walk in the woods.  I’m pretty sure that the single most Elemental.pngimportant factor in if I am going to enjoy an open world game or not is if the game makes moving from place to place enjoyable.  This is why I can enjoy the completely Ubisoft-inspired Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, because movement through the world is the core mechanic set of the game.  Skyrim does not have any interesting movement mechanics, but instead puts a great deal of effort into making the player feel like they’re on a relaxing hike, not just moving their character from point A to point B.  The overworld’s sound design is nothing short of masterful, with a brilliant combination of ambient music with rustling trees, softly blowing wind, and idle insects and animals.  That soundscape blends perfectly with the often gorgeous fantasy landscape the player is moving to, regularly creating moments where the player can stop and gawk at the environment.  Skyrim is a screenshot factory for this very reason: the developers wanted to create a world that the player was okay just walking through.  In many ways, these sections remind me of playing Campo Santo’s Firewatch, which took these simple hiking mechanics and made an entire game out of it.  That kind of idle relaxation is a perfect method of mediating the pacing of Skyrim’s long dungeon crawls.  But those dungeon crawls still blend beautifully into the hiking part of Skyrim’s experience.  I thoroughly respect Skyrim’s commitment to avoid instanced activities, and the dungeons just barely skirt the line in this regard, mostly for technical reasons.  For example, in Burnout Paradise (a brilliantly designed open world in other capacities), you drive around the game world until you reach a stoplight, then get teleported to an instanced race starting at that location.  That race plays out just like it would in a traditional racing game, then ends, and returns the player backed to the overworld.  While this has its advantages (many of which Burnout Paradise uses), it creates a very modal game experience, where there is a clear distinction between two stages of play: racing and exploration.  Most open worlds treat their content this way, most famously, Grand Theft Auto with its complex open world but simplistic, removed missions.  The tradeoff, however, is that it makes the game world feel separate from its activities, and makes the activities themselves feel artificially gamey by comparison.  Skyrim, on the other hand, doesn’t distinguish between these modes at all.  There are a few load screens in the way, but the player can start in a city, walk outside into the world (even removing a loading screen if they have the right mods), wander until they find a dungeon or cave, enter that, complete it, and find their way back without changing the state of play.  Skyrim doesn’t distinguish between game activities and open world exploration, in blends the two in a way that creates surprising moments.  While walking to a quest objective, the player can stumble onto a bandit camp or find a dungeon, explore them, then get back on the path to their objective.

That core loop of moving towards an objective, getting distracted, then returning to the path to your objective is another of Skyrim’s greatest strengths.  That direct path to the objective is interrupted by the player’s curiosity more often than not, and, surprisingly, this is done partially by the in-game compass.  I usually believe that games should remove as many non-diegetic UI elements as possible, which is why I always play Skyrim with mods that disable or at least tone down the HUD as much as possible, or replace the in-game map with a parchment one.  Skyrim’s exploration loop invites the player to immerse themselves deeper in a way that a standard “click an objective on your map and follow the dotted line to get there” loop really doesn’t.  Skyrim’s designers put a lot of care into that stage of gameplay, and it really shows.  I mentioned earlier that Skyrim doesn’t scatter objective markers across your map, but rather reveals them as you discover them.  The compass slightly breaks this rule, but in a way that I think encourages exploration.  While walking to your objective, the compass might show a grayed-out icon of a nearby cave, dungeon, house or outpost.  It doesn’t show you its location on the map, just says that one of these locations is nearby and in a certain direction.  This helps keep the player from becoming bored on some of the longer walks, as they might see a dungeon marker along the way and decide to take a break to explore it.  This is incredibly helpful for exploration later in the game, but also breaks up the direct, point a to point b line into a zig-zaggy path between different locations.  This reinforces one of the core design philosophies I believe the game’s designers were aiming for: one of exploration, but exploration with surprising discoveries.  Telling the player where every location on the map is from the get-go removes that sense of discovery, but Skyrim’s travel loop bakes it right into one of the player’s most common activities.  This lets the world feel mysterious, like there are hidden treasures to discover, but not so much that it takes away from the game’s state of flow.  The game won’t tell you that you’ve collected 100% of the treasure in a dungeon, but it will tell you if you’ve completed its primary objective.  The game won’t show you the exact position of every location on the map, but it will show you the general direction if you’re AeXXKky.pngnearby.  In this regard, Skyrim feels like much more of a console or ARPG than a CRPG, for lack of better genre terminology.  It doesn’t want the player to be figuring out written directions and hand-drawn maps like in Morrowind (though it does occasionally offer those as side objectives), it wants the player to be in a state of flow that also incorporates discovery to keep it interesting.  Walking across large distances in digital space can often kill any sense of flow that other parts of the game had built up, but with the balancing act of making the game flow but not flow so much that it’s mindless, the designers create an experience where you never feel completely lost.  The end result is a system that enables and encourages hours of exploration, and doesn’t create moments of frustration where the player might quit the game.  And this experience is topped off with the game’s approach to dungeon design.

Skyrim’s dungeons are certainly not the best designed in the business.  They’re not complex labyrinths with interweaving paths, they don’t have complex puzzles or perfectly managed difficulty curves.  They don’t brilliantly tell a story through environmental design, the way New Vegas’ vaults do.  And they don’t offer a great degree of variety in enemy design like the Souls series.  But Skyrim’s dungeons work incredibly well for what they are trying to be: slight variations on a dungeon diving experience that aren’t meant to last more than twenty minutes.  Mystery is perhaps the dungeons’ greatest asset, as the game doesn’t tell the player what boss or treasure to expect at the end.  Sometimes, with scattered journals and light environmental storytelling, the game will hint at an end boss or magical artifact, but that is the exception.  Each dungeon provides just enough variety for a quick experience that doesn’t distract the player too much, with a guaranteed boss fight and boss chest at the end.  In a similar loop to Diablo (a comparison that Fallout 4 would go on to strengthen), Skyrim gives the player a few distinct stages to each encounter, which it does break from time to time for variety.  There’s the initial discovery, where the player is getting a sense of the environment and enemies of a dungeon.  If the dungeon is going to provide a narrative hook or a side quest, they will usually do it here.  Then, the player starts to explore the dungeon proper, fighting enemies, solving light puzzles, and getting their first taste of some treasure.  The game will often split the dungeons into two sections here, with a loading screen in between.  The second room usually has higher stakes, tougher enemies, and better treasure, building up to the door to the boss room.  These will often be tougher draugr enemies, but will sometimes be dragon priests, powerful necromancers, or other varied NPCs.  Then, the player finds their word wall and boss chest, and leaves with a new ability and some good loot through a hidden door back to the first area.  This loop is quick, not distracting, and still satisfying for the amount of time it takes up, and the repetition actually works fairly well for letting the player know each stage so the designers can break it when they need to.  And when it is broken, if often leaves the player with a sense of excitement that sticking to formula and revealing all the dungeon’s secrets from the beginning never could have.

One of my favorite experiences playing Skyrim since the remaster was released was discovering the Redwater Den, a quest area from the Dawnguard expansion.  I wasn’t on the Dawnguard quest at the time, so my experience was entirely organic, a generated story that felt uniquely personal.  While exploring near Riften, I stumbled across a broken down house, so I went to check it out, expecting to find a bit of loot and then move on.  Instead, I found an NPC who directed me to a Skooma den in the basement.  I had never been to a skooma den, so, curious, I found a nearby trapdoor and checked it out, and what do you know, it’s an underground skooma den!  The area featured a vendor table with a protective cage, attendants selling skooma, and passed-out customers.  I poked around the place, found a few bits of loot, and was about to leave…when I noticed a locked door.  Now, I had no reason to expect that there was anything beyond that door, but the designers had left it there to pique my curiosity, to bait me into exploring.  They didn’t do it with a quest marker, they did it with a simple locked door.  So, I picked the lock, snuck into the backDegeg.jpg area, and, what do you know, there’s an entire system of caverns, traps, and skooma manufacturing machines being run by a cabal of vampires using the skooma den to harvest their victims (Redwater.  Get it?).  I fought my way through the facility and got a ton of loot, ending in a dramatic showdown with the master vampire.  Apparently the area is used for a quest later, but I didn’t care, because I had found these layers on my own, and I hadn’t expected a single one.  It was a ruined house on top of a skooma den on top of a vampire den, and the discovery of each layer lead to more excitement.  I was directed through these layers not by an artificial game system, but by my own curiosity and some subtle design tricks.

Bethesda’s approach to open world design has radically shifted since Morrowind, from an more organic, if clunky-feeling world with a heavy emphasis on narrative complexity, to, as Errant Signal’s Campster described it, their own blend of walking simulator and ARPG.  Yet despite the studio’s contemporary lack of narrative ambition and setting reactivity, I find two things about their design ethos that keep me hopeful for the future of the format, even if Fallout 4 was largely a disappointing iteration.  The first, is that New Vegas proved that their format could work beautifully if the right team with the right narrative focus takes a stab at it, as New Vegas is one of the most fascinating and reactive 3D open worlds in the entire medium.  The second is that Bethesda has only continued to refine the core loop of their quest structure, finding a way to push it closer to the rhythmic flow of Diablo-inspired ARPGs, but keeping a feeling of player-driven, designer-absent play.  Skyrim’s designers push their audience towards a specific playstyle just as much as the designers at Ubisoft and their contemporaries, but they do it with a subtlety and a respect for the diegesis of the simulation that it feels much more natural.  This is a very careful balancing act, as the failures of Skyrim and Fallout 4’s radiant quest system proves.  Despite the increasing emphasis on procedurally generated missions, Bethesda has still proven that they have the raw design talent to create open worlds that beg to be explored, with a mastery of their craft that seemingly almost no one else in the industry can pull off.  For all my dislike of contemporary open world games, the fact that developers like Bethesda and Obsidian can create games that are so consistently engaging gives me hope that designers outside of these companies can shift away from creating abstract game spaces and into creating simulated worlds.

Skyrim Landscape-3.jpg

Musical Platforming: Dustforce, Runner2, and Game Feel

I’ve never really been into platformers, so the fact that I’ve been playing two of them this week is pretty unusual.  Mostly for lack of other games to play, I’ve been messing around in Bit.Trip Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien (I’m just going to call it “Runner”, if that’s okay) and Dustforce, and while my lack of experience with any platformer other than Super Mario Bros is pretty difficult to overcome, I’ve managed to really enjoy these two games.  Despite my inexperience with the genre, I’ve found that these two games feel wildly different, and exactly how those differences emerged from a top-down design philosophy is something I want to explore, because, coincidentally, both games have a very interesting relationship with their respective soundtracks.  Music usually serves as background to gameplay, designed to enhance emotions, but rarely taking center stage.  In both of these games, music has a unique effect on their game feel, and, given that I wrote about a rhythm game last week, this seems like a great time to dig into just how each game uses music to more effectively communicate its specific design philosophy.

Dustforce is a very strange game for me because it has one of my favorite soundtracks in all of gaming, but I hadn’t played more than ten minutes of it before this week.  The soundtrack was created by electronica artist Lifeformed, and while I’m not knowledgeable enough in music genres to be able to more accurately explain his music, it’s generally a very calm and dreamy take on electronica, with some woodwinds tossed in for good measure and heavy use of echo effects.  I bought the soundtrack when I first picked up the game, and even though I gave up on the game itself, I listen to the soundtrack pretty regularly.  A soundtrack this relaxing would seem to clash with a platformer that ramps up the difficulty as quickly as Dustforce does, but strangely enough, it fits it perfectly.  Every aspect of the game is designed to assist the player in reaching a sense of flow, from the fluidity of the animations to the smoothness of the visuals, and this music fits in perfectly.  With a game as difficult as Dustforce, that leads to as many retries as its levels screenshot8.pngdemand, keeping the player from crushing their controller and rage quitting is a persistent task for any developer, and Hitbox Team helped address this in a few clever ways, many of which overlap with this design aesthetic of flow.  The game’s restarts are incredibly quick, absent of any load times, and don’t linger on your character’s death in the same way a game like Dark Souls does.  You’re right back in the action in a few seconds.  The music itself doesn’t even stop or react in any way, with an indifference to the player’s performance that stands in stark contrast to Runner2, or really most games out there.  The game wants to keep the player calm so they are okay with trying over and over to perfect their runs of a level without turning into a rage-consumed troglodyte.  This doesn’t mean the music takes a secondary role in the player’s experience, however, it means that the music creates a rhythm where a slip up and retry isn’t a jarring experience like it is in most games.  You still fail – the game certainly isn’t pulling any punches – but the music keeps going even when you do.  In addition to making restarts less frustrating, it also makes successful runs feel even better, as the player feels like they are matching the tone and mood of the music with an effortless-looking run.  The jumps the player is making may, in actuality, be pixel-perfect, but the music, animation and game feel make it look natural.  The combination of all of these elements, from visuals, to music, to game feel, to level design, create an experience that encourages to player to enter a focused, zen-like state of calm persistence as they slowly perfect their runs of a level and increase their mastery of the mechanics.  The game wants to keep the player’s focus in the specific moment of the moves they are trying to pull off, and uses the music to narrow the player’s focus more effectively.  For example, the game’s scoring system is designed to distract the player as little as possible, with the player being graded on two, easily and quickly identifiably variables: completion and combo.  Completion is obvious to the player without requiring much additional mental effort, they just need to see if they have cleared the entire map.  The combo meter is also straightforward, and simply requires the player to move quickly between objectives.  With how easy both of these variables are to keep track of, the player can focus on the one variable that really matters: time.  As a result, the player is always focused on their immediate concerns of moving as quickly as possible, because they do not need to spend time thinking about how to max out their combo meter or how to juggle other abstract systems.  Without a focus on complex systems, the game can tell the player to focus on the immediate flow of the level, making the music match the tone perfectly.

Runner2 takes a different approach to the platformer as a genre, and implements its music in a different way as well.  In contrast to the precision jumps and mid-air reversals of Dustforce, Runner has more in common with the endless runner games that grew up on smartphones.  The player character is moving to the right by default, independent of any player input, and nothing the player can do can stop or slow him.  This creates a sense of momentum in the gameplay that Dustforce requires mechanical mastery and map knowledge to reach.  However, Runner iterates on this momentum by making nearly all its game pieces momentum-stopping obstacles that the player must avoid in some way.  However, this doesn’t just maintain the default momentum, which would create a monotonous experience.  Instead, each action contributes both to the momentum and the soundscape of the game.  The game plays some sort of fun-filled animation (a consistent aesthetic choice throughout the game) to make the obstacle avoidance look good, but then plays a sound effect in sequence with the music.  While Dustforce’s music was defined by a non-reactive indifference to the player’s performance, Runner’s music is so synced up with the player’s actions that it’s practically a rhythm game.  This makes sense given that previous Bit.Trip games were actually rhythm games themselves, a genealogy that is clearly evident in Runner2.  The music starts with a melody-heavy foundation inspired by chiptines, in fact, many of the game’s contributing artists got their start working in this retro-themed genre.  Runner2 continues that genre’s strong emphasis on catchy melodies, brought on by the technical limitations of early NES music that could only runner2-ss1support three tones at a time.  However, the game builds on this with multiple musical layers, at first with only a background instrument or two on top of the melody, but eventually growing in complexity as the player picks up four power ups in the level.  Each one plays a sound effect, displays a colorful notification on the screen, and adds another layer to the music, making the final few seconds of a level feel like a busting musical landscape.  In addition to these power-ups, the level is also filled with thirty to fifty gold bars for the player to collect, all of which play a note or two when collected, also in sync with the music.  Avoiding obstacles in the environment plays a different sound as well, each one placed at a point in the music that it feels natural.  This is iterated on further in the boss fight for World 4, which uses a call and response structure as the foundation for the level’s music.  The boss readies obstacles to throw at the player while playing a series of notes to let them know what obstacles to prepare for, then the player jumps over/ducks under/destroys these obstacles as the response is played.  All of these aspects lead to a final audio track for each run of a level that is unique to that player, based on what collectibles and power-ups the player grabbed, and if they hit them at the correct time.  This results in an aural experience that is much more reactive than even most rhythm games, where the player is expected to perform the audio the game wants rather than dynamically create their own.  The end result is a more reactive take on flow, that feels just as elegant as Dustforce, but while Dustforce wants you to feel a detachment between the music and the gameplay, Runner2 wants you to feel like you are helping create it.  Both takes are incredibly effective for each game’s specific design goals, but when compared, I think they provide interesting examples on how music can be used creatively with regards to game feel.

Monolith’s 2005 Halloween: FEAR and Condemned’s Approaches to Action Horror

FEAR 1 and Condemned: Criminal Origins were released just over a month apart from each other, by the same studio, in the same engine, with the same first-person perspective, and the same light focus on horror elements.  I played these games a year apart without knowing about these similarities, and had an incredibly similar experience with both: I played them non-stop for almost an entire day, but never ended up beating them.  The two titles feel incredibly similar in their design sensibilities, and, while I can’t find out if both were developed by the same team within Monolith, I am almost certain that they were sharing ideas.  FEAR was published by Sierra, while Condemned was published by Sega, but both of these publishers ended up getting tonally similar products with slightly different focuses.  

FEAR is your standard, big-budget, action horror game.  In its aesthetics, it pulls from westernizations of Japanese horror classics, like The Ring (adapted from the Japanese novel Ring) and The Grudge (adapted from Ju-On: The Grudge), and these are easily the least effective moments of the game.  I can’t speak to how they felt at release, but in 2015, they fear-20060802011341726were obviously scripted and mostly cheesy.  The more common mechanics of FEAR, however, created quite the opposite feeling.  In addition to being a horror game, FEAR is also a first-person shooter, and it doesn’t seek to innovate too dramatically in that department, but it does execute on those mechanics wonderfully.  From a design doc level overview of the game, it doesn’t have much to offer: samey enemies with guns, normal first person shooting, and a slow-motion mechanic to spice things up.  But the game does so well with all three of these features that it elevates the game to an incredibly well-polished version of an oversaturated genre.  First, the enemies use an incredibly clever AI system that sees them flanking, falling back, and responding to player actions, in a way that makes every gunfight feel delightfully dynamic.  The first-person shooting feels punchy and kinetic in a way even games today still have trouble getting right.  And the slow-motion, despite how overused it is in shooters, elevates the entire experience to a tactical, visceral experience.  FEAR’s combat is not its only strength though, it’s environment and atmosphere do a much better job of evoking discomfort than its scripted sequences do to evoke horror.  After a tough gunfight, the incredibly reactive environments will be covered in rubble and broken glass, leaving the previously sterile environments a mess.  As the player walks from objective to objective, or explores an area for additional supplies, the tone is uncomfortably quiet, occasionally broken up by quiet, low-quality radio conversations that further the player’s sense of isolation.  FEAR’s environments post-combat feel tense, and even though that tension is usually broken by a cheap jump scare, that tension is one of my favorite parts of the game.

Condemned, in many ways, feels like a riskier version of FEAR.  It relies on grimey environments to build tension, just like many areas in FEAR, uses those same, quiet radio conversations to evoke loneliness, and its own experimentations with AI.  Condemned’s core combat mechanics, however, are an inventive take on first-person melee combat, a style that has rarely, if ever, been done well.  Combat sequences feel systemically dynamic in a very similar way to FEAR as a result.  The player will often enter a room only to be ambushed by an AI that has hidden behind a nearby corner, and, startled, yank a piece of piping off a nearby wall to block the attack.  With the enemy knocked back, they might hit them with their tazer to move in for the kill, or grab the enemy’s weapon and use it against them.  While FEAR executes near-flawlessly on a very well-established idea, Condemned tries to experiment with an entirely different one.  As a result of the newness of the style and the lack of good examples from elsewhere in the industry to pull from, Condemned often is very interesting on a high level, like the encounter I just described, but less satisfying on a low-level.  It seems like the developers wanted the combat to feel ss_49e024a8cfc2a25b0fbe6da1a0628dde7dd855d5-600x338frantic and confusing, but often it comes across as clunky and unpolished.  This is a completely acceptable aesthetic to shoot for, but it diminishes the feeling that the game will respond to a player’s low-level skill instead of their higher-level skill.  For example, aiming a gun in an FPS is a low level skill, it’s directly about using the controls to perform an action and the game reacts based on how well you do that.  Deciding to flank an enemy and shoot him first instead of charging him head-on would be a higher-level skill, making tactical decisions that, while dependent on your low-level interaction with the controls, aren’t as immediately involved with them.  This makes combat in Condemned more fun to think about than to actually play, as action games tend to rely more on low-level skill and the satisfaction gained from mastering them.  In an opposition to FEAR, what it lacks in its low-level mechanics are made up for at a higher level.  Condemned completely nails the atmosphere that FEAR only gets right some of the time.  The discomfort of FEAR’s environment is ratcheted up for Condemned, making the player go from uncomfortable to always on the edge of their seat.  Levels feel labyrinthine, requiring backtracking into rooms that will often be filled with new enemies performing unscripted actions.  The game is fond of the same unmotivated cuts to confusing, horrific images and scenes that FEAR is, but it does them with more subtlety and effectiveness.  While FEAR’s art style is largely forgettable, Condemned takes place in Metro City, but is obviously a grimey version of 1980s/90s New York, taking visual influence from films like Seven and Silence of the Lambs.  Neither game seems to care too much about its story, but Condemned’s works a bit better as a frame narrative.  Where Condemned does fall apart, however, is in its level design.  FEAR uses similar environmental progress blockers, but FEAR also has a reason for the player to explore: ammo, health packs, stat boosters, etc.  Condemned, meanwhile has…collectible dead birds?  And that’s about it.  You can find additional weapons, but no one is really better than any other, and it mostly comes down to personal preference.  This means, coupled with the complex mazes the game dumps you into, that the player will spend a lot of their time lost, and won’t be finding any extra goodies to make it worth their while.  Like in FEAR, it does help mediate the game’s pacing, but mostly by grinding it to a screeching halt.  This leaves the totality of Condemned’s experienced as a much more conflicted one.  FEAR feels like it’s a consistently effective experience 90% of the time, and a dated, ineffective one for the 10% while it’s trying to directly scare the player.  Condemned fluctuates throughout, never really putting the player in a situation that is completely bad, but also never putting them in one that is completely good.  Both games feel like they were made with very similar sensibilities by a team that wanted to create a first-person horror game with a lovingly-crafted combat systems, and Condemned certainly takes more risks than FEAR in that regard, but simply does not fit together as well.  When deciding which of the two to play, the player is left with the choice of playing something interesting but messy, or something they’ve played before but done very, very well.

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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