Archive for March, 2012

Mass Effect 3: The End of the End

Posted in Grumblings on March 10, 2012 by chemiclord

Goodness gracious, three blogs in the last five days or so, and all about the same topic.  You’d think I was a Mass Effect fanboy or something…

… oh wait.  I am.

At any rate, having finished my first playthrough of the game (and seeing one of these “horrible endings” for myself), I think I’m ready to add some more thoughts to what I’ve already posted.

(SPOILERS INCOMING)

Firstly, what I liked:

– The game itself is very, very fun to play.  The interaction on the Z-axis (going up ladders, jumping) can be jarring at points due to the delay the game has processing that you actually want to jump over this gap or climb this ladder rather than just sprinting to cover.  Enemies and fellow players don’t always look entirely natural as they interact with the Z-axis either, there’s just something off about how they move when falling or climbing, but it’s a minor yip in what is otherwise a sound blend of combat and role playing elements.

The improved combat really shines when moving from cover to cover or dodging attacks in the open… it is all very seamless and feels natural.  Each weapon reacts differently, much like how different weapons have different feels in real life, and it’s both a challenge and a delight to see those little details.

Graphically, the game can be downright breathtaking, the visuals (whether derived from that awful “stock imagery” or not) can invoke powerful feelings.  Having been to London, seeing it in rubble by the last missions of the game was an almost painful experience, simply because it hit home that nothing was going to be the same in that universe, no matter what Shepard and his crew did (I’ll continue this line of thought later).

The Multiplayer is an enjoyable experience… it provides a challenging option for people who really don’t want to go digging around Reaper infested space to find every little war asset out there in order to get the “best” ending.  But even without that influence on the single player campaign, it holds its own, and is worth playing simply because it’s fun to play.  I honestly don’t think Bioware had to link the two in order to get people to bring people into the multiplayer option.

But what I loved the most in ME3 was what I loved the most in ME1 and ME2… the characters.  Their depth… their interactions… the voice actors knocked that element out of the park.  Each and every character in this game felt real.  Even the most minor bit player left you with the feeling that they all had a story, they all had a history and reasons for being where they were and doing what they did.  Even if you never got the chance to fully experience it, you could feel that depth there.

The characters were so well written and composed that you could feel every death in the series.  An example is a Quarian Marine named Kal’Reegar.  Players meet him all of twice, both times in ME2, and both times, those meetings are fairly brief.  It’s safe to say that I never really got the chance to get to know this character.  Yet, when a report reaches Shepard that this fellow had died defending a Turian asset on Pavalen… it literally felt like I had been punched in the gut.  I had to stop playing for an hour because it hit me that hard.  This game really tugs the heartstrings because you really feel invested in the people you meet… and reminds you that you’re only one person, and that you can’t save everyone.

Which brings me to the ending of the trilogy, that has so many people up in arms, fuming and raving and ready to riot outside Bioware because they were just so horrible.  And the critics are right; the endings are awful… but I don’t think most of them really understand why.

The biggest complaint I’ve heard through various outlets is outrage that all the different paths you take, all the different relationships you form, all the different people you save and lives you alter… you’re forced into one of three choices, and that nothing you had done previously changes the end result.  To that, I tell people… grow the f*** up.  Guess what?  That’s not horrible; that’s reality.  Sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter how important you think you are, the things you do amount to jack squat in the end.  Sometimes, you have to make a choice where there is no right answer.  Sometimes, life really doesn’t care what you did, and it’s going to do to you whatever it damn well wants to do to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

On that score, I have no problem with how the series was ended.  There was no pretty bow with sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops that could have possibly made sense.  As much as the first two games were about trying to make the world around you better… the third was all about trying to make the best of the worst possible scenario.  I respect Bioware for being willing to deliver such a harsh lesson, knowing a lot of Pollyannas weren’t going to like it.

Now bear in mind, that does not mean I think the ending was good… because it wasn’t.  It was actually quite poorly done.  And here’s why it failed, in my opinion.

Bioware’s writers thought they knew what their story was about; they thought they knew the story they were telling, and if you try to comprehend the story they were trying to tell, you can see where the ending makes sense, and would actually be quite good.  Their story, the one about the projected path of humanity as our technology reaches the point where the line between life and machine blurs irreparably, and the possible struggle between organic sentience and artificial intelligence, fits with how they tried to end it.

All the choices you have deal with how Shepard decides to handle this “singularity”, and how it reflects on humanity in this day and reality.  How will we approach this issue, as the line is already starting to blur?  Will we panic when the first machine says, “I think, therefore I am?”  Or has that moment already happened, and what will our reaction be?  Or will we try to yoke this life, dominating it like an oppressive god?  Or will we seek to unify the divergent paths and become something not wholly either?

In that context, the ending makes startling sense.  There is no clean resolution because there can’t be.  The uncertainty was the entire point. 

However, Bioware fell into a very common trap that a lot of creators fall into, and a trap I am terrified I will fall into myself as I seek to resolve my own intellectual property.  To put it as simply as I can; the story Bioware thought they were telling was not the story actually being told.

A fairly cynical literature professor in my university days once told me that the writer’s intent means nothing.  It’s what readers get out of it that is the only intent that matters.  I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment, because to be perfectly frank, readers can be simply wrong.  Not to mention that he had no problems marking me off on exams… if my interpretation was all that matters, why’d you give me an 86 on my English Lit 230 final, huh, Professor Tower?

However, I do believe that a story is not something that stays static, even as you are writing that final revision.  The tale gains a life of its own (which is fairly ironic considering how the Mass Effect story was supposed to center on the struggle of artificial life); it wants to take its own path… as the story unfolds, what it winds up telling can be very different than what it was supposed to tell.  If the writer is not aware of this as they are finishing the story, the ending simply won’t fit… because the lesson you are trying to impart does not fit what what you wound up laying out.

It would be like a math teacher laying out the First Theorem of Calculus… but if the class thinks he’s discussing the Pythagorean Theorem… all they hear is that A squared plus B squared equals… the function of X?  They then think this teacher is flat out insane, and has no idea what he’s talking about, even though he is assuredly more knowledged about both than all of the students in the room put together.

This is what I believe happened to Bioware, and it harkens back to what I thought the writers for the trilogy had done so brilliantly through the whole series.  The characters were so lush, their interactions so real, that the story stopped being about the struggle with synthetic life, and became about people struggling to survive and make sense of their own existence while facing impossible odds.  How do we respond when faced with what is likely annihilation?  What is the limit of courage and sacrifice?  How do people rise up when all seems lost?  How can we make sense of everything… when everything is falling apart right before our very eyes?

Players had come to attach deeply with the lives of Shepard and the different people that had comprised his crew over the course of these three games.  That is what the story had become.  And so when the ending offered no resolution for those characters, it was deeply and profoundly unfulfilling.  What was supposed to be an ending that demonstrated a blank slate instead came across as a horrible cliffhanger for characters who needed to know what fate had unfolded for them.

So yes, it was bad… in the same way that many endings really don’t seem to work.  I expected better of Bioware.  I expected them to be able to identify what their story had become.  That they didn’t wasn’t so much their fault, but mine for having such high expectations.  We are all only human, but it is still disappointing.

I’ll most certainly play the game again, but only because it’s a fun game to play, not to unlock the “secret” ending that still fails to deliver what I wanted.

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Of Protheans and Quarians

Posted in Grumblings on March 8, 2012 by chemiclord

Wow… a couple posts all within a couple days of each other.  Will wonders never cease?

Meanwhile, I have gone from being reluctant to commenting on other creative works to doing so twice in roughly 48 hours.  But eh… whatever.

(SPOILERS ARE FORTHCOMING, BECAUSE PEOPLE PRETEND TO NOT LIKE THEM… EVEN THOUGH THEY DO.)

In my last (fairly long-winded) rant, I commented about Mass Effect 3’s DLC “From Ashes”, and suspected that some very angry people were jumping to conclusions that may or may not be true.  Having now finally purchased and played such DLC personally, I feel safe to say that my initial suspicions on the matter feel very much correct to me.

I can see why Bioware (or EA) rejected this plot line as being a central element to the story.  To have this element being vital to the storyline would have felt like a glorious ass-pull; conveniently finding a surviving member of a race that made the initial designs for the weapon the Alliance was now trying to build?  There was very little chance that Bioware’s writers could have sold me on that, and for as difficult as I can be on myself when it comes to plot devices, I am notoriously easy to please when experiencing others.

It would have been horrible, but in the constraints it is currently in, it works… better.  I still think the entire premise is fairly fundamentally silly, but in its current form it creates a nice backstory lore and makes some very interesting observations on how people will read their own biases into things, whether or not these biases are accurate or not (I personally find Liara discovering the Protheans were pretty much nothing like the idea of them she had constructed in her head to be deviously amusing… because I see people do this all the time with historical figures even now).

As for it being worth the $10?  It really depends.  If you are a lore nut who squirrels away and reads every Codex entry as they pop up, and greedily grabs every detail of the Mass Effect universe you can (ya know… like me), then yes, it really is.  If that stuff doesn’t concern you and you’re looking for something that is an actual legitimate compliment to the main storyline… you’re better off saving those $10.

Meanwhile, since I have the post window open, I might as well bloviate on another ME3 related topic clogging my headspace.  That of Mass Effect’s favorite Quarian, Tali.

There’s a bit of an angry backlash over the entire event that finally revealed Tali’s face behind the mask to the player.  The rage is centered around the image actually being an altered stock photo, and reflecting laziness on Bioware’s part.  I think the anger is misdirected; not because it was “lazy”, or because it was a “stock photo” (gonna shock some people here, but you’d be amazed how much game imagery is based off of stock photos) but because the entire literary device used simply wasn’t very well executed.

I get what Bioware was trying to do.  In the first Mass Effect game, you never see Tali’s face, and the game’s lore suggests fairly strongly that you never will.

But then, in Mass Effect 2, the option to romance this shy, bookish, alien hottie with a crush on the hero (the number of fetishes this girl hits among the sci-fi nerd group is truly staggering) emerges, as well as her determination to let your hero see her face… except… the player doesn’t get to see it.  Her back is to the camera.

F***ers.

Then comes Mass Effect 3.  Depending on how it works out (I’m assuming the people who really care about this are the ones that went the extra three some odd side missions, reputation, and dialogue choices to get the best possible result), Tali and her people have their homeworld back; a place where they can eventually live without those “damned helmets.”  And sure enough, Tali does just that, taking off her mask to breathe the air of Rannoch for herself… with her back turned to the camera the whole damn time.

F****ers.  You did it to us again.  You got our hopes up all over again… teased us… taunted us… and we fell for it again, you devious, cunning, scheming fu…

… wait, what’s that?  You left us a gift, Tali?  In the cabin?  Oh.  Well, hey.  It’s you.  Without the mask.  Good one, Bioware!  You really had us going!   Good show!

At least, that’s what they were hoping for.

But really, guys, you know better than that.  If you’re gonna jerk around someone like that, you either completely jerk them, or your make-up effort has to be worth it.  A very low quality image sitting on the end table with no life or energy frankly doesn’t cut it, and that would have been true even if the image in question was a completely original artwork.  You executed the routine great, then completely flubbed the landing, and as such the entire routine suffered.

It wasn’t laziness, it wasn’t the stock photo, it was a literary device that just didn’t work.  There’s no shame or dishonor in that.  That happens all the time to the best of writers.  And that’s… okay.  We’ll live.

“From Ashes” and Mass Effect 3

Posted in Grumblings on March 5, 2012 by chemiclord

I normally don’t comment too much on the creations of others, but considering this topic pertains to a series I’m quite endeared to, I’ve decided to drop my two cents (whether you’ll pay that isn’t entirely supported by my sales)…

Mass Effect 3 announced a Day One DLC (additional content to a game released the same day the game is).  I’m not particularly bothered by this, for reasons I’ll explain later, but I could understand why some gamers would be irritated.  Except for… the fact this content was always intended to be part of the Collector’s Edition of the game (which many gamers spent extra money for), and is being offered to those who purchased the standard edition for what will still be less than the cost of the Collector’s Edition.

If you want to complain that companies shouldn’t be creating such tiered systems of content, or that DLC is getting out of hand and has become a tool for game companies to nickel and dime their customers, that’s fine.  I’ll largely agree with that sentiment.  But don’t be surprised or demand something for free when it was made clear months ago that this was going to be available for an extra charge.

The second complaint that has arisen from this entire controversy is one that I really think is being made from ill-informed opinions on how the writing and creating process works.  Since most people pretend to dislike spoilers (when in fact the large cross-section of humanity actually does… but that’s a story for another time), I won’t go into specifics.  I’ll only say that the complaint is that because a story line resembling the DLC “From Ashes” was found in leaked early scripts, that must mean that Bioware has taken out vitally important parts of the story, and are making people pay for the entire story that they shouldn’t have to.

On the surface, I can also understand this concern; and if that is what Bioware has truly done, I think they’ll discover this is a horribly short-sighted move to make money now at the expense of their reputation and that future games will suffer for it.  Video games aren’t like gas… if people don’t have to have it, they won’t buy it if they don’t want to.  If Bioware truly has gone down a very dark path of creating tiers of story content, it will lead to the end of their company.

Now here’s why I think it’s wrong to assume they have done so.

Critics have pointed to leaked early scripts that show this story line and its central character as an integral part of the ME3 tale.  Now I want you to talk to any author, any music composer, any scriptwriter, or designer, or artist… or hell, basically anyone who creates as a profession.  Ask them if their first draft is anything like how the final revision turns out.  99.999999% of the time, the answer you get will be “Hell no.”

Correction, the first response will either be a derisive scoff or hilarious laughter, then followed by “Hell no.”

Just because this element was integral to the story in its draft stages, does not inherently mean it is important at this point.  In fact, I would wager a good half of the material in the first drafts of ME3 doesn’t even remotely resemble how it shaped up into the actual game.  I can relate, as I am probably the worst at this phenomenon.  Anyone who would read my first draft of The Second Gate (not that anyone outside of the small handful that already has ever will), would be startled to realize that about the only thing that remains constant is a handful of names.  The characters, the plot, the places, all of them are starkly different than how they were originally planned.  There were more than a small handful of story elements that were absolutely vital to the first draft that are missing completely from the story in its finished form.

My theory is a fairly simple one, that I think explains the superficial importance yet demonstrates how it isn’t.  “From Ashes” was a plot line that wound up rejected, either by Bioware or Electronic Arts.  The story was then further constructed without it.  Then, at some point later in the games development, someone looked back, and thought, “Ya know, I don’t think we should give up on this concept.  I think we can salvage it.”  The result was a pared down auxiliary story line, but since a lot of the initial framework was already in place, it allowed Bioware to put it together much more quickly than content they normally composed from scratch.

As for charging for this extra content; I can’t say I disagree.  I plan on doing something similar myself.  When I am able to put The Second Gate together in a printed, dead tree form, I plan to include an extra short story, to this point unpublished, that will only be part of the printed version of the book.  This story doesn’t particularly add or detract from the The Second Gate itself (and you’ll actually get several hints within The Endtimer’s Legacy anyway), but I think it’s a nice addition for those who are willing to put forth the extra money to support my work.  I don’t see how this is a scam, or evil, or anything other than a nice added piece to those who give me extra money.

Anyway, that’s my two cents.  And I gave it to you for free.  Eat that, Bioware.