Monthly Archives: February 2013

Mass Effect (2007)

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Mass Effect has a beautiful central conceit. Despite its doom and gloom, “man versus machine” conflict, its vision of the future belongs to the idyllic, optimistic science fiction of the Star Trek mold. That 1966 show broke new ground by not questioning an African-American woman’s position amongst professional, space-faring intellectuals, essentially saying to a Civil Rights-era America that no, there’s no turning back the clock on this equality thing. Mass Effect one-ups this concept for the twenty-first century. Nowadays, we don’t just have women of color as second-string communications officers, but anyone of any gender, race, or sexuality can become the true-blue hero of his or her own version of Star Trek.* The game is an elbow nudge to the side of every Proposition 8 supporter and Men’s Rights Advocate; in the future, that bullshit is ancient history, and a badass is a badass regardless of skin-deep qualifiers.┬áPlenty of games allow the player roleplay women and minorities, but few create a defined enough protagonist for the result to have impact. Pay no attention to that surly, steroid-gobbling he-man who adorns almost every piece of the game’s promotional art. If you want the true Mass Effect experience (and, with apologies to Mark Meer, a hero who doesn’t sound entirely comatose), a female Commander Shepard is the way to go.

But sadly, this isn’t the year 2183. Here in 2012 (or 2007, when Mass Effect first released), even brave, well-intentioned work is often undone by unchecked hypocrisies and subconscious subscriptions to ugly social norms. Due to either the possible financial gain or just not knowing any better, Bioware hampers its message of equality — if not the central thesis of Mass Effect, certainly its most interesting and unprecedented — with its slavish devotion to the white, middlebrow, male nerd fantasy. Continue reading

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Super Smash Bros. (1999)

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Gamers tend to forget that Nintendo is just as much in the children’s entertainment business as it is in the video game business. It’s a mistake that generates much of the frustration lobbied at the company’s unwillingness to evolve its key franchises; suddenly, the grand innovators who shepherded the industry through its infancy and adolescence often come off as… well, infantile or adolescent. I’m not making excuses for this perceived laziness, because I would love to see a new, envelope-pushing Zelda that truly strayed from the hand-holding, old-hat Ocarina-isms of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. But the fact of the matter is, those titles are, if nothing else, surely as satisfying for the current eight-to-twelve year-old set as Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were for me, and as the original 1987 title was for the generation who later scoffed at the linearity of the Nintendo 64 games. What I’m saying is, even if they’re no longer the industry leaders when it comes to innovating game design, you can’t say Nintendo doesn’t know its audience. And, despite what you might think from looking at any internet comments section (the stomping ground of the vitriol-filled twenty-something gamer), Nintendo’s primary audience is — and really, always has been — children. Continue reading

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Passage (2007)

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My favorite element in Passage is the high score meter. Not because of its intentional thematic effect (we’ll get to that in a bit), but because the thought of some poor schmuck not understanding its inclusion and actually chasing the “best” possible score in this five-minute art game just plain tickles me. A player with that goal would run so counter to the entire purpose and thrust of the game’s message, and yet, it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely such a person exists. Gamers are conditioned to put up with some pretty boring, lame-brain tasks for the sake of leader boards and higher levels, so why wouldn’t someone take that to its logical conclusion and attempt to achieve the Best Passage Score Ever? I sincerely hope this game has its own version of Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell out there somewhere, locked in an eternal battle to see who can nab one more treasure or take one step further right before keeling over and transforming into a tombstone. Besides, what is the five-minute mark in Passage if not the most easily achievable kill screen ever?

Yet the use of such tropes is the key to why Passage resonated so deeply when it hit the gaming community in 2007. Unlike the work of thatgamecompany (Flower, Journey) or Braid, here is a self-consciously “artistic” game that does not hide its heritage behind a more presentable, nuanced aesthetic. Continue reading

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