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!

Female Shepard – why is she a secret?

Working on a project this week, but I can take a break to spit some fire about Female Shepard.

I love Female Shepard, or FemShep as she is known to her fans. A lot of girls love her, and some guys love her too. I’ve seen a few articles about how great and under-appreciated she is, and it’s true. The released stats say that 80% of players play as male.

That statistic raises a few questions: does it count people who have characters of both genders? Multiple playthroughs? Unfinished games? But those questions don’t really matter. The more important question is this: How many more people would play as female Shepard if they knew she was an option?

How many people have overlooked Mass Effect because marketing primarily shows a single generic male face for the main character? If I go to the Mass Effect 2 homepage right now, there is no indication that I can play as a female, or even that traditional RPG dialogue is part of the gameplay. If I click on “game info” the features list doesn’t even reference character customization at all, not even as a bullet point. There’s not even a reference to “gender’ or “female” in the FAQ. Now let’s go to ME1’s slightly clunky and outdated page. The Game Information page at least acknowledges the concept of Roleplaying, but still fails to mention anywhere that you can play as a female. You have to find your way to the gameplay videos section to find any evidence of her existence. Even then it’s not explicitly stated, you just happen to click on one video and hey, there’s a girl. The evidence is pretty well hidden; it took me almost ten minutes to find it again to post that link, and I knew for sure that it existed and what I was looking for!

The main Mass Effect 2 site also doesn’t do a great job of conveying the aspects of Mass Effect that might appeal more to female players: the incredibly well-written dialogue and character interactions. On the front page the only hint that Mass Effect is an RPG comes from this single line: “Control your conversation with physical moments of intense action,” If I saw that page without foreknowledge of Mass Effect, that would sound like a description of quicktime events rather than a fully voiced dialogue and personality system.

The fixes for this are easy:  add a picture somewhere on the website front page that has a big, easily visible picture of the primary male Shepard and a smaller picture of femshep with the caption “customize your character” or “play as male or female.” Add a bullet point to the Game Info section that says “Customize your class, gender, and background!” The focus would still be on the iconic male version of Shepard, but right now there’s no clear reason for someone interested in the game to even suspect that a female version of Shepard exists.

Beyond updating the game’s website, and hopefully giving the ME3 box the same treatment, I would also suggest a small, intensely targeted advertising push designed to raise awareness of Femshep’s existence among female-friendly gamers. It could incorporate banner ads that feature a female Shepard, with those ads linking to a page on the ME2 site that includes some description of the character customization process and a gameplay video similar to those ME1 ones, featuring a female Shepard. This push could be focused exclusively on webcomics and blogs whose readership has a decent female population, like Girl Genius or Johnny Wander. I was personally inspired to finish ME1 and buy ME2 by Johnny Wander’s ME2 Romance parody comics. The comment thread accompanying that blog has a particularly telling post: “I used to think that Mass Effect was just one dumb shoot-em-up which unfortunately wasted the gorgeous graphics. Thanks to you I can see there’s a lot more.” If it takes a fan comic two years after your game’s release to showcase major features of your game, something is terribly wrong, and some targeted web advertising may be the way to fix it.

Some fans of Female Shepard made a thread about promoting her more on the official Bioware boards. There was a lot of back and forth arguing because hey! it’s the internet! One poster responded to the ruckus with this: “I see you guys really wanting this, but it seems more like if it were to be done, it would be to please 30-70 people.”

I don’t want Bioware to make people aware of FemShep to please me. They already have me. I already believe that Mass Effect 1 & 2 are, collectively, the best game ever made.

FemShep fans don’t want Bioware to publicize Female Shepard in order to feed our egos, or validate us in some way. We want their campaign to reach people like us, who are, as yet, unreached. I am completely serious when I say that I feel poorer for having spent three years of my life not knowing the wonder that is Mass Effect. I have never loved any game as much as I love this one. I have never fanned this hard over ANYTHING, in the history of me, and I fan really hard over a lot of things.

I think there are probably thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of girls out there who play RPGs, but don’t realize that Mass Effect is a heavily story-and-character-based RPG where you can play as a female commander who saves the universe (with optional romantic adventures). And yes there’s some shooting in there, but it’s actually not-that-scary. It’s totally do-able, even if you’ve never played a shooter before. I used to be a big anime fan, and having that background helps. I’ve been in a convention center with 10,000 other girls, most of whom play games. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. talked with them, so I have evidence of their existence. I’ve been on a panel where two girls and a guy teach a mix-gendered room about the history of the Megami-tensei series. I’ve seen a girl spend hundreds of hours on a fan translation of a falcom RPG. These girls are hungry for stories.  They are hungry for heroes.

And they don’t know about Mass Effect.

And that makes me SAD.

Character Development: Jack – the Guttermouth

A while ago someone asked me what I thought about Mass Effect’s lovely and dangerous biotic, Jack. That’s right folks, I got an actual request to write something here. Of course, being me, I thought “man, I should totally do that,” and ended up getting distracted by a series of increasingly shinier and deadlier objects. Still, I’m here now. Let’s do this. Just a warning: Oh My God, it’s full of ME2 spoilers!

Jack represents the classic archetype of the bad-girl superhero who is an abuse survivor¹, with the “tortured lab experiment” version of that particular origin story. She spouts obscenities, calls everyone pussies, and brags about her past exploits in crime and vandalism. Her first instinct upon boarding a enemy ship full of crazy aliens is to try to talk the captain into going pirate. She’s deliberately aggressive almost to the point of unfriendliness, which stands out among a crew mostly filled with relatively laid-back people.

Jack also clearly has PTSD, or some fictional equivalent. She sets up housekeeping in a quiet, out-of-the way space where she can watch all the exits and there isn’t much foot traffic. She obsesses over escape routes. You learn later that she’s been classically conditioned to enjoy violence. While I was intrigued and invested in her, I didn’t really want to take with me into combat situations. I didn’t use her a lot in my first playthrough, for this reason. From my white knight paragon Shepard’s perspective, she doens’t need any more exposure to combat, she needs to heal. Jack’s not crazy enough for me to say “well, this isn’t going to get any better, might as well use it.²” but she’s also not stable enough for me to be confident that putting her in combat situations isn’t going to do any further damage.

I eventually realized that my particular version of Shepard was making it hard for me to really “get” Jack. I finally grokked her as a squadmate when I saw Jack from the perspective of a Shepard who was also a troubled kid. A shared history makes it easy to dismiss concerns about Jack’s stability as unwarranted, and enjoy her attitude for what it is: a valid and entertaining response to all the shit she’s had to put up with. Also, this song helped³.

As did this fanart, which features Jack hanging out with Shepard and Garrus. Badass squad: GO

(By Adre-es on Deviantart.)

Ok, now that I’m all psyched about Jack, let’s talk about her romance, and her interactions with the crew in general. Uniquely, she has two possible romance paths – a renegade option where you hook up and she refuses to talk to you after, and a paragon option where you get to know her better. During the paragon romance she shows a softer side, letting you see how her past has scarred her, eventually giving you her trust and crying on your shoulder.  This development makes sense if you’re looking at Jack from the paragon perspective I mentioned earlier – when dealing with someone who has suffered abuse, it’s good to be unflinchingly supportive and show that you’re not going anywhere; hopefully that will allow them to open up. But this sudden sappiness might feel very out-of-character for her renegade buddies. They already accept her as she is, and they trust that she can function and love without needing to be coddled, without losing her edge. I can see how her abrupt about-face might seem out-of-character, almost a betrayal of the fellow feeling they’ve established with her.

That said, I’m all right with how the main romance shakes out. We’ve got to give the writers some leeway, since Bioware can’t go all out and make this a full-on dating sim (at least, not yet). They have to pick one story and tell it, and I actually find Jack’s romance more moving than any of the other relationships that involve a male Shepard. Shepard’s voice performance is almost comically laid back and affable. While this can make him seem relatively uninterested in whoever he’s pursuing, with Jack this stability and calm actually enhance the emotional impact of their relationship.

I do, however, wish that there were more opportunities in game to support Jack outside of a romance. The paucity of non-love-interest character development dialogue is a common complaint for Mass Effect 2, but it only really bothered me with Jack, because she was the one situation where I felt I should be doing something about… things!

All in all, Jack was a likable take on a character type I normally avoid. My initial hesitation about her was largely due to the fact that her interactions with the world felt somewhat unfinished; I got to learn about her problems but then there was little I could do to solve them, which was frustrating for a hero type like me. I would have preferred to meet her in a game with a smaller cast, where they might have been able to flesh out her development a bit more. Still, there’s quite a lot to this girl, especially if you make a nice renegade earthborn Shepard for her to pal around with. After writing all this, I’m tempted to do just that.



¹ She’s a particularly well done version of this. Normally I have a very negative default reaction to this particular origin story – I stopped reading Young Avengers because of it, but Bioware has earned some credit with their female characters, so I’m not going to go on a rant about it here.

² Which is my attitude towards characters like Deadpool and Dexter. No therapy’s gonna fix that, so might as well use the gifts an angry god gave you.

³ Link point to a Resident Evil Fanvid for Bree Sharp’s Guttermouth. The video isn’t related, but the song is incredible. Here’s the Amazon link, if you like it. Support independent artists!

Portal 2

Portal 2 came out this week. I’ve finished the single player. Time to say things about it.

Everyone I’ve mentioned this to asks me one question: Is Portal 2 worth the full retail purchase price? Short answer: Yes. Medium answer: Yes, if you’re willing to pay $40-50 for a 6-12 hour experience, provided that experience is one of the best games you’ve played in years.

Long answer:

Portal 2 was absolutely phenomenal. The single player took me about twelve hours to finish, though this number has been rounded and counts time spent doing something else for five minutes before coming back to a puzzle. This may be because I’m bad at video games. This may be because I spent a lot of time goofing around when I could have been moving more quickly through the levels. It could be because of that one puzzle at the end where you reverse the polarity; I knew what I had to do but couldn’t wrap my mind around it and argh! Anyway, the usual playtime, start to finish, is something more along the lines of 9-10 hours. Six is the lowest I’ve seen, and that’s from a crazy genius guy who, out of all the people I know, is the best at video games (and I know hundreds of gamers). So unless you are the best at video games, count on 8 hours or so.

Portal 2 recaptured a feeling I haven’t had since Portal: every room and every puzzle was a new experience, with the accumulated knowledge from all previous trials providing me with exactly the skills I needed to take on the next. In most games I feel like I’m being asked to repeat a single experience over and over, even in my favorite games: fight another room full of enemies the same way you fought the last one, solve this puzzle but now the blocks drop faster, jump on these platforms but now they’re further apart. In Portal, the repeatable skill you have to master is “thinking.” The only exception to this was one or two of the “blue gel” puzzles, where I approached at the wrong angle and lost control. One of the strengths of Portal is that it’s not out to give you something “twitchy” to do – if the particular technique you’re trying incorporates split-second timing or finesse, there’s probably an easier way that you haven’t seen yet. There were one or two puzzles where I couldn’t tell if I was stupid or incompetent, whereas most of the time when I get stuck on a puzzle in Portal, I know I’m definitely stupid.

Yes, but how’s the writing? The writing is great of course. Why are you even asking me this? Ok Ok, I’m picky about writing, so of course I have something to say here. Because the game is longer now (about four or five times longer), it can’t have the primal narrative purity of the first one. If you played Portal, you already know GlaDOS, who is still the best and most interesting character. You hear two other major voices during the game, and they’re funny and well-written, but neither of them have set up housekeeping in my brain for the rest of time. That said, the story is deep, intriguing, and well-told, giving you insight into decades worth of history while the game itself spans mere hours.  Sidenote: the Steam version of the game comes with a digital version of the Portal 2 teaser comic. If you’re into that stuff, I’d recommend taking a quick look at it before you play; it’s quite beautiful and fills in a few of the blank spaces between the two games. Also, why did no one tell me about these amazing Portal 2 “investment opportunity” teaser trailers? Linked here is my favorite: Investment Opportunity #4: Boots.

Once again, Portal is an operative lesson in game design. Why do some games have environments that are so samey? Because if you want to create a game where the design, the mood, and aesthetic undergo a paradigm shift every hour, you’re going to end up with a nine hour game. A truly spectacular game that I would classify as a true work of art, but a nine hour game nonetheless. Portal also is a great example of what I’d like to call “shrouded linearity.” There is usually one way to go, only one direction to proceed. You know this, and that the right way won’t be something completely obtuse. Because of this, when you see something that looks interesting and do-able, you can just go for it, without fear. The game is linear, but searching for the line and not worrying about what’s behind you is part of the fun, and definitely part of the mood.

I’m probably going to start a new game, with the developer’s commentary, sometime tonight. My twelve hour game will become an eighteen hour game. And that’s without the multiplayer, which I haven’t even tasted yet.

Portal 2 begs the eternal question: can quality be valued as highly as quantity?

I say yes.

ME: I hope you’re keeping some kind of record.

My goal has been to blog once a week about Mass Effect, and I nearly missed this week. I considered giving it up as lost, because everyone knows the internet is dead after Friday at 3pm. But better late than never, and better dead than smeg. So today, in the internet ghosttown that is a Saturday, I’m going to talk about my first real case of the fandoms.

It was almost exactly a month ago that I first signed up on Bioware’s forums. I’ve never really participated in the forums for a game company before, unless I was working for them (or researching them, with intent to work). This is partially because I am normally quickly offput by the state of dialogue on the “regular internet¹” and partially because most of the games I’ve liked in the past have been either MMOs (whose forums are notoriously a wretched hive of scum and villainy), or JRPGs (where there isn’t really a community, per se), or old by the time I played them (I’m looking at you, original Fallout).

But I was desperate. I needed to talk about this game to someone. It had set up a place in my thoughts², and it wasn’t going anywhere. Some of my less obsessive friends had played it, but I didn’t need any less-obsessive friends. I needed maniacs.  I needed someone to listen to my rants, challenge me intellectually, and talk about fictional boys. I needed fans.  So the forums it had to be. And I was surprised. Even the trolls tended to use punctuation and grammar, at least to some extent. I got into some spirited discussions, held forth on game design, wrote essays on science fiction and ethics, and got my fan on in a way I’ve never really done before. Over these past few weeks I’ve produced a truly impressive amount of text related to Mass Effect: character studies, game structural analysis, plot predictions. This is something I’ve never done before. I wonder if I’ll ever do it again.

A month has passed now, and there wasn’t a day in that month that I didn’t check those forums at least once, though I’m running out of steam now. I feel like most of the new threads are ones I’ve seen and done, and most of the old faces are people whose responses and viewpoints I know are unchanging; it’s tougher for me to start a discussion when I know there is only one way for it to end. It’s probably good that it’s letting up – other than actual work-related stuff, I’ve been eat-sleep-breathing Mass Effect fandom too deeply, for too long. Time to come up for air. I only realized last week that I have essentially quit WoW, and replaced that 2-3 hours a day with… talking with strangers about a video game on an internet forum.

I’ve gained some insight into both the gamer and the human condition, at least. It’s funny to see the demarcations of the different groups of people – some post mainly in the argument-centric Quests and Storylines forum. Others haunt the character fan threads, posting praise and pictures. Very few move between them, and I think that’s one of the strengths of this particular community – if you want some happy fansquee, you can get that. If you want an argument, hoboy can you get that, as long as you’re not actually concerned with changing anyone’s minds. There are also probably some interesting political points to be taken from how adamantly people defend their opinions about make-believe decisions as inherently more logical than anyone else’s opinions, but I don’t want to even try to go there right now. It’s Saturday.

It’ll be interesting to see how long I can sustain true involvement in a fandom. I’ve loved things before, but not acted as a fan of them. I haven’t written scholarly analysis of Pratchett, or argued for pages about the logic of the Horde vs. Alliance war. I haven’t scoured Deviantart for Chrono trigger pictures, and I haven’t ever considered making an in-character twitter for one of my tabletop characters. Yet these are all things I find myself doing, or at least considering, now. I haven’t been able to do fanfiction yet, though. I haven’t been able to bring myself to try to read the novels, either. We’ll see how far this goes.

Next week I have to start work on a huge project that I can’t tell you guys about, so I’ll be missing for a while. If it goes well, I’ll have something else to distract me, and my fandom can settle into a tranquil undercurrent. If it doesn’t… I may crack out my oils and do a portrait of Shepard. Then I’ll know I’m truly lost, in the best possible way.



¹By regular internet, I mean the portions that aren’t walled gardens, tended by the extremely literate and the unfailingly polite.  See: Making Light

²To quote an Indigo girls song I haven’t heard in ten years. Where did that come from?

A Midnight Errand

New England. April. Five minutes before midnight. The water all around you cannot decide whether it would rather be a mist or a light rain, so you decide to head out on your errand. Better sooner than later.

You step out the door. Insects and frogs scream all around you, a pulsing ululation that lasts all night, every night, until winter silences everything.  The path ahead is just darkness upon darkness, discernible only by the slight sheen left by the afternoon’s rain. The grainy shimmer is the charcoal grey of the cloudy sky, the lightest part of the surrounding darkness. You see a car a long way off, on some distant unconnected road, its lights like a will-o-wisp, scarcely visible among the still-bare trees.

You decide to turn on your flashlight, but that is a bad choice – the shades of black smear together even further, and the pale circle on the ground only serves to remind you of how dark everything else is. The few illuminated drops of rain remind you of how little you can see, how everything around you is moving, but you cannot tell. You’ve ruined your night vision now, so there’s nothing for it but to press on.

It’s beginning to rain, and more heavily. The tiny flickering particles in your flashlight’s beam grow more numerous, and you start to feel your skin grow slick. The chill of the rain reminds you that there was snow not two weeks ago, and not a single tree has a leaf on it yet.

You reach the dropbox, find the opening with your hand, and reach inside. You find a few slips of paper, and pull them out. It’s raining in earnest now, and you are shivering. It’s time to go back. You shield the papers, hoping the ink on them won’t run, hoping their secrets won’t be lost forever. But the rain soaks everything. Your best bet is to run. Turn from the hiss of the rain and the screaming of the frogs, squint your eyes, and run back to the house. You don’t look behind you.

You make it to the white door, grey in the darkness, but shining like a beacon. Closing it behind you, you drop the wet sheaf of papers onto a side table. They’ll dry, and you can look through them later, when your heartbeat has slowed and the shadows faded.

You’re safe, but now you understand what H.P. Lovecraft was talking about.

Mass Effect: Arrival DLC – will you like it?

If you’re familiar with my views on Mass Effect, you may wonder what I think of the new Arrival DLC. The reviews are mixed, in general, ranging from Gamespot’s controversial 5.0 to Destructoid’s effusive 8.5. Numbers, numbers everywhere. Obviously there are some gamers who like it a lot and some who were less pleased. The question is, how do you figure out which one you’re likely to be? That, rather than numerology, is the goal of this article.

I’m a strong believer in the Penny-Arcade philosophy of game reviews: focusing a review around a numerical value doesn’t help anyone know whether or not the game is for them, so I’m going to leave numbers out of this for now. (Unlike Gabe and Tycho, however, if someone wants me to sell out and start writing reviews under a numerical system, I’ll say “yes sir, do you want a true ten scale, or the traditional six-to-ten?” This is because I am a people-pleaser.)

Arrival allows you to play through an event that would otherwise presumably happen off-camera, between Mass Effect 2 and 3. The event will most likely be revealed or explained at the beginning of Mass Effect 3, and there seems to be no way to influence the outcome in any way. You play as Commander Shepard, on a solo mission to rescue a missing friend of Admiral Hackett. You don’t have access to any of your squad at any point in the mission, though there is an NPC who follows you for a while. The only significant NPC interactions are some exposition dumps with a relatively unremarkable scientist, and short, relatively shallow bookending conversations with Hackett.

I’m trying to avoid any real spoilers, so I’ll try not to go beyond anything already established by marketing materials. Suffice it to say, Shepard has to do something some players may find morally difficult in order to save the Galaxy. You cannot choose not to do this thing, though it is possible to start the DLC and let time run out before completing your mission, in which case you get an interesting easter-egg cutscene which shows you what is on the line here.

Shepard is also given precious little time to react to his circumstances and the actions he had to take. I was hoping for a robust conversation at the end, where I might be able to talk with Hackett about why he sent me on this mission, and argue about the possible repercussions. Instead, the ending conversation boils down to “Yep, you sure did that, now it’s time for some consequences,” with a few very brief possible reactions from Shepard.

If nothing I’ve mentioned so far raises any red flags, you’ll probably like Arrival. It has some very pretty environments and decent cover-shooting. Just watch out if you’re a Vanguard looking to play on one of the higher difficulty levels: I found charge a bit buggy in parts, and some insanity players have reported even more trouble. Otherwise, there is plenty of shooting and it is good. I don’t have a lot more to offer on that front, because I’m not the most experienced in the “shooting people in space” genres; don’t think I’m damning with faint praise. Shoot people. Good. All the rooms full of chest-high walls you can eat.

What arrival really offers is the opportunity to be present for a major event in the Mass Effect universe. One game design philosophy I encountered during GDC was “play, don’t show.” The oft-repeated conventional wisdom of storytelling is “show, don’t tell,” but games can take this to the next level: instead of showing a cutscene, developers can allow players to actually do the thing the cutscene is about. This is what arrival offers: the ability to play through an event in Shepard’s life that you would otherwise simply be shown. From a design perspective this is quite admirable, and in any other game I would have accepted such an opportunity as the gift that it is.

The problem here is one of expectations. When some players take control of Shepard, they expect to be able to shape the character in some way – if not through his actions, through his reactions. While Lair of the Shadow Broker (Mass Effect 2’s previous DLC) similarly offered no chance to alter the mission’s result, it afforded players deeper roleplaying decisions throughout, giving players an opportunity to process events through Shepard’s own emotional involvement. In Shadow Broker, you encountered an old friend and subtly changed the balance of power in the universe; Shepard’s reactions felt appropriately deep in relation to the circumstances. Many have complained that Arrival lacks a similar depth of reaction: players who were distressed over the plot’s key event felt that their characters would have been too, but the paucity of reactionary dialogue made them feel disconnected from the character and the content.

If you want to be present for a major event in the Mass Effect universe, see some sights, and shoot some people, you’ll probably like Arrival. If you would be disappointed by presence alone, without influence over the event or significant character growth, then it may not be for you.