Tag Archives: Video Games

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Pathfinder

One of the most jarring elements of Andromeda’s dialogue was how everyone called you Pathfinder all the time. It was ridiculous, as if they’d written the script before coming up with Ryder’s name, so they just used the title and never bothered to search-replace that shit afterward. This would have been halfway acceptable in the Dragon Age canon, because at least in the more rigid formality of a medieval caste system being referred to by title was more common. Yet even with a built in excuse, Dragon Age: Inquisition still didn’t refer to you as Inquisitor nearly as much as Mass Effect: Andromeda called you Pathfinder. It’s true that Shepard is called Commander, but that at least makes sense in the rigid hierarchy of the military and even then it’s not as overused as the Pathfinder moniker. So what the hell, guys? What’s with the title?

I admit I can’t even fathom why anyone thought this was a good idea, but I sure as hell can rip it apart and show you why it’s wrong.

The Pathfinder

Isn’t that god damn special…

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Being constantly referred to as “Pathfinder” was one of the most distracting elements of the game. For one the Andromeda Initiative is a civilian project, if there’s some kind of weird military hierarchy in place it’s never really elaborated on. Plus even if I could get past the idea that everyone in the Andromeda Initiative calls the Pathfinder by their title (which I can’t), I could never get past the fact that even the damn Angara refer to you by that title.

I think the new writing team behind Andromeda should have gone back and played Dragon Age: Origins before writing the dialogue. The character in Dragon Age: Origins has no name and yet the dialogue was written in such a way that it was never a problem. A few characters do refer to you as Warden, notably Loghain himself, but most of the time the dialogue simply finds a way around having to identify you by name.

Which is how conversations work, if you think about it. How often do people actually refer to you by your name when you’re talking to them? Unless you’re greeting or saying goodbye to someone, or trying to get someone’s attention, most of the time our names don’t come up in conversations we have with friends.

Unfortunately the writers of Mass Effect: Andromeda are apparently unfamiliar with how normal humans communicate with one another. Still, even if they couldn’t get around that, they could have at least used the very name they came up with: Ryder. There’s absolutely no excuse why I get referred to as Pathfinder more than Ryder.

Of course even worse than all of that, is how the Pathfinder is treated by the people he meets.

“Wait… you’re the pathfinder! Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s you!” – Pretty much everyone you meet.

Oh you can’t believe it’s me? Here, in the very outpost I founded by painstakingly making sure this planet is fit for human habitation? Really? What the hell is wrong with you?

The Best and Brightest
The best and the brightest of the Andromeda Initiative.

In the best case scenarios, the people you meet often treat you like a child meeting Mickey Mouse on their first trip to Disneyland. In the worst case scenarios, you’re treated like the second coming of Christ and the NPCs would fall to their knees in adoring rapture if someone at Bioware could have been bothered to animate that. Even Shepard, who legitimately saves the galaxy three god damn times in a row isn’t treated with the reverence the Pathfinder receives.

On the Nexus I ran into several “concerned citizens”, nameless NPCs that show up to complain about some decision you made in a threadbare attempt to make choices seem important. Instead of lively debates with these people, or being heckled and threatened by them if I disagreed, all these encounters ended with some variation of “well, you’re the pathfinder, you must know what you’re doing.”

Even worse is how much the administrative arm of the Andromeda Initiative defers to the Pathfinder. I realize that none of the characters were meant to be in charge of the Andromeda Initiative, and were elevated due to the deaths of their superiors, but come on, they’re not helpless either.

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Especially this guy.

Director Tann is clearly made out to be a stereotypical bureaucrat who, while wanting to do good, is also deeply concerned about retaining his influence and power. Then the moment you show up it’s WHOOP here’s a ship, a crew, and a blank check to do whatever the hell you want. Ostensibly the reasoning is that Ryder is at least willing to do “something” about the situation. I could have swallowed that excuse if the narrative had shown us even an inkling that Ryder was qualified to do anything.

At some point the narrative needed to specifically tell us why Ryder is so god damn special. The Pathfinders are supposed to be highly trained specialists, the best of the best. The Turian pathfinder is former Blackwatch and his replacement is an ex-Spectre, the Salarian Pathfinder is a Dalatrass, and the Asari Pathfinder is a Matriarch and her replacement a legendary Asari Commando. Even Alec Ryder was former N7, an alumnus of the same program that gave us Commander Shepard.

Ryder on the other hand… was a glorified toll booth operator. Seriously, the game actually goes out of its way to point this out by having Ryder tell several people all he did in the Milky Way was guard a Mass Effect Relay. Why on Earth is this guy responsible for the survival of the human race?

God save us
When the apocalypse comes, it will fall to this man’s grandchildren to lead us to a new home.

Turns out the only reason Ryder is even on the Pathfinder team at all is good old fashioned nepotism. Ryder has no special skills, no advanced training, not even any applicable life experience to justify Ryder becoming a Pathfinder or even being on the team. But Daddy apparently wanted his kids on board, so to hell with it, his favored child gets to inherit the Pathfinder title like we’re a space-borne feudal kingdom. There are tons of stories where the hero can be a Joe Everyman forced into a situation beyond his skill level.

Unfortunately the narrative isn’t telling one of those stories.

Had Mass Effect: Andromeda told the story an in over his head Ryder struggling to fill his father’s shoes, then many of these problems would be moot. In fact that could have been a fun story, and one that would have made far more sense. Suvi Anwar has dual doctorates in both astrophysics and molecular biology. Two skills that would actually be helpful in the search for a new home, and all she contributes to the narrative is being a love interest for female Ryders.

I think Kallo speaks for all of us.

Yet instead of having to rely on your incredibly credentialed crew, everyone relies on you instead: the new guy with no discernible skills, education, or personality…

Ryder succeeds because the plot demands he succeeds, and that’s why the hero worship he receives from everybody is totally unearned. That’s why being called the Pathfinder was so awful, because all it did was remind us about how the narrative failed to make Ryder a hero.

In short: The Pathfinder is a fraud and it sucks to be kept being reminded of that fact.

More on Mass Effect: Andromeda

All That Matters is the Ending: Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass Effect Andromeda: The Importance of Family

Wrex versus Drack: Nuanced versus Obvious Writing 

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Westworld: Evil Pricks

I was in the process of writing an article about the awesome way Westworld uses its own story to teach people about good storytelling, when this line from last night’s episode reminded me of something I wanted to talk about for a long time.

“Why is it every time you come to this place you turn into such an evil prick?” William to his friend, HBO’s Westworld.

That’s the same question I’ve had about video game culture for quite some time, and I think it’s time I talk about it.

I used to play multiplayer games, specifically a game called Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries. I was a young teenager suffering from crippling depression, I had no friends at school or at home, I was tormented by both depression and the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty, and I felt like I had no future. To make a long story short, Mechwarrior and the friends I made playing it, made my life somewhat bearable. I’m still friends with many of the people I met playing Mechwarrior, even as we come to a mind-boggling 20 years since I’ve played it.

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This was cutting edge when I played it.

It’s those friends I want to talk about, because over the years I’ve watched them become evil pricks in video games. It didn’t start that way. Back when I first began playing, it was just good fun. Oh we made fun of each other, called each other gay, and joked about sex, typical young teenager stuff. But over the years my friends began to change.

The jokes became crueler, more personal. Those who lost competitive games against our team were mercilessly ridiculed, and then called cowards when they didn’t want to play us again, when it was more likely they simply didn’t want to play a bunch of rude petty people. The changes were subtle and at first I didn’t notice them.

Eventually Mechwarrior’s multiplayer died out, it wasn’t exactly the most popular game even in its heyday, and while we tried to play other games together, I lost interest. About ten years later though, a new Mechwarrior title arrived: Mechwarrior Online. Suddenly we were all back together again, and for the first few months it was like old times. And then I began to notice things.

My friends began openly trash talking, calling people faggots, ridiculing new people who asked questions, and following people they didn’t like from game to game specifically to “grief” them. Still, this had become such a normal part of online games that I was able to shrug it off. What I couldn’t shrug off, is what they would say to each other in private.

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I began to love this symbol.

Several of my old friends were now referring to each other as n***ers, and I grimaced every time they said it. Mechwarrior Online was also a free-to-play game featuring microtransactions, where you paid to unlock certain mechs and equipment.

When my cash-strapped friends couldn’t afford these microtransactions or bought only the cheapest available, they called it “Jew.”

“I’m too Jewish to spend that much money.”

“I got the Jew option.”

I was shocked, and I told them: “Oh I’m sorry, apparently I stumbled into Nazi Germany by accident.” The joke was an icebreaker for me to voice my discomfort with using old antisemitic insults.

“You’re being too sensitive, they’re just words.”

They’re just words.

That’s the excuse I heard over and over again for all manner of utterly inexcusable behavior.

Words are powerful. The right words can help someone find hope in a hopeless situation, humor in a tragedy, and joy in a moment of despair. The wrong words can make someone cry, make them feel alone, and even drive them to suicide. My friends didn’t seem to understand that.

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And I was putting up with all this for a game that thought $500.00 qualified as a microtransaction. 

They began insulting me, and not the friendly jibes and insults that people exchange. They told me how bad I was in the past, to stop being bad during games, and stop being so emotional about the toxic conversations they’d have. This poisoned not only my relationship with them, but also in how I perceived our previous relationship. Did they ever actually like me? Was I really that bad in the past?

My friends used to have a nickname for me when I was young “tightpants”, and I never understood the reference. I thought perhaps it was a reference to my weight, which would have been fine because I was constantly joking about that myself. After we began playing Mechwarrior Online they began to refer to me as “tightpants” again, and this time I asked what that meant.

Turns out whenever I spoke on comms, I had a high pitched voice, and apparently I still did. Except now they weren’t so kind about it.

“Jesus, didn’t your balls ever drop?” They once asked me.

That, unfortunately, got to me. I asked my best friend if I had an unnaturally high voice, and she hedged saying she didn’t really notice. Which only convinced me it was true. For a few weeks there I actually tried lowering my tone of voice while talking to people, until I noticed it was just getting me strange looks from people. I’m also not as insecure as I was when I was young, and after a couple weeks I figured that even if I did have a high voice, it wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it. So why worry?

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Besides, Varys has a high voice and he’s bitchin’. 

I continued playing with my friends, because between their occasional bouts of cruelty, we still had a good time together. Then one day we were playing, and having a grand old time. I remember I was laughing so hard my ribs were actually aching. I was trying to talk over my laughing to convey some information about the enemy team when:

“Shut the fuck up!” Someone yelled over the comms.

This person wasn’t one of my friends, but he was a talented gamer, he outranked us all when it came to talent. That alone was enough to let him play with us. It wasn’t a friend yelling at me, but they also did nothing to discourage it.

I disconnected and didn’t talk to them for about six months, until one of them decided to contact me on Skype and ask how I was doing. They asked me what had happened, and I simply joked around with them saying that I’d been asked to shut up and was just following the order to the letter. The reality was even simpler: I play games to have fun and relax. The moment that stops happening, the game is over. Yet I kept coming back to these people, because I’d known them for nearly fifteen years! These were the friends that kept me alive in the darkest period in my life, and I couldn’t simply write them off.

One of my friends, whom I’ll refer to as DV, I counted as among my closest friends.

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If I was Varys, he was definitely Tyrion.

When I was thirteen/fourteen, I was absolutely infatuated with a girl I knew. Being a moronic teenager I lost all perspective and restraint, pronouncing my undying love for a girl I barely knew, which of course scared her into never talking to me again.  That sent me into probably the darkest depression I’ve ever experienced. At the same time DV, who was slightly older in his late teens, was having problems with his girlfriend constantly dumping him and taking him back. We were both hurting and we helped each other through it by talking about our mutual girl problems.

“Oh back from your emo trip? Show me on the doll where [the guy who yelled at me] touched you.” That was how DV greeted me, the man who I once would have done anything for. If I was rich and he needed money, I would have written him a blank check, that’s how deeply I trusted and respected this man. He was one of my closest friends.

And I no longer recognized him.

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I felt like Bruce Willis in Surrogates when he first steps out into a world populated by mechanical dopplegangers. It’s seriously a good movie, and I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t.

The boy who had once been my friend would never have been so casually cruel to me, so indifferent to my feelings. A few weeks later GamerGate happened, and I’ll spare those of you who don’t know about it the indignity of hearing about this stupid event. The cliff notes is that a girl made a video game and one of the reviews may not have been entirely without bias. The dumbest and cruelest elements of the gaming world took this as an invitation to threaten her life, threaten her with rape, post her address, phone number, and work location to everyone on the internet. They made her life a living hell for years. I haven’t looked into it, but I’m sure she probably still gets harassed.

And my friends supported it.

Each

And

Every

One

I have no explanation as to how this happened. Some of my friends were now married, DV even had children, and they were either cheering on the harassers (perhaps even taking part) or tacitly approving of it by offering excuses for turning a woman’s life into a living hell over a video game. When, and how, did my friends turn into these people?

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How do otherwise decent people turn into this guy?

It can’t just be an effect of video games. I ran over crowds of people in Grand Theft Auto; mowed down innocent civilians in Postal; tortured and murdered people in the cruelest ways imaginable in Manhunt. I’ve committed every war crime and atrocity imaginable across twenty years of gaming, but I never turned into the evil pricks my friends became.

It can’t be their social and economic situation. One of my friends was working at a fortune 500 company and would show us pictures of his fancy new cars. Others were working a variety of jobs with varying levels of success. Some were married or had girlfriends. Hell, DV was working as a cop in London with three kids and a wife. If anything, I was the one who fit the stereotype: a fat, single guy who hadn’t had a girlfriend in years, no job and no prospects.

Maybe it was because I had depression, and I knew the kind of damage words could inflict. I know what it’s like to feel like the world is against you, to feel like your fate is suffer constant pain. Did that give me an empathy my friends lacked?

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Were they missing an ingredient in their soul?

I don’t play multiplayer games anymore, because the unfortunate truth is that my friends are the rule. I’m the exception. Go into a multiplayer game and you’ll find a cesspool of insults, negativity, and downright cruelty.

As seen here in a great comic by The Oatmeal

That’s not to say I think all gamers are horrible. In fact I think the vast majority are just like me. The problem is that, like me, they can’t be bothered to deal with assholes when they’re trying to relax. So people leave, like I did. They stick to single-player games, or maybe they find a new hobby all together. Hell maybe that’s why games like Candy Crush are so popular, you don’t have to put up with racist misogynists to play Candy Crush.

So the decent people leave, and that just leaves the assholes in an echochamber of assholes. All they hear is the same toxic drivel they spout, and it becomes normal to them. It becomes a cycle of constant abuse, and it becomes so normal that they don’t even realize their language is abusive. Last time I was in a multiplayer game, someone threatened to rape my sister (I’m an only child).

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My sister.

 

And the eerie thing about it was that he didn’t say it with hate or anger in his voice, it was a reflex. I killed him in a video game, and his immediate instinct was to launch into threats of sexual violence. He said it in such a way that I’m pretty sure if I could have been bothered to confront him about it, he wouldn’t have even comprehended the problem. Just like William’s friend in Westworld, who couldn’t understand why William calls him evil.

I still talk with my friends occasionally on Skype, because when they’re not talking about video games we still have great conversations about politics and life. One of them discovered they had kidney cancer, the same disease that killed my father, and we commiserated over how shitty cancer is. If I ever met them in real life, I’m sure I’d see the great friends that I once knew. But I don’t play with them anymore, because like the man said in Westworld: 

“Why does coming here turn you into such an evil prick?”

I wish I knew the answer to that, and I’m hoping that maybe through Westworld‘s exploration of this frightening transformation people undergo, that maybe I will find the answer.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a thing that exists and that alone is a miracle. After everyone rushed to pile awards at the feet of Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game that was mediocre in every sense of the word, I was beginning to feel like no one gave a damn about stories anymore. After spending nearly a hundred hours in the world of the Witcher 3 though, I can say that this is one of the best RPG’s I’ve ever played. This game is everything Dragon Age Inquisition should have been, everything it promised and failed to deliver, was delivered in spectacular fashion by The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

The open world is mind blowingly huge, and unlike Dragon Age Inquisition, there are no artificial boundaries that turn the maps into a series of corridors. You can cut through the middle of a forest or swim across a lake, just beware what lurks within. You never know when Nekkers will crawl up out of the ground around you, or you’ll be sailing along minding you’re own business or riding along on your faithful steed when a Griffon will swoop down and rip off the top half your torso.

Your choices have real consequences, some that are immediately apparent and others that won’t reveal themselves until you’ve nearly forgotten about the choice you made…only to have the stark consequences slap you in the face. Every single choice yo make has a consequence. At the beginning of the game I met a scholar who wanted to write about the war between Redania and Nilfgaard. I told him to go for it, tell the real story of the war. The next zone I entered, I found that scholar’s corpse dangling from a tree; hanged on suspicion of being a spy.

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But most importantly, the story is one worth experiencing. It’s not about some evil sorcerer trying to conquer the world or finding a plot McGuffin, it’s about characters. There are no pointless side quests in this game and no collecting ram meat for nameless refugees. Everything matters and everything tells you a story, and they’re all worth the telling.

That concludes the spoiler-free portion of my review. If you don’t want the story spoiled for you turn back now, just trust me when I say this is a story you won’t regret having experienced. What Game of Thrones did for television (completely redefining what’s possible for the medium) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does for video games.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the game I’ve been waiting to play all my life.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

A Storytelling Review

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The world of the The Witcher is George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones meets high fantasy. There are elves and dragons and magic, but this is no Tamriel or Middle-Earth. It’s a world of political intrigue and brutal warfare inhabited by monsters drawn from mythology of every culture. Yet of all the monsters you’ll fight in this game, none will be so monstrous as man himself.

The story follows Geralt, the titular Witcher, as he tries to find his old ward Ciri. The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings made reference to Ciri, as well as Geralt’s former lover Yennefer, but they were so vague that none of it seemed all that important. The Witcher 3, however, does an absolutely astounding job with the characterization. Every single character feels alive and you’ll come to love each and every one of them, or love to hate them as the case may be. As you experience Ciri’s life through a series of flashbacks, you’ll become just as eager to find her as Geralt, if only because she’s so incredibly badass.

At first I was afraid this was going to turn into a “princess in the tower” scenario where you have to rescue Ciri from danger. But basically most of the story is spent chasing her because Ciri keeps rescuing herself  before Geralt can even get there.

This is no princess you have to save.
In Polish stories, the Princess rescues you.

Ciri is being pursued by the Wild Hunt, considered a legend by most  and a wraith by those who’ve seen him, but who Geralt and Yennefer know is very real. The Wild Hunt is a huge monstrosity of an elf from a parallel world, who is able to cross between worlds and is desperately seeking a way to save his world from destruction. Of all the characters, the Wild Hunt is the only cipher among them, he’s not really characterized at all and so he comes across as a bit of a stereotypical villain. He’s basically The Witcher 3’s Corypheus, only his boss fight is actually climactic and difficult, so even the weakest link in this game’s story is infinitely stronger than Dragon Age Inquisition’s entire chain. His part in the story is extremely small though, as it should be, and the focus is on the amazing characters you’ll meet.

Most of the game is spent trying to pick up Ciri’s trail and piece together her story from the peoples she’s met along the way. First all this is a brilliant way to do a story in an open world environment, because it lends itself to the exploratory nature of the game’s world. There’s an urgency to finding Ciri, but at the same time it’s not the same urgency as trying to stop an apocalypse. It makes sense that Geralt would choose to take on a monster contract while scouring a village for clues to Ciri’s disappearance. It starts making less sense once you find Ciri, but by that time I’d finished most of the side quests, and the main quest had become so intriguing that I rushed through to the end of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the Witcher universe, that phrase usually means the Emperor has literally taken your head.
In the Witcher universe, that phrase usually means the Emperor has literally taken your head.

The game has an impeccable sense of pacing, for instance after a long arduous journey finding Ciri’s trail and finally deducing that Uma is the key to finding her, you have a chance to get some real work done: Drinking. Along with your fellow Witchers, Lambert and Eskel, you get the opportunity to relax. I can’t tell you how fun this scene was, but after what must have been 20 or 30 hours spent hunting Ciri and witnessing terrible atrocities in that time, this was exactly what I needed. Most importantly you remain in control and in character the entire time. So if you’re playing Geralt as a straight up professional, you have the choice to go to bed early. The game doesn’t just jump to a cutscene, and by doing that you feel completely immersed in the experience.

Now I’ve never developed a taste for alcohol, it just tastes so awful I can’t drink enough to get drunk, so I have no idea what it’s like to get drunk. Thanks to the Witcher 3 though, I feel like I really did get blind drunk and dress up in a frilly frock, because the scene was just that expertly written and presented. I felt like I lived it myself, it was that good. I also nearly broke a rib laughing.

The writers know how to craft a story, because after every major event and heart rending moment, there was moment to balance it out. The Battle of Kaer Morhen was quite possibly one of the most intense battles I’ve ever played in a video game. It’s just a handful of defenders against dozens of the Wild Hunt’s warriors, and yet the small number of combatants did nothing to detract from the pure epicness of the siege. In fact the small number of defenders made me feel like everything I was doing was absolutely vital.

More importantly, I knew the who each of the defenders was. There were no faceless, nameless defenders being killed in a failed attempt to raise the stakes like most video games. No, I knew the face and name of everyone fighting by my side, they we’re people to me, and that made every moment of the siege feel real. My heart was in my throat the entire time. And when Vesemir gave his life to save Ciri, I felt the same rage Ciri felt.

Burn them all, Ciri.
Burn them all, Ciri.

But back onto the point of pacing, directly after this incredible scene, the writer’s wisely decided to give us an opportunity to laugh. This is absolutely vital to any good story, because if it’s all horror and death the audience will grow numb to it and eventually bored of it, that’s something the Witcher 3’s writers understood. After a somber funeral scene and a few days to recuperate, we’re treated to a snowball fight between Ciri and Geralt. Again the incredible people at CDProjekt knew the best way to tell this moment was to leave the player in charge, so it’s you charging around exchanging snowballs with Ciri.

And when you’ve slain the Crones of Crookback Bog and avenged Vesemir by killing the Wild Hunt’s general Imrelith, you share a tender moment of peace while watching the sunrise. That’s the other great thing they did with Ciri’s character, they didn’t fall into the trap of making Ciri a badass by draining her of emotion. She laughs, cries and rages like every other person in the story. She’s human.

And it’s in these interactions with Ciri that Geralt is best revealed. Once again you remain in complete control, you can choose to not have a snowball fight with Ciri and play it cool and distant. But though you may not know it now, even these small moments have huge consequences on the story.

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My friend also played through the game and played almost the exact opposite Geralt, a pure professional who did only what was necessary. He didn’t have a snowball fight with Ciri, he didn’t gleefully smash up Avallac’h’s lab, and he didn’t let Ciri lay to rest Skjall (the man who led Ciri to safety in Skellige). In his ending, Ciri had disappeared and was presumed dead.

In my ending, as my Ciri stared into that strange energy field from which the White Frost was coming, in her mind’s eye flashed all the great moment’s we’d shared throughout the game’s story. The snowball fight, the lab, and the visit to Skjall’s grave where she told the villagers of his heroism. The moments that reminded her that there were things worth living for.

And she came back.

Together again.
Together again.

Again the brilliance of the conclusion is that I still retained control, I was the one who had “Sparrow” inscribed on Ciri’s new silver sword, and rode to meet her at the Inn in White Orchard where this whole story first started. When I talked about emotional closure and the importance of resolution in the Story Arc in my Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition reviews, this is exactly what I was referring to. A few brief moments when we can relax and allow the story to come to an end, like the last trailing notes of a grand symphony.

“Well then, let’s try it out…” – Ciri to Geralt 

Then of course we’re also given the slideshow ending that answered any unanswered questions and gave us resolution to the interesting, yet ultimately unimportant subplots such as the Nilfgaardian invasion. Much like Game of Thrones, The Witcher 3 dangles fascinating political stories for you to focus on that ultimately have nothing to do with the actual plot. This is a story about characters, and the slideshow tells you what became of the people you came to love.

Geralt spent a few months with Ciri teaching her all he knew of the ways of the Witcher, and then they parted ways, with Ciri going on to become a Witcher even more famous than Geralt. And as for Geralt himself?

He retired to Kovir with Triss, taking on occasional monster contracts, but for the most part living out the rest of his life in the peace that had eluded him for so long.

That was my story. My choices in the game led me to an ending that left a warm glow in my heart, and was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a video game. And if you haven’t already, get out there and start your Geralt’s story because no matter how it ends up, you’ll never forget the experience. 

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Hard to believe it all started years ago with a game so rough I can barely believe it got a sequel.

Empathy and Stories

So recently the internet freaked right the fuck out when the promotional trailer for upcoming Tomb Raider game featured Lara Croft escaping an attempted rape. Luckily, the more sensible people on the internet have pointed out that the scene was incredibly powerful.  Susan Arendt, editor and writer at the Escapist, wrote a great piece about the scene that you all need to read:

…to see Lara fighting back is inspirational, and more importantly, it’s relatable.

Relatable: this is a critical component when we’re talking characters in a story, and I’m glad Susan Arendt brought it up during her article. I’ve said before that watching a character change and evolve during a story makes the story infinitely more enjoyable, and a big part of that is because we get to see them overcome adversity and become stronger for it. In the case of this trailer, that adversity is extreme and watching Lara cry and scream as her assailant makes clear overtures to raping her is extremely uncomfortable. Good. 

That’s the whole point, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. You’re supposed to get that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.

This isn’t supposed to easy to watch.

Her reaction to the situation is the same any of us would have in that situation, whether it’s her being impaled after a long fall or her desperate fight to prevent an imminent rape, her reaction illicits a very important reaction from us: empathy. That sick feeling you get when you see someone in pain? When you want to reach out and hug someone because they’re crying? That’s empathy, it’s how we relate to our fellow human beings, and if you can get the reader/viewer/listener to feel empathy for one of your characters, you’ve done your job as a storyteller.

When Marcus Fenix gets shot in Gears of War or when Master Chief survives an atmospheric reentry in Halo 2, their gruff manly-man macho reactions aren’t human. We can neither sympathize nor empathize with someone that doesn’t feel pain like we do, or have normal human emotions, and that means the story carries no emotional weight. When I play through Gears of War or Halo, it’s for the mindless fun of chainsawing aliens in half or blowing up a tank with a giant oversized laser. And you know what? That’s okay. Not every story needs to be a moving emotional piece. Read too many of those and you get burned out, emotionally exhausted. Yet a story that can move us on an emotional level are often the most important kind of story. Especially those stories that explore dark, uncomfortable issues.

According to the statistics, one in every six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. Among college-age girls, that jumps to one-in-four. Those figures are horrific, yet whenever we get a story that tries to explore this issue, we immediately try to hide it back in the dark murky hole it climbed out of. Hear no evil, see no evil. I heard similar objections about A Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which features a brutal, difficult to watch/read rape scene. In both cases I’ve seen and heard people decry it as misogynistic or shamelessly exploitative. Some compare it to the “torture-porn” that permeates most modern horror movies, like Saw and Hostel, but it isn’t. You know why? Because it’s not just showing us a rape or an attempt as the case may be, it’s showing us the characters reacting to a situation.

Yeah…this is totally the same thing as the Tomb Raider trailer.

There’s no gleeful presentation of the actual act, it doesn’t take it’s time showing us every inch of bare flesh it can get away with, nor does it relish in the idea of inflicting pain on the character. Watch Saw or Hostel or any of those other movies that revolve around people in pain. Everything in those movies makes it clear to the audience that it’s the situation your supposed to be enjoying, whatever the character is feeling is irrelevant, they want you to watch people being violently ripped apart. I don’t get that vibe from the Tomb Raider trailer. They’re showing you suffering for what it is:  hard, painful, fast, and terrifying.

Yes, this trailer shows a young girl suffering in some of the most horrible ways imaginable, but more importantly, it shows a young girl overcoming and surviving that suffering. That’s heroic. Marcus Fenix isn’t heroic; he’s a swearing block of unstoppable meat and one liners. He doesn’t feel pain or fear, so there’s nothing heroic about him facing down a horde of locusts. For that matter, the old Lara Croft wasn’t heroic either, she was a typical tough-girl hollywood stereotype. Tough but devoid of emotion. She was a pair of guns attached to a body, something we couldn’t possibly relate to.

Without an obstacle to overcome, without a fear to challenge, and without that pivotal moment where the character conquers both, there’s no story. The fact that this is a female character is even more important, because as Susan Arendt points out:

When we do see a physically capable female, she’s frequently portrayed of being nearly devoid of emotion, as though a woman’s condition was binary – either she feels things, or she can defend herself, but certainly not both.

Granted, we don’t know if Lara will actually be anything more than a stereotype until we play the game, but the woman we see in the trailer is a huge leap forward in terms of how women are treated in stories. Especially video game stories. In fact Tomb Raider and the old Lara Croft are a good example of how females are treated in most game: a pair of breasts for the male audience to oggle. If you meet a female warrior in a fantasy game, she’s most likely wearing a chainmail bikini. Yet with all these walking sex-bots wandering around in most games, it’s the new Tomb Raider that gets stamped as misogynistic.

And this is totally appropriate attire for delving into unknown tombs…

Creator Ron Rosenberg has said that you’ll want to protect Lara, which created a lot of backlash because let’s face it, that does sound like the chauvinistic sexist attitude we’ve all grown to loathe over the years. You need to protect Lara because she’s a woman obviously. However, I think Ron just put it badly, I think what he really meant by this statement was that you’d empathize with Lara. That you will actually feel bad when you see her get hurt, and that you’ll be rooting for her to survive. Not because she’s a woman, but because she’s a character you care about. You’ll be connecting with her character instead of simply watching her character’s…um assets. I’ve never liked the Tomb Raider games, only played the original when it came out and have avoided it ever since. This is the first time I’ve actually been excited about an upcoming Tomb Raider game. It’s also been a long time since I’ve felt empathy for a character in a video game, even if this was only a trailer.

However, this was only a trailer. It is entirely possible that the actual game will turn out to be an exploitative, disgusting shambles that will leave the entire gaming community with a bad taste in their mouths. I’ve been let down by too many promising trailers to assume the game will be any good based only on that trailer. However, I think the fact that the developers were able to make a compelling character experiencing gut-wrenching hardship bodes well for the game, because at least we know they’re trying to make a compelling story. Now I’ve seen a lot of people complaining that using rape to garner sympathy for the character is a cheap tactic, and they’re right, it is. If the sole reason people ever feel sympathy for your character is the fact she was or was almost raped, then you’ve not done a very good job. However, in the trailer at least, we’re shown several of Lara’s characteristics right off the bat.

First of all, she lights the cloth she’s wrapped in on fire in order to escape. That demonstrates not only ingenuity, but bravery as well. Then she’s impaled on a god damn spike, but even then she doesn’t give up. She rips the thing right out her and keeps going, perseverance in the face of adversity. We see here sending out a desperate SOS and starting a feeble fire to keep herself warm. She finds a bow and some arrows, where she hunts a deer so she can eat. All of this is believable drama. Finally we see Lara captured but still sneaking through the camp despite the fact its crawling with bandits and her hands are bound, right there she’s already showing us her willingness to overcome fear and keep going. That’s all before we ever get to the rape attempt.

My god, is that shirt actually covering her breasts? I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lara without her ample cleavage showing.

When we finally do get to that scene, it’s not out of left field either, it’s a realistic scenario for the situation she’s in. If it were just Lara wandering around in the jungle and suddenly being jumped by natives who want to rape her, yeah I’d call bullshit and say it was a shameless, completely out of place maneuver to generate sympathy or shock value. However, in this case, it’s already been established these bandits are almost animalistic in their savagery and on this remote island, probably haven’t seen a woman in years. It’s dark and the guy has caught her alone while she was trying to sneak away. So you’ve got a guy who in all likelihood is mentally unstable, most certainly prone to violent behavior, and alone with a woman who looks defenseless. It isn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to think this is a possible scenario where a rape might happen. And the big thing to remember here is that she fights him off.

Had the scene cut to black, followed by screaming and grunting, then I would call foul. If Lara only managed to escape by tearfully picking up the gun while her rapist is in a post-coital stupor, I would’ve said that was cliched and in bad taste. But none of that happens. She knees the bastard in the groin, by all appearances bites something off his face or neck, and finally puts a bullet through his head in a desperate struggle. Walking the line between victim and hapless loonytoon character is difficult. If the game features nothing but Lara going from rape attempt to rape attempt, then clearly we have a problem. However, going off the story the trailer has told, I’m going to remain cautiously optimistic.

Mass Effect 3 Continued: Clarifications, Corrections and Comments (Also Alliteration)

First of all, a huge thanks to everyone who has made this post such  a success. According to the WordPress tracker I’ve received over 30,000 views over the past three days, as well as hundreds of messages in my email, twitter and comments. When I wrote this article I never thought it would get this much attention, of course I secretly hoped it would and am overjoyed that hope has been fulfilled. That said a lot of comments and emails, while all overwhelmingly positive, did point out a few mistakes I made in the first article. Others have brought up issues with Mass Effect 2 that would be helpful to explain. So let’s get right down to it:

The Logic of the Catalyst

So what little negative feedback  I did get was about my use of the Meme picture, and that I wrongly interpreted the Catalyst’s intentions. And they were entirely correct. In my defense, the Catalyst AI God had so flabbergasted me that, in all honesty, I wasn’t paying that close attention to what he was saying. However, instead of retroactively changing my original post and in the interest of full disclosure, I decided to leave it as is and address this mistake here.

So initially I said that Catalyst was seeking to destroy all organic life in order to save organic life from synthetics, a completely circular argument. However, what the Catalyst actually says is that they destroy advanced organic life in order to keep them from developing synthetic life which would in turn destroy all organic life, regardless of technological advancement. So no, it’s not completely circular, but the logic being employed is still incredibly faulty since the Catalyst is relying on either highly speculative or downright false information to come to its conclusion. The Catalyst asserts that organic life will inevitably create synthetic life, and then further asserts that all synthetic life will eventually try to wipe out organic life. Therefore the Catalyst and his Reapers seek to avert this situation entirely by destroying organic life before it can create the synthetic life that would lead to its own destruction. Let’s try and break this thought process down, and see where it goes wrong:

First of all, the Catalyst says synthetic life will always wipe out organic life. Now this is demonstratively false, not only through evidence such as EDI and the Geth working in harmony with organic life, but through the Catalyst’s own existence! See the Catalyst claims that they seek to preserve organic life in the form of Reapers, and the cycle is meant to protect undeveloped organic life. But the Catalyst is a synthetic life form itself, some kind of sentient AI…so by its reasoning, shouldn’t it be trying to wipe out organics anyway? The very fact that the Catalyst is trying to preserve organic life is evidence against its own argument, since he (a synthetic life form) isn’t trying to wipe out organics. Well, okay he is trying to wipe out organics, but only to advanced organics before another Synthetic does it to all organics. If he’s capable of understanding the value of organic life, why does he think all other synthetics would be unable to come to this conclusion?

The only evidence given in support of the Catalyst’s thinking is anecdotal, he tells us a story of how the Reapers were once organic beings being wiped out by synthetics but became the Reapers to destroy them. He doesn’t really give us anything other than his opinion as to why Synthetics would want to destroy their creator, there was the possibility for some cool dialogue to tell us the Reaper’s perspective on things. Instead we’re just expected to believe him implicitly, which we have no reason to do since he controls the Reapers currently exterminating humanity. By all accounts Shepard has the closet organics have ever come to defeating the Reapers, and now the Catalyst has every reason to lie, but we’re expected to believe him?

“Would this face lie to you?”

And even if we accepted the argument being presented, there are several less complicated ways to go about preventing this situation. Why not have the Reapers move in only on the condition that some synthetic life form actually becomes hostile, and a threat to the galaxy. Or better yet, why not just stick around, greet the new species at the citadel and tell them the dangers of creating synthetic life forms. Act as a galactic police department as it were, and slap down any species attempting to create synthetic life. There are plenty of ways to go about preventing the Synthetic vs Organic holocaust, nearly all of which don’t involve the wholesale slaughter of billions.

Finally, if the Reapers are merely galactic gardeners doing what must be done, why do Sovereign and Harbinger seem to relish the slaughter so much? In Mass Effect 1, Sovereign seemed to think Organic life was inferior and unworthy of his attention…but yet his mission is really to safeguard organic life? Why so hostile if the end result is benevolent? Harbinger was even more psychotic, with several lines in ME2 referring to genetic abnormalities and weaknesses, furthering the conclusion that Reapers view organic life as inferior. So are the Reapers all hapless pawns, not even realizing their own objective is to help organics? If so, that just neuters the menace of the Reaper’s even further.

So yes, the Catalyst’s argument isn’t circular, but that doesn’t make it any less stupid or flawed.

I Don’t Hate Bioware

And they should totally hire me

So the rest of the negative feedback focused on what other people saw as a hate fueled rage against Bioware, so I just want to get out there that I don’t hate Bioware by any stretch of the imagination, nor would I hate anybody or anything simply for ruining a game. My criticism may have been harsh, but it wasn’t meant to sound angry. I chose a somewhat irreverent tone because a purely professional tone would have bored a majority of my readers, and sure I threw in a few expletives for the sake of humor, and maybe poked a little fun at the writers at Bioware, but by no means was it meant to convey contempt. In fact, if I didn’t like Bioware I wouldn’t have gone through all the trouble of writing out a huge step-by-step post about how the ending went wrong.

Some of the comments that I didn’t allow through all usually came down to flame bait or simply screams of rage about my picking apart of the ending. For those people, I’m not censoring all attempts at disagreement, but if you’re going to disagree, at least do it in a respectful and at least partially coherent way. For instance reply #193 in the comments on the article, was extremely well written and didn’t devolve into name calling, while at the same time disagreeing with me entirely.

There was one comment in particular that bothered me, however, that I’d like to address here: “I like how your 2nd edit was basically asking them to hire you when you essentially called them idiots.” 

Well first of all, the comment was only half-joking, I don’t seriously expect an offer from Bioware. My only qualifications are as a writer, and since I have no prior experience working in the gaming industry, it isn’t realistic to expect a job offer. That said, if ever I were to apply to Bioware, I would certainly be using this article as part of my portfolio since it speaks to my ability to reach a large audience and write in an entertaining and informative way.

I believe Bioware, and the people who work there, have the emotional and professional maturity to accept the criticism of their work. If they didn’t, I doubt Bioware would have gotten this far. An essential part of writing, or really any creative endeavor, is to accept criticism of your work and not take it personally. If you start taking every criticism as a personal attack you’ll go absolutely insane. I also don’t believe I called Bioware idiots, and in fact I think I praised them for the story telling in Mass Effect 3 aside from the ending. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone screws up occasionally. Being able to accept that and move on is part of being human. You learn from the mistake and use what you learned to do better in the future. Bioware didn’t get to where it is now by failing to learn this basic lesson.

So to the person who left that comment: Your belief that Bioware would refuse to hire me based on a post criticizing their work does Bioware more disservice than my critique does.

Mass Effect 2: Shadows of Things to Come

A lot of people have said they found Mass Effect 2 equally flawed as a game, and while I agree it was flawed I don’t think it was as badly flawed as Mass Effect 3. However, there were several large flaws that created a ripple effect and led to some of the problems we saw in Mass Effect 3, such as:

The Crucible

So a lot of people wrote in about how they thought the Crucible came right out of left field, and they’re right, it did. Right after Shepard’s escape from Earth, he heads for Mars where some Prothean Archives apparently hold the secret to defeating the Reapers. Why this information was never discovered before is never adequately explained, with Liara making vague references to using the Shadow Broker’s assets to locate this information.  Mass Effect 3 also fails to mention how this Crucible is supposed to work. In fact the lack of information originally had me thinking the Crucible was nothing more than another Reaper ploy, getting all the races to waste valuable time, resources and manpower constructing a useless weapon. I thought that would have been an awesome twist. But okay, it docks with the Citadel and the Catalyst says the Crucible has allowed for new options and gives you your red/blue/green options. There’s never any explanation as to why the Crucible has allowed for new options or what exactly the Crucible does upon firing.

So why does this relate to Mass Effect 2? Well, because if Bioware wanted to introduce the Crucible, the time to do so was in Mass Effect 2. Whereas Mass Effect 1 focused on introducing the Reapers and the threat they posed, Mass Effect 2 should have focused on Shepard’s attempts to find a way to stop them and when I first played Mass Effect 2 I thought it had.

Everyone remember Haestrom?

There was some pretty heavy foreshadowing in this section of Mass Effect 2, taking great pains in letting the player know that Haestrom’s Star was dying faster than it should be. When I originally played the game, I thought this was going to be the galaxy’s salvation. After all, if Dark Energy was capable of killing a Star, surely a Reaper would be even easier to kill. I thought perhaps Mass Effect 3 would focus on the galaxy’s attempt to harness the Dark Energy into a weapon capable of killing the Reapers. Now, the original writer of Mass Effect 2 has come out and said that the original plan was for Dark Energy to be the poltergeist of the universe, and the Reapers were trying to stop its spread. I can see why Bioware abandoned this idea, because it is a bit weird. However, Haestrom itself was a great way to subtly introduce a salvation for the Galaxy. In fact, it would have been so easy for the Crucible to merely be a Dark Energy weapon, that I’m surprised that Bioware didn’t simply run with that idea from the start. The foreshadowing was already in place, and it wouldn’t have been any more ridiculous a solution as having the Crucible found on mars.

Cerberus

Part of the reason I think Mass Effect 2 failed to introduce a plausible way to stop the Reapers, was because it focused too much of its energy on setting up Cerberus as a secondary villain. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Cerberus made a great villain and personally I thought Martin Sheen just plain kicked ass as the Illusive Man. However, Cerberus also goes from being a small, but well organized and funded organization in Mass Effect 1 to a huge conglomerate capable of funding a ridiculously expensive reanimation process right along with providing enough funding for dozens of other operations, not to mention the cost of creating the Normandy SR2. It goes even further in Mass Effect 3, with Cerberus apparently having the infrastructure to possess a highly sophisticated army and fleet capable of launching attacks on multiple targets. This all took took Cerberus from a small, but credible, threat to an enormous larger than life organization that was just as dangerous as the Reapers. The trouble is that the Reapers were such an immense enemy, they demanded a lot of time to properly flesh out, characterize, and eventually, lead us to a solution to defeating them. Unfortunately, if you think about Mass Effect 2, most of the time was spent going about the intricacies of Cerberus’s operations, and only occasionally broken up by fights with the Collectors.

The point is, most of the time was spent doing stuff completely unrelated to stopping the Reapers, whereas in my opinion, that needed to be the focal point of the entire game.

There’s nothing wrong with having another villain in a story, but you cannot give both villains the same amount of screen time with diluting both of them, which is what happens in Mass Effect 3. If you think about it, a lot of Mass Effect 3 is actually about fighting Cerberus rather than the Reapers. In fact the very first thing Shepard does after leaving Earth is go fight Cerberus on Mars, and with every mission focusing on stopping the Reapers, there is another plot critical mission to stop Cerberus.  The missions come in rhythm of fighting Reapers and then Cerberus, the only break in that 1-2 rhythm is the Perseus Veil missions.

Earth Mission – Reapers

Mars Mission – Cerberus

Palaven Mission – Reapers

Sur’Kesh Mission – Cerberus

Tuchanka Mission – Reapers

Citadel Mission – Cerberus

Perseus Veil Missions – Geth, with Reaper finale

Thessia Mission – Reaper and Cerberus

Horizon – Reapers and Cerberus

Cerberus HQ – Cerberus

Earth Finale – Reapers

As you can see, the end result is that no one really gets enough screen time to fully realize their independent plots. Cerberus’s ultimate plan was never really fleshed out, and I was genuinely excited to see where it went after the Horizon mission and saw Cerberus had acquired the ability to disrupt Reaper signals on the ground. It seems like that was an important plot point that would be brought up again in the final battle, but unfortunately it is never mentioned again. When Shepard finally confronts the Illusive Man on the Citadel, he never really reveals how he was planning to control the Reapers, and it was clearly mentioned on Horizon that Cerberus had only learned how to disrupt the Reaper signal to Husks and related fodder, they were still unable to disrupt a full-fledged Reaper. Now we can chalk that up to the Illusive Man being indoctrinated, but in the end, it seems like Cerberus’s story line just petered out. In the end it was as if Cerberus served not other function than to merely slow down the player from completing the story line too quickly…it felt like filler.

By comparison, not nearly enough time was given to the Reapers and the main plot line: how to stop them. Harbinger, who played a significant role in Mass Effect 2, isn’t actually seen until the finale of the game…and even then he doesn’t speak or do anything other than blast Shepard with his Beam. The Crucible, and how it works, is subsequently never revealed. In the end it felt like two unfinished plot lines that, instead of getting tied up, frayed into a thousand different fibers at the end, like a rope pulled too taut.

Hi…does anyone remember me?
(I’m so lonely)

Now I can see why they did this from a game play side of it, after all, constantly fighting the Reapers would eventually get boring and Cerberus presents the player a new set of challenges to keep them interested. However, I think Cerberus needed to play a much smaller part, and in fact I think Cerberus was done perfectly in Mass Effect 1. It was a small, but highly organized and well funded organization that was constantly on Shepard’s radar, and yet was ultimately insignificant compared to Saren and the Reapers. You could go through the entire plot of Mass Effect without ever doing a Cerberus mission, and that’s how they should have kept it.  Purely optional missions to help flesh out the world, and give the player something interesting to do if they got bored fighting the same enemies.

In the end, however, Mass Effect 3 was a result of it collapsing under its own weight by trying to carry two huge villains at the same time. In my opinion, Cerberus should have continued being a small, optional threat you had to deal with on the side but otherwise having no actual impact on the main plot. However, there was just so much time invested into fleshing out Cerberus in Mass Effect 2, that it was almost unavoidable that they would be included in the main plot.