Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Starveling Cat! The Starveling Cat! Look What It Did to Your Nice New Cravat!

I'm having a blast with Fallen London. I'm regularly surprised and pleased at how much things change as the game progresses. The underlying mechanics stay similar, but are often explored in cool new ways; more importantly, the overarching plot threads are going in unexpected directions that give you a huge variety of cool things to do.


My current general strategy in the game is to focus on activities in a particular area until the associated Menace gets to be too high (generally over 4). I then switch to another location, usually the one that will exercise my lowest major Quality and for which my associated Menace is rather low. Over time, I'll get various Opportunity cards that will bring back down my Menace level, and I'll pick up some Second Chances; eventually, I'll cycle back around to the same location, and the Second Chances will give me enough time to make good progress before my Menace even starts to rise.

I've come to enjoy this approach, since it lets me stay long enough in one location to get a good feeling for its character and the rewards each storylet has to offer.  My other major Qualities will continue to rise, at a slower rate, thanks to the random Opportunity cards that crop up. If something very interesting develops, I'll happily travel to an associated location and pursue that line of inquiry. Again, though, what's impressive about Fallen London is that you really can play it any way you like. I imagine that some people will travel between locations quite frequently to avoid repeating storylets, while others will happily continue to stay in a single spot and find more proactive ways of handling their Menaces.

I now hardly ever sell anything at the Bazaar, and only buy items that I can't acquire through story or crafting; I think in the last several weeks my only purchase has been some Souls that I needed to create Brilliant Souls to pursue the case of the fidgeting writer. (I tend to ally with the Church over Hell, so I don't get many souls.) The crafting system is pretty cool; you can trade in many low-level items to gain some higher-level items, and in some cases, you can trade between different types of items (like exchanging Appalling Secrets for Journals of Infamy). At a very high level, you can even craft items of clothing. In pursuit of a plot-related item, I traded up a ton of Whispered Secrets that I had acquired, eventually ending up with a cache of five (!) Patent Scrutinizers, my first-ever "weapon." When I needed to raise some Echoes to purchase souls, I sold one of the four superfluous scrutinizers, and was shocked to see that each would sell for 12 echoes. Up until then, whenever I'd needed to raise money I would sell Rostygold or Nevercold Brass Silver for a measly 1 penny each, so seeing the result of my crafting was astonishing. I'm currently saving up a lot of wine in the hopes of taking advantage the next time Mr. Wines holds a sale through an opportunity card.


At the moment, I am absolutely obsessed with the University. I'm like a kid in a candy store, I just can't stop sampling everything I see. Getting to the University took a decent amount of effort; it wasn't exactly grinding, but it was a fairly linear if flavorful quest in the Forgotten Quarter. It felt a little like Indiana Jones, I guess, what with the archaeology, but I particularly loved the academic bent that the story takes after you've discovered the Correspondence and start spending time trying to decipher it. I think that's what I love most about Fallen London: it can make a game out of stuff that's interesting in real life but that nobody's made a game of before, like pursuing an academic rivalry or attending a society ball or crafting forgeries.

There's so much I love about the University that it's hard to know where to start. First of all, the sheer variety of opportunities is impressive. There are a couple of other parts in the game where your major Quality level can make it hard to find appropriate activities; sometimes I'll have to choose between a Low-risk challenge, which will only slowly raise my Quality, and a Chancy or High-risk one, which has an increased risk of Menace. When I arrived at the University and completed my initial orientation with Benthic and Summerset colleges, I had almost a half-dozen different storylets available, each perfectly tuned to my preferred Modest challenge level.

Secondly, the way you progress through the University is very unique. In most locations up to this point, your generic Storylets (not the yellow-bordered serial stories or the blue-bordered Ambitions) are tied to your major Quality: they appear once you reach a certain level, and disappear after your level grows too high. The University, though, operates instead on an academic calendar. A new minor quality, "Term progressing..." starts at 1, and gradually increases as you complete academic storylets. The available storylets, in turn, change as time goes on, removing some activities or continuing a longer-running plot thread. For example, you might spend the early part of the term preparing lessons, researching at the library, or mingling with the college; late in the term, you'll deliver lectures, track down particularly rare books in the stacks, participate in inter-college sports, and perhaps attend the great feast.

My favorite ongoing university story, though, has to be the murder mystery. It's a really clever, Agatha Christie-type fiction, where you collect clues, interview witnesses, and, at the end of the term, can make an accusation. I got it wrong on my first attempt, but I think I should be able to try again in my second term. What's most impressive is how they managed to fit this into the repeatable Storylet format, instead of the more obvious yellow serialized story format. That helps make the mystery feel more connected to the general atmosphere of the University, rather than an independent piece that happens to be set there.

In other Fallen London news: I am ascending the ranks of Mr. Pages' Reliables, and after tracking down an Unfinished Man and retrieving some stolen goods, I have gained my first-ever point in Associated with the Masters of the Bazaar! I'm pretty excited about that. I, erm, also happen to be Plotting Against the Masters of the Bazaar (currently at level 2, having committed arson), so I'm guessing those two threads will come to a head at some point. Or maybe not. It's Fallen London, so who knows?


I've recently overturned my self-imposed ban on the "Like" button on Facebook to Like a few of the games I'm into, notably Fallen London, Mass Effect and Ultima Forever. I used to have a whole bunch of "favorites" back in the good days of the old Facebook, but got supremely irritated when they changed to the Fan-based system of today, where you can't select any privacy settings for any of your preferences. I hate needing to think about how random strangers will think about stuff I like; would a potential employee be turned off if he found my religious preferences unsavory, or unsettled that I enjoy a violent TV show like Game of Thrones?

I'm still intellectually opposed to the whole "Fan" system, but time has eroded my rage, so I'll probably gradually resume liking things again.

In other news: I'm not sure how far I'll get, but I recently picked up the Ultimate Edition of Dragon Age: Origins (thanks, Steam Summer Sale!) and have started a second play-through. This game includes all the DLC, and I decided to also go ahead and pick up some of the best/most-famous user-created mods for it. Most of the lists of user-created mods that I found were way too old, from a few months after the game's initial release, but I found some good information on the Bioware Social forums and various random websites. I ended up using a good guide from the Purple Lady as my main source of recommendations, and so far I've been pretty happy with the results.

My biggest complaint so far is with the difficulty of managing mod incompatibilities. This is an endemic problem for modders of any game; if you craft a stand-alone module, you're playing in your own sandbox, but if you're changing stuff about the original game, it's very possible that different mods might be competing for the same resource. For example, there are multiple mods that make changes to Morrigan's appearance, so it makes sense that only one of those mods can succeed in making those changes.

Unfortunately, there isn't a single consistent system for managing Dragon Age mods. Official Bioware-created mods are distributed in .dazip format, which are very modular and will even appear in a menu within the game to let you enable or disable them at will. Apparently, though, dazip files are hard to uninstall, and don't have a good way of resolving conflicts. Instead, most modders provide "raw" modules, which are just collections of files that you can drop into your game's "override" folder. The simplicity of packaging is pretty nice; as far as I can tell, the game just crawls through all the files in "override", including all subdirectories, and uses those instead of the game's built-in files. The problem is that, if two mods include modifications to the same original game file, you'll need to manually delete one of them or accept that the game will just select one of them.

For things like Morrigan's appearance, this is totally acceptable, though I would love it if there was a clear presentation of conflicts: "Two mods are attempting to modify this file. Do you want to use Mod A, Mod B, or the original game version?" What's more frustrating and limiting, though, is that there doesn't seem to be any way to have two mods make compatible changes to the same dialog file. So, if you pick the excellent "Dialogue Tweaks" mod, which makes extensive changes throughout the game, you won't be able to install many romance-related mods that tweak one or two characters. I think this handicap will significantly limit Dragon Age in the long run from having the kind of mod scene that Baldur's Gate has. Dialog modding was a key component of the best Baldur's Gate mods, and I was frequently impressed at how compatible all of the various mods could be. Installing a new NPC mod would add new banter to existing characters, and in some cases even to NPCs created by other mod authors. (Solaufein, for example, was one of the first NPC mods, and many later mods integrate with him as well as they do with the canonical party NPCs.)

The dialog problem, though, is probably ultimately driven by the difficulty of modding a game with fully voice-acted characters. Dragon Age: Origins is kind of in between Mass Effect and Baldur's Gate: like Mass Effect, all your companions' dialog is fully recorded, and like Baldur's Gate, your own character's dialog is mostly textual (in menu-driven dialog choices) with some generic but customizable voicing for ambient speech (stuff like "My spell failed!" and "I'm badly wounded" and "Chaaaaaarge!"). Even if the game engine did let you add new lines for Alistair, it would be very disconcerting to have 98% of a character's dialog voiced by the original actor, and the remaining 2% either silent or with a badly dubbed substitute. An excellent theoretical solution, which would probably be very difficult but impressive, would be to access and re-use snippets of the originally recorded dialog in your new context. Thanks to the sheer volume of recorded dialog, I think you could get at least some reaction-type banter from existing characters that would fit into a mod's new content; imagine Leliana cooing at how cute something is, or Morrigan casually dismissing it, or Alistair saying "Riiiiiiiiight...." Unfortunately, I kind of doubt that the dialog has that kind of granularity available; again, as far as I can tell, you have a single file for a version of a character or a scene, and have to replace it wholesale. Making a Dragon Age equivalent of WeiDU would not only need to decompile, insert, and re-compile scripts and scenes, but also slice up and recombine audio files, which seems like a far tougher problem.

I'm currently using the following mods, with pretty good results.
  • Just Better Textures, version 3. This was actually the very first mod I thought about getting, although it ended up being the last one I installed. The install process is pretty complicated - well, not actually complicated, just not too clearly described on the linked page - so check out the comments if you want the secret second link and a description of what to do with the files. I'm currently running with just the base set of textures and none of the extras; my first attempt had all of the updates and the Armor expansion, but combined with the Improved Atmosphere mod that exceeded the game's memory limits and led to a crash after a minute of playing. This mod is technically incompatible with Improved Atmosphere and Morrigan Restoration, but so far I haven't noticed any problems with having them all installed.
  • Buy Lloyd's Tavern. I don't remember anything about this. Maybe I missed it in my first play-through? If so, this mod should ensure I don't mix it in the current one!
  • Awakenings Silverite Mine Bugfix. This will be my first play-through of Awakenings, which I'm looking forward to. Seems better safe than sorry to have this installed.
  • Advanced Quickbar. I've installed the mod, but haven't enabled it yet; it'll be a while until I start running out of space on my quickbar.
  • Tucked Hair. I installed this since it's a pre-requisite to Dragon Age Redesigned, but I now wish that I had installed it when I was building my character. I'd initially given her long hair, but it was annoying since the hair hid her face in almost all conversation scenes, and made her look kind of like Kurt Cobain or Mitch Hedburg, so I went back and re-made her with a shorter hairstyle. It looks like with this mod, you can keep long hair and just tuck it behind the ears to keep the face visible.
  • Dragon Age Redesigned. I really, really like this mod; it improves the look of many NPCs throughout the game, making them look less bland and more interesting. It also has separate installers for all of your party NPCs and lets you install a new look for each of them. I'm really impressed at what the mod author has done. Have you seen the phenomenal Sacred Ashes trailer? It's basically a CG movie version of a fight that takes place in the game; while the party members in the trailer are recognizable, they have designs that look quite different from the version in the game. Well, one of your options is to replace the in-game versions so they look more like the Sacred Ashes versions. There are some other really cool choices: for example, the author made a new version of Morrigan to make her look like the model who Bioware had hired when they were doing their own characters designs of Morrigan. I'm currently running with a Sacred Ashes-ish version of Morrigan, a version of Sten that looks more like the Qunari of Dragon Age 2 (no horns), and a version of Leliana that gets rid of the braids and has a slightly softer look. (Tangent: I really get the impression that someone at Bioware has a braid fetish. The Baldur's Gate 2 character portraits had braids on literally every single female character, with the sole exception of Viconia. Ferelden has tons of braids everywhere, too. I don't necessarily mind, but it's nice to switch things up occasionally.)
  • Wings of Velvet. I was initially thinking of grabbing Phoenix Armory armor for my new warden, but it looks like that's intended for rogues; Velvet is for mages, I haven't gotten it yet but it will be nice to see some other options, especially since I'll have three mages competing for a limited set of robes.
  • Improved Atmosphere. This changes a whole bunch of mostly subtle stuff throughout the game, generally making the world feel more alive and vibrant. Characters in cities tend to walk around more, instead of standing stiffly in one place forever; there are more animals around; Bodhan and his son have some oxen to drive their cart; etc. There's a ton of stuff in here that you can pick and choose from, but I just dumped it all in, and so far have been happy with the results.
  • Dialogue Tweaks. This makes a bunch of changes to existing dialog throughout the game: generally it's done to restore stuff that got left out or that you could miss, or correcting some characters so they say the right thing at the right time. As I noted above, dialog changes are rarely compatible with one another, so this may require some manual adjustment to work alongside the other mods.
  • Morrigan Restoration Patch.  It's common knowledge by now that when games ship, they often contain a lot of content on the disc that can't actually be accessed within the game. Sometimes this is due to bugs in the final product; sometimes they indicate earlier ideas about the game that were abandoned in later versions without being wholly removed. Morrigan apparently had a lot of such content in DA:O, and given how interested people are in her character, it's inevitable that people would take the effort to "restore" the "lost" parts of her story. This mostly includes several scenes with her, and also adds back in some banters with the party and fixes some bugs that keep parts of her dialog from triggering. (This patch reminds me of an infamous bug with Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal, where, due to a coding error, none of Imoen's conversations would ever trigger. Thanks to my mod-filled re-play of ToB, I was able to experience her reactions to our quest, which added a lot to the atmosphere of the game.) I'm looking forward to seeing what this patch adds to the game.
  • Alley of Murders. One of the too-few quest mods for DA:O. It's a shame that there aren't more of these, both because I'm a huge fan of user-created content that extends the life of the game, and because these sorts of mods have the least amount of conflict with each other. I actually remember reading about this one during my initial play-through of DA:O, but I'd never checked it out.
  • Dance Party. Hey, why not?
  • Make Console Commands Visible. I don't use the console much, but when I do, this will help a ton.
It took a little while for me to get the hang of modding the game. I highly recommend installing DAO-ModManager, which lets you handle the, well, management of your mods. If you just dump files into /overrides willy-nilly, it becomes impossible to keep track of what files came from which mod; with ModManager, you can install and uninstall mods as chunks, and have it handle the cleanup for you. It will also alert you to mod conflicts, provided that the mods are installed through ModManager.

Different mods need to be installed differently:
  • A couple of the mods, notably DA Redesigned, come with their own .exe installer. That makes the installation easy, but it does end up with a bunch of raw files in /overrides. 
  • Some of the simple mods that can't conflict with each other are packaged as .dazip files. You can install these using DA:O's own DAUpdater.exe utility, but I prefer to use ModManager to ease uninstallation. These mods can be enabled or disabled within the game itself.
  • A handful of mods come in .override format. You can drag these into ModManager, which will handle the rest.
  • For most of the mods, though, you just download a folder full of files. You could install this by dragging the folder into /overrides, but this creates a risk of conflicts. What I prefer to do is use ModManager's "Override creator" (third tab) to make a new .override file. You can drag the mod's files into this override. This is a great place to take out any files that you don't want to keep in the override - this is where reading each mod's README comes in handy, since it will generally describe any known conflicts with other mods and how to resolve them. Once you create the .override, you can then install and uninstall it within ModManager. It's a great system; I just wish that it would let you know what specific files create conflicts instead of reporting that a conflict exists.
Overall, the whole process took about as long as my modding experience for the BG games took. One night was spent finding, choosing, and downloading mods, and much of the next night was spent managing their installation. Thanks to Purple Lady's guide, I didn't have many conflicts, and I'm now happily slaying Darkspawn looking more stylish than ever!

Monday, July 23, 2012


After an unnaturally long pause, probably prompted by a borderline-unhealthy obsession with Mass Effect 3, I've finally wrapped up the last few episodes of Deadwood. It was really good, and I'm glad that I finally took the time to watch this series that everyone has recommended to me for so long. The end of the third season isn't as transcendent as the Season One finale, or as rapturous as Season Two's, but it's a great story that continues to live comfortably (though never predictably) among the characters it has created.

I'd been worried for a while that I'd be left hanging in the wind when I was done; I've heard frequent grumbling about how HBO ended the show too soon. Perhaps because I was prepared for the worst, I was pleasantly surprised at how gracefully the series ended. Yes, it leaves several plot threads unresolved, but it doesn't end on a cliffhanger or anything truly intolerable like the last episode of Twin Peaks.

MINI SPOILERS (for season 3, mega for seasons 1-2)

On the whole, the third season felt looser and more discursive than the first two. That isn't necessarily bad, just another evolution in tone. The first season contained mostly recognizable Western elements (the quick-draw gun-fight, road agents, an Indian warrior, gambling, drinking, etc.), but squeezed together in so dense and intricate a form that it felt elevated to another genre. The second season transformed the underlying language of the show, giving it a surreal feel, as these dirty and despicable men began declaiming to one another in Elizabethan oratory. The third season feels like a third step in the evolution of a grimy TV show to an elaborate theatrical production. It introduces some honest-to-goodness actors! What in the world is a theatrical troupe doing in a dirty, dangerous, desperate mining camp? We never receive a satisfactory answer, and must merely watch, jaws wide open in astonishment, as Brian Cox wheels his way across the stage.

One of Deadwood's most impressive achievements is its depiction of evil. The first season is famously morally ambiguous, with Al Swearengen early on seeming like a clear devil with his whore-beating, throat-slitting, con-running, body-hiding, thoroughly corrupt ways. And yet, over time we (or at least I) can't help but come to admire him. The turning point for me comes in the second season, when he decides that, must as it pains him, he'll decline the bribe of $50,000 that the newly formed legislature in Yankton will offer him to support annexing Deadwood to the new Dakota territory (and not his contrived alliance with Montana). Why does he do this? It isn't out of a sense of honor or moral righteousness; Al has long since given up any thought of being admired as a virtuous person. He spins this as a kind of practicality: if Deadwood becomes part of the States, and all the attached claims are recognized as valid, then so much money will flow through Deadwood that his take of the action will be much larger than the proffered $50k. I think that, while Al certainly wouldn't use these terms, he actually does have a very deep sense of civic obligation. In a very real sense, Al CREATED this community, as one of the original settlers who labored to cut down trees and erect the first buildings. We see time and again throughout the series that Al will take action to protect the interests of the camp: he summons all the leaders to develop a plan for dealing with the plague, when Cy was content to try and bury the problem. Al recognizes that his interests and the camps' are inextricably linked, and I think it's this attachment to something bigger than himself that allows us to see his sins in another context and find something to like in him.

The first season's counterpart to Al is Cy. Initially, Cy comes across as the better man: he runs a classier joint, goes out of his way to ingratiate himself with the community (such as by offering Doc an unexpected raise), and at first glance seems to be nicer to his prostitutes. We soon see, though, that Cy is every bit as ruthless as Al when his interests are threatened; and, by the end of the season, we understand that he really only cares about himself. He doesn't have the roots in the community that Al does, and is content to capture as much wealth as he can from the people.

The second season gave us the series' scariest villain, Francis Wolcott. Wolcott is a geologist. A geologist! Can you think of anything less scary? Wolcott is terrifying because he seems to belong to a world that should be totally unconnected with fear: his job is to analyze the land, predict what kind of mineral wealth it contains, and assist George Hearst in purchasing said land. But a wicked, sadistic spirit fills him, and so we see a man with incredibly power and connections freed to indulge the most horrific whims. (This is a recurring theme in both Deadwood and Game of Thrones: the powerful have freedom to do horrible things that ordinary people could never do.)

At the end of the second season, we finally meet George Hearst himself, and he becomes the primary villain of the third season. I think that Hearst is the final step along the evolutionary ladder: Al is a pimp who openly does violence; Cy is a pimp who secretly does violence; Francis is a respectable man who secretly does violence; and George is a respectable man who never directly commits any acts of violence. And yet, Hearst is responsible for endless misery. He sits atop the machine of capitalism, and grinds down any who stand in his way. He rules through subordinates, who are only too happy to intimidate, beat, and murder anyone.

I'm tempted to say that Hearst is creepy because he's detached from the raw emotions of Al and Cy, and driven entirely by a bloodless lust for profit. The show doesn't support that theory, though. In his meeting with Mrs. Garret, he makes it abundantly clear that he's driven by reputation and pride. Accepting her offer would have given him what he claims to have wanted, and at no real cost to himself. He sees it as emasculating, though, and instead chooses to engage in a long-run, expensive campaign against her that ultimately leads to the death of some of his most capable lieutenants and an unknown loss of money. While Hearst seems much more civilized than Al, in some ways he's more primitive. Al will swallow an insult to his dignity if he believes that doing so will lead to a better outcome. Hearst, though, belongs to the class of man who is so wealthy and powerful that he never needs to choose between what he wants and what he needs. He is rich and ruthless enough that he can afford to spend endless money and lives to stoke his ego and get his way.


As for the ending itself... the big unknown is obviously how the elections turned out, but it sure looks like, at the end of this season, Hearst has left for good. There are a few other elements that seemed to be heading somewhere and didn't receive a conclusion by the end of the series: the theater people never did anything really important, and I'd have liked to see whether the black General lit out for San Francisco, or stayed to take over the livery. Oh, and I kept expecting the Earp brothers to come back to town. Come to think of it, there seemed to be more unresolved arcs at the end of the third season than either of the first two. None of them pain me too much, though, and I'm content to say, "Whelp, Hearst is gone, so I guess things are fine!"

If I could make a wish, I'd have them make a two-hour movie as a finale. I think that would let them wrap up the last few things and bring these characters' compelling lives to a dramatic conclusion.


Now that I've run out of material in the TV series, I'm looking forward to finally looking through Wikipedia and seeing where everything ended up. It's funny to need to worry about spoilers from something that actually happened over a hundred years ago. Anyways! Great show, phenomenally memorable characters, definitely worth checking out if you can stand the gore, language, and nudity.

Friday, July 20, 2012


Yeesh, that was a long post, just then. Sometimes I get excited about things and write too much.

Here are some shorter, more bite-sized brain bubbles.

Metalocalypse ended its most recent season last Sunday. That show is as bizarre as always. A definite high point was its incorporation of Werner Herzog. He did voiceovers at the beginning of almost every episode (though I think maybe not the 11th, or it might have been cut off for me), and had a really long, interesting, surreal monologue in the finale. (Spoilers ahead, I guess.) This season has largely turned its back on the concept of Dethklok that it has nurtured through the previous part of the series. Up until now, the whole point of the show has been the hilariously unbelievable larger-than-life aspect of Dethklok: they're more powerful than any military, more influential than any religion, wealthier than Wall Street. They're gods on Earth, free to indulge their slightest whim without even thinking of consequences. Throughout this season, we've seen them alienate their fans, experience life as an underclass, lose much of their money, and even lose the respect of the world. I'm still not used to seeing Dethklok as the underdogs, even though the show is finally adapting to the dramatic arc that pretty much every other work of fiction ever has done.

I just finished a blazing fast read through "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud, thanks to a generous brother who gave it to me after I'd confessed that I've wanted to read it for years. It's got to be the most-quoted book about comics ever. It's very interesting, thoughtful, and pretty persuasive. McCloud peers into the mechanics of how comics work and how they're distinguished from other art forms; for example, he talks a lot about the role of "Closure," and how the comic forces your mind to create a continuous story that incorporates the discrete points it displays. A few of the ideas he plays around with feel less convincing to me - his incorporation of "the picture plane" into a perfectly fine continuum between representation and meaning strikes me as awkward - but even stuff like that fits perfectly into the exuberant, bubbly style of his presentation. He's simultaneously engaging and humble, frequently pausing to disclaim that this matches his understanding of how things work, but it's perfectly possible that there's some other solution.

I actually got into this a bit more in my previous post - and no, don't ask me what a 20-year-old book on comics has to do with the latest installment of a popular sci-fi RPG franchise - but I think it's really helpful to think about comics as an art form, and to separate the form from the content. Very few critics would say that, because Garfield 2 was horrible, Metropolis cannot be a good work of art; or that since Fifty Shades of Grey is bad, Ulysses must be dreck; and yet, one feels that works like Maus and From Hell can't be taken seriously because of the other examples of bad art done in the same medium. I'd argue that video games occupy a similar cultural ghetto, where many critics can't bring themselves to discover the wonderfully clever, revolutionary things being done with the form, since they can't see past the mass of lame and unimaginative commercial product out there.

In other Bioware RPG related news: I was stunned to read that Bioware is rebooting the Ultima franchise, starting with "Ultima Forever," a recreation of the seminal Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.  This has the potential to be amazing: my favorite fantasy RPG series of the 20th century is being restored by my favorite RPG creators of the 21st century! I think IV could gain a lot in a remake - while I enjoyed IV, and replayed it less than a decade ago, it didn't have the emotional depth and richness of Ultimas VI and VII, which I still think are two of the best games ever made. That said, I'm a bit leery of what I'm seeing so far. It looks like it'll be more action-oriented; it may have only two classes (they just list Fighter and Mage) instead of the eight of the original game; and it will let you "travel alone or with friends", which makes it sound like a social game. Action and social COULD be good things, but I have a knee-jerk reaction against those words being applied to RPGs. Basically, I just hope that they don't get rid of Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre, and replace them with your Facebook friends.

It'll also be interesting to see what they do with the Virtues. Richard Garriott was a trailblazer in creating moral systems in video games, and while his system was better than the vast majority today, it's quite different from Bioware's usual approach. Ultima games technically gave you the freedom to do whatever you wanted - you could steal from people, murder peasants, try to kill Lord British, etc. - but there was a very clearly defined "right" way and a "wrong" path. In many ways, that was the entire point of Ultima IV: you needed to be a virtuous person, not defeat some big bad monster. In contrast, the major RPG franchises of our day (Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect, Star Wars: KOTOR, Fallout, Elder Scrolls) have morality systems generally based on an axis between good and evil, with players actively encouraged to go to one extreme or another. (Baldur's Gate technically uses two axes, although Order/Chaos is far less important than Good/Evil; Mass Effect's axis is much more interesting, but still a single dimension.) Ultima's system of virtues is more complex, more interesting, and just BETTER... it's interesting by exploring all the different ways in which you can be a good person, instead of trying to increase replay value by encouraging you to play the game again as a bad guy.

Anyways. I've registered for the beta and Fan'd (ugh) it on Facebook, so I'll be interested to see what comes of it. So far, it FEELS like they're tracking the substance of the game and not cashing in on the name recognition, so hopefully that's a good sign.

And, I forget whether I've already mentioned it on this blog, but Baldur's Gate is getting a remake of its own. Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition will be keeping the story, but rebuilding all the graphics and music and stuff from the ground up. They'll also make it possible to play the BG series on Mac and the iPad, which is a great idea; I think traditional RPGs are a natural match for the tablet form factor. Bioware isn't involved in this, but apparently some of the original developers are involved. I'm in favor this project, but I'm very curious if and how they will support modding for it. BG was a great series that became transcendentally good by tapping into the creative output of its fans. If they can find some way of making WeiDU mods work in the new game, well, it just might be the best thing ever. More realistically, I imagine that they'll require new graphical assets and such to fit with the new game engine, but I hope that they keep the underlying script engine as similar as possible to make it relatively straightforward to port things like the romance mods into the game.

Tour de Peninsula is coming up. I don't think I'll be cycling in it this year, but I'm delighted to have been a part of it last year; that ride gave me a huge incentive to build longer cycling trips into my routine, and I wouldn't be riding as far and as happily as I am now without the prompt it provided.

I've been a kickstarting fiend! CLANG barely squeaked in under the wire. Shadowrun Returns went gangbusters, and I've highly enjoyed getting all the updates for that game. I was a bit bummed when I first read that we wouldn't get an actual in-game depiction of the Matrix, but as long as I can play a Decker I'll probably still be happy. There are other Kickin' projects that I'm watching with keen interest but not yet joining. High on that list is the Penny Arcade Kickstarter. Back when I was in college in the early 2000's, I actually was a member of the Penny Arcade Plus (or whatever they called it) where I kicked them a few dollars via PayPal and got an occasional exclusive strip or something. So I totally get the emotional appeal of returning to a fan-supported model. The problem is that the ads on the Penny Arcade site are just so darn good, that it's one of the few sites on the Internet that I DON'T block with AdBlock Plus. Now that they've added some of their stretch goals, I may be able to justify contributing in the service of supporting a cool new project.

I got tickets to Patton Oswalt AND Louis C.K. shows! I'm super-psyched! Louis CK was a team effort, but we worked together and managed to snag eight of them.

I'm almost done with Deadwood.

I'm re-watching Chappelle's Show. Good lord, I'd forgotten how hilarious it was. It holds up extremely well, nearly a decade later.

That's enough for now. Hooray for things!

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Here we head into the final stretch of Mass Effect 3!

Non-spoiler comments:

ME3 was by far the least-buggy game of the series. I didn't have trouble with enemies getting into unreachable areas or myself getting stuck outside the environment. In the whole game, I only encountered one game-breaking glitch that required a re-load: there's one spot in the cockpit where, after you talk with someone, you get stuck to the floor and can't move. That happened to me once, near the very end of the game, so you might want to save before heading there.

I don't think I've mentioned this in the previous post, but my experience of ME3 combat has been much faster and more exciting than in the previous two games. That's largely due to a change in the way I've been playing the game, though that change was prompted by some incentives in ME3. All of the ME games have allowed you to pause the action at any time, which lets you survey the battlefield, line up shots, trigger powers, or just take a break. In ME1 and ME2, I paused frequently during battles, and usually would pause every time I used a power. In ME3, I went through the whole game without pausing at all, except when using Medi-Gel. A good part of this is because of the training I'd received by playing ME3 multiplayer. Multiplayer lets you bring up the HUD, but it doesn't actually pause the action, so you learn real quickly not to press Left Shift during a game. Also, power recharge times seem much faster in ME3. Carrying a lightweight weapon, with fully-evolved trees, I could fire off an Incinerate blast about every other second. That would have been incredibly tedious to pause for each time. In contrast, in ME1 powers seemed to have much longer cool-down times, and each power was also on its own separate timer, so at the start of a fight I'd typically pause, unleash six powers (from myself and my companions), then proceed with the fight, stopping a couple of times a minute as powers were refreshed. I really like ME3's approach, which feels more exciting and also helps the game move along more quickly, lessening the time between the awesome plot moments that are my favorite parts of the game.


I really liked the game, including the ending.  My self-imposed media ban protected me from most spoilers, but it was impossible to avoid seeing the headlines like "Fans demand improved ending to Mass Effect 3" that have shown up on various tech publications over the last few months. I'm playing with the "Extended Cut" installed, so I can't speak to the original ending. I would describe myself as "satisfied". Keep in mind that I also liked the endings to Battlestar Galactica and Lost, two other long-running franchises with notoriously controversial conclusions, and that several of my favorite authors (Neal Stephenson and Haruki Murakami) often place very little emphasis on traditional endings in their books.

Anyways... if you're on the fence about starting the trilogy or the third game because you aren't sure if it's worth it, I'll encourage you to go for it.


I know I sound like a broken record, but I'm constantly amazed at the large and complex role that wholly contingent actors have within the ME3 story. I'd mentioned previously that I ran into Miranda on the Citadel, and after a chat, sent her off in pursuit of her sister. I'd just assumed that this would be, at most, a side-mission, and possibly just one of those simple social interactions that eventually gives you some Reputation and War Assets. Nope. It turns out that Miranda's father, who had abducted Oriana after I had gone to such lengths to thwart him in ME2, is secretly working for Cerberus. It certainly makes a good amount of sense: Cerberus is dedicated to human supremacy, and Mr. Lawson is obsessed with establishing his legacy. So, what I had thought was a twig in my storyline ended up feeding directly into the main branch: Kai Leng had gone to meet Miranda's father after our encounter on Thessia.

Mr. Lawson is based on Sanctuary, a place that has been whispered about through most of the game, but always in a vague, mysterious way. Civilians view it as a refuge from the war: the Citadel is in a sense more safe, because it's more heavily guarded, but that military presence also makes it a target. Sanctuary keeps a very low profile, and so refugees flock there in the hopes that they can avoid the attention of the Reapers.

Once you arrive, you quickly learn the truth: Sanctuary is actually a Cerberus lab. Worse, it was a lab where Mr. Lawson, working for the Illusive Man, was researching Reaper technology, using the unsuspecting human refugees as guinea pigs for their experiments. As you penetrate further into the lab, you encounter horrifying examples: screaming people being turned into Husks, a Reaper grimly encased within an observation room (along with several more on the loose), lots of recordings about the success and failure of their experiments. Practically everyone was harvested in some way: many were Indoctrinated and sent to the Illusive Man, the rest used as fodder for Mr. Lawson's experiments.

As you move through the facility, you also see recordings of Miranda's earlier progress; she is trying to shut down the complex's jamming tower so she can broadcast a warning for all civilians to stay away. Everything is in chaos: instead of fighting your way through a Cerberus army like you might have expected, you are fighting the Reapers who arrived shortly before you and decimated Cerberus. This is welcome, if puzzling, news; up until now it seemed that Cerberus and the Reapers were happy to stay away from each other while they wore down the Council systems; now, something has changed to set them at each other's throats. Miranda helps you discover the reason. Mr. Lawson's early experiments were about embedding Reaper advances into human forces, and included the ability to remotely control the actions of freshly created husks. However, the Illusive Man is now pushing it to the next level, and researching how to actually take control of existing Reaper forces. Essentially, he'll be able to claim the Reaper army for his own. That would be a huge coup, and once the Reapers found what he was up to, they moved in to destroy that knowledge.

The confrontation with Mr. Lawson was a dramatic if somewhat conventional hostage stand-off; he has wounded Miranda and is threatening to kill his own daughter Oriana. I used my Paragon sense of reason to appeal to him - "I don't care about you. I just want you to let Oriana go and help me find Kai Leng. It's better than me shooting you." He hesitated, then complied. Miranda had no such hesitation, and used a sweet biotic blast to hurl him through a window and down to his death. Ah, patricide. Anyways... as usual, I'm left wondering just how this whole mission could have played out if Miranda had died during the suicide mission in ME2. Would Oriana have fulfilled the role of guide? Would we have even seen Mr. Lawson, or would they have gotten rid of that element of the plot altogether? I feel like what I'm seeing is the "best", most complete version of the story, but it's intriguing to think of all the parallel universes out there in which things played out just a little differently.

I was happy to see that ME3 has a very explicit demarcation point between the "free roam and do what you want" portion of the game and the committed endgame. Admiral Hackett basically says, "Once we launch our attack on the Cerberus base, we won't stop until we reach Earth." In other words, wrap up those side-quests and promote your ME3 MP characters, because your war assets are about to get counted! (I ended up with around 7300 in my counter, at 100% readiness, which includes 375 from promoted MP characters, and nothing from DLC like From Ashes. I feel like that's probably close to the maximum, but still only gets described as "Chances of success are about even.") I didn't have a single other quest in my log, so I made one last pass through the Citadel to make sure that nothing new had popped open (evidently I hadn't learned my lesson from ME2 about visiting the Citadel prior to the final mission) and then took a deep breath and launched our own version of D-Day.

Like in ME1, there's a cinematic interlude right before the start of the final push, where you and your lover spend a bit of quiet down-time. For me, it was Liara both times. It was nice, and a bit tamer than I was expecting, more so than the earlier scene with Traynor. It felt natural, though, and very comfortable, which is fitting given the long connection between Shepard and Liara and the deep trust between them.

At the Cerberus base, it feels like your side has the upper hand for once. The entire Alliance fleet has shown up and is pounding the station into submission. You lead a team inside, and make your way to the center, where the catalyst should be held. There's all sorts of awesome stuff along the way: for example, early on they lock shut the bulkhead doors, so you SMASH A SPACE SHUTTLE into them to clear a path. You also walk through an enormous, cavernous power-supply center, where the space station apparently acquires its power from a Reaper heart that Cerberus recovered from the wreckage of the Collector base. (Presumably, if I had elected to save the base, that would have become the Cerberus station?)

Finally, I stepped into the Illusive Man's "office". That was a really cool feeling: it was one of the very first scenes in Mass Effect 2, was repeatedly shown in ME2 and occasionally visible in ME3, and now, for the first time ever, I was actually there in person. The Illusive Man is also there, but ironically, this time he is the hologram. We trade barbs for a while, and then he lets the bombshell drop: the Catalyst isn't a secret formula, or a hidden artifact. The Catalyst is the Citadel! Yep, the enormous, friendly space station that has been the center of action for the entire trilogy. I was not expecting that, but it does make a certain amount of sense. The galaxy assumes that the Citadel was built by the Protheans, but I'd learned from their VI at the end of ME1 that it was actually constructed by the Reapers, so it makes sense that, in a way, the Prothean's plan was to use Reaper technology and strength against their own selves.

Since the Illusive Man wasn't there in person, I settled for killing his minion instead: Kai Leng. Kai is an incredibly hate-able villain; between killing my buddy Thane and embarrassing me on Thessia, he's been the most personal opponent I've faced since Saren. (Harbinger in ME2 always seemed very remote and abstract; the Illusive Man is the nominal villain of ME3, but his charisma and remoteness made it hard for me to direct pure hate his way.) The fight with Kai was pretty hard; I rarely needed to re-play anything in this game, but it took three tries for me to defeat him. The room got pretty crowded: Kai was jumping around, and he summoned multiple Phantoms and Cerberus centurions; on my side, I had EDI and Liara, and spawned my Combat Drone, Defense Drone, and Sentry Turret. All of this was happening in an increasingly distressed room, with large craters punched up by Kai. At last I beat him down, and had some grim satisfaction at his end. (Though I did refrain from the Renegade action, I still got to see an up-close execution in the cut-scene.)

The Illusive Man has effectively betrayed the human race to the Reapers: they now know the importance of the Citadel, and so they have forcibly taken it, actually physically moving it from its standard location in Inner Council Space to the center of fiercest fighting, outside Earth. With an entire Reaper fleet surrounding it, the situation looks hopeless. But, this is the only chance that organics have. They have no chance of success in a war of attrition, so it's time to roll the dice: launch an all-out assault on the Reapers, bring in the Crucible from its secret construction space, try to free the Citadel from Reaper control and hook it in to the Crucible so we can blast them all before it's too late.

So, the last priority comes about as Priority: Earth! It felt really cool to finally head there. We had a brief visit to Luna back in ME1, but for the most part, I've been impressed by what a low profile Earth has in the game. You really get the sense that humanity has started to transcend its ties to a single planet: even the Alliance isn't headquartered on Earth, but rather on Arcturus Station, located in entirely different system (albeit one closely linked to Sol via mass relay). That said, Earth still holds a great deal of significance as the birthplace of the human race, and staging the Mass Effect series finale there packs an extra emotional whallop.

Earth also provides a better glimpse at exactly what the Reapers are up to. I'm used to confronting them militarily, but when they have finished conquering a planet as they have on Earth, they commence their harvesting operations. They indoctrinated the planet's leaders, who in turn encouraged their citizens to peacefully enter the Reaper's ships, where they are, um, ground up into mulch to create a new Reaper. Pretty macabre. Captain Anderson has been leading a guerilla fight against them since the very first mission in ME3, and we finally get to meet back up again. The resistance has had some small success by adjusting their tactics: they have abandoned the major population centers and are roaming the less-populous areas, carrying out hit-and-run strikes to try and disrupt Reaper operations. In some very vague ways, the situation reminds me of a very scary version of the Tripod Trilogy, with indoctrination replacing the metal caps, and harvesting being the ultimate goal instead of a kind of benign form of slavery.

The Citadel has been grounded in London, so I led a small team out there. For these last missions, I swapped out Ashley for Garrus; Ashley is probably technically a better fighter, but I liked Garrus so much and wanted him to be here for the end. (There's no Shepard without Vakarian!) We met up with Earth resistance fighters, who had some pretty cool British accents. I also learned that Captain Anderson was born in London. (Awkward pause.) The fighting here was pretty challenging and intense. You can't directly call in air support, so you need to work with a group of tanks and missiles to bring out the heavy firepower that will bring down Reaper guards around the Citadel. I died a few times in some especially hairy fights, with multiple Banshees teleporting around an extremely well-designed, bleakly beautiful rubble-strewn warzone. In the end, I had to fight off the enemies for long enough for EDI to bring the missile's targeting system back on-line, then sprinted through them to slam the button and launch it off.

The resistance forces have been practically annihilated by this point; I'm not sure if it's possible to save more of them if you finish your job quickly enough, but it seemed like every thirty seconds or so I'd hear another panicked report over the radio: "Charlie Company is gone!" "Bravo Team has been defeated!" Sad stuff.

Oh, yeah... I think I'm conflating several parts of the London missions here, for which I apologize. Anyways, at one point you spend a few minutes in the resistance camp, where you can walk around and say your final good-byes to everyone. This includes all of the regular suspects from the current Normandy crew, but, in a thoughtful touch, you can also connect with many of your old pals via a holographic vidcom. I loved checking in one last time with Jack, Miranda, Grunt, Samara, Jacob, and the rest of my old pals. (Even Zaeed was less annoying than usual.) Even better, I got to see Wrex in person, as he exhorted a squadron of Krogan going into battle, invoking their glory in the Rachni War. There were some particularly touching moments with EDI and Liara.

Anyways. Once you bring down the Reaper protections, you have a chance to make a run at the Citadel. A literal run. While big aliens shoot at you from the sky. Many epic explosions occurred. Liara got hit by a tumbling tank, so I called in the Normandy shuttle for a quick medical evacuation. Garrus helped Liara onto the shuttle, over her objections: she said she was fine, she wanted to keep going. We exchanged brief and (on her end) tearful declarations of love, then I turned and continued my run in. (Again: contingency! This is a scene that would only play out if I was romancing someone AND had happened to bring them along on my squad for the final approach. Too strange.)

You're super-close to the entrance, and then, WHAM - a punishing strike annihilates all the surviving members of the strike force. Fade to black. In orbit, the Alliance reacts grimly to the news of failure.

And now, the ending starts. And it is very weird.

Somehow, you have survived the blast, but just barely. For the rest of the game, you weakly and slowly limp your way forward, dragging a damaged leg behind you. You still hold a pistol, but only slowly and shakily bring it out. Your vision and hearing aren't great, which leads to an almost supernatural sensation. Realizing that the Reapers have abandoned everyone for dead, you slowly, painfully start your final advance. A lone figure crawls its way towards you, then expires face-down in the dirt. You stumble and fall to your knees. Just to be clear: this isn't a cut-scene, all of it is happening under your control, but a much diminished control than you've been experiencing through the prior part of the game.

Upon reaching the glowing light, you are... kind of sucked in, I guess, to the Citadel. Someone, somehow receives notice that you have made it inside, and Hackett reacts with relieved surprise. The combined navies renew their assault, hoping to buy you enough time to release the locks on the Citadel so its arms can be opened and it can join with the Catalyst.

Incredibly enough, you aren't the only one to make it inside: Anderson has somehow made it as well, though he's emerged in a different area. You gradually limp your way through mounds and mounds of dead human bodies. The Reapers have moved their harvesting operation here, evidently, and are trying to resume the activity you interrupted at the end of ME2. You are in the Citadel, but other than a stray Keeper who is reclaiming clothing from the bodies, nothing looks familiar. (Incidentally, I bet that players new to the Mass Effect series have no idea what to make of the Keepers. They are far less prominent now than they were in ME1; I think there's only a single Keeper you see on the Citadel prior to this, and nobody directly refers to them.)

You maintain your radio link with Anderson, who is a ways farther ahead from you. You both arrive at a large, circular, central chamber. You aren't alone: the Illusive Man has arrived as well. In a video from the Cerberus base, you had seen him tell a physician to proceed with "the procedure" on him, and now you see the results: he is transformed, visibly enmeshed with some kind of synthetic material. He looks monstrous, but one imagines that he views himself as more highly evolved.

He also wields the technology that Cerberus had discovered: Control. He had the ability to compel others to follow his will. This is demonstrated when he forces you to pull out your pistol, and shoot Anderson in the gut. Yikes.

A long, involved conversation then plays out. The Illusive Man seems to still believe that he is advancing humanity's interest, but with enough aggressive conversation options, you can stir up some serious cognitive dissonance in him. It's hard to look at the evidence and not conclude that he is, in fact, bringing about the end of humanity. By this point in the game, I had almost completely abandoned my Paragon leanings, and was aggressively pursuing Renegade options in the hopes of expediting an end to the war. The Illusive Man, disillusioned and desperate, tried to strike out at Anderson, but I interrupted him with a blast to the head. It was pretty grim.

Free at last to use the controls, we opened the arms of the Citadel, and it welcomed the entrance of the Crucible, in a not-at-all-phallic cut-scene. Anderson and I, both dying, shared a moment of satisfaction that we had done our jobs and it would soon be over. And THEN, that annoying blabbermouth Hackett started whining. "Shepard! It isn't working! Why isn't it woooooorkiiiiiiing? Wah, I'm sad because my weapon isn't killing the bad guys. You need to keep doing stuff, since you haven't done enough already!"

That's when stuff gets even weirder.

Remember that annoying little kid that you kept dreaming about? Well, he's here. Turns out that he is the actual force behind the Reapers. Furthermore, he, and not the Citadel, is the actual Catalyst that we've been looking for.

At last, we get a clear explanation of what's been happening for the last several million years, and it's pretty fascinating. Eons ago, a highly advanced civilization created a powerful AI. They foresaw that there would be endless conflict between synthetics and organics. Organics, who want to make their lives better, would inevitably invent synthetics to assist them; in order to maximize the potential of synthetics, they would eventually create synthetics capable of self-learning; these synthetics, in turn, would pursue their self-evolution and eventually eclipse their creators. The outcome would always be conflict, which the synthetics would eventually win.

This ancient civilization tasked the AI with finding a solution, and it came up with an innovative one. Over their protest, it turned them into the first Reaper. (I LOVE how subtly and matter-of-factly the AI/little-boy drops this bombshell. It's a HUGE confession, and a jarring addition to the story that you think you're hearing, but it's dropped in the middle of the flow and you never get a chance to really wrap your head around it.) It then began a process that has kept the galaxy "safe" ever since. Whenever civilizations are getting so advanced that they are at risk of creating powerful synthetics, the Reapers will arrive and harvest them. It draws a strict distinction between genocide and harvesting: each harvested civilization still lives on, its DNA embedded within a unique Reaper.

This finally explains so much of what's been vague and confusing from the beginning of the series. We've always heard that the Reapers are synthetic, but they are also organic. That's because they are built by machines, and they ARE machines, but they are built FROM living matter.

I also enjoyed this revelation because it draws a heavy underscore under an aspect of the game that I had thought was most fascinating, and had also thought was kind of a side-plot: the war between Quarian and Geth. We now learn that this isn't a singular event, but the latest manifestation of a cyclical problem. That, in turn, makes me even more elated that I was able to cut the Gordian knot and get the two of them reconciled. My actions (and theirs) directly contradict what I'm hearing from the reaper AI, and shows that there is hope for breaking the cycle.

And, in fact, that's what he says. The harvest cycle has continued through countless iterations, but the idea for the Crucible was developed several cycles ago; he thought that it had been destroyed previously, when in fact it has finally reached completion. This is the first time that the AI has seen convincing evidence that there could be another solution than the one it has imposed. The variables have changed, and so can the outcome.

He then talks you through your options. (It's pretty nifty that someone who is, basically, God is leaving this up to you. That doesn't exactly feel realistic, but it does feel earned.) You can tap the power of the Crucible to destroy the Reapers. That's what Hackett and the others have assumed it will do. Doing this will win the war, but at a huge cost: it doesn't distinguish between different types of synthetics, so it will also wipe out all of the Geth, and destroy most advanced technology, including the Mass Relays. Furthermore, since you yourself are largely synthetic (thanks to Cerberus's reconstruction), you are unlikely to survive.

Secondly, you can opt for Control. This is what the Illusive Man had planned to do, although he could never have pulled it off since he himself was already under Reaper control. You will need to sacrifice your body to do it, but your essence will then be capable of directing the Reapers to do your bidding.

Finally, he said, there was a new option: Synthesis. Since you yourself are a blend of synthetic and organic, you can tap the power of the Crucible to change life itself, erasing the barrier between organic and inorganic life. Organic races will gain the collective consciousness and vast memories of synthetics; synthetics will become capable of emotion and self-determination. He carefully emphasized that this was the best outcome.

So, I did it. Woo! Shepard died, which is sad (that was the one option that didn't explicitly say that it would lead to death, which briefly let me get my hoped up), but it seemed to be by far the best outcome for everyone. You see the war waging on Earth, looking desperate, when the green glow from the Crucible starts to change everyone. Formerly mindless, ravening Husks now cautiously appraise humans. Giant Reaper ship-creatures voluntarily lift off, abandoning their destruction. It isn't limited to Earth, either: we see Asari, Krogan, all races united with slightly-creepy-but-mostly-cool glowing green eyes.

On the Normandy, Joker frantically flies through the space between mass relays, seeking to outrun the encroaching transformation. It is hopeless, and the ship is overcome. That's for the best, though! On a bucolic, isolated planet, we see an evolved Joker - with a new gaze, but also an upright back and confident stride - step out of the Normandy. And who is there by his side? EDI! And she's smiling! And they're embracing! It's a glorious future, folks.

My personal favorite part of the ending, though, actually comes from a still image, where we see Geth and Quarian together on Rannoch. The artists at Bioware must have heard my plea, because at long last, we finally see a Quarian with her face-mask off! Granted, it's a kind of coy picture, seen from an obtuse angle, but enough to get a rough idea of her features. That made me incredibly happy.

And then, some sadness. On the Normandy, my own name gets added to the memorial wall, below that of Captain Anderson. Liara adds the plaque, and breaks down, crying, to be comforted by EDI. My decision was for the best, but that still hurts those left behind.

After the credits was a nice little tease: tiny silhouetted figures looking at an alien sky are discussing "The Shepard." There's an old man and a young boy. We hear that there are many stories of The Shepard, and we've heard just one of them. In other words, feel free to play the game again! Try being a different class, romance a different partner, be more of a Paragon or a Renegade than before! I later found out that the old man was voiced by Buzz Aldrin, which is incredibly cool, and ties in the Mass Effect saga with the wonder of our own age.

So, now that it's all done, what do I think of Mass Effect 3? It's pretty darn awesome! It's one of the most epic games that I've played, using the more proper meaning of "epic" as a long tale of a heroic figure. It's set in a rich, complex, well thought-out universe, the sort of setting where I can have a lot of fun just learning more about my surroundings and history even if I'm not progressing in the game itself. There's a vast set of characters, and they are remarkably well constructed. They're rich enough that I think players can have very different reactions to some of the people - some will view the Illusive Man as a tragic figure, while others will see him as a pure villain; some people will admire Miranda's resourcefulness while others will be irritated by her unfair advantages in life.

Bioware definitely sets the gold standard for voice acting in video games. I can't think of another game that's had close to this amount of dialog, and other than Portal, no other game has had the same quality of acting.

What does Mass Effect have to say for video games as an art form? Looking back on Mass Effect, I think that in a lot of ways it feels similar to a long-running serialized TV drama. One interesting difference between TV dramas and movies is that a TV show just has so much more time to work with, and so it can actually depict characters evolving; in a movie, characters almost always need to stay fairly consistent. TV shows also can devote more time to world-building, to mythology, and indulge in the side-paths that may not directly relate to the main plot but contribute to the impression that they depict inhabiting a fully-realized world. For all those reasons, I think Mass Effect has more in common with, say, Battlestar: Galactica than it does with Star Wars.

The crucial component of the art of the video game, of course, is that the viewer has agency. This is what separates it from all other forms of art. I'm currently reading Scott McCloud's seminal book "Understanding Comics," and one of the crucial aspects of comics that he underscores is the importance of "closure". Closure is when our mind fills in the gaps between two discrete points. So, for example, if we see one panel where a man is seated, and an adjacent panel where the man is standing, our mind automatically (and largely subconsciously) inserts the idea of the man getting up from the chair in between those two panels. Because of this, comics require more active participation from the viewer than a movie does, since the movie provides the full set of visual data; conversely, I'd argue that a comic requires less participation from the reader than a novel does, since the reader of a novel must visualize all characters on his own.

If I were to hazard a guess at the role of viewer participation in different art forms, from least to most, I think it would look something like this:
Movie/TV -> Music -> Play -> Comic -> Fine Art/Sculpture -> Novel -> Video game

The first three items all move at a constant pace that we have no control over; the latter four rely on us to progress and decide when we're finished. Music contains no immediate visual content, which gives us more freedom in determining our reaction. (Personally, I rarely visualize scenes when I listen to an album, but that does happen sometimes with groups like Sigur Ros; more often, it generates an emotional response, and the intensity of that response depends on how closely I'm paying attention to the music.) For movies and TV shows, we are slaves to the eye of the camera, and must see what the director wants us to see; for a theatrical play, we are in control of our own eyes, and we can roam across the set, directing our focus where we want. A comic puts us in charge of making progress, and relies on us to provide explanations of how each scene relates to the adjacent ones. A painting or sculpture shows us a single moment, frozen in time, and requires us to create a context for it. A novel, in contrast, covers an extremely long period of time, and can provide a great deal of textual detail, but requires us to invent the scenery.

A video game can give us the same sort of audio, visual, and textual stimulus that we receive from movies and comics, but out of all these art forms, it's the only one where the CONTENT of the art is reliant on the viewer. In primitive games, this doesn't mean very much; you can experience the story where the plumber reaches the top and defeats the gorilla, or you can experience the story where the plumber is hit by a barrel and falls to his death. In the best video games, though, this can lead to incredibly complex and richly engaging works. Sometimes, as in Portal, there is a single story to tell, and the player's actions are a simple participation that brings it along. No two players will play Portal exactly the same, but all of them will experience the same story. Mass Effect is a powerful demonstration of the broader, branching potential of video games: emergent storytelling, with powerful combinations that allow the viewer to actually create the art. No two players will play Mass Effect exactly the same, and there are thousands upon thousands of different stories to experience.

I've been over-simplifying the divisions between art forms in my statements above; you can have written works like Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories that give a similar sort of branching storytelling possibility, and there are exciting examples of modern theater and art installations that deeply involve the viewer as a participant and not a consumer. For video games, though, participation is mandatory, the key component of the form. There has already been some incredible experimentation with the implications of this, especially considering that this medium is only about forty years old. Games like Rez draw on synesthesia to engage the player along more sensory axes than we are accustomed. Some old-school adventure games like Monkey Island would play around with breaking the fourth wall and occasionally directly addressing the player. There are whole classes of games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet that make the participant an actual creator, constructing amazing things from the tools the developers provided. (That's part of why I loved the third-from-last episode of Community so hard. The idea of using the tools within a game to evolve the game is edgy and meta, but it's also what many game creators are doing right now.)

Bringing it back to Mass Effect... Mass Effect isn't truly revolutionary in its approach to storytelling in a video game, but it arguably represents the most highly evolved form of that art. It draws on the best that other mediums have to offer, most noticeably in its appropriation of cinematography from movies and blocking from theater. It draws a wide canvas like a long novel or long-running serial TV show, but what's exciting about it is that the canvas divides and goes in different directions depending on the whims of the player. It bifurcates, then splits into tributaries, some of which rejoin and others which carry on and grow larger. Bioware didn't create a story for Mass Effect, they created a multiverse, where every conceivable permutation of all your decisions can play out. It's a pretty stunning achievement.

On a more prosaic level: it's a bittersweet story. It's extremely rare (though not unprecedented) for a video game to end with the death of the hero. Many sad aspects of the game are unavoidable, even though it feels like they should be contingent: Captain Anderson and Thane will always die, no matter what, and Moridin will almost certainly die as well. There's more good than bad at the end of the game, so in that sense it's a story of success, but it's a success that feels very hard-earned.

How would I compare this to other Bioware games? In terms of scope, I think it compares very favorably to my beloved Baldur's Gate cycle. As much as I loved the characters in that game, I think the Mass Effect characters are even better formed and more thoroughly realized. One interesting and very visible difference between ME and their fantasy series (Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age) is the difference between having a well-defined character you play (Shepard) and creating your own character largely from scratch (the Bhaalspawn / Gray Warden). Shepard is fully voice-acted, where the other protagonists were silent. This does create a sense of separation; I didn't really feel like I "was" Shepard in the same way that I felt like I "was" Cirion the Bard in Baldur's Gate or Seberin the Dwarf Commoner Thief in Dragon Age. The trade-off is that Jennifer Hale is much better at expressing her character's emotions than I am at my own. I hesitate to say that one approach is better than another, but I do really like what they've done with this approach, and think ME is the best argument yet for making that sort of game.

General wrap-up:
Favorite music: There were lots of great themes in the game, many of which were subtle enough that I didn't realize they were themes until the third game. My favorite theme is probably the Normandy one. My favorite music might be the Afterlife dance music on Omega in ME2.
Favorite villain: It's a bit surprising how few pure villains are in this game: Saren for ME1, Harbinger for ME2, and the Illusive Man and Kai Leng for ME3. Of the set, I probably hated Kai the most, and thought the Illusive Man was the most interesting.
Favorite team-mate: Overall favorite for the series was Garrus; as I've noted before, he really grew on me as the series went on. For any particular game, though, it would have to be Moridin from ME2.
Least favorite team-mate: James from ME3, hands-down. I didn't hate him as much at the end as I did in the beginning, but he's the only team member (other than Zaeed) who I ever actively disliked.
Favorite recurring character: Man. Anderson is incredibly likeable. I might have to go with Aria, though... she rocks, and is one of the only mean Asari I encountered.
Favorite alien species: So hard to choose! Quarians are fascinating. Asari are alluring. I respect Turians. Volus are hilarious, as are Hanar. And then you have sentient trees. Hmmm... I guess I'll go with Asari.
Favorite move: Jumping over low cover objects. I finally figured out how to do this part-way through ME3, and now I do it whenever I can, including in multiplayer.
Favorite power: For the series, Sabotage/AI Hacking, which lets you take over an enemy robot and use it for yourself. I didn't use this in ME3, but have become a huge fan of Incinerate, which reliably does a lot of damage and can shoot around corners and over cover.
Favorite weapon: For multiplayer, Geth Plasma SMG. For singleplayer, any lightweight pistol.
Favorite class: Engineer. Ideally with a Salarian Infiltrator by your side!
Favorite planet: Virmire.
Favorite space station: Omega.
Funniest moment: Tie between Moridin's "I Am the Very Model of a Scientist Salarian" and the Salarian video-game merchant on the Citadel, both in ME2.
Most annoying mechanic: Scanning planets in ME2. Mako on ME1 was definitely more time-consuming, but less repetitive.
Favorite interrupt: Renegade interrupt on the Quarian admiral after he tries to blow up the ship with your team on it.
Best purchase: Space hamster
Favorite loyalty mission: Miranda's.
Most desired alternate romance: Traynor or Chambers.
Least important fact: Anderson was born in London.Favorite ship: Excluding the SR-2, probably the Destiny Ascension.
Cutest couple: Joker and EDI

And now, an epilogue...

I think I'll consider the "synthesis" ending as my canonical conclusion, but I was curious about the other endings, including the mythical "perfect" ending where Shepard lives. So, I went back and re-played the end. This takes a LONG time - you can't save after entering the Citadel, and the closest save is an auto-save right after you're hit by the Reaper beam outside. You don't have a very far distance to travel, but Shepard is moving incredibly slowly at that point, and there's a ton of un-skippable dialog. It was worth it, though, to see the other possible outcomes.

The second time I played, I went with all the Paragon dialog options for the Illusive Man. I was amazed to see that, at the end of this, he pulls out his gun and SHOOTS HIMSELF IN THE HEAD! Pretty amazing! It reminded me of my favorite moment from the finale of Battlestar: Galactica.

Finally, when talking with the Catalyst/AI/Ur-Reaper, I rejected all three of the options he presented me. He presses me - doing nothing is not an option. I respond that, as beings with free will, we need to win this fight on our own. His voice got demonic for a moment as he bellowed "SO BE IT!" This was a... poor decision. The Crucible powers down, and I watch sadly through the windows as the Reaper fleet destroys all the hope of the galaxy. This ending is much shorter, but has its own bittersweet charm. I see the result of that recording that Liara was making earlier, as she addresses future galactic civilizations with her own warning about the Reapers and how to prepare for them. Intriguingly, this ending has a different tag after the credits: the scene is largely the same, but instead of an elderly male figure, it's a tall female figure; it looks like she might be related to the Asari, although it's hard to tell from the small silhouette. We learn from her that, thanks to the efforts of "The Shepard," knowledge about how to fight the Reapers was passed down to later societies, and the next cycle was ready to fight them, and ultimately beat them. This is an intriguing ending on its own. Much sadder for everyone I've come to know and love, but nobly heroic in the very long run.

Well, that was an interesting ending, but hardly what I'd call "perfect," so I headed in once more. This time, when it came to the final choice, I opted for the rightward direction, which led to destroying the Reapers and all synthetic life. This is a much more Renegade-y choice, though frankly, Control feels just as Renegade to me. This ending played out somewhat like the Synthesis ending, with many similar scenes, but either subtle or large differences. The same battle is taking place on Earth, but instead of the Reapers laying down their arms, they are weakened and destroyed. A similar bolt of energy emerges from the Crucible and spreads via mass relays throughout the galaxy, but this one is red instead of green, and leaves destruction in its wake.

The Normandy still lands on the pretty, remote planet, but this time Joker limps out of the airlock. EDI isn't there for him; I've killed her through my actions, and her name will join others on the memorial wall. Instead, Liara is there to support him. Joker looks a little sad but not horribly so, and Liara's face shows a mixture of relief and wonder.

The outcome of this decision turns out to be quite a bit better than I had hoped. We learn that, yes, the relays were destroyed and we've lost a great deal, but everything we've lost can be rebuilt, and much more quickly than we had thought possible. It looks like the various species are still in contact with one another, and the coalition I had built in the run-up to the Reaper war is leading to a new framework for galactic peace. For better or worse, we are still truly human, still truly Turian and Asari and Salarian, and advancing our organic legacy directly into the future instead of co-opting Reaper technology.

I can't call this a "perfect" ending because of all that is lost. Besides EDI, the biggest casualty is the Geth. The ending doesn't dwell on this too much, but it seems kind of horrific to have wiped out a species that has long been sentient and only recently gained selfhood. Instead of that wonderful still image we saw before of Quarian and Geth side-by-side on a restoring Rannoch, we instead see a group of Quarians, still helmeted, in one of their standard environmentally protected areas. It's still an upbeat scene, but coming so soon after seeing the alternative, I keenly felt the loss.

The scene at the memorial wall plays out very subtly differently from before. The same group is there (minus EDI), and there's a sense of sadness, but not as strong as before. Liara still holds the plaque with Shepard's name, but she hesitates, and doesn't add it to the wall. Her face is... ambiguous. Does the Shadow Broker know something we don't? Cut to credits. Then the old man and the young boy, again. And, after that.... a brief image.... a body, clad in armor.... an N7 dogtag.... a sudden intake of breath! THE END!

Okay, I'll admit, I was expecting a little more from the "Shepard Lives" ending - you have to be reading a lot into that scene to think that she somehow survived that explosion. But, hey, she did it before!


I took a good number of screenshots from my ME1 game that I've been meaning to put up for a while, similar to what I did for SW:TOR. I'll try to caption and upload them soon.

Unfortunately, I got ME2 on DVD instead of Steam (mini-rant: why the heck are boxed copies of games always cheaper on Amazon than they are from digital services like Steam or Amazon Downloads? It should be the other way around!), and as a result I couldn't take any shots from that. ME3 also doesn't have a capture screenshot key (though, weirdly, the data folders on PC do include an empty folder labeled "Screenshots"), but I finally realized that FRAPS is free, so I installed that near the very end of my play-through.

Anyways: here's a link to the gallery for ME1. It contains mega-spoilers for ME1, and mini-spoilers for ME2/ME3. (Those spoilers are VERY slight, and pretty much just mention that certain characters are still alive in future games.) I started taking pictures near the end of the game, so most of the album is from the last couple of missions and the ending.

Here's the link to the ME3 gallery, which is ultra-spoilery. Like the previous album, this starts a couple of missions from the very end of the game. It's also way too big, but I guess that Google has gotten rid of the caps on their albums? Which is awesome! Anyways, there was way too much pretty stuff in there for me to trim down.

Unfortunately, my overall analysis/evaluation of the game is buried in the middle of mega-spoiler-town. For people who want to avoid being spoiled: I really liked the game; I can understand why some people are bummed out by some aspects of it, but I think Bioware did a great job at putting it together. It's not just a great story, it's one of the best arguments I've seen yet for the unique story-telling capabilities of video games. While the trilogy is over, I'm looking forward to spending more time in the Mass Effect universe, and I'm even more excited to see the next big project that Bioware tackles.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Relay Race

I get the feeling I'm nearing the end of Mass Effect 3. The climax isn't in sight yet, but the rising action feels like it is reaching a peak. I kind of wonder if my increasing attachment to the multiplayer game is at least partly an attempt to delay the inevitable end.

I don't have a whole lot to add to the multiplayer conversation from my last post - I still enjoy it, and seem to be getting better at it, to the point where it might make sense for me to try a Silver match sometime. (I only tried Silver once previously, several months ago with my brother; I think we made it to about the fifth wave in Firebase Reactor before getting horribly overrun by multiple Banshees.) I have noticed one interesting trend: while my scores and kills are going up, my gold medals are going down. Previously, I would almost always end a successful round with a gold medal for 50 Assists, and about half the time I'd get a medal for 50 Tech Kills. I think that these days, I'm more likely to finish killing off an enemy that I would otherwise have "lost" to another player, and I'm also getting more kills from my Geth Plasma SMG and fewer from Incinerate. So, for example, instead of 50 Incinerate kills and 50 Assists, I might now be getting 40 Incinerates and 40 SMG kills and 30 Assists. Which overall is way better, but it's funny to see more mediocre medals even as I climb higher on the score charts.

I do really love how the game strongly encourages a team focus, though. For players who have already reached level 20 (and it looks like some people are happy to keep those characters without promoting, which makes sense if you aren't continuing the single-player storyline and want to get the most out of multiplayer), XP doesn't matter at all, so all you'll care about is accomplishing the objectives and finishing the match as quickly as possible. And for those of us who are leveling characters, we gain far more by helping the team succeed than we do by focusing on our own achievements. For example, an individual gold medal gives you +2000 XP, and it's rare to see a player get more than one of those; in contrast, a full extraction gives everyone +15,000 XP. I've also recently played a few games with excellent teams that were able to stay alive through the whole match with no deaths, and was pleasantly surprised to see that this "10 Rounds Survived" bonus is also +15,000 XP. (The downside is that knowing this makes it even more annoying when you see someone chasing after kills and screwing over the objectives, but whatever. It's just a game.)

The most exciting thing, though, has been the single-player game, which is coming along quite well.

MINI SPOILERS (for ME3, mega for ME2)

A few random thoughts that I failed to mention in my last post:

I'm convinced that the game is fully aware of my obsession with what Quarians look like, and has decided to tease me mercilessly as a result. During the Geth Consensus level, you see flashbacks of the Quarian creators prior to the Geth rebellion; Shepard asks Legion, "Wait a minute... if this was on Rannoch prior to the war, then why was everyone wearing environmental suits?" Legion's lame response was "Oh, uh.... your own consciousness knew that they were Quarian, and so you filled in the images with your own concept of what Quarians look like. Yeah. Yeah! That's the ticket!" The worst moment, though, was at the end of the Rannoch mission when Tali, full of emotion (and high off of claiming beachfront real estate), decides that she will risk infection and take her first breath of her homeworld's fresh air... she reaches up, unclicks, and removes her face plate... AND SHE'S FACING AWAY FROM THE CAMERA! ARRRRRGH! Stop being so MEAN, Bioware!

A similarly amusing bit of story that attempts to justify the game's technical limitations in plot-related terms comes during a great scene with Dr. Chakwas. Back in ME2, I had bought Chakwas a bottle of her favorite brandy, which led to a great scene where the two of us killed it in the med bay. During that conversation, she mentions that we should do it every year. In ME3, she returns the favor - it hasn't yet been a year, but hey, we'll probably all die soon anyways, and it would be a shame to waste perfectly fine brandy. Once again, I departed from my standard Paragon predilection - the Paragon response was something like, "Let's save it for later", while the Renegade option was, "Yes, let's." (I can see how "don't drink" would seem like a Paragon move, but personally, I think it's even more of a Paragon action to show appreciation for a subordinate and spend time with them.) This led to a delightful scene of two buzzed women reminiscing about their time together and speculating about the future. Again, I was amazed by the terrific voice work in the game: Shepard in particular perfectly captured the slightly over-focused rhythms of speech you get into when you've had one too many beers (enough to get a bit drunk, but little enough that you can still control it). Anyways. Shepard thanks the doctor; she says, "Oh, please call me Karin. You've earned it," which leads you to say, "All right, then. Thank you, Karin." And then SHE says something like, "I, on the other hand, would NEVER refer to you by your first name! It would be disrespectful in the extreme! After all, you are the person who is saving the galaxy! No. No, to me, you will only be Commander Shepard." There's a respectful pause, and then Shepard says, "That's got to be the stupidest reason I've ever heard."


Back to the story, proper:

It took a while, and a lot of arm-twisting, but I finally got the resolution I had wanted from the Quarian war. We went down to Rannoch, and effing killed an effing Reaper. That was AWESOME! The earlier fight against the Reaper on Tuchanka was a frustrating challenge with an epic ending; the dang thing kept stepping on me, which instantly-killed me, so I eventually just gave up on fighting the enemies and ran to the thumpers, which led to the phenomenal Mother of Thresher Maws - vs - Reaper battle, which is like a knight fighting a samurai but a million times more violent. On Rannoch, I deactivated the broadcast system that was controlling the Geth, which got the Reaper's attention. We had an entire fleet of space ship ready to bring the bastard down, but it was jamming the area and so they couldn't get a lock. So, in one of the most kick-ass scenes of the game yet, you jump out of the drop ship with a laser rifle - not to damage the Reaper, but to paint it so the ships can target. That led to a unique and very satisfying boss fight where you try and hold a target steadily on the Reaper while it is trying to focus its own beam on you; I got really good at doing side-rolls during this sequence, which in turn has helped me out when I need to avoid charging Brutes in multiplayer. After a few paints, the sky rains destruction on the beast, and all the galaxy rejoices as one of these seemingly invulnerable enemies is destroyed. There was a brief, odd conversation with the "dying" Reaper; he says that all organic life is chaotic, while the reapers represent order, and it is inevitable that the order must prevail over chaos. Later developments make it seem like the Reapers are not actually the primary agents of the universe; there is some other intelligence, force, or SOMETHING that is somehow directing their movements. I'm a bit curious if we'll find out what this is or if it will remain mysterious.

Ahem. Anyways, Legion had, without my prior permission, added Reaper code to his programming; he had cleansed it from Reaper control, and as a result he gained the superior capabilities of Reaper technology while staying free of their control. Around this time, Legion became an "I" instead of a "We": the Reapers had unintentionally granted "him" autonomy, independence from the Consensus. This had freaked Tali out, but I backed up Legion. Once the Reaper was dead, the Geth became inert. Legion asked for permission to upload his modified Reaper code to the Consensus, which would not only liberate his brethren but also make them more capable AND give them self-determination. Tali was reluctant. Her fellow admirals were apoplectic. I used my ultra-Paragon charm (I've had my Influence bar maximized for a while now) and browbeat them into holding off their fire against the defenseless Geth for twenty precious seconds. Legion finished the upload, then discovered that he would need to deactivate himself in order to propagate the "virus". (I'm still unclear on exactly what made him do this, apart from the Law of Narrative Causality.) And so, Legion, who had just become a self, sacrificed his self in order to save his species... and, potentially, the galaxy.

And so, the grand alliance that I have dreamed about ever since first learning about the Heretics in Mass Effect 2 has come to pass. The war between Quarian and Geth has ended. Quarian engineers and Geth warships have joined in my campaign to destroy the Reapers. It has ended on an even better note than I could have imagined: the Geth have invited the Quarians to re-settle on Rannoch, and are even assisting them in plowing the land; it's highly ironic that they are doing the very tasks for which they were first created, but are now doing it from their own free will. Tali has been overjoyed by the outcome, noting with wonder that Geth have even moved their consciousness into some Quarian environmental suits, and are acclimating those Quarian bodies to the native bacteria of Rannoch; as a result, it may not take generations before Quarians can shed their suits and actually live in the atmosphere of Rannoch.

I was sad to see Legion go, and felt touched to see his name added to the memorial wall on the Normandy. Even though we've seen the end of the story, I still feel like we haven't learned everything there was to know about him. He seemed a little odd, even back in ME2 long before he acquired Reaper upgrades; specifically, he was actually... coy, I guess, about why he was wearing a piece of Shepard's armor. I guess we'll never know, and I'm okay with that. It's another example of feeling like I'm part of a vast universe with many stories going on around me, and even the stories that come closest to me contain elements that I may never see.

Like I mentioned above, I feel like I'm heading into the endgame, and I mostly base that on the fact that I've finished my work with all the major species of the Mass Effect universe. After the Quarians, I flew to the Asari homeworld of Thessia, trying to retrieve a cryptic artifact that could lead us to the Catalyst and, thus, a chance at completing the Crucible and defeating the Reapers. I had mixed feelings about Thessia. On the one hand, I like the Asari, and hate the Reapers, and hate what was happening to their home. On the other hand, the Asari leadership has been astonishingly obstinate throughout the course of the war, even more so than the Salarians; I fail to see how the Asari could have ever believed that they could defend against Reapers on their own, even just within a single theater of war. If they had engaged with allies like the Turians and Krogan did, they would at least have a shot. Instead, they went it alone, and are paying for their leaders' arrogance with their civilians' lives.

Liara is a mandatory companion for the Thessia mission, but I would have brought her along anyways. Ash came as well. I would have loved to have seen Thessia in peacetime: as the capital planet of the oldest, most cultured, and wealthiest race in the galaxy, it must have been astonishingly beautiful. However, I've only seen it as a smoking pile of rubble. The individual Asari you meet are incredibly brave: confronted with overwhelming odds, they are doing their best to try and save as many as they can. I felt really bad about endangering them, like when two helicopter-type gunships are taken down by Reaper Harvesters while trying to open a path for you.

Eventually you reach the temple of the Goddess; most Asari are no longer religious, but their ancestors credited the Goddess with giving them various knowledge, such as the cycles of the moon for harvesting, the making of metal for weapons, and so on. Approaching the statue, you feel the buzzings of a vision, and immediately intuit the truth: the Goddess is a Prothean beacon! Like the one back on Eden Prime all these years ago! Instantly, dozens of thousands of years fall into place and make sense. It isn't accidental that the Asari have grown into such an influential position within the galaxy: they (or at least the people at the highest level of religion and government) had access to Prothean data, the apex of the most advanced civilization before the prior Reaper invasion. Granted, it's almost impossible to comprehend the Protheans, but every scrap the Asari could decipher advanced their society by hundreds or thousands of years. That's all fine; the part that sucks, though, is that the Asari have selfishly kept this beacon secret to themselves even after meeting other races. This has ensured continues Asari superiority, but indicates a colossal wasted opportunity. If they had shared this knowledge, then the whole galaxy could have benefited from the Protheans' knowledge, and as a result might actually have been prepared for the war.

A Prothean intelligence makes contact and fills you in with some interesting tidbits of knowledge. One, which I'd mentioned above, was that the Reapers aren't the top of the hierarchy; some other thing behind them controls or compels them to repeat their cycle of annihilation. And it is a cycle: the Protheans themselves were aware of previous civilizations lost in earlier cycles, and realized that the patterns of destruction were eerily similar. In their time as in ours, a splinter group thought that they could dominate the Reapers, and so betrayed the Protheans working on the Crucible and destroyed the war effort from within.  Shades of Cerberus! The intelligence (or whatever) directing the Reapers seems to have a great deal of control over the organics as well, in ways that the Protheans never understood.

More immediately and surprisingly, I learned that the Crucible itself was NOT of Prothean origin. Much as we had learned of it from them, the Protheans had found plans for the Crucible from the species who had been extinguished 50,000 years before them, who in turn had learned of it from their own predecessors. This cycle has been going on for a very long time, and I can understand why the Prothean is skeptical that we might be the race that finally breaks free. I'll show him, though! I'll show them all!

First of all, I need to show Cerberus. There's a very frustrating case of forced failure at the end of your time in Thessia, when Kai Leng shows up with a gunship, shoots up your team, and takes the Prothean artifact. I re-played the fight three times and am pretty sure that the game doesn't let you beat him; it switches to a cut-scene once you get his health low enough. It's a bit glaring just compared to the incredible flexibility of the rest of the game, which has multiple possible outcomes for pretty much every encounter. It's also a big part of the reason why I think I'm heading to the endgame: dramatically, this feels like a late-game twist.

And, that's where I am at the moment. Just need to finish a bunch more simple fetch quests and then I'll take my vengeance!


Yet another reason why I think I'm near the end: my Effective Military Strength is getting awfully high. I don't know exactly what the maximum is, but I'm getting close to 7,000, with a 100% Galaxy at War readiness rating. It looks like the "minimum" (I presume to get the worst ending) is just around 2,000, and my bar has been completely filled since around the time I reached 5,000, so further improvements to that score aren't even registering anymore. I'm sure I'll continue to play multiplayer until I finish the single-player game, but it's nice to feel like I have some breathing room so I don't need to worry too much about the score slipping a bit.

Let's keep on pushing. Once more unto the breach, dear friends!