The Random One was born in the middle of the Brazilian (concrete) jungles, where it was foretold by a figment of his imagination that he would become a great writer. After waiting for decades for the world to recognize his genius, he gave up and decided to actually write things that people might want to read. This is one of the things he writes.
I have just turned twenty-seven years old. I am, as far as the internet is concerned, an old man, cynical and tired. As such, I tend to scoff when I hear game discussion centered about how games should first and foremost be 'fun'. Fun is not the thing I want the most in my games. My favourite game of 2012 probably was dys4ia, which is about as fun as reading a book about the Holocaust. Last year I also played Far Cry 2 (yes, 2) and Spec Ops: The Line, and I loved how both games resented the player for wanting to have fun. You want to be a gung-ho hero? WELL FUCK YOU, IT'S ACTUALLY BORING, NOW SHOOT SOME MORE IDENTICAL DUDES. Games don't need to be fun, they need to be engaging, and fun is only one of the myriad ways engagement can be achieved. I expect something interesting out of my games, so if a game tries to hook me only by trying to be fun, it needs to have an outstanding execution of fun for it to even blink in my radar.
I love Ace of Spades, because it is so much fun.
Ace of Spades is a class-based multiplayer shooter, which is a genre I'm hopelessly in love with, and that rarely is done well. Its main feature is that the terrain is entirely destructible, up to a (rather shallow) water level. This is not the first game to have claimed it, but the first to actually deliver, being technically possible to destroy every single block in a level until you're left with a large expanse of the lowest water layer. Likewise, you can build structures, block by block or by setting down ready-made structures like bunkers and platforms. I guess one way you could describe it is as Minecraft meets Team Fortress 2, though that simultaneously overhypes and undersells the actual game.
I don't like Minecraft, and don't really understand why so many people like it, since it appears most people play it as either a middling survival horror game or as absolutely awful 3D sculpting software. (I have my suspicions, though. Or have stolen the suspicions of smarter people; whichever.) The blurbs that declare Ace of Spades to be a "creative shooter" are lies: changes to the levels are not persistent and each game mode has a clear objective that does not involve gigantic phalluses, so there is little point in trying to recreate you favourite Super Mario 64 level in it, but it also adds a far more unique veneer to them. In Minecraft, every passageway you find is either a drab computer-generated cave or an attempt to build something - either way, something put there for you to look at. In Ace of Spades, finding a little cave or an abandoned bunker is a little bit of hyper-recent archeology - the tale of a guy who got lost or a bunch of people who couldn't hold their position that happened two minutes ago and of which you were part. A little tunnel can tell a better story than ten skyscrapers with redstone-powered elevators.
Comparing Ace of Spades to Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, betrays the former's simplicity, but, I feel, to its benefit. Team Fortress 2 is a great, well designed game, no matter how much you hate hats. But, for all the variety in its gameplay, all the classes exist for the same thing: combat. Some are simple and all you have to do is point at something and shoot; some are complex and may require you to understand the game mechanics, the level design, the opponents' psychology before you can strike effectively. But whether you are firing a minigun from the cart, deploying an ubercharge, holding an area with a sentry and a shotgun or backstabbing six people in a row, your ultimate tool is always killing a bunch of people. On Ace of Spades, combat isn't the only way to go. Your tools are combat, navigation and terrain alteration; three of the classes excels at one of these, to the detriment of the others. The odd man out is the marksman, jack of all trades but master of none. He can fight well, but not as good as the Commando; he's the fastest runner, but unlike the Rocketeer can't fly; and he's got great structures to place quickly, but can't dig quite as fast as the Miner. The classes on TF2 are built so that they each bring something to the game's objectives; the classes on AoS are abstractions of the game's very design, each representing a far more deliberate choice on how the player wishes to approach their challenges.
But, while all that certainly helps, it's not why Ace of Spades is so much fun.
What makes it so fun is that it's a videogame.
There are other games that have tried to do the "everything can be destroyed' approach, and they have, in one way or another, failed. Both Red Faction Guerilla and the recent Battlefield games have been plagued by destructible buildings that stay up for much longer than they should, three floors hinging on a single surprisingly strong load-bearing column. The obvious solution to this game is to perfect the tech until it can run things like distributed weight and material deformation. Ace of Spades does the non-obvious solution: realize that this is a freakin' videogame and make everything out of blocks. Like a cubist painting, everything is blocks: mountains and trees and houses and cars and bridges and buildings and monsters are no different from your shovel's perspective. A building supported by a single block that's actually part of the foliage of a nearby tree, doesn't look strange, because we are looking at the guts of the system and it's not a building or a tree any more, just a bunch of blocks.
And that's why Ace of Spades is so fun. It doesn't attempt to reconcile its limitations with its setting, it embraces them instead. Its levels are abstract, insane, a direct sucessor to the most far-fetched Atari representation of a game world within a 192x160 screen. One of the levels, Block Ness (ha!) is dominated by a giant blocky monster. The monster does nothing; it's a statuette, serving the same purpose of the mountains and igloos that also dot the level, and you can dig through its insides and come out of its mouth if you feel so inclined. You won't feel so inclined. The game is a multiplayer shooter and so you are always shooting someone or being shot at by someone or trying to complete some oddball objective. There will be no Minecraft megaprojects made in a round here, but those megaprojects are simply for show, blocks put together with no life; the haphazard tunnels and clustered bunkers you'll sometime run into in Ace of Spades are always deliberate constructions, with purpose and a history.
The game is intensely aware of this, as you can tell by its fun multiplayer modes. (You can tell the fun multiplayer modes from the others in two ways: they are the ones which have exclamation marks at the end of their names, and they are the ones the empty servers are running.) Zombie! has the infected zombies, able to use only melee attacks, against the dwindling survivors, and is not a new idea by itself (just from personal experience, I can tell it's identical to the Infection mode in TimeSplitters 2) by it's the only game I've seen capable of reproduce a zombie outbreak in its entirety within a five-minute round, with the survivors first hunkering down in any tall, large pre-existing structure then barring down doors and windows with clashing debris. Multi-Hill!, a take on King of the Hill that actually makes it fun, consists on rushing to several scoring areas then holding it until it's bombed, eventually dotting the maps on the remains of hastily-built defense structures that are often appropriated by savvy opposing players.
But Diamond Mine!, I think, is the nadir of Ace of Spades' concept. The goal is to find a diamond, which can spawn randomly every time a block is destroyed, and take it to a scoring area. This simple premise manages to bring up all the gameplay elements into focus: use terrain alteration to find the diamond, movement to get it to the scoring zone, combat to stop the enemy from doing so. But, more importantly, it displays the intense disregard the game has for any semblance of setting. The diamond can spawn randomly from any block destroyed, and if you destroy multiple blocks at the same time, as you can by destroying a block that's supporting others, you compound your chances of finding one. Trees are made of over ten blocks and a single one at the trunk.
Remember the old noob who asks "how you mine for fish?" If he had asked how you mine for diamonds, the best answer is that you cut down trees.
Why not? Why should you expect diamonds to be found underground? There is no difference. They are just blocks. Some blocks are brown and some are green and some are lower and some are higher and look, these blocks are in the shape of a London double decker bus, but it isn't one, it doesn't move or explode or honk or make anything that a bus does, it's just a decoration, or maybe a place you can dig up to without your opponents noticing. Every other war game is struggling to make a level that looks like people lived in it maybe but is also fun to shoot people in, while Ace of Spades succeeds with gross caricatures. We all know this isn't an Arctic village, or a lost Mayan temple, or London, it's just a level in a game, so why pretend it isn't one? The starting level is just a suggestion, now go dig a tunnel right under your opponents' base to steal their intel and watch as they now have to defend it from above and below, for the rest of the game. These amazing design sensibilities pour through and fill every game mode, each one adding a brand new thing to the formula and reverberating with greatness.
Except for Team Deathmatch, of course. Which is what everyone plays.
The problem with multiplayer games, as always, is other people.
News came out yesterday that the R18+ rating is finally going forward in one of Australia's provinces. Hard to think it's been so long since the movement for it began - and since the stubborn Atkinson refused to budge, gamers stood together to found their own party to oppose him. The efforts of the Gamerz 4 Croyton party were ultimately not necessary, and of course the name of their party would be too ridiculous for an energy drink, but their efforts were for the greater good. After all, gamers have the right to play any game they want, free of censorship, right?
Bzzt. Wrong answer. The right answer was no. 'Hell no' and 'No fucking way' would also be acceptable.
"Now wait a second, Mr. One" I hear you complain. "Did you just say that gamers don't have the right to play games? What the hell is wrong with you? Also why is this blog post named after Mass Effect when it's about Australia apparently?"
Calm down, my confused rhetorical friend. In response to your second question - patience, I'll get there in a minute. To your first - are you comfortable? Are you sitting well there, on your computer? You're reading a community blog in a video game site, so I can assume you're doing well in life? In fact, since you're reading a post named after Mass Effect, I might even go as far as assuming that you have already bought and played the latest installment, which came out a few weeks ago and still costs full price in most retailers. Since you're willing to spend $60 (or more depending on your country's import and sales taxes) for something that will drop to half its price in half a year, I'll assume you don't have any major problems making ends meet. You can pay for food, yes? Oh, and you've got a warm place to sleep in? A good one, with a computer, internet access, and a device capable of running a just-released game? You do?
Then how the fuck do you think you have any right to play anything?
Seriously, you. I'm ashamed of you right now. I would bring up some photos of starving Ethiopians if that wasn't in such poor taste.
"Okay then, you fucktard," you wheeze as you realize this isn't one of those nice blog posts that say what you're already thinking with bigger words to make you feel smart, "so what you're saying is that you're not in favour of the R18+? You think games should be banned?"
Of course not. I'm a big advocate of free speech in all of its forms, which juridically speaking only exists in the US, and even then with limitation. My problem isn't with the result, but with the way they went about making it happen. See, if you look up any historical fact denouncing censorship, you'll find a stark difference between then and the Gamerz actions. Reports related to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum will mention how dangerous it was to possess the books listed, but the stress lies on the greater danger of those authors whose books landed on it. Personalities from Galileo to Darwin delayed the publication of their works for fear of religious backlash, and yet you'll read nary a word about their fans who were waiting for their new work. Any ballsy enough history of Hollywood will tell of how black actors and actress were shunned, with but a small mention of the viewers who had such talent stolen from them. The story of the Comics Code Authority rarely spends more than a line to weep for the children who had ocular disfigurement stolen from them. Hell, I'm Brazilian. We had an honest to God military dictatorship in here in the late 60's. Censorship was in full force. In one case a song was banned after the record had already been made, so the entire track was covered up to keep it from being played. Do you know what they talk about in historical reports of those days? It's not about how people who bought those records were robbed of a song.
On the other hand... Look at the ads that were run by Gamerz back in the day. They are all about... well, gamers. They all enforce how gamers supposedly have the right to play whatever they want. Not even a passing mention to developers who might want to make a game and find their work banned before it even is done, or meddled in a way it can't be saved. As if the act of creating a game from scratch, to form your ideas and concepts into something tangible for others to enjoy, was secondary to simply take that ready thing and making use of it. As if the right to create freely following no mandate but your own was not as important as the right to passively enjoy someone else's creation.
Why is that? I won't lose myself in the 'are games art' argument, but it's undeniable that games are a creative venture, even when they are made by Zynga. And in all creative ventures the creators take front stage. Writers over readers, musicians over music fans, moviemakers over moviegoers. Both are necessary for a successful venture, of course - a creative thing that has no audience is a dead thing that cannot do the one thing it was meant to do - and a good reader, moviegoer or music fan will be able to productively criticize the creators, creating a friction that ultimately results in the advancement of the medium. But the makers take the charge. It is only in video games that the gamer puts itself in the center of the subculture, declaring itself to be the most important thing, with the developers being but a necessary but small piece needed so that the gamer can have a game to talk about.
I have thought much about this, but I don't think I can draw a single conclusion about why it exists. Maybe it's because the games industry is too faceless. You can like Nabokov's books or Amanda Palmer's songs or Spielberg movies. Is there an instance for X games so that a developer's name for X would make sense, and not be better explained by a genre, series or company? Tim Schaffer games are almost entirely a subset of point-and-click games, and as much as he wishes otherwise Hideo Kojima games are Metal Gear games. When you think of games as being made by monolithic companies it's easy to overlook their personal content. Or maybe it's the action of playing, so different from the passive processes of reading, listening, watching that it tricks gamers into thinking they are in fact creating what they are merely experiencing, and placing themselves in a spot they do not belong. Or maybe - and it might be that I read too much of Anna Anthropy's twitter this week, but it feels too right - it's just that a proportionally large number of gamers are White Straight Males, and the White Straight Male knows that the world spins around Him. The White Straight Male doesn't know how to code and it sounds like a lot of work but He knows how to play, so playing must be the most important thing in games.
This creates this lopsided, bizarro world in which gamers consider themselves the bosses of developers, considering every deviation from their imagined perfect experience to be a personal affront. The latest, loudest and most troubling iteration of this strange line of thought is the brouhaha over the Mass Effect trilogy's ending. Well, not the brouhaha itself. Being angry at a bad game, or at a bad thing that ruins a good game, is a perfectly normal thing. But the gamer, well aware that all revolves around him, isn't satisfied with being angry. He demands things be set the way they should be - the way he thinks they should be, which are one and the same. And he finds, surprised, that the world doesn't agree with him.
I never cease to be amazed at how many people, in the comments section of any article anywhere that covers it, are in complete support of this idiotic movement; and yet, neither do they seem to cease to be amazed when everyinternetcelebrity they thought they loved comes unanimously against their idea. Some angry comments are thrown, as are the usual accusations that EA wanders around waving dollar bills at game reporters and winking. But the reason the press stands against the Retake Mass Effect movement with nearly as much zest as gamers stand for it is much simpler. Journalism is, in itself, a creative endeavor - and the sterlinglike bloggournalism (journlogging?) that most of gaming media worth reading is made of is even more so.
Imagine that one day you are walking down the street and you see a man. He's a normal, well-dressed, well-groomed man who greets you casually, and who proceeds to pull down his pants and take a dump on the middle of the street. You'd think he was crazy, of course. Now imagine one day you open your door and find the street lined with people shitting on the street. Otherwise normal people just taking dumps and trying not to look at each other. You know this is wrong - but what do you do? How do you explain something to someone when it's so obvious to you, you can't imagine anyone with a shred of intelligence thinking differently?
That is how the media feels towards this movement. There is a moment to criticize and change any act of creation, and that's before it's done. Before it's set free it can be edited and changed and improved and nudged. After that, it's done, and you can't do anything about it. There are some people who are against the whole thing and say only Bioware can choose to change Mass Effect, but they too are wrong. It's already out. No one else can do it. They can pull it back and erase all trace that the original ending happened, but they wouldn't be able to fix it, they'd just release a new one with the same name. And for everyone who has ever worked on any sort of creative endeavour - anyone who ever laboured over a choice between words, between colours, between sounds - knows that it kills you, that you can never get it as good as it was in your head, and you'll need to settle for 'good enough' but not 'good enough' that's half-assed, and sometimes you just stare at the screen/paper/canvas/marble for hours and you don't know how to continue, but you do anyway, and then one day you have to decide that it's done and then you decide that it's done and it's done. And then it's free to the world. Maybe people will like it. Maybe they won't, but you've done your best, or what you could, and it's out there.
You can't change it any more. You sure as hell can't change it because people want you to. That's not how it works. That's as insane as shitting on the sidewalk.
"Now wait a second!" you shout breathlessly, your shaky sausage-like fingers failing to find the proper keys in your faded keyboard. "How dare you say our demands are unreasonable? Bioware has failed to fulfill any of its promises! We were robbed of what we were told we should have! The ending is really bad?" you ask, unaware that it's the equivalent of saying it's not wrong for you to beat your wife, because she deserves it.
I've already linked to the Checkpoint episode, but it bears repeating. You are retaking Mass Effect - from whom? On whose authority do you demand these changes be made? How dare you say that you have a greater say on how these things are made? Have you really become so self-absorbed that you earnestly believe you have a greater grasp of the game than them? That creating a character is more important than creating a framework through which others may create a character? That making a dire choice carries more weight than deciding what those choices are and how they affect the world? That deciding to save an entire species is more laudable than causing that species to come to exist in the first place, making it whole cloth from the framework of ideas?
The complete lack of a mechanism through which these grievances can be properly addressed should have tipped you of the extent of your power trip. (How out of the loop must a Straight White Male's problems be for a mechanism not to be already in place for them to be quickly dealt with? And instead of stopping to think they soldier on, probably deciding that they are the Rosa Parks of the current age.) Saying that ME3 is a defective product is a good way to frame this insane idea to make it look acceptable to the casual observer. Never mind that the people arguing for that were the same ones who complained about the From Ashes DLC on the grounds that they were stealing part of the game's story - when their problem is with the story, the game suddenly becomes a product. And yet even this idea is risible. If you buy a car, and find that it does not perform to the specifications that it was advertised to do, it's entirely within your rights to complain, to demand a new car, to demand a refund, to sue the carmakers if they refuse to give you a refund, to write a negative review, to write a negative letter to car enthusiast magazines, to swear off the manufacturer, to convince your friends to swear off the manufacturer. It's not within your rights to barge into Ford demanding they design a brand new engine that performs to specifications and install it on your car free of cost. And few people would argue designing a car engine is art, or even a creative endeavor. How do you trick yourself into thinking you are a special case?
Another way people deluded themselves that they weren't being spoiled brats was to decide that they did know what the authors intended, but EA meddled and kept them from doing what they wanted to do, because they wanted to sell more DLC or release an MMO based on the licence or just from the joy of seeing the world become a worse place. This one is even worse, because the actual fallout from this whole thing - just from the fact that it existed, even if everyone suddenly came to their senses and apologized personally to each employee - is that publishers are going to put even more pressure on devs to stick to the tested and tired. For example - and before you read the next sentence, keep in mind I rarely use 'Jim Sterling' and 'excellent' in the same sentence without breaking them apart with 'anything but', 'the opposite of' or 'whose last name ironically means' - Jim Sterling has an excellent article on why Nathan Drake should be gay. That would be a nice punch in the gut of all the nascent homophobes of the gaming community, right? Well, not now that we've witnessed how much people are up in arms for something far minor. Go a little farther - imagine that Naughty Dog actually had that planned and actually wanted to do that in their next game. Or any other dev of any other character-centric series. This is a tough sell for the conservative-minded publishers - and now they have a little outcry to point their fingers at. Look, they'll say, it's not that I have a problem with it. But we have to do the things they like, or you see how they'll get! And you won't be there to tell the publisher that it's not what you meant at all, that they're missing the point entirely. But be sure that at some point there will be the suggestion of a gay character, or a black character, or a middle-aged black Latino pro bono lawyer, or a game in which killing is portrayed as a terrible thing that taints those who give in to it, or which takes place following the riots in Iran, and the publisher will scoff, point at the window and shout, 'Do you want another Mass Effect 3?' The next time you see another boring by-the-books sequel, ponder how you helped it be.
But the worst way this played out was through the Child's Play fundraiser. Desperately seeking legitimacy and unwilling to face the fact that they could have none, they shamelessly attached themselves to an already established institution whose very intent is to dispel the idea that gamers are self entitled jerks. It would be shooting fish in a barrel to simply mention that there exist people who believed they were giving money to programmers so that their selfish demands were met and when they realized it was in fact going to kids with cancer they grubbily took their money back. So I'll go a step further. When a financial transaction is canceled, the bank charges the people responsible for them a relatively large sum. This is a small prevention against fraud, so a person who is tricking people into paying for something will not end up having a profit as long as not everyone cancels their charge. The people responsible in this case are online merchants, mostly Paypal. Remeber when Paypal froze Notch's funds back when he still wasn't Mojang? Paypal is a ridiculously paranoid merchant, who will freeze the funds you got from selling that Ford that didn't perform to specifications in the off chance that you'll use their money to start a new career as a gun runner in Somalia. And suddenly Child's Play had a lot of little red bleeps showing up on their radar. Retake Mass Effect could have killed Child's Play.
(Though I must say it was a good thing in the end that it was a relatively harmless thing that mooched on Child's Play. Since Tycho only vetoed other causes after this, it's a good thing that it wasn't used to promote something that was truly noxious.)
Oh, but you're not listening, are you? You've decided long ago that you're right, and all those who are against you are being guided by EA's invisible money-filled hands, or are the helpless sheep who are to frail to protest against abusive DLC practices, even though it was you who would rather pay double than wait a few months and it is you who is certain playing a single player game without a DLC somehow taints your experience. Your eager fingers are hastily scouting these last words just to make sure I don't end by saying 'is what a complete douchebag would say! PSYCHE!' making you look like a moron. You're just not listening. OK then. Do you really, honestly feel that you have the right to demand others work at your behest simply because you wish so? Do you really want to go on with your mindless crusade and Retake Mass Effect?
OK then. But first, you must Remake Mass Effect.
Whatsup Holmes has already brought up the idea of remaking the game (to play like Super Mario Bros), but I have the feeling he was less then completely serious. I, having just wrote a huge blog post on the dark side of the gaming press, am completely serious. Do you really think the ending to Mass Effect is so bad? Do better.
Don't act like it's completely unfeasible. The idea that games can only be made by huge teams with billionaire budgets is a lie we tell ourselves. There are scores of easytolearngamemakingsoftware. Poke around and learn.
You can't call your name Mass Effect, of course - we know how good old Zenimax is protective about that matter - but you can capture the essence of what you think the game should have been about. Your game doesn't need to be good. You don't even need to make it public. It will just give you a new outlook. We all think we know how things work, but it's not until we set down to make them that we truly learn. (I wanted to write this blog post in an hour; I took three days.) The process of creation is an awesome and terrifying thing, and the things we create have the nasty habit of wriggling into a kind of freedom. You owe this to yourself - to know what it is you're demanding.
Go. Create something. You'll thank me later.
After I tell you your ending sucks. What were you thinking?
The worst part is that I had been clamoring for years for a truly mature title, with characters that are actually well thought out and a story that actually amounts to something, and when it actually came out I had to say that I hated it and that I liked a game about spraying shit on buildings better.
I've realized that if GTAIV had been the first game on a new franchise I'd have been much more lenient to it, and might have actually become a grudging fan despite its slow-as-molasses combat, stupid checkpoint placement (or lack thereof), tendency to stop its actually good story to make sure Niko went through a checklist of pointless drab questgivers until every stereotypical New York criminal was ticked off, and completely insane controls (Tap A to run, Rockstar? We have something called analog sticks nowadays. They have been around for a while - you might want to look into them.)
(By the way, there will be GTAIV spoilers in this post. It's ending week - what did you expect?)
The first time I finished the game, I chose the revenge ending and was treated to some disappointment. If at least the game had had the decency to end after Niko kills Dimitri, it wouldn't be so bad - unfulfilling revenge is one of the game's main themes, after all, and it ending on the same boat that brought Niko to America in the first place would make for a nice symmetry. But no, the game dragged on. A character that had been previously shown as a bumbling fool was promoted to Big Bad, and failed to fill those pants so terribly that I thought he was sitting on a deflated boat. A character is murdered - a character that, due to a tragic Faggio accident, I had had almost no interaction with in my gameplay. Then I had to sit through another of those amazing chase sequences in which my target car is equipped with special magnets that make it always remain at a certain distance from my own car, and then the game that had stripped away all my fun throughout the entire gameplay in the name of a realistic gritty story told me to jump a boat to a helicopter. And then I killed a guy I had no real beef with and I was informed that I'd won. And so I'd never have to play that damned game again.
At least I wouldn't if I could find a YouTube video of the ending that didn't think I would be more interested in some preteen twat's innermost thoughts than in the dialogue of the game that titled the video I was watching. Or at least one who didn't skip the cutscenes on the assumption that I was really interested in hot pointless driving action. So I grit my teeth and go through To Live and Die in Alderney, one of the most annoying missions in an annoying game, again. I listen to stupid characters say stupid things again. I follow a car through scripted traffic. I charge a bunch of cops with a shotgun because the only place to take cover is a low wall behind a column and if I try to take cover there Niko will merrily fire round after round at the wall and the two hardcore mafiosi I'm babysitting have hugged the unglitched spots. I die and do all that again, because the concept of checkpoints is as alien to Rockstar as analog sticks.
Eventually, I do it. I get to the ending, again. I make the other choice. I start to watch, and - there's suddenly something different. This isn't the same scene with different characters. Niko's reaction is much greater this time, and yet it feels much more fitting. Everybody hates Roman, but he's been there from the beginning. You couldn't lose him in a stupid Faggio accident. Like him or not, you had saved him from danger, and he had tried to save you from damnation, in a meaningless choice that was clearly meaningful for him, even if he couldn't express it. And he had been killed by the guy who had been a thorn in your side since you set foot in town.
I suddenly understood everything.
The concept of a 'good ending' and a 'bad ending' has existed in videogames for decades. Simply getting to the end is not enough; you need to do everything right, or your characters will be fucked up. The problem, of course, is that, conversely, (this sentence sure has a lot of commas,) if you do everything right, it follows that everything will end up nicely for the characters, even if that's at odds with the game's themes up to that point - Silent Hill is guilty of this, with some of the 'best' ending being as out of tune with the grim hopelessness of the game as the wacky ones with the aliens.
That's not the case with GTAIV, though. It has a good ending and a bad one - not for the characters, though, for the player. The Revenge ending is unsatisfying, haphazard and unstructured - the bad ending. The Deal ending brings up the stakes to the maximum, always hits the emotions it was gunning for and gives Niko's actions the weight that they should have - a good ending. Both of them are bad for the characters, because that's the kind of story GTAIV is trying to tell, but only in one of them that story actually amounts to something.
There are many people, myself included, who want their games to tell better stories, but there are also many people, myself included, who thinks those stories will be pointless if they are just cutscenes shoehorned between pieces of gameplay. They need to be woven into the mechanics; they need to work alongside each other, not against. There are plenty of people who are thinking of ways the story can be the gameplay by itself; perhaps this is such a way.
You still have to jump to a helicopter, only with a dirtbike instead of a boat. Can't win them all I guess.
So have you heard about how the latest Mass Effect novel apparently has a ton of errors, almost as if it was written by someone whose only previous interest in the franchise has been a list of place and race names that was being used to package a wad of cash? Oh, of course you have. That was, what, yesterday. In Internet years, that is like three hundred thousand light years. You probably don't even remember what Mass Effect is any more. You need more recent news - news from the future!
And as it turns out, I have news from the future, delivered to my by a future version of myself. I know it's a future version of myself because he was wearing a hat, and people in the future wear hats. Sure, some people in the present also wear hats, myself included, as you can see by the excellently drawn pixel 'art' up in the blog banner, but in the future everyone wears hats, including my future self. Taking that into evidence, I have no reason to doubt that this document is a similar pile of errors from a future, upcoming Mass Effect novel, to be titled Mass Effect: Correction. To release such a document to the present public is my honor and duty.
[Error: Character] One of the main characters was, in a previous book, an autistic homosexual atheist flatfooted communist. None of these traits are present in the Correction narrative, and are explained away as he having 'grown out of his troublesome behaviour'. It's impossible to grow out of flat feet.
[Error: Lore] All canon representations of the Illusive Man show him to spare no money or efforts in keeping his identity concealed. It's therefore highly unlikely that he has three hitherto unknown brothers, especially who are in such high profile positions as a famous advertiser with a strong personality, a man currently undergoing trial for domestic violence and a literature professor whose work is a reference for all in the field. It's even more unlikely that they would be known as Effusive Man, Abusive Man and Allusive Man.
[Error: Lore] A female character express regret over having had a relationship with a Drell. That could never happen; chicks dig Drell. Haters gonna hate.
[Error: Lore] Sound does not travel through the vaccum of space. The exploding Turian dreadnought would make no noise at all, and definitively no noise that can only be conveyed by three pages of PSHOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMPFFFFFF.
[Error: Lore] The Krogan assault squads are often referred to as 'a fuckload of Krogan'. The proper collective noun should be 'a clusterfuck of Krogan'.
[Oddity: Lore] It is true that each Geth mobile platform is composed of thousands of individual subroutines, each considering itself an individual and who must all reach consensus before any action is taken by the platform. However, nothing in canon suggests that they vote by depositing either a tiny one or a tiny zero on a ballot, or that geth subroutines that vote one are bleeding heart liberals while those that vote zero are hard-headed traditionalists.
[Error: Lore] Turian religion does not have saints, so the sancticity of the artifact auctioned, the Turian Shroud, is... wait, Turian Shroud? Oh, now I get it! That's- that's sort of funny, actually. Heh. Turian shroud.
[Oddity: Character] The two last lines of dialogue between the Illusive Man and the protagonist, at the end of the first chapter, clash with their depictions in the rest of the dialogue, and indeed in the rest of the novel. Despite both being portrayed as intelligent and well-spoken people, at the end the Illusive Man says "Dude even the fucking game is fucking Tolstoy, I ain't reading all that" to which the protagonist replies "Don't worry, nerds will buy it anyway".
[Error: Lore] Mass effect fields were left behind for sentient races to discover. Nowhere in the lore is suggested that mankind might have developed it independently, or named it after the city of Effect Fields, Massachusetts.
[Error: Lore] It's impossible for a Hanar to have "ample and supple breasts" because they are fucking jellyfish.
[Oddity: Character] The Salarian assassin that accompanies the group does not show any of his combat abilities or tactical knowledge that he displayed on previous novels, and in fact is only mentioned in passing when at the midpoint of the book it's stated that "the lizard dude that I forgot was supposed to be in this book was also there, and in fact was with them all along".
[Error: Lore] When the group arrives in the Volus homeworld they find all stores are closed due to 'Volus Chistmas'. That scenario is erroneous to the point that it cannot possibly be reconciled with the canon, as Volus are Jewish. Everyone else also thinks that, right? It's not just me?
[Error: Lore] The Ferengi are normally shorter than other races and all evidence points to them having always been so; no references exist to them "being cursed to remain diminutive by the furious Earth deity known only as Gary Coleman". Furthermore, the Ferengi are from Star Trek and not Mass Effect.
[Error: Character] The group encounters a human couple who are in a healthy, open relationship based on mutual love and respect. However, all canon everywhere suggest human females are incapable of true love, even when a really nice guy is totally into them, maybe he's just a bit shy, but they prefer that stupid jock Chad anyway.
[Error: Lore] Before having sex, the Quarian is said to take immunity boosters so she can stay out of her suit. However, it is stated elsewhere that Quarians are dextro-proteic and thus cannot be contaminated by most viruses in the galaxy; what seem to be diseases are actually super-strong allergies triggered by viruses merely as foreign agents. Allergies grow stronger under immunity boosters; she should have taken immunosupressants instead.
Note: This document is for the novel only; leave anything from the games out of it!
The best way to describe gamification is to paraphrase Steve Butts and say it’s a concept as interesting and exciting as its name is stupid, and its name is very stupid. It’s the idea that the same stuff that game designers use to make sure people playing their games get what they’re supposed to do to make people in real life have both a better idea and a reward for doing the things they should do. I always wanted to try doing something like that, personally, with my life - if Jane McGonigal can use a super hero game to help her recover from a malady that left her literally unable to think, why shouldn’t I, while totally in possession of my mental faculties (even if they’re nothing compared to McGonigal’s) also be able to change my life for the better?
The problem for me has always been that I’m not as willing to put as much effort into games as other gamers seem to. When I read an article about how Generation II pokémon were on average much more powerful than Generation I and had much higher stats, I was befuddled, because I had been playing Pokémon like a highly elaborate game of rock-paper-scissors and assumed attack power was as important as a pokémon’s height. Stuff like Learn Japanese RPG starts from the assumption that since you can learn that sort of boring repetitive stuff for Final Fantasy you could learn that from the same framework stuff that you could actually use in real life, but I could never bother with that stuff even in Final Fantasy. What hope is there for me?
Then I thought... achievements. Now, I’m not an achievement whore, the number of games that I have gotten 100% achievements is a proud zero, and if you want to plot the best way to get 100% achievements with minimal playthroughs more power to you, but I’m not about to spend twenty hours in the Drab Caves to kill 200 Dire Rats for the Adolph Ratler achievement. But... if I calculate I already killed like 14 rats to get past the Drab Caves in story mode, I just might go back and spend an hour or so to kill six more to get the Joseph Sratlin achievement. And there is a chance I’m spending this very weekend trying to get all the Christmas achievements for Steam’s thing, so I’m clearly not above it. Why not use it to my benefit?
So instead of New Year resolutions, which never work anyway, I’m setting forth my achievements for 2012. They focus on the things I’m the most unhappy with in my life - I haven’t taken any serious steps towards becoming a serious writer even though that’s my stated goal, and my social life is seriously lacking. (Notice: Reading that previous sentence means you are automatically my bro.) On the other hand, there’s nothing to help me (say) become better at work, because seriously, fuck work. And, in the same way I deal with game achievements, I’m not going to 100% completion - just trying to get as much as I can. If I fail, well - there’s always next year.
(This is the final part of a four-part series. It begins here, then continues here and here.)
Ebenezer had given up on trying to sleep, and was just sitting on the edge of his bed, thinking and waiting for the next internet celebrity to come admonish him. It didn’t take long for a floating specter to make its way through his balcony doors. It was draped in a dark cloak, and its features could not be discerned.
“So, who are you? That guy... with... the glasses?” Ebenezer venture. He didn’t exactly had a finger on pop culture’s pulse, he paid others to do that for him, and had no way of knowing whether or not they were doing a good job (they weren’t). It didn’t help that this latest ghost didn’t look anything like an internet reviewer, and resembled much more, well, a ghost.
“Aren’t you going to insult me? Admonish me? Complain about my business strategies? Reveal what a rotten human being I am?”
The specter didn’t reply, merely stared from the dark depths of its dark hood, or didn’t. It might not even have a face.
“Won’t you tell me what I have to do? Tell me what I shouldn’t have done? Put everything in perspective?”
There was no reply.
“Come on already! Tell me what all my friends think about me! Show me my stock portfolio! Show me what my first grade teacher thinks about me! Tell me a review of my latest game! Anything!”
Two yellow lights shone up from deep inside the specter’s body, and in a robotic voice it spoke, “BATTLE OF DUTY 3: HOMEFRONTLINE OF WAR IS AN EXCELLENT ENTRY IN THE BATTLE OF DUTY SERIES. ALTHOUGH ONE MIGHT EXPECT THE SERIES TO REINVENT SOME OF ITS MECHANICS, THE CORE GAMEPLAY REMAINS SOLID AND THE GRAPHICS ARE EVEN MORE POLISHED. TEN OUT OF TEN.”
Ebenezer was taken aback, because this was the first ghost that not only hadn’t insulted him, but had actually been kind to his efforts. Also, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be shouldn’t speak. “Who are you, anyway?”
The spectre removed his cloak, revealing himself to be a robot dressed in what a future archeologist might think people dressed like in the 90’s, as well as that the cloak was a Dante’s Inferno 25th Anniversary Edition promotional item. “I AM THE REVIEWER OF THE FUTURE. I GRADE GAMES BY EXAMINING THE SCORE PLAYERS BELIEVE IT SHOULD RECEIVE, THEN CALCULATING THE WEIGHTED AVERAGE WEIGHTING BY HOW STRONGLY PLAYERS FEEL ABOUT THE GAME IN QUESTION.”
“But the players won’t even have played the game by that time.”
“IRRELEVANT. ECONOMICALLY SPEAKING, THE ONLY SALES THAT MATTER ARE THE ONES THAT HAPPEN ON THE FIRST WEEK AFTER A GAME’S RELEASE. REVIEWS IN YOUR PRESENT ARE DIRECTED TOWARDS PEOPLE WHO MIGHT THINK BEFORE BUYING A GAME. PEOPLE WHO THINK BEFORE DOING THINGS WILL NOT BUY GAMES AT FULL PRICE, FOR IT IS ECONOMICALLY STUPID. THEREFORE, A REVIEW’S MAIN PURPOSE IS TO ELIMINATE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE IN BUYERS WHO ARE ALREADY COMMITED TO BUY THE GAME.”
“If that’s the case, then why not just give every game a high grade?”
“A STATISCALLY SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF PLAYERS HAVE PREEMPTIVELY DECIDED CERTAIN GAMES ARE BAD, AND REMOVAL OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE IN THEIR CASE MUST ASSURE THEM SUCH GAMES ARE INDEED BAD, IN ORDER TO PRESERVE THE REVIEWER’S INTEGRITY IN THE FUTURE. FOR INSTANCE, I DETECT THAT IN YOUR PRESENT TIME, HUMAN REVIEWER “TINY” TIM STERLING SCORED CALL OF DUTY MODERN WARFARE 3 WITH A NINE POINT FIVE. THAT SCORE FAILED TO PLEASE THOSE WHO EXPECTED THE GAME TO FAIL, A SMALL BUT HEAVILY INVESTED GROUP THAT WANTED A VERY SMALL SCORE, AS WELL AS THE FANS, A MUCH LARGER GROUP WITH VARYING LEVELS OF INVESTMENT.”
“So what score does it deserve?”
“NINE POINT FIVE.”
“But you just said that’s a bad score to give it!”
“NEGATIVE. MY NINE POINT FIVE IS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FROM HUMAN TIM’S. MINE IS GROUNDED ON SCIENCE. AT LEAST UNTIL STATISTICS CEASE TO BE CONSIDERED A SCIENCE IN 2019.”
“Huh. That will suck for economists.”
“2014. NOW BE QUIET AS I TRANSPORT YOU INTO THE FUTURE YEAR OF 20XX.” The robot smashed a beer can on its forehead, and the two were gone.
Statistically speaking, some funerals must not happen on cloudy, grey afternoons, but statistics were no longer a science, and this one was. The closed coffin slid along slowly across the graveyard, being veiled by people who seemed sad to see someone they knew pass, but even sadder that they had to waste a afternoon like this. There were no bouts of desperate crying or helpless sobs, just a general sense of mild ennui, which might have as well been for the shortness of men’s stay on this world instead of the unfortunate soul who had checked out.
Ebenezer got himself lost from the roboghost and was following the dire businesspeople who followed the procession with a lack of enthusiasm apparent even for funeral standards. It’s not that they were happy, it’s that they were not unhappy enough. Ebenezer stayed with them until the burial, and mused on how, after his passing, he would not be remembered as a friend, or as a family man, but just as a business partner. Marley’s funeral had been just the same, and he had seen his would be as well. He decided that if no one else would, he would give himself an eulogy.
“This isn’t my grave”, it ended up being.
“Lucky be you, then” said a gravedigger who was just done topping out the hole. “Well, maybe not. Guy was rich as well, a video game industry exec. But of course, he switched to movies when the whole thing came crushing down. Then movies also went down, but he was already rich enough that it was easy to remain rich, as long as he sat on a director’s board every once in a while.”
“The game industry crashed?”
“‘Course it did. Amazing no one saw it coming. I worked at a game company, myself, and, well, you know what they say about hindsight. We were treating games like gadgets - millions on development, waiting to make millions back on a few weeks - but people were treating us like cheap entertainment. The only thing that kept was going was a generation so entitled they couldn’t bear to wait for the price to drop.”
“And what happened?”
“Oh, lots of things. Digital distribution shot up. The economy went south - further south. Even politics changed - that kind of entitlement went away in the post-occupy world. We thought we couldn’t afford to change, but what we couldn’t afford to do was continue doing the same things. Eventually my company went under. Thousands fired.”
“What company did you work for again?”
“One of the greatest. VisionActive. We had the most assets, so we survived the longest, or rather, we took the longest to sink. And now I’m digging holes for a living.”
Or rather, he was filling a hole, and as he was done topping it off, he went away. “What a curious man”, Ebenezer said. “He must work for me on the present. I should try to find him. He kind of looks like my father.”
He thought about that for a while, then said, “Shit.”
After that he was back in his bedroom, and he knew exactly what to do.
Merry Christmas, boys and girls, and get ready for a veritable Christmas miracle, the likes of which we’ve never had before. Remember Ebenezer Roberts, the evil CEO of VisonActive? The cackling madmen who had never known joy?
Well, he just did the most awesome thing he could have ever done for video games as an industry, a medium, and an artform. For years and years to come, we shall look back on this day and reflect on just how much he did for us.
What did he do? Well, he resigned from his CEO position, of course! In fact, he pulled a Gates on us and announced that he will be working with an NGO to provide computational infrastructure to impoverished areas all around the world - no word yet if it will be set up so poor people will need to pay separatedly for additional infrastructure, unless they buy a season pass.
This just goes to show that deep down everyone has a good man's heart, which in Ebenezer's case was in a large jar behind his bed. But the important thing is that he's left games behind. Let us all rejoice, for he can do us no more harm!