@spilledmilkfactory: That, my friend, is Fugitive Hunter.
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"Mr. Schilling, you've talked all your life, why don't you turn around and be a man right now?" That journalist is a real piece of work. I don't care how cold a source is being or how big the story is. That's out of line.
Yes this post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series. All titles are fair game. You have been warned.
In part one of this reflection on the Mass Effect series, I retold the games' plot as I saw it: an epic love story set against a galaxy's struggle for survival. It's not a prerequisite for reading part 2, but it does serve as the basis for much of my argument presented here.
Let's cut to the chase: there is no possible ending BioWare could have devised for Mass Effect 3 that would have pleased everyone. The beauty of that series -- something that has been reaffirmed by the outrage surrounding the finale -- is the unique narrative each player builds throughout their 90-hour experience. It's all thanks to collaborative storytelling, with both the player and developer working to build each Shepard's story.
But that's only true to a degree. The greatest trick BioWare ever played was making you think you were somehow writing this story. While there are near infinite combinations of story beats and outcomes across the entirety of the series, each momentary decision is just as trivially presented as the final one: you stand at a crossroad with two, three or maybe, if your lucky, four possible paths. Take your pick.
The feeling of attachment and ownership over your Shepard is birthed out of a totality of your decisions. Your story isn't dictated solely by who you left behind on Virmire or whether or not you cheated on Liara during Mass Effect 2. Those individual moments, while some may be very weighty decisions, are just fractions of your Shepard's identity.
But there's a second layer of player driven storytelling that leads to ownership, one that takes place outside the game. Each unique story is informed by which characters, relationships, events and decisions most greatly resonate with the player. This isn't necessarily something we actively decide -- it's based on our own experiences, flaws and aspirations -- but it's at the core of Mass Effect. It's what propels us to save species and romance characters while rejecting others. This is where the player has the most influence on the story. Everything else is just picking and choosing from bits the developers have laid out for you.
Herein lies the problem with ending Mass Effect. Because the specifics of each player's story are so unique and personal, (no, not because you chose to cure the genophage, or let the Quarians wipe out the Geth. BioWare was perfectly capable of taking those things into account, and they did) there was really no way to craft a satisfying ending. The writers did what they could: creating an ending that wrapped up, both in narrative and theme, the events and conflicts that were common touchstones for all players, but many of the specifics that you or I might have identified with were left unresolved.
In my version of the story, Shepard is a hopeless romantic driven by his love for Liara. Sure, saving humanity and everybody else would be nice, but he really just wants to put all this war behind him and settle down on some remote planet. Even his final decision, to destroy the reapers, was driven by this (it's the only choice that gives Shepard a chance of surviving the ending).
With this romance being Shepard's main motivation, it's not surprising that I'd have liked a little more closure on that story thread. I just wanted some sort of acknowledgment that Liara, after stepping out of the downed Normandy, was just as concerned with reuniting as Shepard. Hell, I'd even have taken a knowing glance at the stars! (On second thought, that last one would have been pretty good actually; perhaps a bit cliché, but still subtle and effective.) All I got was a hazy memory of Liara as Shepard bumrushed that reactor thingy. Oh, and it wasn't even the first person he remembered. Admiral Anderson before the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with? Really?
My point is, these narratives we construct for our Shepard take control out of the hands of the developer. They've given us the tools -- the characters, the worlds, the choices -- and guided us along the way, but for many players, myself included, they actually did too good a job of masking that guiding hand. When the ending finally rolls along, it comes back and slaps us right in the face. Despite all the narrative control I was given, I didn't write these games and in the end this is just as much BioWare's story as it is mine.
That's the problem with the ending. We've been under the allure of collaborative storytelling for 90 hours, but an ending is definitive. We can bring all we want into it, but we can't mold it to cap the narrative we've built in a meaningful way. This dissonance and the disappointment it has created is understandable, but this is just something we're going to have to come to terms with.
If players really want games this deep, malleable and personally fulfilling, they're going to have to expect some disappointment. As much as it might seem like it, you're not actually writing this story. You can choose how to behave within it as a sort of digital actor and interpret its themes and characters as much as you want, but you're trapped within a playset the developer has built for you.
Collaborative storytelling is a partnership for sure, but one partner did all the work.
Yes, this post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series. All titles are fair game. You have been warned.
I've been thinking about Mass Effect a lot; about what the series means to me, why its ending has been so controversial and what separates it from similar games. I've come to a couple of conclusions and this is my attempt to lay them out.
I'm starting with a reflection on my Mass Effect experience. This is the story of Commander Shepard as I saw it. All of that surface level stuff -- the battles with Saren and the Reapers, Cerberus' constant meddling, the siege of Earth -- is ultimately unimportant. This series is great because it allows the player to inject their own humanity into Shepard. You determine which losses are the most painful. You choose Shepard's motivations. The choices you make within the game aren't nearly as interesting or important to crafting your Commander Shepard as those you make outside it.
Mass Effect: A summary
Mass Effect is a love story set against the backdrop of a universe's fight for survival. By the end of the first installment, Shepard had fallen for Liara. It was a love that blossomed slowly and awkwardly, just as you might expect from a romance between a gruff, military-man and a bookish, blue alien. After Shepard's death and resurrection -- the latter achieved with the help of his beloved -- she seemed to be gone for good, toiling away on some sort of vague revenge plot. Shepard was heartbroken.
He had visions of life after wartime: settling down with Liara on a remote planet, one or two little blue Shepards running around. But that was all gone. She couldn't be bothered. All he had left was a photo.
Fate brought them back together for what seemed to be his final mission. But things were different. She was cold and obsessed with her research, uttering no more than a "Hey, Shepard" when he stopped by for a chat. When they did talk, the word "friend" got thrown around a lot, each time chipping away at his cyborg heart. This unrequited love was starting to fester. It poisoned Shepard, the boy scout.
He started to lose his cool, snapping at crew members and throwing around his galactic clout like a common thug at The Citadel. How, after all this time and devotion, could she think they were only friends?
He became obsessed with past failures, especially the death of Urdnot Wrex. He let that situation on Virmire get out of hand and it ended with the death of a friend. Curing the genophage was his path to redemption. He owed the Krogans that much.
And he found solace in others. Shepard was the savior of entire species. He did so much for so many, but after all this loss, he was breaking down. Luckily, Garrus was always there to lift him up; a true friend. Shepard had no idea what he would do without him.
But it always came back to Liara. For some reason she was hiding her feelings all along. She too had dreams of peacetime, of settling down. It only took embarking on a mission to save an entire galaxy for her to spit it out, but it was enough. He needed to win and he needed to survive. For her.
In the end, Shepard chose the only option that gave him a chance to be reunited with his love. He destroyed the reapers, knowing full well the consequences the galaxy would suffer. He didn't care.
Pieces of me
That probably doesn't sound anything like your Commander Shepard, now does it? And that makes perfect sense. It's reflective of my flaws and tendencies, primarily a romantic vision of lost loves and an obsession with failure.
Shepard is a manifestation of the player. We pour bits and pieces of our personalities and personal histories into this hollow, spaceman (or woman) shell. Not only does it endear the character to us, it builds a much more believable protagonist, one with real human flaws and ambitions. It makes Mass Effectan infinitely better story.
In part 2, I'm going to talk a little more about the two layers of player-storytelling that are at work across Mass Effect and why this meta-layer is what holds back the series from a universally satisfying ending.
[I am a student of Stony Brook University, the institution at the center of this article. This is a piece originally written as part of a journalism class, and as such, is written more for a general audience than you fine folks, but I thought some of the ideas were interesting enough to share. Stick around for the ending as Professor Lowood and I start to discuss the difficulties of preserving modern, digitally distributed games.]
The oldest book in the Special Collections at Stony Brook University is an illustrated history of the world called “The Nuremberg Chronicle.” Printed in 1493, little more than 50 years after the invention of the printing press, it contains some of the first examples of printed illustrations.
This relic of the print age now lives alongside the William A. Higinbotham Game Studies Collection, a collection of video game cartridges, consoles, book and magazines spanning 20 years of video game history.
The collection, opened in the fall of 2011, joins the growing group of museums, libraries and universities around the United States that have begun to preserve video games and the culture surrounding them.
Similar projects exist at Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Illinois and the University of Maryland. Even the federal government has participated. The Library of Congress helped to fund the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, which sought to define preservation standards, an issue that is still debated.
Henry Lowood, head of the How They Got Game preservation project at Stanford University, equates video games to books or films as cultural artifacts that need to be preserved. More important than preserving the physical media of games, he said, is documenting their culture.
“They’re becoming a very important part of our contemporary culture,” he said, “and if we don’t have an ability in the future to look at the history of digital games as a medium and the history around them, we really will have an incomplete picture of the culture of the late 20 and early 21 centuries.”
Building the Collection
Stony Brook’s collection takes its name from William A. Higinbotham, a Brookhaven National Laboratories scientist who created “Tennis For Two.” While scholars continue to debate its status as a video game, the tennis simulation, built from lab equipment in 1958, is often credited as the first electronic game to use a graphical display and dedicated controllers, video gaming’s own “Nuremberg Chronicle.”
The process of building the collection began in 2008, when Raiford Guins, a professor of digital cultural studies at Stony Brook, contacted Kristen Nyitray, the head of Special Collections and University Archives.
“We started to talk about how we could document the history of video and computer games, but also talking long term about the preservation aspect of it,” Nyitray said. “I think that’s where we really connected.”
They outlined a plan to create a four-part collection: a game laboratory open to the students of computer science and game-studies classes at Stony Brook, a circulating collection of game-related books, a special collection housing even more games, consoles, rare books and magazines, and a website to serve as a hub for the whole thing.
Guins, who declined to be interviewed, provided the earliest materials from his personal collection and donations from colleagues. The collection now includes approximately 700 games published between 1977 and 1999 and more than 2000 magazines.
Because of financial restrictions, however, the focus of the collection is now on expanding its print offerings. All games and consoles in the collection have been donated, Nyitray said, and they currently have the funds to pursue only books and magazines.
“The library doesn’t have the funds now to do more than buy books,” said Darren Chase, the Stony Brook University Libraries’ subject specialist for game-studies, “but there are plans to, hopefully in the next couple years, expand the Higinbotham Collection and to expand access of students to gaming platforms beyond just game-studies students.”
The Authentic Experience
Collecting, storing and maintaining the physical embodiment of games -- the metal and plastic of cartridges, floppy disks and CDs -- is an expensive prospect. One of the Higinbotham Collection’s goals is to preserve these games and consoles in an effort to reproduce the original experience of playing games. Its game lab, where students can sit down and play the games, even uses old CRT TVs, instead of modern flat-screen TVs, to maintain the original look of its games.
According to Henry Lowood, a video game archivist at Stanford University, this model of preservation is important for the study of games and their creation but is ultimately limited by the passage of time.
Vintage video game consoles are no longer in production and the number on the market will only continue to shrink.
“If you have an Atari 2600 and you want to start a museum around it and it breaks today, you can get another, that’s no problem, and that will probably be true for decades,” Lowood said. “But at some point, it won’t be true.”
He points to the example of “Spacewar!” another one of the first digital computer games. Developed approximately 50 years ago at MIT, there is currently only one place where it can be played in its original form: the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
However, the plastic and metal of a video game’s body is just a shell, and the key to preservation, according to Lowood, lies in yanking out a game’s soul -- the actual computer code that gives it life.
Migration: "The Way to Go"
There are two major forms of video game preservation besides hardware preservation: migration and emulation.
Migration is the movement of the game from one physical medium, like a cartridge or floppy disk, to another, such as a computer hard drive. It creates a new place for the data to live, removing the possibility of loss due to damage or obsolescence of its original home. At that point work needs to be done to make sure the data can be installed and run on a modern platform, like a computer. This can be done through a process called porting, in which programmers edit the code of the original data to make it playable on a modern computer.
Emulation involves creating a computer program that simulates the way an old computer works, allowing migrated data to be played without having to dive in and change it.
“I think it’s pretty clear that most digital preservationists you talk to will say that migration is the way to go,” Lowood said. “I don’t think there are very many adherents, outside of museums, for hardware preservation, and emulation is seen now as something that goes hand-in-hand with migration.”
Migration and emulation, however, require computer programmers to go hands-on with code, and besides being time-consuming and costly, these methods require changing the original data.
Intricacies in the way computer systems work make it nearly impossible to perfectly replicate a game in a new environment. Even when modern video games go from a PlayStation 3 to an Xbox 360, for example, the way those two systems run the data and create graphics is different, and the game data need to be modified to work.
Preservationists need to decide, Lowood said, which changes are acceptable and which are not.
“What falls in the not acceptable category would most likely be changes that alter the experience of the game in some way,” he said, “changes that affect the game mechanics or significantly change the look and feel of a game so that you really don’t feel like you’re playing the same game any more.”
Nyitray has no plans to expand the Higinbotham Collection into migration and emulation.
“We’re going to try to keep our hardware in workable condition,” she said, “but we’re going to leave the code-work to other universities.”
While the problem of preserving these sometimes more than 30-year-old games seems to have been solved by modern technology, ensuring that contemporary games receive the same treatment is proving to be more difficult.
Video games are increasingly moving to a download-only format, forgoing DVDs and cartridges altogether and becoming available strictly from the web as files downloaded to an Xbox, computer or smartphone. Because of the strict ownership rules set in place by the various digital-only retail services, such as Valve Corporation’s Steam for computer games and Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade on the Xbox 360, preservationists have very few legal options when it comes to duplicating and distributing modern games for research purposes.
Download-only distribution, copyright law and end-user license agreements – those lengthy contracts users agree to but seldom read when installing a new computer program – are the biggest hurdles facing video game preservation at the moment, Lowood said.
“We as a library don’t have a legal right to just grab all that content from Steam,” he said. “The problem with these forms of distribution and the legal situation, at least in the United States, means that it’s next to impossible at the moment to think about archiving a lot of these games. That’s kind of the big elephant in the room for preservationists.”
Games played in a web browser also present a problem. Facebook games, like Zynga’s Farmville, are an important development in the way video games are designed, shared and played, but preservationists have no idea how to archive these kinds of titles that live only on servers and can have their content modified daily.
“We don’t have a stable artifact like we do with a boxed game,” he said. “It becomes pretty difficult to define what exactly the game is.”
The solution lies in the hands of game developers and publishers – the copyright holders. They need to start thinking about their games as historical artifacts and working with preservationists to document them, Lowood said. Otherwise, preservationists will need to continue to skirt copyright law for what they see as the greater good.
“Sometimes people in this area just have to do something,” he said, “and, hopefully, you can ask for forgiveness later.”
I'm a huge Radiohead fan. Seen them a few times (hoping to add one more occasion to that list this year).
Kid A is my favorite album of theres. Favorite track off of it is probably "The National Anthem."
It's hard to pick an all time Radiohead song though. I'm quite partial to most live versions of "Idioteque" because of the immaculate breakdown about two-thirds through. Example:
But it's up there with "You and Whose Army," "Fog" (the original b-side version), " "Everything in its Right Place," "Videotape," "Give Up the Ghost," "True Love Waits," and of course "Paranoid Android."
Oh and this unreleased gem:
8-4 Play is a great suggestion. It's not a weekly, but always full of great insights into topics no other podcast can really talk about with expertise.
I'm also a big fan of Rebel FM. It's home to some thoughtful, mature game discussion, but the cast is never afraid to be a little silly.
On a related note, The Comedy Button, the reinvention of what used to be the Gamespy Debriefings, is fucking hilarious. It's not terribly game related, but a lot of the humor is nerdy.
What's exciting about this is that the staff is free to build the site from the ground up, that means design, functionality and more importantly voice and mission. Every one of those guys has a pretty progressive perspective on games (something I definitely respect) and for someone like me who's always looking to add some decent reading material to their rotation, it's going to be a very exciting outlet.
Another great thing about it is the roles they've assigned each staffer. Crecente is heading up news (which is fine, not many folks in this field hold a candle to Patrick anyway), Russ Pitts (formerly of the Escapist and its many great video series) is heading text/video features and Arthur Gies is reviews editor.
Most people probably won't agree with me, but I love that last choice. Arthur has a keen critical and a willingness to criticize big games that's sorely lacking in many outlets.
So yeah, I'm pretty excited.