Archive for July, 2010

Reviewer’s Blues

Without getting into details, I’ve been working on a review of a mediocre game lately. Second time this has happened in as many months. I wanted to have it wrapped up a week or so ago, but I’ve been dragging my feet on it because I simply cannot stand playing it. Which certainly makes it sound as if I’m ready to review it, but the problem is that I know enough to dislike it but not enough to explain why, or be certain that all my complaints are valid. So I really need to log some more time with it.

The problem is that ever since this game bubbled to the top of my priority list, I’ve effectively stopped getting anything done. I’m holding back on other projects to finish this one, but every time I sit down to play this game, I can’t click the icon. I find other stuff to do. Correspondence, cleaning the kitchen, a quick match of Starcraft II, reading recipes, etc.

The problem is that the game doesn’t really have a fixed endpoint. I’ll be ready to review it when I’ve fiddled with it a lot more, but the thought of putting in the several additional hours to do a review fills me with despair. Somehow I need to figure out a way to make this process palatable.

But I don’t have lot of experience reviewing games, and I’m on a streak of bad ones. My first review was Napoleon: Total War, which was a complete milk-run. I got a great game for free, and cheerfully spent thirty or so hours plowing through the campaign. But games like Real Warfare: 1242 and the one I’m working on now just defy my will.

So how does one approach a game where the act of playing it is nearly painful, and the job seems overwhelming? What bargains do I need to make with myself to get my ass in front of the computer to play this game?

The Once and Future Format

After spending so much time among strategy gamers, and falling under the influence of people like Troy, Julian, and Bill Abner, I have become a convert to board gaming and it’s now one of my favorite pursuits. However, I’ve also become fascinated by the potential for board gaming to help revitalize strategy on electronic platforms. The Escapist let me explore how board game sensibilities are infiltrating the casual game market. That piece went up yesterday.

My thesis is that there are elements of board gaming that might well be the cure to what ails modern strategy and wargaming, and that modern networking provides the ideal platform for employing mechanics that were formerly only possible with board games. I set out to prove my case, and along the way, I chatted up Soren Johnson, Brian Reynolds, Iron Helmet’s Jay Kyburz (Neptune’s Pride), Petroglyph Community Manager Mathew Anderson (regarding Panzer General: Allied Assault), and Muzzy Lane’s Dave McCool. Go give it a read, and by all means leave comments over at The Escapist.

Jacked up and Ready to Go

I’m not excited about Starcraft II. I’m not trying to be fashionably jaded or anything like that, I just know from the beta that this not really my kind of game.

But it was once my kind of game, and I love the community of which I am a part. It’s rare that an event comes along that brings us altogether like this, not just mesmerized by hype but also by millions of fond memories. So I’m going to finish this glass of wine, and go hit a midnight launch line for the first time in my life.

On the Other Hand

Two-thirds of Mass Effect drove me crazy. The dull combat mooted the RPG elements and the side quests were a complete waste of time, and I wasn’t much of a fan of the way the characters were developed and revealed. On balance, I’d have to say I didn’t much care for it.

But I’m never balanced in how I assess games. I have an Impressionist’s sensibilities. I play for those moments that arrive like a lightning flash, something so perfectly captured that it seems to exist apart from the rest of the experience. Everything else will fade and be forgotten, but this moment will linger on in the theater room of the mind.

What I’ll carry away from Mass Effect are a few great conversations and a brilliant climax. The scene where Wrex has just discovered that the sterilization afflicting his people has been cured, but that stopping the villain requires destroying that cure, is excellent. Wrex has always been matter-of-fact about his race’s slow slide into extinction, but when he comes face-to-face with the possibility that he could save them, he almost snaps.

Another great moment in inter-species cooperation.

The great part about the scene that follows is that Shepard is ostensibly talking Wrex down, but it would be closer to the truth to say that Wrex just admits what his heart already knows to be true. Wrex, it’s clear from his stories, plays the part of the simple Krogan barbarian, but is actually one of the most insightful characters in the game. He has overcome a genetic and cultural predisposition for aggression and faced up to why the Krogan have always partly been the authors of their own demise. He is an exile from his people because he has told them they must change, and they’re not ready to hear the message.

So even though he snarls at Shepard that the lines are getting blurred, he ultimately knows they aren’t. He knows the Krogan are being rescued to serve as cannon fodder, and when Shepard says to him, “These aren’t your people,” the double-meaning is not lost on him. He agrees to help destroy the facility and the cure.

In the tombs.

The sequence on Ilos culminates brilliantly, and ultimately forms the heart of the game. Shepard and her crew are exploring the last ruins of the Prothean civilization, a race that ruled the galaxy for fifty thousand years earlier but who mysteriously died out. After brushing aside some Geth, Shepard and her compatriots take a long, eerie drive through the canals and canyons below the city. Along the way, Garrus realizes that the canyon walls are actually huge cryogenic storage banks, full of units that had been shut down for millenia, making the entire place an accidental mausoleum. Finally, Shepard comes to a Virtual Intelligence that the Protheans left behind.

I’ve complained a lot about the way conversations work in this game, but this was one case where it felt absolutely natural. I sat, rapt with attention, as the VI told its story.

Beneath Mass Effect’s simple story of a galaxy at peril is a technological fable. “Mass Effect” refers to the technology that has brought every race into the interstellar age, the set of scientific and engineering principles upon which almost every contemporary technology rests.

But of course, mass effect technologies have not been discovered, but found. Mass effect relays, point-to-point transit hubs strung throughout the galaxy, were not built by any of the galaxy’s races. They all credit the Protheans with having invented the technology, but there is growing evidence throughout the game that the Protheans also found the mass effect technology. The relays, and the super space-station that acts as the seat of galactic governance, the Citadel, seem to predate everything. They sit there, scattered around the galaxy, just waiting to be found.

Payment coming due.

An early warning is sounded by an encounter with a salarian scientist aboard the Citadel. He is caught studying the Keepers, the insectoid servitors of the Citadel. They are seen everywhere, plugging away at tasks they’ve assigned themselves. The Citadel’s authorities have made it illegal to impede Keepers in the performance of their duties. But as the salarian points out, “We don’t know anything about them.” The Keepers are taken for granted, assumed to be benign, but are fundamentally a mystery.

The encapsulates the relationship the sentient species of the galaxy have formed with mass effect technology. They found it waiting for them and used it without question, because it was convenient and because it was so far beyond their capacity to understand it that it became nothing more than useful magic. The other races endlessly remind the humans that they are newcomers on the galactic stage, but the irony of their pretensions is that their powers rest on an uncertain foundation. The salarians, asari, and turians pretend that they have created galactic governance, when the truth is that they were merely the first to locate its levers.

Shepard, listening to the VI hologram.

The Prothean messenger explains that the Protheans followed the same development track. They mastered space flight, and then found the mass effect relays waiting for them in the darkness. They never realized, until it was far too late, that the technology had been left behind for a purpose. That the technology could serve the agenda of another power, and that their unquestioning reliance on the technology had effectively lobotomized them.

Clarke reminds us that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Mass Effect is about the danger of building a society and way of life around techno-sorcery. It’s about the hazards of accepting tools and conveniences without knowing where they come from, how they work, and what is their ultimate cost. Mass Effect is about life in an age of miracles, where the costs lurk somewhere out of sight, and the future belongs to technologies that are neither understood nor questioned.

Making Conventional Conversation

There is a lot of talking in Mass Effect. One could say an eye-glazing amount of talking. People just love to talk to Commander Shepard, and Commander Shepard loves to ask people detailed sets of questions to which the answers are mostly redundant. But nobody ever gets bored or annoyed by the conversation. Everyone just loves all this chit-chat.

Except me. I’m rummaging around my desk for reading material while Shepard does the conversational circuit of the Normandy or Citadel Station. There has to be a better way of revealing character.

"Hey Liara, just thought I'd stop by to have the exact same conversation about your health we've had three times before."

The dialogue tree itself is a pointless device if developers don’t use it to enforce conversational choices. No matter who Shepard is talking to, the conversation will just go on and on, covering every conceivable topic of interest, before you finally hit the “end conversation” option. This means the choices on offer are entire illusory: we’re going to have this whole conversation no matter what I ask or how I ask it. Worse, I can ask questions out of order. You are clearly supposed to proceed clockwise through the “conversation wheel”, and there are times when skipping to a more interesting line of inquiry leads to an answer that refers back to a question you haven’t asked yet.

It’s this kind of phony nod to interactivity that drives me crazy about the medium sometimes. These characters are not having the conversation I want to have, we’re having the conversation the developer wants them to have. And I have no problem with that, none whatsoever, but why not embrace the fact that your characters won’t, and can’t, respond dynamically to the player’s choices? Why not use that lack of freedom to turn your writers loose and create wholly scripted conversational encounters that have better pacing and more natural dialogue?

Look back at games like Wing Commander 3 or The Last Express. Wing Commander 3 planted forks in each conversation that had an impact on your character’s relationship with his shipmates, but outside of those choice moments, each encounter moved swiftly along a predetermined path. It gave freedom to the writers, the actors, and the director.

"Would you like to hear why people call me 'Joker' again while you stand there woodenly, Commander?"

Did I care that I wasn’t in charge? Please, in what game are we ever in charge? Until the day comes that a game can provide us with a virtual Game Master who can respond to our every idea, someone is going to have to plot and script these damn things. And honestly, I don’t ever want a virtual GM, because it will arrive approximately five minutes before the machines rise up and kill us all.

Or take a page from Jordan Mechner, the hands-down master of character development in a videogame. The Last Express hardly offers any choices, but you get to know the characters in a far more natural setting. You listen to them interacting with each other and occasionally a conversation opportunity arises, which always plays out in a brief cutscene. If the writing is sharp enough, nobody will care that they didn’t get to click on a, “Tell me more about…” button.

"Don't be fooled by my blank visage, Alenko. This lighting is as intense as my feelings for you. Now tell me more about how hard your life has been. I love self-absorption."

But NPCs interacting with one another is another crucial element to character development, and it’s one that Mass Effect completely ignores. The only way you get to know anyone in this game is if you actually walk up to them and spend ten minutes talking to them. Not only is that boring, because it’s always the same two characters talking to one another, but it also forces the player to turn Shepard into Chatty Kathy. My Shepard started the game as a tough-as-nails, ruthless martinet. But I ended up discarding that idea of the character, because it was unsupportable in the face of her endless interest in her crew. “No, tell me more about you childhood, Kaiden. Please, I would love to hear about the school you went to. Oh, you had a mean teacher? Tell me all about it.”

It’s telling that my favorite piece of dialogue in the game was an incidental, throwaway exchange between Tali and Wrex in an elevator. Wrex, trying is trying to bait her.

“So, do the Quarians ever talk about the creation of the Geth which resulted in the exile of your people?”

Tali fires back, “Do the Krogan ever talk about the war with the Turians which resulted in the sterilization of your entire species?”

“All the time.”

"Let's just admit it, Shepard. I'm the only person you really talk to."

There is so much to love about this exchange. It brings out Wrex’s terminal lack of of subtlety but also his artless literalism. It also tells you a lot about how these two doomed races confront their extinction: with a combination of schadenfreude, anger, and gallows humor. It’s not something that comes out in Shepard’s one-on-one interrogations, it’s something that can only arise when these characters’ personalities can play off one another, without having to make room for meaningless button-presses and stilted answers.

From “The Internet Is Awesome” Dept.

A few months ago I did a post on one of my favorite authors, Adrian McKinty, and the path his career has taken since his brilliant crime novel, Dead I Well May Be.

Yesterday he showed up and explained his side of the story, and shared some of his feelings about his own work. You should go check out the post. It’s one of my better ones, and you’re really cheating yourselves if you don’t read either his Dead I Well May Be or Fifty Grand.

But isn’t it odd that we live in a world where you’re just hanging out on your blog, talking about a dude, and then a gong crashes and he appears in a puff of Google-smoke?