“This is it, isn’t it?”

Mass Effect 3 by Bioware (EA, 2012)

Nearly five years ago I was feeling lonely and decided to make a pretty big commitment. The girlfriend was gone, off visiting her family, and I was working an awful job that, while giving me the illusion of being “flush with cash,” was wearing me down.[1] I decided, then, that I needed to buy an X-Box 360 so that I could play Mass Effect (which was coming out in a few short weeks). I’d played virtually every Bioware game to date (c. 2007) and loved them all.[2] This made ME a deeply appealing game; it was the first Bioware game with new generation graphics; they’d guaranteed it would be a trilogy; the game was the beginning of a brand new and interesting looking franchise. The “problem” was that I didn’t have a computer that could run the eventual PC release. This made buying a 360 my only option to play the game.

And boy did I play it. Despite a few big flaws (awful inventory system, uneven plotting, the MAKO) and the fact that I am terrible at shooters, I loved the original Mass Effect. I was at the Charles Town, WV Gamespot at 10am the day the game was released and playing it devoured my life for over a week.[3]  The story was captivating (especially those final few hours racing to the Conduit and into the Citadel) and the characters captivating (Garrus! Wrex! Ashley! Liara!). For a derivative sci-fi universe, the world of Mass Effect was compelling – humanity was important but not dominant, political struggle between different alien races was treated in fresh ways, the alien groups were diverse. The dialogue wheel was a revolution; that ME had a fully-voiced protagonist while still maintaining player control over dialogue was simply amazing.  That  an edge that few games at the time had. So much of what Bioware did in ME has become the “common sense” of more recent Bioware games and Western RPGs that it makes it difficult to recapture the exhilaration of playing something so new and refreshing.

More important than any of that, though, was the promise that there would be two more games just like it.

To say, then, that I was excited for Mass Effect 2 would be an understatement. I bought a wireless adaptor for my 360 in order to take advantage of that’s games DLC, I was there for the midnight release at the Fairfax, VA Gamespot, and I took the release day off work and graduate school in order to devote an entire day to the game.[4] That I was in a long distance relationship allowed my life, once again, to be devoured by playing the game.[5] ME2 was an amazing experience and despite more than few flaws (throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it came to clunky RPG elements from ME1, for example) it was what everyone one expects from a sequel: a more refined and reified experience. Ditching the terrible MAKO game play was a revolution in and of itself.[6] At the heart of this franchise, really, are the characters and Mass Effect 2 provided a bonanza in that department with twelve well-defined squad-mates, with their own interests and drives, plus Martin Sheen.

Above and beyond all that, what made ME2 so appealing, was the promise that there would be yet another game just like it.

It should come as no surprise, then, Mass Effect 3 has devoured nearly every available hour since its release last Tuesday (March, 6th 2012). I, no joke, put my personal and professional life on hold to play the finale of this franchise.[7] I bought a headphone adapter for our television (as to not annoy the girlfriend with the noise of killing Reapers), wrote all of that week’s lectures well in advance, got all of grading done before hand – all to maximize my time with ME3. On Sunday (March, 7th 2012) I completed the game.[8]

To say that I enjoyed this game is an understatement. The experience of ME3, as the girlfriend can readily attest, was exhilarating – was swept away in the finale to a franchise in which I’ve invested five years of my life. This game has very much earned a place in the rotation of games that Roy-plays-when-he-is-stressed-or-depressed, along with the rest of the ME franchise.[9] My final feelings towards ME3, however, are mixed and muddled. When the after-credits sequence ended and they dumped me unceremoniously back on the Normandy (same as in ME1 & ME2, so I do not consider that a spoiler), I was left feeling bittersweet and more than a bit sad. These feelings were a product of the fact that the franchise is complete – Shepard’s story is done. My time with these characters, in which was I invested in as much as I am towards any of that figments which populate my pop-culture imagination, was over. My sadness, though, went further than that. While I’d gotten virtually everything I’d wanted out of the experience of this game, one element (at the very end, discussed in detail below) left me feeling more dejected than satisfied.

I can no longer talk about my experience with Mass Effect 3 without wadding into some pretty MAJOR SPOILERS. I am going try and keep the spoilers in much of what you find below relatively mild. I’m going to relegate the extreme SPOILERS to the footnotes and the very end of this post.[10]

A few things need to be out of the way before this wall of text can begin in earnest. First, I have only beaten Mass Effect 3 once so far (obviously) and I’ve done so with “my” Commander Shepard. This is the character I first completed ME1 with, along with ME2. He’s been with me for five years. As per usual, I played a diplomatically minded character and, thus, almost always selected the paragon options. I romanced Ashley in ME1 and stayed faithful in ME2. Taking this character through ME3 will always been the definitive Mass Effect experience for me – despite the fact that I will likely be completing the game (at least) couple more times. Second, my thoughts on this game are over the place, so the rest of this post is going to be organized thematically around few key points I took away from the game.

With no further ado… Read the rest of this entry »


Occupy Midgar

Final Fantasy 7 by Square (Sony, 1997)
Black Materia: Final Fantasy 7 by Random and Lost Perception (RandomBeats, 2011)

Over the last month I’ve become convinced that Final Fantasy 7 (FF7) is truly the video game for 2011.

In this classic from SquareEnix (nee Square) you have a group of young people (AVALANCHE) battling a massive corporation, which controls the government and military. This company (SHINRA) is  relegating much the population to criminalized slums along with destroying the economy and, especially, the environment. SHINRA – sort of Johnson & Johnson meets Halliburton – has in many ways spelled out its own, and The Planet’s, coming the apocalypse through its own overreach and excess.  Instead, dooming itself through over-leveraged mortgage derivatives – ala Lehman Brothers – SHINRA’s self-inflicted end comes at the hand of a biologically engineered monstrosity – Sephiroth.

When Occupying Midgar, the giant octopus of corporate greed becomes quite literal.

What bought my ticket on this FF7 nostalgia-train was stumbling across (via Kotaku) a hip-hop tribute (!) to Final Fantasy 7 by Random. Random’s album, Black Materia, is quite good, if a bit top heavy (the second half of the album lacks the emotion or attachment to the source material of the first half). The most impressive track, perhaps, is “Tifa,” which manages to make the powerfully convoluted Cloud/Tifa story into a touching tale of childhood romance.

Black Materia reminded me just how great of a game FF7is  and just how well it has aged over the last fourteen years.

Oh sure, the feeble, super-deformed first attempt at 3D graphics has aged horribly (especially, in context of Square’s other PS1 generation Final Fantasy games), but basic game systems (particularly if one carefully forgets about the snowboarding) are extremely sound. In its straightforward old-fashionedness the “materia systems” seems revolutionary in 2011. Think of the awfulness of the combat and customization of Final Fantasy 13, with its attempt to merge the game play of a real-time MMO with classic turned based JRPGs which ends up only having the frustrations (and none of the virtues) of both paradigms.

What stands out to me most thinking about this game, here at the end of 2011, is the well-characterized nature of Final Fantasy 7’s female protagonists. While Tifa’s out-of-proportion costume and character design seems to argue against this assertion (remember 1997 was the awful days of the original Tomb Raider), if we look a bit below the surface things become more complex and interesting. Both Tifa and (especially) Aeris are fully developed characters with their own story-lines developed beyond simply as foils for Cloud Strife.

No video game moment – much less character death – matches in video game history the scene of Aeris’s death at the hands of Sephiroth. That scene is a huge cultural touchstone for gamers of a certain age (i.e. can remember the 1990s) and remains the most mentioned aspect of this game in any retrospective look at FF7‘s impact. The very centrality of this moment, of Aeris’s brutal murder at the hands of a male villain, makes her an obvious example of the trope known as “Women in Refrigerators.”

There is a lot truth to an association of the Aeris’s famous death with this trope. As Gail Simone classicly puts it, the very femaleness of women characters in popular fiction “inevitably” leads to such characters “being killed, maimed or depowered.” Yet, what makes Aeris stand out from the pack of the countless super heroines and love interests thrown under the bus by innumerable male writer  is that her death is not about making the storyline of a male character more interesting. Aeris’s death is not about Cloud’s story but an fitting end to her own story within Final Fantasy 7‘s plot.

While, of course Aeris’s death does complicate Cloud’s story and make it more interesting but, her death is not primarily about that. Rather, that scene is an out growth of Aeris’s character (her ancestry, her desire to protect the planet, etc.) and a culmination of her story, not his. I am not seeking to argue that the representations of gender in Final Fantasy 7 is perfect –  for the game is a JRPG from 1997. But for being what it is (again, a JRPG from 1997) the representations of female characters within the game and its plot are remarkably progressive.

Final Fantasy 7 has a lot to offer us in our age of rising inequality, corporate greed, enviromental destruction, political unrest, and global weirding. The themes of the game, perhaps, have more to say to us in the lean year of 2011 than they did in the boom times of 1997. As we approach this seminal game’s fifteenth anniversary we should, perhaps, consider putting our dusty CDs of Final Fantasy 7 back in our PlayStations. Not just because of be the game’s classic status but because the story of Cloud, Aeris, Sephiroth, and Tifa has something to say to us today.

Dragon Age II retrospective

Dragon Age II by Bioware (EA, 2011)
Dragon Age II: Legacy by Bioware (EA, 2011)
Dragon Age II: Mark of the Assassin by Bioware (EA, 2011)
Dragon Age: Origins by Bioware (EA, 2008)

Today This week marks the release of Dragon Age 2: Mark of the Assassin (likely the final major DLC release for that misbegotten sequel) and the first episode of Dragon Age: Redemption (a Felicia Day vehicle cos-playing as a video game ad). A couple of things stand out on this momentous day of Edmonton based virtual entertainment. First, I am glad to see that internet films have graduated to the production values of early episodes of Hercules the Legendary Journeys. Who says progress is linear? Second, Bioware really is making a play to take over the fantasy imagination of a generation of gamers.

Now, then, is a time as good as any to consider the state of Bioware’s fantasy franchise. Few sequels have driven the internet gaming blogosphere as insane DA2.

Internet opinion on this game varies along a spectrum that goes from “DA2 is the worst Bioware game” to prophecies of the eminent collapse Western RPGs. I am on the record noting that Bioware has been failing to provide quality entertainment for the last 11+ years, yet, at the same time I feel that this seven month old game is not nearly as awful as the average Kotaku commentator would have you believe.

In order to understand the strengths and weaknesses of DA2, we’ve got to dispel a few of the myths that haunt this franchise.

WARNING: The text below drops a lot of TRUTH BOMBS. Also: SPOILERS.

Read the rest of this entry »

Baldur’s Gate 2 is the worst game I have ever played

Baldur’s Gate 2 by Bioware (Interplay, 2000)Baldur's Gate 2

The original Baldur’s Gate is one of my favorite games of all time. Open-ended and challenging, the game reenergized the hard-core American CRPG. Masterfully adapting the sometimes cumbersome (THACO, anyone?) second edition AD&D rules for real-time gameplay, Bioware really showed the world how to make a great, nigh-perfect role-playing game.

Needless to say, I was extremely excited to play Bioware’s follow-up. Sadly enough, I could not have been more disappointed in how this game turned out! So much so that it is difficult to for me to put my rage into words.

Perhaps it is best to just take the flaws in this game point by point.

My choices in BG1 have no consequence in BG2: In my playthrough of the first game in this series, I killed Xzar and his annoying halfling friend. But look here! There alive in & well in the sequel! What’s up with that Bioware? There are virtually no consequences for anything I did in your original game! Quayle as a kindly uncle figure to a whiny unwinged elf? What the hell? And, come on, what’s up with me starting the game with Minsc, Jaheria, and Imoen in my party? I never traveled with any of them in the original game! And who gives a shit about Imoen?

My choices within BG2 have no consequences: There are so-called “turning points” within the “plot” of this “game” that seemingly are supposed to have consequences but they really do not. Choosing between the vampires and the Shadow Thieves? No real difference between them! Oh, sure you might have a few different quests in Chapter 3 but in the whole the game turns out the same! You still end up in Spellhold. And deciding to try to sail back to Amn instead of going straight to the Underdark? All that gets you is 30 minutes in fish-city and no real consequences! Come on, Bioware! What real RPG gamers want is real choices not the illusion of choice.

Reused textures and tile-sets: Bioware artists are you really that lazy? There so many reused tile-sets in this game that it is extremely pathetic. There are only like three different layout for houses in this game and they are all recycled from BG1! There are only two tile-sets for random encounters in this so-called “game” and the in-Amn random encounter’s art is just recycled from the Bridge District! One of the major dunegons in this game is used twice (Bodhi’s graveyard hideout). Did you really think that we wouldn’t notice your laziness, Bioware? It often just felt like I was on a visual treadmill as a slogged through this “game.” Speaking of treadmills…

Limited exploration options: More often than not while playing Baldur’s Gate 2, I felt like I was playing a “game” set on rails. So much of this “game” is completely linear! While in the original game you can pretty much explore the entire world while ignoring the core plot, BG2 basically sets you on a clearly fixed direction. Besides that there are so few quests in this game. I mean there are like three quests in all of Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 has like one long dungeon! The great sense of exploration, epic scope, and the ability to stumble in danger is largely gone from this “game.”

This game is idiot proof: What is up with “pins” on the world map that clearly mark quest givers and stores? Half the fun of the original Baldur’s Gate was wandering around trying to find the right house out of the sea of identical looking housing. What is the point of a so-called RPG if you don’t have to take detailed notes just to keep track of where the quest givers are? Clearly Bioware is now designing their games for the lowest common denominator – shooter fans and console gamers.

Romance over plot: BG2 contains “romances” between your player character and a few non-player characters in your party. It is clear from this development that Bioware has now moved away from making each NPC an interesting character to focusing on a small sub-set of fanservice character “romances.” These gross virtual sexpots have little do with the “game’s” plot and never push the story forward. It is clear that Bioware is now putting development resources towards fan service things like “romances” instead of more valuable things like art resources and real content.

If Bioware, formerly the king of the American CRPG, can produce a real piece of crap game like this we are, clearly, reaching a crisis point in the RPG market. If once-great companies, like Bioware, continue to produce quick cash-in games like BG2, real RPG fans will be begin abandoning the genre in droves.

It makes me sad to type this but, the terribleness that is Baldur’s Gate 2 could mark the beginning of the end of the American CRPG.