Bravely Default Puts A Bandage On Bad Design Rather Than Fixing It

image

Random encounters began as a way to design around the limitations of past hardware. Old games couldn’t waste memory actually showing enemies on world or area maps, so instead a player’s traveling party was simply ambushed every so many steps while a screen change indicated a “random encounter” with local enemies was about to ensue.

And even as the hardware that role-playing games were designed for became more capable, and enemies could be rendered anywhere and everywhere (and not just on the battle screen), random encounters became something of a genre convention—just one in a number of peculiar idiosyncrasies fans of RPGs were accustomed to, and in some cases, even lovingly adored. 

But the visual context surrounding an enemy encounter is not nearly as important as its substance. The truth is that just because I can see the monsters waiting for me on-screen doesn’t mean it’s any more fun to battle. Especially in turn-based systems, most random encounters are a chore not because they occur without any warning, but because they are designed with little care or intention, playing out more like a trip to the laundry mat than a fight for survival.

After Leviathan, Where Should Mass Effect DLC Go Next?

At Gameranx, Phil Owen outlines what lore future Mass Effect DLC should focus on exploring:

Cerberus DLC, I think, is absolutely essential to our understanding of what is going on in the game. We need something that really lays out all their dirty laundry. We need to see into the mind of the Illusive Man and find out what his deal is. Crucible DLC is not so important, but since Leviathan demonstrated that Bioware wants to tell us about weird lore stuff that isn’t necessarily immediately relevant to the story they’re trying to tell, they ought to go for something that we might actually like to know. That said, any new knowledge about the Crucible would likely be far more substantial than finding out why the Reapers look the way they do.”

Mass Effect 2 does a good job of building Cerberus up as double-edged sword for humanity, at once demonstrating the species power and ingenuity while at the same time highlighting its arrogance and corruptibility.

Unfortunately the third game doesn’t attempt at all to build up the moral and political contradictions that make the corporate terrorist group so interesting. If they did do a piece of DLC focusing on the development of the group it should be 3-4 hours long and emphasize story over combat, perhaps giving the player an overview of the Illusive Man’s life that makes his story more personal while still leaving some mystery attached to him.

The bottom line though is that, intentionally or not, BioWare left enough of the lore unexplored, and enough of the important questions raised by the Mass Effect series unanswered, to leave room for an entire game’s worth of content. Whether the “new Mass Effect” game will take that sort of approach, or will instead introduce even more lore, remains to be seen. 

The Verge Sits Down With Reviewers to Praise Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 was amazing, and some people just can’t understand why you might not agree.  Now there’s nothing wrong with discussing the finer points of a videogame; the reasons it succeeded or failed.  And in the case of a title like Mass Effect 3, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a lot, maybe most, don’t have much to knock it for.

But light discussion by a few critics can also devolve into a “101 reasons why I love Mass Effect 3” circle jerk as it did over at The Verge earlier today.

It’s clear some prominent voices in the gaming media had a few things to get off their chests.  But I’m not sure name calling is the best way to start, “There’s been petabytes of back and forth and bickering and crying over the last three weeks by a certain vocal group of Mass Effect 3 players.”

But don’t let that condescending introduction set the tone for you prospective reader, or do, who the fuck cares anyway.  Onto the main order of business.

Adam Sessler, Kevin VanOrd, Francesca Reyes, and Arthur Gies have been brought together to get at all the reasons they loved Mass Effect 3, and perhaps help enlighten some less impressed players.  

Adam made sure to repeat his confusion about reactions to the ending, “I didn’t realize the ending was not to be liked.”

Fran courageously hated herself for wanting a different ending, stating as much, “I hate myself for wanting a happy ending, you know?”

And Kevin, trying to grapple with even the possibility, declared, “It’s hard to imagine anybody going into the final moments thinking that sacrifice wasn’t a possibility, or even almost inevitable.  Honestly, who could conceivably even imagine such a thing?!

All of which led Arthur to wonder, “ if it’s spoiled somewhat by the idea that players, or a certain subset of players, will try to game the system no matter what.”  Who would dare try to game any system, let alone game the system of a videogame.  Did you fools listen to BioWare when it discussed its multi-tiered set of endings?  And fearing that a “bad” ending might be a less developed, less resource intensive one, seek to avoid it by playing hours of multiplier or intergalactic fetching?  Then you’ve ruined it for yourself!

But to their credit, Arthur & co. remark at length on the diversity of possibilities which adhere in the Mass Effect Universe.  So many that, without spoiling them here, one might have the impression that there are several ways to play the game, and several ways for it to be enjoyed.  An ‘AAA’ tribute to “to each his (or her!) own.”

In Mass Effect 3, who will die?  Who will live?  And who the fuck knows why?  Because as Kevin notes, to ignore the complex contingencies of the middle game for the ending is to miss the galaxy for a single star, “They’re being very selective about it, because they’re going to youtube and looking at all the endings, so that they can complain about how similar they are, while simultaneously ignoring how very different all of, say, our experiences were from each other.”

Mass Effect is about all of the little, sentimental possibilities.  Look only at their culminating outcome and you might miss that fact.

But don’t fret, because the endings really aren’t similar!  What Kevin won’t tell you is what Arthur will, “one of the things I like about the ending is that they just totally fuck that universe up by the end. It is completely different, no matter what choice you make.”

Except not all of the choices, since as Arthur says, two of them lead to the same thing, even if the second one is “really bold.”  But who cares right?  Everyone’s reaction to the game is valid, yes?

Specifically with regard to the game’s ending it was Adam who wondered this time, if “it was a ghost in the machine.”  And interesting nod to Descartes’ brand of mind-body dualism which really gets at the heart of the Reaper-mind-Shepard-body quadrualism, or something, like that.

But the important thing is how literary the ending of Mass Effect 3 is.  ”From a literary perspective,” says Arthur, “I think that that’s slick.”  Adam agrees, “In a literary fashion, they have left it somewhat open.”  Because if you remember one thing, remember that ME3’s ending is “literary.”  Like books and shit.  You know, smart things.

To close, the group makes sure not to let the “elephant in the room” get away from them, right Arthur?  Because according to him that’s the big, blubbery mammal “complaining” in the midst of everything.  

Adam tells the disappointed fans what they just don’t seem to understand, “Are you supposed to get a prize? I don’t want to mock too much, and a lot of people have lauded me for not mocking, but as this thing has gone on, I’ve become increasingly frustrated that – the game doesn’t owe you anything. That’s actually something you’re supposed to get out of it yourself.”

Right, tell’em Adam!  See disaffected Mass Effectians, it’s not the game’s fault if you don’t like it, or think it’s bad: it’s your fault.  The ending is something you’re suppose to get yourself.  If you didn’t get out of it what the designers intended, and what these fine critics clearly did, than well, go fuck ya selves cause your clearly demeaning this entire project.

You’re forgetting that Mass Effect 3 is ART.  Listen to Adam, “I do wonder if culturally we’re really at such a state of reward for doing anything that the pleasure of the art is not satisfactory.”

The problem with anyone who hated the ending is that they think it should, could, or might have been something other than it was.  But no, this is ART we’re talking about. It was intentioned by a small group of master craftsman driven not by a pay check, or the needs of the sales department, or the desires of the shareholders, but only their magnificent souls!  Driven by their muses, the Mass Effect team created the art they wanted to, the art they needed to; nothing more, and nothing less.

All of that DLC?  That was part of this art.  The mobile apps and Facebook spin-offs?  Art!  Do not see this as a commercial enterprise in which developers make an AAA title that publishers can distribute to Gamestops and the rest to be sold at $60 a pop.  Look upon Mass Effect 3, and it’s authentically authored ending as an aesthetic consummation of the all things creative.  Not a piece of entertainment sitting in a green box on a metal wired shelf.

Because you misguided Mass Effect fans, Arthur & co. are worried about you.  Adam himself says it best, “the general satisfaction of playing an exceptional game, an exceptional game series, isn’t enough. And that’s a little bit worrisome to me, I’ve gotta say.”

Why aren’t you satisfied you god-forsaken cravens!

You guys are, according to Arthur, falling prey to “groupthink” and “mob mentality.”  In other words, you’re completely wrong but unfortunately none of you realize it.  After all you’re the great unwashed of the vidoegaming masses.  Arthur thinks your entitled, and so does Adam, who try as he compassionately may, can’t think of a more “delicate word,” to label you as.

Because despite how different each play through can be for every player, you better like what you get.  It’s your own fault if you get anything less, and your own complaining, entitled fault if you don’t understand why that’s obviously the truth.

And I kinda have to agree.  The critics are right on this one.  And sometimes the only way to get that across is to dip each abrasive generalization in a steaming pile of condescending bull crap.  Whatever you’re opinions, please don’t express them.  Because in doing so you wouldn’t just be wrong, you’d be a whinny bunch of idiots.

Demo Debriefing: Mass Effect 3

The Mass Effect 3 demo doesn’t pull any punches.  From the moment after I chose my game settings and customized my Shepard to the conclusion of the gameplay it was all business.

Broken up into two acts, the Mass Effect 3 demo introduces new and returning players to its modus operandi with all of the sophisticated nuance and subtle composure of a hormonally raging teenager:  Reapers!  They’re here!  We fight!

First players experience an opening sequence in which Alliance forces are gathering around Earth because of an impending Reaper invasion.  A series of passive dialogue scenes then follow and it is not until the first Reapers touch down and start systematically annihilating human civilization that the demo becomes playable.

Taking control of Commander Shepard as he and Admiral/Councilman Anderson try to escape the mechanical onslaught, players are dragged through a quick tutorial on the basics of firing their side-arm, taking cover, and locating objective points. These lessons culminate in a pitched battle as Shepard and Anderson fight off an endless number of husks while awaiting air transport.

In this way the beginning of Mass Effect 3 is reminiscent of the end of Mass Effect 2, with players guiding Shepard through one Husk assault after another.  There is nothing very interesting about these adversaries, nor especially challenging.  And their inclusion at the expense of other, more diverse sets of enemies is puzzling.

But fear not, because after a few more passive cut scenes the demo barrels through to the second act: a modified escort mission where Shepard, Garrus, and Liara must protect a rare female Krogan as she is transported from floor to floor in some sort of medical elevator chamber.  During this mission players have much more freedom to explore the environment, tactically maneuver through fights, and pick up various items.

Players are also given over 20 skill points to assign however they wish, with the allocation resetting after each failed mission attempt.  As a result, players can try out different skill configurations on the plethora of enemies that Cerberus throws at them.  Thus the demo’s second act establishes a narrow playground in which to test out Mass Effect 3’s basic weapons and maneuvers.

The guns certainly pack a louder and more resounding punch this time around, with energy blasts carrying all of the weight, kickback, and metallic resolve of 21st century firearms.  And one new addition hits the sweet spot between a handgun and a submachine gun with visceral precision.  Firing off single round bursts, the sub-handgun hybrid will give those not playing the assault class a nice middle ground between unimpressive firepower and inaccurate shooting.

The demo also introduces a new action ground roll that players can execute with the A button.  Which seems great in theory until I found myself rolling into med-packs and doors as I tried to open them from the wrong distance.  Furthermore, despite BioWare’s statements to the contrary, I didn’t notice any big leaps forward when it came to the rudimentary action mechanics.  My Shepard still snapped in and out of cover clumsily and often at the wrong times.  And with many uneven environments, jumping over cover rather than ducking into it is as big a problem as ever.

Still, the weapons do feel better, and small shifts in aiming and firing have given shooting a solid rhythm.  Likewise, health doesn’t recover simply by standing put for a few seconds, making shields once again a critical component rather than just an extension of the life bar.  Overall, combat is punchier and transitions between various actions (taking cover, reloading, etc.) are smoother and quicker.  But BioWare has also added a deeper skill system and weapon customizability back into the mix, though not to the degree that would satisfy hardcore RPG enthusiasts.

In other words, the demo offers a little peep into what you’d expect: more time to run, gun, and interact in the Mass Effect universe.  The one thing that I was hoping for but which it didn’t deliver, and because of marketing constraints probably couldn’t, was a better feel for what the overall mood of Mass Effect 3 will be.  Because at first blush the game comes off as unimaginatively reductive.

The first act of the demo at one point shows a small child hiding in a vent after the Reapers have begun their attack.  Shepard tries to help him, but the child won’t leave.  After a moment’s distraction, the kid seems to have vanished, only to reappear later on as Shepard sees him escape into an air transport which is blown up just seconds after lift off.

The scene is in no way understated, nor does it strike a resolutely sobering note.  Instead, both the cinematography and music succeed in making moment feel exploitatively cliché in its banal matter of factness.  At one point prior, Shepard says “We fight or we die!”  And with only the demo played, Mass Effect 3’s narrative feels dangerously close to that level of simplicity.  There will be plenty of NPC interaction and interesting choices to be made, but what will keep the Mass Effect 3 from being just another war game remains to be seen.

Catch me on Twitter @ethancgach

O Shepard! My Shepard!

My Shepard is inconsistent, overly confident, and seemingly without any semblance of a personality.  He’s also not my Shepard.  Though I respect his bravery, and in many ways admire his unwavering commitment to peace when possible, and disciplined violence when not, he is a product of circumstances beyond both his control and mine.  He has no heart, his smiles are crooked, and he is a military boy through and through.  With evidently no real meaningful past of his own, I have a harder time empathizing with Shepard than even he has relating to his own crew.  In short, I am the resentful Cain to his dimensionless Abel. 

With Mass Effect 3’s demo coming out in early February, and the full release of the game following only a month after, it’s not surprising that the first major release of the year is on a lot of people’s minds.  A week ago  Jeremy Parish wrote about his own set of binary opposites, Yukiko and Ellysia, and the unique experience of raising these conflicting daughters in an experimental galaxy that spans three different games. 

More recently, Thierry Nguyen discussed the amoral opportunism of his own Hobo Shepard, and the pile of bodies this digital anti-hero would most likely be standing victoriously atop by Mass Effect 3’s end.  His renegade war hero is horrifyingly compelling, if not least of all because of the extra-contextual emotions and principles our own imaginations attribute to him. 

And then there’s John Shepard.  Yes, that’s his name.  He might as well be called John Smith.  Who needs Native Americans when you’ve got Geth and Krogans to kick around?  Without an idiosyncratic bone in his  generic, everyman body, the most distinguishing thing about him is probably his uncanny penchant for hunting a race of sentient Übermensch machines that no one else in the galaxy is even remotely interested in.  Not much of an ice breaker, is it?  “Hi…you look even more stunning than I imagined…how are you….good, good…oh me…I’m doing fine…just hunting for the Reapers…you know, gigantic spaceships planning to obliterate all life in the galaxy, same old, same old.”

But who could be so reticent and unreceptive in the face of a square-jawed savior like Shepard?  After all, isn’t this the same hero who saved the galaxy from certain doom when a Reaper sought to take control of the Citadel?  Yes, the very same.  His life cut short by an untimely and all too convenient Geth attack, John Shepard was reassembled by the corporate syndicate, Cerberus.  Did this change him?  Was he still the same Shepard after the accident that he was before?  It’s hard to tell, because the shell of a man who was killed on the Normandy was in many ways indistinguishable from the shell of a man who returned.  And here’s why.

Shepard does not feel.  Though he has goals, it’s unclear what motivates them.  Surely it is more than pure careerism that drives him to defend life from annihilation.  But whatever it is remains a mystery for a man who would rather ask questions than give answers, who prefers dealing with the problems of others to addressing his unresolved issues that weigh so heavily upon his brow, and which stiffen his grin. 

He is humanity’s champion, but a poor exemplar of it.  He bears loss with all the calm of an easy, breezy, beautiful cover girl.  He understands loyalty but not love, and so lacks the capacity to meaningfully reciprocate either one.  Whoever has died in the past, or whoever will yet fall in the battles to come, one thing is clear: Shepard will survive, and he won’t be moved by such loses for more than a moment, or incapacitated by grief at the risk of failing is mission.  Like the platonic ideal of a sociopathic workaholic, Shepard does not make friends; he commands comrades.   Deeply complex and sublimely emotive individuals from all across the galaxy with a story to tell and a need for salvation, Shepard needs them for his mission, they are instrumental to his cause, like pawns on a chessboard to be preserved where possible, but soberly sacrificed when necessary.

A dead crew is a useless one.  Their abilities compliment his own, their warmth supplements his emptiness, and without them he is nothing.  And without him, the galaxy is lost.

And so I use him just as he uses his crew.  His relative rating as a paragon or renegade means little to me, and apparently even less to his team, who stand by Shepard no matter what he does, even if this means dying as a result.  I have control over Shepard, and he has control over them.  And it is through this dual marriage, one predicated on bitter antipathy, the other on mutual benefit, neither on genuine affection, that the galaxy may be saved.  The Reapers may yet be defeated.  But I’ll be left wondering who exactly it was that killed them, and whether he did so freely, and of his own unique accord, or by force, propelled forth by his subversive obsession and unrelenting drive; predetermine programs running their course through the lonely machinery of this heartless tin man.

Two Competing Visions

On page 80 of Game Informer’s December 2011 issue, writer Joe Juba gives a preview of what to expect from Mass Effect 3’s new multiplayer component. 

Directly following this is an extended impression by Tim Turi of Square Enix’s upcoming sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2.

The juxtaposition of these two colossal titles made me think about just how far the console role-playing genre has come.  Here are two highly anticipated games, each a direct follow-up to its predecessor and both a part of well-established franchises. 

In fact, XIII-2 hails from a prestigious family extending back decades and spanning several consoles.  Only a few years ago, a major series release would have been big news.  That the neither Final Fantasy XIII or its soon to be released successor received a GI cover (but Mass Effect 3 did) is testament to just how much brand rebalancing has occurred in recent years.

While Mass Effect 3 is adding online multiplayer and completing the mainstreaming that the series has undergone since the original, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is harkening a bit back to the tried and true formula of earlier iterations.  The hallmarks of Western RPGs like allocating skill points, completing random missions for NPCs and engaging in dialogue trees, remain relatively foreign to the Final Fantasy franchise.  Despite its departures, or maybe because of them, FF XIII was extremely conventional.  Here was the long awaited thirteenth entry simplifying battle even more, offering fewer side quests instead of more, and all but doing away with the intricacies of free exploration and NPC interaction. 

Mass Effect 3 is set to redraw the lines that separate video game genres with its mixes of action, over the shoulder shooting, open exploration, vehicle operation, level acquisition, and true RPG story telling.

On the other hand, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be the culminating result of adding electricity to the ever stagnating pool of JRPG elements in hopes that they might spontaneously rearrange themselves into something more inspired and compelling.  However, in addition to the traditional mingle of voice acting and written dialogue, gathering dough from fallen enemies and shopping at towns, the new game will also acknowledge new developments in the industry by rolling out DLC within weeks of release and for some time after that.  Square Enix is also looking to have players pillage the depths of XIII-2 by offering “New Game Plus” modes as well as the still mysterious “Paradox Endings” that players can encounter as they re-explore areas in the past, and in so doing change the future, all via the new “Historia Crux System.” 

But none of these are necessarily revolutionary ideas.  Instead, Square Enix appears to be taking the best practices of the past and dressing them up in all of the graphical prowess that is currently available to developers.  “New Game Plus” is certainly always welcome, and should in fact be an industry standard by now, but it’s nothing new.  Chrono Trigger (which  made great use of the new game + concept) also demonstrated the possibilities for time travel in JRPGs, even if few later games continued to build on this achievement.  In other words, it’s not clear what exactly, if anything, Final Fantasy XIII-2 will be doing to revitalize either the series it comes from or the genre it’s operating in. 

Perhaps the most glaring difference between the two franchises and where they currently stand is the relative scope of each series upcoming entry and the underlying discrepancy in grandeur that this represents.

Each installment in the Final Fantasy series is more or less unconnected to what came before it.  They are each discrete adventures in sometimes similar, but never identical worlds.  X-2 and XIII-2 are exceptions in this regard.  XII also saw its own lesser spinoff in Revenant Wings for the Nintendo DS.  And indeed, XI and XIV were both MMOs.  The picture this paints is of a series that has continued to fragment and devolve into a combination of safe standards and failed experiments.  Whereas each iteration of Mass Effect has offered improvements upon the last and built toward an truly epic conclusion, the recent past of Final Fantasy is one riddled with half-hearted attempts and risk averse choices.  Many thought Final Fantasy XIII would be the start of the next era in a series that had always pushed the boundaries of RPG storytelling.  What it ended up being was a mummified version of everything that made past installments vibrant and endearing.  It was as if Square Enix was content to relegate its most exotic and mystical animal to a sterile existence in the most tawdry and stilted museum display conceivable. 

As the series producer, Yoshinori Kitase, told GameReactor:

"When you think of Western AAA titles like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Assassin’s Creed, they seem to work with a lot shorter turnaround - they make a new game in one to two years. That is something we need to follow up, because that seems to be the best way to keep our fans interested and attracted to the franchise."

That right there?  That’s Square Enix throwing in the towel.  And it’s demonstrative of an attitude that seems to make the contrast between franchises like Mass Effect and Final Fantasy all too clear.  Churning out yearly releases may be an ambitious task but it’s not an ambitious vision.  Whereas previous Final Fantasies were each a new epic, relaying the struggles, conflicts, and idiosyncrasies of entirely new worlds with every title, the trend going forward appears to be toward mining the lore and myth already established, as well as spinning off more tried and true additions, rather than to push the boundaries on role playing mechanics and video game story telling as franchise once had.

Compare that with Mass Effect which has gladly taken up the challenge to create new role playing experiences and deliver a massive story that spans the galaxy and explores the devastation of existential conflict without failing to develop a deep set of character relationships, underlying motives, and moral struggles.

What becomes apparent is the widening disparity between the new generation of gaming’s winners, and its losers.  In the world of micro-transactions, DLC, online multiplayer, and brutal competition, some will win, some will lose, and some will simply continue to survive.  What will happen to the Final Fantasy series going forward is still far from clear.  But for the time being, the franchise seems more than comfortable to remain on life support and simply get by.