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Not so happily ever after…

March 29, 2012 7 comments

There are most definitely spoilers in this post. If you’ve somehow time travelled here from 2007 (we don’t have lightsabers yet, so you may wish to keep right on going) and haven’t played Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption or Halo: Reach, consider yourself forewarned. 

You know what I’d like to see more of? Not-so-happy endings. We’re inundated with games that close with the hero riding off into the sunset, enemy vanquished and glory won (or the contextually appropriate equivalent) – what we don’t have a lot of are games whose endings are ambiguous, sad, concerning or frightening. This is a shame, because these tend to be the endings that provoke thought, evoke emotion and result in interesting discussion. Granted, they’re less immediately gratifying, more challenging and require more thought to appreciate, but thats definitely a trade I’m in favour of. Having played through countless ‘hero saves the day’ stories, I’ve had enough of knowing from the outset how everything’s going to turn out, with only the resolution of some nebulous details to keep me engaged. Don’t you get greater engagement and enjoyment from games with some measure of real risk in the story, without the safety net of a guaranteed fairy tale conclusion?

Red Dead Redemption

You know what isn't going to end well? This.

This is not, of course, an issue confined to video games (if the uproar over the ending of The Sopranos is anything to go by), although as a medium it does have a couple of characteristics that serve to make devastating twist endings less palatable. There are the positive emotions associated with besting challenges, defeating evil and powerful heroes, each a strong influence on storytelling, and relatedly, the idea that challenges require the anticipation of reward to motivate a player’s desire to overcome them. Unique to the gaming format however is the player’s involvement in driving the story, and the subsequent need to foster a sense of personal achievement when the story concludes. (I would also speculate that the majority of multiplayer gaming is strongly pushing the message that only victory is valuable, and losers are to be taunted, booed and teabagged in a manner befitting their station as, well, losers.)

The combination of these things has resulted in a lot of under-explored potential in certain areas of gaming – areas that aren’t necessarily about short term gratification, or that challenge some of our comfortable expectations – and I’d really like to see more happen with them. Dark Souls showed us that a confronting level of difficulty can result in an immensely rewarding experience. Heavy Rain proved that a confronting story line focusing on deeply flawed characters and relationships can make an impressive game, even if the action is infrequent and awkward. Alongside these, what I’d really like to see is more games confronting us with complex, layered, and not necessarily positive endings. As the medium, the content and the storytelling matures, shouldn’t we have more games that explore the effects of all the mayhem games take us through, rather than solely concentrating on ever more inventive ways to make that mayhem more fun?

Not that its rainbows and maypole dancing across the board – there are a few recent examples of endings that, even if the good guys ultimately triumphed, at least went out ensuring that the protagonist (and the player) didn’t get off scott free, and provoked a thought or two in the process. There is however, enormous room to expand on and experiment in this space, and these are a few examples that suggest there’s at least a willingness to do so, and an appetite for the results.

I know a few people who hated the end of Halo: Reach. Not the poignant ‘series-comes-full-circle-while-heroic-music-swells’ part, but the epilogue where you live out Noble 6’s futile final moments against a vengeful Covenant horde. I loved it. I mean, I didn’t enjoy it – as a gaming experience, its very frustrating to fight battles you can’t win, and more so to see the permanent death of a character you’ve inhabited for a dozen hours – but it was an extremely relevant way to end an uncharacteristically dark story, and a satisfying conclusion to Reach’s grim story. Too often do we see characters make a noble sacrifice of themselves (Reach does not represent Bungie’s subtler name choices, I’ll grant you), but we’re only exposed to the stirring, heroic gesture, shown as a few seconds as the person in question bravely readies themselves for death with a macho roar or stoic, defiant silence.

Gears of War

Heroic sacrifice is something these gentlemen are very familiar with.

What we don’t often see is that this sacrifice, presented so positively and so cleanly, must actually result in a desperate, panicked final struggle, ending with the hero overwhelmed and dying alone. Rarer still is the opportunity to actually play out this futile demise from the character’s perspective. By this stage of most games we’ve already moved on with the protagonist, our minds focused on finishing the job enabled by our companions death, shielded from the unpleasant details. This is fine – some of the time – but Reach did a great job of showing that by forcing on the player the harsh, lonely final moments of Noble 6, a much more emotionally impactful ending is created. Clever though it was to tie the final seconds of reach to the opening seconds of the original, it wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact had we not been forced to live out Noble 6’s death, but instead had a last glimpse of him standing victorious at the shipyard as the Pillar of Autumn fled the planet, his eventual fate only implied.

Though effective, the Reach example is still a sort of ‘happy ending by proxy’ – dovetailing as it does into the beginning of the Halo story, what should be a wrenchingly desolate conclusion is diluted by the knowledge that we know the story of the larger series turns out all right in the end.

There was no such assured future for John Marston – indeed, the amazing final conclusion to Red Dead Redemption can’t exist without the betrayal and death of the protagonist, culminating in one of the most surprising and emotionally deflating pseudo-endings in gaming. Further, the impact of this is largely created by the lengthy, out of character (and lets face it, anticlimactic) final missions – the exploration of the changing nature of his relationship with his wife and son, capping off the titular redemption you’ve been progressing towards for so long. Yes, this pedestrian errand running and son-raising, culminating in the death of the hero is challenging as a gamer – we expect final game missions to be bigger, crazier and more explosion-filled than anything thats gone before. And yes, it does feel unfair after your many (many) hours of adventuring, and the misdirecting tone set by the game that indeed, everything was going to turn out alright. Importantly though, it feels unfair within the world of the story – unfair on the characters, not on the player – this distinction is important in delivering the sense of emotional importance that elevates Red Dead Redemption above being merely an impeccably executed GTA: Cowboys. Even this example is still a happy ending of sorts though – Marston dies redeemed, and his death is avenged shortly afterwards – the loose ends are tied up, the questions are answered. So how would a game take this concept further?

The obvious answer is through the use of multiple endings. Heavy Rain is a good example – in addition to the ‘super amazing’ ending where everyone lives happily ever after, there is an alternative which sees the bad guy win, and several other variations in which a mixture of good and terrible things happen as well. These evoke varying levels of sadness or disappointment, and leave different threads of the story unresolved, but all are thought provoking, guilt inducing and frustrating experiences. Importantly, Heavy Rain doesn’t hold your hand overmuch and lead you towards the good ending – although it isn’t difficult to achieve, as a general rule the game doesn’t go out of its way avoid giving you one of the bittersweet or openly depressing endings, if thats what you’ve earned. That’s one of the key things that could be taken further by other such games, in my mind – each ending needs to be treated as legitimate and canonical, as far as possible. The major issue with most multiple endings right now is that there’s usually a clear ‘real’ ending which the game does its utmost to steer you towards, with the other endings seemingly added to bolster the illusion of permanent choice for the player.

Heavy Rain

When your story contains this scene as well as killing off most of the principal characters, there's a limit to how happily everything can turn out.

Beyond augmenting the ‘real’ ending with a few sad or ambiguous ones, I think even games that employ a single ending could take a lesson from all this – the more story driven the game is, the more likely I am to be interested in and satisfied with a conclusion thats bittersweet, or outright bitter. The caveat to this is that however the story ends, it needs to be in keeping with the game world and the  established tone (I’m not suggesting the next Mario game take its plot conclusion cues from Hamlet, but I’d love to play a game that does), which is why Reach and Heavy Rain are great vehicles for a grim denouement. So many stories I’ve played have these big uplifting finales because the leader of the bad guys is dead, despite the fact that the world is still in flames, the protagonist should be devastatingly traumatised, and the piled corpses of my allies block out the sun. Plot based games are almost always better when they have a point and a meaning beyond the action, and the ending should be one of the most powerful places to explore this. Sadly consequence, reality and the meaning attached to them often trail off in the final act in favour of the happy ending, as if that is required as a reward to the gamer for completion.

Where do you stand? Do you like your endings to resolve all the conflicts, answer all the questions and shower you in glory? Do you feel the ‘good’ ending is your reward for besting challenges and overcoming everything the game’s thrown at you, or is an engaging, challenging (or just different) story sufficient reward in itself, even if it ends in tears?

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An open letter to the #occupybioware and #retakemasseffect movements

March 21, 2012 17 comments

This post contains no spoilers of any kind.

Ok, something needs to be said about #occupybioware, #retakemasseffect and the related backlash movements against the ending of Mass Effect 3.

Let me firmly state for the record, this is not a defence or discussion of said ending, Mass Effect, or Bioware in general. What this is, is an appeal to reason amidst the frothing angst, wailing and gnashing of teeth that has become the gaming community’s de facto response to any and all disappointments, perceived slights or difference of opinion.

The entitled hysteria needs to stop, because its happening with such regularity that the actions of the vocal minority threaten to tar the entire group and eradicate any credibility games as an industry, and gamers as a community may have established, even amongst ourselves. More importantly, it makes it much more difficult for gamers to have an ongoing, reasoned and constructive discussion with the people who create the games that we love.

Let me be clear – your complaints, your points of view, and your right to voice them as loudly and as regularly as you want are both valid and valuable. The point I’m trying to make is that constructive, useful feedback is very easily lost amongst the shouting and table pounding which is currently dominating this discussion. Worse yet, in your anger you’re rushing to set a precedent that may have very undesirable consequences in future – not just for you, but for all of us. For clarity, I want to separate the useful points of your message from the troubling one:

I hated Mass Effect 3’s ending! Great, lets hear your reasons – its probable there are a lot of people who agree with them, and they should be heard.

I’m not buying any more Bioware games! Ok. If you feel strongly enough about it, articulate a reasoned argument somewhere online, or send it to Bioware, in hopes that future efforts are more in line with what interests you as a gamer. Personally, I don’t believe a creative difference about how a story should have ended warrants such a reaction, but to each their own.

We’re entitled to the ending that we built up in our heads, and we believe we have the right to make and enforce decisions on your creative output – we demand that you change the story you wrote, so it is exactly the same as we would have written it! Unless you do as we say, we will hold your company to (financial) ransom.

Please.

There are a number of reasons why this last approach is both obnoxious and ultimately destructive. Here are a few of them.

1. You are misunderstanding your relationship to Bioware’s intellectual property (and the nature of sales transactions).

When you purchase a product, what you are entitled to is full and unfettered access to the experience of that product. There is no guarantee that you will enjoy that experience, nor are you entitled to one.

Of course, should you be disappointed, you are entitled to react to that disappointment any way you wish. Complain loudly, tell your friends not to buy it, boycott the company or suggest your changes – all reasonable reactions. Reasonable, as long as you understand that the company is in no way obligated to make those changes. Thats one of two key issues here – that you feel that the company owes you, somehow, and that they can legitimately be forced to change their game to meet your every need. The other is the way that this feeling is expressed as screeching rage about ‘betrayal’ of fans, as if the ending was consciously, maliciously designed to shatter everyone’s dreams while Bioware twirls its collective moustache and cackles like a cartoon villain.

Funnily enough, in situations where fans might be entitled to demand changes from the developer (if it doesn’t work properly – like the buggy mess of Fallout: New Vegas, or the massive performance issues of Skyrim on PS3), we don’t see this kind of reaction. There’s some complaining and bad press, some embarrassed apologies from those responsible, and then we all get on with enjoying the games for the awesome experiences that they are.

The paranoia that characterises this latest backlash, seeing persecution of loyal consumers where in fact there is only (at worst) an ambiguous or less than stellar conclusion to an otherwise brilliant series, makes us all look like crazy, spoiled children. You know what? Sometimes great things have disappointing elements. The ending of Return of the King is one of the least interesting and most unnecessary parts of the entire series (except for the fiasco that is Tom Bombadil, and everything he touches). Are we chanting in the streets and petitioning the Tolkein estate to have the bad parts re-written? No. Are we all maintaining that the entire trilogy is ruined by an imperfect conclusion? No.

If you absolutely must find an outlet for the energy created by your enormous overreaction, the accepted thing to do in these circumstances is relentlessly howl your derision into the internet, mocking the culprits for their lack of perfection, until their once legendary creative vision becomes an industry joke (like Star Wars fans did with George Lucas). It might not get the results you want – if it did, Jar Jar Binks would have been retconned out of existence years ago – but at least it shows you understand your relationship to other people’s intellectual property.

We understand that what we as consumers want is extremely important to game developers, and that these wants should (and do) have an enormous influence on the story and mechanics of games when they are conceived, and as they are developed. This influence however does not equate to being able to arrogantly demand that the finished, released product be changed to meet your exact specifications, even assuming everyone universally agrees on what those are (and they don’t).

2. Be careful what you wish for…

What exactly do you expect to come out of this movement? Is it a reasonable discourse with a company resulting in better products and a better relationship in future? Or is it Bioware caving to your demands, and the subsequent ‘victory’ that comes with asserting creative control over something you have no rights to?

So Bioware have said they will keep working on ‘additional content’, recognising that some of their more passionate fans ‘needed closure’. Not that its likely, but what do you think will happen if this content involves changing the original ending? My guess is there may be an immediate backlash against the change by an equal number of people who, even if they didn’t like the original, are even more concerned about the idea of outspoken internet groups holding game development to ransom in this way. Alternatively, some other group will be furious that your proposed ending got used and theirs didn’t, prompting another campaign to change the game yet again. The best case scenario is months of petty squabbling over which ending is canonical. At the end of all this, how much time do you want Bioware to spend managing their PR, creating explanation videos and gently indulging your this behaviour, and how much time do you want them to spend actually making games?

Most importantly, the most powerful message a retconned ending (as opposed to some DLC that ties up loose ends, which is far more likely) would send is that its open season on everything. That the vocal minority somehow deserve ultimate control over the creative output of the industry, and that any gameplay mechanic, story element or character that doesn’t meet with their approval grants them the right to demand a change.

Once we start down this path, and send the message to developers that every significant part of their game needs to be pre-emptively approved by the internet in order avoid a boycott on release, it will be very, very difficult to come back from. Is that really the direction we want the industry to travel? Do you really think that crowd-sourcing the development of complex game trilogies is a great idea? (If you do, consider how many people out there think Farmville is amazing, then ask yourself how excited you’d be about private terminal messages saying ‘Admiral Hackett needs your help planting his corn!).

Cooperative writing projects on the internet aren’t a new concept, but I’m yet to see the output garner many prestigious awards for quality. Cast your minds back to the last time an entertainment project actively allowed internet fans to suggest direct changes during production. Is that what you want Bioware’s next project to look like? I don’t. Consider that the power you’ve incorrectly assumed is yours by right, granted by Bioware, actually extends to the entire community. If changes to future games are going to be made because people demand it, the changes that get made may not be the ones that you asked for. Relatedly…

3. You don’t speak for everyone

As of March 10, Mass Effect 3 had sold more than 1.6 million copies. The Occupy Mass Effect petition, large though it may be, has not amassed 2% of that figure. This discrepancy makes the distinction between passionate arguments and aggressive demands all the more important. You don’t speak for everyone (certainly not for me) so please stop with the pointless, childish behaviour, committed in the name of the wider gaming community.

Ultimately, if you don’t like a game, by all means complain. Stop buying products from Bioware, EA, or anyone else creating things you don’t enjoy, as is your right to do. All I ask is that you stop before you get to the entitled, hysterical demands – you are not entitled to have story changes delivered, and behaving like you are isn’t good for you, the games, or the industry in general. Situations like this are why we have the term ‘pyrrhic victory’.

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