Tag Archives: Mass Effect

Opinion – Solutions for Open World Games

We’ve hit peak open world….I hope.

The open world genre is undoubtedly dominating the video game space.  From genre luminaries like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry to lesser lights such as The Division and Watch Dogs to genre newbies like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, developers collectively have concluded that the market wants more open world games.  There certainly is something appealing about the genre.  The ability to explore new worlds, take on a variety of challenges, and change your environment for the better are all something that open world games do very well.  Sadly, newer entries have taken their cues from the Ubisoft model which significantly degrades their long term prospects.  I’ve already written on why that model doesn’t work, so this will be on how to fix it.  We’ll start with something that should be obvious:

Every game mechanic should meet a threshold of fun

Playing games is a voluntary act.  We all pick up the controller because a game promises a good time (however we choose to define that).  We don’t play games for the prospect of large quantities of boring activities which is where most Ubisoft style games land these days.  Rather than emphasize the entertaining nature of their gameplay, many open world games promise hours of stuff to do in the hopes that the player will find something to enjoy.  Unfortunately, this approach results in shotgun blast side quests that are quick, unspecific in their aim, and often variations on the same theme.  Final Fantasy XV demonstrates this issue by having a map full of activities that rarely elevate beyond “kill this monster” or a straightforward fetch quest.  The end result is a world full of activities of which few are actually worth doing.  This is a trend we’ve seen in countless other games including Mass Effect Andromeda’s deluge of shoddy side content and Far Cry 4’s multiple variations on item collection.  Developers need to ask themselves if every major mechanic in the game (open world or not) is fun on its own.  If the action isn’t, than strip it from the game rather than rely on the myriad of other activities to pick up the slack.  Quantity doesn’t make up for quality.

Systems are your friend

One of the greatest missed opportunities in games is the chance to apply broader mechanic systems to open worlds.  Rather than try to craft each event, developers should establish worldwide systems that create gameplay opportunities.   Saint’s Row 2 provides a simple example of something that could be incredibly complex.  When the player takes territory in SR2, the player’s gang replaces the opposing gang thereby turning a once hostile territory into a friendlier place.  When the player goes on missions, the gang will support them in the territories under the player’s control.  This system isn’t particularly deep, but it creates a more strategic element to the game where the player could take certain territories before missions to ensure they had back up during the big fights.  Open world games are perfect for this kind of worldwide system where the player can have an important impact on the look and gameplay of the open world.  Rather than making maps a collection of static icons, developers ought to code dynamic systems that create gameplay by themselves and through their interaction with other systems.

Please stop forgetting about the story

Given the considerable energy that goes into creating enormous environments, players ought not be surprised at the sacrifices developers make in other aspects of the game.  Story often suffers as the developers must devote limited resources to creating a story wholly within the open world environment.  Whereas other style games can move character’s through new cities, different continents, and even other planets, many open world games must focus on a single place.  The evolution of the Saint’s Row series shows how this works in practice.  While the early games focused on small time street thugs trying to carve out territory in a major city, SR3 & 4 envisioned the eponymous Saints with global aspirations.  Given the limited nature of open world environments, the stories of SR3&4 had to both justify a) why the Saints had to take over yet another city and b) why everything important seemed to happen within the confines of that city.  The end result was a hackneyed plot about space aliens destroying Earth who then put the Saints in a city simulation for, you know, reasons.  I’ve focused on the environment, but characters, narrative arc, and every other aspect of the narrative declines as soon as the developer utters the words “open world”.  By refocusing on making great stories, developers could create an interesting new direction for the genre.

If the open world fad is anything like its predecessors, we can expect it to fade as it collapses under the weight of over indulgence and its lack of innovation.  If open world games decline to the point of just a few tent poles, then developers will have missed out on an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things with the genre.  These games should not have a future if they continue to mirror the Ubisoft industrial mold, but could create a whole new generation of fans if they’re willing to try something new.

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Opinion – The problems of Mass Effect: Andromeda

I didn’t finish this game and, god willing, I’ll never have to.

Don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  If you loved the earlier entries in the series, really don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  ME:A is a dizzying collection of technical problems, terrible writing, mystifying design choices, and concentrated disappointment.  As an enormous fan of the ME series, I can honestly say that ME:A manages to, not just fail as a Mass Effect game, but also as a use of anyone’s time.

But don’t blame animations.  Yes, the wooden facial immobility and odd lip protrusions are jarring, but I ultimately got used to them.  They are merely the appetizer to a buffet line of minor technical problems that constantly overwhelm the player’s immersion.  We’ve got texture pop in, idiotic AI, teleporting team members (also with idiotic AI), conflicting dialogue that sounds at the same time, NPCs just randomly walking in place, interactions that have to be accessed at specific angles, and I’ve even heard of bugs that lock the player into dialogue.  I could look past any one of these problems, but the sheer number of them ensure that I’m dealing with at least one at any given moment.  It’s hard to lose yourself in a world when the game goes out of its way to remind you that it’s fake.  Hold on to your butts folks, because that’s the least of Andromeda’s problems.

Andromeda’s design is an undiscipled mess.  The founding template is Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The player follows a broader narrative through a series of smaller, open world levels choc full of characters to meet, enemies to kill, and side quests to explore.  Beyond the functional combat, Andromeda fails at all of these.  Let’s make a list of the horror.

  • Side quests – There are hundreds of these little guys and they’re mostly ripped from the blandest MMO handbook you can find. Kill 15 enemies, find X object, go on a wild goose chase, etc.  It’s all mindless busy work that feels like mindless busy work.  Every quest is a transparent sheath between the player and resource acquisition.  If there are meaningful side quests, they’re hidden by the shear amount of crap.
  • Side quests 2 – The side quests are so miserable that they deserve a second entry. In addition to having no real purpose, they also waste time.  Side quests inevitably separate objectives for no discernable reason.  The unnecessary traveling only adds to the feeling of pointlessness that pervades the entire game.
  • NPCs – The ME series historically seeded its world with interesting characters whose paths briefly crosses the player’s. Andromeda instead reserves its meager character development for the main team and a few major characters while everyone else is a quest dispensary.  What’s the point of talking to people if they’re just going to tell you to mine ore?
  • Unskippable cutscenes – We solved this one in the Playstation 2 era yet ME:A leaves no flaw behind. Whenever the player’s ship takes off, lands, or moves, you have to watch it.  Oh, and elevators are back.  ME1 was roundly criticized for using elevator scenes as a cover for loading screens and now Andromeda shoved them right back in.  Good job!
  • No quick save – Yup. You read that right.  Every PC game on the planet has quick saves but ME:A doesn’t.  It’ll even block the player from saving during main missions.  “But the checkpoints!” you cry, “surely they make up for it?”  Don’t worry, dear reader, developer Bioware is so committed to mediocrity that even the checkpoints are poorly placed.
  • Scanning – Here’s another mechanic that was decried in earlier entries and reintroduced here. Not only does the player scan planets for small outlays of resources, but now they scan parts of the open world.  Scanning is incredibly dull and only serves to ensure OCD gamers will see the world purely through a grainy, orange haze.
  • Research and development – Why add scanning? So you can get research points! Researching blueprints allows the player to then expend resources on developing weapons.  This might have been fun, but Bioware flooded the research queue with tons of indistinguishable items.  The queue has piles of dreck with no clear marker for is actually worth pursuing.  As an added bonus, the fun new weapon you just developed must be equipped at the opposite end of your ship.  Enjoy the jog.
  • UI – The Mass Effect games have always had poor user interfaces, but Andromeda makes it look like that was the goal. The menus are the Windows Explorer with a blue tinge and everything buried folders deep.  Even comparing gear requires an awkward, one way cycling through all of the player’s weapons.  Come on guys, Diablo 2 figured this out in the 90s.
  • Limited character design – Character design options are shockingly limited and of poor quality. What’s worse is that this could have been copy-pasted from Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Seriously, just go talk to the people down the hall.  There’s no need to reinvent a crappier version.

So that was a needlessly long list, but even terrible game design doesn’t win the “Biggest problem in ME:A crown.”  That honor goes to every component of the amateurish narrative.  From the writing, to the plot, to the voice acting, every aspect of Andromeda’s narrative begs for an experience editor with a lot of free time.  The first steps on the game’s hub, the Nexus, neatly sums up the flaws.  In this scene, the main hero Ryder talks with the leaders of the Nexus about the apparent failure of their mission and the steps ahead.  This ought to have been a moment to establish important characters and frame future challenges.  Instead, it almost made me quite the game.

The first jarring moment is the exposition dump right out of the gate.  Militia leader Kendros meets the player and throws down a history lesson as they walk through the halls.  The moment had all the subtly of a jackhammer.  Still, the scene didn’t really offend until Director Tann and Superintendent Kesh spoke.  They combined Andromeda’s penchant for including every accent in the world with a strangely detached delivery.  In particular, Kesh felt like the voice actor delivered her lines next to me while I watched the character model’s mouth moving on the screening.  It wasn’t convincing.  It didn’t help that the lines were poorly written.  Every word was stilted and without emotion.  The dialogue conveyed naked functionality.  These weren’t characters exasperated by their ordeal or excited about the arrival of a new hope; they were NPCs who needed to relay specific information.

The information they conveyed was the broad outline of the early plot.  The first problem with the plot was that Kendros, Tann, Kesh, and the human Addison delivered it.  The four major races of the ME universe were front and center.  The plot too often draws from the old ME game and doesn’t take advantage of the new situation.  The writers keep shouting “Look!  Mass Effect lore!  Isn’t that cool?!” rather than develop anything new.  That’s probably for the best because the writers had no idea what they were doing. The Nexus leaders immediately identify the main character as the solution to their plight.  Small problem: there’s no reason to believe the main character can help.  The main character received their role after the death of their father and has zero experience exploring planets, much less resolving all the problems now sitting on their shoulders.  This is how Andromeda sets up its plot.  It creates a scenario and quickly contrives a reason for the main character to fix it.  It’s the chosen one shtick we’ve seen since the 80s.

The disaster of that is Mass Effect: Andromeda is truly heartbreaking.  This storied franchise deserved better than a shoddy, visonless mess.  Perhaps even more troubling is that there isn’t a way to fix this.  Bioware will probably sort out the bugs, but they can’t solve the miserable design or terrible narrative.  To fix Mass Effect: Andromeda is to create an entirely new game.  As much as I hate to say this: don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  It’s just a pale reflection of a once great series.

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Opinion – The problem with the world of The Witcher

I’m midway through The Witcher 2 and I’m struggling to love the series the way reviewers and audiences seem to.  The issue isn’t the production values.  The Witcher 2 is very much a Mass Effect style game with all the technical qualities that come with such a statement.  What Witcher has in technical quality it lacks in setting.  For all the obvious love that went into this game, I’ve noticed several reasons why it just can’t measure up.

 

It’s predictable

When I first jumped into The Witcher, I was impressed by the consistent moral grey area and lack of obvious choices.  It felt like a world where unpredictable things happened and the best of plans didn’t always work out.  A game and a half in and I’ve noticed the patterns.  The humans are some combination of ignorant, racist, and smug.  Non humans are old Tolkien stereotypes under persecution that Dragon Age modelled better.  The foundation exists to say something about race relations or to build an interesting history, but instead The Witcher squander’s that potential to rehash the same views and stories with little variance.  The world always seems characterized by humans ignorantly hating non humans and non humans fighting a guerilla war in response.  The series has many variations on that theme (human pogroms against non humans, attacks by non human resistance, discriminatory lords abusing non humans, etc), but doesn’t move beyond that one note.  I hope CD Projekt Red evolves the world beyond the limit direction it has taken it so far.

 

It lacks wonder.

The opening of The Witcher 2 is truly grand.  The Witcher (Geralt) walks through a camp readying for war.  In front of him are soldiers checking their gear, explosions from enemy munitions, and a grand battle on a massive scale.  It’s a great introduction and inspires a sense of epic adventure.  Unfortunately, just about every scene after that is cramped villages and generic forests with a hefty coating of dirt and grime.  While The Witcher’s universe is meant to be bleak, it doesn’t need to be boring.  One of the great advantages of a fantasy universe is how it creates opportunities for wonder on a scale unshackled by reality.  Fantasy universe’s have infinite opportunities for wonder that ought not be wasted on the mundane aspects of existence.  The developer should use this opportunity, not waste it.

 

It thinks high politics matter

I haven’t seen this sin in a while and it hasn’t improved any with age.  No one cares about the high politics of a made up universe.  Seriously, we can barely get people to pay attention to the politics of the universe that they live in which people actually die.  You think anyone cares about the potential for war between two made up countries or the clash between nobility shown entirely off screen?  If a developer is going to introduce this kind of politics, they need to work hard to make it personal to the player.  Otherwise, the player will skip over your long, detailed story about the fight between Temeria and Nilfgaard.

 

It has a teenage sense of maturity. 

I remember the early days of video games as they took their tentative first steps into the world of mature themes.  Back then, developers defined maturity like your average teen rebelling from their parents.  Cussing is shocking!  Boobs are so hot!  It’s hard not to see parallels with The Witcher’s universe.  The relentlessly dark aesthetic doesn’t add weight to the universe, it’s just bleak to the point of dull.  Constant cussing imparts no additional edge to the characters.  Treating women as sex dolls (did you know everyone wants to sleep with Geralt?  They do.) and adding nipples on dwarven statues doesn’t make a game sex, just misogynistic and embarrassing.  It’s time to age the maturity of The Witcher beyond kids getting aroused from Victoria Secret catalogues.

 

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Opinion – The Eternal Quest to Find Meaning In Video Games

Red Pill?  Blue Pill?  Asprin?

I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition recently and the game presented me with a choice.  The game played the choice up as a major event and wanted me to know just how important this choice was, but, in the end, it had no effect on the universe outside of the game.  No one died, nothing was destroyed, and the Earth continued its persistent orbit around the Sun.  The choice didn’t seem to matter at all.  So, when it comes to video game choices, who cares?

…Well, we do.  Gamers, that is.  We agonize over decisions, curse life when something doesn’t go as planned, and reload our saves until we get the optimal result.  What hasn’t been answered is why we care and how games are able to turn a totally innocuous environment without meat world impact and create scenarios that will leave us emotionally drained.  For that, we should look at why we care about games and investigate the very real consequences of a bad choice.

Games don’t just run lines of code, they build worlds.  Whether it is a highly scripted world of a linear RPG or a more open canvas like a 4X turn based strategy, a good game will give the player an evolving sense of history around whatever is happening on screen.   As the player plays, they build a narrative that has meaning for them, even if that narrative has little effect outside of their computer.  The narrative is a collection of scripted game events (Bill died!  WHY?!) and player choices (Which city should I pillage?   Hmmmm…).  When a game asks the player to make a choice, it is asking the player’s input on a story they care about with an outcome that is likely uncertain and whose results are now on the player.  The responsibility for the narrative and, in some small way, the characters in the story are in the player’s hands.  Players may not feel like they’re saving the galaxy or establishing a mighty empire, but they do want to see their story unfold well as a result of their actions.  Choices matter because players want their story to turn out well.

The above reasoning looks at the conceptual results of game choice, but there is also a real world cost.  Video games take time.  Going through the entire narrative arch of the Mass Effect series takes about 90 hours.  Getting through one of these games is an achievement and a testament to the devotion of the player who often has other priorities they need to get to.  Making the “wrong” choice can result in the player having to make another choice:  a) to continue on without a character/at a massive disadvantage/having cause total calamity, or b) to start again and getting it right.  Neither choice is desirable.  Continuing to play through a 90 hour epic having lost a key character in hour 30 is painful.  It’s a loss that is felt every time that character would have been present and in the stories shared with friends who kept them around.  In some games, that poor choice can be the end of a game run leaving the player with the knowledge that they could have kept going if they had gone a different way.  Of course, the player could start again from either the beginning or a saved game, but that comes with its own costs.  Starting from the beginning means replaying old content while already knowing what the result will be.  It’s dull, repetitive, and no fun.  A replay can also take a long time depending on how long the last playthrough went.  Starting from an earlier save still means playing old content, just less of it.  More importantly, it robs the tension of a difficult choice.  It’s hard for a player to be sucked into the story of a game when they are constantly restarting whenever things don’t go their way.

Choices in video games matter, if only on the individual level.  They effect the story that the player is invested in.  On the other hand, choices that don’t involve aspects of the game the player cares about are generally inconsequential.  For a choice to matter, the player must desire a positive outcome and fear the chance that it might not happen.  When those two conditions come together, video games are a hell of a lot of fun.

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Review – Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius – PC – Steam Review #3

Apparently we needed more skevy shots of underage women. Thanks Sunrider!

I’ve never played a visual novel before largely because the genre has never seemed all that interesting. The basic idea of a visual novel is to read a story interspersed with minor gameplay elements, which seems to deny the benefits that the video game format offers.  Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius adequately shows the appeal of the visual novel.  It uses solid writing, a space opera setting, and anime tropes to bring together an engaging story about a captain of defeated planet and his motely crew of underage girls.

I did mention anime tropes, right?

The story centers around Kyato Shields, the newly anointed captain of the experimental ship Sunrider, who fights back against the evil PACT empire after it conquerors his home planet of Cera. Joining Kyato is a group of teen girls who pilot ryders, the game’s mechs, and who serve as the games cast as the story develops.  The girl’s personalities, the mech fighting, and the whole feel of the game is that of a quality Japanese anime.  Strong writing helps elevate the story beyond the usual clichés, but it’s the tough decisions that add weight to what could have been another staid space opera.  Sunrider repeatedly asks the player to make painful choices between lofty principles and practical reality.  One of the long running plot lines involves an ambitious admiral whose willingness to sacrifice lives and freedoms force the player to think about how much those things are worth.  In one situation, the admiral proposes destroying a highly populated space station to prevent the annihilation of his fleet and a potential war losing blow.  The decisions the game poses are tough and the situations surrounding them feels believable and natural.

Sadly, those decisions don’t mean much. Sunrider isn’t Mass Effect and the choices you make don’t seem to matter.  The game has a linear plot that doesn’t permit much player input and regularly justifies even the most naïve choices as the right ones.  The decisions are still emotional affairs, but the knowledge that they don’t effect the world takes out much of their weight.  The story is also undermined by the creepy sexualization of the underage female costars.  The Sunrider is positively teeming with girls dressed in school outfits (military issue, I’m sure), crushing over the dashing Captain Shields.  The game goes further with gratuitous skin shots, an unnecessary shower scene, and dialogue boxes framed across teen crotch.  I get that anime does this kind of thing, but it undermines the rest of the narrative.  It’s hard to get invested in Captain Shields’ struggle to deal with the weight of the war when he discusses his woes with a 15 year old sub wearing an ass high skirt.  It’s uncomfortable and unwelcome.

As one should expect from a visual novel, the gameplay is simplistic. The player controls the Sunrider and its ryders in grid based battles against enemy fleets.  Each ship and ryder has a limited number of action points that it can use to either move or shoot.  The Sunrider also has access to special attacks that use Command Points which are earned at the end of battles.  The whole system feels clunky and explains very little of its weakly implemented nuance.  Fights aren’t well designed and rely solely on regular waves of enemies arriving with no variance in battle conditions.  On the whole, the fights can convey a sense of fleet combat grandeur, but too often become mired in the weaknesses of the system.  In one particularly frustrating example, waves of action point stealing support units showed up and effectively prevented me from doing anything during the several turns before I died.  The same units nullified long range weapons and hung out in the back of the fleet leaving me without an effective response. More time spent balancing the fights would have helped alleviate much of the frustration.

Your enjoyment of Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius largely depends on your love of anime space operas. Sunrider does a good job replicating the feel of Japanese anime and its free price makes it an auto include in fan’s libraries.  If you’re not as invested on the anime world, the game is of more limited value.  The dialogue is generally good and it’s probably worth checking out if you’ve ever had any interest in visual novels.  Just cover the screen during the crotch shots.

As for my evaluation of Steam, Sunrider represents the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Undoubtedly, I would never have run across this game without the assistance of Steam’s new system.  Sunrider, and its predecessors Grim Dawn and Xenonauts, are outside my usual information streams.  That being said, I didn’t truly enjoy any of these games and all of them felt like second or third tier copies of better ideas.  This all goes to support my previous conclusion which was that Steam’s update definitely increases the discoverability of the genres I like, but can’t make up for bad games.  Hopefully, Steam’s update will allow customers to access previously unknown developers and therefore accord those developers greater resources to improve their games.  We’ll see.

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Opinion – What we’re losing

Don’t minimize my pain.

The debate over the inclusivity of gaming continues to rage and the pro-diversity forces seem to be winning.  What once was a medium unapologetically devoted to a white, male, and straight fan base is now apologetically devoted to a white, male, and straight fan base.  These are heady times.  The critical gaming sphere has largely fallen in behind additional game inclusivity and is attempting to convince the broader game community of its importance.  In their attempts to do so, these critics have employed a number of arguments of which one of the most prominent is that gaming’s previous golden children aren’t actually losing anything.  They argue that many of the staples of the past, such as military shooters and other power fantasies, won’t be ignored in the coming games industry.  While they are broadly right, the reality is that the old fan base will lose a great deal.  Dismissing their concerns won’t get them to embrace diversity.

It’s important to recognize that video game development is a zero sum game.  There are a finite amount of developers commanding a finite amount of resources of which one is absolutely time.  When a developer creates a game with audience A in mind, then they are not creating games for audiences B, C, or D.  This doesn’t just apply to whole games.  The time and effort Bioware spent on including a fully voiced female Shepard was time and effort Bioware could have, and used to, spend on developing another game.  If you are one of the elect for whom the games industry used to create exclusively for, then you now see a world that is moving away from catering exclusively to you.  Yes, it’s selfish, but is it any wonder that people got used to having a medium all to themselves?  The justified crusade of others attempting to get their views included doesn’t take away from the fact that the beneficiaries of the old system are losing a world that sought to fulfill their dreams.  It’s important for critics to acknowledge that every opening they push for is taking resources that would have formerly gone elsewhere.

It’s not just the future of games that are effected, but the past too.  The games of yore targeted the male audience without any of the self awareness that we now see today.  Every hero was a muscle bound white guy ripped from an eighties action flick.  Women and minorities were relegated to side roles, if they existed at all, and forget about gender awareness.  These old games acted as if much of the world didn’t matter.  Return to them on a nostalgia trip and they look terrible to modern eyes.  Even when the gameplay and graphics hold up, the politics are often atrocious.  The “save the princess” plot that used to buttress so many of these games seems hopelessly tone deaf in a world where women characters are supposed to be empowered and more than a McGuffin.  The same can be said of more modern games that eschew the evolving cultural context.  If a game plays by the old rules, it stops being fun and just becomes embarrassing.

There was a time when all games were “me” accessible.  When a good game was targeted at me and people like me.  Anytime a good game came out, if it was in a genre I liked, it was also accessible to me.  Those times are passing and we’re seeing a slow move towards a broader range of characters and issues.  I would (and will) argue that this is an overall positive thing, but it eclipses an old world that was made by people like me for people like me.  Gaming can no longer exist in a state of innocence and, for those it benefited, that is a loss.  Critics and boosters of this new vision would do well to recognize that they are destroying something as well as building it. 

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Opinion – The Conflict of Game and Story

Your collectibles are killing my chase scene.

Sheppard is on an asteroid hurtling towards a Mass Effect relay in a desperate bid to slow the Reaper invasion.  The indoctrinated Doctor Kenson is attempting to overload the asteroid’s engines and blow it up before Sheppard can ram it into the relay.  Sheppard must stop Dr. Kenson’s plan and get through the relay and time is short.  Well, shortish.  I mean, yeah, Sheppard probably should stop the core meltdown, but there are resources to collect.  After all, who actually likes that planet scanning minigame?  And look!  Tech!  I’ve got to upgrade my armor.  And why won’t these enemies just die?  It feels like I’ve been fighting them forever.

Wait, what was I doing?  Oh yeah, asteroid.

The situation I described occurred in Mass Effect 2, but is fairly common throughout the video game universe.  Developers consistently introduce new and interesting scenarios only to undermine the tension they’ve created with conflicting gameplay elements.  Consider the situation above.  The story is that Commander Shepard has limited time to save the universe.  The base is detonating, Dr. Kenson is shouting about fulfilling her evil plot, and there’s a giant counter ticking down to collision.  This is a world communicating urgency, but the gameplay isn’t on board.  Rather than encourage the player to quickly make his way through the level, the player is incentivized to take their time.  Look for free resources!  Make sure you check every hallway for secrets!  Don’t forget to have a long shoot out with several packs of enemies.  It’s hard for the player to both buy into the story and the gameplay without one or both suffering.

Collectibles aren’t the only culprit.  Games undermine their stories in a number of ways.  Consider difficulty.  In only a few game narratives does the story include death or failure.  When the player does not succeed at his task, the result is a break and restart from the narrative.  On the most basic level, the death of the player is a contradiction of the idea that the protagonist is in danger.  After all, die enough times and it’s hard to say that any given death had greater meaning than any other.  The player will simply revive at an earlier point and try again.  For some of gaming’s most common narratives and settings, that of the unstoppable hero, the act of death is even more poisonous.  Unstoppable heroes are notable for the distinct lack of death.  Constant failure against the very objects said hero is supposed to surmount suggests that the unstoppable hero is anything but.

On some level, this is unavoidable.  Collectibles are fun to find.  Many players need the threat of failure to enjoy the challenge of a game.  Furthermore, individual players will always push the boundaries of the world through their actions.  There is nothing the developer can do to prevent Solid Snake from dry humping every corpse in the level.  Player skill is also an uncontrollable variable.  A brutal, narrative breaking brawl for some players may be a cakewalk for others.  Creating a feeling across the myriad of players and play styles is quite difficult.

That being said, there are things developers can do.  One of the most obvious is the difficulty setting.  Let skilled players dial up the pain while not so skilled players kick it down to enjoy the story.  Establish a pattern of streamlined gameplay in sections that need to focus on the story and tone.  Incorporate as many gameplay elements as possible into the world of the game.  This reduces the barriers of communication and helps the player enjoy the world as the developer intended.

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Truth – Of Hamsters and Spaceships

The truth, revealed.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write the post I wanted to write, so I’m instead going to share a little theory I have concerning the excellent Mass Effect series: Mass Effect is the prequel to Baldur’s Gate.

It all begins with a miniature giant space hamster with Boo.  For those who recall BG, they will remember the great duo of Minsc and Boo, man and hamster.  The warrior Minsc claimed that Boo was none other than a space hamster who counseled him on important matters.  BG and the developer, Bioware, wanted us to write off Minsc as a fun, deranged fighter and Boo as an item slot sacrificed for giggles, but, dear reader, Boo was far more than that.  When the player clicks on Boo in Minsc’s inventory, Boo makes a distinctive and pleasant squeaking noise.  In ME, Commander Shepard also acquires a hamster that makes the exact same noise.  It is reasonable to conclude that we are looking at Boo, the space hamster.

Now, the question arises how did Boo get to BG?  After all, Mass Effect happens in a far flung future and BG is a technologically primitive and magic existent universe.  Furthermore, how does the magic of BG jive with the science of ME?  Simple.  In the final scenes of the original ending of ME3, the Normandy crash lands on an unknown planet with much of the crew surviving.  I hold that this planet was actually BG’s Forgotten Realms and that Boo escaped when the ship landed, freeing him up to join Minsc for the events of BG.  As for the magic, ME’s biotics act very similar to BG’s magic.  They can cause elemental damage, push people and objects, and create shields.  Furthermore, we know that biotic gifts are caused by exposure to element zero, the required fuel of the Normandy.  The mages of BG could have been exposed to element zero from the Normandy (or any other crashing ship) and so gaining biotic, not magic, powers.  To the technologically ignorant population, they wouldn’t know the difference.  There are other connections.  BG’s ruins of lost civilizations could easily be space ships, the various monsters could be ME’s alien races, and the Big Metal Unit could just as easily be ME tech.  There are many connections.

See that Bioware?  I’m on to you.

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Opinion – Talking About Tropes v. Women

Soooo…this went long.  Sorry!

 

Viewers of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos on women-in-games generally fall into two categories.  The first is the ever present troglodyte internet trolls that plague so much of the community.  At their best, they object, often incoherently, to Sarkeesian’s videos based on a feeling of socially progressive intrusion into what was previously a safe space.  Gamers have often been a defense group, likely resulting from starting in a culture that didn’t take games seriously, and that has unfortunately turned into a sense of automatic offense whenever video games are challenged.  At their worst, this group engages in mindless attacks and threats that only prove Sarkeesian’s point that things need to change.  The second group are the more socially conscious critics who generally agree with Sarkeesian’s videos, but shy away from criticizing them, possibly due to a fear of being included in the first group.  This is a shame because the videos aren’t perfect and a stronger discussion surrounding them would both increase their exposure and help the gaming community move towards a more intelligent position on its depiction of women.  In that spirit, I’m going to discuss my concerns with the most recent video titled “Women as Background Decoration”.  Note: You should see the video before reading this article.

Cherry Picking

The strongest of the troll arguments is often that Sarkeesian cherry picks her clips from the most damning options or ones that misrepresent the game.  While this argument is often overstated, the naysayers do have a point.  “Women as Background Decoration” shows clips from gaming’s most violent franchises yet never explains why a particular game matters.  Some choices, like Grand Theft Auto or Saint’s Row, are obviously relevant, but I’m at a loss as to why Shellshock: Vietnam or The Darkness 2 were included.  Without an explanation as to why a particular game made the cut, it’s hard to judge the value of its inclusion.  Furthermore, Sarkeesian never provides the context for her choices.  How many copies did they sell?  Who bought them?  How do they match up against other games in the genre or generally?  The existence of objectionable video games does not mean that they represent a noteworthy problem.  Sarkeesian needs to do a better job explaining why the games she presents as evidence matter, not just that sexual objectification is wrong.

In addition to not justifying the clip selections, “Women as Background Decoration” consistently uses clips and arguments that are unrepresentative of the game in question.  In one particular section, Sarkeesian points out that a prostitute in Red Dead Redemption propositions the protagonist despite being hogtied and thrown on a horse.  The NPC has clearly reverted to its original programming and is not reacting to the event in question yet Sarkeesian uses this as evidence of abuse against women programmed into the game.  It’s obviously a bug, not an example of authorial intent.  She also uses prostitutes in Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea (which condemns the philosophy behind the prostitution), Fable hookers (the later games played the mechanic for laughs, not abuse), and the one instance in Mass Effect 2 where a fully clothed woman dances suggestively.  By combining this with the treatment of women in Saint’s Row or Metro: Last Light, Sarkeesian attempts to create the feeling of a much broader climate than she actually proves.  GTA’s prostitutes are nowhere close to the level of objectification as Mass Effects “exotic” dancers, yet she lumps them all together.  Sarkeesian would be better off selecting consistently extreme examples or, at a bare minimum, noting the vast gulf between her samples.

Prostitutes Exist

The mere existence of women as sex objects in game isn’t a problem.  Prostitutes do exist in real life and often work in situations where they are demeaned by men.  Furthermore, a game about crime and the underworld ought to include these kinds of situations as they are reflective of the reality of the setting.  It’s hard to argue that a mafia game should not include prostitution as that is a major industry in which mafia engage in.  In this kind of game, strippers, prostitutes, and exotic dancers can add authenticity and a sense of place that is required to depict them.  Unless we’re prepared to ban the idea of showing a port town (Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was another cherry picked example), we have to accept that objectified women were and are real. Furthermore, we must accept that women depicted won’t move much beyond sex objects in certain situations, if only because that environment rarely treats the women as such.

That does not mean that all depictions of sexualized women are acceptable all the time.  If a developer is going to use a brothel as a backdrop, then it is incumbent upon them to show the reality of brothels.  They need to move beyond busty women who just love having sex all day and show the downsides like abuse and drug use.  Particularly in criminal settings, sexualized women ought not be glamourized outside of the showroom setting, but rather shown with the level of desperation that often accompanies such situations.  All this is to say that treating women as sex objects isn’t the problem, it’s the rest of the story that goes untold that’s the issue.

Women are NPCs too

The biggest flaw in Sarkeesian’s argument is how completely she focuses on sexualized women NPCs to the detriment of the whole universe of NPCs that exist.  Sarkeesian uses Martha Nussbaum’s theory of objectification to show how women are objectified, yet fails to acknowledge that the same could be said of all NPCs anywhere.  Going down the list (Quotes are from Nussbuam):

  • Instrumentality – “The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.” NPCs exist for the enjoyment of the player. This can be negative, such as the abuse Sarkeesian mentions, but it can also be innocuous or positive such as a question to help someone. Even in the later situation, the player is often doing the quest for the reward, not the NPC.
  • Denial of Autonomy – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.” Literally true, in this case. Also, players rarely care about an individual NPC’s needs and often see them as a means to an end. Think shopkeeper.
  • Inertness – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.” Again, it is very rare that the player actually cares about what an NPC wants. Most players think of NPCs as automata without any desires of their own..
  • Fungibility – “The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.” Most NPCs fulfill a function held by many other NPCs. Sexualized women NPCs are not special in this regard.
  • Violability – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.” Just about every enemy in every RPG ever. Also, in open world games, every NPC, not just the sexualized ones, are available for abuse.
  • Ownership – “The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.” In the case of monster fighting games, this is quite literal, but you need not go that far. Any game that allows you to buy and use the services of an NPC, such as the thieves in Assassin’s Creed, would qualify.
  • Denial of Subjectivity – “The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.” It is very rare for a game to infuse one of its many hundreds of NPCs with personality. Even rarer that it does this well.

This failure to distinguish between sexualized women NPCs and NPCs in general continues throughout the video. In the most egregious example, Sarkeesian states that GTA and Saint’s Row incentivize the player to abuse women by having them drop money when they die, but completely fails to note that all NPCs do the same thing.  There are other examples, but they all speak to same problem in Sarkeesian’s argument.  Replace sexualized women NPCs with NPCs and you have an argument against violence in video games writ large.  Almost every lurid, brutal clip of a protagonist violating a women could have been, frame for frame, reenacted with any NPC passing by.  I do think there’s a compelling argument for singling out women NPCs and sex workers in particular, but Sarkeesian never makes it.

Conclusion

“Women as Background Decoration” is still a great addition to the Feminist Frequency series.  It makes great points about how some of gaming’s most cherished franchises approach sexualized female NPCs.  I hope the future entries will stop working so hard to make an extreme case for the mistreatment of women and will instead use the ample material that already exists.

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Opinion – OMG! Boobies!

Not the source I expected on this one

There are a couple of scenes in Wolfenstein: The New Order where the hero, BJ Blazkowicz, and his love interest, Anya, have sex.  What is shocking about this is not the act of sex in the historically sex shy video game scene, but rather that it was shown with a modicum of maturity that isn’t present in even gaming’s most mature franchises.  The act of showing two character engaging in sex as a normal function of their relationship and without gratuitous Playboy shots runs counter to the games industries typical depiction of sex from a 13 year old view point.  The games industry, as a whole, has trouble breaking free of the immature perspective of sex.  New Order gives us a glimpse of how easy it would be to move away from the youthful swamp in which most video games are mired.

The most common depiction of sex in games is the mindless titillation of big boobs, skimpy clothing, and prostitution.  It’s often done from a straight male point of view (a topic worthy of its own article) and captures the simplest conception of sex there is.  Off the top of my head, I can think of strippers in Saint’s Row, the giant breasted sex minigame of God of War, and just about every game that includes prostitution ever.  One of the many problems with this depiction of sex is that it represents the act as conceived by the average teenager, rather than by the many adults who both make and are the audience for these games.  Consider the strip club minigame I tried in GTA V.  I approached a busty stripper, got a lap dance, and, when we went back to her place, the screen bounced to an unshown good time and faded to black.  This is pretty much what your average teenager thinks of when they conceive sex.  Hot women, sensual moves, and some kind of black box that is supposed to be super cool.  In contrast, New Order has two individuals who, as part of their relationship, have sex.  No lurid strip club, no sex crazed prostitutes, just people who enjoy sex as part of a greater relationship.  This is how most adults approach sex, yet it is one of the few times a game has depicted it as such.

The sad part is that even one of gaming’s greatest series has trouble with sex.  Mass Effect is well known for depicting the act in the exact opposite way.  Rather than showing sex as a dirty act between a man and oversized, throw away genitalia, Mass Effect sanctifies the act as the crowning achievement in a relationship.  Each romantic option climaxes when Sheppard and his partner having sex.  This is the pinnacle of the relationship when most adult relationships include sex well before some kind of mystical understanding is reached.  It is a fun part of the relationship that can start anywhere between the first date and the wedding day and is rarely considered an achievement.  Rather than be the sex mad teenager, Mass Effect chooses to be the virtuous abstainer whose refusal to have sex puts the act on a pedestal that it doesn’t deserve.  Again, New Order provides the more mature counterpoint.  BJ and Anya’s first time isn’t a vaunted relationship defining achievement nor does their subsequent encounter suggest anything more than stress relief and a good time.  Sex is neither glorified nor objectified in New Order, it’s just a healthy part of two character’s relationship.

I don’t want to oversell New Order’s achievement.  While BJ and Anya’s relationship is believable, it isn’t particularly well developed.  Condoms were never shown despite how important avoiding pregnancy would be while living in the heart of an insurgency.  Furthermore, most sex does not occur between a giant ball of muscles and a model with a fantastic rack.  Still, the general tone is something that few games have nailed.  New Order’s decision to depict sex in an adult way rather than as a 13 year old might is refreshing and laudable.  I can only hope other developers will follow suit.

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