Wednesday, June 27, 2012

#27.5: My Thoughts on the New Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut DLC

This is a bit of a deviation from my standard posts, but I think this is important enough to make a mini-post of it's own, especially since I talk about Mass Effect 3 so much. Besides, I can always delete it if it does not mesh well with my articles. This is not something I plan to do often and will probably be a one time thing unless anything else of enough importance comes along that needs to be discussed as it happens.

I've finally seen all of it, and I can say that I'm pleasantly surprised by it overall. I knew it wouldn't fix all my grievances, but it fixed enough of them and vastly improved the ending. *Obviously spoilers*


  • They finally fixed several plot holes. Joker's strange contribution to the ending, how your party magically ends up on the Normandy, and Hackett knowing that Sheppard and Anderson made it to the Crucible are all explained. Furthermore, they removed the part where the Mass Relays blow up.
  • Sheppard is now allowed to question the Catalyst on each of the ending choices. Furthermore, he can express cynicism towards each choice, culminating in the forth, "Reject" ending choice which damns the current cycle but guarantees success to the next one.
  • EMS required to get all the endings is lowered to 3100, meaning that MP is no longer required.
  • The extra epilogues, the monologues for each one, and new investigative options differentiate the endings enough so that each one feels unique. Furthermore, the epilogue's slideshow changes to reflect the consequences of your actions. No two players should get exactly the same ending.


  • The ending still comes out of nowhere with no adequate build up to the choices you have to make. It is still very abrupt when it happens.
  • While they try to explain the Catalyst's motive for the Reaper harvest, it ultimately proves futile. He still comes across as grossly misinformed.
  • It still has the feel of being "space magic", even with the Crucible and the Citadel being explained a lot better.
  • The scene with the Illusive Man still doesn't really feel all that relevant in the grand scheme of things. The confrontation with him still feels like an ass pull, even if the concept is one I agree with.
  • EMS still feels pointless. If Bioware wants to put a "Reject" option, it's effectiveness should be determined by the military strength of Sheppard's forces. It should be possible to defeat the Reaper's in a firefight, even if it means suffering heavy losses at a cost.

Overall, I'm satisfied. It's not perfect, but it's free and really does help the ending in the best way it could have. Props to Bioware for actually listening to fan feedback and reaching an adequate compromise that would make most people happy. If this was the original ending, I doubt the fan outcry would be nearly as bad as it was. If you want me to elaborate more on one of my points, please respond in the comments below.

#27: Deus Ex vs. Mass Effect 3: The Similarities Between the Endings

(Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I have not yet played the Extended Cut DLC because it has yet to be released. It may full well addressed the concerns I elaborate on here. Also, Spoiler Alert for both the original Deus Ex and Mass Effect 3. You have been warned.)
Recently, I played through the original Deus Ex, a game lauded for its incredible story and ability to cater to a variety of different playstyles. While I had a great time and would wholeheartedly recommend it, this article is not about that. What I want to focus on is the ending to Deus Ex. Specifically, I want to talk about its ending in comparison to the ending of another, more recent game that was very similar, yet altogether different ending: Mass Effect 3 (Because from the looks of my viewership, people are not sick of me bitching about Mass Effect 3 yet.). This week I will present my opinion on my matter. Though I am aware that this is not exactly treading new ground, I feel that it is worth talking about regardless, especially with the new Extended Cut DLC making it topical again.

But before we can into any of this, it is important to detail the endings and background information of both games so that viewers unfamiliar with either or both franchises can keep up with those that are familiar with them. Deus Ex takes place in the year 2052 and has transhumanism and government controlled conspiracies as major control themes of the plot. The player plays as JC Denton, the new nano-augmented agent of the United States branch of the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). The player begins by going against terrorists who are withholding the vaccine, called Ambrosia, for a new deadly virus called the Gray Death. When the player encounters the leader of the terrorist cell, the leader says that he was holding the vaccine from politicians to give to the people. After he has been apprehended, JC undertakes several missions and quickly learns that the people ordering him around might not be entirely honest with him. Once he was ordered to kill a prisoner (an order the player can choose to obey or not), he starts to go against UNATCO and work with the terrorists. Denton learns that the Gray Death is a manufactured virus and that UNATCO, along with many of the world's leaders, is involved in a conspiracy revolving around it. After being taken into the custody underneath the UNATCO base, Denton escapes with the help of an AI codenamed Daedalus, learns that an organization named the Majestic 12 is running the show, and heads to Hong Kong where Triad Leader Tracer Tong is trying to devise a way to cure the Grey Death.

After completing some errands for Tracer and getting a sample of the virus, they discover that the Grey Death is a man-made virus manufactured by the Illuminati. (As dumb as this may sound, this makes sense in context and works quite well.). Tracer sends Denton to Paris in order to enlist the Illuminati and their technical expertise in the battle against the Majestic 12. Upon making contact, JC learns that the Majestic 12 is led by Bob Page, a former member of the Illuminati, and that the Grey Death was nano-technology that Bob Page stole and repurposed for his own ends. The Illuminati leader, Morgan Everett, realizes that Bob Page no longer has the materials to build the virus and Ambrosia and figures that he will go to an Air Force Base with former Area 51 scientists in order to gain what he needs. (Yeah, this game is like a conspiracy kitchen soup, but it is still awesome.) Once there, Everett asks Denton to unleash Daedalus into the network in order to fight Bob Page. Upon completion of this task, Page unleashes his AI, Icarus, and the two merge to form the AI known as Helios. After completing addition tasks to prepare to defeat Page, Denton eventually tracks him down to Area 51, where he is being directed by Tracer Tong, Morgan Everett, and Helios, who each have a different strategy for defeating Bob Page. If Page is not stopped, he will merge with Helios and gain total control over the world's network and information, which is all being controlled from Area 51. Each of these tactics has with them different consequences on the world at hand and JC Denton has to choose who he will side with in the final battle.

As for Mass Effect 3, I have already covered most of the plot and premise of the series before, so I will just link to the article where I went over it here to catch up the unaware. As for the events leading up to the ending: The Alliance Navy and the other galactic military installations need to get the Crucible, which is a magical plot device whose blueprints have been added to with each passing Reaper death cycle by the space faring species of each respective cycle. In order to activate the Crucible, which everyone hopes will stop the Reapers and end the war, they need to attach it to the Catalyst, which is revealed to be the Citadel, which the Reapers moved to Earth and closed shut. The only way to get to the Citadel and open it back up is by using an energy beam that the Citadel is aiming at Earth in order to do something. To get inside the Citadel, Command Sheppard leads a final charge into the beam and most of the people involved die when hit by a Reaper death-ray.

Sheppard survives and keeps limping towards the energy beam. He/she ends up in a part of the Citadel that no one has seen before. Then Admiral Anderson contacts Sheppard through the radio and says that he followed Sheppard into the beacon when there was no trace of him during the limping scene. He somehow beats the player to the Citadel control console when the Illusive Man somehow arrives as well and paralyzes both Sheppard and Anderson in some biotic field. The player can have a conversation which ends up with both Anderson and Illusive Man being shot and killed. (Side-Note: While the scene is pretty poorly written in my opinion, the concept of having a final boss conversation over a final boss battle is a very good idea and quite clever on the count of Bioware's writers, especially considering that the dialogue is the most important part of Mass Effect.) Sheppard limps to the console and activates it, opening up the Citadel and allowing the Crucible to dock.

He/she is then magically transported to the top of the Citadel where he meets a magic god-child. God-child explains that he is the true Catalyst and leader of the Reaper forces. He says that the Reapers were created to kill all space-faring organic life every 50,000 years and turn them into Reapers so that synthetic beings do not kill all organic life because the created always rebel against the creators. (Note: Depending on what the player did over the course of the game, he/she will have several ways to refute this claim.) Sheppard blindly accepts this, but tells god-child that he is taking away “their hope”. The catalyst tells Sheppard that he/she has up to three choices (depending on the player's galactic readiness) for ending the conflict and saving organic life from the Reapers. The player's choices are explained and Sheppard makes a decision that should have wide-reaching, galactic consequences.

Now that the stage is set for both games, I will now go over the possible ending choices, listing one from Deus Ex and then its Mass Effect 3 equivalent. The first ending option in Deus Ex is given to the player by Tracer Tong. He explains that as long as global communication remains a reality, the rich and powerful will always try to assert their will on the people and that even if Denton defeats Bob Page, someone else will take his place. Tong explains that all of the world communications are controlled and sent through Area 51. The only way to give the people freedom would be to destroy Area 51 and the network, plummeting humanity into a New Dark Age. This will bring government down to a small, local and much more manageable scale free of the ruling class. The cost is that global communication would be disabled meaning that humanity would be scattered without the ability to connect. When choosing this option, the game shows a scene of Area 51 blowing up with JC running to escape. It is unknown what happens passed that.

The equivalent option from Mass Effect 3 would be the Destroy option. As god-child explains, choosing this options destroys all synthetic life. The Reapers, the player's AI squadmate, even the race of AIs that the player may or may not have spared would be destroyed. Furthermore, since Sheppard is also partially synthetic (the beginning of Mass Effect 2 makes him/her a cyborg), it is implied that he/she may die as well once the power is unleashed. Making this choice also destroys the Mass Relays, disabling super long-range transportation and plummeting the galaxy into a sort of Dark Age. If the player chooses this option, Sheppard is seen destroying a red panel on the Crucible and the machine fires off a red, cherry-flavored explosion that spreads throughout the galaxy, leading to some nonsense scene with Joker trying to escape the Crucible's energy beam.

The second possible ending in Deus Ex is given to the player by Morgan Everett. The Illuminati's leader tells JC that it would be best to just kill Bob Page outright so that he cannot merge with Helios and even extends an invitation to Denton to join the shadow organization should he do this. When Denton questions this, Everett explains that it is ideal for humanity to be guided by the invisible hand of a benevolent dictatorship. If Denton chooses this option and kills Page, then the game cuts to a conversation between him and Everett. He says that worldwide Ambrosia shipments have been proceeding as scheduled, but it could be expedited by doing it directly. Everett explains to him that the Illuminati operate indirect, subtly influencing the world with an invisible hand. When JC asks what people will think of all that happened and how the Illuminati will say hidden, Everett goes into detail describing how people have short memories and that overtime they will begin to forget the events and move on.

The equivalent ending in Mass Effect 3 would be the Control option. As god-child explains, choosing this option means that Sheppard will sacrifice him/herself and “lose all the he/she has” (I am assuming this means that he/she downloads him/herself to the Reaper sub-conscience, but this is very ambiguous, so I do not know), but the Reapers would obey his/her will. The Catalyst also explains that overtime, Sheppard might come to accept that the Reapers were right all along and the cycle would continue, but he cannot confirm this. Making this choice also destroys the Mass Relays, disabling super long-range transportation and plummeting the galaxy into a sort of Dark Age. If the player chooses this option, Sheppard is seen grabbing to electrical conduits on the Crucible which appear to melt his/her flesh and give him/her glowing blue eyes before he/she disappears. The machine fires off a blue, blueberry-flavored explosion that spreads throughout the galaxy, leading to some nonsense scene with Joker trying to escape the Crucible's energy beam.

Lastly, the final possible ending for Deus Ex is the option given to JC Denton by Helios. Helios knows that Bob Page wants to merge with it and believes him to be insufficient. Its mission is to make the world as good and safe as it can and does not believe fusing with Page will give him the best ability to do that. By contrast, Helios thinks that by merging with JC that it will become better equipped to protect humanity and use its power over the world's network in the best, most efficient way possible. Helios shares Morgan Everett's belief that people will not be able to take control of their government and that the enlightened few would need to guide them, however it thinks that Morgan and the Illuminati are also not enlightened enough to guide humanity. It explains that since it is an AI designed to protect people and has no stake in anything beyond that directive (meaning it cannot be bribed or influenced), it is most equipped and prepared to keep humanity safe and secured at the cost of privacy and free speech. When choosing this option, Denton steps into Helios' AI core and fuses with it. They then say some cryptic stuff about having things to do before the scene ends.

The equivalent option in Mass Effect 3 is the Synthesis ending. As god-child explains, Sheppard has the choice of throwing him/herself into a glowing energy beam. If he/she does this, then Sheppard's essence would be fused with the Crucible's energy. Unleashing this energy would imbue every life form, synthetic or organic, in the world with a “new DNA”, turning them into half-synthetic/half-organic hybrids. The catalyst explains that this is the final evolution of life and that doing this would force the Reapers to stop their attacks. Making this choice also destroys the Mass Relays, disabling super long-range transportation and plummeting the galaxy into a sort of Dark Age. If the player chooses this option, Sheppard is seen jumping into the energy beam. The player watches as Sheppard is torn apart on a molecular level and fused with the Crucible. The machine fires off a green, lime-flavored explosion that spreads throughout the galaxy, leading to some nonsense scene with Joker trying to escape the Crucible's energy beam. As you can no doubt see, there are parallels to be draw between these endings. They are similar in a number of ways. However, one was very well received and the other is known as perhaps one of the worst endings in video game history. Why is that? Well, there are a number of key differences in the games that explain the difference between fan reactions.

The first thing we need to go over are the key differences in the endings themselves and the lead up to them. In Deus Ex, the themes of control of a few over the masses and technology influencing the world are brought up again and again. The endings do not come out of nowhere and are a logical extension of the world in question. Tracer Tong and the terrorists play their role in the plot because they are sick of a few powerful people taking control. The Illuminati, while equally opposed to the Majestic 12, believe in an invisible hand guiding the world. Even the AIs that compose Helios give the player their viewpoints via transmissions well before the ending. There is a lead in to every choice. Take this in contrast with Mass Effect 3. In that game, the Reapers are always top priority. Synthetic and organic life opposing each other are not major themes in the main plot at hand. When god-child comes and asks Sheppard to resolve the situation, it comes out of left-field. The Crucible is never established to have any of these abilities. It is only thought to be a Reaper kill button. Never once was it hinted at that Sheppard would be able to fuse organic and synthetic life and while the Illusive Man thought he could control the Reapers, he was confirmed to be indoctrinated at not of the best mental health. The goal was always to destroy the Reapers and that was only one possible path to take at supposedly grave consequences.

Secondly, the endings in Mass Effect 3 are much more homogenous than the ones in Deus Ex. As you can no doubt see from my descriptions, the ending scenes that the player sees are nearly identical with minor variations. They lack any real contrast. This is particularly jarring when compared with Deus Ex. In each of Deus Ex's endings, the scene played is radically different. Furthermore, the thing Denton has to do in each ending is different as well. Tracer Tong directs the player to move passed Page and head to the reactor, turning it up to eleven and causing a meltdown. Everett advocates dropping Bob Page's shields by turning off his four power supplies and then finishing him off afterward. Helios tells the player to sneak passed Page and turn on the systems that allow it to merge with people, sneaking back afterward to complete the objective before Page's cybernetic upgrades are finished. This allows for a greater feeling of diversity with the endings because everything, including the objective, changes.

Another difference between the endings is that in the Deus Ex ending, there was not an obvious alternative to the solutions at hand. The three decisions cover the gambit of possibilities in this world. One allows for people to rule themselves, another allows a shadow organization to take control, and the last shifts rule away from humanity and lets technology take over (like a literal Deus Ex Machina, or “God from the machine”). On the other hand, Mass Effect 3 has one glaring alternative: Why is Sheppard unable to convince god-child to just call off the Reapers? God-child is confirmed to be the leader of the Reapers, thus he has control over them. The fact that the player cannot make the obvious choice results in an overall weaker ending.

This ties nicely into my next point: While JC Denton questions each choice, Sheppard blindly accepts the god-child's word. In Deus Ex, when each faction states what they want to do, Denton is skeptical, which is in character for him. He forces each faction to explain their reasoning and why their choice is the best. This forces them to not only explain their own logic but why the other two choices are not ideal solutions. All of them present their points well and the player's choice is tough because of it. In Mass Effect 3, all three options are explained by the god-child. While Sheppard does ask questions in the final scene, he/she accepts the answers given without a follow up question and just accepts that the god-child is sharing an unbiased opinion (which, as a side note, runs contrary to Sheppard's character). While Deus Ex leaves no doubt towards the intent and bias from each side as well as the logical consequences of each choice, Mass Effect 3 has a very ambiguous ending where the player is unsure of the consequences of what he/she did. Too many questions are left in the player's head, which is a problem. The ending should be a conclusion and tying up of the events at hand. Questions should be answered, not added to, which Deus Ex did very well.

There is one final difference between the endings of the two games and it is an important one. Mass Effect 3 only explains the direct effect of the player's choice of ending. On the other hand, Deus Ex not only explained the direct effect of what the player chose to do, but the aftermath and eventual consequences of the choice as well. This is a very important and very subtle distinction to make. God-child makes small hints towards what each ending would do, but never directly states what the galaxy at hand might look like as a result of what Sheppard does. What are the consequences to destroying all synthetic life? Also, if Sheppard might die to due being a cyborg, what about others with cybernetic implants like biotics or Quarians? What are the possible repercussion of gaining control of all the Reapers and could this new power corrupt Sheppard? How would society change as a result of everyone become synthetic/organic hybrids (ugh)? This is never explored or elaborated on. But in Deus Ex, all three factions go into express detail into what would come about. Tracer Tong's destruction of the network would lead to small city-states and local governments arising once more. While it would be difficult and many would struggle to survive, they would be free of the influence of the few. Joining the Illuminati would allow their reign to continue, but JC's influence would allow the group to stay together and continue to advance humanity into the future with nano-augmentation and new technologies. Merging with the AI would free the world from the Illuminati, but introduce a new ruler in its stead who is devoid of any directive besides “protect and advance humanity”, leading to a police state, albeit a benevolent one. These are all elaborated on, so the player can decide for themselves what they want to shape the world into. The ambiguity of Mass Effect 3 leaves much to be desired, which partially led to the backlash we saw.

Aside from the key differences in the endings, there are also to more abstract reasons why people respect Deus Ex and its ending more than Mass Effect 3 and its ending. The first one is that while both games have a huge emphasis on choice, they emphasize different types of choices. Deus Ex's plot is inherently linear. The player has little influence on the events at hand and how they play out. The choices are not involved in what happens and what the player does. Rather, and this is another very important distinction, the choice is in how the player does what he does. Every Deus Ex player will go through the same plot and complete the same objectives, but they can complete them in different ways. Does the player arrest a terrorist leader by killing all his guards, sneaking past them and catching him by surprise, finding a alternate path through lockpicking and hacking, or some other method entirely? This is an important distinction from Mass Effect. Mass Effect advertised itself as a series where the player affected the plot through choices with direct consequences on the events at hand. This is why Deus Ex players loved the ending because it allowed them to express their opinion and assert their will on the world whereas Mass Effect players were disappointed that the final choice did not have as much of a perceived impact.

The other non-ending reason people preferred Deus Ex's ending is that the audiences had altogether different expectations due to the time gap between the two games. When Deus Ex was released in June 2000. At that time, people did not have a very high expectation regarding games and their ability to comment on the world and express viewpoints as an art form. Back then, games were just fun things that people did in their spare time. Fast forward to March 2012, when Mass Effect 3 was released, and people have a different outlook on games. The audience for games expect good and interesting stories in AAA game releases. We expect the plot to make sense and contain few plot holes. We expect characters with interesting personalities and quirks that differentiate them from all the others. We are much harsher and scrutinize games more closely now than we ever did before and in the age of the internet, this scrutiny is magnified. While I personally believe that Deus Ex handled its ending better, this new environment can be directly linked to the sheer backlash we have seen with Mass Effect 3.

Upon reflection, I am not entirely sure what the take home message of this article is supposed to be. I just noticed the similarities and stark contrasts of the two endings and wanted to comment on them. So for my final message, I will say this with regards to the Mass Effect 3 ending and with the benefit of hindsight: Yes, the Mass Effect 3 ending was not really that good and it have very glaring plot holes and thematic inconsistencies. No, it did not give closure to the narrative. Yes, criticisms and analysis of the endings were a completely justified and necessary part of the process. No, with the benefit of hindsight, I cannot say that the sheer amount of hatred and backlash towards Bioware was warranted in the least bit. And while Bioware does not owe the fanbase anything, I do believe that expanding on the ending is very good idea. Most creative endeavors are never static and constantly in flux. Creators respond to critics and adjust all the time, changing details, redoing certain thing, and so on. This change that Bioware is promising (and that I am very optimistic for) is a sign that games ARE becoming more of a valid form of expression, not heading backwards as many people believe. Hopefully, we can all learn and grow from this.

Edit: Now that I have seen all of the Extended Cut endings, I will go through and discuss how it changes the thoughts presented in this article. 

  • First, the endings still come out of nowhere when it comes to the ideas and themes behind them. There is still no buildup.
  • Second, the added epilogues and monologues within them decrease how homogeneous the endings seemed. The epilogue also contains a slideshow that plays during the monologue. It changes depending on what the player did during the game, reflecting Sheppard's decisions and their consequences. This means that even if two players picked the same ending, they probably will not get the same epilogue. While there is still a degree of homogenization, each ending on it's own feels unique enough to stand out. Furthermore, they removed the part where the Mass Relays blow up on all three original endings.
  • Third, the player still cannot take the obvious route of convincing the Catalyst to stop. This is a shame because it would have given players a good reason to build up their Reputation to Charm/Intimidate him. 
  • Fourth, Sheppard does not have to blindly accept the god-child's word now. He/she can question the Catalyst and even express skepticism towards each option. The player can even openly reject all three choices if they wish, dooming the current space-faring denizens of the galaxy but guaranteeing success for the next ones.
  • Fifth, due to the new investigative option, the aftermath and long-term consequences of each ending are much more clear, allowing the player to make a more informed choice.
So basically, it nearly invalidates this entire article. I still have my complaints about the ending (even with the new explanations, it seems like space magic the way events unfold and the aforementioned inability to take the obvious route), but I am satisfied with Bioware's attempt to salvage the ending overall. Most of the problems were addressed.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

#26: Stealth in Games and the Recent Shift it has Undergone

 Out of all the various styles of gameplay there are in video games, few are more likely to excite and delight me more than stealth. Whenever I play a game like Oblivion and Skyrim, I always play as a thief/assassin character. In both of the Deus Ex games, (because Invisible War, very fortunately, never saw release no matter how many times I am told it exists) I always try to sneak around all of my enemies completely undetected, silently picking them off one at a time. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than being able to accomplish my objective with discretion. Recently, stealth as a gameplay mechanic has seen a bit of resurgence. However, this resurgence is not in dedicated stealth games like Splinter Cell. Rather, lately we have seen games where stealth is an option among a choice of different playstyles. Some people have criticized this, saying that dedicated stealth games are much better, but I disagree. I believe that regulating stealth to being another tool in the player's repertoire is a good idea in the modern gaming climate for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that a game dedicated to purely stealth simply would not sell as well. This is because compared to other gameplay types, stealth has a much greater demand on the player than just fighting it out with swords, gunplay, or magic. In order to be successful at sneaking around, the player needs to have a great deal of patience. The player has to take cover and stay out of line of sight. He/she has to take risks by popping out of cover every once and awhile to watch the guards and figure out their patrol routes. He/she has to wait for the right time to move and when he/she does, he/she has to do so quickly and have the next move planned out for when the guards come back for the next sweep in their patrol. Most gamers have the skill necessary to pull this off because, for the most part, it is just waiting and planing. However, not all of them have the patience to go through and sneak across an area. Even amongst the ones that do, they are even fewer who find that a fun way to spend their freetime. This is perfectly fine. Games, at their core, are supposed to be entertainment and if people do not want to use stealth or play stealth games, the ones the do have no right to force them to. Making it another in a choice of routes to take adds to the potential audience. This allows the developer to make more money and make more games that allow players to use stealth. Furthermore, non-stealth players of the game may even be tempted to try a sneaky and silent approach and see if they like it, potentially adding to the pool of people who want stealth games, increasing demand for it and causing developers to want to make more stealth games. For fans of the genre, this can only be a good thing.

Another good reason for having stealth as an option is that it makes choosing to use stealth much more gratifying. It is more satisfying to voluntarily choose to sneak through without harming the guards (or, if the particular player is anything like me, silently pick them off one at a time) in a game full of options than it is to be forced to sneak through a level, getting a game over upon being detected. The former is a conscious, self-imposed choice that is a natural extension of the game world, the later is the narrative forcing the player into an uncomfortable and railroad-y situation that leaves them feeling more and more irritated with each time they get detected. Having a stealth option over forced stealth is preferable. The knowledge that if being sneaky fails, the player has several more options he/she can fall back on makes sneaking in much more satisfying because it is usually the route which takes more finesse than any other. Successfully beating a stealth sequence demonstrates a greater level of mastery over the games systems and leads to the player feeling more like a badass than if he/she just charged in guns-blazing. Furthermore, the knowledge that the player can fall back on other options like fighting his/her way in alleviates the frustration that playing a game as a stealth character tends to invoke. Being seen and having to reload a save several times is much easier to bear if the player made the choice to do it than if the game forces the player to sneak in and gives the player a Game Over after being detected. Since making stealth only an option turns it into a more interesting and less annoying way to complete missions and quests, it only makes sense to do it.

I can understand the frustration of stealth fans when they want games that focus primarily on sneaking around. However, it is important to look beyond that and see why its transition from the focus in certain games to an option in many others is a good thing overall for them. It is a very rewarding type of gameplay, yet it has a very narrow audience compared to other playstyles. Making it another possible path among many other paths allows it to prosper in a gaming climate where it would otherwise be snuffed out in a sea of bland shooters that begin to feel like the exact same after awhile. Plus, just because it is not the primary focus of a game does not necessarily mean that its quality will be diminished. Indeed, if Deus Ex: Human Revolution and what I have seen of Dishonored are anything to go by, developers have become much better at designing levels to allow for stealth. Developers are beginning to take note that fans of the less conspicuous means of acquiring wealth exist and they want to cater to us as well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

#25: Nintendo: The Good and the Bad

Last week marked the start and end of this year's annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). It was the time of year that most of the major power players in the world of gaming emerge for a few days to talk about the near-future of gaming. While I have my own opinions on this year's E3 (which are well documented on my twitter account), this week's article is not exactly about that. No, this week I will be focusing on one specific company in the console race, Nintendo. Now, this one is a tough one for me to write. Even though I stopped buying and playing Nintendo consoles and games long ago, I still have a soft spot for the company in my heart because of there influence on me in my formative years. However, the more I hear from them, especially lately, the more concerned I become. This has invoked a number of mixed feelings. This week's article is my attempt to organize my thoughts and write my feeling down regarding Nintendo.

I should start with what I really like about Nintendo. The best thing about Nintendo, and I do not think this is hyperbole, is that they are some of the most creative people in terms of gameplay and how players interact with the games they play. Nothing exemplifies this more than the Wii and its successor, the Wii U. Both of these pieces of hardware attempted to revolutionize gaming with a new twist on control schemes rather than release the same console again but with better hardware and an internet connection. The Wii used motion consoles to try and immerse players more deeply into game worlds (to arguable success, but I digress) and the Wii U is attempting to build on this by adding a touchscreen to one to two of the controllers to allow for “asymmetric gameplay” or the ability of one player to see/do something completely different than the other players. This concept is a totally new and unexplored territory in gaming that has many people rightfully curious regarding its application. This is one thing Nintendo does very well. Nintendo understands that not all games have to be serious and that not every game needs to be a “gritty” and realistic. As such, they are willing to play around and think of concepts that might be fun for the consumer. I have great admiration and respect for this.

However, this strength can also be a weakness. While Nintendo is interested in breaking new grounds in gaming, most of the third-party publishers that console makers rely on to make games and push their products lack either the same drive or the same creativity. They are unable to make experiences that cater to this new technology, making it effectively worthless. This becomes more obvious upon inspection of the lineup advertised on the Wii U. Two of the most notable games on the lineup, Mass Effect 3 and Batman: Arkham City, are both ports of games that have already become old news. Once the Wii U is released this holiday, they will have long been absent from the game industry's radar. The rest of lineup also consists of several ports like Darksiders 2, Ninja Gaiden 3, Assassin's Creed 3, and more. All of the potential of this new and interesting technology is being used to port games with audiences that already have consoles capable of playing them. It gives the impression that nobody can really use this technology to add to the experience in any significant way besides Nintendo.

Which transitions nicely into my next point: While Nintendo is very creative and ambitious, it appears that they may be trying to proverbially bite off more than they can chew. Nintendo's strength of creativity is also a weakness because no one seems to be able to reign in their creativity and put it towards something much more manageable. The best demonstration of this is the “MiiVerse” announced for the Wii U. The unique feature of MiiVerse is that people will be able to send messages that will be able to be seen by anybody playing the same game (to ask for help, give help, brag about high scores/accomplishments, etc.). While I would prefer to avoid a deluge of messages clogging my single player game, I admit that this is an interesting concept. The problem with this is that the internet, being the way that it is, will always have somebody that will swear up a storm and draw penises on everything. Nintendo, trying to stay as kid-friendly as possible, will naturally be trying to avoid that. In order to keep their console kid-friendly, they will of course be using the standard language filters used in many chat programs. In addition, they intend to have teams of people dedicated to going in and actually reading every single message ever sent on MiiVerse. Every! Single! One! I should not have to tell you how impossible such an undertaking would be. Even if it was possible, such a brute force censorship would require an untold amount of resources to be anywhere near as successful as it should be. When planning a feature like MiiVerse, Nintendo should have put more thought into how it would be policed. I am not against Nintendo policing its own service, (After all, we all know how the internet tends to behave.) but I think that they need to be much smarter about it than that.

My last gripe with Nintendo is in the use of its IPs. This is something that I know I will be in the minority when I say it, but Nintendo does not do nearly enough with their IPs. While they definitely alter the gameplay with each iteration, it is hard to not feel like they keep treading and retreading the same ground over and over again. They rarely do any significant change-up of their core franchises. To be fair, this is partially the fault of their fan-base that complains if they do so much as change the art style of a franchise. However, it often feels like if once one has played one Mario/Zelda game, they have played every other one as well. Even when they change up a franchise, it often feels like it is just another reiteration with a gimmick attached to showcase some new technology. In other words, it becomes a glorified tech demo. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was a good example of this on the Wii and New Super Mario Bros U, Nintendo Land: Luigi's Mansion, and Pikman 3 are examples from the Wii U. There is nothing wrong with Nintendo using its own IPs to showcase its own technology, but they need to do something more than the same old thing with a slight twist.

There is a chance I am just being unnecessarily harsh on Nintendo. However, most of these grievances are legitimate concerns that Nintendo does have to address to its fans at the very least. The Wii U has the potential to be an awesome platform with a variety of completely unique, interesting, and fun gameplay experiences, but potential is the only thing I have seen. I want this to succeed. I want the Wii U to deliver on the potential that anybody who keeps tabs on this industry can see is there. I am just concerned that Nintendo may not be able to deliver. I will close with the following statements: Nintendo should have definitely revealed the price for the Wii U at that press event. This is because Nintendo has never been known to sell their products at a loss, unlike the other two console manufacturers and that touchscreen GamePad looks to be expensive. Announcing a price point would have allayed many of the fears people have. Nintendo can succeed, but they have to be smart about their next few moves.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

#24: Why Does Final Fantasy XIII Feel So Linear?

Final Fantasy is a gaming franchise most people are aware of. At one point, it was considered the pinnacle of JRPGs and almost synonymous with the term. Nowadays, the franchise and its creators, Square-Enix, are not held in such high esteem. While the exact point that it began is incredibly debatable, recent Final Fantasy titles have not been as well received by their audience. In particular, Final Fantasy XIII was extremely divisive. Some really enjoyed the new combat system because it added a new strategic element to the game while others felt that the game was being played for them by the AI. Some enjoyed the story because the characters were well-developed and interesting and others hated the characters and how forced the ending appeared to be. However, there is one element that most people agree on and dislike: Final Fantasy XIII felt much more linear than its predecessors. This begs the question: Why does XIII feel so linear when compared to earlier titles? Most Final Fantasy titles are also very linear, as is the nature of JRPGs. What made XIII different? This week, I will try to figure it out.

The first, and most obvious, thing one must take note of is that the topography of Final Fantasy XIII is much more linear than its predecessors. Earlier entries in the series, up until Final Fantasy IX, had huge world maps to explore. While the player was often restricted from going very far off the beaten path until certain plot points were reached, the world maps always looked liked plausible worlds ripe for exploration. Final Fantasy XIII did not have this luxury for most of the game. For the vast majority of the game, XIII has players walk forward in an incredibly constricting, linear corridor. There are many diverse locals throughout the game with varying environments, but the player is only allowed to explore in one of them more than twenty hours into the game. The rest of the game cordons off most of the area, meaning the player only has one way to go. Even Final Fantasy X, which was almost as linear as Final Fantasy XIII, had places where the path branched off somewhat and the player was free to wander around the area to explore and look for items. In a game like Final Fantasy XIII, which thrives on immersion, this is horrible because the player takes notice of it and is immediately reminded that they are playing a very linear game, which added to the sense of linearity.

But this is something games do all the time. Many games, from Call of Duty to Half-Life 2 to the series's own Final Fantasy X were essentially linear corridors when one goes in and analyzes them. Why is Final Fantasy XIII so different? One thing I found as I was pondering this was that Final Fantasy XIII's areas are very sparsely populated. In most other games, the places the player explores, now matter how linear, have a population in them. There are people who are there for their own reasons and that have their own backstories. Even in shooters, where the people are usually the enemy, they help make the levels the player goes through feel more like a world instead of a corridor. Final Fantasy XIII only had a few areas with people in them at all. Most of the levels were completely devoid of sentient life (with the possible exception of monsters). It is difficult to be immersed in a world without people to interact with. That is something that people just do not encounter in everyday life. This is another reason why Final Fantasy X felt less linear. As the player traveled, he/she saw other people in cities and on the roads traveling as well. Initiating dialog with a few of these people would even show the player cutscenes that added both to the world and the characters. Before fans of XIII say that there is a good plot reason why the party encounters few people (being that they are fugitives on the run), I will preempt them by saying that while it makes sense from a plot standpoint, it does not make sense from a design standpoint. The design of the world and how the player interacts with it is just as important as the plot in any game because that is what is most obvious to the player.

There is one last reason why Final Fantasy XIII feels more linear than other Final Fantasy games. Simply put, there is not much for the player to do in the game. In most RPGs, there is more to do than just the main quest-line of the game. Designers of these games often have side-quests that player has the option of doing throughout the game. These quests allow the player to take a brief respite from the story and even allow his/her character(s) to grow stronger in preparation for battles ahead in the main story. They also allow to player to learn more about the world and begin to sympathize with the local populace by getting to know them and help them out. Final Fantasy XIII does not do that well at all. There is only one area that has any optional objectives whatsoever (which is the same area that allows for exploration). Furthermore, there is exactly one type of optional objective. Where other games have diverse side-quests where the player can find an item, kill a specific enemy, etc., Final Fantasy XIII also has one type of objective where the player finds the fossilized remains of someone who was cursed to have to kill a specific enemy and take up the quest for them. There are 60 of these fights and they are the only optional objective. They do not even add to the world like other side-quests in other games do since they do not give the player any information that they are not already aware of by going through the main storyline. Again, this is something Final Fantasy X did well. Throughout the game, there are a number of times where the party is allowed to just stop for a second and help out the local populace, giving the player the ability to play the game at his/her own pace and/or learn about the world and the people inhabiting it.

As I have said in prior articles, there is nothing inherently wrong with a linear game design philosophy. While it is not my preference, it can work so long as the player is immersed enough in the game that it no longer feels linear and that the game is railroading the player. This is ultimately the problem with Final Fantasy XIII: The game does not do enough to disguise its linear nature. The player feels like they are going through nothing but corridor after corridor completely absent of any form of sentient life. The player is not given enough incentive or context for this to work. Part of me wonders why so many little things went wrong in XIII. Square-Enix was much better at this before, as demonstrated by games created both before and slightly after the merging of Squaresoft and Enix. Hopefully they will be able to turn things around in the future, else I fear they might be another in a long line of corporations that have fallen by the wayside this console generation.