Mass Effect 3’s ending part 2 – praise and criticism

In Part 1 of my discussion on Mass Effect 3’s ending, I discussed why I thought that the player outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3 is mostly, but not completely, unjustified and misguided. There were some problems with the ending though, so I want to discuss what I thought the problems were and how big they were.

Warning, major spoilers of the last few minutes of Mass Effect 3 ahead.

I think that there were basically three problems with the ending:

  1. The choices at the end were not based on any previous choices.
  2. There was one too few endings.
  3. The cut scenes needed to be fleshed out more.

The first issue is one that is commonly cited against the game, but I feel that the proper solution is not what others have suggested: there shouldn’t have been a choice between the options at all. One way that BioWare could have handled these choices better is exactly how 2K handled the endings of BioShock 1 and 2 (especially 2). The two BioShocks had a variety of different endings as well, but the ending was preselected for you based on your decisions leading up to that point. If BioWare had simply removed the player’s ability to choose their ending, and instead preselected the ending based on your previous choices, then the ending would have been improved dramatically. Alternatively, BioWare could have hidden the choice in a conversation tree about the nature of the relationship between synthetics and organics (which they already had) such that you still made the decision at the end, but without dropping the player out of the flow of the ending while they made their choice. A player’s renegade and paragon would have also shaped the options available, as they do in other conversations.

I think that there should have been a fourth option as well: the reapers are deactivated/allowed to go live their lives as they see fit/etc while simultaneously allowing organics to go on living as they see fit, or something to that effect. Basically nothing changes except that the Reapers are called off (or maybe destroyed). To keep in line with the theme of “every option has consequences”, the story could have been weaved such that synthetics and organics eventually do destroy each other (perhaps thousands or millions of years in the future). I’m not sure if any other endings would have been necessary (I can’t think of any), but this fourth one would have definitely been a proper addition, especially if this option required the player to have saved both the Geth and the Quarians.

When playing the ending I got the distinct impression that it was rushed, which is not unusual for projects of this scope. A little more time to polish the cut scenes and flesh out some character appearances would have made for a more impactful ending. I must emphasize though that I didn’t think the cut scenes were bad really, just a little weak. People complained that the endings were all the same, but they really weren’t; it was just the visuals that were the same.

Recycled explosion cut scene

Recycled explosion cut scene (1)

In all of my criticisms, notice how I said nothing about the basic premise/structure of the ending being flawed or inconsistent. This was intentional because I think that BioWare got the premise of the ending right. It didn’t have major structural flaws, it just lacked polish. BioWare has announced that they are going to be releasing a sort of “extended cut” DLC that will flesh out the ending. One thing that BioWare should NOT do with their extended cut DLC is to retcon the ending and do something entirely new to appease the fanbase. Many players have clamored for this, but fortunately BioWare doesn’t seem to be pursuing this route. This is important because a) I think it would weaken the potential of the ending and b) it would set a bad precedent. If gamers always get what they want, then the medium will stop moving forward because the average gamer just wants to blow stuff up real good and have fun. They want more of the same.

I really do think that the ending was quite good, despite my criticisms. I was on the edge of my seat during the entire time on the citadel. It was very powerful and very moving at times. One surprising turn of events was during the final push to the citadel, Harbinger mortally wounds both Shepard and Andersen. This leaves both characters, and by extension the player, barely able to function. There are no more insanely powerful weapons, no more biotics, no more tech. It’s just you, and you can barely do anything. This may have frustrated some players, but I think this was absolutely genius. It almost forced the ending to focus on story over gameplay, and benefited greatly from it. It was much more focused and impactful than the endings to ME1 and ME2 which both focused on a huge boss battle.

This focus lead to a masterful final encounter with the Illusive Man. Instead of turning this encounter into some huge boss fight, it instead was a much more interesting, storied encounter. Ideas of control and free will were discussed. Much pent up anger was released, and the dramatic tension was palpable, leading to the Illusive Man committing suicide with the realization of what he had done (in my play through).

The Illusive Man, Indoctrinated

The Illusive Man, Indoctrinated (1)

Andersen and Shepard then open the Citadel so the Crucible can dock and be activated. They finally accomplished all that they set out to do. Shepard and Anderson, both on the verge of death, finally have a moment to relax. They have won. In what is one of single the best scenes I’ve ever seen in a game, Andersen and Shepard contemplate all that has happened, and all that they have accomplished. Few words are said because few are needed. Finally, Andersen dies. It’s not a tragic event, but rather one of sad beauty.

Shepard is waiting for the inevitable, ready to invite death with open arms. Death has other plans though when Hackett calls in saying that nothing is happening. It isn’t a moment of panic though, nor of frustration or anger. Instead, Shepard trudges herself up, like a good solder, stumbles back towards the console. It’s almost as if she just instinctively reacts to what is required of her, ignoring the fact that she is dying. Try as she might though, she just can’t make it and collapses on the platform in front of the console. It’s a moment of profound, aching sadness. I felt that what came after these scenes just didn’t matter from an emotional standpoint because the emotionally satisfying conclusion had already been reached.

I played as Femshep (if that wasn’t obvious), and I wonder how these scenes would have played out as Maleshep. I always felt there was a certain vulnerability and complexity to Jane Hall’s portrayal of Femshep that Mark Meer’s portrayal of Maleshep lacked. This vulnerability was crucial in creating the impact of the ending, so I don’t think that the Maleshep ending would have been as good as a result (of course I could be wrong since I didn’t play it).  Since 87% of players play as Maleshep (2), I wonder if this factored in to people’s negative opinion of the ending.

It’s also worth noting that the music during the ending is absolutely phenomenal! It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Clint Mansell, Darren Aronofsky’s go-to composer for his films, lent his talents to this project. It perfectly fits the balance of emotional and intellectual weight of the ending, perhaps even defining it. It’s a testament to Mansell and team’s work that I still have one of the ending piano pieces, “An End, Once and For All” shown below (3), stuck in my head a week after I finished playing the game. I even found a piano arrangement of the piece that I am now learning.

In part 1, I mentioned a quote from another gamer. I want to requote just the first part, because this person got the first part absolutely right: “Mass Effect 3 emotionally wrecked me.” (4) It absolutely did, which is high praise indeed. The night after I finished playing I couldn’t sleep because I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I still find myself thinking about it a week later. When something grabs hold of me like this, I know that I have just experience something truly incredible. All of the analysis and discussion about what worked well and what didn’t really doesn’t matter. This is what matters: I experience something that I cannot forget, and that is the sign of something wonderful.

(1) Stretch. “Mass Effect 3′s Ending & Shepard Indoctrination Theory.” Bag of Games. 2nd April, 2012. Available: http://www.bagofgames.com/2012/04/mass-effect-3s-ending-shepard-indoctrination-theory/
(2) Hillier, Brenna. “Loving FemShep: BioWare’s first lady finally steps forward.” VG24/7. 19th Fuly, 2011. Available: http://www.vg247.com/2011/07/19/loving-femshep-biowares-first-lady-finally-steps-forward/
(3) “Mass Effect 3 Soundtrack – An End Once and For All.” YouTube. 4th March, 2012. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5JvbD2Zc9I
(4) Kuchera, Ben. “Why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was satisfying, and worthy of the series.” Penny Arcade Report. 13th March, 2012. Available: http://www.penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/why-the-ending-of-mass-effect-3-was-satifying-and-worthy-of-the-series-mass

Advertisements

Mass Effect 3’s ending part 1 – Retake Mass Effect is wrong

I just finished playing Mass Effect 3 on Saturday. While I didn’t love the ending, I certainly didn’t hate it like most people did.I do have may thoughts on the ending though, enough that I am splitting this post into two parts. Part 1 will deal with the criticisms of the ending, namely the Retake Mass Effect effort. Part 2 will deal with what I thought was good and bad about the ending, and some a few tweaks that could be made to the ending to make it incredible. Now that I have played the game, I can confidently say that I think the Retake Mass Effect point of view on the game is, for the most part, wrong.

Warning, major spoilers of the last few minutes of Mass Effect 3 ahead.

The Retake Mass Effect petition states (1):

A Petition for Alternate Endings to the Mass Effect Trilogy

We, the undersigned, respectfully request the consideration of the following petition.

Whereas:
* Mass Effect is an interactive video game providing a detailed framework within which the player may create a unique story
* A major concept of the Mass Effect games is that your choices significantly affect the outcome of the story
* Another major concept of the Mass Effect games is success in the face of seemingly impossible odds

We believe:
* That it is the right of the writers and developers of the Mass Effect series to end that series however they see fit

However, we also believe that the currently available endings to the series:
* Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game
* Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds
* Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to
* Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story

We therefore respectfully request additional endings be added to the game which provide:
* A more complete explanation of the story events
* An explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series
* A heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment

To this end, we donate to the “Retake Mass Effect 3” Child’s Play Charity drive in lieu of our signature to this petition, in order to establish our sincerity, our love for these games, and for the Mass Effect universe.

We thank you for your consideration.

For the most part I just don’t agree. BioWare is all about story. They set out to tell a story with the Mass Effect games, just like they did with the Dragon Age games. I think that the point of view above places gameplay over story. They want the story to be the expected outcome of how they played the game; in other words predictable! It’s sad, but everyone wanted a formulaic ending. I’m going to do my due diligence though and go through these arguments one by one instead of just hand-waving them away as being asinine.

“Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game.” This is the only point that I do agree with. While the choices weren’t bad, and they can be an interesting reflection on the part of the person playing, I do think there should have been one (and probably only one) more option which I will discuss below.

“Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds.” Seriously? No matter which option you choose, the Reaper threat is over. There are no more cycles. How is this not a sense of success? Do players need to see parades with everyone singing yub nub to get a sense of success? Can these players not handle open ended endings? Sadly the answers to those last two questions are “yes” and “no,” and these answers have been born out by decades of film history. This is why mainstream summer blockbusters sell so well, even though they are incredibly formulaic, predictable, and boring, while the really interesting, thought-provoking, and truly great movies are lucky to be made at all and make orders of magnitude less money than their summer blockbuster brethren. People just don’t want to be intellectually challenged, they wanted to be intellectually satiated.

“Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to.” This can be nice sure (this is something Dragon Age: Origins did very well), but to say that the ending sucked because it wasn’t there? That’s ludicrous. That type of ending didn’t fit with what BioWare wanted to do, and did do, which was to provide a thought-provoking, cerebral, and open-ended ending.

“An [sic] explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series.” I’m sympathetic to this argument, but I still think Bioware did the right thing. An explanation wasn’t necessary…the outcome of all of the races, etc, was obvious. Explicitly showing what happened to, say, the Krogans based on whether or not you saved Wrex and Eve and whether or not you told them about the STG sabotage was unnecessary because the game made it painfully obvious what was going to happen given those decisions. An explanation like this would have just served as a pat on the back to players and wouldn’t have contributed anything new to the story. It would, however, have diluted the story that BioWare did want to tell because the core ending would have had to share screen time with this fluff.

“Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story.” I simply don’t see any inconsistency. There are two major consistencies I see discussed: 1) the kid came out of nowhere and 2) everyone should have been destroyed by the relays exploding. Both of these claims are flat out wrong. On 1), the existence of something controlling the reapers was explicitly mentioned earlier in the From Ashes DLC (which should have been shipped with the game) which takes place fairly early in the game. In addition, this theme of new layers being slowly revealed has a very strong precedence. First, we thought the Protheans were the only previous race, then we learned that the Reaper’s also existed with the Protheans, then we learned that races existed before the Protheans, then we learned the Protheans weren’t a single-race species but rather a multi-race empire, and so on. Whoever claims that the kid came out of nowhere simply wasn’t paying attention to the game. On 2), well everyone wasn’t killed because the relays didn’t explode. Everyone compares the events of the ME2 DLC Arrival, where a relay did explode because an asteroid was crashed into it with the end of ME3 and claim OMGZ PLOT HOLE !!!!11!1!@#! Once again, these people simply weren’t paying attention. The relays broadcast a signal across the galaxy that did whatever choice was chosen, and overloaded in the process. It’s like detonating a nuclear weapon version breaking one by over volting the circuitry. The nuclear weapon is destroyed in both cases, but only the first one destroys an entire city. The other consistency issues brought up are so tiny and assinine, I can’t believe people got hung up on them to begin with. I am someone with a lot of physics and some biology background, yet I still enjoy sci-fi movies. If I got upset at the MAJOR misunderstandings of science in virtually EVERY sci-fi movie EVER MADE, then I wouldn’t be able to watch movies, period. Entertainment isn’t going to be perfect down to the last detail, it’s just simply not possible.

Party Time (this is what fans wanted)

Party Time (this is what fans wanted) (2)

There is a common trend among all of these complaints: people wanted a predictable, thoughtless ending that was focused on them. They wanted the ending to Return of the Jedi, not the ending to 2001. They wanted a party with everyone getting drunk, as shown in the fan art above, without any real depth or intellectuality at all.

To quote another player mentioned in Ben Kuchera’s excellent writeup on the issue: (3)

Mass Effect 3 emotionally wrecked me. It’s Bioware’s game so it’s their choice. And obviously the game was effective to get that response, but I still feel like shit,” one fan told me. “I don’t play games to feel like this after [they’re over]. How do I trust Bioware to not wreck me again if I decide to join them on their next epic?”

This player is pissed off that the game made him/her feel something other than satiated happiness? That’s…just…fucked…up. It is through emotional and intellectual discovery that we advance as a species. This type of discovery doesn’t occur when you have the attitude expressed by this player, and it really makes me despair for humanity to see opinions like this proffered. These types of fans hated the image from the synthesis ending of ME3 below, despite the fact that this is a very powerful scene, just dripping with meaning. The sad thing is that it went over most people’s heads.

Synthesis of love (what people hated)

Synthesis of love (this is what fans hated) (4)

I wrote the following paragraph when discussing the ending of another recent BioWare RPG in which people hated the ending: (5)

I suspect that the majority of these players weren’t making choices because it’s what their interpretation of Hawke would actually do, but because it would result in the outcome they wanted in the story, thus making these choices a game itself. These type of players wanted to “win” at the game of “choice,” instead of taking part in a narrative. Given this mindset, it is no wonder that they were upset because they felt that the game cheated them out of winning.

I get the distinct impression that the same phenomenon is manifesting itself with Mass Effect 3 too.

People often complain about the banality of AAA games these days (I’m one of them), but the Retake Mass Effect effort tells us exactly why most AAA games are so mundane: the average gamer hates intellectually challenging games! So much so that they create petitions to try to force game companies to make the few attempts made at interesting games be rewritten. The ending of Mass Effect 3 wasn’t perfect, as I am going to outline in part 2, but the response by the average gamer to the ending fills me with far far more rage than the actual ending itself. And that’s just sad.

(1) “Retake Mass Effect.” ChipIn. 12th March, 2012. Available: http://retakemasseffect.chipin.com/retake-mass-effect-childs-play
(3) Plunkett, Luke. “Mass Effect 3 Gets A Happy Ending After All.” Kotaku. 21 March, 2012. Available: http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/03/mass-effect-3-gets-a-happy-ending-after-all/
(3) Kuchera, Ben. “Why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was satisfying, and worthy of the series.” Penny Arcade Report. 13th March, 2012. Available: http://www.penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/why-the-ending-of-mass-effect-3-was-satifying-and-worthy-of-the-series-mass
(4) Freeman, Zadishe. “Outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3: Not just a game.” Freeman’s Mind. 25th March, 2012. Available: http://zadishefreeman.com/the-outrage-over-mass-effect-3-not-just-a-game/
(5) Salo. “The Illusion of Choice in Dragon Age 2.” Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum. 26 October, 2011. Available: https://chronosynclasticinfundibulum.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-illusion-of-choice-in-dragon-age-2/

Part 2 is live!

Dear Esther

I just finished playing “Dear Esther,” (1) a game, if you can call it that, about the the death of a man, and I have to write about it (Warning, spoilers ahead). He is sick, or so he says. He was friends with a man named Donnelly who suffered from syphilis and abused laudanum, or so he says. He pines for his lost love Esther, or so he says. The player’s character narrates the game, but is he a trustworthy narrator?

In the game, you wander around an island, witnessing sights of beauty while listening to the forlorn tale of the island’s inhabitants. There is Jakobson, a poor man who tries to raise himself out of poverty by herding goats, and Donnelly. Who are these two people, and how do they relate to the player? We gather that Donnelly was the player’s friend but that there was a falling out.

Why is the player on the island? We hear that the player has cordoned himself on the island to isolate the sickness from others. Perhaps. When we first start out, we can see a communications antenna on the peak of the central mountain on the island, with it’s pulsating light at the top drawing us in. We immediately know that this tower is our destination. What awaits us there? Why must we traverse the island to get there? The narrator tells us that the seagulls have all left the island, and that the original inhabitants of the island have left as well. There is nothing left, just the remnants of buildings and the sickly, scraggly plant life, rocks, and sand. The feeling of loneliness and emptiness is palpable.

A beautiful cave

A beautiful cave (2)

There is a tension between the idleness of the island, the feeling of inevitable death, and the drive to reach the top. The narrator calls it his Damascus. As we travel through the island, we come across sights of true, awe-inspiring beauty. We come across paintings on the walls of caves and cliffs; paintings of hydrocarbon chains, alcohol compounds, and electrical schematics. Perhaps this is symbolic of how Esther died? Then start the messages…at first they tell the tale of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, but they start to take a subtle turn. “Was Paul’s conversion the result of brain trauma?” it hints to us. Is our trip also the result of brain trauma? Is any of this real? We start to feel more and more that we are being led to the top, not going there of our own accord. It is nighttime now and the moon is up, and there are candles lighting the way. Who lit these candles? We catch glimpses of a hooded character in the shadows, but nothing more. Who is this stranger?

The drive to get to the top gets stronger. We are moving faster now. The messages on the walls start to hint at something less hopeful. We aren’t heading to our salvation at the top, but rather to the inevitable conclusion of our fate. We get to the top, to the communications tower. We climb to the top of the tower and look out over the island. We look down, past the tower, past the cliffs, to the ocean below, and we jump. We fall in slow motion, pas the tower, past the cliffs, and begin to fly across the ocean. Our shadow is that of a seagull. We fly out over the ocean, soaring, and the screen begins to fade until there is nothing left but the sound of the ocean. We are dead.

I sit pondering the game. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is supposed to be a story of redemption, but that is not the fate of the character. The continual references to the story seem to say many things, but never confirming. Perhaps the story is a sort of wistful hope that the character clings to in order to avoid dealing with his fate. Perhaps the game itself is saying that stories such as there only serve to divorce ourselves from reality. It certainly shows a sense of desperation in dealing with death…and perhaps even in trying to find meaning in life; some sort of sign that this journey has some revelatory meaning.

The lonely island

The lonely island (2)

Just what was the journey? Was the island real? Was there really a person leading us to the top, and if so who was he/she? Was it Esther? Donnelly? The narrator himself? We never really find out. The narrator refers to “Esther Donnelly” a few times; are they actually the same person? Was Donnelly really the narrator’s lost love? Are they perhaps different parts of the narrator himself? Does the narrator even exists for that matter? These are not questions that the game answers.

It’s amazing to see how indie game devs are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done with games. Games such as “Dear Esther” show that there is such a huge potential for telling meaningful stories in the medium. While it may sound strange at first to use a game to convey a story like this, it actually was the perfect choice. The story is one of discovery (as much as you discover anyways), and by using an interactive media, we are actually making the discoveries for ourselves. As the drive to reach the top increases as the game moves on, it is not just the character that is driven, but ourselves that is driven. We aren’t just contemplating the death of a character, but the death of ourselves. By using the format of a game, it becomes much more introspective, and much more personal.


Dear Ester Trailer (1)

(1) Briscoe, Robert. “Dear Esther.” Dear Esther. Available: http://dear-esther.com/
(2) [H|G]~Modred189~ “Dear Esther Screenshots”. Steam Community. 19 Februrary, 2012. Available: http://steamcommunity.com/id/Modred189/screenshots/?tab=public&showdate=1&filter=app_203810

The illusion of choice in Dragon Age 2

Warning: *SPOILERS AHEAD* (I think that warning must be my best friend or something, considering how often I have used it). If you have not yet played this game and intend to, do not read further!

I recently finished playing Dragon Age 2, and I outlined my thoughts on the game’s portrayal of religion in my recent post “Religion in the Dragon Age, part 2: the tragedy of oppression.” In this post, I want to talk more about the game itself. Critics and players alike were pretty split on whether or not they liked the game; some loved it and some hated it. Personally I loved the game, and I think that the people who didn’t like the game simply didn’t understand what it was trying to do.

Bethany infected by the Taint

Bethany infected by the Taint (1)

There are two primary criticisms I have seen with the game. The first criticism is that locations were recycled for many of the missions, causing the player to revisit the same location multiple times. I agree on this point, the reuse of locations did get old, but I don’t think this is a deal breaker, and this was rarely the only or primary reason given for disliking the game. Rather, the primary reason people didn’t like the game is because the choices you make as a player didn’t affect the outcome, at least not in typical RPG branching choice tree kind of way. This touches on one of my favorite subjects: choice and the role of the player in games.

To understand the ire of these disgruntled players, let’s take a look at some of the decisions and their “lack of effect.” The three most commonly cited examples where your decisions had “no effect” were when Hawke’s sister Bethany is removed from the game, Hawke’s mother Leandra is killed by a serial killer, and Orsino turns to blood magic and becomes an abomination in the final battle. In both cases, there is no way to avoid these events, but the player does make choices that lead to these outcomes. Many players complained that Bioware was simply being lazy and not really giving the player a choice in the matter, but I don’t agree.

While it is certainly possible that Bioware was trying to reduce costs, their implementation was anything but lazy; rather, they used the situation to great effect. What these critics failed to realize is that these situations are no-win situations that are meant to induce a feeling of helplessness in the player. No matter what choices you make, tragedy is bound to occur. At the same time, these tragic circumstances are still a direct result of your actions. I think this is absolutely brilliant on Bioware’s part, and is something I haven’t seen before in a game. If a character makes a bad choice in a cutscene, then that choice is divorced from the player and they don’t feel bad for making the choice; it’s just a plot twist. In DA2, however, that the player makes the choice themselves, which makes the player own the choice and the consequences it entails.

Leandra's death

Leandra's death (2)

Heading into the deep roads at the end of Act 1, I took Bethany with me, and I did not take Anders with me. As a result Bethany dies because she gets infected by the taint, and Anders was the only character who could do anything about it. In practice, Bethany is no longer a part of the story no matter what choice the player makes, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bethany’s death was my fault. It was a very emotional moment because Bethany died because of me; not the writers, not some other character, not because of the plot, but me. And that decision haunted me for the rest of the game.

Leandra is killed in a brutal manner, one that is difficult to bear. During my play through, Bethany’s death, combined with Hawke’s brother Carver’s death at the beginning of the game, still weighed heavy on my mind. I (or my character, whichever it is) was still grieving over their loss. The only family left was Leandra and a rather despised uncle, so naturally Leandra became very important to me/Hawke (at this point, the difference between the two is difficult to tell). And then Leandra is killed. It was a devastatingly emotional moment in the game. I have never played a game that has managed to convey such an acute sense of loss as DA2 does, and I have played many many games in my life. DA2 is able to accomplish this because the choices that led to Bethany and Leandra’s death are choices that I made myself.

As I described in my previous post, Orsino resorts to blood magic in the final battle when it looks like the circle is about to be destroyed. As a result, he almost immediately is possessed by a demon and becomes an abomination. The player tries to talk him out of it, and is given several choices on what approach to use, but these efforts ultimately fail no matter what choice you make. I played DA2 as a friend to the mages, and to Orsino in particlular, so Orsino’s transformation and subsequently having to kill him was a tragic event. However, if it were possible to talk Orsino out of it, then this tragic event would simply become a mistake on the part of the player, akin to dying during a fight, and would thus have lost its impact.

Orsino as an abomination

Orsino as an abomination (3)

I think that many of the game’s critics failed to realize what Bioware was trying to accomplish because they were caught up in the dynamics of the game. They felt that since there was a choice to be made, then there must be a correct choice; one that results in a positive outcome. I suspect that the majority of these players weren’t making choices because it’s what their interpretation of Hawke would actually do, but because it would result in the outcome they wanted in the story, thus making these choices a game itself. These type of players wanted to “win” at the game of “choice,” instead of taking part in a narrative. Given this mindset, it is no wonder that they were upset because they felt that the game cheated them out of winning.

I can’t really blame these players either. As gamers, we have become very accustomed to the way things work. When a  developer does something that breaks the mold and does something different, it is always a little unsettling at first. There is that feeling that the game did something wrong, simply because it did something different. I understand this reaction, but I don’t condone it. If gaming is to thrive in the future, developers must be willing to change and adapt; otherwise gaming will whither and die. As gamers, we must be willing to change with them.

(1) Ashuroa. “Dragon Age 2 Deep Roads.” Gamer’s Ramblings. Available: http://ashuroa.livejournal.com/308346.html
(2) “Dragon Age II.” Dragon Age Wiki. Available: http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Dragon_Age_II
(3) Ashuroa. “Dragon Age 2 done.” Gamer’s Ramblings. Available: http://ashuroa.livejournal.com/312088.html

Religion in the Dragon Age, part 2: the tragedy of oppression

I wrote a post some time ago titled “Religion in the Dragon Age: what a fantasy RPG tell us about religion” in which I discussed how religion was still questionable in the world of Dragon Age: Origins; one  that is filled with all sorts of supernatural phenomenon. I recently finished playing the sequel to DAO, cleverlynamed Dragon Age 2, where you play as a human named Hawke. It spends considerably more time dealing with the topic of religion, but it approaches it in a more subtle manner, preferring allegory to outright discussion. As with the previous post, a warning is necessary: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. If you have not played this game yet and intend to, DO NOT READ FURTHER as my discussion here will spoil much of the game. If you aren’t familiar with the games and don’t intend to play them, I recommend reading the original article first because I lay out some definitions and background there that I assume the audience already knows here.

Kirkwall City Crest

Kirkwall City Crest (1)

The story takes place in a town called Kirkwall, in which tensions are high between various factions in the city that lead to disastrous results. There is a group of (non-human) people called the Qunari who have taken up residence in Kirkwall, much to the dismay of the (human) nobles. There are also two groups called the Circle of Magi and the soldiers who guard them, called the Templars (not the same as the real Knights Templar) that are in conflict. You play as a human of noble descent, but lost his/her (her in my case) nobility due to your mother running off with a mage not of noble descent.

In the world of Thedas, mages are viewed with suspicion and fear because they are susceptible to possession by demons from the Fade. They are not viewed like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, who is revered to say the least. Because of this threat, mages are required to join a Circle, which is an organization in which mages are trained and kept. Think of military school. Mages are required to be in the Circle for their entire life, and anyone who leaves is branded as an apostate and hunted down by the Templars. Apostates who are caught are usually sent back to the Circle, but they are also commonly killed on site.

Abomination

Abomination (1)

A mage that has been possessed by a demon is called an abomination. Once a mage becomes an abomination, it is almost impossible to save the mage. There is only one recorded incidence of an abomination being saved in both games that I am aware of. In every other incidence, of which there are many, the abominations are simply killed. Some mages are more at risk to being possessed by a demon than others. Those who are deemed to be at greater risk are made tranquil by the Templars, usually without the mage’s consent. A mage is made tranquil by cutting them off from the Fade, which has the effect of also removing their personalities. Making a mage tranquil is a direct reference to Lobotomies performed on the mentally ill in the mid 20th century, and produces almost the exact same result.

The mages, of course, don’t like this. They are basically kept as prisoners in the Circle, and all races, whether human, qunari, elves, or dwarves, are hostile towards mages. In Dragon Age 2, the leader of the Kirkwall Templar branch, Knight Commander Meredith, is extremely overzealous in her attempts to control the mages. This results in the mages pushing back, resulting in an all-out war. There is a type of magic called blood magic that uses blood of the living to power its spells. It is a dangerous type of magic because it increases the chance of becoming an abomination, however it is also very powerful. During the war, many of the mages resort to blood magic to defend themselves, some meeting with disastrous consequences as a result. The oppressed resorting to desperate actions that they would not normally do to save themselves is a prevalent theme in this part of the story.

The Qunari are a race of beings from the north (iirc) that have their own set of beliefs separate from the Chantry. They don’t believe in any supernatural elements to to life aside from those that can be proven, such as magic. Significantly, they don’t believe in any deities which sets them apart from those of the Chantry. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. The Qunari are a part of what they call the Qun. The Qun can be summarized as a code of honor or conduct, but I don’t think that fully describes it. It is a state of mind, as much as anything. The Qunari submit to the Qun become part of a broader way of life. In the Qun, everything and everyone has a defined purpose. There is no question what someone is supposed to do, or how they are supposed to act. Everyone’s role is predefined, without possibility of choice. To the Qunari, life is simple and they take great pride in having “clarity of purpose.” In fact, people are not seen as individuals, but rather a part of a singular entity that is greater than them.

The Arishok

The Arishok: a Qunari leader (1)

This view of life is attractive for many, and so they choose to join the Qun voluntarily. One prime example is Tallis, an elf who joins the Qun because she felt aimless and without direction. Of course, this puts the Qunari at great odds with the Chantry because the they are stealing followers from the Chantry. A group of Qunari are staying in Kirkwall as part of an ongoing mission to retrieve some item of some sort (not really important what). The population of Kirkwall mostly believes in the Maker, which fuels an us-vs-them attitude among the population and creating a lot of tension between the groups. After a series of inciting incidents, large scale fighting breaks out between the mostly human Chantry supporters and the mostly Qunari and elf Qun members. In the end, the Qunari are all slain in the defense of Kirkwall, with Hawke playing a key role in the fighting.

What is most interesting to me are the events that lead to the fighting. Some of the humans wanted to fight the Qunari, but the leadership of Kirkwall wanted to avoid fighting at all costs. The Qunari, on the other hand, had no “wants” so to speak, but rather had no choice but to fight once a series of events occurred. It didn’t matter what the reality of the situation was, the certainty of the Qun required them to fight. Whether or not they all died, and whether or not innocent people were killed was irrelevant given their collectivist mindset since, of course, the individual is not important to them. This is the danger with such absolutists collective views, and many of the real-world religions have this mentality.

The Qunari aren’t representative of any one particular real world religion or group, but certainly contain aspects of truth from a wide variety of groups. There is similarity with communism considering the whole “part of a collective” bit, although I would say it’s more Brave New World than 1984. The way that members of the Qun describe it, though, makes it much more akin to a traditional religion than a governmental model. People who die for the Qun are very much dying for “their” beliefs, even if those beliefs are shared by all in the Qun. The Qun members are very fervent about their beliefs and that the Qun is the “right” way. In fact, the Qun feel that conquering other peoples and forcing them to join the Qun is actually their way of “liberating” these people and doing them a favor. During a mission, I heard a very telling discussion between two of my party members, Tallis, a Qun member, and Anders, an apostate mage:

Anders: You just… woke up one day and decided “what I really need in life is someone telling me everything I should think?”

Tallis: It wasn’t that easy. Haven’t you ever looked at the world and wondered where the justice is? the equality? In the Qun, everyone is welcome. Elves, humans. It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, there’s a place for you.

Anders: Unless your a mage.

Tallis: You won’t find that anywhere else in Thedas.

This game really shows the dangers of ideology, and what happens when one group oppresses another. It doesn’t matter if the reason for oppression is worthwhile or not; oppression often leads to violence, and that is something we should always be mindful of. DA2 shows what happens when ideology is allowed to run rampant, and the results are tragic indeed.

(1) “Dragon Age Wiki.” Dragon Age Wiki. Available: http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Dragon_Age_Wiki

Religion in the Dragon Age: what a fantasy RPG tell us about religion

I started playing Dragon Age: Origins recently, and am currently about two thirds through the game. I’m surprised I didn’t get around to playing it earlier considering that Mass Effect, created by the same developer, is one of my all time favorite games. It’s a really great game so far. Excellent story and characters, satisfying gameplay, etc. For those that aren’t familiar with DAO, it’s a single player Role-Playing Game (RPG); think World of Warcraft but single player and with a deep story. Religion plays a fairly important role in Dragon Age: Origins (heretofore referred to as DAO), and your character can respond to it in a variety of ways. I have found it endlessly fascinating, and it’s interesting to analyze it from various perspectives.

The Maker's Symbol

The Maker's Symbol (1)

So first, an introduction to religion in DAO (*SPOILERS AHEAD*). DAO takes place in a Tolken-esque world (medieval times, elves, dwarves, dragons, witches and wizards, etc). In this world, there are a variety of religions (all made up), but there is one dominant religion that, interestingly enough, doesn’t have a name. In this religion, practitioner’s worship a single deity that they call “The Maker.” Like most religions, this one has a creation story. According to the background, the Maker first create a world called the Fade, which is a metaphysical world populated by all kinds of spirits and demons. Unsatisfied with this world, he created a second world called Thedas, which is the “normal” world where the player spends their time. The Maker separated these two worlds with a veil, to prevent either side from crossing to the other.

What the Maker didn’t realize is that the beings in the Fade could see across the veil and observe those in Thedas. Those in the veil lacked the ability to imagine and dream, and became envious of those on the other side. They convinced some of the mages on the other side to worship the old gods, and thus the “first sin” was created (sound familiar?). A prophetess named Andraste convinced the Maker to forgive mankind. Andraste was the Maker’s “spiritual wife,” and played a pivotal role in the founding of the Chantry (church organization). Her mortal husband, Maferath, became jealous of Andraste’s spiritual marriage with the Maker and had her burned at the stake (also sound familiar?). As a result, the Maker turned away from mankind and hasn’t returned since.  There are a lot more details to the story, which can be read here (1).

Statue of Andraste

Statue of Andraste (1)

One of the hallmarks of RPGs such as this one is that the player gets to decide how to interact with other characters, including the religious. Players can choose how to respond to another character by selecting from 4 or so response options. When dealing with religious responses, BioWare typically includes a response from the perspective of 1) devout believer,  2) lax believer, 3) apologist/agnostic, 4) atheist. I was kinda surprised to see that the game includes the option to be a flat out atheist, and a rather strident one at that. The typical responses aren’t that of “you’re wrong because my religion/views are better,” but actually “you know this stuff is just a myth, right?” I take this as a very good sign that atheism is becoming more and more widespread, even if the audience is somewhat self-selective. I especially think this is important because of the rather obvious connection between this religion and Christianity, specifically Catholicism.

As with most RPGs, you have a team of people, and, as with most BioWare RPGs, each character has a unique history and personality. One such character is named Leliana, a rogue character. We first meet Leliana in a refugee town called Lotharen, where she is a sister in the local Chantry. Leliana is devout in her belief, but is not afraid to go against the Chantry if she believes they are wrong. Leliana believes that the Maker speaks directly to her, although she doesn’t see herself as a prophet and is rather humble about it. This stance frequently puts her at odds with other believers, since everyone else believes that the Maker has stopped engaging humans. Some people, including a few other party members, believes that Leliana must be mentally unstable because she thinks the Maker talks to her. Definitely a not-so-subtle jab at people who believe their god talks to them.

In contrast, there is a character named Morrigan, a mage (e.g. witch), who is completely atheistic. She believes there is a natural reason for everything that happens. Her views on the Maker, the chantry, and in general on why people believe are spot on. Just watch the dialogue below starting at the 2:50 mark between Morrigan and Leliana on religion. (3) Only a few words need to be replaced to make it a solid critique of Christianity, and to think that this is part of a game is just astounding. The discussion towards the end on why Morrigan believes in magic but not the Maker is really great too. It might as well be a discussion on why we “believe” in evolution but not religion. It all comes down to evidence…it just so happens that there is evidence for magic in the world of Thedas.

As I have played the game, a funny thing happened. I stopped responding with the hard-lined atheist responses and started leaning more agnostic. Partly this was for pragmatic reasons (important characters don’t respond well to these responses and may not tell you important information if you’re mean to them), but I think there is another reason. One of the missions I was on, some events occurred that put my characters disbelief into doubt. My character even started pursuing a romantic relationship with Leliana, not Morrigan, even though Morrigan is still my favorite teammate. I didn’t even realize it was happening at first, but once I recognized this transition, I thought about why that was and have had some very interesting thoughts.

Leliana

Leliana (1)

First, it’s important to note that at this point in time my character is no longer a personification of me. She is now a distinct entity, with her own motivations, desires, and beliefs. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me in an RPG. In Mass Effect 2 (*SPOILER WARNING*), a similar differentiation occurred. In Mass Effect 1, I played Shepard as pretty straight-laced do-gooder, who tried to do the right thing, was caring and considerate of team-members, etc (I tend to be a nice-guy myself). After Shepard is killed and then reconstituted at the beginning of Mass Effect 2, she finds that most of her old comrades, including her romantic partner from the first game, have forgotten about her and cast her aside. At this point I played Shepard quite differently. There is no way something like that wouldn’t have effected her emotionally, and the biggest area I saw this was in relationships. My character only entered one relationship, and it was very much just a fling about sex and nothing more. She had become cynical and was kind of angry at the world. She no longer acted like me, and was a separate character. I find the role of the player as simultaneous creator and observer in games endlessly fascinating, as I discussed in my previous post “Alice and Kev, and the role of the player” (2).

So why did my character’s beliefs start shifting? Simple, there was evidence that the Maker existed. More specifically, there was a quest in which my character needed to cure a nobleman who was deathly ill and there was no medicine or magic that could cure him. In the end, my character took a pinch of the ashes of the prophetess Andraste, which instantly cured the nobleman. This is just circumstantial evidence, of course, but my character is beginning to concede that maybe there is something to it…agnostic in the modern sense of the word.

Morrigan

Morrigan (1)

Assuming that the Maker is real, is Leliana crazy, or is the Maker really speaking to her? I’m not sure at this point. Maybe I will find out a specific answer, but I kinda hope not. I think it makes the story more interesting. Besides, it’s still not certain that the religion is actually true, much less who’s interpretation is accurate. Seeing everyone debating about it in the game is definitely interesting…reminds me a lot of the “who are the True Christians” that some Christians argue about. I tend to like open-ended stories, and this particular story arc would loose some of it’s magic (no pun intended) if a definitive answer were given.

What is the greater significance of this story? I didn’t write this post just talk about a game I love (err…right?). One of the biggest things that has stuck out to me, is that we have this relatively Christian-like religion that actually fits in with and seems plausible, but is still not a given in a fantasy world. A world filled with witches and wizards, ogres, elves, zombies, and an alternate spirit world. Religion makes far more sense in this fictional fantasy world than in the real world, and we’re still not sure if it’s real. Limited as it is, there is still far more evidence for religion in this fictional game, with its limited mechanisms for conveying information, than in the real world. It’s sad and funny all at the same time.

In modern times, we know that dragons, magic, elves, etc are merely legends from the medieval times. We take them as seriously as we do the stories of Zeus and the Greek gods. Most religions came into being in a time when people really believed these things existed, and science as we know it just didn’t exist. Within this context, religion seems perfectly plausible. If you believe in all sorts of other fantastical ideas, then religion is just one more on the pile. It’s telling, though, that we have managed see these myths for what they are, just myths, except when it comes to religion. I hope that one day we will look back on religion the same way we look back on witchcraft, just another silly idea that people who didn’t know any better believed.

(1) “Dragon Age Wiki.” Dragon Age Wiki. Available: http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Dragon_Age_Wiki
(2) Salo. “Alice and Kev, and the role of the player.” Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum. 23rd June, 2011. Available: https://chronosynclasticinfundibulum.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/alice-and-kev-and-the-role-of-the-player/
(3) Galagraphia. “Dragon Age Origins: Morrigan vs. Leliana.” YouTube. 7th Devember, 2009. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkbJVNaa_DA

Alice and Kev, and the role of the player

I recently stumbled across the blog Alice and Kev (1), and it’s quite the experience. The author, Robin Burkinshaw, performed an experiment with The Sims 3 where he created a two homeless characters, a father and daughter, with some interesting character traits and followed them throughout their virtual lives. He blogged the results and created a deep and engrossing story along the way. I strongly recommend reading all of it before reading the rest of this post, as it does contain spoilers. You have been warned.

It becomes apparent quite quickly that this is a serious piece. While there is comedy, to be sure, the drama surrounding Alice and the people she interacts with takes center stage. Her story is tragic, uplifting, and poignant. It’s the story of a girl who got the short end of the stick of life and tries to make the best of it.

We first meet Alice as a young girl, clutching her teddy bear in the park where she and her angry and emotionally abusive father live. She has a hard life, living off of free food at school, and whatever she can scrounge up. She never get’s a good night’s sleep and is always exhausted. Everyone she meets looks down on her with disdain. Her father, Kev, is mean to everyone he runs into and takes pleasure in other people’s misery, including Alice. Her only friend in life is her teddy bear.

No hugs and no sleep

No hugs and no sleep (1)

As time goes by, Alice grows older, but her condition in life stays the same. She wants to succeed at school, and certainly tries, but life has other plans for her. Various people enter and leave Alice’s life, but never someone who truly cares about her. In one especially memorable moment, she goes back to the playground she frequented as a kid, and breaks down in tears.

No more hugs, not even pretend ones

No more hugs, not even pretend ones (1)

Despite everything that has happened to her, she wants to be a good person. At one point, she gets a part time job working at a supermarket. In a surprising move, the first thing she does with her new found money is to donate some of it to charity. This display of utter selflessness is truly amazing, and what is especially surprising is that Alice made this decision without the player’s input.

Much of her life is dedicated to feigning off hunger and exhaustion and avoiding her abusive father. She sleeps wherever she can for as long as she can, which is usually way too short. A few people are nice to her, allowing her to sleep on their couches or beds for a while. This niceness rarely lasts, but even just a token gesture of niceness is enough to raise her spirits. One day she gets a promotion at work, and she becomes ecstatic! Never before has something unambiguously good happened to her, and it made me intensely happy to see her so happy.

One day, Kev finally opens up to Alice. They have a real talk for what is perhaps the first time. They talk about their lives and each other. Alice feels for him, but still can’t bring herself to forgive him. Nonetheless she stays by his side for the rest of the night. The next morning, Kev has passed away. Even though she hated him, he was the only family she had and now she has no one left.

Alive and Kev

Alice and Kev (1)

The story ends with her contemplating the loss of her father, but the beginning of her adult life. She is finally starting to succeed. She is no longer the helpless little girl she once was, and, although her life is still hard, there is hope.

Alice

Alice (1)

What really strikes me about this story is that it was created using a simulation game, The Sims 3. This is a game that is unscripted, and contains no real dialogue. Players have some control over the characters in the game, but it’s not direct control like in most games. Sometimes the characters just do what they want to do. It leads to an interesting situation where the player is both the artist and the audience. Robin was creating the story as he was experiencing it. In an interview with GameSetWatch (2), he talks about this phenomenon:

“I was trying to help and guide them, but I also wanted to see the effect of the personality traits I chose for them. So if they started to do something on their own, I would let them finish, even if I was about to command them to do something else. Sometimes I would guide them towards a situation, then let them take care of the details. Other times, they would set something in motion, then I would start giving commands to carry things on along the same lines.”

I think that this dual role of creator/observer is something that is, for the most part, unique to video games. While yes, there is some modern art pieces that rely on audience involvement, it’s pretty niche and just not quite the same. The interactive nature of gaming engages the player in ways that other art forms simply cannot do. This is what gives them their immediacy, and are why stories and concepts that would be simplistic or dull in other mediums, such as film, are so engaging in games. This topic was recently covered by the video blog Extra Credits at The Escapist (3), and I highly recommend watching it. Gaming has just recently started exploring more serious issues, and the “drama” genre is very nascent. A game that has the subtly and complexity of some of the great films could be a truly ground-breaking experience, and it’s something that I think will happen within our lifetimes. I, for one, can’t wait.

(1) Burkinshaw, Robin. “Alice and Kev.” 2009. Available: http://aliceandkev.wordpress.com/
(2) Denby, Lewis and Robin Burkinshaw. “Column: ‘The Magic Resolution’: Hope Through Homelessness.” GameSetWatch. 24th October, 2011. Available: http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2009/10/column_the_magic_resolution_ho.php
(3) Portnow, James, Daniel Floyd, and Allison Theus. “The Role of the Player.” The Escapist. 16th June, 2011. Available: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/3555-The-Role-of-the-Player