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11:00 PM on 03.27.2012

'Mass Effect' fans provide argument: Video games are not true artforms

My apologies if you're all too familiar with the introductory material. I originally wrote this for a non-gaming audience.
With the final installment of the popular space trilogy released, developer BioWare has added a chapter to the “games-as-art debate.” Even if they don’t intend to, it’s the irate “Mass Effect” fans who are arguing games can’t be art. Shortly after the release of “Mass Effect 3,” it began getting trashed by the fans on Metacritic. Though the Xbox 360 version has a very positive 93 out of 100 from critic reviews, more than 2,000 fans have awarded it a 4.8 average score out of 10. On PC and PS3, that average drops to 3.7, and almost all of the hate is directed toward the final 10 minutes of the 30-hour game, ignoring the preceding fun, well-crafted experience.

“Unfortunately the game ending as it stands ruins everything,” wrote a Metacritic user who rated the PS3 version one out of 10. To generalize the matter, fans are concerned about allegedly poor writing, plot holes and an apparent lack of choice at the end of a trilogy spanning some 90 hours or more. They’re also upset that their decisions in the game have not made as much of an impact as they would have liked.

A movement calling itself “Retake Mass Effect” raised more than $80,000 for the Child’s Play charity and to increase awareness of the issue before ceasing collections on March 24. The group’s only real directive is to “Demand a better ending to Mass Effect 3,” according to its Facebook page. “We are here to show a company that their devoted fanbase has been hurt.” Publisher Electronic Arts and BioWare have both noticed this uproar. On March 21, BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka wrote, “Exec(utive) Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey.”

Shortly after this announcement, Retake Mass Effect responded, “Even if they do (make a new ending), it doesn't mean that it will be good.They could slap together a 5-minute epilogue...Until we get an ending worthy of Mass Effect we will Hold The Line!”

Sure, raising money for charity is great, but where do these fans get off making demands? Also, if their current tone is any indication, then it seems unlikely they will ever be pleased. "If computer games are art then I fully endorse the author of the artwork to have a statement about what they believe should happen,” said Paul Barnett, senior creative director at BioWare Mythic. “Just as J.K. Rowling can end her books and say that is the end of ‘Harry Potter,’ I don't think she should be forced to make another one."

Barnett raises a good point. All good things must come to an end, and the final installment of any successful trilogy in any medium often has a difficult time living up to the expectations of fans. Should “Matrix” fans have asked the Wachowski’s to remake “The Matrix Revolutions”? Should readers have raised money to have Stephen King write a new ending to his “Dark Tower” series? Sometimes books and movies end in unfulfilling ways, or raise more questions than they answer as those final credits roll.

Furthermore, there is a certain theory about “Mass Effect 3’s” ending. Most of the angry Internet posters who castigate BioWare’s poor writing seem to ignore this theory. If the theory is true, it’s not only a savagely brilliant ending, but it also nullifies nearly all of the complaints fans are making. Regardless of the theory, fans are only proving that a substantial number of gamers are childish. Some are even returning the game to Amazon and other retailers for a refund. They aren’t being critical. They are being angry consumers who are upset because they feel they didn’t get their money’s worth.

Get over it.

It’s as if the fans are saying, “We can’t handle high art. Please spell everything out for us. Screw your artistic integrity because we’re paying you money. Oh by the way, when does the next ‘Call of Duty’ come out?”

The only viable argument to alter the game's ending comes from Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo. He argued games "are malleable works that benefit from improvement and transformation." Totilo continued, "More than one smart game developer has described the medium as a conversation between game players and game creators."

It's interesting to think of game development as an open conversation between players and studios. Certainly, player feedback does influence future development decisions and even patches to exisiting games. What Totilo fails to understand is that, at least right now, this is not a conversation taking place. The "Mass Effect 3" fans who want a new ending have offered a list of vague demands. They know they want a new ending, but they don't know what they want it to be. Even if the fans could come up with a list of things they are looking for in an ending, it's difficult to imagine they could agree on anything as a collective. Also, giving fans creative control could take the fun and mystery out of a video game if players know how it will end.

The only upside to this debacle is it makes a solid argument for the emotional impact of video games and their power as storytelling media. BioWare, though presently scorned by many of its strongest admirers, created a story—neigh, a universe—that people care deeply about. They care deeply enough to cry out when they feel something is wrong and enough to raise $80,000 for charity. Now if only they could show that same respect for the programmers and the writers—the artists behind the “Mass Effect” canvas. If only they could trust their fellow humans to do something daring with their own masterpiece, maybe then games could truly transcend and become art.   read

6:19 PM on 03.19.2012

Disappointment: Indigo Prophecy

Before they made the fantastic "Heavy Rain," David Cage and Quantic Dream made "Indigo Prophecy," also known as "Fahrenheit" in Europe."Indigo Prophecy" is disappointing because it seemed so promising from the outset. In fact, Game Informer ranked “Indigo Prophecy’s” 10th on a list of the top video game openings. About halfway through, the game begins to stumble. It’s a gradual fall, but the game’s awful writing steadily gains momentum up until the final act: when it tumbles into a rotten, gooey pile of unbelievably convoluted filth.

Players are treated to an intriguing introduction. After an interesting speech, cinematic camera shots through a wintry New York City and a great score by Angel Badalamenti, the view shifts to a dingy restroom in a small diner. An average-looking man is washing up at the sink. Soon enough, there are flashes of a knife inter cut with the bathroom scene. Something is definitely out of place. There is a man in one of the stalls: Lucas Kane, the man who was just speaking. His eyes roll up into his head as he stands and brandishes the knife. He lumbers, zombie-like, toward the man at the sinks. As he does so, the camera shows glimpses of a hooded figure moving the same way through a field of lit candles. Finally, the unthinkable act occurs, and Lucas stabs the man once. The man falls to the ground, moving to escape. Lucas hovers over him, raises the knife high into the air and brings it down one final time.

Almost immediately, Lucas comes to. He jerks away from the corpse on the ground. He looks at his arms, which have strange symbols carved into them, and stares at the dead man in disbelief. A crow perched in an open window laughs before flying away. The camera shows a police officer taking his break in the diner. Lucas says to himself, “Quick, I’ve got to get out of here...”

Begin playing “Indigo Prophecy.”

With little in the way of hints or tips, the game throws players into the thick of it immediately. Just as Lucas was shocked to see the act he committed, taking over and playing as him is just as disorienting. Who is Lucas Kane? Why did he stab a man he probably didn’t know? How long will it be before that police officer has to empty his bladder? Those questions will have to wait. There’s a murder scene to clean up.

That’s right, the first things “Indigo Prophecy” tasks the player with are dragging a body into a bathroom stall, mopping up blood from the floor and disposing of a murder weapon—or not. The beauty of “Indigo Prophecy” is in the choice. When the game was released in 2005, it presented players with a multitude of choices and unique outcomes based on what players did (or did not) do. Cage referred to it as an “interactive movie,” and he wasn’t far off. With fully voiced dialog, interesting set pieces and multiple characters to play as, things looked pretty good for “Indigo Propehcy.”

Two things hold “Indigo Prophecy” back from greatness. The first problem is the use of quick-time event (QTE) action scenes. These scenes become more frequent, more complicated and longer as the game progresses. Players are forced to input a series of analog stick movements that are sometimes vaguely related to the action on screen and completely arbitrary at other times. If memory serves, Lucas has a life bar. Failing a series of gestures will reduce the bar. If it depletes completely, then it’s back to the beginning of the sequence.

Look familiar? If there’s one way to remove players from a storyline, it’s to have them repeat a section. Even Simon Says champions will need to repeat a few sequences.

Still, the QTEs could be overlooked if the narrative didn’t spiral into strange territory. “Indigo Prophecy” turns into a bizarre action movie filled with made-up, Mayan mumbo jumbo and warring clans and the coming of the apocalypse. Lucas turns into some kind of all-powerful, Neo-like character. The suspenseful, intimate writing gives way to more bad QTEs so Lucas can fight weird phantom creatures. By the end, it’s all so laughable that none of the three endings really matters.

People are complaining these days about the end of “Mass Effect 3.” Regardless your opinion, at least it’s a fun ride filled with great game play. “Indigo Prophecy” has merely tolerable game play. The story started off carrying the game, but dropped it before long.

Truly disappointing.   read

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