9 December 2012

Sworn to carry our burdens...

"I'm glad you're here - I don't think I could be doing this alone..."

The words are delivered blandly enough but their impact is far deeper than was perhaps meant by the writer who penned the line.

I'm playing Dawnguard: the latest Skyrim expansion (not counting Dragonborn as that's currently 360 only) and my feelings towards my current ward are going sour. Compared to mere hours ago when I first met Serana, the character in question, I am now tired of her company and, worse still, tired of her place in this world and story.

When I first took her from her resting place I was immediately intrigued and charmed by her.

I need to you to carry some items...

I might have said in a short dialogue, hoping to offload some of that extra weight that had been awaiting a Lydia-esque mule. In response, Serana, stepped back and crossed her arms defensively.

"How about you keep ahold of your things and I'll keep ahold of mine..."

She says in a prickly manner. I stopped and did a double take at the screen. Did she really just say that? So cool! A character with some personality at last!! Or so I thought. Now, several hours later, she readily carries my burdens, although with a half-heartedly peevish line instead. Reading between the lines she either likes me but has to put up with the pretense of being "a badass female character"... or she doesn't like me or want to carry stuff but is forced into it because I'm the frickin' dragonborn (who is also now a Vampire after I was "intimate" with her) and she's only just a vampire who (without plot armour) I could probably take in a fight.

She's been de-clawed or, if you find feline/female analogies too sexist, been moulded into the usual ideal receptacle for the male gamer: Feisty but submissive... because you know she wants to really...

Why... and I almost find myself hesitating to ask this question.... Why can't games writers write good female protagonists? Out of all the ones I can think of, off the top of my head, the only decent character is the Elika from Prince of Persia (2008? Man, I feel old!). Even the standard "strong women in games" that are wheeled out time after time are terrible examples of the roles of women in games. Alyx, Half Life 2, a simpering freshman-sophomorish crush is one of the primary protagonists in that neverending parade of what I feel are "disguised slaves".

Even Elika isn't that great an example - though at least her "giving in" to the man's will at the end of the game is explainable by the fact she's probably drained and dejected from everything that just happened... But, other than that she's pretty well-dressed, has sharp, witty conversation and doesn't flirt at all until you talk to her a lot and develop the "relationship" through optional dialogue and over the time you spend together. She's not weak either but not strong in the "I'm a badass woman" vein of clich├ęs, one which I've never encountered in a real world strong woman. She's human and, at the end of the day, that's more of a valuable goal than presenting any particular character set tickbox that fits the tone of what the designers/writers wanted to do today/this game.

31 October 2012

Post thoughts: Uncharted trilogy

And now for something with less anger...

I loved Uncharted 2 (Among Thieves). I played it through twice in a row, getting the achievements and goals for each level like I had done and thoroughly enjoyed with the three Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games. I recently was able to play the first Uncharted (Drake's Fortune) due to their re-releasing it as a low-cost title (which I was very pleased about) and I had also gotten the third instalment (Drake's Deception) of the series to play through as well.

I have to wonder where it all went wrong.

For me, the series was at its zenith with Uncharted 2. Uncharted 1 introduced the characters, the general plot and mechanics. It was enjoyable but a bit ham-fisted in many ways from the manner in which pre-determined action sequences played out and with regards to the story. Not to mention that the puzzles were a welcome break from the action when they did happen to come along. By comparison, Uncharted 2 was a masterpiece: it built on everything in the original and made it better, more refined. The story flowed well and the character jibed and joked with one another in a pretty script. Pre-determined set-pieces flowed well and were believable and, not to mention the structure of the story itself was laid out in a nice, interesting fashion compared to the straight-laced front-to-back Uncharted style. The controls were also improved (although to be fair, in the re-release of Uncharted the option to use 2's grenade motionless controls was also implemented) and the encounters and environments of those encounters were more interesting to play in. Finally, the puzzles were more frequent, more inventive and more spectacular - in the vein of a lot of Tomb Raider-esque pieces.

Uncharted 3 threw a lot of this out of the window.

The story flows in such a hackneyed manner and jumps around with barely a loose thread to connect it all and you barely stop for breath before the next pseudo deus ex machina plot point comes along and whisks you off to the far side of the planet (or Europe as the case may be). Furthermore, the puzzles are lacklustre, unimaginative and virtually non-existent in this game with combat being more of a Call of Duty "push forward until the enemy waves stop" affair (I know it's not exactly but that's how the arenas tend to be set up) than the free-for-all open combat arenas of the second.

The combat itself is pretty uninteresting and also brutal. I find myself brought into an arena from a corridor and immediately presented with foes that surround me and I have no or virtually no cover or space to operate in. It's not fun and it's not dynamic. There's no choice involved. Compare this to the many times in Uncharted 2 when you would enter an arena, discover something and then have to defend the arena until the something was ready... you could decide where to hide or hit or make your stand, you could retreat and backtrack. That even happens in Uncharted 1 at least once. I'm struggling to remember a single instance in the 3/4 of Uncharted 3 that I've played: You always enter from one point, the corridor widens and people attack, then you push forward through them, and then the corridor closes again until the next encounter. It's repetitive and boring.

Maybe Uncharted 2 was a fluke? Maybe it presented the incorrect idea of what the series was about and, because I played it first, I was let down by the last entry in the series that was returning to more of Drake's Fortune's intended roots... Either way, I have yet to finish Uncharted 3 whereas I can see myself returning to Uncharted 2 for a third time and Uncharted 1 for a second.

28 June 2012

Self-entitled giant fart of a human

And so the circle was complete. Destruction rained down and everything was laid clean.... Oh, wait, you're still in the period before the divine wrath!

So, John Walker, of RockPaperShotgun fame has decided that its in his remit as "serious PC game journalist" to ridicule and disparage anyone with a differing opinion to his own. This article has nothing but superficial analysis of the improvements given by Bioware's re-release of the ending of Mass Effect 3 and instead mostly houses a completely open malevolence towards those who are truly critical of games (certainly not the games press!). At the same time, those whose reactions were unwarranted were succinctly lumped in with those which were actually pretty reasonable - giving John a x4 combo in dismissing the majority of adult conversation in order to concentrate on the minority who wanted the firstborn of each Bioware employee. I mean, it's Daily Mail stuff - completely playing to the lowest common denominator. Worst still, it's depressing and insulting to see this drivel posted on RPS and it reads like his emotional attachment to a game or studio overrode his critical thinking and analysis.

 I acknowledge there were plot holes, perhaps even mistakes, but not being a self-entitled giant fart of a human, I find that I’m able to accept that the ending of something does not have to meet my preconceived expectations, nor wrap up everything I’ve encountered in a neat bow – heck, I can even hate it – without requiring it be changed

You know, I don't think that if you disagree or are unhappy with a product or piece of art means that you require it to be changed. In fact, I distinctly remember seeing that it was a tiny minority of the ME3 consumers who were asking for the changes. The rest just ridiculed the endings because of their plot holes, their literary failings and general lack of effort. Those people did not accept the endings as they were produced or offered.... and yet are not part of those hateful bastardised demons that deviate from my worldview.... oh, wait. SORRY! I seem to have gotten myself confused with John Walker. What I meant to say was that you can be unhappy or criticise a work of art or product based on its merit and worthiness and that approach does not undermine your personal feelings on that product or piece of art. You could even state, for the record, that you would do it differently or that you would prefer that it was done in such and such a way.... and that would not impact negatively on your ability to comment on the situation.

Worse still, I'm not seeing the "giant f-you" that Mr Walker writes about. Bioware explained some stuff and left their original things in place just like they said they woul-Oh wait, they actually provided a cop-out "f-you starchild" option just like many people asked for.... Okay, let's not dwell on this point.

They always mostly did, in fairness. A lot of people seemed to come unstuck here because the Catalyst contradicted himself, and his arguments were flawed. Guess what: the Catalyst contradicted himself, and his arguments were flawed. A creature with near infinite power done fucked up, and it’s Shepard’s appearance on the platform with him that reveals this. It’s why you get to choose.

Yeah, I don't buy it. A flawed argument is flawed regardless of whether you or any protagonist is around to hear it. This is the equivalent of the tree falling in a forest making a sound if no one hears it, argument. If we take the universe at face value - if we decide that we are scientists - then we know that the tree always makes a sound because of the friction and interplay between its components during the fall and in the impact with the ground. In the same way, any race that was able to build a robotic race would have been capable of logic. The starchild's arguments are devoid of logic - demonstratably so.... this is not the case of an all-powerful being shown to be flawed, it's the equivalent of a newbie programmer having a static number reported for a random number generator.... aka The Sony Mistake.

This is the instrument of an author who does not understand logic and who does not understand an emotional moment within a storyline. Emotional moments, those in which the protagonist prevails against the "other" in a test of wits and language are based on logic and they are also based on being able to converse with the same metrics and languages. This doesn't happen in the Starchild exchange. It is revealed that the mastermind behind the whole reaper movement is loony, illogical and immature. None of those attributes would ever be associated with a robotic or synthetic race. It just doesn't make any sense.

I think BioWare have done an absolutely stunning job here. They’ve maintained their integrity and their vision, they’ve stuck to the ending they wanted to tell, but they’ve been contrite enough to fix genuine mistakes. They’ve embellished upon what they already had, and in doing so have made things feel more meaningful without tying stupid bows to every thread. They’ve clearly spent a fortune doing it, and it’s yours for free.

Yet, if they had done this in the first place would there have been as much of an outcry? There's an argument to be made that they released the game with the ending half-baked. Having people hail the new ending as the better version only validates this. The old ending was incomplete, regardless of how you felt emotionally... otherwise, logically, you would not feel as John felt in that last paragraph above.

7 June 2012

The worth of IP...

Pursuant to this article and this commentary on the article, I've got some thoughts on the expectation of your customers and the worth of IP:

On the other side of the coin, I can’t help agree with him somewhat on this point: “ Also what Steam does might be teaching the customer that “I might not want it in the first month, but if I look at it in four or five months, I’ll get one of those weekend sales and I’ll buy it at that time at 75 percent off.”

If this is a problem then it's another sign of the software and game industries thinking they are special and above all other commodities and services businesses ever in existence in the world. Plenty of people see a price and think - well, i'll get it when it gets cheaper.... And we think like that, not because we're trained to think like that through experiencing sales; we think like that because that's what happens in life. Things get cheaper over time - they get older, less relevant (yes, even software) and are therefore worth less in value.

Not to mention that the whole concept that IP is worth whatever the creator/publisher thinks it's worth is complete and utter rubbish. Whatever you create, whatever you make - it's only worth what people are willing to pay for it. I think a song i just wrotre (i'm making this up, now) is worth €100 per listen - it's just that god damn awesome! However, I can guarantee you that no one in their right mind would pay that price for that experience (well, okay maybe some rich people with questionable mental acuity might)...

Back to digital releases: By definition, DRMed, time-limited software you buy on Steam, Origin and any other digital distro is worth less because you don't control it. I could, if i wanted, still play Doom on my computer - I have the data, I have the disc (and diskettes). They're on me, they're my responsibility. I also have the Steam copy of Doom too.... but if Steam goes down, closes doors/shutters then I can't play it, it's gone. It's their responsibility. That automatically devalues the hell out of what I'm willing to pay for something.

So, dear Reader, I put it to you that it is not the sales that are training us to want or expect to pay less... it's the quality of the experiences we're slowly getting as digital comes into its full glory. All those shut-down music services.... all those shuttered online portions of games (that are apparently so integral to the experience!).... DRM schemes that break, stop us from playing our games or just generally degrade the experience. We learn and we remember our treatment, our experiences.

Want to complain about consumers wanting to pay less for your product? Then make sure the product you're offering is worth to the consumer what you want them to pay for it.

4 April 2012

An Island...

What do you do when apparently no one can understand what you're writing - despite specifically stating some things? What do you do when apparently you're not understanding other people's writings when, the conversation has originated from a point that you thought you understood and yet, in response to those responses, you are told that it is not at all?

Honestly, I don't know. I'm feeling increasingly alienated in my one safe haven on the web.... I can't see statements like "I can't see how people can get worked up over a game. It's the developer's game and they can do what they like with it." as anything other than a comment on people who are complaining or dissecting the game. You're directly questioning the logic behind questioning the developer's vision... I can't interpret that any other way and yet, apparently, it means that the developer's vision "is what it is". I don't even know what that means.

Now I'm at a loss. Do I continue to head on into the storm or give up and take shelter elsewhere... or do I try and weather the storm of non-understanding (because it's not a matter of simple misunderstanding, this goes right down to the very underpinnings of how the English language works) and try to keep conversing?

All's I know is it's getting harder to do the second and I'm making more adversaries and fewer friends in the process....

26 March 2012

The shit I've done... (A Mass Effect 3 rant)

"... Any other soldier would've been tried, court-marshalled and discharged."

I stand there, shocked. The words ring hollowly throughout the room as I do not rise to my own defence.

Unfortunately, my only crime is purchasing Mass Effect 3.

In many ways the big furore over Mass Effect 3 is about the ending and the lack of choice and thematic inconsistency with the previous Mass Effect games. However, I feel that the writing was on the wall as soon as the opening credits rolled on the last instalment of the trilogy.

Confused at this turn of events, my mind races back over everything that's happened in ME1 and ME2. In ME1 I was a hero: I saved the citadel and the council. In ME2, acting with the authority granted to a SPECTRE, I destroyed a threat to the human race and their deep space colonies.

"Wait... what shit have I done?", I ask myself.

It carries on. I watch as Commander Shepard delivers a soliloquy to both Admiral Anderson and the Defence Council; I'm powerless and, it's not me. Not my choice. 

The soliloquy is toothless garbage.

It quickly becomes clear that Bioware has their own idea of who Commander Shepard is and how the world reacts to them that does not factor in any of the roleplaying that they themselves had granted players in the previous two games. In fact, I just happened to be keeping a log of my thoughts and feelings throughout ME3 and here's what I wrote in the spur of the moment:

"This is not my Shepard.This is not my story!

The thoughts flash through my mind every few minutes or so. The beginning of Mass Effect 3 is having an adverse effect on how I feel about the ME Universe, my character and Bioware. Things have happened. Things I had no part in and no control over; things I didn't pay to have happen...

First off, I'm locked up. There's no explanation or exposition outlining what I've done or why I'm there. They talk about the Alpha Relay Incident and how the Normandy is impounded. Anyone going to clue me in? No?

Secondly, I walk into the council and deliver a long diatribe against the defence council and there's no options. I'm not given any chance to role play. The things my Femshep is saying aren't those I'd normally choose for her... Hell, even my evil Femshep wouldn't waste her time with this crap.

With ME2 and now ME3, Bioware have broken three golden rules:

  • The first one is obvious: NEVER put main plot in DLC. 
  • The next one is fairly obvious: ALWAYS provide exposition to give context in the story if you don't show the player the events in question. 
It's basic story-telling procedure: Imagine if, in ME2, they didn't show you being revived after being killed.... and all of a sudden you're working for (sorry, "with" - though that's now not what your character states in ME3) Cerberus. You would be wondering what the hell is going on. 

  • Lastly, and least obvious, is taking away player choice in critical situations. Bioware has built their reputation on their reputation systems in their games. To play through two games which feature multiple instances where I am tasked with presenting an argument through my own choices in dialogue and then having that removed in ME3's opening sequence is just downright bizzare (or lazy).
It actually happens quite a lot in the game (at least as far as I've played) Bioware take your ability to roleplay away from you, give you limited, meaningless dialogue choices and, in the process, destroy the very role you've built up and that they had built into the franchise thus far. It's annoying to make a paragon choice turn one moment for you to then continue on the conversation in a different tone of voice.... one that is homogenised for any player and character."

I have to admit, the middle of the game is great. Superb even. It made me forget about the transgressions of the beginning and so I was lulled into a false sense of security coming up to the end of the game. Elsewhere I've argued that the ending and end themes were not well foreshadowed by events in the game. Looking back now, I see that the lack of control and complete disconnect between the character I built and the story I played were all the foreshadowing I needed.

I hated that "Arrival", the DLC that had you destroy a Mass Relay and kill countless millions of Batarians was part of the main plot. In fact, in the beginning you were meant to be on trial for those events - something I thought they'd skipped given its present incarnation. Even during playing ME3 I thought that somehow they had rigged it to take into account whether you had played it or not when I found a codex entry about some marines that had destroyed the Relay instead of Commander Shepard and their crew... But, thinking about it, if that's the case then the beginning makes no sense.

Why am I locked-up and hated? Even my old friend, Anderson, hates me. The things I've done? I've been nothing but a straight-laced hero and yet here I am. What did I do, Bioware? Why did I deserve this? 

As a SPECTRE I had extrajudicial powers to achieve my goals in any way that was effectively possible. It seems I managed to do this whilst using Cerberus in ME2 (I always denied that I was working with/for them in the possible dialogue options in ME2) AND steal their super-expensive remake and remodel of the hyper-expensive Normandy. In ME2, I'm still a SPECTRE and, in fact, even in ME3 I still have SPECTRE status so what gives? Did the Earth council hate how I showed them up by protecting the colonies they failed to do anything about? I don't know... Logically it makes no sense... Story-wise it makes no sense....

So, instead of starting off with the trial about the Relay being destroyed (why would I be being tried in a human court for killing Batarians? There's no intergalactic pressure for the incident on humankind as far as I can observe) they shifted events until after the trial, demonising me in the process. It's cheap and it's obvious that they only did it because it's easier to have everyone starting off from the same point regardless of their previous actions. It's also cheaper to have everyone end up at the same point regardless of their previous actions too... That's a shame.

However, the greatest shame about Mass Effect 3 isn't that they messed the ending up... it's that Bioware never had enough faith in their world and story-telling in the first place to let it stand on its own... It appears as though they instead judged their "work of art" by the pocketbook rather than the paintbrush.