"Prey" cover
“Prey” cover. Image via Wikipedia.

I think it was somewhere in the arboretum of the TranStar corporation’s Talos I space station, about six hours into Prey, that I started to realize what was wrong.

Something had been gnawing at me; a vague sense of discomfort in the back of my mind.  It wasn’t the apprehension that every object in every room might turn out to be an alien mimic waiting to ambush me, nor was it the thought that at any minute the possessed remains of crew members might teleport in to attack me with psychic energy blasts.

No, these things I had expected, and indeed become accustomed to.

In fact, that was the problem.  What was really bothering me was that none of it was all that scary.

Prey sounds like a game almost engineered to my personal taste.  It’s a horror RPG in which you play as Morgan Yu, a scientist on a space station overtaken by mysterious aliens called “the Typhon”.  As you explore the station and fight the Typhon, you gradually uncover the backstory by reading logs of deceased crew members, and talking with the few survivors. All the while, you must overcome obstacles placed by Morgan’s brother, Alex–the scientist who seems to be responsible for the disaster.

Some of the Typhon, called “mimics”, have the ability to take any form, including such innocuous items as coffee mugs and even health kits and other useful items. So, you never know what might turn into a monster and attack as you creep through the dark, eerie corridors.

In addition to the usual video game weapons–pistols, shotguns, etc.–Morgan can use an experimental technology called “neuromods”, which grant the user all sorts of abilities, but can erase the user’s memory–a significant point, as it accounts for why Morgan has no memory of events that occurred before the beginning of the game. (This is explained by a character named January–a robot assistant who holds Morgan’s memories and acts as a guide in the early stages of the game.)

Prey has multiple paths and endings, and many different ways of accomplishing your objectives–a style of gameplay I strongly prefer.  And to top it all off, Chris Avellone, perhaps the greatest game designer ever, helped write it.

It’s like a hybrid of Doom 3 and Deus Ex (two games that I love), along with many other influences.  It also evokes the mining station episode that starts off my all-time favorite game, Avellone’s Knights of the Old Republic II.

With all this going for it, I was a bit dismayed by how weak the first act was.

Not that it’s bad.  It’s good enough.  Especially the opening 20 minutes or so; which are very disconcerting and disturbing. Not since Spec Ops: The Line has a game so successfully pulled the rug out from under me. But I’ll talk more about that later. (This is probably a good time to mention I’m going to spoil the game’s plot here, so don’t proceed any further if you want to play it without knowing what happens.)

I reference Spec Ops because it’s another favorite game of mine–again, Prey mimics elements from many of the classics. There are elements of Bioshock (takes place in a remote futuristic art-deco station) Half-Life, (the mimics look like headcrabs) Alan Wake (the shadowy phantoms murmur phrases spoken by the victims they now possess) and Dishonored. (This is only to be expected, since both are made by Arkane studios.) Indeed, there’s so much mimicry here, it makes the clever “not a mimic” marketing slogan seem rather ironic.

And yet… it doesn’t quite work as well as it should in the the beginning. And by “the beginning”, I mean approximately the first five hours after the opening sequence.

It’s like how all-star teams in sports don’t necessarily play up to the potential of all the great players on the roster.  This is usually because all-star teams don’t have time to develop chemistry–the sense of timing that makes a team function well as a unit.

Something similar is going on with Prey: it is built up of some very excellent parts, but they don’t always work together to create a coherent whole.

It’s not always clear what Prey is supposed to be. A lot of it looks like survival horror, but it’s not particularly scary. (One exception is an enemy called the Poltergeist. It’s invisible and causes all sorts of disruptions. Very effective, especially the first time it happens.)

Portrait of JFK from alternate future game "Prey"
Portrait from “Prey”

Prey‘s setting is also somewhat puzzling. It’s set in an alternate future in which John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, and the U.S. and Soviets worked together on space exploration.  But it’s not clear to me why this background was needed for the story. It felt like a gimmick.

Then there are the graphics.  They are good, but strangely cartoonish, which makes it hard to take anything seriously. I had this same problem with Bioshock and Dishonored as well. The people in these games all have soft, caricatured features, which creates a feeling of unreality.

I’m not sure why this particular style bothers me more than the outdated graphics of older games like Deus Ex or even Doom 3, but somehow it does

It is probably true that if I weren’t so well-versed in the simulated experience of exploring a creepy station overrun by monsters, the beginning of Prey might have been a lot more intriguing. If you haven’t played Doom 3 or Bioshock or System Shock 2 or Half-Life or Dead Space or the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Dead Money or… well, if you haven’t played many survival/horror games, everything in Prey will be new and interesting.

To get back to the Arboretum, where I first began to have thoughts of just giving up on Prey–well, I didn’t. I pressed on, and was soon rewarded for my efforts.  Because not too long after this, I started to run into some survivors with whom I could actually interact, as opposed to just constantly sneaking around in the dark, trying to alternately fight and run away from the Typhon.

The game really picks up once you start to meet some of the other characters. One suspects there must be a behind-the-scenes reason for this…

Helping officer Sarah Elazar and her men prepare for and then win a battle against Typhon forces massed in a cargo bay was the first really satisfying part of the game, and meeting some characters I cared about (who weren’t already dead) made me feel much more invested in the plot.

Even better were the quests involving Mikhaila Ilyushin. She guides you through a section of the station, and eventually you have the opportunity to get her some life-saving medicine.  It’s an optional quest, but really satisfying to complete.

See what I mean about the graphics?
Best character in the game.

Mikhaila was my favorite character in the game, because the quests relating to her are both rewarding and emotionally “true”. After returning to Morgan’s office, she asks you to find data about her father that is stored in the station’s archives. On finding it, it reveals that Morgan ordered her father’s death. You have the choice of whether to tell her about this, or destroy the evidence. In the end, telling her is ultimately the right choice. “Honesty is the best policy…”

Between her and the security personnel in the cargo bay,  I started to care about the story in a way I hadn’t for the first six hours or so. And so I found myself once again heading to the arboretum to meet with Alex, and hear his explanation for the whole thing.

On reaching his office, you learn that in fact everything he’s been doing has been to fulfill orders previously given to him by… you.  Alex isn’t evil; he’s just doing what he believed the “real” Morgan would have wanted him to do, before neuromods and other experiments changed his sibling into someone he no longer recognizes.

This was a very powerful plot twist, because the game does a good job of making you hate Alex in the beginning, and then does an equally good job of making you want to work with him. The switch is accomplished very economically, and does not feel at all forced or contrived.

Alex explains that the key to understanding the Typhon has to do with the “coral”–a mysterious luminescent substance they have woven throughout the station as they have taken it over. After you study it further, it confirms what Alex claims Morgan initially suspected: the coral is a neural network.

For me, this development happened at about the 15 hour mark, and I was really getting into the game at this point. I returned to the arboretum (Alex’s office is there) to bring back the data I had collected and upload it for analysis. This, I figured, would trigger the endgame sequence.

But no–the upload gets interrupted by a surprise attack from a mercenary named Walther Dahl. He’s been sent by the TranStar corporation to steal back all the data and kill everyone on the station.

He’s also the most annoying character in the entire game. He blows in at the eleventh hour with his army of military robots, totally disrupting the pace of the narrative. He may have been referenced earlier in the story–although I sure don’t remember it–but certainly not in any way that counts as meaningful foreshadowing. My reaction to his arrival wasn’t “oh, wow; it’s that Walther Dahl guy I heard about earlier”, but instead “who the hell are you?”

It reminded me of Stephen Leacock’s mockery of a common trope in detective novels that explains the crime by concluding: “It was the work of one of the most audacious criminals ever heard of (except that the reader never heard of him till this second)”.

Even worse, Dahl undercuts the main enemy of the game, the Typhon. It’s like in Mass Effect 2 and especially 3, when Cerberus and the Illusive Man kept getting in the way of fighting the Reapers.

I actually found myself rooting for and counting on the Typhon to get rid of Dahl’s inexplicable army of robots for me.  This is detrimental to the plot in two different ways: first, it makes you feel sympathy for what had previously been an unambiguous enemy; and second, it undercuts the Typhon’s effectiveness–they can’t be that powerful, if Dahl was able to show up and take over the station in the space of about five minutes.

This whole sequence was undoubtedly the weakest point of the game, and it took about two hours to resolve. (In fairness, defeating Dahl was extremely satisfying, but not so much as to justify his existence in the first place.)

So now, I found myself going back to the arboretum yet again, to do the same thing I had been about to do two hours before, prior to the pointless Dahl episode. And that wasn’t even the worst thing about it–but I’ll get to that later.

There had been several points throughout the game where it seemed like they were just throwing obstacles at me to  make everything as hard as possible. There were quests that went something like this:

  1. “Go get some files from a computer on the other side of the station.”
  2. <Goes there, fighting and hiding from Typhon all the way>
  3. “Oh, the door is broken. You have to get parts to fix it.”
  4. <Gets parts>
  5. “Shoot, the power’s out. Backtrack and turn it on.”
  6. <Goes back; fights more Typhon>
  7. “Hey, the power is out because the reactor is broken. Fix it.”
  8. <Rebuilds nuclear reactor>
  9. “What were we doing again?”

This had been frustrating enough, but the Dahl interruption was just too much.  I prefer games in which each objective involves uncovering new information that advances the plot, rather than have most of the objectives be about doing busywork that eventually uncovers information that advances the plot. It felt at times like they were just dragging it out. And this turned out to be a big problem, but again, more about that later.

Once the coral data is analyzed, Alex explains that the coral is used by the Typhon to transmit a signal.  Morgan, he continues, had suspected this from the beginning and had designed a device that could destroy the Typhon by taking over the neural network.  He suggests using this, instead of following January’s suggestion of activating the station’s self-destruct mechanism.

At this point, a massive Typhon creature appears from deep space and begins to consume the entire station. Morgan then has to choose between whether to destroy the station and the Typhon along with it, or activate the device and destroy the Typhon but keep all the research and technology the team on Talos I has developed.

I chose the latter. I’m always a big one for keeping knowledge–same reason I always leave the Collector base intact at the end of Mass Effect 2. It never hurts to have more technology at your disposal; you can always choose not to use it if you don’t want to.

In either ending, the Typhon are destroyed, and the credits roll. But Prey still has one final twist in store. And it’s significant enough that even though I warned you about spoilers earlier, I’m putting it after the page break…

(more…)

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.

Great article by Rosie Cima about why Hollywood movies tend to have an orange and blue color palette: http://priceonomics.com/why-every-movie-looks-sort-of-orange-and-blue/

I first noticed this with video games, when Shamus Young pointed out how Mass Effect 3 overused this palette.  Once you notice it, you realize it’s everywhere and it makes it hard to watch modern movies. 

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.

Warren Spector wrote a great post the other week asking about how video games can contribute to discussions of serious issues.  As an example of what he was talking about, he cited the issue of “smart weapons”, especially military drones  His larger point was about the ways in which games could be used to address such issues.

It so happens that I have for some time now been thinking about doing a post about a similar issue and its treatment in video games.  Specifically, the issue of “transhumanism“, and how it is explored in two major video game series: Deus Ex and Mass Effect.

Deus Ex is appropriate to start with, since the first game in the series was created by Mr. Spector himself.  It dealt with the ethical and philosophical questions raised by Artificial Intelligences and “upgrades” to human beings, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution continues and builds upon that idea.

The theme of DX:HR is how humanity reacts to the development of augmentations that grant superhuman abilities.  There are people like David Sarif who are all for it, and people like William Taggart who oppose it.  More than just that, though; as Jensen wanders the streets of Detroit and Hengsha, all the unnamed townspeople give their opinions on the augmentations, and their reactions to Jensen, be they admiring or horrified.

Both Human Revolution and the original Deus Ex make reference to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, evoking the concept of people being unable to control the technology that they have created.  At the end of Deus Ex,  J.C. Denton has the choice to merge with an Artificial Intelligence, and become a god-like super-intelligence that rules the world.

In fact, I might say that Deus Ex explores the concept of transhumanism on a macro scale, and Human Revolution explores it on a micro one.  Deus Ex deals with the consequences for the world at large of sophisticated A.I.s, and whether or not the players believes that the world can be left at the mercy of such things.  In this way, it perfectly satisfies what its creator alludes to in his post: it gives the players the choice, and lets them ponder the question: is it better to be governed by an omnipotent machine-god, or to plunge the world into another Dark Age?

If you are familiar with the writings of Ray Kurzweil, the Helios ending of Deus Ex is basically Kurzweil’s idea of the Singularity adapted for dramatic purposes.  You might argue that this is an unfair choice, but it dramatizes the idea that certain technologies, once created, lead inexorably on a certain path.

Human Revolution is a more personal story, with fewer far-reaching decisions.  (Presumably because, as a prequel, it had to arrive at a point from which Deus Ex could begin.)  It focuses more on what augmentations do to a person’s mind.  Jensen famously says “I never asked for this”, and the game shows his initial disgust at his mechanical augmentations.  One neat thing is how the game–deliberately, I think–puts its story somewhat at odds with its mechanics.  You will hear a lot of talk about how evil augmentations are, but at the same time, you’ll want to get more augs each time you gain Praxis points!

These themes are highly relevant to the controversial ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, as well.  I’ve discussed why these endings are extremely weak dramatically elsewhere on this blog, but here I will argue that the themes underlying the clumsily-written ending are actually better than is widely acknowledged.

When the Catalyst tells Shepard that “the created will always rebel against their creators”, it is echoing a theme that was introduced in Mass Effect 2, with the repeated motif of children rebelling against their parents, which I touched on here.  You could even argue that Shepard embodies this theme, since he rebels against Cerberus, who in a sense “created” him when they revivified him in Mass Effect 2.

This theme is closely related to the organics vs. synthetics conflict that the Catalyst alludes to.  The two ideas are united by the Geth/Quarian conflict, which can be resolved in a way that undercuts the Catalyst’s own argument.  However, I will say this that the Catalyst’s logic isn’t as dreadful as people say; it’s just poorly explained.

The justification for the Reaper cycle is that Reapers must wipe out advanced organic life before it creates synthetic life that wipes out all organic life.  As somebody once pointed out, this is similar to the concept of a “controlled burn“;  where you burn off some of the excess leaves and deadwood to prevent a massive fire from developing later.  Remember, the problem the Catalyst is supposedly preventing is “chaos”, so if the problem can be managed in an orderly fashion, its parameters are met.  It is a galactic forest ranger.

The three choices Shepard is offered at the end–destroy the Reapers, control the Reapers, and synthesize all organic life with all synthetic life–are, as many have pointed out, very similar to the Deus Ex endings. I would argue that the tone of the ME endings, especially with the Extended Cut, is far more optimistic than Deus Ex.  This may sound odd, but ultimately it is implied that the galaxy will rebuild in all but the “Reject” ending, and even there some hope is offered, in that Liara’s time capsule will make a difference in the next cycle.

As far as a philosophical exercise, Mass Effect succeeds to some extent at presenting the players with a question to force them to decide how they would handle it.  In this one respect, it actually provides a better context for the set of choices than Deus Ex,  in that the rest of the series has presented characters the players care about, giving them a reason to think hard about the choice.

As interesting as both series are, I think both fail to explore the theme as thoroughly as they might.  Deus Ex fails because much of the story is about the vast, globe-spanning conspiracy controlling events.  While that makes for a brilliant story in its own right, it has nothing to do with transhumanism or artificial intelligence.  Human Revolution was a bit better at focusing on the theme, but the player’s choice ultimately felt meaningless.  Even if you side with Taggart or destroy Panchea, you know the augmentation program will go forward.

Mass Effect fails because, well, obvious reasons having to do with the ending.  Specifically, though, it fails because of how it handles the philosophical differences in the endings.  It doesn’t really give the player a sense of what the endings mean, either before or after choosing them.

The larger point, though, is that video games are a good medium for exploring themes of  transhumanism, because playing them involves the interaction between human and machine intelligence, which means the mechanics are primed to complement a story about that concept. Mass Effect 3 actually makes reference to this fact, in the section where Shepard enters the Geth collective via a virtual Tron-esque interface, and both Human Revolution, and Mass Effect 3 end with the player characters standing at a machine interface that allows them to choose the ending they want.  Weak as this is dramatically, it is reinforced by the nature of gaming itself.

Warren Spector recently wrote an excellent article stating that what video games need to legitimize them as a medium is a Roger Ebert-like figure whose criticism will help interest the general public in gaming.

I’ve often wondered about this myself, but I’ve ultimately concluded that it’s getting the order wrong.  I think the popularity of gaming will lead to the emergence of such critics and not the other way about.  I think the reason for this is that what popular criticism requires to exist is a sufficiently rare set of qualities that you need a large pool to choose from.

Now, that said, I think having a “Roger Ebert of gaming” would be awesome.  In fact, that’s kind of what I dream of becoming whenever I write a gaming post.  Not that I ever will be.  I think the thing few people realize about criticism is that the key quality it takes to be a good critic of anything is to be a good writer.  It’s not enough to know your subject matter and be able to come with interesting analyses of it; you need to be able to do it concisely, intelligently and above all else, cleverly.

Let me cite one of my favorite literary criticism essays: Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“.  I suggest you read the whole thing–it’s short–but to encapsulate what makes it great, let me explain that I have never read any Fenimore Cooper books, and yet I enjoy the essay tremendously.  For all I know, Twain’s criticism is completely unfair.  But I enjoy the essay anyway.  Think about that: I have no idea what these books are about except for what Twain mentions, but his evisceration of them is fun to read.

So consider that the most important element of criticism isn’t about what you’re criticizing or what you’re saying about it; it’s about how you phrase it.  If you can be witty in your reviews–that’s the real key, I think.   Not that there isn’t plenty of wit in game criticism, but the issue with game criticism is that the humor too often comes from “in-jokes”, or references to other games.  It’s not accessible to the layman.

In contrast, take this quote from Ebert’s review of the movie Armageddon: “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”  I’ve never seen that movie; so I don’t know if I agree or not.  But it’s a great quote.  He could have said it about any bad movie, though; it has nothing to do with the subject of the movie.  It’s just a generally funny line.

I’m not saying that’s all Ebert was about–he had truly interesting ideas about movies, too.  But that’s not what made him famous.  What made him famous was that he was a very witty writer.

All we need then is somebody who loves video games, has interesting things to say about them, and is an extremely witty writer to boot.  So where is that guy?  Everybody who writes about games, including myself, wants to be that guy, but no one yet has succeeded.

Here’s another question: where’s the new Roger Ebert of movies, now that the original Roger Ebert has passed away?  I don’t know that there is a comparable figure in movie criticism.  Spector apparently couldn’t think of one either, or he would have used that person’s name.  He pretty much said on his blog that Ebert was the most famous movie critic he could think of for an example.

I have a theory: criticism in general is not as good nowadays.  People just are not as good at it, possibly because the internet makes it easier to seek out criticism targeted at their specific interests.  Criticism is Balkanized now, unlike in Ebert’s heyday, when there was one movie critic in the city paper, and he had to write to appeal to the widest audience he could.

This theory could be wrong–I don’t like it because it’s a little simplistic, “things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be” kind of thinking,  but it does account for why there is no Ebert of gaming.

NOTE: Spector’s article has generated a lot of reaction–Shamus Young and Chris Franklin, among others–have written posts in response to it that make some good points about the issue. Young makes basically the same point I did about the need for game critics who can be read by non-gamers.

So, to continue in this vein of highly improbable reinterpretations of things that I am so fond of, let me tell you about another wacky idea I cooked up.

It all started when I was watching this Mass Effect 3 episode of the game commentary show “Spoiler Warning”, and one of the hosts, Josh, mentioned that Cerberus can “still manage to succeed despite being terrible at everything”. (He says it at about the 2:00 minute mark):

Hmmm.  Is there any other organization you can think of that still succeeds, despite making lots of bad decisions and being widely despised?  An organization which, when seemingly being beaten, simply uses its seemingly-inexhaustible resources to take the advantage?

(more…)

Here’s an interesting article describing an event in which two great filmmakers, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, forecast radical changes in the movie industry.  The bit that stood out for me:

Lucas and Spielberg also spoke of vast differences between filmmaking and video games because the latter hasn’t been able to tell stories and make consumers care about the characters.

There are two possibilities here:

  1. This is an attempt to paraphrase that oversimplifies, and consequently loses the sense of what they said.
  2. Lucas and Spielberg don’t know what they’re talking about.

If they actually said anything remotely like that, they simply have not been paying attention.  Video games have been telling stories since the beginning.  “Super Mario Bros.” is the story of a man trying to rescue a princess from a giant turtle.  It’s not a great story, you may say, but it’s a story all the same.  And there have been films that were just as bad (if not worse) in the story department...

As for this “hasn’t been able to make consumers care about characters” business, that’s even more of a laugh.  I like Lucas’s Star Wars films quite a bit, but Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II can put any character Lucas ever wrote to shame. BioWare had to actually go back and try to “fix” the ending to one of their games because fans were so anxious to know what happened to their favorite characters.

Perhaps their confusion can be explained by the remainder of the paragraph from the same story:

Which isn’t to say [games and movies] aren’t connected. Spielberg, in fact, has teamed with Microsoft to make a “TV” show for Xbox 360 based on the game Halo and he is making a movie based on the Electronic Arts game Need for Speed.

Well, there’s the problem.  If those two titles are what they think video games are like, I can see they would have the wrong idea.

Here’s what’s ironic about this: these two cinema legends are saying there are huge problems with the movie industry, and then going on to exemplify one of the problems themselves: arrogance.

It’s even worse, though, because it’s not just the movie industry that thinks games can’t compete in terms of story and characters–it’s the game industry, as well!  The powerful entities in it, at least.  And to complete the irony, the most vapid, characterless, hackneyed, special effects-driven games are churned out in the name of being “cinematic”!

I hope gaming doesn’t get ruined trying to emulate the methods of an “imploding” industry.

I’ve been wanting to do another one of these after I had so much fun with my political and football ones.

 

Mass Effect (series)

The Reapers are bad

Because they will kill us all–

So let’s kill ourselves.

Fallout: New Vegas

Why would you gamble

In a wrecked economy

Based on bottle caps?

Half-Life 2

1984

With gravity guns, crowbars–

And more depressing.

Metal Gear Solid

Two days to prevent

A nuclear disaster.

But let’s chat some first.

Halo (series)

Generic soldiers

Fighting generic monsters.

The Fans will love it!

Call of Duty (series)

Generic soldiers

Fighting with one another.

A Halo killer!

Deus Ex

A million choices;

Branching paths and decisions;

All destroy the world.

Doom 3

U.A.C. has guns,

Teleporters and ships, but

“No duct tape on Mars.”

Perfect Dark

A female James Bond

To be the next Goldeneye?

More like Moonraker.

Knights of the Old Republic II

Take away the Force

And Jedi are incomplete.

Much like the ending.

Feel free to add your own in the comments.

I see  that Electronic Arts has gotten the exclusive rights to Star Wars video games.  I remember another thing EA got exclusive rights to, and that didn’t work out so great…  but we’ll see.

I’m not saying this is necessarily bad news–for one thing, if I understand correctly, EA can still publish games that other developers make. To my mind, it could be good or bad.

I’ve been thinking about the Mass Effect series again, and how weirdly uneven it was for a trilogy that was supposedly mapped out in advance.  The first Mass Effect had a very interesting story, but the gameplay was a little wonky, at least to people like me who aren’t really familiar with RPG mechanics.  Combat in ME1 feels very awkward.

Then Mass Effect 2 streamlined the combat, making it much more like the popular Gears of War series.  The hardcore RPG people may disagree, but I think this made for a superior game, even if they had to mess with some established background information of the setting to make it work.  ME 2 is still my favorite in the series, even though parts of the story don’t make sense.  And I think it’s interesting that EA acquired BioWare between ME1 and 2, and in the latter, the game suddenly became much more  accessible to the average gamer.

But then you have Mass Effect 3, which had many well-known problems with its infamously unsatisfying endingBioWare insists that they had total creative control, so you can’t blame EA for the ending.  (Then again, the Illusive Man insisted he had control of the Reapers, too…) But in addition to all the in-game problems, it was criticized for forcing players to buy a bunch of additional stuff in order to get the “full” ending.  Again, it’s just interesting to me that there was no comparable marketing scheme for, say, BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic (2003) or Jade Empire (2005) or even the first Mass Effect (2007).

So, I think we have a pretty good roadmap already for what is going to happen to a beloved science-fiction franchise whose video games department is now being run by EA.  But wait!  There’s more!

Everyone thinks that this means Star Wars game will become increasingly Call of Duty-like, and you will see a lot of polished but simplistic games.  Pretty much everyone feels that the  Battlefront series or something like it will be making a comeback. And why not?  If EA can make something Star Wars themed that can compete with the highest-grossing game series in history, why wouldn’t they?

This isn’t so bad, really.  Battlefront was a fun game.  It’s just that I think everyone feels EA is just too big, and when a company gets that big, it’s hard for them to function the right way.  They can keep making money off of AAA blockbuster games for a while yet, but they can’t really innovate, because that involves risk. Which means we probably won’t be seeing any deep, philosophical,  Star Wars RPGs like the great Knights of the Old Republic II anytime soon.

But more than that, there are indications that EA is just generally mismanaged.  As Shamus Young says in that article, they are not running their company as well as they might, just from a pure business point of view.  However, I think their model is sustainable for the near-term future.  Star Wars has been popular since the 1970s–people will continue to buy any heavily-hyped game that ties with that franchise for a few more years.  This is where we see the similarity to EA’s NFL license monopoly–the NFL has been popular since the 1960s, and for those who play sports games, it’s the only show in town.

The difference, of course, is that the NFL, while not technically a monopoly is the only widely-watched pro football league in America. Star Wars is not the only major science-fiction franchise. There are still more of those to compete with Star Wars games.

That’s why I think the monopoly on Star Wars has a greater chance of blowing up in EA’s face than their NFL  monopoly–the latter is essentially a monopoly on a near-monopoly, because the NFL controls a huge amount of market share in the market for football.  EA is building off of that. But it’s different with the market for sci-fi games–it’s more of an oligopoly, with just a few competitors: Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on.

If we assume that consumers are indifferent as to which science-fiction franchise’s video games they choose to spend money on, this means there is still an element of competition in the market.  But, of course, not all consumers are not indifferent–they have preferences for franchises.  So, I want Star Wars to have the better video games, among other reasons, to show up the Trekkies. (Not that I dislike Star Trek, but still.) Branding is always very important in oligopolies.

The point is, this arrangement coupled with EA’s past problems with understanding different markets as mentioned in the Shamus Young article linked above and… well, the title of this post says it all.