Thursday, 19 July 2012

My exclusive non-spoiler review of Batman - The Dark Knight Rises

Yes I know it hasn't even been released yet, but I managed to sneak in to an exclusive preview screening, it did add an extra layer of tension to the experience, wondering if I'd get caught, but I was soon so swept away by the movie I soon forgot all about it. So I've written some of my thoughts below.

It's good, but not as good as this.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Mass Effect 3 Ending DLC and Death in Video Games

*Just a warning to say that this blog will spoil the endings of Mass Effect 3, Red Dead Redemption, Shadow of the Colossus and L.A Noire.*

The Mass Effect 3 Ending DLC has been released, and the general opinion from its critics seem to be that’s it’s slightly better, but it doesn’t really solve the core issues with the endings. I’m one of the people who’s of this opinion; I only finished the game for the first time a few days ago so, I was able to go online to watch the extended endings as soon as I’d seen the regular endings. I think I’ve gone through the five stages of grief in reaction to it, at first I thought it was okay - I was in denial, but then gradually the more I thought about it, and the more I looked at blogs and YouTube videos criticising the ending, the worse it seemed. I think I’ve moved past the anger and bargaining parts now though thankfully.

Most comments from mainstream articles on the story seem to have missed the point of why people were complaining. In particular the defence seemed to be that people were just unhappy that there wasn’t a star wars style handing out of medals at the end. But that isn’t what most of the criticism is about. Although I will say it is a bit contentious to suggest the Mass Effect series is so much deeper than Star Wars just because it didn’t have a happy ending where everything is wrapped up properly.

Most things that can be said have been said have been said at this point, but there’s a particular idea of the story I want to investigate, namely the endings in which Shepard has to sacrifice him/herself in all the choices it brings you. Now I’m fine with the idea that Shepard would have to die at the end, the possibility was foreshadowed in the game and I was prepared for it being a possibility. The problem is the way it’s handled is wrong for the medium of games. Even putting all the problems with the ghost child AI aside, seeing that ending play out in a movie, might not be good, but it would be more palatable. Doing it in a game however is very frustrating.

I want to stress, you can have the main character die in a game, but there’s a particular way it should be done, and the best examples I can think of are Red Dead Redemption and Shadow of the Colossus. (Well he doesn’t technically die, but it uses a model that I’m suggesting other games could learn from)

You know that point in so many games where you fight your way through hordes of enemies, overcome traps and trials. Then a cut-scene happens and an enemy gets the jump on you somehow, or your character just does something stupid. It’s in countless games and it’s always incredibly annoying, because you feel like if you’d been in control, it wouldn’t have happened, and you resent your cut-scene avatar for not being up to the task.

Things like this are actually fine though when there’s an in-game moment where you’re scripted to fail. It can’t suddenly change the physics and believability of the gameplay’s internal rules too much, but if done right it works well. The moment at the end of Shadow of the Colossus essentially forces you to give up as a magical pool starts pulling you towards it, and as much as you try to run away and hold on to ledges, you know you don’t have a chance. People aren’t all going to experience that moment in the exact same way, they might not give up at the exact same moment. But when you do let go, you know it’s on you and that makes the moment so much more powerful.

In Red Dead Redemption, you send your wife and son to run away and then step outside to face hordes of lawmen. You’re impossibly outnumbered, but you go down in a final stand-off and try to take as many with you as you can. There’s a moment the first time you play it when you think “this is ridiculous there’s no way I’m going to be able to take down this many people, its impossible” And of course it is. There’s no way you’d be able to succeed even within the framework of the game. You realize you were destined to die and you feel silly for thinking you’d be able to pull of such a miracle. At first you think the game might restart and maybe there’s some trick you’re supposed to pull that you didn’t see the first time. But it just cuts to the next scene of your wife and son running away on horse, and you’re in control of the son now. It really subverts the game logic you’re used and that’s why it’s effective.

L.A noire, another Rockstar game however, screws this up a bit. Where you character simply gets swept away in a drain flood, undermining all the effort you made to get to that point. Not to mention that game commits some even more sins earlier on by revealing your character has been having an off-screen affair. It doesn’t seem fair to have your character do things you wouldn’t do if you were in control. At least in a game where you make a lot of choices for the character.

Mass Effect 3 doesn’t quite do any of these things. You admittedly have an in-game choice to make, but you’re still essentially just choosing how you want to die in a cut-scene, and that’s incredibly frustrating. In the game part you survive against impossible odds, time and time again, but cut-scenes demand you die.

The ending would have been better if Harbinger had taken you out properly on your run towards the citadel and you died there. Though on that topic, I didn’t particular care for how it does take you down at the same scripted moment. I tried to roll to the left, but Shepard was suddenly rooted to the spot. The game 'me' should have survived that moment. If the laser had taken me down and proved impossible to dodge further on, or if Marauder Shields had proved too powerful, I would have preferred that. 

 The difference between games and movies is that we aren’t supposed to be powerless over the main protagonist’s actions. If you take away the player’s right to that power then we’re just watching a movie.  I don’t want to be too rigid and say that games should have to abide by these sets of rules, because it does seem to undermine gaming as an art form to say the main character can’t die outside of gameplay, and I’m sure there must be plenty of exceptions I’ve not thought of. But at the very least, developers need to understand that in games you want to feel like you’re the hero, and you want to be rewarded for your efforts, If you’re going to subvert that, think about why you’re doing it, and how best to implement it.