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UPDATED David Gaider on Player’s Propensity for ‘Optimum’ Choices in Dragon Age 2

SPOILERS ON A MAJOR DRAGON AGE 2 QUEST AHEAD:

A bit late on the uptake, but I just recently came across a post by David Gaider in which he explains the rationale behind the Dragon Age 2 quest “All that Remains”. Those who have played through the quest know the inevitable outcome: your mother dies. Not just any death, either: a particularly gruesome, unnerving death at the hands of blood magic. The remark by Gaider is as follows;

“The problem wasn’t that “everyone picked to save her”. It was that everyone thought they had to save her, and would reload/re-do the quest until the got the outcome that was perceived as the most optimum– even if the result when Leandra dies is more dramatic and has more of an impact on the larger story.

The quest isn’t about saving her, after all, it’s about putting a more personal face on the darker side of magic and the repercussions it can have on innocents.

If someone doesn’t like it, that’s fine. Up to you. But DLC is created to add content, not to skip it– and, no, there is no material anywhere to make this easy to implement. Dialogue after Act 2 assumes that your mother is dead. Period. Sorry, but that’s simply the way it is.”

All That Remains is one of the few quests whose outcome cannot be influenced and, personally, as someone who ended up having my sibling die on me too, shocked me to the core. I lost everyone, and it was my fault. In that sense, I can recognize that Bioware was effective in their intended outcome: to take away the ability to save everyone as an attempt to elicit a reaction.

It’s something that they’ve been toying with for a while, to be sure–for example, the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2 had the possibility of not only losing vital crew members, but also the possibility of Shepard himself dying. The big issue with that was that the way to avoid such a fate is easy to figure out: maintain a good relationship with your party members, make sure to get all their loyalty missions and, pick the roles that made the most sense for them in the final stage.  I ended up saving everyone, and, while I can’t fathom the idea of losing some of my favorite party members, I still recognize that the impact of such a loss would have probably made the game more memorable.

You can’t have it all. You can’t always get that optimum outcome, even if everything suggests that you might. Shit happens.

Still, this brings up some interesting things to reflect on. There is definitely an ‘optimum’ mindset that frames the way gamers play games. In a way, it makes sense: why would you try to get the “bad” outcome when you can get the “good” one? Or are people willing to take the “bad” outcomes if it means that it will result in a more intriguing premise?

Update: seems I missed this earlier post by Mary Kirby, where she lists alternatives that they considered earlier in the development of this quest.

    • Sacrifice a follower. Your romance, if you had one. Or whoever had the most frienship.
    • Make the player become a serial killer. You’d have to murder a number of innocent and sympathetic characters in order to restore your mother to life.
  • Let Merrill sustain the spell (possibly costing her attribute points) and keep Leandra in her horrible patchwork zombie state in a back room of your mansion. “
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Morality, consequences… and Heisenberg!

Well, considering everyone here is talking about it, perhaps I should jump in as well and pee inside this “moral choices and consequences in games” swimming pool.

While Patricia focuses her attention on morality and the disconnection between action and consequence and Tom rages on about the idea that there isn’t truly any real consequence, I’m still stuck with the word “choices”. When games already have a hard time delivering those, why do we even expect them to deliver anything more elaborated like “moral choices” or “real choices”?

First thing’s first: definitions. A real choice is nothing more than a decision. A decision is an irrevocable allocation of resources that may or may not involve uncertainty. There are two key words here that are systematically ignored by game developers: IRREVOCABLE and UNCERTAINTY. Irrevocable, because a revocable decision is not a decision at all! Imagine you decide to eat a banana but change your mind and decide to eat an apple. Have you really decided anything? Of course not. No resource was allocated. Now imagine you want to eat a banana and drive all the way to the supermarket to buy one, but then decides to eat an apple. Have you decided anything? Yes, you did. Two decisions, in fact. They have cost you time and, depending on how far the supermarket was, gasoline you won’t be getting back anytime soon. Right there, you see the consequence of your decisions: those resources you have allocated are gone for good.

Meanwhile, uncertainty is important because rarely we face decisions that doesn’t involve some degree of it. In fact, no deep decision is 100% certain because, if so, the decision would be reduced to simply picking the option you want more (and then the problem with would be merely not knowing what one wants). This is what justifies the disconnection between action and consequence that bothers Pat: a good decision doesn’t imply a good outcome and vice-versa. I could drive drunk (bad decision) and arrive home safely (good outcome) or I could drive sober (good decision) and get into an accident because of some other drunken driver (bad outcome).

Now, explain to me how can games feature any decisions when players can simply reload their save files and try again? In fact, this was one of my biggest dissappointments with Mass Effect 2. I first imagined the fact that actions and consequences were separated by different games (i.e. the choices I’ve took in Mass Effect 1 would only come to bite me in the ass in Mass Effect 2) would allow for real deep decisions to take place. Alas, the only consequence for not killing a given extra in the original game ended up being merely a cameo by such character in Mass Effect 2.

But then again, maybe this dissappointment was caused exaclttly because I was absolutely certain my actions would have consequences. But why should they? Or perhaps it was because the decision points were so insultingly apparent? I mean, really, when was the last time everything stopped until you decided which wire to cut: the red or the blue one? When was the last time you were asked whether or not to save a Little Sister and you couldn’t even move until such decision was taken? Most decisions we take in real life, even the important ones, are usually done in trivial circumstances – and sometimes people choose without being even aware that a decision had just taken place.

Only games create such drama around decision points. Read the rest of this entry

Thoughts: Dragon Age 2 Demo

We’ve written so fucking much about Dragon Age 2 that those links? They are only some of our…ahem…extensive coverage of the game. Of course, we did all that without the game actually existing in a playable state.

Well, that was then, and now we have a demo.

I’ve mused in the past that we didn’t have to worry about the story, because Bioware always comes through, but the gameplay looked worrisome, to say the least. Turns out I was half right.
Read the rest of this entry

MASS EFFECT 2 – Review

MASS EFFECT 2 is a videogame developed by BioWare, published by Electronic Arts for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by CASEY HUDSON.

Isn’t it weird? We have written 28 (TWENTY EIGHT!) articles about Mass Effect 2, but not a single tiny review? It’s time we corrected that.

So! Although I knew it from the start that liked Mass Effect 2 a lot, it took me some time to figure out exactly why I liked it. I knew what I disliked in it, though. I also knew it was a near great game; basically, for the same reasons ActRaiser was a near great game: the game’s main mechanism had to be diluted in order to hide its flaws.

I’ve only became aware of where the greatness of Mass Effect 2 laid after examining Mass Effect 1. The original Mass Effect tried to play it as much as a new IP could possibly do, for it was, at the end of the day, essentially Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (or KotOR – also developed by BioWare) sans the “Star Wars” part. The plot structure, the moral choices, the items, allies and quest mechanisms surrounding the adventure of the newest Jedi of A Galaxy Far Far Away were all basically the same stuff we would relive during the tale of the first human “Spectre” agent of Mass Effect’s Citadel Council. Stuff like these usually leave me raging mad – after all, if I wanted to play that same game again I would… play the same game again! (Coming up next… our merry review for Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood!)

Despite that, Mass Effect did manage to deviate from the mold, and during those times it shone – even if such deviations were eventually unpolished. Most importantly, instead of the tired old Light vs. Dark Side bickering involving lightsabers, furries and that same old desert planet that appears to be omnipresent despite being “the planet that it’s farthest the bright center to the universe”, we have a whole new – and incredibly fleshed-out – galactic lore involving xenophobia, the revolt of technology, the frustrating shackles of official regulations versus the abuse and the calamities caused by unregulated environments, all tied up in a neat bundle rich with background details.

It’s from this new, fresh universe that the greatness of the Mass Effect franchise emanates. It’s that mythos that elevated what would otherwise be a trite conflict involving Commander Shepard, the new sheriff in town, and Saren Arterius, a veteran Spectre agent from an alien race whose role is pretty much to serve as proxy Klingons, into something whose meaning and consequences we cared about. Read the rest of this entry

Mass Effect 2 (PS3) prediction

I’m going to channel my inner Michael Pachter here and make a bold prediction: Mass Effect 2 for the Playstation 3 will fail. It will move some copies, yes, but it’s unclear whether BioWare will even recoup the mild investment of porting ME2’s content onto the ME3 engine and optimizing things for the PS3.

Some of this is based on fact: the sales data I compile for indie news site Huliq includes pre-order data, and the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 is barely on the radar blip. It is a year-old game by now, and some people (like myself) will pick it up once the price drops to get the “definitive” version because I have yet to spring for any of the DLC on my 360 copy, so we may have a ‘long tail’ situation as far as sales go. Still, I would be surprised to see 500,000 copies move by the time Mass Effect 3 comes out.

My other reason is much more subjective: for all of the “GOTY” praise the game is getting from last year, it’s becoming fashionable to bash the numerous design flaws of the game. BioWare would have won an instant pre-order from me, for example, if they had said “screw it, no-one liked the planet scanning, we’re taking it out”. Or if they’d found a more substantial way to integrate the Firewalker prototype vehicle into the main game. Or, well, more than simply putting the standard “GOTY” edition on a different system than the game released for initially.

Fanboys and girls out there, feel free to prove me wrong here.

Awards Are Awesome: Here are some more!

Screw introductions. Let do this!

Game of the Fuckin’ Year: Alan Wake

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When I first played Alan Wake, I have experienced something that has only occurred a few other times during my life as a gamer. It also happened when I first played Yoshi’s Island, Metroid Prime, Resident Evil 4 and Half-Life 2. I have played all these games until 3-4am, slept for 3 hours and then resumed playing before going to class, during which I fantasized about playing some more. Whenever this phenomenon occurs, I know it in my gut that I have just experienced a great game.

Alan Wake is a great game and it certainly is the best thing I’ve played in 2010.

But what truly captivates me about this game are the little touches. The radio shows; the red chair, with beer cans on the side, set in front of a dam; the tangent descriptions you read on the manuscript pages; the Night Springs TV shows; the crazy developer of the Night Springs videogame; the Alan Wake cut-out Barry steals from Rose; the countdown to Deerfest, etc. I love to find that kind of care in the smallest of details. Ultimately, it’s what makes the world of Bright Falls believable.

I also love how Alan’s internal conflicts are projected onto the gameplay. Note, for instance, the very nature of the Taken: how they dress and what they speak. These are mostly authority figures, trying to reprimand Alan (“omega 3 fatty acids are good for your health [so finish up your plate!]), debate him (“[No!] Fishing can be a hobby OR a JOB!”) and remind him of his failures (“You’ve missed your deadline!”). That these came from Wake’s mind tells you how he uses his writing as an escape valve. That he deals with all that non-constructive criticism with shotgun shells is also very telling.

Alan Wake is the closest gaming ever got to filmic masterpieces such as Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Fellini’s 8 ½ about artists in conflict with their own art. Who would guess we needed to inspire ourselves with Stephen King in order to achieve that?

 

 

Disappointment of the Year: No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle –

It’s no secret that I love the original No More Heroes. It’s also no secret that I absolutely despised everything about No More Heroes 2. It’s a game born from an Excel analysis that desperately wants to be loved, but can’t hide the fact it has no soul.

Oh, but does it try! From the NES-like minigames to the Sylvia’s peepshow introductions, the game wants to scream “Hey! Look how I’m still hip and indie! I’m pure post-modernism!” but it still sounds insincere as it ends up trivializing everything the original game cared about. One has the impression director Ichiki tries to emulate Suda, but fails to have a vision of his own. The result is a game that always fails to answer the most basic question: why should you care?

Why should you care about Travis’ quest of revenge when the game never bothers to show how the object of Travis’ revenge was ever meaningful to him? Why should you care about the bosses when they don’t even bother to introduce themselves? Why should you care about the NES minigames, when you don’t have any real use for the reward you get by playing them? Why should you care about playing as Henry or Shinobu when they barely know the reason they are in the game themselves? Why should you care about Travis when we lost we perspective we had about his life? In fact, why should anyone care about Desperate Struggle?

 

 

Best Moment of 2010

The “Children of the Elder Gods” concert in Alan Wake.

You know this moment was coming, you read about it in a manuscript page, and yet nothing could prepare you for how exactly epic this moment is. Gone are the times you’ve spent lurking in the woods, now the game’s combat mechanics reach their climax as you must battle countless Taken in a rock show battle with hosted by The Poets of the Fall. A better description: HELL YEAH!

 

Runner-up:

Looking at the broken ceiling of the original Normandy as I rushed to save Joker in Mass Effect 2.

Game of the Year?

*Sometime after dusk. We are playing Baldur’s Gate 2, a classic of video games, eating a piece of Christmas Cake*

Shadowy Figures (coming out of the shadows in the doorway): We need a game of the year choice.

Me: Oh, game of the year? What game? What year?

SF: This year. Your choice. Of game.

Me: Oh, I left it in my coat. It’s out in my car. Let me go get that.

SF (blocking the door): No! No! You’ve held off long enough. You will not make fools of us. You will tell us, and tell us now!

Me: Okay, okay, fine. Game of the year. This year. You want a choice from me.

SF: You’re stalling for time.

Me:
No, you just think I’m stalling. This year is difficult. If anything, it is defined more by its disappointments than by its successes. I mean, sure, when you think about it, there’s been a lot of quality games released this year. Even more I haven’t played.

SF: So what is your choice?
Read the rest of this entry

For the Ugliest Bastard Alive

I was planning to start it by telling what my first impressions of the game were, but because they were too much focused on the face generator aspect of it, I’ve decided to make a dedicated blog post about it.

In short, I despise the face generator in Mass Effect 2. I don’t have the patience Bioware’s dull and minimalistic face modeling parlor. Besides, it took out the only two features I liked about Mass Effect 1’s face creator: the scar gauge and the ability to make your avatar oddly similar to my Jedi from Knights of the Old Republic.

Other than that, the game still asks you to determine stuff like “cheek gaunt” and “eye depth”, which only ever works for making a character uglier. Never prettier.

Time to save the galaxy, Quasimodo!

On the other hand, they are Bioware’s efforts are still years ahead of Bethesda. The more I toy with the faces of my Elder Scrolls guy and Fallout 3’s Lone Wanderer, the more they look the same: generic. At least Fallout 3 offers me a nice selection of facial hair to choose from. Remember kids, facial hair can make one’s face epic no matter how bland you actually look like.

Oh, but if you don’t like generic or Commander Shepard’s–whose eye sockets are so protuberant you might think they were modeled after a Marty Feldman on a caffeine high–Mass Effect still has , distinctive standard faces. Well, while I’m fine with Female Shepard’s (FemShep) face (though I like the idea of giving her a ridiculous tan even though she practically lives inside a spaceship with no natural sun light), MaShep’s face still leaves me unsettled. Those dead blue eyes of his are buried deeper in the uncanny valley than a teen Haley Joel Osment!

But you know what grinds my gears? Is that, theoretically, this was a problem was already solved back in 2000. Back when Perfect Dark was released for the Nintendo 64. During its many previews, Rare kept talking about a feature called “Perfect Head”, which allowed a played to take a photo of his face with the Game Boy Camera, use the Nintendo 64’s Transfer Pak to upload the photo to the game and then “glue” it on the face of a multiplayer character. Then, after a little manipulation like changing the skin color and adding hair (the Game Boy Camera only took black and white pictures after all), you could start playing as yourself

This feature was unfortunately ditched. Allegedly by technical reasons, but many people wondered if that wasn’t only to avoid any kind of political controversy (the Columbine High School Massacre had just happened the previous year, after all).

Now, when Perfect Dark was about to be released for the XBLA this year, lots of site started to post rumors (without any kind of research, obviously) about a possible return of Perfect Head’s mapping feature. Meanwhile, nobody wondered why were we waiting only for Perfect Dark to do this. I mean, with the EyeToy and the Kinect, this feature is finally feasible. Consoles are already bugging us to create console versions of ourselves only to sell us cheap Tennis games where an avatar that looks like me can mercilessly defeat an avatar that looks like my girlfriend (chivalry? what’s that?), so why not a Mass Effect where Shepard actually looks like me, instead of a scary albino? Or perhaps a drag queen version of me…

Besides, where is the controversy when we limit face mapping to the main protagonist only? I mean, any kind of complaint would be redundantly meaningless considering the very definition of an avatar is to be a digital surrogate of oneself: any act of violence made by an avatar wearing your face isn’t any different than any other avatar’s act of violence.

It took me 1:30 hours before I finally settled down with a face I was comfortable with and started, you know, actually playing Mass Effect 2. I welcome any solution that will solve my problem more quickly and effectively. And hey, if this solution grants me at least one good reason for buying a Kinect, the better for Microsoft, eh? So what are you waiting for, Don Mattrick? Make it happen!

 

Update: my buddy just told me soccer games like EA’s FIFA series and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer games are already venturing in the face mapping business – which a quick Google search later confirmed it. Considering EA also owns Bioware, I’m wagging my finger at them! It’s high time those features showed up in real games! “Real games”, of course, meaning “games I like to play”.

Update 2 (Christmas Update!): As HotChops says below, another game with face mapping Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas. Here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIR8HOvXjrU&feature=related. If anyone else knows of any other game with face mapping, please tell me so I can add them to article too! Thanks! 🙂

BioWare charges $10 premium to play Mass Effect 2 on PS3

News just broke today how BioWare will solve the problem of ‘importing’ the experience of Mass Effect for those who want to play Mass Effect 2 on the Playstation 3.

I wrote about the news here (shameless plug)–and I think the solution is a rather elegant one, considering the impossibility of bringing the full Mass Effect game over, but here’s the takeaway:

Retailers such as Amazon have the ‘original’ Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect 2 listed for $20. All of the current paid DLC that adds content to the game comes out to 1920 Microsoft Points, or roughly $30, so PS3 owners are actually being overcharged by $10 for the privilege of getting a year-old port.

Good in the long run for people who only own a PS3, or who can’t download DLC because of various circumstances, and certainly great for the commercial success of Mass Effect 3 but I think effectively charging $10 for a digital comic seems kind of steep. At the same time, while I liked Mass Effect 2, I’m certainly not as big a fan as Patricia–so maybe she’ll chime in here.

The art is by Dark Horse, and here’s a sample courtesy of Kotaku:

ME3 Outed, Takes Place/Involves Earth?

The EA store has confirmed what I’m sure we all already know: ME3 exists, and we know this because they accidentally put up a listing for the game up in their store (and took it back down right away, but we have screenshots thanks to Joystiq.) Of particular note would be the description, which reads as follows:

“Earth is burning. Striking from beyond known space, a race of terrifying machines have begun their destruction of the human race. As Commander Shepard, an Alliance Marine, your only hope for saving mankind is to rally the civilizations of the galaxy and launch one final mission to take back the Earth.”

Earth is burning? Could ME3 see is finally visiting Earth? I would assume, if Earth is involved, this guarantees that the Illusive Man is involved…Earth is the keystone for humanity, no?

I will also note that it’s too bad they already used the ‘impossible mission against impossible odds’ trophe in 2, though it’s interesting that they say it’s a final mission….logistically, 3 marks the end of the series but do we have control over whether or not Shepard survives the mission?

Questions! We will probably know more once the VGAs roll around, because I’m going to bet that this is the title they unveil. This would explain why the gun held by the man in the screenshot we’ve all seen looks like a ME sniper rifle: it’s in the ME universe.