Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Shepardman’s Creed

This is my Shepard.

There are many like him, but this Shepard is mine.

I’ve always found Systems Alliance Commander Shepard—Vincent “Ragamuffin” Shepard in my case—to be like a reflecting pool; whatever I put into him was what I got out. He was an irrepressibly empathetic man and yet emotionally unavailable. His responses were always curt to the point of being rude, but something in his eyes told you he understands you.

He understands you in ways no one has in a long, long time. He understands when you need a quiet shoulder, just right for leaning, and when you need your ass kicked into gear. He understands you as if he didn’t have a war to fight because no one else will. He understands you with the clarity and insight of a man condemned to death in the waning light of hope and faith.

And this is a hope that will lead millions against a force of billions. His hope is one not of means and ends with justification found somewhere along the way but one that can be found deep inside of everyone, locked away in a cage of cynicism and doubt. His actions defy his words and betray him as the truly connected man that he is, yearning to tell those closest to him that he loves them.

This was my Shepard.

Mass Effect 3 has seen fit to take him away from me. I’ve spent five years slowly crafting the physical and intangible attributes of my Shepard after hundreds of hours of wheeling through dialog choices, kicking people through windows, and filling in his back story a little bit more each time I talk about his adventures aboard the SSV Normandy. There are hundreds of thousands of other Shepards out there, most of which probably look just like mine and might have even gone through the exact same experiences as mine, but this Shepard was special to me.

And now BioWare has wiped it all away in the emotional and personal attachment cleansing of the ME3 tsunami. There is a moment in the opening sequence of the game where Shepard puts a full stop on his escape from a burning Earth with Admiral Anderson to confront a lost and lonely child. This young boy, hiding in an air duct, is scared and sinks further into the cold and metallatic unknown as Shepard attempts to talk him towards his N7 arms and into safety.

The child, however, chooses to crawl away, leaving Shepard in a daze, knowing he’s left a child to most likely die a horrific death at the hands of Reaper forces (which he eventually does as the shuttle that the boy scurries aboard is promptly asploded upon takeoff). There’s a great remorse here that the game regularly revisits in Max Payne-ish dreamscape sequences. This even becomes a talking point with another character later in the game.

When this happened, I was in the moment. It all seemed right and powerful and hit just as the the writers had intended. When the high wore off and I was back to watching loading screens on the Normandy’s incredibly inefficient elevator, it began to strike me as…odd.

My Shepard would never have stood for that. He has just enough no-nonsense in him that he would have hauled that child out of that vent, snatching him from the darkness like a prize from a crane game.

Then it started to dawn on me that other Shepards might have diverged even further. Another might have gone with the kid to ensure his safety, following him all the way to the escape shuttles. Another cold and heartless individual might have thrown a grenade in after him just to make sure he can’t be harvested.

There are so many ways this particular and apparently formative encounter could have gone and BioWare, in the face of two other games and five years of fostering player agency (authentic or otherwise), has made the decision for me.

You see, every Shepard has similar qualities: stellar combatant, popular with every sex and race, and fully capable of asking cursory questions to keep a conversation going. What he doesn’t do, however, is make decisions without my say-so. He’ll ask propulsive questions like “the Protheans, sir?” or make void-filling comments like “that sounds rough,” but he’ll never add accelerant to the equation. He’ll never be what I don’t want him to be.

But now the controls have been taken away from me and every other player. We have been given our Playskool steering wheels made of plastic and primary colors while the grownups make the real decisions. This Shepard has gone from being my intergalactic war hero, replete with every quality that similarly comprises me, to an empty shill telling a story that is no longer mine.

My Shepard without me is useless. Without my Shepard, I am useless.

But this is not my Shepard.

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Friendship, Fear, and the Great Unknown

I could hear the hollow bellow from above. Even over the unrelenting, roaring wind, I could hear it.

I could see the white-hot gaze just ahead. Even through the snowy, sideways haze, I could see it.

Against it all, I prayed I was safe. I prayed we were safe. “Oh god oh god,” I heard myself mutter over and over again, waiting for the terror to pass, huddled in the shadows of this rocky remnant. I turned to my companion.

But he was gone.

Tracks laid were he once stood. Following with my eye the path he now foolishly plowed, I could see him out in the distance. Darting back and forth between him and the skyward beast, my eyes could only attempt to communicate what my voice could not.

“Hey! Come back! Come back!”

It was pointless. The howling winter gusts swallowed my fevered pleas. But suddenly, the empty stare from above turns aggressive, rutilant. My words disappear. My stomach drops.

I begin to step out into the biting air. “Oh god oh god.” The feral creature begins to screech, leering back, preparing to strike. “Move faster! Faster!” I begin to run, dragging my feet through the knee-high powder. “If I can just reach him…” Unfinished thoughts rattle through my mind, unfinished because the ending unfathomable. Inevitable.

My scarf trails in the pale storm, flapping and twisting in the wind. It marks the path of a fool, a sap. Then, the fiend lurches forward, cutting through the frozen air with a searing, unknowable hate.

He collapses. I reach out.

Closer it comes.

He gives up. I refuse.

Screaming in, faster and faster.

He waits for his end. I touch his arm.

And to think, I didn’t even know his name.

Meeting strangers is like playing pachinko. Each time you meet a new one, you are dropping them into your own game of interpersonal fortune. You watch them, sometimes subconsciously, trickle down the ornate and noisy pegboard, bounding around, clinking and clanking from side to side until they come to a sudden and resolved stop.

Will they fall into your good graces and become a friend? What if they fall off the board completely and a stranger is all they will ever be? Tumbling and turning, they are as curious as you.

It’s awe-inspiring, then, when you come across an occasion where those transients you meet during your endeavors take a straight, unwavering path to a reserved and guarded place within you. They cut through the swath of pins and quickly arrive at somewhere much more intimate.

Such as it is with Journey, the latest release from artsy developers Thatgamecompany, and it is a grand experiment in pure, uncut game design. There are no spoken words, no exposition with which to tell you how to interpret the world around you. The title itself is all the instruction you need.

Everything is designed to move you forward. From the way you ski down the sandy dunes of the desert slopes to how the game has removed any possibility for negative progression, this game is about the journey. Even with the multiplayer, they have eliminated any opportunity to grief.

And I truly believe this game was made for multiplayer. Every conceit and every design minutia is put in place to foster a bond between two strangers. Communicating bolsters your flight; being in close proximity provides a warming heat of golden light; and your meditative transitions are positioned to show you are only one half of this experience.

The choice to prohibit voice and text chat while online is a bold and powerful one. You may not realize it, but just hearing how someone sounds or seeing the words they choose informs you with an immediate and everlasting impression.

Journey, however, lets you fill in the gaps for yourself. With no voice—just a melodic chirp to convey intent—you are free to turn that warble into whatever you desire. Every little peep told me a tale of joy in cooperatively conquering a puzzle or filled me with great despair as we both realize our journey has taken a turn for the worse. There is a gravitas you can create yourself that you could not do so otherwise with text and dialogue.

An intimate and familiar relationship is formed. An unqualified kinship develops universally and immediately. I had become frustrated with my companions, even hated them at points, but never did I want to leave them. Their inability to keep up was endearing, and their need to constantly move ahead before I was ready was misguided (or perhaps misinterpreted) concern for making sure the way was safe for us. The struggles we faced were our own and we would overcome them together.

Journey is altogether and simultaneously the most exhilarating, most terrifying, and most bewildering experience I’ve had in such a long time, and it is a triumph in every sense of the word. There are moments of pure, abject fear that froze me in my seat. There are moments where I felt as free and flowing as a bird on the wind.

There are moments where I knew I was playing something special.

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Free and Clear in a Fated World

Sometimes you know something is wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s not like standing at the box office of a seedy theatre in Tijuana, crumpled bills clenched in your sinful hands as a deluge of guilty sweat runs from your forehead to your unshaven face; you know what you’re about to do is wrong and you can pinpoint exactly the reasons why.

No, this sort of wrong is a bit more elusive, something more akin to a cognitive dissonance that takes you days or weeks to reconcile. Suddenly, though, it clicks and you realize what made you feel so off, why it’s as if you’d been wearing your pants backwards all day and just now noticed.

This happened while I was playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the debut title from Ken Rolston & co. at Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios and its subsidiary Big Huge Games. It’s an action RPG that features you as a mortal who has broken free from the bonds of fate (and is thenceforth creatively referred to as the “Fateless One”). This really wouldn’t be all that big of a deal except fate actually turns out to be a pretty big deal in the world of Amalur.

Everyone has a predetermined destiny spun by the Fateweavers and you had just recently fulfilled yours by dying. However, you are resurrected by the Travelocity gnome’s big brother and have fallen from the path previously set before you. This, as it turns out, has some pretty nice perks, such as being able to change the fates of anyone around you and getting discounts at the corner store.

And here is where the dissonance begins. The entire game is based on the concept of fate and it continually hammers into your gamer-sized brain (lest it leaks out while you petition to change the ending of Super Mario World for not having enough Yoshis) that the destiny laid at your feet prior no longer exists. Your path had ended but your journey did not.

You are free.

The problem is that I am still playing a game with a predetermined ending and predetermined plot. Worse yet, there is a single ending that bursts forth with the uplifting revelation that we are all unfettered by fate and have been granted full agency of our own lives by way of simply existing. How am I supposed to feel free when I know the hundreds of thousands of other players are plodding along the exact same path as me?

It’s an odd concession you make when you play video games, more so than when you watch movies or read books; you are participating in an interactive medium. Films and novels are wholly presented to you as a story and you are never once put in a product designed to make you connect with a fictional world through a controllable conduit. In games, the immersion provided is just as important as how the game plays and how it looks. In the moments you are playing, you should lose yourself as the character and not simply watch or read a story. You should believe you are this man destined for death but living in defiance.

You are fateless.

That, unfortunately, is not the case. In fact, you are operating in a reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is only one path and only one way this game will end and that is the way 38 Studios has deemed fit. Being freed from a destiny that has already been fulfilled only to be put on the road towards another one? The contrast is stark and highlights this unfortunate dichotomy in an otherwise excellent game.

This isn’t a problem that is unique to Reckoning, but it’s easier to sweep under the rug when every other game isn’t focused on the importance of free will and the power in recognizing your ability to not lie down and die. This is only the story of a man who is unshackled, unrestrained, and unequivocally autonomous in a kingdom of marching ants, but you are not him.

You are not free. You are not fateless.

You are bound.

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Theseus, Boats, and Asura’s Wrath

Do you know what you are? Perhaps more importantly, do you know who you are? The question of identity is a huge one in philosophy and spans a great breadth of quandaries and rather intense posturing.

Consider, for instance, Theseus’ paradox. Originally posed by Greek philosopher Plutarch in his Life of Theseus, he wondered if a ship remained the same ship if it was restored and had all of its wooden parts replaced. This is a popular and ongoing topic for philosophical debate, passing through the likes of Socrates, Plato, and John Locke.

Consider, then, Asura’s Wrath, a third-person action game from CyberConnect2 and Capcom that forces the player to ask one simple and yet deeply profound question: when does a game stop being a game?

Asura’s Wrath is structured much like any other video game in that you control a character through increasingly difficult combat scenarios on the way to the end of a (mostly) monomythic journey. Sometimes a game’s mechanics exist simply for the story and sometimes it’s the other way around. In Asura’s Wrath’s case, it is definitely the former with rudimentary hand-to-six-arms combat and less-than-desirable Space Harrier shooting sections existing simply to bring you its absolutely bonkers cutscenes and delectably nigh incomprehensible storyline. A rough estimate would say that for every five minutes of controllable action, there are about 25 minutes of quick time event-laden cinematics.

Some would say, however, that this balance is not ideal. Some would say this does not make it fun. Some would say this does not make it a game.

Imagine instead that every scene with a quick time event is gutted out and replaced with a controllable action sequence. Instead of hammering on the X button to push back on the moon-sized thumb of a Jupiter-sized god, you used your combos to repeatedly beat away said thumb until an arbitrary timer or health bar ran out. Does this by default make for a better game or qualify it more as a game? Perhaps more importantly, does this even result in the same game?

Which flows into a continuation of the paradox: does the ship need to remain a ship? Could it not serve just as well as a monument to its conquests sans restorations? If so, would this mean its identity changes without altering any of its fundamental components?

So then maybe sometimes a game doesn’t necessarily need to be a game to succeed. The qualities of success and failure are not part of an object’s identity but rather its relation to the rest of its reality. Asura’s Wrath’s successes and failures are dependent on whether you need it to be a game in the traditional sense of tight and engaging game mechanics and an intriguing plot, and as far as I’m concerned, a game that has you bursting into 10-minute sequences of brain-seizing insanity doesn’t need to be a game at all.

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