Wednesday, August 29, 2012

#36: Game Reviews and the Gaming Press: Why Do They Suck?

The gaming press is a pretty powerful entity in this industry. The consumers go to them for the latest in gaming news, including what is about to come out, what companies are partaking in less than consumer-friendly business practices, and other news a gamer might want to know. The publishers rely on them to get information to their customers and effectively spread the word on projects they are working on. However, the press also has one critical function to serve: To review video games. Game reviews are supposed to be an important part of the gaming ecosystem. It is, theoretically, immensely helpful when contemplating the purchase of a game to have a collection of opinions regarding it. They should help to distinguish between bad games, average games, and good games, but how effective are they in that capacity and why do they sometimes get called into question? This week, I attempt to figure out the answer.

Before we get to that, we need to understand the process behind most reviews on major game review websites. More often than not, major review sites receive copies of the games they are to review a couple of days to a week prior to the scheduled release date. The reviewer in question then has to use their free time (I am not aware of a review outlet that actually allots time for its staff to play games on the job since they have other duties to attend to, though I am sure they exist.) to play far enough through the game to get a good understanding of it (since it is rare that they play through to the end) yet leave enough time to gather their thoughts and write a review about it. The pressure will be on them to finish the review as quickly as possible because the faster it gets uploaded to the site, the more page views it will get and more advertising money the site recieves.

Obviously, this style of reviewing, which is commonplace in the industry, is not very condusive to writing reviews of the highest quality. One of the biggest issues in this is time. Reviewers are rarely given an adequate time to write very good reviews. First off all, games nowadays usually take around 10-12 hours to beat (30 or more for an RPG). For someone who has a job, a social network of people they communicate with regularly, and many of the responsibilities life throws at us, playing through a game that long in so short a time while trying to analyze it critically is asking for a lot. It is not likely that the person in question will be able to throughly explore a game and look for pros and cons beyond what is immediately obvious. Any extra moment they spend playing the game reduces the amount of time left over to gather their thoughts and write the actual review, which is already lacking enough. In the remaining days before the deadline, they need to structure their thoughts on the game and all of its aspects. Then they need to plan out and compose a written review that encapsulates all of those thoughts as best as it can. Considering the timeframe often required to write these reviews, it is a miracle that they are anywhere near coherent. The amount of time to write and proofread those reviews is nowhere near enough to do anything more than list-off what the game does and whether they think it is good or bad. Going into any real detail is almost completely out-of-the-question.

The less obvious, yet more critical problem is the window in which the review is released. Many people would, quite logically I might add, say that the best time to release a review of a game is somewhere around 3-4 days before/after it is released. However, I disagree with this for a couple of very important reasons. The first reason for this is that a review published within the release window for a game will not sway people who are on the fence about buying the game. When a game is released, the only people who buy it on the very first day it comes out will be people who were already eagerly anticipating the game. Regardless of how positive or negative the review will be, they will buy the game. All the review will do is reinforce the decision in their head (even a negative review will be seen as a personal attack and will not be recognized as a legitimate opinion). The same can be said about negative reviews and people who will not buy the game. Anyone who is on the fence regarding the purchase of a video game will not be immediately swayed. They will often wait for anywhere from a few weeks to a month because of my second point regarding the window of time: Real good conversation on a video game only arises in the weeks after its release. It is only then that people have bought, fully-played, and digested a game and all of its parts. This is when people can critically analyze the minutiae of the game in question and figure out exactly why the game is as good or bad as it is. We saw this with the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. Most reviewers, in a rush to get their reviews out on release date, did not get the chance to play through the entirety of the game and reach the ending. A few weeks later, after the game was out, many people actually had the chance to experience the finale of Mass Effect 3 and... react to it. It was only then that people were able to look into it and think about what worked/did not work about it. People do not form opinions in a vaccum. Since we are social creatures, we think and form opinions by talking with other people. By gathering information from different viewpoints and perspectives, we gain intelligence and form better opinions. This is why I do not think releasing reviews on the same day a game comes out is a good idea. It is difficult for a reviewer to form detailed, well-informed opinions when they have not had the time or even the ability to discuss the game and gain the necessary prespectives of other people nor have they the time to fully comprehend and analyze their own prespective. It is a recipe for disaster.

Another serious issue, though one I suspect is blown out of proportion, is the fact that game reviews are supported by advertisers within the games industry. Everybody knows that major game publishers like Activision or EA buy ad space on review hubs like IGN or Gamespot. Because of this, there is a perception that these reviews are being bought by publishers in order to make their games look better. It is not that hard to suspect when sites like IGN release an article titled “Why Do People Hate EA?” and only ask Peter Moore, Chief Operating Officer of EA, the reasons behind it instead of asking the aforementioned people. Again, I do not believe this is as serious an issue as people make it out to be. I think that the people who write these reviews generally stand behind them. However, it is still a issue worth bringing up and discussing as it does have the potential to impact reviews and how the gaming press thinks with regards to the games they talk about. There are well-known cases of reviewers being forced into embargos as a result of receiving review copies of certain games, like how Konami forbid mention of the cut-scene length and install times of Metal Gear Solid 4. It is not an easy problem to solve and there is no simple solution beyond not showing game advertisements, which would cut into profits.

One last problem that I am far from the first person to make note of is the over-inflation of review scores. A scale of 1 to 10 is often used to indicate the overall quality of a game in comparison to other games. On this kind of scale, 5 is often denoted as average simply because it is in the middle. Anything above a 5 is above average and below a 5 is below average. This makes sense and is intuitive for the most part. However, this is not necessarily how review scores (which are a terrible way to handle reviews, but have been accepted as commonplace simply because of the fast-paced nature of today's society) work. If you were to go to review-aggregate site Metacritic, you would find that there are many more average or positively-reviewed games than there are negative ones. This is simply not possible mathematically. If there are more positive reviews than average or low reviews, then the praise becomes the new accepted standard for average and the review scores should be placed back in equilibrium. We are not seeing this and I think I know the reason why. The reason for this inflation of review scores (and resulting decrease in credibility and weight that reviews carry) is that the fans of franchises cannot tolerate reviews that are neither perfect nor near perfect. We saw this when fans of the Uncharted series lashed out against reviewers for giving the upcomming-at-the-time (as in, they had not played it yet) third game an 8 out of 10, which is well-above average on a 1 to 10 scale. The game was not ever released, yet people claimed that the reviewers had “no clue what they are talking about.” It is a huge testament to the source of many of the problems with game reviews.

In fact, upon very close scrutiny, many of the other problems that plague game reviewers and the reviews they write come down to the fans who read them. The reason they are rushed to finish these reviews before a game is even out is because fans do not want to wait. They want to see opinions on upcomming games as soon as possible. Fans cannot wait until popular consensus has arisen and critical analysis can be had because fans do not want that. It is a desire for instant gratification and someone to support their opinions of the serieses they love and hate that drives them. A critical eye and valuable insight into the fine details of a game is not wanted by the masses. The request is for a “You are right” or an “I think you are wrong” (which will be preceived as a “selling out”). The only problem that does not come down to the fans is the issue of advertisers, and that is complex enough as it is. This is frustrating for people like myself who want insight and critique of the medium. To improve the quality of reviews from major gaming journalists, we need to fundamentally alter the culture driving them. This is not an easy thing to do as it would require much work and be met with much resistance. I do not even know if the effort would be worth it. But at the very least, this is discussion worth having. This is something that needs to be said.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#35: What is Immersion and How Do We Achieve It?

 Most of the people who play games agree that they are able to let us explore new and interesting worlds in ways that books or movies simply cannot, something I have discussed myself on several occasions. However, when we talk about this ability, the same word tends to crop up over and over again: This word is “immersion.” All gamers have at least a rough idea of what it is, but very rarely do we discuss the idea in any sort of meaningful way. This is my attempt to try and remedy that. My intention is to try to figure out how developers can increase the immersion of players in their games. First, let us define “immersion” for the purposes of this article. If we can nail down a definition, then it will be easier to have an informed discussion about it because we will all be one the same page. Immersion is the truest form of a willing suspension of disbelief. It is when the player feels like that he/she is an active participant of the video game despite knowing that he/she is not actually in the game. When someone is truly “immersed” in a game, they tend to think of the people and places depicted not as models and textures put together in a game engine with working physics and number-driven systems. Instead, they think of them as people who are in a world and doing what they do with a delibrate and driven purpose. Designers and developers usually strive to achieve this feeling of “immersion” for the end user. There are a number of tips and strategies that they use to make this happen.

One of the simplest thing people a developer can do to facilitate immersion is to maintain an internal logic and consistency in the setting, characters, and plotline. Please note that this is not a call for realism in games (I have already discussed that). It is simply saying that there should be a rationale behind every thing that is going on. The world must have its own rules and systems that it adheres to. As a general rule, if the world in question uses magic/technology and it adheres to a specific system, then it must never deviate from that system without some sort of contingencies set in place. For this example, let us say that we are talking about a fantasy world with magic that has a built in system of equivilent exchange (where every good thing that happens due to magic must be tempered with an equivilant negative side-effect and vice-versa). If in this world, a sorcerer successfully revived his dead wife free and clear with no downsides, then the player would (rightfully) call foul. Something that incongruous would need either adequate foreshadowing that alludes to the possibility of someone doing this (a skilled and powerful sorcerer can explain how that could theoretically happen sometime before the scene), hang a lampshade on it during the scene (someone points out in the middle of the resurrection that it should not be possible), or provide an explanation after the fact showing that the sorcerer technically did follow the rules and actually did sacrifice something dear to him in an equivilant exchange. These are all tools a skilled writer can use to explain away things incongruous to their internal systems and logic.

It is also worth noting that an designer does not need to worry about never breaking logic even once. It is bound to happen eventually. What they have to worry about is not breaking internal logic too often and not doing it with major plot events. Players can generally forgive a few minor errors and even justify them in their minds. However, take advantage of this fact too often, and the players will begin to lose immersion. This theshold at which the immersion is broken and disbelief is no longer suspended varies wildly from person to person. Therefore, a writer should be extremely careful when making major breaks with continuity. This internal logic also extends into characters and their motivations, so a writer needs to keep in mind what a character's personality and goals are when determining what the character should do in the plot. If game developers want to maintain the feeling of immersion, they need to define a rationale behind how the world works and maintain it to the best of their abilities. We accept that real world logic does not always apply. The problem arises when a world's own logic no longer applies to itself.

While the previous tip can be applied to any form of media in general, this next tip applies to games in particular. It is a very good idea to synergize story and gameplay as much as possible and avoid Gameplay and Story Segregation. One of the more immersion breaking things a game can do is give the player a situation that he/she could ordinarily overcome using conventional gameplay only for them to circumvent it somehow. One of most well-known examples of this in action is the death of Aeris/Aerith in Final Fantasy VII. In Final Fantasy VII, player characters are killed in battle quite often (depending on the player's skill, obviously). To revive these characters, there is an item called a Pheonix Down which revives them so that they can keep fighting. However, when Sephiroth kills Aeris in a cutscene, there is no ability to revive her with similar means. Her death is required for the plot to advance. They never once lampshade, subvert, or acknowledge the possibility of using items or healing spells, which is weird because Final Fantasy has done permanent-death for a player character before. In the fifth game in the franchise, the player's party is being attacked by the villain, ExDeath. To save the others, one of the party uses his crystal to gain powers well beyond what humans are capable of. He fights ExDeath and holds his own despite the fact that his HP is at 0 and he should be dead. After the fight, the others try to heal and revive him with common spells and items the player is quite likely to have. They find that he exhausted his power so throughly that he was beyond healing. He was a dead man. Furthermore, unlike Final Fantasy VII where Aeris dies and the player potentially loses a party member he/she trained at the expense of others, the designers of Final Fantasy V had the dead party member transfer his skills to his daughter, meaning that the player is not inconvienced by the plot's insistence of killing off a party member.

Some people reading this might view this as an extension of my previous point about willing suspension of disbelief and internal logic. To that I say, I am glad you are paying attention, because you are correct. The problem is that many games simply do not take that into account. Developers have an irritating tendency to treat the plotline and setting of a game as separate to the gameplay when that is simply not the case. Gameplay is a natural extension to the events at hand. It informs the player as to how the world they are now exploring works. If those mechanics are incongruous with the story or the setting, it makes the world look disjointed and players will be more likely to see the cracks.

Another thing that games can do to increase the likelihood of player immersion is to avoid something I learned about from Chris Franklin, also known as Campster, of Errant Signal fame (which you should be watching): “ludonarrative dissonance.” In layman's terms, ludonarrative dissonance is when themes and morals present in the game's storyline are directly contradicted by the gameplay. This is not like the previous point, where internal logic is broken. When this concept is invoked, the game's world can, not necessarily will, still be following its own rules, but it fails at upholding the underlying moral message throughout. It can even be presenting two opposing messages, one in the story and one in the gameplay, knowingly or not. This is often a problem in modern miltary-themed first person shooters. Many of them love to try to be serious commentaries on the harsh realities and reprecussions of war. However, at the same time, they appear to revel in the bloodshed and slaughter of hundreds of people that the player must defeat in order to advance. These two facts are in stark contrast with each other. Developers cannot talk about loss when directing the player to kill thousands of people, no matter how “evil” they are portrayed. The theme of the story is undercut by the morality presented in the gameplay where killing all the enemies is presented as a “good” action because they are terrorists and/or in the way of the player's objective. Though it does not affect everyone, this kind of contradiction can be extremely jarring to some people, breaking their immersion and even their enjoyment of the game.

The last piece of advice I have for developers seeking to facilate immersion in games is to simply make games that play well. There is a lot to be said for a game that is fun to play. When a player enjoys a game and is having an engrossing and entertaining experience, they are much less likely to analyze the plot and look for plot holes and logical fallicies/inconsistencies. On the other hand, if the game is boring and uniteresting to play, then the player will more often than not examine the story of the game in greater detail since that will be the only thing keeping their attention. It is not always possible to plug every plot hole or account for every inconsistency, so the best solution is sometimes to just distract players with good gameplay (as loathe as I am to admit it). If it is of high enough quality, then we are more than able to forgive a few mistakes or missteps.

Immersion is a difficult thing to achieve. It requires so many interlocking systems and conditions to come together in complete synergy. Furthermore, it also depends on the player and his/her mindset, which is inherently fickle. It is not possible for a developer to create a game that is 100% immersive for everyone. All they can do is facilitate immersion by creating as coherent and interesting a game as possible. Focus on building and maintaining an internal logic with both the story and the gameplay and how they tie into each other. While this seems like a tall order, it is much simpler than one might think. All it requires is going in and thinking about the story. Writers should ask themselves if there is another, easier and more sensible way for events to unfold and ask other people on staff and with a critical eye to take a moment and look it over. Many series have loremasters and dedicated wikis for that serve this very purpose. There really is no excuse for not doing something so incredibly simple.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

#34: PC vs. Console, Which is Better?

I have been playing games for almost my entire life. Games are very much a huge focus of mine, which is why I love to write about them. One thing you learn when being a part of this sub-culture is that the people who populate it tend to be very... tenaciously fanatic when comes to decisions they make. This causes gamers to debate a lot. One of the major debates that have cropped up more often of late than usual is whether PCs or dedicated gaming consoles are superior to the other. There are points to be made for either side. This week, I try to apply my analysis onto this debate and try to come up with a satisfactory answer. For this analysis, I will look at several factors and analyze them to see whether PCs or Consoles do better in that category. Once that is all said and done, I will render my final verdict. Since I am a console gamer who has only recently picked up PC gaming, there is a possibility for biases, just a forewarning.

The first category we will look into is Initial Investment. On the console side, the initial cost of investment is usually fairly low. Though consoles have had higher price points this generation (which is why $600 PS3 could not move units), most of them hover around the $250 price point. This is because console manufacturers, with the exception of Nintendo, do not make money on the initial sale. In fact, each sale results in a slight loss for the company. They rely on the sales of game software (and Blu-Ray movies in Sony's case) to make up for the initial losses and eventually profit. In contrast, PCs tend to have a much higher initial investment. Even lower end gaming PCs take an initial investment of around $500 dollars nowadays. Higher end gaming PCs will be very costly. The consumer will likely be shelling out $1000 or more in order to play top of the line games. It makes sense. Unlike gaming consoles where the company has a reasonable idea of what the end user plans to do with it, PCs have a significantly higher degree of uncertainty. Because of this, PC manufacurers and distributors of their parts need to make a profit through the initial sale and they do not have propritary formats to liscense out for money (any PC will generally run any program from any CD/DVD if it has the power to do so). Naturally, this will drive up prices for the hardware and give consoles the advantage on that front.

The next thing to go over is the cost of games for the hardware. Most console gamers are aware of the ever-prevalant $60 price tag on most major console releases. As many of them are also aware, that cost tends to be quite prohibitive. It is simply not feasible, espcially in this economy, for a consumer to purchase all the games he/she wants. Even after a few years, prices rarely drop to a significant enough degree. There is the downloadable market which offers a more flexible pricing system, but by and large most games are subject to the $60 retail price. This is not the case for the PC. Most PC games are purchased from services like Steam and Good Old Games. Retail is by and large irrelevant for PC gamers. While AAA games still tend to release for $60, they are infinitely more suceptible to the market and tend to get marked down and put on sale and a higher frequency. A semi-patient PC gamers will always be able to buy games for a more reasonable price than a console gamer with the same level of patience. And even people who are not into PC games are aware of the massive sales that Steam throws semi-regularly. There is also the indie scene to make note of which is more prelavent on the PC, allowing for more variety in games at a lower coist. All this combined gives PC gamers a clear advantage when it comes to purchasing gaming software for their chosen device.

But purchasing a system and getting games for it are one thing. It is an entirely separate matter when it comes to making the games work on the player's system. This is a trivial matter for the consoles. Since every Playstation 3/Xbox 360 has the same system specs as any other system, game developers can be reasonably assured as to what the end user for their games will have and can program the games and their development tools with that in mind. The results in nearly the exact same performance on every console. Players will not have to fuss over system settings and compatability. Any PS3 game will work on any PS3, for example (unless it's buggy, in which case every PS3, on average, will encounter the same amount of bugs/glitches). This is not necessarily the case with PC games. Unlike consoles, every PC will have different specs from other PCs. The developers of these games have no idea what the end user will be capable of playing. This means that they have to release minimum specs required to play the game and ideal specs to get the most out of game, shifting the responsibility of compatability from the developers to the players. It is the player's job to make sure that he/she has a rig capable of playing the game. It also means that PC games have the tendency to be more fussy than their console counterparts. This makes it necessary for users to go through settings and the occasion forum post if the game is not working. While developers are usually available for support (it affects their bottom dollar if you cannot play a game), the fans are ultimately the ones who are responsible for keeping their systems up to date and getting the game to function, giving consoles a clear advantage here.

Another crucial topic in a discussion like this is the control scheme behind each system. This in and of itself is a major topic of debate among gamers: The question of the console controller versus the keyboard and mouse. The controller is obviously a more accessable form of play for the common gamer. It is very easy to pick up a controller and play the desired game. There is also much to be said for continuity of controls between games. Games tend to have similar conventions regarding control schemes. While small adjustments between games will be necessary, more often than not games in the same genre will have very similar controls. Unfortunately, the simplicity can also become a downside. Certain genres simply cannot work with a controller. While controllers are much better for things like racing games, they make other genres like Real-Time Strategy nearly unplayable due the number of inputs and the degree on precision required. On the keyboard and mouse side of things, we have a different case. The KB&M style of control is very precise. Depending on mouse sensitivity, (which can usually be adjusted) it is much easier to make smaller and more accurate movements with a mouse than with a thumbstick. Furthermore, the keyboard and mouse is more malliable than a controller. It can used in a number of different ways simply because there are more keys and most PC games allow for custom controls and a greater variety of control schemes (at least more often than console games). This is both a blessing and a curse. While KB&M allow for more precise and customized controls, they do not have the pick up and play ability that controllers have. The end user will more than likely spend some time adjusting his/her controls and fine-tuning them while a controller user can spend more time playing the game. Going back to the PC versus console debate, PCs ultimately win out. Not because keyboard & mouse is inherently better (It depends entirely on what the end user wants from the control scheme), but because the PC has access to both because 360 controllers are compatable with PCs and there exists software to do the same with PS3 controllers. This means that consoles are restricted to one of the two while PC gamers have access to both.

And now to answer the ultimate question: Which is truly superior, PC or console? The answer is an extremely solid “What is your preference?” If you are a more technically minded gamer who is on lastest of the cutting edge, then PC is the right choice for you. For a more customized experience or one that offers a greater variety in games, then PC is again the right choice for you. However, the console is better for those who do not want to worry to much about technical stuff and want to just dive into a game. Price also needs to be a big consideration. PC is better for those who prefer to take a big initial hit and then take advantage of discounts and lower prices on the digital market while consoles have a lower barrier of entry, but have more expensive games. That is ultimately why this debate continues to rage on. People have different definitions of what is “best” and thus judge it on different criteria. This is what fuels all the various “best ever” fanboy arguments. It is impotant for us to take this into consideration. If there is a game or system you do not like, keep in mind that the odds are that other people like it for different reasons.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

#33: Character Analysis #2: Legion (Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3)

(Spoiler Alert for the Mass Effect franchise. If you are touchy about spoilers, avert your eyes and go back to watching porn.)

Lately I have getting on my soapbox and writing about a fairly diverse set of topics and the list of said topics is far from empty. However, this week I feel like doing something a bit more recreational. Since my first attempt at something like this was so popular (and is still getting hits to this day), and it has been a long time, another character analysis is in order. This time I will be discussing every Mass Effect fan's favorite AI companion, Legion. Legion is one of the series most interesting characters in the franchise, in my honest opinion, and there are a couple of reasons I have for this.

But before I get into that, we need to learn about the story of Legion. Any character, even a synthetic one, is a product of their story. Due to the nature of the Geth in the Mass Effect franchise, Legion's tale is the tale of Geth, and goes back to when the Geth gained sentience. Originally, the Geth were nothing more than a collection of AI constructs developed by the Quarian race to serve them. They were programmed to always find the most efficient ways to complete tasks assigned to them. It was eventually realized that when Geth programs come together, they can “think” and perform tasks better than they could individually. Reaching its logical conclusion, these programs kept networking until they reached a point where they gained sentience and could communicate with their Quarian creators. This unsettled the Quarians to the point where they started attacking the Geth out of fear. (I suppose that Quarians are equally as aware of standard AI horror tropes as we are.) While some Quarians showed sympathy to the Geth, most of them displayed only fear. This fear only grew once a Geth platform asked its creator, “Does this unit have a soul?” Out of sheer terror was born a war between the two. Though the conflict was started by the Quarians, the Geth held their own and forced them off their own home world, leading the Quarians toward the path of a migrant species.

Shortly after this victory, the Geth embraced a policy of isolationism towards organic life. They had no desire to fight or even deal with other people and just wanted to be left alone, safeguarding the planet their creators called home. This does not mean that they were doing nothing. In fact, they were working towards their ultimate goal. They wished to build a system large enough to house every single Geth intelligence on one platform, becoming as smart and capable as they can possibly become. Striving towards their desire for a very long time, the Geth remained little more than bogeymen to the galactic races until the Reapers arrived on scene. When the Reapers approached the Geth, they made them a huge offer. In exchange for giving the Reapers aid in furthering their goals (which makes little sense when taken into context with Mass Effect 3), the Geth were promised to be elevated by the Reapers and have their goals fulfillled. When trying to reach consensus on this issue, a small collective of the Geth broke away to join the Reapers and were dubbed Heretics by the many who rejected the Reapers. Then the events of the orignal Mass Effect game occurred, with Commander Shepard going against Saren, the Reaper Sovereign, and the Geth who defected. (You know the plot, if not from my prior articles, then from your own experiences.) This colored the preception of organic races towards the Geth and brought credence to the Quarian race's belief that they were wronged by their synthetic creations.

The isotionist policy changed once the Normandy came under attack by a mysterious third party and Commander Shepard was lost, presumed dead. Since the commander had experience with the Heretics and was instrumental in the defeat of Sovereign, the Geth decided that it would be prudent to make sure the Shepard was alive. To successfully traverse the systems that organic life inhabit, the Geth realized it would be best to send as few units as possible and lessen their mark on the world. They built a single platform capable of housing over one thousand individual Geth AI constructs all networked together. This platform traced Shepard's footsteps, looking for clues as to where he/she went and what happened, eventually finding the Normandy's crash site and salvaging a piece of Shepard's N7 armor, using it to repair itself after a firefight. After concluding that Shepard died, it stayed around to investigate another problem it discovered.

The platform learned of a plan by the Heretics to use a virus, granted to them by the Reapers, to rewrite the true Geth, making them accept the Reapers as their leaders. This led the platform to a derilect Reaper in order to acquire knowledge on how to counteract this virus. It encounters Shepard and is surprised to find him/her alive and well. Seeing the commander in a tight situation, the platform takes aim at the hoards attacking Shepard, then retreats further in to hack a terminal and learn about the Reapers and their technology. Once Shepard and company arrive on scene, they see the platform attacked by a Reaper husk and disabled. They acquire a Reaper IFF for their own purposes, collect the platform and leave.

Once the crew make it back to the new Normandy, there is a debate as to whether the Commander should activate and interrogate the platform, sell it to Cerberus, or just leave it be. Since nobody in their right mind would sell it to Cerberus, the four Shepards I played all decided to activate and interrogate the platform. The platformed explained its purpose and why it was sent outside the Perseus Veil, where the Geth live. For the purpose of communicating with organic life, the platform accepted the name Legion to distinguish it from other Geth platforms and agreed to help Shepard fight against the Collectors. (This is part of Mass Effect 2's main plot, which I do not want to get into for various reasons.) Through several optional conversations, Legion tells Shepard, and the player by proxy, all about how the Geth work, their “society,” political beliefs, and the like. Eventually, it gives the player the optional objective to head to the base of the Herectic Geth and stop them from using the virus, with the choice to either destroy it, blowing up the Heretic Base and all the Heretics in it, or repurpose it to turn the Heretics back into true Geth and force them to retreat, then destroy it. Since the individual programs inside Legion were unable to form concensus, they trusted Sheppard to make the final decision.

If Legion both survives the events of Mass Effect 2 and was not sold to Cerberus, he will become a central figure in the events regarding the Geth/Quarian conflict in the third game. Since the Quarians attempted to erradicate them, the Geth decided to forge an alliance with the Reapers out of fear. The deal was that they would gain intelligence and fighting prowess in exchange for allowing the Reapers to completely control them. When Shepard arrives on scene to convince the Quarians to join the war efforts, he/she is briefed on the situation. The commander, his/her Quarian friend Tali, and one other person infiltrate a Geth ship sending a broadcast to all the others in order to figure out exactly why it seems like the Geth and the Reapers are working together. They encounter Legion, who tells them that the Reapers are using him to project a signal to all Geth, ordering them to attack. It asks the team to free it so that it is no longer a Reaper conduit and can begin aiding in a counterattack on the Reapers, which Shepard does. As a show of good faith towards Shepard and as a token of their friendship, Legion orders the ship's engines and weaponry to be diabled, which the Quarians took as a queue to attack with full force (despite the fact they know Shepard is on board). Once everyone is safely back on the Normandy, gives Shepard an optional side-mission to enter the Geth Consensus and weaken the Reaper's influence, allowing some of the Geth to join him/her. Afterwards, the Quarians, Shepard's team, and Legion work together to destroy the Reaper signal to the Geth by destroying the source, later revealed to be an actual Reaper. Once Shepard defeats the Reaper, Legion tells him/her that it can use the Reaper's code to make the Geth's thought processes more organic in nature, giving them true individuality and conciousness, whether or not it succeeds is up to Shepard. It will die regardless and it's story comes to an end either way (using the code, for some reason, kills Legion and if Shepard tries to stop it, Legion will fight back and Shepard will kill him). Should Sheppard allow it, Legion will call itself “I” instead of “We” in its final moments, showing that the process is working and demostrating true individuality before passing away.

One of the things that makes Legion so interesting is that it is the player's window into Geth culture. While characters like Garrus and Tali partially serve to further the player's knowledge regarding how their races work, there are many other people from those races to interact with to forge a deeper understanding than with those characters alone. Legion is unique in that it is the one and only way in which Shepard learns about the Geth because they are isolationists and they are so closely networked together that talking to one Geth platform is essentially talking to the Geth as a whole. This makes conversations with Legion facsinating because prior to Legion's inclusion, the Geth were always at least somewhat enigmatic. The player fought against their forces (later revealed to be Heretics) in the first game, but never understood exactly what caused them to side with Sovereign. Legion gives the player an opportunity to learn about the Geth in an interesting and creative way. On the part of the writers, this was very cleaver.

The other intelligent decision the writing team made, which further raises the interest I have towards Legion, is to defy traditional genre conventions regarding Artificial Intelligence. As I aluded to earlier, most media that involves an AI growing sentience have it quickly decide that its creators are too inefficient and immediately start trying to murder everyone. As other people on the internet have already said, this makes very little sense. Why would the default stance for an AI be “murder the shit out of everyone” the moment it learns how to think for itself? Bioware knew about this genre convention and thoughfully decided to avert it. The choice to do that gave Legion (an other AI characters) the ability to be much more fleshed out and interesting than similar characters in other genres, leading into my final point.

Legion is one of the most interesting characters in the Mass Effect series because of what it represents: The moral quandary of whether or not sentient machines count as life in the same way that organics do. They explore every aspect of this question from their ability to feel emotions to whether or not they have civil rights. The ability of the Geth to feel emotions is intentionally left up for debate. When talking with Legion, it will insist that it does not have emotions and is unable to feel anything. According to it, logic and rational thinking allow the invividual Geth programs to come together and build a consensus as to what the next course of action should be. However, there are times where that can be called into question. For example, when Shepard sees the N7 armor on Legion and questions it about it, Legion explains that he used it because there was a hole and it needed to be prepared. When further pressed to answer why it used that in particular piece of armor over other parts more redily available, Legion finally admits that it has no data on that subject and cannot answer that question. In other words, it does not know for sure. This indicates that it was a decision influenced by something more than logic, possibly emotion. There are also other more subtle cues from Legion in other dialogue scenes in Mass Effect 2 and 3 that indicate possible sorrow, anger, and other emotions.

The other half of this huge moral dillema is the question of the civils rights of synthetic beings and their ability to integrate into society. It is a tough question that does not have a clear answer. Characters debate this throughout the entire series. Most organic races, particularly the Quarians, tend to fall on the side of no rights to synthetic beings. This makes sense since they believe that the Geth forced them off their world. They believe that it is either impossible or too impractical to arrange for peace, despite dissenting opinions. Legion on the other hand, tries its best to be as considerate as it can be. However, it does not always succeed. There are time where it says or does otherwise rational things that can be seen as strange or ruthless to organic beings. During its optional mission in Mass Effect 2, Legion talks about the possibility of destroying the Geth Heretics with cold callous, which the player's other companion comments on with shock. It also states that Shepard and company should not feel bad about killing the Heretics because they “do not share your pity, remorse, or fear.” Legion also expresses a childlike inability to understand human customs, which Shepard can chose to explain to it, such as the concepts of cemetaries, religion, and drug use. Since it is an AI, it has trouble understanding how these things factor into our lives and the emotional (and physiological in the case of the last one) impact of these things, calling into question the ability of Legion and the geth to truly integrate with organics. Through Legion, the game presents all the relevant information and ultimately allows the player to decide for themselves the answer these question, adding depth to its character and making it much more impactful.

Overall the character of Legion is a great example of Bioware's strength. They can write interesting and relatable characters and use them to raise interesting moral questions. Though they have many weaknesses in terms of how they tell stories, especially in recent games, characterization has always been a strength of their brand. This is why they were such a strong brand before the issues with Mass Effect 3. If you write good characters, then players will grow attachments to them and want to play through your game to deepen those bonds. Take this lesson to heart, game developers. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

#32: The Relationship Between Games and Religion

(Spoiler Alert for: Assassin's Creed 1, 2 and Brotherhood, Final Fantasy X, XIII and Tactics, the Halo franchise, and Skyrim. As usual, you have been warned.)

I think it can be said that games are becoming more and more prominent as a valid form of speech and expression of ideas and beliefs. With that in mind, what games say regarding certain topics should reflect the dispositions of the people who both create and consume them. One particular topic springs up with a fair degree of regularity in video games, which I find quite interesting. That topic is religion. Religion is a very huge topic in modern society that permeates all of our lives, regardless of what each person thinks regarding the subject. It influences people and their opinions. That is why I find what games have to say on this topic to be worth discussing and why I have made this subject the topic of discussion.

But before I begin, I want to make one thing completely, totally, unequivocally clear. I have absolutely no problems with religion. This analysis of the subject is intended to be as unbiased and objective as I can possibly make it. I have no desire to offend anybody and I hope what follows is indicative of that. What I am going to do is look at the common themes surrounding well known takes on religion in video games and take a look at examples of them. Then I will try to look at the big picture surrounding this and put this all in context.

One of the most common themes that games touch on regarding religion is that it leads to war. Many games build major plot points around this concept. An example of this comes from the most recent game from The Elder Scrolls franchise, Skyrim. In the game, there is a Civil War tearing apart the nation of Skyrim. The central reason for this schism, at least on the surface, is that the Nordic people have been banned from publicly worshiping the god Talos, who is the ascended soul of the first emperor of the realm, by the Empire because of a recent treaty with a rival faction. The churches were all forced to disown Talos as a god and go from praising the Nine to praising the Eight. The outrage and religious fervor was so great that it lead to the birth of the Stormcloak Rebellion. This is far from the only example of this. The original Assassin's Creed was publicized beforehand as taking place during the Third Crusade and using it as a backdrop for their story, one of the more famous/infamous Holy Wars in history (depending entirely on your viewpoint), and they milk that setting for all it is worth. The characters in the game often muse on the nature of war and the people who fuel it, pondering the causes behind and reasons for it. They constantly question the necessity of the Holy War and it is really fascinating, though Ubisoft was not the first company to question the nature of crusades in a video game.

In fact, the Halo series did this well before Assassin's Creed came out. One of the major threats to humans in the Halo games is an organization of religious alien races referred to as the Covenant. This group attacks humanity because they believe that their gods have condemned humanity and wish to have them eradicated. This is one of the series central conflicts and even gamers who are not fans of the franchise (like myself) have a passing familiarity with this plot point. Even Final Fantasy gets in on the action. In the franchise's thirteenth main installment, there are two worlds, Cocoon and Pulse, that each have their own gods that preside over them. These two worlds have been at war with each other for years. As the game's main plot progresses, it is revealed that the gods themselves are orchestrating the war in order to get enough people to all die at once for the gate to the next life to be blown wide open so they can meet the deity who created everything. The gods themselves organized a war between two worlds. That sends a pretty powerful message as to the subconscious of the developers.

The other theme that tends to surround the portrayal of religion in video games is the theme of the church as a tool for political corruption. Going back to the Civil War plot line in Skyrim, the political intrigue surrounding it is relevant to this point. The founder of the Stormcloaks is revealed towards the end of the Civil War plotline (should the player choose to side with him), to not really care all too much about the Talos worship ban. It bothers him to be sure, but it is far from his main motive. All he truly cares about is political power. To that end, he stirred up a religious movement and used it in order to take over the land of Skyrim as High King. Political motivations for religious movements is also a trope which the Final Fantasy franchise is very familiar with. At least two different Final Fantasy games that I know of (Final Fantasy X and the spin-off Final Fantasy Tactics) use this trope to great effect in their stories.

In Final Fantasy X, the world of Spira is perpetually threatened by an entity referring to as Sin. According to the reigning religion, Sin was born because of humanity's reliance on machines and weaponry and that it needs to be exorcised by following precepts and praying for humanity's collective atonement. The game reveals later on that it was all a complete lie. Sin was created as a way to preserve the collective memories of a fallen city and the religion was founded in order to gain political control through false hope that it could be defeated through strict adherence to it. The other example of this trope in this franchise comes from Final Fantasy Tactics. The game revolves around the political intrigue between several noble houses, all of which practice the leading religion of the land. According to the tenants of the religion in question, the leading Saint, St. Ajora Glabados, and his 12 disciples wielded the fabled Zodiac Stones to defeat a massive evil a long time ago. The modern church officials attempt to use the Zodiac Stones to consolidate power and maintain their influence on politics. While they are shown to be corrupt, even they do not know the truth and genuinely believe the stones will provide salvation. However, as the game goes on, a horrible truth is revealed. The Zodiac Stone are conduits for the Lucavi demons to form contracts with humans. These human gain great powers, but are eventually turned into nothing more than avatars for the demons will. Saint Ajora used this long ago and merged with the demon Ultima, head of the Lucavi, and, with that power, gained Sainthood and massive influence on the people until well after his death. The protagonist of the story works behind the scenes to collect the Zodiac Stones and prevent another catastrophe from being unleashed on the world.

My final example comes from the Assassin's Creed series again, particularly the second installment and its follow up, Brotherhood. A major plot point in the these games is that the main adversaries, the Knights Templar, have taken control of the Vatican via the papacy. They use their influence from this position to assert control over the area. They bribe officials, threaten the people into compliance, warping religious texts to their advantage, and many other things. They did not make up most of this either. The people involved, Rodrigo Borgia and his family, were notoriously evil people who abused their positions in the church to better their own ends. The only thing Ubisoft made up was that they were a part of the Knights Templar. It is interesting to see a franchise comment on history the way that Assassin's Creed does. It provides food for though and conversation.

To be fair to game developers, there are also plenty of examples of religions in games displayed in a more positive light as well, but these are typically left unexplored and exist superficially and/or as a way to give players a place to get healed and buy healing items/spells. More often than not, when a game explores the concept of religion intently, it is shown in a negative light. While this would indicate that gamer culture does not think highly of religion, I honestly do not think that is true. Many of the people I know who play games are highly devout in their chosen faith. Most of them are also very kind people on top of that. So then why do games tend to be so highly critical of the concept when compared to other media? Is it because of some subconscious reason that we are only superficially aware of? Is it because the medium itself allows more a higher degree of nuance and intrigue in this topic? Is it simply because corrupt churches make for interesting plots? I honestly do not know the answer to this question. My job is simply to highlight an aspect of games and get you to think more of the subject. I am no where near intelligent or unbiased enough to give a good explanation. I leave it up to you to think and debate with yourself and others to find an explanation behind this conundrum.