Archive for March, 2012

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.


            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.