The surprising intricacies of binary politics, or how I became the worst monster in history

(Warning: This text touches on some of the most loathsome things human beings can do to each other)

Our Hero

To the politically savvy, the following text might induce some eye rolls. Right after they've finished cursing my name for the monster this game made me in the end. And I say that it made me, with the knowledge firmly in hand that I did not in fact set out to become the most hateful of war criminals. Even as it was happening, I didn't mean to be the catalyst for the horrific consequences my maneuvering left in its wake.

So settle down, relax, have a drink, and let me regale you with the tale of how I inadvertently instituted a state sponsored war-time rape/breeding program.

Divinity: Dragon Commander is a peculiar little game. It is one third RTS, one third RISK clone and one third choice based RPG. You play the role of the Dragon Commander, half-dragon, and one part of a quartet of siblings, all potential heirs to the title of a dead emperor, all fighting a world-wide conflict to secure their birth-right. It is set in the fantasy land of Rivellon, predictably populated with humans, dwarves, elves, lizard people, imps and undead. It's a game that makes you think you know what it will throw at you. After a while though, you become aware that the game's fantasy setting is actually a very thin veneer, hiding behind it a game with very modern sensibilities, tackling very modern issues. And all the characters within it are less well-rounded individuals, and more avatars, standing in for the ideology they represent.

No, I will not! Next case!

The undead people are the religious set. The elves are the environmentalists. The dwarves are capitalists, the lizards are socialists and the imps are technocrats. All of them play their roles within the political game, the RPG third of the game. In between the battles and strategizing of the RTS, you return to your flagship to face these hotbutton political issues, presented to you by the representatives of each of the aforementioned races. These issues can be easily recognized as plucked from present day discourse. It is merely given a fantasy tint, but at no point does the game try to hide the fact that you are taking a stand on very modern questions. Questions like immigration, legalized narcotics, religious rights, freedom of speech, socialized medicine, right to carry arms, etc. These are all issues the game presents to you, in a completely binary form. It is always a simple yes/no. And had I kept this in mind, I probably wouldn't have committed the atrocities I eventually did.

It is at this point your generals come in. Like the ambassadors, your four battlefield commanders represents a certain ideology or identity. Henry represents brute strength militarism, Scarlett represents youth and homosexuality, Edmund represents the old school gentlemanly officer, and Catherine represents feminism.

And it is her that my story revolves around. She is, quite frankly, a nasty piece of work. Whenever a matter regarding women's rights comes up in the political third, she is somehow involved, whether it concerns women's rights to vote, to equal pay or to breast feed in public. If you go against her, she will scold you with remarkable eloquence. If you side with her, she will sarcastically lambaste you for not instituting these changes sooner. Despite this, I found it difficult not to agree with her. She always presented her case very well, and I really wanted my rising empire to be tolerant and kind to women. And it was. Until Catherine returned from a surprise inspection at the front.

She cornered me in the bar, absolutely furious, telling me she had found a large section of our soldiers would subject the civilian population to unspeakable horrors, chief among them, raping women and girls. (Yes, despite its colourful look and light fantasy setting, the game goes incredibly dark at times.)

Even the press sees right through me

General Catherine had immediately had the worst offenders executed. She now wanted carte blanche to do the same to anyone who did something like it in the future, go aggressively after the perpetrators. I considered this, but eventually sided against it. I figured that the original set of executions had set an example, and that it wouldn't be a huge problem in the future. Naturally, Catherine wasn't happy, but she had no choice but to accept it. I should point out that morally, ideologically, I agreed with her. Someone who subjects defenseless victims to such barbarous acts deserve little mercy. Pragmatically though, I knew that any choice from the political game carries over to the strategic game. Mass executions would mean a loss to my recruitment pool, resulting in a weaker army. So I turned her down. Another round passes, and in the mean time, I suffer a devastating defeat in a major battle, putting me on the defensive.

She returns to me with barely contained anger, and starts laying into me. Apparently, and maybe in hindsight, predictably, my decision has had dire consequences. My leniency has led to the impression that the army's high command, while not outright condoning the hideous practice, are willing to turn a blind eye. So the problem is escalating. Catherine presents me with her new demand.

And again, this is where the fantasy veneer is overlaying the contemporary issue. She wants me a legalize hobweed, a kind of plant that will cause abortions, and make it available to the victims of my soldiers' crimes. And in replying to this request, I make myself history's greatest monster. The war isn't going well, I'm on the defensive, and I have my enemies on my borders. The war can drag out for a long time, and I figure that, as a leader in a desperate situation, I have to take advantage of this, and as unfortunate as the thing is, this is an opportunity to bolster my ranks with new soldiers in the long run.

Yup. Instead of being a human being, I did that.

She's not wrong, you know...

And it only occurred to me later the scope and ramifications of what I'd done. I looked at the two binary choices, and figured what I did was perhaps overly pragmatic, but not monstrous. When in fact, looking at the practical outcome, it was something of the worst things a leader can possibly do to his people. I began a program of institutionalized abuse of the most abominable kind. And it was never my intention. I wasn't role playing some kind of evil despot, I wasn't setting out to see what the most horrible things the game would let me do was. I was simply acting in what I thought was my nation's best interest.

Is there a lesson to be learned from this? I don't know. Maybe it's that power is a corrupting agent, and that seeing everything from the top down makes you lose perspective of the individual fates, and not feel the impact of your own actions. It all becomes a number's game. Or maybe it's Divinity: Dragon Commander is just a game, completely lacking the ability to simulate the mechanics of ruling an empire. Either way, what is clear is that I should never be granted any kind of power. Because intentions be damned, it will end badly for someone.

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My only friend, The End

(The following text contains spoilers for the Extended Cut Mass Effect 3 ending.)

I am a passionate man.

Let all doubts about that be cast aside right now. When I feel something, I feel it down to my bones, and when something has caught hold of my attention, I tend to make it a large part of my life. Take Mass Effect, for instance. If you have followed my blog, and seen and maybe smiled sanctimoniously at my little comic strips will know that I really like the Mass Effect universe. Six out of the nine (or seven out of ten, if you count #5, which was never released) of the comic strips I've done have been about Mass Effect.

And those of you who somewhere out there on the interautobahn stumbled across a post on a desolate gaming forum filled with shameless self-promotion, and was curious enough to click the link provided, will also know that the ending to Mass Effect 3 was a huge disappointment to me. Rumour is, I wasn't alone. And though I did make a snarky comic about the original ending, distilling years of the game's creators' hard work down to three panels of venom, I well and truly loved the rest of it. And as time went by and lent me distance and perspective, I came to calm down on the subject. I still feel to this day that the original ending was a massive failure of storytelling, but it did ask some interesting questions. Questions that I will not try to answer here, because yesterday, most of them were answered for me, with the arrival of the Extended Cut of the Mass Effect 3 ending.

There is something I need to get off my chest, though it is not my intention to make it the focus of this post. BioWare, the game developer stated with the announcement of the EC that the original endings would not be altered, merely elaborated upon. This is simply not the case. A lot of key dialogue was changed, some phrases that left you with dire connotations for the future of the galaxy where snipped out, or blatantly contradicted. This is stuff that only nerds like me who had become intimately familiar with every word of the original endings in order to make some sort of sense out of the jumbled mess they used to be will notice, but to me it seems clear. BioWare did not simply elaborate, the changed the implications of the endings, to make the prospect of what awaits the Mass Effect universe after the Reaper war a brighter one. And that it sort of disappointing to me, because as I've said elsewhere, I never wanted them to change the endings, no matter how much I hated them. I've said it before on this blog and elsewhere; I don't believe that you should backtrack on a published work. Let the original speak for itself, because that was your vision, and I feel you should stand by it.

That's not to say that this new ending (please note that I've only seen the "Destroy" and the "Reject" endings) wasn't very well done, and that I didn't enjoy it, because I did. I'm just a little disappointed that they felt the need to actually change what was already done. But let me at last arrive at what I wanted to talk about in this post; the Reject ending, which seems to be the one that catches the most ire on the BioWare forums. (Seriously guys, enough with all the hate. What's done is done, and right now, the world needs more love.) In short, the reject ending gives Shepard, the protagonist, the option of rejecting the three options he is given for solving the Reaper conflict, and basically give a big, fat middle finger to the annoying AI that wants to force these choices on him. Of course, without making any of these choices, the armada of warships you've gathered throughout the game, formidable as it may be, cannot stand against the incredible might of the Reapers. You can reject the choices, but there is no Deus Ex Machina waiting for you just out of frame. Your resolve to stand up to him, and spit his choices back in his face does not impress the evil AI. As a result, the Reapers win, wiping out all of the advanced civilizations in the galaxy. Including humanity. This has caused some fans to get angry, as they believe this is a massive "fuck you" from BioWare, given that the reject option was one of the most requested additions to the EC.

After the battle, you are treated to another scene, in which it is strongly indicated that your efforts against the Reapers did actually yield some beneficial results, and that is was enough to prepare the civilizations that rise in the millennia after the humans and the turians and the asari and the krogan and the quarians are long since forgotten for the next Reaper cycle. Your actions gifted them with the strength and knowledge to fight and destroy the threat once and for all. I love this notion. For it is the only option before you that does not involve a massive ethical sacrifice to be successful. (Maybe apart from the new Destroy ending.) Your entire race may be wiped out, but it did not have to become something else, something vile in the process. You stood your ground, you went out swinging, and you ensured that the ones that come after you were ready to defeat this great threat. You sacrifice yourself, but you choose not to sell your soul. And in my naive, idealistic ways, I believe that is what it is to be human.

At the very least, it is an ideal it is worth trying to live up to. Thank you BioWare, for an extraordinary game series, and a vessel for emotional investment that few works of fiction have ever given me. Though I still believe that you stumbled a bit with the original ending, which may have made me spout some angry, empty threats about not buying anything Mass Effect-related ever again, rest assured that I am and will remain a fan, and that I will be looking forward to whatever project you release next.

Just maybe try to have someone honest look at its ending first, and trust them to tell you if it’s shit.

(This has been previously released on my stupid web-comic blog, but let's face it, no-one reads that.)

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The Skull Plate

I am a terrible person.

Over an extended period of time, I have done things that would make dictators blush and lawyers frown. In younger days, I would take a giddy pleasure in finding out just how far away from the realm of human decency and compassion I could travel. I am an awful person.

Albion was hit hard when I visited. Not only did I become guilty of selling innocent people into slavery within moments of my arrival; I also tortured and deprived prisoners under my care of necessary sustenance, and robbed a young woman of her youth, so that I could maintain my own. A few years later, I returned to Albion, where my thirst for power led me a morally corrupt hat trick: In one fell swoop, I became guilty of fratricide, regicide and a coup. Once I had secured my powerbase, I was free to dismiss all the promises I had made to the people who helped me assume power, cackling like a deranged madman as they one by one stormed out of my throne room after being told exactly where to stick it.

The capital wasteland didn't fare much better, and the good people there soon became victims of my cruelty. Nuclear terrorism, poisoned water supplies, slavery, (again) murder, theft and general rudeness followed in the wake of my arrival, and I hadn't gotten any gentler by the time I'd made my way across the country to the Mojave wasteland either. Enemy leaders were assassinated; companions were killed and looted for their stuff. I stole everything that wasn't nailed down, and with the help of my crowbar, a few things that were. I sabotaged a rocket meant to take a group of friendly mutants to their promised land, ensuring that the trip became much shorter and more explosive than planned, and in the end, I sided with the deranged madman out to turn the wasteland into a dictatorship modeled on Roman ideals.

In Ferelden, my sadistic side was given more or less free reign. I purged a tower full of mages, just 'cause. In the dwarven tunnels, I salvaged a magical forge that could take the souls of unwilling individuals, and use them to power an army of rock golems and I let a boy possessed by a demon die, rather than bothering to make the effort to save him (which I could have done). And finally, I ensured an ally and a friend was sentenced to death, to make sure he couldn't usurp the new queen. Not that I cared, I just didn't bother standing up for him.

I've been to space and kicked people out of windows, been responsible for several murders and outright genocides. (plural) I've left human test subjects at the mercy of their captors, just incase their brutal experiments yielded results beneficial to me. I've shot admirers in the legs, I've punched reporters on more than one occasion and I've let alien politicians die to give humanity, and I use that term in the loosest possible sense, a chance at seizing power.

I have uplifted entire civilizations from barbarians with loin cloths and clubs to the very summit of cultural and technological development, only to spend my entire wealth on a disturbingly large stockpile of nuclear weapons. There's only one way to find out if it's possible to irradiate every square mile of land outside my borders, right?

My list of crimes includes, but is in no way limited to, all these atrocities. And for years, I took a sick pleasure in being the biggest digital douchebag I could be. Until one incident, tiny and innocent in comparison to the disgusting war crimes I had perpetrated in the past, changed everything. The place was Tattooine, birthplace of my role model, Darth Vader. I was a mysterious young Jedi, who despite being sheparded by companions Bastila, galaxy-class nag, and Carth, do-gooder extraordinaire, had a problem suppressing my vicious streak. We'd just arrived on the planet, looking for a map to the legendary Star Forge, an ancient weapon, which in the wrong hands (he, he, he, he...) could ensure the complete subjugation of the galaxy. In a dingy little workshop, we'd come across a curious robot with a delightful penchant for murder and chaos. Realizing that I'd found a kindred spirit, I knew I had to buy it. Money was short however, and no matter how much I threatened the owner with a gruesome death if he didn't hand it over, I couldn't haggle the price down low enough to afford it.

So I had to get the money, somehow. In the local cantina, I was told about the hunter office, a market where treasure hunters and prospectors could sell their wares. All I needed was a license to enter, and I'd be set. I threatened the clerk to give the license for free, and walked into the street, ready to head into the desert to find my fortune. Before I got five steps, however, I was stopped in the street by a young woman, who had been waiting outside the office. She told me that she saw that I had a license, and wondered if I could do her a favour.

I sighed, audibly and deliberately, but agreed to listen to her tedious story. She was newly widowed, she told me. Her husband had been a hunter, and the sole provider for her and her two children. He had been killed during his last hunt, and now she was standing there, with no means of feeding her children, and nothing to her name, save for the skull plate of a Wraid, a large and notoriously hard to kill predator stalking the dunes around the town. Apparently, it was very valuable, and if sold, could support her and her children for a long time. She wondered if I could be so kind as to buy it off her, since her husband's hunting license became void upon his death, and she had no access to the hunter's market. I looked at her in silence, the way I imagine a snake looks at a mouse that thinks it is negotiation, rather than postponing the inevitable. I waited for her to finish her impassioned plea. Then I put my hand supportingly on her shoulder.

"I can't afford it myself," I lied, trying in vain to sound sympathetic. "But I can take it to the hunter's market for you. I promise I'll get you a good price."

She looked at me with eyes that told me that she had paid dearly for trusting strangers in the past. I could tell she wanted to believe me, but something in the back of her mind screamed at her to get away from this man. He will bring nothing but misery.

"I'd rather not," she said eventually. "I'll probably find someone else willing to pay me for it."

Unfortunately for her, I had already made up my mind. I wanted that skull plate.

"Come on," I said, and took a step forward, invading her personal space, making her uncomfortable, making her shift her weight backwards. "You can trust me. I'm a good haggler. I'll get you a much better deal than you can get from some bum you stop on the street."

"I'm sorry," she said, somehow finding the courage to oppose me. "I'm sure you're an honourable man, but I can't afford to risk my children's future. This is all I have left."

I'd had enough. Any semblance of the phony sympathy I'd mustered drained from my face in an instance, and a total, hopeless darkness took its place. I leaned in menacingly, and with a voice so icy even the twin suns of Tattooine would struggle to thaw it, I said: "Listen lady. Give me the damn skull plate, or I'll kill you."

I could see her struggle for breath as it sunk in what I'd just told her. She made no effort at hiding the shock and the despair which was paralyzing her body. She slowly reached into her bag, and handed me the skull plate, because she saw in my dead eyes that I was mercilessly serious. She had lost the ability to protest, even as she saw her children's future trickle out between her fingers. This woman had been treated to a look behind the curtain, and she had seen cruelty so deep and complete that it had left her utterly speechless. Despite repeated and angry protests from my companions, I turned on my heels, and headed back into the hunter office, to claim my ill-gotten reward. I had to smack the clerk around a bit to get a deal I was satisfied with, but as I once again walked out the doors, I pocketed a cool 200 credits more than the sticker price, which nicely put me over the top. I could now afford the sociopathic robot. I even started whistling a little tune as I headed down towards the workshop to get my new friend. I didn't get far before I was halted again, however. A light tug at my Jedi robes made he stop in my tracks and turn around, where I once again found myself face to face with the young widow, whose future I had just demolished.

"Did you get a good price for it?" she asked. To my utter surprise, there was no accusation in her voice. There was hope. After what I'd just told her she still held out hope that there was a shred of decency left in me. Enough to give her the money that was rightfully hers, and that she needed infinitely more than I did.

I didn't end up giving her any money. I don't know what became of her, but for the first time since I began my ruthless rampage through space and time, I felt guilty. And over time it developed into a creeping, bottomless guilt that ran a cold finger across my spine every time another chance at malice presented itself.

The change wasn't instantaneous, and before my conscience eventually overpowered me, I had the time to force Zalbaar, my friendly wookie companion to kill his closest friend for my amusement, and turn Bastila, my friend and mentor to the dark side.

As I've gotten older, I've stopped taking this deranged pleasure in creating virtual misery. I've become a paragon player, and doing something incredibly, and often stupidly nice now yields the same satisfaction my dickishness used to. And I think it all began with this young woman and her children, whose life I ruined just because I could. I'd quite simply had enough.

What about you? What is the most horrific thing you've ever done in a video game?

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We hated you so deeply, because we loved you so dearly

Random internet asshole Draugen comes late to the party, forces his rambling thoughts on Mass Effect on you, vents all his anger at the ending of 3, and finds inner peace and hope in the last paragraph.

Preface: This article contains massive, MASSIVE spoilers for Mass Effect 3. Do not read beyond this point if you don't want the entirety of the story spoiled.

In December of 2007, I bought an Xbox 360 for the first time. I wasn't planning on doing it. After all, I'd been a PC gamer for several years, and the new consoles coming out offered me nothing that my gaming rig couldn't do better. And still, right before Christmas, I hurried down to the electronics store, and bought it, armed with a single point of justification: Mass Effect, Bioware's latest RPG was at the time an Xbox exclusive. From what I'd heard, it was a game right up my alley. An epic quest, a host of interesting, crazy characters and a genuine impact from the players own choices. I got home, booted up the game, and so began a four and a half year long love affair that was to culminate in one of the most soul crushing entertainment-related disappointments I've experienced: the ending to Mass Effect 3.

Let me get this on the table first of all: I love Mass Effect 3. Whoever said that video games are incapable of eliciting genuine emotion from the player is either talking out of his ass, or is unable to empathize with fictional characters. On three separate occasions during the course of playing Mass Effect 3, I was genuinely choked up with tears in my eyes. On a further two, the impact of the choice I'd just made rocked me so hard I had to get up and go for a long walk to process the implications of those choices, which are monumental. And I'm not some overly emotional sap either. I'm a big, hairy, sweaty man who keeps his feelings locked away at the bottom of a deep pool replenished by alcohol to keep them at bay. But oh my God; Wrex, the 800 pound alien lizard I've spent the last three games with just told me he considers me his brother. I love you too, Wrex!

I think that's where Mass Effect's appeal comes from. The characters and the interaction between them. Take Jack for instance. When she is introduced, she (yes, she) appears like nothing but a tired archetype. An angry, powerful, borderline psychotic killer, with a tragic past which we've seen a million and one times in our games before. And while it's possible to get under the skin of the character in Mass Effect 2, you always kind of feel like she is a bit of a lost cause, that she'll never evolve into anything more than a biotic bad-ass, who doesn't care about anything.

That's why the direction BioWare chose to take the character in for Mass Effect 3 was such a pleasant surprise. When you meet her again in the trilogy closer, she has evolved in a very interesting direction. During the Grissom Academy mission early on in the game, you find her having taken a position as a teacher for a group of biotic kids. It's an unexpected, but not uncharacteristic evolution. She retains her core personality, she doesn't hesitate to use her considerable powers to mercilessly kill her enemies, but she no longer does it for the thrill or for the hell of it. She does it to protect her students. It's not breaking new ground; it's not exceptionally good story-telling, but it's really enjoyable and satisfying. That’s how I've always considered the Mass Effect games; like immensely entertaining pulp novels. For me, Mass Effect is, all hyperbole aside, the Star Wars of my generation.

Which is a bit ironic, given that I'm actually old enough to be of the actual Star Wars generation.

For nearly 30 hours, Mass Effect 3 was a thrill ride, the likes of which the gaming medium rarely delivers. The galaxy may feel a bit small at times, and the suspension of disbelief is stretched a bit thin, seeing as in a universe of billions upon billions it's never far between the familiar faces showing up seemingly by accident. But it works anyway. During the thirty hours it took me to reach London and the finale, my Shepard, "Vanilla John" as I like to call him, has been through some incredible things. Not only has he helped cure the thousand year old sterility plague which has kept the Krogan race subjugated for all that time, he has ended the threat of the geth, a race of sentient machines who decided to side with his enemy once to many and given the exiled quarians their planet back. He has also rekindled with whirlwind romance with Tali, the Russian-sounding quarian mechanic, fist bumped his way through his continuing bromance with Garrus, the rogue police-officer turned space-batman turned military strategist, and shared his hopes and fears for the future they're fighting for with gal-pal Liara, in addition to dozens of little events and scenes that make Mass Effect 3 one of the most memorable game experiences ever.

And then you get to the end. Those of you who saw my very spoilery comic strip on the subject will know more or less exactly how I feel about it.

It's really bad. Badly written, badly staged and such a sharp tonal shift I had to be examined for whiplash afterwards. It's horrendously bad. And I know bad fiction. I write bad fiction all the time, so I feel I can speak with authority on the subject. Basically, after fighting your way through London to get to a poorly defended space elevator, and being decimated by a Reaper laser, which also probably killed your teammates, you stumble up through the elevator to reach the big space maguffin (the crucible) which is apparently the only way of defeating the Reapers, the giant sentient space ships who are laying waste to all advanced organic species, you are suddenly taken on another, smaller magic space elevator, and set face to face with a little ghostly looking child in the familiar form of a human kid Shepard has been struggling with feelings of guilt for not being able to save in the beginning of the game.

The ghost child then tells you that he is the one controlling the Reapers. I had a bad feeling right there. If there is one sci-fi cliché I well and truly hate, it is when the main villain is introduced out of no-where literally in the last 10 minutes, just so he can cackle "it was me all along. MOHHAHAHA!" The ghost kid doesn't actually cackle, but he may as well have. Then the narrative starts sliding. The ghost offers you three choices on how to solve this conflict, to control the Reapers and die (don't ask), to destroy the Reapers and maybe die (again, don't ask), or to synthesize all sentient life in the galaxy into a single, organic/synthetic life form, to avoid an hypothesized conflict which is apparently the ghost's motivation ( what did I just tell you?)

I have to kill you to save you. Imagine that, another sci-fi trope I hate down to my very soul.

Oh, and by the way; picking any of these choices will demolish the mass relays, the ancient, mysterious superhighways which uphold the galactic infrastructure, rendering long distance space flight impossible. Why? Because space magic. A little aside: Is it just me who's concerned with the moral of the synthesis ending? Because it makes it seem like only way to avoid conflict is to stamp out any sign of individualism or diversity. That's communist and racist in one package!

Anyway, after being given these three choices, it is now the perfect time for Shepard to call on the strength of the considerable galactic fleet he has amassed to combat the Reapers to bomb the living shit out of the space station which the two of them are standing on, going down in a fiery blaze of glory, holding his middle finger high at the little shit how has the gall to give Shepard three stupid choices, which are all the same in the end anyway.

But no. Shepard can't do that. For three games and nearly a hundred hours, Shepard has defied the odds, and played by his own damn rules. But now, as he finally stands face to face with his enemy, he figures he'd rather not question the choices laid before him, and take whatever comes. And take it he does, no matter how much you as the player scream at him to sack up, and at the very least try to dig some clarity out of the little nonsense-spouting space spirit. You have to pick one of the three endings, which more or less boil down to which colour you want to destroy the universe with, blue, green or red. And if that wasn't silly enough, you get a little bonus scene where you see your crew racing across the galaxy in your space ship, going... somewhere. It's never made clear where they are going, but they get hit by the coloured shockwave you just triggered up in the crucible, and crash.

On a livable planet somewhere.

With no scorch trail behind the ship.

The door to the ship opens and out steps your pilot, who by the way suffers from brittle bone disease, and should have crumbled completely by the force of his ship falling out of the sky. Not content with that, however, you also find out that at least one of your teammates, who moments ago was being burned to death by a giant laser at the space elevator, was also somehow on the ship. And then they walk off. And that's how the game ends.

Actually, there is another scene after the credits, but it's just too much for me to go on about. I was devastated. There was no way the amazing adventure that was the Mass Effect trilogy could end this way. I thought I must have picked the wrong ending, so I spent the next hour playing through the other two, only to realize they were almost exactly the same. So where does the ending of Mass Effect leave us?

First of all, the mass relays are gone, so everyone is pretty much trapped where they were the moment the crucible fired its magic shockwave. Which is bad news for earth, given that pretty much every military space ship in the galaxy is orbiting it. Especially since it's been burned to cinder over the last few months. So as any student of history will tell you, this will lead to a war for the few resources that are left. All the aliens who are stranded, with no chance of ever seeing their homes again will turn on each other, and nearly finish the job the Reapers started.

Meanwhile, your crew, who lack the genetic diversity to create a new civilization, will have to languish on this unknown world they find themselves on for the rest of their lives with only each other for company, and an unknown access to sustenance. Cheerful stuff.

Mass Effect 3 is one of my favourite games of recent years. It is an absolutely fantastic game. But it leaves you utterly confused and depressed in the end. The ending veers hard away from any internal logic which has been established, it's difficult to believe the last 20 minutes are from the same game you've spent 30 hours with. The ending as it is, as I see it, is utterly broken, and I don't see any way it could be salvaged.

Still BioWare, bless their hearts, are going to try, submitting to the massive fan outrage the ending triggered, and announcing new, free DLC which is meant to offer more clarity and closure to the ending as it stands. I say this without snark or sarcasm: I think that is a good olive branch to those of us who loved so dearly and then hated so deeply. Despite my utter disdain for the ending, I never wanted them to change it after the fact, something a lot of fans did, and are still pissed off that they now definitely won't do. As an aspiring (read: failed) story-teller myself, I don't believe in narrative mulligans. You live with your decisions, no matter how much your audience hates you for it.

And that I can respect BioWare for. They are still my favourite video game developer, and I'll probably continue to buy their games. I just wish they hadn't fouled up the ending to the greatest space saga in a long time.

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Angel of the Battlefield

Hold on to your butts, as I try my shaking, unpracticed hand at satire this week. WARNING: Some violent descriptions and cursing in the follwing entry. Only read through partially covered eyes.

Angel of the Battlefield

The smell was practically a corporeal entity in the small, yet densely populated cellar. A thick, invisible mist that tasted like sweat, smoke, weapon oil and alcohol revealed most of what you needed to know about the makeup of the slightly odd gathering. Every chair around every table was occupied, with singing, shouting, brawling soldiers celebrating a job well done. The skew was definitely quite male, with the few women present making sure to pull their caps as far down in front of their faces as possible. They knew what to expect from the laughing, fist-bumping congregation surrounding them, should they be caught wind of. The losing team, or noobs, as the winners referred to them as were also present, but apart from a few angry yells of cheating or foul play, they kept mostly quiet and to themselves.

Just as another round of beers was being handed out, a thin, wiry man with a shamagh covering most of his face, and a long, intimidating bolt-action sniper rifle rested across his chest jumped up on one of the flimsy wooden tables, and stood there, silently, waiting for everyone's attention. He held his hands out to the side, as if politely asking for silence, as more and more heads turned towards him. When he felt a sufficiently large part of the crowd was looking at him, he finally opened his mouth to speak.

"Bitches!" he shouted, and got a wave of laughs and raised glasses in return. He started pacing back and forth across the poor table, which looked about ready to topple over at any minute, like a rock star making his audience wait for their favorite song.

"Most of you don't know me," he announced with a cocky grin camouflaged by the shamagh. "Most of you have never seen me before. But I know all of you," he said, and let a pointed finger run across the entire crowd, before resting his hand on his rifle

"I see you through the 12x ballistic scope of my M40A5 sniper rifle, and in the breathless moment before I take your life, I am closer to you than your mother, your father and a whole gaggle of your closest friends combined. I am a sniper, and though I may be acres away when I pull my trigger, I am right next to you when you die."

"You're full of shit!" came a call from the audience, which triggered a wave of laughter, and calls for the young sniper to get off the damn table.

Instead of complying, he spun around in the direction of the man who had shouted at him, shifting his weight around so that the table didn't break underneath him. Then he waited for a moment, for his captive audience to settle down. As the silence descended, he expertly twisted his hand down to the rifle's bolt, and pulled it back in a motion so smooth and practiced, he didn't even have to look down as his gloved hand snatched the ejected bullet casing out of the air. With his eyes surveying the crowd, he held it up between two of his fingers, triumphantly.

"This casing contained a 7.62x51mm NATO round, which left my barrel at 777 meters p/s, and 1.59 seconds and 1.239 meters later connected with its target, the right eye of my enemy."

"Thanks for the math lesson, professor!" came another call from the audience, and another wave of laughter.

"No. Thank you for making my point," the sniper grinned. "Because whereas the rest of you Neanderthals run around clubbing and blowing up anything you see, I operate on a higher level. I am a surgeon among teamsters, and my rifle is my scalpel."

As if to emphasize his point, the sniper slid the bolt back into place, making sure it made more noise than necessary. He lifted the rifle above his head, and held it there for a few seconds, silently allowing his rant to build to its crescendo.

"I am the one who ends your existence when you feel the safest, I am the angel of Death stalking the battlefield, and I the one protecting my comrades when their hour is darkest. I am the one who can spot a target a nation away, and with a gentle tug of my trigger, unleash the magic shot. I am the one who creates the pink mist. I am a sniper, and the master of the battlefield."

He had said enough. The audience shouted a hearty HOOAH! as the sniper jumped down, and cockily strode back to his seat. As he did, however, another man sitting two tables over, took a deep swig of his beer, and got to his feet, climbing awkwardly up on his own table. He had a long bullet belt hanging around his neck, and he carried a heavy, cumbersome machine gun between his hands. As the crowd noticed him, he cocked his head to the side, and threw a venomous glance at the sniper.

"I'm sure we're all suitably impressed by our surgeon friend in the corner," he said with a mocking golf clap. "How many kills do you rack up during an encounter, doctor? Two? Three?"

A loud metallic noise reverberated through the premises as he cocked his heavy firearm.

"In front of me, I'm holding the M249 SAW. Like the name implies, this bitch, when treated correctly, will shear a man in half. In the right hands, mine, I can lay waste to entire squads of enemies who try to fuck with me, or my team."

HOOAH!

The crowd was loving it.

"I carry your ammo to the battle, and I keep the enemy from sticking his head of the hole he hides in. Keep your scalpel and your two kills, junior. This is a man's war."

HOOAH!

Before the machine gunner could even get off the table, another man, wearing a pilot's g-suit stood up, ready to grab the bragging baton. And so it continued. One after one, soldier after soldier, they all stood up to announce to their drunken comrades how vastly superior they were to all of them. Helicopter pilots, mine layers, commandos, mortar crews and anti-air personnel. They were all saluted with increasingly loud HOOAHs. Apart from the one guy who spent most of his time on the table slowly licking his knife. That just made everyone uncomfortable. Just as the tank driver was basking in his plaudits, the floorboards over in the darkest corner started creaking violently, and a slow, ironic clapping could be heard, as a beast of a man walked into the light, illuminating his scarred face. His steely, sunken eyes surveyed the room menacingly, as he stepped into the middle of the floor, still clapping, mocking the tank driver as he jumped down off the table. In the corner of his mouth, he was chomping on a small stub of a cigar.

"Well done, all of you!" he barked ironically, in a voice so rasping, it could grate cheese. "Look at you. Never have I been in the company of such a collection of bad-asses. Such manly men among men. Fucking one-man armies, the whole bunch of you. So eager to maim and kill your enemies. No fear, no regret..."

"Who the fuck are you?" the sniper shouted angrily.

"'Who the fuck am I'"? the man snapped, and walked over to the sniper's table, hovering over him, eclipsing the light hanging from the roof. "I saw your 'magic shot'. It must have been an impressive view through your scope. Nearly a mile away, and right through the poor bastards eye, right?"

The sniper nodded, hesitantly.

"Wrong!" the big man shouted, and slammed both his huge hands down on the table, making the sniper jump. "You hit him in the head alright. Glanced off his skull right above the ear. Enough to make total, bloody mess of his head, but not enough to kill him. Not right away. Who am I? I am the one who could do nothing but hold his hand, and pump him full of morphine as he slowly and agonizingly died."

He turned to face the rest of the room.

"I am the one who runs into the machine gunners fire in a foolish attempt at saving the man he's just shorn in half. I'm the one who treats the third degree burns the bomber pilot has inflicted on a squad of unsuspecting boys in uniform. I am the fucking one who has to stuff the stab victim's wound full of gauze to stop the profuse bleeding your knife has caused. Would you stop licking that thing for one damn minute!? Everyone thinks you're weird."

The big medic took a deep puff from his stogie, and sighed hard.

"You all make me sick. Every one of you. You don't give a second thought to the misery and the pain you cause, and leave to people like me to clean up. You fight in these endless conflicts, day in and day out, oblivious to the fact that nothing ever comes of it. There are no winners in this war. We finish one skirmish, and jump right into the next, and nothing ever changes. We are caught in an endless cycle of suffering and death, and no-one seems to mind."

The room went silent. No-one was singing or clapping, the sound of glasses clinking together had died down, and every head in the room sank towards the floor. For a split second, you could see a flicker in the medic's jaded eyes. Had he finally gotten through to them? Was this the start of something new, something better? Maybe the chance for co-operation and understanding, rather than this senseless conflict?

Suddenly the room erupted into another rapturous HOOAH! and the medic, dejected, had his answer. Everyone got on their feet, and started piling together to get to the exit as fast as possible. Above the large double doors, a neon sign had lit up, and a familiar countdown had started anew.

The Next Round Begins In: 7...6...5...4...

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The Quickest Way to a Woman's Heart

Less of a campfire tale to delight and amuse, and more of a reckless tap-dance through a minefield this week, as I try to tackle the slightly controversial topic of women's depiction in video games. And let's be honest right from the start; it's quite sad, isn't it? Let's establish that right now. Apart from a few noteworthy examples, female characters are over-sexualized and passive or preternaturally bad-ass and extremely over-sexualized. Neither of which is good characterization in my book.

(Oh really, Draugen? Mr. Never-been-published... Tell me more about characterization.)

A lot of bloggers have tackled this subject before, and probably quite a bit better than me, so instead of storming at it head on, I'll sneak around the outskirts, and focus this post around the thing that bothers me the most. Utility.

Warning: Games spoiled in this blog post: Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within, Various Tomb Raider games, Mass Effect 1+2

The Quickest Way to a Woman's Heart

"The right tools for the right job." That's what my father taught me, when I was young. A mountain hiker wears sturdy, comfortable boots and layers of clothes to keep warm. A firefighter wears a helmet and clothes that don't catch fire even if it gets quite hot. A hockey goalie wears enough padding to not be killed by the small rubber missiles launched at him at 200 mph. These people all dress from utility. They dress so that they are equipped for the task they are faced with. With that in mind, could someone please tell me what task this young lady us dressed for? Take your time.

You back? Hey! Eyes up here, buddy!

That's right, that's Shahdee from Ubisoft's 2004 game Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within, and in my mind, a, if not the prime example of all that is wrong with women's depiction in video games. But instead of going into all the pandering atrocities this character consists of, let's get back to utility. What task is this woman equipped for? It would have to be something indoors, seeing as she's hardly wearing anything at all. And given that the first time you meet her in the game, she's on the deck of a ship in a raging storm; I have an issue with this already. She is obviously a warrior, so wearing some kind of armour is something I'd at least consider, but it doesn't look like she's... Oh no, wait, there is. I just couldn't see it without squinting.

Now, I'm not going to claim to be any kind of armouring expert, but to a layman like me, it seems like the prime function of any kind of body armour would be to protect major organs, most of which are located in the human torso, something her metal bikini somewhat fails to do. Even the inside of her thigh, which houses one of the biggest arteries in the body, is completely exposed. And here we come to the heart of my problem.

I cannot respect a character that is designed with a bigger emphasis on titillation than utility. Stylizing the character is one thing, and it can be done really well, but sadly, stylizing a female character these days just means giving them impossible proportions and breasts big enough to give the most adept yoga master back-pains for life. I'm not even going to go further into the body design, because it's been discussed by smarter people than me before, and this little article isn't about that. But we should all be alarmed when even I, Draugen, a prototypical disgusting, hairy sweaty man who unabashedly enjoys ogling the many iterations of the female form, am embarrassed to talk about my hobby because it seems incapable of portraying women as anything but an object of desire for the male eye.

Shahdee is the banner figure for a trend that if it continues, will prevent video games from ever growing up as an art form. But all is not hopeless. Occasionally, someone gets it right. And I will get to that in a moment, but first I'd like to discuss another character, one which you may disagree with me actually does a few things that should be applauded.

Namely, Lady Lara Croft. I completely understand if anyone with strong feminists sensibilities reading this just got a drop or two of their green tea down the wrong pipe just now, when I claimed that the prototype for the over-sexualized female character in gaming has any merit as an antithesis to what our friend Shahdee represents. Believe me when I say that I completely see that point of view. However, going back to the criteria I'm focusing on today, utility, Lara stands head and shoulders above most of her sisters. Some of the time. Well, at least, there is an effort involved.

She knows how to equip herself for any climate or environment. If she's exploring ancient Himalayan ruins in sub-arctic temperatures, she wears clothes that keep the cold out. If she's diving, she wears a wetsuit. If she's trudging through the tropics, she wears something breezy. Everything about the character does not work quite as well, though. She is clearly designed as eye candy to the player. In her first few outings she had an impossible large chest, which quickly became her key identifying attribute, which is a shame, seeing as she has a lot going for her. She is well educated, she is supremely competent and above all, she is driven. Not driven to find a man to protect her, but driven to seek out adventure. In recent games, ms. Croft has received a bit of a redesign, making her appear slightly closer to human, but she still has a lot of characteristics pandering to the lowest common denominator. But all in all, I'd say she is a step in the right direction. There is nothing wrong with an attractive character, as long as she has other redeeming features that ensure that she is not defined solely by her looks. I cannot respect a character like that. In the end, Lara doesn't quite get a pass. But a B for a manner of effort.

Throughout recent gaming history, there have been a few really good female characters that don't cause the usual eye rolling I tend to experience when booting up a new game. Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, and Alyx Vance from Half life 2 are two examples that usually come up when this discussion arises. Me, I'd like to finish this article by going to one of favorite game universes, Mass Effect. The obvious place to go here would of course be the female version of the player controlled protagonist Shepard, otherwise known FemShep across the internet. Sure, FemShep is in many ways a good example of a strong female character, but there is one problem I have with putting her forth as the poster for the proper way to write a video game woman who you can respect.

She was written as a man.

The Mass Effect games give the player the option of customizing their Shepard character, down to appearance, back-story, personality and gender. But apart from the voice acting, which is stellar, there is nothing to give FemShep her own character traits to separate her from her male counterpart, because the character behaves the same way regardless of sex. This results in the character taking on a lot of masculine virtues and mannerisms, which isn't a bad thing, considering that Shepard is a supremely accomplished soldier with the fate of galaxy resting on her shoulders. But the mere fact that she is simply a female version of another character makes me want to look elsewhere. Like for example Dr. Liara T'Soni. Now I have to preface this part by saying that Liara is not technically a woman; she is an alien, from a species that... You know what, forget it. Liara is in every way a female character.

Now, what are the chief characteristics of Dr. T'Soni? When you meet her in the first Mass Effect game, she is working as an archeologist, specializing in the Prothean civilization, an extinct species which a strange relevance to Shepard's ongoing mission. Though she has achieved her doctorate at a young age, she comes across as somewhat naive and timid, and more or less remains so for the duration of the first Mass Effect game. She is a romancable option for the player character of Shepard, whether Shepard is male or female. It is in Mass Effect 2 that Liara really comes into her own, and more specifically the DLC called Lair of the Shadow Broker. When Shepard encounters Liara in the game, two years after the events of the first game, she has gone through some tough ordeals, which has led her to a career change. She is now working as an information broker, buying and selling information, one of the hottest commodities in the Mass Effect universe. It is immediately apparent that she has changed in a significant way. She nurtures an obsession.

This may not seem like much, but to me, this is a truly refreshing bit of storytelling, because obsession is usually a character flaw seen 9 times out of 10 in male characters, very rarely in female ones. When Shepard asks Liara to come with him on his mission, she flatly refuses, and not until Shepard offers to help her accomplish her own goal does she agree to team up again. Utility. She doesn't drop everything that's important to her just because the handsome hero comes calling. She has her own agenda, one she even takes too far little while later. When Shepard gets knocked down in a fight with one of the villains, and said villain proceeds to flee, Liara gives chase, without even throwing a glance in Shepard's direction. Not a nice thing to do, but good characterization for a character like Liara and the place she is in emotionally.

**Please note, I'm about to spoil the ending of Lair of the Shadow Broker**

After a rip-roaring chase through a metropolitan skyline, and a brutal fight through the antagonist's hidden space station, Liara and Shepard find themselves face to face with the intimidating final boss. And it is Liara, not Shepard who takes charge. Shepard is along for the ride, and actually goes toe-to-toe with the boss at one point, but in the end, it is Liara who not only figures out how to defeat him, but also executes the plan. It is in every way her show, and she is the one who comes through in the end. And only after her enemies are conquered and his empire is now hers, does she let her shields drop, and you see that underneath, she still has all her insecurities and her doubts intact. She just doesn't succumb to them when the situation calls for her to hold it together.

I'm pretty sure I lost my own direction at one point during the writing of this blog post, (I'll blame the fever I've been hallucinating my way through this past week for that) so let me return to the post's initial point.

When creating a character, be they male or female; equip them for what they will be facing, physically and mentally. And if your character is going into a sword fight, for the love of God, put armour plating on them, no matter how tempting it is to show off her lovingly rendered cleavage.

Because the quickest way to a woman's heart; it goes right through the rib cage, just like with the rest of us.

(This has been previously released on my stupid web-comic blog, but let's face it, no-one reads that.)

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The Legend of Chosokabe Masayo

Playing video games for two and a half decades wil leave you with many stories, opinons and things you simply have to get off your chest. In this blog, I will try to share with you some of them. Read on, for the a little tale I call The Legend of Chosokabe Masayo, the greatest general ever to command my armies on the virtual battlefield.

Warning: Games lightly spoiled in this blog post: Shogun 2: Total War (PC)

O Honored Brother

O Conqueror of Japan

Even as the walls of Kyoto crumble before me, and the screaming, wailing nobles of this once great city throw themselves at my feet, eager to grovel and gain favour with the man who in a few short hours shall be their new Shogun, Battle lord of all Japan, my heart is heavy. Heavy, for my general, my friend, my brother Masayo is not by my side to share with me this moment of truth and destiny for the Chosokabe clan. It is not my name that my Samurai shout as they flood the streets below the castle, cutting down the last brave men still standing beneath the tattered banner of the Ashikaga Shogunate.

It is his.

When I was still an infant, my great father and Daimyo of the Chosokabe clan visited the construction site of the great port being built at the northern tip of Shikoku, the island we at the time shared with two other clans. As he rode the shore with his cadre of bodyguards, he suddenly chanced upon an elderly fisherman being harassed by a rabble of bandits, threatening the man to surrender his catch of the day to them. Though outmanned four to one, the man and his son who was also with him would not be intimated, and refused to give up the fish they had worked the entire day for. Armed with nothing but a paddle, the man's son held the bandits off, shrugging off the beatings and the cuts they managed to inflict on him every time they got near. My father watched from afar, and as the sun started to set, the boy was still holding them off. As the light of day disappeared, and the strength was finally ebbing from his body, my father decided to intervene, and unleashed his Samurai protectors, who made short work of the bandits. He rode up to the young man, who had collapsed to his knees in the mud, and asked him why he would risk his life for a small net full of fish, and not simply surrender it.

The young man Masayo looked at him with steel in his eyes and said: "My father worked for this fish. I would rather die than allow it into the hands of someone who has not earned it."

So impressed was my father by this answer that he took the boy with him back to the capital of Tosa, after swearing to the old fisherman that the boy would be given the best education available to anyone on Shikoku. A boy of such determination, integrity and character was surely destined for greater things than a fisherman’s life. My father had no idea how right he was.

Masayo took to his studies with vigor, but though he did his best, it was clear he was not cut out for scholarly work. It was in his martial training he made a name for himself, and when he came to my father the next year and asked to be given the right to carry arms in his name, he immediately had his wish granted. Not content with that however, my father enrolled him into the officer's program, a grueling ten year education which would see him leave Shikoku for Honshu, Japan's largest island. During his absence, I grew into a man, and my father started grooming me as his successor. By the time he returned a decade later, I had practically forgotten he existed. The scars on his face told me of the hard times he must have been through since I last saw him, but the dignity and grace with which he wore the clan's armour told me more. This man would play a large part in shaping not only Chosokabe's future, but the future of Japan herself. Years passed without major conflict, while Masayo slowly rose in rank. Eventually, he was given the right to use the clan name, and even married my sister. By the time my father decided that Shikoku was no longer big enough to support the presence of three clans, Masayo was one of the highest regarded field commanders in our army.

On the eve of the campaign, our old, sickly general breathed his last breath, and suddenly, Masayo was leading our troops east to conquer the cities of Awa and Sanuki. The results of this lightning fast campaign stunned even a battle-hardened old man like my father. During the course of a year and a half, Masayo, commanding a force of barely half the combined strength of his enemies, had brought both the Myoshi and the Sogo clans to their knees. The both sent representatives to my father, begging to be made his vassals, so their clans could survive in some form, but were flatly rejected. For in Masayo, my father now had a weapon of such intimidating strength, the old need for compromise was gone. The tranquility brought on by a united Shikoku would not last long. Not two years after the conquest of the island, the mighty Ito clan, eager to challenge the faltering Shogunate, went forth from the island of Kyushu in a bid to conquer Kyoto. That night my father called a war-council where he ordered Masayo to come up with a plan to stop the Ito from usurping the Shogunate, as it would interfere with his own long time plans to attain it for himself. A few days later, my father rode with Masayo to the small fishing village where they had met for the first time all those years ago. There, they found Masayo's father, by this time, a weak, sick man with weeks left to live at most. Though the old man could barely lift his head from his pillow, I could see the pride shining from his narrow, sunken eyes at the sight of his son wearing the armour granted only to Chosokabe's general. With a weak grip, he took a hold of Masayo's hand, and all that needed to be said between them was said, without a single word being uttered.

That was the last time Masayo saw either of the two men he had called father. What followed was a twelve year campaign, in which Masayo forged his legend, and put me in the position I am today, about to step into the Kyoto palace, and accept the surrender and ritualistic suicide of the old Shogun.

Instead of sailing west to confront the advancing Ito army on Honshu, Masayo left a small force under my command to defend our lands in case of counter-attack, while he himself took his host south, to invade Kyushu island, effectively putting himself directly in the wake of the aggressive Ito clan's march north. During the next couple of years, the reports started coming in from the front, telling of victory after victory. Slowly but surely, spring after spring, Masayo claimed every province on Kyushu for the Chosokabe clan. His reports were always clinical, to the point, but honest and unflinching; he made no attempt at hiding the horrors of his war behind fancy language. On midsummer's eve in Masayo's 53rd year, the army crossed the small sound between Kyushu and Honshu, and the final confrontation between Chosokabe and Ito finally drew close. Three more years it would take before the two great armies faced each other, for the battle of Tamba fields. The battle that would decide the future of Japan.

My father, the great Daimyo, had passed away a few years before, not having fulfilled his wish of seeing Masayo again before his days were numbered. A few months before the battle, Masayo sent word to me to meet him at his camp once the battle was over, so he could swear loyalty to me as his new Daimyo, and present the road to Kyoto to me himself, as it now lay open to me after years of bloody, unceasing war. The old war-horse never lacked for confidence, but at the same time, he had never given me reason to doubt him. I set out for his camp with my cadre of body-guards, hoping that we would make it in time to help. I arrived a few days too late.

The field was still strewn with bodies when I arrived, the smell was sickening, but the screams my father had told me could be heard from the dying and maimed long after the battle was over seemed to have silenced. We rode for hours before we finally escaped the hellish, ghoulish fields, where the only signs of life were the locals, burning the dead in gigantic pyres. It was late in the evening when we arrived at Masayo's camp. I immediately ran into his two sons, who despite having their armours covered in spots other men's blood, looked exactly like they had when I sent them off to join their father's army three years ago. They took me to the largest tent, where I expected to be led inside to meet Masayo, standing hunched over a table next to a roaring fire, plotting on his large campaign map the route for our triumphant march into Kyoto. Instead, what caught my eye was a small heap of animal furs next to the entrance. When I got close, it stirred, and Masayo's eldest rushed over to it, and took a hold of his father's arm. He had been sitting there, covered up for warmth, waiting for me. What I saw before me, was an old man, scarred and harrowed, who couldn't breathe deeply without breaking into a violent cough. There was no doubt my brother was a death's door, and it seemed only a tremendous force of will had sustained him this long. He got on his feet, and with the aid of his sons, took me for a short walk up the tall hill overlooking the camp. He struggled against shaking legs for an hour, refusing our pleas for him to turn around and go back to his tent. When we arrived at the top he sat down, and we looked to the east, where we could just barely spot the lights from Kyoto in the distance.

"My eyes fail me, my Daimyo," he said weakly. "I cannot see her from here. Tell me; is she beautiful?"

"She is magnificent," I replied, trying to hide the tremendous weight my heart was suddenly carrying. "And you have delivered her to me. Never shall Japan see a finer warrior than you, brother."

"Death came to me last night," he continued. "It is not the first time he and I have met. I have had many an interesting conversation with him as he has come to claim the lives of my Samurai. I have seen such humbling things in my life, my Daimyo. I have seen the raw, non-belligerent, but still merciless power of nature. I have seen ordinary soldiers perform feats of bravery I thought above mortal men. I've seen the bravest and noblest of warriors cry out for their mothers as life bleeds from their bodies, onto the frozen mud beneath them. Death has been my closest friend and my most hated enemy. Countless times he has come for the people I cherish. Last night he came for me. He told me my time had arrived. I bowed my head to him, and I asked if he could grant me one last wish. One more day, so I could see my Daimyo, the man who will be Shogun, and gift to him whatever semblance of wisdom my life has gifted to me."

He took a hold of my shoulder, and pulled me close, his eyes suddenly wild, vivid, alive.

"I have known two fathers in this life, Daimyo. One good man who wanted a simple, honest life with his family. And one good man, who wanted to rule the world. I'd like to think I've helped both of them achieve that. But I won't be here to help you, brother. You will rule as Shogun without me. Be a good man, and by extension a good ruler, Daimyo. There is enough suffering in this world. I know, for I feel I have seen most of it."

"Let us get you back to your tent," I told him. "Let us get you warm again."

"No," he replied, and waved me away. "I will sit here, until my eyes close for the last time. I will sit here, and contemplate the things I have achieved in this life."

"For that, brother, I'm afraid a single night will not be enough."

I started to walk away from him, but stopped before I had taken five steps.

"Is there anything you wish me to tell your wife, my sister?" I asked him. He looked at me, and I think that for the first time since I had arrived, I saw pain in his eyes. I think he wanted me to apologize for not being there with her, but he never said it.

"Tell her 'thank you for my wonderful sons'," he said, and turned from me. We burned his body the next morning, and erected a shrine to his memory, and the memory of the men who died under his command at the site of his final battle. Underneath his name, etched into the stone, you can read his favorite poem.

Sea vast and endless

sky reaches far past our sight

life fleetingly short

(This has been previously released on my stupid web-comic blog, but let's face it, no-one reads that.)

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Harvested: A Tale of Love, Loss and Daily Produce

Warning: Games partially spoiled in this blog post: Harvest Moon: Back to Nature (PSOne).

Believe it or not, but there actually was a time in my life where I wasn't a cynical, snarky jagg-off who made fun of my favorite video games in comic form. Before mowing down hordes of aliens/terrorists/zombies or whatever the hell those things in Bulletstorm are, had turned me into a manly space marine with scars on his face in place emotions in his soul.

No, before all that, I was a young boy with stars in his eyes and a song in his heart, just returning to his grandfather's home town after his death. I had spent many a joyous summer on his farm, but circumstances and time had taken us down different paths, and had it not been for a rather curious clause in the old man's will, I might never have set foot here again. The farm had fallen into a sorry state of disrepair and only if I managed to return it to its former glory in less than three years would I be allowed to stake my claim to it. Now, at the time I was a typical modern city boy, with soft hands and an expensive haircut, but after mulling it over for a while, I decided to pick up the gauntlet, and accept grandpa's challenge. Before I knew it, I was standing there with a hoe in my hand, and my dog Brutus by my side.

To all you city folk out there, this may come as a shock, but farming is damned hard work. Every day, I would get up at the crack of dawn, work all day, and then collapse into my bed in the evening, every speck of energy drained from my tender frame. It was several days before I even made it into Mineral Town itself, but at long last, a welcome shower of rain meant that I found the tiniest opening in my harrowing schedule so I could finally take the trip and introduce myself to my new neighbors. I instantly fell in love with all of them.

There was Ellen, the kindly old, retired mid-wife, who'd always have a story to share; Mayor Thomas, who reminded me that Super Mario could have had a real career if he'd only applied himself a bit, and Doug, the gentle, old-fashioned innkeeper, who just wanted to see his daughter married off to a good man, to name a few of the wonderful people who constituted this kind, close-knit community I was trying to best to become a part of. There were a few less idyllic fates among these people as well. Take Duke, the closet alcoholic and co-owner of the winery who drank to forget that his daughter no longer spoke to him. He kept his grief well hidden behind his warm, friendly eyes, but you knew it was there. And the bottle was there to help him cope. He too was part of the great tapestry of personalities that made this town special.

Of course, being a young, virile man with charisma to spare, like all who know me would confirm to you, I couldn't help but notice the plentitude of young, single women of wooable age who lived in and around Mineral Town. But I also realized that though these were simple country folk, they wouldn't be all that impressed by this young upstart blowing into town to take over the decrepit old farm in its outskirts. I had to apply myself to gain the attention of any of these beautiful girls. So I walked back to my farm, with a bag of seeds on my shoulder, and a fresh determination in my step.

I first noticed her during the Tomato Festival that summer, standing quietly, listening to her friends' conversation but not really participating in it. She wasn't the most immediately striking woman I'd seen, with her purple vest, worn cut-off jeans and big sturdy work-boots, she was not the kind who'd immediately draw a man's gaze to her passing on the street, but should you give her a second look, you'd have seen a pair of eyes of so unfathomable depth, ships could sink in them and never be heard from again. So sharp and breath-taking were they, a battalion of poets could spend a century describing merely their colour.

They were green.

I knew right there and then that I would have to get to know this girl. From then on, whenever I wasn't working on my ever expanding farm, or slaving in the nearby mine, I took the trip to her family's store in town, often buying useless garbage I didn't need, just to catch a glimpse of her. She was dismissive to me at first, like she was to most people, but slowly but surely, I tore down the barriers she had built to protect herself from the world. Karen was her name. She had lived her entire life in Mineral Town, but she spoke with a confidence of a woman who had travelled the continent, and tasted a wide variety of the wonders the world has to offer. That was probably the reason many saw her as arrogant or assertive, but to me, she was nothing short of magnificent. Before long, I would spend all the free time I could spare in the store, discussing, conversing, arguing and laughing with her. She was opinionated, but always open to alternative views, even to her most entrenched preconceptions, as long as you offered her a compelling argument. She wouldn't smile just to make you feel better, only when you said something that really delighted or amused her. And at the same time she'd make you feel like the most important man in the world, because you were the one who tempted it out of her.

I would enjoy this friendship for a year and a half before I noticed the initial signs that something more was growing between us. During that time, I'd had been less than covert with my affections for her, but she needed time, and I gave it to her, knowing in my heart that she was worth waiting for. My farm was doing well, I was becoming a respectable member of the community, and on a rainy day towards the end of summer, I felt her lips against mine for the first time, ran my fingers through her soft, delicate hair, and professed my undying love for her.

I knew what I had to do.

For the entire fall season, I slaved away on my regular chores on the farm during the day, but spent the evenings and nights working in the forest, cutting the lumber I needed for this most important project. On the first day of winter, I led her blindfolded to my farm, and as soon as she had stopped giggling that intoxicating little laugh you'd only hear when she was apprehensive but excited, I revealed to her the new wing of my farmhouse, the perfect fit for a fledgling little family. With tears of joy in the corner of her beautiful green eyes, she threw herself into my arms, and declared that she would of course marry me.

As soon as the snow thawed, it was finally time to meet her at the altar, and exchange our vows of eternal love and companionship. The day was perfect. The entire town had turned up to share in our joy, and as Karen's father walked her up the aisle towards me, I knew that my life finally had purpose. To ensure that my bride had the life, the love and the opportunities she deserved. In front of the pastor, we swore to cherish and keep each other until both our days would end. Then I took her in my arms, and kissed her with all the passion stored up in me since the first time I saw her, and knew she had to be mine.

And then, darkness...

I must warn you, dear reader, that it is as this point my story takes an abrupt metaphysical left turn. My screen had gone completely black, and as it stayed that way, and nothing seemed to happen, my initial belief that the PlayStation was merely loading all the assets for my wonderful new life slowly vaned. After half an hour, I decided to restart the console, and load the game back, confident that I would bypass this freak, once-in-a-lifetime bug, and be launched into the family bliss the game had so tantalizingly promised. Instead, all I got was more darkness. Six failed attempts at getting the game to run past this point later, I was getting worried. Was this some kind of cruel cosmic joke? Had I been led to the top of the mountain, and granted a look at the land of milk and honey, in the knowledge that I would never set my foot on it myself?

After a week of failed attempts, I was at my wits end, and I resorted to the one option that was left to me in the time before you could just run to the internet, and declare your outrage. I sat down, and wrote a physical, handwritten letter to the publisher, demanding an explanation, and more importantly, a solution. For weeks I waited, less than patiently for their reply and at long last, it arrived in my mail box.

The answer was devastating.

The letter basically told me that it was a bug they were familiar with, and that there was nothing that could be done about it, but they handily provided me with an address where I could send my copy of the game for a full refund.

I was furious.

I don't want your god-damned blood money, I want my wife back!

Eventually though, I had to realize that the dream was over. There was nothing that could be done. Karen was gone forever. I felt like a young Bruce Wayne, standing at the graves of his parents in the pouring rain, wondering how it could all go wrong so fast, and fearing having to live the rest of my life without the one I loved. But there was no way around it. She was never coming back.

So, like anyone whose backbone was worth the calcium it was made of, I decided to face my dark, unyielding grief like a man. By shaving my head, and murdering Nazis or Orcs or whoever stood in my way. Beats actually having to confront your feelings, am I right, men?

So here I am, thousands of lives of my conscience later, a grizzled, bitter old man, who remembers that young boy with the stars in his eyes and song in his heart only fleetingly, on the coldest, loneliest nights in the trenches of whatever God-forsaken conflict I've gotten myself involved with. I sometimes wonder how that life would have turned out, had I been allowed to live it. I wonder if I should have handled my grief differently. Maybe Duke had the right idea after all. Maybe the answer did lay at the bottom of a bottle. Then again, how could all the Krogan liquor in the galaxy do what slaughtering waves upon waves of Locust never could? Erasing Karen's face, looking lovingly at me whenever I close my eyes.

(This has been previously released on my stupid web-comic blog, but let's face it, no-one reads that.)

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The Stranger in the Dark

I'm bleeding.

I don't want to look down, but I can feel my blood trickling out between my fingers, clutched as they are around what may be my bane wound. My back is rested awkwardly against the cold stone wall behind me, and the only sound I can hear is the swishing of the heavy metal blades swinging back and forth, suspended from the roof above. I've managed to make it past them, and even now, they continue their monotonous dance, deadly traps, taunting you, daring you to try to make it past them. They are in plain sight. They don't need to be hidden, because they are just as deadly either way. I've made it this far, but I've paid a heavy price for my progress. I am practically at Death's door, and every healing remedy I had has been spent sustaining me for my trudge through this hideous place, this Sen's Fortress.

Sen's Fortress.

I'd curse you to Hell; if I was convinced you aren't actually a deep, festering circle of it. It's been a while since I've heard the hideous hissing of the snake-headed guards who protect you from intruders like me. It's been longer still since I saw the last of the bonfires, the only safe havens that exist in this awful place. I set out in search of another one, hoping that I'd find one in here, but so far I've found naught but pain and misery. And though I'd like to push forward, I'm not sure I have the strength to do so any longer. Maybe I'll just stay here and wait to expire, cold and unremembered, punishment for whatever unforgiveable sins have banished me to this place. It almost seems preferable to venturing further into the darkness ahead. I slump down further, and my eyes begin to close.

No sooner are they shut, then they open widely in terror. I look around, my heart suddenly pumping three times as hard, and my senses alert to pick up the slightest sight, sound or smell.

My world has been invaded. Another filthy wretch, much like me, probably driven to madness or desperation by the things he's seen and done, has forced his way into this world, with the intention of taking from me what little I have, to further his own futile attempts at making his way through this maze, to find the next bonfire, or even the promised land of Anor Londo, said to lie somewhere beyond this dreary ruin. It's happened before, and the bastards always get what they came for. They are always better equipped, better prepared or more skilled than I am. Why would this time be any different? Maybe I should just surrender, let him have what he came for, and allow him to end my misery without a fight.

My eyes dart back and forth frantically. I have no idea where he'll be coming from, but I know he's headed this way. And then he appears. A solitary knight comes into view, an angry red hue outlining his silhouette across the bridge, as he disappears and re-appears behind the swinging blades between us. He starts walking towards me, with heavy, slow and yet deadly determined steps. This bastard is out for blood, and even the minute amount that I have left will sate his thirst.

A grim determination comes over me. If I'm going down to this invader, I'm going down swinging. With fresh strength, I stumble to my feet and raise my giant shield in front of me. It covers me from the bridge of my nose to the bottom of my calves, but it won't do me much good once I'm too exhausted to lift it, which will probably be his tactic; he will throw blow after blow at my shield, until my arm gets too tired to hold it, and then he will murder me to death. As I look around for anything in the area that can possibly turn this encounter in my favour, I suddenly realize that he will have to pass through the blades. Not too difficult in itself. All he has to do is wait for it to pass, and then shimmy past it before it comes back again. But an armed and angry opponent on the other side might make this more challenging than he had hoped for. I stop a yard in front of the final blade, and I wait.

He doesn't look like he's in much of a hurry, as he saunters past the first blade, and then the second and third. Only one left between us now. He stops in front of it, and just looks at me, and all I can do is imagine the evil, smug look in his eyes underneath his helmet. Slowly, he lifts his hand and my entire body tenses up, every muscle straining to make use of the little strength I have left.

He's waving at me...

Why is he waving at me?!

This man is sicker than I could have imagined. Not content with coming into my world to kill me, he actually means to taunt me first. Does his cruelty know no boundaries? That's it! Just for that, I'm taking him to hell with me. As the blade between us once again swings by, he closes the final gap between us, and slips past it. Just as he stops in front of me again, I muster all my strength into my legs, and I kick him full on in the stomach, making him stumble and take a step backwards, just as the blade returns. I let out a roar of triumph as the invader gets struck, and falls off the bridge in a spray of blood.

I did it! I can't believe I did it! I killed him.

As I rest my hands on my knees to catch my breath however, I get a glimpse of something moving down in the darkness below. Sweet, merciful God, he is not dead! He survived the both the blade and the fall, and now's he's coming for me again. There is nothing for it now. I have to move; try to somehow find the next bonfire before he gets his revenge. Panic is gripping at me as I rush up the stairs leading deeper into the fortress. I'm running as fast as my legs will carry me, all caution thrown to the wind. All that matters now is speed and luck.

Naturally, my luck runs out about 2 seconds later, when I'm suddenly staring down the hallway at yet another damn snake guard. I hate these abominations with every fiber of my being. What evil could have spawned this horror, with the body of a man, and the head of a snake? I run at him with my mightiest battle cry echoing down the dead halls and hallways of Sen's Fortress, and I shove my gigantic halberd right through the monster's chest, and I gag at the sickly, terrifying gurgle he makes as he falls over dead. As I pull my weapon from his carcass however, I realize the fight wasn't won as smoothly as I thought. I drop to my knees as a fresh wound in my side, in the shape of the serrated edge of my slain opponent's sword, seeps another stream of what little blood is left in my body onto the ground in front of me.

This is the end.

There is no going further from here. This is where I die, and leave only a simple bloodstain behind. I can hear footsteps behind me. The invader has caught up with me already. It takes a few agonizing moments before he comes into view again, and walks casually into the room, not stopping until he is hovering menacingly above me. And then he just stands there, looking at me, like a serial killer, basking in the fear and embarrassment of his victim, before he sticks the knife in.

But the knife doesn't come. We simply look at each other for an eternity, before he suddenly does something that surprises down to the very core of my being. He holds out his hand to me. It takes me a moment for me to realize that he's actually offering to help me to my feet. Another small eternity passes before I dare to accept it, and with a firm yet careful jerk, he pulls me to my feet. We stand across from each other, and I am at a complete loss. What is this silent invader after?

Instead of running me through with the giant, intimidating sword he rests on his shoulder, he sets his feet apart, and bows his head deeply. Even though I'm still expecting to be cut down at any moment, I return the greeting. I don't want to be rude, after all. At least he has the decency to show me some respect before he kills me. I take some comfort in knowing that this man probably won't zip down his fly and relieve himself over my freshly deceased body once he's done his business. I adjust my posture and raise my shield again. I am ready to go. I am almost grateful that is appears that I shall be allowed to expire with a manner of dignity.

Of course, the surprises keep on coming. Instead of landing his killing blow, my mysterious guest turns around and runs through the doorway ahead of me, while I, my confusion now complete, stay right where I am. About thirty seconds later, the invader returns, stops in the doorway, and patiently waves me over. At this point, I almost want to stop and explain to him that there is no need to lead me into any kind of trap or ambush. He already has me, dead to rights. All he has to do is end it. Still, he seems quite insistent that I follow him, so I choose to oblige, not sure what's going on. If this is some kind of deranged game he's playing....

So the two of us venture deeper into the fortress, him in front showing the way, and me a few paces behind, expecting an ambush around every corner. But he doesn't lead me into one. Instead, he stops and points, every time we get to a trap, every time we run across a snake guard, making sure I can either avoid them or get the drop on them. He never steps in to fight himself, but he makes sure I'm prepared to deal with them myself. With his help, I make it past boulders rolling down stairs; past pressure plates which if activated would have fired poisoned spikes at me, half a dozen snake guards and even a treasure chest that tried to eat my face. (True story.) I follow him closely, and I find myself slowly starting to trust him. Down another hallway, up a flight of stairs, and suddenly the bright clear sunlight assaults my eyes. The light is overpowering, and the relief is overwhelming. We've made it to the top of the fortress. I can even see the walls of Anor Londo towering above me. The invader waves me on, and I continue to follow, too shell shocked to do anything else. He stops in front of a small hole in the stone fence, and looks at me for a moment, before he jumps off. I run over to the edge, to see that there is actually a ledge underneath.

And a bonfire! Safety at last!

I jump over the edge, and just barely avoid falling off the ledge below. I don't dare touch the bonfire itself, as I notice that he is again standing there looking at me, and I imagine those predator eyes sinking into me again. If he is really cruel, this is when he does me in. Has he really taken all this time to take me by the hand and lead me through the nightmare that is Sen's Fortress, only to sink the blade in, when salvation is within reach?

A deep, respectful bow answers my question. Then he straightens up, and walks away. For several minutes, I stand, waiting for him to return, but he never does. Something tells me I've seen the last of this shady Samaritan, who though he stood to gain nothing from it, helped me through the dark hellhole, even after I'd kicked him off a bridge. I'll never know who you are or why you did what you did, but thank you for restoring a sliver of my dwindling faith in humanity.

Praise the sun.

(This has been previously released on my stupid web-comic blog, but let's face it, no-one reads that.)

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