Tag Archives: Bioware

Mass Effect 3 (2012)

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The Mass Effect series is like a gaming Rorschach Test, and not just because of its tricksy moral hypotheticals. No two players seem able to agree on what Mass Effect does well and what Mass Effect does terribly, with opinions diverging to the point where you wonder if everyone is even discussing the same games. Mass Effect is the best science-fiction story ever told, unless it’s dreary, pulpy garbage. It’s got characters you care about deeply, unless they annoy you to the point of purposely sending them to their dooms. The ultimate Mass Effect is the first iteration’s open-world RPG playground, or maybe it’s the second’s tighter, more character-driven hallway shooter. Nobody cares about Mass Effect‘s combat, but would it kill these designers to have Shepard just shut up and shoot somebody already? Oh, and let’s not forget that it ends with either the greatest artistic achievement in gaming history or a pretentious, schizophrenic hodgepodge of undercooked sci-fi cliches so awful that it sent a small nation’s worth of nerds into a months-long, near-primal tantrum. Mass Effect 3‘s ending faced plenty of grousing about its lack of personalization, but given the wide spectrum of opinions about this series, players had no problem making these games their own. Continue reading

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Mass Effect 2 (2010)

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“I’ll tell you what — you help me finish off these mechs, and I’ll play Twenty Questions with you all day.”

This is the first line of Mass Effect dialogue that got a smile out of me. It comes early in Mass Effect 2, as the recently revitalized Commander Shepard escapes a research station on the fritz. (Really, is there any other kind of research station in this universe?) Her newest comrade, Jacob Taylor, is an employee of the shadowy Cerberus organization, a company that trades in every morally ambiguous sci-fi conundrum you can name, from rearing Akira-like psychic younglings to reviving the killed-in-action Shepard for one last suicide mission. More importantly, though, he is the first person Shepard encounters with little patience for her pestering questions and complete ignorance of social cues. He’s understandably dumbfounded when she wants to play Sherlock Holmes 2185 instead of, you know, escape the explosion-filled Cerberus base swarming with deadly robots. His reaction is a small, practically disposable meta wink, but one of the series’ first character beats to read as recognizably human. Finally, a Mass Effect character reacting to a Mass Effect scenario in a manner similar to how I would!

Mass Effect 2 tweaks many aspects of the original (both for good and for ill), but perhaps the most palatable improvement is this subtle shift toward self-awareness and economy in its plotting. While Shepard eventually gets to play many insomnia-curing rounds of Twenty Questions, greater attention paid to form and phrasing finally tempers the blunt storytelling instrument that is the Bioware Cutscene. Continue reading

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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. Plenty 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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Adventure (1979)

On pretending to be a cube and respecting an artist’s vision.

I typically don’t role-play when I game. I just have no desire to actually place myself in my character’s shoes, to make decisions as if I were actually a spaceman or a druid and not a middle class, white American male gazing glassy-eyed at his computer. Which isn’t to say I don’t invest deeply in whatever game I’m playing; my emotional connection to my avatar is just usually fueled more by traditional audience-to-character empathy than E.T.-and-Elliot-esque synchronicity. Perhaps it’s because the perspective I’m bringing to video games relies much more heavily on fully authored sources like films and novels than more participatory pen-and-paper RPGs and the like (I’ve played roughly one-fourth of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in the entirety of my nerdy existence, and while I enjoyed it, the game sputtered out for a reason), or that I got into video games around when they started cribbing more of their narrative tricks from the cinematic. Whatever the reason, I play games more to engage with the work as a whole than to invest in a protagonist as an extension of myself.

I know this is sacrilege to some, a squandering of the gift of interactivity and the intensely personal experiences that can result from co-authoring a story. And not only do I see the appeal of role-playing – of just saying “fuck it,” suspending disbelief, and fully investing in being a time-traveling hermaphroditic dwarf or whatever – but I would agree that my inability to do so sometimes makes me miss the point of games where it’s the key draw. When I started this project, I wanted it to function not only as a series of opinion pieces, but also as an exploration of why classic games are so loved, even when I disagree with the reverence. But I quickly realized that my desire to view games as complete works, to dissect them as one would a film or a book, would inhibit my ability to find value if a creator actually intended for me to role-play. In these cases, were my very attempts to respect an author’s intention actually causing me to ignore it? Continue reading

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Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

An impressively constructed RPG with some serious storytelling issues.

My favorite moment in any piece of Star Wars media comes early in Return of the Jedi. When Luke Skywalker attempts to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, he must face a hideous beast called the Rancor. It’s an ugly, unsympathetic monster, the kind that lives in a dank, bone-filled cave and devours innocents for the amusement of its master. Naturally, Luke handily defeats the creature and is soon whisked away to new adventures and trials. But not everyone can part with the dead quite so quickly, and a fat, half-dressed man begins to weep for the fallen Rancor. Whether this man considered the creature a pet or a friend is unclear, and the moment not only hilariously undermines our expectations for the scene, but also achieves something legitimately sweet and sad as we consider a loss that is literally alien to us.

This is the way I think Star Wars works best, in individual moments that achieve something at once bizarre, awe-striking, and unselfconsciously goofy. I’m thinking of things like the cantina scene, the twin sunset, Luke’s first moments with Yoda. So it’s a shame that for all its flights of fancy, Star Wars interprets creativity in the most literal way possible, as in, “making a bunch of shit up”; there is almost no experimentation with form throughout the saga, no interest in the abstract or thematic beyond its much-ballyhooed Joseph Campbell legwork. Continue reading

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