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ThaJinx's blog

10:45 AM on 06.26.2012

Mass Effect and the Worst Possible Run

Warning: This is a wall of text with massive spoilers to anyone who hasn't played through the entirety of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

The following is a post that I began doing the groundwork for in March of 2011, following the release of Mass Effect 2's "Arrival" DLC. I drew a great deal of information from a thread on the Bioware Mass Effect forums, entitled The Worst Possible Playthrough Import Guide for ME3, so if this is an experiment that you'd like to replicate, I highly suggest reading through the (exhaustive) resources provided therein. The idea at the time was to create the worst possible opening scenario in which to begin playing Mass Effect 3, hopefully ensuring what would eventually be the worst possible configuration of decisions spanning all three titles. I finished these Worst Case Renegade runs in late February of 2012, mere weeks away from the launch of the trilogy's final chapter.

Having played through a majority of Mass Effect 3 at this point, and having seen a majority of the affected decision trees and outcomes, I've realized that while the decisions made for Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 were certainly terrible, there are different choices that can be made to ensure far more terrible outcomes in Mass Effect 3. This means that in order to do this properly, I'm going to have to completely restart the entire three game run. The leg work that went into this, however, was extremely informative, and I would still like to share the results with friends who have expressed an interest in how it had gone up until Mass Effect 3's release. For the purposes of personal posterity and reference, here is the original article in its entirety.

I love the Mass Effect series; when the first game was released, I went out of my way to power through to max my Infiltrator out at level 60, and before Mass Effect 2 was released I powered through it again to do every single possible mission and have a complete Paragon run. After Mass Effect 2 was released, I followed the same idea, making sure to have an ideal Paragon run with every possible crew member surviving while maintaining Shepard's romantic relationship with Liara from the first game.

When Mass Effect 3 was announced, Bioware also gave an idea of the sheer number of variables that would be taken into account between the first two games, and I realized that I'd theoretically played half the game, and that's not even taking into account the prospect of playing other classes. With perfect Paragon runs completed, I figured I should start back at the first in the series and make a Renegade of Shepard.

But with the possibility of losing crew members at the end of Mass Effect 2, it dawned on me that it wouldn't be enough to just make my Shepard a simple Renegade. There are a lot of things that you can get away with screwing up, and really, why wouldn't I try to screw up as much as possible? With Mass Effect 3 lurking in the distance, the time had come to make Shepard into a perfect asshole.

I've included my own observations and thoughts about the run following the full list. I found that despite my best efforts, I still could have done a much worse job if I'd known in advance exactly which early decisions influenced later ones; this even spills over into decisions made between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, where even worse Renegade decisions were denied me based on decisions made in the first game. Those mistakes are also noted below with their corresponding assignments.

So for those interested, here are all the things I did and didn't do, and the terrible and not-as-terrible decisions I made on the way, about as close to being in order as I can muster. All opportunities for Renegade dialog choices in general conversation were taken, and this run was done with a level 60 Infiltrator with maxed out Charm and Intimidate stats.

Mass Effect 1
Completed Missions and Assignments

Prologue: Find the Beacon
●I was cruel to Ashley in every conversation had on Eden Prime. Once you've woken up after the mission, you're given the option to say something either nice or terrible to her (or Kaiden if you're playing Shepard as female), which acts as the opening move in a possible romantic relationship. Obviously, we never made it beyond that step, and I never spoke with her again outside of post-mission debriefing. Romance avoided.

Citadel: Garrus
●Approved of all of Garrus' cowboy antics with no regard for anyone else's safety.
Citadel: Wrex
●Took Wrex along to get information from Fist, approved when Wrex killed Fist.
Citadel: Expose Saren
Citadel: Scan the Keepers
●I didn't know this at the time, but apparently if you ignore Chorban when you first see him, you have the option to kill him later. A missed opportunity on my part; talked to him immediately, gained and completed this assignment.
Citadel: Presidium Prophet
●Intimidated the C-Sec Officer, allowing the hannar to stay and preach.
Citadel: Reporter's Request
●Made specifically sure to be a jerk to Emily Wong before attacking Fist, then intimidated her for extra money before giving her Fist's OSD.
Citadel: Signal Tracking
Citadel: Rita's Sister is Safe
●Instead of helping Chellick, I berated him to make him release Jenna from her position as an informant, then "helped" him anyway.
●Killed Jax despite being told by Chellick to just buy arms from him and report back.
Ctiadel: Jahleed and Chorban
●Having already talked to Chorban in Citadel Tower and accepted the Scan the Keepers assignment, I wasn't given the option to turn him in or kill him. Instead, the two made up, and I got them their keeper data.
Citadel: Schells' Scanner Given Away
●Just because it was funnier than helping him cheat.
Citadel: Xeltan Convinced
●Sure, completing this was automatically a nice thing to do, but saying "Whatever" at the end of the conversation negates Paragon points.
Citadel: Asari Consort
●Intimidated Septimus to get him to man up.
●Completed "Xeltan Convinced" before completing this assignment to collect the Trinket.
●Expressed dissatisfaction with the "gift of words" to collect the sex.
Citadel: Homecoming
●Intimidated Samesh Bhatia to allow him to leave the body of his wife, Nirali, with the Alliance for research purposes.
Citadel: Doctor Michel is Safe
●Trash-talked Banes' krogan representative to get him to back off.

Find Liara T'Soni
●If I really wanted to be terrible, I would have left recruiting Liara as the last task before going to Virmire. Didn't even think about it until I already had her; if you haven't tried it, you should, because it's hilarious.
●Recruited immediately after leaving the Citadel.
●Chatted her up until she expressed an interest in Shepard before dashing her hopes on the rocks and telling her to leave Shepard alone. Romance avoided.

UNC: Distress Call
UNC: Missing Marines
UNC: Privateers
UNC: Missing Survey Team
UNC: Rouge VI

Citadel: Snap Inspection
●This assignment doesn't appear in the journal once it's completed! You get an equal number of Renegade points whether you, A: let Mikhailovich inspect the Normandy and choose Intimidate responses to his remarks, or B: flat out refuse to let him make the inspection. I opted for flat out refusal.
Citadel: The Fourth Estate
●You can get a fair chunk of Renegade points for using Intimidate responses to Khalisah Bint Sinan al-Jilani's questions, but come on, seriously? I will punch her in the face every single time.
Citadel: Old Friends
●Special assignment specifically for players who choose the Earthborn background. It would have made a lot of sense to side with my old gang member Finch to release one of his friends, but really, he was blackmailing me, and that's a problem. I took the Paragon points for tipping off the guard in exchange for the opportunity to kill Finch when he found out I'd betrayed him.
Citadel: Planting a Bug
●Lied to Emily Wong about planting the bug.
Citadel: Family Matter
●Intimidated Michael into letting Rebekah make the choice about in utero gene therapy.
Citadel: The Fan
●There's a pretty hilarious glitch relating to Mass Effect 2 here; if you follow the conversation branches all the way through, regardless of whether you Charm or Intimidate Conrad Verner into leaving you alone, there's a flagging error on the decision that causes him to show up in ME2 as though you had used the Intimidate option. On my second visit with him, I was nothing but rude with him and killed his hero worship right then and there, resulting in no ME2 appearance at all. I would have rather gone all the way through to the Intimidate option, because if you're continually mean to Conrad in ME2, he is eventually killed by his own delusions of grandeur. This is the point in case example of how being a jerk in the first game can prevent you from being an even bigger jerk in the second.

UNC: Asari Diplomacy
●Opted not to Intimidate Nassana afterwards to reap Renegade points instead of the Armali License.
UNC: Hostile Takeover
●Killed Helena Blake's competition, Intimidated her to convince her to disband her gang, threatened to arrest her anyway, and killed her when she refused to go quietly.
UNC: Hostage
●Intimidated the L2 terrorists to convince them to release Burns; would have rather sacrificed the Renegade points and simply attacked, resulting in the deaths of the L2s and Burns, thus eliminating the possibility of reparations for other L2 Biotics.
UNC: Cerberus
UNC: Hades' Dogs
●Sold the Cerberus information to the Shadow Broker agent. A fat lot of good that did me.

UNC: Dead Scientists
●Had sufficient Intimidate skill to kill the scientist myself instead of letting Corporal Toombs do it.
●Had no idea that Toombs could potentially kill the scientist and himself, otherwise I would have let that happen.
UNC: Geth Incursions
Tali's pilgrimage
●You don't have to do this if you don't find the geth data in the assignment "Geth Incursions." I picked up the data specifically so that I could refuse when Tali asked for a copy of it.
UNC: Espionage Probe
UNC: Major Kyle
●Intimidated Major Kyle to surrender.
●Refused to give Major Kyle an hour to prepare for his surrender.
●Killed Major Kyle and all of his "children."
UNC: Lost Freighter
●Cut Jacob's life support.
UNC: Lost Module
●Killed the space monkeys instead of searching them for the data module.

Feros: Varren Meat
Feros: Water Restoration
Feros: Power Cells
●What's interesting about the three above listed assignments is that simply talking to the colonists puts them in your journal, and once they reach a point where they can no longer be completed they are listed as "Complete." So these are listed in my journal, complete on the grounds that they can't possibly be done. Completing them would have been pointless given that…well, it's just unnecessary, really, for reasons found under "Feros: Colony Gone."
Feros: Data Recovery
Feros: Colony Gone
●Killed Ethan Jeong, every last one of the colonists at Zhu's hope, and -- once she'd given Shepard the Cipher -- the asari Shiala. In short, utterly wiped out the whole of the colony.

UNC: ExoGeni Facility
●Threatened Doctor Ross after her attempted bribe, resulting in her death and the deaths of her scientists and mercenaries.
UNC: Colony of the Dead
UNC: Derelict Freighter
Garrus: Dr. Saleon is Dead
●Talked to Garrus only enough to squeeze this assignment out of him. Much like Tali, I only picked it up for the purposes of slighting him; killed Saleon, but didn't bring Garrus along for the ride.

Noveria: Smuggling
●Agreed to smuggle the package in for Opold, then went around him and sold the goods directly to his krogan buyer, Inamorda.
Noveria: Espionage
●Agreed to help Calis engage in some corporate espionage, instead tipped off her mark, Vargas, and then lied to Calis, saying I'd done what she asked and leaving her to receive false information.
Noveria: Lorik Qui'in
●Returned the evidence to Lorik Qui'in, then Intimidated him to convince him to testify. Not that I needed him to, given what happened to Administrator Anoleis and Gianna Parsini immediately after.
Noveria: Leave Port Hanshan
●Ratted out Parsini to Anoleis, leading them to kill one another.
Noveria: Peak 15
Noveria: Reconnect Landlines
Noveria: Contamination
Noveria: Rift Station
Noveria: Death of a Matriarch
●Killed the Rachni Queen.

UNC: The Negotiation
●Thought about pulling an inversion and agreeing to a trade agreement with Warlord Darius, but decided to play it straight, killing Darius and his men.
UNC: Listening Post Alpha
UNC: Listening Post Theta
UNC: Depot Sigma-23
UNC: Survey is Complete (Minerals and Elements)
UNC: Entire Collection Found (League Medallions and Salarian ID Tags)
UNC: Collection Complete (Asari Writings)
UNC: Collection Complete (Turian Emblems)
UNC: Collection Complete (Prothean Artifacts)

Virmire: Wrex is Dead
●The saddest decision I had to make. Not only did I kill Wrex, I also told Ashley to dump his body instead of giving him the proper respect.
Virmire: Assault
●Sent Kaidan with Captain Kirrahe.
●Didn't disable the geth communications, didn't take out the geth satellite uplinks, didn't take out the flyers, and set off the alarms on the other side of the base, resulting in the deaths of Kirrahe and most of his men.
●Left Ganto locked in his cell, doomed to be reduced to cinders.
●Killed Rana Thanoptis in her office.
●Abandoned Kaidan to die in a nuclear blast.
Virmire: Kirrahe's Team Rescued
●But not the good Captain himself!

Citadel: Our Own Worst Enemy
●Endorsed Charles Saracino of the Terra Firma Party.
Citadel: Negotiator's Request
●Intimidated Keeler into getting treatment. Should have agreed to buy him the stims, which would have given me the option to instead buy him a sedative for bonus Renegade points.

Ilos: Find the Conduit

Race Against Time: Final Battle
●Intimidated Saren to convince him to shoot himself.
●Recommended Hackett order all Alliance ships to hold until the Citadel's arms opened, resulting in the destruction of the Destiny Ascension and the death of the Council.
●Massive Renegade score results in Udina replacing the old Council with a new, all-human Council
●Selected Udina as the chairman.

Assignments not done

Noveria: Quarantine
●My entire plan was to wipe out everything and everyone at Noveria, so it would have been a waste of time to do this; I instead opted to let the scientists presumably die as a result of their sickness.
Noveria: Hot Labs
●Didn't do them before fighting Matriarch Benezia; after learning that I could have had a much worse outcome by going there first, I decided to simply skip the assignment entirely. So…the lab-bred rachni live on?
Wrex: Family Armor
●The only reason to do this is to make Wrex easier to deal with on Virmire, and I didn't really want that. In hindsight I'm sure I could have done it and still killed him, but in the end I guess I just didn't want to do anything nice for him.
X57: Bring Down the Sky
X57: Avoid the Blasting Caps
X57: Missing Engineers
Pinnacle Station: Combat Missions
Pinnacle Station: Convoy
Pinnacle Station: Vidinos
●All of the X57 and Pinnacle Station assignments were left incomplete simply because I never bought them. I'm a bad consumer, I guess.

Mass Effect 2

Prologue: Save Joker
Prologue: Awakening

Freedom's Progress
●Took Veetor to be interrogated by Cerberus.

Dossier: The Convict
Dossier: Archangel
●Encouraged the kid with a newly purchased gun to enlist, resulting in his unceremonious death by lead poisoning.
Dr. Okeer's Legacy
Dossier: The Professor
Omega: The Professor: Missing Assistant
●Allowed Daniel to be killed by Batarians.
Citadel: Captain Bailey
Citadel: The Council
●Specter Status denied as a direct result of both killing the Council and putting Udina in charge.
Citadel: Krogan Sushi
●Spoke with the Presidium Groundskeeper, purchased a souvenir fish, and sold it to the krogan after telling him the lie that it had come from the Presidium lakes.
Citadel: Crime in Progress
●Returned Kor Tun's credit chit without making any effort to side with or help Lia'Vael.
Normandy: Special Ingredients
Normandy: Serrice Ice Brandy
Omega: Batarian Bartender
●Forced Forvan to drink his own poisoned beverage, killing him where he stood.
Omega: The Patriarch
●Convinced the Patriarch to go out in a blaze of glory.
Omega: Archangel: Datapad Recovered
●Handed over the information to Aria and accepted her reward, "just like that."
Normandy: FBA Couplings
Dossier: The Master Thief
Omega: Aria T'Loak


Illium: Medical Scans
●Even if you wipe out Zhu's Hope in Mass Effect, this assignment is still available. I don't know whether I simply wasn't accessing the right combination of conversation options, but I remember that during my Paragon run (in which both Zhu's Hope and the asari, Shiala, survived), I was given the option to side with the Baria Frontiers representative, Erinya, to keep the current contracts and screw the colonists over. No such option made itself available to me on this run, leaving me no choice but to help the colonists.
Illium: Blue Rose of Illium
●Advised Ereba to lose her krogan boyfriend.
Jacob: The Gift of Greatness
●Left Ronald Taylor with a half-charged pistol, inferring his suicide.
Dossier: The Assassin
●Let the Salarian on the first floor die without giving him any medi-gel.
●Shoved the Blue Sun merc out a window using the Renegade interrupt.
Illium: The Assassin: Salarian Family Data
Dossier: The Justicar
●Killed Elnora before discovering that she had assassinated Pitne For's partner.
●Let Niftu Cal, "biotic god," lead the way into battle.
Illium: The Justicar: Stolen Goods Found
Illium: Indentured Service
●Intimidated the slave broker to release the quarian from her indentured service contract, only to intimidate the Synthetic Insights rep into buying her contract anyway.
Miranda: The Prodigal
●Allowed Miranda to kill Niket.
●Simply left without convincing Miranda to talk to Oriana.
Illium: Lost Locket Found
Dossier: Tali
●Avoided Paragon interrupt for Kal'reegar, then took as long to take down the Geth as possible to ensure his death on Haestrom.
Jack: Subject Zero
●Convinced Jack to kill Aresh.
●Following the completion of both this Loyalty Mission and Miranda's, I sided with Jack in the ensuing rumble, ensuring her Loyalty while destroying Miranda's. It's possible to retain both, but as you will see in the breakdown of the Suicide Mission, that wouldn't have been in my best interest.
Illium: Liara: The Observer
●Didn't bother hacking more than enough terminals to make an accusation regarding the identity of the Observer, resulting in the death of the wrong Shadow Broker agent and leaving Nyxeris to continue spying on Liara.
Tuchanka: Urdnot Wreav
●Because Urdnot Wrex is dead!
Grunt: Rite of Passage
Garrus: Eye for an Eye
●Might've helped Garrus rough Harkin up.
●Let Garrus take the shot.
Citadel: False Positives
●Resisted the allure of further Renegade points, and instead was simply a jerk to the asari, Kalara Tomi.
Samara: The Ardat-Yakshi
●Purposely brought up bad points of conversation with Morinth, causing her to flee and ruining Samara's chances of killing her. Mission completed, but no Loyalty awarded.

Collector Ship

Tali: Treason
●Hugs? No.
●Surrendered the evidence implicating Tali's father, resulting in the political fragmentation of the fleet, the posthumous exile of Tali's father, and a very unhappy and non-Loyal Tali.

Reaper IFF

Following the installation of the Reaper IFF and the abduction of the Normandy's crew, you have a three mission/assignment window in which to use the Omega 4 Relay. Jumping into the Suicide Mission within this window ensures that you have the chance to rescue at least some of your crew. Taking any longer results in everyone but Dr. Chakwas being being killed before you can save them. As you continue to read, remember that everything on this list is shown in the order in which is was completed. I'm a monster.

Thane: Sins of the Father
●Beat the tar out of Kelham to procure a confession.
●Shot Talid to prevent Kolyat from doing the very same thing. I was very much wanting to have a bad outcome and still attain Thane's Loyalty, but in retrospect (and considering the final body count of the Suicide Mission) I should have simply let myself lose track of Talid, allowing Kolyat to assassinate him and escape.
Legion: A House Divided
●Destroyed the station and the Heretic Geth inside.
Kasumi: Kinetic Barrier
Kasumi: Voice Lock
Kasumi: DNA Scanner
Kasumi: Stealing Memory
●Convinced Kasumi to keep the box.
Lair of the Shadow Broker
●Wounded Tela Vasir's hostage.
Normandy Crash Site
Tuchanka: Killing Pyjaks
Omega: Packages for Ish
●Gave the packages to Anto instead of Ish, but only after extorting sweet, sweet cash out of him.
Project Firewalker: Rosalie Lost
Project Firewalker: Volcano Station
Project Firewalker: Survey Sites Located
Project Firewalker: Geth Activity
Project Firewalker: Prothean Ruins
N7: Lost Operative
●Uploaded the data to Cerberus.
Overlord: Vulcan Station
Overlord: Prometheus Station
Overlord: Atlas Station
●Left David in the hands of Cerberus and Project Overlord.
N7: Wrecked Merchant Freighter
N7: Abandoned Research Station
N7: Hahne-Kedar Facility
N7: Imminent Ship Crash
N7: Archeological Dig Site
N7: MSV Strontium Mule
N7: Blue Suns Base
N7: Javelin Missiles Launched
●Saved the Spaceport, allowed the Capitol City to be destroyed.
N7: Blood Pack Communications Relay
N7: Blood Pack Base
N7: Abandoned Mine
N7: Anomalous Weather Detected
N7: Captured Mining Facility
N7: Endangered Research Station
N7: Mining Canyon
N7: Eclipse Smuggling Depot
N7: MSV Estevanico
N7: Quarian Crash Site

The survivors of the Suicide Mission are determined by a series of calculations based on current number of available party members, varying numeric values placed on characters depending on their Loyalty status, and an internal check of death priority pending Suicide Mission events and Loyalty. As such, if you want to complete the game with the minimum of two teammates required for Shepard to survive, you need to know before even beginning the game which teammates you want to live and which you want to die, and from there plan accordingly.

Loyal Teammates:

Non-Loyal Teammates:
●Samara: Loyalty Mission completed but purposely failed by blundering the seduction of her daughter, Morinth.
●Tali: Loyalty Mission completed but purposely failed by surrendering the information proving her father as a traitor.
●Mordin: Opting for the greatest degree of completion possible, I was forced to skip his Loyalty Mission; there is no way to fail his Loyalty Mission or lose his Loyalty after the fact, and there was no way to ensure his death and the deaths of the other teammates without skipping the large majority of the other Loyalty Missions.
●Miranda: Loyalty Mission completed successfully, but I opted to side with Jack during an argument between the two in order to ensure losing Miranda's Loyalty.
●Zaeed: Not yet acquired, for reasons you will see following the Suicide Mission.

Total Loyalty Missions Completed: 11 out of 12, including the eventual completion of Zaeed's.

Throughout the course of the game, you have the option of researching and purchasing a number of upgrades for the Normandy, but only three of them are of critical importance: the Thanix Cannons, the Multi-core Shielding, and the Heavy Armor Plating. Purchasing each of these prevents teammates from being killed outright before you even reach the Collector Base, one teammate per upgrade. Foregoing the purchase of all of them results in...well...

The Suicide Mission
●Jack killed en route to Collector Base by Oculus beam.
●Oculus team: Kasumi and Tali.
●Legion killed en route to Collector Base in core explosion on Engineering Deck.
●Thane impaled and killed en route to Collector Base.

Collector Base: Infiltration
●Tech Specialist: Jacob. Anyone selected for this role other than Tali, Legion, or Kasumi will be killed, regardless of Loyalty.
●Alternate Squad Leader: Garrus.
●Team: Not relevant to outcome, but Tali and Miranda.
●Jacob killed via a rocket to the face while trying to close the security doors.
●Normandy Crew (with the exception of Dr. Chakwas) killed due to taking far, far, far too long to bother coming to rescue them.

Collector Base: The Long Walk
●Biotic Specialist: Samara. Failing her Loyalty Mission ensures that she is unable to maintain her focus, resulting in the death of a party member based on an internal death priority list.
●Diversion Team Leader: Grunt. Anyone selected for this role other than Miranda, Garrus, or Jacob will be killed, regardless of Loyalty.
●Dr. Chakwas sent alone without escort and killed before reaching rendezvous.
●Team: Kasumi and Miranda.
●Kasumi killed by Collector Seeker Swarms.
●Grunt shot and killed at security doors.

Final Battle:
●Squad: Samara and Miranda.
●Defenders: Mordin, Tali, Garrus. The low number of defenders coupled with the low overall Loyalty score ensures that one person will be killed, based on an internal death priority list.
●Mordin killed holding the line.
●Mission accomplished with Samara and Miranda killed in the explosive aftermath, as dictated by their non-Loyal status.
●Collector Base handed over to the Illusive Man and Cerberus.
●All survivors on board: Tali and Garrus.

Dossier: The Veteran
Zaeed: The Price of Revenge
●Purposely left until after the Suicide Mission, due to the added prospect of completing the Loyalty Mission while simultaneously leaving Zaeed to die in a fire.
●Saved the factory workers, taking the Paragon hit in exchange for the opportunity to leave Zaeed to die in a fire
●Just to be clear, I absolutely left Zaeed to die in a fire.
●Opted to ask the Normandy for pickup instead of attempting to warn the 350,000 Batarians in the system that they were about to be blown to smithereens.

I went into this with the specific intention of doing everything conceivably possible unless the completion of an assignment or mission made it difficult or impossible to do something terrible later. This would end up being more important in Mass Effect 2, specifically in the case of Mordin's Loyalty. All the same, there are a number of assignments in Mass Effect 2 that have no other outcome than Paragon points, but because they didn't influence the Suicide Mission I went ahead and completed them anyway. There were also a few opportunities where Renegade points were ignored specifically to allow something worse to happen, or where Paragon choices were made to allow for the opportunity to do some other terrible deed down the road.

I imagine that with Mass Effect 3 looming on the horizon that there will be a number of choices that could be altered in this run to make for worse situations than I am currently able to predict, but I suppose that I'll have to wait and see. For the time being, this is very nearly the best I can do for the worst I can be, and it's been an absolute blast. If I do end up needing to redo everything from square one, I feel like it will still absolutely be worth it.   read

4:10 PM on 11.21.2011

SotC: A Moment's Reprieve

Long time no see, Destructoid! The past few months have been taken up with surgery and recovery; I donated part of my liver to an uncle of mine because his own was failing, and have in the meantime been relaxing at home until such a time that I'm able to work again without hurting myself. I'm doing great (as is my uncle), but having hit the part of recovery where I'm generally clawing at the walls, I've been feeling the need to write a little. Even though I've been trying to work through a number of newer titles on my backlog, one of the crucial purchases I made after getting home was The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection. I've written about both games before, but I've been thinking a lot about Colossus in particular recently, and those were some thoughts that I figured would be nice to get down. I apologize in advance if you're tired of reading or hearing about this game.

In a game ripe with incredible and poignant moments, it can be hard to pick out one that stands apart as a "favorite," but I realized with this release of Shadow of the Colossus that I had already had one for quite a while without fully realizing it. I have a bit of a ritual every time I boot it up and turn it off: before and after playing my save file, I'll wait at the title screen until the game's attract/demo mode kicks in.

Players that do this will be treated to a scene of the last place the player saved, with Wander visibly sleeping if you've saved at one of the numerous Shrines that dot the landscape. The camera, which is entirely within the player's capability to control, focuses instead on Agro, who starts at a standstill near Wander, but will soon break into a full gallop, running free and riderless throughout the surrounding landscape with the song "The Farthest Land" playing in the background. Soon after the song finishes, the game will restart at the opening cinema. All told, Agro's romp lasts around three and a half minutes. This is my favorite three and a half minutes of the game, and I think I know why.

I've read a lot of commentaries and reviews for Colossus, and there's no shortage of people who dislike the moral implications of the game's story arch. The most prolific and common of the arguments against the story are that there is no choice in the matter, that there is so little to do in the Forbidden Lands in the way of distractions that there is no way to truly delay Dormin's -- and, therefore, Wander's -- dark task. In this regard, they're absolutely correct. Sure, you can gather fruit, or collect lizard tails, but these aren't diversions or side-quests that influence story. From a narrative standpoint, there is only the systematic execution of 16 giants.

Wander makes a deal with the devil. He sells his soul, knowingly entering into an agreement that can only ruin him. Before he even arrives at the Shrine of Worship, before even entering into the vast expanse that is, by name, verboten, he has exiled himself by stealing a very particular sword. The sword instantly piques Dormin's interest when they recognize it; it is the key to their freedom, and Wander has volunteered to be Dormin's hand. The choice is already made before you load the game. Wander has cast his lot. Your task, as a player, is to follow him down into the darkest depths of his journey until the very end. Wander accepts that what awaits him is a fate worse than death.

Wander will not stop. After each trial, he will rise again, take his instructions, and be off on his way, off to do his next deed. You do not get to change his mind. You do not get to reason with his character, or talk him away from the ledge that will lead him to Hell. You do not get to influence his development, or even develop with him. You can only feel increasingly fearful, increasingly depressed, increasingly loathsome, as Wander -- by your hand, obviously -- slays one majestic creature after another, decaying and dying bit by bit as he does so.

Indeed, Colossus' is a story defined by its harrowing violence. While all of them are incredibly dangerous, some of the colossi will simply ignore Wander peacefully until he attacks them. Wander is the aggressor, the violent predator, but in the greater scheme of things he is invariably killing himself as well, either by throwing himself into battle with the colossi or by besting them. It might almost seem better that the giants kill Wander instead of the other way around, because as it stands the order of things is so destructive: Wander is relentlessly causing himself great harm, and he is doing it by causing great harm to the world and life around him. He kills the colossi, which slowly kills him.

The larger ramifications are that Wander is freeing a deity that was locked away and forgotten by the very civilization that worshipped it, and if looked at from the canonical perspective of Ico, Wander sets into motion the suffering of countless people over the course of hundreds of generations. That's a difficult character to identify with. If there is any character that you will be able to identify within the limited cast of characters, it is more likely to be Agro.

Wander cannot do this without Agro. The Forbidden Lands are a desolate sprawl, diverse in their beauty, but unified in their forsaken loneliness. There are fish, birds, turtles, and lizards, sure, but they are poor companions; the only solidarity Wander will find is in the bond between a boy and his horse. To traverse this territory by foot would be a chore at the very least, but to succeed in battle against all 16 colossi would be impossible. Agro will carry Wander to each of his encounters. Like you, she will be instrumental in Wander's quest. And when the dust settles, and Wander is returned to the Shrine, she will make the journey back, alone, to be there when he arises, ready to escort him to his next appointed foe.

From beginning to end, Wander is driven, and from beginning to end, Agro is there for him. As Wander punishes himself with every waking step through the Forbidden Lands, Agro is there to help ease him along a journey from which she cannot deter him. Wander has forced this burden upon her, and while any player could tell you that she is not without a will and attitude of her own, she accepts that burden with grace and loyalty. So long as the terrain will allow it, she is there. As Wander persists on without rest, so does Agro. As Wander risks his life, so too does she.

And so we come to the seemingly inconsequential demo screen, with Wander seated with his back against a shrine with a knee pulled up to rest his head on as he sleeps, and Agro acting as a regular horse doing regular horsey things. Having been through the whole of the journey more than just a few times, the idyllic scene has become much more than that to me. If you exclude trauma-induced unconsciousness, this is, in fact, the only time we ever see Wander rest. It is the only time that he is not singularly focused on his miserable task. If there is any point where Wander is even close to being at peace, this is it.

And as he sleeps, there goes Agro, the lost world she travails seeming more alive than ever as the wind rustles her mane and her hooves thump against rock and sand and turf. Like Wander, this is the closest we see her to normal, momentarily unfettered and free, reveling in escapism but not escape. These lands are vast, and any measure of its expanses could suit her perfectly; Agro could leave if she wanted to.

But she doesn't.

In those three and a half minutes before and after I accompany the pair through their torture, I see things in the way they could be, in the way they should be, but in the way that they never will be. Wander has his moment to himself, his time to rest, his opportunity to slow the train that can only take him to one terrible place. And Agro has her moment to frolic, to ease Wander's figurative and literal burden from her back and simply run, at a full gallop, through what is otherwise a prison for the two of them. It is as tragically beautiful as it is wonderfully sad; she is there when he nods off, and no matter how far Agro runs, no matter how short a time Wander sleeps, she will always, inevitably, be there when he wakes up.   read

6:10 PM on 02.11.2011

Why I Write: A Retraction, of Sorts

Last August, I took part in the Monthly Musing prompt with an article entitled "Teh Bias: The Simpler Things." In it, I stated that I preferred games with simpler design structures above titles that I felt were over-produced. The response I got on it ranged the full spectrum, from complete agreement to outright rage. Months later, that article has pretty much been forgotten, but there were a few key points that came out of the comments that I've thought a lot about since then, and felt were worth addressing.

The short of it? The central idea of that article is completely, totally, and unforgivably wrong, and I take it back with a sincere apology.

Let's get something of the way first: my definition of "Triple A title" was pretty skewed. How I applied it was towards games that received gargantuan advertising budgets and high production costs that typically went into creating a star-studded type of experience. I pretty much ignored the fact that even games that don't have a great deal of voice acting or create an overwhelmingly cinematic experience can end up devouring just as much money or more during their production, which is sort of stupid thing to forget.

Considering that that warped definition was a foundation for the position of the article, it pretty much rendered a lot of my points null and void. It was the wrong angle, and could have been thought out a bit more before I clicked the "publish" button. Writing an article for a Monthly Musing means you should anticipate the chance that it could get promoted to the front page, and while that's a great way to test your mettle in front of a broader audience, it's also a really easy way to find out the things that you're doing wrong, whether they're tiny mistakes or cases of tremendously poor judgment.

There were a few points where I was lambasted for thinking too much and not letting myself have fun. That's not necessarily what I was doing wrong, but it's a good place to start getting to the meat of this post. My biggest example of what I absolutely do not look for in a game came in the form of Super Mario Galaxy, which I ragged on because I felt that it was too shiny a piece of work for something that was, mechanically, an interactive instruction manual. Specifically, my accusations were that "it mostly plays itself and treats its players like idiots."

The reason I'm bringing that back up is because Super Mario Galaxy, along with a few other examples, was my backing point to the central idea that "fun is subjective," and "quality of design is objective."

What a crock.

The backlash I received made me instantly regret saying it, and within minutes I was asking myself--face firmly in palm--why I would write something so stupid. Not because I'd been caught, but because I knew that I was flat out wrong. Of course fun is subjective, but so is good design; the design and mechanics of a game are entirely dependent on what they're there to achieve, and how well they do that is the determining factor of their quality.

Super Mario Galaxy isn't a terribly designed game. For its demographic profile and the type of game it is, it's actually a pretty well designed game. I honestly had fun playing it. It's just not designed in the way that I personally prefer to play games, which is not the same as saying that it is bad. My personal feelings on it aside, I'm not nearly awesome enough to have a philosophical God complex in the world of game design. No one is, because not everyone likes the same things, plays games the same way, likes the same stories (or even wants a story, for that matter). I'm pretty sure some people here hate Portal, and while that's beyond my ability to comprehend without some discussion, that doesn't mean that their position is without merit.

Still, saying something as idiotic as "quality of design is objective" was important for me to do, not because it gave me a healthy dose of some modesty (which it absolutely did), but because it's also a good example of why I write about games in the first place. Writing and critiquing isn't supposed to be some pompous way of voicing your opinions in an effort to demonstrate your superiority. If done right, it also gives the writer a means of evaluating themselves, of improving on their understanding of the subject, of refining the good ideas and discarding the junk. The junk, in this case, was that there is a very specific standard of what constitutes a well designed game; the good idea is that people should be able to play games that they enjoy, and that their own tastes will determine a game's worthiness.

I play games because they are fun, and because I think they show us the best in ourselves; so strongly do I feel about their importance in our lives that--when I'm done playing one--it's not enough for me to know that I did or didn't enjoy it, but why, and how the mechanics of play triggered that response. I don't write about games because I'm pretentious or arrogant, or even because I want to persuade someone one way or another on any given element or subject. I write about games because I love them, because I want to know more about them, because someday I'd really like to be helping to make them myself. I don't write because I feel that I have the tools to teach, but because writing is a tool through which I can learn. Sorry for my insolence, I'll try not to bungle things so badly in the future.   read

1:31 PM on 04.20.2010

I'll Other YOUR M: Thoughts on Metroid's future

There's been a good deal of detailing regarding the premise of Other M, and while I'm glad to see that everyone's pretty jazzed about seeing the series pulled in a new direction by a new developing team (Team Ninja of Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden fame), the new details raised a few questions for me. I thought I'd go ahead and get some thoughts and examinations down regarding where the series has been and where it looks to be going.

I suppose I should preface this by saying straight out that it's impossible for me to pass judgment on Other M, given that we haven't seen much of it, as well as the obvious fact that I haven't played it yet, so please don't think I'm throwing a Sonic 4-sized bitch fit about something I clearly have no knowledge about. One thing that hands-on reviewers have had to say, in practically a unanimous chorus, is that Other M is going to focus quite a lot on Samus and her history, and to a much greater degree than previous titles have. Keep in mind, there are nine previous titles (if you include Zero Mission, which you should). Of these titles, Zero Mission seems to detail Samus' history the most, but still never outright declares a full life story for the heroine. Instead, we get ideas and insinuations regarding her history with the Chozo, the race of bird-people that have supplied her with her powersuit. Other M, on the other hand, seems poised to give us Samus' history with the Federation, as well as her reasons for eventually going freelance. Those seem like Big Important Ideas, and while I think everyone who has played the Metroid games has wondered about Samus' past, I'm not convinced that everyone has wanted to actually have it told to them, let alone in her own words with the aid of a voice actor. Maybe everyone HAS wanted to actually have it told to them! I don't know! But I do know that I have not had that desire, like, ever, and I'm apprehensive to have Samus, in all her full-motion-video-voice-acted-cutscene glory, sit down and give me the tell-all autobiography.

"But James!" You may say. "Clearly you have a double standard here! Just because Samus has never been voice acted before doesn't mean we've never had talk in previous games!" And you'd be right about that! That's a really important thing to note, actually! Samus does have a little bit to say in the introduction of Super Metroid, but it's all for the purposes of exposition. It's very matter-of-fact, and really only is in there to set up the premise of the game and bring those who hadn't played its predecessors up to speed. The other obvious example is Metroid Fusion, in which we're given a great deal more immediate story than is present in other M titles (har har see what I did there?). While Fusion received universally positive reviews, have you ever heard anybody say that it was their favorite of the series? I'm willing to bet that the answer is "no;" for me, it honestly ranks somewhere near the bottom, and initially it seemed hard to figure out why.

After all, Fusion generally plays like a Metroid game. You have what feels like nonlinear exploration guided by semi-linear upgrades, small enemies dotting the landscapes between boss encounters, and a dramatic escape before the base you're on explodes. The truth is that the game is actually much, much more linear than the other games that came before it, specifically because of how much more story plays into the title. Generally, story is pretty important, but it's not been important enough in this franchise that it should outweigh the mechanics of the gameplay, and this is generally what separates Fusion from other Metroid titles. You're telling me too much, and in doing so you're also limiting my ability to play this game the way it should be played. This is a good starting point when it comes to talking about my fears about Team Ninja's effort.

What makes me worry about the concept of Other M is that Metroid isn't just about Samus going into the Space Pirate base, blowing some shit up, and bailing in her sweet ass starship as the world explodes into a million little pieces. It's about those things, yes, but it's not just about those things. A lot of what makes Metroid Metroid is the tone in which the story is (or isn't) told. Take the first game of the series as an example:




That's your story. That's IT. "But James!" You may say. "Clearly, as an 8-bit title, the available technology wouldn't allow for the sprawling narratives with which we've recently been so spoiled!" And for the most part, you'd be right about that! But Metroid was able to make up for those shortcomings by setting a distinct tone and environment in which this mission would unfold. Basically, it's you, your gun, and a whole world of corridors which, if not empty and lonely, were filled with things that would attempt to kill you. The music is brilliant, going from the adventurous theme of Brinstar to the mystery and suspense of Ridley and Kraid, down into the terrifying depths of Tourian where you face the Metroids and the Mother Brain. Everything supports the same conclusions: you're all alone here.

What makes this significant isn't just that it can scare the crap out of you while you're playing, it's that game mechanics and storytelling methods are inextricably linked to one another. The way the story unfolds helps set the tone and ambience for the game environments, but it also ensures that you need very little restriction in terms of progression, which enables you to do a lot of exploring and progress outside of a standard and expected sequence. It is impossible for me to stress this singular point enough, because if you have never played a Metroid game before, I have essentially summed up the secret of its success to you. Low on details, high on exploration, through the roof on the overall experience.

That feeling of isolation and loneliness was what made Metroid 2 and Super Metroid all the more incredible; the next two games in the series recognized their predecessor's tone, and used it to make the story that much better. Samus is bounty hunter. She's clearly a good guy, but we all know "sci fi bounty hunter" might as well have replaced "fucking bad ass" in colloquial terminology. Face it, when you watch a science fiction film and there's a bounty hunter, you know that that character is a bad ass; people don't cosplay as Boba Fett because he was a pansy. You know everything you need to know straight away: this individual is a lone wolf who hunts people for money. So if that badass goes through hell to eradicate an entire race of aliens (say...Metroids?) only to have one hatch from an egg and imprint her as its mother, isn't that a pretty great shift? Even better is what happens when that Metroid turns into a huge killing machine but can still remember its mommy.

What I'm getting at is that great things can be done in a universe where history is in limited quantities, sometimes even better than the things a history lesson can give. Ambiguities are okay as long as they're not there for the simple purpose of vexing you, and I don't feel that that's something that the Metroid series is guilty of; we still get to learn a lot about Samus simply because of the types of missions she accepts and the degree to which she completes them, but the sense of allure remains because of the shrouded history and lone wolf image, aided by the degree to which a player can and should explore in any given title.

It's entirely possible Nintendo has always had some elaborate backstory drafted up and never really had the know how to implement it. It seems equally possible that they never really focused much on elaborating Samus' backstory beyond her upbringing by the Chozo, and instead focused on the game mechanics and the tone set by the environments she traversed. The latter seems much more likely to me, but that's really what makes the franchise what it is. Isolation, loneliness, and a distinct lack of information, which reduces the need for an entirely linear experience and increases emergent gameplay or sequence breaking. From the sound of it, Other M has the intention of making story a much more critical factor, which will have to have an impact on gameplay that drives it towards linearity. I feel like a whiny bitch for saying so, but really, isn't that the polar opposite of what makes Metroid...Metroid?   read

3:14 PM on 11.06.2009

Thoughts on Postmodern Gaming

So I'm nearing the end of my college curriculum, which means that there's a lot more rattling around in my head than there was a few years ago. I know a lot more about art and about games than I used to, and I have a lot more opinions about art and about games than I used to. So I'll go ahead and preface this post by issuing a general disclaimer and saying that this is not an argument for the "games are art" debate, so much as an application of ideologies and thoughts to contemporary culture. If I talk to much, or you think I'm totally out of my depth, feel free to say so.

Before we can apply postmodernism as an ideology, we need to understand it as a history, and that really begins with modernism, which properly began with the advent of photography between the 1820s and the 1830s. William Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre separately but nearly simultaneously created chemical means of reproducing images of reality, which caused a bit of a crisis for artists, who had long worked to paint reflections of these realities as well. Supporters of photography themselves boasted that the day of paintings had ended, and artists were typically unable to disagree entirely; with photographs able to more accurately capture realistic images, the authority of the painting to depict truth seemed in doubt.

It was at this point that "reality" and "truth" became important, as artists began to work less in terms of realism (depicting reality), and more in terms of how that reality was perceived (depicting truth). This principle was implemented by Paul Cezanne, who showed that representation could -- and should -- still account for the manner in which the viewer and the object interact. If Cezanne introduced this idea, it was Picasso and the Cubists who picked the concept up and ran with it, reducing figures to geometric forms and displaying them simultaneously from multiple vantage points.

On top of the issues relating to photography's ability to reproduce reality, there was also the issue of photography's reproducibility; where painting typically saw only one of a work produced, photography enabled multiple prints of the same image to be produced. Mechanical reproduction created a fear that, because paintings could no be photographed and replicated ad infinitum, there was no longer value in the original. Walter Benjamin addressed this possibility, fearing that the reproducibility of art would case the obsolescence of that very same art, but asserted that regardless of how much a work was reproduced, the original would always have a significant something that the copies or reproductions would not: "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." While reproductions could demonstrate the exact visuals ofa piece, they could not recreate the exact circumstances in history and location that caused the painting to be born, and thus would ultimately remain inferior to the original work itself. This gave the original painting a measure of authority that reproductions would simply lack.

Marcel Duchamp helped to push the ideas brought forth by the Cubists even further, both in 1912 with Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, and in 1917 with Fountain. Nude depicts exactly what its title details, but does so by superimposing numerous frames of time surrounding the figure's descent, giving the appearance of motion, while still pulling influence from the Cubist and Futurist movements. The piece caused a fair amount of controversy when it was shown in America, where audiences were still accustomed to realistic portrayals in paintings; Nude was mostly scandalized at this showing. Fountain, similarly, is still a benchmark for discussing what does and does not constitute art; the piece is a bathroom urinal tilted on its side, dated, and signed by the artist with a name that is not his own. By raising the question of what constitutes art, Fountain became art itself, giving way to the idea that an item could be created by someone other than the artist, but still submitted as art by the artist; these would later be referred to as readymades.

Duchamp's exploits led to a large number of principles central to modernism; his work served as an easily illustrated basis for the ideas of both avant-gard and kitsch. Avant-gard was not so much about "experimentation" so much as the continued pushing of art forward ahead of its current place, the idea of taking something to its furthest and sometimes most remote conclusion (Nude presents a case for this idea). Kitsch, similarly, was the logical conclusion resulting from Fountain, manufactured works not necessarily crafted by the artist personally, but torn directly from contemporary culture, and sometimes supplanting folk culture entirely. These developments brought about the ideas of doing art for art's sake, as well as the division between a high and low art culture, or rather the differentiation of educated and/or elitist audiences from culture-based, mainstream audiences. Before us, then, are the foundations of modernism. Artists shifted from portraying "reality" to portraying "truth," which is essentially reality as shaped by perception. The development of high culture versus low culture, the authority of the artist and their art, and art for art's sake are all consistent with a modern world, as are the focus on specialization and the production of material works. Duchamp, however, possesses a rather auspicious place in art history; in putting into motion some of the very ideas present in modernism, these same actions opened the door for what would eventually become postmodernism.

We can see evidence of the high versus low culture concept, as well as the concept of progression, in the idea of installation art; Duchamp's placement of a urinal in a museum ended up being an empowering stroke for institutions, leading to a shift in focus from the objects on display to the place in which they were displayed. The reproducibility of art as instituted by Duchamp's Fountain would allow for the success of artists such as pop art mogul Andy Warhol, whose images were largely reproductions pushed as far as conceivable and ranged from Coke bottles to cans of soup. Duchamp himself rejected these emerging ideas, citing that the reproducibility of his art was in itself not necessarily reproducible, essentially wrapping modernism in on itself. Obviously, reproduction persisted regardless of Duchamp's protests. Of key note is that the fears of artists living in an age of mechanical reproduction never came true; the worries expressed by Walter Benjamin ended up seeing the exact opposite end result, holding more true to his remarks that the original of a piece was significant. Contradictorily, it seemed that the more a piece had been reproduced, the more the original tended to be worth. In other words, the broader the exposure of a piece, the more enhanced its value was. As a result, public conception of art became less about truth, and more about monetary value. Art had become a consumer commodity.

With this broad exposure, art could and did transition from being explorative works to consumer images; the original context of a work as it existed was almost completely obliterated and replaced by the image as seen by mainstream audiences. The reproduced images replaced reality as hyper-reality, a reality that is crafted and engineered beyond the scope of reality as it actually occurred. Jean Baudrillard demonstrates this, holding that theoretically, a representational image will go through four specific historic phases before ending up at what he refers to as the simulacrum, the point at which its context is eradicated and its original meaning completely and totally lost:

1. it is the reflection of a basic reality
2. it masks and perverts a basic reality
3. it marks the absence of a basic reality
4. it bears no relation to any reality whatever - it is its own pure simulacrum

Because of the shift from truth seeking to commodity, in a postmodern sense the rules do not apply when creating a piece of art; rather, rulesets come into play after the art is created, as if the art itself is created specifically to explore what set of rules it actually follows. This is a matter of either accepting the hyper-reality or continuing to progress with experimentation. As such, a work that is specifically anti-art can still become art, so long as it is legitimized, which brings us back cyclically to the idea of art and knowledge as commodity. Even if art is difficult to understand or unpopular, that it can become marketable and purchasable is enough to legitimize it as art. Given that nearly anything can become art in such a way, the lines between high art culture and popular culture at the very least blur, and at the very most completely collapse.

Therefore, postmodernism differs from modernism in that, as a marketable commodity, art is less about "truth" as an absolute and more about truth as a relativity. The engineered, hyper-reality brought about by the ability to mass-produce reproductions of work simultaneously changes or destroys the contexts of the original while increasing its value, de-elevating high art and elevating pop culture to the point where they stand on the same plane. While they differ in their assessments of exactly how, where modernism and postmodernism meet on common ground is the idea that whatever is being currently engaged has already been accomplished at some point in the past; rather, everything we do is drawn from history, and nothing that can be done will ever be "new." The difference is that the postmodern view dictates that, because of the hyper-reality created by mass-produced reproductions, and because exploration of art will lead to the image's own eventual destruction, there is literally nothing to do that has not already been done, making the art process eternally cyclical.

So what does postmodernism have to do with videogames?

If anything, what's important to note is that we're living in a time that is simultaneously both modern and postmodern; Jean-Francois Lyotard pontificated that "a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant." As such, modernism and postmodernism aren't historically exactly as I've detailed above, and don't apply specifically to art; rather, the period of history between the mid 1800s through the mid 1950s is when the art world came up for names for things that already existed throughout the whole of the cultural world; postmodernism seems simply to be the name given to work that is in those birthing stages of becoming modern, the act of progressing while simultaneously challenging and recycling.

Realizing that the idea of "postmodernism" is applicable to everything cultural, and not just art, is critical. Internet memes are a great example of postmodernism at work in pop culture: you've got images, songs, music videos, and so on that have been taken and warped into something different that completely annihilates their original context. Video games as a medium were inherently postmodern when they were released; colored squares on a screen are at best a hyper-reality that bears no resemblance to reality as we know it. But it's a hyper-reality that we've accepted, and it's obviously been legitimized as a commercial commodity. That games have reached the point where their artistic values are appraised and discussed, and that there even exists a "games as art" debate, signals the transition of videogames out of postmodern culture and into modern culture.

We play games, and if they're decently constructed then we accept the realities that they portray. They may be self-contained realities, but as long as the game can make sense of the reality that it has constructed, we typically accept it. Accepting this reality and playing the game as it was designed to be played would be decidedly modern. Glitching, cheating, and hacking may all be ways designed to corrupt this reality to the benefit of the player, but if the end goal is still a matter of performing well within the game's designated goals, then the gameplay is still modern. It's like breaking rules for the sake of excelling within that same rule structure; if you're using a modded XBox to cheat at Slayer in Halo, for example, you're still doing so with the ultimate goal of winning the match against your opponents, which is a goal that the game has issued you. While the physics and rulesets are broken, it is typically evident in which ways the structure has been perverted, and there is still some resemblance to the original gameplay.

Postmodern gaming, then, would have to be gameplay that is not only so terrifically augmented from the original intent that it bears absolutely no resemblance to actually playing the game as designed, but also is specifically geared towards a goal that is not identical to the goal of the developers. To put it more simply, a new game is created, with the original game serving as the medium of execution.

I can think of no better example than the idea of speedruns, and in particular those which are tool-assisted. The player's objective is not simply to beat the game (which would be following the developer's goal), it's to trigger the game's ending sequence as quickly as possible using any means at your disposal. This might simply sound like "beating the game really fast," but even if it were, that's still imposing an external ruleset onto the game, which is enough to raise the question of whether it's modern or postmodern. Where tool-assisted speedruns make the distinction clearer is in the manner in which they're executed.

A tool-assisted speedrun is a playthrough of a game that's done with the help of emulators, programming knowledge, glitching, and a number of other exploits in order to create the shortest and most optimal run from the game's start to its ending. This typically entails slowing down the frame rate of the game to the point where reflexes and player skill have literally no impact on the outcome of the game, and instead is a measure of how far the game's programming can be pushed when the human element is removed.

For example, take this video of a player beating Chrono Trigger in 21 minutes. Go ahead, I'll wait.


When considering this from the angle of postmodern gameplay, the player isn't playing Chrono Trigger at all. This is something completely different, a contest of sorts with the goal being the shortest game time possible; the particular medium for executing this contest happens to be Chrono Trigger. So we can already say that goal as originally intended by developers (Save the world from Lavos) has been scrubbed and supplanted with something entirely different (reach the ending sequence of Chrono Trigger using any means necessary, even if it means breaking the game).

Once the alternate goal has been set, the means of achieving it are changed as well, and very dramatically. If you could stomach watching the video above, and have every played Chrono Trigger, it only takes about a minute and a half to two minutes to realize that this is simply not how the original game is played. As the gameplay progresses, and more and more glitches and exploits are implemented, it becomes evident that the entire programmed system of the game has collapsed; gameplay implemented to achieve this alternate goal bears literally no resemblance whatsoever to its original context. Chrono Trigger transforms from a tale of friendship and adventure into a terrifying world where innocent chairs are placed on trial, where Mooninite rejects roam the overworld of the distant future, and where MissingNo. defeats his greatest enemy by giving it a present.

To illustrate the same idea in speedruns that are not tool-assisted, we can jump back to the previously mentioned Halo; sometimes the quickest ways through a level rely very heavily on skipping entire portions of the game, as well as abusing loading areas to cause behavior in the game that is not typical to a normal playthrough. Halo also serves as a good example for other forms of postmodern gaming outside of speedruns; there are entire communities of players that work to find places in levels that are off the beaten path and thought to be impossible to get to. Exploring in this fashion has nothing to do with the game's storyline, and typically is done through hilarious abuse of the physics engine in ways that programmers had not anticipated. Again, we see alternate goals set and achieved through means not resembling the originally intended gameplay.

What's awesome is that the idea of this alternate play is seeing slow legitimization through the implementation of certain features by developers into games. Super Metroid seems to have been specifically built to allow for the prospect of sequence breaking without the utter annihilation of the game engine. Portal enables players to attempt to clear rooms using as few portals, as few steps, or as little time as possible, creating goals separate from the original "escape the facility" agenda. And more recent Halo games have included small shoutouts and hidden prizes in very difficult to reach locations, indicating the developers' expectation for players to continue to try to break the game. It's an indication that postmodern gaming is in the transitional phases of becoming modern, and that's a pretty rad thing to watch while it's still an ongoing process.   read

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