Mass Effect: A Missed Opportunity

In a bizarre turn-around of my usual long tailyness, I’m actually up to speed on Mass Effect.  I finished the game recently, and I’m looking forward to playing the sequel.  Say, isn’t that coming out sometime soon?  I might even get to it this year.

The cutting edge, exclusive first-view blogotubes make their hay from this perspective: “All the stuff that was broken in the last game is fixed in this one.”  (See Adrien Cho’s remarks if you’re interested.)  He makes lots of comments like “the planets are now all different” and such.  Me, I don’t think the planets were really a problem with the game.  Game play in just about every form was, I think, very solid.  I was truly impressed with Mass Effect.

(Is it weird that there are a lot of exclusive preview posts?  Shouldn’t there be, like, just one?  Anyway.) 

But since we’re all on the same “It could have been better” page… I have one thing I’d really like to see addressed.

Remember the part about how the secret, scary space monster was able to secretly corrupt good people’s moral sense?  How it could subtley turn even the most trustworthy, indominable will into a servant of darkness?  How every major bad guy you face was once a shining beacon of hope … until they discovered they had succumbed to forces beyond their measure?  Each one talked about the gentle penetration of their mental defenses, the corruptable righteousness of their cause, the horrific realization that they’d been converted …

Yeah.  They missed an opportunity there.

OH (like with Batman) BTW SPOILERS AHEAD.

….

I’d hoped that Shepard would have to face that very problem while hunting down the evil.  And by “Shepard,” I mean “me,” because I’m the player, and I play for exactly that kind of experience.  Every RPG sense I have was tingling at the notion.

Wouldn’t that have been cool?  I’m Shepard the Paragon, out to save the galaxy.  Over time, I begin to suspect: I’m being manipulated.  Choices aren’t as clear cut as they once were.  I’m working for the benefit of all, but the elevator news updates paint a different picture.  Galactic civilization is weakening, despite all my efforts.  Or maybe… because of them?  The allies I’ve gathered around me start to question my orders — or perhaps complain that I haven’t gone far enough down a road I’m sworn against.

Or maybe they’re starting to sound more sympathetic to the cause I’ve been fighting to defeat.

Suddenly I realize: I’ve been gently and pursuasively diverted onto a new course … just like Saren and the Matriarch.  My team is being influenced.  I’m being influenced.  My personal scenario becomes horrifically familiar.  I’ve become like the people I had to destroy.

In retrospect, I don’t recognize myself.  Something’s changed.  And I don’t know if I loathe it, or if I want more.

Now I have to find my way out of an ontological nightmare.  That, or discover my place in the enemy’s plans.  Am I truly a paragon, or do I embody a more cunning, debilitating approach?  Either way I have to bring my own ethics and values to bear.  I must  face the real aftermath of my own good intentions, knowing that I may be deceived.  I have to reveal my frailty in the face of temptation.

Maybe this scenario flashes back to Revan from KOTOR, but that’s a good thing.  KOTOR had a brilliant twist, executed with style.  In Mass Effect, I felt set up for something similar, yet unique.  I was convinced that before the Big Battle, I would discover that my morality was not what it once seemed.  With that expectation, the actual climax was disappointing, to say the least: a battle of guns rather than wits, reflexes over ideology.  It lacked the “role” of role playing.

That’s what I’d fix for ME2.  Give Shepard an ethical challenge that blows open the battle for Humanity beyond just the body count.

The corruption of Saren and the Matriarch exposes the existential, transcendant notion of Humanity as something that all races can share: in trying to do good, we are sometimes corrupted to do evil.  It’s something that every species has in common.  As the uniquely Human Spectre, Shepard is perfectly positioned to let the player embody that on a galactic scale.

Mass Effect successfully captures the generic conventions of militaristic space opera: the stars, the armor, the telekenetics… but in the end that’s just for show.  It’s the setting, not the premise.  The theme of “the road to Hell paved with good intentions” is a more powerful weapon in the RPG arsenal.  It contributes to an RPG’s ethos and power.

My real hope is that Mass Effect 2 makes the player’s own humanity the real battleground.  Shepard’s role is ripe for that richness, and I long to experience it through her eyes.

Jade Empire, Take II

I love me some Jade Empire.  The game demonstrates a sea change in the way Bioware did business: launching into new worlds, trying out some custom rules, and changing the way the player engages the game.

In some ways, Jade Empire heralds Mass Effect.  Jade Empire is an action game, made to be played with a controller in real time rather than in traditional RPG tactical phases.  jade empire take iiLike Mass Effect, Jade Empire is a wholly created world of Bioware’s own; until its release, Bioware was tightly connected with the Dungeons and Dragons world.  (Even Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic tried to emulate D&D’s 3rd edition d20 rules system of feats and modifiers.)  And like ME, Jade Empire gives you the slightly exotic, mostly sophomoric, androgynous booty call with whichever member of your party you chat up — as long as they’re of a suitably similar race.

Jade Empire comes with its share of Bioware baggage, though.  The booty call is becoming an uncomfortable hallmark of new Bioware releases — previews seem compelled to point out that, yes, your character can have sex.  The dialogs with NPCs present good vs. evil with the same glaring polarized duality of, say,  gifting an orphan with an ice cream cone vs. setting a kitten on fire.  Subtle, the morality ain’t.

In fact, this black and white moral world reveals a weakness, but whether the weakness is in me or the game, I can’t quite figure out.  I always play the straight up good guy.  It doesn’t matter if I set out to be the evillest rat-bastard to walk the Earth; I still end up a good-aligned softie.  I feel like I’m missing half the game.  Well, a quarter of it, maybe.  At the very least, I’m missing the slight variants on the end cut scenes.

For this limitation I blame the skanky dialogue, mostly.  Jade Empire tries to realign this axis into different combat styles, but it quickly falls into the usual heavy-handed thuggery.  I just can’t bring myself to be a thug.

Maybe what I really want is for my PC to be more like Lex Luthor or Bablyon 5’s Mister Morden: a truly loathsome guy you love to hate, who is nominally “evil” for reasons you just can’t put your finger on.  And who also threatens the existence of all that is good and decent in the world.Morden

(Is that the best definition of “evil” we can come up with?  “Stands against good?”  What does that say for a similar definition of “good?”  Come on, guys.  Even Judas was a disciple first.  And as for Darth Vader AKA Anikan Skywalker… well, we’ll never know about him until Lucas makes those prequels he was always going on about.)

This is still the game I look back to when I think of Bioware at its greatest, or at least at its most ambitious.  It takes guts for a company to vault out of its comfort zone of fantasy and sci-fi to adopt a more exotic, slightly pulpy motif that had no comparable counterpart in the market.  There was no guarantee that the game would break any new ground.  It was a real business risk.

Risk pays off with unexpected reward, though.  Jade Empire sweeps all the comfortable Bioware dependables into the blender, adds a generous dousing of classic Kung Fu movies, gloriously fantasises about a Far East that never was, strips away the dice rolls, and bolts on a Japanese fighty style, button mashing, Tekken-alike for good measure.

So I play Jade Empire.  And I love it.  I love it for the differences and I love it for the production quality   I may not finish it this time around–I already know how the Good side story ends–but for moment-to-moment RPG fun, there is none like it.  Jade Empire is a brilliant game: one I’m proud to have in my collection.

Batman: Arkham Asylum — a Proposed Alternate Ending

batman arkham asylum proposed alternative ending

Having just finished playing Arkham Asylum on Steam (my desktop is the XPS 8700 from this list of best gaming desktops under $1000)  today, I’m once again living through the deflationary plummet into dispair that inevitably flows up at this fundemental truth of 21st century gaming: no matter how exquisite the gameplay, AAA game studios simply don’t know shit about endings.

Who can seriously tell me that the best boss fight the studio could come up with was an endless thumb-twitch brawl against a super-enhanced mega-Joker?

Fists are for thugs.  To make a fight bigger, you don’t just make it more of the same.  Beating Joker down punch after punch was a cheap, empty move.

Batman’s main weapons are not his fists or his gadgets.  They are fear and omnipotence.  Throughout the game, Batman has proven himself an unholy force of terror to his enemies.  This is what Batman needs to bring against the Joker.

Batman needs to take back Arkham Asylum on its own terms:  on psychological grounds.

Venerable writer Paul Dini: I call you out.   And to prove I mean business, here’s what one hour of distracted, amateur reflection bought me.  I can only imagine what you and your studio could have come up with in this direction, because until the final boss fight, Arkham Asylum was practically flawless.

I present you : the alternate ending to Arkham Asylum.

CUT-SCENE — INT.  ARENA IN THE ARKHAM PENATENTIARY

Having just beaten down two venom guards and a host of thugs, Batman screws up his remaining strength for the final showdown.  Bodies litter the place.  Joker stands across the arena, ranting.

JOKER:  I don’t believe it!  After all that, you’re still…?  Fine.  Fine!  Well, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Joker pulls out an injector and holds it to his chin.

JOKER:  I regret that I have only one life to give to my asylum!

Laughing, he injects himself in the head.

Batman reaches out.

BATMAN: No!

Joker stumbles, falls, and begins a horrific transformation into MEGA-JOKER.  His laughter transforms into a hideous parody of his own twisted psyche.  Pay the sound engineers overtime to make this one grate like fingernails on a chalkboard.
MEGA-JOKER: Now I have all the power in the world!  I’ll squeeze your skull until your bat-brain pops like a melon!  Ha!  Ha ha ha!!!!
The fight begins.


GAMEPLAY: 
It’s Batman and Mega-joker, one on one.  Mega-Joker is overpowering: he crushes walls to dust with every blow, taking out huge swaths of architecture with deliberate calculation that we didn’t see in the other venom-thugs.   Insanity focuses his mind in a dangerous new way.
Batman lands his best punches, but it’s clear they’re not doing any good.  Mega-Joker’s health bar just recovers right back.
BATMAN: He’s too powerful for me.  I’ve got to inject him with the antidote before he destroys everything on the island.
Batman has a few gargoyles and ledges he can leap to for temporary safety.  Batman can use his predatory skills to drop down over Mega-Joker and inject the antidote into the neck.  he has to do this three times.  Once Mega-Joker catches on, he’ll destroy the wall that supports Batman’s escape.   Batman can only use each escape point once before it gets destroyed.
Eventually, Batman gets the injections in.


CUT-SCENE:  INT.  THE RUINED ARENA 

MEGA-JOKER begins to falter.   His mind, such as it is, begins to snap.  His swaggering confidence is cracking at last, and now fear plays on him.
MEGA-JOKER:  No!  No!
The room is now a ruin, open to the outside, barely supporting the roof.
BATMAN:  The only big joke is on you.  You thought you had me trapped in here with you.
Mega-joker is deflating, slowly but surely.  Now he’s just a Big-Joke.
Batman smiles grimly.
BATMAN:  But you’re trapped in here…
Big-Joke’s eyes open wide in fear.
BATMAN: … with me.
Batman slowly and unstoppably makes his move, fists ready.  It’s all we see just before…
…the entire building collapses in a mighty CRASH, sending debris and rubble everywhere.  Batman and Big-Joke disappear into a huge plume of dust.


CUT-SCENE – EXT:  ARKHAM WEST

Super-Joker shoves his way out from under some rubble.  There’s no smile on his face now.
BIG JOKE:  Outside!  Made it!  Safe!  Made … aaah!  What’s… what…?
Big-Joke twists and writhes as the antidote slithers inside him, sapping his power.
EXTREME ANGLE:  Behind Big-Joke, we see the shadow of Batman perching above…
Joker is now shell of his former self, weary, in tatters, shaking in disbelief.  He had it all, right there at his fingertips, he had it ALL, until…
BATMAN (unseen):  You’ll never escape me, Joker.
His voice comes from everywhere.  Batman’s shadow flashes behind him, floats above him, never in the same place twice.  Joker looks this way, that way, eyes always a fraction too slow.
BATMAN (unseen):  Wherever you go, I’ll find you.  Whatever you try, I’ll stop you.  I’m always one step ahead of you.
Joker is panicked now, trying to look everywhere at once.  He’s broken in a way his do-or-die thugs never did.

BATMAN (unseen):  Always right behind you.

CLOSEUP ON JOKER.  He’s sweating, trembling, afraid to turn around at the monster he know is right behind him.

The whisper comes right at his ear–OUR ear.  Give the sound hardware guys some 3D positioning to brag about.

BATMAN (whispers):  Always.

Joker is terrified now.  He screams and makes a dash for it.  Anywhere, everywhere, he’s just got to run.  He collides smack into a thug, hanging senseless from a rooftop: an earlier bat-casualty.

THUG: Buh… Boss?  Uuuungh.  Buh…. bat.  Bat….man.

Joker screams.

 

JOKER:  No!  He’s here!  He’s everywhere!  No!  Got to get away!  Somewhere safe!

From his vantage point, Batman watches the Joker bolting this way and that, recoiling from Batman’s handiwork.

Batman smiles.

BATMAN: He’s almost trapped.  His fear will do the rest… with a little help.

GAMEPLAY:  In predator mode, Batman moves unseen from perch to perch.  Joker is trying to get off Arkham Island any way possible: by boat, by ambulance, even by swimming if he has to.  To stop him,  Batman needs to ambush a few remaining thugs quickly and efficiently, luring them to the right positions so as to block Joker’s escape.  When Joker sees a dispatched thug hanging, he bolts to the next potential escape point.   Maybe throw in cool blocks like a batsignal appearing suddenly at Joker’s feet.  With every block, Joker’s terror escalates.

 

Now is a visceral moment of victory for the player.  He’s won.  The tables are turned: Batman is fully in control, Joker is dancing to his tune, and Arkham has become Batman’s playground.

Plus, Batman gets to pay Joker back for all that inane blather he’s had to put up with the entire game.  Give Batman lots of cool terror lines to say unseen to the Joker at intervals.

Eventually, the Joker ends up in front of an empty cell.  He looks in, a glimmer of deperate hope in his eyes…

CUT-SCENE:  INT. ARKHAM CELL BLOCK

 

Batman glides down to land in front of closed cell door.  Through the window, he sees Joker huddled pathetically in the corner.

JOKER (muttering to himself):  Safe!  Ha ha!  Safe, safe, safe in here!  Can’t see him, can’t see me!  Safe!  Ha, ha!  Never find me!  All alone!  Never get in!  Never go out!  Ha ha!  Safe!  Safe now…

BATMAN (more to himself than Joker):  That’s right, Joker.
Batman turns away and walks to the outside door.  Joker’s muttering fades to inane giggles.
BATMAN: Now you’re safe.


THE
END.  Roll whatever closing wrapup you need.

Now, don’t that beat button-smooshing fisticuffs?  Gimme the psychological edge, baby.  It’s what Arkham is all about.

In case you need a refresher for the ending as it has been a long period of time since AA’s release: