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Pondering Tuesdays – Reality Check Edition

Tomb Raider - Lara on Radio

I’m just going to keep putting random “thinking about stuff” synonyms in the title field until I run out. Let’s get started…

Wanted: Strong Female Role Model. Ashelia (no full name given) played Tomb Raider and had a powerful reaction. Go read it and then come back.

I wish I could have my daughter read this. You hear about the need for female empowerment and role models all the time. It’s almost always well-intentioned, but there’s a point at which those become buzz words and not something genuinely meaningful. As a father, it makes it hard to know exactly where to steer her because you want so badly for your little princess, as she becomes a person who’s not so little anymore, to choose role models that represent the best in human nature and not Twilight’s pitiable Bella or some camera-starved reality TV whorelet.

Also, Justin Bieber. Le sigh.

No, I want Ana to know about real strength, the strength to persevere in the face of adversity and not be dragged down by it. Not Lara’s strength in a video game, though certainly she’s a well-conceived character in the reboot, but Ashelia’s in writing that piece. And not just to write that particular piece but to endure what she did and carry on, going out into the world and having a voice. Not everyone rises above that kind of experience. A lot of us sink and never get our heads back above water level.

Ana is nine years old. She’s too young to read this article, too innocent of the world still to understand what it means. She doesn’t yet know of the myriad things that go bump in the night and I want her to have that last for as long as possible, though I know there are far fewer of those days of blissful ignorance ahead of her than there are behind. No, she can’t read this yet, but there will come a time when this will have resonance for her, when it will mean something. And when it does, I’ll have the link stored away. I don’t mind waiting a little longer.

Where’s the Love? In a world where Bioware is something of a sad pinnacle for the idea of character love stories in games, I find this PAR article quote, from Torment creative lead Colin McComb, comforting:

“We do plan to have relationships in the game. I don’t know if we’re necessarily approaching romance, at least not in the way it’s been explored in games recently. There’s a lot more to the word love than simple flesh coupling,” McComb explained. “That’s frankly the aspect of it that’s least interesting when you get right down to it. It’s the interpersonal intimacy. It’s learning the depth and turmoil of another person that I think is more fascinating. That’s the aspect we want to explore with relationships with people.”

Mass Effect 3 Ending

It’s not that I think Bioware games are embarrassingly bad in this regard. Liara (pictured) has some magnificent turns to her character. And I’ve defended Bioware’s use of relationships in the stories for their games more than once. It’s just that they’ve never really done better at it than they did with Baldur’s Gate II and the original Knights of the Old Republic. They’ve never found the next level. They’ve designed relationships in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series such that sex is the goal and that’s an anathema to telling stories with believable, meaningful relationships between characters. Great storytelling, stories that reflect the human condition as it were, need to be able to reflect that love is a powerful driving force in the proverbial Hero’s Journey. That the Torment team appears to get this is encouraging and, if they execute, it should make for an interesting step forward in how romantic character relationships play out in the framework of a story-based game.

Gaming: The Next Generation. King Art Games hit up Kickstarter, hoping to get six-figures for their turn-based strategy project, one that’s inspired by games like Advance Wars. It’s a solid, compelling proposal that was, not coincidentally, fully funded in a week’s time. There are 32 days left.

What Kickstarter is doing is making responsible game development possible again. What do I mean by that? I mean that in a world where Square can publish some very good AAA-budgeted games and still have their president forced to resign because of inability to make financial numbers, we see yet more evidence that AAA publishing is, in two words, Teh Stupidz.

The jury is in and the game industry is not nearly the big business it wants the world to think it is. It is not Hollywood. Trying to make the business of producing games into Hollywood, no matter how great $200M Bioshock: Infinite may be, is not a recipe for industry-wide success. These are exceptions to the rule, though I have my doubts that even this critical darling will deliver a serious return on investment. (It’s worth pointing out that $200M number could be completely farcical. My point still stands.)

This is what makes Kickstarter-backed games important. In a world with very few responsible game publishers, the upper-echelon of Kickstarter projects bring game development back into the real world. They’re taking game development out of the hands of supposedly Very Important Men and letting real gamers fund real projects based on real budgets; small teams of passionate designers making their kind of game, selling it for one fair price with the goal, not of making gobs and gobs of money for shareholders, but to earn a living. Yes, there are exceptions and there are plenty of pitfalls to spending money on games that may never see the light of day, but I’ll take my chances with inXile and Obsidian, Conifer and Stoic. They’re in the business of making games I want to play and they don’t need $200 million to do it. That’s something that I want to be a part of, both as a gamer and as a consumer. Clearly, I’m not alone in that.

All Good Things… Ending Mass Effect

NOTE: There are some inferred “spoilers” throughout this post, but they are largely non-specific. The comments section is likely to be loaded with heavy spoilers. If you have to know nothing about how this series concludes, skip this post. If you just don’t want to know specific outcomes and events, you should be fine, but avoid the comments section. Any obviously spoilery text in the main post has to be highlighted to be read.

The one thing that’s stuck out to me most about the ending of Mass Effect 3 isn’t even about the game itself, but how it’s brought out the absolute ugliest in a whole lot of people – both those who hated it and those who didn’t. This feeling’s been compounded in the last 24 hours since Bioware revealed they might be changing the game’s resolution in some form or fashion. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve closed Twitter so as to not have to read a flood of the same bile-tastic comments over and over again. March 21st, and the media pundit Twitter snark-fest that ensued, enters the record as one of those days.

I finished Mass Effect last Friday. The first three words that came to mind: That was fucked. At the time I wasn’t even sure if it was in a good or bad way. These things aren’t entirely clear sometimes and certainly what I saw in those final minutes was so unexpected as to require some reflection before dreaming up anything resembling a well-formed opinion. I’ll go back ’round to that, in a minute. First, a few words about the tempest in a teacup surrounding how Bioware chose to wrap this up…

Do I think it’s kind of silly that people need to be motivated by a video game’s lackluster conclusion in order to find charity money in their pockets? Yeah, I do. I’m all for Child’s Play racking up tens of thousands of dollars, but if you want to give, then give. Don’t make it about Mass Effect’s ending. Or do, I guess. What do I care? Filing FTC complaints and whatnot is so ridiculous it requires no further comment. Bad endings have been a part of story telling since the dawn of time. Go ahead and feel let down. Get mad even. Then, move on to the next thing – you were going to anyway.

At the same time, the level of derision I see aimed at this crowd, forcefully pumped into my consciousness from places like Twitter, may irritate me even more. Mostly I’m talking about people who consider themselves professional critics. The comments I’ve seen from a few individuals have gone beyond expression of contrary opinions and instead cross the line into outright contempt and hostility mixed with a healthy dose of holier than thou cynicism. One thing I’ve noticed about this business is there are critics in it who have no reservation whatsoever about using a legion of angry gamers as a cudgel to savage a developer when agendas align, but a heartbeat later will act like they’re above such mob mentality when said mob trucks on by them without their “leadership” to guide it. Such is the nature of people, I suppose.

I’m not sure if it’s shame or futility I feel at adding my own contribution to the barrels chock full of useless diatribes about Mass Effect 3 and The Epic Ending Debacle of 2012. It’s probably both, but I’ve never shied from a quixotic jousting of a windmill or two, so why start now? Let’s talk about how this trilogy in the Mass Effect canon reached its conclusion…

The short version is this: The ending is bad. Bioware swung hard for the fences with having the “big” idea and they whiffed in equal proportion. This does not mean I’m about to lobby the FTC. Like I said above, bad endings are a part of storytelling. Bioware didn’t set out to implement an ending that wholly misunderstands what made the effort of getting their worthwhile in the first place. I actually rather admire how it runs full speed into a brick wall of stunning illogic. Wile E. Coyote would be proud. Whatever the result, it’s obvious they tried. They even hit on some interesting ideas in terms of the Reapers and what they represent. They managed to make The Crucible MacGuffin palatable, which I would not have expected after the first few hours of play. And along the way they gave several memorable characters some worthwhile send-offs.

So, why doesn’t this ending work? Is it because it supplants individuals for a view of the big picture so expanded that it tells you almost nothing about what’s happened to anybody or any group you might actually care about? Is it because the options at your disposal aren’t satisfying? Is it because there’s really no option or outcome you can point to and say it feels like a universal declaration of victory?

Form your own answer about that. I think it doesn’t work because it has nothing at all to do with everything you’ve been doing for three games, least of all Mass Effect 3. The bulk of Mass 3 is a game that is about accumulation of assets. Sometimes those assets are in the form of a ship or artifact. Sometimes in the form of an army. Sometimes it’s a squad or individual. They’re all weighted for an overall effect. The problem is that the number, relative to the end game options it unlocks (or locks away), is entirely arbitrary. If it’s under threshold X then you have these two choices. If it’s over said threshold you have these three, but then this thing happens. If it reaches the next threshold you’re back down to two options, but then this other thing also happens. It’s not, in any way, a coherent cause and effect. That is bad writing, bad planning, bad everything.

To illustrate this point I have to enter some spoiler territory. Highlight the text to see it…

The options at your disposal -control the Reapers, destroy the Reapers, synthesis of man and machine- don’t have anything to do with your War Assets in a logical way. The War Assets are just a number to slot you into which combination of these items are at your disposal. If you failed to assemble many galactic fleets it’s not going to affect whether or not the Crucible reaches Earth. Failing to round up an adequate ground force doesn’t mean Shepard won’t make it to the Reaper transport beam back to the Citadel or that he’ll be in a different kind of shape when he gets there. No matter what you do throughout the game you will get the same rush through the climax that everyone else got. For a game that is all about coalition-building, for the strength of the coalition not to actually affect the final battle sequence at all is dodgy at best. By the time Shepard is busy making his choice on behalf of galactic civilization, how big your fleet is or how strong your ground forces are should make no difference whatsoever. Look at this way: If you don’t broker peace between the Quarians and Geth, maybe you fall short of the war assets needed to choose synthesis. But then what does brokering peace between Quarians and Geth have to do with synthesis? Oh, right. Nothing.

Compare this to the ending for Mass Effect 2, which, boss fight aside, I regard as one of the better final few hours of any game I’ve ever played. Everything about how that game closes out, from the moment you enter the Omega Relay, is about the decisions you made throughout the game. If you don’t outfit the Normandy properly, you take more damage and risk more of your crew. If you haven’t ensured everyone’s loyalty they are unlikely to survive any mission to which you assign them. Even the ones that are loyal to you are at risk if you make poor decisions about how to utilize them. Mass Effect 2’s final act is a culmination of everything you do in that game.

The problem with Mass Effect 3’s ending isn’t whether I like the tone of it or whether I think it’s too happy or too miserable or too vague or too devoid of digital tits. The problem with it is that the first 99% of what you do in the game is in no meaningful or logical way connected to the final minutes. As disappointing as that is, it’s also freeing in a way. When I sit down to replay the game with my Renegade Shepard, which I am sure to do, I am not going to obsess over War Assets and Galactic Readiness and how all that will determine my ending. The ending, no matter what I do, is awful, but the experience of getting there is still meaningful. I still…

…changed the course of Jack’s future. I still broke Ashley’s heart. I still helped Tali return home and find peace. No, I don’t know what becomes of her when the end comes. I don’t know if Garrus goes on to be a leader to his people or if he’s stranded on Earth. I don’t know if Miranda grieved for my death. Or am I even dead? Perhaps I’m like Kirk describes Dekker in Star Trek: The Motion Picture – missing…

…These are all things I’d like to know in some way, even if it were a bunch of text epilogues like in Origins. (I know many people hated those. I was fine with them.) But even though I think the game’s ending fails on so many levels it’s hard to know which one to focus on for the purposes of criticism, what it does not do is invalidate the journey and I think that’s where a lot of fanbase ire misses the forest for the trees.

Theirs is an understandable reaction, however. They feel let down. Betrayed. And they want to go somewhere with all that anger. Some of them are doing it in more productive ways (Child’s Play drives) than others (forum ranting and FTC threats). But that’s always the result when you have an enormous group of people reacting to something they’re passionate about. I’m less understanding of people who seem unable to let them have, and come to terms with, their anger. It will ebb and they’ll move on. Leave them to their grief about the game’s culmination, melodramatic or inappropriate as it may come out in places, and simply stick to owning your own ideas. The mud slinging is embarrassing to everyone involved and, with yesterday’s announcment, officially has come to overshadow what’s most important about Mass Effect 3:

It’s a damn good game, no matter how it ends.

Ray Muzyka Addresses Mass Effect 3 Ending Debacle 2012

Today Bioware co-founder Ray Muzyka took to the Internets to drop the official Bioware position on fan and critical reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending. The whole comment is worth reading, but this is the part, I presume, that made my Twitter feed explode this morning:

Building on their research, Exec Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey. You’ll hear more on this in April. We’re working hard to maintain the right balance between the artistic integrity of the original story while addressing the fan feedback we’ve received. This is in addition to our existing plan to continue providing new Mass Effect content and new full games, so rest assured that your journey in the Mass Effect universe can, and will, continue.

Most every critic I follow has absolutely skewered Bioware for supposedly caving to fan entitlement and changing the ending for the game. I actually feel for Bioware here. It’s the classic damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. Personally, I’ve read the full statement three times and it’s not at all clear what they actually intend to do so I think the more prudent move here is to withhold judgment.

Incidentally, I have my full thoughts on the game’s ending, and the surrounding silliness, going up first thing tomorrow. You know, just in case the 1,463,352 other stories about it on the web weren’t enough for you.

This is fast-becoming one of the damndest scenarios I’ve seen unfold in this business.

DLC and the Psychology of Incompletion

This morning, I went to pick up Mass Effect 3 and Street Fighter X Tekken at the Gamestop around the corner. There was a line of seven or eight people in front me, all accepting delivery on the former. When asked if they wanted to buy the $10 “From Ashes” DLC that adds an extra character and mission on top of the $60 retail price of the game, all agreed on the spot to purchase it. No questions asked. Except me. But I won’t lie, I was definitely tempted because the way that DLC of this kind works at a psychological level is to make you feel like your game is somehow not complete out-of-the-box. I mean, it’s a fully playable character and storyline. You don’t want to miss anything, right? You don’t want to rank low on the Galactic Readiness Meter and get a bad outcome from your 100+ hours of the Mass Effect story, do you?

It’s a play to fan emotions, hype, and the simple psychology that people want to get the full Mass Effect experience- such as it is, with “bonus” content scattered across numerous promotions, exclusives, and other marketing devices. Many will justify this from a fan position. Many more will simply spend the $10 without questioning it, appealing to their fandom for validation or simply not really considering the psychology that’s at work on them.

Frankly, I don’t care about the add-on character- and I love Mass Effect. I can read about this character online if I really feel the need to in order to get the full story. I don’t have to play with it, even it’s an addition on the level of Shale from Dragon Age: Origins. Aside from that, if BioWare and EA don’t feel that the content is integral to the core experience of the game, then it’s not essential to me either. And for $10, I can take my son to Leapin’ Lizards twice. Doing something with my son wins out over video games every time, whether they’re complete experiences or not.

It’s ironic that I picked up the new Capcom title at the same time with the froofra going on about the 12 future DLC characters being already present on the disc. If you sell somebody something and tell them that they’re going to have to pay more later to access stuff they’ve already got in their possession, that doesn’t tend to go over to well. But here again, what fan of this game wants to be without these extra characters? Your game is incomplete without them. Even if you’re content running your Poison and King team ad infinitum, it’s always going to be in the back of your mind that there’s something missing, as if you bought a puzzle at the thrift store knowing that it was missing pieces. And that’s a strong mental lead-in to a purchase.

You can feel this pull as well in any online multiplayer game with map packs- log in to Modern Warfare 3 and see if you don’t feel left out like you’re playing a hobbled game if you don’t have the map additions. Additions which are only available right now to Elite subscribers. It’s not as easy to dismiss DLC content as “optional” when there is a certain psychology at work that makes the consumer feel that the product they own is not complete. And when you can hop right onto Xbox Live or PSN and charge it up when you get that impulse to buy the rest of the game, it can be hard to resist. If all your friends want to play Domination on a map you haven’t bought, the content becomes less optional, doesn’t it?

We’ve heard wailing and gnashing of teeth now for years about on-disc DLC, day one DLC, the cost of map packs and so forth yet the march towards a la carte, per diem monetization continues. And it’s all your fault. Yes, you who bought or are going to buy “From Ashes”. And you that buy all the map packs and worthless horse armor nonsense like weapon skins, costumes, and system voices (really?). If either this kind of silly cosmetic garbage or essential content split out into multiple purchases didn’t sell, the publishers wouldn’t be doing it. For every forumista that stridently (and impotently) declares that they’re protesting and not buying a game, there’s a thousand that are forking over the cash without batting an eye.

Now, let’s be clear. Neither EA, BioWare, or Capcom are starving artist community that are Just Doing It Because They Love Games, Man. They are not doing what they do to make you happy or please you beyond providing a product that you will give them money for. All of the immature, childish hollering that you see online about companies “milking” their properties or making “cash grabs” is apparently the bleating of people that have no understanding of how capitalism or for-profit business works. And if you think that EA and other publishers aren’t running numbers to see how much they can charge you for DLC, the extent to which they can monetize a title, and what your “will not buy” point is- you’d be mistaken. They know exactly what they can leave out of a “finished” retail product and you’ll still pony up for it.

With that said, I have to say that as much as I dislike the trends around DLC and as insidious and pernicious as I think the psychology around parceled content is, these companies are doing the right thing. They’re doing exactly what smart businesses with saleable product should be doing. You’ve voted with your dollars, you’ve responded favorably to their mind games. And you’ve said “please sir, may I have another”. We’re not too far off from a future where we won’t be buying games, we’ll be buying digital storefronts with shelves stocked with ephemeral, transient products marketed to make you feel a sense of lacking and designed to appeal to the psychology that makes us want to spend money for complete products without a sense of lack- even if it means spending an extra $10 to complete a $60 purchase right there at the register.