Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mass Effect 3: You're wrong, but that's ok

    I often find myself in conversations with people who seem to think that a particular game really ought to be played and enjoyed by everybody. These people are wrong, but that’s beside the point. In spite of being wrong though, they allow me to bring up a better point: some games just aren’t meant for some people.

     Before we start, let’s all just agree that it’s okay to have different goals and different emphases and it’s okay to be someone who enjoys some parts of a game and not others. Still, what I’d eventually like to say is that it’s not okay to misinterpret that dislike for some kind of fundamental error in design logic and subsequently disregard the quality of the game as a whole, because what that does is shut your mind off to the possibility that you might actually enjoy something that doesn’t meet your expectations. Case in point: Mass Effect 3.

    It’s no coincidence that I’m using Mass Effect 3 as an example here. This article is a direct response to this piece produced by my colleague at Pixels or Death, and I don’t really agree with him on a number of points (I don’t often agree with him generally, but that’s what makes our relationship SO INTERESTING). This is largely due to matters of taste, but even in the darker corners of our ideologies we’re often at odds: he’s a tabletop veteran and I’m a console baby-turned-PC diehard, he likes stories and I prefer mechanics, he has a job and I loaf around all day. We do, however, share one great kinship: philosophizing.

    I’m convinced that if we ever met in person and shared a drink, we’d have a conversation that would inevitably result in the acquisition of henchmen scrounged from bar patrons loaded up on peanuts and scotch whom we would then pit against each other as surrogates in mortal combat. We would never cross fists personally, of course, but we’d both relish in the spectacle of lesser men dying for beliefs that are ultimately just the strawest of straw men.

On second thought, maybe I’m the only one who’d enjoy that.
      It’s here then that I take my turn on the page to philosophize in the complete opposite direction of my colleague and say that I find Mass Effect 3 to be a supremely satisfying game with a pinpoint focus: action. For all the marketing hype that surrounded the conclusion to what I consider to be the most ambitious fantasy space opera since Paul Eres’s Immortal Defense, Mass Effect is and always was fundamentally an action game, which is something that Bioware (and most of popular game design) has increasingly shifted their focus towards. I’m not so foolish to argue that Mass Effect’s story was not also a large part of its intention (and success), but I am ready and completely capable to give a defense of my belief that Mass Effect is primarily about doing some really satisfying shit and then just sitting back and watching the aftermath.


I feel compelled to address the fact that yes, there is some kind of disequilibrium that exists in Mass Effect, and yes, it does result in some kind of ineffable dissatisfaction. All the common arguments have been made so I won’t retread them, but what I will say is that if you feel in any way slighted by what happened at the end of the Mass Effect Trilogy, you’re probably not likely to be convinced by a discourse of any length that tries to prove otherwise. This discussion isn’t for you. What I’ll also say is that in any story where you are a participant but not its director, you implicitly relinquish a substantial amount of control over the story’s outcome. This isn’t to say that your dissatisfaction at its outcome is unjustified, it’s just that it’s categorically worthless (that is, unless it makes you go and make something better).


    The key to my point lies in the past, as so many keys often do. Not unlike how Andy had to reach back into her troubled childhood to unlock the ability to play that horrifically awesome skeleton organ to open the entrance to One-Eyed Willy’s gem-filled treasure cove, so too am I asking you to dig deep into your past and relive an ambivalent multi-hour experience so as to find the key to unlock a metaphorical treasure cove of logical epiphanies. In other words, let’s go back to Mass Effect 1.
     Although it was billed as an RPG, the most compelling thing about Mass Effect was that it came breathtakingly close to playing like a native third-person-shooter. Recall that up to this point Bioware is best known for its RPG-heavy action titles (Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire); games that were the gold standard for compelling story-driven gameplay saddled with some pretty okay combat animations. It’s also no coincidence that up until this point all these titles had been developed with an in-house engine based on the one used to replicate tabletop games (Baldur’s Gate I & II, Planescape: Torment), only in 3D and with slightly fancier rendering and lighting techniques. At their heart, these games were intended to be RPGs. It can be said then that the satisfaction derived from these games (or rather the design intent of them) was founded in their being competent RPGs. And really, they were. No argument there. But what about Mass Effect?

Mass Effect was built using Unreal Engine 3. Ostensibly, any game based on an engine most commonly used for action and twitch shooters implies that the designers intend to make something that is essentially this, with some of their own tweaks. This isn’t to say that you can’t make an actual, factual tabletop RPG with Unreal Engine 3, it’s just that the choice to use middleware (which is only ever used to streamline development) implies that what you intend to make already exists out there, and you just want to play with that a little. In Mass Effect’s case, it’s safe to assume that, by choice of engine, Bioware wanted to play with making a shooter.


    I know that a game engine doesn’t predestine a game’s fate, so don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. I also know that middleware is often used simply to leverage the ability to provide a game with awesome graphics and cool-looking shit. But another thing I know is that when developers are in a position to choose how they want their game to feel -- how a character’s feet walk along the ground, how the bullets chip off pieces of scenery, or how it feels when a character slams into the ground following a special attack -- the choice to offload the bulk of those sensations onto a pre-written piece of middleware means that they are mostly content with the way they see it operate in other games that use that same engine. So what I’m saying is choosing an engine that is made for a certain type of game is going to make it play a lot like those games.


     The point in bringing up the engine behind Mass Effect is that Unreal Engine 3 is the defining point between it and all of Bioware’s preceding outings. While Mass Effect undoubtedly contains exquisite storytelling, quantitative character growth, and a substantial inventory system, what made Mass Effect capable of breaking out of popularity amongst RPG fans and into popularity with gamers in general was the fact that it played very much like a decent third-person shooter. I still go back often and play through the entire game just because of the undeniable quality of its mechanics. The way the screen bobbed frantically when you sprinted, the fluid camera glide that followed you when you snapped to cover, and even something as simple as believable recoil-induced screen shake added a sense of gravity to the entire experience.

     Even compared to a dedicated third-person action game like Red Faction: Guerilla, with its seismic bombast and ludicrous physics, Mass Effect felt more, well, real. Combine this realness with a kick-ass telekinesis mechanic and you basically tap into every sci-fi power fantasy ever created. Even Stephen Hawking probably creamed his pants on his first playthrough.
     It wasn’t perfect, though. For all its pants-creaming goodness, it had quite a few bugs and it lacked some of the shinier bits that other shooters had (like accurate location damage and authentic battle scarring). It also still felt a lot like a traditional RPG with its heavy focus on branching dialogue trees and unwieldy inventory management. These criticisms were of course addressed in Mass Effect 2.


    If time were a book and God turned to the page where Mass Effect 2 was written, he’d probably say, “Jesus Christ did I see that one coming.” (and Jesus would say, “Sorry dad” and God would be all like, “Shut up, I wasn’t talking to you, you dimwit! JESUS CHRIST” fin) because Mass Effect 2 was basically the inevitable chest-bursting neonatal xenomorph first implanted into everyone’s gaping mouths by Mass Effect. It carried an updated sense of style, an edgy, rugged look that made sense considering the hell that Shepard went through, and it expanded on every single mechanic, save one. You know the one I’m talking about.

    Still, that particular change can’t really be considered a limitation as much as it was a delineation: the decision to implement thermal clips as a replacement for weapon overheating was a line drawn in the sand. It’s not just that thermal clips are reminiscent of shooters or are a common shooter element, it’s that this small change took away the last vestige of meaningful RPG game design: taking turns.

The first time a player runs out of thermal clips in the game there is a palpable sense that “HEY, THIS IS NOT THE GAME I WAS PLAYING FOR THE LAST 30 HOURS. NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT.” That’s because in Mass Effect, hitting the overheating point was like finishing a turn: you posted up by cover, spewed any number of attacks until they topped out, and went back into cover waiting for them to refresh.
     Of course, Mass Effect was still part action game so you could, if you chose, move from cover to cover while your skills were cooling down. You could issue commands in real-time and decide to try and dodge attacks as they came at you. But you could also choose to play it (mechanistically) like a turn-based RPG, where you select an advantageous position and trade blow after blow with your enemy, never really needing to employ any kind of skill-based action. Thermal clips make this tactic impossible.

    In some cases you may get away with it, but eventually most combat scenarios require you to abandon your cover and move to another, just so you can keep attacking. The quest for thermal clips forces action and as a result increases the pace and skill-necessity of every single encounter. Nevermind that Bioware even further tweaked the sensations of running and recoil to make them closer to a native shooter and designed all the levels as linearly as possible, the mechanic of thermal clips firmly roots the game in the realm of action. Also, making experience and cash a per-mission reward as opposed to something earned from the de facto act of killing dudes was just...uncool, man.


    It becomes increasingly clear then, in retrospect, that Mass Effect 3 wasn’t going to shift any paradigms or blow any minds. While people might argue that that’s exactly what Mass Effect did when it came out, and thus it’s what Mass Effect 3 should have done because of arguments about pedigree (not the dog food, people) and ancestry (not the website, people), the facts prove otherwise. Mass Effect was always about providing people with a well-told action game, not a by-the-numbers RPG. And I firmly believe that Bioware even tried, really hard, to make that clear to people through devlogs and Youtube previews. But it really didn’t matter at that point.

    By the time Mass Effect 3 had come out, too many opinions about too many things had been rolling around in too many people’s heads to really take the game as it stood: an action game. Mass Effect 3 had (and still has, to an extent) too much baggage. A lot of that baggage is emotional, what with gamers who have invested hundreds of hours in the first two games now hoping for a satisfying conclusion, but a lot of it is also developmental. The burden of making a second sequel to an already popular game is probably too much for anyone to handle, much less in only 2 years. I mean, even Christopher Nolan took 4 years between The Dark Knight and Rises, and those are movies, things that don’t even have to take into account the physical sensation of experiencing them.

    So Mass Effect 3 had to choose. Gamers didn’t have a say in this choice, which is really the key to the whole mess surrounding the game. Mass Effect 3 chose to be an action game. Against any desires or hopes that popular opinion may have had, Mass Effect 3 chose to create an experience where shooting a Cerberus patrol in the face would cause his head to explode like a turgid watermelon as opposed to an experience where saying, “If you take one more step I’ll blow your FUCKING brains out” meant that if you literally clicked anywhere else besides his head or his gun you’d die a peasant’s death. Personally, I enjoy the former.
     I’m not saying we can’t have both. I’m saying that Mass Effect 3 is one and not the other.


    As a final thought I’d really like to address the glaring issue of “player motivation” behind Mass Effect 3 and how it has been said that the lack thereof really ruins the game. Up to this point, I’ve basically built the argument that Mass Effect 3 is fundamentally an action game, so when the argument that the game’s story doesn’t provide me with adequate impetus to play, I can only reasonable reply, “I guess. I just played through the game because I loved slamming dudes in the face with a biotic charge followed by a skull-bursting shotgun shell to the face.” I played through Mass Effect 3 because it was satisfying to play. This is what makes Mass Effect 3 great: it’s an action game and all of its actions are fucking brilliant.

It’s brilliant the way firing an M6 Carnifex pushes the camera up and back with each shot, adding a satisfying punch to each impact it delivers. It’s intoxicating the way a fully upgraded biotic charge/nova combo is an impeccably timed ballet of button presses that results in body after body being lifted into the air and then curbstomped into oblivion. And the way Incinerate detonates with a crisp “pop” as it curves elegantly around a corner into a poor unarmored soul is like . These are the moments that define what Mass Effect 3 is to me. I don’t mind that someone said Earth is in imminent danger, that somehow there’s some arbitrary time constraint which actually doesn’t exist, or that maybe someone is supposed to die while I’m out trying to save a drowning space-puppy. All I want to do is keep playing the game. And Mass Effect 3 lets me do that. I’m happy. I’m also really happy that this is basically what the multiplayer is and that they’ve continually added free content to it ever since release.


    What makes Mass Effect worth playing isn’t the fact that it’s a decent RPG. To play it under the assumption that it’s an RPG is like going to watch a Transformers movie under the assumption it’s a serious thriller: you’ll be so caught up in trying to substantiate motivations and logic that you’ll miss the fact that a giant robot spider thing just ate 10 bulldozers for fun. And even if you don’t miss it, you won’t be able to enjoy that fact because you’ll be so wrapped up in how improbable it is that such a thing could happen.

    So sure, Mass Effect is a shitty DM, but he sure as hell knows how to make being shitty look and feel really fucking awesome.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Xenogears: The Article

Hating God is a very easy thing to do. He is big, he is vague, and he is probably kind of smelly. Maybe not smelly in the most traditional terms, but he probably does have some kind of strong and overpowering odor about him that acts like sort of an aura. He has an aura, too. That’s a thing, right?

I’d go further to say that hating God is so easy that we probably do it sub-consciously, without real effort, because really, it takes no effort. It’s not that hating God is innate, because that would mean we somehow don’t have a choice to do so, like it’s some instinctual habitual need for us to hate God, which would in turn imply that God instinctually and innately exists in some way else this innate instinct would be pointless and unexplainable.

What I am saying is that hating God is the path of least resistance when faced with the idea that God might possibly exist, and I am going to go further and say that eventually everyone must decide what to do with that idea. And it’s here that I start talking about Xenogears.

Xenogears doesn’t make me question the existence of God, but it does make me realize I hate him. Beyond just hating, it makes me realize why I hate him. But Xenogears doesn’t jump out and demand that I have some kind of introspective moment and then extrapolate logical conclusions; it simply leads me gently by the hand and before I know it, I am weeping over the broken corpse of a God of my creation.

This is the purpose of good narrative. It’s supposed to be a ride. It’s not a dialogue or a discussion or even a system of logic that takes inputs and produces some kind of atheistic epiphany, it’s a ride. And it should feel like one. It should be built like one. And the only reason why opinions may be changed at the end of the ride is because the ride itself obviates the need for argumentation by virtue of the events that occur over the course of it. There is no “proving” in the rhetorical or logical sense. There are only things that happen.

In the midst of Xenogears, a game happens. This game is also called Xenogears, but it is not Xenogears in its entirety. They only share the same name. The game Xenogears is about power, discovery, motivation, despair, economies of scale, and transference. The story Xenogears is just about hating God.

A primary design obstacle for any game director (here the word “game” refers to the product, not the game) is to decide how to stuff one into the other in such a way that a player (as necessitated by the game, as opposed to a “reader” or “observer” of a narrative) doesn’t question it overmuch. Xenogears fails at this quite miserably.

A game, even in its most elementary definition, is wider than a narrative. It is intended to create spaces for possibility and experimentation. It is intended to be a workshop; a place where both frivolity, characterized by more theoretical, whimsical ventures, and purpose, demonstrated by profiteering and product-oriented effort, are allowed and encouraged. But a game in its most elementary definition has no point, no moral, no compass. A narrative does.

The question then becomes: “which of these two should take precedence?” And the answer invariably is: “It depends.” In Xenogears, it depends.

The aforementioned failure at stuffing and player questioning present in Xenogears results from “it depends.” This failure is rampant, blatant, and heavy-handed. The game begins with a 10-minute introductory exposition containing information that is not resolved until near the end of a 50+ hour game. Gameplay segments are aimless, either placed in very large open spaces like deserts, forests, or worst of all convoluted dungeons (with no maps) containing only 1 intended endpoint. There are no reminders or signposts to assist players in returning to the game after an unintended hiatus. In fact, so much of the responsibility of remembering events, following events, and making narrative connections is placed upon the player that I would hazard to say that only the most unreasonably patient person would be willing to tolerate it.

This failure is unequivocal, undeniable, and absolute. It is also irrelevant.

A game, once again in its most elementary definition, is designed for choice: boundaries impose choice by restricting retreat, opposition forces choice by threatening defeat, and rules delineate a space and mode in which these choices can “play out”. In this most primal sense it is intended to produce agony; indeed, it is actual fact that this is where the word “agony” comes from. Agony is the result of choice. The sensation of a pulling, a tearing of the will in multiple directions, of the strain of possibilities and the contemplation of sacrifice for opportunity is the definition of Agony, and in turn we become Agonists.

Over time the common definition of this word has become associated more with the suffering that results from moments of Agony as opposed to the Agony itself. In fact, it is from the word “Agony” we derive the word “Agency”, which describes the active choice role that is characteristic of games. And so to be an agent is to be in agony. The game Xenogears is pure agony, and in turn you, player, are pure agency.

This agony is soldered into the twists of the tortuous narrative of Xenogears in such a way as to be inseparable. But they are distinctly discerned: there is no mistaking what part of Xenogears is story or game.

In the story Xenogears there is nothing but war and despair. The world has been locked in war so long that it’s forgotten why such a war exists, and the hatred and motivation for war is now simply bred into the bones of their children and their children’s children. What kind of a God lets such a thing happen? A God worth hating, is what kind. And so we hate him.

But the hinge upon which this hate glides so smoothly is shallow, immature, and childlike: the kind based purely on ignorance. Ignorance is the key to blind hate. Ignorance is the basis for fear, as fear of the unknown is what drives both desire for knowledge (to illuminate the unknown to dispel the fear to preserve the self) and the desire for destruction (to raze the incomprehensible to reduce its confundity to establish control). This is the kind of hate we have of black people, women, white people, that dirty-looking bum on the corner, and the guy who makes our Subway sandwiches. This is why we yell at each of these people when they do something we don’t like. This is why we feel terrible when we find out they have families, dogs, cats, and also make a lot more money than we do and as a result regret not befriending them initially because now we’ll have to pay for Subway sandwiches unless we go to the other Subway which is like 5 more blocks down. But who knows if that Subway guy is cool or rich like this one?

So then we’ll probably yell at him too. Blind hate.

At the end of the story, all unknowns (as there are many) are dispelled, the twisting threads are brought together, and the nature of this hate-worthy God is laid bare. And here is where the brilliance of Xenogears the story is firmly established: it dispels all of our ignorance without dispelling its twin-bred hate. It takes the initial ignorance-based animosity and, over the course of a 50-hour engagement tears us from our ignorance with evidence that also thoroughly substantiates our hate, and in so doing turns this hate into the motivation for grinding out power in order to ensure the complete and utter destruction of this hateful God. And this is where Xenogears the game complements Xenogears the story so well, and why the successful and proper mixing of the two disparate strands is so irrelevant.

The game Xenogears is used as space, not propulsion. Its combat is not skill-based, action-oriented, or twitchy by any means. Its platforming is basic and at times glitchy and unnecessarily frustrating. Its character management is minimal, its item table is laughably finite for a 50-hour game, and there are no substantial sidequests. Xenogears relies primarily on grinding for progress and surety, a choice that would today be ridiculous and unbearable. But I played through it anyway. I played through it because I was convinced by the story Xenogears that it was necessary, useful, and sensible to do so in the context of the narrative and the characters in my charge.

The game Xenogears does this by complementing a run-of-the-mill JRPG leveling system with the “Deathblow”. Both narratively and ludologically it fits: Deathblows are intermittent mechanics rewards that give players a more panoramic, protracted goal to aim for beyond simple leveling or itemization, and is only partway contingent upon these trite categorizations. By linking a unique system to a banal one, Xenogears manages to maintain a necessary minimum of interest in character growth as the player travels in linear fashion from plot point to plot point.

In the narrative, both PCs and NPCs slam and get slammed with Deathblows at crucial moments, reinforcing their narrative importance and rejuvenating the desire to unlock them through grinding. Basically, the “Deathblow” can be best understood as the bridge between Xenogears the story and Xenogears the game. And besides, the word “deathblow” itself conjures up something fierce in the deepest parts of my darkest desires.

So when the story Xenogears begins (at the moment I choose to begin by selecting “New Game”) by describing a world beset by thoughtless warring, my first inclination upon entering the game Xenogears (the moment when I am given the choice to move Fei about) is to find out more about this war from those willing to talk, and to see exactly how dangerous this world really is. However, the story Xenogears places me on a remote island for “reasons unknown”, which in turn limits my actions and boundaries in the game Xenogears, and limits it enough for me to want to continue on to the next plot point. As these narrative impulses become grander, such as the infiltration and assassination of a regent, the hunt for a deadly gladiator-slaughtering sewer monster, or the destruction of an all powerful being of some questionably otherworldly origin, so too do the spaces where the game occurs become grander.

So while Xenogears the story and Xenogears the game can indeed be divided up neatly into its component parts, this is by no means a fair analysis of the whole. Despite the fact that Xenogears the story and Xenogears the game aim at producing different sensations and promote the realization of different goals, they are complementary. The story creates desires to actuate power in order to consummate hate, and the game provides a path to power that is in complete control of the player coupled with barriers high enough (boss battles) to make gains in power feel significant and necessary. They do not intertwine mechanically (that is, there is no way to influence the course of the story through gameplay), but they do intertwine philosophically in that their aims are conjoined and their goals are essentially identical. This is the true face of Xenogears.

Too few games take advantage of this thought process now. Granted, the space in which to execute an hybridization like this is decidedly limited in all other efforts compared to the common JRPG, but it’s not the space that prohibits this; it’s a mindset. I believe the prevailing mindset is to aim for extremes: focus on making satisfying gameplay or compelling mechanics, or make a meaningful narrative with a powerful moral or overwhelmingly sensuous ride. Inundate your players with one or the other and in that way find success. But this creates a hyperspeed arms race surfing on a tide of ever-increasing expectations that is sure to end in a disastrous crash. What we need is more balance, more foresight, and more space to work in.

What we need is more Xenogears.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Diablo 3: we are the 99%

So Diablo 3 is out. If you're looking for screenshots and media and other fancy-schmancy malarkey, you can just google it. I'm about to

It's got a lot of good things going for it. It looks great, runs smoothly, has a friendly, accessible inventory and hotkey scheme, and delivers dastardly satisfying combat feedback. When you click, things go boom.

On top of all this is an overwhelming amount of lore, backstory, sidestory, journal padding, and platinum-pantied voice acting surrounded by increasingly verisimilitudinous visual fidelity so much so that if you had a big enough screen, it'd easily take over your waking world. Boom!