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Eric Nicholas Reed's blog

4:46 PM on 03.08.2012

My Thoughts on the Ending of the Mass Effect Trilogy

Let me begin by saying that this article will be will be with spoilers for the Mass Effect series. PLEASE, proceed no further if you have not played the WHOLE SERIES (Because honestly, you are NOT getting the full experience of the trilogy if you do not.) You have been warned.

I stood amazed at the hate before Mass Effect 3 was released. People reading leaked scripts proclaiming, “your decisions don’t matter.” People complaining about the presence of Jessica Chobot. Then the whole Helper mess. I am never quick to judge something, especially before the damn thing even came out, so I put such complaints in the back of my mind. Then I played Mass Effect 3.

It is this problem with the game’s end that I find the most compelling. Ultimately, this is really a partially true criticism. The come out of nowhere, synthetics vs. organics cycle must stop ending basically does make EVERY THING MOOT. Everyone either dies or end up on some random ass planet with no way to get off of it. It made no sense and, at least at 3 AM when I finally beat the game, left this gamer at a loss.

But then I did something a lot of people who troll forums and what not do not do, I thought about it. The ending may not be what we wanted, but in so many ways the entire series has been leading up to this. We learn throughout the games that things are never quite as they seem. The geth are first presented as this evil force of dangerous AI determined to take control of organics…only it turns out that this is only a small subset of the geth…then (if you made the right decisions) we find that the geth not only have souls, but aren’t necessarily the evil awful creatures, but rather another life form trying to find their place in the galaxy.

The krogan are another great example of this. At first they are presented as a force to be feared, that needed to be put in check by powerful political forces to ensure the safety of the galaxy. Then you see what it has done to their home world, you see that the Krogran, while warlike, are turned into the vicious animals by forced evolution and then a existence without hope. By the end, you see the man who engineered their sickness sacrifice himself in an attempt to right his wrong.

Then there is the Asari, the enlightened keepers of galactic peace. They are a beautiful unisexual species that live for thousands of years. They seem unflappable and infallible throughout the series, then you arrive on Thessia. If you did not bring Javik with you on this mission, you really missed out on big parts of the Asari story (I assume). Raised to intelligence by the protheans, the Asari hoard knowledge to maintain their place at the top of the galaxy, only to be the first species to truly lose their home world to the Reapers (that we fully witness), due in large part to their own hubris.

Then there is the Illusive Man and Cerberus. Cerberus begins as this ancillary organization in the first game, people that do bad things and need to be stopped. Happenstance brings you into their fold and you learn that the Illusive Man at least appears to have humanity’s best interests at heart, though perhaps ruthless in his practices. Then, hubris once again wins today as he puts too much faith in human power, only to find he was under the influence of dark forces he was trying to control.

Why do I go though all this? Because the true underlying narrative of Mass Effect, the true theme, is the notion of the cycle of life. The conversations with the Prothean reveal this. Each time you speak with him you learn that they made all the mistakes your own people are making or are have made. Using lower life forms to fight their own wars (Krogan). A subset that believed they could take control of the reapers (Cerbrus). Belief that their technological hegemony could and should rule the galaxy (Asari…though a stretch perhaps). The difference in our galaxy? Diversity. He explicitly states that Proethan hegemony was their downfall. If everyone is the same, then once you find the weak point you can take them out easily.

It was diversity of life that allows Shepard to reach the Crucible and meet the catalyst. The Crucible is the full representation of untold numbers of harvest organic life. The catalyst is the true mystery here, one I have not formulated a full answer too, mainly because it comes out of nowhere in many ways. But I have a theory; the catalyst is evolution. It stops the cycle of organics vs. synthetic because the victory of synthetic life is the defeat of evolution. But the ability to encounter the catalyst represents a technological singularity. Shepard is not fully human. She has some Prothean, some synthetic, some human. She is a hybrid, but unlike the Illusive Man’s creations, she is still human. Unlike pure vitriolic AIs like the Reapers, EDI and the Geth clearly have souls and, most importantly, have a sense of a norm of reciprocity, the key to civil order.

And thus, your arrival at the Crucible and encounter with the catalyst means that you and your galaxy have found a way to bring together a diversity of life in such a way as to encounter and understand evolution itself. And thus the final decision is more about what direction this final evolution of life will take than it is about green, red, or blue explosions. You have encountered the same problems that have brought down so many galactic civilizations, and managed to overcome it. This cycle reached an apex of evolution, and the old solution to keep organics ahead of synthetic is no longer plausible or necessary.

This is just a theory, of course. How I made sense of the puzzling ending that I was presented with. Now the plot problems with what happens to the Normandy aside, I like to think this theory makes some degree of sense. Perhaps I am overthinking this, but I think a narrative of this caliber needs to be over thought, because it is not simple. People who complain about the ending are not thinking enough about the narrative as a whole, and that narrative’s direction. Is it a shame that we don’t get to see how life worked out for our characters post War, yes. There are things I’d like to know; but the encounter with the catalyst makes those things moot. Life has fundamentally changed in the Mass Effect galaxy, and how Garrus and Tali’s relationship works out is really not important anymore in the grand scheme of things. What is important is that the evolution won. The cycle of destruction is broken. Life will continue on.   read

10:16 PM on 01.28.2011

Why 2010 Sucked: Upping the Difficulty

I’m pretty sure it started with Enslaved. I was sitting on my chair, about the start the game when the typical “choose your difficulty” screen popped up. I stared at it for quite sometime, which was a new thing for me. I typically would just hit “normal” and go on about my game. But I had an inkling, an urge if you will. What if I played on Hard? What’s so different about “hard”?

Playing on hard changed the nature of what a game is for me. Before, for me the most important aspect of a game for me was story. I wanted to know what happened to these people, these characters, next. Half the reason I even picked up Enslaved was because I heard it had a story of epic proportions (which it does by the way). What I didn’t expect, by playing the game on hard, was to be introduced to a whole new world of gaming; a form of gaming more retro than you’d even imagine; the “Pure Game.” This loss of my gaming innocence is why 2010 sucked…

I am, at best, an average gamer. You’re talking about someone who did not beat Super Mario Bros. 3 until he was 19 playing it on the Wii Virtual Console, after playing it in various forms most of his childhood. So the idea of jumping from playing on “normal” to playing on “hard” in any game was a difficult proposition. I once, out of curiosity, bumped up the difficulty on Halo 3 to Legendary, only to get my ass handed to me by grunts.

But first person shooters aren’t really my genre of choice, and when I started playing Enslaved, I figured that my action platforming skills were good enough to warrant making an attempt. I beat the game with little real difficulty; a confidence boost for sure; but I noticed a real difference in the way I played. I would pause during boss battles and thing “Hmmm…what should I do” rather than the normal thinking on the fly I would do on “normal”. I actually had to out think the game. At the time, I thought nothing of it.

The strangest revelations about your life can come to you while you are in the classroom. I am a TA for a Introduction to Digital Media course at the school I go to, and as way of bringing 250 snot nosed undergraduates into the world of Digital Media, the Prof began with two lectures on Video Games. The ultimate question of those lectures became “What is a video game?”

He didn’t venture that far down the history of gaming, sticking more with the connections between early home games and the connections that can be drawn between game play and comfort with computers, but something within his lecture came up that really got me thinking; the notion of the “Pure Game.”

Remember the scene in King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, where Steve Weibe is literally drawing out the patterns of barrels and flames on the screen of his arcade cabinet. This is the essence of a pure game. The computer lays down the ground rules, and it is up to you to figure those out, and use those to beat it. All early games were like this. Consider Pac-Man; each ghost acts differently, and each stage has a set path in which, if you take it, no ghost will harm you. The essence of gaming at this time was figuring out how to beat the computer at it’s own game, under it’s own guidelines.

This is something I feel is lost for the modern gamer for two reasons. First, oftentimes the computer thinks; in many games these days, especially sports games, the computer adjust the way it plays the game to become more competitive with you. Second is the emphasis placed on online play; while fun, playing other people is not the same as putting yourself up against a computer, because people don’t often act in pattern, predictable ways. (Well, they do, but it takes centuries of sociological research to figure that out, not 40 hours on CoD). None of this is to say it’s bad, more to give a reason for the appeal of retro games.

I’ve mused enough though. Why did 2010 suck? What does a shift from “normal” to “hard” have to do with this “pure game” notion? 2010 sucked because it saw me make a fundamental shift in the way I think about games. I was always the type that would be willing to put aside crappy aspects of a game’s gameplay or graphics in trade off for an amazing or at the very least interesting story. As long as I could progress though the game with a base knowledge and understand of how the game is played, I was in good shape.

But that simple choice to play on hard changed the way I thought about the game. I began to strategize and analyze what the computer was doing. I would die countless times on a boss simply trying to figure out how to get though the battle without getting hit. I HAD TO LEARN HOW TO BLOCK! Who wants to block in a video game?! I want to attack! Basically, it turned what I once did as a somewhat escapist enterprise into work. And work sucks.

A final, more tangible example. I play Rock Band guitar on hard. It’s the perfect place for me in terms of my ability at the game and my desire to have fun playing it. Can I play on Expert? For the most part yes. But I don’t enjoy it. My fingers get tired and I can’t sing along to the song or anything due to the fact I’m concentrating on it. My choice in difficulty there is driven strictly on a ‘fun’ factor, not on if I’m actually capable of doing it.

For me, playing on “Hard” turned games into “pure games”. But designers these days aren’t making “pure games”. Donkey Kong is hard because the algorithms controlling the patterns of the advance of the baddies is very complicated. You can figure it out, but it takes practice. But I’m someone who plays for story. Playing on hard became a burden, and while satisfying perhaps when I completed the game, instead of providing me with a non-stressful experience of relaxation after a long day in classrooms, it put me on edge, made me frustrated, and ultimately did little more for my than give me a few more Gamerscore.

Play on “hard” if you wish. But this guy, he’s going to stick to “normal.”   read

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