Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Panality of Evil

If you're in town for the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo, I'll be doing a panel (2:00, Sunday, Palomino room C) on boardgame design with the Game Artisans of Canada. Come say hello and tell me why the Mass Effect ending sucked.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Very Special Message Board

So a group from 4chan, also known as the internet's sphincter, just released a game about dating disabled girls.

As you might expect, the game is... tasteful?

I'm not really a visual novel or dating sim guy, but this definitely bolsters my faith in humanity. And, other developers, apparently 4chan has more mature and nuanced views on diversity than you. Just thought you ought to know.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mass Effect 3's Ending Doesn't Suck

**Warning! Huge spoilers below!**Like seriously, "you are NOT the father" level of spoilers**Do not look directly at the spoilers unless wearing proper eye protection**

About a month ago I posted some thoughts about Mass Effect 3. I didn't say much of anything regarding the ending, partly because I didn't want to spoil anything. Little did I know that an internet storm was brewing, with nasty, big, pointy teeth. Apparently the ending was so bad, on so many levels, that it actually ruined everything that had happened up to that point, as well as earning a place alongside such fabled endings as "A WINNER IS YOU" and "CONGRATURATION THIS STORY IS HAPPY END THANK YOU."

The thing is, not only did I not have this reaction to the ending, I actually thought it was pretty good.

It might have helped that I didn't read any of the hype preceding ME3s release because, looking back, some of the statements made seem basically like lies, such as "It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.....The endings have a lot more sophistication and variety in them.”

No, actually that is completely what the endings are like. You either (A) destroy the Reapers, (B) control the Reapers or (C) merge with the Reapers. Aside from minor variations, any real differences between outcomes have to be inferred.

And I have no problem with this. Most of my questions were answered before the final showdown, and I respect that the events following your final decision are not explicitly spelled out for you. I like a little bit of mystery (and Shepard is dead after all, generally). I also don't mind that everyone's story ultimately comes down to a 3-way choice. Many of the choices throughout the series, when all possibilities are examined, don't have the great divergence in outcomes that is being implied. It's just the fans never collectively compared notes on any of the earlier choices and their consequences. Or maybe everyone assumed that every choice they made would be acknowledged and accounted for in the conclusion in some way that showed that it all really mattered. Well I'm sorry kids, it doesn't really matter; you were playing a videogame the whole time.

I've read a lot of rants against the ending, and people unhappy with it generally deny that what they wanted was a happy ending, and that their objections are only about logical inconsistencies and a lack of choice and explanation. I'm not sure I buy this. Mass Effect's ending is pretty dark. And it's not dark in an Empire Strikes Back "what will our heroes do now?" kind of way, like all too many videogame endings. It left me with a feeling of hollowness like many critics describe, but for me this hollowness was mixed with respect for BioWare being willing to let there series end on such a downer. It was made clear all along that if victory were to be achieved, it would come at tremendous cost. Most of the fan-made or proposed endings I've seen try to wrap things up far too cleanly and happily. We've become so enured to saving the galaxy that we don't expect there to be negative consequences, even though the idea of consequences has been stressed all throughout the series. We're narratively spoiled. For the record, I have seen no ending suggested thus far that I prefer to the one we got. The "indoctrination" theory is intriguing, but it merely defers the issue.

I've read complaints that the final choice invalidates your previous hard work because two of the choices are equivalent to the aims of Saren (merge with Reapers) and the Illusive Man (control Reapers). So you spent the entire first game trying to stop Saren from achieving his goal of merging organics and synthetics, yet in the end you decide this is actually the best solution. This is called DRAMATIC IRONY. This is actually my favorite aspect of the endings, and it fits perfectly with the theme of grey morality that permeates the series.

I've heard various complaints that certain things about the ending are illogical. I disagree, but I won't argue point-by-point. I'll agree that it isn't clear why Joker is using a Mass Relay when he ought to be trying to help out in the final battle, but this didn't occur to me at the time, so it didn't ruin anything for me.

The one point which I do agree on is that I was hoping to see my war assets actually take part in the battle. I think a few cutscenes could have been done away with if I could have seen the Blue Suns shooting at some husks, or a bunch of Geth ships take down a Reaper. That would have been a lot more meaningful to me. Aside from that, I was quite pleased with the ending. I found it satisfying, intriguing, heartbreaking, ambiguous, ethically challenging, memorable, and unique.

I'm very glad BioWare are sticking to their guns and not planning to change the ending with DLC and merely plan to pad it out and explain things a bit more. I could see this potentially improving something that, in my humble opinion, was never broken to begin with.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Hardware Problem

Videogames have a problem that other media don't seem to. Maybe it has to do with their origins as technological oddities, and their primary fanbase of geeks and tech nerds (among whose ranks I count myself), but games have always struggled with an odd duality; they are designed, enjoyed and critiqued as both technological and aesthetic entities, with inordinate attention paid to the technological side. Perhaps it started with the bit wars, with all parties fiercely promoting their products as having the most. That no child at the time new what a "bit" was didn't matter.

The Genesis proudly displayed its now-laughable bit-count on its front:

And Atari marketed its Jaguar with one of the more bizarre videogame ads, which is saying A LOT!

Perhaps because the Jaguar was such a tremendous failure both commercially and, well, graphically, people eventually caught on to the fact that more bits didn't necessarily mean better games, but that just meant developers needed to be a little more subtle about their message, which has become tacitly accepted by review sites and used as ammunition by fanboys the world over. The message: "better tech equals a better game."

I've wanted to write something addressing this for a long time, but for me it came to a head with the recent HD re-release of Silent Hill 2.

Despite being a workhorse with more longevity than perhaps any other game console, the Playstation 2 had its limits, and the environments that Team Silent wanted to create for their game simply would not have been able to run smoothly at the fidelity they needed. Their solution, surround the player with fog and cut the draw distance down to as little as possibly, thereby allowing things within the player's limited field of view to be rendered with clarity, with the added bonus of providing the signature element to one of the most atmospheric and well-regarded horror games of all time. Sometimes necessity is in fact the mother of invention.

So what did they do for the HD remake? Get rid of the fog of course! The PS3 can do way better draw distances!

Left: HD remake - Right: good version

When Masahiro Ito, the game's art director, saw the graphical "upgrade," he was understandably upset. Aside from being an iconic element of the series, the fog also did a few other things such as cover up unfinished textures and map edges(!) I imagine the monsters are also a little less frightening when you can see them coming a mile away.

This example of putting tech ability ahead of aesthetic consideration is inexcusable, but it is hardly unprecedented. Across the industry games are defended on the basis of their technical specs rather than their actual visual appeal, let alone their gameplay.

Tell me this:
 is visually inferior to this:

This phenomenon is not limited to graphical processing either. None of the "respectable" review sites would dare leave out game length as a crucial evaluation criteria. As I mentioned in my rant about pacing, videogames are the only entertainment media where longevity is reliably cited as an important positive attribute. In the end, you are buying a piece of entertainment and, despite the sometimes hefty price of admission, if the hours you spend with it are less enjoyable because the experience has been stretched out to meet an arbitrary consumer expectation, then there are plenty of amusing things on the internet that may be more worth your time. You buy a car or toaster on the basis that it will last a long time, but nobody chooses to buy a novel because it has over 800 pages.

Yet because fun and innovation (and apparently visual appeal) are difficult to market, publishers end up falling back on technology (and content) as something reliable to pour money into, and then they just need to convince the rest of us that the tech is something worth bragging about, and we tech geeks buy into it, argue fiercely about whether Battlefield 3 looks better than Call of Duty 3, and try to ignore the fact that our "non-gamer" friends seem to love clicking on 2D pictures of corn in Farmville or flicking birds who have about four frames of animation in Angry Birds. We act smug and say they're not real gamers. But your Grandma, or your Boss or your sister doesn't care about HD graphics or blast processing, they just want to have fun. And isn't it possible that, in a way, this makes them the purest gamers of all.

Farmville still sucks though.