Mass Effect 3 – Better than Choice

ME3_Conrad_Verner

Another victory against the Reapers… of being a single guy in space.

Warning: Spoilers, etc.

Much has been made over the years of Bioware’s talent for weaving meaningful relationships into their games; not only relationships in the romantic sense, but a broader sense of the connection between the protagonist and his/femhis friends and foes.

Before Bioware was Bioware, the main plotlines of their games depended on the discovery (or rediscovery) of the relationships between the leads. The Baldur’s Gate series is, at its heart, a family feud; Planescape’s Nameless One progesses by teasing out the strands of his past relationships.

But these are all very protagonist-centric, aren’t they? The player sits at the heart of the web, the fulcrum on which the plots and subplots hinge. They make choices. Set events in motion.

Is Mass Effect 3 different?

As with many of Bioware’s progeny, the romances of Mass Effect are well-told, and in most cases, believable. The brothers-in-arms banter and badassery likewise have that nourishing sense of hyperreal movie-truth that draws the player in. But is any of this really difficult to achieve, when a developer pays any attention whatsoever to story and character development?

In my view, no. Mass Effect is hardly the first series to attempt such lofty goals as ‘lines a real person might say’ or ‘characters with more than a one-word backstory’.

Where Mass Effect 3 is able to take plot/characterisation/world-building to the next level, however, lies in how the content of the save file is leveraged; the player’s decisions in ME1, ME2 and those daft iOS fripperies.

Note that I’m not suggesting there’s anything clever about measuring so many plot and character-related variables. That is interesting, and forethoughtful, but not revolutionary in of itself. It’s just a tool to tell a better story.

This is particularly evident when you wake from your fractal fever-dream and recall that choice isn’t the point of choice. Choices tailor the plot to better match your preferences, and hence your ideal plot. Assuming you don’t obsessively replay every conversation in search of some illusionary optimal path, you will experience one full ‘story’ per Shepard, seeing the branches, but not where they lead.

But for all that, isn’t ME3 still Shepard’s story, told from Shepard’s viewpoint?

I thought so, until ME3 revealed threads only peripherally tied to those of my Shepard’s web.

Yes, Conrad Verner’s progression is bound to Shepard’s choices in ME1, but his fate in ME3 is determined by an entirely different plot thread; in my Shepard’s universe, Jenna and Conrad wander off into the sunset to make hero-worshipping moon babies. What is potent about this resolution is the degree to which Shepard has become merely a spectator by this point.

Conrad is a bit-part in Shepard: The Musical, but at that moment, I felt that my Shepard was also just a supporting character in Conrad: A play in three acts. Conrad’s life (or death) unfolds not in the explosive, check-out-this-cool-guy-doing-cool-things manner that many of the true supporting characters’ plot lines do, such as Grunt or Jack. He’s just a guy, livin’ his space life.

Does this lack of control herald a backward step, away from choice and toward a more auteur-like experience? No. This is a significant evolutionary leap, one beyond even the popular ‘unintended consequences’ shtick oft employed in choice-centric games (of which gamers live in increasing and justified fear). This isn’t a bait-and-switch choice design to frustrate/shock/show off the designers’ ingenuity. This also does not represent any species of emergent gameplay, such as dangling unconscious bodies off roofs in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and growling “Swear to me” – it’s not gameplay, for one.

In my view, this represents an approach to conversation trees, save files, choices etc, that is not driven by the need to tailor the plot to a schizophrenic player, nor deliver a platter of infinite delicacies to a choice-fetishist. Mass Effect 3 employs these tools to grow something like mimesis*.

It’s a subtle shift; from a plot which develops based on your decisions, to a world which develops, seemingly, with your decisions, among a context of those made by many other NPCs. Shepard is one actor, one protagonist, among many.

This philosophy lies at the heart of ME3. Those seeking to emulate Bioware would do well to focus not on how this has been accomplished technically, but why. Watching Conrad sidle off with Jenna was satisfying not because Shepard’s choices caused it to happen directly, but because his choices wove some of the context in which the event took place.

*For clarity, pedants, I use the term loosely, after Auerbach.

Advertisements

‘The Fading Of His Abilities’: Max Payne 3 and Gaming’s Old, Fat Men

Max Payne 3 Videogame Article on Ageing in Games

When Edge Magazine asked Gabe Newell what scares modern gamers, his response was typically brilliant; “The death of their children. The fading of their own abilities.” Shudder… He was discussing the Half Life series but his comment has relevance that extends beyond the crowbar swinging world of Gordon and the G-Man. It’s a quote that sticks in the mind, especially with regards to the current generation of games in particular that have featured a few appearances from characters of ‘advanced age’.

Solid Snake reappeared as ‘Old Snake’ in MGS4, Kane and Lynch sported beer guts and bald patches, Sam Fisher continues to slip on the incongruous glowing green goggles despite the fact that his mission handlers have been making ‘you’re old!’ jokes for over 10 years. But there’s one old donkey of a videogame character who’s recent appearance has made a fascinating feature of his age and fading abilities; the now paunchy, sagging, bald headed figure of Max Payne in Max Payne 3.

In MGS4, Snake had occasional coughing fits, had to watch his stamina and couldn’t stay out in the sun too long (no seriously), but he could still roll around, use CQC and take on all manner of sexy, animal women in robot suits. Sam Fisher seems to earn a new set of tricks on every birthday – leaping from balconies and pulling off head shots without looking in ‘Conviction‘. But while Max Payne is still laying waste to all manner of gun toting mobsters despite protestations that he’s not very good at his job, he’s not doing it as gracefully as he used to.

Where once he dove head first into a room in a hail of bullets, leaping backwards down staircases, pirouetting mid-air, nailing 4 Italian-American stereotypes with pinpoint headshots from his Desert Eagle, all before hitting the floor – now he flumps through the air like a meat blimp, maybe taking out one guy before he lands, uncomfortably with a weary  “Whooof!”, winded on the ground. Times like this, it’s often a better tactic to stay down and keep firing at anyone left standing until there’s a window for Max to heave himself to his feet. When he pulls off his first dive he groans (and I’m paraphrasing) that he’s either got to ‘take a hit’ or ‘take a fall’. ‘A Fall’… the kind your grandparents have when it’s icy out.

These days, Max doesn’t run so much as schlump from room to room. There’s a ‘run‘ button, which should really be rechristened a ‘try to run‘ button as it causes Max to adopt the body language of a man who remembers how to run, has himself ran in the past but is damned if he can muster one of those ‘runs’ right at this present moment. Max’s lumbering gait is a joy to behold; his heft shifting awkwardly, armfuls of half empty weapons that seem to weigh him down and impede his lolloping jog. That is, a joy to behold until ‘shit gets real‘ and Max seems utterly unable to get out of the way of a swinging door never mind a swarm of angry bullets… then it gets tense. Gamers are used to seeing a ‘grenade indicator’ and taking a few steps to one side to avoid it, Max doesn’t ever seem quite able to escape a grenade’s blast radius. Not without a dramatic well timed dive.

Max Payne’s animations and controls were always a little stiff, but at the same time his actual movements were fluid (if that makes any sense). He skipped as he ran, the tails of his Matrix-esque leather jacket fluttering out behind him (it was 2001) and he controlled like a fidgety hovercraft with feet, able to strafe and backpedal firing 360 degrees around himself. In Max Payne 3 Max’s movements are (as I’ve possibly rammed home by now) a little restricted by comparison – shuffling awkwardly sideways and aiming with a realistic range of upper body motion. He almost stumbles if he’s forced to shoot whilst backing up. He clatters into nearby office furniture and pesky door frames if he doesn’t look before leaping. Despite the ‘bullet time’ and magic painkillers, there’s something thrillingly real about the physicality of this new, girthy Max.

All of this makes for a fascinating sequel; the memory of the first two titles rubbing up awkwardly against the reality of the third instalment. Max’s diminished abilities mean he spends less time soaring through the air and more time doing what we’ve all been doing in our shooters since Gears of War – hunkering down behind waist-high walls and taking pot shots at guys who are doing pretty much the same. It’s like Max has wandered into a modern shooter after nearly a decade away, only to discover that his old tricks don’t seem to work like they used to; he’s older, fatter, slower and everyone else has moved on. Often we’re told we’re playing an ageing bad ass, but outside of a few grumbles about back ache and loud music, it doesn’t impact the way we play. Max Payne 3 makes its protagonist a crumbling statue of an action hero,  barely scraping through one last hot, uncomfortable nightmare of a mission.  It’s not ‘Passage‘ we’re dealing with here, but it’s a noticeable departure from the ass kicking silver foxes we’ve grown used to. And what better way to bring back an ageing gaming icon?

Into Each Life ‘Heavy Rain’ Must Fall

Disclaimer: I wrote this a while ago and didn’t post it, then I saw Beyond: Two Souls and felt my usual mix of feelings on seeing a Quantic Dream Game – curiosity and intense irritation. So I stuck a paragraph on the end of it that makes reference to it. The timing felt right.  

Thank You for Supporting Interactive Drama” said Heavy Rain, smugly, after I fumbled through its intentionally dull opening, getting wedged between bookshelves, failing to drink from cartons and raising serious questions as to whether Ethan Mars shouldn’t be living in some sort of sheltered accommodation. I’m not supporting Interactive Drama you fucks, I’m openly laughing at it. That is, when I’m not grinding my teeth at the navigational controls, scratching my head at the conclusion of scenes and occasionally, very occasionally being caught off guard by a moment that couldn’t have come in any other game.

I know it’s been said before, but as a species, didn’t we figure out the whole moving a character through a 3D space thing in the mid 90s? I’m pretty sure the solution didn’t involve ‘driving’ Mario with R2 and using the left stick to turn his head where you want him to go but don’t hold it too long or he keeps turning sometimes but only sometimes unless you’re at a point in the room where he can’t turn or the camera switches mid movement because that either cancels what you did last or carries on doing whatever it was you were doing  and USE THE STICKS! USE THE FUCKING STICKS! THE STICKS! THE STICKS! 

This is coming from a guy who didn’t just put up with, but stood up for the top down MGS camera. A guy who would argue that the tank controls in Resident Evil are integral to the feel of the game. But here’s the thing with the old RE’s and MGS’s; THEY USED THE STICKS! THEY USED THE FUCKING STICKS!

I’ve been doing this dance with David Cage since before the game came out; he did the rounds before the release of Heavy Rain, talking to the British broadsheets and telling them exactly what they wanted to hear about games. In his Guardian interview, he  came off as the one (smug) despairing intellectual in an industry of meat headed gun crazy knuckle-draggers who’d be able to make a new art form if they only grew up a bit – Hey Guys! he said I’m like you, I’m on your side! If only the rest of these idiots liked movies like Seven and Saw as much as I do, then we’d have a medium we could discuss on Newsnight. I don’t even think this is a game, games are for kids yeah? I’m more interested in adult things like when a woman comes out of a shower in her underwear and is attacked by fucking mercenaries but it’s all a dream. Or when a guy has to crawl through broken glass for some reason. You know, real things. 

But in just the same way that I’m occasionally flawed by Heavy Rain‘s moments of undoubted genius (the infamous ‘finger scene‘, for one), Cage himself will say something that makes a lot of sense – in one particular interview (now hidden behind the odious Times paywall) Cage said something to the effect of If you design a control scheme for a fighting game all you’ll be able to do in it is fight. Which makes a lot of senseWhen you put it like that, Dave (Can I call you that? Dave?) the quicktime-event-heavy, gesture-based control scheme almost makes sense. A game that lets me do everything from investigating a crime scene to changing a baby sounds pretty amazing.

Sadly, in practice, it’s not. No one put it better than Michael Abbott when he says “Heavy Rain mistakes button prompts for player agency” in his spot on criticism of the game. Rather than creating a fighting system that only lets me fight, Quantic Dream have created a ‘fiddling system’ that only lets me fiddle. I can walk around a room and pick things up and fiddle with certain things in the room (depending on which order I fiddle with them in, sometimes I can’t fiddle with one thing till I’ve fiddled with something else, other times fiddling with one object precludes further fiddling with another.) I can stand up, sit down, sloooooooowly, or as fast as I want (but not too fast or I fail at sitting down.) Now sometimes, I can do fighting. And awesome car chases. Wicked! Rad! But my interaction in these scenes is mechanically the same as opening a fridge and consequently it feels like I’m still just fiddling.

And aren’t fighting and awesome car chases something we’ve been doing since the dawn of button presses? What’s different about these car chases? Are they more emotional because two hours ago I was brushing this guy’s teeth? There’s certainly less of them than in GTAIV and I appreciate the fact that by the end of he game I haven’t racked up a genocidal kill count. But for someone who strives to get away from what games traditionally do – Cage and his team spend an awful lot of time doing exactly those things only without anywhere near the level of player expression offered by the very games he sneers at.

I’d love to play something without gunfights, car chases, punch ups and endless killing. But from the looks of Quantic Dream’s upcoming ‘Beyond: Two Souls‘, David Cage and his gang aren’t going to be the guys to provide that (we’re also apparently still ‘driving’ with R2 but now steering with the SIXAXIS… great). Cage and Quantic Dream are still as susceptible to sci-fi, horror and pulp storytelling as the rest of the industry, only Cage seeks to remove to player one step away from the immediacy offered by analogue stick shooter controls with a series of inscrutable button presses and stick wiggles. It’s as if, to Cage, the controls are the problem rather than the content – which is an interesting thought. Are we desensitised to violence because shooting is nothing more than a system? Perhaps, but if we are to abandon the Halo/COD model of 3D console controls can we at least USE THE FUCKING STICKS TO WALK?

“I Can’t See Why You’d Want To Live Here” – Bioshock 2 and Sequels

The announcement of a follow-up to 2007’s ‘Underwater-Objectivist-Dystopia-Shooter’ Bioshock was met with an uncharactaristically luke-warm welcome for a medium that usually thrives on sequels. After all, sequels give creators opportunities beyond ‘expanding the universe’ – improving graphics, iterating on mechanics and generally pushing things forward within the framework set out by the original game. Ask a gamer for their favourite games of all time, you’ll get a series of numbers and subtitles; 2,3,4… Chaos Theory, Snake Eater, Blood Money… Do the same with a movie goer, on the other hand and you’re unlikely to get a similar answer even though sequels form the backbone of most studio’s release schedules.

2K Marin’s Bioshock 2 got the kind of reception you might expect if someone announced a sequel to Blade Runner (oh, wait…) Bioshock, you see, had already told us everything we needed to know about the underwater city of Rapture. Any attempt to return would not only be a disappointment, but would cheapen the original’s legacy and make even the memory of that first trip in a bathysphere a little less special. Toss in an ill conceived multiplayer mode and you’ve basically announced that the upcoming Blade Runner sequel stars Shia LaBouf as Rick Deckard, will be directed by Michael Bay and was written by George Lucas with Will.I.Am providing the soundtrack. (And if the Black Eyed Peas haven’t already used some of Vangelis’ soundtrack to create a shrill, obnoxious and repetitive song about ‘partying like a replicant’ then I hope they all die before they get a chance).

Except the guys that made Bioshock 2 are talented… like, crazy talented. Jordan Thomas showed brass balls by stepping into Ken Levine‘s considerable shoes for the sequel that nobody wanted – he regularly comes across as a smart, candid and all round interesting guy in interviews. I was an avid reader of level designer (and lead designer on the ‘Minerva’s Den’ expansion) Steve Gaynor’s blog Fullbright and I eagerly await Fullbright Company’s upcoming game Gone Home which features the efforts of many former Bioshock 2 staff. And the whole team does an amazing job with Bioshock 2. It’s a brilliant game. But it’s one that’s let down by, of all things – the setting of Rapture.

It doesn’t make sense you see, Rapture. It didn’t make sense in Bioshock The First and it makes less sense now. The first had the luxury of being a place that we, as gamers had never imagined playing a shooter in. And yes, it was an allegory, it’s not meant to be taken literally – the ubiquitous audiologs, invincible little girls,  fist full of bees… etc etc etc. It was a game about Objectivism for sure, but it was also a game about videogames. It wasn’t the dreaded Citizen Kane of Gaming, but rather a sort of videogame Watchmena deconstruction of how games work and how they’ve taught us to consume them.

Without the luxury of metacommentary Bioshock 2‘s fiction crumbles under further scrutiny on this repeat visit. There’s a point early in the game where the player takes a tour through a Rapture/Andrew Ryan propaganda theme park. It’s a wonderful level, as brilliantly designed as the rest of the game and filled with delightful blackly comic touches – right down to a trophy for knocking the head of an anamatronic Andrew Ryan with a golf club. (A strong contender for Gaming’s Greatest In-Joke?) But its here that the fiction of Rapture starts to creak. There’s a host of juddery dioramas (dioramai?) that depict a self-mythologising Ryan as he decides to build Rapture under water, waking in the middle of the night on a boat and crying something to the effect of “Here please“, then we see a team of diving suit-clad engineers laying the foundations for rapture. Ryan echoes JFK’s Rice Moon speech – he chose to build Rapture under the sea, not because it was easy, but because there were magic slugs down there.  We see slums, we see railways, we see factories, we’re taken behind the scenes to see the inner workings of the carnival ride of the first game. But in trying to explain Rapture, it seems less plausible.

Then there’s audiologs, I think even Ken Levine admitted that audiologs were becoming a bit of a crutch after the release of the original Bioshock, by the time the sequel rolled around it had become hilarious to think of people constantly leaving voice memos ‘to themselves’ – usually after particularly harrowing experience. “Dear Diary, I injected myself with slug juice and now my tits have fallen off – the code to my safe is 1066, Andrew Ryan is a bad bad man. I am scared.” Going further into the symbiotic relationship betwixt Big Daddy and Little Sister also churns up mixed results, as does the explanation of ‘plasmids’ for workers in Rapture… for like, welding and shit.

But by far the hardest part to swallow is the notion that, once again, the player has arrived in Rapture to find a war going on for who ‘rules’ the city. It’s like finding two well dressed, charismatic academics fighting over a cake full of broken glass and smallpox. It seems not a year goes by without some ostensibly ‘normal’ person (ie – not insane and deformed)  making a concerted effort to become King or Queen of a city full of insane and deformed spider-people who shoot fire from their hands and weep uncontrollably. (But then again, why do people run for mayor of *Insert City*? SATIRE) What happens when Sofia Lamb manages to [SPOILERS] turn her daughter into a giant brain in a jar? (?) Will everyone just go back to how things were before? Or will they carry on scavenging and splicing and attacking Big Daddies? (Which I can’t figure out whether Lamb is for or against?)

All this being said, I love Bioshock 2. I love it for reasons I’ll explain in another post. And those reasons kind of melt away the quibbles I have with audiologs and giant brains in jars and the voice acting and the fact that Sinclair hides in a train for the whole game except for the bit where he comes out as another Big Daddy who fights you whilst saying “I can’t help myself!”.

Maybe it’s a step forward when gamers don’t want sequels to beloved titles? Maybe it shows that these things aren’t products to be improved upon endlessly – Portal 2 received a similar reception (before coming out and being totally awesome). But it’s got to be a good thing when a game means more to fans than a series of mechanics to be iterated upon year after year.

MGS Peace Walker, Facebook Games and ‘The War Economy’

In the run up to the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Hideo Kojima promised many things; shifting battlefields, NPCs with emotions, the ability to play the entire game in first person – anyone who followed the game’s development, gobbling up every morsel of info on the ‘Final Entry in the Metal Gear Solid Saga’ (cough)  will have gotten a serious case of “the Molineuxs” when they got their paws on the finished article. I sure did. I even came up with the phrase “A Serious Case of The Molineuxs” to describe how I felt.

I’m not here to rag on MGS4 but one particular unfulfilled promise must have bugged Kojima enough to make him explore it further, and on the PSP of all places. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker delves deep into one of MGS4’s more intriguing unfinished thoughts – the war economy. In doing so Peace Walker adds further depth to Big Boss and the hitherto slightly ridiculous concept of ‘Outer Heaven’ – the MGS series’ Valhalla-ish mercenary state that so many of the series villains seem to want to create or destroy or fund or something.

MGS4 depicts a world in which Private Military Companies (or PMCs) keep the world in a state of constant conflict buoyed by the War Economy…  and Liquid was there… and he still has Ocelot’s arm, no wait it’s the other way round. Anyway, in gameplay terms this War Economy translates into Snake picking up weapons from fallen enemies, selling them and buying various items from a weapons dealer named Drebin. The prices apparently fluctuate slightly, depending on how heated battle is in a particular area (there’s also a sale on Sundays) but it’s not enough to really impact on gameplay. The trouble is, it’s pretty easy to pick up weapons, buy ammo and unlock ID tagged guns (did I mention guns are all ID tagged now?)  and even when you do, there’s not much need to use any weapons other than the tranq gun and the multi purpose assault rifle that Snake gets as a freebie early on. Outside of the tortuous, muddled main story, The War Economy has little impact on anything in MGS4, it’s not until Peace Walker that Kojima and his team fully explore the idea in a satisfying way.

And boy do they. Pinching liberally from sources as diverse as Monster Hunter, Pokemon and Facebook games, Peace Walker creates an almost Farmville-esque Feedback Loop that describes the war economy better than 2 hours of Cutscenes ever could. And fittingly, it does so in a game that tells the story of Big Boss creating the mercenary business/state that may or may not be ‘a bit evil‘. Every character he meets is recruited (with the best intentions) into his rag-tag army without much care for their wellbeing. (Interesting contrast; Solid Snake spends most of MGS1 and 2 telling people they shouldn’t be fighting… Big Boss doesn’t feel quite the same way)

The way Peace Walker creates this loop is deserving of a Flow Chart far more resplendent that I could ever muster with MS Paint. All the games modes and side quests and RTS-lite minigames feed back into each other in the most engrossing, but never confusing way. By the time the story has wrapped up (no less than twice) some strange compulsion keeps the player replaying missions, sending squads out on ‘Outer-Ops’, upgrading weapons and using salvaged machine parts to make thier own ‘Metal Gear ZEKE’. It’s the same compulsion that keeps people clicking on cows, checking on crops and clogging up people’s social media feeds with updates about ‘Mob Strength’.

But where Facebook games use this sort of feedback-loop compulsion for nefarious purposes (microtransactions, advertising and the aforementioned updates/requests) Peace Walker weaves this cycle into the fiction of the game and in doing so, casts the rest of the series into a different light. It’s something that could only be accomplished on a portable system, where the ability to send out a few squads on a morning commute made the PSP my travelling companion for the first time since I bought it.  By the end of Peace Walker, Big Boss has resigned himself to a life of constant war, a swirling vortex of conflict that drags in everyone that comes near – be that 12-year old Boys, Bird Watching pants-less French Chicks or the player, firing up their handheld to scan Wifi access points for new recruits (and if you’re me – ruining a holiday by playing every spare minute of every day).

And they say Kojima can only tell stories in Cut-Scenes.