Tag Archives: video games

Wanted: A soul – Mass Effect: Andromeda Review

Sometimes games can’t beat the pressure of their own ancestry. If any game series risks being downgraded due to its own success, it’s Mass Effect. Many of us found the ME trilogy to be one of the most powerful story experiences of the previous console generation. ME2 ranks as one of my favorite stories of all time, across all categories (book/game/film/TV). I wrote about power of the Mass Effect storyline here several years ago.  Despite the controversy about the series’ ending, the writers showed us just how high excellent game storytelling could rise.

So it’s not an understatement to say I was bubbling with excitement this spring to get my hands on Mass Effect: Andromeda, the newest game from the BioWare team.

… and discovered that this newest installment has no soul.

I can’t escape the tinge of disappointment that I feel whenever I’m playing the game. The basic arc is all there, the loyalty missions, the questing structure, decent sci-fi shooter combat. The game’s shine is dulled a bit from the effect of Mass Effect hitting in 2007; games overall are so much better now and audience expectations march ever higher.

But what I genuinely miss is the story having a soul.

Briefly (only mild spoilers here), you play one of the two Ryder twins who are traveling with the Milky Way pilgrims to the Andromeda galaxy. An unknown large corporation (The Initiative) sponsored 100,000 colonists to move to the neighboring galaxy and set up shop. If you know the ME series, this game takes place around the same time as the start of ME2, so you know that all Milky Way life is being threatened  by the reapers, though most folks there don’t realize that yet.

The themes in Andromeda are a lot of what you’d expect: meet new alien races, fight the ones who try to kill you, explore brave new worlds, do side quests that range from annoying to genuinely interesting, and try to get these new colonies off the ground before everyone dies in the cold darkness of space.

Honestly, if the only expectations Andromeda had to live up to were last year’s No Man’s Sky debacle, I’d say it was winning. This is what we all wanted No Man’s Sky to be, in many ways: fly around on a kick-ass ship to brightly colored planets with difficult environments and poke around till we find something cool. Build bases. Stare at a sky full of stars – because Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s star maps are breathtaking. It’s always been one of the best features of the ME games.

A recent patch allows gamers to skip the long travel cutscenes as they move throughout a star system, but they’re genuinely beautiful.

But therein lies the problem. As consumers, we demand that each new iteration be an improvement. Is it ok that Andromeda feels like the writers sketched out the bones of ME2 and swapped in new names and new inciting incidents?

Why does this game leave me feeling so cold inside? Why do I pick up my controller (driven by a “need” to finish, because it’s a BioWare game and I want to know what happens) yet feel bored by pretty much everything that’s happening here?

I’m still working through my first play through, so I can’t speak to the ending of the story. It’s possible ME:A will wow me by the end by offering up what I’ve come to expect from these guys: really interesting deep writing with thorny ethical dilemmas and characters I love like members of my own family.

My Sara looks a little like this. Actually, mine looks a LOT like Michelle Obama, which was entirely unintentional…..

But I’m 50+ hours in, and my love for the crew is tepid. I like Sara Ryder (I’m playing her rather than Scott, her brother), but she’s such a goody-two-shoes at times. Without the paragon structure in the dialogue choices, I often feel as if my only options are between “nice” self-righteousness and the asshole version. Ryder is quite young, so maybe that’s part of BioWare’s goal with this character – to evolve her own understanding of the difficulty of command as the game progresses. But I’m not seeing it really, and it all leaves me a bit cold inside.

AAA+ game titles are too big to fail, so they die from the inside out.  If you’re too afraid to gamble your story by pushing it forward and challenging the player, you kill it by a thousand little cuts. It’s not that the ME:A writing is bad; it’s fine. Well, dialogue is laughably stiff much of the time, but that may have more to do with the game’s engine and pacing than the actual writing.  Extra Credits did an excellent piece on why the animation has been so stiff in ME:A and the challenges that come with trying to create realistic game conversations:

But animation issues aren’t at the heart of what’s wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s that the story seems to have little driving it forward emotionally, while the gameplay itself isn’t innovative enough to offset this weakness in the writing.

I’ve heard that BioWare is stepping away from the ME franchise after this – gutting the Montreal studio that made it and focusing on other IPs instead. I’m sorry to hear that; the ME universe is so rich and well-developed thanks to the trilogy. But they didn’t gamble big enough on story, while gambling too much on the switch to the Frostbite engine and all the animation issues that caused.

*****
A good example of RPG game-writing with heart: The Witcher 3 blew my mind and set the bar pretty damn high for all future RPG writing. I’m thrilled to hear that Netflix is going to produce a Witcher TV Series. I’m so excited!

I wrote about my experience playing Witcher 3 a few months ago … it’s #1 in my list of “best games I’ve ever played,” barely edging out Journey and Mass Effect 2 for that title.
I played a parenting sim disguised as the best video game I’ve ever played

 

I played a parenting sim disguised as the best video game I’ve ever played [The Witcher 3]

Oh no. Here it is. One of those moments where you’ve got to make a snap decision, but you can feel in your heart that it’s a biggie.

Damn. If I let her go off and do this, she’s not ready. She’s going to get hurt. She doesn’t understand the risks. This could end badly – so badly. I’d be an idiot to let a teenage girl walk into that situation without her father.

But if I make the call for her, if I insist on shoving myself into her decision, then I’m also diminishing her as a person. I’m robbing her of the opportunity to become all the woman that she can be. And that’s starting to mean more to me than ‘keeping her safe.’  There’s going to come a day when I’m not there, when I can’t keep her safe. She’s got to be able to make it on her own.

I’ve spent the last week second-guessing my choices as a “parent,” worried that I could have chosen better … This wasn’t what I expected when I popped the game disk into my PS4 in December.

The Witcher 3 is a video game by a Polish studio based on a fantasy series popular there, one that is just now making its way into the American market. (You should immediately go buy the first book on Amazon, because if you like fantasy at all, you’ll enjoy it.) The books and games center on the story of Geralt the Witcher, one of the few remaining members of a guild founded in the book’s Middle Ages to fight monsters who prey on humans. As people began to populate the land (a clone of Eastern Europe) back in the day, witchers were created through mutation and strong drugs to be faster and more capable mutant humans, able to take down the terrifying creatures that the humans discovered in their land. But that was hundreds of years ago, and the witchers are a dying breed now, a relic of an older and less-enlightened age, and despised by most people as an aberration.

witcher-3-screenshot-4-840x473Geralt is a pretty hard man at the beginning of his story. Unlike many fantasy RPG’s which throw you into an open world to craft your own story, Geralt brings his own strong, established personality and a definite story arc. He reminds me of a 1930s noir detective. He speaks in short clipped sentences and sees the world in his own version of black and white. To a witcher, the politics of men matter little. His job is to kill the monsters that men can’t kill … though he wisely recognizes that many “monsters” are far better than the rich men and rulers who devour their subjects through greed and corruption. But he wasn’t created to deal with them.

***SPOILERS AHEAD*** YOU SHOULD STOP NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED THE GAME
and you really should play this game! ….One of the best I’ve ever encountered. 

Into Geralt’s hard and lonely life comes a child, a Child of Destiny, a consequence of the Law of Surprise. (“As payment, give me something you have at home that you do not expect.” Or “Give me your first child, the one yet unborn.”) Geralt has little use for Destiny since he survives by hard training, fast reflexes, and avoiding the stupidity of a fight he cannot win. But Destiny has other plans, and inserts into his life a six year old, blond firebrand named Ciri. Geralt, when he has a home, lives with a couple other bachelor witchers in a drafty, crumbling castle. His idea of “fun” is either drinking or working out.

But suddenly, he’s a dad. And through the power of video gaming, now so are you.

qcprc7p

Ciri grows up, as children are wont to do. And so does Geralt (who’s 100 years old, by the way, when the story opens – witchers don’t really age thanks to their mutations). And so does Yenefer, Geralt’s on-again/off-again love interest, a woman who’s so polarizing, the Witcher fanbase sorts itself into #TeamYen and #TeamTriss. Yenefer is a hard woman to love. That’s a long story and I’ll leave it for the books or games to unravel for you, but it’s worth noting that I couldn’t stand her for the first several hours I played the game (or the first several hundred pages of the books). I came around later.

But what makes the Witcher 3 a stunning masterpiece of storytelling is the way it thrusts you into the job of parent, so craftily that you don’t realize it’s happened. Geralt is on a mission to find Ciri #becauseplot and along the way you’re asked to make decisions, often in the heat of a moment, about how you’re going to respond to Ciri’s attitude or request or needs.

Do you coddle her? Encourage her? Forbid her? Protect her?

It matters. There are three endings to this game, and one of them is horrible. Gamers talk about how that ending crushed them. The other two endings are “good” but also bittersweet. Parents can’t keep their kids forever. It’s not what’s meant to be, no matter how much you enjoy their company. You’ve got to let go. The big question is, will you be able to live with yourself once you see the embodiment of all your parenting choices? #allthefeels

What struck me, once I finished the game, was how much Geralt and Yenefer (and I-as-Geralt) had changed because of parenting Ciri. You realize you’re making decisions differently. They’re sacrificing themselves for the sake of this girl they’re raising. And as Ciri becomes more and more their heart-child, a woman they will fight and die for because they love her that deeply, their sacrifice is redemptive. By sacrificing themselves, they save themselves – from a life of loneliness and bitterness and selfishness. “He who saves his life shall lose it; but he who sacrifices his life for My sake, shall find it,” said Christ in the Gospels. Learning to live and love sacrificially has consequences, primarily for the person who’s learning to love selflessly.

Please dive into this game if you have any inclination toward video games at all. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. In fact, I’ll probably find you bawling your eyes out at the ending, like I did…. because that’s what a great game does for you. It drives home its story so that you cannot escape it, so that you feel it and walk around in a daze for a bit afterward, wondering how you could have been a better parent…..

I recommend reading this lovely short piece on the quality of The Witcher 3‘s storytelling.

Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 11.12.52 AM.png
Over 800 awards for this game. Nothing to sneeze at.

You might also enjoy this great analysis by the guys at Extra Credits on how The Witcher 3 uses choice and romantic dilemmas to force the player to confront his/her own character:

interesting read about #GamerGate and Chan thinking

The #GamerGate saga drags on, an impressive feat for a mudfest launched well over 4 months ago.

If you’ve been keeping up with the topic, or even if you’re just amazed that two groups of people can “talk past” each other for this long, check out this really interesting Storify stream about the culture of the “-Chan” message forums, and how it breeds Internet trolls.

Get up to speed on #GamerGate

The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate.

^Good read.  Read it.  Because threatening women needs to stop. Period.

There is a reason why, in all the Gamergate rhetoric, you hear the echoes of every other social war staged in the last 30 years: overly politically correct, social-justice warriors, the media elite, gamers are not a monolith. There is also a reason why so much of the rhetoric amounts to a vigorous argument that “Being a gamer doesn’t mean you’re sexist, racist, and stupid” —a claim no one is making. Co-opting the language and posture of grievance is how members of a privileged class express their belief that the way they live shouldn’t have to change, that their opponents are hypocrites and perhaps even the real oppressors. This is how you get St. Louisans sincerely explaining that Ferguson protestors are the real racists, and how you end up with an organized group of precisely the same video game enthusiasts to whom an entire industry is catering honestly believing that they’re an oppressed minority. From this kind of ideological fortification, you can stage absolutely whatever campaigns you deem necessary.

What we have in Gamergate is a glimpse of how these skirmishes will unfold in the future—all the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center. What we’re seeing now is a rehearsal, where the mechanisms of a toxic and inhumane politics are being tested and improved.

Late August Notes

Hey folks!  I offer here an overview of some of the cool media I’ve been reading/watching/playing/eating (you can’t eat media, but I need to give a shout-out to some great August food) this month.

I’ll be honest,  it’s been really busy at work and things aren’t going to let up until later this fall.  I’ll write more when I can match up brain cells to blocks of time.  Till then….

COOL TUNES
Snarky Puppies have changed my life. Seriously. If you like music at all you owe it to yourself to watch this and revel in the fusion of jazz and horns and awesomeness. Just hit play and enjoy the background tunes for the rest of the post…. don’t turn it off before you hear 1) the fun guitar tune and 2) the awesome keyboard riffs.

Dose horns, doe!

KICKSTARTER FINDS
I find Kickstarter to be pretty amazing. Yes, you can get taken for a ride if developers suck. But that’s not happened to me (yet) and I’ve really enjoyed everything I chose to support on the kickstarted platform, from an indestructible wallet to hold all my random loyalty cards to games to music projects and even a few friends’ projects. (Like David Benedict’s outstanding album.)

At the moment, I’m most excited about a pinhole camera kit that you assemble yourself: VIDDY   It’s an analog way to do your Instagram. 😉 There’s still time to get on this campaign if you find this fascinating, as I do.

Also, The Printshop has opened up in Greenville, SC, offering more space for local artists and printmakers to do their thing. Cool.

And emberlight – a quick way to connect normal lightbulbs to your phone for easily dimmable lighting. Also still open for backers.

ENTERTAINING GAMES (IRL)
Jesse has arrived and brought his massive collection of board games with him. How massive? Massive. The pile currently threatens to overwhelm the small corner of our library where I thought we could shelve them.

Since last week, I’ve been introduced to half a dozen board & card games I’d never even heard of, with several dozen more to go.  We could host our own board games tournament here at the house.  Maybe that should be a fall party…..

I have enough material here to do a separate post reviewing the games we’ve played (and what skills they teach), so hit the post before this one to see my reviews of

Compounded
Mars Needs Mechanics
Arctic Scavengers
Space Realms
Sushi Go!
Archipelago

ENTERTAINING GAMES (VIDEO)
Finished playing the classic game Shadowrun (in the re-issued version from Steam, called Shadowrun Returns).  Good cyberpunk atmosphere & storyline, interesting story.  Built on the essential D&D game mechanic of turn-based combat (really, this is very close to Baldur’s Gate or other D&D style games).

Also enjoying Sanctum 2, which combines tower-defense play with FPS aspects.  You play as one of 5 classes (i.e.: different kinds of guns, different styles of play) and lay down gun towers or barricades on each of the game’s levels.  Wave after wave of enemies attack, but instead of just sitting back and watching helplessly, you get down in  the trenches with each wave to beat back the alien hordes. It’s a nice blend.

FUNNY THINGS I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN ABOUT SOONER
How did I live this long before discovering the online video series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? (HAWP)  It’s random and intelligent (sometimes).

Language warning.
Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? MINECRAFT

AMAZING FOOD
I’ve told everyone I can find to make this carnitas recipe. Seriously. Will. Change. Your. Life.

Buns In My Oven: Authentic Texas Carnitas

I'm only sorry that the Internet can't provide a sense of smell along with this tantalizing photo of my carnitas.
I’m only sorry that the Internet can’t provide a sense of smell along with this tantalizing photo of my carnitas. Just add corn tortillas, a little sour cream, some shredded crunchy cabbage, and cheese.  Eat. Repeat.  Stop before you get sick.


INTERESTING STAGE PERFORMANCE

Last evening, we had the privilege of seeing The Restoration’s local-color album Constance brought to life via a stage performance of the album at the Trustus Theatre in Columbia.

Constance is one of my favorite albums musically. Its story is quite dark, offering a brutally honest look at the racist history of Lexington, South Carolina.  I’ve written about it before – here and here.

Check out the band’s videos & album coverage to hear samples, or read the story.

Translating a musical album to a stage production takes knack. I liked seeing the story more fully explained, but the musician part of me struggled to let go of how much I loved the album release show, where Daniel Machado (the band’s lead singer) voiced each of the characters through the words of the songs.  There’s a subtlety to that storytelling that I liked…. but I’m glad they’re pursuing a stage version of Constance, and glad to have seen this first step.

READING ANYTHING GOOD?
I am working my way through a book about using science fiction as a teaching tool. It’s a collection of essays, so the writing quality is uneven (to be expected), but the book sparks a lot of good ideas about how to evaluate sci-fi from literary perspectives, and how sci-fi can be used to generate cross-displinary integration between science and other fields (or literature and science).

Practicing Science Fiction

~~~~~~~

I’ll try to swing by the blog and write as I have time over the coming weeks.  My creative juices are being absorbed by work much of the time – developing a museum exhibit, planning a major event, designing stuff, managing projects.  It’s all good but it drains my tank by the time I get home, and all I want to do is read or veg or play a game or watch something.

Leave me a comment if you’d like — I’d love to know what you’re reading / watching / playing / doing / eating. 

Summertime Livin’

Sorry, folks, for the long hiatus from writing, but — it’s summer.  #sorrynotsorry

Days are long (and sometimes hot). There are books to be read, games to be played, people to be seen, and (most importantly) fresh produce to be consumed — made a cobbler today; cannot WAIT till all those fresh tomatoes roll in!

(Bonus: My favorite quick peach  cobbler recipe.)

Discovered a new author – Octavia Butler. One of her book collections was on sale last week in the iBooks store, so I picked it up after reading that one of her short stories won a Hugo back in the 1980s. Found that book on Kindle and rolled through it rapidly in the last couple days — Bloodchild and Other Stories.

Turns out, Butler was probably the first African-American woman science fiction author, and one of the only black writers in the genre, period.  Bloodchild included a couple of fantastic personal essays by her on becoming a writer – you can find them online here (I’ll link to the first as a PDF) and I recommend reading both:

Positive Obsession
“Furor Scribendi”

If you happen to pick up the story collection, don’t miss the short story “Speech Sounds,” which won her a Hugo award.  It’s an outstanding piece.

Been also wasting some good time playing games. Was given a tip by a coworker to enjoy the typographic gem Type:Rider (desktop; also for iOS or Android), a 2D platformer built totally around typefaces and fonts. The art is gorgeous and every level imparts tons of historical and artistic information about how various font families and printing developed. Definitely two thumbs up as a learning experience, as an interactive work of art, and as a solid game in its own right.

Type:Rider – TRAILER – EN from Cosmografik on Vimeo.

I might get around to some more writing in the next few weeks, but my day job is stealing most of my creative juices right now, leaving me with plenty of seeds and thoughts but little energy to get them all into words by the time I come home. I’ve done some more thinking on “Careers as Verbs”– I think that could develop into useful prompts for discussing calling and vocation, especially with young people who are trying to figure out what to study or what to do after graduation.  We make college students choose from a list of nouns when they’re picking a major when most of our lives are spent in action.

Along the way, we hope to tidy up a couple home improvement projects, do a little organizing, and see some friends. And eat good food.  Must enjoy the heck out of summer! (Looking for some good eats? Try these pork carnitas.)

I hope your summer is swimmingly awesome too.

 

The Power of (Virtual) Choices

I have a confession to make.

I made some decisions that I thought were well-grounded, but two of my team members died. And a tough choice about a dangerous situation has been weighing on my mind ever since. It was a toss-up, a lesser-of-two-evils kind of thing, a choosing of bedfellows. My mind is uneasy.

See, I don’t usually have much time for video games, so I’ve been playing through a few good ones this summer since I have the time.

A well-written game functions like a story: it offers rich, deep characters; it flows along a well-developed plot structure provided by creative writers; it exists in a time and place crafted to enhance the tale.

But unlike a novel, games pull the player into the story as a participant. This kind of interaction is merely a pipe dream in the film world, despite all the 3D hoopla. I guess the old-fashioned “choose your own adventure” stories laid the foundation for what we now enjoy as role-playing or adventure games.

Not all game stories offer real significance, and I don’t have time for most intense RPGs. (You won’t find me playing Final Fantasy anytime soon.) And a lot of game plots are fun, but it’s not like you stay up at night thinking about the experience. (Kinda like “light summer reading.”)

Then I played Mass Effect.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who might play ME in the future. It’s a trilogy; the final segment should release in early 2012. (I’m hoping for mid-February so I can sink a few days of Winter Break into it. Lol)

But I can tell you this much: in the Mass Effect universe, choices really matter.

The story is set a few centuries in humanity’s future, when Faster Than Light (FTL) travel permits us to wander the stars. Of course, there’s a new galactic threat on the scene, and you play as the badass Commander Shepard. Old hat so far. I’d call it a role-playing first-person shooter.

The game authors created a conversation mechanism for the game. “Conversing” has been around for a while in games, but BioWare makes Shepard YOURS in significant ways. For one thing, you choose among several respnses as you “talk,” responses which directly affect the attitude of characters or open/close options for future interaction. In real life, if you cuss someone out they are less likely to help you; in Mass Effect, your Shepard constantly has to decide what tactic to use to accomplish goals.

Even more impressive, your game-playing choices bear direct influence on future plot. Blow up someone’s planet? Don’t expect those resources to be around later when you need them. And do expect everyone in the galaxy to treat you with contempt. Except the outlaws, murderers, and pirates. They’ll love it. You will lie in the bed you make (proverbially) and the whole universe has to live with your choices.

Further, the game developers gave Shepard a voice. Whether you create a male or female character, all of the lines were recorded by appropriate voice actors. You spend the game hearing yourself talk. It’s a powerful mechanism for immersion.

Ethical choices stack up. Facing an overwhelming galactic threat, I made certain choices at the end of the first game. Those haunted me through Mass Effect 2, which itself forced me into ever-more-agonizing decisions. By the end of that game, I was questioning my ethics and leadership. Do you save all the lives in the galaxy at all costs? How many lives are “acceptable losses”? War ethics are a mess anyway. Crossing them with intergalactic politics and species magnifies the weaknesses in long-held beliefs, beliefs which affect my actions in the real world.

All good science fiction draws the reader to understand himself more clearly, to see human nature in clear light, to wrestle in a “laboratory” with decisions that would decimate us if we were making them in real life. Mass Effect delivers a rich experience, troubling and thoughtful. Current governments don’t need to fly around the galaxy to find people-groups to abuse, exploit, assist, provoke, or ignore.

I’m not going to replay Mass Effect 2 to get a perfect game or fix my mistakes. Life isn’t like that. I will carry my own Shepard into the final game with his scars intact, with 3 empty slots on the team as a reminder of the cost.

MAss Effect