My case for Half-Life 2

I'm currently replaying Half-Life 2 for the fourth time.   I decided to put some of my thoughts to paper while I did this.

The Case

Most everyone has a favorite game, and mine is Half-Life 2.    All things being equal, I consider it the greatest game ever made.    After seeing a nice long thread about

those for whom this is decidedly not true, I thought I’d take some time to lay out a case for crowning Valve’s magnum opus with the title it deserves.   

A caveat:   Games are subjective, regardless if you view them as hobbies, entertainment, art or any combination of the three.    I mean no disrespect to those who disagree, but such is the destiny for those on the Internet, to endlessly debate the relative worth of our baubles.  

Half-Life 2 exists as an amalgamation of genres and individually successful set pieces that, when taken as a whole, engages the player is numerous ways that are not native to the medium.    Although there are tactile responses in the shooting and physics-based puzzles, and there is exposition that is professionally acted out for your benefit, Valve intertwined a significant amount of literary devices to further enhance the game’s interactivity, even when the player isn’t interacting back.   



Why the story is good

To start, Gordon Freeman’s role as the silent protagonist allows for breaking the fourth wall – a literary device where characters speak directly to the audience, enlisted them in the action.    Although commonplace now, HL2 implements this device in a decidedly different way.    You (Gordon) have a history, but there is only one significant portion of it that you didn’t live through yourself – going to MIT.    Every other defining characteristic of the player is on display either directly through your actions or known to you by the reactions you receive.    You know that you (Gordon) have a meaning in the environment because you are recognized as a savior by the people.    It is no accident that you are referred to as “The One Free Man”, because you alone in a game that is soaked with oppression and slavery make a path for yourself and reject your shackles.    You are both empowered and empowering with your moniker, and it’s put to good use from the first steps you take.    At nearly every point where you encounter an NPC, they reflect back at you the expectations of the game in how you proceed forward.    This formal patterning establishes through repetition that you (Gordon) are more than an everyman, a space marine, or some special ops hero.    Small touches bring levity to the weight upon your shoulders, seen most prominently when the Vortigaunt praises you for learning so quickly – “In this, as all things, the Freeman excels”.

Speaking of your first steps, note how the citadel towers over the city from the moment you leave the train depot.    This too is no accident, as until then your enemies have been faceless humanoids, abusing and degrading your kind for some unknown purpose.    The citadel, with its obsidian/metallic finish becomes the personification of this oppression, and it’s visible in the distance in almost every area.     It’s subtle foreshadowing, as you are lead far away and then right back into the citadel to face its horrors, it’s a clear method of a framing device, important as bookends for your journey.     In fact, the action pushes you in a grand circle around the citadel itself, forcing you to flee on foot, hovercraft and dune buggy, but both away from and right towards the monolithic structure.

Did you notice something else when you stepped out of the train?    How about when you made it to the courtyard outside?   There are TVs everywhere with Dr. Breen’s face, telling you about your location, the expectations and giving you insight to what you missed in your several year sleep.    This incluing allows you to be brought up to speed throughout your journey, as well as providing you with a foil that will haunt you throughout the game.   It’s no accident that the Seven Day War is over when you wake up.    City 17 is under martial law, Ravenholm is lost…and here you are, right in the middle.   In Media Res, provides you with immediate access to the action and supports the incluing by allowing you to pick up the past while moving forward through the story.

Throughout all this there are numerous other stand-ins to support the storytelling and propel it forward, what makes this work so well is how you are party to the action, but it rarely happens to you as the player.    The betrayal of Eli and Alyx has little meaning to Gordon himself, but since it happens to the NPCs you care for, they can demonstrate its impact on your behalf.    If you give yourself a chance, you can read into Alyx’s personality by her relationship with her father, and the personification of her able bodyguard, Dog.    She rubs his face like a real dog, but you know deep down that a pet is a luxury the people can no longer afford.    

 Take that you generic space marine!

The Action

So here we have a story that liberally borrows mechanics from other medium, employing them to bring you (Freeman) into the fold.    You meet old friends, new friends, and the game world unfolds before you piecemeal, each component adding a new dimension.      The environments are actually structured to support your growth as a player – they start with your exile from City 17, escape after escape from more powerful enemies.    You move to Ravenholm, where you alone (barring Father Grigori) face the undead masses, a thing of nightmares that forces you to toughen up.    The journey then brings back into the city, making you travel long distances by vehicle to stage an escape, empowering you and the masses towards the final uprising and victory at the top of the citadel itself.

All of this is done within the confines of what was at the time a marvel of technological triumph.    The physics engine, the facial engine and the tactile nature of the shooting made for a trifecta of shooting and gaming mechanics that became the norm for the genre.    By purposefully never revealing Freeman into the 3 person, your immersion is complete and total, when booting up the game you exist solely within the game’s construct, and are bound by its rules.   

When complete, there is no final resolution.    Though it toys with deus ex machina as its final literary device, Half Life 2 stays true to itself to the end.   The world is fully realized, but all you know is only what has been shown to you through your journeys.    There is more, much more that is left unsaid, unresolved, and undiscovered.    Like real life, you cannot hope to know and master it all, but you can only hope to carve your own path and inspire others with your actions.

But even today?  Seriously?

Yes, seriously.   Half-Life 2 was released with great anticipation 6 years ago (as of this writing).   Games have come a long way since then, but there's a reason that Half-Life 2 still sits atop the best of lists.   Games, like all great artistic mediums, will grow in sophistication and test new boundaries as it becomes more commonplace.   Music, sculpture, books, films and philosophy have all become mainstays of the human experience, and games have too.   Although video games are in their infancy, they are actually another step in the advancement of games as art.   This long lineage evolved from chess, go, sports and Monopoly.  Though it takes place on a video screen, at its core it is the same as all games, but with greater reliance on and influence from other mediums.   It splits the difference between books and films, offering longer commitments than a movie, but more tactile response than a book.    In both cases, and especially with films, new works of art are made each year, but they all owe homage to the seminal releases of yesteryear, their fore bearers in many different ways.    The Godfather was a great film, but so was Citizen Kane.   You and I might place different titles at the top of our lists, but by being at or near the top year after year, they both become something larger than today's hits.  
Half-Life 2 has earned that place for a reason.



Bringing up a little gamer

To the best of my knowledge I have fathered two children as of today.   I have a boy (7) and a girl (1.5), and I count them as the single greatest contributors to my lack of video gaming time.   Between after-school activities, changing diapers, helping with homework and getting everyone to bed on time, I have precious little down time in the evenings, and what time I do have is spent cleaning the house, making lunches for the next day or relaxing and watching TV with the missus.    This means I can only game in two ways:   1) on my own on a laptop on my lunch break or 2) vicariously through my children.  
When my son turned six I began to turn my attention towards raising him properly.   That is not to say that I had neglected him thus far or ignored his needs until that point, but in my own life age 6 is when I began to form my earliest opinions on video games, televisions, film and books.   Since I want my son to be well rounded and have a wide and deep understanding of these hobbies, I gave careful consideration to how I would expose him to this most wondrous of pastimes.   What games should he play?  In what order should he play them?   With so many to choose from, which games were vital to a proper education of a burgeoning young lad?

Does my son need the whole history?

This was the first topic I turned myself towards.   He had already been exposed to video games from birth on, I have photos of him sitting on lap while I am on the Xbox, and he was no stranger to what games were and how they worked, but if I was going to give him a proper education, where would I begin?  Where else but 1-1?
This was a fantastic idea, but it proved to be a big bust.   When you learn to read, you don't start out with Homer, paging through the Illiad in the original Greek as a means to learning books as entertainment.  You start with what's relevant to child, something that is for their level.   See Spot Run isn't the height of modern literature, but to a child it represents concepts that click for them.   Yes, I do see Spot.   And yes, he is running!   In a world where his 6 year old friends were allowed to play Modern Warfare with their fathers (something I would never let him do at that age), Super Mario Bros must have seemed alien to him.    At his age I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of controlling pixelated tanks on screen in a game of Combat, but for him this was...old.   Old like his father.   My dreams of bringing him up in some sort of psuedo parallel to my own experiences didn't go anywhere.   He wasn't going to beat Super Mario Bros. and then move on to SMB2 in a few months, eventually meeting me somewhere north of Super Mario Galaxy.    His tutelage would have to relevant, it would have to be something of the mid to late 2000's, not the early 80's.
Who better to guide my child through his first true gaming foray than these clowns?  It has all the necessary components:
  • Kid-friendly characters
  • Mild, slapstick level violence at most
  • 3D gameworld (I hear that's big these days)
  • Easy learning curve
  • Spoken and written dialog (to reinforce reading)
  • Colorful locations
  • Easy controls
My second attempt fared much better than my first, and my son was hooked.   He began to barter for game time, to discuss the story elements he was party to, and asked for my involvement on harder areas.   In some ways we were a team on this game, and it helped introduce him to core gaming concepts that would carry forward into his next games.   He didn't need to see the entire genesis of the platforming genre, he only needed to see something that fit with his own, more modern surroundings. 

So when do I get to play World of Warcraft?

That there's an actual quote from my son, who seems endlessly fascinated by World of Warcraft.   This started because he couldn't translate his gaming knowledge into something usable for an MMO.   Thus far he'd been learning that levels constitute an area in the game.   Level 3 meant the third level, or sometime is was the fire level, but when I told him I'm on level 80, I think he had a child-sized heart attack.   Games simply didn't have that many levels.    Add that to the fact that I named my hunter's pet after our own cat, and he thought WoW was the best game he'd ever seen.   But I'm not paying for a subscription for a six year old, and he's not playing on my account either.    
 Fusion Fall (it's not that good)
My solution was to start him on a F2P browser game, Fusion Fall.   He knew the characters already, and he saw the commercials almost daily.   How could it go wrong?  

When he started playing Fusion Fall I realized that he was still stuck in entirely modern game mechanics.   He understood jumping and shooting, but Fusion Fall required him to manage equipment, bonuses, questing and stat management, none of which he was prepared to do.   I tried to explain it all to him, but there was so little connection between what these stats did and what was happening on the screen that I feared it fell on deaf ears.   Enter Dad, one more time to save the day.    In my hubris, I tried once more to get him back to the roots, by digging into Dad's Special Closet.   

Dad's Closet of Forbidden Things

Ah, my Closet of Forbidden Things.   It's not where I keep my video games, but where I keep my special items.   See right there in the middle, in between my Absolute Sandman collection and my Evangelion box set?   That's where I keep my Saga Edition Star Wars RPG books.   The ones I bought as they came out to eventually play with my son.   It was time to teach him tabletop gaming.  We had tried Pokemon, but he didn't care for it, and I wasn't about to try another other CCGs.  I had considered D&D, but since he has not shown one lick of interest in the fantasy genre, I decided to hit him where he was most vulnerable -- right square in the Clone Wars.

So now what?

That was six months ago.   I still have not finished reading the core rulebook.   Remember how I said I didn't have much time?   I still don't, and reading a 200 page rulebook doesn't factor into my schedule either.    So what lesson did I learn here?   Your kids will grow to see gaming as a hobby shaped by the times they live in, influenced by their friends and what's available for them to play when you least expect it.    Sometime in the future they may get the bug to let you play teacher and curator, but until then, make recommendations and keep them away from M rated games.     My son is now 7, and he's finished Lego Star Wars:  The Complete Saga without my help, and he's working his way through Kingdom Hearts on the DS.  He dabbled a bit in Blue Dragon, and he keeps eyeballing the copy of Burnout Paradise in the cabinet. He's also saving his allowance to buy himself a 3DS, and he has $135 of his own money so far.   His mom and I have agreed to pay half if he can save up the difference.   Week by week he does his chores without  complaint, and he reads everything I can show him about the specs, the rumors, and the photos of his newest obsession.    It's enough to make this gaming dad proud.


RPG Ramblings, or How I Became a Whore

The last few days have been a real struggle for me to stay on course with my gaming.   A few months back I swore I would put an end to my adulterous method of playing games -- I dabble in several at once, fearful of commitment and always believing the grass is greener somewhere else.   I put a few RPGs behind me by focusing with laser-like precision on a single game, muscling my way to the end, irrespective of what else beckoned for me with bedroom eyes.   My blogging started in direct response to my wayward habits, with the hope of it inspiring me towards faithfulness.   It worked for Trine.   It worked for KOTOR2.   It worked for Mass Effect 2.   It is failing me in Neverwinter Nights 2


 My first committed relationship.   It didn't last very long though


It's not you, it's me

I can say that with a straight face because it is the truth.   Neverwinter Nights 2 has served me well thus far, despite my bitching from time to time about small issues.   I added a fourth NPC to my party recently, some sort of Sorceress School dropout that claims to be magical savant.   The key part of this event is that I now have more party members than I have space in my party, meaning I will soon need to actually worry about party composition a bit.    The thought of sifting through my options was a bit daunting at the time, so I saved and quit and went back to my mistress to fool around a bit.   Oh Minecraft, how new and shapely you seem.  
 Sure she's chunky, and she's best when shared with friends, but I love her.

So there you have it, I'm cheating -- getting a little on the side if you will.   I can't help it.   She gives me choices, let's me do whatever I want to with her.    I can make her into anything I want her to be.   An art program?  Survival horror?  Single quest RPG?   MMO?    She's what I dream about at night, and I return to her time and time again.    My world is a snowy one, and I'm building my castle on an island, perfectly centered in a peninsula facing the ocean.    At night I stand guard at the parapets surrounded by torches, a beacon of light for any other souls in my world (there are none, btw).    In the daylight I punch jumping cows. 

I lied.   I cheated on my mistress too. 

With this comely lady: 
Sylvanas Windrunner
I guess it wasn't technically with her, but you get the point.   My Tankadin alt is slowly but surely making his way to 80, having just hit 67 in the Blade's Edge Mountains.   I had completely skipped this zone on my main along with Shadowmoon Valley my first time through Outland.   Chances are I'll head straight to Northrend when I hit 68 though in order to keep my leveling moving along.   My main is ranged DPS, so leveling as a tank is slow, plodding and wildly different by comparison, and being able to fly at 60 completely changes the Outland leveling experience.    Flying is nice, but it's incredibly detached when you compare it to the immersion of foot travel in new environments.    It I wasn't in a hurry to get this alt done this year I'd probably skip flying until Cold Weather became available in about 10 levels.

...In which we see the wisdom of Tim Schafer

One more thing about Neverwinter Nights 2:   I started my questing in the actual city of Neverwinter recently.   The first quest set is something of a moral choice, do you join the city watch in order to make it to the next area or do you join with the local thugs who might be able to sneak you in?   Being a rogue, I thought I might have an easier time making my way though the unsavory path of running jobs for thugs, but the situation quickly got out of hand.   Since my character isn't all that smart or strong or charming, I quickly found myself murdering locals and town watchmen for almost no apparent reason.     The dialog options offered plenty of bluff, charm or intimidate your way through the confrontation, but my character seems incapable of doing anything but stab his way though a solution.  Once I chose to talk to the first thug, I was trapped in that entire quest set, and I ended up murdering close to 20 innocent people before I was sent off on a mission to burn down town watch HQ.
This was incredibly frustrating for me, as I had concocted an entire moral structure around why I did good things sometimes and bad things other times.    In this situation, my morals were useless and I was slave to dialog scripting.    As I stabbed the final good guy in the face and watched him dissolve into a money bag I could loot, the wise words of Tim Shafer rang in my ears:

Games help me understand serial killers better: I want to interact with people I meet, but I don't have the tools, so I shoot them.

While I wanted to deftly handle the verbal wordplay before me, gaining gold and items with minimal loss of life, I ended up stabbing everyone in sight.   Oh well.

Dining at the Smorgasbord

See here and here for the first two parts of my NWN2 experiences.
I had some spare time yesterday so I muscled my way though the first two quest hubs in NWN2:  Fort Locke and Highcliff.   I've saved a few puppies, killed some rats in a cellar and investigated some haunted ruins.   Par for the course as these things go.    Of special note is that I was finally "introduced" to what I think is an antagonist, but not enough light was shed on the goings on to be certain.    NWN2 seems to be holding up well so far, though I maintain that its structure is about as old school as you can get, so caveat emptor, duders.

Old School vs. New School

Diablo 2 Skill Tree
Modern (and I use the term loosely) RPG mechanics seem to have evolved from their primate brethren, and I'm using the term "evolved" in a very specific way.  At some point in the past, a variation in the gene pool proved successful, and RPGs (specifically Western ones) seem to have branched off into two sub-species from that point in their evolution.  It may have been earlier, but in terms of popularity, Diablo 2 is that branching point.    The popularization of Skill Trees as a method of managing the growth and development of your character didn't begin in earnest until that seminal release.  
The skill tree represents a distinctly different development path for player characters than traditional RPG mechanics.   Again, I'm going to stress that I'm speaking of Western RPG
WoW Talent Tree
mechanics, they have nothing to do with their Eastern counterparts.   The skill tree provides a guided path towards your character's end goal, making the player determine tradeoffs early in the leveling experience in order to reach the end of the tree -- usually an abnormally powered skill that represents the culmination of the character's learning and development.  The WoW Talent Tree is the current end result implementation of this mechanic, with success being nigh impossible without the 51 point talent.  Becoming a jack of all trades inhibits success at higher levels of play, as that final talent is what most of the player's planning was shooting for.   Just as important is what the skill tree does to your leveling path -- the tree makes the player spend multiple points on a single talent in order to maximize its effect, with each step adding to its power, duration, effectiveness or other calculation.   It creates a need for the player to theorycraft in order to min/max, and in turn the game is tuned toward having a min/max character in many ways, especially in multiplayer.  There are some exceptions of course, this being a generalization and all, but the ubiquitous nature of the mechanic is undeniable when it has been extended into shooters as well. 
I can has skill tree, too?

But what does this have to do with my current game, you ask?  Simple:  NWN2 is based on D&D 3.5, the anti-skill tree.   Decisions about the development of your character
Mysterious Stranger - This guy is his very own skill .
come not from a tree, but from some primordial RPG soup, where skills and talents may or may not be dependent on each other, necessary for each other's success, or even possible to plan so far in advance.   There are either no dependencies or there are so many that there are innumerable interconnected.    Don't know what I mean?  Grab your 3.5 Ed. Player's Guide and flip to the spell chapter.   Select the coolest 9th level spell you can find and look at the dependencies.   Not only do you need high will to make it successful, but it might require a specific school of magic, a specific deity, somatic components, alignment requirements, lower level spell requirements and more.   Of course, you aren't just picking one 9th level spell, chances are your Player Character will have a half-dozen at his or her disposal, each with own set of interconnected dependencies and requirements.   A more basic example of this kind of character skill development was found in Fallout 3, where your skills came up as a list, and each choice represented a tangible skill, not just a more powerful version of the same skill.  When you hit max level, chances are you look a lot different than your neighbor does.

 In my current game I've found this to be a blessing.   With skills (feats in D&D speak) not as interconnected and interdependent, I don't have a final goal in mind, and my party is developing not along a set path but in response to their predicament.   My main fighter took Improved Initiative so he could attempt a knockdown before the first mob attacked.  This was in direct response to how slow he his when the fighting begins.   Because my biggest failures come from fighting groups of mobs in confined spaces, my ranged fighter took Point Blank Shot in order to get bonuses in spaces of less than 30 feet.  The development of my party is distinctly more fluid in this way, and they feel like they grew into their roles naturally.

Forced Intra-party Conflict

Although the Jack/Miranda conflict in Mass Effect 2 fit the story well, I'm growing leery of managing party influence and trying to keep my ragtag group of adventurers happy with one another.   I understand that this might simulate the reality of adventuring parties that aren't all childhood playmates, but the meta-game of influence and alignment in response to ridiculously manufactured conflict is flat out boring.   So what if my dwarf wants to beat up some punks in the harbor town?  This upsets the rogue who wants to get moving with the main quest (something she and I agree on), but I tell her she can loot their corpses and that makes her happy.   Surprise, surprise the tree-hugging druid objects and docks me -1 influence for trying to keep the peace between the dwarf and the Tiefling.   If influence is a zero-sum game, then for party cohesion I'll be forced to make a choice I don't want in order to put a +1 on a party member that gave me a -1 in the last exchange.   
The only man in the galaxy who can overcome intra-party conflict

It was commented on the Mass Effect 2 boards that in order to keep everyone loyal in a Miranda/Jack situation you need to go full paragon, which removes the R from RPG, unless that was your plan all along.  I'm ok with wanting to play the goodie two shoes if the character fits (say, if you're a Paladin), but it's a slap to the face of players like me who are punished for their naturally evolving choices.   Yes, I understand that a chaotic neutral rogue might not keep the hippie druid happy all the time, but it ignores the fact that she wants to be in my party and chose to join me in the first place.   In fact, I insulted her throughout our entire first conversation and she still wanted to be my traveling pal.   The whiny Teifling should let the damn dwarf pick a fight or two considering we saved her ass not two game-hours ago from some wayward town patrols.   One upside in all this is that I have been giving the dwarf the best loot we get, because I like his style.  The whiny brat and the beatnik shape shifter can scrounge for sloppy seconds in our backpacks.
It makes me pine for the days of walking around town with Morrigan and Leliana taking pot shots at each other's choice of lifestyle and clothing.  Catty women are at least entertaining to listen to. 

Class Warfare

Although I didn't play any NWN this weekend, I can officially declare that I'm now ankle-deep into the foray.   When last I wrote I was slightly past the character creation screens, far enough to realize that I had stumbled into what begins as a generic RPG send up of the worst kind.   I was able to spend a few hours playing on Friday, and I made it to the first major quest hub, Fort Locke.   In the lead up I had also acquired two companions:  a punch-drunk dwarf fighter and a whiny, Tiefling rogue.

Head of the Class(es)

That's where my problems began, and to be honest I'm not sure where I stand on it.   Having spent the majority of my recent RPG time in World of Warcraft, I had completely re-tuned my noggin towards the Holy Trinity school of combat.  For the uninitiated, the Holy Trinity requires only three roles, each fill-able by certain classes:
  • Tank - the meatshield that absorbs the bulk of the damage and manages aggro
  • Healer - a squishie who is responsible for keeping the tank alive
  • DPS - damage dealing class that hits hard without getting aggro. 
This strategy, while a staple in the MMO genre, does not work so well in D&D.  After 5 hours or so of gameplay I've found myself with a fighter and two rogues, necessitating a complete rethinking of my strategy.    With no real implementation of aggro in the game system, and nobody to do a lick of healing, I was pretty much screwed.  A helpful commenter on this very blog summed up my predicament with the following wise words:  "You plan on multiclassing, right?"  I do now, Arbitrary Water, I do now. 
 The new, classic hybrid class example
This +1 plus my other +1 plus the +1 from this other thing means I have a chance of hitting something.
All of this leads me to my point:  despite not being raised on WoW (I'm a bit too old for that privilege) and despite having DM'd a tabletop D&D campaign for two years, I had discarded the meta-knowledge necessary for me to be successful in an old-school game.   Much like all you chumps that cried when Mega Man 9 kicked your asses, I realized that the skills and knowledge of today will not serve you for the gamesyles of yesteryear -- and that's amazingly reassuring.   Classes in NWN are meant to mean something, and the creation, protection, and nurturing of your party requires almost as much time in the planning stage and it does in the playing stage.   This is especially true when it comes to class choice, as classes convey tangible skills upon your character that can make or break them.   The meta-game of combining your various +1's into a meaningful statistical chance of success is at least as important as the (so far) silly story of my orphaned, abandoned, mutton-chop-wearing, 6 foot 4 silent protagonist.   

But I Digress

Having considered my options, I'm highly likely to take a rank or two of fighter or cleric, keeping my ability to spot traps and disarm them, but gaining the ability to use a real weapon instead of this Peter Pan dagger I carry like a damn sissy.   At Fort Locke I've been asked to clear out some bandits, head into a graveyard and find a missing holy symbol -- none of which was particularly exciting to me from a story perspective.   At somewhere around 5 hours into the game, there's a pretty big hole where an antagonist should be.   Obsidian is generally awesome, but if you aspire to make something more than a dungeon crawler, adhering to principles of story-writing need to come into play.   This is doubly true when the screen flashes the act number in front of the player, letting them know they've hit a story milestone.  

So far I'm left with with a feeling of cognitive dissonance when I try to reconcile my feelings.   I have a robust, challenging, rewarding combat engine that might as well be put to use killing 10 rats in a underground cellar for all the good it does me.   There's merit in building a throw-back story to go with your throwback mechanics, but if there's enjoyment to be found in the narrative, I haven't come across it yet.    Not that this will stop me from playing though, as NWN2 has so far succeeded in massaging my nostalgia button in the most salacious of ways. 

Death by a thousand choices - I begin anew in Faerun

True to my word, I've moved past Mass Effect 2 and selected a new title from my Constipation List.   Neverwinter Nights 2 is now loaded up on my laptop and ready for playing on lunch breaks.   Patching was a muti-hour affair, but I now have the main campaign, Mask of the Betrayer, and Storm of Zehir ready to go.  I mention this because the first thing I noticed on loading up the game was how overwhelming it was.  

Starting a Character

My first inclination was to select a pre-made character.  I'm no stranger to D&D 3rd Ed, and I knew what the setup would cost me in terms of time and anguish, but having loaded both expansions, my selection of pre-mades had jumped to 24 options.   Taking stock of what that meant, it didn't give me much reprieve from the overwhelming nature of character creation in D&D.   I set aside 30 minutes and decided to create my character from scratch.  
Bad idea.   There are 8 races to start with, and most of those have sub-races to further delineate them.  
    • Dwarf - Gold, Gray or Shield
      • Elf - Drow, Moon, Sun, Wild, or Wood
      • Gnome - Deep or Rock
      • Halfling - Lightfoot or Strongheart
      • Half-elf - normal or half-drow
      • Half-Orc
      • Human
      • Planetouched - Aasimar, Tiefling, Air Genasi, Earth Genasi, Wind Genasi or Fire Genasi
To simplify my life, I'm playing a human.    
Next up, class choice.   There are 14.  Keep in mind that if you want to eventually get a Prestige Class, you need to start planning now.   There are 22 of those. 
NWN2 Character Creator
I'm not going to even attempt to count out skills and feats, the likes of which easily exceed half a hundred individual options.   
Since the number one source of frustration I have in games like this is traps and locked chests, I went with a rogue.   Later on I'll find out this is a stupid choice because you are forced to group with a rogue about 2 hours into the game. 
Getting ready to head into the world I took stock of where I was:  Human, Rogue, Chaotic Good, high dexterity (for dodging and ranged combat) and the ability to cast wands and scolls, in addition to picking locks and defusing bombs.  Or something.

In search of originality

 I am a staple of the genre.   This is revealed to me almost instantly -- I am an orphan, raised by a generous man in a small villiage.   There is a mystery surrounding my family/origin and as expected there is a mysterious magical object in my past as well.  I believe I am the product of almost every major fantasy trope in existence.    If nothing else, Neverwinter Nights 2 has set me up for the most traditional of Fantasy Settings, and although it's hard to fault a game that's almost 4 years old for not being as exciting as Dragon Age.   Or maybe I can.    Wikipedia tells me that the Forgotten Realms are somewhere between 23 and 43 years old, which leads me to believe that the setup as I see it so far is probably familiar ground.   Is it too much to ask for a twist on the formula?   Probably, but a man can dream, right?    
Tropes exist for a reason, some might say.   They are tried and true representations of the collective expectations of the genre, and therefore they deserve a place of reverence on that pedestal, to be worshiped as originators, if not original anymore.    Bullshit, really.   If you're asking me to come to a well-trodden locale using well-established character parameters in an over-mined genre, then you better bring your A game to loop me into your narrative.   Make me an escaped slave, give me a pet monkey that throws feces at my female companions, or slap me with narcolepsy that strikes at the most in-opportune of times.   
Next up, why the dialog system works against immersion. 

On finishing Mass Effect 2

Yesterday I completed Mass Effect 2.   With a finished game save clocking in at around 29 hours, this is probably the most time I've put into a game that doesn't have

 This is the view from my home, too
Warcraft in the title in some time.   Getting to that point wasn't easy though.   I started the game on the 360, which is where I completed Mass Effect a couple years back.   I was able to import my save and make it to Omega.   I had just finished recruiting Garrus when I hit a big snag in my playtime, leaving the game untouched for almost two months.   When I returned to it, I couldn't remember the setup --  where I was or why I was there.   It was time to start over from scratch if I wanted to play in earnest, and there was no guarantee the downtime wouldn't happen again.   Deciding to do the right thing, I sent the game back (through Goozex) and moved on.  
Fast forward to May of this year and I'm ready to start the game again, but this time on Windows.   Of course Bioware didn't have the forethought to make a demo available, so I was unable to determine if my laptop could handle it.   I...acquired a copy to give it a test run and was pleased with the results, so I deleted it, grabbed a copy on Steam and picked up the Kasumi, Overlord and Shadow Broker DLC.   Of course I had to start fresh (since my save for ME1 was on the 360), but I bulldozed my way through the game and all the content and came out on the other side wanting more.  

The Game

 Now that it's all behind me, I have to say that this is my favorite Bioware game, surpassing everything they've done so far.   With compelling characters, streamlined and highly enjoyable gameplay, and a setting that is second to none.   JRR Tolkien was famous for his dissertation on world-building, especially as it related to man's need to create.   Taken from the point of view of religion, world building can almost be seen as method of worship:  the secondary creation of worlds through imagination as an attempt to become more like God, the original world builder.   I bring this up because Mass Effect 2 weaves its world building through the narrative a levels both high and low, both global and local, and it achieves something greater than just an addition of a made-up language, it does what sci-fi does best:   it holds a mirror to current events and experiences and asks you to re-examine them from a different viewpoint.    The conflicts and motivations behind your actions are real and substantive, and the history and background Bioware built serves not just for wow factor, but to build the foundation that makes these motivations viable.
Not my preferred team

Spoilers ahead, but the pinnacle of the experience comes to light in Shepard's decision regarding the Collector Base.   Does he take an advantage of the Illusive Man's offer  to use the technology on the base to better humanity, or does doing so abandon the humanity that gave rise to the quest in the first place?   Parallels can be seen in the Salarian/ Krogan genophage side story and to numerous smaller decisions made throughout.   Did you destroy the Grey Box?   Did you let Garrus kill in cold blood?  Did you agree with Mordin's choice in handling his student?   How about Zaeed and his vendetta?    Each smaller morality play is reinforced by and amplified by the greater threat.    Mass Effect 2 gives the player a literal interpretation of the subtext -- your enemy's weapons are literally the product of human sacrifice.   A liquefied Yeoman Chambers would have a word with you if you don't recognize the connection.  
Parallels to current events are also found in the human/alien subtext.   Cerberus is certainly a jingoistic NGO, but there's an undeniable truth behind their motives.   A failing bureaucracy gives the player either the excuse they need to go gallivanting around the galaxy or reason to pause and reflect on their role.  Is the sanction of a recognized governmental authority a necessary part of the player's moral code?   Did you question Cerberus' motives throughout or are you generally accepting of a sovereign entity making decisions a government will not?

The Future

If nothing else, I wanted more when I was done.    The Shadow Broker DLC was a fantastic icing on the cake, and I was left with a desire to do more, experience more, and shoot more things.  Rumors of additional DLC are out there, and I believe we'll see more on the download-able side of things.    Bioware was quick to label the most recent Dragon Age DLC as the FINAL one, a moniker that Shadow Broker did not share.  I am remiss however that there seems to be no word on the next chapter.   Dragon Age 2 is set for release in a few short months, and that game also featured a full expansion pack to boot.   Considering that Mass Effect is now Bioware's preeminent franchise, I'm baffled as to why we aren't hearing more.   Perhaps it has to do with the forthcoming PS3 release, but time will tell.

 My Shepard's choice
Most importantly however, Mass Effect 2 made me realize Bioware's biggest and most fatal mistake:  The Old Republic.   Tied to a well established IP that is controlled by another entity, The Old Republic is a missed opportunity to use the Mass Effect universe for the greater good of science fiction fans.    It doesn't take a legal scholar to guess that there's a pretty big non-compete clause in Bioware's contract with Lucas, and that would effectively kill any machinations for a Mass Effect MMO -- the first real shot that fans would have a science fiction MMO.    Star Wars is Science Fantasy people, and although the line is thin and sometimes blurry, Science Fantasy is only a half-step away from WoW.   

How My Game Went

  • Male
  • Soldier
  • Neither Renegade nor Paragon
  • Tali as the romance before the Omega 4 relay, Miranda after
  • Jack died on the Collector Base
  • I blew up the base
  • Kasumi kept the gray box
  • Tali took the blame on the Flotilla
  • Chambers died

Maybe I should give this thing a try

I've always been fascinated with the idea of blogging.   As an avid reader, the written word is probably where I feel most comfortable, but I don't spend much time practicing the art of writing.   Long story short, you can't be good at something you don't practice, so I'm going to give this blogging thing a whirl.   Rather than just post short segments about my life, and this being a video game website I'm going to write about my gaming experiences.  I have no illusions that it will be read by more than the random person or two, but this is more for me than for the masses at any rate.
A little about me:  I'm in my mid-30's.  Married.  Two small children.  I have a full time job that takes up the bulk of my time.   My first gaming system was an Atari 2600 I received for my 6th birthday, and I've owned most of the major consoles since then.  I was late to computer gaming, so my experience in that realm doesn't start until around 1995.    I can also extend this to tabletop and CCG gaming.   I played D&D for about 3 years in college and did Magic: The Gathering around the same time.
So where does that leave me today?    It leaves me with little time for gaming, that's where.    I've mostly given up on console games these days since I can't find time at home to play though.  I occasionally complete a game here or there, especially if it supports pick-up-and-play pretty well.   Earlier this year I completed God of War 3 ( though it took me over three months on the easiest setting to get through it) and my last complete games before that were Batman: Arkham Asylum and Wolverine: Uncaged Edition.    I gave up on Mass Effect 2 and Assassin's Creed 2 after they sat without being touched in my 360 for a month each.    Red Dead Redemption was traded in for the same reason last week.    But I do have some success stories as well...
I'm an avid Apple user, and as such I have all the toys I want from my former employer.  My iPhone 4 and my iPad are used regularly, but my gaming platform of choice is my new MacBook Pro.  It dual boots between OS 10.6 and Windows 7, and I carry it with me to work every day.   A majority of my gaming is done on this machine while on my lunch break at work, which gives me almost one full hour of uninterrupted game time 2-3 days per week.   Though I have no network access at work, I often choose to go next door to Starbucks and use their network for World of Warcraft (Hunter lvl 80 and Tankadin lvl 67) or Lord of the Rings Online (Hunter level 62).  If I choose to stay in, my gaming must be network free.   
So far this year I've completed Trine, Mass Effect 2 and Knights of the Old Republic 2 on my laptop and I started my Tankadin alt (there's no Tankadin concept?  wtf?).    Yesterday I started a new game of Neverwinter Nights 2 and it's with this that my blogging will start in earnest.   But probably in my next post. 

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