Tuesday, May 02, 2017

May I

Time for a quick round-up post!

The new season of Mystery Science 3000 is amazing. It might be the best revival I’ve seen yet: it nails the tricky balance between rekindling the feel of the original while allowing it to breathe and grow. It feels very much like a continuation of the Joel years, which is great: more invention exchanges and songs, but also the warm-hearted goofiness that made me fall in love with the show many years ago. I enjoyed each episode, but my favorites are probably Avalanche, Starcrash, and the two Wizards of the Lost World. Special shout-out to Carnival Magic, one of the all-time worst movies they’ve ever riffed. I do have a short list of wishes if they get another season: bringing back shorts and giving Gypsy more to do inside the theater. As a whole, though, I think the cast and creators are doing great, and I really hope we can see them continue.

Speaking of television, I’m also really enjoying the second season of Love. I’m about halfway through it, but so far it’s showing a really impressive ability to continue evolving the main relationship between Gus and Mickey. It avoids hitting the reset switch that most TV shows rely on, and continues to find new ground to bring its characters through. It’s eerily good at avoiding tropes: you’ll spend a whole episode wondering when things will blow up, just to pleasantly realize at the end that, nope, they actually just had a really nice day together, and somehow that feels radical.

On the gaming front, my run through Andromeda somehow inspired me to return to Dragon Age Inquisition. I’m finally doing my long-plotted final “perfect” run. My character is Ava Lavellan, a Dalish archer. In contrast to Aztar Cadash, who saw herself as the Maker’s anointed on a mission to unify Thedas under her rule, and Visaas Adaar, who wanted nothing to do with the craziness around him, Ava is a relaxed and friendly woman, willing to help out but mostly invested in the relationships she’s making. (Ava came here to make friends, Aztar came to win.) It’s been a good game so far, but I think that I’ll probably keep Aztar’s story as my canon whenever Dragon Age 4 rolls around. Aztar made more mistakes, but that makes for a more compelling story.


As far as the actual gameplay, though, Ava has been great. I’m totally ignoring all the occularum and shards, and leaving all requisitions unfilled, which eliminates a huge amount of the annoying busy-work from the game. I’m taking this opportunity to complete the remaining achievements from the game, including all of the Trials from Trespasser. This has ended up elevating my game more than I’d expected. One of them requires you to reach Skyhold by Level 5, which helps the game a lot: the early quests become more challenging, and the game opens up so much once you reach Skyhold so it’s really in your own interest to do so. Even Ground is also fantastic: it scales all enemies to be at least your level, which helps avoid the problem where early zones become incredibly boring after you’ve outleveled them. Which is interesting: I hated Oblivion exactly because of that mechanic. It might help that it’s just an option here, and even if enemy levels/HP/XP scale, they don’t actually gain new abilities.


I’ve been taking entirely too many screenshots. I’m happy with how Ava turned out, though I can’t take any credit for her: I’ve been lurking on /r/inquisitionsliders for years, and just slightly tweaked one of the many headmorphs I’d saved along the way. As usual, I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on appearance customization and crafting, even springing for the Spoils of the Qunari and picking up a crazy/ridiculous hidden quest to acquire a pretty flower crown. I'll doubt I'll do a full post on this run, but will dump the full screens later. In the meantime, here are a few early albums:
Prologue
In Hushed Whispers through In Your Heart Shall Burn
Questing and Wicked Eyes Wicked Hearts

Oh: I meant to write this over a month ago, but I finished US(a.), a great Christmas gift from my sister and her boyfriend. It’s by Saul Williams, who I wasn’t familiar with but is a well-known poet and artist. It’s a great, intentionally discomforting work, mixing poetry and prose and theater, working through enduring issues of race in America. It ends with a surprisingly long but really excellent and heartfelt fictionalized account of Miles Davis’s time in Paris, falling in love with Juliette GrĂ©co and experiencing the pleasures of life outside of institutionalized racism.

Hm… it feels like there’s been more but that’s all that springs to mind for now. Have a happy May!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spend Less on Candles

Why are economies in RPGs so bad?


It’s a question that’s nagged at me for a while, and was underlined recently with the abysmal money system in Mass Effect Andromeda. I wanted to collect my thoughts on this situation, which affects virtually every roleplaying game I’ve ever played, and engage in baseless speculation about whether they could be improved.

Expenses


What is money used for? Details vary, but most RPGs will include one or more of the following categories.

Gear


The most commonly used expense, and generally the most significant. This traditionally includes weapons and clothing/armor, but can cover any items that improve your character’s ability to perform common tasks. Gear is commonly tiered, with earlier and cheaper items later replaced by more expensive and powerful equipment.

Maintaining Gear


This is very common in MMORPGs, and in the past has been a staple of single-player RPGs. Items will degrade over time with use, and require periodic investment to bring back up to full quality. The price generally scales with quality, so there’s a natural escalation in outlays as the game continues. This tends to be a purely negative experience, a brute chore to perform, and players never enjoy it (probably why it has become less popular over time).

Character Skills


Some games will use money to directly advance your character’s abilities, sometimes as the sole means of advancement but more often as a supplement to an XP-based system.

Party Enhancement


This is rare, but some games will use money to recruit additional NPCs to your group. More often, you will be able (or required) to spend on your followers, making the same sort of purchases for them as for your main player character.

Content


While generally controlled through spending real-world money, sometimes you can spend in-game currency to gain access to new quests, a new area to explore, or other things that extend your playtime.

Quality of Life


These expenses will directly benefit you, the player, but may not have a direct impact on your character. This might include features like fast travel or revealing a map.

Fluff


This is a broad category for any outlay which does not have a mechanical impact on your game but that players may still desire for aesthetic or roleplaying purposes. This might include cosmetics, fancy clothing without stat bonuses, lodgings for your character, lore, donations to in-game charitable organizations, or upgrades to any of the above.

Alternatives


The core of an economic system tends to be straightforward: acquire larger amounts of a currency, and then spend that currency on the above expenses. However, as RPGs have grown more complex, they have introduced multiple ways to acquire those same results. Depending on the game, these might replace the use of currency, or be offered as an alternative.

Looting


Particularly common in Western RPGs. When you defeat an enemy, they might drop items in addition to currency. Thus, to acquire gear, you can simply fight enemies to take their stuff rather than saving up to purchase for yourself.

Rewards


Accomplishing a mission may result in anything of value, from gear to additional quests to fluff.

Crafting


This system is generally separate from the numismatic economy, although they can overlap. You acquire some combination of raw materials, plans, and skills, and then build items. This approach tends to be cheaper but more time-consuming than purchasing equivalent items.

Using items or skills


You might be able to steal items directly using a Pickpocket skill, or high Charisma to convince someone to give you a house, or use an armorer’s hammer to maintain your breastplate rather than paying someone to do it.

Alternative currencies


This is particularly common in MMOs: while the main currency might be, say, gold pieces, certain items will also or exclusively be made available through tokens, badges, or other special coinage. Recent single-player games have adopted a similar system with non-numismatic currencies, such as Influence in Inquisition or Viability Points in Andromeda.

Income


Before you can spend money, you need to earn it.

Defeating enemies


The most common way of acquiring money, especially in Japanese RPGs. Enemies will drop straight money (in place of or in addition to items). Notably, if a game includes both respawning enemies and cash loot drops, then players can acquire an infinite amount of money.

Selling items


The second-most-common way of acquiring money, and in many RPGs the most profitable. Sometimes these are simple trash/valuable items that have no use other than being sold. Frequently (as in Andromeda) they are pieces of gear.

 Rewards


Instead of getting a sword that you can't use or a crown you won't wear, sometimes a quest-giver will just hand over the gift of cash at the completion of a mission.

Rents


This is a rarer but interesting situation, where a property or investment will provide a stream of income over time. Sometimes this will be acquired from a quest, other times it's something the PC can purchase. Examples include some of the strongholds in BG2, certain cryo pods in Andromeda and certain repeatable war table missions in Inquisition.

Mo Problems


Here are some of the issues I keep seeing.

Nothing worth buying


This is fresh on my mind because of Andromeda, which has a varied system for acquiring money but almost nothing to spend it on. Items may be available for purchase, but they are either inferior in quality to items that can be acquired through other means, or can be easily picked up elsewhere.

Decision paralysis


Even if there is stuff to buy, and you have money to purchase it, you might hesitate to close the sale. In a game with item drops, you might be worried that you will acquire an equivalent or superior item later at no cost. For games with multiple item tiers, you may already have your eye on the next-better piece of equipment, and want to save your money for that piece instead.

Untuned money curves 


RPGs tend to grow in scope as the game continues. The player character becomes more powerful, as do the enemies she or he faces. Similarly, at the start of the game you generally earn small amounts of money and can buy cheap items; by the end of the game you will have much more money and can buy more expensive items. If the increase of inflow does not match the increase of outflow, the economy feels broken. On the shallow end, you'll earn money too quickly, running out of items worth buying. On the steep end, money arrives too slowly, forcing you to find items elsewhere or doing without. A surprising number of games get it wrong in both directions, with money far too tight in the early stages and useless at the end.

The Reason Why


Almost every game has a bad economy, but the causes seem to vary greatly. Here are a few!

Overlapping systems


Money becomes less valuable when there are alternatives available. Making the same assets, or the same types of assets, available through alternate systems such as crafting or looting discourages players from purchasing those assets. It also makes balancing more difficult, since designers will need to accommodate players who are saving and those who are spending.

Open-ended gameplay


As I harped at in my previous post on Andromeda, modern "open world" RPGs can have a huge range of potential playtimes. A player focused on the main plot might wrap it up within 20 hours, while someone pursuing a more completionist playthrough could spend 100. That latter player will have an extra 80 hours' worth of money, and presumably access to the same stores as the former player. Again, this makes balance extremely difficult: ideally, you want to give that super-player an incentive to keep earning, without forcing other players to grind out a victory.

Adherence to "realism"


This is a less common problem these days. Examples include limiting the functionality of shops (merchants' cash on hand), inaccessible shops (traveling far to offload loot or compare prices), requiring licenses for certain purchases, or other arbitrary obstacles that impede the smooth flow of commerce. These are sometimes intended to adjust balance issues, but since they can be circumvented they end up just generating annoyances.

Potential solutions


Is it possible to have an economy that doesn't stink? I think there are a few ways to accomplish it. There isn't a silver bullet, though: each option can drastically affect the game, and most only make sense given certain pre-requisites in the design.

Get rid of money


I increasingly think that this is what Andromeda should have done. The only items I purchased were minor tokens: cheap quest items to advance a plot or aesthetic upgrades for the Nomad. Both of these could easily have been handled through the crafting system. Getting rid of credits could also have allowed them to drop the annoying micromanagement of the loot cycle. There would still be plenty of incentive to fight and complete quests with the promise of more XP, AVP, and crafting resources.

I think that money is one of those things that game designers tend to automatically include, since every RPG has been doing it for decades. In a lot of cases, though, it doesn't add anything meaningful to the game. And, particularly since so many RPGs are built around epic save-the-universe storylines, it always feels ridiculous to be negotiating with merchants as you try to equip your team to save everyone's lives. There are plenty of other tools available to track player progression, and developers should consider money to be just another possibility, not a requirement.

Money sinks


In the absence of a tightly tuned money design, money sinks are an easy way to paper over underlying deficiencies and help currency feel at least somewhat useful. Typically, these are very expensive items that don't confer a strong advantage on the player but do provide a goal for super-achievers to pursue. This might include real estate (Final Fantasy VII) or cosmetics (Dragon Age Inquisition).

Improved game design


Carefully thinking through systems can reduce or eliminate some of the common problems with money. Big modern RPGs can take a "kitchen sink" approach to design, adding more and more systems, but resulting in a mess. This is a difficult area, but I think one thing that helps is to avoid "crossing the streams": having crafting, looting, and money each yield different non-overlapping rewards. This allows each system to be tuned in isolation, instead of having an imbalance in one area break economies in the other.

Streamlined games


By far, the best economy I've seen in recent years has been in Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun games. Money is always useful, always interesting (multiple worthwhile things to buy with limited resources), and is engaging throughout the duration of the game. Part of this is due to smart economic decisions, but a huge aspect has to do with the fundamental design of the game: as a semi-linear RPG with no grinding or looting, it's far easier to balance than a sprawling open-world game like Andromeda or Fallout. The designer can know with a fair amount of certainty how much nuyen the player has acquired by a certain point in the game, and can adjust available items and prices based on that.

That won't be a solution for every game, but it may point the way for better balancing options. For example, open world games could choose to limit money payouts to the completion of plot-critical missions, while still allowing unlimited resource collection in free-roam and side-quests. That would immediately make money far more interesting, and simultaneously a lot easier to design around.

Lighten up


Finally, as a reminder to myself: it isn't that big a deal. I find broken economies frustrating, but they've never turned a good game into a bad one, only kept me from enjoying it to its fullest. In the grand scheme of things, there are for more important elements for game designers to get right than the exchange of virtual currency for virtual goods, and I should probably be grateful that they're focused on those other priorities.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Effective

Mass Effect Andromeda is a fun game, the end!


...

Okay, I suppose I can write a bit more about it:

I'd been slightly apprehensive heading into this game. Between the shift to a new studio (BioWare's Montreal division rather than the core Edmonton studio) and a new protagonist (the original trilogy exclusively followed Commander Shepard), there were enough unknowns to cool my normal anticipation for a new BioWare game. I didn't pre-order or get any of the special editions, just grabbed the game at release and dove in.


On the whole, I really like it. It pulls off a challenging trick, both continuing and reinventing the franchise. The hallmarks of the series are still present: dialogue-heavy gameplay, fast-paced squad shooter combat, beautiful planets, awesome space battles, a wide variety of alien species to meet, fight, and love. But it also upends a lot of the elements from previous games. Instead of a narrative that focuses on an existential threat that requires urgent force to combat, it's a story about exploring and building in a new galaxy. The tight binary dichotomy of Paragon and Renegade has been replaced with a more varied and textured set of tools for personalizing your character's attitude. Crafting has grown more complex. We're exploring a series of open zones rather than bespoke levels.

The end result is that it shakes up the series while keeping it recognizable. Everyone will have things that they like and dislike about those changes, but by the end of the game I was very much on board. I hesitate to say that it's better than the original trilogy, but it does certain things better, and seems confident in its own approach.


The change that most impacts gameplay is probably the shift to "open world" gameplay. I think that technically these are large zones; I tend to think of "Open World" as being a single contiguous map, as in GTA or Elder Scrolls, rather than a series of huge maps, like Shadow of Mordor, Rise of the Tomb Raider, or Dragon Age: Inquisition. Both designs result in a similar outcome: lots of player freedom, in that you can proceed at your own pace and direction, wandering around the map and doing things as they catch your interest; outside of a few critical plot missions, you can even stop a mission partway through and just go do something else for a while.


For years, I've been on the record as saying that my ultimate dream game would be an offspring of Bethesda and BioWare, which unified a large and immerse open world with vivid characters and a compelling plot. I've now gotten two of these games, with Dragon Age Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda. And... I don't love them as much as I feel like I should? Don't get me wrong, I do still love them (especially DA:I), but given my earlier statements I would think that I'd be ecstatic.

While playing Andromeda, I pondered this. Why wasn't it as awesome as it "should" be? I don't have a solid answer, but I do have a couple of thoughts.

First, when anticipating these mythical "ultimate games", what I'm really wishing for is something like Ultima VI or VII, but better: modern graphics and interface, and a deeper story. Thinking back on those games and comparing them to contemporary RPGs, I think part of the difference is how "gamified" the new RPGs are. That's a silly thing to say! What I mean, though, is that in the classic Ultimas, the world was something that existed in its own right, not as a source to mine for more gameplay. For all the time I spent wandering in Britannia, almost none of it mattered: there's no compelling reason to wander into fields, to chat with the farmer, to milk the cow, to churn the butter, to mill the grain, etc. If you just want to play the game, you can ignore like 80% of the world. But the fact that it's there, and deep, elevates the game: you feel like you're participating in the world, that it's a fully-realized place, which makes the big plot stuff feel all the more important: you know that this war will affect that farmer, even though he doesn't have anything direct to say about the threats facing his country.

In a modern RPG, though, that world would be seen as a wasted opportunity. You would have a Task for Visit Every Farmfield, yielding bonus XP upon completion. There would be an Achievement to Milk 100 Cows, granting you a special badge on Steam. Churning butter would unlock a new Codex entry. This would all be placed in service of increasing the total number of hours of "gameplay": "Yeah, you can beat Ultima XXI in 30 hours, but a completionist playthrough should last you 120 hours."

New and old RPGs both embrace open worlds, but they end up with opposite effects. New RPGs are Skinner boxes, training us in OCD behavior, doling out little morsels of mini-quests and lore nuggets to keep us engaged. Old RPGs were unstructured sandboxes, giving us the total freedom to wander or not, to sightsee or not, to come up with our own stupid ridiculous goals like dragging a cannon from Castle Britain to Yew or stealing every spoon in the game. Those old games felt relaxing, places I would want to spend hours wandering. The new games generate mild anxiety, a fresh checklist that I must complete before I'm allowed to stop playing.


The worlds themselves feel different too: games like Andromeda and Inquisition are "detailed" more than they're "real". They look incredible, but have relatively little interaction: you can't pull books off of shelves or rifle through desk drawers or pick fruit off the table. That isn't necessarily a bad thing - curated environments can be wonderful, and BioWare has a strong track record of making great ones. But it's another thing that creates a sense of distance from the truly "open" worlds of the past, where your character could do anything physically possible, from smashing an armoire into bits to flinging dishes into the street. These BioWare games are still essentially about telling a story, and not simulating a universe; but now that story has dozens or hundreds of subplots to resolve, and few or no plots you can create on your own. (The Bethesda games come much closer to the realism level of the Ultimas, though they still fall short - there's more detail than before, but very few opportunities to modify the game world apart from small objects.)


Ultimately, though, I think the big difference here is probably just myself. I find myself dreaming of an unstructured world that I can explore and enjoy at my leisure; but if I had that kind of game, would I realistically play it? There's a world of difference between the kid who played Ultima games and the adult playing Mass Effect. Back then, I had plenty of time and no money; I loved losing myself in those virtual worlds, telling stories as much as listening to them. Now, though, video games play a small (but, obviously, precious) part of my life, and I'm very conscious of everything I'm not doing when I'm playing a game. If a game can come in, get out, and make me feel something, then I consider it a good game. If it can do that in a few hours instead of dozens, then I consider it a great game. I just don't have much appetite for losing myself in virtual worlds for its own sake. That doesn't mean that this goal is bad or that there aren't plenty of folks who would enjoy it. But I probably need to start doing a better job of aligning my pre-existing notions of what would make a great game with what experience has taught me that I actually enjoy playing.

The above stuff probably sounds negative, so I should re-emphasize that I did enjoy all of the dozens of hours that I played Andromeda; it just set off that particular train of thought. "Waah, this game isn't perfect!" There are definitely advantages to shedding the more streamlined and linear gameplay of ME2/ME3, and it feels great to see the evolving impact that your actions have on the planets and connect with the land in that way. Unlike, say, Rise of the Tomb Raider, which would have been a very enjoyable game without its open-world component, Andromeda benefits directly from its freer gameplay, both narratively and mechanically. I quibble, but it's something they did for a clear reason, and it has strong advantages.


On an unrelated note: I was disappointed by the clubs in this game. They've been a strong element of all three Mass Effect games, reaching a zenith with Afterlife in ME2. There are several clubs you can visit here, but they're all pretty miserable. Most of them are dead, with just a bar and a few patrons awkwardly standing around. There's a single club that looks cool - Tartarus in the Kadara Slums - but the music here sucks, which makes all the partying folks look ridiculous. Sigh. It feels like they have the tools to make something great... there's great lighting, tunes, and modeling in the game, they just never all come together in an appealing way. It's a small thing, but was always a highlight of the earlier games for me, and I was a little bummed to not have that here.

MINI SPOILERS

The dialogue in this game can be good, but the written stuff is excellent. Emails and crew bulletin messages and other electronic communication tends to be really funny, and can also be poignant and touching. The absolute highlights for me were the terminal messages on New Tuchanka, which have turned the Krogan into my new favorite species.


I dallied a little with Vetra and Peebee early on, but quickly focused on Suvi as my love interest for this playthrough. That was largely driven by her fantastic voice, but I was also intrigued by her character. She is the ship's science officer: not a core member of your away team that you adventure with planet-side, but a consistent presence on your ship's bridge, along with Kallo the Salarian pilot. Her main role in the gameplay is to notify you of interesting astronomical phenomena you encounter; story-wise, she's involved in analyzing unusual technology you encounter and inventing original techniques and devices to accomplish goals.

Given that scientific occupation, you would assume that she would be a hyper-logical, Spock-like character. She ends up being a lot more interesting, though. She's driven by a sense of wonder and passion, delighting in the beauty of the universe and the mysteries it contains. In an early conversation, she reveals that she is religious, and sees the handiwork of God in the creation she so loves exploring. She doesn't see any tension between her faith and science: every new discovery she makes deepens her appreciation for the creator.


I thought that was cool. At first I thought it was really original - I can't think off hand of another human character in the franchise that has addressed religion. (The Asari have a vague religion. There were a few Codex entries describing in general terms that Earth's religions went through upheaval after discovering intelligent life on other planets, but none of the humans we've met have had much to say about it.) I tend to think of the BioWare folks as being genial secularists, and was pleasantly surprised to see a positive representation of a character of faith.

But then I remembered, duh, Dragon Age: not only have they included multiple characters with religious convictions, but I invariably end up romancing them. They've covered a wide range of backgrounds and explored different aspects of faith, but always in ways that feel genuine and respectfully engaged. Leliana in Origins is a conversion story: someone who walked in a dark path, then had a religious experience, and has become much more fervent in her beliefs than those born into the faith. Merrill is a cultural believer, whose sense of history and faith are strongly intertwined, and who looks to that background for support and direction. And Sera is a seeker, with an unarticulated sense of longing, trying to find answers to the existential questions that fill her with dread. Now, to this collection we can add Suvi, whose belief provides a framework with which she can analyze and take joy in the experiences around her.


Anyways, I shouldn't be surprised: regardless of what faiths the developers may or may not have, religion has been and continues to be a significant force in the world, and it's a valuable element in building characters. I'm sure that lots of people write about war and death when they've never killed another person, so why not explore this other vector of human experience?

I do think it's interesting, and pretty cool, that Sera and Suvi have both been people of faith and lesbians, without mining that for any angst or conflict. These are imaginary worlds, after all, and it's really refreshing to see those aspects able to live in harmony rather than pitted against each other.

Speaking of lesbians... after a couple of these games, I'm increasingly happy with the "mosaic" approach towards representation in BioWare games, where potential love interests are spread across a spectrum of heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual characters (with a birdie from Iron Bull in the pansexual department). It does occasionally lead to in-the-moment frustration ("Why doesn't Cora like Sara?!"), but I think there's a ton of value in representing the different types of people in the world. Dragon Age 2-style "everyone is bi" feels better in the short-term, but is ultimately a flatter experience, and feels manufactured around the player character rather than an organic environment into which they have arrived.


That said: this is the second game in a row in which homosexual characters have felt a bit like second-class citizens. Mass Effect 3 was the first game with "pure" same-sex relationships, and both of them were support staff who hung out on the Normandy but would never join you in the field. They were still really cool characters, eminently likeable and with good arcs of their own; but since they weren't present during any of the missions, they had an order of magnitude fewer lines and less impact on the story around you. I think the literal amount of "romance content" was fairly close for heterosexual and homosexual characters, but they couldn't be a part of your life in quite the same way, fighting side-by-side with you and bantering with your friends and commenting on the obstacles you encountered.

I don't want to make a big deal out of this - again, they are good characters, and I don't want a checklist of boxes that diverse characters must check - but I did raise my eyebrows when the exact same thing happened again in this game: once again, two same-sex characters, and once again, they're the support staff, confined to stay hidden at home while the rest of you head out into the world.

As usual, I think Dragon Age shows a more positive alternative. First of all, they mix things up quite a bit more, with Dorian and Sera as two fantastic companions, Cullen and Josephine as engaged advisors. While the advisors in Dragon Age are also kind of support staff, I feel like they got to be very present: you're regularly interacting with them for the various War Table missions, receiving frequent reports from them, assigning them to go on tasks, listening to them banter among the other advisors. It's still a step down from life in the party, but a shorter step, and would be more of a consolation.

Representation is definitely a hot topic these days, which everyone (including me) wants to weigh in on. I think that's a good thing, especially with the contemporary conversations taking place these days in the US and elsewhere. However, it is a little disheartening that many fans (including me!) reflexively reduce characters to simple gender/orientation pairings. "Gil = Gay Male", "Josephine = Bisexual Female", and so on. Characterization continues to be BioWare's strongest suit, and these labels aren't helpful at communicating their personalities: Sera and Traynor might fall into the same bucket, but they're worlds apart.

I think a big part of the reason for that is because romance is so important to us BioWare fans, and gender and orientation are the two factors that determine whether or not we'll be able to pursue a particular character. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about this: it does seem odd for those to be the sole factors in allowing or forbidding a relationship. In the real world, the odds that a random heterosexual man and woman will have a successful relationship are extremely slim. There are a whole host of factors, both definable and obscure, that come into play. Why not start considering some of those as well in our games?

This actually was more common in earlier RPGs. Baldur's Gate 2 was exclusively hetero, but still had restrictions: potential love interests had certain racial preferences (Aerie isn't interested in half-orcs, and Jaheira won't waste her time with gnomes) and alignment preferences. Fans created mods that added new queer love interests, but also added requirements of their own: Nalia got a fantastic new romance, which she would only pursue with a strong fighting man.

This all feels more realistic. Is it really more fun, though? Throwing up even more obstacles in the way of love would frustrate players even more. My current crazy idea (which I like in theory but would probably be untenable in practice) would be for characters to have a range of preferences, with romance possible above a certain threshold. So, for example, Cassandra is generally attracted to men; but, if the right woman comes along who looks a certain way, who makes certain kinds of choices, who follows a certain profession, etc., then she might be curious enough to experiment. I dunno... that would probably make it too complex and frustrating in a different way ("Why doesn't Cassandra like my jerk dwarf thief?!"), but it might make for an interesting experiment.

I've written many paragraphs without talking about Andromeda. Yikes.

MEGA SPOILERS

One last thing before moving on from representation: was anyone else weirded out by the Gil/Jill storyline? I know several gay couples who have had children, and nothing that comes close to what's depicted here. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt... norms might have changed significantly over several hundred years, and we're still in the first generation or two of recognized same-sex families, so maybe those bright lines are more important now than they will be in the future. Still, my eyebrows rose MANY inches during that last conversation with Gil. I feel like this would have made a lot more sense if humanity was directly facing a Battlestar Galactica-style species-extinction event, or a Genophage / Children of Men type of reproductive disaster. Within the context of settling Andromeda, though, it seemed deeply weird to me.

Back to the game itself: I generally enjoyed the plot and world-building, but was left a bit cold by the choices. Not always for the same reason, either. Sometimes they felt frustratingly limited, as in the murder investigation: you need to pick between two silly extremes instead of the middle road that the situation demands. Others are just dumb, like dealing with the Salarian traitors: given that they've already betrayed the ark, specifically to acquire information, there's really no reason why they wouldn't share their intelligence with you, since that was the whole point of them doing it in the first place! And quite often, the choices felt severely unbalanced, without any compelling reason for a particular side. Turn the remnant drive core over to the Krogan, and you can re-integrate this immensely powerful force back into the Initiative as friends and protectors, and start a new settlement on the planet. Keep the core for yourself, and...... what, exactly? Or, near the end of the game, you can decide to cut a secret deal with the Kett second-in-command, to abandon the Archon and allow you a clearer path to kill him. Why wouldn't you take that deal? Those aren't necessarily bad choices, but it feels like they forgot to explain the downside to making them.


In general, the choices don't seem to affect much. I rescued the rogue Angaran AI, which did lead to some very amusing dialogue back on the Hyperion, but never actually impacted things one way or another. Picking to save or destroy various Pathfinders affects future cutscenes and dialogue, but doesn't seem to make a mechanical impact on the game. Honestly, though, I think this is more or less in line with the choices in the earlier Mass Effect games. Stuff like saving the Rachni queen in Mass Effect 1 seemed like huge choices with galaxy-shaking consequences, but ended up only having a minor flavor effect on the game. Over the course of the trilogy, there were really just a handful of decisions that had significant impact on the game itself: like Virmire and the Suicide Mission.

One recurring theme of playing Andromeda was making me even more deeply appreciative of Dragon Age. Particularly in the choice-and-consequences department, DA has been especially strong at altering the course of the game: from Connor Guerrin to the Landsmeet to the Dark Ritual to Hushed Whispers to the Pool to... well, there are a lot, which can have both immediate and long-lasting reverberations, drastically altering the tone of subsequent play-throughs. I don't want to rag on Mass Effect - it's always been pursuing a more cinematic experience than Dragon Age, and tells its story very well - but it's a story with fewer variations, and the people who play Mass Effect will have similar experiences to one another, in contrast with the wider-ranging journeys taken in Dragon Age.


In some ways, though, Mass Effect seems to be picking up good features from Dragon Age (much as Dragon Age has inherited better cinematics). One particular thing that jumped out at me was the great final mission on Meridian. This reminded me in a really good way of the Arbor Wilds sequence in Inquisition: you're leading a small squad, but at the same time an entire army of your allies, in a fast-paced and enthusiastic pursuit of your foe. I love these "all skate" endings, which Dragon Age has always done well: it's thrilling to see Bann Teagan and Enchanter Irving and your various armies arrive to battle the archdemon, or Cullen and your other party members arrive to fight Meredith, or Briala and Celene arrive to lead Orlesian troops against Corypheus. I don't think that's been a part of Mass Effect endings before: narratively, there's a huge battle taking place at the end of ME1, but it doesn't actually affect what you personally are doing much. Here, though, it was a blast to take the field with Sloane and Kandros and the other friends I'd made along the way.

END SPOILERS

Anyways, hopefully that's a good sign! While I do enjoy Mass Effect, Dragon Age remains my first love, and it's very encouraging to see more and more of that DNA spreading across.


Last but (maybe?) not least, here are my albums! After all my complaining about not being able to take screenshots, I finally came up with the most ridiculous, jury-rigged daisy-chained work-around ever (running Origin through Steam so I could double-overlay the game and finally capture the dang screen). I have a bunch of photos, but they start from maybe 40 hours or so into the game. Lots of spoilers, I guess. I realize I didn't talk much about the actual game itself in this post; there's more of that in the captions to these shots.
Here are some pictures
Here are some more pictures
The last mission
The ending of the game


And, in a non-spoilery vein, here's an album just of outer-space screenshots. I have a crazy theory that this is a very pretty game that looks nice, and I think these images support that theory.

That's it for now! I've finally determined that the secret to making SAM stop talking is to stop playing the game, so that's what I'll be doing for at least the next couple of weeks. I will probably come back to this after some future patches, and will almost certainly be picking up whatever expansions come out. I'm not sure yet if I'll actually do a second playthrough or not... I've only ever done one with the original trilogy, and apart from the other romances, there isn't a whole lot that I want to experience which I haven't already done here. Still, there's enough left to do in the world that I might continue Valiri Ryder's story for a while longer, spending more time on those beautiful planets and taking the excuse of unfinished tasks to go on another voyage.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Massive Effect

Just another quick check-in on Mass Effect: Andromeda. I’m now about 50 hours into the game, which I think is just counting the singleplayer portion; I’ve probably played about a dozen hours of multiplayer on top of that. I’m still really liking it. I have plenty of complaints, but that’s par for the course with a huge, ambitious game like this.

I wasn’t expecting this, but ME:A has felt a lot like Dragon Age: Inquisition. The original trilogy of ME was very distinct from the first two DA games, in technology and tone and interface and design. At the surface, these games are still pretty different - Mass Effect is a sci-fi shooter while Dragon Age is a fantasy roleplaying game - but a surprising number of underlying mechanics are shared between the two. Some particular examples that jump out to me:

Resource collection. Collecting elfroot has turned into mining aluminum. As with DA, there are multiple ways to acquire these resources: personally picking them up within the world, or ordering your organization to handle it for you.

Influence in DA:I has become Andromeda Viability Points in ME:A, and Perks have become Cryo Pods. They’re sorted similarly: Forces / Secrets / Connections / Inquisition now map onto Military / Science / Commerce. Many of the specific perks provide the same upgrades: larger inventory, automatic resource collection, special inventories unlocked, discounts on transactions, etc.

The War Table in DA:I has become Apex in ME:A. It’s a similar link between in-game actions and “missions” that take place in the real world. The fiction behind both is pretty much the same: you recruit folks and then send them off to perform tasks that your main character can delegate. Rewards are similar as well (credits/gold, research/influence, resources/resources). There are a couple of differences - most War Table missions were unique one-time affairs while all of the Apex missions are repeatable, you actually level up your Apex operatives over time, and you can fail Apex missions.

Multiplayer is pretty similar, both the in-game fiction (Inquisition forces in DA:I, Apex strike teams in ME:A) and the overall progression. So far I’ve been enjoying ME:A’s multiplayer a lot more; I think I prefer the unlocking/upgrading mechanic of DA:I, but the actual matches in ME:A are more enjoyable, and while it has issues so far it’s been less buggy than DA:I’s.

The Mass Effect series seems to be taking the same evolutions over its predecessors as Dragon Age has. Where earlier games were more focused on the exceptional actions of one extraordinary individual and their cool friends, the latest game places that person in a position of authority in a larger organization. You aren’t on a quest to save the world: you’re rallying a civilization behind you, growing its influence and shaping its policies. On the flip side, both franchises have shifted from largely bespoke, custom environments to more sprawling open-world-ish zones. And added jumping! We now have huge, gorgeous areas to wander through, but also more fetch quests and a less focused narrative.

And, of course, the shared core BioWare DNA drives even more similarities between the franchises: the dialogue wheel, focus on companions, epic plot line, generally diverse cast, lots of customization options for the player character.

There are also changes from the original trilogy, beyond “making it more like Dragon Age”. A couple that spring to mind:

Paragon and Renegade are gone. I’m generally happy with this - Paragon/Renegade is way better than Good/Evil, but I still vastly preferred Dragon Age’s more complex and situational morality. That said, the new system is a lot less impactful. It reminds me a little of Dragon Age 2’s “tones”, which included categories like Diplomatic, Sarcastic, and Aggressive. There are a bunch here: Emotional, Logical, Casual, but they don’t seem to carry as much weight. Which might be a good thing… I’ve never gone, “Oh, I’m playing a Logical character, so I need to click the gear to proceed.” But there also doesn’t seem to be all that much difference between the choices.

They’ve also replaced the old Interrupts (which had to be either Paragon or Renegade) with a new system of “Impulsive Action”, which is always a binary choice to do something or not. I really appreciate how, like in the original trilogy, you sometimes (maybe often) DON’T want to take the action. They seem to be a lot less common than in the old games, but it’s been a while since I played them and I may be mis-remembering their frequency.

ME:A continues the Dragon Age tradition of putting big ole’ hearts next to the buttons that you click to initiate or pursue a romance with another character, which is a change I 100% approve of. As in DA:I (and ME3) there are a variety of sexualities represented, which is cool to see. ME:A also adds a new type of icon, called “Friendship”, which… I don’t really get? So far I’ve only seen it pop up for a single character, and my Ryder’s line-reading of those choices sounds several levels more intimate than pure “friendship”.

Ryder is growing on me even more. I’ll always love Jennifer Hale’s Shepard, but I really appreciate how Ryder’s background lends itself to a more purely fun personality. Shepard was military, and by default adopted a gruff, no-nonsense attitude. (The perk being, when she DID turn sarcastic, it was unexpected and awesome.) Ryder is more quippy and seems to be enjoying her job and the thrill of exploration and making new friends more.

I think the companions are, across the board, more pleasant to be around. This isn’t NECESSARILY an improvement - some of the most memorable BioWare companions have been the divisive ones with strongly negative qualities. But I think the cast here is one of the most purely likable of any recent BioWare game; there’s no equivalent to broadly-disliked characters like Jacob or adversarial companions like Anders/Ashley. (Though this might change by the time I finish the game! I’ve done everyone’s loyalty quest so far but I’m pretty sure I still have a ways to go in the main plot.)

A few more complaints to append to my previous list:

The economy is janked. I’m not super-surprised; it’s never been great in any BioWare game, and is especially hard to do well in open-world RPGs. But I think this is the worst of any game I’ve played lately. I’m about 50 hours into the game, and have built up about 41,000 credits in small increments of 40 and 50 credits, and there’s absolutely nothing that I want to buy. Here’s the sum total of everything I’ve purchased:
  • 20 credits to respec my character
  • A couple hundred to buy unique quest items to complete specific missions
  • A couple hundred for collectible ships (zero gameplay benefit, just for fun)
  • I guess some nomad upgrades? Let’s say a few hundred credits total. This is the only mechanically useful thing I’ve found yet that’s worth buying.
That’s IT. There’s no point in buying any weapons or armor: you find plenty while questing, and the stuff you can craft is an order of magnitude better than anything you can buy. There’s no point in buying resources: you get a ton while playing the game (or even while NOT playing the game, based on your Apex / Cryo choices), and the stuff that’s actually rare like Remnant Cores aren’t available to buy. There aren’t any money sinks at all that I can find. DA:I’s economy wasn’t great, but at least it had somewhat-meaningful options to dump the excess, where you could buy raw Influence or cosmetics. I have no idea why I’m still earning money, when I’ve spent almost none of it and have nothing worth saving for.

Skill economy is pretty bleh as well. I just reached level 40, and have no idea what to do with all of my skill points. You can only have up to 3 active skills at a time, which will take a total of 63 points to max out. You can put more points into passive trees, but I’ve already maxed all of mine out, including the useless ones in Biotics and Combat. It made a bit more sense in the earlier games, where you could have more active skills at a time, but I’m baffled at what I’m supposed to do now. I suppose I’m probably supposed to invest in more skills, and switch between different sets depending on the situation? But constant remapping of keys seems like a huge pain to me.

But also a few new bright spots:

While the hair is still bad, it isn’t AS bad as in DA:I. In particular, I’ve found one NPC with a ponytail that I like, so, yay, we know that good hair can exist in this galaxy!

I like how there isn’t any fall damage. It makes exploration more fun. It also makes perfect sense within the context of the game world: Ryder is wearing a jetpack, after all, and could definitely ease the descent. (There are some annoyingly well-hidden crevices in underground maps that lead to infinite falls, especially on a few combat maps where you’re moving around quickly without a lot of time to plan your route, but fortunately these just strip some health and set you back at a safe location rather than insta-kill you.)

Here’s my wish list for changes to this game, sorted from most important to least.
  1. Shut SAM up. I’m at the point where I would gladly pay for a five dollar DLC to permanently disable him. Though it would also be cool to research and develop a “mute” switch for him. Or just an in-game audio option. I don’t care. Just make him stop talking, please.
  2. Add a screenshot button, or convince their friends at EA to add one to Origin.
  3. Mirror of Transformation-style thing to re-morph Ryder’s face in-game. I’m generally really happy with her, but would love to just touch up her lipstick a little.
  4. For character creation and armor customization and any paint-related thing, add a “revert” option. It’s easy to mess something up, and (as far as I can tell here, as in DA:I) impossible to switch back to what you were using before, short of saving and re-loading.
  5. Better goals for multiplayer. I really miss the old weekend challenges, and the new nameplates are a lot less cool than the old banners.

BioWare is apparently making an announcement tomorrow, so we’ll see if they answer any of my wishes!

MINI SPOILERS

I’m really digging the loyalty missions so far. In particular, I think Liam’s is my favorite one of the entire Mass Effect series, and maybe better than the Dragon Age ones. Everything about it is wonderful: the tone, the plot that keeps spiraling further out of control, the comical music cues, the timing, cinematography, creative level design, squad bonding… it’s so tight and so focused and so packed with personality. I love it so much! I was lukewarm on Liam before this, but now he’s one of my favorite squaddies.

So far I’ve been in my “romance everyone” phase. There was a relatively early hookup opportunity with Peebee that seems to be along the same lines as Morrigan in DA:O and Isabela in DA2: a “just for fun” fling that simultaneously terminates the romance line. Learning from my mistakes in those earlier games (and with some nicely guarded guidance from my brother, who has already beat this freakin’ game) I took the easy out rather than stringing her further along. I really like both Vetra and Suvi, for very different reasons… I’m currently learning towards Suvi, who has a fantastic voice (and the odd but endearing character quirk of “tries to eat things that she really shouldn’t”). It looks like I’ll need to continue the plot further to lock in the romance, though.

MEGA SPOILERS

Thus far, Valiri Ryder’s primary objective has been building up the Initiative/Angaran alliance, which has been the deciding factor in a couple of major decisions so far. When deciding the fate of the Kett “exalting” facility, Ryder’s generally compassionate and companionable orientation was overridden by the explicit plea of the Moshae. While Valiri generally gets along with Jaal, it seemed more prudent to appease a crucial figure like the Moshae.

Apart from the alliance, Valiri is mostly driven by a general desire to help people: make the galaxy safe, reconcile the Exiles with the Nexus, encourage and support her team. Some of the decisions give good opportunities to explore and express these values; others just seem dumb. The murder investigation is an oft-cited example of an annoying quest, where a complex situation gets reduced to a rigid binary choice that satisfies nobody (though, in my case, the epilogue seemed to end things in a better way than I had expected, with the murderer voluntarily re-entering stasis). Another one that seemed dumb was the protestors who were demanding their family to be release from cry. Which… for what?! The Initiative is still trying to feed and house the people it already has; bringing more people out will just make them miserable. It isn’t hurting anyone to keep them in longer, and if we DID start thawing out people, why would we set the precedent of unfreezing the relatives of people who complain the most? Things like that could have been more compelling with different parameters (life-or-death, or deciding the order of revival after the colonies have been secured), but as delivered it just seems weird.

The game seems to put a lot of emphasis on Ryder’s family relations. I didn’t feel particularly invested in the paternal bond, so I’ve been picking the options along the lines of “we weren’t that close.” Which I’ve been pretty happy with and the game seems to be honoring; I get annoyed when a game pushes the idea of “the player character feels very emotionally invested in this character!” (one of the most frustrating aspects of ME3), and it’s nice to be able to opt out of that bond while still letting it be an important element of the plot.

That said, the quests and choices seem to have been getting better and more interesting the further I get in the game. I was ambivalent about Sloane’s regime on Kadara for a long time: her methods can be cruel, and I want to encourage exiles to return to the Nexus rather than establish opposing power centers. Still, at the end of that quest chain, I ended up saving her and shooting Reyes: not so much because I agreed with Sloane’s political platform as because Reyes personally irritated me. Sloane may be corrupt, but I can work with her; Reyes is even less trustworthy, and without any solid information from him on how his victory might benefit the Nexus, I wasn’t at all inclined to support his move.

Let’s see, what else… I saved the probably-evil AI on Voeld and set her up with SAM. I suspect this will have disastrous consequences, but want to see how it plays out. It reminds me a bit of the decision with the Rachni queen back in the original Mass Effect. (And, now that I think of it, it's also very similar to how I handled APEX in Shadowrun Dragonfall. Hm, there may be a trend here...)

I’m sure there’s more; I’ll probably do a full run-down in a post-game post, as well as a more structured reflection on the story as a whole.

END SPOILERS

Okay, back into it! I’ve been digging the game a lot so far. I think I still have a fair amount left to go; up until now I’ve been following my standard operating procedure for RPGs and focusing on all of the side quests. Sooner or later I’ll roll back onto the main priority missions and blast through to the end. Looking forward to seeing where this story goes! It’s been fun on its own terms so far, and is also a promising indicator for what the future of the franchise might look like in Andromeda.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

How Far I'll Go

This is just a preliminary check-in on Mass Effect: Andromeda. I'm still very early in the game, but am enjoying it so far.

VERY MINI SPOILERS

Highlights:
  • It looks GORGEOUS. The science-fiction design and artwork has always been a hallmark of the series, and continues to shine, from the gleaming spaceship interiors to the nebulae and black holes you encounter while flying.
  • I'm really digging the voice acting so far. I miss Jennifer Hale, of course, but Ryder sounds great, and the rest of the cast is really solid as well. Particular shout-outs to bureaucratic Salarian Kumail Nanjiani, sweet doctor Natalie Dormer, and lilting Suvi.
  • Combat feels really good. I'm still finding my feet, but the jetpack adds a great new dimension (literally!) to movement and strategy. I'm also happy that tech and biotic powers now have synergy with one another, which gives more flexibility in team composition.
  • Some excellent writing, particularly in drunken email messages.
Things I miss from the original trilogy:
  • Whenever I talk to SAM I think about EDI and get sad at the comparison.
  • So far, no character is filling the Joker role.
  • The Vortex feels like an incredibly pale imitation of the awesome clubs in the earlier games. I'm hoping that either it upgrades over time or other entertainment outlets open.
Early complaints:
  • No screenshots! I feel more stunned than upset about this. I can't believe that in the 21st century I can't easily show off a video game I'm playing. There's no built-in screenshot function (although there is a "Screenshots" folder), and Origin doesn't have a Steam-style capture option. I've been investigating some third-party alternatives (FRAPS,  Ansel), but they have limitations that crimp my process (FRAPS captures in BMP, Ansel doesn't work during conversations or cut-scenes). I suppose it's a benefit to readers of this blog, though... no more albums filled with hundreds of photos! The main thing I regret is I can't show off my Ryder, who I think looks pretty good.
  • Some of the dialog is groan-inducing... but that isn't really new for the series.
  • Multiplayer randomly crashes to desktop without any error messages. Which is a shame, because I loved the ME3 multiplayer and have been enjoying Andromeda's when it actually works.
  • Inventory management whyyyyyyyyyy. They fixed this after the first game! It's my pet peeve about RPGs, and I hate spending tons of time sorting through items in menus instead of actually playing the danged game. The fact I have to do it at all is irritating; actually processing stuff is even worse, since you need to move between multiple physical locations to equip/unequip items, remove mods, and sell items. The carry limit is so low that you need to do this after every major mission. Ugh.

END SPOILERS

That's it so far! I'm sure I'll have plenty more to say later, but in these early hours I'm really digging the game.