Saturday, November 15, 2014

Games I have been Playing

Hostile Waters: A bout of Nostalgia cause me to drag out this overlooked classic from yesteryear.

Medal of Honour Warfighter: I will generally play any shooter good or bad but I am struggling to finish this one. The execution is competent if unoriginal but to be honest the game feels over the top racist to me.

Brutal Legend:  I played a couple of hours of this was was reasonably impressed but other games have since distracted me.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West - An unexpected pleasure a short third person action adventure with a good story and fun gameplay. As a bonus the PC version comes with an extra adventure "Pigsy's Perfect 10" which has a completely different play style based more on stealth and guile than strength and athleticism. The only downside is that your sidekick for the main campaign is an annoying beyond belief at times and does everything possible to put themselves in dangerous situations which you are left to sort out. The fact that this sidekick is a cute girl while you the protagonist are a muscle bound man smacks sadly of sexism.

Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3: I have completed a full play though of Bioware's magnificent Opus (ME1 58 hours, ME2 51 hours, ME3 80 hours) . Yes I hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 but that doesn't take from the fact that this trilogy stands at the very pinnacle of gaming achievement. The depth and variety of storytelling in particular is astounding while the game-play is fun too. In fact I thought the gameplay improved substantially from one game to the next. Advice: If you are going to play this game spend the money for the single player DLC campaigns. Yes they are bizarrely expensive compared to the main games and Bioware seems stubbornly resistant to ever discounting them but this is a series which deserves to be experienced in all its glory and the DLC stories add substantially to the overall campaign.

Dawn of War 2 single player campaign. I loved this. Instead of resource gathering , base building and and army recruitment you just get a small squad of space marines with which to compete each mission. It reminds me of the original Ground Control. This is one of my favourite types of game and I wish more games did this.

Aside: In between playing games I have been taking the University of Alberta's online course "Understanding Video Games" though Coursera: https://www.coursera.org/course/uvg  This was not quite as intense as Prof Clayton's Lotro based course on Online Gaming New Media and Literature that I took last year but it is still a great learning opportunity for me. My background is in hard science and technology so I sometimes struggle with the concepts and analyses of art and literature but I love language, I love new ideas and  these courses definitely gives me a new perspective on the games I enjoy so much.




Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The ending of Mass Effect 3: Loss of Agency.

I am trying to figure out why I hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 so much. (Spoilers abound).

I played the game several years after release and I had the benefit of the extended edition patch so I didn't feel the pressure to engage in forced multi-player or to buy unwanted dlc that so incensed early players. Merely by playing the game the way I wanted to I managed to amass a high enough score to unlock all endings. 

I can understand why the perception of forced dlc and forced multiplayer upset people when the game was initially released but these were not my concerns. My dislike is more fundamental and has to do with the ending itself. It made me think about the relationship between games and stories and about the conflict between narrative and agency.

Mass Effect is a monumental role playing game series that offers the player many choices about how they develop their character and how they interact with the game world. This gives the player a tremendous feeling of agency: the ability to control events within the game world.

Mass Effect is also a story: a galaxy spanning saga of epic conflict. That story must come to an end and the right of authorship allows the game designers to conclude the narrative in the way they see fit.

The first problem is that I really disliked all of the endings on offer to me. Each of them represented a deep betrayal of everything my character believed and had striven for. All of the agency, the power to make things happen, that I had built up during the game is rendered useless at the ultimate moment of the game when I was forced to choose between such deeply unpalatable alternatives.

This is not a new problem. Every narrative must come to an end and ending requires a loss of player agency. It would be a tedious world if every story had a shiny happy ending and games have explored ambiguous or unsettling outcomes before. Spec Ops: The Line is a notable example. BioShock is another. In Bioshock and Specs Ops your loss of agency and the unexpected outcomes are explained with  clever plot twists. In a strange sense the surprise of the plot twist lets the player down gently. Yes the game is finishing in a way you didn't expect and perhaps didn't want but at least you have gained a deeper understanding and now know why this outcome is necessary.  

There is no big reveal in Mass Effect. You don't actually learn anything new at the end. You do finally get to see your nemesis personified but apart from appearances it is the same nemesis you have been fighting since the beginning of the series. You cannot defeat or overcome this nemesis. Instead you are forced to accept one of a number of deeply unpalatable outcomes that the nemesis offers you. The nemesis tries to justify these choices according to its own logic but since you have been fighting against this nemesis and this very logic the entire game there is absolutely no reason why you should suddenly start believing in it now ... except that you have no real choice. In actual fact the nemesis has won the game and gets to decide on the possible outcomes. All you can do is decide which one is slightly less unpalatable.

Mass Effect 3 doesn't just rob players of their sense of agency at the end of the game it does it in a brutal and thorough way. The last half hour of the game sees your character, once a heroic saviour of the galaxy, reduced to a shambling cripple with very limited freedom of action. This is not an enjoyable part of the game to play through. You cannot skip or save the game at any point during this long shamble towards the conclusion. If you want to experience alternate endings you must play through this unpleasant section all over again. Finally you are presented with your unpalatable choices by the haughty avatar of your nemesis. You may not like them but they are all you get. All of your previous activities, all of the weeks you spent playing through the game making choices and building your character are rolled up into a single number which impacts on your choice and its consequences in a non intuitive and unsatisfactory way.

To add insult to injury when I was playing I couldn't find any signpost or hint as to which path to take for which ending. Red, white or blue: pick one. It makes no difference anyway you won't get an outcome you like. At that point I really felt that Bioware was rubbing my nose it it, making it brutally clear that the few weeks I spent playing their game was trumped by the man years they spent developing it. Authorship trumps agency. They get to decide the outcome.

In the end I was so frustrated that I just turned around and shot the little brat. If I had done more reading in advance I would have realised that this course of action gives the worst of all possible endings but that small act of rebellion was the only thing I could do that gave me some feeling of control.

EDIT: I have watched videos of the ending again and I now realise that if I paid more attention during the speech I would have noticed the colour code of the different decision paths, Better than nothing but still not very clear. 



Monday, September 29, 2014

Wizmouse for Windows: Scroll the window under the mouse cursor without changing focus.

I regularly have two documents open on my screen and I try to make notes in one while I read the other. Having  a big widescreen monitor helps. Twin monitors are even better but there is an annoying windows feature that slows things up. Only one window can be active at a time (has focus) and if you want to do anything to the other window you must activate it by clicking it. Typically this means clicking a window to scroll up the text then clicking the other window to start typing again. It doesn't sound like much but the constant switching of focus disrupts my work flow and inevitably I get it wrong occasionally and try to type in the wrong place.

WizMouse from Antibody software is a simple, fix for this with an unlimited free trial. When it is active then the mouse wheel controls the window under the pointer WITHOUT CHANGING FOCUS. In practise this allows you to keep typing away in the active window while using the mouse wheel to scroll through the other window. Brilliant.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Edward Castronova (Terra Nova) offers a brilliant but poignant summary of why mmorpgs are history.

For a time in the last decade, there was a sense that an immersive 3D communal place was a substantial thing unto itself, and likely to become an important media offering. That has not happened. Instead, we've seen an unbundling of the parts of virtual worlds. Sociality went to Facebook. Complex heroic stories went to single-player games. Multiplayer combat went to places like DOTA and Clash of Clans. Economy games went to Farmville and the F2P clones. Virtual currency went to Bitcoin. 
Edward Castronova final post on Terra Nova, 25th September 2014

This succinct analysis strikes a poignant chord with me. Having grown up with 1980's Sci Fi I have always had a secret hankering for Gibsonesque virtual worlds that would allow humans to escape from the tethers of the physical world. For a brief moment in time it seemed that mmorpgs might be the first tentative steps towards making those virtual worlds a reality. Sure they were games but they were also so much more than games. They were entire social eco systems for millions of players. Some virtual worlds such as Second Life and possibly Eve offered a more complete simulation but all of these games taken together suggested that something important was really happening.

The failure of any subsequent title to emulate the success of World of Warcraft and the cancellation of the long promised successor to WoW are pointed to as indicators of the declining health of mmorpgs but I think Castronova's comment addresses the real issue. We no longer believe that these worlds are going to be anything more than just games. The naive hope that these games might be the first steps towards something that would completely transform humanities relationship with reality has proven unfounded.  The dream is over.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Spellforce - Sometimes Slow is OK

I have been re-playing a bit of Spellforce-Order of Dawn this last week. I find it curiously compelling even though I can't really recommend it to a modern audience. The rts/rpg hybrid gameplay was probably innovative back in 2003 but the game feels dated today. Moreover it plays very very slowly. A key feature of the game is that your character and accompanying army spend a lot of time just walking slowly around large maps to find enemies and other objectives. A curious design decision is that every time you load a game or use a fast travel portal the entire map covers with fog of war again. This means that unless you have a photographic memory the only way to search a map properly is to walk the whole map area in one long (an hour or more) session without quitting the game and without availing of any fast travel abilities.

The game is also rather easy (played on normal at any rate) and encourages a turtling strategy. It is very easy to defend your base from sporadic enemy attacks while you build up an unstoppable army and only then bring it out for the slow walk around the map steam-rolling any opposition you find along the way.

All of the above makes the game hard to recommend and I suspect many players would find this slow unchallenging gameplay rather frustrating. Yet I find it suits my mood at the moment. I doubt i will stick it out to the end of the campaign but it is keeping my occupied for a while at least.