Monthly Archives: October 2009

Mass Effect: “Game”

If Mass Effect does nothing else (and it does plenty), it shows the importance of solid gameplay.  The game seems like the result of some designer attempting to shoehorn gameplay into his totally awesome science fiction story which, frankly, would have been better suited for film than a video game.

The folks at Bioware obviously have a very specific story they are trying to tell, which they try to cover up with the illusion of deep an meaningful player “choice,” although this usually boils down to whether or not you will pursue side quests and whether you will try to get a villain to join you before he inevitably refuses and draws a gun, or just skip the middleman and order your squadmates to attack.  When you’re not running around and navigating conversation trees (which is what they are, no matter how they try to dress them up as “Incredible, real-time character interaction”), you’re running around weilding one of four types of weapons, occasionally pausing the game to use the Force/biotics or to switch to a new type of weapon.  Most of the combat is just “shoot the big guy, shoot the big guy, use ‘warp’ on the big guy, wait for ‘warp’ to recharge, while shooting the big guy, big guy goes down, move on to next biggest guy.”  It’s not terrible, but there’s nothing innovative about this system, and this kind of thing has been done much better in other games (I’m thinking particularly of squad-based shooters “Star Wars: Republic Commando” and “Brothers in Arms”).

This picture is to keep you on guard.

Although combat is bland and uninspired, it pales in comparison to the sections of the game where you’re driving the Mako, an obstensively off-road vehicle that handles something like Stephen Hawking on speed, except Stephen Hawking would probably be able to aim a gun at an angle greater than 10 degrees from the horizontal.  Undoubtedly the worst, most grating, experience I’ve had so far has been a portion where I had to drive the Mako through several groups of rocket troopers and armatures where I was not allowed to save in between.  It was fun in that “OK, this is my character performing what is needed to complete the mission, even though the gameplay kind of sucks” way, but it ceased to be that when the third group killed me and sent me back to the beginning of the level, with my squad standing just outside the vehicle.  This section spawned a few questions I would like to ask Bioware:

  1. Since when am I in combat if nobody is shooting at me, and there are no enemies on the radar?
  2. What is the tactical advantage of a land vehicle that cannot shoot up when every race we could possibly be fighting have some sort of airborne unit?
  3. Why can the car jump when the humans can’t?
  4. Look at every single driving game ever.  Do you know how they differ from you?  They understand that vehicles are not people, and do not move like them.  Stop trying to make us control cars with the joysticks, please.

That last one was more of a demand than a question, but I just needed to round out that list.  Honestly, though, nothing brings me out the experience than suddenly going from cool, composed ship commander to epileptic student driver.

Now I’m going to go against what I said earlier about Mass Effect working better as a movie and talk about my favorite part of the game.  The Codex, for those not in the know, is where information about the setting is stored as you discover it.  But more than just a reminder of things you’ve learned in the game, it has tons and tons of background information that’s handily set aside for those who wish to delve into it, a lot of which is narrated.  I think even more than the plot and the characters, I’m in love with the world that the game is set in.  You never fight in ship-to-ship combat in game, but there is a lot of information about exactly how such a confrontation would go down, going in detail into heat signatures, weapon systems, and common tactics used in different scenarios.  This is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, if instead of hinting at the backstory through the plot, Tolkien simply attached an encyclopedia that was instantly updated with a few pages of history every time the reader saw a new name or location.  I find myself hoarding Codex entries so after each mission I can return to my ship and read through a big chunk of them all at once, bringing whole new levels of depth into the setting.  The world is extremely well crafted, and it’s really a shame that the gameplay and interactive options don’t do it justice.

Next time, hopefully I’ll have finished the game (I think I only have an hour or two left), or I may write about something else.  I wonder what my throng of undoubtedly sexy female readers would prefer.

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Mass Effect: First Thoughts

A friend of mine recently lent me his copy of Mass Effect, the science fiction action roleplaying game released by Bioware for the XBox 360 back in 2008.  I’ve since clocked in around 8 hours on my first playthrough, not counting deaths and reloads, and I get the feeling I’m nearing the conclusion.  For this post I won’t put in any spoilers, but try to simply touch on the gameplay and give some of my impressions.

The first aspect of this game that really made an impression was the cinematic storytelling.  The cutscenes, which are all partially interactive, are well-acted, and the story they tell is genuinely riveting.  Rather than giving the player a list of conversation topics, or a list of canned responses as most games of this type are apt to do, in Mass Effect the player is allowed to choose between several different tones of message.  So, during a conversation, the player may choose “It’s hopeless,” but Commander Shepard (the player’s avatar in game) might say something like “It’s a lost cause, what can we possibly do about it?”

In theory this reduces screen clutter and makes conversations move along at a decent clip, but in practice it makes the player unclear on what exactly Shepard will do next.  While playing the game, I have said something that sounded like it would come out understanding, but in disagreement, only to have Commander Shepard shout down my team mate until he was so intimidated we left the conversation tree. (SPOILER ALERT: I left him for dead later, so I guess it doesn’t matter much.)

The conversation trees are also home to some of the worst railroading in the game, where the designers give the player the thinly veiled illusion of choice, when really all responses lead to the same dialogue or tone.  In one glaring example, two NPCs where arguing about a certain topic concerning the Genophage, and all of my input into the situation was pre-determined to side with one of the NPCs, even though I agreed with the other one.  It’s lazy game design, and it lead to what is supposed to be an emotional scene which actually made me feel frustrated and disconnected from the experience.

Outside of conversation, the gameplay is fairly solid, if not a bit bland.  Combat seems like it’s trying too hard to be Gears of War, with an added roleplaying element, although the cover system is too clunky and it takes too long to enter and leave cover to make it useful (granted, the fact that your allies take the good cover and charge headlong into rockets doesn’t help the situation).  I am grateful that red triangles appear over my enemies, because otherwise I would have no way to see them at the distances at which I am usually fighting, although that may be because of my ten-year-old college-dorm-room tv’s crappy resolution compared to what the game was designed for.

That feels like enough for now.  My next post I’ll probably touch on the Codex and the Mako, unless inspiration strikes and I decide to do something other than write about a game that everybody and his mother has beaten three times.

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Blogs of the Round Table: Denouement

Denouement, besides being one of the rare words to not return pornography on page 12 of a Google Image search (although that status may have been lost by the time of your reading this, so proceed with caution), is also one of the many things that video games do poorly.  This month’s topic for Blogs of the Round Table is also probably the worst one for me to write a post about, especially as my first entry into the discussion.  To quote the website:

This is the closest I could get to a fitting image

This is the closest I could get to a fitting image

How can the denouement be incorporated into gameplay? In literary forms, it is most often the events that take place after the plot’s climax that form your lasting opinion of the story. A well constructed denouement acts almost as a payoff, where protagonists and antagonists alike realize and adjust to the consequences of their actions. Serial media often ignored the denouement in favor of the cliffhanger, in order to entice viewers to return. Television has further diluted the denouement by turning it into a quick resolution that tidily fits into the time after the final commercial break.

But the denouement is most neglected in video games where it is often relegated to a short congratulatory cut scene, or at most–a slide show of consequences. This month’s topic challenges you to explore how the denouement can be expressed as gameplay.

I really should be doing schoolwork right now…

How the denouement is factored into game design is highly dependent on the type of game we are working with.  For our purposes there are three big categories of games, those for which story is a major factor (“Story Games” from here on out, e.g. Final Fantasy, Elder Scrolls, Fallout), those for which story is there to support the gameplay (“Action Games” for lack of a better term, e.g. Halo, Gears of War, Command & Conquer), and those for which story is either non-existent, or a purely emergent part of gameplay (“Crunch Games”, e.g. sports games, Civilization, Total War).

Currently, we mostly see denouement in the story games, for the obvious reason that they are trying to tell a story, and thus conforming to traditional story-telling techniques.  More often than not, however, we see a cutscene at the end, or an opening up of a freeform world which is left relatively unchanged from prior to the climax.  In a book or a film, the denouement is where we see the plot resolved, where the characters get their rewards, and where we see the world as affected by the events of the story.  Limiting the big payoff to a non-interactive cutscene or freedom to roam the countryside takes away a lot of the emotional impact of the denouement.

Implementing denouement into gameplay for a story game should be relatively easy.  Most story games have some sort of conversation system.  Gameplay does not really need to be affected in any way to bring denouement into the picture, simply change the gameworld as appropriate (raze cities, bring magic back to the Mystical Forest of Lor Leliel, bring the guards back from the front lines to the cities, whatever), and make sure that NPCs can describe or comment on the changes substantially.  The reason this is not done very effectively now is because it involves creation of content, which is already difficult enough with today’s graphics systems.  If the story calls for a town to be destroyed, nobody wants to pay an artist to create a new, destroyed version of the town, as well as the writer to rescript several dozen dialogue trees to take into account the change.  In this case, either the story would be rewritten, the changes would be made much less drastic in game than portrayed in the story, or the game will simply end in a cut scene.  Really, there’s not much that can be done to improve the denouement of a story game that is not being done already on a much cheaper scale.

“Action Games” (and I will use the term in quotes to distinguish from the recognized genre) are a different beast.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t play Halo for the deep and involving story (actually I don’t play Halo at all, but that’s another post).  Short of implementing new gameplay mechanics, there really isn’t much option for expanding the story beyond the thrilling conclusion.  Once you destroy Halo (I’m speculating here, I assume this is how the first game ends), there’s not much else for you to do gameplay-wise.  I suppose one could walk around the mothership or start training new recruits, but very few people are going to want to keep playing if the game becomes “talk to the officers, they will congratulate you and let you know how Earth is doing.”  For “action games,” cutscenes are appropriate.

Crunch games are another beast entirely.  I use the term here mainly to refer to turn-based-strategy games and sports games, although I’m sure there are other types of game in the category.  Take for example the Madden games.  The biggest draw to these games for me has always been the Franchise mode.  There is no overarching story here, other than “you are coaching a football team,” but through gameplay, wins and losses, trades and recruits, the player builds the story of his coach.  Similarly, for TBS games, there is very little story to begin with, but the player creates the story of his empire through victories on the battlefield (or techs researched, city improvements, what have you).  With sports games, there is no real denouement possible beyond “you have retired, and now you are a sportscaster” or “you have died.”

For a strategy game, however, I often find that the game ends as things become interesting.  Once I build my perfect empire, what happens next?  With my enemies crushed or allied to me, what do I do with my military?  Do I maintain the troops, but use them as a purely defensive force?  Do I occasionally send forces in to keep the other countries in check?  What kind of economy does my country support now that I am the only global superpower?  What exactly does a “space race” victory entail?  For large scale 4X games like this, there is a lot of unexplored territory for what happens next.  Perhaps it is beyond the scope of a game like Civilization or Rome: Total War to portray not only the rise, but the fall of a glorious empire.  A game where great powers arise and then stagnate from the inside before falling to outside invasion, or descend into civil war, would be extremely satisfying to the history buff in me, and would bring closure to a game which would normally end with total conquest and immediate victory.

I don’t know of any video games that do this successfully, but if one exists, it could be my favorite video game of all time except for Portal.

Please visit the Blog of the Round Table’s main hall for links to the rest of this month’s entries.

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Saint Vader

I haven’t posted here for a while, but I found this fascinating.  I have a feeling that three thousand years from now archaeologists will find this and come to the conclusion that we have been visited by aliens.

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