Friday, March 16, 2012

Fun & Games, Pt. 3

Okay, okay, okay; one more case. Along with some other stuff.

Case #4
Name: Casey Hudson
Game: Mass Effect 3
Fault: Illusory player agency (among other things)

I'm not here to decry this game as the nadir of modern gaming; the game is... mostly well-crafted as far as what it intends to be. I'm not here to stoke any flames or dog-pile on the poor, beat-up, downtrodden multi-billion-dollar publisher; the business practices surrounding the game are a separate issue altogether.  I'm not going to get too deep into the lack of structural interplay of the dialogue trees from the FPS sections; I've done that before. This isn't even about the conclusion of the game/series; the fault in question here goes far beyond the specific bizarre endings that were chosen as the capstones of a major video game "trilogy". (Let's face it, they're probably halfway done with #4 and drafting storyboards on 5 and 6 right now.)

This Shepard is based on Bjork. I like Bjork.

How, in the entire Mass Effect series, did you exert your will over the machinations of the plot? Preset interrupts along a linear Good/Bad duality and a bunch of branching decisions, nearly all of which eventually folded back on themselves and rendered your choices irrelevant. If a character died, their branch of side quests and hyper-simplified "get freaky" scripts were locked out. For a legendary prophecy-heralded space Mary Sue, Shepard doesn't seem to have really accomplished all that much given the possible branches of his timeline as seen in the game, has s/he?

When you treat a game's plot as prescriptive on the part of the creator and insist on it as the focal point, these are the kinds of corners you paint yourself into.  Every time you decide to give the player a modicum of real, honest influence over the story, you're starting up a whole new required branch of voice acting and game assets. No matter how many forks you place along the way, the reality is that by putting narrative first you've more than likely doomed yourself to an inescapable overriding sense of linearity. Folding branches back into themselves only serves as insult to injury for your audience.

bad wheel
Courtesy of the Flickr account of PC Gamer's Tom Francis.

Time for a digression! Remember when movie adaptations of video games were awful? Not just in terms of the acting and the production values, but how well they represented the game they took their title from? Some like Resident Evil even went and made up new stories out of whole cloth! Hey, to be totally honest, even to this day I remember The Super Mario Bros. Movie fondly; while I'm not exactly waiting with bated breath for the Criterion re-release, it was a fun little throwaway that just so happened to pull in Dennis Hopper (!) and Mojo Nixon (?!) while officially marking the twilight years of Bob Hoskins' on-screen career.

People decry it to this day as a poor movie for being "unfaithful"... but how much did writers and directors really have to go on? Surely they couldn't just show Hoskins running in a straight line and jumping, with no bridge between Brooklyn and the Mushroom Kingdom.  The process of making the movie adaptation relied on a lot of artistic leeway and drastic re-interpretation of familiar elements exactly because the platforming entries in the Mario series have always been some of the most pure celebrations of video-games-as-games. The premise was always endearingly silly; that the games' action didn't translate to film is a testament to the fact that Mario belongs as a video game character.

Bowser with Goomba and Koopa outside of their natural habitat.

When video games are allowed to be games, the stories come from the player. You generally don't reminisce with other people who have played games like the Burnout series about your rise through the ranks of the racing underground, but rather about the time you as the player finished a challenge a hundredth of a second in front of 2nd place or five dollars over the required damage total. Rather than believe in the medium's relatively unique power to engross through interaction and skill, the trend now is to engross through passive escapism. You can handle the ho-hum run and shoot parts, we'll take care of making you feel like the savior of the universe, just sit down and shut up.

Think about the key buzzwords and bullet points being used as major draws for top-tier high-budget games: "action set-pieces", "cinematic", Hollywood voice actors, Hollywood score composers, Sisyphean struggles for "realism" in graphics, the ever-greater reliance on scripted/fixed sequences, and so on. I've heard these kind of de-gamed video games called everything from "beautiful tunnels" to "asset tours", but whatever nickname you have for them, they're not interested in letting the player control anything significant. Tell me that Naughty Dog's Uncharted series isn't anything more than a bunch of thinly-veiled fan fiction sequels to the first three Indiana Jones movies. Do it while twirling swords at me menacingly.

That's what I thought.

Some people, like Ryan Kuo of Kill Screen, would argue that the narrowing of choices and their effect on the fictional world of Mass Effect 3 is part of some grandiose and compelling message on the nature of finite life in the universe and how all choices we make are in some way equally as insignificant and in vain. Of course, in the process of his deep metaphysical pondering over an unsatisfying and alienating gameplay experience, he would also have you believe that one times four equals some number greater than twenty-three:

Mass Effect 3 is wholly unlike its predecessors in that it is a game about indecision. Shepard begins with a single mission, to find an important artifact on Mars. But moments later she has arrived at the Citadel where she is chaotically bombarded with the needs of others. The wounded, the hapless, and the greedy are all asking. Quickly her list of tasks has quadrupled into the dozens.

Cheap shots aside, the point is to go with Occam's razor if you're going to factor in authorial intent. You can certainly bend over backwards to explain the game's terse dismissal of player agency compared even to past installments as a profound philosophical quandary with enough quasi-erudite framing. Or, instead of that, you can chalk it up to the same poor design that's already present in character animation, graphical presentation, stilted dialogue, infantilized mockups of human interaction, rote and unsatisfying combat, and general respect for the player as a capable individual.

So, what should Mass Effect 3 be then? In its loveless marriage of dull action sequences to a facile story in discrete chunks only held together as a formality by premise and sequence, what would be the best way to experience it? Certainly not a video game, for that would rely on the audience. No movie or even series of movies could properly include all the minutiae and details of world-building, or fit in the needless errand-running of filler fetch quests. And, for just that little extra, how could we make sure to include big-name "nerd-friendly" personalities like Tricia Helfer?

Recommended Revamp: Battlestar Galactica (2003 series)
Kind of Like: Battlestar Galactica (2003 series)

Final installment soon!

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