Having played through the opening five hours of Mass Effect 2 and No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, two hot off the presses sequels to relatively popular franchise starters I was alternately in tears and in fits of laughter. Something is wrong here. Something is wrong with the media of games and I am not sure it will be fixed unless we take a critical view followed by a stand. Do we still want to play games? Or watch them, read them listen to them and, possibly masturbate looking at their digital actors? Ironically, the solitary, compulsory nature of playing games has in past earned the medium many comparisons with masturbation. But here and now, in 2010 is where the things are starting to go seriously wrong.
I am not what you would call the world’s biggest advocate of stories in games. Unlike some notable experts on game critique (say, Yahtzee or our own Steerpike) I tend to think that a bad or lousily told story does not make for a bad game. In turn, I love to see a good story in a game but I do not feel that a good story necessarily justifies a bad game. It’s great when you get a good story in a good game. I can think of some examples off the top of my head, and you may laugh at them, but let’s say – Max Payne with its faithful noir tropes… Final Fantasy VII with its uncontrollably epic storyline, yet down to earth storytelling… Half-Life because it does what it does best. Silent Hill 2 because… well you know, it’s a seriously deep story in a seriously deep game. Even Deus Ex with its mixture of everything ‘90s… Psychonauts. Beyond Good and Evil. Shadow of the Colossus. Ico. Torment. Broken Sword. Hell, KOTOR. I can do this all night, but you get the picture.
So I love a good, well told story in a game as much as the next geek but when my games become stories something in my head goes off. I start questioning myself. Should I be here? Spending my time like this?
My problems with the original Mass Effect are well known (at least around these circles). It was an ambitious game let down by inexperience in design in certain areas that accounted for the big part of the game. Driving was shit. Shooting only marginally better. The damned game was half writing, half shooting and half everything else.
Now, Mass Effect 2 is improved by a considerable margin. Driving is kicked out, and shooting is much better. I don’t think you’ll mistake this game for Uncharted 2 or Gears of War 2 or anything, but at least the major part of the action is now comfortable and intuitive.
But, out of my five hour experience, this game is not about shooting at all. It’s about talking.
Do you know how No More Heroes 2 starts? There is a cutscene, stylish and economically directed, of buildings, snow and charismatic people, it lasts for about two minutes and then you fight, with swords, on the roof of a building, like a ninja on metamphetamines. It’s all slashing energy blades, hot bullets and a lot of fuck you’s flying through the snow. It’s extremely cinematic in style but also completely gamey in everything else. You block, you roll, you slash and kick, you fight like a man possessed, trying to force your muscles to remember what they did in the first game. It’s fucked up on adrenaline. There’s another cutscene right in the middle of your swordfight. Another minute of hazy, drugged up narrative and then you’re thrown back into your interrupted swordfight. Kill that guy or it’s game over. Kill him. Cut his fucking head off. Do it.
Do you know how Mass Effect 2 starts? It’s minutes after minutes of very expensive cutscene footage with loads of expository dialogue exchanged between cryptic figures. Then there are ship interiors, Shepard and his gang, digital actors going through the daily motions of looking for the elusive enemy in the lower arse regions of space. Then there is sound and fury, a ship that comes out of nowhere and assaults. There are explosions and panic. You’re in a bloody Jerry Bruckheimer movie, you say to yourself. It’s impressive, you say. When do I get to control the bloody thing?
You get some control. As the ship falls apart at the seams, burning what little oxygen it was storing, you walk around, slowly, in your spacesuit, looking to rescue Joker, that pilot prodigy that looks like a skater. You tread a very narrow path from point A to point B. You can’t get lost because signposting is impeccable (kudos, BioWare) but also because there is no other way to go. Then you die.
Your first instance of control in No More Heroes 2 is a desperate fight for life against a pissed of hitman looking for vengeance, all curses and whizzing bullets, all siderolls and blade hitting flesh.
Your first instance of control in Mass Effect 2 is a trivial walk from A to B where holding one button down will get the job done.
Mass Effect 2 tries to justify this by telling you and showing you that you are supposed to be in danger. But what you are actually doing is holding a key down between points A and B.
OK, let’s look at it this way: people usually say that games are good or bad on account of being fun or un-fun, right? So is Mass Effect 2 fun? I would have to say yes there. Five hours of Mass Effect 2 were fun.
But so is masturbation, I learned that watching Milos Forman’s Hair (the film, not the thing on his head) before I discovered it myself.
Fun is not enough. Not when it’s a word with such a broad meaning.
This guy, who made the little game series called Penumbra, thankyouverymuch, argues that asking games to be fun all the time to all people is unfair and obscures the potential of games to be much more than fun. He doesn’t put it in these words but he genuinely believes that games can move beyond entertainment and become something, for lack of a better word – deeper. He argues that games can have (more) meaning if they are allowed to not be FUN at all times. He also argues that narrative AND gameplay are obstacles to this goal.
Yes, that’s narrative AND gameplay. And he makes a valid argument there saying that calling these things games is the first problem. Games imply problems and their solving, a situation where you can measure failure and success. He argues that you can make digital interactive experiences that will not be pursuing fun, that will not be offering problems with hidden solutions and that will, as a result be more meaningful to the person interacting with them.
It’s an interesting line of thinking and, since he’s the first to argue that there should be another word for it (not “games”) I am actually inclined to stand up and applaud. I would love to see stuff made along these lines of thinking. I believe that games like The Path or Today I die are paving the way for this idea. Yes, these games still have “goals” and “gameplay” but they are obscured or even hidden in favour of the noble idea of having the player experience these works and find or even create her or his own meaning.
But, what does this, I ask, have to do with Mass Effect 2? Apparently – very little. Mass Effect 2 is fun and in terms of design it’s very old fashioned, with obvious goals, problems and their solutions. Mass Effect 2 is, at its heart a very conservative game design covered with several tons of makeup.
Now, this makeup, this is where the problem for me seems to be lying. I don’t have a problem playing a Role Playing Game based on oldish design. If it’s tight enough, sure, get it over here, I’ll bone it. If it features solid shooting, as Mass Effect 2 happens to, so much for the better. I’m all for shooting things in games.
But Mass Effect 2 is not about shooting. It’s about talking and listening. Lots and lots of talking and listening. Playing Mass Effect 2 has so far to me looked a little bit like this: thirty minutes of talking, then ten minutes of shooting. Then thirty minutes of talking again.
You came here to shoot your mouth or just shoot?
Sure, you can say I’m just a fucking caveman who hates games with no shooting. But, here’s the kicker: is watching people in Mass Effect 2 having conversations actually a good way to spend time?
I said that using the word “fun” is unhelpful, because it’s so broad. And you can have fun by not playing games, yes? Yes, you can. So, what I, personally, am looking for in games is not necessarily fun. Was Shadow of the Colossus fun, with its solemn mood, barren looks and tragic storyline? Was hanging for your dear life from a beard of a creature twenty stories high, then stabbing it to death fun? Was it supposed to be fun? Or was it supposed to have meaning?
Whatever it was supposed to be, it certainly gave me one thing. Not fun, but what we can call meaningful player engagement. I dealt with the game rules by first observing them, then understanding them, then mastering them, then overcoming them. If I was not having fun (and perhaps I was), I was certainly having an experience of meaningful engagement with the game’s systems (ruleset, interface, economy).
In No More Heroes 2 you kill about thirty people within the first hour and slay a boss who is spouting religious banter and shooting you with golden bullets and bass bombs from his ghetto blaster. In Mass Effect 2 you kill some ten robots in the first hour and have conversations filled with literally thousands of words. Killing those robots is… well, OK. As I said, the shooting parts are better than in the first game, yet Mass Effect 2’s first hour is essentially very pedestrian with linear stage design and utterly idiotic enemies. If you’re having fun, that’s not due to very meaningful player engagement. It might have to do with the story actually.
And so it goes. Many dialogues to go through, with people, aliens, VIs and whatnot and then some decent but hardly impressive shooting. Is this how RPGs are? No, not really. Persona is not like this. Oblivion is not like this. Hell, even Dragon Age Origins is not like this. Mass Effect 2 is different in that it insists on keeping you immersed in its world and storyline rather than in the gameplay. This tipping of the balance into the favour of non-game game parts keeps attracting my attention.
If good looks could kill
How much time, effort and expertise was spent creating Mass Effect 2’s visuals, cutscenes and dialogue scenes? Quite a lot, I’d wager. I’d bet that the whole budget of No More Heroes 2 was equal to Mass Effect 2’s sound recording budget alone. It shows. Cutscenes are directed in unprecedented ways in that they look and sound like something from TV or cinema. Digital actors emote and move naturally through the environments while camera angles keep changing to add dynamics to the dialogue. Sure, the forced grittiness of the world is comical rather than convincing – aliens speaking like gang bosses from the ‘80s movies and Martin Sheen’s digital actor who sticks his cigar a good inch beneath his lower lip, but still, generally, this is done pretty well.
But as for the player engagement – you’re sitting there, reading, pressing a button here, a button there. Yes, Mass Effect 2 has the radial menu system for the dialogues that helps keep the flow of the conversation feel natural, but what it also does is make the game look like a movie and reduce the player’s input to almost pure mechanical activity. Yes, there are a lot of dialogue options to choose from but save for the paragon/ renegade stuff that is helpfully colour-coded there is really no difference in the outputs the game gives you after speaking. You usually click on all the available options anyway because that’s the only way to get the needed info and picking a mild, neutral or strong reply/ line is very often resulting in the same outcome.
In other words, it’s a lot of menial work with trivial input actions for very little output that is meaningful in gaming terms. You sometimes do get XP for some things you say or do during dialogues, but most of the time, your reward is not in-game, it’s in-story. You invest into the story to get more of the story. Meanwhile the game stands in place.
It’s not that I hate this game for narrating so much (although I don’t read the fucking Codex entries. If I wanted to read static text for prolonged periods of time I’d pick a better medium than television screen), because it’s not just narrating, it’s showing a movie as well and in terms of gaming standards, it’s very well done. But what this movie does is preventing me, for long periods of time, to actually play the game.
Two things. One: do not tell me I’m in the wrong hobby, because I am obviously complaining about wanting to play and being allowed to only distantly participate in storytelling. Obviously. Two: Mass Effect 2 obviously thinks its story is so good that it deserves to take precedence over gameplay. Sure, I’m only five hours in, I might yet be proven totally and utterly wrong but Mass Effect 2 didn’t rectify the first game’s mistakes (bad shooting, awful driving, tedious side missions) by making these parts better. It actually removed the driving completely, simplified the shooting notably (recharging health and ammo clips in place of HP bars and heat gauges) and made side missions (what I have seen of them) smaller and better integrated into the storyline. So, Mass Effect 2 seems to be very much about the story.
Now, the Penumbra guy says that it’s OK to break the rules in order to achieve the next step in evolution (is it a step up or a sidestep is not really the issue here) and in theory I could appreciate Mass Effect 2’s ambition to simplify the gameplay (they would call it streamlining) in order to tell a story that will have, you know, meaning. But the problem with this is that Mass Effect 2’s story, while perhaps good by what we think of as the usual videogame standards, is simply not very good by standards that it invokes itself through trying to ape cinema/ TV so hard.
Seriously, look at it. It’s strictly B-Movie territory. It’s Science Fiction clichés told with a disgusting helping of forced gravitas. It’s a universe in mortal danger, you guys, but what you really do is shoot robots in narrow corridors.
Knights of the Old Republic, another BioWare game written by Drew Karpyshyn used the same trick. It told you about all the awesome battles from the past, orbital drop troops and burning cities, while you were playing silly little skirmishes with up to five troopers on mud-covered hills. I didn’t mind it then because KOTOR actually had some awesome combat systems (trusty old AD&D 3.5 ruleset, innit) and also because the sense of divorce between cutscenes and action was not so huge. In Mass Effect 2 I feel it’s becoming intolerably huge. We see all those digital actors (their words, not mine) making convincingly natural gestures during cutscenes, with all those camera pans and smart cuts, but when it comes to the action, after all the improvements that I have recognised about combat, I still feel like I am playing a game vastly inferior to its own idea of what it should be.
That, and, frankly, the quality of writing is simply not on the same level as direction and editing.
Being fashionably late
No More Heroes 2 is a game where the first words its protagonist utters are “It’s called fashionably late, fucker”. What are Shepard’s first words in Mass Effect 2? I have no idea, and I played the opening twice.
It’s just a bland procession of clichés, all the characters speaking almost strictly exposition, very little humour, style or, you know, life. Shepard is supposed to have at least two sides to his character what with all those paragon/ renegade dialogue choices but he always speaks like a third grade teacher. I appreciate that BioWare are trying to make the direction of the game’s storyline clear to everyone but I just feel I am falling asleep through most of it due to a total lack of blood.
This bland, lifeless writing is what kept me from enjoying the first game’s storyline as well. Mass Effect is all about saving the universe and being true to your nature and stuff, but it’s very forced in putting its meaning through. Apparently, it took paying Chris Avellone to write KOTOR 2 to infuse the franchise with some actual meaning, some philosophical dilemmas and some actual choices that had depth and meaningful consequences to them. Mass Effect 2 is, by comparison a spreadsheet of concepts read aloud by expensive voice actors.
In No More Heroes 2, Travis is convinced to start killing for fame yet again by the aggressively sexy UAA agent Sylvia Christel. It’s done through a cutscene where Sylvia dances seductively around Travis, stroking his beam katana’s handle in a very suggestive way and Travis having a nosebleed (the frequent manga/ anime sign of hornyness). It’s funny, it’s satirical, it’s fan service and fan subversion at the same time and it’s all done through smart filmmaking.
On the other hand, in Mass Effect 2, Miranda, the femme fatale du jour literally tells Shepard that she is engineered to be irresistible to men.
In both cases sexuality is used to establish a sort of a power relationship between characters. In No More Heroes 2 it’s a smart, funny, multilayered scene of bodies in motion, facial expressions and some choice words with double meanings. In Mass Effect 2 it’s one character telling another that she is seductive.
That’s what I mean when I say bad storytelling.
Almost done, scout’s honor
Now, in another game I’d just skip the cutscenes and click through dialogues without listening to any of it. On my second run through Bayonetta that’s exactly what I did and I still ended up with an awesome ten hour action game. In Mass Effect 2 I would end up with an average five hour shooter totally devoid of context. Because you can’t. You can’t take the storytelling out of Mass Effect 2 and still have the meaning. It’s designed around it. Not around shooting, not around levelling up, not around gameplay. It’s designed around its storyline and its storyline is frankly not very good.
Do you see where the problem is? Mass Effect 2 is getting stellar grades across the gaming media and it will sell shitloads of fucktons of copies. This will be deemed not just a success but also a model for future successful games in the AAA range. Where we once had awesome ambient storytelling of Half-Life or subdued, deceptive storytelling of Shadow of the Colossus we will now have clumsy, shitty exposition and expensive cutscenes and “digital actors” stumbling into the uncanny valley every few steps (although you can still masturbate to some of them. Just not Miranda. She is hideous. Her superb seduction skills must be about pheromones because, seriously, she is not hot.). It’s like, Mass Effect 2 tries so hard to be realistic that it ends up being bland, while No More Heroes 2 tries to be funny and over the top and unrealistic because it’s a fucking game and goddamnit you guys, the second bossfight is a fight where a football champ and his band of cheerleaders form together into a giant robot and Travis’ bike is a totally badass Transformers ripoff!!!1!!!1
I find it funny that as everyone and Steerpike noticed how Modern Warfare 2’s story was hilariously over the top and illogical and politically wrong and shit, it should also be noted that Modern Warfare 2 allowed you to fucking play and its story unfolded as you did. In Mass Effect 2, the game trying to be smart and sensitive and assertive, just like Shepard, you are routinely prevented from playing (at least in the “meaningful player interaction” sense) for prolonged periods of time so you can be fed more of its not-so-great story. If Mass Effect 2 is evolution and Modern Warfare 2 is just same old same old packed into the new engine and sold to jocks, then by all means colour me conservative.
Because, seriously, I am almost forty years old. It’s high time I started being conservative.
But look at it this way: I have no problems in media trying to break out of its mould and breaking the rules. I believe atonal music and non-figurative painting are great. They do away with higher layers (harmony, figuration) to expose the core values of their respective media: sound and composition. Colour and shape. Tone and mood. Colour and composition. They strip away the presentation to get to the meaning.
That’s what No More Heroes 2 does not really do, because it has its own storyline and characters, but that’s what Mass Effect 2 most certainly doesn’t do, instead pouring most of its efforts into presentation and as a result suffering in the area of meaningful player interaction but also delivering a substandard storytelling experience.
I believe that ultimately No More Heroes 2 says “I am a game and I like it. And I will poke fun at games because I love games.” But Mass Effect 2 says “I am not really a game. I am more like a movie. And I will distance myself from games not because I can offer something more meaningful, but because I lack trust in games’ capacity to have meaning.”
And this is why in Mass Effect 2, importing the save file from the first game only has very little effect on the gameplay but much more obvious effects on the storytelling (redundant, I might add, but perhaps that’s just me being mean). While at the same time in No More Heroes 2 Travis asks Sylvia to turn to the screen and tell the player the backstory from the first game. And Sylvia dismisses his request by explaining that no one gives a shit anyway, they just want to play. Yes. Suda 51 knows his shit. We’re here to play. Not watch, not read, not listen. This is a game and we want meaningful interaction with it, not just a one-sided stream of visuals and sounds.
Because let’s face it, if you think the game itself can not have meaning, it’s you who’s in the wrong hobby. Surely, you never told anyone that chess would be so much better with more cutscenes and voice acting. Then why are you doing this?