Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

“This game is bullshit!”

I said that about twenty minutes into the game, when I met my first real moral quandary. Because it absolutely was. That’s also when I realized that I’m a bad person.

Okay, so here was the scenario: I had to choose to save one of two people. One was a healthy adult man who had already saved me and who was also the son of the farmer who had taken us in (Hershel, who was much closer to the character in the books than the character in the show). The other was a dumb kid (his father’s words, not mine) who didn’t know enough not to run the other guy down with a tractor and pin him in place as the walkers reached for him through a fence.

I realized I’m a bad person because I did not immediately choose the poor, defenseless kid.

But hear me out.

First of all, the man would be a valuable asset against the walkers—he’d already proved as much. And, I owed my life to him getting me out of that first neighborhood. AND, if I let him die, I would also lose Hershel as an ally, no doubt. On top of all that, the kid is stupid (again, his dad’s words) and will very like cause more trouble in addition to being a drag.

On the other hand, if I let the kid die and saved the man, I would lose the kid’s dad as an ally and would likely have no means of transportation off the farm.

It was not until pretty far into this line of reasoning that I thought, “Oh, and the kid is defenseless, so maybe I should help him.” I’m pretty sure a good person wouldn’t have hesitated to help the kid first, right?

So, I helped the kid, the other guy died (even though I had the opportunity to save him too, but the controls are absolutely atrocious), Hershel kicked us off his farm, and the kid’s dad offered me a ride. What’d I tell ya?

This whole interaction—and all the rest that come after it—made me start to think a great deal about how it is the game directs your performance. And by “performance,” I mean the acting on a stage kind, not the quality of my ability or skill level kind. In games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, you can make choices that affect the later parts of the game, including how people talk to or about you. You can choose to be a good person, or you can choose to be a bad person (relatively speaking). Most importantly, you can choose these performances at your leisure. You could leave those games on their decision scenes for days if you really wanted to just really think through all your options and strategize.

Not in The Walking Dead.

Nope. You have to make all your decisions right now.

I noticed that having a time limit placed on making my decisions made me jumpy at first. Eventually, as I got a hang of the controls and the flow of the game, I learned to let my decisions come easier. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I made all the decisions I would’ve made for myself. I made decisions based on how I wanted the game to go—in other words, I was aware of the game environment as opposed to a real life-and-death situation.

However, I do think that the Venn diagram of decisions I would’ve made for myself and decision I made based on how I wanted the game to go has significant overlap. Because I couldn’t figure out at my leisure what my version of Lee would do, I think I necessarily had to pull from a personal decision-making paradigm. Which is, of course, how I learned I’m a bad person.

In summary: It’s a fun survivor-horror game with a neat twist on the free-will game. The artwork has a unique graphic-novel style, and the dialogue is solid. If the controls weren’t so terrible, I’d be happy as a clam with this game.

A happy bad clam.

A happy clam with red tide.

I like playing them. A lot.

They’re fun. They’re frustrating in a satisfying way. They can be consuming if they strike the right chord.

I started playing in the ‘90s, with Mario and Duck Hunt and this really fun Olympics game that I don’t remember the name of but which had a running pad with it that we eventually hacked to make our runner run faster and our jumpers jump higher. Then there was Star Wars and Donkey Kong and Golden Eye and Mortal Combat and Zelda.

Oh, Zelda.

I haven’t played Ocarina of Time since high school, but I have kept my* N64 just in case I get the itch in the future. The husband figure tried to donate it to Goodwill because he had never seen me play it. This was a problem for me, obviously. I know, I know. I can download all those games to our Wii. It’s just not the same. Maybe one day.

For as much fun as I’ve had with games, though, there has always been a weird feeling around them for me. Like I shouldn’t be playing them. None of my friends played video games, and pretty much the only people I played with or around were my brother, his friends (all boys), and our boy cousins. I was very obviously not welcome to play with them. Usually, I just watched. If I did play with them, they made no secret about their annoyance and the fact they were only letting me play as a courtesy. Sometimes—golden times—it seemed like they would forget I was an annoying gnat mucking up their boy time. Other times, I would get kicked in the face**.

But, hey, they were preteen and teenaged boys, and I know now that they were pretty much just responding to all the messages they got, not least of all from the very video games we played together. They’ve all grown up nicely and, as far as I know, don’t seem to hate playing with girls quite as much.

Still, I think growing up in an environment of people who didn’t want to play with me because I just wasn’t good enough for them (for whatever reason—whether I just wasn’t the same skill level as them or because I just annoyed the hell out of them) is the primary reason that I shy away from multiplayer games in general, both then and now.

In fact, for a while there, I stopped playing games altogether. Sure, I was in college and needed to focus on my studies, but that was an easy reason not to engage in something I enjoyed. On top of my most available playmates never really wanting to play with me, I had parents, trusted adults, and news media saying it was a waste of time, it would rot my brain, and make me a violent killing machine. And, of course, there were myriad other social messages that threatened to cast doubt on my sexuality and/or gender identity if I kept playing. So, I stopped.

I didn’t play again until after I graduated from college—jobless, hopeless, and in dire need of feeling in control of something. Slowly, I started to play again. My husband sat me down in front of the computer one day, brought up Half-Life 2, and said, “Trust me, you’re gonna love it.” I’d never played a PC game before, so controlling my character was awkward at first. And, of course, it was scary. But I was also starting to enjoy myself again.

I failed a lot, and that bothered me at first. I ragequit more than a few times. Then, I started ragefailing—just trying insane tactics because I’d already spent an HOUR trying to SHOOT DOWN that GODDAMN HELICOPTER AND PLEASE GOD JUST GET ME TO THE NEXT PART OF THIS GAME. Now and then, insane tactics turned into unexpected successes. Then, failing became less important to me. Eventually, dying wasn’t a failure anymore. It was a successful demonstration of the wrong way out of whatever predicament I was currently in.

You bet your ass I’ve applied this skill in my everyday life. It’s not so much a matter of puzzle-solving as it is a reorganization of priorities. Finishing the task, level, etc. is still pretty important, but it’s really secondary to figuring out what you’re doing either right or wrong right now.

Then, I was introduced to Mass Effect. Hoo-boy. We’re talking Zelda-level of addiction here.

But more than the fun gaming, interesting characters, fraught real-world politics, and engaging story, all three games connected with me on a different level—the English major level.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m well aware of where Mass Effect is with respect to Shakespeare***. Believe me, most of the things wrong with those games, storywise, are exactly the sort of thing that made me want to look at literature critically in a big way in the first place.

Suddenly, I’m seeing video games in a whole new way. In an English major way. And with smart, accessible academic work being done in the area (Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, for one), I feel like I’ve met my good friend Video Games for the first time again. Suddenly, the judgment I’ve always felt—from my childhood playmates, to my parents and other trusted adults, to every person who has looked at me askance, as if to say, “But you don’t really play, do you?”—just doesn’t matter to me anymore. I’ve had a reorganization of priorities, I guess you can say.


So, what does all of this mean for you, dear Pipsqueakonians?

I’m going to start reviewing video games! Right here! Every Friday! Woohoo!

First up: The Walking Dead.


*To my brother who reads this blog: Yes, MY N64.

**Okay, that only happened once and it was an accident. Social cues were usually limited to eyerolls, loud sighs, “ughs,” “leave us alones,” and “I don’t want to play with yous.”

***I’ll go ahead and say that I think they’re closer in spirit than most people would be willing to concede.

Of all the ending scenarios, I chose Synthesis. This isn’t to say that I thought or think it was the perfect ending—since, you know, still no blue children—but it was the one I felt achieved most of my goals. While Destroy would’ve also fully removed the threat of the Reapers, Synthesis allowed everyone the chance to actually live as well. Everyone, including the geth and EDI, survived. It was important to me that they survive, especially EDI. They had only just reached full self-awareness; it would be a tragedy not to be able to live and explore what it means to live. It just didn’t seem fair that they should have to pay with their lives for the aggression of the Reapers.

Nonetheless, Synthesis left a mosquito bite on my conscience. (The one for gaming, not IRL, silly.)

By forcing everyone to transcend their current stage of evolution, did I rob them of their right to evolve on a more natural path? Is synthesizing organic and synthetic life without anyone’s permission essentially the same thing as rewriting the geth heretics to agree with the non-heretics (another icky decision)? And to what extent was life in the galaxy “synthesized”? Did it apply only to the species who had achieved space flight and were participants in the greater galactic community? Did it include plant life? Single-celled organisms? Non-space-faring civilizations like the yaag? Has everyone, everything, everywhere in the entire Milky Way galaxy suddenly jumped forward to the final stage of evolution (itself a problematic concept because since when has evolution been leading up to anything at all)?

Those last questions are probably getting too nitpicky and might be answered fairly with, “It’s just a story. Get over it*.” But the first two bring up fair points. Personally, I would answer no to both of them.

No, synthesizing organics and synthetics did not rob anyone of a better, or “more natural,” evolutionary path. The evolution of any species depends entirely on that species’ suitability for survival in a given environment. This suitability is determined by a number of factors, but the most salient one is “not dying.” Given the predated nature of the environment (i.e., that there were Reapers in it), synthesis enabled the most number of people to survive and continue their lives as they saw fit. And I don’t accept any suggestion that the evolution of one’s own species either is or should be beyond that species’ capacity to influence or even determine—especially when that species has reached the level of technological advancement present in the Mass Effect universe. In other words, synthesis between organics and synthetics as an evolutionary path is just as natural as the path that has brought humans to our current stage of evolution.

No, synthesis is not the same as rewriting the geth heretics. When/if Shepard rewrote the geth heretics, she took something away from them: their perspective. Synthesis actually gives new perspective. More accurately, the new perspective is a bonus of synthesis. Rewriting the heretics took away their right to free thought in the interest of removing conflict. Synthesis, on the other hand, elevated and enlightened organic and synthetic thought and nature to the point that martial conflict was no longer necessary. The galactic community is still as diverse as it ever was, and everyone still has free will in their own lives. But now there’s a common thread that binds everyone. This thread is what has allowed everyone to surpass the limitations in understanding that make war an inevitability.

Or maybe I’m an optimist who’s splitting hairs because I want to justify my choice.

One last thought on Synthesis and then we’ll move on to Refusal.

A lot of people have voiced a complaint that’s somewhere along the lines of, “Um, how exactly is metal supposed acquire DNA?” I’ll move right past the response of “Who said synthetics were metal?” to say I don’t know the answer to this question, and frankly, I’m not interested in it. After all of the impossible things we’ve accepted about this story—faster-than-light travel**, explosions and sound in the vacuum of space, and a magic “element” that gives people telekinetic powers in addition to solving a plethora of other inconvenient physical improbabilities like Earth-like gravity on spaceships—this is the one point where we’re going to cease suspending our disbelief? Really? That particular line of criticism holds no interest for me.

So. Refusal.

Good on Shepard. Trillions of lives were brutally snuffed out, but this way she doesn’t have to feel morally presumptuous. Principled self-sacrifice for everyone, on the house! And hey, look! We get to have an ending in which the Reapers win. Of course, they only win because you’ve chosen to let them win, but beggars can’t be choosers?

Not much can really be said about this ending because there’s not much there. It was created as an attempt to appease a fan base that felt cheated, not as a legitimately considered ending for the story. The producers bet that people wouldn’t want or expect an ending in which Shepard lost, and they bet wrong. Refusal met the demand but only at face value. They would’ve had to rewrite the entire game (the moral-choice algorithm, that is, not just the narrative) to get an ending in which the Reapers won. I think the producers just got so wrapped up in the ability of the player to make decisions that they lost sight of the fact that players were more interested in seeing the consequences of those actions. Losing to the Reapers should’ve been a consequence, not a decision.

I am curious, however, about the Stargazer at the end of the game with this decision. How did this new civilization achieve peace exactly? What made them so special that they heeded the warnings of past cycles when every other species has only ever either ignored or not found them? And we know what Shepard’s choices were at the end. Were they different for the next organic who activated the Crucible? What choice did that organic make?

Like I said: bandage. BioWare would’ve done better to stand by its original endings (including the extended cuts) than to try to shoehorn a (non)solution into the story that really just creates more confusion.


*And if I tried to answer them here, I’d be writing a book, not a blog post.

**Until those results can be replicated and supported more thoroughly, I’ll stick with Dr. Einstein and his homies on this one.

Here are a couple of simple logical syllogisms:

  • Red = Renegade. Red = Destroy. Renegade = Destroy.
  • Blue = Paragon. Blue = Control. Paragon = Control.

BioWare spent the entire franchise establishing the red/blue color system, so I don’t think quibbling over that particular point is worthwhile. However, I am willing to consider that these colors were not properly assigned in the final choice of the game.

Ostensibly, the definitive marker for either path is the body count: the more people you kill/hurt, the more Renegade you are, and the more people you save/spare/help, the more Paragon you are. A Renegade Shepard is also xenophobic, generally paranoid, and completely unhindered by that pesky social thing called consideration—she likes to let her fists do the talking. A Paragon Shepard, on the other hand, is touchy-feely and wants to save everyone all the time and would, let’s face it, out-naïve even a five-year-old. So, on the surface, the endings seem appropriately colored. The kill-em-all, show-neither-mercy-nor-quarter ending seems to fit perfectly within the paradigm of a Renegade Shepard; the but-we-don’t-have-to-kill-them, and-we-get-bonus-tech ending seems like something a Paragon Shepard would do. Or so it would seem.

The most obvious clue that not everything is as it should be is visual. The developers chose the Illusive Man to act out the Paragon choice and Admiral Anderson to act out the Renegade choice. Wuh? First of all, no. The Illusive Man is a renegade in every sense, including the dictionary definition (the second one). And Anderson? He’s brave, self-sacrificing, diplomatic (though lacking in political gusto), and even a little naïve—clearly, he was created to be part of the Paragon tradition. Why the sudden change?

Let’s go back to those definitions we were just talking about. Maybe that will provide some clarity.

The Destroy ending definitely racks up a body count. Depending on your EMS, it’s entirely possible that killing the Reapers also results in killing everyone on Earth. And of course, regardless of your EMS, all the Geth and EDI (poor Joker!) end up being the unfortunate collateral damage in the genocide (synthecide?) of the Reapers. However, destroying the Reapers also stops the cycle of “harvesting” and doesn’t necessarily have to result in the deaths of everyone and everything on Earth. Furthermore, choosing to destroy the Reapers leaves the lines of FTL communication and transportation damaged but reparable, which at least partly preserves the galactic economy. The peace following the defeat of the Reapers may be ephemeral*, but at least our destruction would be our own**, not the will of something that claims to know what’s best for us. The catalyst claims to have created the Reapers to protect organic life (Three Laws gone astray, anyone?); destroying them to protect free will—even if it is ultimately destructive to our long-term survival interest—is a Hobbesian cry of “Liberty or death!”

The Control ending on the other hand, was always off-putting to me, even without the overt association with the Illusive Man. While “destroy” is a pretty cut-and-dried word, “control” has more nuance that I find sinister. After all, didn’t the Reapers seek to control organics through indoctrination? And didn’t every indoctrinated slave think it was still in “control”? Didn’t the Reapers, in fact, want the Illusive Man to “control” them, or at least to believe that he could? Oh, and the only thing she has to give up to do it is her life. AND HER ENTIRE IDENTITY. And what about Shepard’s epilogue? Those were not the notes belonging to a benevolent government and a harmonious society and the fluffy bunnies and rainbows that run things. Those were the notes that introduce a villain. The “peace” that the galaxy knows now is not the result of a concerted effort on all sides to work together with mutual respect and dignity. It’s a result of the fact that the Shepard-Reaper fleet is pointing a lot of huge fucking guns at them and saying, “Play nice.” She may have been “the one to save the many” (I see what you did there, BioWare), but what kind of salvation is that? It sounds a bit more like tyranny to me. And how long will it be before she decides to “protect” everyone by harvesting and archiving them all over again. Because then at least they wouldn’t be killing each other.

Furthermore, the prospect that controlling the Reapers would advance our own technology by leaps in bounds makes me suspicious. It sounds a bit like the snake trying to sell the apple to me. It smacks at hubris, and we all know what happens to everyone with that particular tragic flaw. (If you don’t know, I’ll give you the CliffsNotes version: Your shit gets fucked sideways.)

So, basically, I think that BioWare got the colors wrong. Destroying the Reapers should’ve been the Paragon option; controlling them should’ve been the Renegade option. In the long run, the former has a much smaller body count than the latter.

And it’s not that I’m trying to dumb down the complexity of the final choice. I loved it. It was hard, and I don’t think it should’ve been easier to make. That complexity was a good thing for a game trying to work on the principle of having players make difficult moral choices. I think BioWare got the colors wrong because the choices are inconsistent with the type of character that would’ve chosen them. I believe a Paragon Shepard would’ve seen allowing the Reapers to remain as they are (even with a little Shepard-juice infusion) was dangerous for the entire galaxy, just as the lure of ultimate control and vast technological power would’ve been too great a temptation for a Renegade Shepard to resist.

Or maybe the developers just didn’t want to make it that cut-and-dried, that obvious, that easy. If that’s the case, the obfuscation of the two main choices reveals either inartful writing (if I’m being harsh) or the shortfall of our current gaming technology in its ability to support the myriad narrative outcomes that are necessarily a part of taking different moral paths (if I’m being generous). It’s probably a lot closer to the latter.


*On a side note, I figured out why the Destroy ending is the only one that allows Shepard to live! Galactic war, though distant, is an eventuality in this universe, not just a possibility. Where there is war, there are warriors and heroes. The world still has a place for Shepard and people like her! (Yay theory!)

**“I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way.” Robert Frost