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Last week my girlfriend sent me a text message that was gushing with excitement. She had completed Bastion and was blown away by how incredible the whole thing was. I responded to her with this: “Games are defined in their quiet moments of perfect brilliance.” Bastion is one of those games.

Spec Ops: The Line is another. It is a game that is not defined by it’s bog-standard by the book cover-based shooting nor by its anemic attempts at multiplayer. Instead, Spec Ops: The Line is defined by its own not-so-quiet but still equally perfect moments of brilliance.

More Martin Scorsese, less John Milius.

In February I talked about this game. I said that I had high hopes for it, that its developer, Yager Studios, promised a game that would use its violence to affect the players, to prompt emotional revulsion at what they were doing. This would not be a game about mindless self-indulgence and power fantasy, it would be about taking the human condition to the breaking point and pushing it over the line. This would be a game that wouldn’t necessarily be “fun” to play in the traditional sense, but it would be compelling in the way that Greek tragedies were.

Well, they succeeded.

In Spec Ops: The Line the opulent city of Dubai has become the world’s most expensive disaster zone as the mother of all sandstorms tore through the pride of the Arabian peninsula. Colonel John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion stayed behind to assist with the evacuation. For six months nothing was heard from them until a looped radio broadcast from Konrad warns that the evacuation was a total failure and the death toll “too high.” You play as the Delta Force operator Captain Martin Walker who has been ordered on a reconnaissance mission into Dubai to determine the status of Konrad, the 33rd, and any survivors.

Instead you find Hell incarnate.

This wasn’t in the brochure.

The story is on full display here and Spec Ops proves what can be accomplished when game developers put pen to paper and actually put a modicum of effort into the story. Sure things like the graphical details, multiplayer, and even the third-person cover based shooting take a backseat, but those sacrifices are well worth the result. There is a line that runs through The Line and it’s an arc. A character arc. The three friends and compatriots, moral high and cracking dumb jokes you meet in the beginning of Chapter 1 are not the same pissed off, cursing, bleeding and battered shells you see at Chapter 13. This isn’t just a plot, this isn’t just some collection of things that happen from title sequence to end credits, this is a story. And its conclusion is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in quite a while.

Choice is a core element to the campaign of The Line, but so what, don’t you see choice in a lot of games? Mass Effect, inFAMOUS and Deus Ex where all about choice as well, so what makes Spec Ops so special? Mainly because Spec Ops never takes the core shooting mechanics away from you, pulls a dialogue wheel or menu in front of you face, and then asks you if you want to be good or evil, Paragon or Renegade. Instead it embeds its decisions into the standard shooting mechanics of the game, and in doing so gives players far more freedom than those other games like to proudly boast about. Let me give you an example.

The scene is a highway, once the major artery of the city, bustling with life and energy, now almost completely buried by the desert sands, lines of broken down, subsumed automobiles line left hand side, a testament to tragedy. Hanging from an overpass, bound by their hands, are two men, and on both sides, hiding in the dunes, are four former US Army snipers. A voice on the radio informs you that one of the men is a water-thief, a criminal of the highest order sentenced to death. The other is a member of the 33rd whose fervent application of justice resulted in the death of the water-thief’s whole family. Both are crimes worthy of death. You have the gun, so who will you kill?

In most other games you would be given a choice that’s not a choice at all. Some manner of dialogue box or message would appear, forcing you to choose. If the developers were particularly blind to their own mechanic they might even assign moral values to the choices based on their own arbitary dichotomy. But in The Line once the cutscene ends gameplay as usual resumes, and suddenly you realize that you are capable of doing more. Sure you can kill one of the men. Hell you can kill both of them. But you can refuse and simply walk away, you can coordinate your squad and try to kill the snipers. Or you can shoot the ropes, set the men free and try to save them from the snipers.

Captain Walker at the end of the game. Broken, bleeding, and pissed-off.

Other moments like this punctuate the game, filling the void once all the running and gunning has died down. Other times it’s scenes of the three Delta Force operators interacting. In these scenes you will see none of the macho bravado that permeates other shooters. Delta Force reacts at first with horror, then regret, and finally anger when the smoke dies down and the enemies have been left lying in puddles of their own blood. When you first have to shoot it out with former American soldiers no one is happy with how that turned out, rationalizations of self-defense are the only things that silences talk of surrender.

If there is a moral theme to Spec Ops it is not one of good or evil, or even freedom over order. It’s about pragmatism vs idealism. Both of your squad mates, Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo act like your conscience, arguing with each other over the course of your decisions. While none of their points are ever clear cut and there’s always a silver lining, their dialogue can always be boiled down to the conflict over what you need to do (pragmatism), over what you should do (idealism). You need to save the CIA contact so you can find the people in charge, but you should save the lives of all those civilians as its the whole point to your mission. And just like the scene with the hanging men at the overpass, this choice is also made within the core mechanics of the game.

So here is my recommendation: buy Spec Ops. Yager have made an incredible effort here, it is well worth your time if you consider yourself a fan of games, and frankly, it would be a mortal sin to see a developer this brilliant and innovative to go under. Then once you have finished it, play it again. See if there are other ways. Try and hunt down every piece of intel, as their contribution as expository and world building devices belie another advantage games have over other storytelling mediums. The recorded conversation you can pick up between Konrad and the Radioman contains more character development than all his broadcasts from the entire game. See if you can find all the subtle clues that build up to the game’s mind-bending finale. And maybe even try see where you draw the line, and where you cross it.

And so it begins…

Here is the character creation screen. Things like name, race, and gender have already been decided for us. We’re a male human, age and name unknown. What we have free reign to decide over is what kind of class do we want: Fighter, Mage, of Thief. The Priest class is denied to us for story reasons that we’ll get to later. I’m going to be going with a build for the Mage because Planescape: Torment introduces quite a few awesome high level spells like one that summons a portal through which a huge giant laser gun fires through. Actually speaking of classes that’s also decided for us right away, we start out as a Fighter. But as you can notice my stats make for an awful Fighter. One of the ideas from Torment’s vision statement was that the entire game was meant to be the character creator. If we don’t like the class we have now we can find someone who will teach us a new on and we can switch. At the same time we don’t pick our alignment at character creation. We start out True Neutral and through roleplaying we’ll shift to one of the other 9 possible alignments. Alignment plays a huge role in the Planescape setting so I’ll come back to it in detail later. For the purpose of this game I’m going to try and play the good guy.

We wake up from a crippling case of death on an embalming table . The floating skull up there in the corner immediately comes down to flap his bone-box in our face like he knows us. Problem is, we don’t.

: “Hey, chief. You okay? You playing corpose or you putting the blinds on the Dusties? I thought you were a deader for sure.”

Immediately the game saturates us in Planescape’s unique vernacular. I wonder, The Nameless One can’t remember anything about himself, but he still knows how to talk and read and write. Does he still remember this particular chant or can he only talk like Brent Spiner now? Fucking amnesia, how does it work?

: “I… don’t know. I can’t remember.”

Hmmm… a contraction. Never mind.

: “You can’t remember your *name?* Heh. Well, NEXT time you spend a night in this berg, go easy on the bub. Name’s Morte. I’m trapped in here, too.”

: “Trapped?”

: “Yeah, since you haven’t had time to get your legs yet, here’s the chant: I’ve tried all the doors, and this room is locked tighter than a chastity belt.”

I’m curious as to how a disembodied skull figured that out.

: “We’re locked in… where? What is this place?”

: “It’s called the ‘Mortuary’… it’s a big black structure with all the architectural charm of a pregnant spider.”

There’s an image to follow you to your grave.

: “The Mortuary? What… am I dead?

: “Not from where I’m standing. You got scars-a-plenty, though… looks like some berk painted you with a knife. All the more reason to give this place the laugh before whoever carved you up comes back to finish the job.”

: “Scars? How bad are they?”

: “Well… the carvings on your chest aren’t TOO bad… but the ones on your back…” More pauses. “Say, looks like you got a whole tattoo gallery on your back, chief. Spells out something…”

Dialogue  in Torment feels is written more like a novel, a choose your own adventure novel at times. We’re going to see a lot of dialogue, but we’re also going to descriptions of places, characters, and the actions of those characters as though they were lifted right out of a fantasy paperback.  Also I promise our dialogue options are going to get better than just recycling everything someone says to us back to them as a question.

: “Tattoos on my back? What do they say?”

: “Heh! Looks like you come with directions…” Morte clears his throat. [Ed note: How does that work?!?] “Let’s see it starts with…

I know you feel like you’ve been drinking a few kegs of Styx wash, but I need you to CENTER yourself. Among your possessions is a JOURNAL that’ll shed some light on the dark of the matter. PHAROD can fill you in on the rest of the chant, if he’s not in the dead-book already.”

: “Pharod…? Does it say anything else?”

: “Yeah, there’s a bit more…” Morte pauses. “Let’s see… it goes on…”

‘Don’t lose the journal or we’ll be up the Styx again. And whatever you do, DO NOT tell anyone WHO you are or WHAT happens to you, or they’ll put you on a quick pilgrimage to the crematorium. Do what I tell you: READ the journal, then FIND Pharod.’

Actually I’ve been wondering, do the words in the TEXT that have been written in ALL-CAPS like THIS; is that just the way the game was written so that players could pick up on important, game relevant plot hooks, or did the cutter who penned this whole message on our back just have some very specific form of Tourette’s? Either way we’ve got our first quest, find this journal and some berk named Pharod.

: “No wonder my back hurts; there’s a damn novel written there. As for that journal I’m supposed to have with me… was there one with me while I was lying here?”

Oh sure, you know what a novel is but not who you are and how you got here. Fucking amnesia!

: “Nobody I know… then again, I don’t know many people. Still, SOME berk’s got to know where to find Pharod… uh, once we get out of here, that is.”

: “How *do* we get out of here?”

: “Well, all the doors are locked, so we’ll need the key. Chances are, one of the walking corpses in this room has it.”

: “Walking corpses?”

Ah the days before the zombie hysteria gripped nerd culture with an dead-vice grip. Now a day’s the first thing an amnesiac is going to ask is “Is this the zombie apocalypse.” Then turn all dejected and not know why when he’s told by the nurse that he just suffered massive head trauma.

Actually this right here is the first of many conventions Planescape: Torment subverts with an almost perverse glee. In every form of media since George Ramero’s Night of the Living Dead zombies have been portrayed as a ravenous, gestalt horde intent on consuming all human flesh. In this game, they just shamble around aimlessly and are perfectly harmless. Anyway we’re going to have to attack those poor harmless, defenseless, innocent zombies to get out of here. We can choose that first option, which is our very first “good-aligned” choice, but it also makes us sound like a gigantic pussy, so I go with option number two.

: “Well, before you do that, arm yourself first. I think there’s a scalpel on one of the shelves here.”

: “All right, I’ll look for one.”

: “One last thing: Those corpses are slow as molasses, but getting punched by one of them is like being kissed by  a battering ram. If they start getting an edge on you, remember you can RUN, and they can’t. Use it to keep some distance if you need to recover.”

: “All right. Thanks for the advice.”

That was the first tutorial of the game. Unlike in any other Infinity Engine game, you can actually run away from things here. There’s some annoying, almost unnecessary white text that I left out which follows explaining how you need to hold down the Shift key and left-click in order to run. I say it’s almost unnecessary, because figuring out the controls trial-and-error style on a keyboard is a pain in the ass, and because this game wasn’t written by Hideo Kojima so characters don’t break the fourth wall and tell us “Hey, press Shift to run.” Delivering in game instructions without breaking the narrative is hard and almost always clumsy, but considering the amnesia it makes sense to be told things like “Hey, run away if your getting your ass kicked!”

But I still find it mostly unnecessary just because of how good this whole Mortuary-dungeon is at teaching us how to play this game, through the game. In fact I’m going on record saying that the Mortuary is one of my favorite openings of any game ever. It follows Baldur’s Gate II’s approach, having us start in a safe, baby’s-first-dungeon that’s filled with easy, low level monsters and where all the hard corners have been rounded down, but it’s better then that. We only have one goal here, which is to get out. But there are about five different ways to go about it, and already the choices I’ve made in regards to my starting attributes have narrowed down that list of possibilities. The whole Mortuary teaches you that not only will there almost always be several ways to accomplish an objective, but that earlier choices you’ve made will impact those options before you are even presented with them.

But all of that takes a slight hair-line fracture because there’s only one way out of this particular room and it’s through murder.

There is no scalpel on the supply bench near the stone slab we woke up on. No, of course it wouldn’t be that simple.

Ah, here it is. After equipping the scalpel Morte will initiate another conversation.

: “All right, you found the scalpel! Now, go get those corpses… and don’t worry, I’ll stay back and provide valuable tactical advisory.”

: “Maybe you could *help* me, Morte.”

: “I WILL be helping you. Good advice is hard to come by.”

: “I mean help in attacking the *corpse.*

Here’s the first evil option, which is to threaten Morte into joining our attack. It doesn’t accomplish anything besides sliding us closer to an evil alignment. Despite his protests Morte actually does join in the fight. In fact with a Strength of 12 and a DEX and CON at 16 he’s a better fighter then we are. But then again it’s not hard to be an improvement over garbage.

: “Time to introduce these corpses to the second death, then…”

: “Let’s go.”

Planescape: Torment features an overhauled and much improved version of the Infinity Engine created by BioWare for Baldur’s Gate.  All of the interface is stuff is nestled neatly in the bottom of screen, giving the actual game content a larger resolution, hence why everything looks bigger. Most of the heavy lifting for combat is preformed with this mini-menu we see in the middle of screen. Right-clicking anywhere brings it up and from it we can access all the spells we’ve memorized, gain immediate access to quick-inventory items, and switch to combat mode by clicking on this highlighted axe icon. This improved interface is so much better and much more elegent, which is why it’s never used in any of the other Infinity Engine games. So anyway we select the axe and attack that zombie down at the bottom of the screen. Our Strength is so bad though that we can’t hit it at all and so Morte ends up doing all the heavy lifting.

Damn this one didn’t have it. Okay there’s another one down there. Maybe he has the key.

*Three dead zombies later…*

Found it! Okay let’s give this place the laugh. There was a door at the other side of this room we couldn’t open before. Let’s see if this will work.

Success! We now have free-reign over the doors to the preparation room. Seriously, that key only works on this door. We’re not a thief and our skills are dedicated towards book-learning so if we encounter anymore locked doors we’re screwed. Stepping outside the preparation room immediately triggers another conversation with Morte. Chatty cutter ain’t he?

That’s a good point. When we first woke up Morte mentioned something about “Dusties” but who the hell are these people really?

: “They call themselves the ‘Dustment.’ You can’t miss ‘em: They have an obsession with black and rigor mortis of the face. They’re an addled bunch of ghoulish death-worshippers; they believe everybody should die… sooner better than later.”

You know, goths.

: “I’m confused… why do these Dustmen care if I escape?”

: “Weren’t you listening? I said the Dusties believe EVERYBODY’S got to die, sooner better than later. You think the corpses you’ve seen are happier in the dead book than out of it?”

The Dustmen are one of the main factions in the Planescape campaign setting. They’re all emo all the time because they believe this life has to be a fake life because it’s filled with things like pain and suffering and it doesn’t rain chocolate and gummy bears every second. They believe the only way to escape to the real, true life is to die. The only reason Dustmen all don’t up and kill all of themselves is because they feel they have a duty to ensure as many other people pass on to their True Life first. They also run this mortuary and probably aren’t to happy that one of their supposed dead is up and walking about. Anyway I think Morte said something about NOT killing zombies. How weird, doesn’t he know we’re in a fantasy RPG?

: “Before you said something about making sure I didn’t kill any *female* corpses. Why?”

: “Wh- are you *serious?* Look, chief, these dead chits are the last chance for a couple of hardy bashers like us. We need to be *chivalrous*… no hacking them up for keys, no lopping their arms off, things like that.”

: “Last chance? What are you *talking* about?”

Yeah. This is an Infinity Engine game. Romance options are mandatory.

: “Chief, THEY’RE dead, WE’RE dead… see where I’m going? Eh? Eh?”

: “You can’t be serious.”

: “Chief, we already got an opening line with these limping ladies. We’ve *all* died at least once: we’ll have something to talk about. They’ll appreciate men with our kind of death experience.”

: “Wait… didn’t you say before that I’m *not* dead?”

For an amnesiac The Nameless One has pretty good memory. His short term is great. Long term, not so much.

: “Look, chief. It’s obvious you’re still a little addled after your kiss with death, so I go two bits of advice for you: one, if you’ve got questions, *ask* me, all right?”

: “All right… if I have questions, I’ll ask you.”

The other addition to the Infinity Engine, that we never see again, is the ability to speak to our own party members. For example, at any point in the game we can stop and ask Morte for advice. He’ll always just give us a reminder on what it is we’re supposed to be doing.

: “Start a new one, then, chief. No loss. There’s plenty of parchment and ink around here to last you.”

: “Hmmm. All right. It couldn’t hurt… I’ll make a new one, then.”

*Updated my journal*

If you’re going to play this game, prepare to hear that a lot. The Nameless One has rekindled his love of obsessive note-taking. He’ll update his journal constantly, even in the middle of a conversation. Just bust out the notebook and write it down. And every time it happens you’ll hear “Updated my journal.” Certain very plot relevant conversations will have several updates in short succession. It just creates in my head a very amusing mental image and I wanted to share that with you, hopefully it will push out the pregnant spiders.

There is nothing of note in that room, just innocent zombies we promised Morte not to hurt. Up a head in the next week we can find some punching irons and 13 copper pieces. Another RPG convention subversion; copper, not gold, is the standard currency in Planescape: Torment. It’s not ground-breaking or anything, but it shows a little bit of thought, a realization that gold is always the currency in fantasy RPG’s.

This room also has this GIANT-ASS BOOK and an old guy sitting in a fantasy version of those carts the fatties ride around in at Wal-Mart. Let’s go talk to him.

Morte doesn’t want us to talk him. Well put on an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, Morte, because you’re not the boss of me now.

: “Look, rattling your bone-box with Dusties should be the LAST thing –”

Before Morte can finish his rant, the scribe begins coughing violently. After a moment or two, the coughing spell dies down, and the scribe’s breathing resumes its ragged wheeze.

: “And we * especially*  shouldn’t be swapping the chant with sick Dusties. C’mon, let’s leave. The quicker we give this place the laugh the bet –”

: “The weight of years hangs heavy upon me, Restless One.” He places down his quill. “…but I do not yet count deafness among my ailments.”

: “Restless One? Do you know me?”

: “Know you? I…” There is a trace of bitterness in the scribe’s voice as he speaks. “I have *never* known you, Restless One. No more than you have known yourself.” He is silent for a moment. “For you have forgotten, have you not?”

: “Who *are* you?”

This is Dhall, an incredibly old and decrepit githzerai who keeps this big book of records for all the deceased who have passed though here. The Nameless One is among them, several times in fact. But Dhall has been keeping this a secret from the rest of the Dusties, mostly out of a morbid sense of curiosity. We can ask him more about Dustmen beliefs, none of which are particularly interesting, but if you’re new to the planes and playing along with a copy you bought super cheap off Gog.com you should let him rattle on about True Death this and fake life that.

That’s… a lot of questions. You’ll see these massive walls of questions from time to time in this game, especially with plot-critical characters. The dialogue trees in the game can become pretty labyrinthine and it’s entirely possible to fall back across a line of dialogue you’ve already experience, creating these weird, disjointed conversations were both parties involved spend a lot of time repeating themselves.

: “Yes… your body was somewhere in the middle of the heap, sharing its fluids with the rest of the mountain of corpses.” Dhall breaks into another violent fit of coughing, finally catching his breath minuets later. “Your ‘seneschal’ Pharod was, as always, pleased to accept a few moldy coppers to dump the lot of you at the Mortuary gate.”

Hey, Pharod, that’s the guy we’re supposed to find. We should ask him about that.

: “Who is this Pharod?”

: “He is a… collector of the dead.” Dhall draws a ragged breath, then continues. “We have such people in our city that scavenge the bodies of those that have walked the path of True Death and bring them to us so that they may be interred properly.”

Basically there’s a whole economy of people who scavenge the city for people who have died and bring them here. Pharod’s one of the biggest names in the “collection” business.

: “Where can I find this Pharod?”

: “If events persist as they have, Restless One, you have a much greater chance of Pharod finding you and bringing you to us again before you find whatever ooze puddle he wallows in this time.”

: “Nevertheless, I must find him.”

In fact we’ve come by the Mortuary so often Dhall is actually getting pretty sick of it, no pun intended. Which is why Dhall hesitates to speak for a moment, and when he finally does he seems to do so reluctantly.

: “I do not know under which gutterstone Pharod lairs at the moment, but I imagine he can be found somewhere beyond the Mortuary gates, in the Hive. Perhaps someone there will know where you can find him.”

: “Doesn’t sound like you like Pharod much.”

That’s an understatement.

: “A knight of the post…” Dhall coughs. “…a thief. All Pharod brings to our walls comes stripped of a little less of their dignity than they possessed in life. Pharod takes whatever he may pry from their stiffening fingers.”

: “Did this Pharod take anything from *me?*”

Dhall pauses, considering.

: “Most likely. Are you missing anything… especially anything of value?” Voice dips as he frowns. “Not that Pharod would take exception to anything that wasn’t grafted to your body, and sometimes even that’s not enough to give his greedy mind pause.”

: “I am missing a journal.”

We can ask him where Pharod is in case you forgot (he doesn’t know) and create one of those dizzying conversation loops. Instead I’m going to ask Dhall how to get out of here.

Charisma is 14, I don’t know if that’s high enough. However Dhall does seem to have some idea our identity. Let’s see how much he knows.

: “Do you not know the woman’s corpse interred in the memorial hall below? I had thought that she had traveled with you in the past…” Dhall looks like is about to start coughing again, then catches his breath. “Am I mistaken?”

: “I know nothing about her.”

Dhall makes no response to this. He simply stares at you in silence.

: “Where can I find her?”

: “The northwest memorial hall on the floor below us. Check the biers there… her name should be on the memorial plagues. Maybe that will revive your memory.”

At this point I clicked on the wrong thing and broke the conversation chain, and we ended up repeating half of this conversation again for no reason.  Instead we just tell Dhall farewell.

The northern most room, which is the one that follows the one we were in with Dhall, doesn’t contain anything but a single zombie that’s just standing here.

Apparently he’s holding books, I mean duh obviously right. Choosing to examine the books we come across a page that was torn out featuring a list of corpses brought in, most of them by Pharod. All it does it confirm for us what Dhall said about Pharod’s grave robbing tendencies. There are however some strange discrepancies. For one thing one of the corpses bares a resemblance to a Mortuary zombie, and another used to belong to Pharod’s gang. It seems that Pharod is up to more then just robbing from the dead he brings in.

In the next room over we find this strange women doing dissection duties.

She doesn’t respond.

: “Eh… she’s a *tiefling*, chief. They got fiend blood in their veins, usually ’cause of some ancestor of theirs shared knickers with one demon or another. Makes some of ‘em addled in the head… and addled-looking too.”

Before 4th Edition when they became a unified race with shared features, tieflings were a catch-all for any person who had distant relations to fiends. They have random demonic features and no two are alike, some might have horns and tails, others would have forked tongues, and some look like normal people with just a faint sense of wrongness about them. There actually used to be a chart you could roll on to randomly generate tiefling features and they varied from cosmetic differences to daily spell-like abilities. Anyway she’s ignoring us so we’re going to have to resort to physical contact to get her attention.

This tiefling is deaf and horribly near sighted, along with having taloned hands. She thinks we’re a zombie, a mistake which can be forgiven.

: “You -” She clacks her taloned fingers together, then makes a strange motion with her hands. “Find THREAD and EM-balming juice, bring HERE, to Ei-Vene. Go – Go- Go.”

So now we’ve received our first quest. *Updated my journal*. We need to find this woman some embalming fluid and some thread and needle. Well actually we don’t have to help her out at all, but there’s some experience and a permanent increase to out hit points in it for us so it’s kind of worth it.

: “I think the dustie chit might be a bit short of hearing, chief. Let’s lay off, shall we?”

In the next room there’s this zombie. We can talk to him and quickly discover… he’s actually not a zombie at all.

: “Eh? Wut?”

: “You’re not a zombie! Who are you?”

The ‘zombie’ is trying to respond behind stitched lips; he has a peculiar half-frightened, half-angry expression.

: “Hoo YU? Wut yu wunt?”

: “I’m looking for a way out of here. Can you help me?”

A guy is disguised as a zombie for whatever reason, and this completely unfazes us. As it should, because trust me when I say we’ll see weirder shit.

: “Why shud I hulp yu?”

: “Maybe we could help each other out. What do you want in return?”

: “Uh need t’git a *key* fur me. Wunt iron key tuh embulmuh’s rum.”

: “All right. Where is this key?”

Hey I know this woman. Crazy old bat. I don’t even need a disguise to fool her.

Have to tap her to get her attention. By the way, watching and studying the movement of her hands is also a good idea. It stirs up some memory within the Nameless One, granting us a free XP bonus. This is the game teaching us about the game again. Now we know to explore all the dialogue trees thoroughly for little bonuses like this, instead of just plowing through them.  After watching her hands we can now get her attention.

*Gained Experience: 250*

*Gained Item: Key*

Tee-hee, the trusting fool. We go back to the not-zombie with the key to the embalming room.

: “Here’s that embalming room key you wanted.”

*Gained Experience: 250*

: “Now… how do I get out of here?”

: “Yu kin escape through portalz.” He waves his hands. “Phoof.”

: “Portals? What portals?”

: “Portalz…” The zombie waves around the area. “Portalz evereewheer.”

: “Can you show men one of these portals?”

Like I said, in Planescape: Torment there are many ways to accomplish one goal, and often the best solution is the one the least obvious one. Getting out of the Mortuary is our goal, and here is the least obvious solution. The not-zombie has given us directions on the location of a portal inside the Mortuary. Portals play a big role in the Planescape setting. Each plane is technically infinite in size, so the best way to get from one to another is to use the network of portals that honeycomb and connect all of the planes. However each portal needs a specific key to activate, which could be anything. The key to this portal is a bone charm we find on the third floor. As I said this is the least obvious solution, you don’t have to randomly decide to talk to this one zombie, you can find the portal on your own as well, but he makes it more clear. The most obvious way is just to fight everything, but doing so makes it possible to miss out on something very, very, important.

We can also ask the not-zombie to disguise us like him. It requires a jar of embalming fluid and some thread-and-needle. Turning us into a zombie makes us undetectable to the other Dustmen, but means we have to slug about at a snails pace. I choose not to for another reason.

In the next room (the one at the bottom of the map) we can find some embalming fluid, two in fact. Enough to give to the not-zombie and Ei-Vene for some sweet, sweet experience. There however isn’t enough thread-and-needle for the both of them. That means heading upstairs, to the Crematorium.

The Crematorium is the part where the Mortuary dungeon really comes alive. First up, let’s talk to this skeleton that’s just standing here for some fun times.

The skeleton makes no response. *Duh*. But when he finish talking to him all of a sudden Morte wants to talk to us.

: ” Hmmmm. Wonder if this graybeard would mind if *I* borrowed his body…?”

: “Graybeard?”

: “Graybeard… you know, geezer, old feller, yellow dog… old.”

: “Well, I don’t think he’s in any position to object. Why not take his body?”

Morte studies the skeleton for a moment, then shakes his head.

: “Nah… I’d need a fresher one than this. And something with a little more dignity… this one’s all creaky and fractured.”

: “And you’re not?”

We can actually end this conversation at any time. But egging Morte on is far too amusing.

: “Oh, you’re a sackfull of laughs.” Morte glares at you. “Besides, YOU’RE one to talk to, berk. Mirrors beg for mercy when you’re around.”

: “Oh yeah? At least *I* have all my parts.”

Morte is a master at cutting barbs and insults. So much so that it’s a special ability he uses to pull aggro. The Nameless One, not so much. If you’re ever in a battle of wits and have to resort to starting a sentence with “Oh yeah?’ you’ve already lost.

: “I’ll have you know that helping you escape the preparation room has now been to my growing list of regrets.” Morte snorts again. “I should have let you rot… some more, that is.”

: “Glad you feel that way. Let’s go.”

I like this little conversation. It’s why I showed it. I like this moments of the characters shooting the shit back and forth, and I like being able to be snarky with them without feeling like a meany later. Many other RPG’s with alignment mechanics give you evil or bad points for being mean and snarky with your companions. But here we’re allowed to have some fun with them at their own expense and still be a good guy. Ragnar Tørnquist, Drew Karpyshyn? Forget those guys. Chris Avelone is the true master at writing for games.

But there’s one more thing we can do with this skeleton.

If our strength is high enough, I believe over a 14, we can pull this skeleton, and any other skeleton apart. This, is genius. We can use our strength to defeat enemies in ways beyond the combat mechanics. Once again, the game uses the game to teach us about the game. Now we’ve learned that our ability scores aren’t just an abstract numerical representation of our combat abilities. They are actual representation of our incarnation’s strengths and weakness, and they give us real-world consequences for our build. I want to show you guys something.

Source: Altered Gamer

This is a character screen from Final Fantasy VIII. I’ll assume you’ve heard of it. Look at those fucking numbers. Squall’s HP is nearly 5,000, his strength is 103. What does that mean? What do those numbers represent? Outside of combat, where having bigger numbers means we do more damage to the enemy’s big health bars, how does any of this represent what Squall can do in the real world? Can he flip over a semi-truck? Or can he barely open a jar of mayonnaise? This is problem of gameplay/story segregation is compounded by Final Fantasy VII’s Junction system, a mechanic where you junction spells to abilities, something that is required to do so you can have the numerical superiority to beat the game’s bosses. But how does that work, how does Junctioning a Tornado spell to Squall even work, and why does that raise his strength? Meanwhile in Planescape: Torment  our strength is 9 and we can’t unscrew bolts by hand. Planescape: Torment gets some flack for falling too far on the story side of the story/gameplay dichotomy, but it actually does a better job of integrating its game mechanics into its story then any other game I’ve seen, to date. Meanwhile in Final Fantasy the stats are weird, metaphysical abstractions that only matter because they let us make bigger numbers fly out of an enemy when we hit them. Also note that no character in FF8 has an intelligence score. That explains a lot.

Anyway back to the game I actually like. We got spotted by a Dustmen because we weren’t crawling around at a snail’s pace pretending to be in Thriller.

Let’s be honest and see where that gets us.

: “I will summon a guard to direct you out. Hold on a moment.”

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. We can try to quickly grab him and snap his neck before he calls out, but our Dexterity is too low and we fail. Now we have to fight everyone in the Mortuary with a character not cut for physical violence. Ummmm…

*Reload*

: “If you’re not lost, what is your business here?”

: “I’m here to see someone.”

: “Who are you here to see?”

: “I’m here to see Dhall.”

Man these Dustmen are stupid. We’ve convinced this one to leave us alone but there are plenty of others who will approach us to momentthey see us. Using this exact same dialogue path we can get by without them raising the alarm.

We find the Needle-and-Thread we need to give to Ei-Vene or the not-zombie. This item can also be placed in the quick inventory of the Nameless One or Morte for some minor healing.

Over where we find some “junk”. This junk is massively important and we will hold on to it. Well we’ve got the thread and fluid. Let’s pay Ei-Vene a visit. But first.

This is the key to the lower level of the Mortuary. We need it to get to the portal out of here. I sent Morte to grab because I got tired of talking to the Dustmen and for some reason they see a floating skull ransacking their inventory and act like it’s another day at work.

*Gained Experience: 250*

Without missing a beat, Ei-Vene snaps the fluid from your hands and hooks it around one of her talons, the begins sewing up the corpse’s shut. She then takes the embalming fluid, and begins to apply a layer to the coprse.

: Wait.

Within minutes, she is finished. She clicks her talons, then turns to face you. To your surprise, she extends her hand and drags her talons along your arms and chest.

: “Looks like you have a new friend, chief. You two need some time together, or…?”

Her talons suddenly hook into the thread you brought her, and lighting-like, she jabs another talon into the skin near one of your scars. It feels barely more than a pin-prick, but it looks like she’s about to start stitching you up.

: “This may be the second time in my life I’m thankful I don’t have a nose.”

Don’t tell us what that first time was. Ei-Vene quickly finishes. As you can see from the picture above she has granted us a whopping total of “1″ to our total HP. This isn’t a temporary hit point either, it’s for life. By the way, another hint. There are other side-quests like this that will grant us permanent statistical benefits.

Anyway we head back to the preparation room and using the key Morte found, head down stairs. There, I remembered that we needed to bone charm to activate the portal and send Morte back up two flights of stairs to find it.

*Up and down four stairs later*

We have the charm and can now activate the portal. Following the not-zombie’s instructions we head northwest along the bottom floor and come across this altar.

Usually when a “?” appears next to the cursor, clicking displays some flavor text on the green describing in greater detail the terrain object. Standard Infinity Engine stuff. But clicking on the altar causes the Nameless One to approach it instead. An apparition of a woman in a fine dress appears.

: “You! What is it that brings *you* here? Have you come to see first-hand the misery you have wrought? Perhaps in death I still hold some shred of use for you…?” Her voice drops to a hiss. “… my Love?”

: “My Love? Do I know you?”

Wrong words man. Wrong, wrong, words.

: “Oh, at last the fates show mercy! Even death cannot chase me from your mind, my Love! Do you not see? Your memories shall return! Tell me how can I help you, and I shall!”

Hook and sinker. Deionarra is basically the kind of woman who falls in love with serial killers, and we can toy with her emotions to get the information we want. Wait, didn’t I say I was going to be a nice guy in this playthrough?

: “Do you know who I am?”

: “You are one both blessed and cursed, my Love. And you are one is who never far from my thoughts and heart.”

: “Blessed and cursed? What do you mean?”

 

 

Earlier I said that people who just run through the Mortuary killing everything are likely to miss something important, this is it. Deionarra is a massive plot dump and we learn a tiny inkling into the nature of our unusual protagonist. We can also get a pretty useful special ability from all this. The back door route takes us close to Deionarra’s memorial altar, and this was no accident in the design. Being smart and slowing down to pay attention in this game brings us great rewards.

: “I know you once claimed you loved me and that you would love me until death claimed us both. I believed that, never knowing the truth of who you were, what you were.”

: “And what am I?”

: “You… I… cannot.” She suddenly freezes, and she speaks slowly, carefully, as if her voice frightens her. “The truth is this; you are one who dies many deaths. These deaths have given the knowing of all things mortal, and in your hands lies the spark of life… and death. Those that die near you carry a trace of themselves that you can bring forth…”

And you know Deionarra is *right*. You suddenly remember how to coax the dimmest spark of life from a body, and bring it forth… the thought both horrifies you and intrigues you.

This is the payoff. Now, for three times a day, we can snatch any of our companions out of the dead book after they drop to 0 hit points. This is old school D&D, need I remind you. None of this unconscious at 0 until your negative hit points equals your Con score crap. You hit zero and you’re dead. This ability allows us to somewhat negate the brutal and unforgiving nature of the Infinity Engine. Players of Baldur’s Gate would have killed for this.

We can still grill Deionarra for more info though. It all turns into learning how to escape, in which she gives us the same info as the not-zombie, so I’m not going to show it. This kind of over-writing is necessary in a game like this. That zombie was completely unassuming, we had no reason at all to talk to him like we did. This is for the benefit of players who didn’t speak to him. And if you’ve already grabbed the bone charm, because it’s a useful item in its own right, then good for you, you just saved yourself more hassle. When we say goodbye to Deionarra, this happens.

: “Time itself relaxes its hold as the chill of oblivion slowly claims us, my Love. Glimpses of things yet to come swarm my vision. I see you, my Love. I see you as you are now, and…” Deionarra grows quiet.

: “What is it? What do you see?”

: “I see what lies ahead for you. It ripples through the planes, stemming outward from this point. Shall I speak of what I see?”

: “Tell me.”

 

 

I am not a “No Spoilers” type person. Bring me the future.

: “First, I require a promise. Promise you will return. That you will find some means to save me or join me.”

Oh you clingy bitch.

Make Vow: “I swear I will find some means to save you or join you.”

: “This is what my eyes see, my Love, unfettered by the shackles of time…” “You shall meet enemies, three, but none more dangerous than yourself in your full glory. They are shades of evil, of good, and of neutrality, given life and twisted by the laws of the planes. You shall come to a prison built of regrets and sorrow, where the shadows themselves have gone made. There you will be asked to make a terrible sacrifice, my Love. For the matter to be laid to rest, you must destroy that which keeps you alive and be immortal no longer.”

Write all this down. It will be on the test later.

: “Destroy what keeps me alive?”

: “I know that you must die… while you still can. The circle *must* come to a close, my Love. You were not meant for this life. You must find that which was taken from you and travel beyond, into the lands of the dead.”

: “Die while I still can?”

: “I do not truly know. Except that it has gone on long enough.”

: “Farewell, Deionarra.”

: “I shall wait for you in death’s halls, my Love. She smiles, but there is only sadness in it. She closes her eyes, and with an ethereal whisper, she fades.

 

Well that was a load of cryptic nonsense. And you can bet that every single word of it is going to happen. After all that Morte feels left out.

: “You back with me, chief? You kind of drifted out on me there.”

: “No, I’m fine. Do you know who that spirit was?”

: “Eh? Spirit?”

: “That specter I was talking to. The woman.”

 

 

Along with bringing people back to life, the Nameless One can also see dead people.

What a tweest.

” You were rattling your bone-box with some woman? Where?” Morte looks around, excited. “What did she look like?”

: “She was right on top of the bier. Didn’t you see her?”

: “Eh… no, you just kind of drifted out for a bit there, just stood there, statue-like. I was a little worried you’d gone addled on me again.”

: “No, I’m fine… I think. Let’s move on.”

And here is the portal. We have beaten the tutorial dungeon. I hopped you found this first chapter enjoyable. Because it only gets better from here.

And it gets no easier, either.

In my spare time, which I have oddles of seeing that college only prepares you for a career, not unemployment, I have been writing a campaign for D&D. This is something I’ve actually never done before, which is odd in retrospect. The reason I like video games is because they are an exciting way to deliver an interactive narrative, but that’s not really true. In fact if we really want to have a truly interactive narrative then video games, by their very nature, are pretty limited.  This is something a lot of both game fans and game designers underestimate. I’m sure going into Mass Effect 3 BioWare envisioned a grandiose, sprawling narrative that would branch into hundreds of uniquely tailored endings, only to realize that there’s basically no way they can code, render, animate, model, texture, write, and voice act all that. Meanwhile marketing doesn’t get the memo and continue doing their job, lying about the product so people will buy it. But on pen-and-paper, where the only limit is the collective imagination of a group (plus the game rules) we really can do a story that’s completely and wholly interactive. Where players can make any kind of character they want, not having to decide between a nice guy or a bad guy.

So yes I’ve been having a lot of fun writing my campaign, and it’s given me a chance to reflect on the nature of writing an interactive story. There’s a quote I like from The Art and Making of Star Wars: The Old Republic about writing in games versus other media that goes something like this: Writing for theater is expressionism, writing for movies is realism, and writing for games is cubism. You have to be able to take it apart and look at it from all the angles. I’ve discovered that that’s very true, writing an interactive narrartive is a lot trickier because you can’t just ask yourself “What would my character do” you have to consider what other people would do. This forces you to write three or five different scenarios, and for a tabeltop RPG, while giving yourself enough wiggle room to improvise once your players do something completely unexpected, which they will. That for me hasn’t been a problem, I’m good at improvising and I understand that as a DM I’m not telling a story, I’m facilitating the story of someone else. What I did learn about writing this was how to use themes to tie all the different modules and adventures together, so they feel like a cohesive story and not a bunch of stuff that happens.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its HBO adaptation Game of Thrones. I’m sure you’re also familiar with how it has a million plots going on at once, and yet it somehow manages to still read like a story. What makes it A Song of Ice and Fire and not A Song of a Bunch of Stuff That Happens. Well there’s two tricks, the first is that most of the plots do tie in and influence one another, but the other is way Martin uses a solid core of a few select themes to tie all these scenes and plots together. The most obvious one is power, and in every scene in the TV show you can see how power is used, who has it, who doesn’t have it. Who gains power, usurps it, wields it, and how our expectations of who should and should not have power get subverted. Or even look at The Hunger Games. There’s a reason why it’s called that, and it has something to do with the fact that there are at least five references to food on nearly every page of that book. Part of the reason those books are so good is because of how well crafted they are, how deliberate their writing is.

I’ve applied that same deliberance to my own campaign. I decided very early on, before I started writing modules, that there were going to be at the very least three themes that should be explored in each adventure, to ensure that there is a constant tone that glues these different scenes into a cohesive narrative, one that can survive players making their own decisions and driving the narrative forward. This is hard, but it’s not impossible. Like I said, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Hunger Games were deliberately written, I just have to be even more deliberate.

This is where I want to steer the topic to the matter of why so many games have bad writing. I’ve even argued with someone who was convinced that the interactive nature of games made trying to use them to tell a story impossible, it just couldn’t be done. I was not convinced but that at all, I’ve already written on here previously why I think Mask of the Betrayer has the best story in a video game. It’s because that game had three, very deliberate themes that were explored in very single scene and module. Hell they actually hired a guy whose job it was to go through and make sure that everything included in the game matched those themes, if they didn’t, they were reworked or removed. This is also the reason why I’m LP’ing Planescape: Torment (the first real update will be out later this week), because nearly everything included in that game deals with the theme of torment in some way. What can change the nature of a man isn’t just a way to beat the very definite final boss, it’s what the whole things is about and every scene explores a possible answer to that question. Even if you don’t realize the game is doing that, you have to admit that there is still something at work keeping the story cohesive, how the writers are able to make a linear story out of a non-linear experience.

Games whose stories fall flat simply don’t do this. There are many reasons why but usually it’s because game designers don’t take college level creative writing classes (like I did) while getting their game design or computer science degrees. For example the desingers behind the Uncharted series have admitted that they first decide what set pieces they want their game to explore, and then go back and write a narrative tying them together after the fact. This is not a good way to write a story and while it explains why all of the Uncharted games have flat, uncompelling narratives and characters, it doesn’t explain the strangely specific ways they repeat themselves. Like their habit of introducing a side-kick who gets tons of depth and character development only to wholly disappear from the story half-way through. Or the way each game introduces a potential love interest for Nathan Drake only for him to always wind up with the same blonde chick at the end. I think we can just chalk those up to laziness.

Ah there’s the crux of the matter, laziness is what kills more game stories than anything else. It’s not that games make it impossible to write good stories, it’s that people who write for games are interested in putting in the effort to make the stories good. Sometimes, like in Skyrim they don’t even realize they’re using themes that sabotage their own narrative. Remember how some people got mad that they couldn’t kill kids in Skyrim and Bethesda defended their decision to disallow the murder of children because they wanted to make sure their game had a cohesive tone the whole time. After all in Skyrim you’re a hero, you save the world from an evil black dragon. Except, if I’m supposed to be a hero, why does so much of the game’s side content deal with me killing people for obviously evil forces for no other reason then because they tell me to? In Skyrim there is a side-quest for every one of the Daedric Princes, and about 95% of them are evil. Openly, unquestioningly evil. And they make you preform acts of evil for the promise of material reward. This is not heroic behavior people. Hell even the main quest is dubious at best, since even an evil person can recognize that stopping the dragons from destroying the world is basic self-preservation. Honestly at this point not being able to kill children creates more of a tonal dissonance than killing them.

By the way Bioshock explores this is exact same thing, only Bioshock was aware of the fact it was a game about killing people for no other reason then because someone told you to.

I’ve always wanted to do an LP. And I always wanted to host it on this blog, if for no other reason then to give me a reason to actual update this thing on a regular basis and not my current “whenever I feel like/remember it’s here” approach I have right now. But I’ve been stuck for a long time on deciding all the possible elements of style I want to do. Do I want to do a video or text based one? Do I want to do a comic relief idiot LP or an informative one? Do I want to play a game I hate or a game I love? Should I play a game I’ve never heard of or played before, or a game I know so well I can play it in my sleep (and occasionally wake up to discover that’s what I’ve been doing.) I gave it a lot of thought and decided that I’m actually really over the whole caustic critic and angry, rage-filled nerd thing. That inside me  I’m more passionate and excited about something I love over something I hate. On top that while it’s possible to enjoy a bad movie, there are actually very few games that posses an “it’s so bad it’s good” quality to them. The fact that games are interactive means you can’t just sit back and laugh at the terribleness, you have to be engaged and that means putting up with sluggish controls, broken gameplay, and frustratingly brainless AI. I’m neither a sadist nor a glutton for punishment, so if I’m going to subject hours of my life playing a game, recording footage of screenshots of it, and delivering my experience in an enjoyable fashion, it damn skippy be something I actual like. And unless you have some kind of rare mental condition that creates an intense inability to read blog titles, you already know the game I decided on so without further ado I give you my favorite game of all time; Planescape: Torment.

You may have heard of Planescape: Torment. You may have heard of the small but passionate cult following it attracted it declaring it to be the pinnacle of story-telling in an interactive format. You may even be one of those people. If you’re not one of those people, then this is for you. Planescape: Torment is set in the unfathomably awesome Planescape setting, the last official published campaign setting by TSR for old school AD&D back in the dawn of time (circa 1993). It’s an awesome and outlandish setting brought to life by increadible art work by Tony DiTerlizzi (click his name for his website) and intelligent, philisophical and through-provoking themes and ideas that created a capital “M” mature world for a game that is usually about slaying unquestioningly evil necromancers.

Any PC gamer worth his salt better know this one. Black Isle was a big name back in the 90′s and was responsible for a little title I’m sure you’ve heard of called Fallout. They worked closely with the cRPG titan BioWare to create several D&D games using the Infinity Engine. They were also a subsidiary of Interplay, another oldschool publishing giant that sputtered and died out in 2003, with Black Isle being one of those unfortunate enough to get caught up in Interplay’s death spasms. You can find many of it’s key figures today working at Obsidian, another cRPG company that tends to get looked over by BioWare and Bethesda.

It may have been out of print for two decades now, but this is still the system that many a veteran at the table top swears by to this day. AD&D is the longest running iteration of D&D, having a wealth of awesome support by the now long defunct TSR, and the second edition alone had half a dozen awesome campaign settings, including Planescape and Dark Sun. Because of it’s long run AD&D supports a lot of rules and mechanics that are horribly out of date, such as randomly generated character statistics, critical fails, and a lack of any kind of unified game mechanic. Planescape: Torment uses AD&D’s second edition as a basis for its rules, and while the computer will handle most of the work for us behind a digital DM’s screen, to those new to the hobby and uninitiated in the old ways we will see a couple of things that don’t make any sense like negative Armor Class being a good thing and something called THAC0.

You’ve said a lot here, but you haven’t said a damn about what this game is about.

Oh right, sorry about that. We’re going to be playing as a horribly scarred, dreadlocked, cave-man looking amnesiac who also happens to be immortal. The entire game revolves around this mystery and we’ll be piecing together the life of our nameless protagonist to discover the truth of his curse. There is no evil bad guy to beat, instead it is an introspective journey of one very unusual man. Imagine if Memento were a video game, only we have the power to eventually will people out of existence.

That sounds cool, but what makes this game so special?

Planescape: Torment follows the tradition of it’s setting by tracking down every single tired, cliched, convention about fantasy RPG’s and buries them 50 feet in the Arizona desert. There are no elves, dwarfs, wizards, or dragons. Our protagonist is an ugly-looking brute instead of a mopey, pretty-boy, there are no swords or conventional fantasy weapons of any sort, we use magic tattoos instead of armor, and the most important stat is the one that has no mechanical combat benefit what so ever. Speaking of combat there’s hardly any, our nature as an immortal means we can never actual die, and it has mountains of dialogue that pose more of a threat than any fight will ever be.

This all makes Planescape: Torment a very divisive game, if you ask someone who loves Torment to make a list of all the things they love about this game, and ask another person who hates it to make a list of all the reasons why they hate it, you’ll find yourself with two copies of the same list. Torment never sold all that well when it came out, because it went against the dungeon-crawling celebration of clicking known as Diablo II.

This is still an Infinity Engine game, so will there be companions/romances?

Hell yes there are companions and they are all awesome.

- Morte: A floating, wise-cracking skull is our first companion. Somehow manages to be the most normal of the bunch.

- Dak’kon: This githzerai zerth is a long way from home and can’t go back. We can play storytime with him to get new spells.

- Annah-of-the-Shadows: Our first romanceable companion is a fiery tiefling gutter-rat with a horrible attitude and OH GOD THAT ACCENT.

- Ignus: This wizard bit off more than he could chew and is now condemned to being a living conduit to the elemental plane of fire. Naturally only casts fire spells.

- Fall-From-Grace: The second romanceable companion is a chaste Lawful Neutral succubus. Is the only priest in the whole game.

- Nordom: A bat-shit insane robot/tv monitor. We’ll already have one Fighter/Thief by the time we get to him but we’ll keep him around because he’s voiced by Dan Castellaneta.

- Vhailor: This guy is so dedicated to justice that he doesn’t’ let a little thing like death keep him down. The beefiest fighter in the whole game is a pain to get to and oddly enough makes the ending harder.

So yeah, let’s talk about this.

Gaming, what the hell happened to you? I thought that as technology would get better games would get better. I mean, on some level they have. Games today are pretty amazing and only the most mindlessly nostalgic and retro of players would ever argue that we should just give up all the graphical, narrative, and gameplay innovations that have been invented in the past 30 years and go back to the 8-bit era. But what has gotten worse is our ability to access and play games on our own time. It used to be that you could only watch your favorite TV shows when the networks wanted you to. Now I can stream instantly all of my favorite shows from a variety of different websites. It used to be you could only listen to the music you liked in your home. Now I can take my entire library with me whenever I want. But with games, it used to be I could sit down and play any single player game whenever I wanted, now I can only do it when a completely different computer I have no control over feels like it.

Let me address the most common argument in favor of this. Pirates have been kicking developer ass ever since the dawn of PC games. Remember Looking Glass Studios? They made the awesome  Thief games. Well you’re not going to find them today, LGS closed down because too many people played their fantastic games without paying for them. Today investments for a standard AAA game can be in the tens of millions. That’s the sort of money that no one is willing to part with unless they have anything but 120% certainty that  isn’t going up into a cloud of smoke. As far as DRM’s go, having to have a constant Internet access is less intrusive and less “let’s punish the people who bought this as well” than other DRM’s have been in the past. The problem with demanding constant Internet access to play a single player game is simple: we are putting more and more of our entertainment technology into the same basket. And if something ever happens to that basket, which this basket is known to do, then we lose everything.

 There is a kind of longevity to a game that is lost under this system. For some games it’s true that once we finish them we almost never pick them back up again, but once in a while there comes that one rare game that you do want to play over and over again just because you enjoy it so much. There’s a popular saying that holds true which goes; “Every time Deus Ex is mentioned on a forum, someone will reinstall it.” Right now I can go back and install the original Diablo and nostalgia bomb on the good old days of whacking skeletons in a gothic  labyrinth, and nothing beyond Windows compatibility issues can stop me. But honestly how much do you want to bet I will be able to do the same in 15 years time with Diablo III? Unless Blizzard is foresighted and nice enough to disable this feature in the future, once they decide they can no longer support the costs of running the servers for a game hardly anyone plays anymore, that’s all she wrote folks. Your future self’s sudden pang of nostalgia for Diablo III will just be met by a sad slap to the face as Blizzard says “Sorry, not enough people are playing the multiplayer mode so you can’t play your single player mode.”

Finally I want to talk to developers here, because ultimately running a constant Internet connection for a single player game is bad for you too. I mean first of all it’s bad for consumers and anyone with half a brain enough to remember Econ 101 should know that if something is bad for the consumers it’s bad for the company. But as I hinted at in the previous paragraph, this kind of DRM is kind of cost prohibitive. Yes I understand that Diablo III has a multiplayer mode anyway, so having those servers was going to happen no matter what. But a big contributor game’s failure to deliver the instant it went live was that everyone, even the people who had no interest in the multiplayer had to join in on the server flood which ruined the game for everyone. A server flood so bad that not only is it fucking things up for Diablo III players but also for people playing other Blizzard games. You see not only has Blizzard put all of their games in the internet basket, but they are also all in the Battle.net basket.

But let’s say for a second you aren’t Blizzard, but you’re another company who is doing this for a game that has no multiplayer mode at all like Assassin’s Creed 2 just to throw a random title out there. This is a completely unnecessary cost for your company that does nothing but harm the people who actually paid for your game. Assassin’s Creed 2′s DRM prevented only a week of online piracy, but after that you made piracy the more attractive option because now the pirated version of the game doesn’t require permanent online access, so it’s less of a pain in the butt for the player. And again you have the issue of losing longevity. The instant you decide that the servers aren’t worth it, all the people who bought your game can never play it again, but the people who pirated it, they can play it forever.

I wasn’t there for Diablo III’s spectacular failure at launch, I was not one of the millions who pre-ordered it and sat patiently for 12 years waiting for the moment Blizzard would tell them “Too many people are using Battle.net so you have to wait even longer.” It’s been two days and I still haven’t bought it, and I don’t know if I want to buy it. Our purchasing power as consumers is the only effective tool we have to send messages to companies, and frankly I really don’t want this to be the future of games. There’s no point in even waiting for it to go down in price, Starcraft II came out two years ago and it’s still going at its full retail price. But I do know that unless Blizzard changes it’s policy on this issue, every time I see that box for Diablo III I’m just going to think “Sorry son, it just ain’t worth it.”

God of War 4? God No!

So there’s speculation as to whether or not Sony is going to release another God of War game. I hope not.

Let me explain where I’m coming from for a second. Now I liked the original God of War. It was a modern interpretation of the formula of the Greek tragedy, spliced up with tons of unnecessary violence for today’s jaded video game playing man-children. It told the story of a kill crazy avatar of Ares named Kratos, who vowed to give his life to the god of war if he would save him from defeat. Kratos is eventually tricked by Ares into killing his family (tricked here means that Ares tells Kratos to kill a whole temple and Kratos blindly obeys). Already we have an established Greek tragedy trope, the hero is always punished for their actions, even if they were deceived or didn’t know better at the time. Then Kratos swears vengeance on Ares but only gets a chance to act on that vow when Ares decides to stop following the rules of the other gods, and so Athena gives Kratos the blessing to gather enough power to kill Ares. In the end Kratos is given the vacant seat for the god of war and we are shown he thus watched over mankind killing itself forever more.

It was a really good if rather silly story that hit all the right marks and had a very decent character arc. Kratos learned something about who he was, fought his own inner demons and reached a moment of apotheosis where he became an immortal god. So you can probably expect I was none to happy when sequels were made that they scrapped whatever character growth Kratos got, retconned the epilogue so it never happened, and turned Kratos back into an abusive asshole. An asshole who was so abusive that Zeus had to personally step in and strip Kratos of his godhood because he was doing such a horrible job of it.

Then everything goes down hill from there.

For the next two games Kratos is shown to have lost all semblance of depth and nuance and shows he posses the emotional maturity of a two year old throwing a perpetual tantrum. His entire motivation for the next to games is to get revenge on the entire Greek pantheon, even though all Zeus did was give him a just punishment for abusing his powers of being the god of war to just let the Spartans win every battle they fight. I mean I guess Zeus did trick him, but here tricking just means that Zeus tells Kratos to use a sword that will drain him of all his god powers, and then Kratos does it. So not only is Kratos’ motivation completely piss poor, but he literally has no one to blame for this situation but himself. The worst part is that God of War III shows us that killing the Greek gods ultimately destroys the world, and Kratos doesn’t even care. He literally does not have the intellectual or emotional capacity to think about anyone elses’ needs for a split second. All he cares about is getting revenge for a punishment he deserved.

In the first God of War Kratos was shown to be generally remorseful for his actions, and occasionally showed a glimmer of regret when people would run away screaming from him, calling him a monster. There were even a few scenes in that game were Kratos managed to go an entire conversation without decapitating anyone. Then in the second game after getting Prometheus to help him Kratos just kills the guy instead of releasing him. You’d think Kratos would show some sympathy or relate to another person who was on the receiving end of one of Zeus’ punishments, but nope. Kratos just kills the guy for no reason, and the game makes you do that.

Actually my favorite God of War game is the PSP spinoff Chains of Olympus. Mostly because Chains of Olympus is a prequel and therefore doesn’t have to retcon a perfectly good ending in order to exist. But also because it has one of the most heartbreaking moments in any video game ever. Near the end of Chains of Olympus Kratos comes to Elysium, the good part of the Greek underworld. There he is able to give up his vengeance, give up his curse, and live forever in Paradise with his daughter. Except that’s what the goddess Persephone wants. You see she got tired of being married to Hades and having to spend half of her life in the underworld, so she’s going to take vengeance of Zeus who put her in this position by releasing a Titan to destroy the world. Kratos is the only one who can stop her, but to do so he would have to give up everything he’s ever wanted, and become the monster known as the Ghost of Sparta all over again.

So he does.

And the game makes you do it. “Mash X to Push Your Daughter Away Forever”. They could have just shown that in a cut scene. But no, the most important character defining moment of the game happens in the gameplay, and I loved every second of it. For the first time in a long time, Kratos become a real character. Not some one dimensional mass murder, but an actual person capable of putting the needs of others ahead of his own wants.

Of course the Kratos in the God of War sequels, as I’ve demonstrated above, would never do that. He’s incapable of doing that. God of War II and III destroyed the character of Krators for me, they retconed all the growth and depth in favor of cashing in on a popular title. And people loved it. I’ve had so many people react with shock when I tell them that I hate God of War II. I bought the PS3 high definition pack and I returned it half way through the second game because I was so furious with it.

But at least God of War III brought real closure at last right? Kratos kills all the gods and destroys the world. You can’t continue a story set in a universe that’s destroyed. I mean you completely ruined the game already Sony, are you really going to do it again? Who am I kidding, of course you will, but that doesn’t mean we should like it.

Look obviously we can’t stop Sony from doing this, but we don’t have to support it. There’s this attitude amongst gamers that if you are a fan of something we have to support everything in it no matter what. That’s crap. We should celebrate the fact that BioWare has actually decided to end the Mass Effect franchise after three games, we don’t need a plethora of spin off crap exploring every minutia of background details from the games’ codex, doing so means you wind up with something like the Star Wars expanded universe and no one wants that. I know I said in my last post that I’ve bought every single major Assassin’s Creed release but that’s only because so far every game was good, every game contributed to the story and every game expanded the characters in some way. They didn’t have to retcon a perfectly good ending and destroy a compelling character to make a quick buck.

Hopefully this also just a bunch of meaningless speculation and nothing will come of it. Kratos is dead, greed and blindness to decent storytelling has reduced him to a joke, a cruel example of what happens when a fanboy’s relentless desire for more experiences overwhelms the desire for that experience to be good, or even meaingful. The Kratos in the first God of War and Chains of Olympus is a compelling character with a strong arc. Kratos in II and III is a monster who ruins every accomplishment in the titles preceding him, not just in the ruination of his character, but in his crowning achievements. The whole of the first game is built around getting enough power to kill one god, in III Kratos rips off Helio’s head because he needs a lantern. He may as well have jumped a jet ski over a shark.

I don’t want anything more to do with this series, and if you have any respect for artist integrity, neither should you.

I haven’t brought this up before but I’m actually a pretty big Assassin’s Creed fan. I loved the original game even with all it’s warts. It’s just that it was the first time I played a game were the protagonist had a real, well defined arc and discussed genuinely interesting ideas without spoon feeding it to you like you’re an idiot. The bad guys had good reasons for what they were doing and the good guys were freaking assassins. It draped history with conspiracy in a way that was intelligently thought out and not because it’s the result of a loon who replaced their brain with the extended cut of the X-Files complete series DVD box set. I’ve religiously bought every release in the main series (but not the hand-held spin offs) and I’m super excited for the release of the fifth and final installment which is unironically calling itself Assassin’s Creed III.

But I’m actually not here to talk about the fifth and final game. I’m here to talk about the discussion of its setting. From the beginning there has been speculation about which historic period the next game would take place, and inevitably 17th century Japan was raised by some fans. After all it makes sense right, you have the political intrigue, civil upheaval, and tons and tons of assassinations going on. And ultimately that’s what Assassin’s Creed is all about, being a sneaky assassin and killing people right?

Well that’s not precisely accurate.

The titular assassin’s of Assassin’s Creed kill not for money or in service to a particular lord, but because of their ideology. They locked in a secret war that spans multiple centuries and countries with another secret society that wishes to dominate and control the affairs of people everywhere through the use of powerful artifacts from a lost First Civilization known as the Pieces of Eden. The problem facing a Japanese setting for the game is that it doesn’t really fit any of that, where as moving the franchise to America in the 1750′s-1790′s makes far more sense.

The problem with Japan is that it’s very distant and isolated from the rest of the world, and the people who have governed Japan have for hundreds of years tried to keep it that way. Assassin’s Creed games are always set at the crossroads of history, where many cultures are meeting at once, and where violence and conflict become inevitable. It’s these key points in global history that set a backdrop for a secret ideological war for the future of human kind are set. Japan doesn’t have that. It has the intrigue but they are between rival shoguns intent on their own power. This isn’t like the crusades, the Renaissance, or the War of Independence, where many different people from all over the world where coming together and were the battles were fought over loftier ideals than power.

The other problem is trying to force the mythology of the main series into that one specific setting. It would take massive leaps of coincidence and authorial fiat to give Desmond a Japanese ancestor, given how isolated and xenophobic Japan has been until very recently. It wasn’t until the later part of the 19th century that Japan opened up to the West, and then it was by force. And Japan didn’t really play a significant part in global history until WW2 and Ubisoft has specifically said from the beginning they were taking WW2 off their list of potential locations for future Assassin’s Creed games given how over saturated the industry is with WW2. There’s also the problem of trying to explain what the Templars and the Assassin’s would be doing there. Japan is very far away from Europe and the Middle-East and an oceanic voyage around Africa and across the Indian ocean would take the better part of a year. And again I have to keep going back to just how famously hostile they were to outsiders, so even if the Templars tried to gain a foothold in Japan they m0st likely would be unable to succeed.  And finally as I pointed out earlier the Assassins wouldn’t be interested in killing for the honor and duty of a specific shogun, they have more important and loftier ideals to kill for then the squabbling of some feudal lord in a country that is figuratively at the end of the Earth. I’m not saying a game where you get to play in a realistic depiction of a 17th century Japanese assassin wouldn’t work, it just wouldn’t work within the context of the Assassin’s Creed mythology.

But the American Revolution is the perfect setting for the next Assassin’s Creed game. We have both the temporal and geographic distance from Ezio Auditore for the series to be fresh again, but not so far that we end up in alien territory. We also see Desmond’s lineage moving towards America, and let’s face it, it’s far more plausible for Desmond to have some Native American ancestor in his genealogy, which most Americans do, than a Japanese ancestor, which is highly unlikely. And finally we have the whole crossroads of history and clash of cultures that is both iconic and necessary for the series. You have the birth of a new nation, you have the influx of immigrants from all over Europe, you have the British, French, and Spanish interests in the New World, and you have all the aboriginal cultures in their prime before they were crushed by the onslaught of manifest destiny.

And you know what else, which is probably the best point I can make here, the American Revolution has never been done before. We’ve seen Japan in so many games, and Japanese culture itself is a huge part of the overall gamer culture. How many games that weren’t RTS were set in the American Revolution? None. In fact it’s square in the middle of this weird part of history were firearms were so bad that no one wants to make games about them. Darkest of Days tried to make a game about fighting with realistic Civil War rifles, and even then it still had to spice things up with rocket launchers and assault rifles, apparently saying that since historians didn’t look to closely at this part of the Battle of Antietam as long as the Union wins and the Confederates lose, go nuts.

Anyone could make a game in feudal Japan, but only Assassin’s Creed could do a game in the American Revolution.

In Defense of BioWare

I want to say something about fans. Actually I’m going to let someone else say something about fans because he said far more elegantly than I ever could.

“Fans are clingy, complaining dipshits who will never, ever be grateful for any concession you make. The moment you shut out their shrill tremulous voices the happier you’ll be for it.”

This sentiment basically sums up the way fans have reacted to final installment of what is probably the greatest science-fiction story of our generation and definitely the most ambitious video game project ever undertaken. You have a massive company filled with some of the most creative and talented people in the industry pouring their lives into a project that took over half a decade to complete, and the fan reaction is to angrily throw it back into their faces and demand a mulligan, free of charge. This is insulting and it’s made me think twice about my decision to enter the industry, if the reward for my effort is to be told to do it again on my time and my dime.

By now you can probably guess I’m talking about the ridiculously over blown backlash against Mass Effect 3 that most of the Internet I frequent has jumped onto as their new bandwagon of choice. Frankly I’m kind of disgusted and ashamed by it, not because of their opinions, because having an opinion even if I disagree with is perfectly fine, but the petty, entitled way the fans have decided to go about it is just shameful. Now personally I didn’t have a problem with the way Mass Effect 3 ended, I think it’s a good ending, it might even be a brilliant ending, but even if I didn’t like it, that still wouldn’t invalidate all the fun I had with it up to that point. Tali would still be my favorite character, Garrus would still be hilariously awesome, and the sight of the massive Reaper getting curb stomped by the mother of all thresher maws would still have been awe-inspiring.  We are looking at a masterpiece of the medium, a glimpse of the heights games can achieve, and I for one am going to take a stand in favor of it.

First of all Mass Effect 3 has a good ending. Most of the complaints I’ve seen don’t make any kind of sense to me, and it seems to be that people are confused and angry and aren’t really asking themselves the question I did once I finished the game: “What is BioWare doing here?” First of all it should come to no one’s surprise that Mass Effect 3 is the ending to Mass Effect. I can’t count the number of times BioWare promised/warned us about this. Maybe we just didn’t believe it. After all remember when Halo 3 was going to be the last Halo game? Or when Metal Gear Solid 4 was going to be last the Metal Gear game? We’ve been promised endings to popular IPs that never come for so long I don’t think it’s truly sunk in yet that Mass Effect is over. This is why I hear so many people saying that Mass Effect 3 has ruined the franchise, this complaint is total nonsense. Mass Effect 3 ended the franchise, which is exactly what BioWare promised they would do. If a man asks if it’s okay to punch you in the face and you say it’s okay, do you then get mad at him for punching you in the face?

Then there’s the complaint I hear that the ending didn’t bring closure to the series. This is also total nonsense and as Penny Arcade argued on last Monday, Mass Effect 3 is the ending to the Mass Effect story, that the ending isn’t when you beam up onto the Citadel or get asked to choose between a red explosion, a green explosion, or a blue explosion. The ending starts when the Reapers show up and blow up Vancouver. And honestly there’s so much closure throughout this game it’s insane how much effort they put into it, there are scenes that probably cost them thousands of dollars that you’ll never see because of a decision you made in another game. In my story I won Tali back her homeworld while Legion sacrificed himself to end the war between his kind and his creators. I helped Miranda put her past and her father behind her for good. I watched Jack turn from a violent criminal into a responsible teacher. I ended the Genophage and gave hope to the krogan, united under my buddy Wrex. Liara gave me a gift that I don’t understand but knew that it meant the end of our friendship. Ashley became the second human Spectre and saved the Council from a traitor. Everyone of these is an ending to a story that started a game or two ago so how can you say there is no closure to the series? Then there’s that final, controversial decision at the end, and each one will change the Mass Effect universe in a completely different way that it would functionally impossible to continue the story. I don’t know about you but that’s what I call closure.

Mass Effect is a trilogy because it’s a three-act story. Functionally each game isn’t its own separate story, but an act in a much larger story. Each installment neatly fits into the three act structure. In the first game the threat of the Reapers is discovered and the dramatic question: Can Sheppard stop the Reapers, is posed. In the second game you go around collecting all the tools and forming the bonds that will be needed to answer the question, which is what is supposed to happen in the second act. And finally the third act is where all the events of the second act play out and the dramatic question (can Sheppard stop the Reapers) is answered. If Mass Effect was going to have a bad ending, it’s one where the answer to the question is: No. That’s an ending that would have sucked, that would have demolished everything the players worked for, where if no matter what you did the Reapers won and everyone died. The only way Mass Effect could have had a bad ending, is if it had a prototypical Bad ending. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t even have a prototypical good ending either, which is good because let’s face it, if players were presented with just a Good ending, or a Bad ending, everyone would have chosen the Good ending, and so the whole point of player choice would have been rendered meaningless. The choice between either an exotic Asian massage or being repeatedly punched in the gut is not a real choice.

Instead Mass Effect 3 gives players three different endings. Yes the videos that play out once the choice is made are 90% the same, but the implications of what would happen to the galaxy are all radically different. There is no right and wrong choice and the answer you have is the answer to a question that lies at the core of Mass Effects’ theme. This question has been asked in some variation across all three games: is subservience preferable to extinction? Is it better to be at the devils right hand, then in his way? In the first game the villain Seran argued yes, in the second game we saw the consequences of what that subservience would have been, and in the third game, where we leave the Earth and stand above it, looking down at it from the domain of a god, we are asked to answer that question. But not in terms of the organic life, because saying yes would have been in direct violation of Sheppard’s character, which would have also made for a bad ending. Instead the question is asked in the terms of the Reapers. The ending to Mass Effect 3 completely turns the core theme of the game on its head and asks you to answer it given the new context. Is it better to destroy the Reapers or make them your slaves. And you know what? If the Reapers were to answer that question it would be yes, and they would want you to say yes too.

The fact that Mass Effect 3’s ending gives the answer to the core theme of the game to the players is why I think it’s a good ending. But if this one particular fan theory is correct, then Mass Effect 3 has a brilliant ending. As I hinted at in the last paragraph at the end of the game players have the option to control, destroy of coexist with the Reapers. For the Reapers, given what we’ve been shown over the past two games as to how they think, they would say that subservience is preferable to extinction, and would do everything in their power to prevent Sheppard from killing them, even if it meant that serve as slaves. The whole MO to the Reapers isn’t to wipe out all organic life, but to prune it, to shape it into Reaper form or a form the Reapers can control. They see themselves as intergalactic gardeners. But Sheppard, and by proxy the players, sees them as threats to all life everywhere, one that has to be destroyed. If only there was some way the Reapers could change the way a person thinks and sees the world and get them to come about to their side of thinking.

Oh right, they can. This is why the indoctrination theory makes way too much sense to be ignored. After all there was something wrong about the ending, and I think it was intentional. I mean, why BioWare give us a Renegade interrupt to save Anderson’s life? Why is it when the game shows us the destruction option it’s color coded in red, the Renegade color, and when it shows us the option to control the Reapers, it’s color coded in blue, the Paragon color? But in the last game the option to destroy the Collector base was Paragon, while the option to save it was Renegade. Because the Reapers are trying to indoctrinate Sheppard, which at this point is their last line of defense, and instead of telling us through cut scenes, the sinister effects of indoctrination are being showed to us through game play. This means that BioWare is intentionally taking the conventions of the game’s mechanics and turning them on its head to demonstrate the fact that an outside force is trying to make you do something you would never willing do on your own.

BIOSHOCK DID THE SAME DAMN THING AND YOU ALL LOVE THAT SO MUCH!

            Look people, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t declare that games should be considered art and then shoot down any ending that requires an in-depth analysis to understand. Because that’s really the only difference between BioShock and Mass Effect 3, BioShock came out and told people what it was doing, while Mass Effect wanted you to stop and actually think about it yourself. If games are going to be art than this is what that’s going to look like, because interactivity and the conventions of game play are what make this medium unique, they’re what make it so different from any other medium and they’re why games do in fact matter.

So BioWare, let me do something that I don’t think you’ve heard at all from anyone this week: let me say thank you. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into crafting this masterpiece, this exemplar that reached for the stars and showed us a glimpse of the future of games. You have legitimately added something to the substance of our culture and I’m grateful that I get to live in a world that this exists.

Contextualizing Multiplayer

It’s not hard to get most people to love multiplayer. People love it for the same reason we love tag or water gun wars, it’s friendly competition. Multiplayer in video games for most of its existence has never gone beyond the barest of reasons to justify what is ostensibly a game of digital laser tag. Team Fortress 2 doesn’t even bother at all, you’re Red, they’re Blue, now go murder each other. Which, by the way, what is it with video games and assigning the default team colors as red and blue? I like to imagine that colors exist in a relationship similar to the Serpents in Ultima 7 Part 2: Serpent Isle, where red and blue represent opposite forces and they have to be kept in order by yellow; the balance color. And then yellow disappeared so now red and blue must battle for all eternity.

Somehow I just made a theology out of this.

But I digress, my point is for some reason context gets chucked out the window the instant five or six complete strangers get dumped into a room together filled with guns, in fact some see context as a barrier to enjoying the ensuing mindless carnage. People actually praise Team Fortress 2 for its complete lack of plot or justification for why all these unique, colorful characters are murdering each other in industrial facilities. Which I find really strange because in single-player land people actually get very frustrated when they aren’t given a clear indication of what they are doing and for why. Story in games essentially evolved out of a need for developers to explain to players what’s going on and why they should care about their game about shooting squares. This was really important back in the Atari days when graphics weren’t good enough to describe anything but the most basic and generic of objects.

Okay I'm pretty sure your enemies are the orange blobs with erections.

But I am glad that as graphics became more sophisticated so two did our ability to convey more and more complex stories and more interesting characters through a game’s single-player experience. We have effectively created a brand new storytelling medium, as long as you’re playing on your own. For several reasons multiplayer hasn’t changed to keep up with the highly contextualized nature of single-player, and most people like it that way.

But as of last year I’ve noticed a strange new trend amongst developers, namely that some of them actually want to contextualize multiplayer, and the results have been pretty scatter shot. Splash Damage created and brand new intellectual property for the sole reason of contextualizing multiplayer, and insanely risky endeavor whose success is debatable. Brink didn’t just sit around content with being another game about Red and Blue duking out their endless conflict, they created the world of the Arc and gave compelling reasons and justifications for why the Resistance and Security sides were fighting. I love Brink the setting, and I like the game, but their efforts at combining single and multiplayer were anemic. A brief cutscene before every match does not a story make. I would still like to see Splash Damage return to this IP, maybe do a real single-player game given how much work they spent fleshing out the world of the Arc.

Recently the most successful form of bridging the single-player/multiplayer gap was The Old Republic, which I’m sure most of you have at least heard of. The game’s big thing is have Mass Effect styled interactive cutscenes in place of the typical MMO answer to context, blocks of text no one reads. BioWare also decided to go completely beyond what was necessary and created 8 different storylines for each class and have just as much content as one of their single-player RPGs. People have asked “When is there going to be a Knights of the Old Republic III?”. Well, The Old Republic is Knights of the Old Republic III through IX. This attempt has been far more successful, currently ToR has about two million subscribers which makes it the most successful MMO to come out in recent years that wasn’t World of Warcraft. By giving us better reasons for going out and killing X number of creatures beyond because that’s what a block of text told me to do, ToR has held my attention far longer than any other MMO has had any right to, and by giving a multiplayer game a stronger story focus BioWare were even able to bring in people who normally wouldn’t be caught dead playing an MMO.

But in my opinion, the best attempt in contextualizing multiplayer is right around the bend; Mass Effect 3. Now when I first heard Mass Effect 3 was going to have multiplayer I was firmly in the DO NOT WANT camp. This had to be EA’s doing, turning our beloved RPG setting into another competitive shooter to steal dollars away from Call of Duty by pandering to the mindless, knuckle-dragging grognards who sit in a near vegetative state playing the same map with the same weapons over and over until they level up their skill scores or whatever. Then I heard it was going to be cooperative. Then I saw the trailers. Then I heard how it would work. Then I changed my mind.

Mass Effect has a pretty damn big, well realized universe that succeeded because it always felt like it existed beyond the limited scope of Commander Sheppard and the Normandy. In the second game you start it by dying and spending two years in experimental surgery to come back, and the galaxy kept on turning all that time. Now with the galaxy wide Reaper invasion we’re being promised, it’s clear that the game needs to encompass a scope larger than Commander Sheppard. The game does this by having a map of the galaxy depicting which systems are being attacked and combining all this information with a “Galactic Readiness” bar. That would have been fine, but BioWare went one step further, they claim that the Galactic Readiness screen also takes in data from how well you do in multiplayer. This is why this multiplayer is so brilliant, the single-player storyline and universe provide the context for your matches, and the matches feedback into the single-player and provide context for what would otherwise be a pretty abstract system that wouldn’t be able to capture the impact of a galaxy wide war on its own. Unlike Brink, which tried to use multiplayer to tell a story and failed to realize it, Mass Effect 3 is still going to maintain some level of separation between its two game modes, but they aren’t entirely separated. Much like how the dialogue wheel bridges the gameplay and the story, the Galactic Readiness and the context of the game’s universe will bridge the multiplayer to the campaign. And honestly, this is the best of both worlds, multiplayer fans don’t have the story getting its dirt all over their carpet, and us story lovers get to have a justification beyond the endless color war of Red and Blue.

Where I Draw The Line

I want to start this blog off with a quote. I’m not going to cite it just yet because I’m going to do this thing where I blow your mind at the end. So here it is.

“We talk so much about how video games are art. But at the same time the violent video discussion comes up and get people up in arms saying violent video games don’t affect me, they aren’t a big deal. If video games are art they have to affect us. The truth of the matter is violent video games, whether subconscious or not, affect us in some way. I wanted this game to affect you in the way it really made you think about the violence you are inflicting in the world and you’re thinking about the characters going through that.”

This quote sums up why I’m where doing what I’m doing. I write this blog because I believe that video games, being the first visual and interactive story telling medium, have the capacity to affect us just as strongly if not stronger than a novel or a film. Let me give you an example of what I mean. This is from the Deus Ex: Human Revolution DLC expansion The Missing Link. By the way, Human Revolution inspite of its very known and talked about flaws, was still hands down my favorite game of 2011 for this upcoming reason. Seriously, go play The Missing Link; it had all the best parts of Human Revolution with none of the bad stuff.  It’s a standalone too, so you don’t even need to buy the full game (but you should also do that too). This will involve spoilers so if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want spoilers, well, too bad. I need to do this to make my point so I can blow your mind.

In The Missing Link Adam Jensen gets caught in his little stow away attempt from the main game and is brought to a black site detention facility where you discover that the facility exists to run human genetic and augmentation experiments. All of the “prisoners” are innocent people detained on vacation simply because they had the right or wrong genetic markers. You eventually manage to find a scientist there willing to blow the whistle on the whole thing to the U.N. but then the bad guy running the facility finds out and tries to the scrap the whole project by killing everyone with cyanide gas. The mysterious hacker who has been helping you throughout The Missing Link tells you that there’s no way to shut the gas off, you can only reroute it to either the cell blocks or the lower section where the whistle blower is.

And so we come to our choice. There is no clear good or evil option, no morality bar, no reward beyond advancing the game. All you have is a button, a video a screen of people choking, and ticking clock. Do you save the whistle blower or the prisoners, all of whom are innocent people? I saved the game, put it down and thought about what I was going to do for nearly thirty minutes. When I came back I made my decision, and in doing so I learned a little about myself. I learned that even though I like to think that I’m pragmatic and pride myself on how I can “make choices free of emotions” (this is something I’ve said) I realized that when it comes down to the line, 1,000 human lives is worth more to me than a single, albeit far more important person, even if they’re all fictional, and I think this has made me a better person in realizing this.

If this sounds familiar it’s because you watched Extra Credits (good for you), and more specifically you watched their episode “Enriching Lives”. Like the guys there I believe that games can enrich our existence just as much as any other form of art can. But unlike the example they used, The Missing Link actually did embed its choice in the mechanics of the game, like a good game should. I believe that the stage of video games perception as immature entertainment for children is coming to a close, possibly within the next ten years. So let’s go back to that quote because it’s very telling of the direction the industry is starting to take.

It’s from Walk Williams; he’s the lead writer on the upcoming 2K shooter Spec Ops: The Line. If you remember the Spec Ops games then Jesus Christ you have good memory for crappy titles. The Spec Ops franchise was a series of budget military shooters for the Playstation that shriveled up and died along with that console ten years ago. They were the games you bought when Rainbow Six was sold out. Now it’s being reinvented into something I doubt anyone thought was possible with a pedigree like that. Spec Ops: The Line is a game about three soldiers being sent into the city of Dubai after global warming (I think) created the mother of all sandstorms and it kicked the shit out of this shining example of human opulence. From its screenshots you’d think it’s another hopelessly brown and gritty game about shooting terrorists in a middle-eastern city, a concept we’ve only seen a hundred billion times already.

But Walk Williams and the rest of the guys at Yager Development want to do something more with this game. They want to take that kind of moment I described having with The Missing Link and embed it into the entire experience of the game. From what I understand you’re not even fighting terrorists, most of your enemies are former US marines under the command of the main character’s mentor who’s going bat shit crazy, attacking US troops on sight and burning civilians alive with white phosphorus. How many games have the balls to make you shoot at American solders? Spec Ops: The Line wants you to be affected by its violence, and create the same kind of disgust and horror in its audience that books like Heart of Darkness and films like Apocalypse Now! were able to do. The way will do so is right there in its title, the theme of The Line. This is a game that’s going to make you draw a line in the sand on where you stand regarding decency and human life, and then do everything in its power to make you cross that line, and in the process, help you learn who you really are. This is a game that’s not going to be fun, but it will be engaging.

Games receive a lot of flak for being violent, and for understandable reasons. After all even if it’s completely fictional, there is still something messed up about saying how you enjoy decapitating hundreds of people an hour for fun and then say it doesn’t affect you at all. That sounds like the kind of thing a sociopath, not a functional member of society should say. So what I’ve always wanted was a game that wanted its violence not to be fun, but engaging, the same way playing Silent Hill isn’t really fun (it’s scary as hell and  the controls are awful) but it’s engaging. So now we come to the part where I blow your mind. 2012 is going to see a lot of important games: Mass Effect 3, Guild Wars 2, I Am Alive and hopefully The Last Guardian. But if Spec Ops: The Line succeeds on its promise, then a brown, third-person, cover-based, modern military shooter, might be the most important game to come out this year. And if it fails, then at least I know it will have failed through ambition, something this industry needs more of. I hope to get my hands on this once its nebulous release date is set, and see where I draw the line.

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