The_Outer_Worlds_cover_artThere’s a moment, maybe a bit more than halfway through the main story arc of The Outer Worlds, that really sums up what the game is all about. On the planet Monarch, there are two rival factions who are fighting for control of the planet. I was acting as intermediary. 

I was trying to decide which side to support, which was difficult because there were people I liked on both. In fact, there was really just one hardliner who seemed to be causing the problem. I wished I could get him out of the picture and bring the two sides together.

And as it turned out, because I’d done a lot of legwork beforehand, and built a good reputation with both sides, I could. The game let me oust him, and put his more practical second-in-command in charge. It was incredibly satisfying, after hours of combat and long, dangerous treks across Monarch, to see two characters who I really liked hammering out their differences at the bargaining table.

There are many moments like this in The Outer Worlds, but this one best illustrates two of the game’s defining qualities. First, there’s the ability to make creative choices to solve problems in unexpected ways, rather than the simple Good/Evil binary we see in many games. And second, there’s the fact that, with a few exceptions, most characters in the game are really likable.

The Outer Worlds begins with your character being roused from cryo sleep aboard a spaceship called the Hope, by an eccentric scientist named Phineas Welles. Welles is recruiting you to fight against the mysterious “Board”—the controlling entity that governs the various corporations in the Halcyon colony.

Shortly after Welles’s rescue, you find yourself stranded on the world of Terra 2, where you have to make your way to the starship Unreliable. At least, that’s what the game pushes you to do. But, not being one to follow directions, I had my character instead make her way to the nearby settlement of Edgewater—a struggling company town. And the game, to its credit, let me do that.

The Spacer’s Choice corporation runs the show in Edgewater, and we soon see a glimpse of how dehumanizing the corporate policies are: before even entering the town, I met a grave-digger asking for help collecting gravesite fees from the populace. This is a good introduction to the politics of the Halcyon colony—the status quo that the outlaw Welles seeks to destroy by reawakening colonists on the Hope.

The advanced promotion for the game had pushed the theme of corporate dystopia pretty hard, so I was expecting that much. What I wasn’t expecting was how skillfully the portrayal is done—nobody, even the town boss in Edgewater, is a caricature. In the beginning, I thought it would be an easy choice between him and the refugees hiding deeper inland, but when it came down to it, both sides are presented as earnest people, struggling to eke out a living on a remote frontier. 

The Outer Worlds has been touted as the spiritual sequel to Fallout: New Vegas, and rightly so. The nuance and well-meaning nature of many of the characters put me in mind of J.E. Sawyer’s New Vegas add-on Honest Hearts—another story about basically good people trapped in a harsh and desolate land that forces them into making hard choices.

The hallmark of Outer Worlds, like New Vegas, is giving the player freedom to do as they wish, and letting the consequences play out accordingly. You can, as the marketing materials say, play it as a psychopath if you want to. But why would you, when it’s infinitely more satisfying to do things like help the struggling colonists, or spend time aiding your companions in overcoming their own personal challenges?

Ellie.jpg
Ellie also rocks.

Whether it’s helping the sweet, shy Parvati overcome her nerves and ask out the woman she loves, fighting side-by-side with the hard-drinking huntress Nyoka to honor the memory of her fallen comrades, or talking the spiritually-troubled Vicar Max out of revenge and into finally finding the inner peace that has eluded him all his life, The Outer Worlds has some of the best companion quests I’ve seen since Knights of the Old Republic II. You can’t romance companions, which initially was a little disappointing—but in a way, that just made their quests that much more satisfying. They weren’t just notches on a virtual bedpost for experience points; they’re well-rounded characters with fully-developed personalities.

Personality is something that The Outer Worlds is brimming with. The graphics have a splendid visual style, from the towns to the corporate advertising plastered everywhere, right down to the loading screens, which even out of the context of the game are retro-futuristic masterpieces:

Loading_Screen_Ad_Terror_ad

Even minor details like quest and weapon names (e.g. the first quest is “Stranger in a Strange Land” and there’s a unique flamethrower named “Montag”) have a sense of science-fiction fun about them.  Everything in this game screams that this is a work of craftsmanship, made by people who cared deeply about it.

Speaking of craftsmanship, the crafting system in this game is wonderful. If you remember my Mass Effect: Andromeda review, you may remember that I said I don’t normally get into crafting, but the mechanics in that game made it fun. The Outer Worlds is like that, too—I would check every shop and vending machine in every town for new weapon mods that I could use to give myself a better arsenal. 

Actually, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a pretty good comparison for Outer Worlds generally. Andromeda was also about building interstellar colonies and forging new homes for humanity in the cosmos. The spirit of optimism and adventure that I noted in my Andromeda review is also present here. The thing Andromeda was unfortunately (and in my opinion, somewhat unfairly) denigrated for was its bugs and technical glitches. I’m pleased to report that there are almost no such issues in Outer Worlds. A couple times, I got stuck between rocks on particularly treacherous terrain, but that could be solved with fast-traveling. The game auto-saves frequently, so even if it had been a problem, there seems little chance of losing much progress.

I have really only two complaints about The Outer Worlds. The first is about one minor quest on Monarch where you have to find someone who disappeared. He was delivering a package to a group of people in the wilderness, and when you track them down, they seem extremely—even excessively—polite, and ask you to stay for dinner.

Now if this is your first time playing an RPG, you might be surprised by what happens next. If, however, you remember the Andale quest from Fallout 3, or the White Glove Society from Fallout: New Vegas, or the inn from Jade Empire, you will not be shocked to learn that the people are, in fact, cannibals, and that the upcoming dinner and the fate that befell the unfortunate delivery person are related.

I’m sorry, but polite people who are secretly cannibals has been done to death in RPGs. I saw it coming a mile away. Now, it’s such a minor thing that I suppose you could say it was a nod to the great RPGs of yesteryear (as those three I listed undoubtedly are) but it felt too rote and by-the-numbers. But perhaps it only seemed so because all the other quests are so original and fun.

The second complaint isn’t even really a complaint; even though it strikes at one of the thematic pillars of the game. It’s more like a philosophical quibble.

As I mentioned above, one of the key parts of the game’s identity is that it’s supposed to be a satire of corporations. The corporations run Halcyon and that’s precisely, the game implies, why it has become such a mess, driven to the very brink of extinction by corporate drones who care more about filling forms, spouting ad copy, and following inane, inhuman policies rather than actually serving the needs of people.

The thing is, none of these flaws are unique to corporations. Any sufficiently large, complicated organization run by human beings will inevitably devolve into a bumbling bureaucracy. Things like governments, universities, and non-profit organizations, after all, are hardly innocent of the flaws that The Outer Worlds mocks in corporations.

In fact, the game seems to almost tacitly admit this by the later stages, when you reach the decadent city of Byzantium, where the wealthiest members of Halcyon society live, gossiping about aetherwave serials and fashion, in a bubble insulated from the horrors of frontier life, like Prince Prospero’s court in The Masque of the Red Death. There are a couple quests where you have to visit the Parcel Delivery service, and in each instance, are given a classic “That’s Not My Department”-style bureaucratic runaround. It’s a hilarious parody of red tape run amok, and one of the greatest examples of satire I’ve ever seen in a game. 

But think about what they’re making fun of here: the post office, a government-run organization. It’s not just capitalism that’s being mocked.

In fact, all the talk about it being a satire of corporations actually understates just how ambitious The Outer Worlds is: they’re not making fun of corporations only, but all big organizations. That’s why it resonates so much—because it pokes fun at the flaws of dysfunctional entities in general, whether they are mega-corporations, late-stage communist governments, or federally-mandated services. 

That’s why I can’t call this a complaint, exactly, because as a satire, it’s extremely good. It’s like the original Deus Ex in how it makes you think about the structures of society itself, and leads you into questioning just how the world around you really works.

I do have a theory about why the game seems so superficially focused on corporations however; although it involves a digression about the inner workings of Obsidian and a lot of speculation on my part. Feel free to skip the following five paragraphs if you don’t care about game industry inside baseball. (Or I should say “tossball,” the main pastime of the Halcyon colony.)

There have been a lot of rumors about Obsidian Entertainment, many of which involve the departure of founding member Chris Avellone. Avellone is a legend in the gaming industry, as the genius behind titles like Planescape: Torment, Knights of the Old Republic II and the Fallout: New Vegas add-ons Dead Money, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest storytellers alive, and his work is a big reason I fell in love with role-playing games.

The details of his departure from Obsidian are difficult to describe, and every account is inherently unverifiable. But it’s safe to say he did not leave on good terms. Avellone has not been shy about discussing his differences with management, nor about his critiques of the game industry generally.

I bring all this up because, if I didn’t know better—that is, if he hadn’t personally confirmed his non-involvement with Outer Worlds many times—I’d have thought it was an Avellone game. It bears so many elements of his signature design style: player choice, reactivity, an irreverent sense of humor… it’s basically the greatest game Chris Avellone never made.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think it’s an interesting series of events: Avellone has a far-from-amicable departure from Obsidian, after which he vocally expresses his views on management practices in the game industry generally and at Obsidian in particular. Then, a few years later, his fellow game designers make a game about corporate (mis-)management destroying people’s lives. And it’s not just any game, but a game that is clearly the descendant of some of Obsidian (and Avellone’s) greatest triumphs.

Does it mean anything? I don’t know. It may all be just a weird coincidence. In any event, though, this much is known: Avellone remains friendly with Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, the co-designers of The Outer Worlds, and while it may be a pipe dream, I would love to see him work on DLC for it. The universe of this game is a big one, and it feels like it has room for more stories, especially ones written by MCA himself. Like Phineas Welles, I’ll cling to any hope, however slim.

You may have noticed I’ve made comparisons to lots of other games throughout this review. That’s quite deliberate: The Outer Worlds feels like a culmination. I don’t play games much anymore because they require such a big time investment. But when I saw this game billed as the successor to some of my all-time favorites, I had to give it a shot. And as I played it, I felt like I was experiencing an epic symphony composed of all my most beloved games. 

The smooth, easily-flowing gameplay and careful world design of New Vegas, coupled with a rich art style at times reminiscent of Borderlands, Dishonored, and BioShock, but with its own, unique flavor; the mounting tension of rallying the crew for the attack on the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, combined with the hopeful, pioneering spirit of Mass Effect: Andromeda; the cyberpunk rage against the elite machine of Deus Ex, along with the personal tale of introspection and self-discovery that was Planescape: Torment—all these happy gaming memories came to mind as I journeyed through Halcyon.

And yes: there are echoes of Knights of the Old Republic II; the epic that got me hooked on RPGs in the first place, with its story of the lone exile returning to a galaxy on the brink of collapse, with the choice to let it die or fight to save it—it too came to mind as I played The Outer Worlds. Both games are ultimately about something very simple and very important; something that everybody knows but too few really understand: the fact that our decisions matter; that whether the world we live in thrives or perishes depends on the consequences of people’s choices.

It seems so obvious, and yet so many people seem to forget it. But it’s a point that games as an art form are uniquely equipped to make, because they allow for audience participation to such a profound degree. All the great games demonstrate this truth, and that is why, as it stands on the shoulders of these giants, The Outer Worlds is an all-time classic.  

220px-Far_Cry_5_boxshot
I’m not reviewing this game. I’m reviewing the reviews of it.

I haven’t played it. I probably won’t play it. I haven’t played a Far Cry game in years. You can read my thoughts on Far Cry 2 here. My sense is that not much has changed about the series since then.

For those who don’t know: Far Cry 5 is set in Montana, and the plot involves a doomsday cult of survivalist “preppers”. I don’t know much beyond that, but I gather it follows the standard Far Cry formula of a big open world for the player to run around in, getting in gunfights and blowing stuff up.

The marketing for the game has hyped the political aspects of the plot, and generated lots of controversy as a result.

The reviews I’ve read, however, have almost all complained that the game doesn’t have any real political message, saying things like “it plays it too safe” and “doesn’t want to offend people”. I get the sense a lot of people are disappointed in Ubisoft for not dialing the political commentary up to 11.

I admit, once I learned it was going to be just another open-world mayhem thing, with no major political message, I also lost interest in it. But I can’t blame Ubisoft for making that decision. If you think about it, they hardly had a choice.

Far Cry games are about people in extreme environments, fighting to survive against hordes of enemies with a vast array of deadly weapons. There is no clear morality in the world of Far Cry, save the Law of the Jungle. So if you play these games, it means you want to role-play surviving in a savage world of death and destruction.

Survivalists, doomsday preppers, and militia types are doing the same thing. They’re just acting out this fantasy, as opposed to playing a virtual simulation of it. In gaming lingo, they’re Live-Action Role-Playing, or “LARP-ing”.

So Ubisoft couldn’t go full bore political satire against survivalist/militia-types without also attacking their target audience. For those saying that Far Cry 5 should attack people who fetishize wilderness survival and military hardware: Who exactly do you think is buying this $60 simulation of over-the-top violence and destruction?

Is it possible for a game to criticize its audience? Yes, I have seen it done once: Spec Ops: The Line presented itself as a standard-issue military shooter, only to turn everything on its head and morph into a mind-bending satire of the genre that forced the player to question why they play these things at all.

But Spec Ops was not a huge money-maker, and Ubisoft is not going to alienate a huge portion of its audience for the sake of making a clever satire. The majority of audiences do not want to be satirized. They want to be entertained. It would be kind of like writing a detective novel where the detective fails to catch the killer specifically because he spends too much time reading detective novels.

“Form ever follows function” wrote the architect Louis Sullivan, and it’s a good principle for design in any medium. Because if you try to make a game whose function (satire of gun-loving survivalists) is directly opposed to its form (a simulation of gun-loving survivalism), the customers who want the form are going to be upset, and the customers who want the function probably aren’t going to buy it in the first place.

I had low expectations for this game. After the fiasco of the Mass Effect 3 ending, coupled with EA’s general business practice of filling out their games with overpriced DLC and tacked-on  multiplayer, I wasn’t expecting them to do much with a new entry in the series.

Besides, the original Mass Effect trilogy was a lot of fun, but also wildly uneven. The first game had a brilliant story and atmosphere, but clunky controls and emotionless characters. The second game, as re-imagined by EA, had great characters and terrific voice-acting, but an incoherent mess of a plot that was only tangentially related to the story set up by the first game. And the third game had tighter controls, better combat, and a surprisingly good crafting system—but it compounded the story errors of its predecessor tenfold, while also doing major disservices to the characters. And that was before the infamous disaster that was the game’s finale.

All in all, while I had a lot of fun with the Mass Effect trilogy, there was no avoiding the fact that it was a decidedly mixed bag—some brilliant elements; some rather shockingly bad ones. For years, I’ve said that if someone made a game that had the story and atmosphere of Mass Effect 1, the characters and voice-acting of Mass Effect 2, and the gameplay mechanics and crafting systems of Mass Effect 3, it would be a true masterpiece.

And now I know I was right. Because Mass Effect Andromeda is that game.

I don’t think I have ever been as pleasantly surprised by a game as I was by this one. I was expecting a Gears of War clone with a Mass Effect coat of paint. Instead I got an epic adventure in a sprawling galaxy, complete with likable characters, clever writing, and what just might be the best-designed combat and exploration mechanics I’ve ever seen.

You play as Ryder, a special operative who, in the early stages of the game, assumes the mantle of Pathfinder—the person tasked with setting up colonies in the Andromeda galaxy on behalf of an organization called “The Initiative”. Like Shepard in the first three Mass Effects, Ryder can be either male or female. The official canon has male Ryder’s name as “Scott”, and female Ryder’s as “Sara”, but the game allows you to choose your own first name. So, as I have traditionally done in RPGs at least since Fallout: New Vegas, I’m playing as a woman named Jane.

Jane Ryder
This is my Pathfinder. There are many like her, but this one is mine.

I have never felt such a connection with a player character before. Not with Shepard, not with the Courier, not with J.C. Denton—not even with the Jedi Exile. Something made me feel attached to my Ryder. Fryda Wolff’s terrific voice-acting is part of it, I’m sure, as she manages to at least match the great Jennifer Hale’s Commander Shepard, and perhaps even raise the bar a little higher. Tom Taylorson also does a good job in the brief but important scenes Scott has in a female Ryder playthrough. (I haven’t played the full game as Scott. I’m not sure if I ever will–to me, there can only be one Ryder.)

I can’t give a full plot summary, or this review would be longer than War and Peace. Ryder leads her team across the various worlds of Andromeda, battling the hostile species known as the Kett, making alliances with the native Angara species, setting up outposts, uncovering the remains of a bygone species known as the Remnant and in the process making the worlds of Andromeda livable for the Milky Way species—humans, turians, asari and krogan.

Desert on Eos

The first planet Ryder explores, Eos, was where I really started to grasp that Andromeda was something far more epic than I had expected. As I drove around the gorgeous, sprawling deserts, listening to Cora and Peebee banter while we fought the Kett and secured our outpost, I realized I was 10 hours in, and the save screen informed me I was only 10% of the way done with the game. For comparison, a typical playthrough of KotOR II or New Vegas (two of my all-time favorite games) takes me between 20-30 hours.

Wow, I thought. I’m sure I’ll pick up the pace soon, but I’m looking at a 40-hour game here.

Try 73 hours. And counting. The game goes on after you beat the final boss.

I have trouble being a completionist my first time through an RPG. I usually start off vowing to do all the sidequests and explore every nook and cranny, but then I get impatient and want to see what happens in the main story and wind up rushing to finish it. That didn’t happen with Andromeda—the game made me feel like I really was exploring new worlds and discovering new wonders, not just mowing down wave after wave of bad guys en route to the end.

Fighting Kett
The combat in this game is some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Now, it’s true, there are tons of bad guys to be mowed down, and what a system BioWare has designed to do so. As with the other games, there are combat powers, biotic (telekinetic) powers and tech powers. All of these lead to remarkably different playstyles. As if that weren’t enough, Ryder’s weapons are highly customizable. You not only can build new ones from scratch, but you can add augmentations and mods that drastically alter their behavior. (I made all my weapons super rapid-fire laser guns, for example.)

I almost never bother with crafting systems in RPGs, but I was hooked on this one early on. After every mission, I was always rushing back to the modding table to see what new armor and weaponry I could put together.

The way you acquire new equipment is also ingenious. Throughout the game, you can scan various objects for research points that you can spend on building new items.  This again reinforces the need to explore every inch of the galaxy in order to build new equipment that leads to better combat. It’s all a very nice feedback loop.

Now, again, good game mechanics don’t count for much without a good story and characters. After all, Mass Effect 3 had a good crafting system too, but nobody walked away from it thinking “I was really satisfied with that shotgun I built!”

Andromeda’s overall story, while not terribly innovative, avoids descending into utter nonsense like Mass Effect 2 and 3 so often did. And its character interactions are every bit as good as those in ME 2. There are even a few scenes that do something very rare for a video game (or even most Hollywood films, for that matter): scenes where the characters don’t say anything in response, but instead convey what they are thinking solely with the facial expressions. There was one scene where two crew members are arguing  over something silly and Ryder silently facepalms in the background. This was a level of nuance that I was not expecting. For all the complaints about animation glitches (I’ll get to that), it was nice to see that degree of realism.

Each member of Ryder’s crew has a backstory, as does Ryder herself. The Ryder family history is quite interesting, and gradually piecing it together makes for a very satisfying subplot, with a great payoff during the endgame sequence.

All the backstories are slowly revealed over the course of the game, and the development of relationships works much better than in past Mass Effects because of Andromeda’s slower pace. It seems more plausible that a crew member would fall in love with you over the course of many conversations and missions together, rather than the old model of “three conversations and then bed”.

Now, as you are likely aware, the knock on Andromeda is that it’s glitchy. The animations are awkward and there are weird bugs and incomplete quests.

Yes, all of this is true. The game crashes abruptly sometimes. There are some sidequests that are broken. (One was a simple “scan three things” mission, and the game never gave me the option to scan the third.) The facial animations, while sophisticated and nuanced in concept as I described, do sometimes look a little bizarre. When talking to her AI assistant, SAM, Ryder sometimes turns her head around 180 degrees on her neck, like she’s possessed. In one cutscene, one party member was placed directly over top of another, causing them to meld together—I hadn’t seen anything so weird since the sex scene in Blade Runner 2049. And the krogan party member makes the game’s framerate slow down to a crawl if you enter combat with him. (On the flip side, this glitch also makes Ryder immortal.)

Cora
This is far from the weirdest facial animation you’ll see.

All of these are indeed annoying bugs, and if you came to Andromeda as someone used to polished AAA games, I can see it would be pretty appalling.

Let me explain why I can forgive it: my introduction to RPGs was BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, which I first played on the Xbox 360 in 2006. Because it was an original Xbox game that had to be made compatible with the new console, it had all kinds of slowdown issues in combat, random crashes during loading, and a host of other issues. But I enjoyed the thrill of a grand adventure across the galaxy with my rag-tag band of party members so much that I could forgive all. I’d never played anything like it before, and a few bugs here and there couldn’t interfere with the ambitious scope of the game.

Then I played Knights of the Old Republic II, by Obsidian, and again had to deal with broken quests (fuel for Telos, anyone?), glitches, and an ending that seemed (on the first playthrough) confusing and abrupt. But I loved it even more than KotOR I for the brilliance of the writing, the complexity of the characters, the brooding, ominous atmosphere, and the deep, philosophical questions at the core of the story. To this day, it remains my favorite game—perhaps even my favorite work of fiction, regardless of medium.

Since then, I’ve loved lots of games that had their technical flaws, be they bad graphics, (Deus Ex) frequent crashes (Fallout: New Vegas) bizarre texture glitches and entire rooms that didn’t load (Alpha Protocol) or just being so utterly broken they couldn’t be played without cheats. (Mask of the Betrayer) I loved them all, in spite of their technical shortcomings, because they more than made up for it with the sheer ambitiousness of their stories, the scope of their settings, and the depth of their themes.

Nomad on Voeld
Exploring in the Nomad.

Mass Effect Andromeda is another in that class. Its flaws are the flaws of a work so daring that it pushes the limits of the possible. Unlike the original Mass Effect trilogy, which always felt oddly constrained despite its space-faring setting, Andromeda really does shoot for the stars. It gives you a sense of freedom, of exploration and of adventure. Whereas Mass Effects 1 -3 boiled down to the story of Commander Shepard vs. the Reapers, Andromeda feels like a universe of countless stories, in which Ryder’s is but one—an important one, with significance to all the others, but still, just one. As I discussed in my KotOR II video, the interplay of galaxy-spanning concerns with deeply personal ones gives the game a truly epic feeling.

Andromeda
The Heleus cluster, where Ryder’s adventure takes place.

That’s another difference with the original series: unlike the Lovecraftian bleakness of the Reaper threat at the heart of Shepard’s story, Andromeda belongs to a different strain of science fiction—the optimistic sort, about life surviving in alien settings and using technology to overcome adversity. A fittingly pioneer spirit underlies all of Ryder’s adventures, and when, after long fights and lengthy treks across strange worlds, Ryder establishes a new outpost, you feel a sense of accomplishment—like you really did use your powers to help out humanity. It’s an inspiring theme; a throwback to the “space cowboys” epics of the past, when space was viewed as another frontier to be tamed and made habitable.

While the writing is not as deep, and the themes are lighter and less complex, Mass Effect Andromeda is the first game I’ve played since KotOR II that really made me feel like I was part of a universe, and even more importantly, made me think about what that really means. Like Obsidian’s epic, it makes the player ponder the meaning and the scale of their decisions, and reflect on, ultimately, humanity’s place in the cosmos.  There is no higher compliment that I can pay a work of fiction.

Ryder in game
Pathfinder Ryder on bridge. Where to next?

So, this is the project I’ve been hinting about on Twitter these last few weeks. I decided to do it on a lark, and ultimately it turned into way more work than I expected. Yet for some reason I kept going. I’m not even sure why; I had more or less accepted the fact that some technical glitch was eventually going to scuttle it, but I just kept plugging away at it, and here we are.

I’m not happy about the reduced size of the video and all the black space on the screen. I’m a total newbie when it comes to making videos, so there’s probably an easy fix that I just failed to figure out. It might have something to do with the resolution (The original was saved at 720p. At 480p the footage is in an even smaller box.) If I figure out how to solve it, I might do a re-upload. But that probably won’t happen for a while; I’ve got other stuff I want to work on first.

Consider this video a supplement to the KotOR II retrospective I wrote a few years ago. The essay is more thorough—and more eloquent—than my remarks here, but I hope having some footage from the game helps make my points a little more clear, especially for people who haven’t played it. The reason I keep talking about this game so much is that I think it contains lots of useful examples for writing fiction generally, not just games.

Enjoy!

kreia
Kreia, from Chris Avellone’s “Knights of the Old Republic II”

One of the best things you can say about a work of fiction is that it changes how you think about life.  To my mind, what makes something truly great Art is if it gives you a new perspective on everyday life.

This might be why a some people don’t think video games are Art. Nobody does anything different after playing, say, Pac-Man.

This is where Chris Avellone‘s games come in.  Avellone’s design philosophy is heavily focused on “reactivity” in gameplay. Last year I wrote about why this means the plots, characters, and mechanics of his games are so thematically integrated.

To summarize briefly: “reactivity” means that the game world reacts to the player character’s choices.  Rather than just being a set series of tasks the player performs to advance the story, a reactive game environment means the player can influence what happens in the game world.  This means a game has multiple endings at a minimum, and usually different ways to complete tasks or different story arcs to follow as well.

Reactivity makes for a satisfying game experience.  You feel like you are really participating in the game-world, rather than just pressing buttons to turn the pages in someone else’s story.

This is where the “applicable in real life” part comes in: people like reactivity in the real world, too.  We don’t typically think of it in those terms, but it’s true.  People like to feel like their actions mean something.

Usually, people are at their most unhappy when they feel powerless. We want to feel like we have some measure of control in our lives, and some input in what happens in the world. We never have total control, of course, just as the player of a game doesn’t either–there is always the possibility of losing.

For example, people like it when other people listen to them. If somebody presents an idea, they like other people to engage with it, rather than just dismiss it. At a basic level, listening to people’s ideas is a kind of a reactivity–it sends the message that their input matters.

The fact that people like it when you listen to them isn’t a revelation. A guy named Dale Carnegie wrote at length about it in the 1930s. So did Stephen Covey in the 1980s. But reactivity is a handy way of understanding the concept.  If you think of everyone as a player character in their own video game, you know that what they are looking for is the opportunity to influence the world.

250px-planescape-torment-box[Last week Beamdog released an enhanced edition of Planescape: Torment for modern desktops and tablets. In honor of this occasion (and hopefully to drive more people to play it) I decided to post a full-length review of the game, which I’ve somehow never done despite going on about my love for it all these years. Be warned: some spoilers ahead!]

What always strikes me first about Planescape: Torment every time I start a new game is how weird it is.  Your character –called “the Nameless One”–wakes up in a mortuary, apparently as an amnesiac zombie, and is greeted by a floating skull who proceeds to read a message written on the Nameless One’s back.

And that’s just the opening few minutes of what’s at least a 20- to 30-hour game.  It doesn’t get less weird after that.  You meet a whole host of bizarre characters: a chaste succubus, a living suit of armor, a man who is eternally on fire, a living cube with crossbows… the list goes on.  And that doesn’t even address the weird setting–an indescribable world of twisting labyrinths and cities that shift both in physical space and across different planes of reality.

All in all, it’s a strange and disturbing universe that the Nameless One must traverse in order to complete his quest.

And yet, for all the outré creatures and situations you encounter, it always remains possible to relate, even if it’s only in some twisted way, to the humanity of the characters. That is the first piece of genius that points to the heart of Torment’s brilliance: though it is surreal, it is also real on an emotional level–more real, in fact, than many other games that strive for super-realistic graphics and gameplay.

03
Gameplay screenshot via Planescape.com

There is a heart to Torment‘s characters, and a logic to its locales and events, because they are all connected by a unifying theme: their relationship to the Nameless One, and how his actions impact all of this is the thread that weaves all these fantastical elements together into a coherent whole.

The fundamental feature of all video games is interactivity.  What differentiates games from other art forms is that the intended audience is meant to actively engage with the game.  It is not merely a passive experience, but one in which the audience is meant to take some action which in turn advances them towards a goal.

In games with narrative–what we might call “dramatic games”–the player’s actions are supposed to advance the story.  By performing an action, the player sees what happens next.  In more sophisticated games, the player has some choice of what actions to perform, and these affect the course of the larger story.

The full potential of this storytelling style is seldom realized in most dramatic games. Generally, most stick with the tried-and-true formula of the player advancing a straightforward narrative by performing a set of actions. But in Torment, the concept of interactivity is wedded to the story of the game itself.

One of the central themes in Torment is the idea of “consensus reality”–the idea that by agreeing to believe in something, it becomes effectively “real”. This is also tied to the game’s famous recurring line: “What can change the Nature of a Man?” (In some endings, the Nameless One can argue that “whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can.”)

With its relativistic approach to “reality” (that is, the reality of the game world) Torment acknowledges a little-noted but integral truth of gaming: that the game-reality is subject to the manipulations of the player.  In other words, since the player is interacting with the rest of a pre-programmed world, it is ultimately their “reality”, to shape as they see fit.

This is technically true of any game. When you play anything, from Pong to Minecraft to Fallout 4, you are interacting with a virtual world and manipulating it according to your desires.  The difference is that Torment is implicitly aware of this, and it makes the player character’s relationship to the world mimic that of the player themselves.

It is this subtle, critical point that makes Torment an all-time classic that’s still being played nearly 20 years since its release.

Nearly everything that happens in the story, and every character who appears in the game, either has previously been or currently is affected by the Nameless One’s actions. The entire game-world is (or can become) a reflection of the Nameless One’s character, either in his current life or in previous ones.

The architect Louis Sullivan famously wrote that “form ever follows function.” He meant this not merely as an architectural philosophy, but as a wide-ranging principle of design.

I’d argue that good design in narrative isn’t so much a matter of form “following” function, but simply form and function being in harmony.  In drama, you might decide the “form” (the medium/genre in which you will tell your story) before the “function” (the content/theme of your story), but they had better work well together.  That’s why it’s tough to write an action movie that glorifies pacifism, for example.

In Torment, form and function complement one another perfectly: the gameplay involves the player making decisions that alter the world, and the story is about how the Nameless One’s decisions alter the world.

Of course, Torment’s story and dialogue are brilliant on their own merits, and even in another form (it was adapted into a book, after all), the writing hits all the right notes: witty, moving, disturbing, clever and deeply philosophical.

But what makes the lines so powerful, and the intensely introspective storyline so memorable, is the fact that the player is able to make the game their own through their choices.  The player and the player character effectively merge, in a way that transcends (I used that word deliberately) the usual emotional distance between player and avatar.

It’s a difficult in any game to get players to really connect with the characters or the setting.  They intellectually know it’s all just pixels drawn by a bunch of zeroes and ones. And besides, how much can in-game choices “matter”, if you can just reload and try again if it doesn’t work out?

What’s truly amazing is that Torment should theoretically be less accessible than the average game. The strange setting and characters, forbiddingly odd even by fantasy standards, adds another barrier to the player’s ability to relate to it.

And then there’s the fact that the player character’s “death” means even less than in typical games.  He’s immortal; so it doesn’t matter if he gets killed in a fight; he just wakes up again afterwards.  In theory, this should make every conflict less emotionally-charged than it otherwise would be.

The designers stacked the deck against themselves, and then overcame the odds to deliver one of the most emotionally compelling games of all time. And so Torment‘s weirdness is not a flaw, but a strength–it adds to its unique flavor.

Throughout this review, I’ve said relatively little about the specifics of the game itself. That’s because the game defies description–and I think that’s because it’s like a mosaic: I can’t explain why it’s beautiful by showing just one tile–you have to see the interconnected nature of the whole thing to understand it. The best I can do is describe the sense I got from looking at it.

If you like dramatic, narrative-driven video games and you like to think, give Planescape: Torment a try.  You’ll never forget it.

“Reactivity”. “Choice and consequences”. “Influence”. These are the watchwords for the RPGs designed by Chris Avellone.

For example, one of the major features of Alpha Protocol (2010) was the branching path structure of its story, depending on what the player chose to do. The world of Alpha Protocol reacted to the player’s choices, making it feel like they were really changing the story as they played.

More than just being a quirk of game mechanic design, this philosophy permeates the Avellone-led Black Isle/Obsidian RPGs in surprising ways. It goes beyond just being a player ego-stroking mechanism into every aspect of the games.

Planescape: Torment‘s protagonist can influence the story, setting and other characters in countless ways, and while this in itself makes for an interesting game, the mechanic complements the theme of the story: that belief can influence reality itself. Musings on self-fulfilling prophecies and consensus reality are integrated with the structure of the game.

If video games are power fantasies, designed to make players feel like they can impact the world, then these RPGs are both archetypal examples and subtly subversive at the same time. While they allow the player to make all manner of changes to the game world, they also ask the player to reflect on the consequences of their actions.

To see how this approach differs from other RPGs, consider the popular but controversial Mass Effect 3, the original endings of which prompted criticism that none of the player’s choices really mattered. Defenders of the game replied that this was the story BioWare had wanted to tell, and so it should be accepted by the players as such.

It is a delicate balance, but in a medium defined by user input, the experience is most satisfying if the need to tell a story is balanced with giving the player choice in how it unfolds–if the story is the player’s story, and the player is not simply a bystander.

In many games, the player is to the game’s plot as Indiana Jones is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are at best just there to perform the requisite tasks to fulfill the writer’s story. Not so with Planescape/KotOR II/Alpha Protocol–in these, the player is the story.

Perhaps the most famous of Avellone’s characters is the enigmatic Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. She embodies the philosophy of player choice more so than any other single character. (Her avowed hatred of the predestination element of the Force could be interpreted as opposition to the “railroading” so common in games.)

Kreia is seemingly amoral, allied with neither the Jedi nor the Sith, but uses both to achieve her goals. To gain influence with her, the Jedi Exile (the player’s character) must show that they can make logical choices consistent with furthering their own long-term goals–in other words, that they understand choice and consequence. Kreia doesn’t care if you are good or evil–just so long as you know what you are doing and can strategize to make it happen.

In this way, the game mechanics, characters and story are all fully integrated. The mechanics reinforce the characters who reinforce the theme.  This level of coherence is what produces a truly satisfying experience. When game mechanics clash with the theme or the story, the player feels subconsciously confused.

Since games, unlike other art forms, rely on user input to tell the story, it only makes sense to center them around the user’s input in every respect. If thematic coherence is what makes Art great, the greatest games should surely be built around the idea of player choice.

I normally don’t like games that are just about repetitive gameplay. I like to make progress through a story, and reach a satisfying ending.  To just keep doing the same thing to try and get a high score doesn’t really appeal to me.

But Faster Than Light is an exception to the rule.  The game, in spite of its 1990s-caliber graphics and nearly-impossible to win gameplay, it’s extremely fun and addictive. (It doesn’t hurt that the Advanced Edition has material written by the great Chris Avellone.)

The idea is that you are in command of a starship, and you have make through nine sectors to fight the enemy flagship.  You can get different types of starships, with different crews, weapons and layouts.  I’ve only unlocked one so far, and I’ve never beaten the enemy flagship.  That’s right: I’ve never actually won the game.

It doesn’t matter, though. FTL is a journey, not a destination.  As you travel through the sectors, you never know what will happen.  Sometimes, you’ll get a free laser weapon upgrade, or “scrap” (money).  Other times, you might be lured into a trap by evil aliens.  You never know what you’ll run into.  It really is like playing a season of Star Trek.

Another element I normally hate, but FTL makes enjoyable, is the resource management aspect of things.  I normally am terrible at this,  but in this game you have enough downtime between space battles to think about whether you wan to upgrade lasers, shields, engines, etc.  You’re not rushed in making decisions.

The best part is, it’s available on the iPad, which makes it easy to take with me.  Only downside to that is I end up getting hooked when I really should be doing something else.

There are a few nit-picks–the menus are kind of dense, and on the iPad sometimes I end up pressing a menu button when I want to select a part of the ship.  But it’s not a big deal.  I can hardly wait how much fun it will be when I actually win it.

So, I got the game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a gift.  When it came out years ago, I mentioned I didn’t care for the sword-and sorcery fantasy-setting, which was why I didn’t get it earlier, even as it won tons of Game Of The Year awards.

I still don’t care for the setting, but I will admit that it is so beautiful and atmospheric I can kind of get past that–it is a seriously gorgeous game, and it is really fun just to wander around the huge open-world with no aim, admiring the scenery.

But of course, this is a Bethesda production, so the minute you start to run into anything related to the plot or characters, things get silly.  The major issue so far in the game is that dragons are attacking the land for some reason, even though everyone thought they had been destroyed a long time ago. The opening sequence of the game involves a dragon attack, which is a shock to all the characters around.

Naturally, we learn that the player character is special, being a “dragonborn”, which gives them the power to absorb dragon souls, or something.  And of course there is a prophecy about it all.  (First rule of fantasy: there is always a prophecy. I guess they make their prophets in volume.)

My character has already been in five or six battles with dragons, and won all of them by hitting the dragon with a hammer when it lands ten yards away.  This makes the dragons seem, frankly, stupid. They could win continually if they just stayed up in the air, or perched somewhere I couldn’t get at them with my hammer.  But no, they obligingly allow themselves to be drawn into my kind of fight. It’s the “Cthulhu Problem” all over again.

Then there is the dialogue.  In one town that I rolled into while running away from monsters, there is some mystery that has to do with a house being burned down.  The locals are too afraid to investigate, because they are, according to the “Jarl” (the executive of the town) “too superstitious”.

I wanted to say to the Jarl “Of course they are!  We live in a world where dragons attack people and sorcerers openly summon evil spirits.  Just yesterday I was attacked by a gang of reanimated skeletons.  You’d be an idiot not to be superstitious in this world!”

(The house mystery, by the way, turns out to be the fault of vampires. And the clues to solving it are provided by ghosts. Yeah, I’d say the people are right to be superstitious.)

Also, there is the recurring problem of people saying essentially “well, hello there, heavily-armed stranger who just ran in three seconds ago from the vast wilderness populated by legions of bandits and bloodthirsty monsters. Here are all the secret intrigues and problems of everyone in town.. Please help fix them.”  This problem is to some extent inevitable in a game like this, but I think it could still be handled more deftly.

And then there is the criminal justice system in Skyrim.  It’s set up so the guards will attack you if you commit crimes against the people of a given town.  Neat idea, but I don’t see how it is that stealing a carrot can be punishable by death, whereas hitting the Jarl in the face with a sword can be forgiven if you put the sword down afterwards. (And yes, Fallout: New Vegas suffered from this too, a bit.)

In short, so far it seems to be Fallout 3 all over again, only more so:  awesome scenery and landscape, laughable character interactions, plot and dialogue.  And like Fallout 3, I’m having fun with it.  More than I expected actually.  If they had only gotten Obsidian Entertainment to write it, they would have had another masterpiece on their hands.

10 years after its release, Obsidian Entertainment’s first game still fuels discussion. (Image via Wikipedia-Fair Use)

This time of year is always important for the video game industry, as they move their products into stores for the coming holiday rush.  Games have become one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment, with recent years seeing multi-million dollar launch events that break records once belonging to Hollywood.  Early December is the peak time of year for selling the latest installments in hit franchises to loyal fans.

10 years ago today, the sequel to 2003’s Game Of The Year was released.  And not only was it a sequel to an award-winning instant classic; it was set in the Star Wars universe; George Lucas’s billion-dollar space-faring fantasy whose allure has captivated generations.  Small wonder, with such a pedigree and promise, that LucasArts was eager to ensure it was released in time for the Christmas shoppers–they wanted to be sure to get everything they could out of this highly-anticipated title.

This eagerness caused them to encourage Obsidian Entertainment to push the release of the game forward, even if it meant not having time to finish the ending as originally planned.  The result was that the game, though eagerly bought up by thousands of fans, did not receive quite the same delighted reviews as its predecessor; that it was criticized as incomplete, or incoherent.  Its last few hours in particular were perceived as a rushed muddle of action sequences that arrived at a confusing and unsatisfying conclusion.

And so with this moderate, but not spectacular, success behind it, the “Old Republic” franchise moved on; to be resurrected again, briefly, first as a book and then as an MMORPG to go to war against World of Warcraft–a war which, like the Mandalorian Wars that form the background of KotOR II, is a futile and depressing effort from which no combatant ever returns victorious.

Obsidian Entertainment has moved on as well, most notably to the retro-futuristic Mojave wasteland of Fallout: New Vegas.  Both developer and franchise have gone their separate ways; and though talk of another Obsidian-made Star Wars game surfaces now and again, it seems likely that, given Disney’s purchase of the galaxy far, far away, the darker and more mature tones Obsidian always brings to their stories may not be as welcome.

So what to make of Knights of the Old Republic II, ten years later? Now that the Star Wars film series has been ended and revived yet again, now that Mass Effect, BioWare’s spiritual successor to KotOR I, has run its course, and left its original fans as bitter as Star Wars fans dismayed at the prequel trilogy; where does that leave Obsidian’s strangely rough, brooding tale of the exiled Jedi who travels the galaxy not to defeat an Empire or rescue a princess, but to come to terms with the effects of war on the human psyche?

In spite of the name, canonical Star Wars has rarely been about war. The original film series depicts an insurrection against a tyrannical empire; but this occurs largely in a couple of battles–primarily, the story is about the Skywalker family.  The prequels deal with the run-up to a war in the first two films, and the end of that war in the third, but Lucas shunted the details of the war into comic books.  (A few of which were written by KotOR II creative lead, Chris Avellone.)

The Sith Lords, though, is very much about war, though not in the shallow sense of being a Call of Duty clone with a Star Wars coat of paint. KotOR II is about war in the way that The Deer Hunter is about war–it is exploring the mental and spiritual toll that war takes on everyone it touches.  Or, as Kreia tells the Exile early in the game: “You are the battlefield. And if you fall, the death of the Republic will be such a quiet thing, a whisper, that shall herald the darkness to come.”

Kreia is always the focal point for any discussion of Knights of the Old Republic II, and even the game’s detractors will usually admit that she is one of the greatest characters in the history of video games.  A mysterious old woman, allied neither with the Jedi nor the Sith, yet overwhelmingly knowledgeable about both, she at once fits the Star Wars tradition of the Wise Mentor and violates it utterly. She is a gadfly in the Star Wars universe, questioning everyone and everything; and by the end, the player comes to understand that her rebellion is against the Force itself; the mysterious metaphysical “energy field” which most characters accept with a (sometimes literal) hand-wave, but which she attempts to understand and destroy. Many players find it immensely satisfying to see this brown-cloaked Nietzsche slicing through the pop-philosophy of Lucas’s universe.

Kreia’s occasionally harsh criticism of the player’s actions are emblematic of one of KotOR II‘s distinctive features: namely, that it is not necessarily meant to make the player feel good.  In literature, film and television, it is common for a story to leave the audience sad, or contemplative, or shocked.  But games are meant to entertain; and to write one that does not simply laud the player for their victories over ever more powerful foes, but instead compels them to think about what they are doing–to think of, as Zez Kai-Ell says in the game’s pivotal scene, “all the death you caused to get here”–was a bold move, indeed.

In this way, KotOR II is the forerunner of another one of the most fascinating games released in recent years–2012’s Spec Ops: The Line. Though different in style and in tone, (not to mention that SO:TL is far more polished and graphically advanced) Yager’s dark satire of military shoot-’em-ups is at its core the same tale as KotOR II: that of a soldier who commits an atrocity and is forced to face the consequences.

But while Spec Ops is a sharp, tightly-plotted tale with every element integrated into its gripping narrative, KotOR II is less minutely-engineered, and more filled with oddities and curious plot threads which lead in unexpected directions–or sometimes nowhere at all, thanks to the content having been cut at the eleventh hour.  While this makes the game seem less focused and at times even hard to follow, it also lends it a certain feeling of scope; an epic, vast implied scale that even next-generation open-world RPGs have not matched.  There is a hauntingly depressing quality to the sprawling modules of Citadel station, of gloomy isolation to the corridors of Peragus, and of melancholic splendor to the partially restored surface of Telos, that creates a peculiarly memorable and powerful mood.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about KotOR II‘s plot threads without also discussing The Sith Lords Restoration Project–the fan-made effort to restore the cut content.  While interesting in its own right, and a must-play for any fan of the game, the restored content ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Some of it really is integral to the story, but other parts are relevant only as curiosities, and serve only to add unnecessary complications to the game’s already complex plot.

But even with the missing pieces restored, insofar as possible, KotOR II remains a very odd, misfit game–an exile, like its enigmatic, war-worn protagonist. If the original KotOR was an effort at making a playable version of the summer swashbuckling blockbuster epic that Star Wars helped revive, then KotOR II was an attempt at making a playable version of a more mature, David Lean-ish kind of epic. It is not designed for commercial success and records, but for critical success and acclaim. It is Oscar Bait in a medium that does not receive Oscars.

It is possible that being part of such a widely recognized franchise hurt its chances among the very people most likely to appreciate its many virtues.  Critics searching for video games that prove the medium is a mature art form, not merely an entertaining diversion, can be too quick to dismiss a “mainstream” game in search of something more unusual.  And few entertainment franchises show a more striking disparity between their commercial success and their reputation among critics than Star Wars.

In spite of its less-than-universal acclaim, though, KotOR II has not been completely forgotten by gamers.  In 2010, it was included in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. Kreia still frequently appears on lists like “best video game characters” and “best female antagonists in video games”.  But it has not been considered particularly “influential”, either; certainly, it has not become a household name like, for example, Valve’s Half-Life 2, released three weeks earlier.

Much of the plot of Knights of the Old Republic II is concerned with finding that which has been lost–be it knowledge, people, or places.  As Kreia explains at the end, the real “lost Jedi” the Exile has been searching for have been there all along–“they simply needed a leader and a teacher”.  Similarly, the nightmarish planet of Malachor V–the site of the pivotal battle that is at the heart of the game’s entire plot–had been forgotten by the Sith Lords of times past, before being rediscovered in the Mandalorian Wars and spawning the innumerable stories of victory, heroism, defeat, death and horror that the Jedi Exile encounters on the journey across the galaxy.

And so it is fitting, as the medium matures and gamers and game critics cast about for evidence to prove its legitimacy as an art form, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords sits quietly on the fringes of the game universe like Malachor V; not at the center of attention, perhaps, but still well remembered by all who have seen it firsthand.