Fallouts v. Elder Scrolls

In November of 2010 I wrote an article expressing distaste for Fallout: New Vegas over Fallout 3. In short, I didn’t like the way the game changed from its predecessor. I’d gone into that experience looking for more, and what I got was very different.

Allow me to argue against myself. Since then, Bethesda has given us Skyrim, and after spending the prerequisite time entrenched in it, I now feel differently about the whole lot. Closing in on two years since New Vegas, it has a different place in my heart. Each game takes the same idea of an open world RPG and approach it differently, enough that the experience of each is distinct. In retrospect, Fallout 3 is more straight fun to play, Skyrim holds the least appeal, and New Vegas is the smart experiment that differs the most of from its sisters, and I think it deserves more recognition than I gave it two years ago.

I get tired with Skyrim in a way I don’t with the Fallouts. That’s not to say there aren’t things I enjoy about it, but those things tended not to be the real “point” of the game. Nevertheless, I played Skyrim for ~50 hours, so there was something there for me. But a lot of that involved my willingness to put up with a lot of bullshit and a lot of silliness.

Bias up front: I don’t like fantasy. I’ve (recently) seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the aesthetics of that lore bore me, and it seems to stretch on as long as the person wielding it wants it to. I was never interested in the idea of orcs, elves, or dwarves, and at this point, I’ve given up on trying to like it. I hope everyone has something that they will just never get into, something they try to understand while never actually being privy to the feeling. If you do, I think your opinion on that thing is still important. You are an outsider. You see things differently, and that’s good.

As for me and Skyrim (I only spent a few hours with Oblivion), I think it’s up to me to accept my fantasy aversion as a bias. Whatever it is, this “thing” that I have, it makes it hard to care like I do in Fallout, mostly because the Elder Scrolls world seems to be so incredibly steeped in its archers, swords, dragons, and something called “skooma”.

Not all of that stuff is necessarily fiction. We had archers and swordsmen and people with tangled beards who probably carried axes. The off-putting part to me is the requirement to wade through it in order to enjoy it. To me, it’s a well of fantastical lore that seems to exist for its own sake: orcs, scaly man-lizards, “magic”, potions, cat people, ice trolls that regenerate health… It’s one thing to say those things exist, or to imply them, or to even build a game system that works on them, but (and here’s the take-it-or-leave-it criticism) in Skyrim I’m left asking if these things exist for any reason other than because a good chunk of people think they’re pretty cool. As someone who doesn’t think any of these things are cool, to have a conversation with a character about it and to be asked to take it seriously and make it important? I can’t do it. I can’t believe in the problems of people who are too caught up in something I don’t understand.

Here’s the difference when it comes to Fallout 3 (and New Vegas, which is another face of that lore): the dystopian world reinforces an idea. It’s not post-apocalyptic for apocalyptica’s sake (because Lord knows there are plenty of things that are), it’s a reason for everything being the way it is. The implications of a DC post-nuclear war stretch through social psychology, economics, dystopian morality, and survival. The conceit of the world breeds those scenarios––they’re not just window dressing.

So the most enjoyment I get in Skyrim has nothing to do with anything wrapped up in its aesthetics, the setting, or the world in general. I like stealing cheese wheels and sneaking around people’s cottages and pilfering everything in sight. I like corralling guards to the top of mountains and shouting them away. Sometimes I just like to walk through the woods. The moment you try to wrangle me into caring about the problems of this hyper-imagined world, eyes start to roll.

And where I impatiently skip through dialogue and scenarios in Skyrim, I seek it out in both modern Fallouts. I can stomach helping children escape their slavers because they’re not prefacing it with a metric gut-punch of fantasy lore. I’m willing to help the squatters in Freeside work out an egalitarian contract for food and water resources because that’s a change I can effect without wading through the aesthetic. It’s a problem I can understand. The same quest in an Elder Scrolls game would be fraught with details of a world I ultimately find silly.

After all is said and done, each Fallout game is about embracing the person you become after the demise of a society that might have kept you from you. It is about both the persistence of the human heart and the futility of that persistence. In comparison, Skyrim is about saving the world from dragons. One gets me excited, the other falls flat. My evaluation of Elder Scrolls games hinges on this, and I think the best thing is to present it up front.

But, if Fallout is indeed an exploration of humans sans established society, Fallout 3 and New Vegas are two wildly different interpretations of that idea. In fact, Fallout 3 is closer to Skyrim in that a large part of the fun is in exploring outside and in dungeons full of monsters, following an occasional side quest line, and saving the entire world at the end of the day. New Vegas is more granular and cohesive than 3: there’s not much to explore and few dungeons to trawl, but the end result of the game hits harder. This is undoubtedly an Obsidian product, a company with seasoned roots in old school WRPGs.

At the end of Fallout 3, you purify the Potomac and ostensibly usher in a new era for post-apocalyptic civilization. At the end of New Vegas, you’ve aided a faction of your choice in over-taking the Hoover Dam, a chess move in a much larger game. I like the adventure of the former but enjoy the cohesiveness of the latter. Fallout 3 has one main quest and a handful of side quests that ultimately have nothing to do with each other, a wasteland full of standalone vignettes. New Vegas is predicated on factions, and your interaction with each faction affects the state of the world by the end of the journey. The system isn’t fully fleshed out in New Vegas, but it’s there, and it seems larger and more irreducible every time I play it.

Do you side with the Legion and return society to harsh, survival of the fittest roots? It’s a strong foundation but guts the tripe out of society in favor of animalistic conquest. It’s military life in slavery and squalor. Maybe you relinquish the wasteland to the NCR, the bureaucracy that defines most of modern life. Perhaps you help Mr. House keep his iron grip on the strip, let him restore it as America’s destination for sinful grandeur. Or, do you abandon all that and work for an independent, melting pot Mojave? Combine that with each of the other, smaller factions, there’s quite a few steps forward you can give the Mojave wasteland. And most genuinely, it’s all in the context of a selfish motive: the mission to find your killer spins out into an opportunity to play the role of x-factor.

And that’s the game. It’s very different from Fallout 3, where you spend most of your time whiffing the next interesting place to visit, concerning yourself with exhausting every dusty nook and cranny. It’s more of an archaeological dig than it is a treatise on the value of human life in the face of destruction. 3 is more in line with Skyrim this way: there is a satisfying gameplay loop of exploration and combat that is mostly fueled by curiosity. By comparison, New Vegas is more of a political simulator.

It’s ultimately the title I like the most for that reason, and it took me a long time to come around. The curiosity underneath the other two games is mostly absent in New Vegas, but the outcome of its systems have been more alluring. Two years ago, (even one year ago), I was more enamored with Bethesda’s interpretation of the Fallout scenario––there is more to do, it looks nicer, and pays off more immediately––but as time goes on, New Vegas’ pretensions continue to pull me back.

Max Payne 3: A Master of the Medium

At first I didn’t understand Max Payne at all. It seemed that Rockstar had thrown the titles through the current gen wash: a new cover system, crisp production value, and a swanky multiplayer suite at face speak to the need to fulfill the expectations of a demographic whose demands have ballooned unreasonably. In a way it has. Max Payne 3 perfectly encapsulates the dissonance games have come to harbor. It is the kind of experience I will never have in any other medium, but one I was no better for having.

The real conflict of any video game narrative is how it connects to what you’re actually doing while playing it: many games have excellent stories, series of interconnected plot points that can be inherently interesting and keep the action jogging, but this is decidedly different from narrative, the flow of feelings and ideas those plot points tug at. You can set up a stoic war story whose plot beats can be realistic, interesting, and memorable, but it’s an altogether different proposition to ask those moments to speak to any larger feelings when you connect them with a gameplay mechanic as crass as shooting a gun. Shooting a gun is shooting gun: it’s not about regret, loneliness, or self-hatred, though it can be informed by it.

So, good games work hard to inform their gameplay with these ideas, contextualizing them with moments that keep them moving in a way that makes sense. Games are ultimately about gameplay and mechanics, but story gives those elements the context that can change the way those mechanics feel. Good games understand the gravity that story and narrative can have on a game mechanic, find a way to connect them, and seldom separate them without good reason.

Max Payne 3 is the antithesis of this synthesis and revels in it, creating an experience that only a video game could offer. It is a game whose mechanics and narrative actively tear one another down, undermining each other after every moment. Max Payne 3 embraces its medium as incapable of itself, a downward spiral of absurdity and uncomfortable realism.

In taking the series to Sao Paulo, Rockstar has strongarmed a reality into Max Payne 3 that doesn’t belong there. The rich-poor disparity is ever present in Max Payne, and it seems ridiculous that a game bookended with social commentary on a penthouse party and a smug politician paying his way through a corrupt court system should ever be a vessel for a game about a man who constantly lurches everywhere in slow motion. Max is a cop who’s lost his wife and daughter, a drug user and alcoholic. It’s from this background that he leaps off rooftops, slows down time, and keeps upright while visibly riddled with bullets.

But the game is boldfaced about this disconnect. In his three games, Max has become a cynical sociopath. He vacillates between self-hatred and quippy one liners, deep cynicism and bad word play. Max might contemplate his motives one moment and then kill nine guys in a row while falling from a water tower. This schism in tone detracts from every element, but it’s also so noticeable that the incompatibility comes to define the mood in a way I hadn’t thought possible.

And the game as it is could only exist now. The elements of realism are a product of hitting the expectations of what a big game should sound, play, look, and feel like in 2012. It is polished to a ridiculous degree, and that meticulous attention is much to blame for the contrast to the gameplay.

The presentation of it all is even more jarring. The paneled transitions, the emphatic text, the filtered screen jitters, it’s in service of nothing more than style. The music is feverishly ambient, reinforcing a feeling that matches neither the narrative nor the gameplay but something else entirely, diluting the tone even more. The wailing guitar of “Torture” stands against the tribal rhythm of “Painkiller”.

In noir fashion Max Payne 3’s plot starts with a homeric task: protect the beautiful woman. By its end the plot unravels into an unruly conspiracy, a toilet flush of events that reinforces Max’s shitty behavior. Between those extremes Max kills indiscriminately, moving from rich environment to poor environment, always killing irrespective of wealth or common sense. When the game is at its best, all the death is an agonizing experience, one that’s not fun at all. In one scene as Max begins to over-drink in a favela strip club, he’s disturbed by a gang of locals, who’ve want this stranger out of their usual spot. As one of the gang members begins to annoy Max, a sequence is initiated where the player must shoot and kill the gang member, everyone in the club, and anyone throughout the favela Max sees after that. This killing of people who might not deserve it happens more than once throughout the eight hour campaign, and I died often throughout.

It’s these sequences, where Max over retaliates, when the game seems brilliant. Max is a terrible person and has lost the ability to care: this realization makes a slow-mo rampage fueled by drugs and booze feel wrong, dickish, and appropriate. The pill popping, the last-death kill cams, the constant failure and punishing checkpoints, it all seems surreal and awful, and I can’t wait for it to end. As an experience, it delivers a narrative as best it could.

But for the most part Max Payne 3 coalesces in a much more dissonant way. It plays as a story about an old, balding man in life crisis by giving us the power to murder scores of people playfully. The mixture is asinine, brutal, and undermining, but achieves a tone all its own. In fact, the experience of Max Payne could only exist in a medium where it wouldn’t seem out of place to suddenly have the protagonist dive twelve feet in slow motion––in a place where we can mix the most absurd and cynical of human inclinations. To seriously try to manage a meter that tracks our ability to slow down time right after a man has been burned to death in front of our eyes. To lament at the foot of your wife and daughter’s fresh grave, then credulously use it for cover and dive over it once the destructible bullet physics has eaten it away like termites.

Max Payne 3 is a series of problems whose solutions always come by way of death. It constantly kills you and asks you to kill other people. It would immediately feel stupid in any other form, but as a video game it becomes strangely smart, a master of its medium. The shooting never becomes fun, and the ideas of pain, loneliness, and regret never hit home. Instead, the incompatibility creates something new, an uncomfortable downward spiral that is a spectacle unto itself. In a tale of black market organ dealers, betrayal, and political intrigue, the raw absurdity of diving over tables with dual pistols is both tempered and amplified.  A paradox at its heart, I believe nothing else could produce the same effect quite as wonderfully, quite as uselessly.

21st Century Ballet: P.N.03 and the Grace of Repetition

P.N.03 immediately feels strange. A lusty woman who infiltrates futuristic techno-military bases and shoots lasers out of her palms in rhythm to sweaty electronic music? It can only be Japanese, and the impulse is to dismiss it on these xenophobic grounds. It is foreign, unfamiliar, and uncomfortably hard to control. And so repetitious––what use could it serve?

“You can’t take an adult seriously when he’s debating you over why Twilight vampires are O.K. with sunlight,” Joel Stein wrote in the Times’ Room for Debate column, speaking to the obsessive and encyclopedic nature of people who are fans of the imaginary. This logic has eaten at me through my young adult years. I often felt pressure to give up things that seemed useless or impractical, video games chiefly among them. You could make a very convincing argument (and by convincing, I mean an argument a lot of people would likely buy into) that the kid who sits in an arcade mastering Galaga or Donkey Kong are frittering their lives away. Read Anna Karenin, you dorks.

I can see now that this viewpoint has always been indefensible, but for video games of yore that survived on unflinching repetition, the accusation seems more cutting. How could you defend doing the same thing over and over again when you’ve got nothing tangible to show for it?

PN03 is a game that helped me reject this dopey rhetoric.  It’s an antique, repetitive third-person shooter mostly built around racking up giant combos and mashing the Gamecube’s wonderfully giant A button as much as you can. This is hard, mostly due to how inefficiently the game controls. I would say the hallmark of PN03 is its difficulty, but with the advent of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, crushing difficulty isn’t much to brag about. I haven’t played Dark Souls or its older brother, but what I hear most often about those games is how rewarding they are to conquer, an infinitely uphill battle.

PN03 isn’t really about the sweet release after a long and arduous victory, but more about becoming familiar with a system, if only for its sake. It represents the video game tradition of repetition almost perfectly, requiring you to constantly mash the shoot button over and over, throwing you into series of sterile, samey environments until the thumbs ache. It reminds me of learning to ride a bicycle, or how I might feel if I tried to learn to ride one today as an adult, two decades later.

Learning how to ride a bike is possibly one of the most frustrating things, and it’s probably because it engages an untrained kinesthetic sense we hadn’t yet found a need for. It forces us to wobble, to fall over, to scuff, and to maybe look silly in a bunch of protective gear. And once we’ve learned, it’s not something we think about ever again, probably because it was enormously frustrating.

But PN03 makes me remember what it’s like to fail again and again at something that is, performed at its best, a thoughtless and pretty sensation. Playing the game feels as wobbly and ham-handed as stepping onto a bike for the first time: Vanessa, the female protag, moves only in straight lines, stopping whenever she shoots or moves left or right, which she will only do in bursts. Explaining the way Vanessa moves and how constricting it can be is like describing riding a bike to someone who never has. Imagine attaching your body to a metal frame that must always be moving forward to keep from falling over; imagine trying to shoot giant robots without being able to move freely.

This isn’t hard because it is tuned to be so, but because it is just hard to understand. It requires some wobbling and scuffing. It’s our fault. But, like riding a bike, finally learning to understand the constrictions is a stipulation that I actually came to enjoy and that shows me a method of movement that feels wholly unique. At that point, PN03 then looks prettier than it feels. When controlled well, Vanessa dances through strippery motions as she shoots, ducks, and dodges. It is a 21st century ballet, a triumph of mechanical repetition. What was once a matter of fierce concentration gives away to the joyful, repetitive thrum.

The intimacy of this knowledge has little practical use, and not even in the experientially artistic way that I might get through reading Anna Karenin or something like it. PN03 is orthogonal to emotion in the same way riding a bike is: learning to understand how the game works is a slow and grueling process that engages me on a level like not much else can because it is primarily mechanical. You can argue how worthwhile it was to achieve that kind of thing, but there it is, a grace of the modern era.  We get on a bike, we start to move, and the opposing revolutions of our feet don’t imbalance us in the slightest. And maybe that’s pretty neat.

“I appreciate that adults occasionally watch Pixar movies or play video games. That’s fine. Those media don’t require much of your brains,” Stein writes. “Books are one of our few chances to learn. There’s a reason my teachers didn’t assign me to go home and play three hours of Donkey Kong.” In the end, the most indefensible part of this line of thinking is that it encourages us to not seek what there is to be found in the creative, to not burrow weeks into Donkey Kong and see what we find.

It was frustrating understanding PN03, but I’m thankful for this renewed sense of learning and the intimacy of this useless knowledge. I’m happy I went after it. I occasionally pop the game in again, returning to it for its own sake, just to try and understand the dance.

Suicide, Sheriffs, and Smash Bros.

During finals week of my last semester in junior college I was called into the county Sheriff’s office and yelled at. I was working part time at my town’s newspaper and had written a story about a woman convict who’d leapt from the vehicle moving her to incarceration. I’d written that a witness thought the vehicle looked like it was moving over the speed limit and that the woman seemed to sustain serious injuries.

“This is bullshit!” the Sheriff yelled. Somewhere in editing, the article lost the attribution of that information to a third-party witness and instead seemed to credit the information to the Sheriff’s department. The information turned out to be untrue––the woman was relatively fine, and the vehicle was within speed limits––but the police hadn’t been willing to comment at press time. Had it been clear that it was the opinion of the witness and not fact handed down from the Sheriff, it would have been a non-issue.

The nuance of this was hard to recall when a high ranking lawman was raising his voice at me. I sheepishly apologized and tried to explain the problem and that I would publish a correction, but the situation stung. He threatened to cut all ties to the paper, effectively undoing a decade’s worth of relationship-building my predecessors and managing editor had delicately worked to preserve.

I have never liked conflict. I keep the peace rather than confront others. Fighting games have always seemed to playfully and brutally embody the dirtiness of conflict, and I have never liked them. Aggression is a valid emotion, but expressing it through physicality has never appealed to me––in real life or otherwise. The only fighting game I’ve ever liked is Super Smash Bros., and for reasons having nothing to do with aggression or conflict.

The culture of fighting games exemplify the things I hate most about video games: trash talk, dismissiveness, and the expectation that one needs to be “good” at a game. If it weren’t for Smash Bros., I wouldn’t understand the appeal of this phenomenon. It happens when you become enraptured by the feel of a game’s mechanics, which is something that’s possible with any game, be they a game of platforming, shooting, or solitaire––but when it happens on a competitive platform, those mechanics suddenly become grounds to boast and challenge others.

I’m less into Smash Bros than when I was younger. Granted, I’m still only 19, but there was a time when every day after school was dedicated to Smash Bros. I’ve played Brawl, the Wii version, for over 230 hours and Melee and its N64 counterpart nearly as much. I feel as though I could write a lengthy book on the way Smash games work, knowledge that could only exist for a mechanical medium such as a video game.

Still, most people who play Smash Bros probably experience something very different from me. While it’s a step up in accessibility from most fighting games, I suspect most people approach Smash Bros to witness the smorgasbord of Nintendo jizz that constantly explodes all over the screen: It’s less of a fighter and more of a playground. And really, it’s sort of remarkable how well all Nintendo’s distinct IPs are able to fit cohesively on the same screen together in a way that doesn’t feel completely gross. Donkey Kong can fight Marth, Jigglypuff can fight Peach, and Snake can fight Sonic, and it’s all a visual delight. Each character fights in a way that makes sense for them, and when you combine it all with the nostalgia for 20th century Nintendo, it’s hard to resist.

Smash’s control scheme is appealing in comparison to other fighting games: a handful of buttons and button combinations will produce something similar for each character, no need to memorize quarter-turns or lengthy inputs. Every input gets a response. There are two attacks, each modified by a direction via the analog stick. That’s it. Plus, you can jump and dodge, but really, it’s easier than it sounds, and the “Mario-and-friends” aesthetic makes it incredibly inviting. I’ve never had to force a friend to play Smash Bros. with me (not that I make a habit of forcing people to play video games with me).

The original Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64 was probably the most fun I ever had with a video game when I was younger. As a Nintendo child, the thought of having every character I loved collaborate in the name of kicking ass was dreamy, a place of complete control I would have loved to stay in forever.

Nintendo announced at E3 2011 that a new version of Smash Bros. is being developed for its upcoming console, the WiiU. Like Brawl before it, I suspect the WiiU version of Smash Bros. will be the most extensive and graphically realized iteration yet. I wonder whether I’ll embrace the new version. Returning to Smash Bros. today is like reliving that magical, formative moment when I first picked up a controller and watched the screen dance to my whims. It is an artifact from my childhood, periodically updated and revised to remind me of the dull logic video games first presented me with.

Despite the robust mechanics, Smash Bros. is a very childish game. For all its violence, Smash is presented in the most innocent way possible: there is no blood or real pain, only cartoon slapstick. Characters don’t die from unbearable pain or failing organs but only when they are hit so hard that they fly away and twinkle as they disappear, only to reappear next match.

With Smash Bros. I feel the immediate sense of control that I miss as an adult. I suspect everyone has a game for him or her that, when they find again, makes them feel sad. Smash Bros. is a collection of my childhood imagery, ideas from a time when conflict manifested itself as a diorama of fun and playfulness. The idea that another person could be irreparably angry with me was far off.

The woman who leapt from the car taking her to prison sent me a letter a month later. “I was trying to kill myself,” she wrote. Her handwriting was childish and full of errors. “I wish I were dead.” While the Sheriff’s department did nothing wrong, my misprint could have been used in litigation against them, reflected badly during midterm elections, been cause to reexamine convict transportation, gotten someone fired, or had other sprawling, unintended consequences for things I hadn’t even considered. And more importantly, I hadn’t even considered she’d wanted to die.

Like all good Nintendo games, Smash Bros. obviates any hint of angry Sheriffs and broken relationships to the outermost edges. Adult life is mostly the reverse: the buzzing swirl of ideas to remember each and every day slowly sublimate the childish place where the world itself seemed childish. Sometimes it’s nice to admit I wish I could return there, a place where someone would never willingly throw themselves to asphalt, and I would never have to defend my depiction of it.

You, Me, and More Me: the Jerk I Become in Borderlands

One of the most serious arguments I’ve ever had with my friend J was over Borderlands. He was playing Lilith, a Siren with a bent towards elemental weapons while I was Roland, the medic and support class. We found a new sub-machine gun, J’s specialty, and I ran in before him and snatched it up.

The ensuing argument was over which of us could make better use of the weapon: I argued that he’d had plenty of SMG guns, and, besides, it wasn’t even an elemental weapon, and he could stand to let me have a nice SMG in my arsenal. But no, my class was designed for shotguns and combat rifles, he argued. His class optimized SMGs.

It morphed into an argument of whether I was willing to be a team player, and then a larger argument over what kind of behavior should be expected out of two people who thought of the another as ‘good friends’. Good friends let each other have nice weapons, I said. Good friends set aside themselves for the good of the team, he said.

The argument ended when he hit me in the stomach, hard. My friends and I don’t hit each other. That’s now how we are. I don’t mind being touched, but it had been a long time since I’d ever provoked anyone enough to want to hit me. He socked me, and we moved on.

Borderlands is my favorite shooter for this reason. The underlying idea is fine and all––a four player, first-person co-op shooter with RPG elements and a loot system fueled by thousands of guns––but it’s the emergent meta-game of Borderlands that makes it memorable. The game on the screen is a fairly basic first-person shooter, but the game we’re playing on the couch is more like Risk. I’m making alliances, negotiating loot and calling others out––there’s rarely enough loot to go around, and so when my “friend” swipes a fancy new gun, I’m without tangible reward for all my work, and suddenly I dislike my friends.

I wouldn’t play Borderlands alone. I have, and it’s okay. The skill points and loot system make for an addictive experience, but nothing more. The reason I hang onto Borderlands is because I like what it brings out in me. My favorite past time is to sit and talk to others, but there are some parts of us we won’t and can’t admit to, not until we’re tempted with the promise of something we want, something tangible we didn’t know existed and that we don’t want to share. The lighter, more diplomatic parts of ourselves come out more easily in conversation while our more confrontational bits only begin to ooze under pressure. That’s a kind of conversation I didn’t expect to have with others in Borderlands, and it was stressful once I found it.

However, that hasn’t been my experience every time. I’ve played through the entire game four or five times, each time with someone different. Playing with some friends is like playing a game of dismissive hot-potato, where we all take turns criticizing each other; other times it’s a poor substitute for one-on-one interaction. When I played through the game with my roommate B, we were completely polite and were sure to never screw the other over. It was a distraction for us, and excuse to not talk as intimately as we could have.

Let's not talk.

Borderlands’ ending is clever. The game baits you through a dozen hours of fetch-quests with a buildup of useful loot, promising a treasure trove of rewards at the final boss’ demise. I remember how angry I was when the dust had settled after that last fight and realized we’d been cheated into expecting a reward that was never there. Like a dog hunting its next slab of meat, the glowing pinata break of weapons that spilled from every dead enemy was something I searched for willingly, and when it wasn’t there, I became angry. It’s almost scary how easily I relinquished myself to that hunt. It happened so quickly, as though some part of me were waiting for it.

Coming of Age: Mass Effect 2 and the RPG

“Nothing that is vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse,” Sophocles wrote. In Timothy Ferris’ Coming of Age in the Milky Way, he recounts how humans have come to know their role in the universe, where we stand and for how long we can likely hope to continue. The most uncomfortable realization of the last few centuries is that we exist on an incomprehensible scale, one bigger than we could imagine and built with blocks smaller than we might ever perceive. The curse of this knowledge is the desire to argue against it, to search for a larger meaning, one where our role matters more.

In that light, I wonder what’s the point of calling something  a ‘role playing game.’ In what video game do you not play a role? When we enter into a system of rules, we agree to be the protagonist––it’s implicit in our participation, and the core tenet of protagonism is that they are necessary; their role will change something or accomplish another thing. Even in abstract, plotless games like Everyday Shooter, Electroplankton, or Inside A Star Filled Sky, there’s a role to be played as survivalist, creator, and progenitor.

What do we mean when we say role playing game (RPG)? Who knows, but misappropriation or not, it hasn’t stopped us from exploring what we mean by it, and Mass Effect 2 is a worthwhile exploration of the term. A good rule of thumb might be that RPG implies a latitude in the way story can unfold––depending on what choices the player makes. This isn’t always true, but it’s true in Mass Effect 2: you’ll always save the world in the end, but which of your friends are left standing beside you is the real variable.

Video games are nothing without mechanics, and Mass Effect games can be divided into two sets: conversation and combat. You can talk and you can kill. Talking includes dynamic, close up camera angles; paced conversation; and the option to investigate people’s backstories and react emotionally and morally. Killing includes shooting all manner of guns and using all manner of super powers to outwit interstellar goons. Mass Effect 2 contextualizes these core mechanics of conversation and combat around helping other people, and it goes a long way in making hokey space plots into something genuinely engrossing.

Here’s a good structure for a video game: as Commander Shepard, you’re tasked with saving the world from an impending, mysterious doom. You can’t do it alone, so, chop chop, better pony up a cast of super-friends to help fend off the stinky evilness. It’s contrived in the way science fiction can satisfyingly be, and assembling your cast and gaining their loyalty is an opportunity to become emotionally intimate with other people, which, in hindsight, really ought to be a prerequisite for “save the world” stories. No one saves the world alone.

The RPGs I grew up playing were always an exercise in imagination: the best examples are the Chrono Triggers and Final Fantasy’s, games whose epic ambition was always clearly at loggerheads with their little SNES cartridges. The ambiguous pixel sprites were an abstraction of something much bigger than could be visually communicated: “Here’s a story about saving the world, and we’ll tell it in cave paintings.” It worked though, mostly by my part to imagine beyond the blocky limitations. I could give boss battles the proper grandeur in my mind while the screen was more a pantomime than the literal interpretation.

Believe me, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in a modern, sci-fi epic, but some parts of this effort can be harder to swallow than others. The mentality behind modernizing the RPG seems to have been to make the screen more literal. The designer has done the imagining for you: the sheen is onscreen now. It’s all realized! And aren’t you glad? Look at all this, it’s just for you.

Part of me is cynical about the fight to realize an ever-growing scale, mostly because it’s not a fight I think we can win. The amplification of technology will always be momentarily impressive, but the reflexive qualities of technology are timelessly surprising and delightful. I think Mass Effect wants to impress me through its scope, but I find myself more swept away with the technology that lets me look closely at others and watch them react to my decisions. All these graphics look the prettiest they ever have, but I’m most impacted by the way they make me feel about myself.

There’s no better vessel for that in Mass Effect than the conversation system. The game feels most alive when you’re talking to others––due in large part to the close framing of your conversation partner’s face. Technology here lets us render our characters in high graphical fidelity, but it only matters insomuch as we can interact with each other. It amplifies something that could have been achievable with less.

The parts of older RPG games that inevitably have mattered most to me were never things inhibited by their technology. RPGs promised characters and story, an inherent capability of any proper medium, regardless of technology. What older RPGs lacked most to me was a compelling way to interact with the game beyond killing things––these games speak through their combat systems and contextualize them with surrounding plot and characters. Technology wasn’t keeping that from changing, but in Mass Effect, it happened to change as a consequence of new technology. In other words, we should have been more creative with our gameplay back then, and sometimes new technology can be the thing to wake us up to that.

It’s the space drama and conversation why I enjoyed Mass Effect 2. It’s like playing Grey’s Anatomy with aliens: who really gives a damn about the plot, but the chance to interact with other creatures and people, to learn about them and express yourself against them? It’s a welcome change from conversation that’s nothing more than a sidelong way of pointing the player towards the next combat scenario. And while dialogue is a forefront of video games now, seeing facial reactions as a visual representations to my button presses feels a little magical. Sometimes this simply results in learning some static backstory, but it’s nice to be able to learn more about others if I want to, for whatever reason. Still, it’s the opportunity to actually interact with others that makes me care. Mass Effect 2’s conversation system works best when it accounts for the emotional impulses to be angry, sad, benevolent, selfish, or whatever. Other times, it conforms every option under the “renegade”, “paragon”, and “neutral” responses, and then I get bored having to think in those terms.

Combat and killing things is still very much a part of Mass Effect 2, but it’s at least more satisfying on a subconscious, narrative level, and so I can swallow the hours and hours of shooting more easily. My stance on shooting in video games has always been that it had better be in service of something bigger––shooting just to shoot is a hard sell for me––but Mass Effect 2’s shooting reinforces its sense of scale and camaraderie. Any combat is bookended with soap opera theatrics, conversations and scenarios where I must recruit and befriend an intergalactic super team. The action between that is an expression of those people as friends. For talking to these people about their problems, they’ll help you solve your own problems, and while that just happens to include convoluted shootouts with other alien races, I always got the sense that they’d all be just as willing to housesit or lend me a cup of sugar had I asked.

As expressive and interdependent as the conversation system in Mass Effect 2 can be, none of it translates to the combat. I like fighting by my friends, but the way I treat them and relate to them while fighting has no bearing on our relationship. If a teammate goes down and I fail to revive them or attend to them quickly, why aren’t they frustrated later? Why don’t I have to pick up the pieces caused by my inattentiveness? If my team makes it through unscathed, shouldn’t we like each other more for it? None of the morality in conversation makes it to combat, either. If in conversation I believe in a hierarchy of goodness, why don’t I carry that to my life on the battlefield? I don’t believe that someone who is pedantically nice would murder so readily, nor that the needlessly mean person would be so attentive to his or her teammates.

Perhaps I’m asking for too lifelike a system, but playing Mass Effect 2, I want to believe in it as though it were that lively. For all the effort BioWare has made to literalize, modernize, and redefine the RPG, I’m still expecting more from the system, imagining it more than it really is. I want to see more of myself in it, for it to respond more and revolve more around me. Even in a sci-fi world where we have begun to come of age beyond our own galaxy, I still want to know that I matter, to see my imprint on the universe and the indelible imprint it has left on me. A refute to the sky-wide evidence that I could be gone in an instant, and it would not matter. Of all our expressions of a role playing game, this might be the most haunting.

Every Video Game I Own (Sort Of)

I bought my PS3 in October 2009 because I wanted to play Uncharted 2. I’ve amassed a good amount of games since then (unfortunately even sold a few). Fresh off college and associate’s degree in hand, I’ve decided it’s high time I put down some thoughts on the games I put time into. I took every game I own on PS3 (and a few Wii and Gamecube titles), mixed them up, and randomly ordered them. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing a bit about each game – I’m going to try and do a game a day, but if that schedule sucks and makes me hate my life, I’ll probably switch to once a week.

Why should you read? Well, I’ve got some variety here. I don’t want to give the full list – it’ll be more fun that way, I promise – but I’ve got 27 games and a near gamut of genres. For example, this first week, I’ll attempt to bang out my feelings on Mass Effect 2, P.N.03, Wii Fit, Borderlands, Fallout 3, and Smash Bros, and Heavy Rain. The reason I decided to do this little project is because every game I own is–for the most part–in my collection for some reason or another, and I feel differently about each one. If you like honesty and articulation, that’s this. And I was practically built to do it.

That’s my pitch: 27 games over the next few weeks. Comments and clicks make the going easier, so please, let me know if you have something to say or want to talk about anything. ‘Cause really, there might be nothing better than discussing video games.

Once more, here’s the list for the first batch. I’ll periodically reveal more of my upcoming schedule as I go on, too.

  1. Mass Effect 2
  2. Borderlands
  3. P.N.03
  4. Smash Bros. Brawl
  5. Fallout 3
  6. Wii Fit
  7. Heavy Rain