Archive for May 2011

When it rains your laundry gets wet

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.”

Systems Design and Accessibility

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.

Mass Effect: the diamond in the cardboard box

Fact: originally I was planning on calling this column “Mass Effect Mondays.” Haha, funny stuff there. Fortunately, I listened to some advice I heard a long time ago: naming a feature after a particular day is just asking for trouble. Still, after the mini-update on Friday, I wanted to do a proper push today. So here it is: an actual Monday update.

I’ve referenced my late entry into the world of Mass Effect before, but I’ve never really gone into any detail. And so, today I will tell the long and rambling story of how I finally got sucked in, with many digressions, and maybe some footnotes, if I get crazy.

I got into Mass Effect late – nearly three years late. I don’t own an Xbox 360, due to a rather unusual bet I made a few years ago. I told one of my friends that if he ever goes a full calendar year without having to send his Xbox in for repairs, I will buy one. In five years, he hasn’t been able to manage it, but he lives in hope. Actually, considering the Xbox situation, I got into Mass Effect exactly two years and six months late (ME1 was released on May 28th, 2008 and my first recorded save is on November 28th, 2010. Nice symmetry there.)

There is a twist to this story, as there is for all secret origins: I owned Mass Effect 2 for nearly two years before I played it¹.

At the time, I worked for a studio associated with Electronic Arts, and one of the perks that comes with that affiliation is the ability to get a number of EA games free, every year. I hadn’t spent my allowance for some time, mainly because, as a dev in crunch, I didn’t have a lot of free time, and I spent most of that free time on MMOs, JRPGs, and tabletop gaming. I didn’t have an Xbox, and at the time I didn’t even have my own PS3. Shocking, I know, and it made finding games I could get from EA even more difficult.  Finally, the time came where I had to use the points or lose ’em, and I went on a shopping spree. I got about eight copies of Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure², two copies of Red Alert 3³, a copy of Boom Blox, and a handful of other titles, including Mass Effect. At the time I knew little about it, except that it was “the other PC game that I might like,” after Red Alert.

That says something about how utterly Mass Effect’s marketing failed to penetrate my skull – I worked for the company that was distributing it, the company that had just purchased Bioware, and I didn’t have any reason to believe it was a game that would appeal to me more than Red Alert 3.

At the time I was about to move, and so all of my new games were either sent off to friends or put in a box; I left out only a single copy of Henry Hatsworth to accompany me on my journeys. After that it just never occurred to me to take Mass Effect out of the box. There were other games in the world, games whose marketing emphasized RPG elements, or games that my friends were insisting I play, and I played those, instead. I traveled a lot, and played a lot of DS games.

Two things prompted me to dig through my stack of still-unopened game and DVD boxes to find the lost jewel of Mass Effect. In the late summer of 2010, a friend suggested that my writing portfolio could be improved with the addition of some Bioware-style dialogue trees and a NeverWinter Nights module (two projects that will get more attention as soon as my deadlines calm down, I hope.) It had been a while since I’d played a Bioware RPG, so I wanted to familiarize myself again; really get a good idea of the feel I should be going for. My first instinct was to replay Knights of the Old Republic, but it didn’t capture me the way it had years earlier. I was trying to play Dark Side this time, and let’s just say that it lead me to hate every NPC I spoke with – good for method acting, bad for my personal fun quotient. I focused on other projects instead.

A few months later I was not much farther in KotOR. I was contemplating Jade Empire or Dragon Age, but not feeling strongly pulled in any direction. That’s when Mass Effect pinged my radar again, for the first time in years. Several members of Loading Ready Run expressed great enthusiasm for Mass Effect 2, both on the game-related portion of their podcast and during the Desert Bus for Hope charity gaming marathon. A fan asked Tally Heilke if she romanced Tali in her playthrough, and she said she didn’t… but only because she was playing as a woman. This made me totally rethink the game: romance? Femshep? Neither of these were things I had previously associated with Mass Effect, beyond media references to accidental lesbian sex. Finally my brain turned over. Wait… I own Mass Effect. Why am I not playing it right now?

I had the answer to that question soon enough: upon my first attempt to run Mass Effect on my ancient computer, the video card emitted a high, keening noise, almost like laughter, and rendered humans in ME1 in such a way that they all appeared to have leprosy. This did not stop me from playing over fourteen hours of Mass Effect: Communicable Diseases Edition during the two days it took for my new video card to arrive.

Days later I purchased and installed Bring Down the Sky. Mass Effect dominated my free time until World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm launch, at which point I refocused on my old friend WoW for a few weeks. After leveling two characters to 85 there was little to do; few things felt productive. First I stopped pugging, then I stopped playing the AH, as more and more time went to Mass Effect. Finally I stopped doing even my daily random dungeon. I finished ME1 in a flash, right before I was about to head to the Game Developer’s Conference, and quickly ordered ME2; searching out a rare unused copy of the collector’s edition, because the obsession was already ticking over in my head (also, i wanted the far superior CE cover.)

When I returned from GDC, I quickly plowed through my deadlines and obligations. When I finally found a free moment, I installed ME2, loaded up my save, and got right down into it. I stopped after four hours for food, and to purchase and install all the content-based DLC. Ten hours later, I bought all the squadmate outfit packs, and eventually, one by one, the weapons packs. I’m sure I had real life adventures and work during this time, but I can’t remember any of that clearly, now. When I had scraped the rind of my first ME2 playthrough, I emerged, stumbling, into the daylight once again, with a need to tell people what I had seen. I made my way to the Bioware forums and well, you know the rest.

Originally, I planned that this update would be a discussion of the long tail: the life of a game or media project after its conventional release cycle. I got into an interesting digression when writing it, and I decided it was better as its own thing, rather than trying to balance seriousness with happy nostalgia. The long tail essay will hopefully appear later this week, if I can get all the relevant research done. Mass Effect’s longevity allow my late discovery to still have some impact: convincing my friends to buy the game on Steam, or buying it for them still matters, still counts, and that makes me feel a little less bad for waiting so long.

Still, I’m glad I found you, Mass Effect. Thanks for waiting.

 

¹SFX: dramatic thunder crash, lightning, all that stuff.
² I have mentioned this before: I know a lot of gamers for whom the DS is their primary platform. Also, this particular game is completely awesome.
³ One for me, and one for a friend who ended up not deserving it. Insert Evil Glare.

Movie Review: Thor

Ah, Thor. You might be my favorite superhero movie since Iron Man.

Thor is definitely somewhere on my list of top 5 Marvel superheroes. The guy is Marvel’s answer to Wonder Woman: raised in a society with different moral standards in regards to fighting and killing, able to occasionally outright kill a guy who is totally a bad guy without angsting about it, and just generally, you know, Mythic.

This movie is exactly what you’d expect to get if you combined Jack Kirby art, Kenneth Branagh drama, and modern Hollywood’s pop culture superhero aesthetic. Fortunately, the first two things complement each other sublimely, and, other than a few lines that sound cheesy or flat, the Hollywood conventions don’t get in the way too much.

I spent the whole first act being vaguely annoyed. “Wait, I thought I liked Thor. This guy is a complete ass.” The movie was so good at telling me Thor’s origin story that it made me forget a central conceit of that origin story, namely that Thor starts out as a complete ass. I’m not going to spoil anything, because I know this isn’t the most widely known comic book origin story, but let’s just say they were able to cut out the fat and modernize it thoroughly, while remaining close enough to the canon that the story remained faithful to the character’s essence.

Speaking of faithful, the realm of Asgard is both wondrous and beautiful; capturing the spirit of Kirby’s illustrations. Many times I was giddily gobsmacked by how detailed, natural, and correct it all seemed. The costuming was a damn good compromise between the simple graphic qualities of Kirby’s design and modern movie convention. It wasn’t perfect, but I think that’s more of a consequence of practical technical limitations and conventions; I’m not going to dismiss a masterwork of superhero costume design because I think that a breastplate should have a slightly different sheen. This was the first movie in ages that made me feel like there were wholly different worlds, worlds that may have influenced each other, but that had their own qualities of mood, soul, and aesthetic. I felt like I could touch those walls of gold, and they would be solid. That doesn’t happen often, with our modern CG.

A few of the plot points fell a little flat: I immediately understood Jane Foster’s fascination with Thor, but his devotion to her was never really justified. I suppose the filmmakers may have just let “look, she’s Natalie Portman, Natalie Portman!” act as the entire justification for Thor’s romantic devotion, but that wasn’t enough for me. This made some of the story’s final moments lack punch, but that’s a relatively minor nitpick in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable film. And yes, there were one or two times where the script tripped over itself, trying to be too pop-culture-y or too epic, but none of those flubs were bad enough to sear themselves deeply enough into my brain for me to quote now. Only two of the film’s many, many product placements were so transparently obvious that they made me wince; in that case I can remember what they were, but I’m not going to point them out in the hopes that you will be better able to ignore them than I was, dear reader.

What else is there to say? Sif and the Warriors Three were utterly perfect. Volstagg had that legendary mix of gluttony and goodwill that he picked up in the Walt Simonson era. Loki had a great character arc, probably one of the best villain origin stories I’ve ever seen in a comic book movie. And Thor… was Thor, that same hero I know and love. Good job, movie. Good job.

Mass Effect and Cowboy Bebop save my life

This week has been killer in more ways than one, and now I find myself at Friday Afternoon with a fully booked weekend and a brain full of warm tapioca. I have a Thor Review coming down the pipe, but after putting out more than ten thousand words of text for various deadlines, I don’t have eight hundred words about Mass Effect in me this week. Rather than spending an hour cleaning up some forum posts to put ’em here, I’m just going to give you a cool thing I found on the internet. The internet likes cool things, right? As a peace offering, I promise two ME related posts next week, a Thor review within the next three hours, and this: the best Mass Effect Music Video I have ever seen:

Mass Effect and Cowboy Bebop – to life-changing great tastes that taste great together!