Sunday, May 6, 2012

Thoughts on "Mass Effect", IT, Story Telling, and The Matrix

(Spoilers in yellow to make 'em easy to skip)

After more or less avoiding them for a long time, I've been diving back into computer games for the first time in many years. As I've said before, walking into Gamestop, for me, gave me the same kinds of feelings as I'd expect to feel walking into a Swedish Porn Shop. Not knowing the language. Feeling out of place. The paranoia of feeling that any decision I make will show I have terrible taste, etc.

Diving back in is because of Steam, which is an awesome idea, and because of having a PC I ostensibly bought for work but would otherwise be an idle Windows PC for most of the time.

Boy have things moved on in the games world. Leaving aside the addictive mini-games that could just as easily have existed on the Amiga and been successes then (Plants vs Zombies?), the technology advances have been staggering, and I'm still utterly blown away by two games I've seen. The first, GTA IV, has NEW YORK CITY embedded in its code. NYC! What. The. Fuck? How? I mean, part of me thinks "Well, graphics with Unreal Tournament 2003/4 was up to that level, so why not eight years ago?" but of course it's more than that, and leaving aside the fact the UT2 engine gets very iffy about maps over a certain size, much of the genius of GTA IV consists of artists making the same leaps that others in the Middle Ages did when they jumped from tapestries to photographic images with perspective and shadow. Look at the jumps from GTA3 to GTA VC, and then SA, and you see each jump Rockstar and others made, but still, the leap from SA to IV is... well, unbelievable.

The other game, I picked up a few weeks ago, was Mass Effect. In ME, the thing that blew me away was the story and the story telling, together with an extremely rich universe of characters that, frankly, rivals the best science fiction writing.

For those unaware of the game, the general concept is this: In ME, you play a "Commander Shepherd", a man or woman (you pick) who is a war hero/survivor/etc (you pick) and very skilled in (one or two things you pick again) who is picked by Earth to become the first human "Spectre", a type of super-agent who works for a Galactic version of the UN. Your first missions, even before you're accepted to that role, are to investigate beacons from an extinct alien race that are broadcasting some kind of (spoiler, mind you you'll learn this early in the game) terrible warning about giant robots getting ready to annihilate all sentient life.

The game universe you play in is semi-open world, with lots of side missions you can take at any time that have nothing to do with the plot, although they can help in direct and indirect ways, coupled with more major missions where everything from your skillset to whether you've been nice to people can affect the ease with which you can complete them. By nice to people, I mean that making moral decisions can impact how people see you, to the point there's at least one side mission where you would normally win by having an old fashioned shootout, but if you've been moral enough ("Paragon", to use the lingo), you can walk in, give the right speech, and not see a single shot fired.

That mission kind of felt odd, needless to say. Also, not many like that, though many you can terminate early in that way.

As time goes on, you accrue team mates, and you pick two to come with you on every mission. Each squad member has different skills. Two are human, the others are various types of alien.

So, anyway, I rather liked the game. Reviews averaged about, uh, 90% for ME. Its sequel got even higher reviews. Mostly in the region of 99%. I know why. I respectfully disagree with the ratings even though I agree largely with the logic that got those ratings. While there's a long list of check boxes that say things like "Awesome sub-plot involving Shepherd having to work with organization Shepherd doesn't want to work with" and "Don't you just love Tali, but what's with her race and the other killer space robots?", I think the number one checkbox reviewers ticked when writing their reviews was "ME was awesome, and 90% wasn't enough! I'll make up for it this time..."

Why do I disagree? I disagree because I really feel, having played it, that ME2 just isn't put together as well as ME1. It has great ideas, but it... well, the closest I can think of is The Matrix.

Was Matrix Reloaded better than The Matrix? Hell no. But if I had to check off a long list of reviewer points, and I was a reviewer that totally felt embarrassed because I'd given the original a review that didn't match what my now higher view of it, and then realized it was a whole lot better than I thought, well...

I mean, the Matrix Reloaded had so much additional depth! You had some great new characters. More locations unlike anything in the original. You had a dozen awesome new concepts thrown at you. The universe was just so much richer with all these new characters and concepts, and Neo wasn't making some simplistic choices to "fight the man" (OK, "fight the machine") as he did in the original, but now he was making a more complex choice that would turn out to... well, anyway, you get the picture.

ME2 is richer in many ways than ME, and has some fantastic ideas, but it doesn't feel right. While ME was largely open world, ME2 isn't. ME2 has some utterly stupid game play decisions in it, you're forced to fly your own spaceship (not in a cool 3D way, but by clicking in a location and moving the mouse until the ship is where you want it to be), manually scan planets for required resources (uh, what? Yes, that's just what I see the savour of the universe wasting time on when on a ship full of people whose job it is to do this kind of crap), ME provided shortcuts so you wouldn't spend 30 minutes on something trivial just because your mouse isn't behaving that day, they're gone in ME2. Major locations have been replaced by... well, frankly, insulting structures. I mean, would you believe that one of the most important worlds in ME, The Citadel, which was a rich collection of beautiful locations with different personalities and concepts, is now a three story mall?

It's really not clear actually why 90% of the changes in game play have been made between ME and ME2 either. The weapon and armor systems are different without apparently being improved upon in any way. And, of course, the Elevators are gone.

Let's analyze that because it actually gets to the core of the problem: There were a lot of complaints about "Elevators" in ME, leading some wags, myself included, to call it "Mass Elevator". The deal was that, because the ME series uses the Unreal 3 engine, they can't make the maps particularly large (see above!) So the transition areas in ME are actual elevators. You walk in, press the button, then watch a long ass animation of the inside of an elevator with the you and both your squad mates chatting occasionally while, on occasion, a galactic news channel will pipe in news headlines, until the next screen has loaded. When the next part of the map has finished loading, the elevator finally reaches the top/bottom, and the doors open and your squad, if relevant, find themselves armed and ready to leave.

What was the complaint? Well, the complaint was you hang around in elevators a lot. Why do you hang around in elevators? Because it takes too long to load the next levels. People weren't complaining about the use of elevators to make the delay less boring, they were complaining about the delay.

What you get in ME2 is, instead, a more traditional animation that generally looks like what you'd find on a screen showing diagnostics or other information in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So the delay's still there, it's just more boring.

Why change it? It's changed because people were complaining or thought an aspect of the game was bad, and rather than analyze why, BioWare just changed something to something else. The end result is a game with a lot of good ideas, but a lot of things that are just wrong because they're trying to solve the wrong problems, or because they're hurried solutions that are just as bad as the things they're trying to fix.

Which brings me to IT and ME3. What's IT?

IT is "Indoctrination Theory". IT is an attempt by ME3 fans to make ME3 make sense.

ME3 is more or less a direct sequel to ME2, more or less the same concepts, and a continuation, just as "Matrix Revolutions" is more "Matrix Reloaded" than "The Matrix".

I haven't played  it. C'mon, I didn't like ME2, and the cheapest prices I can find are more than twice what I paid for ME and ME2 together. Why the hell would I buy it now? Maybe I'll take a look when Steam has it on a one day sale for $9.99 or less.

Anyway, everyone complains about the ending of ME3. The complain more or less centers around the fact it's a hurried thing that was obviously supposed to be more profound than it actually is, with Shepherd having to make a difficult choice and see the universe change in three different ways.

In that respect, Matrix Revolutions was a better sequel than ME3. Matrix Revolutions worked to give the hero a great send off, and tried to tie up any loose ends while creating a fairly enjoyable, if less intellectually satisfying, action romp that people could watch and enjoy. Say what you like about it, but that finale was fun to watch.

ME3, not satisfying. Why? Probably because of two reasons:
  1. ME3 was put together by the same people as ME2
  2. ME3 was ambitious, and had to hit a deadline
Also there's (3) - good endings are hard to write. I'd imagine they're even harder in a game universe where several paths can be traveled to get to that ending.

The result had many fans saying "No, not like this" over and over again, until one came up with a theory that explained everything. It goes like this:

What if, during the critical part of the last phase of the game, Commander Shepherd, our hero/heroine, was... dreaming the whole thing?

OK, dreaming is probably the wrong word, but, well, it's been established that the antagonists in the 
story, the Reapers, can control people's minds. So Shepherd's mind could be being controlled by the antagonists, and thus... something.

The evidence is as follows:

  • Not everything that happens after a particular point in the story makes sense.
  • The Reapers can control people's minds
  • The ending sucked.
Seriously, that's what the entire theory is built upon. Problems:
  • The entire game is full of things that don't make sense. It's a computer game. It's hard to keep continuity going in a game where the player can make lots of different decisions.
  • The player meets characters whose minds are being controlled throughout the game. They describe certain aspects of this that don't really fit with this theory, such as being conditioned to do the Reaper's bidding through pain.
  • "And then I woke up and it was all a dream" is, well, an ending you learn, as a story teller, is spectacularly bad from the beginning.
Moreover, to me, the problem is that the ending is too generic. There's a rule in story telling that if something is going on that's out of that's not explained by taking events at face value, you make damned sure the reader finds it out. If "Did this really happen?" is meant to be a question, you specifically ask the question. If "It was all a dream" is actually the explanation, you show the protagonist dreaming.

You have to do that because every story, EVERY STORY, can have the words "And then I woke up and it was all a dream!" added to it, changing the entire story without contributing anything useful. As a story teller, you have a duty to ensure the plot has the tightest explanation possible, and that that tight explanation is visible to the reader. "It was all a dream" is the very worst contradiction of that principle. There are things you just don't do that would be more forgivable.

To put it another way, if IT is real, then any of the following would have been better if they'd happened in ME3:
  • In the last minute, Commander Shepherd sees Mordin running up to him/her. "Stop" he yells, "Commander! I've done it! This mass effect powered device I just invented will end the Reaper menace, just press this button, and they'll disappear forever!". Shepherd presses the button. A cut scene is shown 200 years in the future, of people looking at a statue of Shepherd and Mordin together, and a father says to his boy "Those were Shepherd and Mordin, the two people who saved the galaxy." Game over.
  • Shepherd boarded the Reaper. As wave after wave of Husk attacks, bullets fly everywhere, until one hits a hithertoo unnoticed spot in the wall. The wall breaks, and a nerdy looking human looks out. "Don't shoot! I'll surrender!" says the man. "I confess! There were no Reapers, I just... I just made these giant Reaper ships because I wanted attention. I'll stop now." Game over.
  • Paragon Shepherd reached the Reaper Parliament. "Stop, I have something to say", says the Commander. There is commotion, but the Reaper speaker puts a hand/tentacle up and motions to the others to be quiet. "Commander Shepherd, you can have your say". Shepherd then says "Why don't you let us live? Go on! C'mon! Let us live! C'mon!" The Reapers confer with one another and then say "OK then." Game over.
  • Commander Shepherd boards the Reaper, but notices ooze, oil, and brake fluid, leaking from various pipes. The Reaper stops trying to defend itself, and Shepherd receives a message over the intercom.  "Shepherd, it's Joker! We're getting reports all across the Galaxy. It's bacteria! The Reapers are allergic to Earth's bacteria! They're dropping like flies! It's over Shepherd! It's over!"
 IT would have been a great ending, but it needed to be done differently. Specifically:
  • Indoctrination would have had to be described differently from the start, or else Shepherd would have had to feel unusual levels of pain when making certain decisions, with that being explicitly shown.
  • Explicit hints, as in dialog, would have had to be given that Shepherd was indoctrinated. Comments from squad members explicitly questioning Shepherd's decisions and mental health, would, for example, help here, culminating possibly in a comment from Doctor Chakwas asking the Commander outright whether indoctrination was a possible explanation, or asking the Commander whether the Commander would know if he or she were indoctrinated.
  • Most importantly, the game would have needed to end with a reveal. A cut sequence showing Reapers controlling the Commander's decisions.
Pretty much the only time I'd allow a story teller to avoid the last part is if you as a story teller are asking "Would you know" (such as in Total Recall), but notice that TR doesn't avoid the question, or consider it worth raising only with some minor hints, the question is central to the plot and is raised explicitly multiple times. The question is, reportedly, never asked, ever, in ME3 - the best anyone can get to it are multiple things "not making sense", which is true of the entire game, not merely the period that IT's proponents claim represents an indoctrinated Shepherd.

Anyway, the fact that a large proportion of the ME3 fan base consider it only understandable if you pretend it ends with "And then I woke up and it was all a dream" makes me very reluctant to play it, even when it does end up being 9.99 on Steam.

Which is a shame. As I said, I thought the original is awesome.