Wednesday, March 28, 2012

#14: The Mass Effect 3 Ending Debacle

It has been a few weeks since Mass Effect 3 has been released, and the controversies surrounding it have been going strong. People throughout the internet have discussed this issue to death. The fan backlash has been truly astounding. Bioware has reached George Lucas levels of hatred because of the way the ending played out. This week, I will weigh in on the issue myself and give you my own opinion regarding the fan outrage and how Bioware should respond.

But before that, I am going to make one thing clear. Like the vast majority of the internet, I also heavily disliked the ending. I thought that it was a betrayal of the series and its fans. However, I will not discuss exactly why people hated the ending unless it directly pertains to the point I am trying to make. I will not spoil specifics, but there will be general spoilers abound. The best part about discussing a topic a few weeks later is that there is already a mountain of sources describing what exactly went wrong. People have a lot of opinions that ultimately boil down to whether or not the ending needs to be changed.
First, we will discuss the ways people are moving for a change of the game's ending. One of the most well known of these is “Retake Mass Effect.” Retake Mass Effect is a group who opposed the ending and protested by donating to Child's Play, one of the most renown video game charities out there. As of this writing, they were told to desist the charity drive because it was becoming unclear that the two were unaffiliated with each other. Before the charity drive was stopped, the group raised over $70,000. I admit, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard about this. It is a good way to channel fan rage and raise aware (whether or not this awareness needs to be raised can be debated, but that is an unrelated topic). However, I sincerely doubt this could amount to anything in the long run.

The next method that people used to express their outrage was by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on the ground of “false advertising”. While this does at first seem to be extreme (and even with extenuating circumstances, still is to a degree), there is some merit to this course of action. The complaint comes from several press releases by Bioware. Among them were claims that the game would have sixteen distinct endings, that the player's choices in all three games would affect the ending they received in many different ways, that this game would offer closure of the trilogy, and that there is an ending in which the protagonist, Commander Sheppard would lose to the main adversaries, the Reapers. While the latter two can be debated depending on what you consider to be “closure” and “losing to the Reapers”, the first two are impossible to refute. Neither condition was met. There are exactly three endings to Mass Effect 3 which are extremely similar to each other. And the choices you made really only affect whether or not the player gets a short ending clip if they choose one ending and whether another ending is available. Bioware did lie to their fans when making these claims, but it debatable if this is indeed false advertising. Quite frankly, I am glad that people are calling Bioware out for their blatant disrespect of their fans and this is a much more proactive form of protest, but my gut tells me that this will not affect EA and Bioware in any significant capacity.

But, not everybody wants the ending to change. People who simply liked it and argue against changing on that merit (or did not argue at all) are fine by me. That is their opinion and they are more than entitled to have it. I will not discuss this group farther. What I will discuss is the group of people, critics and consumers alike, who argue against changing the ending on the merits of “artistic integrity.” In my opinion, the people who make this claim are incorrect. Do not get me wrong, I am fine with games making an artistic statement. In fact, I would have been fine if the choices the player made did not matter in the end and that Shepard lost in a valiant last stand regardless. That would have been an artistic statement. However, one cannot argue “artistic integrity” in this case. In the case of Mass Effect 3, the ending does several things wrong. It throws out and even opposes several themes of the series and creates plot holes with the narrative devices it makes use of. Furthermore, it violates the most basic of narrative structures in a way that does not make it sense. It tries to introduce plot points at the very end of the plot, which is where the exact opposite is suppose to happen. The game uses these elements to explain the Reapers and their motives, something that did not need to be done since the whole point is that they are unknowable and beyond understanding. The ending is the wrapping up of the events. Instead of doing what it needs to do, which resolving the problem and the character arcs we have been introduced to, it opts to explain what did not need to be explained. It is difficult to defend Bioware's artistic statement when either no statement or a very weak one is being made.

And before someone says it, I am aware of the popular fan theory out there (and the significantly better fan fiction ending). While I do support the theory and have chosen to make it my canonical ending, I admit it too has the flaw of not providing closure and resolution to the events of game, perhaps more-so than the actual ending we were given. This is a side topic that needs to be brought up to preempt my audience.

So what is my opinion on the matter? Well, I might surprise people to learn that I do not support changing the ending. There is one critical reason for this, and while I harped on critics for saying this earlier, it has something to do with “artistic integrity.” In my personal opinion, if Bioware truly believed that the ending we were given should be the way the series comes to an end, then they should stand by it. They should inform the fans of why they went in that direction, the point they were trying to make, and the logic behind their choice. I could support Bioware doing this and would be open to it. However, if the change the ending, or if they dare to charge for an alternate ending, then something would be made clear. Something that I am beginning to suspect, but do not want to admit. It would reveal that Bioware knowingly and deliberately released a product that they knew they could not stand behind. That would be completely unacceptable. I would be disappointed and ashamed that I was a fan of Mass Effect if Bioware sold me a product they would not support. Since no writer has come out in support of the ending, I have to presume that this is the case, but I would be open to being proven wrong.

All in all, I think this controversy surrounding the endings makes for an interesting case study. I wonder how people will think of this down the line. Without the benefit of precedence, it must be difficult for EA and Bioware to figure out how to react to this. I hope the game developers and publishers are watching this very closely, because there is a lesson to be learned here and the way this plays out has the potential to define how the business-side of video games is handled from here on out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

#13: Morality and Games

If there is one thing that my previous articles have made obvious, it is that I approve of games giving players choice with regards to how their own experience plays out. I love being able to impose my own morality on the world and its denizens. However, there is one particular type of “choice” in a game that always tends to chap my hide for one reason or another: That one would be moral choice in games. In theory, I should love this. I should enjoy being able to make decisions that have a noticeable impact. Yet it is often the case where games make missteps along the way that negatively impact my view of moral choice systems. This week, I will go through several games with moral choice systems and talk about why exactly I find them either bad or good.

The first moral choice system to discuss is the one from inFamous. In inFamous, the player sees the world through the eyes of Cole McGrath, an average, everyday bike messenger who, after a massive explosion, finds himself with superhuman, electro-kinetic powers. At various points in the game, the player is forced to make choices that influence Cole's morality, skewing it more towards good or evil. There are several problems with this. First, the player's karma directly influences the powers he/she has access to. There is no bonus for maintaining a low/neutral karma and the best powers are only unlocked to those who are completely good or completely evil. This immediately removes any chance of having a nuanced approached and instead makes morality a binary decision that the player makes at the start of the game. Furthermore, the choices themselves tend to be bafflingly, cartoonishly stupid. For example, near the beginning of the game, the player encounters an electrician who refuses to let him/her through in order to get to his next objective because he is worried about his missing wife. The player has to a make a choice to either inform the man of his wife's death and convince him to let him/her pass. Or, the player can instead opt to pump him full of electric and kill him. This is not a choice. This is whether or not Cole was raised by Hitler! No sane person, when faced with this situation, would kill an innocent man for the evulz! The player is choosing between having common sense or not. The game also has several other similar choices like this that do not make any sense. Moral choices like this are, in my opinion, the worst kind.

Better, but still really bad, are moral choice systems like the one from Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 2 is a story about Commander Shepard going on various space adventures in order to stop an evil alien race from kidnapping and harvesting humans. Throughout the game, the player, as Commander Shepard, makes various choices that usually (but not always) fall into two categories: One category, Paragon, represents decisions that try to satisfy as many people as possible. These usually fall into the category of Lawful Good, but occasionally drift into Lawful Stupid. On the other side, we have Renegade choices. Renegade choices often favor expedience and getting the job done regardless of who the player pisses of in the process. These usually fall the Chaotic spectrum of morality, and occasionally drift into Chaotic Stupid.

This system is superior to the one in inFamous for a few reasons. First, Paragon and Renegade points are tracked independently of the other. Increasing the Paragon score will do nothing for the Renegade score. This means that Shepard does not need to be completely one or the other and the player can better impart his/her own morality upon Commander Shepard. Another way this system is superior is that these decisions are more Lawful vs. Chaotic more than they are Good vs. Evil. Shepard is predefined in the sense that he (or she) will always be a hero who is out to save the galaxy. The player simply determines whether he (or she) will play nice-nice or go all out and save the shit out of the galaxy whether it wants to be saved or not. This has the added side-effect of not having the game judge the player on his/her actions. On the other hand, this system has a very critical flaw. In some dialogue scenes, certain Paragon/Renegade options will be completely locked unless the player has the prerequisite Paragon/Renegade score. This is bad because it means that, in order to get the best possible outcomes, it is often necessary for the player to generally stay on the Paragon or Renegade path almost completely. All of the potential nuance of the character is erased in order to create either a Lawful Stupid or Chaotic Stupid character.

(Author's Note: Bioware responded to these criticisms in Mass Effect 3. Now Paragon and Renegade points feed into a general Reputation score that determines the player's ability to make dialogue options. This is better because all that is really necessary to get options is to just go out and do stuff and the focus is not about being Paragon/Renegade. It is instead focused on what the player believes to be the best and the consequences of these actions.)

The best versions I have seen of moral choice in video games would be the ones from Fallout: New Vegas and Alpha Protocol. These systems are one of the best because they function in a way that makes sense. Instead of a karma system, these two games use Reputation with the various faction in each game to determine the player's overall morality. Again, this makes sense. People in these games judge the player and give him/her options not based on how the world at large thinks of him/her, but rather on what that character thinks of the player. This means that the player's actions are not judged by the game developer's notion of morality and have direct consequences on the game world. And again, this allows for nuanced choices and for the player to display his/her own notion of morality through the player character. A reputation system allows more even more nuanced morality choices because the developers in each game give the player several different and varied characters or factions that represent different ideals and philosophies. These factions each react to the player's decisions and these reactions affect the game world and, in turn, the player. This is a far better simulation of real life. Most choices are not binary (as in, a Good/Evil or Lawful/Chaotic choice). There are usually many broad and diverse options when approaching different situations. A reputation system best captures that because it enables the game to respond to these options in an equally diverse way.

Morality is a complicated subject, so when games portray it as binary, it tends to get under my skin. People do not consciously choose to be good or evil. Ideally, games would not even track morality. Rather, they would just give each action logical and rational consequences. It is crucial for games to evolve past morality gauges if they want to be grow as a medium, tell even better stories and explore more interesting themes/concepts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

#12: Game Publishers vs. Used Games

This topic is a serious issue among the gaming community. Simply inserting the words “used games” into a forum post is bound to transform whatever, otherwise benign, discussion into a huge flame war. Nonetheless, it is an issue that needs to be discussed. Game publishers have been trying for a long while now to defeat used game sales. There are valid reasons for this, and there are valid reasons to oppose it. In this article, I will attempt of give you an overview of used games, the method used to combat them and the pros and cons behind this tactic. Lastly, I will share with you my own idea for fighting used games.

The issue of used game sales is one that can be approached from a couple of different angles. Used game sales are a slightly different animal than used books or movies. For books, the cost of publishing a book is relatively low compared to other mediums. Therefore, it takes and much lower sales margin in order to make a profit from books. Movies, while they have high production cost, are also different because they go through several phases of profit making. First, they go into theaters and get profits from both national and international releases. They are then sold later on as DVDs and lastly they are televised on various networks after that. This means that both movies and books can more than afford the hit they take with regards to profits lost through used game sales. On the other hand, video games do not have these advantages. Modern games have incredibly high production values. It cost several millions of dollars to make a AAA game. Furthermore, they have only one method of profiting: sales. Modern games need to sell millions of copies just to recoup their losses. You (like me) could argue that this is endemic to other problems in gaming like the incessant need to keep advancing graphically when there is no need to, but it is impossible to say that the need sell tons of copies does not exist. To this end, publishers have come up with many ways to try to stave off used sales intentionally propagated by gaming outlets, most notably Gamestop.

Perhaps the most prevalent means of combating used games sales is through online pass systems. Online passes are special codes included with new copies of video games. These codes are used to unlock various features of the game. This means that people who buy the game used will be locked out of the content unless they pony up ten dollars in order to purchase the missing content themselves. This means that the publisher can make up some of the income lost through used game sales. That would normally be considered a positive. However, there are many downsides to this system. For one, this has the distinct tendency to piss off the consumer base that publishers and developer depend on to make their money. Not many people admit this, but public relations can be a significant factor in how well companies do. Consumers who feel like they have been screwed over are less likely to continue to buy products from the company they feel screwed by. There is another issue with online passes that should be obvious, but something that not many companies seem to forget: Not everybody in the world has access to a stable internet connection. This is typically a non-issue because the content blocked by an online pass is usually an online feature, like multiplayer. However, there are documented cases of games that had online pass-blocked content that was in the single player portion of the game. The most notable case of this was the Catwoman content in Batman: Arkham City. There are people who bought that game new, who rightfully own that content. However, they are unable to access this content because it is blocked by a system that requires an internet connection to function properly. This is outrageous. This is a publisher screwing over a completely loyal customer and then openly insulting them for it. While this is certainly an egregious way to combat used game sales, it is not the only way they do so.

The overall flaw with online passes is that it feels like the consumers are getting screwed out of their money. With that in mind, I have my own thought behind the best way to combat used game sales. I feel that the best way to stop used game sales is to reward consumers for buying new games instead of punishing consumers for getting used one. To do this, I would recommend giving consumers of new copies of games a discount on future DLC. This method engenders good will amongst the consumer base. People who buy used games will not feel screwed by the publishers. This might even inspire them to buy new when they buy future titles from the publisher in order to support them. People who buy new will also feel rewarded because even if they never actually use that discount, it shows that the developers care about their fans and support them. Lastly, Customers who lack an internet connection still have access to all the features they normally have. There is much to be said about positive PR. Publishers do better when they have the support of the fans who keep them in business. It is a flawed strategy, admittedly, but it is still a better alternate to online passes.

In the end, any method of fighting used games is nothing more than a bandage used to mask the overall problem of games being too expensive to make. The best possible decision is to stop trying to go for graphical fidelity, stick with decent, not not horrible, graphics, and focus more on making quality games. This graphics war is a huge issue when it inflates the cost of making games and of the games themselves. I do not know a single gamer who bought a game just because the graphics were good. The problem with online passes and used games is a symptom of an even greater problem. I hope the developers and publishers learn this soon, else the industry may be in for some tough times pretty soon.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

#11: Games and Storytelling (Part the 2nd)

(Major Spoilers for the Assassin's Creed series and L.A. Noire abound.)

Last week, I discussed how games could be used as a storytelling medium. I talked about the benefits of using games to explore philosophies and scenarios in a free form way: That player choice was an important concept and that it is vital to show the consequences for those choices. After the article was posted, a friend of mine pointed out something to me. In hindsight, I may have unintentionally snubbed linearity in video games. It is absolutely possible to have a strong linear narrative using video games. I would argue that doing this well is much more difficult. It has to be done in a certain way. A developer must tailor the experience to the medium of video games in order to make it work.

Again, video games have strengths that can be played with. By default, video game players are more likely to sympathize with the protagonist because they are the protagonist, at least on a superficial level. The main character (at least a well-written one) has a good backstory and motivation for his/her actions. With that, they are allowed and encouraged to have preconceived notions of morality and ethics. A good way to help further define and flesh out the character would be to use the mechanics of the game. The original Assassin's Creed did this incredibly well. The player did not have a health bar, it instead had a “synchronization meter” which showed how much the player was in sync with Altair's, the protagonist, memory of what happened. This mechanic allowed the game to inform the player of Altair's morality without bogging him/her down with exposition or allowing for Gameplay and Story Segregation. When the player kills an innocent person, the synchronization bar is immediately reduced by 33% of its maximum value. This shows while Altair is an assassin and known for killing people, he still has a degree of morality and was not a complete psychopath. It is also possible to increase the maximum synchronization by doing things in line with what Altair would do like analyze the city from high building or by saving people from corrupt guards. This avoids Gameplay and Story Segregation as well because in the story the events of Altair's life occurred very long ago and the player is simply playing a simulation created using his memory.

In the case of Assassin's Creed, the mechanics are more than a way for the player to get from point A to point B. They are used to reinforce the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood also did this in a particularly powerful scene at the end of the game. At the end of the game, the player character, Desmond, finds and ancient artifact called the Apple of Eden with the help of his friends. Someone from behind the scenes uses the Apple's power to control Desmond's body and freeze time for the other three people with him. The cutscene has Desmond extend his hidden wrist-blade and begin to move toward his love interest, a fellow assassin named Lucy. When the player regains control, he/she (if they are anything like me) will try to steer Desmond away from her. However, when the player moves, no matter which direction they point to, Desmond will move towards Lucy. When Desmond is close enough, then the player will be directed to press attack and he/she will have no choice but to comply. This is a powerful scene because it helps the player to empathize with Desmond. It demonstrates his complete powerlessness and inability to stop his body no matter how hard he tries to. This moment is made powerful because the mechanics in play support the narrative and brings the player into the story.

While a linear story can be significantly bolstered if in a video game, there are dangers to attempting to do so. If one does not keep the story and its central themes in mind, there is a strong chance of the gameplay weakening the story. A storyteller can risk undercutting the whole story with the mechanics of the game if they are not extremely careful. As much as I love the Uncharted games, they are prime examples of this. Naughty Dog has constantly said that Nathan Drake, the protagonist of the series, is the everyman. He is the person that the player can relate to. This is very hard to take seriously. The reason for this is that the Uncharted series is a third-person cover-based shooter. For the uninitiated, that means that the player, as Nathan Drake, is almost always slaughtering tons of nameless, faceless pirates/soldiers. Furthermore, he has the tendency to talk... and snark... a lot... during each engagement. The overall image of him (at least during gameplay, the actual story is significantly better) is one of a murdering psychopath who has no concept of mercy or remorse. This runs contrary to the kind of character Naughty Dog wished to make and the type of narrative they intended to weave. While they are fortunate that the overall story and gameplay hold up, many more like them have similar problems in their games and fall into this trap.

Other pitfall in making a good, linear narrative in a video game is that players will be inherently more critical of the plot. This is because the strength of having instant sympathy with a protagonist can also be a weakness. When the players feel like they are the character, there is the potential for a disconnect with the character if, at any time, the character begins to exhibit unreasonable or irrational behavior. I had a personal example of this when I was playing L.A. Noire. In L.A. Noire, the protagonist is a man named Cole Phelps, a marine recently returned from World War 2 who decided to join the LA police force and quickly ascended to the rank of detective. He is shown to be a happily married man with two daughters. The game introduced Cole to a German singer who escaped to America before the war started. In the second half of the game, Cole visits the singer in her apartment for an undisclosed period of time at night. I did not think much of it when I saw the scene (I was being pretty dense there, admittedly) until later, when Cole is accused of cheating on his wife and is demoted to Arson as a result. At first, I thought he was set up. I thought that there was no possible way that Cole would do that because it seemed out of character. As it turns out, Cole really did “pork that German whore.” I was stunned. I sat there and thought “Cole! What the f**k were you thinking!? I saw you at the beginning! You f**king kissed your wife that morning! Are you KIDDING ME!?”. This one scene completely broke the game for me. I could care no longer about the story or what happened to the characters because I felt that the game betrayed both me and any conceivable notion of common scene. Finishing the game became more of an endurance test. That is the power of interactivity. When the story makes sense, it can bring players closer to the characters and the world. When it does not, then the player can feel betrayed by the plot and disconnect from the whole mess.

Linear storytelling is a perfectly valid form of narrative in video games. It relies much more on the writer's skill than free-form games do. The key is once again to use the mechanics to reinforce the narrative. Developers and writers need to get together and stay on the same page throughout development. It is difficulty simply because it requires a great deal of synergy between all departments of a game development studio. While an amazing story is difficult to pull off, when it is, it is extremely gratifying, both to the player and the developer. I would hope developers, either in the present or future, would take a minute to think about how a narrative can be woven into and reinforced by a great game.