Metacritical

Because games are about more than headshots

Posts Tagged ‘mass effect

Why Sex Scares Me

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Yesterday, while paying CD Projekt’s seminal RPG ‘The Witcher’, I came to a startling realisation: That I had developed an fear of character’s making sexual advances towards me. Not with sexuality in general. I’m perfectly happy to see prostitutes on street corners and the ‘Vampire Brothel’ quest ended fabulously, giving me the freedom to allow a young girl to follow a sexually free but ultimately self destructive path. I love the way that the game constructs a misogynist approach to sexuality and then compels the player to give into the time, challenging the strength of the player’s real life convictions. However, I find myself terrified whenever a NPC whom I care about makings an advance on me. Why?

Because it means that any meaningful relationship I may have with the NPC is about to die.  It is an established trope of the RPG to make sex the pinnacle of an interpersonal relationship, after which there is nothing. In Bioware’s exemplary ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ series, characters receive one final batch of lines after sex and that’s it for the rest of the game. The dialogue tree persists in stasis for the rest of the game, unless the character has some reason to sacrifice themselves towards the game’s conclusion.  In ‘The Witcher’ character’s whom you’ve bedded often lose their dialogue trees altogether, responding to attention with only one or two lines of generic dialogue, all their interactivity stripped. These relationships are utterly ludicrous and shatter the player’s immersion, unless of course the player was personally disinclined to ever make contact with the PC after sex. In that case the developers time would’ve been well spent.


Some games don’t fall victim to this as much as others and ‘The Witcher’ is interesting because while it contains some of the most egregious examples of this crime, it also features some of the most mature romantic relationships in RPGs. In particular the relationship with Shani, who while at first falls victims to the ‘2 lines after sex’ example later returns to the narrative as both a pivotal plot character and as a woman who wants to make Geralt (the player and titular ‘Witcher’) settle down into a steady relationship, with her and her adopted son. This marks a total upheaval of the attitude towards that has been established by the title thus far, which is that sex is a goal and women are disposable, creating some interesting problems for the player.

However, upon further playtime it turns out that after an implied agreement between Shani and Geralt to stay together and marry, she does again revert to the ‘2 line dispenser’, at least until the plot is forwarded again, which is unfortunate. However, this relationship still goes some distance towards creating more believable romance and stands head and shoulders above the competition.

Bioware’s latest RPG, ‘Dragon Age: Origins’ serves as pretty extraordinary counterargument to my contention however, with the character of Morrigan. I shant spoil the title as alot of people (myself included) have yet to get a hold of the thing, however the player’s relationship with Morrigan can be ended with sex, however it’s handled in a pretty amazing way, turning sex into a moral choice which forces you to balance the strength of your beliefs against your feelings for a character, all executed in a surprisingly sophisticated manner.

Despite Dragon Age's sexually progressive nature, sex is still limited to young people

For the time being however, it would be best if Morrigan’s surprisingly engrossing sex was merely the exception to the rule. If writers were forced to include sexuality as something that happens in relationships instead of as a trophy for completing a long series of dialogue trees, then writers would be forced to create not only more interesting and believable romantic encounters, it would also necessitate more interesting characters, to maintain player interest after the elusive beast that is sex has been obtained.

Obtained.

Finally and possibly most important, implicit in all of this writing is a frustration that sex as a final interaction reinforces the ‘Sex as a Commodity’ model, with (usually) female NPC’s having to be convinced to give sex to the player. Whether conciously or not, this reinforces the model in the minds of players, which is not a good thing.

Sex as a commodity: Confirmed

Below is a trailer for Bioware’s upcoming RPG, ‘Mass Effect 2’ showing off ‘Subject Zero’ (a stereotypical and cliche`d ‘Child Experiment Turned Badass’)  doing her best to destroy my interest in picking up the sequel.The scene where she appears to come onto Shepard forcefully (Chris Remo of Gamasutra describes it as rape), totally interrupts the traditional ‘Sex as a Commodity’ representation in games and it would be really interesting to see player’s reactions to having what is traditional a much sought/lusted after reward forced upon them.  The only other case I know of where the player (as a heteronormative white male) is raped is at the climax (poor choice of words) of F.E.A.R. 2, however that game executed very poorly on the idea, leaving players mostly bewildered instead of feeling violated and scared. I’m a proponent of games exploring new territory and providing the player new experiences, as long as they’re well executed.

I somewhat doubt that actually happens in Mass Effect 2, however. Which is a shame, as Bioware could probably pull it off.

PS: Dragon Age’s neutered and awkward sex scenes also scare me.

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Written by Aonshix

January 11, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Deutsch, Alienation and Mass Effect

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I did it wrong.

In my foolish haste to install Mass Effect as quickly as possible (and thus enjoy the tasty Bioware RPG goodness), I accidentally managed to install it in German. Menus, Subtitles, Voice Work. All utterly incomprehensible to me, my entire repertoire of German originating from Call of Duty 2.   Rather than sit through the lengthy install process again however, I decided I’d try and wing it, relying on my rote memory of the game from a previous play through and testing out the quality of the German voice work.

It started well enough, as German Shepard (I see what I did there) and I ran through the entirely linear and memorable sequence on Eden Prime, very few elements of which I had forgotten from my previous run through. It was feeling sort’ve cool to be honest, like watching a foreign art house film (except there’s no art house to be found, so like watching a foreign film. Really when I think about it, it was like playing a game in a foreign language). German Shepard certainly seemed a lot more bad ass that regular old Shepard and the crazy scientist (after you find that the beacon is missing) seemed a lot creepier, now that I could understand nothing at all of his inane speech.  Turians seemed more alien than ever and overall I was quite enjoying this German run through, despite the growing dread that the game would later become unplayable.

However, this fey experience was not to last. As soon as the Council announced their intentions to do nothing about Saren’s betrayal, I totally forgot what I was supposed to be doing. In my mind, I could recall most of the side quests in broad terms, however the minutia escaped me. Who was I supposed to smuggle this guys package to? Who does this Turian need me to intimidate? I began to feel quite alienated from the world, a feeling heightened by German Shepard’s seeming understanding of everything that was going on, creating a dissonance between us. Of particular annoyance to me was a quest where you had to convince some jellyfish to cease preaching in a public space, something I couldn’t manage to do even through trial and error.

The quests I did manage to complete were the ones which had a ‘renegade’ solution where you essentially just shoot the person who you’re talking to.  So, driven up against a corner, that’s what I did.  My hard coded inability to interact within the normal social structures of this society reduced me to the form of a sociopathic murderer.  Not because I felt I gained anything through my violent actions,  they were merely the only possible means of ‘progression’ through German Shepard’s life.

It was here that I realized the shocking parallels between my experience and that of people with mental disabilities.

Written by Aonshix

January 1, 2010 at 7:58 pm

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Narrative Narcissism: Far Cry 2

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Far cry 2 (2008) hardly had a remarkable story. Having played through the game twice within the last year, even I, the narrative narcissist can barely remember the particulars of that story. The twist is largely forgettable and the plot really devolves into ‘You’re a bad man in Africa, which is full of bad people’. However, I laud this came for some of it’s narrative techniques and going with the theme of this feature, I figure I better analyse three of ’em for y’all.  In the interest of keeping the post under 1000 words however, I shall refrain from mentioning the ability to select your own character and how that changes the narrative, an element which I’ll explore in it’s own post later on.  However, I hope you guys can enjoy some words on some other topics, quite likely related to this Video Game.

As Usual, Spoiler Warning For Far Cry 2 (and maybe Mass Effect)

1.) Divergent Narrative

Fundamentally this is a good idea. Having the player’s choices affect the narrative is one of the big hurdles the games industry faces today, in whether to change the characters within that narrative (ala any game with a binary morality system) or whether to try and change the narrative itself, as Far Cry 2 does.  The former is certainly alot simpler to do, especially badly, as can be seen by the glut of games which feature a morality system lately. The majority of these systems have very little effect outside specific abilities open to only the good or evil side respectively. In Mass Effect, was there any huge change to how people reacted to me when I went evil as opposed to being a paragon? Almost none. Sure, I lost an optional sex scene with one of the women, but another was still open to me. No character ever openly disagreed with my choices and none were proactive in getting their opinions being heard. They all just bottled up their views and emotions inside, which created an experience where ultimately the good/evil juxtaposition is not very much of a juxtaposition at all. Although they did nail the decision making process, which is what Far Cry 2 lead develepor Clint Hocking believes that the medium should focus on HERE.

Why is Mass Effect so easy to ramble about?

Why is Mass Effect so easy to ramble about?

Anyways, back to what Far Cry 2 did (I said I’d keep it under 1000 words ><). It seamlessly varied tha narrative according to player choice. Big Tick.  However the process is flawed in a number of ways, which range from poor design choices, to realistic design choices to poor implementation.

The narrative divergence is a binary one. Now I’m not sure whether it might be unrealistic to expect any more form a game, considering the amount of time these things take to make, however the ‘You now have an option to shoot two guys, choose who lives’ is an extremely obvious mechanic breaking one’s immersion in the world. It can still be well implemented (See GTA4) however in Far Cry 2 it isn’t. Twice I’ve played through this game and I still couldn’t tell the factions apart. AFR and UFLL off the top of My head, yet all I know is that one faction has a red banner and another yellow. The leaders with which you interact were largely faceless, with no interesting personality traits. They were completely interchangeable, even past the point where one betrays you, followed by the other.  The militiamen from both factions were also identical, meaning that when the choice to elevate one faction over another came about, the decision was hard not because I cared about the both or the choice had implications for the narrative or my character but was instead difficult due to my apathy.

Far Cry 2 has few SS online, So this is unrelated, atmospheric

Far Cry 2 has few SS online, So this is unrelated, atmospheric

This is in contrast to a choice earlier in the game where you must choose to defend either your crazed gunmen friends or the drug dealing, people smuggling church. This is an example of a good narrative divergence, forcing you to choose between two options that mean something to you. Having taken each path once however, I must say that I’m unimpressed with the resolution of these events. While it’s fine for both options to hem in the narrative and basically have the same outcome, it’d be a lot nicer if they were referenced in any way alter on or really made the narrative diverge for any more than 5 minutes.  It’s a nice choice and well done, but comes off arbitrary and gratuitous as it’s not woven into the later narrative. The same goes for the killing of leaders later on, they’re isolated elements with no real effect on the narrative OR gameplay. At least Bioware defiantly have the latter under the belts.

2.) Physicality

One thing Far Cry 2 does exceptionally well is immerse you into it’s world and this is in no small part due to the intense physicality of the game. In Half Life 2  you might feel relief when you run over a medpak and hear the little ‘Doo-Do’ noise, but it in no way compares to the relief you feel once you’ve pulled a bullet out of your body with tweezers, or readjusted your  dislocated arm with a sickening crunch (if only because you don’t have to see it any more). Seeing your characters hands clutching onto the sides of the cars he rides, even physically holding the map, the game’s physicality roots you in the gritty world of Africa and never lets go. It also does wonder towards differentiating (nx^n-1?) Far Cry 2 from the glut of generic shooter characters out there at the moment. No power armour here, and the intense physicality of the game enforces it.

However, the game also puts it’s technique to great use in a few instances for character building. Going by the narrative and dialog,  the Far Cry 2 protagonist is quite characterless, apart from being amoral and a bit obsessed with the Jackal. Apart from this, the characterization is mostly accomplished through the player, how he chooses to complete missions and which choices he makes. However, the first time the protagonist, who is in every other instance synonymous with the player, sticks a machete to someones throat and forces them back is shocking. The mild manner player cannot expect this sudden ferocity on behalf of the protagonist, this crack in the protagonists patience that life in ‘hell on earth’ Africa has caused. There are several instances of subtle choices like this, that greatly improve the players empathy and general care for the protagonist, a tool which should be utilised more often in games where the player and the protagonist are very close. ( I’ll write more about physicality later on, alas I’m already over my word budget with one topic to go.)

c.) Player Choice

Ok this one’s going to be short due to space constraints, (despite being the most interesting). The narrative in Far Cry 2 revolves around the twisted actions of the protagonist and the length’s he’ll go to in order to catch the Jackal, who’s no longer seeming quite so evil by comparison.  This is at the core of everything that happens in the story and is the climax in it’s entirety. What makes it so effective however, is that the player is never forced into any of it. Every mission in the game is optional, and the storyline will only progress when the player makes it do, by choosing to engage in clearly amoral missions (such as blowing up medicine or food). The player essential makes the same decision we blame the protagonist for making; to pursue the Jackal at all costs. The player at any time can decide to stop the chase, deciding that the cost is too great. However, the only way to do this is to turn off the game, so maybe it’s not the most feasible of options. Really, the player is only given the illusion of choice relating to committing the atrocities, however it’s this illusion that makes the player feel so guilty at the stories conclusion, which calls the player out on these choices.

It’s a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, that the PLAYERS fatal flaw of not being able to give up on completing the mission (or the game) ends in his demise.

There’s alot more I’ll write on Far Cry 2 in the future, as it’s an extremely interesting game once you get over the narrative’s face value.  For the moment though, I’ll leave you to contemplate the game’s Physicality, Divergent Narrative and the role of Player Choice when playing the Anti Hero.  Next weeks column will be on Crysis, so stay tuned!

For all its flaws, still the most interesting game of 2008.

For all it's flaws, still the most interesting game of 2008.

Written by Aonshix

June 25, 2009 at 2:23 pm