This cold is keeping me up. I’m too tired to do anything productive, so instead I’m listening to NPR, and Planet Money did a segment about Magic: the Gathering.
“Aw cute,” I thought. “They’re going to talk about the Black Lotus… it’s right in the title after all. The weird market of Magic speculation. Ok, I’m down.”
But the report is more than that. There are some deep lessons about game design, perceived value, economic manipulation, and doing what’s best for the game – rather than what your players think they want. Every time I’ve heard someone who was present during the early days of Magic talk, I gain even more respect for the team. This is a segment about how a brand’s most loyal customers were pushing it towards an unsustainable bubble, and they brought it back to earth, creating a game that lasted decades instead of years.
Those lessons are all hidden beneath the surface, covered in a candy shell of public radio types astonished that a silly game can last this long, and that a trading card with a picture of a flower on it can still be worth $25,000. The Beanie Babies have come and gone, the Beanie bubble burst. Long live the Lotus. Long live the economic genius of a small group of nerds. Long live Magic.
After several years avoiding the cold and flu season, and over three years resisting various con plagues and PAX poxes, I have fallen. I have a good, old-fashioned, chap-your-face-up, box-of-kleenex-a-day cold. I’m stuck on the east coast, and one of my travel computers finally went belly-up.
Apparently doing five days of GDC and three days of PAX connected by a single redeye all-nighter is not something I can do anymore. It may not be something any human should attempt. Still, I have no regrets. I met a lot of great people and learned a huge amount at both events, and they’re both vital for keeping my pro side and my fan side alive and in harmony.
Now if only my wretched physical form could get with the picture. Come on, sinuses!
Wildstar launched, and now I finally have spare room in my brain. I’m currently rushing to head out to GDC, and I hope to write some nice articles about game design while I’m there. After that, I’ll be at PAX East, doing my secret comestible-based charity thing.
Oh, and I’ve also been writing at Fangirl Nation for the past few months. I reviewed a bunch of things, and wrote far too elaborate cultural commentaries on other things. I hope you find it amusing.
All right, things are really ramping up with Wildstar. I’m probably not going to have a lot of time to update in the foreseeable future, but that’s game development for you. I’m super excited, and I’ll see you back here after we launch. Good? Good.
Seriously, go look around our site. We have trailers and lore and all kinds of stuff for you to get excited about.
I just got back from JoCoCruiseCrazy3. It was amazing. Right now, I’m sitting in my grandparents house outside Orlando, just decompressing.
That’s a good word for it, because time on the nerdboat is bizarrely compressed. I have never been anywhere else where time goes quite that fast. Today I experienced twenty-four hours. It felt weird. Now it’s time to spend these normal length days making things.
Here’s to you, monkeys. I hope I can make it to the boat again next year.
Maybe I should pledge that I’ll only go on the cruise if I finish a novel by then… We’ll see if Wildstar lets me.
Hey guys. Long time no see. So… about that Mass Effect 3.
I played it. My plan to marathon it straight through was disrupted by the fact that I had to move just a few days after its release, and packing, stressing, cleaning and cursing my hoarder’s instincts all occupied time that would otherwise have been spent shotgunning things in the face. As a result, I got to the ending after the storm had started. There were already a dozen well-written articles about the flaws in the ending. There was already a back and forth about the nature of art vs commerce. There was already a movement and a sense of mourning. What did I have to add? Nothing, I thought. Or almost nothing. So I wrote some forum posts, whined to folks at work, ate pancakes, tore my hair, shredded my garments, wore ashes and sackcloth, you know… the usual.
But then it lasted. When did I finish Mass Effect 3? Before PAX East, certainly, at least a week before, so it’s been a month or thereabouts. You’d think I’d be over it by now, that I’d be focusing on Game of Thrones or distracting myself with Pratchett or making a costume or playing an MMO or… you know… getting on with my gorram life. Yet I’m not.
To paraphrase Harbringer, This Hurts Me. Why? Why does it hurt me? Why do I care? Xenosaga ruined Shion after the first game, so I just never finished that series. The authorial hubris that ended of Season Five of Supernatural destroyed my suspension of disbelief and I just stopped watching as a result. The end of Lost was less of a triumph than I was hoping for, but it didn’t torment me for weeks, and yes, I loved Lost almost as much as I loved Mass Effect. So why was one almost immediately forgotten, while the other occupies me even now, weeks later?
It’s about the nature of story itself. This is going to get long, silly, and personal.
Here I sit in my new apartment, waiting for the delivery of my sofa, alone with my thoughts. What did I like so very much about Mass Effect, and why do I feel like that is lost to me now? Those questions felt too big, so I tried to focus in – could I think of one thing Mass Effect had that nothing else had? The first thing that jumped out at me is embarrassing, but when have I ever let that stop me?
I read a lot. I watch a lot of scripted TV, I read comics, I watch movies, I play narrative-focused games, and I have never, in my life, enjoyed a love story as much as I enjoyed the love story between Garrus Vakarian and Commander Shepard.
It’s not because Garrus is the most attractive character I’ve ever encountered. He’s not even my favorite squadmate; that honor goes to Mordin Solus. My investment comes from somewhere else: it comes from the game’s ability to discard one of the most central requirements of the romantic narrative: the requirement that something dramatic separate the lovers, that they have something that keeps them apart until the climax of the story. When do we ever get to see the story of two best friends who trust each other implicitly, and never break that trust, falling slowly and gently in love? Pretty much never, because there’s no drama there. I’m thinking back on hundreds of love stories I’ve read or watched or played over the years, and never has the primary love story of a piece been written in precisely this way.
Not that I’m implying that Garrus is the most important love interest in Mass Effect; he was just my primary love interest. The fact that he’s one of many is what enables this kind of storytelling. In a story with only one romance, I doubt any writer would dare to try this strange, uncertain, nearly conflict-free romantic arc. This is one of the things video games are uniquely suited to explore, something that would die on the vine in any other media.
The drama in Shepard and Garrus’s relationship comes not from the denial of their emotions, not from some stricture keeping them apart, not from (and I hate this most of all) some comical misunderstanding that introduces a senseless conflict that must be overcome in the third act. The narrative interest in their relationship in Mass Effect 2 doesn’t come from what is keeping them apart, but from what is bringing them together. It is about two people who are very important to each other realizing how much they mean to each other. That is a story that has been told before, I will admit, but there is a twist here. A twist that departs from the path of the standard romantic narrative, and creates something entirely new.
In many stories, the realization of how important a relationship is causes one or more of the parties to withdraw. “I realized what losing you would mean, and it scared me.” Or maybe the realization only comes after a lengthy slog through the ups and downs of doubts until someone finally realizes “you complete me” and then poof, reprise the theme song and roll the credits. It’s either a source of conflict throughout the story or a single beat at the end.
In Mass Effect 2, it is the story. The narrative focuses on and deepens that story in a way I have never seen before. Instead of a sudden realization that transitions us to happy-ending land, we get something that feels like real, productive, sometimes uncertain, but always positive growth. In the case of Garrus and Shepard, the admission of the relationship’s importance is not a source of artificial conflict, it is the relationship’s apotheosis. It culminates in a line that would, in any other work, come right before some dramatic fall: “I want something to go right, just once.”
Then, against all odds and reasons and narrative convention… it does go right. They fall in love and stay in love and make it out alive. They save the day and flip off the man and drive off in their souped-up rocket car staring incredulously at each other. Did that just happen? Did we actually win? Did we actually not lose everything?
I mean yeah, the world’s still ending… but the world is always ending. It never stops ending. I think we’ve all realized that. Every day is a tiny apocalypse and somebody’s not going to make it out alive. But this little armageddon, this little trap of doom and defeat, it didn’t get us.
And then we have Mass Effect 3. Again, no manufactured drama. “Hey, you want to… keep doing this?” “Yes.” “Oh good. That’s what I was hoping for.” “Me too.” So how are we going to spend this time together? Racing cars and shooting guns and making out on rooftops. We’re going to live the crap out of this life, and who cares. I can’t remember a single scene in any narrative media that made me feel as comfortable and happy and carefree as that Garrus scene on the Citadel rafters did. That whole narrative arc was an exploration of friendship and loyalty and trust and joy.
That’s my revelation: games can do that. They can do whatever they like, of course they can. Of course they can!
It leaves me standing at the top of a pile of crap romance that people have been trying to sell to modern, intelligent women for years yelling “Yo stupids, we don’t have to play your game anymore! It’s possible to tell the story of two intelligent, reasonable, awesome people who love and respect each other without any of your adolescent angsty bullshit.”
It was there, standing on my pile, shouting at the romantic narrative establishment, that I realized what I wanted out of Mass Effect, what I wanted and almost got. I’m not looking for Mass Effect to mirror the Odyssey. I’m not lookin’ to be the hero with a thousand faces. I’m sure as hell not looking for another self-sacrificial messiah figure.
I’m looking for a story that leaves me laughing with a feeling of exhilaration and joy, because video games can do things no other form of storytelling yet invented can do. I’m looking for something that will make me pump my fist in defiance at the tired old narrative devices of yesteryear. I’m looking for something that will prove me right, that will illustrate that all the angst and grimdark and rote misunderstandings are not what make great art; that great art can come from a place of delight, and victory, and friendship and unity.
If I want to experience a piece of art that reminds me what it feels like to lose my sense of hope, compromise my ideals, and sink into a world of ruin and despair, I’ve got some Dostoyevsky on the shelf. If I want to read about how mankind is a doomed, foolish race in an unfeeling universe, I’d make myself re-read Mostly Harmless; at least I’d get a few laughs out of it. If I want to see a hero sacrifice everything he is to achieve a goal he is not even certain he cares about, Elric of Melinbone is standing just off screen, looking at me with those creepy eyes, silently judging me for only reading like seven of his books. I know that feel, bro. I can get it anywhere. I can get it wholesale from a thousand dead geniuses.
What I can’t get in unlimited quantities while wandering through the classics section is self-actualization and joy. If I want to experience a piece of art that evokes the feeling of falling in love with your best friend while punching your worst enemy in the face in the ultimate triumph of free will over fate, that piece of art doesn’t exist yet.
It almost did. Mass Effect was so close to creating a piece of art that culminated in the ultimate expression of everything that is good about existence… and then it didn’t.
That’s what I’m mourning the loss of.
A lot has happened in the last few months. I started doing yoga, my shoulder injury flared up again, I had several interviews, I started feeling run down, I got a job offer, I found out I had Lyme disease, I went to Otakon, I packed up all my stuff, I went to PAX, I got trapped on the West Coast by a hurricane, and I moved to Orange County. I start work at a shiny new MMO studio tomorrow.
Lyme is the Cthulu of illnesses. It has clear symptoms that everyone knows (madness, unexpected islands, mild squamousness) but there are also subtler versions where you just get a feeling that something out there is profoundly wrong and you don’t know what or why, just that you are doomed. Doooooomed! Both my mother and brother have Chronic Lyme, which is a condition where Lyme messes you up for decades, and you never know if you’re actually completely free of it. See, there’s this theory that Lyme can hide, dormant, in your tissues and then start reproducing and causing trouble suddenly at later points in time. There’s something of a medical debate over Chronic Lyme that I’m not going to go into here, all I know is that my brother has been sick on and off for years.
Now, before you get super worried, I’m probably not that doomed. The doctors say my Lyme was probably a fairly recent case, caught early enough that it should be knocked out by antibiotics, which I’m on now. My brother has had it, untreated, since early childhood (after he was diagnosed in his teens, we found medical records that reported a positive Lyme test over a decade prior, that my parents were never told about. Ah medicine.)
Anyway, this was supposed to be a post about the last few months in general, rather than an explanation of my wretched curse. Let’s just say that all the big stuff is over, my shoulder is mostly healed, and I’m on drugs for the Lyme. I’ve got a bunch of posts in the pipe, including some freelance work that I never got paid for. Gonna file the serial numbers off of them and put ‘em up here, along with some PAX ramblings and maybe some new Mass Effect stuff why not?
See you, space cowboy.
A new job may make updates less frequent from now on. Headlines, breadlines blow my mind and now: this deadline.¹ Also, my brother’s college graduation. True, updating before 9am EST on a Monday is probably effectively the same thing as updating on a Saturday or Sunday, but it’s a moral defeat.²
It’s the middle of May, but I’m going to make some resolutions. Actually, some of these things are resolutions, some of them are lessons I’ve learned. So here’s a list of… things. Things about… stuff.
1. Respond to comments and PMs better – I am terrible at this!
2. Make fewer specific content promises: When I say “I’m going to write about X exactly!” I’m much more likely to procrastinate, whereas I can pretty much always produce something when I just start writing about Mass Effect and see what shakes out.
3. If I’m gonna miss an update, post some fluff.
4. Try to write my weekly article before Friday, because really? Really?
5. Occasionally write more about non-Mass Effect things. (I’m almost done with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities! And while I could write a post relating that to Mass Effect, I will try not to. Or will I?)
6. Not everything has to be 800 words. Pretty much nothing should be 1600 words. What is wrong with me?
7. Still, actual work and short story work is probably slightly more important than blogging. If you’ve got to do some shorter, medium-fluffy stuff in order to actually make progress on a short story or novel, do it.
Yeah, the further I go, the less resolution-y these look. But there you go – my immediate goals and lessons learned for the bloggination. Also, my old rule still stands: if I miss a “proper’ update one week and fluff out or even outright fail, I’ll try to do two the next week. So, expect more things this week. You like things, right?
¹Eviction or paaaaay, Rent! Note: I am not facing eviction. This was about deadlines. And quoting gay musicals. I miss Adam.
²Whenever we’re playing Magic: The Gathering, my brother refers to the act of getting that final card you need and neatly dealing with the creature that’s been chipping away at you for the past few turns, even if you die immediately after, “the moral victory.”
or: Mass Effect is Hard.
This week’s regularly scheduled program has been interrupted by an essay about systems design, barriers to entry, and accessibility. Here’s why:
You might remember that last winter, we had kind of a snowpocalypse here in the Northeast. It’s already mid-May now, and we know what that means, seasonally (Link contains moderately NSFW audio). It also means I started spring cleaning last week, and during that project I discovered that, sometime during the disastrous winter weather, our attic leaked and we got some lovely mold. Mold which I am deathly allergic to.
Long story short, I had a bad week, and I never got around to finishing all the necessary research for my article on the long tail. Next week, hopefully! For now, fewer citations, more sinking slowly into a vat of warm nostalgia. Bonus: it’s about Mass Effect, RPGs, retro-gaming, and general game design. Something for everyone!
Enough exposition. Essay, begin!
The original Mass Effect is hard to play. At the very least, it’s hard to learn, and not very intuitive – insert obligatory apt Penny-Arcade comic link here. I think this is probably the series’ greatest weakness, even though it’s something I didn’t really notice beyond the first hour or so. I only realized how daunting the game must be when I stumbled upon a handful of “first time player, how do I play this game?” posts on Bioware Social Network. Also, when I bought it as a present for a gamer friend during the recent $5 Mass Effect Steam sale, she immediately texted me with “apparently I suck at Mass Effect.” Hmm.
I kind of wish I’d started blogging about Mass Effect when I first started playing. Isn’t that always the way though? I had a friend who decided to play through all the Final Fantasy games on a lark, and it was only somewhere around four that he thought man, I should really be writing some of this down. Hopefully, at some point in the future, blogging will be like taking the pills that prevent me from going insane: mostly automatic. But, for now, I have to rely on the foggy mists of memory.
The first time I started up Mass Effect, I couldn’t figure out how to go wherever I was supposed to go. I got stuck literally seconds after being dropped onto the first planet, humped a few cliffs, waded through a few marshes, and generally took about twelve minutes to go somewhere that should have taken me two. Petrified of missing something. I searched corners and crevices for hidden paths, when really all I had to do was walk over to that vista and proceed forward to receive my first serving of plot.
After the thing happened in the place, I pulled out my gun and shot the guys (spoiler free!). Others have spoken of the shooting feeling terrible and poorly implemented until you build your accuracy, but as someone whose primary experience with video game guns has been isometric RPGs and games about portals, I didn’t notice. I figured this was how everyone felt playing shooters all the time; it was certainly how I’d always felt. I leveled up my overpowered pistols, used my biotics, and quickly felt productive. Abilities on a hotbar? Simplified MMO interface. Map? Not the best map ever implemented, and the minimap was often grossly misleading, but I learned how to deal with it quickly. Inventory? Not that bad, with its most serious flaws not becoming apparent until much later.
What I didn’t realized was that I was leveraging years of RPG and gaming experience. Not being a shooter fan and being pretty old actually helped me; I could still remember an era when games hated you, and told you nothing. My first real console was a garage-sale NES, with a box of manual-less games. We only ever figured out how to play about half of those, over the five or so pre-internet years when that was our only gaming system. Dying a hundred times before you figure out what the heck you’re supposed to be doing is in my blood, and Mass Effect isn’t nearly that punishing. I also have played a lot of badly designed and deeply inconvenient JRPGs, So when you say “The inventory system is punishing” I can sit back with a smug look on my face and say “really? Have you played Koudelka?”
Another thing that I learned from these early decades of gaming torment was how to blame myself. If a system seemed obtuse, a map confusing, or a boss fight too hard, it was probably my fault, caused by some inherent personal failing rather than some flaw in the game’s design. I took a bit of a journey back to that era recently, and what I found when I stepped out of my time machine was enlightening.
I recently tried to play Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura: a classic, Fallout-style WRPG. Spoiled by the conveniences and tutorials of modern games, I figured I could jump right in and start playing. Of course, my hubris lead to me not knowing how to move, use abilities, or even open and close the map correctly. To even perform these basic functions, I had to read the manual, which takes the form of a beautiful, in-character, 180 page novel. No I’m not exaggerating (well, maybe I am about the novel part – the book does not contain a conventional story structure centered around coming-of-age or anything like that. It is, however, legitimately a hundred and eighty goddamn pages long.) The manual has a preface. I don’t think you could get away with that today, but back then, that was the norm. Heck, a well-written, novel-length instruction manual was a gift, a thing to be treasured and re-read. I remember poring over the manual to the original Fallout. I remember a friend having to show me how to play Everquest, step by step, because if a friend didn’t show you how to do it you were basically screwed. Describing it now, it becomes clear that the good old days weren’t necessarily always all that good.
Gamers, especially RPG gamers, used to have a complex skillset that allowed us to deal with frustrating or poorly-conceived systems. That’s probably why I didn’t see the seams in Mass Effect the first time through. Also, I assumed that, at certain places, the combat felt bad because I was bad, but I’m beginning to suspect that might not be the case. A friend of mine, (the one who recommended Arcanum) tells me she keeps dying in the first five seconds of the final Noveria fight. I remember dying over a dozen times on that fight myself. I had assumed it was because I didn’t understand something important; admitting that it might be because the fight is poorly balanced for that point in the game and the appropriate tactics are insufficiently clear feels like heresy, but I’m starting to think it might be true. Especially when my friend keeps saying “this never happened to me in Fallout 3!” Well if you love Fallout 3 so much, why don’t you marry it? Ahem, sorry. Sorry.
I’m planning on starting a new Mass Effect 1 playthrough again soon, and I may have more design-related notes on the user experience after I have to relearn everything again. It didn’t seem that bad the first time, other than having no idea how to use cover properly and the universal Mako experience, but I do have one memory of frustration that remains sharp, months and months later. Hopefully it is also illustrative.
It was midway through the game, and my inventory was full again. I was standing in front of the dude on your ship you can sell extra items to and I just… exited the game. The next day Cataclysm came out and I just stopped playing Mass Effect and started playing WoW, knowing that the first thing I’d have to do when I came back was deal with that inventory, and I did not want to. It was a month before I came back.
Now, this is partially because I’m a hoarder. Hoarding is in our family, and I will consider it a personal victory if, when I die, my house contains less than a year’s worth of old newspapers. If I’ve got a nice suit of armor I’m using, and you offer me one that it worse, but has some special feature like being immune to toxin or resistant to heat and cold, I’ll keep that suit. I’ll probably never actually remember to use it, but I’ll keep it all right, until I get a better environmental suit, at which point I’ll keep that one forever and never use it. Still, even without my issues, there was too much sorting, too much fiddling, too much hesitation, too much busywork.
Dealing appropriately with that kind of stuff used to be something of a mark of honor. Getting through a badly balanced fight, or managing a punishing inventory, or remapping a hundred badly-designed hotkeys, all that stuff used to be proof that you were a real gamer. But kids today haven’t learned to put up with that kind of crap, so they don’t. And honestly, I can’t say I blame them. I’m not against complex systems, but you need to teach people how to use them. You need to make it easy and fun. And that is the one place where Mass Effect fails, sometimes.
It’s still worth it to muscle through, of course. Best series ever, and all. But Mass Effect’s barriers to entry may be why the series wasn’t spoken of in universally hushed and reverent tones until ME2. And that’s a cautionary tale for the ages, my friends.