Game/Writing

Mass Effect: Andromeda

This is my critique so there may be SPOILERS though I haven’t finished (and may never finish so I’m not sure how much I can actually spoil).  So here goes —
Playing Mass Effect: Andromeda has begun to feel like doing homework. Not fun and like my parents will be really pissed if I don’t get my work done after I spent money for this so I better play some tonight.  
Wondering if it was just me I went looking for some reviews and, my god, they are scathing. Almost every complaint mirror my own. Tiny things first — the navigation is impossibly hard and incredibly annoying. I waste so much time trying to find stuff, and I hate the straight line radar rather than the circular radar screen in the Dragon Age games.  I also end up with so many waypoints that I can’t remove that I’m constantly getting lost.  I think I’m heading for a lost drone, but find out I’ve ended up where there’s a dead body instead.  I know I need to scan the body, but damn it I needed to recover that drone and that’s what I wanted to do.
 
I’ve found all the companions to be really dull.  Apart from Drak and the engineer Gil they are tedious and annoying though Jaal does have a voice like dark velvet. The voice actors are average to mediocre — not something I expect from BioWare who usually have such outstanding voice talent.  I don’t want to romance any of these people.  
The game is filled with boring fetch quests that don’t seem to accomplish much in terms of the larger narrative, and I don’t give a damn about the main storyline.  I don’t believe the people on the Nexus are going to starve if I don’t get all the vaults up and running.  I have no relationship with anyone on the Nexus and I’ve got a cool ship so why should I care?  My sister in a coma has no relevance to me since I’ve never interacted with her from the moment the game begins.  She’s just in a coma.  I seem to have a more personal relationship with the AI.  There’s this big ship eating cloud that wrecked the human arc, but it’s no where as interesting as Tali investigating the death of the sun in Mass Effect 2.  You tell me the Scourge is a construct that suddenly appeared, and bits of Scourge appear on planets and will hurt you even through your armor and shields, but then it just gets dropped.  It seems like the Scourge is the thing that messed up the environment on or colony planets, but that doesn’t appear to be the point of the main quest.  It seems to be the Kett — who are just low budget Reapers in that they change their prisoners so they fight their own kind.  The other major alien race the Angara are barely developed they just seem to be gentle with big eyes and mystical.
Some of the little easter eggs — finding out Zaeed Massani had a son was a momentary buzz but all it did was remind me how much more I liked the first game and how much I miss those characters; Rex and Kaidan and Zaeed and Anderson and Liara and Garrus — always Garrus — etc.
I hate the voice actors for the male and female Ryders and the dialog seems flat.  Maybe that’s due to the delivery, but I don’t find the conversations all that interesting.  My Dragon Age Warden and my Inquisitor and my Shepard became very real for me.  They had lives and backstories and hopes and dreams outside of the game.  Hell I ended up writing a 140 page novella that was my ending for Mass Effect 3 because I was so annoyed with the ending BioWare provided.  That is more than a bit of identification with a character when a professional writer takes time from paying work to give their character a satisfying ending.  Ryder is so dull he’s just a puppet I’m pushing around the screen.
The fact that the animals on every planet are basically the same whether it’s a desert, jungle or snow planet was just lazy and the there is a stultifying sameness to the vaults.  I’ve now opened three of the damn things and it’s the same damn dungeon crawl every time.  The combat is good, but if I just wanted to shoot things I’d play Halo.  I’m playing a biotic this time who has weapons skills, but it’s really hard to figure out how to change my skills.  In the old games it was easy.  I brought up the combat wheel and picked.  Now it’s mapped and I haven’t figured how to switch to say a tech power use rather than biotic.  I hated this change in Inquisition too in that once you’ve mapped the skill you are stuck with it until you stop and remove and remap them.  At least I figured out how to do that in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  I’m still trying to figure it out in Andromeda though truthfully I don’t care enough to try all that hard.
It’s just heartbreaking to see a once great company becoming mediocre.  I had some hope after the debacle of the end of Mass Effect 3 and the mess that was Dragon Age: 2 when  Inquisition seemed to regain their mojo.  I had hoped they would show the same return to form with Andromeda.  Instead this game has left me utterly cold and I think I’m going to give up and either finish my replay of Inquisition, replay the first Mass Effect trilogy which was brilliant apart from the final 15 minutes or download Witcher 3 and start that game.  By the way, I replayed Dragon Age: Origin while I was home in NM and that game is still the gold standard despite the advancements in graphic design and game play — Because The Story Is So Good.
Yeah, whether we’re talking movies or games it doesn’t matter if you’ve got whiz bang effects and big boss fights if the story is shite and you don’t care about the people.
Hey studios both movie and game studios — It’s the Story Stupid.

Mass Effect Fantasy

Major game neepery is about to ensue so if you’re not into Mass Effect this may seem like I’ve begun speaking in tongues.

So I had this fantasy about the DLC I’d loved to have played.  I had fun with the Citadel DLC, but thought there were a number of missed opportunities.  And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the Shepard clone.  (Mostly while I’m stuck on an elliptical machine for 40 minutes.  It’s good to let your mind wander.)

Anyway, my Shepard who is a boy scout tried to save his “brother”, but of course that didn’t work out.  But it occurred to me that this is another Shepard and Shepard manages to elude death and even actual death on a regular basis.  So what if Shepard clone survived the fall from the Normandy and ended up in a clinic down in the Wards getting patched up.

BioWare indicated that when the Reapers decided to relocate the Citadel to Earth some people would have holed up, barricaded themselves down in the Wards and kept fighting.  In my alternate reality you have a Shepard on hand, and so you could have him/her limping around organizing the defense and keeping people alive until the other Shepard could save the day.  It would be a way for the clone to learn to stop being a racist asshole and also redeem their soul.

My feeling is why waste a good clone.  😏

Inquisition Second Play Through

I’ve been moving very slowly on my second play through of Inquisition.  Part of that is life intruding — a script to be written, a return to N.M., back to L.A., a move, and back home to New Mexico.  I also hit a bug that irritated me and since I’m a completest I had to go back to a save prior to the bug and get it fixed.  I couldn’t get the damn dragonologist to realize I had taken care of the White Claws and move his ass off to Skyhold.

As I mentioned earlier I did discover there were more agents to be recruited if you had the right party member with you.  You need Vivienne to get the mage at the Crossroads (or be a mage yourself apparently), you need Varric to recruit the missing scout who it turned out was having sexy time with an apostate mage.  I also managed to get a band of mercs on the Storm Coast this time because I hadn’t sold this medallion.

What struck me as I was playing last night was that this game hasn’t aroused in me that desperate need to replay that the original game awakened.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still love Inquisition, but Origins is still my favorite despite the silent protagonist, the awkward combat system, the far less elegant visuals.

I thought quite a bit about this last night as to why I was having this reaction, and I think it’s a writer’s reaction, and my own personal taste in stories.  I love stories about the isolated underdog who has to overcome the odds.  That’s really the arc of Origins — after Ostagar your character and Alistair are the only Grey Wardens in Ferelden and you are baby Grey Wardens.  You are being hunted by the crown as well as darkspawn.  You’re the ultimate underdogs.  By the end you have gathered an army, ended a civil war, etc., but for most of the game you are the outsider.

In Inquisition you are very briefly a suspected murderer, but that soon ends and then you are placed in de facto commend of the nascent Inquisition and then after Haven and the end of act one you are named Inquisitor.  From the beginning you have troops and scouts at your disposal, and then you have a mucking big castle that you proceed to repair.  A brief aside here, but I was stunned that the final confrontation with Corypheus takes place back at Haven and not at Skyhold that you have so carefully restored.  That felt like a missed opportunity.

But back to the topic — despite the hole in the sky I find that I have far less sense of jeopardy in Inquisition than I felt in Origins.  The vulnerability of my young Warden felt very real to me and evoked a real emotional reaction to the game.  I think the bug in Inquisition that has also left your companions virtually mute while you go adventuring is adding to the lack of emersion I’m feeling.  I really hope BioWare gets a patch for that, and very soon.

It was probably wise that the designers didn’t try to just remake Origins and instead had Inquisition go in a different direction.  It’s pretty clear your Inquisitor is older than your Warden in Origins and you are a commander of not only an army, but a political entity that has the power to shake thrones.  If I were the rulers of both Orlais and Ferelden I’d be worried and perhaps that is where BioWare will go with game 4.  We’ll have to see.

Again, this is not a criticism so much as an observation.  Inquisition is a great game.  For me it was far superior to Skyrim, but it has a different emphasis then Origins and for me the stakes ended up feeling smaller.  I have replayed Origins four times all the way through, and started a few other campaigns that I never finished primarily because I suck at playing mages.  I just keep dying.  😀

Just wanted to give an update on the play through.  As more things occur I’ll jot them down.

Set It Up/Pay It Off

Back on my analysis of what made Inquisition such a terrific and satisfying game, and also using it as a way present writing tools that are useful to any story teller be it for games, TV and movies or books.

In my replay I’ve recruited Blackwell, and this time I’m taking him along a lot more often as well as Vivienne since they both got rather short shrift last time.  I found Vivienne to be an unrepentant bitch and Blackwell to be dull until I discovered otherwise to my shock and delight.  As before the spoiler caveat applies.

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So for those of you who have completed Inquisition, and for those of you who, like me, don’t mind spoilers, here’s the skinny.  Blackwell isn’t really a Grey Warden.  He was a recruit.  He was on his way to the joining when his mentor got killed.  Blackwell assumed his identity to escape his past as a betrayer and a murder for money.  All of this is discovered when you have a cryptic conversation with Blackwell and learn he has gone to prevent the execution of a man who was part of the massacre.  It’s a lovely Jean val Jean moment from Le Miserable.  It’s also terrific that if you mishandle that conversation if you go glib or cynical Blackwell simply vanishes and you have no idea why or what happened to him.  That is very cool and great game design.  Actions have consequences.  Just like with Liliana.

Anyway, if you learn the sad truth about your companion suddenly all your earlier interactions with him, and his remarks to his companions take on a stunning new meaning.  What was even better handled by the designers was the foreshadowing.  None of this comes out of left field (cough, cough Mass Effect 3).  Clearly the writers on Dragon Age had witnessed the disaster that was first the ending and then the reaction to Mass Effect 3 and they took careful note.

Here is what they did so well.  They laid in all the clues from your very first meeting with Blackwell.  They “set it up”.  When you first meet him he is training “recruits” but then after a battle with bandits he sends them all home to their farms.  If you’ve played Dragon Age: Origins you think, “hmm, interesting, why isn’t he taking them off for the joining?” but you let it go because of the hole in the sky.

Then there is his defensiveness about criminals becoming Grey Wardens.  My reaction was — okay the guy has a past.  That’s interesting, but will it be relevant.  There is a conversation about The Joining in which Blackwell is appropriately vague.  Once again you think it’s because it’s shrouded in mystery, but after it’s revealed that Blackwell doesn’t have a single clue about the joining it all takes on a new meaning.  A lot of the credit goes to the terrific voice work by Alastair Parker who shaded each exchange perfectly.  A broader reading would have given it away far too soon.  I admit I was expecting something because I’m a writer and this looked like foreshadowing and I was so pleased to see I was right.

The point is that you feel satisfied when the revelation drops and you get that little giggle/thrill when all the earlier dialogue suddenly has new meaning.  If you can give that moment of “How Cool!” to a reader, viewer, player, then you’ve done your job.

Dragon Age: Inquisition & Attention to Detail

As always the caveat that there will be spoilers as I continue my replay of DA: Inquisition and continue my musings.

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So last night I tied up most of the Hinterlands adventures.  Just one more fade rift to close.  I had been holding off on shutting down the rogue templars until I had the damn Inquisition banners requisition handled.  Last time I didn’t get to finish it and it bugged me no end.  (Yes, I am a completist).  So as those who play already know while you are pacifying the Hinterlands there is the sound of combat and the roar of angry men.  Buildings and wagons on fire along the West Road.  Then last night after the templar encampment and the mage hide out had both been dealt with the shouting stopped and when I rode down the West Road the flames were extinguished.  There are farmers back in the fields, and people conducting business in Redcliff and at the Crossroads.  (An aside, and something I found interesting.  When you run into gangs of templars and mages fighting and have to end the fights you are only pitted against men.  I have yet to come up against a female templar or a female mage in those instances which is an odd “soft” form of sexism.)  But back to the topic.

This is beautiful attention to detail, and as every writer knows it’s tremendously important if you want to give a reader or a viewer or a player a truly immersive experience.  For a gamer it adds to that sense of satisfaction that you have accomplished something meaningful.  One of my first gaming experiences that I really enjoyed was Halo, but I eventually lost interest because it was always the same.  Go to the next checkpoint, fight aliens, rinse and repeat.  I never had a sense it was making any difference until the final moment when you kept a Halo ring from doing something evil, and for those of us less adept players the fact you always had to drive really fast to succeed and escape made this ending fraught and frustrating.

You also see that the designers of Dragon Age actually thought about the consequences of your decisions on your companions.  I’m not in love with the “Solas approves, Sera disapproves,” etc. thing, but I have liked the fact that Vivienne gives you an immense amount of crap if you have sided with the mages and think they ought to be able to govern themselves, Cassandra is very suspicious of the spirit creature Cole, and in the case of one particular character the choices you make deeply affect her personality and her behavior near the end of the game.

And then there’s the war table.  If you just pick an advisor to solve a problem based on who can do it the fastest and who is available you may end up with an unfortunate outcome.  If you are playing an elf and you just rely on military force to try and help your clan you end up with a dead clan.  You actually have to stop and consider the problem, the advice being given and the outcome you want.

Dragon Age: Inquisition!

I want to start jotting down my thoughts about Dragon Age: Inquisition, but let me first put up a warning.  I can’t really talk about this game without spoilers so if you haven’t finished, or haven’t started the game — maybe don’t read my musings about the game.

 

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Okay, now that the disclaimer is out of the way….  I really loved this game.  I don’t think it’s quite as epic as Dragon Age: Origins, but the focus is different.  In Origins you’re really a kid, very young maybe 17 or 18 years old and your left isolated, outlawed and alone without guidance from the elders of your order — The Grey Wardens.  Despite that your country is faced with a terrible threat and it’s up to you to forge alliances to fight it.  Added to your problems is a vicious civil war.

The second game, Dragon Age 2 was… well, actually I have no idea what was the point of that game.  It felt cramped and small and unimportant aside from the growing tensions between mages and templars.

Inquisition is more like Mass Effect 3, (but be reassured — unlike ME3 Inquisition has a good ending) in that your task is to craft a massive fighting force to combat a threat that endangers the entire world of Thedas.  There are decisions to be made and how you pick between spies, diplomacy or military action has real consequences.  You have to recruit agents and allies and you can blow it with them.  One of the best sequences in the game is all about court intrigue at a royal ball, and it is friggin’ brilliant.

Dragon Age: Origins did an amazing job of building a culture, societies complete with an intricate history, and Inquisition builds on that history in fascinating ways.  Wisely, BioWare abandoned the ill thought out plan that forced you to only play a human in Dragon Age 2 and once again allowed you a choice of races as well as your gender and class.  I am partial to elves.  My warden in Origins was a Dalish elf so I played Dalish again in this game, and I think it might be the best choice given the focus of the game and what is ultimately discovered.

The designers also broadened the world significantly.  Ferelden felt big to me, but it’s nothing compared with Inquisition.  Kirkwall was very cramped a consequence of a rushed game, but they have more then made up for it in Inquisition.  Thedas is now a very big world, and there is one particular visual out in the Hissing Waste that is spectacular and really brings home that — no, you are not on Earth.  The maps indicated this wasn’t our world, but the image of that gigantic moon hanging at the horizon really makes the point in a very visceral way.

For the record I really disliked Skyrim.  I need some kind of narrative spine.  Just wandering about getting surly rulers elderberry wine and fighting endless walking dead in dungeons very quickly lost any appeal for me.  A big world meant nothing without a story.  BioWare and Inquisition have managed to give me the best of both.  A big world to explore, but a strong sense of what was at stake and what I needed to do.

So, there’s the big overview.  I’ll get into more specifics in future posts.

Revisiting Dragon Age — How Games Help Writers

I started a new Dragon Age campaign here in CA on the new XBox 360.  For the first time I played the human origin story where you are the child of the Tyrn of Highever.  I chose to play a son because I didn’t really want to try romancing Alistair, and I thought I would try to get through the sappy romance with Liliana this time.

Anyway, I’m up to the point where you deal with the civil war and I’m finding myself actually giving serious considerations to the upcoming choices.  Just as I would if this were a novel I was writing.  When I play my beloved Dalish elf I don’t give two hoots for the humans and their fight over the crown.  My loyalty is to my tribe and my companions so I back Alistair to take the throne and I usually manage to broker a marriage with Anora.

But this time I’m human and a noble, and Alistair is a bastard and presumably I’ve been raised to admire Loghain because he freed Ferelden from Orlais, and I’ve probably known Anora since we were both children.  So am I really going to kill the hero of River Dane and marry off my friend Cailan’s widow to an indecisive bastard?  Or if I’m really a self-serving son-of-a-bitch won’t I try to marry Anora and take the throne for myself?  Or is this deeply religious sap I created more likely to take the killing blow at the end and die in an act of noble self-sacrifice?  If I go the self-serving bastard route I’ll probably have Alistaire or Loghain kill the archdemon.  The one thing I can’t see is this character taking Morrigan’s dark deal.  My elf had no problem with that.

Apart from the fact I’ve been busy I also stopped playing while I wrestled with these questions.  It’s silly.  I know it’s just a game and a game I have played a number of times, but the writer in me wants to “play fair”.  I usually play total paragons or light side Jedi — however you want to put it, but to ignore birth and background seems wrong when you are crafting a character.

This is one of the reasons that I think playing video games can actually be helpful for a writer.  If your not just playing hack and slash you might learn some skills that will help you with your own stories.  Certainly our role playing group back in the day spawned a lot of characters and a few stories.  For example WILD CARDS.  Or Richard in my Edge books.  Or Tracy in the IMPERIALS saga.

Setting the Record Straight

So the gamergate spat has finally gone mainstream, and a good thing too since there are now two women in the gaming industry who have been driven from their homes over virulent on-line threats, and the posting of their personal information including their addresses.  And Anita Sarkeesian had to cancel her talk in Utah.

What is infuriating me is how gamers keep making excuses for this inexcusable behavior, and how many of those excuses are just flat out lies.  Let’s start with Zoe Quinn who got slut shamed by her ex-boyfriend who claimed she was giving sexual favors in exchange for positive reviews at Kotaku for her game.  This was supposedly the reason this on-line outrage began — to protect journalistic integrity.   Now it turns out that Kotaku never even reviewed the game.  Here is the statement from Kotaku — (Kotaku & Zoe Quinn).  Did Ms Quinn cheat on her boyfriend?  I have no idea, and whether she did or not has nothing to do with her right to work in the gaming industry or her right not to be forced from her home by death threats.

Next up is Anita Sarkeesian.  Her sin is apparently starting a kick-starter that ended up over funded.  Lots of kick starters get over funded, and she has provided content.  That’s all she promised.  Basic contract law.  She made an offer — fund me and I’ll make some videos about the role of women characters in gaming.  People funded her.  She made some videos.  Contract met.  Screaming that she didn’t make enough videos is irrelevant.  I think her real sin was pointing out some depressingly sexist tendencies in video games.  She hasn’t had to flee her home yet, but threats of a massacre at Utah State University.  She has been accused of “making it up”, and that this is all just a “false flag”.  One big problem, apologists — the threats were sent to the University not to Ms. Sarkeesian.  She learned about them when she got off the plane in Utah, and then discovered that because of Utah’s “open carry” policy guns could be brought into the auditorium.  In an abundance of caution and because the emails had threatened a massacre — meaning others were also at risk — Sarkeesian chose to cancel her talk.  Here is a link to the Washington Post article. Utah & Sarkeesian.

Next up is Brianna Wu who had the temerity to mock gamergate, and for this she has been threatened with rape and murder and has fled her home.  Like Anita Sarkeesian Wu has been accused of “making it up.”  As she pointed out in an interview with CNN —

“At this point the FBI is involved. My local police department is involved, the Massachusetts cybercrime division is involved. If I made this up, I’ll be going to jail. I can think of no quicker way to destroy my career than doing something stupid like that.

“I think it shows a really disturbing mindset from people on the other side of this. They want to attack the person that’s the victim of a crime. It’s a terrible, destructive impulse.”

I love video games.  I think it’s a fantastic new form of entertainment, very creative, and a new art form, but this shit gotta stop.  To all the little boys out there who are threatening women in this industry — you profess to love games and want to protect the integrity of the industry.  Here’s a tip — then don’t make violent threats against women in gaming with whom you disagree.

I’m going to go ahead and post this.  So cue the threats.

Or maybe people are starting to wake up, and realize that if we don’t police ourselves we’re going to prove to the world that we are loser nerds who can’t get dates on Saturday night.

This Shit Needs to Stop

So a third prominent woman in the gaming industry has been threatened with rape and death.  Now Brianna Wu has been forced to flee her home.  You can find one of the many articles here Polygon.

This is starting to send me into a headache inducing rage.  Yeah, boys, we are entitled in to come into the treehouse.  I love video games, but this is starting to make me embarrassed to admit the passion.

And what really amazes me is the inability of these boys (I won’t dignify them by calling them men) to grasp that threatening a woman like this is morally, legally and ethically indefensible.  So I’m going to put it in the most basic and selfish form I can think of.  Maybe that will penetrate to these mouth breathers.

You profess to love gaming so much, and then you do this.  You are giving your beloved gaming a really, really bad name.  Will that work?  Can you get that?

What We Owe Art

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know I’ve been struggling with trying to obtain a DLC (downloadable content) for an older video game called Knights of the Old Republic hereinafter referred to as KOTOR.  This game was released in 2003 and won Game of the Year — deservedly so, it’s a terrific game, and in researching for this post I discovered why.  My friend Drew Karpyshyn wrote the game, and it’s bloody brilliant.  An absolutely great story.  It’s a pity Lucas didn’t hire Drew for the prequels.  We would have had far better movies.  But I digress.  Back to the game.

I started playing this game because my terrific editor Stacy Hill (who is a fellow Game Girl) loved this game.  We bonded over our love for Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect so when Stacy told me this was a great game I listened.

I played it.  I loved it.  In the course of play I discovered there was downloadable content which gave you new shiny crystals for your lightsaber and I wanted them.  Partly because I wanted all the help I could get for the final boss fight, but also because I’m a completist when I play a game.  I want to do every mission, and explore every nook and cranny of the world.

Thus began two weeks of enormous frustration.  I searched for the game on X-Box Live.  No go.  I tried to access the DLC’s from the disc and kept getting bizarre error messages.  I began to panic that my disc was corrupted or worse that my console was dying.  I spent hours in an on-line chat with support at X-Box Live and finally I got my answer.  The servers for KOTOR were “no longer serviced”.  Which meant I couldn’t get the DLC and it had never been placed on a disc that I could discover.

Now I have to roll back a little to Wednesday night last week when I went to see GRAVITY with my friends Brett Shapiro, Sage Walker and Hank Messenger.  Brett is a game guy, knows a tremendous amount about the industry and he was mourning the fact that games are not respected as art, not even by the companies which create them.

Add to this a conversation with my friend and fellow writer Matt Reiten that the new X-Box console will not be backward compatible so all my beloved games — Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, KOTOR would not be playable on the X-Box 1.  I was shocked and furious, and resolved to buy another 360 console and just keep it in the closet until the inevitable death of my current console.

As I looked at this confluence of events I realized there was something far more important at stake here then me having to (potentially) repurchase games or not get to play certain games or buy an extra console.  What’s at stake is the value and preservation of art.

Because theses games are art.  A new kind of art, but most definitely art and just as worthy as books or movies or television shows or paintings for that matter.  When companies treat these games as mere commodities, as widgets if you will, they are devaluing the work of the artists and writers and programmers who worked to create something of value.  We live in a throw away society, but these games should not be treated with that lack of respect.  They are stories and adventures and paintings, and performances on the part of the talented voice actors.  They need to be preserved.  Coded in such a way they can be updated so they aren’t lost.  Of course not every game is brilliant.  Not every book or movie is brilliant, but the Library of Congress and the National Film Preservation protect and preserve all that they can because our throw away society shouldn’t forget what’s come before.

We don’t discard the Mona Lisa because painting styles have changed.

A Failure of Tone in Mass Effect 3’s Citadel

I can’t bear to think about the disfunction in Washington and the nihilism and lack of empathy of the Republicans so instead I’ll go back to game world, and bring up a point that occurred to me about the jarring tone set by Citadel when it has to fall in the middle of this life and death battle for the galaxy.  There is a brief interaction with Zaeed (one of my favorite characters) where he is cursing a blue streak as he tries to win a stuffed toy for a little boy who is crying.  At first blush it seems amusing, but I actually found it to be one of the more disturbing moments in the Citadel DLC (downloadable content).  Why?

Because if you’ve played the game you know that the child will soon be killed once the Reapers seize control of the Citadel.  I know some of the BioWare people have tried to tell us that there were survivors on the Citadel, but they didn’t show us that.  They showed us a charnel house so when you show me this weeping child I know he’s dead, and Zaeed’s reluctant act of kindness ultimately meant nothing.  As I wrote in an earlier analysis of Citadel, I think it’s in the wrong game, and this just adds to my sense that this farewell gift wasn’t fully thought through.

Mass Effect 3 – Citadel

Well, I have played Citadel. I have played almost every permutation of the “party”. I appreciate the fact that BioWare has sent me a box of chocolates and some roses, that this DLC (downloadable content) was a love letter and maybe even a bit of an apology from the folks at BioWare. I enjoyed large sections of this add on, but ultimately it feels like another missed opportunity.

I’m going to talk about the interactions with your teammates, friends and LI (love interest) before I get into the whole “evil clone” plot. There were four interactions in particular that I thought were just inspired.

Joker spinning a yarn about his derring do to save the Normandy from Cerberus. The cut scene was hilarious and so charming, and I chose to support his delusions of grandeur and help him get those free drinks because it was just so charming and hey, he did save the Normandy from the Collectors.

Grunt’s tale about “Grunt Tankbred’s Day Off”. It was funny and delightful, and the way he exhorts Shepard to “Keep up!” is wonderful.

Wrex moaning about the Krogan women who want their first child to be sired by Urdnot Wrex who helped cure the Genophage. The sideways glances from Shepard while Wrex treats his abused nether regions with a bag of ice are priceless.

The encounter with my LI which for my Shepard was Kaidan. I loved the cooking scene and the fact you could make a grown up choice about how the evening ended. Hint — it could end in bed.

One step down from the delight of these four interactions were the memorial for Thane and the conversation with Miranda. I also liked the conversation with Vega, and watching sports with the unlikely friends — Cortez and Vega. The other encounters ranged from merely okay to cursory at best, but at least the effort was there to let you have moments with all the characters. I did think there were some great exchanges during the party. The last Prothean raving about becoming Emperor. Zaeed trying to pick up Samara (what a shame the acting world, particularly for games, lost Robin Sachs). Being abused by your friends about your terrible dancing. Tali getting blasted. Kasumi skulking about the apartment and going through your underwear drawer. Traynor’s attraction for EDI. It was all tremendous fun.

Now to the actual mission part of the DLC. The main problem you have to solve is the fact a clone of Commander Shepard is trying to steal your life and ship. Probably because I’m a drama writer I found the attempt to make this a romp less satisfying. Science fiction has been dealing with the issue of clones in interesting and creative ways for decades, and I felt the comedy seemed forced. In all three backgrounds Shepard is a fundamentally lonely person with few ties beyond his/her crew on the Normandy. For better or worse this doppelgänger is the closest thing to a sibling Shepard would ever experience. Would there not be a desperate need to preserve this mirror image, learn about them? I was also frustrated by the choice that really wasn’t a choice. I always play paragon, so I opted for the choice to “save the clone”. Except you didn’t get to save the clone. Instead we had an ending very reminiscent of the conclusion of the second MUMMY movie where the Mummy realizes his sweetie doesn’t love him the way hero’s sweetie loves him so the Mummy allows himself to die. In this case it was Evil Clone Shepard realizing he had no crew to rush to the rescue and his Cerberus hottie didn’t care either so he/she falls to their deaths. Maybe. Or course we never see the clone go splat and there’s no dialogue about disposing of the body. I actually wouldn’t mind if BioWard decided to do something with that bit of ambiguity because, for me, Shepard and the Mass Effect universe are inextricably bound together.

My biggest problem is the pacing of the DLC. I found I kept having to leave the Citadel and complete missions before certain encounters would unlock and I could invite various parties up to the apartment. One thing Mass Effect 3 did very, very well was build tension and the sense of dread and impending doom. Time seems of the essence so it was jarring to keep running back to the Citadel to play arcade games or go out on the town, or watch movies, etc. Also if you want everyone at the big party which ends the DLC you have to wait until after the Horizon mission to get Miranda. All that remains after that is destroying Cerberus and then the final fight for Earth. So to suddenly stop for a party seems utterly out of character for Shepard and undercuts the sense of urgency.

Because I had played through to the end of the game and had no intention of finishing the game again this pacing was less an issue for me, but if you were to have this DLC installed on your first play through I think it would kill the momentum and your sense of immersion.

Bottom line. While I enjoyed this — as long as I viewed it as almost completely separate from the main game — I think it’s in the wrong place. As in the wrong game. This DLC would have worked brilliantly as the coda to Mass Effect 2. You’re just coming off being resurrected by Cerberus so the idea of a clone created as back-up is very logical. If you destroyed the Collector base and told The Illusive Man to shove it he has a very strong reason for trying to replace you. And since Shepard is about to arrested either for working with Cerberus or destroying the mass relay at Bahak the idea of one final farewell party before you go to jail makes so much sense.

For those of us who selected either Ashley or Kaidan as our love interest we would lose out in that situation, but it just would have fit so beautifully and you wouldn’t have had the pacing problems that arose with it being in Mass Effect 3.

However, if I assume this is a love letter from BioWare to their fans then I can take it in the spirit it was offered and say thank you. They still don’t get a pass for creating a train wreck with that ending, but it seemed like a return to what made so many of us love BioWare games — the characters, the worlds, the friendships.

I confess I’m rather melancholy now that there is no more Mass Effect. Someday I’ll replay at least the first two games, and some of third. Meanwhile I’m going to dive into Knights of the Old Republic which my book editor tells me has all the strengths of Dragon Age: Origins and the first 2 Mass Effect games. A new world discover and new people to meet.

And a whole new set of commands for the controller. Not looking forward to that part. 🙂

Late at Night and All Alone

I’ve been having a really interesting discussion with a number of fans over on the BSN (BioWare Social Network).  This group seemed to be moderate, thoughtful, and far more polite with one another.  The topic was foreshadowing, and needless to say we ended up discussing the tragic failure to foreshadow pretty much anything that mattered at the end of the third game.  A year of analysis, looking at this game solely as a writing exercise, and the enjoyment of writing my own ending, and follow-up story has eased the disappointment.  I am now far more sanguine about the entire debacle, and I will probably replay Mass Effect 1 several more times before I’m too old to adequately handle the X-Box controller.  🙂  But it got me to thinking about the men responsible for this conclusion.

I mentioned on the forum thread that I thought this trilogy could have been the greatest game that’s been created to date, but because of the dreadful ending it has become the most returned game in the history of the industry, and has alienated a significant number of passionate BioWare fans.  I confess I am among them.  I had total confidence in the company after Dragon Age: Origins and Awakenings, and Mass Effect 1 and 2.  DA 2 began to shake my faith, but I knew it had been rushed so I was undeterred.  Then came Mass Effect 3.

As I was chatting and typing I suddenly found myself considering the position of the two men who, it is believed, were solely responsible for the ending.  I wondered what they think, or may admit to themselves in the dark hours between dusk and dawn.  To have the awesome responsibility of concluding this epic adventure into which people had poured at least a hundred hours of their time was probably daunting and suddenly I felt very sorry for them.  This is resting on their shoulders.  Yes, both companies, EA and BioWare, have said all the appropriate things — “the ending is the artistic vision and we stand behind it”, but they’ve got to be looking at those return numbers, and the rather sluggish sales of the DLC’s (Downloadable Content), and have some regrets.  So, how much more regret must the creative team feel and in particular those two individuals?

If you try to make or write something, and it fails right out of the box it’s undoubtably disappointing and you feel bad, but to take something that was outstanding, critically received, adored by legions of fans, and then mess it up must be a particular kind of hell.  I think about Lucas with those dreadful prequels that have almost destroyed mine and many other people’s love, admiration and enjoyment of Star Wars and Empire.

Endings are hard.  I don’t argue that isn’t the case, look at Lost and Battlestar Galactica, but this was a self-inflicted wound, and all the more tragic because it could have been salvaged.  I hope BioWare returns to it’s pre-eminent position as one of the great game companies, and I hope the writing team has a chance to regroup and find their center again.  Basically I feel bad for them because this has to have been a painful and devastating experience.

It’s The Craft That Matters

I joined the BioWare social network because of my deep enjoyment and interest in both the Dragon Age franchise and the Mass Effect franchise.  Unfortunately there does seem to be a tendency to go for the flame among some of the members.  Because we are all geeks there is also a tendency to focus on minutia.  We saw it a lot when I was on Star Trek:TNG.  After each episode aired there would be so many letters about our technobabble pointing out that we had said something that was contradictory to what we had said in an earlier episode.  Bad dialog (technobabble can never be good no matter how good the actor delivering it) about technology that didn’t exist engendered passionate responses.  Why?  Because at its core Star Trek and the Federation felt very real.  And that’s a good thing.  That’s what we strive to have happen as creators.

However, focusing on nits never gets you to a valuable analysis of story and how they should work.  I was very disappointed by the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, but we were literally talking about some ten to fifteen minutes at the very end where things went off the rails.  For most of the two and three quarters of the game it was marvelous and a magnificent achievement.  And last night as I was looking at the level of vitriol against BioWare and other members of the social network who are still disappointed, and I realized that a.) people were missing the point, and b.) that I actually owed the franchise a debt of gratitude.  Not just because it had given me many hours of enjoyment until those final minutes, but because it helped me focus in on the craft of writing, gave me new insights into what I do and how I do it.  As a result I have used this games as the basis for the past four lectures I have delivered, two at universities and two at science fiction conventions.

This shouldn’t be about picking nits.  The Star Child’s argument makes no sense.  It contradicts something that was said by a character in the second game, etc.  None of that matters.   This is a lesson in the craft of writing.  What I have learned from my analysis of this game is that the fundamentals of writing are fairly straight forward.  There are rules.  Formulas even — and formula is not a dirty word.  Every kind of story has at its heart a formula.  TV shows especially have formulas.  We couldn’t keep up with the shooting schedule if each show didn’t develop its own set of tropes and formula.

Bottom line you follow the rules and you ‘ll end up with a story that makes sense.  It might not be magnificent, move people to tears, or joyful laughter but it will at least be competent.  Writing rules are like the rules of music theory — once you understand how music is structured you can compose.  Now does that mean that you have the gifts of a Mozart or Beethoven and will create a pretty song?  No.  But it will be correct in terms of the rules of composition.  Understanding theory is also no guarantee that you can sing or play a musical instrument.

I have long believed that the ability to write is very analogous to having musical talent.  Some people are tone deaf.  My mother was one of those.  She never “got” music.  It was okay to listen to and to dance, but it wasn’t in her soul, deep in her bones.  Yes, she could have learned to play an instrument, understood the rules of theory, but whether performing or creating her music would never have… well, sung.   I can impart to anyone the rules, but what is produced may not change a mind or touch a heart.  There is, in fact, such a thing as talent.

The graphic artists and programers who create these games have a talent.  Now we just need to see the gaming industry realize that you need people with an equal gift for writing, and then this new and vibrant form of entertainment will only climb to new heights.

Mass Effect 3 Dilemma

So the final DLC (Down Loadable Content) for Mass Effect 3 dropped today.  Thus far I have resisted purchasing any of the DLC’s for this game.  I had the same reaction to Dragon Age 2.  I didn’t buy a single DLC.  But for Mass Effect 1 and 2 and Dragon Age: Origins I bought every DLC.  The games were just that good.  But now my resolve is being tested.

From the trailer it’s apparently old home week all the living characters with whom you’ve adventured return.  And you get a snazzy apartment.  And maybe you get to spend some quality time with your love interest before bad guys try to kill you.  Getting to reconnect with Wrex and Zaeed and others is very, very tempting, and the chance to spend more time with Kaidan — really tempting.  But like the other DLC’s it suffers because it fundamentally affects nothing in terms of the ending, and I think it undercuts one of the great strengths of the third game.  The building tension, stress and exhaustion under which Shepard is operating.  One of the more powerful cutscenes in the third game is when Joker is desperate because Anderson has told him to “look out” for Shepard, and he awkwardly tries to ease the commander’s sense of grief and failure.  It’s an honest and very human moment.

The entire setup also seems to violate Shepard’s fundamental character.   You’ve been given this enormous apartment, but if you’ve played a paragon Shepard you’ve been  trying to convince the Citadel to take in more refugees, and people are living cheek to jowl in squalid conditions.  Why wouldn’t the good commander offer space in this giant apartment to refugee families?  He’s got a pretty nice cabin back on the Normandy.

Then there’s the whole — Reaper’s are kicking the shit out of Earth, and other planets are burning, and millions are dying, but you’re going to have a party?  Again, it seems so out of character.  Apparently you’re back at the Citadel for repairs to your ship which helps explain this side mission and takes off some of the curse, but the tone is worrisome. 

And somebody is trying to kill the person who is leading the effort to prevent the annihilation of all intelligent life in the galaxy?  Why would anyone do that?  Because they’re crazy?  But now you have an insane antagonist, and that’s always difficult to pull off.  They did manage to make that work in THE DARK KNIGHT primarily because of Michael Cain as Alfred’s wonderful story about taking out the bandit leader by burning down the forest, “Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money.  They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.  Some men just want to watch the world burn.”    But in Mass Effect 3 we’re talking the destruction of every living soul in every advanced civilization.  That’s some pretty serious crazy if you want that to happen, and a very elaborate way to commit suicide if that’s what you actually after.   For villains to be truly effective they have to think of themselves as the hero.  As the writer you should be able to make a compelling argument for the villain’s position.  Perhaps my training as a lawyer — to be able to argue both sides of a problem — has helped me with that, but I think it’s critical.  Otherwise you just end up with villains who are evil because they are evil.  Not a lot of nuance there.

Bottom line — I’ll wait to read the reviews.  If there’s quality time with the characters and LI (Love Interest) then maybe, but if it’s mostly just a run-and-gun I’m less interested.  I need the next great narrative driven RPG to come along.  Maybe it will be Dragon Age 3?   Sadly, I confess to being skeptical.

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