Archive | June 2014

Essential moments in video game storytelling: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2: The Suicide Mission

There are countless narrative moments in the Mass Effect games that make the franchise so beloved. And of course, two players can play through the whole trilogy and see huge differences in the narrative moments they experience. The Mass Effect trilogy does a magnificent job of balancing a full-blooded, linear sci-fi narrative with lots of room for story customization. The plot beats are the same for everyone, but anyone can tailor the story and make it their own.

In other words, many key moments differ dramatically from player to player, which makes picking one for this exercise difficult.

However, one part of Mass Effect 2 that is unavoidable, that all players experience, is also its grandest fireworks show. I’m talking about the Suicide Mission. No matter how you experience Mass Effect 2 leading up to its finale, its last level is as narratively satisfying as it is thrilling.

Each Mass Effect game brings particular strengths to the table. But as a standalone title, Mass Effect 2 is its single strongest chapter. It resides in the meaty, uncertain middle of a space opera trilogy. It’s not an accident that The Empire Strikes Back the strongest Star Wars installment, and the same principle applies here. Unburdened with the first game’s task of building this world or part 3’s task of bringing the story to its end, Mass Effect 2 has a blast.

And like any good space opera, the core element of Mass Effect 2’s plot are simple: You are tasked with assembling a strike force for a mission so dangerous it has been dubbed “The Suicide Mission” before you even attempt it. You go on numerous adventures with your crew, bonding with them. Finally, you go together on one last “impossible” quest to save the galaxy.

This being Mass Effect’s take on the space opera, assembling the crew ends up being the most entertaining aspect of the game. Interacting with the crew, learning their histories, going through the fire with them and bonding with them through hardship- these elements are essential to Mass Effect’s appeal.

And they’re essential elements to the sense of buildup that leads up to the Suicide Mission. The mission looms over the game at every step. The characters who join your crew do so with the knowledge that they might not survive. Every interaction you have with them grows more urgent as the final mission grows closer

Mass Effect is well known for forcing players into making difficult decisions. The first game’s approach was simple and brutal in this regard, at one point literally forcing you to pick one companion to live while the other died, with no recourse.

Mass Effect 2 altered this structure. At no point in the main plot are you forced into a Sophie’s choice scenario regarding the lives of your friends. The moral dilemmas are more subtle. A simple revenge mission involving Garrus (one of the game’s most important and popular side characters) ends up becoming a complex statement of both the Shepard’s (the series’ infinitely customizable protagonist) personal moral code and their friendship with Garrus. At other points in the game, two characters with opposing moral views might clash and demand that you take a side, but it’s always possible to talk both of them down. You have options beyond a coin flip. It is your story to tell.

The Suicide Mission is aptly named. It’s possible for the entire squad, including Shepard, to die. More likely is that a major character or two to bites the dust.

But even if everyone survives, the mission doesn’t feel at all cheapened or overly easy. The game does such an effective job developing its tone of finality, of convincing us that the characters have accepted the possibility of their demises, that achieving the perfect ending is immensely satisfying.

The action at the end doesn’t disappoint. The mission begins with a very exciting cutscene, as the crew tries to keep their ship together through a gauntlet of debris and other hazard. We soon realize that the outcome of the scene, and who survives it, has been determined by our decisions throughout the game. There’s a genuine sense of relief when you realize that the shield upgrades you made to the ship early in the game actually saved one of your crewmember’s lives. This is not a cutscene simply telling us a story, but rather showing us that even the smallest decisions we’ve made in the game matter. In this game, installing some upgrades once in a while actually does save lives.

Combat was always something of a stickler for the Mass Effect games, not a drawback but never the main draw either. But sometimes, the setting is more important than the mechanics. The Suicide Mission is well-paced and appropriately challenging for a final battle. In Mass Effect, firefights can sometimes feel like a means to an end. But the battles in the Suicide Mission are breathless exercises action, with bullets flying and biotic detonations sending hordes of enemies scattering while you try to catch a moment of calm that never comes.

And the aspect that most defines Mass Effect– your choices- are also well-integrated. As you dole out duties to your crew members, it becomes impossible not to consider the entirety of your own character’s narrative. When I played through recently, I reflexively chose Garrus and Thane as my squadmates. I didn’t choose them for any combat advantage reasons; I chose them because in this particular story, I wanted them fighting by Shepard’s side. It’s moments like that; not necessarily related to the plot but that allow the player to customize their personal meta-narrative; that bring Mass Effect to life.

Yes, the final boss is one of those robots who glows where you need to shoot it. But the sense of scale in the final battle is unique in the Mass Effect series. The “Reaper embryo” is a daunting and magnificently designed character. And true boss fights are few and far between in this series, and no others feel quite so cataclysmic.

I wouldn’t call the Suicide Mission the single best mission in the Mass Effect series. The Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC might be the series’ narrative apex (I will need to write about it soon), its “best episode” so to speak. Mass Effect 3‘s Tuchanka and Rannoch missions are terrific as well. There are other standout moments throughout the series that Mass Effect fans know by shorthand: Tali’s trial. Archangel. Ilos. Virmire. If you love Mass Effect, you know what those mean.

But for a series whose appeal is largely derived from its individual threads, the Suicide Mission is an example of those threads weaving together at the end beautifully.

Essential moments in video game storytelling: Half-Life

Hey all! I’m debuting a new feature here today, where I talk about scenes and moments in  video games have stood out to me over the years.

I’m kicking this off with one of the first games that ever made me think long and hard about the subtle ways game developers could turn a potentially generic story into something thrilling and memorable. I’m talking about Half-Life, and those first few minutes at the beginning that might be gaming’s most definitive example of “less is more”:

Exposition is one of the most essential elements of sci-fi storytelling. You need to explain the world and why things that don’t normally happen are happening. You need to establish the local setting. You need to introduce the protagonist. This can be difficult to achieve in a game in a manner that isn’t clunky, which is what makes the low-key opening to this 16-year-old game so impressive. The protagonist is a scientist. The game even tells us his credentials (a PhD from MIT, almost a proud proclamation that he is about as far from Duke Nukem as a shooter protagonist can get). The setting is the lab where he works. Today his job involves opening portals to space.

Violent hijinks ensue.

Opening the game by having Gordon Freeman simply going through his normal work routine accomplishes two crucial tasks. First, it provides a reason and a place for the events of the game. “Because unexplained science” is perhaps one of the more overused tropes of science fiction, but most tropes can be forgiven if used well. And Half-Life uses this particular trope beautifully, with the laboratory soon being flooded by a veritable monster mash of alien life.

Second, it adds a one of the most significant spices to the unique flavor that makes the Half-Life games so beloved. Before Half-Life, the shooter genre was dripping in even more excess testosterone than it is today. The most famous FPS protagonist of the time was still probably Duke Nukem, purveyor of cheesy one liners and casual sexism. Other FPS protagonists still tended to fill macho action movie hero shoes, from space marines to WWII soldiers to literally James Bond. Gordon Freeman? He’s just guy at work, whose office happens to have been taken over by angry aliens and angrier mercenaries. True, he still has to fight through them, and in doing so Gordon displays remarkable aptitude for mortal combat for a scientist. In other words, we might not buy this as the premise to a movie. But Half-Life wasn’t trying to be a movie. It was figuring out new ways to involve the player in the story through interaction with and absorption in the environment.

Nor was Half-Life imitating its peers. There is no rush to immerse the player in bloodshed right away, lest they stop paying attention. We go through the motions of Freeman’s day at work. Hop on the trolly, mess around with the microwave, chat with the colleagues… or listen to them as they try to make conversation anyway.

Gordon doesn’t say a word. But his lack of verboseness became one of the most essential aspects of his character. We don’t need to know more than we do about Gordon for him to work as a protagonist. Valve recognized how much interactivity can fill in the gaps in a narrative.

For a story that truly unfolds in real time like Half-Life’s (the player and Gordon operate on the same amount of information, and the game offers virtually no plot exposition) something as simple as knowing that the character we’re playing as is not a trained soldier, that he is a civilian and a scientist, adds tremendously to the narrative without doing much at all. I’m all for games exploring complex narratives, but it can be just as satisfying when a game recognizes the right amount of narrative for itself.

Half-Life set a standard for real-time storytelling that Valve games have continued to excel at ever since. In a genre that increasingly relies on telling us the story by imitating films rather than embracing interactive narrative and reducing action to glorified games of whack-a-mole, Valve has prospered by giving players some credit, letting them observe and take in their surroundings. They did it even better in Half-Life 2 and achieved perfection with the format with Portal, but it all started with Half-Life’s creative use of mundanity.

Game of Thrones and the trouble with brutality

Spoilers for the episode “The Mountain and the Viper” ahead.

Watching Oberyn Martell dance victoriously around a hamstrung Gregor Clegane last night, I had no doubts about the outcome. This is Game of Thrones. I know better than to be optimistic about this. And besides, there are two episodes to go: the finale would have far more juice to work with if Tyrion was facing execution than if he once again was saved via trial by combat.

No, with all of Oberyn’s bluster and demands for full, unmitigated justice, I fully expected the Mountain to spring up and strike him down. I didn’t expect said strike to be perhaps the most gruesome thing I’ve ever witnessed in fictional media.

And when Oberyn’s head had been reduced to salsa in the Mountain’s hands, I did feel sick. I know I wasn’t alone in that, and I know that that was probably the show’s intention. But the sickness was a visceral reaction to something disgusting. There’s nothing mutually exclusive between the grotesque and good drama. I’ve seen more than my share of stomach-churning cinematic violence. The point is, once you down some Pepto and settle your stomach, good drama demands that something else remain behind, lest the scene be little more than an side show act.

That feeling for me wasn’t the surprise at the narrative boldness that I felt when Ned Stark died, or the awe at the sheer audacity of the Red Wedding. It was weariness.

Grantland TV critic Andy Greenwald summed it up nicely in his review of last night’s episode: “I am growing slightly weary of being taught the same merciless lesson again and again.”

That lesson is, of course, that there are no happy endings. Only constant fighting for survival and swift, brutal death for those who lose that fight.

I’m not giving up on Game of Thrones by any means. I’m looking forward to the last two episodes of the season. But I’m also increasingly weary of the idea that nihilism and cynicism are substitutes for good storytelling.

Last night, in my upset haze I posted “At this point, a story that ended with everyone making out on horseback would be the plot twist of the century.” Greenwald said more or less the same thing in his review: “At this point, the most radical thing Game of Thrones could do is to make the audience exhale in relief.”

Game of Thrones needn’t turn down the body count meter to work. Moments of abject misery can make for a dramatically satisfying conclusion to a plot, but you have to work for it. The Red Wedding was a spectacular moment of TV because there was an inevitability to it, a sense all season long that Robb Stark was a prone to fatal foibles as his father. It was, like Ned Starks execution, the culmination of a season’s worth of miscalculations. The death of Oberyn Martell was a misstep the like of which the show has made a few times this season, mistaking wallowing in misery for storytelling nuance. Ramsey Snow’s appearances, rife with torture and misery, have regularly brought the show’s storytelling momentum to a screeching halt. A moment like Karl Tanner’s astonishing explosion of verbal venom (don’t watch that around the kids) was salvaged by the ferocity of Burn Gorman’s performance. The spotlight shone on him so intensely that it almost cauterized the whole sequence, one that risked being a 5-minute detour into a cesspool just to remind us where the sewage goes. And then you have a moment like Jaime’s rape of Cersei, which was horrific, tone deaf and indefensible.

Game of Thrones works best when all the machinations of the story lead to unpredictable but satisfying conclusions. Whether a conclusion is happy or miserable, the key is that the story has to earn it. Misery for the sake of it becomes as predictable as happily-ever-after. And a few too many times now, Game of Thrones has shoved shoved grotesque meals into my face, and they’re starting to taste undercooked.

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